Saturday, 28 January 2017

What does the Lord require of you?

Last Saturday I found myself wandering on the streets of Melbourne but not wondering about issues of justice, mercy and humility.  I was on still on holidays relaxing.  Intruding into my leisurely stroll I noticed a large gathering of people blocking the way just up ahead of me.

Police were there in force as a peaceful parade of people, mainly women, marched by.  As I drew closer I could read the signs that a few of the people were carrying.  They held signs like: “Women’s rights are human rights” and “Love trumps hate”.  The protest was part of an international anti-Donald Trump rally on the day of his inauguration.  And the march went on, and on… and on.  Thousands of people.

What is it that draws people into protesting for a cause? 
What is it that inspires people to give up their time to fight for an issue?
What is justice? What is mercy?
And what does it mean to walk humbly with God?

Over two and half thousand years ago a small town prophet named Micah, a name which means ‘who is like God’, was concerned about the people in power and their abuse of that power.  He railed against their lack of concern for the poor and the suffering in the community and he pronounced God’s judgement against their corruption.

In the passage that we read from the book of Micah today the judgement of God is declared against those who have failed to do God’s will: against those who have corrupted the worship and against those who have oppressed and neglected the common people.

In the midst of condemnation Micah asks the people “What does the Lord require of you?” “What does the Lord require of you?”  His answer is at one and the same time very simple and yet very complex. “Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

A few years ago I went to a few protest rallies myself.  We went to voice our concern about the offshore processing of refugees and asylum seekers who were coming to Australia.  We went because of our distress about indefinite detention and the incarceration of children.  When I arrived at the rally a friend had prepare posters and she gave me this one to carry.

These pithy sayings from Micah seem accessible and achievable but the reality is that when we begin to really think about what they mean at any depth they are very challenging.  For the people to whom Micah was speaking doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God would have meant significant changes to how they perceived themselves and how they lived their lives. The same is true for us as well.

I am aware that within the Uniting Church there are a range of views on asylum seeker policies.  As much as I have been opposed to Australia’s policy on this issue and I believe this is an outworking of my faith some Christian people disagree with me.  In fact, some of the people who formulated the policy claim to be Christian.  There are complex issues to be explored but our faith calls us to think deeply and act on issues such as this one because all people are God’s creatures.

The theme of how following God’s ways changes our lives is part of all of the readings for today.  In the letter to the Corinthians Paul encourages the people of that community to consider “your own call.”  Whilst in Matthew Jesus speaks about those who are considered blessed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

What appears to underlie much of what is being said in all of these readings is that as God’s people our first priority is not setting out for our personal gain but to consider the world through the eyes of those who have less or are discriminated against or are suffering in some way.  When we being to do this one of the implications is that it might mean changing our own lifestyle, making sacrifices – even uncomfortable ones.

This is certainly an issue when it comes to welcoming more asylum seekers into Australia.  As we reflect on the last 50 years of Australian history the influx of people from all of the globe has certainly changed our society.

Is this what the Lord requires of you and me? To think deeply about issues of justice and equity and reconciliation and to walk humbly responding to God’s love for others.

Many of you know by now that at the heart of my preaching and faith is the unconditional love and grace of God.  There is nothing I can do to make God love me.  There is nothing I can do to make God save me.  God’s grace is precisely this unconditional, it is freely given. 

Yet Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, summarised the paradox of following Jesus nicely when he said there is a necessary response to unconditional grace.

Having encountered God’s love and grace we are transformed by God’s love to live differently.  When we hear Micah’s question, “What does the Lord require?”  I do not see this as an imperative that I must respond to so that God will love me but an invitation to consider my own call and to look with the eyes of faith on the world.

“Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

There was another protest march this week.  Another march that many of my friends and colleagues participated in.  The sorry day or invasion day march.  It acknowledges that the 26th of January is a day of mourning for the first peoples of Australia.  Australia day is an event that for most aboriginal people still bears consequences in their lives and continues to unfold in the discrimination and racism they still experience.

When Micah was challenging the leaders of Israel about their behaviours he was in a completely different context yet if we reflect on what is at the heart of his call – reconciliation, restitution, renewal in the lives and dignity of people these themes run through some of the rhetoric around the change the date movement.

When Micah asked the question “What does the Lord require?” it was a question set in the midst of political corruption and machinations that disadvantaged some will privileging others. 

I believe that part of our call as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to take the time to engage deeply with the issues of our time by considering the world through the eyes of others.  By looking at it not from the perspective or preserving our way of life or our privileges but looking at life through the eyes of those who feel disadvantaged and dispossessed.

It is an act of foolishness to risk looking at the world this way because, and I believe Micah knew this, it means it might change the way I live and the way I treat others, knowingly or not.

The central story of our faith, as Paul rightly points out, is not simply that God in Jesus took the time to consider and look through human eyes as the world but that God in Jesus experienced the violence of human rejection and death in the crucifixion of Jesus: the foolishness of the cross.

To be followers of Jesus means contemplating deeply the question “What does the Lord require of you?” not as an imposition but as an invitation to look through the eyes of others, and to share in Jesus’ life lived for others.

Being Christian involves us in the great issue of our time.  It engages us in the political and social issues of our day just as it did for Micah, Paul and Jesus.  “What does the Lord require of you?”  I wonder what issues burn within you, what it is you might pick up a placard and march about, who it is that you would go into bat for. 

And if like me you marched holding these words how that might begin to change how you live.

“Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Jesus Baptism, A Voice from the Heavens, & Silence

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

And a voice from heaven said?  I wonder if like me you have longed for, deeply desired, or craved tomight be saying something to you through the scriptures or through another person, but God’s very voice.  The words of Matthew’s gospel are tantalising, they taunt us in the silence of our own lives.  A voice from heaven. 
hear a voice from heaven in your own life.  An audible word from God to you, not just a sense that God

As if to further tempt and tantalise us the two readings from the Old Testament tell of God’s speaking. It is in the reading from Isaiah who conveys what the voice of the Lord had told him.  And, it is in the Psalm, no less than seven times, “The voice of the Lord…” is over the waters, is powerful, is full of majesty, breaks the cedars, flashes forth, causes oaks to whirl and strips forests bare.  The voice of the Lord, a voice from heaven.  God’s powerful imposing voice is set before us, yet for many of us, I suspect most of us, the reality is that our experience of God is not the resounding voice but silence.

I am left wondering am I deaf?  Why cannot I hear this powerful and resounding voice?

In the last week a re-read Shusaku Endo’s brilliant novel “Silence”.  Written in 1966 Endo’s novel explores the silence of God in the face of the immeasurable suffering and persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th Century.  The key character, a Spanish Jesuit priest, cannot fathom God’s silence as he constantly prayers in the face of the brutal persecution and coercion by the Warlord on him to denounce Christ.

What do we do we God’s silence?

Today I deliberately gathered in the round surrounded by the prayers written on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that we have attached to the walls.  Expressions of our hope and faith in the face of problems that may, for many of us, seem insurmountable.  Will God be silent?  What answers will come?  Will God speak to us and answer these our prayers?

No doubt each of you has experienced God’s apparent silence in your life.  No doubt you to have felt the heart breaking reality of moments of feeling Godforsaken.  Where is the voice we long for? 

Returning to the scriptures and understanding why they were written can help us with this conundrum.  As always, I would note that when we pull a snippet of scripture from the Bible we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the story that the author of a particular book is building.

Matthew opens his gospel by recounting the genealogy of Jesus back through David all the way to Abraham.  This is one of the reasons Matthew is the first of the gospels, despite not being written first.  Through his genealogy Matthew creates the bridge between the Old Testament and Jesus identity.  This was very important for Matthew’s first audience who were predominantly Jewish.  Jesus’ life is traced back through the Davidic line.

Following on from the genealogy Matthew tells us of the appearance of an angel to Joseph. The quotation of the words of the prophet and the birth of Jesus provide a further affirmation of Jesus importance.  There is the genetic connection and there is the prophetic connection.

The next story Matthew tells is somewhat unusual.  It is the story of the wise men from the East and Herod appears to give an importance to Jesus’ identity that breaks the barriers of the Israelite nation and implies Jesus’ coming is relevant to the whole world.

And, then, we come to the baptism of Jesus by John.  This is introduced with an explanation of John’s importance as the forerunner of Jesus and prophecies about their relationship.

Then in the baptism Matthew’s words witness to something that was beyond the common experience.  “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” In traditional jargon we might call this a theophany – an appearance of God – and this theophany sits alongside a series of assertions concerning Jesus identity.

So why does Matthew need to build this story about Jesus identity?  What does he retell the story in the way he does? Why does he write it down? What was he hoping to achieve?

I think Matthew is building this argument for his audience about Jesus’ identity because they too have neither seen nor heard Jesus or God’s voice.  Not everyone gets to hear God’s voice.  You and I do not necessarily hear that audible voice of God in our lifetime.  Though we might desire it, seek it, and crave it.  Though we might discipline ourselves to reading the scripture and being in worship and prayer and contemplation.  So often what we experience is silence.

It is helpful to be reminded that the scriptures only ever report a very small number of people that hear God’s voice or have a theophany.  The people of Matthew’s community, so long ago, were relying on his witness to them in the absence of their own opportunity to hear God’s voice.

The same is true for us we rely on the witness of others to sustain us in our faith.

Of course, part of our Christian understanding is that God is present with us and that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, as well as the out pouring of the Holy Spirit, the opportunity for relationship with God is opened out in a new way.  This may be true but it does not necessarily equate to everybody being doled out a special spiritual experience all of their own. 

Matthew knew this and was encouraging people and nurturing people to hold on to their faith that Jesus was indeed who Matthew claimed he was: “the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of Abraham”, “God is with us” “the Nazorean”, “the Beloved, Son of God”. 

In his witness to Jesus’ identity Matthew is nurturing and encouraging people of faith to follow the teachings and way of Jesus, even if they do not experience or encounter a direct divine revelation all of their own.

This is important for us to reflect deeply on in 2017.  To believe in Jesus. To believe in God.  What a strange and difficult thing to do this is becoming!  The silence of God is palpable and people are responding and turning away from faith.  This week I read statistics that indicate in Australia over the last 20 years belief in God has dropped by just over 20%, down to 55%.  Only 1 in 2 people you meet on the street believe that there is a God.  And among younger people the results show around a third believe in God.

There are significant questions raised for me as we reflect on the readings that speak so strongly about God’s voice when we struggle to hear it for ourselves. What will help us hold on?

In a culture filled with the noise of so many voices: the advertisers enticing us to buy and consume; politicians encouraging us to vote; sceptics challenging our belief; scientists warning us of disasters.  Can we hear God’s voice above this clamour?

It makes me think of Elijah on the mountain top waiting for God to pass as he sat in the cave.  Was God in the fire, or wind, or thunder no God was in the sheer silence!

I think we need to be honest in our faith about the challenge of the silence and how we rely on the witness of others but also to remember that silence may not mean absence, indeed it does not!   Our faith is built on the witness of others.  On the witness of Matthew:

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus is worth listening to, he is worth following, he is God’s beloved. 

We may find that we do not have the miraculous encounters.  We might find that much of our faith is built on what others have taught us.  The silence of God or the lack of a miracle in my own life does not mean that God is any less real or any less present.  Living the faith involves patience and commitment and perseverance.  We wait in the cave alongside Elijah anticipating that God will pass.  And yes, we may be blessed enough to have a transformative encounter with God, but if we are not we can stay the course and hold our faith as we trust the message that has been handed down to us.

This kind of perseverance and patience is increasingly difficult in a world where everything is instantaneous.  We can have what we want tithe the click of a few buttons.  To be people of faith involves learning to be patient and to live differently in the world.

What do we do as we stand at the beginning of this New Year?  How do we be a community of faith? What is God asking of this little congregation?

At the beginning of the service I suggested that today we reflect on our own baptism and in the baptism service the congregation is invited to say these words:

With God’s help, 
we will live out our baptism
as a loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith,
upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service, 
until Christ comes.

Essentially for instructions to help us follow Jesus in our lives and live out our own baptism.

Live as a loving community in Christ – that means caring for each other, and the community we are part of.
Nurture one another in faith – that means being prepared to talk openly about our faith and to commit ourselves to learn more.
Upholding one another in prayer is self-explanatory.
Encourage one another in service means to become each other’s supporters.

As I was preparing for today I read an ancient writing of the church.  Written by Gregory of Nyssa’s around 16000 years ago his “Life of Moses” begins with a description of himself as being like a supporter at a chariot race he calls out in encouragement.

I know some of us here struggle to engage deeply in the mission and ministry of the church.  We are tired, some of us are unwell, and some of us are aging.  But we can support one another and we can sheer on and encourage those who do the work.

In doing these simple things we sustain one another in the silence and presence of God and it would be my prayer that we can learn again to share our faith with people who have fallen away from believing in God at all.

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

A voice from heaven.  Do we hear it?  Does it matter?  We have heard the witness and we have believed and we are blessed.

It makes me think of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ when Jesus says to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  “Blessed are those who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”

“Blessed are you who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”