Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas: just the beginning...

Peter Lockhart
Sermon 30 December

Each year there is a sense of momentum that builds through November and December hurtling people towards Christmas Day. People rush around buying presents, attending parties, seeing lights, going to carols services, travelling to see family, writing letters and so on - all aimed at the celebration on Christmas Day.

After this storm of preparation and activity come Boxing Day things shift into a different gear. Whilst the Boxing Day sales begin many small businesses remain shut. There is a slowing down as reams of people trundle off for their annual summer holiday. A sense of relief is in the air we managed to get past Christmas again, it’s all over.

But is it? Is it over or is it just beginning?

Christmas celebrates the incarnation that God became human and traditionally the Christmas celebration goes for 12 days. 12 days to celebrate and contemplate that God became one of us. Christmas is not an ending it is a beginning.

So here we are with our sense of relief in church again after surviving another Christmas but still within the 12 days contemplating its meaning. This slowing down of the world around us should provide us with some time for introspection about what our response will be to the good news.

This week our lectionary provides for us a glimpse of Jesus in temple growing up. Now there is much that can be said about this story and its themes in relationship to the incarnation but this morning I want to give just a very brief comment on the child Jesus who causes so much anxiety for his parents.

The focus of this story is on the relationship Jesus has with God and priority that he gives to it even as child. Jesus presence in the world changes the world and the notion that it took his parents three days to find him has overtones of a future event in which Jesus will disappear from sight for three days as he descends into death. The centering on God in this story is matched by the somewhat enigmatic statement, which implies much but says so little, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

The incarnation is about the reconciliation of God with the creation and as we celebrate the incarnation through these days of Christmas and are invited to contemplate how we might respond to what God has done for each one of us by sharing in our earthly life.

This year the Church Council has chosen to encourage us with the theme “Living the Faith”, which is a call to deepen our discipleship and how we participate in the life of the church and world as God’s people.

Looking back into the scriptures we hear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians an encouragement for the people to clothe themselves in Christ. I have always found this an interesting concept having made holy by what Christ has already done for us as recipients of grace and followers of his teachings we are now invited to live a life which reflects the grace we can see lived out in Jesus own life so that others might also know and experience the good news of God’s love.

Writing to the Colossians Paul suggests that there are five garments that the community seeking to live the faith should clothe them in: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness & patience.

Now all of these words are words which have a certain appeal to them, words which we might think we can embrace, but when we look more deeply into Christ’s life each of these words comes with its own set of challenges to us.

It is not difficult for any of us to show compassion to someone we know or to someone we think deserves compassion. But Jesus shows compassion to those who live at the edges of the community. To people who are outsiders, ostracised, not even Jews.

We have a tendency to think of some of those whom Jesus reached out to as holding some special characteristic which deserved Jesus attention and compassion. But to think in this way shifts us away from knowing a gracious God who reaches out unconditionally to thinking of a God who only chooses those who deserve what they get.

To live with Jesus compassion, drives us beyond helping those who we think deserve help into groups whom we might find difficult to accept, to love, to understand. Jesus breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries to help others. If we are living the faith what will this mean for us?

Just as with compassion the notion of kindness is easy as long as we are being kind to those whom we know will reciprocate with similar kindness. But how do we show kindness to those who might want to disregard or dismiss us in an offhand manner. I must confess that for myself if the kindness that I offer someone is not being returned I will resent the person to whom I am trying to be kind and may even cease showing kindness.

Humility is also a complex matter. In a little book of quotes I have a great quote from Golda Meier who was involved with founding Israel and was its fourth Prime Minister. “Don’t be humble you’re not that great.” It seems ironic that o be truly humble takes a great person and I would say I could probably count on one hand the people I have met whom I think show true humility. Humility which is not riddled with hubris, but is truly places others before themselves.

I have always found the concept of being meek as a Christian another difficult one. Too often being meek is somehow misconstrued into becoming a doormat for others, and often it is tinged with a sense of a martyr complex. Jesus may be meek on occasion showing a quiet and gentle approach like when he invites the children to come close but if meekness is also about submission Jesus submission serves God’s purposes – it is not a meekness with no point. He submits to God’s will.

And finally we get to patience. If you are a task oriented person like me patience is not an easy virtue. Waiting for others to fall into line with the timeline that I have set for myself or into the vision that I have is not easy. Showing patience as we wait in line at the shops. Showing patience as we wait for the next opportunity. Patience as we wait for God’s faithfulness. Overloaded timetables in our modern city with it bustle and hurry make for impatient people. How do we breathe deeply of the patience of God – willing to wait in silence?

If we are to live the faith we are to cloth ourselves with these things compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience not simply when it is convenient and not when it feels good to do so but when we are challenged and called to exhibit these attributes as a witness to these characteristics of Jesus. And in the end it will not be we who judge whether we do these things well rather it will be those whom we encounter and judge us by our words and actions, which we pray will be a witness to them.

It is of little surprise that Paul goes on to add a sixth vital ingredient to the Christian community at Colossae – forgiveness.

Knowing the imperfection of the human predicament Paul grounds the attempts of the people to clothe themselves in Christ in being a people who know and understand forgiveness.

We know that we will fail in being dressed in these garments – we will hurt each other and we will expect more in return for our actions than we might receive.

The difficult and dirty business of forgiveness and reconciliation is so quickly passed over in our prayers of confession. The focus of these prayers though should not be a self flagellation and guilt burdening exercise but a reminder that forgiveness is about but us those we have wronged being freed from the brokenness our sin creates. True forgiveness takes hard work in our hearts and minds so that it can be translated into living differently and recovering the garments of Christ we have strewn on the floor like so much dirty washing.

All of these other attributes that we are to clothe ourselves in our ultimately held together by love, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. This not any other love but the love which God offers in the coming of Christ into the world. The coming of Christ which opens up the peace of God for us to share in – the shalom around which our lives revolve!

Paul goes on to add to this formula of Christian living 3 ways of deepening the relationship we have with God so that we might actually live this way, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love.

These are all grounded in the act of gathering for worship. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

If we are to understand how to live our faith entering into a rich relationship with the guiding thoughts of the scripture, being open to new learning and admonishment as well as praising God will deepen that relationship that has been made available for us with God and each other.

In 2 days we begin a new year. The days after Christmas give us the chance to think about what resolutions we will hold in the year ahead – how will we live the faith? Now is not the end but the beginning of the work. Today you have received a card with the different words used today for you to take away and think about and pray upon.

As we gratefully receive the incarnation and the gifts it brings to us let us now consider how we will live in response to the gifts of mercy and grace.

Monday, 24 December 2012

From birth comes hope.

A Christmas sermon on John 1 by Peter Lockhart

I have a friend who was expecting a child to born 2 days ago, she was with us here last night and as far as I know from the Facebook posts she is still waiting. It has been exciting to anticipate with her and her other Facebook friends the imminent, but delayed birth. The sense of hope and love which has gathered around her is one reflection of our humanity.

A few weeks back I was talking with some friends about Christmas and expressed my feelings that the birth of a child, especially when we can make a choice over having children, is a declaration of hope: a hope that the world has something to offer that child; a hope that that the child will grow and be happy and enjoy a good life.

Given the world that we have lived in for the past century, which has included 2 World Wars, a Cold War, global poverty, natural disasters and Climate Change thinking of the birth of a child as an expression of hope is even more poignant.

During the week I was privileged to read a part of President Barak Obama’s speech (here) in response to the tragic shooting in America. Let me share a part of what he said with you:

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.

They will suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments, and we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbours, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.
I believe President Obama has made some very insightful comments in this speech but I think one of the most interesting is his reflection that “we... know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us.”

Here President Obama I believe taps into a fundamental truth of human community which sits in tension with the way God actually made us to live. Whilst we should grow into people who are able to be self-reliant and resilient, this growth is not meant to be a growth which separates us from one another, or to the independence which breeds the individualism rampant in our Western way of life but rather we are to grow into communion with one another as people, as God’s people.

I use the word communion here deliberately because if we trace it back to the Greek word koinonia it implies a life lived in one another’s lives, a life lived reflecting the inner life of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. President Obama I believe reflects this fundamental truth as he says, “we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.” This is essentially what is said every time we have a baptism.

The sad reality, though, as we know that there is a gap between our human experiences of this life together, to which God calls and that we are even aware of and how we live. Whether we experience the subtle tension of people we do not agree with or whether we experience the deep brokenness and suffering which afflicts so many, and often due to the way in which the powers and systems that we have place operate.

It is this dissonance of our imperfect lives which leads not into communion but independence which reflects not simply a movement away from God but from also each other.

God’s response to this situation is celebrated today.

Just as he birth of any child is a sign of hope in a broken world, so too the birth of Jesus is a sign of hope for the entire world.

The passage that I recited from John’s gospel has long been my favourite of the Christmas readings. John gets to the point “the Word became flesh”: the eternal “Word”, whom we know as Jesus. He breaks into our reality even though all things came into being him through but did not know him, and even though his own people did not accept him.

We know that the rejection of Jesus leads to the cross, ultimately a sign of the failure of humanity to love God and love one another. But the hope that we see and know and feel in Jesus birth and life and death is amplified by the resurrection in which God says your rejection of me does not count as the last word

In the birth of Jesus is the hope of the world because from his death God brings new life. Hope which transcends our personal hopes and fears in life and gives confidence to see the birth of each child as an affirmation that God is, the god lives, and the life in all fullness can be ours because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

I pray that you may know the depth of hope that comes from the birth of this child who stands as our corrective and as reminder that God’s love is bigger than our inability to live perfectly loving one another.

May God bless you all this Christmas.

(Photo Creative Commons by "Kudaker")

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rejoice: A Baptism!

by Peter Lockhart

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

On this day as we gather for A’s baptism it is not difficult for any of us to have a sense that rejoicing, praying and giving thanks to God is an appropriate response to celebrating this day. The birth of any child can elicit such a response from parents, grandparents, family friends. It is more often than not a time of deep joy and gratitude. We can have sense of God’s goodness and the wonder of life.

Of course such spiritual moments of knowing God’s presence are not restricted to the birth and baptism of a child. People find experiences of God in many places on a mountaintop, in a concert, in the early morning on a surfboard, in the gathering of loved family and friends, and dare I even suggest here in a place like this, a church, sharing with other Christians in bread and wine. Moments when we find our hearts are lifted at the joy of the experience life in all its mystery and wonder.

Yet, whilst it may be easy on this day to rejoice in this particular setting, if we go back to the time when the apostle Paul wrote his letter the time and the experience of the people within that time were quite different.

The letter was written around 30 years after Jesus death and resurrection, to what was probably quite a small group of Philippians, who had become followers of Jesus. Among their number were both Jews and gentiles who lived under the rule of the Roman Empire.

It is more than likely this early community of followers of Jesus found themselves at the margins of the society. They were probably being harassed and ostracized because of their decision to follow Jesus. This tension came from both Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities.

In Paul’s letter to them I have sense that he is encouraging them to make room in the lives for who God was and what God had done. He was encouraging them with the themes that the church has subsequently chosen as the advent themes: hope, peace, joy and love. To hope in Christ’s return! To know that God is a God of peace who makes people holy! To love each other as God had loved them! And, to rejoice in the Lord always!

Doing these things, making room for God, was a task which would take energy and effort and so Paul’s letter is a letter of encouragement to the Philippians.

Now I’m going to use this image of making room as a rather clunky segue into R. and T. lives. T. and R. have recently been literally making rooms in their lives. They have been doing refurbishments and extensions in their home.

I have only listened briefly to their experience of ‘making room’, or at least changing them, but have picked as I have heard many time from people who have worked on improving their property, and as we have experience as a congregation recently, that it takes a lot of effort to make changes.

There is a physical commitment to move things round and help. It takes time; time to meet contractors and builders, time to do aspects of the work yourself. It can be a drain on your emotions but in the end it can be uplifting. It involves our spirits as we lean on our and our inner reserves to make decisions about what is right. And it impacts our bank balance as we play with numbers and finances to get the job done. The experience of making the effort to physically make rooms can in itself change our lives and more so becomes a lesson for us in other changes we face.

Earlier this year T. and R. were confronted with making room for A. within their lives as a family; no longer simply a couple now you are a family. And no doubt in this, making room for A. there have physical, chronological, spiritual, financial and emotional impacts for you. Your lives have been significantly altered and will continue to be from now on.

In making room for A. in your life you have stepped, consciously or not, in faith. What life has in store for you now as a family cannot be fully know or seen. The consequences of your decision to make room for A. will unfold in the years ahead on a journey that simply will go on throughout your whole life.

That journey may contain a whole raft of experiences and emotions. It’s great to have your parents here today and no doubt if we were to ask about the journey they have been on with you since you were A’s age we would hear stories of joy and laughter, but also maybe of times of frustration and sorrow and pain. Maybe we would also hear about how different the world is now to what it was when you were infants.

We cannot clearly see what the future will bring any of us but we hope that there will be times of great joy but also understand there may be difficult times of great difficulty sorrow.

In the midst of our experiences of life as Christians we believe that God makes room for us in God’s life. As we gather today celebrating A’s baptism connects us with a story bigger than our personal experiences of life.

God makes room for us not simply because we believe God made this world in which we live but in the gift of the incarnation when God becomes one of us. In less than two weeks time we celebrate and remember that Jesus was born. He is called in the biblical “God with us”. Jesus is God sharing in our human lives.

But it is more than that because as God shares in our lives God to make room within God’s life so that we might share in that. And I would suggest to you, to follow my theme, that God makes a supreme effort to o this, make room for us.

It is the hope that we find that God has made room for us and we too can share in God’s life that we celebrate today for A. but also with each other. In midst of everything that we hear and see and feel through our earthly existence the incarnation invites us to see beyond the present reality and find hope in this message – that we too have a share in God’s eternal and divine existence.

This is a vital message for us to hear on this day. In the midst of a rapidly changing world in which, despite this moment of joy, there is so much suffering and hardship and change occurring in celebrating A.’s baptism we look to God with hope.

When we see the bigger picture of what is occurring across the globe and in peoples’ lives everywhere. We know as celebrate this day 100s of children will have died from preventable causes; there is war and tension destroying the lives of millions; millions of refugees, fleeing horrific circumstances, have found themselves incarcerated in camps or detention centres as illegal immigrants, families in Connecticut are mourning yet another American gunman tragedy; the climate is warming, species are dying out; the way we communicate with one another is in flux.

We can blithely ignore all of these things occurring on our world, protected within the blessings of our own lives, or we can admit openly the concerns it raises for us and for our children and how we will raise them as followers of Christ and bearers of hope in this world.

A.’s baptism is an invitation to see that whatever life holds there is a promise of hope and peace and joy and love given to us by God that we can share in and experience now. It is also a reminder to look forward to a time yet to come in which the sufferings of this present age will pass.

And for all of us it is also an invitation to be an active part of that community of faith, the church, which helps to remember these things and God’s presence in our lives each and every day and to act on them as people who are caretakers of the good news of God’s love.

The good news is that God has gone to the effort of making room for us and for we who have any idea of what it means to make room for something in our lives we turn in grateful thanks and praise again to God and rejoice this day.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Photo: Judy Lockhart

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Induction of Rev Dr Rob Brennan

Guest blog by Rev David Baker

Induction of Rev. Dr. Robert Brennan, Graceville UCA Advent 2012

Reflections on Ephesians 2:1-21; Exodus 33:12-17; John 15: 9-17

Life in the west is becoming more and more disturbing to me; I could characterise it thus: an addiction to consumption and an obsession with individualism is leading us to a place where this passage from Ephesians could describe us; “following the desires of the flesh and the senses, we are by nature children of wrath – one only has to read the comments after articles posted on the ABC’s “The Drum”, or electronic commentary on The Australian’s website; to hear of the latest furore in the Twitter sphere; there’s no doubt we are children of wrath, and that our new media are providing venues for that wrath to be expressed. Note this is not the wrath the original writer was in all likelihood referring to; but is wrath just the same.

Surely the times call for the demonstration of a “new humanity;” a humanity of reconciliation: The vision of Ephesians is that this new humanity is the Christian community; the church; this new humanity, this venue of peace and reconciliation, is tangibly real within the structures of the wider community; the revelation of the NT is that God believes the church is God’s best strategy. And God’s not joking!

I’ve often asked myself, when I’ve had to go and find a mediator to help a Christian community work on its own reconciliation, “Why isn’t the world coming to the church, saying “We’re fighting; can you help?”” Why isn’t the church known as a fellowship of reconciliation? Rather than some of the things for which we are known.

(The UCA is working on this; we entered into covenant with the first peoples of this land many years ago; we covenanted to walk together to build peace and be reconciled, one to the other; we are agents of peace through the work of Uniting World – working in some very difficult places, like on the Island of Ambon in Indonesia; standing up for the first peoples of the land of Papua; we are deeply committed to the wellbeing of people in Queensland)

However, I still question, “Has the “course of this world” influenced the life of Christian communities so much that the nature of our life is virtually indistinct from any other human community?

How is this Christian community, here, or the ones we come from, structured so that it is a holy temple; how is it built together spiritually; so that it is known as a place where God dwells; a place where God feels at home; relaxed and comfortable? What does holy look like?

I ask you these questions because I believe they are the questions of the Christian community; not how do we attract young people? Not how do we pay for the upkeep of the temporal fabric of the community?

If we want to know what “Holy” is like, we go to gospels and see what Jesus is like, by the way; we don’t go to our imagination, or some expression of our ego or our guilt – depending on how we feel about ourselves.

Have a look at what the gospels say Jesus is like: Full of life and laughter and passion; filled with joy and compassion; cranky at things worth being cranky at; always hoping; always believing; always loving; never deceived.

How are you – individually and corporately - being built into this sort of temple? How are you reflecting this sort of holy? How are you helping one another be this kind of holy? How is your life as a community – your worship, your learning together, your working together – helping you be this kind of holy?

If it sounds intimidating and impossible; it should; Moses was confronted with the impossibility of the task that God gave him, so he asked God for what he needed; God is a giving God; ready to give more than we imagine; we have been made alive by God’s grace, according to Ephesians. Moses discovered God’s faithfulness; God’s readiness to give of Godself in the call he was given. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” This burden shall not be yours alone.

If our communities are to find their true vocation, it will only be in this radical dependence – this demand that in taking up the call, we should be shown the ways of God. It’s ok to push God to be faithful; it’s ok to say, without your leading we cannot go.

Jesus clearly lays the way of the new community before his disciples; he leaves no back up plan, not “alternative story.” The truth of his life shall be left with this motley crew, and the commands; “as the father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” and “love one another as I have loved you” ; do it, don’t sing about it, don’t liturgize it; don’t write tomes about it; do it.

“Love unexpressed is not love at all”;

The Father loved Jesus by asking great things of him, not by making his life more comfortable.

To build Christian community requires tenacity; it will require forgiveness; it will require humility; it requires faith; a commitment to bear fruit.

You are now to embark on a new phase in the life of this community, as Robert comes amongst you; the presbytery’s prayer is that you hear the call to build the sort of community described in Ephesians; and that in hearing that call, you look to God for the means to do it. Amen.

(Photo Leonard John Matthews)

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Make straight the way for the Lord

Peter Lockhart

There are times at which the text of the scripture modulates its tone between history and prophecy, between narrative and divination.

The references in today’s text from the book of Luke is one of those occasions in which we find reference to historical players which help us situate the timing of the events around Jesus’ life.

Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brother Philip, Lysanias and the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas. The political and religious situation for the Jewish people was tense. They were essentially a conquered people with some of their own rulers and leaders making the best of the bad situation by pandering to the Romans.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus Emperor Tiberius, the second Emperor of the Roman Empire, was cruel and unjust. It was a time of turmoil.

It is into this setting that the words of prophecy from John are spoken as he called people to be baptised and repent.

John himself is claimed to be the fulfilment of another prophet Isaiah, who declared, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John’s words were speaking into a community in which the valleys, the hills and the mountains were clearly associated with the turmoil created for the Jewish community by the Roman rule.

It should always be remembered that the pax Romana, or peace of Rome, was peace which was dictated to people through force and the use of the sword.

The idea that the very landscape in which the people were living, the valleys and the hills, needed to change to prepare the way for God indicates the tumultuous transformation that was necessary. It was challenge to what was commonly accepted and what was commonly practiced. There was something wrong with the way of the world.

Making straight the pathway was about correcting the crooked thinking that was present in people’s minds and telling the difficult truths about what was occurring.

Yes the prophecy was about hope and was about transformation and from the obscurity of the desert John’s lone voice challenged the Empire, the authorities, and the temple system. Turn back to God; look for hope beyond the rugged terrain of your existence, there is something more, something better on the way.

Now there is no doubt that the historical characters in the reading give us a sense of its historical placement and importance in confronting the issues of the time almost 2000 years ago but words of prophecy are not contained within a moment of history, rather they transcend the moment in which they are spoken.

To borrow from idea of Bruce Prewer, who locates the story in our present, we could just as well hear the beginning of the passage read in this way.

In the time of the minority Labor government led by Julia Gilliard, when Can-do Campbell Newman was Premier of Queensland with a landslide victory and Graham Quirk was Mayor of Brisbane. Andrew Dutney was the President if the Uniting Assembly and Kaye Ronalds the Moderator of the Synod “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

The scriptures are not simply an historical text. They are indeed a window into our present reality and the promise of the future. From the margins of life we hear:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

If the valleys and mountains in the time of the rule of Emperor Tiberius were reflective of the oppressive Roman rule and the threats of that age I wonder what it might be that we can hear today about our landscape and how it needs to be straight.

Let me share 3 stories from my week in which we might hear the voice of the prophet calling us to repent and make straight the paths of the Lord.

On Wednesday I was with a gathering of ministers from our Presbytery and we heard from Aunty Jean Philips, a tireless worker among the indigenous community, who shared some of her current experiences and hopes for her people.

I was humbled on Thursday when Aunty Jean personally called me to ask after my family and to continue to share her stories of pain and hope. I heard a story of a young aboriginal woman in Brisbane who recently handed her child to another person on the train platform and then stepped in front of the oncoming train. I heard the story of an indigenous man who had been in and out of prison for 29 years who died recently and there was no one apart from jean to gather the money for a funeral.

I heard about the hope of the Grasstree gathering of young indigenous leaders in Melbourne and the people who were stepping up to work with and among the indigenous community.

As Australians what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?

On Wednesday when we were with the ministers we were reminded that we came by boat to this land and the question hung in the air about how our government is treating Asylum seekers.

This week I read an article on the ABC website by the President of our Assembly, Andrew Dutney, who reflected on the current approach to Asylum seekers in a post entitled “The fear of others has corrupted the Australian soul.”

I want to read the beginning of Andrews article to you:

“Amnesty International has confirmed that conditions for asylum seekers that Australia has sent to Nauru are wretched. There is poor sanitation, inadequate accommodation, overcrowding, and the mental and physical health of detainees is deteriorating. Uncertainty and loss of hope breaks the hearts and spirits of people who have fled unimaginable circumstances in search of safety.

This kind of treatment is soul destroying. Not only does it crush the souls of detainees. It points to a sickness in the soul of the Australian nation.

Jesus said, "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).”

Again I ask, “As Australians, what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?”

You may have noticed that in my preaching and speaking I often comment about my concern for God’s creation and the Climate Change which is occurring around us. For me one of the driving questions was recently addressed by another article in a online magazine. Peter Hess writes:

“In the face of global warming, a question confronting any parent is, “How can I best prepare my children to cope with the enormous changes happening in the world around them?”

Over the next decades the world will be an exponentially different place to what it is today. It is more than likely wars will be fought over water and fossil fuels and possibly even food. The oceans may already have raised enough to cause the need for migration out of some coastal areas. Many species will become extinct. The number and movement of refugees across the world will increase.

The fragility of God’s creation is overburdened and threatened by our human activity. What hope can we teach our children about their future in this world?

As people of faith, we are convinced, as Psalm 24 puts it, that "the earth is the Lord's and all it holds" (Ps 24:1). The valleys and mountains which are to be brought low seem high.

Again I ask, “As Australians, what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?”

John’s words of prophecy are words which contain a vision of a difficult and monumental change in the landscape. Each one of us knows how difficult it can be to change any one of our behaviours, to turn in a new direction.

John’s baptism for the repentance of sin was about taking that first step in a different direction in the hope and belief that God’s peace and God’s love will break into our existence making straight, bringing low mountains and hills, helping us to see, know and experience the coming salvation of our God.

We live in a world which is as filled with as much turmoil as the time in which John wandered in the wilderness inviting people to repent. Just as much now as then we look with hope to God to bring transformation in our live personal and as a common humanity. The coming of Jesus and the promise that he will come again helps us to see beyond our current experiences and be transformed by the hope and peace and love of our God. Amen.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Mile in our Shoes: John 1.

Rev Peter Lockhart
(A Sermon prepared for 96.5 Family FM)

There are essentially two different versions of how Jesus was born in the Bible. The one found in the gospel of Matthew tells us a story entailing Joseph’s dream and wise men following a star. Matthew also tells about the massacre of infants and the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus into Egypt. On the other hand Luke’s story is about visitations: the angel visits Mary; Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth; Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem; angels visit shepherds and the shepherds visit the Christ child.

It is from these two stories that we get most of the images on our Christmas cards and in the Christmas story books and the nativity plays. Many of which confuse the stories with one another overlapping the different elements and sentimentalising them.

Whilst these stories about Jesus birth are important my favourite reading for Christmas day is neither of these. Rather, I am always drawn to the beginning of John’s gospel which taps into the very first story found in the Bible, the story of creation. In fact in most English translations of the Bible the first words of the book of Genesis and of the Gospel according to John are exactly the same “In the beginning...”

So, let listen to the words of John 1:1-14 as they reveal to us the essence of Christmas:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him
not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him
was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light,
but he came to testify to the light.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born,
not of blood or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

The wonderful imagery of this passage lets us into the wondrous secret that the man Jesus was and is also the eternal Word of God. The Word of God which was spoken at time of creation, through who all things came into being.

The word that the church has used to describe this amazing choice of God to become human through the centuries is ‘incarnation’.

For me when I use this word rather simply say that Jesus was born I feel somewhat confronted by the amazing mystery which unfolded in this event, the Word became flesh! Incarnation!

In Matthew’s version of the events the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that the child to be born will be called “God with us”. Whilst, in Luke’s telling of the story when the angel appears to Mary she is told that the child she will carry will be holy and will be called the Son of God.

This claim that Jesus is God among us is what I believe is completely unique about Christianity.

In my study of history and of world religions I can find claims of virgin births, demigods and even reincarnation and resurrection. The uniqueness of the Christian faith revolves around this claim: the Word became flesh and lived amongst us.

When we begin to unpack the implications of this it really is quite astounding.

You may have heard the expression, ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’. There are a few variations of this saying but I suspect most of us would believe that this is a pretty true kind of sentiment, especially if we have faced difficulties in our lives – the death of a loved one, fleeing from our home country, living with a disability, enduring a painful chronic illness, living as a dispossessed people and the list goes on.

Most of us would agree that to have any concept of what our lives are like means engaging closely with them.

This is exactly what the mystery of the incarnation is about: the Word became flesh. God comes to a walk a mile in our shoes in the person Jesus.

Yes Jesus may not have shared the specific experiences that you or I will live through but we certainly know that he experienced the whole spectrum of human existence joy, love, loss, grief, rejection, torture and even a sense of being abandoned by God in the moments before his death.

What the mystery of the incarnation does for me is remind me that God does not stand aloof, separated from our existence by time and space, and God’s downright divinity, no God chooses to show how much God loves what God created in the beginning by sharing our existence.

God walked a mile in your shoes and mine so when we turn to God and cry out in joy or in sorrow, in hope or in despair, in gratitude or in grief we know the one who is listening understands what it means to be human.

One of the most significant things about the incarnation is that it is God’s answer to our misapprehensions about love. I suspect a large portion of our personal pain and problems as human beings stems from the concern that ate not loved. We don’t believe we are loved by God and we don’t believe that we are loved by others.

In the book 1 John we read that ‘God is love’ and so Jesus is God’s love in the world. God seeking to transform how we understand and feel about ourselves – we are loved, you are loved and I am loved. In fact God loves everything that God has made.

There is an old carol which captures this true Spirit of Christmas in its words:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all of us,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

In 1 John it goes on to say that we love because God first loved us. Christmas and the Christmas Spirit is about celebrating this love of God in which we find God giving us himself to share our life. God loves us and the world that God made so much that God becomes part of it.

When we understand this story, the story of the incarnation, the things we do for one another at Christmas should move us beyond our own needs and wants and into loving others just as we have been loved. It means trying to understand what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes and reach out just as God has reached out to us.

It is my hope and prayer that this Christmas beyond the pressure for gifts and cards and celebrations that sometimes weigh us down that you will encounter something of the joy and mystery of the Word become flesh: that you will encounter God’s love come down to you this Christmas and that you will know that God is with you, now as then.

May God bless you all and may you have a happy and holy Christmas.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Hope in a Mad World

Peter Lockhart
Advent 1 Luke 21:25-36

When Jesus was speaking about the end times to the disciples he said this, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

As people of faith we like to believe that there is complete correlation between what Jesus says and what will happen but this statement is a difficult one, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

What are things which Jesus is talking about:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The very first followers of Jesus believed that the end times were about to happen, that no sooner than Jesus had ascended into heaven that he would be back. As the days slowly dragged by and then months and then years and then the generations the followers of Jesus were presented with a difficult conundrum.

Jesus had said that these things would occur before this generation had passed away but once that generation had gone how were they and we to understand the idea of the end times and the promise of the coming of the Son of Man. Was Jesus not able to prophecy correctly in this matter? Was he giving false hope?

I will return to these questions in a moment.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent; it is the beginning of the cycle of seasons and accompanying readings still used by most Christians around the world. In Advent we are reminder of what we are, a people waiting for the Advent of our God, which means the coming of our God.

We are a people who are meant to live filled with hope in that stance described in the reading, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We are to live believing that our redemption is drawing near, that Jesus is coming in great power and glory.

So let me return to those questions about what Jesus might have been saying when he declared that, “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

I want to preface what I am about to say by affirming my belief that there is time that lies in our future in which God will fulfil the promise God has made to renew all things, a time when Jesus will come again and will dwell among us.

Having said this I also want to remind you that Jesus promise was to send the Holy Spirit upon his followers, and the world, and that Jesus would be made present to us and us to him during our lives. We may not physically see Jesus here this morning embodied as a person but we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is here with us, meeting us in this time and space.

It is for this reason I would say whilst there is a future in which Jesus is coming again and we place our hope in this time of renewal there is also timelessness about Jesus coming and the signs which surround it.

If we were to travel back in time to the historical moment in which Luke lived there is no doubt that the early Christians would have been feeling that they were seeing the signs of the times – the turmoil and suffering. Most Biblical scholars situate the writing of Luke’s gospel after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 – almost 40 years after Jesus ascension, and certainly more than a generation.

The early Christians would have seen the turmoil of the persecution under Nero and the sacking of the Temple by the Romans in Jerusalem. The world for them was in turmoil. These words of Jesus recorded in Luke would have been an indicator of the promise and hope of their faith – Jesus was going to return and that in the end all things would be well.

It may not have been that end times came in all its power but for many of those people they experienced early the horrors of the end times. Yet in the midst of these horrors the people clung to their hope of Jesus presence with them and of his return.

Throughout the nearly 2000 years that have passed since Luke wrote his gospel the end times have been with us through history and we have seen horrors and distress and foreboding aplenty.

No less is true in our time. For we who live in Australia we may be currently immune to much of the great suffering that is occurring in our world at the moment but no less should we be confronted by the signs of the times around us.

This week there are countries still in stages of conflict whether on unstable peace exists or that fragile peace has been compromised with one another or internally: Afghanistan, North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine and the surrounding countries.

Extreme poverty still claims the lives of millions of children, whilst our country puts children fleeing persecution, poverty and conflicts in detention.

We continue to hear of we listen carefully that the changing of our climate and our human participation in that change is hurtling humanity towards as yet not fully known horrors. The permafrost is melting earlier than we expected, the World Bank has declared if we continue on the path we are headed extreme poverty will not end but get far worse. In Qatar an African delegate declared: ““My ancestral lands are going to go through a 4 - 5 degree increase even if the world stays at 2 degrees... Grass stops growing at 38 degrees and our livestock will die. So whatever we have managed to preserve through genocide and colonisalition, we are going to lose through climate change. ...As an Indigenous person when I lose my land, I lose my culture.”

Every moment in which we live people are encountering the horror and confusing of the end times. Some of them are Christians, some do not know Christ, yet they are all loved children of God.

It is in the context of the suffering and the confusing we look beyond our own capacities as human beings and at the God who raised Jesus from dead and so declared that endings we see and experience are not and will not be the final word.

This is our hope as Christians and when we pray on earth as it is in heaven we long for that hope to be made real now and to come in all its fullness. There can be no doubt that we might feel frustrated at the enormity of the suffering that confronts us an so echo Bono’s words from his song Peace on earth:

Heaven on Earth
We need it now
I'm sick of all of this
Hanging around

Sick of sorrow
I'm sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing
Again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on Earth

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Surely, in our life time we are seeing the things of which Jesus spoke occurring distress, confusion, foreboding – our current experience as Australians of one of the best living standards in the world should not blind us to these realities and as follows of Christ in looking up for that salvation to draw near we are drawn into that mission and ministry of God in Christ which is about the defeat of death and the promise of new life.

We are an Advent people, called to live expectantly and so to live expressing our hope for God’s future by living as if it is already here, not dictated to by our present sufferings but informed by the vision of what God has in store for all things.

May you be strengthened by his love this day and hear his voice which draws us into a future already here but yet to come.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Advent and Eschatology

Luke 21:25-28

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
(Photo Creative Commons from NASA)

At numerous points in his ministry Jesus speaks of a coming time of trial and tribulation for humanity; in biblical terms we would refer to these dire warnings as apocalyptic language. Such visions of destruction and mayhem are associated with the coming again of Jesus or as Luke put it in this passage, the coming of the Son of Man.

For churches which follow the lectionary and the liturgical cycle of the year, such as the Uniting Church, we are about to enter the period known as Advent which is directly connected with the return of Jesus, sometimes called the Parousia. The focus of Advent is usually dominated by the theme of waiting, waiting not for the incarnation, or birth of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas, but waiting for Jesus to come again.

So, when we begin to think about this theme of waiting for Jesus’ return we are drawn into contemplating the question, ‘what are we waiting for?’

What is it that we Christians are expecting to happen in the future and why does it give us hope?

Christians are naturally Advent people, people who live waiting for the coming of Jesus, but how any of us understand this notion of waiting and what we are supposed to do whilst we wait is related to how we understand our personal salvation, as well as God concern for the whole cosmos and what God has in store for the creation.

 Now the study of the end times and what will occur in those end times is referred to as eschatology and it is an important aspect of our faith to think about where we think things are headed.

I began with the reading from Luke 21 quite deliberately because it brings into our vision the kind apocalyptic language which says to us that things are going to get ugly, really ugly.

No doubt many of you will have seen apocalyptic movies like “The day after tomorrow” “Terminator” “The book of Eli” or “2012”. In fact just the other day students from my grade 7 RE class were telling me about how the world was going to end at the end of this year and asking whether I believed in the end of the world or not.

It’s an interesting question to ask, “Do you believe in the end of the world?”

From a personal perspective I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s towards the end of the Cold War. There were times I did not believe that I would live to see 18 years of age such was the spectre of Nuclear War which hung over us.

Nearly 26 years on from my 18th birthday I have put aside the fear of nuclear holocaust, for the moment, but am no less am concerned for the future of humanity and the world in which we live.

Just this week the World Bank took the unprecedented step to make a comment about climate change indicating that unless serious action were taken warming of 4 degrees Celsius or more was unavoidable and the consequences will be dire.

We are facing a crisis as human beings, a crisis not necessarily born out of anything more than the over population of the planet and our insatiable desire for more. In the West our lives our dominated by the myth of progress and growth, yet whilst our lives are advancing the capacity and opportunities of other people simply to live is diminishing.

A friend of mine who is farmer recently sent me a book called “The coming famine” a disturbing analysis of current trends in production of food aligned with the continuing growth of the population of the world.

Whether or not I believe in the end of the world, or even of signs of the times, the reality is that we are living through a very difficult period in human history and whilst we might exist in the humidicrib of Australian middle class society the world really is pretty messed up and in all likelihood even our protective bubble of Australia prosperity will probably burst.

With all of the current unrest and possible mayhem around the corner for humanity where do we find hope and how do we live that as Christians? Is this the end times? And if so what might that mean?

These questions are not new ones. For the very first generation of Christians there was a belief that Jesus return was just around the corner. In the book of Revelation, the last word we have from the Bible about this matter, it says in Revelation 22, “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’”

Over the nearly 2000 years we have been waiting for the coming of Jesus, the Parousia, there have been many times in history when Christians have believed the end was nigh.

Despite these feelings the scriptures tell us nothing about the timing of Jesus return. For example in Mark 13 Jesus says ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.’

The lengthy delay in the Parousia can only ever be understood in terms of a knowledge that we are closer to it than we were yesterday, the signs of our times may mean that there are dire things in our near future as a human race but they do not necessarily herald the end times and even if they do my question is, “is it really the end?”

The vision given to us in the scriptures is not ultimately of destruction but of recreation. Listen to the words from Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘See, I am making all things new.’

The promise of God concerning the future may involve a difficult time of transition but is not about the destruction of the creation, it is about its remaking.

To return to my grade 7 class and the answer I gave them, I said to them that I do not believe in the end of the world but I do believe that it will be remade. This is the hope that we have been given as Christians, Christ’s coming is about a future for the whole creation.

This vision is important to balance against the individualisation of the faith in the era in which live where for many Christianity is about living and dying and going to heaven – a vision restricted to a personal relationship with God and often distorted by the non-scriptural idea of having an immortal soul.

God’s vision for us is personal, yes, but it is also communal and cosmological. What we are waiting for is not just something for me!

Now much of the focus of what I have said so far is about something located out there in the future –something that we are waiting for but Advent and our waiting also has another edge to it.

The end times, the eschaton, are not the only coming of Christ and promise of his presence found in the scriptures. We remember that Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The pouring out of the Holy spirit at Pentecost is about uniting our lives to Christ who is present with us.

So within the scriptures we hear the promise of what might be understood as a realised eschatology. Jesus coming is his coming through the power of the Holy Spirit to be with us now, as John 17:3 says: knowing God the Father and Jesus whom he sent is eternal life.

There is a present reality of Jesus Christ with us that we do not have to wait for, a now of our salvation, a now of eternity life.

This now of eternal life, our current experience of it, is as Paul describes a bit like looking in a dim mirror but it is more than that because I believe when we encounter or experience any notion of God’s kingdom coming now we are encountering the future, the new creation which is promised, now.

One of the poignant experiences we have of this future is when we share the Eucharist, or communion, which is not simply a dead remembrance of what Jesus, did but is also a foretaste of the coming kingdom.

In this significant encounter with the feast of all nations, the feast of Christ the bridegroom, we are invited to live as an eschatological community, living from our promised future. This takes us from simply living in response to the historical character of Jesus and into living as people who are a new creation in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

The gathering of the community of the church is a sign of hope within creation of the future which is promised and empowers us to live as Advent people, the eschatological community, in our daily lives. As I see it when we gather in our present reality we remember the past and so see our future and are thus transformed by Christ’s coming presence.

Jesus, who we believe is present with us when we gather, is not simply the historical figure we remember and seek to follow but is the risen and ascend Jesus meeting us from the future when, the time when God’s purposes for the creation will truly be fulfilled.

The Uniting church in its Basis of union articulates this quite clearly when it says, “God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation.”

Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of God coming near – when the kingdom comes near my question is whether or not it is the future promise of God we are encountering? It is the coming renewal and reconciliation of the whole creation breaking into our present. This is what we pray for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is the future we long for – a correspondence of behaviour and existence between heaven and earth.

This means that by God’s grace we encounter what we are waiting for to come now and we name it as such and become prophets of that future hope for all creation. In the Nicene Creed we declare, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come!”

This is not simply a statement about some imagined future but a true declaration of hope and an invitation for us to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come in the world around us day by day.

In the book of Revelation Jesus is described as the one who is and who was and who is to come. Jesus is all of these things and when we consider our relationship with him and consider the Advent of our God, the promise of the fullness of Christ dwelling among us, we are contemplating what it means to be set free by and invited to follow him as people we live in relationship to what has been, what is now and what is coming.


Paul Gilding The Great disruption
Clive Hamilton Requiem for a species
Julian Cribb The coming Famine
David Fergusson & Marcel Sarot ed. The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Theology
Thomas Halik Patience with God
Jurgen Moltman Theology of Hope


Nothing New Under the Sun


R.E.M. The end of the world as we know it
U2 Peace on earth
Paul Kelly You can’t take it with you
Things of Stone and Wood The Yearning
Ben Lee Love me like the world is ending

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Of our King, slavery and being priests.

Peter Lockhart

Today is traditionally known as the last Sunday of the Christian lectionary and we celebrate Christ as King. Of course the imagery of what it means for Christ to be a King is easily distorted by the centuries that have passed by, since the plaque inscribed “Jesus Christ King of the Jews” was nailed above the crucified man Jesus of Nazareth.

This inscription flows from the claims being made about Jesus in his confrontation with the Roman ruler, Pilate. The imagery of Jesus kingship is a bound man standing before the political authority of the day contesting meanings of truth.

This should automatically put to one side any notion of a triumphal kingship for Jesus based on the sword and military power, neither does it connect even with the notion of a benevolent dictator – Christ’s kingship entails him submitting to a process of humiliation, torture and ultimately death on the cross as a way of demonstrating God’s love and God’s power.

It is within this context of remembering Christ as King that World Vision, knowingly or not, has set us on a path today to stand against slavery and so with the oppressed. There can be no doubt that as we do this we are making a political statement and making judgments about the way in which people are treated. In making this decision we as relatively wealthy and positively free people in Australia are also exposed to difficult truths about the world we live in and our complicity in these issues.

When Pilate interrogates Jesus on the question of his kingdom Jesus response is that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus kingdom is not a place but is the very will of God, God’s reign, coming to bear in the lives of people, “on earth as it is in heaven”.

This coming kingdom to which Jesus refers is about the renewal of the whole creation and of its people. Paul will later speak of the kingdom as the coming reconciliation of all things in Christ. This imagery and vision of reconciliation is a particularly strong theme within the Uniting Church in Australia, which is committed to justice and reconciliation in many matters.

At the heart of our faith is belief that Christ comes to set us free from the sin that imprisons us and so destroys our relationships with God and with each other, the kind of sin which would have human beings treated as commodities and bought and sold in the marketplace.

The image given to us of Christ as King before Pilate is an image in which our hearts and minds are drawn yes to what Christ did to set us free from sin but more to the point to Christ’s personal association with those who suffer and are oppressed in their lives, and in this we hear a call to mission and to ministry.

In the book of Revelation when the author writes to the seven churches in Asia we might take this a euphemism as a letter to all churches in all times and places and thus hear the personal and collective note of challenge within the words of the letter:

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.

In Christ the King we are called to be a priesthood of all believers. One side of this priesthood which is often emphasised, especially within the churches stemming from the Protestant and reformed traditions, is that us all being priests means we do not need a mediator to stand between us and God.

This may be true but this privilege and gift is not simply about our access to God in and through Jesus Christ but is also about being drawn into God’s mission in the world revealed in the life of Jesus.

Being a priest is not simply about personal access to God but is about advocating on behalf of people who as yet have no voice with God or might I dare to suggest earthly authorities.

It is recorded that when Jesus began his ministry he sat down and read from the scroll of Isaiah which declares:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

The gospel writer Luke who records this event then tells his readers:

That Jesus then “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Jesus ministry begins sounding a note of liberation for those who have been debased and deprived of their gift of simply being human and living freely in response to God’s love.

When Jesus declares the year of the Lord’s favour I believe it is a proclamation not bound within that moment in time but is an expression of the promise of the coming kingdom and any time, in any moment, in which people a liberated and set free from such oppression the kingdom of God breaks into our reality.

The kingdom not of this world in which we find children enslaved in coffee fields and picking cocoa; a world in which girls even before the age of 10 are sold by their parents into prostitution; a world in which cheap indentured labour is shipped around the world to countries including Australia.

As priests of this Christ, and members of his kingdom, it is with these people that we find Jesus standing in his own state of powerlessness before Pilate. In Jesus we find a God who suffers alongside us and so says to the entire world that God’s purpose and vision for all people is life in all its fullness.

Being priests of this Christ means that we are called to raise our voice with his, to cry out for those who suffer, to advocate for those in slavery and consider how our own actions might perpetuate or alleviate the plight of slaves around the world.

When William Wilberforce caught the vision of the coming kingdom and the promise of grace for all of God’s children he expressed God’s love through his political action, in his liturgical and prayer life and through actions and changed behaviours.

So as we recall the spirit of that age in which Wilberforce stood as we remember those who simple actions like refusing to use sugar in their tea we too can be the priests that God is calling us to be.

Christ stands before Pilate, maybe not in slavery but certainly in a position as powerless in his time; his life is in the hands of another. This is our king; this is our God; who is willing to stand alongside those who suffer not in some metaphorical sense but literally.

We as recipients of the gift of grace will find that at times we are made uncomfortable by the truth of our reality and the distance it might be from the truth and promise of Jesus’ kingdom yet in hearing his voice and responding we are continually called back into life and are drawn into sharing the love of our King Jesus and the promise of his kingdom through our behaviour as his priests.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Renewing faith not just bricks & mortar..

It seems somewhat ironic that the week we are our here in our hall worshipping, because we are spending money on our church building, that we read Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. 

Jesus prediction was deeply challenging for the disciples.  For the Jewish people there was an essential understanding that God dwelt within the Holy of Holies in the Temple itself.  The Temple was undoubtedly central to their faith.  We may speak of churches as being God’s house but the sense of God’s presence within the Temple far outstrips our notions.

This is possibly one of the reasons we hear the disciples marvelling at the Temple.  The great stones and wondrous architecture of the Temple was a reflection of God’s power and glory.

Whilst the disciples stand agog, Jesus has been proclaiming another message.  At the end of the twelfth chapter of Mark’s gospel, which we read last week, Jesus attacks the Temple system which exploits the widows, devouring their houses, whilst the Scribes and Pharisees build their personal privilege and wealth.

For Jesus the Temple itself, rather than being representative of God and God’s love has reduced the essence of the faith to ruins.  Continuously through the Old Testament there is a voice crying out for the widow and the orphan, for the poor and the alien, loving God was not simply about pious sideshows but about helping others.

Jesus whole ministry has concern for others at its heart – healing and wholeness, inclusion and reconciliation.  It is a reassertion of what is often found in the mouths of the Psalmist and the prophets – it is not new teaching!

And Jesus prophecy of the destruction of the temple was yet another counterpoint to the way things had been done and who God’s concern was for.

It is interesting to note that Mark’s gospel was written down around the year 64 A.D..  It was nearly 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Nero was the Emperor and there had already been a series of persecutions of the Jews and the fledging Christian community, still largely identify as a sect of Judaism.  After the burning of Rome Nero had accused Christians of causing the fire and had used this as an excuse to persecute the Christians, putting many to death.

Those hearing this story of Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Temple may have wondered where things were heading given the situation under Nero and Jesus words of wars and suffering may have felt more real than removed in their predicament. 

We know in hindsight that Jesus words were to come true, in the year 70 the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Yet, for Jesus his prophecy was not about the end but new beginnings.  His words were words of hope in the face of great suffering and tribulation.  God’s glory and God’s future are not contained within the walls of a building for the hope of God is founded in community and in love and in the promise of a future beyond the suffering which people might currently be experiencing.

When Mark wrote his gospel his words were timely as he cobbled together his reflection on Jesus life and as the Spirit proclaimed God’s love through his words.

When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples he was continuing the task of reorienting the disciples in their faith to give them the resilience and hope that they would need as they faced an uncertain future.  God is not contained within even the walls of the Temple.  God’s love transcends specific places and is found in people.

These are indeed challenging themes as we contemplate our own church refurbishment.  And it is difficult to avoid trying to justify our decision to spend money on the building at this point in our life as a congregation.  Yet in the mixed up world in which we find ourselves what lessons can we take from today.

I believe most importantly we should listen carefully to Jesus’ critique of the Temple system and consider how Jesus challenged accepted practices.

The life of God’s people was founded not on bricks and mortar but on the love of people, widows and orphans, strangers and aliens.  Jesus challenge to the disciples and prediction of the destruction of the Temple were not ultimately about dismantling God but new beginnings in faith.

This brings me back to our predicament today – spending money on our bricks and mortar, simply keeping this particular church open is a very expensive exercise. 

Why spend the money?  Why keep this congregation going when we could all drive or walk to another congregation no more than a few minutes away?

Many a church building and even more of their contents are dedicated to the work and glory of God, our church building is no different.  But the building itself does nothing for God’s glory in and of itself and used for the wrong purposes, even simply the expression of our personal piety, reflects a state of dementia or amnesia about who we are as God’s people.

The world is littered with the bones of old churches, anyone who has toured Europe no doubt has walked through a few, although, we do not have to travel that far afield to see closed churches.  Just in the local area I can name 5 Uniting Church which have closed.  It would be naïve to think that this building and this place will always be a church.

So the changing of our building should be taken as an opportunity to look inwards at our faith and outwards towards those whom God is calling us to love in the community around us, widows and orphans, aliens and strangers, God’s people all.

Jesus ministry expands the vision of where God is and who God loves.  As people seeking to be renewed in our faith and commitment and praying for a revival of our congregation we are stepping out in faith and this will involve taking risks that move us beyond our comfort zones.

The destruction of the Temple was not the end.  God’s promises are bigger than our experiences of life and faith.  God’s grace reaches out to all people.  This is indeed good news.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Devouring widows houses

Peter Lockhart

“They devour the widows’ houses...”

Jesus’ critique of the behaviour of the temple authorities of his time ran deep. A couple of days earlier Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple declaring that it had been made a den of robbers and thieves.

Now his comments are scathing of the temple leaders in their pomp and misunderstanding of who they are called to be.

So offensive is their behaviour that “They devour the widows’ houses...”

As if to underline his point Jesus sits opposite the treasury watching the crowd put their money in and who should appear but a widow.

This widow bearing her two small copper coins, all that she had to live on, gives to the point of impoverishment.

“They devour the widows’ houses...”

Reading between the lines you can almost hear Jesus declaring, “See what I mean!”

This poor widow has given beyond her means and whilst through church history this widow’s giving has at times been held up as an example, Jesus’ attitude appears more one of sorrow and despair.

How has the system gone so wrong?

The Old Testament is replete with the theme of God’s concern for the widow and the poor and the responsibility of the people of God to care for not only the widow and the poor but the alien residents in their midst.

In Deuteronomy 10 Israel was reminded:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The prophet’s thunder against Israel’s failure in this matter; for example as Isaiah declares:

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

As if to further underscore the futility of the widow’s giving the next story in the scriptures sees the disciples get excited at the large stones and buildings which Jesus tells them will be thrown down.

By Jesus’ pointing out the widow I do not believe he is celebrating her giving rather he is emphasising that the Temple authorities, and then Israelites at large, had completely missed the point of being God’s people.

The giving was in the wrong direction. It was not the widow who needed to give to the Temple as if somehow this would validate her relationship with God. No: the Temple had a responsibility to the widow as one for whom God had specific concern.
His challenge here ties directly to the point made by the scribe in verse 33 that loving God and neighbour is central and “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The size of the gift, the enormity of the sacrifice, the amount of our offering does not buy relationship with God, for this comes to us freely as a gift.

The good news declared so poignantly in Hebrews 9 is that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

God has given to us the gift of Jesus freely, unconditionally. It is a gift that continually surprises us with God’s generosity. As we tear away the ribbon and paper we find the gift of life itself; we find eternal life, life in all its fullness; life shared with God and with others. This is what we receive each day and each moment of our lives and God’s challenge to us is that all should share in this joyful gift of life.

Which brings us to the question of our stewardship; what do we give in response to the generous gift that we have received? How does how we live our lives? How do we exist in mission as a congregation? Are we simply developing mini temple systems in our congregations or is what we are do life giving and life sharing, not just with ourselves but the community in which we give our witness.

The bread of anxious toil

Peter Lockhart

I want you to pause for a moment and think about the things that you worry about. What is it that really keeps you up at nights? Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who is able to sequester your fears and anxieties and sing cheerfully along to Bobby McFerren’s classic, “Don’t worry be happy” but in general we in the west live in a world driven by anxiety.

We worry about the future of our children;
we worry about whether we have enough for our retirement;
we worry about our personal health;
we worry about the impending results of the latest test;
we worry about diseases in society and the emerging super bugs;
we worry about pollution –
in our rivers, in the seas, in the air and in our ears;
we worry about climate change;
we worry about terrorism;
we worry about peak oil;
we worry about the danger of stepping out our door at night;
we worry about the number of people sitting in our pews;
and, so we worry about the future of this congregation;
we worry about rainfall and dam levels and floods;
we worry about who we have to please;
and, we worry about who we are going to offend;
we worry about big things;
and, we worry little things.
We worry and we worry and we worry.

With all this worry it should come as little surprise that more than one in ten of us suffer from a serious anxiety disorder and a further one in ten suffer from depression.

Now I am not going to say that many of our concerns are invalid, they are we face some incredible challenges in life personal and as a human race. Rather I would draw our attention to the words of Psalm 127.

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives sleep to his beloved.

The bread of anxious toil is a wonderful metaphor for the things that consume us. The bigger issues of the globe and the small day by day things that get into our psyche to cause us insecurity are drawn into perspective by the Psalm.

If we consider why we who live in such an affluent society who have so much and who can do so much instead of finding contentment with all our labour saving devices and wonderful opportunities then maybe part of the answer is that we have forgotten that despite our best efforts we are not in total control.

As a teacher I can clearly remember that one of the things that was said to many students was that they could be anything they wanted to be. Not only is this a poor understanding of the simple diversity of human beings it is also poor theology. I worked out somewhere in the midst of my teaching that at best this attitude is a misunderstanding and at worst it is a lie that leads children into delusions of who they are and what they can do, which when they go unfulfilled leads to depression and disappointment.

What this kind of philosophy reflects is the all pervasive attitude of control that permeates Western Society. Timothy Radcilffe, who was the head of the world Dominican Order, reflected on the connection between anxiety and control saying:

“I suspect that this pervasive anxiety derives from the fact that we have a culture of control. We can control so many things: fertility and birth, so much disease can be cured; we can control the forces of nature; we mine the earth and dam the rivers. And we westerners control most of humanity. But control is never complete. We are increasingly aware that our planet may be careering towards disaster… We are afraid, above all, of death which unmasks our lack of control.”

We eat the bread of anxious toil because we have forgotten a fundamental theological belief that God is in control, that God offers to us a future and that even in midst of our sleeping God is at work.

Radcliffe notes a friend who has on his wall a poster with the saying “Don’t worry. It might not happen.” Radcliffe offers a different approach. “Don’t worry. It probably will happen. But it won’t be the end of the world.”

Here is the hope of a man of hope; whatever will be God is with us.

While we rest God creates and recreates; God refreshes and renews. This is revealed so clearly in the coming of Jesus Christ who descends into the dead and then rises to new life to find the true purpose of our creation life with God.

The imagery from the author Hebrews hits home – Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary and lives there life with God and shares his grace with us out of love for those for whom he dies. It is Jesus offering that renews and refreshes us in our life, in our living and in our death. This is why the bread that we eat on this day is not the bread of anxious toil but is the bread of life. Here we partake of the true bread of heaven and food of eternal life – not because we deserve it in any way but because God offers it so freely in Jesus.

Whilst we scurry around with our anxieties and worries eating the bread of anxious toil Jesus, the Christ, is in the presence of God the Father reconciling and renewing us that we too might join in his homecoming. It is this bread of new life that we offered, bread for our journey, the bread of eternity.

What can we offer but thanks and praise for this great grace of God which not so much requires anything of us but rather invites us into community with God and one another now. The contrast of the offering of the proud rich compared to the widow reminds us that it is not how much we give nor I would argue even the proportion but the understanding that what we offer comes from our poverty.

In some ways we do not have anything to offer God which will please God and make God love us any more than God already does, yet our giving which comes from the acknowledgement of our poverty – spiritual and fiscal – it acknowledges that we rely on grace and that we are not in control.

The contrast between the proud pietist full of his or her own religiosity and the person who comes humbly offering out of their poverty is strong. We are saved by grace through faith.

When all is said and done the bread of anxious toil which we consume day by day indicates that we have forgotten that unless the Lord builds the house those who labour build in vain. So, it is that when we come here to this place and eat the bread of life we are grounded again in the sure hope of God’s love and control over those things which we are so anxious about and that whatever will happen God is, and God is with us.

Take a moment to consider God’s Word to you on this day.

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