Category Archives: Lent

Jesus sees

Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are not holding our usual services. This sermon will be part of a shorter service at 9.30am (Brisbane time) tomorrow. It will be streamed at https://www.facebook.com/westenduniting/

We welcome your feedback and questions.

Readings
Ephesians 5.8–14
John 9.1–7

At the centre of a Gospel riddled with light and darkness, blindness and sight, truth and lie, John tells the story of a man born blind from birth. From birth he knew nothing but darkness. That Jesus sees the man who cannot see him is a literal fact. It is also a theological truth. From Nicodemus in the middle of the night and the Samaritan woman at the well to Judas in the garden and Pilate at the headquarters, those who dwell in darkness cannot of their own volition see the God who has come to them in Jesus Christ. Rather, God in Christ sees them in the darkness of the human condition without God and pitches his tent. ― Cynthia A Jarvis, Feasting on the Gospels, John Vol. 1

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A very short sermon today. One point.

Jesus sees the man born blind before the man sees Jesus. Jesus sees him because he is the Light of the world. 

That’s it, that’s the sermon. 

But, just so you don’t switch off disappointed, I’ll preach for longer. 😉

Let me remind you of the Gospel text:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 

Jesus saw a man. A person, in all his particular-ness. This man was a beggar. He was a beggar because he was blind. Not only that, he had been blind since birth. 

Jesus saw him. 

His disciples saw something too, but they didn’t see him. They saw a puzzle to be solved, a riddle to be answered, a theological conundrum: 

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? 

Jesus sees, the disciples see; yet they see different things. 

Jesus sees a person in need; the disciples see an object of theological speculation, to be discussed and discarded. 

The story in John’s Gospel goes for the whole of chapter 9. That’s 41 verses. Read them. It begins with everyone in darkness, except Jesus. It ends with the man born blind also in the light, but the other players in the story remain in darkness. 

The Pharisees want to check this unauthorised healing out. They ask his family if it’s really the same man. His parents don’t want to get involved. 

The Pharisees are adamant that it can’t be the same man. They prefer to stay in the darkness. 

Jesus sees them every one, but only one responds. 

The disciples separate themselves from the blind man by their judgement. It’s not social distancing, it’s ostracism framed in nice theological language. Nice God-talk. Of course, that’s the worst kind of ostracism there is. 

The religious leaders also ostracise the blind man; they ostracise Jesus too. Jesus sees them, but it disturbs their religion. They remain in darkness. 

How can we live confidently as people who are seen by Jesus, ‘as children of the light’? St Paul says:  

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 

The days that we are in certainly are evil. Many have died. More will fall sick. We have taken the extraordinary step of suspending public worship to help, as they say, ‘flatten the curve’. But we want to make the most of our time. We want to see others, just as we are seen and loved. 

Let us see others in the coming week. Others who may be discouraged and disheartened, depressed or downright sick. See them for themselves, pray for them, and reach out. 

Don’t make the mistake the disciples made, and speculate about them. It’s our business to walk with people through what may be a difficult journey. It’s our call to relieve suffering where we can, and to pray always. 

Was there only one-point in today’s sermon? Maybe there are two — 

  1. Jesus sees the man born blind before the man sees Jesus. (We call that grace.) Jesus sees him because he is the Light of the world. 
  2. Jesus calls us to truly see others in this time of ‘social isolation’ because in the Lord we are light, and are called to live as children of the Light. 

Amen.

Streamed from West End Uniting Church 22 March 2020

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If / Since you are a child of God

Reading
Matthew 4.1–11

 

The temptations [Jesus] faces will each in turn urge him to take his relationship to God as a position of privilege, using it to meet his own needs, receive protection from the vulnerability of his humanity, and gain power over all the kingdoms of the world. Is this what it means to be ‘the Son of God’? Or will Jesus understand his calling in terms of God’s redemptive work and take up a role of serving God and God’s people toward that end―even if the end was suffering and death for him? ― Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary

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Our Gospel story today shows Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. 

To get it, we need to look a little behind the story. What’s in the background? 

Interestingly, Jesus has just been baptised. At his baptism, a voice from heaven says

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

We have baptised J today, and we can equally say to her, ‘You are a child of God. You are beloved by God.’ 

But for now, Jesus is in the wilderness. And for forty days. It’s a time of testing. A time of trial. And Matthew wants us to recall another time in the wilderness, a long time before. 

The people of Israel were in the wilderness too, weren’t they? They were there wandering not for forty days, but for forty years. It was a time of trial and testing for them. 

The people of Israel failed the test. But Jesus passed it. They gave in to temptation, where Jesus did not. 

I just want to look at one detail today, very briefly. I want to look at one part of the questions that Matthew puts into the mouth of the devil. The first two begin,

If you are the Son of God …

If you are the Son of God, take shortcuts! If you are the Son of God, be a superhero! And let me give you power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams! 

(Of course, if you can’t do any of that, maybe you’re not the Son of God after all … maybe you’re just a deluded fool.) 

Today, we have declared J to be a child of God. Baptised into Christ, she is one with Christ. But there may be times to come when she doubts it. That accusing voice may say to her, ‘If’ you are a child of God … Perhaps we too doubt that we could be God’s children? Yet in God’s eyes we are. Always. And always beloved. 

I need to remind you at this point that every word in our English Bibles is a translation. Matthew wrote his Gospel in everyday, ordinary Greek. Our English translations sometimes have a hard time getting the Greek exactly right when we put it into English. 

So: The word we translate ‘if’ (If you are the Son of God …) could just as easily be ‘since’—Since you are the Son of God … 

Since you are the Son of God, you can take shortcuts! Since you are the Son of God, you should be a superhero! And you deserve power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams. Let me give it all to you! 

When we read it as ‘since’, the Tempter isn’t sowing doubt. Instead, the temptation is for Jesus to think of himself as entitled. Since you’re the Son of God, you deserve power and wealth, everything you want …

Yet Jesus didn’t come to grab power. Jesus came to serve. He didn’t think of himself as entitled. Jesus, the Son of God, came to be a servant, to reach out to others in love, to bring healing. 

That’s what being a child of God means today. It’s not a title, it’s not about being entitled. It’s a way of life that begins with looking out for the interests of others and not putting ourselves first. 

That’s what we have asked for J today. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. They’re right. We all have a role in Josephine’s life now. We’re all involved. 

Parents and godparents: you have promised to ‘teach [J] the way of Christ until the Spirit draws her to make her own response in faith and love’. Please do. 

Congregation: you have promised to ‘continue a life of worship and teaching, witness and service so that this child and all the children among you may grow to maturity in Christ’. Please do. 

Family and friends, having witnessed this day, I ask you also to do your part. For J. For all the children. Since they are children of God. 

Let us encourage one another to be the best children of God we can be. Let’s not settle for second best. Let us excel at serving others, at caring for the earth, at showing the love of God for everyone. Amen.

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‘With eyes that have cried’

Reading
Matthew 17.1–9

While the church today, as always, is challenged to confess in word and deed that Jesus is indeed ‘the Christ’, it is simultaneously warned against using that confession in the service of triumphalist religion. ‘The Christ of faith’, when true, always leads again to the ‘Jesus of history’―that is, to him who ‘was crucified, dead, and buried’, and whose anointing entailed a ‘descent into hell’ before it could sit him down at the right hand of God. ― Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1

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Trigger warning re domestic violence

Christophe Munzihirwa was a Catholic, a Jesuit, and an archbishop in the African nation of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was in office for just over a year, until he was assassinated by Rwandan soldiers in 1996. He was a protector of Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the Rwandan civil war and a proponent of democracy and reconciliation. He once said:

There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.

I thought of these words after the dreadful murder-suicide last Wednesday just fifteen minutes from here in which Rowan Baxter cruelly killed his wife Hannah Clarke and their three children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey before killing himself. How many eyes have cried since then, and what have they seen that they hadn’t seen before? 

There has been a lot of criticism of the reporting of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children. I would say that much of the reporting avoided tears. 

Initially, it sidestepped the reality of what happened; then, it spoke of what a ‘good bloke’ the murderer was, a footy player and great dad. 

When we try to sidestep the issues, we avoid our tears. Are we afraid of tears?

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A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

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Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

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Finding ourselves, and others

Readings
Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

All this is the role that Jesus is acting out in the wilderness. He learns to be the precarious one in the desert. But where Moses reassured his listeners with the little word when, as in ‘when you come into the land,’ the devil comes to Jesus and thrice tempts him with the word if. If is the entry to privation, not abundance. ‘If you are . . .’ is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it. If is the trigger for me to foreclose, to grasp my identity before time, to settle for a fake identity rather than to wait for the identity that is mine already, but coming upon me, not available to be grasped. —James Alison, https://outline.com/EULmKB

…my son continued his hand-me-down exposition of the text. Leaning closer to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, ‘If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and’—his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial at this point—‘there was candy…’ He paused for effect. ‘The devil would say, “You should take some!”’ I am not sure what was most startling to me in this retelling of the story of Luke 4:1–13 by my three-year-old: that he could, in fact, retell it—especially in such dramatic fashion—or that the version he had learned placed such heavy emphasis on the temptation and the personified tempter. — Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2

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What are you giving up for Lent? You have to give something up for Lent, don’t you? Alcohol, chocolate, Facebook… Something, anything.

Lent is all about self-denial. Isn’t it? 

Not really.

Jane Williams writes

Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’, or denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves.

Lent is about finding ourselves… The thing is, we’ve been hiding ourselves, and hiding from ourselves, ever since Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. 

We hide from ourselves by achieving things, and defining ourselves by our achievements. And of course, an achievement can be almost anything—a well-paying job, a trophy spouse, a PhD, a child who has done well, winning a competition… 

We hide from ourselves by drinking, by using other drugs, by driving too fast, taking risks, anything really that turns our eyes away from ourselves and who we actually are. 

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How the light gets in

Readings
Jeremiah 31.31–34
Hebrews 5.5–10
John 12.20–33

Kintsukuroi means “to repair with gold”. When a ceramic pot or bowl breaks, an artisan puts the pieces together using gold or silver lacquer to create something stronger, more beautiful, then it was before. The breaking is not something to hide. It does not mean that the work of art is ruined or without value because it is different than what was planned. Kintsukuroi is a way of living that embraces every flaw and imperfection. Every crack is part of the history of the object and it becomes more beautiful, precisely because it had been broken.

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It’s a bit old-fashioned now, but perhaps you’ve heard of someone being called ‘a jeremiah’. A jeremiah is someone who complains all the time or expects things to go disastrously wrong. A jeremiah is a thoroughgoing pessimist whose glass is always half empty.

We get this name from the biblical prophet called Jeremiah, who is also called ‘the weeping prophet’.

When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God gave him a commission. God said (Jeremiah 1.9–10):

Listen, I am giving you the words you must speak. Today I give you authority over nations and kingdoms to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.

It was Jeremiah’s job to prepare the people of Israel for the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and for the exile that they would face in Babylon once Jerusalem was gone. He was the weeping prophet because he did a lot more uprooting and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, than building and planting.

But today, we see that Jeremiah could indeed build and plant hope within the people:

The Lord says, ‘The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant.

God had made a covenant with Israel when they left Egypt. It was epitomised by the Ten Commandments. God gave the commandments to them as a path to life, but time after time they broke the covenant.

Though God’s heart is broken by the people’s sin, God offers a ‘new’ covenant:

The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts.…’

I read once about how some Jewish rabbis read this verse. They asked, Why does God write the law on our hearts? Surely it would be better if God wrote the law within our hearts?

Surely, that would be a better place. What good is it to write the law on the outside of our hearts, and leave the inside untouched?

I like the way these rabbis thought.

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God so loved (Lent 4B, 11 March 2018)

Readings
Ephesians 2.1–10
John 3.14–21

…the Lamb of God will remove the sin of the world by lifting it up with him when he is lifted up on the cross. His lifting up will be his exaltation to heaven; the lifting up of the sin of the world will be its removal from the world. — Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Kindle Locations 3116-3117). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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The story is told that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked by the BBC to identify the defining moment in his life. He spoke of the day when he and his mother were walking down the street. Desmond Tutu was nine years old. A tall white man dressed in a black suit came towards them.

This was back in the days of apartheid in South Africa. When a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect. But this day, before the young Tutu and his mother could step off the pavement the white man stepped off and, as they passed, he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her.

The white man was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was implacably opposed to the apartheid policy. This small act of his changed Tutu’s life. When his mother told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the footpath because he was a ‘man of God’, Tutu found his calling. ‘When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God,’ said Tutu.

We’ve spoken a bit about the descending way lately. The wisdom of the world is that we should strive to get more, hoard more, have more… Yet Jesus says that if we follow him we must take the the descending way, taking the place of a child, or a servant. We must embrace humility, and seek the good of others.

The story of Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu is an echo of what Jesus did. It shows us that we too can be part of changing minds and hearts by following the example of Jesus in small and very achievable ways.

All it took to win the young Desmond’s heart was a privileged white man to step off the kerb and tip his hat. All it took was for Trevor Huddleston was to see that black people in the apartheid system had the dignity of being children of God. All it took was something that is within the capabilities of any one of us. Continue reading

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