Category Archives: church year

Treasure in clay jars

Readings
2 Corinthians 4.3–6
Mark 9.2–9

It is not indeed as risen, exalted, living, divine, but as crucified, that this Jesus Christ is distinguished unmistakably from the many risen, exalted, living gods and deified founders of religion, from the Caesars, geniuses, and heroes of world history.

Hans Küng, On Being a Christian

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I want to tell you a couple of stories about my family today. Firstly, one of our sons. Karen and I took each of our kids on a plane trip when they had finished primary school and were entering high school. We thought it would be a good experience for them, and in those days you could get a ‘mystery flight’ for $100 to places like Sydney and Melbourne. It was a way of filling empty seats.

I remember taking one son who was just entranced as he was looking out above the clouds and onto the ground below. He just kept saying ‘Wow!’. I don’t know how many times he said ‘Wow!’, but it never got old for him or me. It’s one of my favourite memories, up there above the clouds with nothing but innocent pleasure.

It was a lovely time, but it didn’t teach me about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Preachers often talk about the experience of the disciples as a Wow! kind of time, a time to be in the presence of Christ who is revealed as God’s Son. A time to be amazed at Jesus, shining like the sun.

But do you remember a couple of weeks ago, we heard about the time Jesus spoke with authority in the synagogue in Capernaum and people were amazed? Jesus didn’t want their amazement. He wanted their faith.

So let me turn from the clouds and bring you back to earth, where we do learn what faith is. Let me tell you about my dad. Dad died of cancer just over 27 years ago. He was only 59.

Our relationship was fine,  but I have to say that when I lost my heart to Christ in my teens, a strange barrier developed between us.

Dad was initially hostile to my Christian involvement, and then neutral, and finally it was obvious he was proud of the way I knew my bible and went to church.

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Filed under church year, Grief and loss, sermon

Jonah’s Backstory

Readings
Jonah 3.1–5, 10
Mark 1.14–20

The LORD is nothing if not persistent, always ready to begin again. But this time things should be different. For Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a man buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead. — Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2279-2282). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Often, I find when I’m at the funeral of an older person that they had a very interesting backstory over their long life. I think, I wish I’d known about that before. I would have loved to have heard more about that!

But it’s too late.

People are much more interesting when you know their backstory. All you have to do is ask questions! It’s a great way to get to know someone.

We have two stories of people called to God’s service today: Jonah the runaway prophet; and the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.

People sometimes try to invent a backstory for the four disciples, to explain why they followed Jesus so immediately. They must have met Jesus at some earlier time. But Mark gives us nothing.  Mark wants us to see that the power of Jesus’ call summons them away from their boats and their nets, and into a new life. It’s almost as if  the word of Jesus has recreated them.

But today, I want to look more at the main character, Jonah, and his backstory. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the Bible. It’s only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t always like that. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, and not a hero at all.

Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of Bourke.

Tarshish was a ‘back of Bourke’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. God can’t reach me there, he thought.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he has time to sing a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins to cooperate with God.

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Christmas is the beginning…

Readings
Galatians 4.4–7
Luke 2.22–40

 

Simeon’s Passion prophecy becomes quite specific…the contradiction against the Son is also directed against the mother and it cuts her to the heart. For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces her soul. From Mary we can learn that what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own. — Pope Benedict XVI

In 2015, my wife Karen and I went to Chile to visit our daughter Erin and her partner, Pablo. They live in a little town about an hour’s drive out of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

After we booked our flights, Erin announced that she was pregnant. She’d be about halfway through her pregnancy by the time we arrived. So that added an extra dimension to our journey.

A few days after we arrived, we went into Santiago to meet Pablo’s family. Pablo stopped the car on a side street, a mixture of houses and small office buildings. Erin told us that they had some business there and invited us to come up to the first-floor office they were going to.

It didn’t take us long to realise that we were in a radiologist’s place, and that Erin was having an ultrasound. Fair enough, I thought—she’s killing two birds with one stone, fitting the family get-together and the ultrasound into the same visit. We’d wait.

When it came time for Erin to go in, she waved us to come in too. It was a total surprise. When we saw this little human inside our daughter, Karen and I just fell in love with her. Oh yes, and we learnt that day that Erin was having a girl. Her name would be Emilia.

That was over two years ago now, and now Emilia is our Chilean–Australian granddaughter. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is growing up bilingual. She is learning Spanish and English words for things. In time, her brain will sort it all out and she’ll be fluent in both languages.

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Good News

Readings
Isaiah 40.1–11
Mark 1.1-8

The gospel here is not just Jesus (1:1), but also the gospel-of-God kingdom that Jesus himself proclaims (1:14-15) and its resultant faith/ repentance, too. — David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries)

Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take the wrong stand in regard to any question involving human rights. — Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival

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I heard the story once of a national Assembly meeting where some representatives were feeling introspective, but not in a constructive way. “What have we got to offer?” said the speaker.

The reply from someone in the cheap seats came: “What have we got to offer? What have we got to offer? Eternal bloody life, that’s what we’ve got to offer!”

We have wonderful good news to offer. I love the way Mark’s Gospel begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The grammar nazis among you will tell me that’s not a sentence because there’s no verb in it.

And I shall reply that’s because it’s not meant to be a sentence. It’s a title. And it’s best understood as the title to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. The title tells us that the whole Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the story of Jesus; we are continuing that story today.

Perhaps we’re still at the beginning. Who knows? “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. (2 Peter 3.8) Maybe we’re still in the early days of the Church.

Perhaps we’re still learning how to get it right. Maybe we’re still learning how to speak of the good news of Christ into the world. Maybe we’re even having to learn whether some things are good news or bad news.

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Filed under Advent, Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

How great the pain of searing loss

Readings
Hebrews 12.1–3
John 13.21–32

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.
(Brian Wren)

Last night, we heard that when Jesus was on the cross, he cried out (Luke 23.34),

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

We saw that here, the Son is addressing the Father. And that the Holy Spirit is holding them together.

Tonight, we want to hear something else that Jesus uttered from the cross. He cried out in the opening words of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Perhaps you know that feeling.

When I was younger, I was taught that this was the point at which God turn his back on Jesus as Jesus ‘became sin’ for us, as Jesus ‘paid the penalty’ for sin. God could not look on sin, so he turned away from Jesus.

One of the proof tests for this idea comes from the book of the prophet Habakkuk. In 1.13a, we read

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;

That seems to settle it. God cannot look upon sin, so God turns away from Jesus on the cross.

But we need to read the second half of that verse:

[so] why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk is confused by this. He thinks that God cannot look upon evil; but he sees that God does look upon evil.

I feel equally confused when people talk about God turning away from Jesus on the cross. You see, I don’t believe God did turn away from Jesus.

The only way I can get any handle on all this is to look at these words as spoken to God the Father by the eternal Son made flesh. Just as ‘Father, forgive them’ is a conversation between Father and Son, so is ‘Why have you forsaken me?’

When Jesus asks ‘Why have you forsaken me?’, we are still dealing with the Father and Son, held together by the Spirit.

God was not far away from Christ that day, nor having an afternoon catching up with his emails in the office. God was in Christ. According to 2 Corinthians 5.19, ‘God was making the whole human race his friends through Christ. God did not keep an account of their sins…’

Or in perhaps more familiar language, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.’

You may know this song: How deep the Father’s love for us. It starts like this:

How deep the Father’s love for us,
how vast beyond all measure,
that he should give his only Son
to make a wretch his treasure.

And then we go on to sing these words:

How great the pain of searing loss:
the Father turns his face away.
as wounds which mar the Chosen One
bring many sons to glory.

Let’s just leave for another day the exclusive language that uses ‘sons’ to include ‘everyone’. We won’t go there tonight—it’s important, but it’s not the time right now.

But let’s look at the words.

How great the pain of searing loss:

This is the very heart of the Cross. ‘The pain of searing loss’ is such a moving way to describe the godforsaken cry of Jesus.

Yet the Father also shares the pain of searing loss with the Son.

In that cry, not only is the Son fatherless; but the Father is also sonless. The Father freely enters into the pain of the Son. [Note 1]

If the Father and the Son were truly separated at that point, we could ask Does the Trinity then fall apart? [Note 2] No, because the Spirit binds Father and Son as one in a grief-stricken embrace.

Next, we sing

the Father turns his face away

As I said, I don’t believe the Father’s face is turned away at all; but if it were, it would be turned away in heartbroken grief.

It doesn’t help me to say the Father turns away because the sin of the world is placed on Jesus. For heaven’s sake (literally!), the Son has been spending his life embracing sinners. If God is Trinity, then the Father has also been embracing them with the Son. The Father also embraces us with the Son. The Father is the one who looks out every day for the prodigal to return. The Father does not keep account of sins.

The song goes on,

as wounds which mar the Chosen One
bring many ‘sons’ to glory.

Do those wounds ‘mar’ Jesus? Do they make him ugly to the Father? No! If you see your child injured, you run towards them and not away from them. Your child is beautiful to you no matter what happens.

The scars do not ‘mar’ the chosen one; Jesus bore them in his risen body. He took the scars with him as he ascended into heaven.

The wounds may make Jesus ugly to us, but not to the Father.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Because Jesus uttered these words, they have become words of hope for us who are adopted as children of the Father. The triune God will never forsake us: the Spirit binds us firmly to the Father; the Son has accomplished it all for us.

Let us move into the Great Three Days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter itself with confidence and joy!

For the Wednesday of Holy Week, 2017

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Note 1: ‘To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father, and if God has constituted himself as the Father of Jesus Christ, then he also suffers the death of his Fatherhood in the death of the Son.’ (Juergen Moltmann, The Crucified God)

Note 2: This is almost an inevitable question. It also blunders by exceeding the bounds of human language about God, and is guilty of hubris.

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Which procession?

Readings
Psalm 118.1–2, 19–29
Matthew 21.1–11

Some understand what is right; others understand what will sell.—Confucius

Good morning! My name is Zack. I’m in business here in Jerusalem. I import spices and perfumes like frankincense and nard from the east, and ceramics and jewellery from the west. Business is very good indeed—and it’s all because of the Romans. They’ve built straight roads, good roads, easy to travel roads, roads that make it quick and safe to transport my goods. And no one but no one gets in their way.

The other day my cousin Reuben suggested we take the morning off to see the procession, and I thought, Why not? Reuben lives out in Bethany; I don’t see him that often, and I’d just taken a shipment of spices. Nothing was coming in for a few days.

I wasn’t sure why Reuben wanted to see the procession though; he’s not like me, he doesn’t see why we need the Romans here. He actually wants to get rid of them by force! How can he and his friends do that, I wonder—a few ruffians with daggers, the odd soldier bumped off, and what happens then? The Romans make sure that even more people die on crosses!

And sometimes the wrong ones are crucified. My old friend Caleb was arrested and crucified last year for insurrection. But the poor man was innocent! I do what I can for his widow and kids. They won’t starve. Reuben told me it was ‘collateral damage’.

Anyway, as I was saying, I wasn’t sure why Reuben wanted to go to the procession. I asked him if he was going to make any trouble, and he looked at me as though I was mad. That’s not like Reuben, I thought. Maybe he’s got some sense at last.

So I went to the western gate of the city and waited. At first, I thought Reuben was just late, but he never showed.

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Can these bones live?

Readings
Ezekiel 37.1–14
John 11.17–45

It’s 6 April in a few days’ time, on Thursday. I remember 6 April 1968 (forty nine years ago for the arithmetically challenged). It was a Saturday; 6 April was the first day I awoke after accepting Jesus into my life. I’ve already told you about that time, but today want to say a bit more.

The night before, 5 April, I had gone to the local Methodist youth group for the first time. I hadn’t known about this, but they were off to the Billy Graham rally in the Exhibition grounds that night.

I decided that I was glad to be going there. I had been wondering about God. I thought Jesus was a good man, the best who’d ever lived. I was shocked and distressed that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated just the day before, 4 April 1968. I felt confused about life.

I listened to Billy Graham preach. I didn’t understand much, but I did note he spoke well of Martin Luther King’s legacy. And that was important to me. But the rhetorical flourishes of a preacher from the South of the good ol’ US of A were really quite foreign to me. And he did go on a bit (over 40 minutes as I recall!).

Billy Graham finished (finally!), and there was an altar call. I felt an irresistible magnetic pull on me. I can recall the feeling still. I had to leave my seat—me, quite possibly the most introverted kid in the whole place that night. I knew I had to leave the people who had brought me, not yet knowing the leaders’ names, not even knowing how to find them later.

But I just couldn’t stay in my seat.

It strikes me that I can identify with Lazarus. When Jesus says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’, he just came. It wasn’t a suggestion—it was a command, a summons. Just so, I felt summoned that day. I had to come.

Jesus summons each one of us. Sometimes, we might even have given up on life when he summons us. We may as well have been dead.

As I reflect on identifying with Lazarus, I think How was I dead? In the story, Lazarus was just dead. As a doornail. How was I dead?

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Filed under church year, Lent, Martin Luther King, RCL, sermon