For the Common Good

Readings
I Corinthians 12.1–11
John 2.1–11

Each person, Paul says, is given a manifestation of the Spirit to be used for the common good. In the culture that surrounds the church today, and often even within the church, individualism has been exalted to such high status that the phrase ‘common good’ has nearly vanished from the lexicon. Paul’s words offer a refreshing, even shocking reminder that faith, while personal, is never private, and that the gift each person has been given is meant to be shared. — Karen Stokes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol.1

———————-

At first, I was going to title this sermon ‘Living in Abundance’. You may think that highly ironic at a time when supermarkets are pretty lightly stocked. Where’s the abundance when eggs, butter and meat have been missing from the shelves? And worse, when even KFC can’t get enough chook? (Would they switch to Kentucky Fried Tofu? And would that be the end of civilisation as we know it?) 

Despite the recent shopping woes, Christian people do need to have a mindset of abundance rather than a mindset of not enough. We need to be aware of God’s abundance, freely provided for us. 

Jesus was at a wedding. It’s a wedding! I mean, what can possibly go wrong? 

Anything and everything! 

Weddings these days are typically a one-day affair, with the couple taking off after the reception for a honeymoon. 2000 years ago, the travel industry hadn’t quite got off the ground — so in lieu of a honeymoon, there was a feast lasting several days. 

And what do you know? The wine for the wedding feast runs out. This was a real loss of face for the family, so Jesus’ mum says Help them out, son. After some initial reluctance, Jesus does what mum says. (Maybe the Catholics are on to something, asking Mary for help?) 

The wine produced was more than enough, around three wheelie bins worth! But much more importantly, it was an utterly wonderful drop, so much better than the wine they’d served up first. 

The Cana family’s mindset of not enough was changed into one of abundance through the generous ministry of Jesus.  Continue reading

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A Cruciform shape

The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of people before, in and after their baptism. It is the same Spirit who revealed Jesus as the Son (Mark 1.10–11) and who empowered and united the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2). God bestows upon all baptised persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first instalment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit nurtures the life of faith in their hearts until the final deliverance when they will enter into its full possession, to the praise of the glory of God (II Cor. 1.21–22; Eph. 1.13–14). — Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, WCC, 1980, para. B5

———————-

Readings
Acts 8.14–17
Luke 3.15–17, 21–22

Back in 1985, Karen and I were living in West End. In that year, we became the proud parents of our first child, a baby girl. We were attending this church as members, and it was nearing time to have our daughter baptised. 

To tell you the truth, I was in a bit of bother about it. The thing was, in my previous church I had been firmly and repeatedly taught that infant baptism was wrong. So wrong, it didn’t even count as a real baptism. 

I was a theological student, so I read the theology of baptism as much as I could. It was reassuring. My mind was calmer, my heart was unsure still. Still, we went ahead with the baptism. 

I’m glad we did. 

Baptism can be a minefield in the way of mutual understanding between churches. How much water should you use in Baptism? Can it be a bowlful? Must it be a tubful? Do you pour, sprinkle or immerse? Some churches play a game I can only call My baptism is bigger than yours. 

Churches have long tried to regulate baptism. They’ve tried to regulate the age at which you can be baptised — not too young, please. Or whether you need to confess belief in Jesus in a church-approved way. 

And there are other questions — does baptism signify receiving the Holy Spirit? Or is it a sign of our personal faith in Jesus? Can any baptised person receive Holy Communion, or should they wait till they’re confirmed? 

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God’s gift to us

A guest sermon by our ministry student, Erin Mawhinney

Reading
Luke 2.(1-7), 8-20

I’m going to make a confession here, and then it will be on the internet forever;  I am a RUBBISH gift giver. I really dislike shopping so I end up leaving things til the last minute. Occasionally, I’ll have moments of inspiration, but often I’m walking around the shops, far too close to Christmas, and I’ll just grab the first thing that I see that is remotely interesting, or relevant. (and sometimes in that process, I’ll get distracted by something that I like, and so I’ll buy that too). But the point about gifts is… we’re not supposed to be choosing for ourselves, we’re choosing what we think the intended recipient might like. Not everyone has such poor shopping ability as me … some people are amazing gift givers, and seem to know exactly what we will like. But, whichever type of gift-giver you are, let’s face it, there are times when we just get it wrong. Have you ever opened a present and thought to yourself (with your best poker face on) “Oh!  What IS that? I will never use that!” or “Ohmygosh that is so ugly!” … we might quietly re-gift it or drop it into the local op shop or swap it for something else.

More on that soon. Our reading for today begins with Mary and Joseph travelling… why? I suspect the author is trying to tell us something here, about the nature of the Emperor — who was possibly organising a gift for himself:  “Hmm, I think I’ll have a census, let’s see how many potential new soldiers I’ve got, or, let’s see how much potential wealth I can gather through taxes…” and his actions then were the cause for Mary and Joseph to have to travel 140kms plus from their hometown to Bethlehem to be recorded for the census, Mary being heavily pregnant…  can you imagine that?  I once walked 100 km in a weekend, but I was well trained, packed very lightly, and I was not nine months pregnant!!!

…just to get some more perspective… On my afternoon walks, way out in the South West of Brisbane, there is a lovely park with some giant trees, on a hill with a really nice view of the city.  I love walking through it. My phone map tells me that the distance between that park and the city is roughly 20 kms, and would take me about four hours to walk there. Mary and Joseph had at least seven times that distance to go! (More if they wanted to take a safer route), nine months pregnant, all those extra hormones, joints softening, indigestion, extra fluid, I’m pretty sure that would’ve been a painful, and slow, trip. And then of course, all those bumpy roads either walking or sitting on a donkey, no wonder she had a baby right right there.

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God’s gift to us

A guest sermon by our ministry student, Erin Mawhinney

Reading
Luke 2.(1-7), 8-20

I’m going to make a confession here, and then it will be on the internet forever;  I am a RUBBISH gift giver. I really dislike shopping so I end up leaving things til the last minute. Occasionally, I’ll have moments of inspiration, but often I’m walking around the shops, far too close to Christmas, and I’ll just grab the first thing that I see that is remotely interesting, or relevant. (and sometimes in that process, I’ll get distracted by something that I like, and so I’ll buy that too). But the point about gifts is… we’re not supposed to be choosing for ourselves, we’re choosing what we think the intended recipient might like. Not everyone has such poor shopping ability as me … some people are amazing gift givers, and seem to know exactly what we will like. But, whichever type of gift-giver you are, let’s face it, there are times when we just get it wrong. Have you ever opened a present and thought to yourself (with your best poker face on) “Oh!  What IS that? I will never use that!” or “Ohmygosh that is so ugly!” … we might quietly re-gift it or drop it into the local op shop or swap it for something else.

More on that soon. Our reading for today begins with Mary and Joseph travelling… why? I suspect the author is trying to tell us something here, about the nature of the Emperor — who was possibly organising a gift for himself:  “Hmm, I think I’ll have a census, let’s see how many potential new soldiers I’ve got, or, let’s see how much potential wealth I can gather through taxes…” and his actions then were the cause for Mary and Joseph to have to travel 140kms plus from their hometown to Bethlehem to be recorded for the census, Mary being heavily pregnant…  can you imagine that?  I once walked 100 km in a weekend, but I was well trained, packed very lightly, and I was not nine months pregnant!!!  

…just to get some more perspective… On my afternoon walks, way out in the South West of Brisbane, there is a lovely park with some giant trees, on a hill with a really nice view of the city.  I love walking through it. My phone map tells me that the distance between that park and the city is roughly 20 kms, and would take me about four hours to walk there. Mary and Joseph had at least seven times that distance to go! (More if they wanted to take a safer route), nine months pregnant, all those extra hormones, joints softening, indigestion, extra fluid, I’m pretty sure that would’ve been a painful, and slow, trip. And then of course, all those bumpy roads either walking or sitting on a donkey, no wonder she had a baby right right there.  

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Arise, shine, for your light has come

The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’, one who has experienced something’, or he will cease to be anything at all. — Karl Rahner, ‘Christian Living Formerly and Today’, Theological Investigations, vol. 7, 1971

———————-

Readings
Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. They shared a good meal and a bottle of wine and lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.

‘Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.’

‘I see millions and millions of stars,’ Watson replied.

‘What does that tell you?’ asked Holmes.

Watson pondered for a minute.

‘Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions upon billions of planets. 

Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. 

Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have some good weather today. 

Horologically, I deduce that the time is about a quarter past three in the morning. 

Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant.

What does it tell you, Holmes?’

‘Elementary, my dear Watson,’ replied Holmes. ‘Someone has stolen our tent.’ 

The magi were members of a priestly class from the east, also thought to have knowledge of astrology, magic, medicine, dream interpretation, and more. They saw great significance in those millions and millions of stars, one in particular. This star spoke to them of the birth of a new king of the Jewish people, and so they embarked on a quest. 

I want to look at how we might read the story of the magi at different parts of our lives today. How might a young child read it? Or a young adult? How may an older person relate to the story of the magi? How may the way we relate to the story change through the course of a lifetime? I’ll tell the story a little autobiographically. 

I don’t remember the first time I heard the story of the magi, or the Three Wise Men as they would have been called. It’s always been part of the fabric of my mind. I’m sure that I took the story of the magi visiting Jesus at face value. There is a bright star in the sky that eventually leads the magi to the infant Jesus. It all really happened, just as the story says. After all, it was a time of my life when I accepted stories in which animals speak, and magic happens. This story is easy to take in at face value. 

I didn’t get the story from the pages of Scripture, since my family weren’t churchgoers. I got it from other sources, like Christmas cards that show the magi visiting the stable alongside the shepherds. I remember going to school Nativity plays at Christmas time, and seeing the shepherds and the magi all grouped together. I simply accepted that it was true in a very basic way. I simply accepted that everything happened just as the story told it. 

Had I gone to church, I would have likely seen the kind of nativity scene we have, with everyone rubbing up against one another in the stable. 

In high school, I became a Christian. And I kept on believing the story just as it is told. 

In time, doubts crept in. For one thing, I realised that the shepherds were only in Luke’s nativity story, and the magi only in Matthew, so all the Christmas cards and manger scenes were putting two separate stories together. 

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Brave enough to say Yes

A guest post by Erin Mawhinney, a student minister

Reading
Luke 1.39–55

Back in early November, when Paul and I were chatting about Advent and Christmas services at West End this year, he asked me if I would like to preach again, and I nabbed today, Advent 4, totally because of the gospel reading. This is one of my favourite passages, for a few reasons. There are many cool things going on here; connections between Old and New Testaments, between people — the parallels, the contrasts, the rare occasion of not one, but two women in the bible getting some dialogue and proclaiming some GOOD NEWS, but actually, the strongest connection that I have with this passage, the first time it really meant something to me, was the day I read it out the front at my church (like Chris did just now) back when I was pregnant with my first child. 

Now, 23 years later, with some more ‘life experience’, many extra hours of reading, lectures, theology study, and a tiny bit more theological understanding, it will still always be that shared sense of excitement, amazement, and absolute wonder of that first pregnancy that resonates with me in this passage.

But first, let’s look at some background context:

I like the way that the author of this gospel sets up the story here. Here we have two pregnant women in a joyful meeting — both pregnant in unusual circumstances, both named in this passage, and both speaking of the nature of God. The passages before this in the first chapter of Luke give us some interesting parallels and contrasts:  

The Angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, a priest, to tell him in a cool OT-formula kind of way that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son, despite Elizabeth ‘being barren’ and getting on in years (cf OT story of Abraham and Sarah). The angel also tells Zechariah a few things about who this baby will grow up to be (John the Baptiser) and what he will do. This is an answer to prayer for Zechariah and Elizabeth… Zechariah can’t quite get his head around it at first, but Elizabeth said ‘this is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’ (Luke 1:25)

And in the next passage, the Angel Gabriel again appears, this time to Mary, and following this same OT formula, Gabe tells her that she has ‘found favour with God’ (Luke 1:30) and that she, too, will have a son:

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (v30-33) 

Mary has one small question — ‘how can this be? I’m a virgin!’  

Angel Gabriel: ‘Yeah, the Holy Spirit. Oh, and btw Elizabeth is pregnant too, for nothing will be impossible with God.’ 

Mary:  *expresses humble obedience*

Cue the start of today’s passage. Continue reading

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Joy, Judgement, Joy

Readings

Zephaniah 3.14–20
Isaiah 12.2–6
Philippians 4.4≠7
Luke 3.7–18

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. — Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

———————-

Advent is a time of anticipation. Anticipation of Christmas, yes,
but also anticipation of Jesus coming into our lives here and now,
and a wider anticipation — that of Jesus coming into the life of the world as God’s kingdom dawns. 

If you look at the banners we put up Sunday by Sunday during Advent, you’ll see one way of thinking about anticipating Jesus is to celebrate themes of 

Hope
Peace
Joy, and next week
Love. 

But there’s an older way of thinking about how we anticipate Jesus’ coming. Another four-way system for the four weeks of Advent:

Death
Judgement
Heaven, and
Hell. 

Today is the ‘Joy’ Sunday; but our Gospel Reading sounds notes of Judgement (‘you brood of vipers’) or even Hell (‘unquenchable fire’). 

When shall I talk about today? Joy — or Judgement? Which would you rather? 

Let’s talk about Joy. Or should it be Judgement? 

No, let’s talk about Joy. 

Then Judgement. 

Most of the lectionary passages for today are big on joy. In Philippians 4.4, Paul says 

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

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Zephaniah (3.14) says 

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

(You’ve got to realise that Zephaniah was usually a pretty gloomy prophet. He could almost have been a very dour type of Presbyterian, sent back in time.) 

And lastly, I’ll mention Isaiah. One of my favourite verses in the whole Bible, Isaiah 12.3: 

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

I just love that picture of a deep well, an inexhaustible well, full of the living water Jesus proclaimed to the Samaritan woman in John 4. With joy we shall draw everlasting, clear, refreshing, cool water from the wells of salvation! 

Joy of course is more than happiness. Joy is a deep feeling, it’s linked to satisfaction and fulfilment and peace. You can’t buy joy, or grab it, or enter into negotiations for it. 

We are happy because we get something nice for Christmas. But Joy comes to those who are able to receive it. Who are they who can receive Joy? 

This brings us to John the Baptist. 

John is an unpromising figure to find anything to speak about joy. His first words in this reading are 

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Gosh John, tell us what you really think! Couldn’t we have a bit more about Joy please? 

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‘In the wilderness’

Reading
Luke 3.1–6

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.78–79)

———————-

You won’t be surprised to hear things are different at our house. We have welcomed our new overlords recently-arrived from Chile, in the shape of a six-year old granddaughter and a one-year old grandson. 

One of the many changes is that we watch a lot less TV news these days. Miss six continually asks ‘What are they talking about?’, which is distracting. And often we really don’t want to tell her what they are talking about, we’d rather spare her the details at this stage of her life. 

What about the late news, you ask? We are in bed, exhausted. 

So when the younger members of our family went away for a couple of days this week, I had the chance to look at the news. Just in time for the Jenkins Report. 

Kate Jenkins is the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner which has just released Set the Standard, the final report from the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. 

51% of people working in Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces ‘have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault’, (Tweet from Kate Jenkins, 30.11.21) while 77% had experienced, witnessed or heard about such behaviour. Less that a quarter of people said they were unaware.

Most of the people victimised are junior workers who have sometimes (often?) been warned that if they were to speak out, there would be unwanted consequences for them. Most of the victims are young women. Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame have become household names because of their bravery in speaking out. Rachelle Miller may soon be another. 

Many (most?) of the perpetrators are Very Important Men. 

I mention this because of a detail in our Gospel Reading: it lists a number of Very Important Men. Listen to it once more: 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

(Ok, it’s more than a detail, it’s almost half the reading ….)

There are all these important names, but my point is: the word of God did not come to any of them. Luke could have just cut to the chase and left their names out: ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

So, what are those names doing there then? 

The names do set this passage in history. Tiberius was emperor from 14–37 CE. He was an able army general, but not such a great emperor. Herod was not the Herod who sought to kill the baby boys at Bethlehem but his son, Herod Antipas. This Herod was ruler of Galilee for 43 years, until 39 CE; it was this Herod who had John the Baptist executed. Pontius Pilate we know. He was Procurator of Judaea from around 26–36 CE. He gets a cameo appearance in the Creeds; Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Annas and Caiaphas were priests involved in Jesus’ conviction and death. 

Who’s left? Philip and Lysanias? You can google them. 

The names of these Very Important Men anchor John the Baptist in history. That’s important, but it’s not the main reason they are there. 

The main reason Luke put them there is to show that John is a prophet of Israel in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah and the rest. 

Let me show you. Here is the first verse of the Book of the prophet Isaiah: 

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Or Hosea, very similar: 

The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel.

You’ll see others just by looking at chapter 1 verse 1 of the a good proportion of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophets tended to announce their words in the context of a particular time. 

Luke is listing these names to say John was a prophet, just as the others were.

That’s why Luke put those names there. But — in the light of the Jenkins Report — could we perhaps see another reason? 

The word of God came to John ‘in the wilderness’. 

The word of God did not come to someone in Caesar’s palace, nor did it come in the courts of the great Temple of Jerusalem. 

Not in the hallways of power, where ‘The Prime Minister has my firm and unwavering support’ is code for a leadership spill in just a few days. 

Nor in the the Parliament House chapel, seemingly used more as an assignation point than a place of prayer. 

Not in the grubby, leaking cesspit the Australian Parliament has been revealed to be. 

Today’s Gospel quotes the prophet Isaiah. (Maybe Luke saw John as carrying on the work of Isaiah?) We read, 

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.…’

There are plenty in the wilderness today; some of them are women who entered service in Parliament House in their younger years with very high hopes. 

But how do we ‘prepare the way of the Lord’? John the Baptist would say we do it by repentance. By turning around and going in a different direction. By changing our ways. 

Our nation’s institutions certainly need to repent, but maybe we do too. We may in our own way look for power over others, or to take advantage of someone else. We may be more concerned with advancement in our career than what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us. 

In the end, that’s why the word comes to John ‘in the wilderness’. It is there that he found space to breathe, to listen, to rethink things, to realise the love of God, and then to act. 

Our wildernesses may not be literal. They may include fear of the future in an age of climate change. They may be times of loss or grief. Times when things just aren’t necessarily going to plan. It’s then that we too can find that space to breathe, to listen, to rethink things, to realise the love of God. And then, to act to remake the future in the light of the word we have heard from God. 

If you are in the wilderness, when you find yourself there, you are not alone. Jesus went into the wilderness too. Don’t run away. Be still, listen for his voice. It speaks to you. 

West End Uniting Church, 5 December 2021

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’That Day’ is Today

Readings
Jeremiah 33.14–16
Luke 21.25–36

Those who are familiar with Scripture will recognise that yearning for a future free from surprises is, down deep, actually a desire to be free of God. If our predicting the future is really only a projection of what we already know and who we already are, then we are imagining a future inhabited only by our powers and desires, one that we humans can dominate and control. But the living God seen in the Bible is a God full of surprises, one who since Eden has frustrated all human efforts to eliminate unpredictability. ‘Do not remember the former things,’ God says. ‘I am about to do a new thing’ (Isa. 43.18–19) — Thomas G Long, Donyelle CS McCray, A Surprising God

———————-

Listen again to the words of Jesus: 

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

‘That day…’ What ‘day’ is that?

We have to backtrack a bit to see how Luke describes ‘that day’. 

Luke says that day is when 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

Then Luke says, 

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

This is a poetic way of writing about what people often call the Second Coming of Jesus. It uses this poetic language to show it is something earth-shattering, rather than as a literal description. It is using images to describe something unimaginable, not telling us what we would see if we were ‘there’.

I may need to explain that a little. Let me do that by reading you a passage from the Old Testament. It’s from 2 Samuel 22. David says:

…the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations of the heavens trembled
and quaked, because [God] was angry.
 Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him. 

[God] bowed the heavens, and came down;
thick darkness was under his feet. 

He rode on a cherub, and flew;
he was seen upon the wings of the wind.

What event is David describing? It is a battle, a victory against his enemy the Philistines. What would we have see if we were there? We would have seen death, sometimes slow and agonising; we would have smelt blood and heard the cries of dying men; but the earth itself would stay firmly in place. We would not see fire coming from the mouth of God, nor would we see God riding on a cherub. 

David doesn’t talk about the body count; he doesn’t describe it in the way a war correspondent may. David tells of the battle in the language of epic poetry.

So when we read of ‘that day’, the poetic images tell us that something earth-shattering is going to happen. But: they don’t tell us ‘exactly’ what will happen.

And what’s more: we don’t know when ‘that day’ will be either.

How does that sit with you? Are you happy with not knowing when ‘that day’ will come? Or even what will happen?

Uncertainty often gives rise to discomfort. Through the centuries, people have tried to manage their discomfort by searching for hidden clues in obscure texts and twisting them together to find the answer as to when ‘that day’ will come.

So they investigate the scriptures just like Sherlock Holmes may investigate a case. And then they say to the rest of us, ‘Elementary, my dears! Jesus is returning at 10.20am on 28 November 2021.’ 

(That’s shortly after the end of this sermon. Not long to wait now …)

Some Christian circles just cannot help themselves. They won’t rest till they pin ‘that day’ down.

And they’ve been trying since the very early days.

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What is Truth?

Readings
Revelation 1.4b–8
John 18.33–37

In an earlier epoch, we believed in God (or gods) as effortlessly as we believed in the firm ground beneath our feet and the expanse of sky above our heads. An ancient Greek poet expressed it like this in a hymn to Zeus (later reappropriated by the apostle Paul): ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28). For the ancients, the divine was as immanent as the air they breathed. But that was before everything was on fire. That was before the conflagration of world wars, before the skies over Auschwitz were darkened with human ash, before the ominous mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before the world witnessed twin pillars of smoke rising into the September sky over Manhattan, before long-venerated institutions were engulfed in the flames of scandal, before the scorched-earth assault on Christianity by its cultured despisers. Today, it’s harder to believe, harder to hold on to faith, and nearly impossible to embrace religion with unjaded innocence. We live in a time when everything is on fire and the faith of millions is imperilled. — Brian Zahnd, When Everything’s on Fire: Faith forged from the Ashes 

———————-

A few months ago, someone said to me that they found it hard to imagine that I had ever been a fundamentalist. If you’re not sure what a fundamentalist is, basically it is someone who holds hard to a particularly strict interpretation of Scripture. That tends to mean things like believing Adam and Eve were real people, and that Jonah was really swallowed by a fish. 

I may once have been a fundamentalist, but I’m not any more. 

It hurts to stop being a fundamentalist. I worried about how to know what is true and what is not true. You see, as a fundamentalist I would say I just believed what the Bible says. The Bible was the word of God, straight from God’s mouth. I learned to say

God says it [in the Bible that is]
I believe it
That settles it

But what when I stopped believing the creation account in the Book of Genesis was literally true? What about when I realised the Book of Jonah is a farcical tale full of humour which declared God’s love for everyone, but not a history book? When I saw that Jonah wasn’t literally swallowed by a fish? 

And what about my doubts? In my fundamentalist church, a person with doubts was in danger of losing their faith. I was told — and I believed it — that if you doubt just one thing, you’re in danger of doubting more and more until you doubt everything. It’s like a stack of Jenga blocks, or a house of cards, ready to fall down.  

Fighting my doubts became a huge burden to me. 

Some people think this fundamentalist version of Christian faith is the original thing. But it’s not. Fundamentalism is not much more than 100 years old. (If you think that’s a long time, don’t forget: Christianity is a full 2000 years old. It got along for almost 1900 years without fundamentalism.) 

I can be a Christian without being a fundamentalist. 

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