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.

More on the Widow and the Scribes & Pharisees

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Not far from the kingdom

by Peter Lockhart

Jesus speaks consistently about the notion of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In fact Jesus refers to the kingdom over 100 times across the 4 gospels, 17 times of which are found in Mark’s gospel.

It is fairly well understood these days that Jesus appears to have been referring to the kingdom as the rule or reign of God in the moments that were being lived. In this sense the kingdom is not a place but a way of responding to God appropriately. This might be understood as a realised eschatology which is what we pray for when we pray on earth as it is in heaven.

However, in addition there are inferences that the kingdom is also something that is coming, something which lies ahead. It is an anticipated time when God’s rule will be found in all places in heaven and on earth. This might be understood as an anticipated time to come – an eschatological future for which we wait.

In this sense there is both an already and a not yet that is part of both Jesus words and thus also Christian conversation about the kingdom. It is an already and not yet that it could be argued is present in Jesus very life for he is both the beginning and ending of all things, the alpha and the omega as the scriptures put it.

In the particular conversation that we heard today, however, Jesus uses the somewhat unusual phrase that the scribe is not far from the kingdom.

How is it that the scribe is not far from the kingdom?

Is he not far from the kingdom because he has understood the central tenets of loving God and loving neighbour?

Is he not far from the kingdom because he has engaged with Jesus but not yet set out to become a follower?

Is he not far from the kingdom because his understanding of love of God and neighbour has yet to borne out in what he does?

Is he not far from the kingdom simply because Jesus presence is the kingdom and the scribe is with Jesus?

Is he not far from the kingdom because Jesus is anticipating the scribe’s death?

In whatever way this phrase is understood the question might be asked is being not far from the kingdom enough.

Jesus words definitely come across as an encouragement and affirmation to the scribe. There is hope in them – being not far from the kingdom is a good thing and this is something that we should all take hope in as well.

In trying to understanding the scribe’s supposed closeness to the kingdom looking at the scribes words may help to make things clearer. In his conversation with Jesus about the commandments identifies the heart of what it means to be in relationship with God. But in doing so he does not identify anything especially radical or new in terms of Jewish teaching.

He cites what is known as the Shema:

‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

Alongside the levitical teaching:

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

His understanding of this twofold commandment love of God and love of neighbour appears to be what means he is not far from the kingdom.

Yet it is neither his understanding nor even his personal enactment of these central tenets if the faith which will incorporate him into the kingdom.

The gospel of Mark is the good news of Jesus Christ so the message ultimately revolves around the work Jesus himself does, it is Jesus who mediates our coming into God’s kingdom. It is in and through him that we actually are drawn in.

Maybe in Jesus response we can hear the affirmation that the scribe is on the right track in understanding what the kingdom is about alongside the promise that whilst being near is great we do not have to achieve that last little bit ourselves – it comes to us as a gift from God.

The scribe is not far from the kingdom but he does not have to worry about getting there by himself – this is good news indeed, God will we draw him in.

In this way the passage carries a twofold message for us.

Being close to the kingdom, the rule of God, the coming kingdom, maybe even Jesus himself is something to be affirmed especially when it is expressed in the central tenets love God and love your neighbour. We live under God’s rule as best we can – loving God and one another.

Moreover, being close to the kingdom is a reminder that despite being close we are not in and that the good news is that God sent Jesus into the world so that we might be drawn fully into that kingdom and so no longer simply be not far but part of God’s reign and rule.