Sermon January 7, 2018 – Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of Jesus Mark 1:4 – 11    07 January, 2018

Some people are baby people; they are naturals.  When I was studying to be a minister at Queens College the woman who lived next door to me at Kernick House at was into babies.  She was a natural; an earth mother maternal type -she ended up having four kids.   My time living next door at Queens College is dominated by images of her nappies and breast feeding pads (she made her own and reused them!)that filled her clothesline.

Not everyone is a baby person.  Of the gospels Luke is, Matthew only a little bit. Mark and John are not baby types.  They have got no time at all for baby stories.  Nothing about that from Mark whose gospel we are going to be reading from this year.  No, for him its straight into it. He propels the adult Jesus straight onto the stage.  And within 8 verses of his opening he has dealt with all the preliminaries (that is John the Baptist fulfilling the Isaiah quote) and is into the first of many stripped back and fast paced stories of Jesus – the baptism of Jesus.  But don’t get sucked into thinking “Oh it was Christmas nearly 3 weeks ago and so that is why we are having the baptism of Jesus story today.”  At this time of the year we read this as an Epiphany story – the revealing of Jesus, the uncovering of the mystery of God’s redemption, the light shining in the darkness to use a Johnanine expression.  It is not about babies.  It is about baptism, water and Jesus taking on our frail, fallen humanity and in the power of the Spirit raising us, giving us new hope and standing where we stumble and fall.

And there is a deliberate matching of texts today in our lectionary with the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures of the creation of the world from the watery chaos and the recreation of the world through Jesus Christ, whose first public act is to be baptised in the waters of the river Jordan.  Life again emerges from water.  Water and life feature today.

Water nurtures, cleanses, replenishes  but it also drowns and in Christian theology and liturgy it also can give new life.  You can die from not enough water or too much.  Water is a feature of the life of the people of God, coming as they did from a dry land and we here in Australia also occupy a dry land. Just this week been reading a book called Tracks about a woman named Robyn Davidson walking through the Australian desert with her camels.  Water was one of the few essentials.

In the church we have underutilised water, or the image of water.  It is there though in our scripture and tradition, but like the presence of water itself, we have kind of taken it for granted. I am old enough to recall a time when you did not pay for water usage.  Just the fixed costs of sewerage, parks levy etc but water?   free!

Water in the scriptures… how does it feature in the NT? The community can gather around a well in the desert to tell stories and to meet people or maybe even the Messiah like the woman at the well.  You can give a cup of cold water to a stranger and win your salvation or have to leave behind the waters of the lake which was your work place as a fisherman in order to win your salvation.  You can walk on the water or if you’re are Pilate or another denier of Jesus you can use it to try to wash away every trace of the sacrifice of the Son of God.  You can use the water to purify yourself in ritual washing, or if that has little appeal you can always change the water into wine and simply have a rip roaring time at a wedding party.

Water is there at the creation of the world.  Which rather raised the question of how it could be there already in the very first verse of the bible “In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth the a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”.  Water, Wind/Spirit and Voice – the essentials of creation and recreation.  God saw it was good and declared the whole creation to be good.  God smiled upon the creation and blessed it/us. And in the baptism of Jesus the same voice comes from the heavens and again declares in Jesus God is pleased.  For many people God’s face wears a disapproving frown rather than smile of blessing.  Remember that, remember you have been baptised in the waters of creation/new creation, remember God smiles upon you and be thankful.

And then in the opening words of the New Testament, Jesus, along with the notorious sinners of his day, humbly stands in the queue to be plunged under the waters of the River Jordan.  This is a startling thing for John has declared this a baptism for the repentance of sins.  Yet Jesus stands with us to undergo this renewing ritual.  Jesus does not despise our frail humanity but fully enters into the struggle of redemption.  You have to think he began with the same common humanity as you and I have.  You have to think that humanity was being baptised in the flesh of Jesus.  You have to think when the Spirit comes upon your humanness you too can draw close to God in following the example of our brother Jesus.  Jesus – baptised as one of us and so the way is open to be a Jesus person yourself. 

This determination to model your life on Jesus is something I have been seeing a bit lately as I have been visiting the psych ward at one of Melb’s hospitals regularly doing for the past 4 months.  The guys (as they mostly are in this ward) have got to know me as a “pastor”, as most of them refer to me and greet me when I enter.  I have got to know a number and few of them have regular visitors.  As you can imagine there are any number of conversations around religion, theology, biblical interpretation, who I am, what my name is, where my church is, if I think the beast of Revelation is about to appear etc, how do I know how to play table tennis if I am a pastor, if it is OK to be a vampire cos drinking the blood of Jesus is in the bible.  During the week one of the conversations moved to the next two hours and how one guy was going to survive this period cos the hospital recently was declared a smoke free zone and now the only way to smoke is to get your allocation of smokes and leave the premises.  This of course has been a major stressor for many.  And smokes would not be handed out until  6.00pm and it was only 3.55pm. This led to a lively discussion of the merits or otherwise of smoking, drinking alcohol and doing illicit drugs.  The guy in the group who was hanging out for the smokes said he smoked but did not drink or do drugs and asked my opinion of this as a pastor.  I said it sounded OK; after all one out of three is not bad.  Another of the inmates (it is a locked ward) said he should take up drinking cos that would be better – not sure if the “better” referred to his level of satisfaction/enjoyment or if it was better for his health.  Anyway the first guy said he did not like alcohol and would stick with his smokes to which one rather zealous disciple of Jesus declared that he had better reconsider his life choices if he really wanted to follow Jesus cos; “Jesus drank but did not smoke, you are stuffed, you have got it around the wrong way cos you smoke but do not drink”.

Baptism does declare the way is open now to follow Jesus for he truly is one of us.  Just how you do that will require the imagination provided by the Holy Spirit though.

The recovery of baptism as the primary rite of entry into the community of the solidarity of sinners that is the church is timely.  The new found appreciation of the value of water heightens our sense that in the gift of baptism we have something exquisitely precious.  It is not just the water, but the plunging under and being raised to new life. This is nothing less than the physical sign here on earth of our salvation.

Christmas Day sermon 2017

Driving down Brunswick Rd on Sat afternoon.  We slowed before the lights at Sydney Rd intersection and cars band up.. maybe 7 or so between where I was and the intersection.  On car was turning left in Brunswick Rd so I let him in and he got about half way into lane but was half still in the street he was turning out of.  Not probs. Looked in my rear vision mirror and saw a cop on a bike coming up behind.  A pedal bike not a motor bike.  He came past – had a gun, radio, the work but a pair of ankle high white socks which did  look a bit un scary.  He negotiated around the car half in ahalf out and pedalled up the rest of the cars in the line looking in the windows of each one.  Oh he after someone – seat belts on?  no texting while driving?  And then he turned and came back up the line.  Stopped at car in front of me indicated the person in the rear to wind down the window and proceeded to pull a lollipop out of his pocket and present it to whoever was in the back – presumably a kid.

Someone was buying mince pies at Baker’s Delight, the woman next to them asked if they had any hot cross buns. “Not until after Christmas!” said the baker’s daughter. I’m glad someone is keeping to the old standards

Today we gather to welcome the God who is never absent from us into our world.

Yet the genius and the wonder  of Christmas Day and the Christian faith is that this God who is never absent does need to be born into human flesh.

   The fundamental thing that Christmas day is proclaiming – that which will be the wonder or the stumbling block — the stupendous Christmas claim itself, that “God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Authentic faith requires genuine astonishment, astonishment of the sort that appreciates the border lands of disbelief

The King and the Maiden

Søren Kierkegaard

Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents.

And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist-no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know for sure? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise – the king took on a totally new identity – He had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win he

On this night of birth many years ago when Mary’s waters broke Jesus received his first baptism into the human race.  Surely we can say that for Jesus himself referred to his death upon the wooden cross as a baptism, so why not his birth into a wooden manger?

Mary held in her arms
The God of love
That we might hold in our hearts
The love of God.

But if Christmas means anything it surely means first of all that this God of love has held us/you in the heart of God.  There is a place for you, even if there was no place for Jesus that night long ago.  Is there a place for everyone?  What if Jesus is a refugee on Manus Island?

The theolgican Karl Barth  said somewhere that tomorrow morning when you awake on Christmas morning we are all like children, surrounded by discarded wrapping paper, and staring wide eyed at the wonderful generous gifts.

But while that is easy enough to say Christmas is it is a bit more challenging than that. To live in our society pretty well guarantees we have been innoculated with a slight case of Christmas

The thing is  that in our heart of hearts most of us don’t find it easy to receive gifts that we have not earned or do not deserve. Grace makes us uncomfortable and the whole Christian faith and Christmas is about grace.

And so sometimes we are reluctant to be a recipient, hesitant to open our hands and our hearts to receive the gift. “Oh my, no” we say. “Thank you very much, but I can’t accept that.”

God intends to make you into a genuinely alive giver by coming to you with a precious gift: the gift of God’s own eternal, unconditional love, given in a child.

The good news, which is for all of us, for the whole world and for each one of us, is that the gift has been given, God’s love has been born among us. God’s love would be born again this day, in your heart and mine.

Sermon December 17, 2017 Advent 3

Isaiah 61:1-11 December 17, 2017 Advent 3

The take away with you image for our 3rd Sun of Advent is joy.  It is the joy of home coming , but it is a joy not unacquainted with suffering for Isaiah the prophet speaks of his people’s homecoming out of exile in a foreign land to desolation and having to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and especially the temple.  This rebuilding is actually one of the final images towards which our faith travels– a vision of the rebuilt heavenly city, Jerusalem, descending from heaven to dwell on earth.  Would be nice wouldn’t it for Jerusalem, and the Middle East in general are not places on earth we automatically associate with joy.  And our focus has been firmly placed on the ancient holy city of Jerusalem – named as the capital of two nations – Israel and Palestine – this month as President Trump nominates Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

I read during the week that they get a lot of letters addressed to God in Jerusalem.  Most of them are getting stuck into God, blaming God either for their own personal misfortunes or castigating God for not doing more to intervene in the woes of the world and the Lord knows there are many of them.  Although last week they received a nice letter from a grateful man just letting God know  that things were going OK for him and he was grateful.  Good job, nice wife, happy family.  Yeah, life was pretty all right and he was at peace with himself and hence God.  They stick all these letters into slots in the Wailing Wall, the only remaining section of the second temple over there in Jerusalem. It is not the temple that Isaiah was calling his people to restore, but a second and later one. They are a little confused about what to do with these letters.  Where is God in our world?

But Isaiah does call upon his people to strengthen their arm, to begin the work of rebuilding.  And this from a presently dispirited people.  The way the prophet tells it –this rebuilding it is to take on the nature of a joyful celebration. Now we know from history the building program was not quite the immediate and resounding success Isaiah was speaking of.  Perhaps they forgot that this was a church renovation project on a heritage site and invariably takes many times the length of time as first prophesied! 

Today, we build the kingdom of heaven, not a physical Jerusalem and there is a lot of work to be done

Bind up! Build up! Raise up! Release! Repair! Restore!

Bind up! Build up! Raise up! Release! Repair! Restore!

And according to Isaiah what inspires this call to action is the joy of God’s presence.  Joy is one of the, if not the hardest, things for us worshippers to do.  Other notes we strike in worship can be done. I think praise, confession, intercession can be done readily enough. Lament is not easy but can be done after some reflection.  Joy, well it is harder to get in touch with, hard to reproduce on demand.  Perhaps impossible.

CS Lewis called his autobiography Surpised by Joy in which he describes the relentless pursuit of God of him and how he attempted to flee, but was overwhelmed by the Grace of God and finally knelt and admitted God was God.  .. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”  He also makes the interesting comment that very often our pursuit of pleasure is a substitute for, or an unconscious seeking after Joy, or an clumsy compensation for the lack of Joy in our being.

This is all too apparent at this time of year when joy is attempted to be turned into  a marketable commodity and pushed to us by every Christmas advertising campaign. Joy can be reduced to become an annual charade, a tinselly veneer draped over our lives for a few weeks before being quietly put out on the nature strip with the dead Christmas trees at the end of the month. The church has no monopoly on hypocrisy! True joy, prayerfulness and thankfulness are the fruits of an ongoing immersion into the life of God.

Come, says the master to his servants, come and enter into the joy of the kingdom.  Not much more to it than that really when you consider it all.  Oh, of course there is more to it, but the point is, it will pretty much work itself out if you have “entered the joy”.  Joy does not depend upon what you do, but upon what you receive.  And what you receive is the grace of God.

Perhaps the greatest natural enemy of joy we will have to deal with is clutter.  Clutter in our lives.  Clutter in time from busyness, clutter in our heads, clutter in our diaries, clutter in all sorts of spaces.  Clutter produces stress and stress stretches its bony hands around the throat of joy and mercilessly squeezes the life out.  Joy needs space and time to flourish.  Joy walks and walks slowly and only runs when greeting a friend.  Joy breathes deeply and slowly. Joy delights in simplicity – not simplistic answers to complex issues but the older I get the more I realise simplifying your life inasmuch as you are able is a worthy goal.

In all of this we are stressing the giftedness of joy.  It is what is given to you and you can’t bestow it upon yourself.  Which is not at all to say there is nothing we can do to place ourselves where joy may find us.  There is plenty we can do.  Perhaps a good way to think of it is in terms of what we read last week about Isaiah and John the Baptist.  That line about building a royal highway across the wilderness so the king, or the people, may travel upon it. For us that would be the work of taking time, space, simplifying our lives.  It is building a road upon which we may travel to joy, or joy may search us out and come to us.

Funny, here we are talking about joy as a hallmark of authentic Christianity.  Funny then that we have bible readings from Isaiah prophesying to a community coming home to a desolate ruined city, a prophet dressed in animal skins out in the wilderness who had his head chopped off whose task was to be a witness to another person who was nailed while still alive to a wooden cross, and whose chief witness in later years became the other author of today’s epistle and he was imprisoned prior to being executed by the state.  Joy all around it seems!  How can it be!  If you can still find joy in that and it will be authentic joy, by which I mean joy that arises from the depths rather than avoids the depths.  Joy that is joy precisely because it has experienced the worst life can dish out and knows it was not killed off.  This is joy that travels along a highway made through the desert. Joy that carries within it the spark of resurrection.  That is why we were so impressed by the joy of the Sth African anti apartheid campaigners,  they had experienced the worst, had stood tall, and then said, and still we know the grand and glorious day of the Lord is to come.  Great freedom in that; it means you don’t have to know all the answers, don’t need to turn yourself inside out being “relevant”, don’t have to carry the unbearable burden that it all depends upon you.