Thursday 22 June 2023

God heard the voice of the boy

Prepared for Redland City Uniting Church Trinity Wellington Point 25.06.2023

Readings: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21

It would have been easy for me to choose the readings associated with the anniversary of the Uniting Church this weekend. The anniversary took place on the 22nd of June. We are now 46 years old.  However, the familiar words of Jesus’ prayer about unity found in John 17, whilst challenging, could also be used to continue the domestication of our faith. You see, what we often do with the scriptures and our faith is that we make them comfortable, we keep them certain, we like to keep things predictable and so make ourselves feel good about who we already are.

But the Basis of Union itself drives us beyond our comfort zone and any sense of self-righteousness. Thus, we should always remember, with humility, that the union in 1977 also caused a further schism in the church, as many within the Congregational Union of Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia chose not to join us in our witness. The discomfort we might feel at this is recognised within the very first paragraph of the Basis by the Uniting Churches. It declared of those coming into union that “they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God's love with a full obedience” and later that the church is “a pilgrim people” that will need to express our faith in “fresh words and deeds” and finally that “God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life”. In this the Basis echoed the great dictum of the reformation, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming).  

This tension, of the church always needing reform, places us soundly in the Reformed tradition which leans on Paul’s comments about us all being sinners who fall short of the glory of God. However, this view of humans before God also sits in tension with the Methodist tradition which reflected something of the natural theology that understands human beings as made in the image of God and the concept of the work of the Holy Spirit through which, as Charles Wesley put it, we are changed from glory into glory. I have often been somewhat amazed that the contrasting and even conflicting theologies of the three churches was able to come together into this Uniting Church. But maybe in bringing these disparate ideas together the church reflects the true messiness and limitations of our relationship with God as fallible and flawed human beings.  It is the kind of messiness that we encountered in the readings today. 

In particular, the story of Hagar and Ishmael drew me in, and it struck me just how difficult the stories of the Old Testament can be. This story should disturb us deeply in our faith. Graham J. Adams in his essay “Ephphatha! DARE to be Opened!” declares “The Bible is both a butterfly and a hurricane!” (Cited in Scripture and Resistance: Theology in an Age of Empire ed. Jione Havea, p.17) He goes on to say, that as a butterfly “the Bible is always signalling to us that the apparently ‘dead’ appearance of words on a page, like a chrysalis, is not the end of the interpretive story, but instead, because “the spirit blows where she wills”, it comes to life, in ever new ways, surprising us, enlivening us, enthralling us, but also disturbing or unsettling us.” (Adams, p.17) And like a hurricane, the Bible is disruptive, “The newness disrupts our preconceptions, causes problems for us in our desire to superimpose order onto a disordered world.” (Adams, p.17) This imagery reminds us to not get too comfortable in our pews and not too comfortable in thinking that we have arrived in our faith. 

I recall a congregation in which I ministered that the wooden pews were decidedly uncomfortable and maybe that is a metaphor for how we should encounter preaching. If you walk from the church this morning and say to me nice sermon I sometimes wonder if my preaching has failed because when Jesus preached to the converted, they tried to throw him off the nearest cliff. The gospel is a two-edge sword which I think means we are meant to find and encounter hope and God’s love on the one hand but on the other to be confronted by deep and difficulty realities of our human existence. 

Hymn Love Divine 

This has been a long introduction to explain my choice to use the common lectionary readings set down for today. The story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael takes us into disturbing and unsettled waters to confront our assumptions and reset our faith journeys. It is a story that reflects the messiness of human existence and the messiness of our human relationships with God. The temptation could be to make the story simple. To simply say that God is faithful to Hagar and Ishmael so the behaviour and disruption to family and community caused by Sarah’s influence over Abraham is O.K.. It’s O.K. to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. But is it really? 

I need to acknowledge that I read this piece of scripture through the lens of a person who is a part of a dominant culture which has conquered and colonised, a culture that has invaded and instituted, a culture which has disrupted and displaced others.  My Anglo background aligns my history with an imperial past which should be challenged and questioned. But if I were to read this through the lens through the oppressed not the oppressor, I wonder how the story may be transformed. Maybe in reading it through such a lens I would begin to ask whether European Christianity has acted more like Sarah and Abraham, casting aside those who might challenge our position and place in the world. I might begin to ask who has Christianity cast aside. 

Or maybe a bit more confrontingly, who have we said are not welcome in our midst as congregations and then justified it with “it’s OK” because God allows Sarah and Abraham to cast aside Hagar as somehow a threat or even worse as worthless. 

The messiness of the whole incident with Sarah and Hagar is made more disturbing when we remember Sarah encouraged Abraham to conceive a child through her servant girl Hagar to create an heir. This was because Sarah thought she was barren. When Hagar becomes pregnant Hagar is portrayed as looking down on Sarah. Nonetheless, both Hagar and her son, Ishmael effectively became part of Abraham’s family. In the ancient world Ishmael would have been seen as Abraham’s heir by the community and by the family. 

The story that we heard today takes place quite a few years later, after Sarah herself miraculously becomes pregnant and bears her son Isaac.  This story takes place when Isaac is weaned which, in the ancient world, was probably around 3 years of age.  By this time his older half-brother Ishmael is predicted to have been in his late teens, maybe even as old as 17. We are told that Sarah observes Ishmael playing with her son Isaac, except here the translation is kind.  In other translations the word used is laughing, although some commentators suggest that it is harsher than this – Ishmael is laughing at or mocking Isaac. Maybe this was an assertion of Ishmael’s authority and status over Isaac, an authority that Abraham could still confer to Ishmael over and above Isaac.  Sarah is, we might think, naturally concerned. 

As the Biblical scholar Westermann points out, Sarah is jealous for her son’s future – she is being loyal to family. In his words, she has a “ruthless maternal concern for her son’s future.” (Word v.2 p.82) Often, when I have asked people what the most important thing in life is, the answer has come back as family. Sarah’s commitment to family and her group has consequences because it excludes others. Adams, in the article I mentioned earlier says this, “religious communities are often defined more obviously by loyalties to family, class, ethnicity, nation, or like mindedness, or by common addictions to the harm we do (to the earth power to those whom we exploit, to our own human dignity).” (Abrams in Havea, p.20) whilst we often like to use the word community in a positive and inclusive sense there is another darker side of community which is often defined by who we exclude. I would argue, despite the justifications given, the example of Sarah should not be an example we would follow. 

Nonetheless, Abraham does cast out Hagar and Ishmael. He gives them bread and water and sends them into the desert, possibly knowing that their chance of survival was slim at best. Just as imagining Ishmael as a 17-year-old playing with the 3-year-old Isaac shifts the story in my mind so too does it shift at this point too. Ishmael is on the cusp of being a man when his mother puts him under a bush and walks off unwilling to watch him die. Like many other aspects of the story this one is unsettling – she abandons him to die alone because she cannot watch it. She settles down a bowshot away looking up to heaven cries out. 

At this point, I think the story takes a most interesting turn. Throughout the whole story Ishmael has had no voice and no control over what is occurring but here in this moment we're told that God hears him. God heard the voice of the boy! Ironically, it is not the boy that God then speaks to, rather it is to his mother and God guides her through an Angel to a well of water which saves their life. Moreover, God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael, a promise that is no different than the promise made to Isaac. 

Regardless of everything else that has happened, God's faithfulness to Abraham through Ishmael will be realised. God is faithful to those whom others would have cast out. God is faithful to the one that the community rejects. God is faithful to all humanity even when we do not see it. A colleague recently challenged me with the idea that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was only poured out on the believers and that it is only Christian people that receive the Holy Spirit. After contemplating this idea for a while, I returned to the Acts reading in which we are reminded that the words of the prophet is that the spirit will be poured out on all flesh. God's concern is for all people whom God has made. 

In his essay Adams says this, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity - with Hebrew slaves, midwives, widows, orphans, and aliens; Moabite refugees, foreign commanders, and widows; Assyrian Messiahs and Roman centurions; lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes; children and all kinds of ‘little ones’; the poor, bereaved, and meek; the doubters, deniers, and crucified.” (Adams in Havea, p.18)

God hears the voice of those who do not have one. God hears the voice of those whom we would cast out. God hears the voice of the voiceless. And God pours out God spirit on all flesh. The imagery of the story and the promise of unity found within the scripture discombobulate us, it shakes us out of our reverie, and it challenges us with what it means to be God's people. The good news is the just as the Old Testament reconfigures our understanding of family and community, of religions and its institutions, so too does Jesus. 

Jesus’ words that we heard today are just as unsettling: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Whilst I cannot take the time to preach a whole other sermon on this passage, I would share a precis from a previous sermon I preached on this passage.  Earlier in Matthew when Jesus was told his mother and brothers were outside, he responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” 

Jesus’ view of the idea of family here is not to diminish it but to augment it.  Family is not defined by biological ties but is defined by the growing relationship he had with those outside his own family – his disciples. 

The restriction of who could be part of the family changed. The goal post was shifted.  The fact that he defines the disciples as mother and brothers reminds us of how important Jesus views family to be, yet at the same through his words Jesus elevates others into his family. Whereas Sarah sought to exclude Jesus seeks to include and as we know to include others who society and community often rejected. 

To reimagine Adams words, possibly a little controversially, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity” – with First Nations peoples, Yugambeh and Quandamooka, and all of with First Nations peoples across the globe who experience European invasion; with modern slaves who work in sweat shops and mines, and child labourers who produce the things which we consume; with the poor, the unemployed, the lonely, and the forgotten; with those whose journey to find their own identity in their gender and sexuality is more complex than we can begin to imagine; with refugees from climate and from wars who find themselves in inhospitable countries; and from any who would be sent out like Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.” These are the people whom God hears and sends Jesus into the world to bring the peace of God which surpasses all our understanding. 

So, as we celebrate 46 years of the Uniting Church, 46 years of being fallible and frail humans before a gracious God I am led to ask. What does it mean for us to be the Uniting Church when we know God as a God who includes the outcasts and the dispossessed? How does this transform our understanding of what it means to be Redland City Uniting Church? How does this transform our understanding about what it means to be the South Moreton Presbytery or the Queensland Synod or the Uniting Church in Australia? How does it challenge what it means to be faithful to following the way of Jesus who invites us and challenges us not to elevate those who are like us above others and in so doing be like Sarah, who put her family first? What does it mean for us to elevate others who are not us, who are not like us into our family and into our midst? 

The words of the Statement to the Nation made in 1977 ring in my ears: 

We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment. (UCA Statement to the Nation 1977)

Thursday 1 June 2023

Pentecost meets Reconciliation Week

The importance of the commemoration of the day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, overlapping with Reconciliation Week is poignant because they remind us both of giving space for a voice to be heard, but also being granted the gift of hearing and understanding. Having a voice needs to be matched by a people with the capacity to listen with open ears and open hearts.

The day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit both transcends cultures and affirms them. People speak in their own dialect from within  their own culture but outsiders understand them as if they are speaking their own language. I believe the event invites us to consider who we are and where we belong in the same way that thinking about our personal connection to country does when First Nations people welcome us to their country. I have learnt this from many of the First Nations people I have worked with and who have taught me over the years. Despite carrying the trauma and hurts of the past they make a choice to still extend a welcome. This is a welcome filled with grace and even an act of reconciliation in itself as they convey their deep sense of connection to country.

 However, through these people I have come to realise country isn’t Gosforf where I was born, not New South Wales where I grew up. My sense of country isn’t Australia, a place that some of my ancestors came as colonising invaders. It isn’t Scotland where my ancestors fought on both sides of the battle of Culloden in 1746, nor for that matter is it England with whom some of the traitorous lowland Scots sided. It is certainly not France from which the first Lockard’s came with the invading Normans into Briton.

Whilst all these places have shaped who I am and my culture, my sense of country is not a place but, rather, is a way of being. My country, my home, my way of being is in Jesus Christ. I believe this sense of country has come to me through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit which united people on the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago, and who has worked in this land for thousands of years. A Spirit which I believe dwells in each one of us and invites us to contemplate the invitation to unity and community in Christ. A place where our uniqueness is valued as individuals but where we also find deep sense of belong to God and to each other.

May we continue to give space to hear each others voices and may we have the grace to listen and learn from one anther with response when that space has been made.


Sunday 21 August 2022

We love because God First Loved Us

 Faithworks UC Camp Hill 21.08.2022

Jeremiah 1:4-10 

In 1 John 4 verse 19 it says, “we love because God first loved us.”

It might seem a bit strange to start my sermon on Jeremiah with a quote from 1 John. But I think it is really important for us to consider that God’s action of loving the creation and its people is always, is always, the first move.  Anything that we do is a response to God’s love. Therefore, it is this fundamental truth of the love of God, as the first cause of all things, which should shape how we interpret these passages and understand ourselves and our own personal life stories.

Now this is not the first sermon I have preached on these passages this week.  In Chapel, on Tuesday, I reflected on this passage with the students at the school where I am a Chaplain. And I am going to pick up on one of the key themes that was identified by the students who form my Chapel team. In calling Jeremiah, God says this:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born, I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

The question raised by the Chapel team was whether Jeremiah had any choice about God's plan for his life. The students then wondered, how much control do we have over own lives if God has a plan for us? This is actually a very complex question and probably lies as a conundrum in each one of our own lives. It involves the age-old question of free will and determinism.

However, the phrase we love because God first loved us implies that we do have a choice to reciprocate the love that is shown to us. I believe the statement infers that we have freedom to choose to love God and others even if God has a plan for our lives. I will return to this question of free will and determinism a bit later in the sermon.

The choice for Jeremiah is expressed in the formulaic way the call to be a prophet is expressed.  God calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah expresses humility and unworthiness to that call, and then God reassures Jeremiah that God will guide him and give him the words to say, and that God will be with him through the work that he's going to do.

God's love for Jeremiah and for the people of Israel, and for the nations that Jeremiah was to prophesy to, precedes Jeremiah’s answer. Jeremiah may not appear to have a choice about God’s plan but there are choices that he does appear to be make.

 Now, lest we be a little deluded about what being called by God and being part of God's plan might mean, it is important for us to deal with the context.  Jeremiah lived around 600 years before Jesus and his task was no easy one.  God was sending Jeremiah into the world with God's message precisely because people had gone astray. The implications for Jeremiah’s life were not going to be good ones. In his commentary on Jeremiah, Chris Knights, says this.

 “The example of the life of Jeremiah shows that all too clearly [being called does not equate to an easy life]. ‘I am with you and will keep you safe,’ God said to him, but that did not prevent him from being rejected, worse being imprisoned and being left for dead. It didn’t stop him from wishing that he had never been born. The promise of God being with him and keeping him safe was not a promise that he would be kept from all the changes and chances of this fleeting world. But it did give Jeremiah the conviction of the rightness of his cause, it did keep him loyal to the message he had been given by the LORD when pressures on body, mind and spirit were encouraging him to pack it all in.” (end quote)

 My point in sharing what Jeremiah was going to face, after being called by God, is to remind us that being involved in God's plan is not always easy and being a follower of Jesus does not mean that we are going to necessarily have a good life. What it does mean is that we understand that God's love is with us in this life whatever our experiences might be. I am emphasising the idea that God's love is with us in this life because Jeremiah did not have a concept or understanding of life after death. Jeremiah’s prophecies revolve around consequences for lived existence not something that was going to happen after people died.

So, being called by God, or seeing ourselves as part of God's plan, is not an easy thing. It is a complex notion and a complex interplay between how much freedom we have to respond to God's love and God's plan for our lives and how much of it is predetermined.

This takes me back to the question of the students. If God has a plan for my life, do I have any control over what is occurring? Am I actually participating in making my own decisions and can I actually choose to love God? 

When I preached on this topic with the students, I suggested that the question of determinism and free will is as old as humanity as itself and is as current as the newest thinking in the frontiers of science. 

I am not going to rehearse all of what I said to the students the other day, but I will mention a little bit of it to give you a sense of the scope of this conversation. In terms of Christian thought, we can go back to the debates between Augustine and Pelagius at the 6th century, we can talk about the interface between Erasmus and Martin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century. We could also discuss the debates between Whitfield and Wesley in the 18th Century.  The debate between Whitfield and Wesley is particularly pertinent to us as people in the Uniting Church who come from two different traditions of thought which true on Whitfield and Wesley. 

Having noted the history of Christian thought around this topic I thought it pertinent for the students to understand that the issue of determinism and free will is not something that is restricted to Christian thought.  It is certainly part of philosophy, politics, and economic theory but I think even more so science. In terms of political theory and economics we might want to point at someone like Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto which suggests a deterministic journey of humanity towards the end of history played out in economic theory.  Or we could point at Max Weber and his Protestant Work Ethic as another expression of inevitable economic systems.

In psychology we can begin with Sigmund Freud and discuss how he thought our unconscious desires determine how we're going to act and then we could trace how psychology has developed for last 150 years. We could mention the experiment of Benjamin Libert in 1983 who demonstrated that prior to our conscious mind kicking into action our unconscious mind is already influencing our decision making. With science we might explore the progress from Newtonian physics which suggested a deterministic universe to the current understandings of quantum mechanics which I have very little idea about but once again buys into whether things are random or determined. 

The reason these debates remain important is because I would suggest to you that most people who live in western culture travel through life having a false belief that we have complete control over our own lives and our own destinies. Even as Christians we think this way.  Kathryn Schultz in her wonderful book “Wrongology” basically says that our default setting is that we think we're omniscient and omnipotent. We think that we are right all the time and that we have power over what is happening to us.  This, of course, according to Schultz is incorrect.

The thing I would suggest we are not wrong about is the fundamental idea that I began with. We love because God first loved us. But of the different things for us to believe and think this is one which we constantly forget, ignore, or simply do not believe.

Returning to Jeremiah the task of a prophet was not to speak about the future, to predict things, but was to speak about who we are in relationship to God. God who created us. God who loves us. God who desires us to enter relationship with us. And, so also, God who becomes one of us. As already indicated, in the case of the prophet Jeremiah, sharing a message about God's love for us and God's desire that we love one another and the creation in which we live is not popular.  In the TV series “Good Omens”, based on the book by the same name, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the scene when Jesus is being crucified involves one of the key characters asking what Jesus said that got everyone so upset.  The answer is “he told them to be kind to one another.” It seems that we really do struggle with this notion of living one another as human beings.   

The other day one of my year nine students approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me the question did I believe in the miracles that Jesus did. My answer to this is like many things with me, a complex one. I might say yes, I do believe that Jesus did miracles, there are too many miracles recorded in the New Testament for me not to believe that Jesus did some.  Whether Jesus did all the miracles described or did them in exactly the way they are described, is a completely other question. But, regardless of whether I believe in the miracles or not I do believe that the gospel writers recorded the miracles not so that I would believe in the idea that Jesus did miracles, but I would be able to answer the question who Jesus is.

 My answer to this question is that Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.  He is God incarnate. And therefore, he is God’s love in the flesh. How do we know God loves the creation? We know this because God became a part of it.  To return to 1 John 4, but now in verse 16, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

If there is anything that I think is predestined, it is this, that God loves us and that ultimately in and through the person of Jesus we love God. And so, the restlessness within us around whether we have complete freewill or things are predestined, in my opinion becomes somewhat secondary to our immersion in God's love. In Augustine’s great work The Confessions he says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” The restlessness of our hearts might be reflected in Jeremiah’s self-doubt “I am only a boy” or the question of my students “If God has a plan for my life do I have any choice” or in the great debates of history about free will and determinism.

Ultimately, many of the answers to these ultimate existential questions elude us. They remain mysteries of our existence but what we believe is important. Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler in the journal Psychological Science say that “Studies have … revealed a connection between belief in free will and experiencing life as meaningful and fulfilling. People who find their life meaningful tend to believe in free will. Conversely, when people’s belief in free will is undermined, they tend to report that their lives are less meaningful.”

The reality of life that we all experience is that our choices are limited but that we still can make choices or at least believe we can. In the context of the choices that we make, believing that we love because God first loved us, invites us into a relationship with God which immerses us in love and thereby encourages to make choices which reflect that we are loved. The good news of Jesus’ existence transcends our inability to love one another as we should and encourages us to move beyond being indignant when we see God’s love being played out for other people and into sharing in the mystery, wonder, and joy at the possibility of God’s love for all people being not only the origin of all things but also the destination of all things.


Monday 3 January 2022

Domesticating the Divine

 John 1:10-18 January 2, 2022

It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead. 

However, time is an abstract and we could at this point consider whether what Noah Yuval Harari points out in his book Homo Deus is true.  He says everything we do as human beings is based on stories. Stories we've made up for ourselves to help us understand our lives and make them work better.  This would include how we understand time.  In this case we would be asking ourselves the question is it really a new year after all?  After all doing a quick scan of the internet I found at least 11 cultures that do not celebrate New Year’s day on January 1st.

Alternatively, we might think about the problem of time philosophically buying into the ancient debates of Parmenides and Heraclitus around how time operates.  Or we could contemplate the fact that in the 16th century we changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Yet, I digress, and as we gather on this day we gather as Christians who have just heard read the astounding claim that the Word became flesh and lived among us. 

This somewhat perplexing claim is the claim of the church that in Jesus God became, becomes, and is becoming flesh. It is the doctrine of the incarnation, which the great theologian Thomas Torrance called “utterly staggering.”  Torrance notes in his book Space, Time and Resurrection, “that after the incarnation He [Jesus] is at work within space and time in a way that He never was before.” Noting the work of the Early Church theologian Origen, Torrance goes on to say, “as soon as we talk like this, however… or even say about the Son that ‘there never was a time when he did not exist’, we are using terms ‘always’, ‘has been’, ‘when’, ‘never’ etc., which have a temporal significance, whereas statements about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, must be understood to refer to what transcends all time and all ages, and all eternity, since even our concept of eternity contains a temporal ingredient.”   As a Christian one may say somewhat sceptically “New Year’s, indeed.”

In my understanding of the Christian faith this is the defining point and distinctiveness of what it means to be Christian, to believe that in Jesus God became one of us. All else is secondary.  The virgin birth, the ministry, the miracles, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension are all aspects of Jesus’ life as God with us. All point to this utterly astounding claim of our faith, the incarnation.

So, on this first Sunday after what we call the new year, we wade into the deep waters of our faith to contemplate the mystery of God with us and consider what God is doing in our midst.  As I contemplated the question of the Word becoming flesh it caused me to ask whether our attendance in church is about us using Jesus to drag God down to earth, to domesticate the divine, if you will.  To try to make Jesus and God more relevant to us.  Or, in coming to church, do we come to encounter the mystery of God in Jesus dragging us up into the heavenly realm, to share in God’s divine existence.

The complexity of this question is reflected by the complexity of the writing of John's gospel which occurred at least 60 years after the ascension of Jesus.  Far more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it is John who leads his readers into a deeper contemplation of the implications of Jesus’ identity as God among us.  In the passage from John 1 John challenges us with these words. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” And more confronting, “No one has ever seen God.” 

I have wondered what John’s readers may have made of this statement almost 200 years ago and what we make of it in our time as we consider the ways in which people claim to encounter and experience God.  Thus, as part of today’s message I want to share a poem with you, entitled “Eyes to See”.

Eyes to See

No one has ever seen God, yet

Abraham greeted three strangers in the heat of the day.

Jacob wrestled with a man until the break of day.

Moses stood before a burning bush as he worked through the day.

Elijah met God, after a storm, in the silence of the day.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has even seen God, yet

I have looked into the eyes of a lover.

I have beheld the birth of a child.

I have seen the joy and laughter of my children.

I have watched for wisdom in the eyes of my elders.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has ever seen God, yet

I have contemplated as the waves roll crashing against the shore.

I have wandered in the bush and seen the desert bloom with life.

I have stared up at the mountains reaching towards the sky.

I have gazed at the stars wheel through space putting on their nightly show.

But no one has ever seen God.


No one has ever seen God,

This is what John teaches us

This is his controversy with his people

But, this is his conviction: Jesus came to make God known

This is his hope for a world gone blind

No one has ever seen God, but Jesus.


Jesus has seen God, the Word made flesh.

Jesus sees God, at the moment of creation.

Jesus sees God, when God chose a people for himself.

Jesus sees God, as he walked through his life.

Jesus sees God, in his death and in his resurrection.

And Jesus sees God now and evermore.


Jesus has made known to us what he has seen.

Have we seen God?

Have we beheld Jesus?

Have we sensed the Spirit?

Have we understood God’s love?

God’s invitation to see glory is the incarnation.


No one has ever seen God.

This day, God, we implore you send your Spirit

Give us eyes to see

Give us ears to listen

Give us minds to know

Give us hearts to hope

For we who see the Son, see God.

For we who have already seen the Son I wonder what it is you see when you hear Jesus’ name mentioned.  In Chapter 14 of John Jesus says to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”  I do wonder at Jesus tone of voice at this point.  Is there a bit of exasperation and frustration at Phillip?  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Or is it more encouraging and formational?  “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Whichever the case we might well ask how our glimpses of Jesus are glimpses of the divine?  How do you see Jesus?

Do you see Jesus in the manager and pray to ‘baby’ Jesus like Ricky Bobby in Talladega nights?

Do you see Jesus on the beach calling his first disciples? A leader of men and women.

Do you see Jesus’ healing and performing miracles? The wonder worker full of compassion.

Do you see Jesus’ teaching his disciples or arguing with the Pharisees? An earnest teacher.

Do you see Jesus turning over the tables in the temple? A prophet full of righteous anger.

Do you see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet? A servant leader.

Do you see Jesus before Pilate? A man standing before the unjust powers of the world.

Do you see Jesus hanging on the cross? Our wounded healer.

Do you see Jesus cold and lying in his tomb? Sharing our descent into the undiscovered country.

Do w you e see Jesus coming to Thomas who was full of doubt? A comforter and encourager of faith.

Maybe there is an image, an event, a concept that comes to mind when you think abut Jesus.  Glimpses of who he was.  Ironically, when I asked one of my students what first came to mind when I mention Jesus, she said the toy Jesus that I have. It is still in its packaging, in my office.

We all play with our ideas of Jesus. Sometimes like Phillip we don’t see past the man to the divine. Sometimes like Peter, we deny our relationships with him. Sometimes like Thomas, we doubt the stories.  Sometimes we simplify Jesus’ existence so much that we avoid the concept that Jesus is the Word made living among us.  He becomes a teacher to follow, a wise sage, a friend but not the one that we sung of at Christmas in the great carol of the Church, Hark the Herald Angels sing.

Late in time behold Him come,

Offspring of a Virgin's womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Deity,

Pleased as man with man to dwell,

Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Notwithstanding the anachronistic language of the hymn the carol asserts John’s claim afresh for us and reminds us that “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” – Jesus.  God’s purpose in sending Jesus undoubtedly affirms our created existence but in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we also see a human living God-wards.  In preparing today I read a fascinating article about the translation of very first phrase of John’s gospel, “and the Word was with God.”  Christopher Atkins connects John’s writing to the thought of Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher, who brought the thinking of the Greek philosophers into conversation with the Jewish theology of the time.

Atkins argues that the phrase might be better translated “and the Word was God-wards”, suggesting that the eternal existence of the Word, in Greek the logos, existed towards God.  Through Jesus becoming flesh and the sending of the Holy Spirit our lives are drawn Godwards into the mystery of the divine.  It is as Paul wrote to the first Christians in Ephesus, With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s plan in Jesus is to gather all things into him, to share in God’s divinity.  It is the ancient notion of theosis.  In his prayer of John 17 he says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Knowing Jesus, or maybe better put being known by Jesus, and by God is eternal life.  Again, a better translation might be read as eternity life.  Although, returning to where I started with Torrance and Origin, knowing Jesus means that at some spiritual level we transcend the abstract concept of time and might I dare to suggest space as well.  God in Jesus and through the Spirit lift us beyond our mundane mortal existence to encounter and experience the promise of the gathering of all things into him.

Today we will celebrate the communion.  It is a time we look back into the past and remember what Jesus did in dying for us, so that we might see the risen Jesus, who is our host, coming from the future, to meet us in the present.  We declare the mystery of our faith as we share communion “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”  He is the alpha and the Omega, the beginning and ending of all things, he is our origin and our destination, because our lives are hidden in his.

It would be appropriate on the first Sunday, after the first day of the New Year, to begin by wishing you a ‘happy new year’ and to encourage you to reflect on the year that has been and to think about the year that lies ahead.  So, I do say to you Happy New Year but let me conclude with these words and this reality that because the Word became flesh we should now and always remember until time passes into irrelevance “God’s mercies are New Every morning” and we who seen the Son have seen the face of God.


Wednesday 29 September 2021

All the world's a stage

Job 1:1; 2:1-10, Mark 10:2-16

The Kingdom of heaven is like a young child who has a big box of dress up outfits. Who comes out each day dressed as a different character to play its part in the day based on how it's feeling or what the child thinks the household might need.

As I contemplated the difficult readings set down for this Sunday, both in Job and in Mark, the phrase which stood out to me, as possibly the easiest to preach on, was this one: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  There is an innocence that is being suggested in the faith of a child, an innocence that we are all encouraged to learn from.

Yet Jesus is speaking to adults and as I thought about young children the image of a child playing dress-ups day by day stood out.  We start our acting career early, but the reality is that as we go through life our acting career continues. 

     We play the part of a school student in a uniform. 

    We play the part of an athlete as we participate in sport. 

    We play the part of a dutiful son or daughter to our parents, or maybe the rebellious one!

    We play the part of an employee sometimes dressed in a uniform for the job that we work. 

    We play the part of being a faithful husband or wife or a loyal friend. 

    We play the part of being a parent and then possibly even grandparent or great grandparent.

    And dare I say, we play the part of being a Christian.

It is as Shakespeare observed in his play “As you like it:

     “All the world’s a stage,

    And all the men and women merely players;

    They have their exits and their entrances;

    And one man in his time plays many parts.”

 Each person plays many parts through their life as they navigate life's complexities and seek to live a “good” life.  So, the innocence of the child, playing dress-ups and becoming different characters, helps form us for our daily existence.  And our childlike play prepares us for the kinds of complexities that we have struck in today's readings.

Today's sermon then is a preparation for you to go from this place to play-act your part and enter the world that is a stage.  There are three phases in this preparation.  The first phase is to understand the theatre of our existence and the stage on which we will tread the boards. The second phase is to consider the prompts and the cues that we will receive from side stage as we enter each act.  In the third phase, I will consider our freedom to improvise as we respond to those prompts. And finally, with these three phases of formation and preparation completed we will prepare ourselves to go from here as God's people into the world.

The first phase of our preparation and our formation is to consider the theatre of our existence.  To do this I take us back to the book of Job and the central character. He was a man from the land of Uz.  It has long fascinated me that Job is from this faraway land called Uz. In reading various commentaries about where this land of Uz actually is, there appears to be some agreement that wherever it is, it is not Israel.  Now there is a possibility that Job was a Jewish man living in the diaspora, but scholars seem to agree that by locating Job in this fictitious and faraway land the author was expanding our understanding of Job’s story as transcending the history of the Israelites.  The theatre of our existence is the cosmos created by God. The cosmos which unfolds in the stories of Genesis which transcends the limitations of our ethnicity, our politics, our religion, our race, and our gender.  It is a place in which we encounter blessings and a place in which we encounter suffering.

Thus, Job’s Story has implications for all people and for all time. This is the world in which we as characters will tread the boards. The stage itself has been set.  Below us, supporting us, is the story of Jesus Christ.  The very first words of Mark's gospel are this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” The story of Jesus Christ is the story of God's grace and God's love en-fleshed and living among us.  The book of John begins with these words “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”   Paul in his letter to the Colossians wrote this, “For in him [that is to say Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  Again, Paul writing to the Romans said this, “but God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This is the stage on which we walk in the theatre of our existence - God's unconditional grace and love in and through Jesus.

This is vital for us to understand because the reality is that we all make mistakes as we walk on this stage. Not one of us lives a perfect life. In fact, far from it.  Kathryn Schulz Says this of human beings:

     A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about         basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs,     our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds, when we         stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very         close to omniscient. (Schulz Wrongology)

I have much empathy for what Schulz is saying here. It is difficult for us to really know whether or not many of our decisions are right or wrong. So, what most of us assume is that we're right, most, if not all time. When we gather for worship, in the presence of God, prompted by the Holy Spiri,t we reflect on this reality when we say a prayer of confession. This prayer helps keep us humble and listening for the prompts from side stage as we act out our lives.

The prompts from side stage may come to us as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or through the influence of the Scriptures.  When we gather for worship, we listen to words read from the Bible as prompts for us.  As I said at the beginning today's readings contain complex and difficult messages.  This means that the prompts we receive may not always be as clear cut and helpful for us as we might hope.  In the book of Job, we encounter a discussion around the origin of suffering and notions of determinism.  Job infers that what happens to us in life all comes from God, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  In his commentary, David Hester says of Job, “The book of Job is God's word in its most enigmatic form, carried in an ancient tale and poetic dialogue, that raises questions yet shelters answers.”  Thus, the prompts we receive cause us to pause and consider how we are viewing our lives, God, and the world around us.  But the answers are not necessarily in plain sight.

The same is true of the reading in Mark.  Many Christians these days interpret Jesus’ words about marriage to support the concept of the 1950s idea of the nuclear family.  To view what Jesus was saying, when the Pharisees were testing him about divorce, is take the conversation out of its context and impose our modern concepts of marriage on them.  In Jesus’ time women were viewed as the property of men. Without a family structure to support her a woman may have been isolated or even ostracized.  Primarily Jesus seems to be trying to protect women against being hung out to dry by men.  The difficulty in listening to the ancient prompts is often that we bring our own layers of expectation to them without considering their context.  Even people in Jesus’ time struggled with his words.  In Mark 4, Jesus says to his disciples:

To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God,

but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

they may indeed look, but not perceive

and may indeed listen, but not understand:

so that they may not turn and again be forgiven.”

We, as Jesus disciples, may also feel that we have been given the secret of the kingdom of heaven.  However, when we consider this, we should remember the context of the conversation Jesus was having.  It was precisely because the disciples as “insiders” did not understand Jesus’ parables that he said this.  In fact, throughout Mark’s gospels the disciples constantly get it wrong whilst outsiders recognise Jesus’ identity.  Ultimately, it is left to a Roman centurion at the end of Mark’s gospel to echo the words from Mark 1:1 when he declares as Jesus dies “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”


There is a reminder here to remain humble in our acting out of our part and listening to the prompts that we receive.  Pride and hubris can blind us to the mystery of faith, the boards beneath our feet that support us is Christ’s unconditional love, not the self-righteousness of how we interpret our part or interpret the complex prompts we are given.  This should also mean that we take a step back before we judge anyone else and their interpretation of life.

This brings us to the third phase of the refection our adaptation to the theatre, stage and prompts.  Shannon Craigo-Snell suggests that as actors playing our part as Christians the Scriptures acts like a script.  She says, “Scripture, like script, is both complete and incomplete.”  In other words, it still requires our interpretation.  She is asking, how should we live treading the boards of God’s grace as we interpret the script?  But what if there is actually no script!

In his book on Christian Ethics Samuel Wells pushes beyond Craigo-Snell suggesting that as actors it is more like the craft of improvisation.  We listen humbly to the prompts from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, and we walk onto the stage of Christ’s grace, in the theatre of our existence, in a cosmos and creation which is full of both joy and suffering.  You could say we are set free to live an improvised life with Christ.  We are set free from the mistakes we will inevitably make, our missteps and misinterpretations, and we are set free to celebrate the good, to seek out signs of God’s peace breaking into the world, to speak out for justice, and to advocate for those who are oppressed.

This brings me back full circle to the children playing dress up day by day.  There is an innocence of children at play, experimenting with life and how to live it.  There are costumes and props to choose from and ideas that they copy from other people to help them interpret their playfulness.  Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes it gets silly, sometimes its serious or sad or celebratory.  There are usually boundaries to their playfulness, to keep them safe, and then there are boundaries which they create for themselves, limits beyond which even they are not prepared to go.  How similar is our daily life as Christians to this?

The stage of grace on which we walk with humility gives us freedom to be the best versions of who we can be.  As inspired by the prompts of scriptures, of the Holy Spirit, of each other we improvise our being Christians against the backdrop of a constantly changing and complex context.  The safety net of God’s grace is below us and the love of Spirit prompts us to live in freedom, free from our constant mistakes, and free to live gratefully towards the God who gave us our part for if all the world is a stage, then the theatre is and can only be, God’s.


Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books, 2011.

Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics. Baker Academic, 2018.