sermon march 11 2018

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14 – 21 Lent 4 March 11, 2018

There is in the Exodus story a tradition that is only too painfully aware that the people of God, who dwelt for generations as slaves in Egypt and who were freed by the mighty power of a compassionate God quickly took to complaining.  Because of the number of times the freed slaves wandering around in the wilderness are said to grumble and murmur it has come to be known as the murmuring tradition.  A phenomenon not unknown in many churches today.

The journey from slavery to freedom and on into the Promised Land was not a long  in kilometres travelled but it was a journey of several generations in  learning the way the freed people of God may form community and live in relationship with each other and the deliverer. Today’s passage is part of Israel’s “on the way” story.  But isn’t that life?  Isn’t life one long “on the way story”?  I mean when have you ever arrived in the Promised Land? And when can you lay down all your struggles, growing, achievements, disappointments, hurts, joys?  The only question is how are you going to live with it all while you are journeying?  With what attitude and what relationship with God, others and yourself.

Israel is now to think of themselves as “People of the Covenant” as we have been reminding ourselves over Lent this year.  The 10 commandments have a crucial role in this we saw last week.  These are now People of the Law, not viewed as a heavy burdensome imposition but the gracious revelation of the values, beliefs, practices of once slaves, who had no say in how they lived and who now are free. Remember I said last week the most helpful lens you can read the 10 Commandments through is, in the phrase of Walter Bruggemann, “Instruction on how not to fall back into slavery”.

But freedom brings its own issues.  Freedom requires mature responsibility; it means living with the consequences of your actions.  Freedom and maturity mean putting an end to the blame game, no longer saying, “It’s not my fault, don’t blame me, he made me do it, she makes me feel……, if only,  when ……  happens all my problems will be over.

Living under slavery the battle lines are clearly drawn and the war is against the external forces that oppress you.  That make it impossible to grow to maturity in bondage.  In freedom there needs to be a shift in mentality.  There will still be battles fought, resistance is still required.  But for maturity to arrive there needs to be a fundamental shift of perspective and the enemy will also be identified as internal. Freedom has its own challenges and temptations.

So clearly when we read this story of the ancient Israelites  we are reading our own spiritual biography.   In freedom Israel still wanted to keep the slave mentality of blaming everyone and everything else.  And in the trek through the wilderness this really weird thing has started to happen.  History is being rewritten. Life back under bondage is beginning to look OK.  I mean gees, we couldn’t make any decisions for ourselves, but who ever remembers going to bed hungry?  We may not have been able to practice our own cultural life, but gees, we never remember wandering around lost in the wilderness.  And what do we eat now?  Manna!  Manna on Monday, Manna on Tuesday, Manna on Wednesday, mana, manna, manna.  The people are saying, “Yes, Eternal God, it is indeed a privilege and an honour to be the chosen people, but why can’t you choose some other people for a change?” 

I lived in Fiji for a year as a student minister and I took a couple of weeks holiday to go to Western Samoa and I vividly recall on the flight that I had the misfortune as I came to see it soon, of sitting next to an American guy (not that his nationality had much to do with this point) who was also going to a new life (like Israel).  His journey was cutting all his ties, burning his bridges and going to start live anew in Western Samoa.  And my strongest memory of him was that he was full of recriminations against everyone and everything for the way his life had gone belly up.  It was ex partners, it was government, and it was the whole rotten world that had conspired against him.  I got off the plane with a headache but an overwhelming sense that he had learnt nothing and he was not going to escape his demons because they did not dwell outside himself.  His life was one long self guided tour of misery! And misery enjoys company, but I did not want to enter that dismal land and if I had to have another plane flight with him I would have been summoning up the snakes.

In this murmuring tradition God’s patience is tested almost beyond endurance by these stiff necked, whinging, faithless covenant people.  This grumbling tradition represents what each of us experience on a daily basis – we turn away from, and scorn, and dump upon, the special covenant relationship we are now in with the Creator. 

And then things take a really weird turn.  God in final exasperation brings into the camp of the Israelites the poisonous snakes (or is it fiery- word can be translated either way).  Well that is one way to shut up the incessant complaints about the food! and when the people are stricken and Moses intercedes, this same God turns to provide the means of healing.

The symbol of the serpent in the cultures which surrounded the Israelites as they moved through the desert and gradually settled into the land was significant in different ways. A serpent could be a symbol of evil power and chaos in some cultures while in others it was a symbol of life, fertility and healing. This was because of the phenomenon of being able to shed its skin and apparently take on new life.  In Num 21:4-9 it encompasses both these extremes – a means of death and a way of healing.

The power of the snake punishes and saves.

Moses beat the metal into a snake and wrapped it around a pole and raised it heavenwards and ran among the people saying, do not look down fearfully at those snakes that threaten you, raise your eyes to the heavens and to this serpent on a pole and in that looking upon it you will be saved.  The rabbis have said it was not that the bronze serpent that had any power to save in itself, but it was the act of raising the eyes to heaven that saves.  Oh they were still bitten it seems, but in that act of raising their eyes as response to the bite, and not looking at the snake they were saved and healed.  Great psychology and great wisdom that says to turn and confront and stare down that which threatens you is an empowering and liberating act.  I am sure counsellors and parents and teachers and youth group leaders have all called upon this wisdom in their counsel of those in their charge.

But the bible contains more than great psychology and in John’s gospel we get a theological analysis.

This is a strange, even bizarre story we read today and one I am sure would have dwelt in the mists of Old Testament obscurity were it not for a single verse in John’s gospel that we read today.  A verse that sees the healing power of Jesus death resurrection, his being “lifted up” as a later type of Moses lifting the serpent up on the pole.

In this passage from John you could take your pick if Jesus is the speaker, or if this is commentary on Jesus words.  Either way the bronze (or fiery)serpent points to  Jesus death on the cross, his being lifted up, a reference to both death on the cross but also the exaltation of resurrection when Jesus was raised to glory  is being presented a type, of what had happened earlier in the wilderness.

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.