Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Eve, Family Feud and Bethlehem Town

This week I asked people on Facebook to share their favourite Christmas movies.

So now, it’s a bit like family Feud...

Who thinks they can guess what’s behind the pieces of card board.

Top 8 Christmas movies

It’s a wonderful Life
A Christmas Carol
Miracle on 34th Street
The Santa Clause
The Grinch
Polar express

As I was thinking about these movies and I confess I have not seen all of them recently one of the things that struck me was that most of them have an element of the magical or supernatural about them. 

With amazing special effects and script writing we imagine Hollywood magic can take us anywhere.

It seems we long for the miraculous moment; the supernatural intervention; the miracle of the divine.  It is found in our obsession with all things magical at Christmas – we gaze at a star in East, we think about angels and amazing miracles; we sentimentalise the story and we make it fantastical. 

Yet running counter to this theme of the supernatural I have to admit I do like the retelling of the Christmas story as we heard it tonight from Andrew McDonough: Bethlehem Town

McDonough gives us a more realistic retelling.  Mary and Joseph probably stayed with relatives, the architecture of the first century Middle East meant the animals were inside the houses with the people, when the baby was born the men, including Joseph, were kicked out and the local women, probably relatives, came in to help. 

For many of us it is not the story we have been indoctrinated with but the archaeological and Biblical evidence suggest this is a better retelling than inns filled with strangers and wooden stables out the back.

The coming of Jesus into the world does have its supernatural moments, like the angels in the fields, but part of what Luke was trying to say is that Jesus birth was earthy and real and normal for the time in which he lived.

For me there is a reversal going on here.  Not us longing for the divine and the spectacular but God, the divine, longing for us, seeking for us, coming to be with us.  God wants to share in the mundane and might I say the hidden spectacular reality of human existence. By becoming one of us and sharing our life God reminds us that what God has made was good and more to the point that what God desires for us is life in all its fullness.

When the angels came announcing good news to the shepherds they didn’t say a Saviour is born so you can have a better afterlife or the Messiah is here so you can go to heaven and avoid hell.

No, the first concern of the angels was peace on earth!  Salvation was about what was going to happen to them in this life.

Of course, there is a bigger story at play and there are promises made elsewhere in the Scriptures about what happens after we die but these should intrude on this story nor take away from the affirmation and promise of fullness of life now.

This brings me back to all those movies I mentioned before and in particular two of them.  The old movie and favourite of many It’s a wonderful life is about the main character George Bailey discovering that his life meant something, that despite him missing out on many of his personal desires, the knock on effect of how he had lived and meant positive outcomes for so many others.

Salvation in the movie for him was not about him being rewarded with going to heaven but with being rewarded with the realisation of how wonderful his life had been.  It was in one sense about discovering gratitude for the life that he had.

Many of you will have had difficult lives, and often terrible moments within them.  Often these are times we ask in desolation where is God in all of this, why have you abandoned me.  Sometimes our prayers for healing and pain to stop seem to go unanswered.

On the other hand some of you may have not yet experienced great hardships yet in your life.  You may take what you have for granted and may not fully understand just how blessed you are.

The message of Christmas is about how God seeks to come alongside us to be with us in those tragic and difficult moments and to help us to find gratitude for the gift of life when things are going well.

In a similar way the movie A Christmas Carol and its various adaptations are about the key character Scrooge realising that his life too could mean something to others and that through his transformation others could rejoice more fully in life.

The message of transformation is part of the Christmas story as well.  Mary and Joseph were changed.  The shepherds were change.  And we can be changed by this encounter too.

Jesus birth to me is about God’s longing for us, for you, to live, to live fully, to live gratefully, to live mundanely in the everyday wonder of our existence seeing with hope beyond the terrible tragedies that God is inviting us all as humanity to live well, to live better and so encounter salvation in this life as we hope for it in the next.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that you will encounter the deep truth of God’s love for you: God become like you to affirm your existence and to share in all of the joys, sorrows and challenges of our human life and thereby make each moment that we live holy. 

May you catch a glimpse of the divine in the ordinary and extraordinary this Christmas!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Annunciation: a theological insight to God's life with us.

Over 60 years after Jesus birth a doctor and follower of Jesus known as Luke wrote down a story which portrayed an intimate scene between Mary and an angel called Gabriel.  No one else was present and no one else wrote the story down in the same way.  In fact the only other version we have of the birth narrative of Jesus is found in Matthew’s gospel and it is quite a bit different.

To quote from Luke himself concerning this particular situation it would be easy to be “much perplexed by his words”.  Or maybe we might want ask with Mary “How can this be?”

The kind of conundrum which is presented to us in this classic Biblical story, known as the annunciation, is a conundrum which leads me into speaking about something which is foundational in my faith – how I read the Bible.

It is quite fanciful to think that Luke’s fly on the wall account of this miraculous event has any real sense of absolute historical truth about it.  Even if there was a tradition handed on, a story about what had occurred, the idea that it would have remained accurate and intact for 60 years in naive at best.

So what do we do with this story?  How do we understand it? Does it have any real authority for us?

My answer is, “Of course.”

The notion that we only read the Biblical text as some kind of accurate and literal account of events has only really been around for about 100 years or so.  Narrow literalist readings of the scripture seem to be reaction by many in the church to the liberal theology of the nineteenth century.  A theology which, for example, had no real trouble accepting Charles Darwin’s theories expressed in his ground breaking book “The Origins of Species”.

But, just as there are problems with literalist readings of the scriptures which seek to enshrine the words of the text in a way which I believe is idolatrous, so too I have great difficulty with those who would disregard the text because it does not make scientific and historic sense to them.

Many of the so called liberal theologians would say that there is no evidence for what the scripture is saying or that it is inconsistent, and more than that, that the church has indoctrinated us to have naive beliefs about the scriptures.

To both literalist and liberal I would want to say Luke was not writing history and nor was he writing science – Luke was writing theology.

The purpose of Luke’s story is not to make a claim about the historicity of the encounter between the angel and Mary which may or may not have actually happened in the way that he described.  Nor is it to provide a scientific explanation concerning the notion of a virginal conception.

Luke’s task is theology: to explain who God is and how this God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God.  This is where the authority of the scriptures lie and it is how they should be read.

To do theology, to think about who God is and who we are before this God, is to stand on the precipice of a vast mystery.  It is as if we are looking into the far reaches of the ever expanding universe seeing the glimmer of billions of stars, aware and in awe, whilst not fully comprehending what is really out there.

As Luke fashions his story, of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary, what he is seeking to do is to convey some basic theological truths as had been revealed to him; truths which may have some historical grounding in an encounter which Mary may have described to others.

Not surprisingly one of the key truths that Luke explores, not just in this story but throughout his gospel, is the incomprehension and incredulity of people when they encounter the divine.  To push the miracle of this story a little further I would argue that what is occurring here is a theophany, which essentially means an appearance of God.

When Mary encounters the divine she is perplexed, she ponders his words, she even doubts by asking “How can this be?”  My sense of Mary’s response “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, is not that of a humble faithfulness that we can extol in any way rather it is a simple acceptance of what she has come to realise is fait accompli.

This is part of Mary’s story and it is part of our story too.  In the years I have spent in ministry many people have shared with me encounters with the divine: visions, feelings, angelic appearances, dreams, words of wisdom and insights.  These are intimate stories of witness, which we seem so often reticent to share in our scientific and ordered world, and they have been a gift to me.  I would continue to encourage you to take the confidence to share these intimate moments of your faith, your divine and miraculous encounters, with each other far more freely and so I believe to be surprised at just how common they are.  God is at work among us!

It is fascinating to me that Mary moves from a place of questioning, into obedient response and acceptance, and then when she visits Elizabeth into praise and thanksgiving to God.

It was in the sharing of her story that Luke depicts Mary as praising God openly.  A praise possibly born out of the joy of knowing that her story had been heard and her witness had meaning for Elizabeth; but we know not only for Elizabeth but for the millions of Christians who have treasured Luke’s narrative since that time.

Luke is telling us that even Mary who bore Jesus in her womb found it difficult to comprehend and accept what God might be doing and that the reality is that any encounter with God can lead us into confusion and questioning, “How can this be?”  If anything the story reassures us of our own questions concerning our spiritual experiences and should encourage us to know it is in the sharing of these experiences that both enlightenment and praise can occur.

This leads me into making a comment on another of Luke’s key theological points in this passage – the incarnation.

I remember a few years back making the comment in a sermon on this same passage that Luke’s point is not to get us to believe that Mary was a virgin but that Jesus was God’s Son.  When I made this statement I was leaving room for those who might struggle with the science of a virginal conception and other historical anomalies which lie around this story.  The question I asked at the time ‘was it more believable that Mary was a virgin or Jesus was God’s Son?’  At worst Luke is telling a stock standard story for his era to get his point across: if Jesus was to accepted as divine including the story of a virginal birth was really nothing new. 

I would say however after years of contemplation on the issue I have come to the conclusion that the idea that Mary was a virgin is not such a difficult leap after all and like most Biblical inclusions has deep theological significance in itself.

What Luke conveys to us is that God chose in God’s own mysterious way to reach into Mary and create within her a new life.  Psalm 139 describes the mystery of our embryonic life with these wonderful words: “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.  Whilst biological science may explain these processes there is still an awesomeness and mystery to be embraced in the miracle of life.

So when God knit Jesus’ life together in Mary’s womb he did so in a new way.  In the womb of this woman Mary, who was a child of Adam and Eve, God did something new in the creation.  This is the miracle of the incarnation, the eternal Word of God being made flesh, he is a new creation!

For so many Christians the cross is the focal point of our faith and rightly so.  Great theologians such as Martin Luther, Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann have pointed us to the cross to understand God.  Yet the cross is given its meaning so profoundly because of who it is we believe is hanging there in Jesus – God incarnate: the Word made flesh knit together in Mary’s womb!

This is why Luke’s story is so important because he describes for us a theological truth which has us standing with mouths agape just as Mary did: “How can this be?” “How can God become a human being?”

You see the incarnation stands us something which is completely unique about our faith.  The story of a God who as John puts it pitches his tent among us; he tabernacles with us!

It is his presence in the world that alters the reality of all existence.  This means that for me Christianity is never about telling you how to live or what you need to do to get into heaven or what kind of morals you should have.  These may be side effects of the good news but the heart of our faith, its essence, is about what God is up to in Jesus.

It would have been far simpler for me over the years to have taken the well worn route of preaching moral truths telling you how to behave or what to do but this to me would lack the truth of our faith and of eternal life, which is described by Jesus in John “as knowing him and the Father who sent him”.

As I continue in ministry in this place it is my prayer, and my hope, that you have not found anything of value in knowing me beyond that you have come to know God more deeply, for this is the task for which I believe I was sent.  To point away from myself and at God incarnate who is Jesus, and him crucified and risen for the life of the world.

To return to where I began, Luke’s purpose was theology.  The story of the annunciation is our story – the story of our confusion and disbelief when God appears.  Yet it is also the story of God’s faithfulness and immeasurable love revealed in the Good news, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Is it any wonder that when Mary began to really comprehend this she extolled God before Elizabeth saying,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

May we in grace and hope join her song.


Monday, 8 December 2014

Filled with Joy, not pursuing happiness!

Today on the third Sunday of Advent the readings encourage us to contemplate the theme of joy.

In Isaiah 61:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”

In Psalm 126:

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy”

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”

This theme of joy is etched into our Christian existence; it is a response to God’s grace and goodness, it is part of the Christian DNA.  So strong is this theme of joy that the word for joy is found over 300 times in the New Testament.

Christians are meant to be people filled with joy.

But what does joy sound like? What does joy look like?What does it feel like? 

Is joy found in the pursuit of happiness? 

Is joy found in the ownership of goods? 

Is joy found in status and wealth?

Or even in a bar of chocolate?

If one were to examine the Western culture in which we live one might think that the answer to these things is ‘yes’.  In fact most of our advertising encourages us to think that if we consume a particular product we will be happier or our lives will somehow be more complete.

A recent campaign by Cadbury chocolate called ‘share the joy’ included the slogan “A glass and half full of joy”, whilst a previous Coca-Cola advertising carries the catch phrase “Open Happiness”. 

Ultimately, a great deal of our advertising does the same – it suggests that by owning or consuming a particular product we will be more fulfilled and that we will be imbued with joy or happiness or contentment.

Of course most of us see through the advertising and know that products do not necessarily produce the joy in life that we seek.  In fact it seems that our very opulent lifestyle is failing to fulfil us let alone bring us joy.

Despite the indications of how high a standard of living we as Australians enjoy, how wealthy we are on a world scale, we continue to speak of ourselves as Aussie battlers and wear that badge with a sense of pride.  And there are clear indicators as Australians that we are not a very happy people. 

Statistics indicate that at any given time one in six Australian men is suffering from depression and that women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression after puberty. (

Now whilst mental illness is a complex issue this is a disturbing statistic in such a wealthy culture.  This statistic is made more concerning but the figures of suicide rates in Australia.  More than one in five deaths which occur in 15-24 year old men occurs through suicide.  (

Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order, noted in his devotional book “Seven last Words” that in his travels around the world it was in the wealthiest countries that he found that people seemed to be the most worried.  It appears that we are afflicted by our anxiety despite our wealth or maybe even because of it! (

We have not found joy!  This seems somewhat paradoxical given our Western culture has its roots in Christendom.  If joy is meant to be etched into our Christian existence where have we gone wrong?  Where is the joy?

As I examined the passages set down for today apart from the theme of joy another theme came through, a theme which anchors that joy of which I am speaking and for which I think we long.

Listen for the theme in Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me


I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

He goes on,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Do you hear it?  Do you get it?  Isaiah’s confidence, his task, his joy was there because he believed and trusted that God had acted, was acting and that God would act again in human history.

So too in the Psalm:

“the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

And once again in Paul’s letter the strength of hope expressed in a trust in God’s faithfulness:

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

People of faith through history have found their joy in knowing and believing in a God who acts.

The God who we are told sent John into the world to prepare the way for Jesus coming into the world.

I wonder whether as a culture we have become so reliant on our own abilities, so disconnected from the struggle to survive, so individualistic in our pursuit of happiness that we have lost focus on the heart of our faith – the faithfulness of God.  The faithfulness of God expressed to the whole creation in his willingness to share our human existence in Jesus and to point a way forward into the hope, peace and joy of life with God.

To recover our joy as Christians means that maybe we should stop pursuing happiness as it is being sold to us and rather pursue God: to pursue God, knowing that the joy that we find in relationship with him has led Christians through the millennia to face hardship and peril with a sense of joy and peace.  The joy of the Christian life is a joy which can and does transcend personal hardships.

When the Psalmist fills mouths with laughter it is done so in the face of adversity.

So the first step may be to stop trying to pursue joy and happiness and rather focus again on God.

But more than this, the reading from Isaiah should also bring to mind that Jesus chose these words from Isaiah to preach the good news to his home town of Galilee.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Jesus declared that the year of the Lord’s favour had come in him and truly if we understand this it should be a source of joy for us.

The year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee, was meant to occur every 50 years.  When the year of Jubilee came it “was a time of social renewal when all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and every dispossessed family returned to their ancestral lands that may have been sold or lost over the decades. (Leviticus 25) People may lose their land, their freedom, their stake in civil society for many reasons—whether by natural calamity, parental mismanagement, oppressive government, or moral failure—it does not matter. A new generation gets a stake in life. All is graciously restored in the year of Jubilee.” (

If we place our confidence, our faith, our trust in God and if we listen for Jesus words our joy comes from a shared hope in renewed community, in renewed relationship with God and with each other.  It is about shared joy not simply individual happiness.  Our joy runs deep as we live with hope that all will share in the joy of life lived in God’s creation. 

I think sometimes the difficulty for we who have so much is to find joy in God and not our possessions and luxury.  To be grateful for what we have and not constantly seek after more, but this is such a counter cultural idea.  Yet not only this but to take seriously the concept of the year of the Lord’s favour in which we hear a vision to bring good news to the oppressed and to forgive debts and to bind up the broken hearted and to comfort those who mourn. It is meant to be an eternal year of Jubilee.

Personally I find that the struggle that I have with joy at times is that it is difficult to be joyful about how good my life is when so many are suffering in the world.  Yet part of this conundrum is that not to be thankful for the things that I have and the opportunities would somehow seem ungrateful.

I believe Jesus presence in the world releases me and all of us from this conundrum and invites us to live celebrating joyfully the salvation we have found in him whilst at the same time caring so that others may know and experience salvation: life and life in all its fullness.  To put it another way to be joyful in our thanksgiving but also to care and give generously until all people can share in the joy.

To rejoice in the Lord always means being set from our anxieties about the future and trusting in the God who acts and so to share his concerns for others.  I don’t think we can respond to a command to be joyful rather having encountered God and heard that we can place our trust in him we can be liberated from our anxieties and so rejoice.

For me this is about getting things in the right order.  Seek after God and we will find joy. 

The Christian story has a theme of rejoicing a tone of celebration.  This joy comes from the hope we have in Christ and the peace that we have been given in our relationship with God.  It is a joy that causes us to take stock of our lives in this community of creation and as we do so to share in Christ’s ministry as his disciples in the world.

The facade of joy that surrounds us is a sales pitch that has no depth.  As we edge closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus let us be surprised by the joy of our relationship with God and share that joy with others, especially those in the world who need it most as we say with Isaiah:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

It's the good news of Jesus the Son of God, for you! "Come on down!"

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

I think one of the most dangerous things that we can do as human beings is think that we have arrived, that there is nothing more for us to learn.  When we take this stance, on any issue in our life, in my opinion it is less likely that we have actually come to a place of complete understanding and more likely that in our ignorance or our arrogance we have put the brain’s full sign on our foreheads and become belligerent about change.

When Mark wrote his gospel he begins with what I believe is a phrase that has layered meanings for us if we listen closely - “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ!”  It is the beginning of Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus.  Now right from the start of his gospel Mark let’s us into the secret - Jesus is God’s Son. 

If you sit and listen to the whole book from beginning to end it’s as though we as listeners are privy to a bit of a joke.  Jesus is God’s Son but most of the rest of the characters in the story don’t get it.

So on one level Mark’s words are just telling us that this is the start of his story.  But on another level there is a more personal impact that comes from these words – this is the “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!” in our lives as well.

For the words are not static, stagnant things left festering on the page, but are words which are meant to speak to us at a personal level.  This is good news for you!

As I was thinking about this and how this emotion attached to these words might be expressed I kept thinking of that old game show The Price is Right.  Contestant were selected from the audience with the word “Come on Down!”  And as the words were spoken the audience erupted into cheering and excitement – it was good news to be picked. 

Family members jump up out of their seats, the rest of the audience cheers and claps, the host smiles his cheesy grin and the person who had been selected could look shocked, amazed, astounded, elated, asking is it really me?

To me this is the image we need to have in our heads when we consider the excitement of the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is almost as if we should read:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Bob!”

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Jane!”

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Fred!”

And as we hear those words, as fellow participants in the event we cheer and we encourage and we share that excitement.

This is life changing stuff and there is newness about it – begins are about newness.  For someone in the game show there was the beginning of their opportunity to win some prizes; there were new games to play; and if they did well there were new household items – even to the point of being life changing for a person.  The consequences of coming on down could have longer term implications.

For us as Christians it should be no different.  With the excitement of hearing the good news and our name being called there is a new beginning and ongoing journey a different kind of engagement.  This is not the arrival this is the beginning and a beginning that would recur.

In Mark’s gospel he goes on to set the scene by speaking about John the Baptist and the call to repent and be baptised.  I think over the centuries in many ways we have sanitised baptism and made it nice.

Reading the Biblical scholars many will say that the strongest association with the image of baptism is not so much being washed cleaned as being drowned and being brought back to life.

This is why full immersion baptism is considered the most effective sign of baptism.  You dunk people under the water, they are drowned and rise from under the water in new life.  Unfortunately, for most Uniting Churches we have baptism fonts that are more like thimbles and our celebration of baptism whilst containing powerful words of grace often feel more like we are just giving a nice blessing to the child. Let alone the complications of baptising adults in droplets of water.

Yet our baptism, our calling to come on down, daily confronts us and calls us to change and to grow.  Baptism is not the arrival!  It is the new beginning of our relationship with God which is renewed everyday.  The words of the Psalmist come to mind – God’s mercies are new every morning, so great is his faithfulness.

I think somehow I would like to capture that sense of excitement and call every day as if Jesus is saying to me “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Peter Lockhart!”  To live with eyes wide open to the transformation God is working in my life and the world around me, for God’s promise in Jesus is to make all things new.

As God’s people we need to be wary that we have not put up the brain’s full sign; that we can be open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

This is not always easy for us as people.  We like the security of the familiar, it is safe and comfortable.  And new beginnings, newness can be viewed as blessing and gift but also can viewed as change, and we don’t always like change.

Yet if we consider the birth of a child, the newness and excitement that accompanies this change is fantastic, but it is also not easy.  Caring for a new child takes work, adjustment, and learning new things.   

As a congregation we have been thinking about the new things God might be calling us to: a church open day, brunch on the lawn, a service down at the park, different views about music and how we use it.  As God brings these things to birth new opportunities, new excitement, and even new dread fill us but we remember that God’s mercies are new every morning and that each day is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Advent 1 Hope

“And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

I want to invite you to take moment and think about the issues confronting us at the moment. 

As a congregation we are very small. We may be growing slowly but it takes so much energy.

On a personal level I know that for many of you have health issues which are of serious concern. For some of you your future in terms of where you are living is also playing on your mind.  all of us have our personal struggles and issues.

As a society Australia has become increasingly disinterested in the church and as we have found our selves on the sideline of the community we have become more insular.

I believe that we are facing far more serious global issues than ever before.  The issues of global warming and economic meltdown are raising question as to our way of life. Is this all indicating that the way we live now in the West may not be sustainable?

The confrontation between the West and other ideologies and religions has contributed to global instability.  The Middle East is in a state of terror.

To put it mildly you could say we are in a bit of a pickle.

It is exactly this kind of tumultuous environment that Jesus declares his hope to his disciples as he approached his death.

The words at the beginning of Mark 13 envisage a time when the temple will be destroyed and Jesus followers will be persecuted.  In these words Jesus indicates what lies ahead for the early Christians.  In the year 64 Nero began his persecution of the Christians in Rome – when Christians were subjected to horrors unimaginable.  In 70 A.D. the Temple was destroyed. 

Jesus words were words that described almost an end of the world for the Jews and early Christians.  But Jesus also spoke hope into this setting – the promise of the coming of the Son of Man, the promise that in the fullness of his return new life and hope would spring forth.

This said Jesus was what we are to do: we stay awake and watch with hope!

But staying awake and being hopeful is not that easy – some of you find it difficult not to doze in my sermons – but in this you can find yourself in the good company of the disciples.

In Mark 14, the following chapter, the scene shifts half way through the chapter to the garden of Gethsemane where we know the disciples kept falling asleep, even though they had been asked to stay awake with Jesus.

At the height of Jesus agonising over his impending death, when he needed a friend, his friends were found wanting.  When going gets tough the tough fell asleep!

In the midst of the demons of our time, the problems facing the world and the church, are we not like the disciples who found themselves alongside Jesus dozing off.

It is hard to stay awake if you think about it.

Have we been sung to sleep by the lullaby of the comfortable culture which surrounds us?  We live in safe homes, eat our nice meals, and access our almost free health care system.  We have good friendships, people to look after us, TV to entertain us.

Or maybe… have we become dazed by the bright flashing lights of the frenetic society around us?  Are we rushing around being busy because if we are not busy people might think worse of us?  So busy that we are all but asleep on our feet!

Do we think that we are stuck in bad dream waiting to wake up?

Jesus challenges us “And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

What are we staying awake for?  To see the signs of Jesus presence, to see the signs of Jesus coming!  Like a new leaf on the fig tree hope springs forth.  Little by little signs of new are growth stirring – the coming of Jesus.  Peace breaks out as the kingdom breaks in and Jesus reign is established.

As we struggle in this Gethsemane time, half way between sleep and wakefulness, like the disciples we can find our trust and hope in Jesus promise: whatever the outcome of our drowsy estate Jesus will come to make all things new!

So in this, our waiting is no passive thing, it is not a nothing time.  Our waiting takes place context in the rhythm of the pattern of our worship, of our lives lived with God and with each other.  Whatever confronts our God is with us; Jesus has come, is here and is coming!

As we begin our Advent journey as a congregation we face uncertain times and difficult choices what is God asking of us now.  How will we be God’s people awake and attuned to Jesus presence in the world around us?

I want to invite you to take a moment and think of the challenges that we face, what do you perceive God is calling us to do now. 

What hopes do you have for Jesus presence with us as a congregation and how will that shape who we are and what we do in the year to come?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns!

Christ the King Sermon 2014: Peter Lockhart

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar.  It is the end of our Christian year.  Not unlike New Year’s celebrations at the end of December, or possibly even our birthdays, it is a time for both reminiscing and a time for looking ahead. 

The readings for the day lend themselves to helping us as they give us some criteria with which we might assess our faith: the criteria of our engagement with those who suffer.

The imagery from the readings that we heard from both Ezekiel and Matthew are images which contain an edge of judgement.  God, or Jesus, is described as a shepherd separating the flock into those who are righteous and those who are not.

The notion of Jesus acting as a king sitting in judgement over his people is not one that we might necessarily be comfortable with.  And even more tempting is to go down the path of trying to work out who is and who is out and why.

Of course most, if not all preachers, would encourage their congregations with the notion that they are numbered among the righteous or if not an invitation to become one of the righteous ones would be given.

But I do wonder whether this is the most helpful approach and on deeper reflection on the passages, especially the one from Matthew I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective which can be encapsulated in three ideas:

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns! 

Let me unpack these three interlinked ideas with you.

Firstly, ‘it comes as a surprise’.  In his commentary on the passage David Lose from Luther Theological Seminary notes that for both those who are identified as ‘sheep’ and those who are identified as ‘goats’ the judgement comes as a surprise.

After Jesus has outlined when he was present in both cases the response is to ask Jesus the question “When was it that we saw you.”  I must admit that the repetition of this phrase really struck me as I thought about this passage this:

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

This notion of being surprised emphasises a couple of things for us.  The first is that it was not through careful planning and behaviour that the sheep or goats are judged but on actions that they were simply not aware of.  And, secondly, and possibly also more disturbingly, it is God alone who makes the judgement.

Unlike the sense of assurance of salvation that the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley spoke of, in this passage we encounter that those who are chosen are rather surprised by their inclusion.

God alone decides the who and what and why and wherefore of salvation. Listening carefully to broader span of the New Testament we are also aware that the judgement day is the day of Jesus own death.  A factor which should be considered as we listen to Jesus words. 

Nonetheless, as we listen to this parable and to other teachings of Jesus around it what appears most certain around notions of judgement is that is God who decides and not our plans for inclusion that matter.  If our behaviour saves us it is not through our deliberate actions but the surprising choices that God makes.

This releases from the concerns about trying to do good deeds to save ourselves and allows us to turn to God in trust and faith knowing that the word of judgement encountered in Jesus death is matched by a word of grace exclaimed in Jesus resurrection.

We do not carry the burden of saving ourselves but trust in a God whose mercies are new every morning for God’s grace, ‘It comes as a surprise!’

Which brings me to the second phrase or point: That God is present!

The notion that God is present with us can be fairly vague but not in this reading.  God is present in a very specific way as an extension of the incarnation.

The incarnation extended and apparent not in the presence of the people of God but rather more confrontingly in those that Jesus describes as the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.

In identifying his personal presence within these people Jesus continues the tradition and understanding expressed by the prophets like Ezekiel: God has specific concern for those who suffer in this life.  Salvation is not meant to be an after we die event but a restoration of humanity and community to those who are excluded in this life now.

One of the things that this challenges us on if we reflect on our personal journey of faith is whether or not we have viewed others as being Jesus with us.

As we engage with other human beings our starting point as Christians should always involve the idea that Christ is already present.  The notion of incarnational ministry, which is often expressed as we who are the holy ones being Christ for others, is actually around the wrong way: others are Christ with us.

Which brings me to the third idea if we understand that salvation comes as a surprise and that God is present then as people who know this we are invited to respond as we share in God’s concerns!

Growing up I kind of had this idea that being a good Christian was primarily about moral decisions accompanied by attendance at worship.  Don’t drink too much, or swear, be polite and kind, no sex before marriage, work hard and be honest.

But in Jesus judgement the criteria are far more confronting for us.

Feed the hungry
Give water to the thirsty
Welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Heal the sick
And visit the prisoner.

Marrying these comments with Ezekiel’s similar prophecy concerning judgement I believe that the criteria to which we are responding to be Christian and the call to follow Jesus must necessarily involve us in those God is concerned for.  Otherwise we simply and silently participate in the systems that allow others to suffer.

Listen again to Ezekiel’s words:

18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? 20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

On a global scale we are among the fat sheep and as our reflection on abolitionist Sunday has reminded us many of the slaves around the world are propping up our lifestyles.  We are trampling on their pasture and muddying their waters.

So as we look ahead into the year to come, as we begin again next week our advent journey let us think about what it means for us to be Christians personally, followers of Jesus, and corporately as the people of God who gather in this Uniting Church.

The good news is that salvation comes as a surprise! Something out of our control that we do not need to worry about. That God is present!  Which calls us to honour other beings as a continuation of God’s presence in the world in Jesus. And lastly that we are invited to share in God’s concerns for those who are considered ‘The least of these’! 

For when the least of these experience God’s grace in the meal provided, in the clothing given, in the welcome of the stranger,  in the healing of the sick or the release of the prisoner then it may be actually true that it is on earth as is in heaven, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The parable of the talents or the cruel master?

As we gather around the scriptures each week in church and listen for Jesus word to us I sometimes wonder how we actually perceive what we are doing.

What are you expecting as you listen?  Are you possibly hoping that what the scriptures and sermon do is become a mirror reflecting our already established world views and spiritual ideas back on ourselves?  Or are you hoping that instead of a pane of glass in the frame, a window which helps us look into the real world of God’s love and the promise of a coming kingdom?

This is a fundamental and important question for each one of you and me to grapple with.  What is that we are doing as we listen?  I think if we take seriously the idea that when Christ is present he is inviting us to look through a window and not into a mirror serious questions arise around the nature of the real world.

It seems somehow a little more weighty to make such claims as this today whilst the G20 meets in Brisbane.  I saw a comment in response to some of the alternative G20 activities, protests and meetings and so on, that at least the world leaders meeting at the G20  live in the real world like the rest of us.  But what is the real world and what is Christ calling us to?

So as look at the story that Jesus told this morning I believe we need to remember the basic convictions of the Christian faith and use that as our frame around that mirror. 

God created all things. Human beings were given a special place and relationship with God, and the creation.  Human beings have not responded faithfully in that relationship.  Jesus came into the world and lived as God among us.  Through Jesus’ life death and resurrection God has renewed the relationship and shown us mercy.  In all of this the frame through which we look is the framework of grace, which is ultimately embodied in the person and work of Jesus.

All of this is rather a long introduction to talking about the parable that we heard today.  Clearly this is a difficult parable.  And from my research around it this week I have found it is one which has caused much debate in the church, particularly in the last few years.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is to think of the Master who goes away as God and then to spiritualise the talents as some kind of ‘gifts’.  I will come back to that issue because first I want to share with you one of the commentaries I found about this passage during the week.

Not from a spiritual website but a business one called “Early to Rise”. I assume it is echoing the old saying, ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.’  It said this:

Why do some people retire rich and most people retire poor? This question has fascinated philosophers, mystics, and teachers throughout the ages. There have been so many men and women – hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions – who started with nothing and became financially independent that people are naturally curious to know why it happened and if there are common rules or principles that others can apply to become wealthy as well.

The Parable of the Talents is one of the stories told by Jesus to illustrate a moral lesson. The message in this case (from the Gospel of Matthew): “To him that hath, shall more be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.”

What does it mean?

In the modern world, we say it this way: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The fact is that people who accumulate money tend to accumulate more and more. People who don’t accumulate money seem to lose even that little bit that they have.

What the author of this website has done is taken the parable at face value to affirm capitalism, the growth of wealth and dare I say – greed!
It reminds me of a time when a congregation member asked me where the passage “God helps those who helps themselves” is found in the scriptures.  To which I answered truthfully it is not.  But at face value this parable interpreted as an affirmation of using our gifts to amass wealth seems to echo such a sentiment.

In this situation, especially in our capitalistic and individualistic society, the parable is being used as a mirror to make us feel comfortable, worth and even self-righteous.

I have seen this kind of thinking to justify the idea that the poor are poor because they have not used their gifts appropriately or even worse done something to deserve their fate.  On the other hand, those who have wealth are using their gifts appropriately and are being rewarded with more.  If Jesus is understood in any way to be affirming this system then Jesus is actually patting us who ‘have’ on the back and deriding the poor.

I have to confess that this kind of reading of the parable is questionable if not downright destructive as it could be used to justify ignore those who are poor because the have not used their gifts.

Now of course there is the argument that the talents are not to be understood as money but as spiritual gifts. But even this kind of interpretation can lead to a spiritual elitism and self-righteousness.  I found this reflected in some of the comments made on blogs on this parable.  One person suggesting that one of the commentators obviously had not been given the spiritual gifts to understand the parable and so would be excluded and judged for their interpretation.

It seems to me that holding the notion that the focus is on how we use our talents leads us towards the dangerous area of works righteousness and elitism, in other words looking narcissistically into a mirror.

But how can we retain the frame of grace and smash the mirror and so look through the window into God’s future and promise.

As we look again at the parable despite the error of some English translations this parable does not begin with the words the kingdom of heaven is like in fact at the end of the parable the opening sentence following the story is ‘but’.  “But when the son of Man comes.”  In other words the parable is not representative of the kingdom, of anything it is quite the opposite!

As a helpful corrective I went back and read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus found in Matthew 19.

The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Given this story I suspect that Jesus would be reticent to affirm wealth and those who pursued wealth as the master in the parable does.  This made think more about Jesus audience and I was thankful to Richard Rhorbaugh for his insights on the passage who argues that most of Jesus audience would have been poor, probably farmers and fishermen living hand to mouth.  The daily economy of their lives was not lived within a capitalistic culture but an agrarian one where labour was not about building a portfolio. It was about simply living day to day.

In fact the culture and philosophy of the era leading up to Jesus parable had raised some significant questions around the generation of wealth. 

Aristotle in his Politics saw retail trade as unnatural and was critical of making money or wealth as if it were an end in itself. Trading goods, which first two servants engaged, was thought of inherently evil. Plutarch similarly attacked those who amassed wealth in his writing On the Love of wealth.  Much later in the fourth century, the Christian scholar Jerome wrote, “every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.” (In Hieremiam, II, V, 2: CCL LXXIV 61)  For we who are wealthy and live a market based consumerist culture can only hear all of this as a critique of how we live.

This takes us back to Jesus audience.  To a peasant, the poor person listening to this parable, the Master in the tale would have been a terrifying figure.  It is not surprising that the servant who buried his talents in the ground describes the master as harsh, the Greek word here could actually be translated as cruel.  He was perceived as harsh and his judgement appears consistent with this.  And might I say inconsistent with Jesus teachings about God’s mercy and forgiveness earlier in Matthew.

To help fill in some context for us who not part of the Jewish tradition in the book of Exodus we read that if someone entrusted with an amount of money loses any of it they will be held to account over the loss and taken before a judge.  In response to this passage the Rabbis agreed that a person burying the money was not responsible for any loss.  It was thus viewed as a wise course of action to bury the wealth.

In addition to these problems the Master suggests that servant with one talent could have invested it, which means the Master is encouraging usury.  The lending of money to gain interest was once again at best questionable and at worst an outright sin.  Jesus himself is recorded as saying in Luke 6:35 Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.

Finally, the servant also says of the master reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. The master has a reputation for taking what is not his and the master does not deny it.

Even when we spiritualise the talents the notion we are left with is one that appears contradictory to the story of Jesus life lived for us to draw us back into the relationship with God.

Where does this all this leave us?  With an image of an unmerciful, judge that will punish those who don’t make more for someone who is already wealthy beyond measure.  This vision has little room for the concept of God’s concern for the poor.  The Master is a still a tyrant and it has been suggested by some that Jesus is being quite specific about which tyrant he is attacking: Herod’s Son Archelaus who had gone off to Rome to seek the support of the Emperor.

Is it not more likely that as we look at this parable it is setting us up to hear what Jesus will say next to present a different view of God’s reality and God’s concern for the world: to look through the window of grace and hope.

We will be reading the passage which follows next week but let us have a sneak preview now.  It has an edge of judgement to it but centred within that judgement is where God’s true concerns lie:
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Jesus audience including the poor would have heard the contrast as a sign of why Jesus was there with them and what God’s invitation was about: restoration of community, relief to those who suffer; compassion and care.  Good news for the poor, blessing and hope.  A window not a mirror of how we already live and what we already believe.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It's not about the oil!

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

This wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley captures the central message of Christian hope – Jesus comes with all his grace.  It is God who acts and it is God alone who draws into deeper that relationship of divine eternity.  I often remind myself that the answer is Jesus, the answer is always Jesus.

But then Jesus tells his disciples a story, a parable, which leaves me bamboozled: the story told to us from Matthew’s gospel is one of those stories.  How do we hear this story as a story that is filled with God’s grace?

Let’s listen to the story a little more closely and consider what might be going here.

Now Jesus was teaching the disciples, he was critiquing the Pharisees and he was speaking about the return of the Son of Man.  The ideas seem to overlay one another as they coalesce in this parable of the 10 bridesmaids.

The story tell us about 10 bridesmaids who are waiting to meet the bridegroom.  It is my understanding that part of the Jewish tradition of the time that bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family where the party would continue and the marriage would be consummated.

The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived.

So all 10 turn up, they have lamps which we can safely assuming are filled with oil and burning and they begin
their vigil waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Now Middle Eastern schedules of the ancient world were not unlike the schedules of some cultures that we can still encounter.  Unga and I sometimes speak about Tongan or Pacific time.  Basically it means you turn up when you turn up, which, of course, for some of us who are punctuality perfectionists can be more than a little aggravating.

So the bridesmaids wait... and they wait... and they wait... and they collectively doze off.  All 10 of to sleep!

Suddenly there is a fuss and a flutter as the figure of the bridegroom approaches.  Now is their moment, now is their time!

But the oil has run low and an issue arises and becomes somewhat ironically enflamed.

Five of the bridesmaids had brought extra oil whilst five had not – they were out and they needed more.  So the five who had run out turn to their sisters, their friends, their family and they say please share, give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning.

But the wise ones say no, there is not enough to go around.  No, we have ours and we are going to the party.

Now I have to say at this point on so many occasions I have heard this parable spoken about I have been told that I should be like one of these wise ones and have extra oil for my lamps, extra faith maybe, extra preparedness – whatever it means.

But I have to admit on reading the parable again I do not want to be associated with the wise ones in any way shape or form.

In Matthew 5:40-41 Jesus teaches, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

At the heart of Jesus messages lies a generous God who invites us to generosity even at great cost to ourselves.   I can’t but help think of Paul’s second letter to the Philippians in which we find the great kenosis hymn.  Kenosis is about self-emptying; Jesus empties himself of all to share in our existence.

The example and behaviour of the so-called wise ones to me is abhorrent.  There is almost an air of smug self-satisfaction as they go off to the party.  We got in because we are wise.  Do they not care about those left behind? Those outside? Those who are excluded? Their sisters? Their friends?

How often has your heart broken with the notion that someone that you love might be excluded from the loving kingdom of God because they did not have enough faith, knowledge, commitment?  Is this the God we encounter in the scriptures? In Jesus?

At this moment the wise ones appear to me more like the Pharisees that Jesus is often criticising.

What happens to those women left waiting outside?  They act.  They did not sit idly by and give up, they race off to the market in the middle night and somehow find someone to provide them with more oil.  In the middle of the night! Their lamps were already out so they find their way through dark streets to get what they need and they return.  What an effort!

They return to the house of the bride and they knock on the door equipped and ready to help the party arriving in their own time but the way is shut.  The interaction sounds so final, so condemning.

The other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

How does this fit in any way, shape or form with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7?

‘Ask, and it will be given to you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

The way remains shut! 

Inside are a group who refused to do what Jesus taught – share generously, even if it means your own suffering.  Outside is a group who are experiencing rejection despite their last ditched efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  How do we make sense of this situation?

Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Were you listening carefully?  This hit me like brick this week.  Jesus does not mention oil nor the wisdom or folly of those who bring extra or those who fail to.

Jesus critique is for those who fall asleep. Remember verse 5, As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  I can just hear Paul saying to the Romans in his letter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God!”

Jesus dire warning to the disciples is to stay awake – to be ready for what is hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder does anyone remember what happens in Matthew 26.  In the next Chapter of Matthew, Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John and asks them to wait for him and stay awake with him as he prays.  The disciples, who had not long before heard the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the injunction to stay awake, go to sleep.

They go to sleep as their master struggle with his fate and prepares for the ending of his life.  Three times Jesus has to awaken the disciples, they were not ready, and the third time it is tell them that his betrayer is at hand.

What a perplexing scene we are left with.  Bridesmaids inside that seem selfish, bridesmaids outside excluded, disciples who fall asleep.

Where is hope?

In Matthew 27 we are told about another door that is shut, a stone rolled by Joseph of Arimathea across the tomb of Jesus.  A door closed; a barrier between life and death, between the incarnate God and the creation. This door is the most impenetrable of doors.  How can we rise above these perplexing questions?

Matthew reports that three days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb and as they approach there was an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven who opens the tomb.  Inviting the women inside he tells them, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.’

We have been wise and we have been foolish, we have been asked to stay awake and we have slept yet the promise of God’s love remains:

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

It is not the extra oil, it is not running off into the night to get the oil, it is not knocking on the door and it is not even staying awake that makes the difference.  It Jesus himself who burst forth into new life, risen from the dead, the opens the doors and reawakens us – God is with us, God desires the best for us, God invites us to celebrate with the bridegroom as he shares his life with us.

Stay awake and be alert for the presence of the risen Lord is with us. Thanks be to God.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Jesus saw the crowds

“When Jesus saw the crowds”

Did you feel the significance of that simple statement?

“Jesus saw the crowds.”

The eternal Word of God, present at the time of creation, at that moment enfleshed in Jesus saw the crowds.

The crowd is such an anonymous entity, an enormous entity – a place in which people can get lost and be ignored.  Yet Jesus saw the crowds.

People like you and I: the crowd searching for healing and hope and news of a better reality.  What did Jesus see in crowd?   Later in Matthew 9 we are told that Jesus saw within the crowd people who were like sheep without a shepherd.

Who did he see? People bearing the burdens of their lives.  People with ailments and problems.  People looking for hope.  People like you and I.

Jesus saw the crowds and Jesus responded.  Jesus ascended to the mountaintop and as was the custom of the rabbis he sat down and he began to teach.   Jesus began to teach his disciples.

Now I have little doubt that just as the disciples approached him many of the crowd leaned in as well.  Leaning in over the shoulders of the disciples the crowd was listening.

What would Jesus say?  What is Jesus response to seeing the crowd human beings going about their business with all their troubles, woes and joys?

The words that Jesus shares are well know to us, they are called the beatitudes but we who are hearing them again for the umpteenth time should remember those gathered on the side of the hill were hearing them for the first time.

If we were travel back to the time and hear them afresh I suspect 2 things would stand out.  Firstly, Jesus teaching appears to be encouraging something of a reversal or revolution of understanding what it means to be blessed.  And secondly, in the context of the reversal Jesus declares a hope which transcends the current experience.

Each of the first statements of Jesus Sermon on the Mount comes as a couplet, recognition of a blessing and an alternate reality to which that blessing is connected.

It is a reversal that we too need to hear:

Blessed are the poor? Those who mourn? The meek? Those who hunger and thirst? Really?

There is an old country song Count Your Blessings – I don’t think this is what they were thinking about when they wrote the song.

So why does Jesus say it?  In his book The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer suggests that Jesus was first and foremost speaking to his disciples who had left their homes, their families, their livelihoods to follow Jesus.  They were poor, they mourned the loss of their nationhood, they were meek and no doubt they experienced days of hunger and thirst.

Jesus reversal reminds them, not just the disciples but crowd listening on and so us as well, that blessedness is not necessarily represented in an easy life with no hardship.  Blessedness, the knowledge of God’s care and concern for any is not necessarily equated to the momentary experience in which we find ourselves.

Jesus teaches his disciples that the parallel to the blessedness of life, whether it feels like a blessing or not, is that there is a coming kingdom of heaven, that there is comfort in store, and that mercy and that seeing God are in store.

Two sides of a story: we live life as a blessing, even in the tough times, and we live with hope that from the blessing of life we will encounter the fullness of God’s life and kingdom.

Of course as people hearing this story from where we sit we are hearing this story from the fringe of the crowd, not only looking over the shoulders of the crowds and disciples but hearing beyond on the moments of its speaking on the other side of Jesus death and resurrection.

In hearing this story post resurrection and having a fuller sense of Jesus identity there is more to it for us than for the disciples and the crowd which Jesus saw.

When God looks upon the world and sees humanity and the creation and the difficult experiences of our blessed lives God shares in the fullness of our humanity by joining us in it and experiencing the depth of blessedness himself.

Jesus is the poor in spirit, Jesus is one who mourns, Jesus is the meek, Jesus hungers and thirsts, Jesus is pure in heart, Jesus is a peacemaker and yes Jesus is persecuted.

Jesus blessedness in sharing our existence culminates in his sharing in our death as he dies on the cross and so he blesses us.

We know that by the power of the resurrection the kingdom of heaven has come; we know that he is comforted; that he inherits the earth; that he has been filled; that he has received mercy; that he is a child of God and that he rejoices.

Jesus teaching comes to us not telling us that we need to seek poverty of spirit and mourning and meekness and hunger and thirst out but that in and through him when we experience those things he is drawing us into the other side of that promise.

It will be on earth as it is in heaven, even if the blessed life we lead now seems to miss the mark.

Blessedness here is not about an easy life and having everything we want but rather is about knowing that God does not desert us even the darkest of places, that our predicament is not a measure of our blessedness and yes there is a kingdom coming.

Each week each of face the struggles and trials of life: sometimes you and I have to admit that we have got it wrong; sometimes you and I encounter confusion and mourning; sometimes we hunger and thirst ; sometimes you and are called on to be peacemakers; and sometimes we find ourselves being persecuted for our faith.

Yet, as people listening to Jesus teaching on the other side of the resurrection we are able to hang on to that tangible hope which we have seen in the resurrection: renewal and recreation is coming, suffering and death have been defeated.

Yes we do not experience these things in their fullness yet, we are on a journey to a future which has not yet arrived – but, as Paul declares, we hope in things not seen.

Why, because Jesus saw the crowds, because God sees us, because Jesus teaching becomes embodied in his own life and because Jesus promise is that through whatever blessings life brings we can hope in that future.

I wonder can you see Jesus on the hill teaching his disciples, teaching the crowd, teaching us, promising us because whether or not you can see him he has seen us! 

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!