Isaiah 2: 1-5, Romans 13: 8-14, Matthew 24: 36-44
Any of you find yourselves lying awake at night or in the early morning alert feeling any movement. Waiting for the next earthquake. Possibly the big one.
Not only do you not know when… but you really don’t know what it will be like.
We’ve had earthquake, and flooding, and Trump and now its Advent and we are waiting for something, we don’t know when or what it will really be like.
Advent just means coming. And the first Sunday of Advent is on the theme of hope. So the tradition is that on the run up to Christmas we celebrate the many ways in which Christ comes to us. Today it’s hope… something that is sometimes called Christ’s ‘second coming’ or his ‘coming again’.
There’s a lot of craziness, a lot of fantasy surrounding this idea of the ‘second coming’. So part of what I think we need to do at this time is question the craziness… to take a fresh look at these words of Jesus.
Jesus is famous for anticipating disaster. He warns his followers that the temple would be destroyed. It happened in 70ad. The future he talks of is filled with both disaster as well as hope.
But the first thing I want to say is that in spite of this he is very conscious of what he doesn’t know (v 36) “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” So if Jesus is very conscious of his ignorance, we probably should be too, don’t you think?
A lot of people want to know the future… they want to secure their lives. They don’t like lying awake at night waiting for the big one – for something they can’t control. So they are ready to believe anyone who likes to tell them a story about the future. But Jesus pushes back against that. There is a future… for sure… but how much do we really know. What can we say about our hope?
In Romans 13 Paul says “You know what time it is”… He’s not talking about 10.30 on Sunday morning. He’s asking about how they locate their lives in time, in relation to the significant moments of God’s coming to them. It’s not about numbers and dates. What matters is how our lives are located in God’s time and in God’s purposes with the world. It’s time to wake up. With the passing of time salvation has become nearer. What time it is? Wake-up time.
Here’s a question. Maybe you know what it means to have hope … but what does it mean to live in hope?
Christ has come… the world will never be the same again. Christ is coming again. We live in between. That’s the main thing we need to know about what time it is. And we don’t need to look at our watches to know it. Everything in our lives that matters, matters because Christ has come. But all that Christ came for is not complete. Wake up time is also pushing towards ‘salvation time’. That’s what hope is all about. God will act. God will complete what God has started.
Jesus stood firmly in a great tradition of hope. He was a fanboy of the great prophet Isaiah. Jesus read from Isaiah in his first sermon. We read of Isaiah’s hope as one of our readings today. … “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The destination will look something like that. We may not know what that will be like, but this is probably the vision that inspired Jesus to call his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. This is what God is working on.
Last week in Auckland our government hosted a conference of weapons manufacturers for companies like Lockheed Martin. People who make their living manufacturing and selling the technology for drones to drop bombs on crowds. Companies who trade in cluster bombs and nuclear weaponry. During the week protestors surrounded the conference and shut it down. Like Jesus protesting at the temple, they didn’t shut down the arms industry for good… but is that one of the ways that living in hope looks like.
Jesus has quite a bit to say about what the coming reign of God looks like… but the question of how the change from now till then will actually happen … how we will move from the time of Christ’s hiddenness to the time when all the world will be confronted irreversibly with his reality. From wake up time to wide awake, remains a great mystery.
One thing he is clear about… he is clear that the change is dramatic. You can see it in the kind of language Jesus uses to describe this future coming. In one passage, one we didn’t read, he uses the language of apocalyptic. For apocalyptic writers great events are described in terms of natural disasters… ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken’. This is a kind of poetry of crisis, that Jesus is drawing on in his language. These are metaphors that others have used before him. Some readers don’t appreciate that kind of poetic exaggeration that is just part of this tradition. It’s a metaphor… but what it’s about is a whole new world coming. God’s new world order of peace.
And then Jesus doesn’t stop with those metaphors, he goes on to give us two more metaphors – two parables of the transition, one about Noah and one about a thief. He says the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah… it will be like a massive crisis in human existence… life will be going on as usual, people will eat and drink and get married… and then rains and rains and rains – a clear and public disaster – the word in Greek is cataclysm. And everyone will be in danger of being swept away with the passing of life as we know it… but some will remain…(metaphor of disaster) ‘two will be out in the field and one will be swept away and one won’t be’. The Greek translation of those phrases sometimes translated ‘taken and left’ is very tricky. Perhaps the most we can say is that, whatever else is involved (remember Jesus doesn’t really know what’s going to happen) there will be a sorting out of people. A bit like the parable of those who build their house on the rock… Jesus hope for his disciples is that they might remain awake to the coming of Jesus, and to the reign of God. He hopes that they will remain strong in the chaos and disaster that will surround the appearance (coming) and not get caught up and swept away. He wants them to be ‘left behind’. (That’s how I read it). To use the words of Leonard Cohen. “Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions” … But even if they do, perhaps particularly when they do, something better is coming.
Interesting when Genesis tells the flood story, twice it says that the world was filled with violence. Here we have a world that sounds to us quote civilised: ‘eating and drinking and getting married’. We don’t usually think of these as violent. And yet perhaps it makes sense … Maybe that’s precisely the kind of world we live in. Maybe the economy of ‘eating and drinking and marrying’ sits like the cap on top of a volcano of violence and racial tension and the inequality that makes the gap between rich and poor get larger and larger. And maybe that volcano will let fly. Don’t get swept away.
Maybe the world that is doing its best to distract itself from the violence and destruction it is itself creating for other human beings and for nature will be caught completely by surprise. I think that’s the point highlighted in verse 39… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them away.
‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’
So Jesus first image is of a flood in which the faithful stay alert and hopeful, looking for what no one else can see – the coming of Christ again – the completion of Christ’s work
The second image is of a thief coming at night to a household. All is calm, all is bright, everyone is asleep. And when the householder wakes up in the morning the TV has gone. Like Santa at Christmas, only he takes the presents rather than gives them.
Jesus says to his disciples ‘stay awake, be ready’. Why? If his disciples are the householders who don’t want the thief to come that would make good sense? But they are not. They are waiting for thief. They are waiting for the Son of Man to return. For them the coming reign of God is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Those who run the household, those in power, don’t want the household invaded. Maybe this is what Jesus means when it says that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those invested in the status quo, the winners in this world are the last ones to welcome in the thief.
What does it mean to be ready for the end of the world as we know it?
Here’s what I think. I think it definitely doesn’t mean to sit around and waiting, singing songs in circles looking inwards. It means practicing together the new world now. It means to beat swords into ploughshares now. Refusing to practice war now. It means to live with the poor now, to share our lives with the poor now, to share our lives with those losing on the margins and in the streets. To wake up to the future and to live in hope means to take the enormous risk of living the life of Jesus now – the one who, for our sake became poor.
To live in hope is not simply to have hope. It is not simply to feel hope. It is to have the courage to practice the future now, at a time when the powerful will do everything to make it difficult, at a time when it looks like a sure recipe for failure.
Jesus says wake up. Out of the chaos a new world will be born. A world of peace and shalom, a world where the dead and the living, will be raised to a new possibility. Thanks be to God.
Play verse 1,2 and chorus of You want it darker (Cohen)
This song by Leonard Cohen came out on a new album this week… it goes to the dark places in human nature. But listen to the chorus. Hineni Hineni. I’m ready my Lord
Hineni is a Hebrew word that means ‘here I am’. It’s a phrase that comes up three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Where we are told God tested Abraham. Firstly God calls out ‘Abraham’ and Abraham replies ‘Hineni’. Here I am. I am present. I am available. One way of reading this story is to see that Abraham passed the test with this response. Hineni. Then, as we know Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. But God finally averts this demand. But the second time this word comes up is when Isaac begins to cotton on to the horror of what is about to happen and says ‘My Father’. Abraham replies ‘Hineni, my Son’. Here I am. Again Abraham is present and available to his Son. Abraham is caught between two demands on his presence, his availability. Finally, as the knife is raised, God speaks again. Abraham, Abraham, and Abraham replies… [you guessed it]… Here I am, Hineni.
The moment of availability, of presence. Who are we there for?
Zaccheaus, on the other hand, makes himself completely unavailable. He hides behind the thick leaves of a sycamore tree as Jesus comes by. He seeks the safety of an observer. He is hiding away like a spectator behind his TV or computer screen – unavailable
Jesus parks himself under Zaccheaus’s tree looks up and says. Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down. I’m coming to your place to stay.
Hurry up and come down… There’s urgency in Jesus voice. Don’t muck around Zacchaeus.
Come down from your tree. Come down from behind all your defences. Come down to where the others are. Come down to where Jesus is with them.
Curiously, he just does it. He has been called out. And it’s like for all his hiding and for all his unavailability… it’s like he’s been waiting to be called out. Do you know that experience? Perhaps you are afraid… and what it takes is for someone to call you out.
A moment of availability begins for Zacchaeus with a moment of humility ‘He hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
Today we have two stories about Tax Collectors… and in both stories the Tax Collectors end up demonstrating humility. They come down out of their tree. They know their need.
But why Tax Collectors? What is it about Tax Collectors that makes them of particular interest to Jesus?
Tax Collectors represent the empire. They are the agents of Rome on the ground among the people.
In a week or so the American people get to vote on the leaders of the empire in our time. Who will get to control the military forces that keep the corporations in control of our world? Will it be Hillary or will it be Donald? Who will reign over us? It will played out for us all as we watch from the safety of our TV screens and computers.
Zacchaeus is not a figurehead of the empire like Donald or Hillary. He is an agent on the ground. He is just doing his job. But boy what a job! He is the interface between the empire that rules the world and the people who want to be different. For Jews he is therefore the worst and most despised person. Often tax collectors were themselves Jews. Traitors to the calling of Israel, agents of the enemies of God and thieves to boot.
In both stories it is these Tax Collectors who are the ones who become become models of salvation. The Tax Collector in the temple becomes a model of prayer. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. The man who has so deeply connected his destiny to the pride of the Roman Empire, has been humbled. He has no excuses … Somehow he has come to see with great clarity his failure before God.
His opposite number, the deeply religious man who seeks the purity of the people of God, prays quite differently. Lord I thank you that I am not like one of them… It’s the Pharisee who needs to come down out of his tree in this story. I thank you that I am not like those people in Social Housing, I thank you that I am not like Hillary and Donald, I thank you that I am not like… [you can fill in your own group]. He sees these people. Maybe in his pious moments he even prays for them. But as he prays he has separated himself from them like Zacchaeus up his tree.
But all is not lost for Zacchaeus. In this story he becomes a model of the life of the kingdom.
Both Tax Collectors have their moment of repentance
Jesus says: Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.
Interesting… he doesn’t say I want to talk to you. In the end its ‘salvation has come to this house’. I think this is a metaphor for his whole life. Jesus is saying I don’t simply want to change your beliefs I want to come into your whole life, to stay at your house.
The result is beautiful. At the end of Jesus stay with Zacchaeus… after the whole town has been talking non-stop about Jesus foolishly staying with a sinner… Zacchaeus stands up and says.
“Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor …and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”
Household repentance. Economic repentance. Jesus has stayed at his house and his household economy is changing
There’s two aspects of this repentance. There’s wealth and there’s reconciliation.
The thing we know about Zacchaeus (apart from him being an agent for the Inland Revenue) is that he is rich. And throughout the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus, money gets bad press. Money is not neutral in the New Testament.
Last week I read an article by one of the world’s most influential living theologians. He has been hiding away on a new project doing his own translation of the NT. It’s being eagerly awaited by those who know. In the article he talked about the things that struck him afresh as he immersed himself in the New Testament was how extreme it was. In particular he comments on how the NT is opposed to the accumulation of wealth and is scathing of those who are rich. Wealth in the New Testament is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. You don’t so much have it as it has you. And the more you hold onto it the greater its power over you.
We struggle to understand this in the modern world because we like the illusion that we are rational beings most of the time… and can simply control things like this by thinking about it.
But that’s not the way the NT thinks
Zaccheaus has been exposed to great wealth. His first act of repentance is to give lots of it away. He redistributes large amounts of it to the poor. But the point is not so much that salvation comes to the world through redistribution of wealth. It is that salvation comes to Zaccheaus as he is released from the grip of his wealth. But as he is released from its grip, he also moves towards the poor. He has come down from his tree.
He can see those he has damaged as real people and not just sources of income. So the second part of his salvation is addressing the injustice he has created. Reconciliation with those he may have defrauded. He gives back four times as much.
His repentance means his household has been turned inside out. From a household bent on its own success, turned in on itself, it becomes a household turned outward towards the poor, turned outwards towards the healing of relationships and reconciliation. Because salvation is never merely an individual thing. Jesus doesn’t say ‘Today salvation has come to this tax collector’ (although that is also true). He says ‘Today salvation has come to this house’.
The moment of availability… It comes to him when Jesus calls him out, draws his hospitality out of him.
The moment of humility … Lord have mercy on me a sinner… it’s the moment of coming down out of his tree.
And finally the moment of repentance… a turning outwards towards the poor… away from religious purity (phariseeism) and away from the empire… towards those who are losing the struggle to succeed in the dog eat dog world created by the empire.
Tax Collector’s stand at the intersection of the Roman Empire and the Jewish world. In Zacchaeus’s repentance it becomes the intersection of that empire with the kingdom and reign of God.
Today I want to remind us that this is not just a private thing for you or me. As a congregation we are called to move out of any self-serving notions of success – any religious versions of capitalism. We are not here to build up this congregation. We are here to demonstrate God’s salvation… the same salvation that came to Zacchaeus’s house. Our calling is to move out to those who are not doing so well in the dog-eat-dog empire we live in.
Hineni is the first response. Here I am. Here we are.
OT: Exodus 3: 1-3 (The bush that burns but is not consumed)
Gospel: Luke 10: 1-9 (lambs amidst wolves)
Epistle: Heb 7:16 (a priest of an indestructible life)
This week one of the mayoral candidates, Justin Lester, went public announcing that that he supported a wet house in Wellington. I don’t know who Justin Lester is. I know nothing about him apart from this fact. But I am told that if you raise this kind of issue in Island Bay you get an awkward silence before someone says something like. “Nice weather isn’t it”.
But what is the Christian response to Wet Houses? As people who take the mission of Jesus seriously, can we also join the chorus of those singing from the ‘Not in my Backyard’ hymnbook.
How do you treat people with addiction issues?… It’s like the modern version of the ancient problem of what do you do with lepers.
I want to come at this sideways… so fasten your seat belts for a crash course in ancient religion
My morning readings in the Daily Office this month have come from Letter to the Hebrews.
The Letter to the Hebrews is all about the difference Jesus makes to the Jewish faith. Which is fine and interesting if you live in the ancient world and understand what priests and temples and sacrifices and sabbaths are all about. But if you don’t know what difference it makes to get a priest to sacrifice your goat, you will probably just be a bit confused by the Letter to the Hebrews.
If you talk to an anthropologist she will tell you that in practically every ancient culture we know of they do something called sacrifice. Deals are done with the gods and the hidden forces of the world. You give to the gods in order to receive something. Some anthropologists will tell you that in the earliest contexts it was human sacrifice but later on other animals and produce would be substituted as gifts to the gods.
Among the Jews something very significant changed. For them God began to be understood not as a powerful being in the world – part of the way the world works, part of the economy you might say… not even the most powerful being in this world. For them God was the source of absolutely everything. So there is nothing you can give to God at all to make God happy. Sacrifice in the old sense made no sense anymore. And so what happened in their temple was turned upside down. Rather than sacrifices being exchanges made with God, the priest, in the ritual of atonement for example, would perform a drama, in which they enacted God’s work for our world.
The priest would come out from the Holy of Holies with the name YHWH on his forehead and sprinkle blood, the symbol of life on the gathered congregation. God gives life to us rather than vice versa.
So Hebrews takes up this idea and says Jesus is the ultimate priest.
Then the writer to the Hebrews goes a step further. He says Jesus is not just any priest. Not the kind that does ‘churchy’ things in the temple. Jesus is like Melchizedek.
And everyone says… ‘who the heck is Melchizedek?’ He’s the mystery man… like Zorro. He turns up out of nowhere – the priest from nowhere. They call him a priest. They call him a king. His name means King of Righteousness. He is also called king of Salem (which means peace). And then he disappears and is never mentioned again in the Old Testament.
So for the writer of the letter to the Hebrews he becomes a symbol of Jesus life. Jesus is, we read, a priest of the ‘order of Melchizedek’… which sounds very mysterious, like some kind of Masonic rite or something.
But to cut to the chase… the thing about this Melchizedek stuff is that Jesus (like Melchizedek the outsider) does not derive his significance through religion… through the law… because his dad was a priest of something like that… but here’s the phrase that really hit me this week… ‘through the power of an indestructible life.’ (see Heb 7:16 on slide]
Like the burning bush that is not consumed.
Jesus was not a priest in the temple… (for Jews the temple was the ‘interface’ between God and the world). Jesus was a priest in the world… He took the life of God (the interface between God and the world) out onto the streets. He took it to the lepers, and the taxmen. He took it to the prostitutes and the political powerbrokers. He was a priest not through ritual… but through the power of an indestructible life. And the blood he poured out was not that of a lamb from the temple… it was his own blood. His own indestructible life.
Which raises the question? If his life is indestructible, how come it got destroyed? How come it was snuffed out on a Roman cross? That doesn’t sound very indestructible.
Of course the answer is that it was indestructible because God raised it… raised it to eternal life, to divine life.
To put it another way… his life was indestructible not because he couldn’t die but because he could die… because he could die confident in God who would raise him from death. “Into your hands I commit my spirit”.
The life that God would raise up in the end… the life of the ‘future’ … sustainable life… was the life he was living, it was flowing through him, it was in his bones. In the power of this indestructible life he opens the way for all of us to share in the same life. This is the good news!
Let’s look at what that life looks like in the life of Jesus disciples:
- Fearlessness in friendship
- Fearlessness with possessions
So we read earlier: Jesus sent his disciples out “like lambs among wolves”. That’s some metaphor for the indestructible life! …To be vulnerable… to look for the people of peace and to stay with them. When you knock at the door… if they let you in… if there’s an opening to this new way. Stay there. Eat at their table. Make your place with them.
The power of the indestructible life knows that God is already at work wherever you go. The Spirit of God will be preparing people of peace. You don’t have to be the one with all the answers you just have to be vulnerable. The Spirit of God is ahead of you.
This has been my experience getting to know people around Berhampore and the Granville flats over the last week or so. God goes ahead. God paves the way. What does this say to the issue of wet houses?
He sent them out with the same indestructible life that he had. He sent them out in vulnerability to dangerous places.
So he had to share that life with those who ‘have issues’… it was not his life to keep. It was his life to give and share.
This is the mission journey that we are on together. As a church we can never join in the Spirit of ‘Nimbyism’. To be the body of Christ is not to be a happy huddle of people who look after one another, not even simply a ‘family’. The body of Christ lives by the same indestructible life that Jesus lived… the same indestructible life that God will raise up to eternal life.
It’s not our backyard after all. The church is called to go out and play in God’s backyard.
Second example of the indestructible life of the disciples is after Jesus resurrection. Fearlessness in sharing our possessions.
You know how it goes in the Acts of the Apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need….
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions… and so on.
Quick Question in response to those verses
Q: What do you think is the difference between Communism and Christianity? [discuss in pairs]
No one claimed private ownership. Not that they lived in community that didn’t allow them to claim private property. It wasn’t a law. It was because something had happened inside them and their attitude. The key word is ‘claimed’. [on this see Jonathan Cornford]
I want to say from the outset that we are not going to be able to suddenly go back to the life of the communities of the early church. Those stories are like lights to guide us into the future. But they do guide and they do say something about what the ‘indestructible life’ of Jesus looks like… they encourage us to imagine new, although perhaps less dramatic ways of sharing our material life…fearlessness with our possessions.
The problem with passages like this and with the voice of the prophets and with Paul’s talk of ‘a new creation’ is that this gospel is so BIG. It’s like they speak ‘one octave too high’ (in the words of Abraham Heschel). We are accustomed to the way the world is. Those guys protest too much. They hope too much. Perhaps they are out of touch with reality?
And yet if the gospel is true… and if it is true merely in our heads it is not true at all… if the gospel is true it must become incarnate in our missional life, the medium is the message… and we are called to be the message. ‘As the Father sent me’… says Jesus… ‘I am sending you in the same way.’ Christians believe in reincarnation right? God became incarnate in Jesus. Jesus becomes incarnate again in us. Different, sure, but in an important sense the same too. In our indestructible life… Jesus indestructible resurrection life is moving out into God’s backyard – not our backyard, Gods.
Fearless in our friendships. Fearless with our possessions.
Recently I read the section of Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives his disciples their missionary training regime. He sends them out to the villages to find ‘people of peace’. He tells them to stay with the ‘person of peace’ (Luke 10:1-12). My purpose in this series is to update you with stories about people of peace that I encounter in my wanderings in the vicinity of Berhampore and Island Bay. The names I use are fictional.
Encounter 2: George
My wife Jan goes to the market more often than I. She also goes up to strangers and talks to them more often than I do. And she talks to them about things I tend not to. All of which means she sometimes makes friends quite quickly with diverse people. She had gotten into the habit of leaving our dog Beano tied up outside the market next to George. George is a warm, gentle and grateful soul who sits on the side of the street as people come and go to the market. He is missing a few teeth but it doesn’t ruin his wide smile. He has a sign asking for contributions for food. As it turns out George has a dog who means everything to him, but it is quite big and he doesn’t have much money to feed it. We didn’t know much about George. But we started to enjoy stopping and talking to him. A few weeks ago there was a cold snap. The rain was icy and we weren’t even sure we wanted to walk to the market. But George was there. His feet were bare as usual and his blanket had holes in it. Jan immediately said. We need to get George a new blanket. We dropped into the Sallies and bought a second hand blanket for George. He was on my mind over the next few days.
Later that week I had the chance to watch a short film that had just gone public online about the early life of a member of our congregation. Regina Tito (her real name) grew up sleeping rough on the streets of Wellington. She sometimes slept on the floors of the public toilets for safety. And now she works for Downtown City Ministries. Following Jesus takes her back to the streets to work with the homeless of Wellington. I watched Regina’s film and listened to an interview she did on National Radio about her experiences. The thing that spoke to me from both were her comments on what it was like to be sitting at street-level and watching the legs of people go by. She talked about the difficulty making eye-contact from down there. I woke up early the following morning. It was crystal clear what I had to do. I needed to sit down at street-level with George. I didn’t see George for a couple of days. There was no market. On Thursday I had a day off and was in town near the Beehive (NZ Government Buildings) doing some shopping – nowhere near the market where I usually see George – and there he was, greeting the suits. I chatted for a moment before I sat down. For a while there I forgot about the people passing by. George started talking about his life on the street, his chances of housing, his friends and rivals on the street. George had a story, a life, hopes and fears. He wasn’t just a ‘beggar’. Things were complicated. I asked him, do you know Regina Tito? Sure enough they went way back. I left with mixed feelings to continue my shopping.
Recently I read the section of Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives his disciples their missionary training regime. He sends them out to the villages to find ‘people of peace’. He tells them to stay with the ‘person of peace’ (Luke 10:1-12). My purpose in this series is to update you with stories about people of peace that I encounter in my wanderings in the vicinity of Berhampore and Island Bay. The names I use are fictional.
Encounter 1: Ahmed
When I told the barber why I was in Wellington and that I needed a new computer he immediately recommended Ahmed. So I went down the street to Ahmed’s store. Ahmed was away at prayer. He goes to the mosque in the early afternoon so I couldn’t buy anything off him that day. I needed to time my visits around his prayer routine. But the next time I was down the street I visited and he offered me a great deal on a new laptop which I could carry around in my bag. He was very thorough and seemed to offer wise advice and extensive backup support. We got on well. Shortly afterward he friended me on facebook. When I was next in the shop looking for a new keyboard and mouse for the office at work he didn’t try to sell me a keyboard but gave me a free second hand one and a great discount on a mouse. He commented that since I was using it for my church work he was happy to help. He mentioned in passing that he was very interested in something I had posted on facebook on ‘spirituality’. I couldn’t recall what he was referring to. What struck me was that he, a Muslim, didn’t see me as the opposition. He at least imagined that there might be some overlap between his concerns as a Muslim and my work as a Christian ‘Community Minister’. I wondered to myself whether I would have done the same to him if I were in his shoes. It made me think of the story Jesus told about who my neighbour was. He didn’t just tell us that we should be kind to our enemies, he told a story about how one of the enemies demonstrated the kindness of the reign of God… Tomorrow I am going to the ‘open day’ at the Mosque.
Read “Song to the Lord God” by James K. Baxter
Lord God, you are above and beyond all things,
Your nature is to love.
You put us in the furnace of the world
To learn to love you and love one another.
Father, we sing to you in the furnace
Like the three Jewish children.
The hope and the doom of the love of friends
Is eating up the marrow of our bones.
Lord Christ, you are the house in whom we live,
The house in which we share the cup of peace,
The house of your body that was broken on the cross,
The house you have built for us beyond the stars.
Lord, Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above,
Beneath all things you give us life.
Blaze in our hearts, you who are Love himself,
Till we shine like the noonday sun.
Lord God, we are the little children,
the feeble ones of the world.
Carry us for ever in your breast, Lord God,
Give us the power by love to be your holy ones.
It’s a hopeful poem. An enormously hopeful poem. But it sits that great hope alongside powerful lines about weakness and fragility. “The hope and the doom of the love of friends, is eating up the marrow of our bones”…. “we are the little children the feeble ones of the world”
It’s a good poem to read after Trinity Sunday. “Lord God, you are above and beyond all things. Your nature is to love”
It’s a good poem to read when you wonder what you are doing with your life… as an individual and as a church. “You put us in the furnace of the world to learn to love you and love one another”. Powerful stuff!
It’s a good poem to read when it looks like the mission of Jesus to the world is struggling and it seems like we have nothing to contribute. “Lord Holy Spirit, beyond, within, above/ Beneath all things you give us life/ Blaze in our hearts, you who are love himself/ Till we shine like the noonday sun.
Today’s sermon is entitled “How to build a fire”.
Elijah the prophet comes near to the people of Israel. And he calls them to decision. He says “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Diversity is great in the people of God… but when it comes to the identity of God, and therefore the shape of our life, maybe not so great. Such diversity leaves a community limping. We don’t have Baal these days. Perhaps the contemporary version is ‘If Jesus is Lord, follow him! If Mammon, follow it.
The people did not answer him a word, it says. Pregnant pause…
Choose your God. Choose the God of pagan sacrifice or choose the giver of all things!
The background of this story and others like it is really hard to get our heads around because it is so ancient. But it marks for our history and for Jewish history the change from the pagan religious world (which was Israel’s background as well as the surrounding context of the ancient near east) to the kind of monotheism (faith in ‘creator God’) we have inherited. The transition from a kind of world in which you do deals with the gods, you make sacrifices to the gods, and the gods provide protection and fertility and whatever else – to a world in which God gives all things unconditioned by what we do, the rain to rain on the just and the unjust, and ultimately the grace to be set free from the kind of angst that produced paganisms of all kinds (ancient and modern) from Baal worship to Neoliberal Capitalism.
In that context what is this story all about? How do you sacrifice to the God who provides rather than demands. How do you do the sacrificial ritual for a God who is outside the whole pagan sacrificial system, who cannot be bought off. How do you light a fire for God? For us it is all past history. We don’t do sacrifice… at least not the ritual kind.
But even in this story you can see change coming. The answer seems to be that you don’t light the fire at all. You don’t do it for God in the first instance at all, you do it for the crowd. Elijah sets up the competition, not as a sacrifice to God (or gods) but a sound and light show for the people. The challenge for God or Baal (if he’s listening) is to provide the sacrificial fires himself. If God is the one who provides the sacrifice, then the whole logic and point of sacrifice is being undermined. And to add insult to injury, not only does Elijah change the nature of the day’s entertainment, he sets out to prove that he has complete confidence in the God who provides. He tries to make it hard for God to light the fire. He floods the altar with water. He pours cold water over the sacrificial system. It’s hard not to laugh at this story.
Not only that… he messes with the symbolism. The 12 stones of the altar symbolise the 12 tribes. The people are not so much providing the sacrifice for God. God does that. The people will be in the midst of the flames. Blazing with the life of God, purified as by fire. Living embodiments of the grace of God. Is that too much to read into this ancient story? Living stones… not sacrifices of exchange, sacrifices of praise. God will set us alight – ablaze!
Today’s story is about a sound and light show for Israel… for people who can’t make up their mind about the shape of their lives and who they will serve.
God will provide! Do we believe it.
A roman military leader, a Centurion, a man whose job involved overseeing the crucifixion of all who dared to even look like they challenged Rome… a trained killer for the military who was also a philanthropist. Life is never simply black and white is it! The agent of the empire is also respected for his personal acts kindness and generosity. Some today often, isn’t it. He is also the keeper of slaves, something taken for granted in the first century… and yet he is very fond of one particular slave… and he comes to Jesus for help, for healing for his slave.
But before Jesus even arrives at his home the Centurion sends a message. Don’t both coming just say the word and my slave will be healed. Do you see the parallel? Like Elijah pouring water on the wood… he is confident that God will provide… even if he makes the task harder. This ambiguous character, if ever there was one, becomes an example of faith.
How do you build a fire? You don’t build a fire… God builds the fire. You even take risks knowing that God will build the fire. People of faith take risks because knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as knowing that God is going there. Discernment comes before pragmatism. Knowing how to get there is not nearly as important as deciding to follow Jesus regardless. If there is a last word from me to Coastal Unity it is simply: God will provide.
read Song to the Lord God again to conclude
Romans 5: 1-5
It’s Trinity Sunday… the Sunday we talk about God…
Last Sunday was Pentecost. To recap: Last Sunday I reflected on the God who refused to be imaged. I picked up Rabbi Jonathan Sachs’s contention that the deep thread of the Hebrew Bible is about the conflict and violence which threatens the human community (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and his brothers and so on). To image God is to take control of God. God is here and not there, God is black and not white, God is male and not female and so on. Basically to image God tends to produce the sense that God is like us and on our side and not like them.
This refusal to image God is captured in God’s response to Moses. When Moses asks for God’s name God replies “I will be who I will be”.
And yet the great paradox of Jewish faith is that the God of ‘no images’ create’s God’s image in human life – this has the same practical implication in the Hebrew bible – do not kill the other, the one who is not in my image is nevertheless in God’s image.
So the Hebrew Bible’s response to conflict and violence in the human community is two-fold. (1) to refuse to image God and (2) to claim that God creates God’s own image in every person – even in the stranger who is not in my image.
And now we come today on the Christian festival of Trinity – Trinity Sunday – to talk about the particularly Christian way of naming God, to talk of God’s identity… God’s character… not just about what God requires of us but of who the God is who requires something of us, who claims us, who is still creating us.
Deep within the Christian experience of God is the conviction that law (or the Torah) is not enough to prevent us from othering the stranger, from violating the other. The law does not deal with the deep roots of conflict and violence. That’s certainly what Paul discovered.
For Christians to identify God is to tell the story of God’s love in action not just to tell of God’s law commanding or prohibiting humanity… but of God’s total immersion in human life to heal it. God became human (the Church Fathers said) so that we might become divine.
In other words the short version of what it means to say God is Trinity is that: God. Is. Love… God is not merely the creator who calls for peace. In God’s identity as love God makes peace.
On Thursday I had a conversation with my Dad. We usually avoid talking about religion. But when we do it is usually a ‘robust’ conversation. And by that I mean more ‘bust’ than ‘ro’. Dad was concerned to find out whether the folk I would be working with in Wellington knew what ‘the gospel’ was. It segwayed into whether I knew what ‘the gospel’ was.
I’m not sure whether my answer was up to scratch. But the gist of what I tried to say is that the good news that motivates me is this story of God’s identity as love and our need as human beings.
In some ways just to say ‘God is love’ is too short a version these days … love is overused. When we say God is love we are not talking about sentiment. God is not a feeling. Nor are we talking about love as an idea… As if “God” was simply a code-word for the idea of love. As if God is love simply amounted to saying ‘Love is God’ (which is pretty much what the Beetles said).
We are talking about God’s action towards us and what it might say to us about God’s life. In other words there’s a story of God which leads us to say that God is love. We are saying that we experience God acting in love towards us and so the true character of God is love from all eternity.
Going back to the image of God in us…. those who are Christians say that not only is God at work in all persons creating a divine image, such that no person should be killed because all persons are products of divine creativity. Christians are saying that God has taken the effort to immerse God’s self in our human life so that it can be turned inside-out, so that the roots of our violence can be addressed and healed.
And when we name that immersion of God, that peace-making love of God, we name it ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Because that marks the story of our experience of God’s love. The relationship between Jesus and the Father he believed in and lived in, and the Spirit he gave to his followers, the Spirit that his Father gave him, the Spirit that he gave back to his Father at his moment of death and received in resurrection, and gave again to his followers. This is the story of God’s movement of love into the world and into the human community. Paul, in today’s reading puts it like this
“So, since we are justified by faith (since faith makes us right – Paul has been talking about Abraham’s trusting God – since our trust and reliance on God is basic to God sorting out our fundamental human problem, conflict etc), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing the glory of God…. (and Paul continues…) hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Did you hear the Trinity in Paul’s statement of the Gospel. Because we rely on God to sort us out, to put us right, to sort out the deep roots of human violence… we reach this place of peace with God (not just with others) through the work of Jesus and through his Spirit who pours the same love that Jesus demonstrated into our hearts also.
When I read my sermon to Jan last night [just be thankful you are not married to a minister] she said… I need a picture, I’m a visual person… I rolled my eyes and said something about not imaging God. She said… but what about this…
[Diagram with drawn in figures – you’ll just have to imagine a cloud with the words “I will be who I will be on it” and then a cross superimposed on it and finally some flames superimposed on that and to conclude some arrows to stick figures of humans being drawn into the mix]
It’s not really a picture of God is it… it’s a diagram… diagrams don’t so much picture things as they symbolise relationships, movements.
Father, Son and Spirit – make peace – and so we name God in God’s own self as an eternal movement of love and peace. Trinity.
In a world where 62 people have half the wealth of the world and thousands starve to death each day. In a world where consumerist economics means that 1/3 for our food is wasted. In a world whose ecosystem is being steadily raped by our economic system and our dependence on carbon, in a world where tit-for-tat violence produces more refugees than ever before and politicians do not hesitate to exacerbate tensions and hatred along racial and religious lines to serve their own ends.
In this world God goes forth. In this world Jesus the self-giving one (free of all anxiety about death) gives the Spirit of self-giving to create people of peace and communities of peace and resistance and hope.
So in retrospect… looking back to my conversation with Dad… for all the robustness of our discussion… I am grateful to Dad for pushing me on this issue. Trinity Sunday is essentially Gospel Sunday. It names God and so tells the story of God’s movement towards us, so that we no longer need to kill one another and the created world around us.
It invites us to name the love of God as a story of how God not only creates in humanity the image of God, but takes up that human project, and enters it, and heals all that is violent, all that is destructive, re-creating us in the image of Jesus and thus in the image of God’s own peace.
Thanks be to God.