Jesus and Lazarus: A God who weeps 29-03-2020

Lent 5.  Jesus and Lazarus: A God who weeps.

Lectionary Readings:

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Psalm 130

Romans 8: 6-11

John 11: 1-45.

Hymns I would have chosen.  If you have a hymn book you may wish to look them up and read, sing or pray them.  They may also be on-line:

637: Lord of the living

607: Make me a channel of your peace

638: O Christ, the healer

687: God gives us a future.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought he was referring merely to sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (John 11: 11-14).

Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

2 quotes:

The first from Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid to die.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

And, from preacher and writer Fred Craddock:

‘Lazarus left the tomb, but the price was that Jesus had to enter it.’

I know I said I would speak about Psalm 23, but this reading is too good to let go, especially with what is going on in our world-and on our own doorsteps, right now.

Death…and a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection.

I know we are hearing so much about death at the moment-BUT we must not let fear overcome us, overwhelm us, paralyse us. 

This story, set for the week before Passion/Palm Sunday, gives us HOPE, and, hopefully, steadies our fluttering hearts and strengthens us for these difficult times.

Let’s face it-we are following a really, hard and long Lenten journey this year!

We can feel the heaviness of the cross on our backs, and within our hearts.

We are not to be Pollyannas, thinking everything will be all right if we think positive-our news reports inform us of the severity of the virus-BUT we are to hold on to our faith, knowing we are NEVER alone.

God did not promise us trouble free times-BUT Jesus did say he would be WITH US during those times.

This powerful reading, infused with tears, is a link to the impending death of Jesus.

The raising of Lazarus is a foretaste of what will be done for the whole world in the arrival of Jesus.

Although the resuscitation of Lazarus is not Easter, it is not the resurrection of Jesus-it is as if the presence of Jesus exudes life, vitality.

His very presence, his voice, evokes life.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

One of the most precious things in the world to have is a home-where our loved one are, where we can go and find rest and understanding, peace and love.

Some of us may be a bit sick of being ‘at home’ at present-but you know what I mean.

This need of and for home was doubly true for Jesus, for he had no home of his own:

In Luke 9: 58 he says: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Yet…in the home at Bethany, Jesus found such a place.

There were three people who loved him dearly-Lazarus, and his two sisters, Mary and Martha.

There Jesus could rest from the tensions of life.

The gift of rest-for weary feet, for tired souls.

Lazarus became ill, so the sisters send a message to Jesus.

We know the two sisters-Mary, the more contemplative one, Martha the more practical one. 

“Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Now, watch carefully.

This story of Lazarus’s death and resuscitation is set within a number of exchanges between Jesus and the two sisters.

We identify with these women don’t we, we know what it feels like to be worried about a loved one.

Let’s look at the message they sent to Jesus-is something missing?

‘So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

This verse speaks volumes of the love between this family, and Jesus.

Their message does not ASK Jesus to come to Bethany.

(repeat)

They knew that the simple statement that they were in need would bring him.

There is a great depth of friendship and trust here.

But watch Jesus.

In a sense he brushes off the message.

He says “This illness does not lead to death.”

-a curious statement since Jesus hasn’t even seen Lazarus, doesn’t know what his illness is.

A bit like Dr Google these days!

Then he says that Lazarus’s’ illness is for ‘God’s glory.’

-the cure would enable people to see the glory of God in action…and that God’s glory will also be seen in the cross.

Remember one of my opening quotes: ‘Lazarus left the tomb, but the price was that Jesus had to enter it.’

BUT

‘after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’

Don’t you find this a little strange?

After receiving the sister’s news, Jesus hangs around for two more days-before heading off to Bethany.

Wouldn’t you think he would drop everything, to go and visit a loved one who is ill?

It’s not as though he is busy doing something more important, John just says that Jesus ‘stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’

So why didn’t Jesus rush to Bethany?  To Lazarus’s bedside?

The writer of John always shows us Jesus taking action entirely on his own initiative-not being persuaded by others.

Remember the miracle at Cana-the water changed in to wine?  Jesus tells Mary not to bother about it-in a sense, he is telling her he will deal with the situation when he is good and ready.

The same today.

Jesus does things in his chosen time.

This is a warning to us.

So often we would like Jesus to do things our way, in our time frame… “Lord do this please-and I want it now.”

No.  We must leave him to do them in his own way.

When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, it’s all over.

It’s all over.

Lazarus has been wrapped in his shroud, in the tomb for four days.

Two sisters.

Martha, true to character, loved action.  When it was announced that Jesus was coming-Martha went to meet him, while Mary stayed at home, mourning.

When Martha met Jesus, her heart spoke through her lips.

-her heart spoke through her lips.

Put yourself in her place.

A close friend of Jesus-and Jesus hadn’t rushed to help Lazarus.  Now, grieving, your brother now dead-would YOU accept Jesus’ delay gracefully?

Martha’s speech is one of the most human speeches in the Bible.  She speaks half with a reproach that she could not hold back-and half with a faith that NOTHING could shake!

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Perhaps in her mind she was really thinking:  “When you got our message, why didn’t you come at once?  Now it is too late.”

AND THEN

No sooner are the words out of her mouth-come words of FAITH.

“But even now,” says Martha, perhaps with a kind of desperate hope,

“But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha says she knows this, that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

Perhaps Martha is saying, underneath  all this-that she knows all that, that she doesn’t want to hear any pious talk that “he’s gone to a better place” or that “this is God’s will.” 

She wants her brother back.

She is unmarried, in a patriarchal world-she and her sister Mary will be alone, vulnerable.

Without Lazarus-there is no security, no hope.

How will they get by, plus immense grief.  These are her heavy burdens.

But Jesus isn’t talking about theology, he isn’t explaining the resurrection.  He doesn’t say to her “believe that someday Lazarus will be resurrected.”

 Or

 “you’ll see him again in heaven.”

Instead, Jesus is saying

“I am the resurrection.  I am life.”

Do you believe it?  Do you believe it?

Even practical, little red hen Martha believed it.

She makes the most extravagant statement of faith in the Gospel up to this point:

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

She rushes back to tell Mary that Jesus has arrived, and Mary’s greeting was exactly the same as Martha’s!

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Now comes one of the most beautiful, moving and precious pieces of Scripture.  When they showed him the tomb where Lazarus, his friend was, ‘Jesus began to weep.’

So deeply did Jesus enter into the wounded hearts of humans, that he was filled with pain and sorrow.

Twice Jesus tears are recorded: first, weeping over Jerusalem, and now, at a friend’s grave.

But there’s more.

More than Jesus’ feelings for his friend, Lazarus.

To any Greek, or gentile reading this-and this gospel was written in Greek for gentiles-this would be earth shattering.

For the Greeks, the main characteristic of God was apatheia-different from our apathy-it means a total inability to feel any emotion-a passionless, isolated God.

What a different picture Jesus paints.  He shows us a God whose very heart weeps for God’s people, who cares for each one of us.

-who cares for each one of us.

Then, the removal of the stone (despite Martha’s protest that Lazarus has been dead for 4 days).

The corpse is the central part of this drama.  Jesus didn’t dash to their side whilst Lazarus was alive.  

Jesus, with power and confidence cries out ‘with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!” …then “unbind him, and let him go.”

Remember the Australian artist Pro Hart?  I grew up looking at his paintings, thinking the sky was too blue, the earth too orange.  When I finally visited Broken Hill-I realized the colours were spot on!

Pro Hart also painted religious pictures.  Some of them decorate a number of churches in the area.  One of the most moving is of Lazarus coming out of the tomb. The strips of cloth falling away from him.

Maybe…just maybe…the tomb also summons Jesus’s tears because he will have to enter one soon.

It is remarkable that a human need-elicits divine tears.

The raising of Lazarus is the most daring and dramatic of Jesus’ healings. 

Do any of these characters resonate with you?

Mary?  Martha?

Lazarus perhaps?

What binds us?

What keeps us from life?

What is dry and brittle in my life?

Where do I need to go to seek hope during these troubled times?

What keeps me bound up, unable to move?

Fear?  Insecurity?  Pain?

In two weeks’ time, Jesus shall enter the tomb-to emerge as Lord of Life.

Let his loud voice, shouting “Come out!” bring you new life, living in the light of the resurrection.

Remember, Jesus wept.

He is weeping today.

Ken Gire wrote: ‘…who’s to say which is more incredible- a man who raises the dead…or a God who weeps?’

Hold fast to our God, a God who weeps, who cares tenderly for each one of us-in good times, and during crises,

Amen

29.3.20. 

God sees the heart 22-03-2020

1 Samuel  16: 1-13 God sees the heart

(Lent 4)

I Samuel 16: 1-13

Psalm 23

Ephesians 5: 8-14

John:1-41

Paul Kelly, an Australian singer and song writer, penned these words, which could summarise this passage:

‘from little things, big things grow’

(and yes, it is the jingle used for an insurance ad!)

This passage of Scripture delights children, and expands the heart of the underdog.

In our of our children’s Bibles, there is a picture of a later episode, when King Saul kits David out in armour…David’s tunic is too long, and the helmet goes right over his face so he cannot see…not the equipment he needs!

It is a passage that reminds us that God sees the little…and the big, the powerful…and the insignificant

And

That all have a purpose…for we are all part of God’s family.

Back to the story.

Seven of Jesse’s sons are lined up, strapping lads…but not one of them has been deemed suitable as the future King.

The other one, outside, overlooked, too young to merit a look in- is the successful choice…God’s choice.

I’m not much of a sports person (so this cancelling of sporting events is not a hardship for me), but I do like watching the Olympics, especially the Winter Olympics.

I enjoy seeing sports we were not created for-ice skating-if we were meant to skate, we would have blades on out feet, and if we were meant to jump off slopes to ski-we would have long, narrow feet!

BUT I do enjoy it when the underdog wins (remember Steven Bradbury?  There was even a reference to him in Joy’s Ordination Service last week), or is at least able to compete.

Remember Eddie the Eagle, daring to do the ski jumps?  Back in 2016 a movie was made of Eddie’s life and his determination to be an Olympian.  It was a good little film about following your dreams etc-but it still didn’t convince me to see skiing as my calling!

I prefer the Para-Olympics, for they are the real heroes, in my book.

Dare to tell someone their life is over, or that they cannot ‘do ’something…and see what happens!

The richness of the Invictus Games.  Sadly, they may be cancelled this year (they are scheduled to be played in the Netherlands in May).

Back to David.  Where is he?  Out with the sheep.

Now, we need to put aside any romantic notions we may harbour about shepherds…take off our ‘Heidi’ glasses…these are not the Swiss Alps!

Shepherding was a dangerous job: there were lions and bears.  The shepherd’s crook was not only used to rescue sheep stuck in crevices or on ledges…the crook was also a weapon, used to fight off predators.

David…yes, I know the passage mentions David’s good looks, “he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes , and was handsome” (a bit Mills and Boon) but that wasn’t the reason for his choice by God (remember that Samuel had thought Eliab would have been chosen, ‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on the outward appearance or on the height of his statue, because I have rejected him, for the Lord does not see as mortals see…”)

David was a brave soul.

Used to danger, defending the herd, being courageous.

BUT

Perhaps also chosen because as a shepherd he would have earned to be watchful, alert, and…gentle.

In Judaism, one of the reasons Moses was chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt was because of his care of the flock.

In the Midrash (a form of ancient Jewish commentary on the texts, often stories which ‘fill in the gaps’).  The standard explanation for Moses and David being shepherds is that taking care of sheep was a prelude and, in a way, a training ground, for leading the Israelites.  In the Midrash Exodus Rabbah (2:2) God observes the leadership capabilities of both Moses and David through their shepherding skills.  Regarding Moses, the Midrash famously tells how a little lamb ran away while Moses was tending Jethro’s flock:

‘When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law in the wilderness, a young one ran away.  Moses pursued it until he reached a ravine where it found a well to drink from.  When Moses reached it, he said, ‘I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty.  Now you must be weary.’  He carried it back.  Then God said, ‘Because you have shown pity in leading back one of the flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock, Israel.’(Exodus Rabbah).  Similarly, regarding David, the Midrash states that he kept the big sheep penned and let the little ones graze first, allowing them to eat the softer vegetation.  Next, he released the old sheep to graze on the medium vegetation, and finally the strongest sheep were released to graze on the toughest vegetation.  God then declared, “Whoever knows how to take care of sheep, each one according to its strength, he is the one who shall come and shepherd My people.”

The connection between leadership and shepherding is also made in another Midrash, where many parallels are listed between the way God and Moses looked after the Israelites.  For example, a shepherd takes care of his sheep even if they run off, just as God and Moses did not abandon the Israelites during the forty years of wandering in the desert, despite their constant complaints and rebelliousness.

Why not David as well?  We know, as king, he cared for his human flock, he did not abandon them.

People who care about animals often make good and kind leaders.

God chose David, who had a good, courageous, yet gentle, heart.

God sees the heart…rather than the outer appearance.

Be good and compassionate folk-from your inner core…from your very heart.

And know that God still has a plan for you…a unique set of instructions for your life…even during these trying and troubling times.  Whether you are tall…or small

God, as your shepherd, will NEVER abandon you. 

Amen

(for March 22)

Next week I hope to write up something about Psalm 23, which was the Psalm set for this week.  It merits a sermon of its own, and I hope it will be a resource for hope and strength during the coming weeks. It is a Psalm very dear to many of you, a faithful, supportive friend.

Year A Sermon:John 4 : 5-42 15-03-2020

Year A Sermon: John 4: 5-42.

How many of you know that feeling, when you are waiting for an operation or a procedure to be performed, and you have to fast: no food or water for at least 8 hours?

You didn’t feel thirsty until you were told you were not to drink!  Oh, for that cup of tea!

OR

You are in a car, on a long country road trip.  You, or your travelling companion, says “When we next see a shop or a petrol station, we will stop and get a drink.” THEN it seems like forever until you spy that petrol station!

Heat.  Thirst.

In 1908 Dorothea MacKellar wrote the poem, ‘My Country’.  Portions of two of its  stanzas:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

We are lucky here, even in Australia.  Most of us do not know what it is to be deprived of water.  Droughts remind us never to take the gift of water for granted.  Be grateful.  We see land, plants and stock suffering, but In Australia humans don’t die of thirst. We also have clean water-we are not going to catch a life-threatening disease from our drinking water. 

When people started buying bottled water I remember thinking, “This isn’t a third world country, our water is safe to drink.”

‘Living water’ is like gold.  The world is a thirsty place-and the wrong kind of water can be dangerous:

  • 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is due to a water-related disease.
  • 783 million people do not have access to safe water (1 in 9 people)
  • 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases.
  • Half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water related disease. 

Water is the starting point for Jesus’ conversation about salvation with the Samaritan woman who came to the well and discovered more than ordinary water.

Indeed, three of our four lectionary readings deal with the theme of water.

Samaria.

Let’s get the map out in our heads.  In the time of Jesus, there were three definite divisions of territory: in the extreme north, there was Galilee, in the south, Judea, and in between there was Samaria.  Relations were tense between the Samaritans and the Jews.  The Samaritans were a Jewish sect.  Unlike the Jews of the south, their ancestors had not been taken into exile into Babylon.  Samaritans worshipped on Mt Gerizim instead in Jerusalem and they believe that they preserved the original traditions of Moses.  The major issue between Jews and Samaritans was the location of the Chosen Place to worship God: for the Jews, it was on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, for the Samaritans, it was on Mt Gerizim.  Indeed, in the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch (there are many differences between it and the one used in Judaism)-there is a uniquely Samaritan commandment to construct an altar on Mt Gerizim.  Even the name ‘Samaritan’ is divisive: it means Keeper/Guardian [of the religious texts]. There are about 500 -600 descendants (practicing Samaritans) today, mainly living around the area of the town of Nablus, which is at the foot of Mt Gerizim.  Samaria now constitutes the majority of the territory known as the West Bank.

Jesus arrives at Sychar and sits at Jacob’s well.  This ground is part of Jewish memory.  This land had been bought by Jacob (Gen 33: 18,19).

Jacob, on his deathbed, bequeathed the ground to Joseph.  After Joseph died in Egypt, his body was taken back to Palestine, and buried there (Joshua 24:32).

Memories.

John provides us with a rare glimpse of Jesus’ physical well being.  He is tired and thirsty from travel.  The disciples have gone to the village to buy food.  We are not sure why they have all left Jesus-we are not told. 

Then the woman arrives, at the well, by herself.  

Midday.  Hottest, or near hottest, part of the day.

The well was an area where the women caught up with each other.  A bit like Melbourne’s inner city cafes.  The best time to do this would be either early morning or late afternoon.

She came at midday-in order to avoid the other women.

She had a reputation-five husbands, and living with another man-she would be the cause of much gossip. 

So social rejection, being on the outer, would explain her lonely midday walk to the well.

From the outer-to the inner

From thirst-to being quenched.

Jesus’ request for a drink is met with an insult: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?”

“Jew” was not used here in a complementary manner.

This is about racial relations.

The laws of ritual purity would not have allowed Jesus to drink from a Samaritan’s drinking vessel.

Let’s do into deeper water.  This is more than a story about getting a drink!

Jesus moves to a deeper topic, moving from racial boundaries to theology.  Jesus speaks of ‘the gift of water’ and ‘living water.’

She is unsettled.  She now addresses him in a more deferential manner, using the title “Sir”’.

Jesus looks into her heart…and names her circumstances.

He pours living, gushing water into her thirsty, dried up being.

She drops her water jar and rushes off wondering about him: “Could this be the Messiah?”

This woman, with the big reputation, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel of John.

(repeat)

She repeats the words Jesus uttered to his first 2 disciples, back in John 1: 39: “Come and see.”

She tells her village to “come and see” this man at the well.

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

(not sure if that would be an invitation we would take up?)

The Samaritans encounter Jesus because of this woman, a woman on the edge, thirsting for human company, for deep relationships, for new life…they come, because of her testimony.

She leaves when the disciples return.  They are surprised, unsettled and a little angry.  Jesus has broken a societal taboo-talking with a woman in public-and this woman is foreign, a Samaritan whom Jews have problems with.

BUT no one dares to ask:  “Why were you speaking with her?”

The well.  The site of the Samaritan woman’s acceptance…and homecoming-back to God, and back to her village.

She could have kept this news to herself…but she chose to share it…indeed…the living water was gushing over…how could she contain it for her own use?

The village came to Jesus: racial divisions, and old hostilities were drowned.

Gossip and slander were drowned.

Thirsty spirits were drenched.

Souls delighted in this divine water. 

This water, this living, embodied baptism-Jesus-invites us in for a dip.

Perhaps we need to get wet…really wet!  Maybe we need to DIVE IN! 

In my first sermon, I preached about our Lenten journey.  From today’s Bible reading, we can take away 3 questions to ponder over the coming week.

  1. What encounters have you had that have led to friendships, or given you a different view of something?  Would this meeting be classed as a gift from God?
  2. Jesus offers us ‘living water’.  Have there been times in your life when you have felt dry?  Perhaps a spiritual drought?  Have you felt the refreshing presence of Christ during these arid times?
  3. Finally, this story is also about acceptance, or reconciliation.  How can each of us break down divisions and barriers to allow acceptance of all God’s creatures?

Dorothea’s poem, also contains this verse:

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze …

The gift of water…from dusty, dry drought…to the wetness of new green growth, the colour of hope.

May you fill your cup, your life, with the gift of life giving water this Lent, and always, 

Prayer by Ken Gire [see book]

Amen.

Leighmoor UC, 15.3.20

Rev Barbara Allen

Have faith in the Future 08-03-2020

Lent two-8 March 2020: Have faith in the future

Message: – Jesus calls us to entrust ourselves into the care of the Holy Spirit who will carry us into the unknown future of God.

Our Psalm 121 today commencing with :”I will lift up my eyes to the hills” jogs my memory of a gathering at the International Hospital Chaplains at Toronto during the early 90’s when a leader Dr Howard Clinebell stated that he spent each of his birthdays travelling to a mountain to be closer to God.

Some who feel depressed or who want to feel the closeness of God through nature make a point of getting up early to view a sunrise or maybe, more conveniently watching the sun set over a range of hills as I did recently at the Bungle Bungles in the Kimberly. 

People down through the ages have been inspired by the words of this Psalm, basing their lives on the same faith in the same Lord, sharing in the life and worship of the community which is the continuing Body of Christ. It raises the question, who might you and I share our faith with today?

During the forty days leading to Easter, called the season of Lent, allows us to ask ourselves again, whether we have got what it takes to be the people of God and followers of Jesus.

We are confronted by challenging messages from the Bible today about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is one thing to be warned to count the cost, but another to be told there is no way of calculating the cost. This latter is today’s message.

As we hear, Abraham is one of the key figures whose footsteps we are to follow in if we take the life of faith seriously.

As “Love to the World” which is a book of daily Bible readings that many of you may be familiar with,  says of the Genesis reading, there are few more revolutionary claims: “that God speaks” in the Christian faith than these simple words. The message from God to Abraham was “Get up and leave your country, your relatives and the family of your parents and move to the land that I will show you”. It’s just “Get up and make tracks and you’ll find out what it all means as it unfolds. Just trust me. He did, and so must we.

May we recommit ourselves led by the wind of God’s spirit but understand that no one can tell you all that it will mean or where it will take you. It is simply a matter of putting your trust in Jesus, of entrusting your life into the hands of one who will take you who knows where, but who is utterly committed to your best interests and has proved faithful to generations of Spirit led people before us.

In the John Gospel 3: 16 ,it is  arguably the most quoted verse from the Bible:- “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son so that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life.”

 As ‘Love to the World” points out, this does not refer simply to more life nor after life, but to an abundant and full life in the here and now: the life that really is life. Through Jesus life, death and resurrection we are all brought out from death and into life!

The daily readings in “The Friendship Book” [ used to be called the “Frances Gay Friendship Book”}, for February 23 reads: – “In a fable, a man learns of a magical stone that can turn anything into gold. He would know it by its warmth. Unfortunately, it was somewhere on a beach full of stones. 

Every day for a year he picked up stones, declared them cold and threw them into the sea. Then he picked up a warm stone. His heart jumped, his mind celebrated, and he threw the stone into the sea! Habit had conditioned his body so thoroughly that heart and mind were automatically over-ruled.

When our habits have that sort of power, let’s make sure they are good ones!

In the discussion Jesus had with Nicodemus, there is talk of faith and especially the idea of making a new start using the metaphor, of new birth, or being born again.

The change that God calls us to make is so radical that it is as though we emerge into life all over again, starting again, leaving the old behind. He compares this encounter with the unknown to the wind: -“the wind blows where it chooses”.

When the wind of change offers us the chance of a new beginning, a new birth, we can either cling to the known or let go and allow ourselves to be carried off into complete unknown of a new beginning. A real test of this church congregation will be our willingness to let go of our past and allow the new wind to blow where it will and take us to a promised land through faith. God will be with us and Jesus will carry us into a wonderful future, I am confident. 

One more take on this Gospel reading is from Eddie Askew, President of Leprosy International in his book “Breaking the Rules” who reported that the first recorded composer of European music was a twelfth century nun. Recorded in a manuscript, not on a CD, she described herself as a “feather on the breath of God”.  This is something, someone, utterly at God’s command. Ready for the Spirit’s direction. Sensitive, trembling at the least movement. Surrendered to his will. Carried along by his strength.

Not only does the breath of God give a sense of purpose, but it gives life itself. We are told that when God made humanity, he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” [Genesis 2:7]

But the image breaks down if carried too far. We’re not lightweight creatures, weakly giving in to every wind that blows. We’re not completely inanimate feathers, totally helpless on God’s breath. As human beings, created in God’s image, we may live and move and have our being in him [Acts 17: 28] but we can usually choose the direction we’ll go and the response we make.

That’s the joy of Christian life, and also its responsibility.

Finally, a quote from the late Rev Gordon Dicker as he concluded his famous textbook: – “Faith with understanding”

“If we take seriously the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament, we may have hope for a life beyond death. Jesus never dwelt on the nature of that life, but we get the impression it includes peace, joy and fulfilment. The real business before us is the living of this life, whose span is limited and in which, therefore, no opportunity must be missed for the service of God and the service of our fellow human beings. WE are encouraged to live with the confidence that nothing we do as an offering to God is done in vain and that nothing, neither death nor life. Nor things present, nor things to come, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

A Prayer: -I am no feather blown by every wind, but your creation, body, soul, mind, Lord, and will. Given me for use, not decoration. Freshly fashioned for your spirit’s dwelling place. Not as a monument, fast rooted in the earth, static, but vital, part of your dynamic purpose, which is love.

Geoff Serpell

Fight the Good Fight 16-02-2020

FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT – Homily by Geoff Serpell

Today’s Gospel reading from Matthew is the “Sermon on the Mount” and where Jesus explains the new righteousness, he has ushered in. It is radical as he teaches something totally different about the Jewish laws upheld “on the surface” by the Pharisees and scribes. They espoused the commandments in an outward form, but Jesus wanted his people to identify the intent of the laws and add these values into our daily lives.

For instance, a person should not only refrain from killing but see greater value in every human being as a child of God and do all that we can to help rather than hurt. Such a state of being could be called living in love. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” He said also that the Lord condemns those who have kept the outward form of the law without the spirit of the law.

Rev Nathan Nettleton of the South Yarra Community Baptist church Says that the fights and divisions in the church are a sign of how far we still have to go, but if we don’t run from them , God will use them to mature us and grow our ability to love. 

He believes that by having some good fights in the church, things could get better, rather than push things under the carpet and undermine what God is trying to do in us. Jealousy, arguments and divisions among us is evidence we have a long way to go to attain the goal of wholeness and maturity to which Christ calls us. God wants us to become Christlike. We may be too timid, or passive to face up to some issues and seek greater understanding and depth of community and love. We cannot pretend everything in our world is nice and have one mind on everything, this is just adding to the sins of division. 

Christ calls us to live in unity, to live in community with one another. Living in community with real human beings is no picnic. The closer we get to people and the more we invest in relationships, the higher the stakes and the more things will need to be sorted out. That’s often painful, just ask any married couple. Living in union with one other person is hard enough and trying to agree with a large community is where a lot of touchy issues will arise. You know the adage that you do not go to sleep until any issue with your spouse is resolved. Of course!

We in our home at Highett have three units next door where each family   has come from Sri lanka, China and the other, Russia. Recently, when the side fence blew over, Jan and I had to stump up half the cost of the 150-foot-long replacement fence. The three units were only obliged to meet a one third each of the other half cost.  People from two of the units agreed but not the third. In very direct language I had to point out to him that over 20 years I had nailed, bolted and tied up loose palings and reinforced posts with concrete and bolts but it was now  30 years old and had finally died so that he was obliged to foot his fair share of the bill. He eventually did. I am told that disputes over fences is a leading cause of aggravation between neighbors. I can believe that.

In our struggle in our communities, maybe these are the raw materials for God’s reconstruction of us. If you chuck half a dozen rough jagged edged rocks into a concrete mixer and let them fly around smashing into one another for long enough, you will end up with rounded smoother rocks. Our sharp edges soon get exposed living in close relationships with each other.

On a broader scale, it was stated by Norman Cousins, an American political journalist, author and world peace advocate, that in the 5600 years of recorded history, there have been only 292 years of world peace. He estimates that 3.5 billion people have been slain through warfare in that span of time, about 80% of the current world population. 

Norman, the Journalist once facilitated an appeasement between Russia and America during the Cuban war when nuclear weapons were being primed. He helped the two leaders forge the highly successful Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

He jokingly expressed opposition to women entering the workforce. In 1939, upon learning that the number of women in the workforce was close to the number of unemployed males, he offered this solution: “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men: Presto! No unemployment, No relief rolls and no depression.”

My wife, Jan firmly believes that if every country in the world put women in charge there would be no more wars! Think about that.

To conclude about Norman, he developed an antidote to pain using humour. His health problems were helped by him watching shows on TV like candid camera. The use of humour particularly for ill children in hospitals is now well recognized.

Our Gospel lesson today teaches us that if we would worship the Lord, we must first make peace with our enemies. Reconciliation involves three things: contrition, confession, and satisfaction [to attempt to right the situation]. Most of us have stopped at the second part of the act of reconciliation. For spiritual harmony to be completely restored, the peace-making process must be completed. 

God calls us into Christian community because it is only within such covenant relationships that we can risk the depth and vulnerability needed to learn to love one another. It is only when we commit ourselves to facing up to our differences and working through them to new places of mutual respect and unity that we will mature sufficiently to be ready for solid food that Paul speaks of. Hiding anger in the recesses of our heart is no more virtuous than blowing your fuse in public. We may as well be honest and get it out where God can use it to draw us deeper into the mystery of new life and new love in the Holy Spirit.

A prayer:

Living God, we bless you for faithfully fulfilling all righteousness in Jesus Christ, your son that we might be your dear children.

Fill us with your Spirit, that we might be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness and thereby accomplish your gracious will. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Geoff Serpell

 

 

Fasting and Justice 09-02-2020

Sermon for Leighmoor UCA on Sunday 9 February 2020

By Andrea Mayes, UCA candidate

Bible reading: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20

Fasting and Justice

Have you ever fasted? That is, gone without food for a particular purpose.

Many people have to fast for certain types of blood tests and medical procedures. When I was in high school I was part of the 40 hour famine. Each year I would seek to raise money for people overseas living in poverty by getting people to sponsor me to go without food for 40 hours. In doing so I also learnt what it was like to feel hungry and I appreciated the food I had.

Since becoming a Christian, I have fasted occasionally. Sometimes at lent I have given up something, like coffee or chocolate or TV. Sometimes I have felt moved to go without food to focus on prayer. There is a rich tradition in both the Jewish and Christian faiths of fasting. Many other religions also include fasting. A well-known example is the Muslims fasting during the month of Ramadan, where they refrain from having both food and water during daylight hours.

In the reading in Isaiah 58 God is talking to the Jewish people who have returned from the exile about their practices of fasting. The community would gather together several times a year and fast to mark the Day of Atonement and the anniversary of the destruction of the temple. The fasting was a sign of mourning and humbling themselves before God. Often they would fast in very visible ways by lying down in sackcloth and ashes. Because they are not doing anything except fasting, this passage suggests that they make their labourers work even harder to make up for the work they are not doing. The reading says “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers”. In addition God is pointing out that they quarrel and fight with each other when they are fasting. Perhaps they are arguing about who is fasting properly? Or perhaps they see fasting as a duty, which leads to an edgy and irritable community. In any case, there is a gap between their intention to humble themselves before God as a community and the way they went about their fasting. They were fasting to create the impression of piety and self-righteousness but at the same time they were oppressing others and quarrelling amongst themselves.

God’s response was to tell them that God wants a different fast, one that is focussed on addressing injustice and letting the oppressed go free. He tells them to share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into their homes. To cover the naked and to be available to their families when they are looking for them. I notice that all these action are based in relationship. 

God does not tell them to give food to the hungry, but calls them to share their bread with the hungry, which means personal involvement. Jesus demonstrated this practice when he ate with people who were poor or outcast. 

God does not say to build homes for the homeless, but to bring the homeless poor into your house. This is pretty challenging. There are many practical reasons why we may not want to invite the homeless in to our own house. If they move in, we will be caught up in all the problems in their lives that have contributed to their homelessness. Yet, God calls his people into deep relationships with people who are homeless and poor, to love their neighbour.

God’s call to address injustice goes beyond what is normally seen as acceptable. It is personal and costly. Jesus makes a similarly hard call in his sermon on the mount when he tells the people listening to him that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

The scribes and Pharisees were religious leaders at the time who were seen publically to be keeping the law. They would have been the ones fasting in public in sackcloth and ashes to show how committed to God they were. I think the problem Jesus had with them was they were doing the right thing, keeping the law, for the wrong reason, they wanted to look good. Instead, Jesus wants his followers to do the right thing, for the right reasons. As I was telling the kids, Jesus asks us to let our light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Not so that we will be praised for doing the good work.

Last Sunday morning I was going on my usual walk and I took two bags to pick up rubbish along the way. I do this because I am concerned about the impact the rubbish has on animals when it gets into our streams and oceans. There is one particular spot where people stop their car and look out over the suburb which always has lots of rubbish lying on the ground. There is also a bin in the carpark but many people don’t use it. So as I was picking up rubbish in this spot and putting it in the bin, a car stopped and a lady asked if she could help. I encouraged her and we picked up rubbish together. She asked about the rest of my day and I told her I was going to church. As we parted she asked God to bless me for what I was doing. This made me think of today’s bible readings, “to let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”. I am using this example because most people can pick up rubbish, it doesn’t cost money or take much time. It needs to be picked up because it the right thing to do, yet most people also see that it is a good thing to do. I wonder, what are the good works that you do that point people towards God?

I want to be clear – we are not saved by the good things we do, we are saved by grace. This is one of the great things about being a Christian. No matter how hard we try, we will always fall short of perfectly obeying the law and living in line with God’s way. But Jesus, through his death and resurrection has ensured that we are forgiven. According to our reading today, even if we break one of the least of the commandments and teach others to do the same, we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. We are still in relationship with God and given the gift of eternal life.

Jesus has a very high view of the law. He says that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfil it. The writings of the law and the prophets point to Jesus. If the law and the prophets come to completion in Jesus, then Jesus is the only one that can say how the law will continue to be applied now that God’s Kingdom has started on earth. Jesus calls for high standards of his followers. He want people to go in the direction that the law is pointing – a deep love for God and for other people. 

As we move towards Lent in a bit over two weeks and we think about whether we will fast this year. I want you to consider the words from Isaiah, that the fast God desires is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house. Then if we do this, our light shall break forth like the dawn, and we shall call and the Lord will answer. In both today’s readings, our light shining forth is linked to our good deeds and our contributions to creating a more just world. I hope you hear this as an invitation and an opportunity to join with Jesus in helping God’s kingdom come on earth, not as a requirement or law or obligation. 

There are many opportunities during lent to be active in relation to social justice. Many Christians join in the Palm Sunday march for refugees. In relation to climate change, there are carbon fasts, which challenge you to do something each day to reduce your carbon footprint. 

There is also earth hour on 28 March where you switch off all your lights at 8:30pm for an hour. Clean up Australia Day is on the 1 March and Harmony Day is on the 21 March, which is also the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. I’m sure you could find many other social justice related activities during lent in whatever areas you care most about. 

Let’s all think and pray about the themes from today’s bible reading, fasting, social justice, good works and letting our light shine and ask for guidance from God in how to respond.

God’s Foolishness 02-02-2020

HOMILY; 2 FEB 2020

GOD’S FOOLISHNESS

For our communion service today, I thought to take note of the American Film star, George Burns who once said that the secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending and to have the two as close together as possible!

C.S. Lewis, a British Author and lay theologian [who wrote “the Chronicles of Narnia”] was once criticized for not caring for the Sermon on the Mount which included the Be-attitudes. He replied, “if ‘caring for’ here means ‘liking’ or enjoying, I suppose no one ‘cares for’ it. Who can like being knocked flat by a sledgehammer? I can hardly imagine a more deadly spiritual condition than that of a person who can read that passage with tranquil pleasure.”

The Sermon could be called the Christian’s job description, being a helpful guide and a convicting challenge. The beatitudes describe the qualities Jesus desires in each of his disciples. It is only human to wish to be strong and successful, to be wise, to have qualifications, a good reputation, even a successful family and a good job. We admire for example our young tennis champions, and our Australian cricket team members. The poor, the ugly and the defeated are less appealing although it is in our culture, maybe stemming from our convict days, to have some feelings for the underdog.

The promotion of power, status and wealth as good things to be encouraged, especially for people who might be disadvantaged tends to reinforce the negative view of the poor and the meek. Those who don’t make it or miss out, are not blessed.

I deliberately sought the Gospel to be the New International version because it uses the word “Blessed” rather than happy. Blessed here refers to the ultimate well-being and spiritual joy of those who share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.

When chance goes our way, we may be happy but not necessarily be blessed. To be blessed is a gift which God bestows on his own, a state of inward joy and peace, independent of what is or is not going on in our lives. Those Jesus described as the blessed ones is that of humility.

It is the nature of God to seek and save the lost: salvation depends on knowing our own vulnerability sufficiently to be open to his reaching out to us. We need to “seek first the kingdom of God” then we might recall that all these other things may be yours and mine as well. What really counts; what is worth the great price? What is the value of the field in which the treasure is hidden or the pearl of great price? 

To be poor in spirit does not mean to be lacking in spirit, rather it is to be bereft of a proud or haughty spirit. Poverty of spirit is roughly equivalent to the word humility. A humble person is one who knows not to soar in the heavens but is of the earth. That person realizes a dependency on God, the ground of all being. If his or her life is to be fruitful.

The greatest example for us of someone being humble was Christ, an innocent man, dying on the cross for the sins of the world. To the world, this may seem to be a weak and foolish idea, but as Paul points out God chose not the strong but the weak and in this there is great power. We are chosen by God, even though by human standards we are not thought to be much. We celebrate that we a chosen to be representatives of God’s wisdom and righteousness in and to the world. What an honour!

Eddie Askew from Leprosy Mission wrote up a paragraph or two based on our Corinthian letter. He said that things go wrong in our lives and it seems there are problems everywhere. Facing them without resentment leaves us free to deal with them rather than getting hung up with frustration. Most of our problems have you noticed are caused by people. Computers make mistakes, but they don’t have hysterics over the way another computer behaves, not the way we do.

 Looking back on my life in hospital administration, it was a mostly happy and fulfilling time. But there were times of tension and disagreement. Times when I said or at least thought: -“How can God possibly work through people like these!” I am sure that others said the same about me. The amazing and encouraging fact is that He did and does. 

Remember Paul’s words “My brothers [and sisters] , think what sort of people you [we] are, whom God has called…few…are people of wisdom…Yet God has chosen the weak and ..the foolish..” [1 Corinth1:25-30] God works through us. It may not seem a very bright idea for God to do things that way, but He’s chosen it! Fortunately, the Lord doesn’t wait for perfection. Look at the early disciples-Thomas with his doubts, Peter, impulsive and naïve, James and John looking for the best places in the Kingdom. I won’t mention Judas.

God chooses me in my weakness, not through any virtue I possess but because He loves me. And that goes for you too. If God can put up with our faults then maybe we should make a better attempt to accept others, and to work with them as they are. Sometimes I think we demand from our friends a perfection which even the Lord doesn’t ask.

Finally, it’s significant that Christ says: If I can love you enough to choose you for my work, then you can learn to love each other: Not just mutual tolerance but loving, as Christ loved you.

Very finally, the Be-attitudes describe what we are to be, tell what God requires of us. For those who sadly have lost almost everything in the bushfires throughout Australia, the beatitudes are a powerful message which offers blessings to those in need of them. These words have been an inspiration down through the centuries for people such as Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Tutu. 

A word of prayer: –

Lord, when I’m tempted to criticise other people, like the one in the pew in front of me, when I’m tempted to question their credentials and doubt their ability, remind me that I’m no more than average anyway.

And Lord, if you can accept me, and use me, then maybe I can accept the people I have to work with. And acknowledge that if you choose to work through me, then you can work through them too.

Lord, teach me to respect them more and help that respect to grow into love throughout this year.

Geoff Serpell

Faith is Vital for Living 26-01-2020

Faith is Vital for Living. 

Epiphany 3.  

Matthew 4: 12 – 23; Luke 7: 36 – 50

Can we live without faith?

The exercise of faith is vital to our overall spiritual and physical well-being.  Without faith despair is given a deeper soil in which to germinate. Without faith in others our friendships shrink. Without faith our dreams fade.  The lack of faith negatively affects our spirit, our community and our vision for living. Faith is so important to us along with hope and love.  All three work together. 

Faith is so natural to us. Think how often we exercise faith in our daily transactions such as driving our car, receiving information, making new friendships and in so many of life’s everyday experiences. Faith is not just a religious thing. I mean we don’t simply exercise faith in relation to religious ideas and beliefs. Faith is distinct from belief in that faith is that ability to trust another whereas belief is about the content of that trust.  Neither is faith static. The more we exercise faith the stronger it becomes. 

Faith liberates us to act and experience things.  I recall the time I went with a group of yachty friends to ride motorcycles in the northern mountains of Vietnam. Some of us went ahead and had a few days in the old part of Hanoi. That first night Mike and I decided we weren’t tired so we went out for a walk and a drink. We got to the main road we needed to cross. There was a continuous stream of motorcyclists.  Then I remembered what Brian had said to us. The traffic doesn’t stop for you. Just walk looking at the motorcyclists and they will avoid you.  I could see that they were not going to stop for us. Trusting Brian I said to Mike, ‘let’s go’.  I stepped out onto the road looking left at the riders. They travel on the right side of the road.  I got to the centre of the road looked right and kept walking. My heart rate was up. I wilfully put one foot in front of the other watching as riders made their way around me.  It seemed an eternity, but finally I stepped onto the far pavement and said to Mike, ‘we’ve made it’. I turned to look at Mike and he was neither on my right nor my left. He was still on the other side. He eventually came across.

There are times in life when we have to exercise faith to free us from our fears, conventions, and old ways of thinking and embrace the new.  Faith not only liberates but also widens our horizons.

We exercise faith in the daily routine of our lives taking the faculty of faith for granted. But when we come to religion we want to see it as a spiritual gift or something some have and others don’t. The fact of the matter is that we all have the faculty of faith. The notion that faith applies to religion and reason to practical living is false. I’m also saying that we need to exercise faith to enjoy its full benefits, but not to the exclusion of our other faculties. Reason therefore remains a loyal cousin to faith. 

In the Bible we have many examples of faith shown by people such as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Gideon, Ruth, Esther and many others. Our Matthew reading tells us about John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus’ departure to Capernaum and the call of the disciples’.  Normally a preacher will focus on the arrest of John or the call of the disciples. I want to focus on faith.  Though faith is not mentioned each situation is grounded in faith.  John is arrested because he has been faithful to his calling. Jesus’ departure is an example of faith practised with reason and the disciples’ response leads to adventurous faith widening horizons.

John the Baptist’s faithfulness reminds us that faith is not a matter to be superficially exercised. Faithfulness is dependability, constancy and devotion. He never diverted from his calling even though in prison he wondered if Jesus was really the Messiah. John is an example of sticking to one’s calling even against the odds. For so doing he paid the ultimate price – martyrdom.  The Lord would truly say to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’[Mt 25:21,23]     

Matthew tells us about Jesus’ reasoned faith.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard about John the Baptist’s arrest he ‘withdrew’ to Galilee. Why? Now no one would question Jesus’ faith, so why does he leave and go to Galilee? John’s arrest took place in Judah and it was most probably the Jewish authorities who arrested him.  Jesus would have left for Galilee because it was far away from Judah, and there was no point in getting arrested along with John.  Also Galilee is a densely populated area with a greater freedom of ideas than in the conservative culture of Judah and Jerusalem.  My reflection on this passage is that Jesus ‘withdrew’ to Capernaum in Galilee to avoid any conflict in Judah and to begin his ministry in an area more likely to be responsive to his message than in Judah.  Jesus’ withdrawal is not a lack of faith but reasoned thinking about the best next step. It is one thing to be faithful, but we need to use our reason – that loyal cousin of faith.

The third example of faith in this text is the first disciples’ adventurous faith in Jesus – Andrew and Peter. Their faith is exercised through the hope and belief that God would send a Messiah and that Jesus seemed to fit the bill.  Their faith was sufficient to begin the exploration that led ultimately to their wonderful ministries. Their names are written in the Church’s foundations. The more they saw of Jesus the more they trusted Jesus. Their faith led them to total commitment. Finally Andrew and Peter were crucified. We can be deeply grateful for the men and women who, down through the ages trusted Jesus and gave their all. The foundation of the Church is Christ and the blood of the martyrs.  Following Jesus leads to eternal life but along the way we may have to suffer for our Lord. When I was called to ministry in South Africa I realised that there was a possibility that I might run foul of the authorities. Fortunately the only discomfort was seeing black people suffer and feeling alone amongst the white tribe I had been born into.

Luke’s account of the Gospel records a beautiful incident of costly faith [Lk 7: 36-50]. Simon, the Pharisee, had invited Jesus to a meal. A woman, supposedly of ill repute, heard and entered the courtyard where the meal was served. Out of her faith in Jesus and her deep need she came with possibly her most precious material gift of fragrant ointment. She lavishly and ostentatiously anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Simon and other respectable persons frowned upon such extravagant and ostentatious behaviour. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke the most comforting words that anyone of us would want to hear. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [Lk 7:50]

These pictures of faith provide us with an insight into the operation of faith. We are reminded in the first place that faith is natural to our humanity and essential to living a full life.  Faith leads to faithfulness. Where would we be without the faithfulness of those in our community? Faith is about being considerate and thoughtful. There is little value in faith that does not consider situations carefully to determine what is best.  It is adventurous faith that leads us to new horizons and opens up the future for us.  Faith always involves a cost. Our preparedness to pay the price of faith leads to a blessedness that surpasses all our experiences of happiness.

 

In closing I will apply this sermon to myself. I know I have served God faithfully and God’s Church. Though, I must add, not always 100% of the time and only a few times at 110%.  I am confident that I have been constant. However, I am not sure that I have always exercised adventurous faith, or costly faith or even that most tricky one of all – reasoned faith.  Only God can answer such questions. So, with thankfulness for God’s graciousness I step down from fulltime ministry. I will always wonder if I could have done it better.  But then again God has always taken our meagre talents and gifts and made them shine and be fruitful. So I stand content. I hope you too have a restless contentment, for with such God can do much.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  26/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Servant,Slave, Service! 19-01-2020

Servant, Slave, Service! Epiphany 2.

Isaiah 49: 1 – 7;  John 1: 29 – 42

Are God’s children also servants? 

We commonly understand a servant to be someone employed to to carry out domestic chores. The term, servant, has become a demeaning term in our society. Our labour saving devices, fast food places and meals delivered to the home have all made the domestic servant obsolete. 

In a time long past servants were essential to the working of the home. In fact we could not have achieved much without servants.  And some servants became valued members of the family. I recall from my childhood in South Africa that servants were very much part of the family, especially on farms. The problem today is that the concept of servant is taken to mean someone who is inferior to others and of little worth.

In the ancient world of the Roman Empire servants and slaves were important. Some slaves and servants became so valued and respected that their masters adopted them as their heirs. The slave owner would set a slave free and then adopt him to be his heir under the rule of paterfamilias. As I have mentioned before some of the Roman Emperors were adopted.  E.g. Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire [63BC- 14 AD] who established the Pax Romana, was adopted by his uncle Julius Caesar. Incidentally Julius Caesar already had a natural born son by Cleopatra.

Neither is it strange to read about the servants of God in the Bible.  Moses, Joshua, Paul, James and Peter are specifically described as servants of God.  The people of God were also referred to as servants. Mary, the mother of Jesus, declared herself a bond slave of the Lord [Lk 1: 38]. Nehemiah spoke of the people of God as servants of the Lord [Neh 1:10] and Isaiah speaks of the people as the Servants of God [Is 48:1 – 49:3].

What is a servant?  The dictionary defines a servant as ‘one who performs duties for others, especially a person employed for duties in a household’.  Most definitions add that a personal servant will be devoted and helpful.  The root meaning of ‘servant’ has the notion of waiting on and serving another with devotion.

I have selected six characteristics of a servant that I believe may help our understanding of the worthiness of servanthood. 

Integrity: Servants doesn’t only have to be honest, but should have a sense of wholeness about themselves. They need to see servanthood as an important part of what they do and who they are. Servanthood has an honourable role. 

Humility: Out of their sense of well-being the servant need to be willing to humble themselves in the service of others. Their work is not about themselves but about the one they serve.

Loyalty: The concept of loyalty captures the sense of dependability, commitment, and trustworthiness.

Listener: A servant needs to listen and empathise with the one they serve and sense their needs and understand the tasks they are to carry out.  The good listener is attentive to others.

Adaptability: A servant needs to be adaptable to the situations and demands of the one they serve.  Flexibility is important in adjusting to different situations.

Resilience: Resilience flows out of being flexible and leads to that quality of endurance and toughness required to serve dutifully during difficult times.

So we begin to see the important role a servant plays. We note that there are periods in our history and possibly in our lives where the notion of being served or serving is critical to our well-being. We note too that to see the role of servant as merely a demeaning role is not helpful. We note that the characteristics of a servant are essential to any household or organisation’s health.  That is, we cannot really progress, develop and reach our potential without the qualities that go with servanthood.

Today we don’t speak of servanthood except in leadership roles where we speak of servant-leadership. The Servant-Leader takes on the characteristics of a servant. So why am I talking about Servanthood? I imagine if I had asked you whether you saw yourself as a servant of God, or of the Church, or other Christians, you would say you don’t. I guess that would be the last concept you would use to describe your relationship with God. Most likely you would think of yourself as a child of God or a member of the Church. Yet this is what our texts are talking about – the people of God are God’s servants.

In the Corinthian reading Paul describes himself as an Apostle [1Cor 1:1], which is just another name for a leading servant. In the John reading we have the call of the disciples. We are told that two of John the Baptist’s disciples decided to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to meet them and merely invites them to ‘come and see’ [Jn 1:39]. Andrew is one of them and he goes off to get his brother, Simon Peter.  Jesus’ response is gentle and pregnant with conviction – ‘come and see’. Andrew and Peter follow and stay and become witnesses and martyrs for the Gospel of Christ Jesus. They gave their lives.  They took on the qualities of servanthood: integrity, humility, loyalty, empathy, adaptability and resilience. Legend tells us Peter chose to be crucified upside down by Nero because he felt unworthy to be crucified in a similar fashion to Jesus.

The Isaiah reading, which is another ‘Servant Song / Poem’ in the book of Isaiah, speaks of the ‘Servant of God’ as an individual and also as a member of the people of God. In Isaiah 52 the servant suffers for us, bears our sins and secures our healing with humility [Is 53: 4-9].  Christians unreservedly see the Isaiah prophetic poems as foreshadowing the ministry of Jesus. The early church in one of their hymns speaks of Jesus as not regarding equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— death on a cross. [Phil 2:6-8]  Mark records Jesus telling his disciples that he has come not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom. [Mk 10:45]  All this tells us that Jesus is seen as the perfect example of servanthood.

Why would we be reluctant to see ourselves as servants if Jesus comes to loyally serve us with integrity and endurance? Servants are both valuable and valued  and the worthy servant is always honoured. There lies the irony of life. Those that serve inherit life.  Those that serve receive honour and respect. I recall observing my Personal Assistant when I was the CEO of the Church’s organisation providing CRE and chaplaincy in State schools. She was committed to the ministry, served me faithfully with an integrity but never turned her humility into demeaning servility. She was a learner and listener and was steadfast in her work.  Though I had a 2 IC and there were other senior staff, whenever my PA spoke, people took notice. I noted she had a power and authority that far out weighed her office.  She was a true servant – so respected; so valued.

Do you see yourself as a servant of God in this Church?  Would you see yourself as a servant of God in the world?  Would you see yourself serving one another?  How might that look? What might that look like to the world outside if they were to experience communities of compassionate servanthood?

Jesus often uses the concept of a servant to illustrate our relationship to God. In one of his short parables Jesus says; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.   Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.   If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves  [Lk 12: 36-38].

What a privilege to be a personal servant to a great person. What a privilege to be the personal servant of God! How wonderful it is to be among the servants of God who when God comes and finds us alert and loyal, God will sit us down and wait on us. That’s the amazing picture Jesus puts before us in his teaching and throughout his life.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  19/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Theological Justice 12-01-2020

Theological Justice.

Isaiah 42: 1 – 9; Matthew 3: 13 – 17

God’s justice more than social-justice!

A man was brought before a jury of respectable educated townsfolk to be tried for a crime he had allegedly committed. As the court began the accused asked the judge how qualified the jurors were to judge him.   “Are they experienced thinkers able to determine right from wrong?” he asked.

He requested the judge to ask the jurors separately to write an answer to his question: ‘what is bread?”

These were the jurors’ answers:

The 1st juror wrote; ‘Bread is food.’

The 2nd; ‘It is a gift from the Almighty.’

The 3rd; ‘It is a mixture of flour, yeast and water.’

The 4th; ‘It is obvious, it is baked dough.’

The 5th; ‘It depends very much how you use the word bread.’

The 6th; ‘No one really knows.’

The accused man looked the judge squarely in the face and said;  “When the wise and educated decide what bread is it may be possible for them to determine what is right and wrong.”

What is justice? Definitions of justice run like this:  the quality of being fair and reasonable, the administration of the law, what is morally right and fair. As much as we might have a problem defining what bread is we might also have a problem with the concept of justice. Cicero said that the fundamentals of justice are that no one shall suffer wrong, and that the public good be served. Let it be known that the demand for justice does not come from Karl Marx, or the poor, or the rich, but from the Hebrew prophets and it is embodied in Jesus. When we ask what is justice? we may too readily think of equality of treatment and opportunity, fairness, and punishment of the unjust. The Isaiah text implies it is more and certainly suggests a distinctive administration of justice.

We remember today the baptism of Jesus by John.  The lectionary includes Isaiah 42 implying it has something to say about Jesus. We can note two things that connect the Isaiah reading to Jesus and his baptism. Firstly, the Baptism of Jesus has more to do with him being anointed by the Holy Spirit than water baptism. The key point in Jesus’ baptism is the anointing of the Spirit described as a ‘dove’ descending on him accompanied by the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” [Mt 3:17]  The Servant in Isaiah 42 is also anointed with the Spirit. Secondly, Jesus begins his ministry, according to Luke, citing a passage on justice from Isaiah. Justice, theological justice, is strongly tied to Jesus [Lk 4:18].

Isaiah chapter 42 is most significant. Scholars spend a lot of time reflecting on who the ‘servant’ is in this visionary reflection.  Scholars also spend a lot of time discussing how this vivid piece of writing connects to other passages in the book of Isaiah. I am not interested in these reflections.  I believe, as some scholars point out, that Jesus embodied the task given to ‘the servant of God’ in chapter 42.  So let us look at the task given to the servant and the manner in which the task was to be accomplished.

The passage begins with; with here is my servant, whom I have chosen [Is 42:1]. What stands out in this passage is that the servant of God is chosen and God puts God’s Spirit into the servant.  The servant of God is chosen and anointed with power. Throughout the Bible God calls people and anoints them with the Spirit. Remember in creation it is the Spirit of God that breathes life into the whole of creation. The Scriptures consistently tell that the Living God breathes life into this world. Nothing can be done without the Spirit of God empowering and breathing life into our lives.  The first lesson we learn is that God never leaves God’s servants to act alone. Every time we step out in faith and serve God in what we say and do the Spirit of God is with us. Remember in our baptism we celebrate God’s anointing of us with the Spirit.  God gives us what we need. We are never alone.  It is only in our ignorance, unfaith or arrogance that we may feel and act alone. Every time I stand at this lectern I am conscious of God’s Holy Spirit being with me and speaking through me. I see the Spirit’s anointing of our worship leaders as well. But it is much bigger than that.  Have you not noticed how ordinary people become powerful when they address the daunting task of injustice? The OT prophets and leaders all received the anointing of the Spirit. I cannot overlook the powerful prophetic people who confronted Apartheid in my birth-land; and while preparing this sermon I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful voice of Rosie Batty, the domestic violence campaigner. Whether she recognises it or not I believe the Spirit of God rested on her, for God’s Spirit breathes life into all of creation.

The task of God’s servant is to bring forth justice to the nations [Is 42:1] – yes, justice to the nations!  In verse four the scope of the justice is re-enforced where the servant’s task is to establish justice in the earth.  What we easily overlook or simply fail to understand is that God’s justice doesn’t only concern God’s people; i.e. it is not parochial justice – it is worldwide justice. Psalm 82 makes it abundantly clear that the domain of God’s justice is the whole earth with its climatic statement; Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you! [Ps 82:8]  In Psalm 82 the direction and nature of God’s justice is determined. Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute [Ps 82:3].  What is patently clear is that God’s justice is about general well-being and health for the whole of creation.

God’s method for justice. Isaiah not only describes the task of justice and its expansive scope, but the servant’s unique means of establishing justice. Let us pause a moment and reflect on how we establish justice.  We impose justice by law, edict, enforcement and worst of all by military might. But listen to what Isaiah says and think on Jesus’ life and practice. 

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 

he will faithfully bring forth justice. [Is 42:2,3]

The manner in which servants of God will bring forth justice stands in utter contrast to the manner in which we usually pursue justice.  I cannot express this point more forcefully than Paul D Hanson does in his commentary on Isaiah.

“The style of witness of the Servant stands so starkly in contrast to the ways of the nations and their leaders that it must be regarded either as foolishness or as an intriguing alternative to a failed strategy. What sort of agent can this be, described in terms not as a conqueror but of as a victim. Is it possible that the reign of justice can be promoted by submission and the express renunciation of force, even by special attention and care to fellow victims who are on the edge of collapse and death?” [p. 45 NTBC] What Isaiah describes here is how Jesus confronted evil and injustice. Jesus appeared more as a victim than a victor. He used love and compassion rather than coercion and violence. And what Jesus began his disciples through the ages have continued doing – bringing wholeness and justice in a peaceful manner. So in Jesus we see this prophetic poem being fulfilled.

The second half of our text in Isaiah chapter 42 appears to be an expansion on the first four verses. It is in the style of other Isaiah passages where the ‘Servant’ of God includes the nation as in Isaiah chapter 41. Elsewhere the book of Isaiah is quite explicit, that the work of the servant involves the people. In fact we find a kind of democratisation of the work God in Isaiah 65 and 66.  God’s work will be done by all not merely the hierarchy or the privileged.

It is at a time like this, when we see our land burning at a level not witnessed before, when we witness so many displaced people in the world, and when political leadership appears more nakedly as personal power, that we need men and women to stand up and be anointed by God’s Spirit to bring in God’s justice in a manner that decreases the violence and injustice in the world.

God has shown us the way. God will equip and empower us. God will anoint and God has given us the blueprint in Christ Jesus.  It remains for us to begin speaking and praying for God’s justice to be done. 

Don’t say you can’t take up the call! Every time you bring joy, love and hope to someone, especially the stranger, you bring justice. Each small deed of kindness and charity is a building block in God’s 

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  12/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org