Saturday, 30 November 2013

Pathway to Peace

Advent 1

For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

The song of the Psalm is punctuated with a deep yearning for peace, a yearning for peace within the walls of Jerusalem for relatives and friends and I believe ultimately for the entire world.  Seeking peace is centred on seeking the good for others.

In this sense the journey of Advent is not so much a new journey for us as God’s people but a recapitulation of an ancient message, an ancient longing: peace between God and people; peace among all peoples.

This longing sung of by the Psalmists is also a prophecy proclaimed by Isaiah:

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

As we hear these words of longing thousands of years later it could be easy to hear an edge of judgement within them because regardless of what our personal experience might be in this moment peace seems so elusive within the creation.

Looking to Jerusalem, the holy city sung of by the Psalmist, decades of tensions on the West Bank cause our hearts to cry out.  Thinking beyond the peace of Jerusalem we see the images of the refugee camps surrounding Syria.  China and Japan have been jockeying for power this week. Afghanistan is still coming back from the brink of turmoil.  And the list goes on.

If international affairs are not your cup of tea then think of peace within our own nation and within our own lives because peace is not simply an absence of war.  In our community we often see division and hatred expressed.  Within our families there are often tensions.  And even within our own sense of purpose and being we can find ourselves ill at ease.

This morning we have set our footprints on the pathway to peace but the reality is as much as we might desire it we know thousands years of seeking peace have not landed us squarely in a place of unity with God or each other.  As well we know even the church is at war within itself divided by doctrine and denomination.

So what does it mean to reaffirm this message of peace and our commitment to it in Advent? 

Advent is about our longing for the renewal of all things in and through Jesus.  This vision of renewal is grounded in Jesus resurrection when he came and stood among his disciples and said, “Peace, be with you.”

So by placing our longing for peace in this context, by taking the words of Psalmist and the yearning of Isaiah into conversation with the resurrection, we are reminded that although we might be on this pathway towards peace it appears that only through the intervention of God will peace ever come in all its fullness.

It is true to say that we may catch a glimpse of that coming peace or experience moments of that peace personally but the vision presented in the scriptures is one which declares that God desires peace for all things renewed in and through Jesus Christ the true peacemaker.

As we remember these difficult truths about peace and the destination of peace remaining in God’s promised future we are also reminded that as God’s people we are drawn into Jesus life through the power of the Holy Spirit and that we can share in witnessing to the promise of this future now.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and as God’s people we are constantly called to be peacemakers; reconcilers; bridge builders; healers; mediators.  Not in the sense that we can achieve what we long for but in the sense we can point to God’s promise any time we become conduits for peace entering into peoples’ lives.

In both the letter from Paul to the Romans and also in Jesus words in Matthew’s gospel the imperative to stay awake and to be attentive for the coming of God’s kingdom is not simply a call to be attentive to that moment of Jesus return.  Nor is it attentiveness grounded in our ability to save ourselves.  Rather I believe it is a call to serve that coming kingdom now by keeping our eyes open to the times that coming peace breaks into our current reality and declaring that as good news.  And, moreover, being participants in establishing peace in our own lives and communities as well as we are able as we seek the good for others.

Ultimately, as God’s people when say 'blessed are the peacemakers' we acknowledge that Jesus himself is the one true peacemaker; the one who both establishes and declares God’s peace which always appears somewhat beyond our human grasp.  Let us receive the gift of peace established in and through Christ and let us continue to long for this peace with eyes wide open to the mercy and love of our maker.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Pathway to Peace

Advent 1: by Peter Lockhart

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

I was glad… I wonder how many of us are really glad or joyful about our coming to church to worship God and, if so, where this gladness might come from?

Looking back into the Jewish traditions Psalm 122 is one of the Psalms of ascent.  This means that it was one of the songs sung by the people as they travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem for the holy festivals.  The song was part of their pilgrimage and their preparation as they anticipated their arrival.  The songs of ascent reminded the people of the context of their journey to be with God at the Temple.

This week we begin our own pilgrimage. We begin the pilgrimage of Advent.  Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of preparation.  But what songs and what words give us the context for our journey.  This morning we lit our first advent candle, the candle for hope.  This then is the first marker which gives our advent journey its context – we are waiting with hope.

So what are we waiting for and what is our hope in?  It would be easy to fall into the trap to think that Advent is simply a time of waiting and preparation for the celebrations surrounding Jesus birth.  Now if you are like me you enjoy a good party and the Christmas season usually offers some of the best.  There are feasts and presents, with all the joy on children’s faces, and family gatherings, and work parties, and trees with decorations, and houses decked out in the joy of the season with flashing lights. 

In midst of our humdrum and pedestrian existence facing the daily grind times like this lift our eyes to wonder if there is something more.  But in and of themselves the celebrations, the carols, the lights on our houses, the parties we go to offer nothing more than a moment of excitement in the difficulties and boredom which confront us throughout life.

As Christians our hope is not measured by the number of lights on our houses, or parties we get to go to, or presents that we give or receive, or even carols we sing.  Our hope is actually in something far deeper and far greater: Jesus promise of the coming kingdom of God.  As the true light of the world Jesus far outshines the lights on our houses for his light directs us towards our home with God, the coming kingdom, which is ultimately about the return of Christ.

So what does this kingdom look like?  Well in reality we cannot see it clearly; we only have fleeting images and obscure ideas to hang our hope on because, after all, faith is hope in things not seen.  Nonetheless, the prophet Isaiah opens our eyes to some of the possibilities of this coming kingdom. 

Firstly, he points to the universal aspect to this coming kingdom.

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.

All of the nations will stream to it.  Isaiah prophesizes, that God’s future for the nations is that they will be bound together as one.  In this vision Isaiah opens up the promise of God for all peoples and ultimately the whole universe.  This is not a vision of the destruction of the world but its remaking through God’s promise.  It is a future grounded in peace.

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

God’s future for the creation is a future grounded in peace between all peoples.  At a time in which our country has been involved in war and in a time when there is so much political tension in our world, from Iraq to Indonesia, from Pakistan to Zimbabwe, in the Ukraine and in Tibet! Hope in the promise of a time of peace is unfathomable for us as human beings but it remains one our deepest desires. The prayer of Psalm seeks its answer to peace in the promise of a coming kingdom:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

Peace among all the nations may seem to be impossibility for our human minds but this is a promise and hope which far outshines any of our Christmas celebrations.  Those of you have been alive for the declaration of peace during the great wars of the last century may begin to have an inkling of what joy that the realisation of this promise might bring.

So as Christians through Advent we wait with hope for this coming kingdom. Paul writing to the Romans as well as Jesus speaking to the disciples both encourages us to be alert and awake to what this kingdom is about.  Jesus warns against complacency saying no one knows the time whilst Paul tells us to wake from our sleep.

Sometimes we do no even realise that we are asleep.  The constancy of life and the habits that we get into, and the days that drag by, numb our hearts and minds to this promise of God.  So it is, that we do find more excitement in our Christmas parties and family gatherings than in the bigger picture of our faith which is harder to hold on to and even harder to live out.

Yet this is what Paul expected the Christians in Rome and us to do, to live with the aroma of that coming dawn in our nostrils.  We are to live putting on Jesus Christ.  We are to live a life which is directed towards our deeper hope and not, as Paul says, on the desires of the flesh.  Living in the light of the coming kingdom, representing that peace and reconciliation to the world, is not easy stuff to do.  But it is life transforming as we are conformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be a part of the coming kingdom now and to know God more closely.

This means that as we journey through Advent we are really reminding ourselves not simply that Jesus is about to be born, and it is worth celebrating his birthday, but that Jesus birth finds its meaning in his whole life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the promise that he will come again. 

Without the whole story the birth is hollow indeed but in the context of the promise of the coming kingdom the hope which we develop through advent is beyond any of the other hopes we might have about our Christmas celebrations for 2004.

To return to where I began if we start to understand these things and experience them then maybe our coming to the house of the Lord may in be something that we are glad about.

I know myself that much of the time church can simply be boring it becomes a chore, a discipline, a habit.  I think this is, in part, because we begin to slumber, we tire of trying to remember the hope, and our hearts struggle against the call of God within us.  But in moments of lucid revelation God comes into our lives to remind us of this great gift of hope that we have.  God opens our eyes again to remind us of the future we are waiting for.  I personally believe the more we come together to worship God and the more we engage in our spiritual journey the more our hearts and minds are attuned to the bigger picture which encompasses God’s purpose not just for ourselves but for all things. The song that we sung earlier reminded us this fundamental conviction.

Sing to God, with joy and gladness
Hymns and psalms of gratitude.
With the voice of praise discover
That to worship God is good.

With the voice of praise discover that to worship God is good.  It is in our participation in Christ’s worship of the Father that we discover that worshipping God is good.  This does not mean necessarily mean ‘fun’ - good here means the right thing to do.  Through the discipline of coming to the house of the Lord we grow as the Lord fills us with new life and the knowledge of salvation.

This Advent I encourage you to prepare for Christ’s coming, to awaken as you glimpse the coming dawn, as you savour a foretaste of the coming kingdom.  I encourage you to discipline yourself to look beyond the flashing lights and the gifts we give one another to the light of the world, Jesus Christ, who is God’s gift to us and the whole world.  I encourage you to focus on the promise of peace that has been given to us and to live your life in the light of the good news of this coming kingdom.

Take a few moments now to listen for how God might be speaking to you this day.     

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Rule of Knowledge by Scott Baker

Scott Baker’s novel Rule of Knowledge felt like something of cross between The Da Vinci Code, a Matthew Reilly Novel and The Time Travellers Wife.  The narrative and the action were fast paced as separate plots were woven together into a great tale.

The book opens with Shaun Strickland, a teacher, receiving a mysterious invitation to present a lecture at Cambridge.  Leaving home in a hurry with his wife the couple have an accident on a lonely road in North Carolina when they hit a homeless tramp.  Taking him on board they soon discover he is carrying a secret – a book which appears to a diary written in English dating back to the time of Christ. 

The novel then proceeds to jump between the diary and other plot fillers as the action intensifies.

Having a sense of history, science and faith helped as I read the book although I did not feel that you needed much depth in these areas.  In terms of style the diary entries jarred a little in the way the were written but once I got over this the novel flowed well and bought something of a complicated story together.  Any story which involves time travel has its issues.

Like a Matthew Reilly novel the action is fast, more than somewhat fanciful and at times quite gruesomely violent.  For some readers this will keep them in but if you are a bit reticent about too much violence then maybe it is not the book for you.

The feature of the novel is its movement towards an encounter with Jesus – an interview as it were by the diary writer.  Was Jesus who he said he was?  What will the agnostic science teacher Shaun Strickland find out?  Will faith be undone or reignited?

The twists and revelations at the end made it worth the read.  So if you are a fan of an action story put it on your Christmas wish list.   

Friday, 22 November 2013

Of Christ, Kings and Slaves!

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar and as is tradition in the church we are celebrating the festival of Christ the King.

On this day we are reminded in the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians of the preeminent place which Jesus takes in the order of creation and in the life of the church.  He is the source of dominions and powers and authorities.  He holds all things together and is over all things.

As Australians we may struggle with the notion of authority and power and the idea that God is over us.  We prefer the idea that Jesus is our friend, he is our buddy our mate.  Yet despite this view we still place authority and dominion and power somewhere in something or someone and this has consequences.

Today is also Abolition Sunday, a day on which we reflect on the current state of slavery in our world.  In this we are challenge to look beyond the horizon of our immediate and might I suggest more than comfortable existence to the sources of our prosperity and to the plight of others.

For me I have a deep appreciation that the two themes have been brought together because our resistance to God’s reign is not new and our misunderstanding of God’s authority does not lead us into greater freedom but ultimately into less as we become less and less who we have made to be as God’s creatures.

To help understand this I want to take us back into the Old Testament for a moment to the book of first Samuel, to Samuel 8, a time at which Samuel had become very old.  Here is what it says:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

The rejection of God’s reign over us and the preference for human sources of dominion can be traced back nearly 3000 years.  And at the time that the people asked for a King, for human sources of authority, God clearly and strongly warned the people of the consequences.

The trend of this preference for human sources of dominion and authority I believe finds its ultimate expression in the rise of humanism through the enlightenment when rather than kings we all became masters and mistresses of our own existence.  The phrase “it’s my life” which no doubt many of us have uttered is an expression of our denial of God’s reign and a preference for our personal dominion over our existence.

Yet through 3000 years of history we can see that there are consequences to the choices we have made in our excise of power and dominion over the creation and over each other.

There are many avenues to explore in terms of consequences but on this day as we remember Abolition Sunday I would want us to consider how we have turned people into commodities.  In business term we speak of human resources reducing the creative gift of life found in a person to what the can do or offer.  The most extreme form of the commodification of people is the exploitative practice of slavery.

We have already heard a little bit about the extent of the problem of slavery in the world in the video I showed earlier in the service.  And, it could be easy to distance ourselves from these issues but as people who often ignorantly benefit from the exploitation of others today we contemplate the consequences of our preference to rule our own lives.

During the week as I researched for today I found an online survey to help people understand how they might be benefitting from slavery.  The result which came back for me was not surprising but is certainly shocking.  According to the survey I have 67 slaves working to sustain my lifestyle.

You may think this is unrealistic or a somewhat silly survey but this morning I have given you an image on a card.  There are a range of different cards with images of coffee and chocolate, of rice and fish, of cotton and clothes, of jewellery and accessories, of smart phones and gadgets.  These products are representative of a bigger list of products which you or I may purchase, often cheaply, without realising that they may have been produced by someone who is defined as a slave or even a child.

We are embedded in systems of exploitation which are difficult for us to see unless we really look up from the immediacy of the problems and issues we face and look behind how a product reaches the shelves at the price it does.

Thinking of just this one issue we begin to understand the complexity of our rejection of God’s reign and the consequences of our misguided exercise of dominion.

Returning to the Colossians passage I quoted at the beginning we were reminded that as the church Jesus is our head.  Or to be more frank God is in charge.  3000 years and more of humans choosing kings and dominion in our own lives coalesces into the events of Jesus life as he comes among us.

One of the traditional appellation s for Jesus is that he is our king.  But Jesus kingship is not about exercising an authority or dominion which subjugates or exploits others.  In fact, shockingly Jesus kingship is exercised in such a way that rather than exercise his divine power over other he accepts the way of the cross and the rejection of God’s rule in human lives into his own life.

The scene from Luke's gospel we read is a part of that longer story known as the passion narrative.  Jesus accepts the human rejection of God into himself and so also accepts the misguided use of power which we as human beings exercise over each other.  His suffering is an identification with those who suffer.

The good news of course is that Jesus resurrection is God’s declaration that our rejection of his power and dominion is not the last word and will not be our undoing.  Jesus resurrection provides a new hope and a new future for all humanity.

Here we can truly declare as we read in the Psalm, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”  God is a refuge for we who cause the suffering of others and choose to exercise our dominion poorly.  God is a refuge for we who are at times exploited by others and for those who on this day find themselves to be slaves.

As people set free by God’s love we are constantly called to challenge the systems of this world in which participate which exploit others.  The issue of slavery and the way it is woven into the fabric of our existence is no easy issue but as God’s people who bear the reconciliation of all things within us it behooves us to witness to God’s love and the reign of Christ in our lives by speaking out for others and declaring God’s love.

The good news on which we lean is that Christ is ultimately the King, the ruler of all things and the giver of a new life to the whole creation and all humanity despite our rejection of our God’s rule with all its consequences.  Let us cling to this hope as we are constantly being transformed to be God’s people in this world. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Destruction as good news?

Peter Lockhart
Reflections on Luke 21:5-19

As Christians we believe that we have received a message of good news in and through Jesus Christ.  Yet this morning we have read difficult words that have come to us from Jesus.  They are words which contain an edge of prophecy, a prediction of calamity and suffering.

‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’

These words of prophecy have been used over the two millennia since Jesus spoke them to offer hope in the midst of distress, hope that Christ is coming; hope that the suffering that we see and experience has meaning; even if the meaning is only the sign of God’s coming.

I am always wary of reading words of scripture too deeply into the world around us but these words feel that they carry some weight this week.

Just a few weeks ago we followed the news of unseasonal bushfires in New South Wales and this week we have seen the heartbreaking images flowing out of the Philippines in the wake of Typhon Haiyan, reportedly the biggest Typhoon to ever reach landfall.  The devastation is immense.

At the UN convention on climate change the representative from the Philippines, Yeb Sano, has gone on a hunger strike in solidarity with his brother who has been working for three days without food in the wake of the storm.  He has been carrying the dead to places to be buried.

For any of you, for any of us, who have personally lived through times of trauma and heartache, through wars, through flood, through drought we know that Jesus words of prophecy apply to the moments of our ordinary lives in which we enter into extraordinary situations of pain and of suffering and it is only in knowing the rest of the story of Jesus that we can find hope.

Jesus begins his prophecy with the words of the destruction of the temple.  In John’s gospel when Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple he alludes to his own death and then goes on to say that in three days I will raise it up again – he alludes to his resurrection.

Without the words of hope which come from the resurrection the idea of the suffering which Jesus prophesies leave us in darkness and despair.  Our suffering personal or global comes without hope.

The resurrection says that even though death might swallow us up new life awaits.  New life awaits those who have lived through hell on earth and God’s promise is for the renewal of all things in Jesus.

The message of Jesus is not that God wills our suffering but that God is with us in our suffering.  The message of God in Jesus is not that God wishes to destroy some but not others or to unmake what God has made.  No, the message of God in Jesus is that suffering which we experience, which I believe always remains cloaked in mystery, is not something which God stands apart from.  God is with us in Jesus.

The message that we carry is good news, it is not easy or unproblematic; it is not straightforward and painless; it is not trouble-free and effortless but it is good.  It is message of resurrection, of life in the face of death, of creation in face of oblivion, of hope in the face of despair.

On this day when we do and should find ourselves lamenting for those who are suffering whether it be in the Philippines, or in NSW; whether it be in Afghanistan or Syria, whether it be in our personal lives or the lives of those whom we love let us hold on to the hope we have in Christ Jesus and let us pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness.