Category Archives: RCL

God has no favourites

Readings
Acts 10.34–43
Matthew 3.13–17

 

The Apostle Peter:

‘I now know that God shows no partiality.’ … God is not a looker upon the face, does not play favourites, shows no partiality. Can we hear what an upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word this must have been to those whose faith was based upon assumptions of partiality, who had suffered in spite of and because of this partiality, and yet still believed? It was not an easy word to hear. Throughout Acts, step by step, laying scriptural proof on proof, gradually edging us out of Jerusalem and into Samaria, now into Joppa, past the converted Samaritans and then the Ethiopian, Luke has brought us face to face with this Roman soldier so that we may feel the full blast of the gospel, may know the reluctance of the disciples to be here, may know how long and painful was their journey to realise the full and frightening implications of the gospel―God shows no partiality! ― William H Willimon, Acts: Interpretation series

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Today, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Yet we’re not touching specifically on Jesus’ baptism this morning; we’ll be looking at the baptism of Gentiles in the Book of Acts. 

You may recall that last Sunday, we talked about the greatest controversy in the early decades of the the Christian movement. It was this: at the very beginning, the Christian movement was a subgroup within the Jewish faith. When Gentiles, non-Jews, were attracted to the movement, should they become Jews too? Many leaders, like James the brother of Jesus, thought they should. Others like Peter wavered. But Paul stood firm, proclaiming that God had opened the way for Gentiles to come to Christ without becoming Jews first. It was a huge fight. The nearest equivalent we have is the ongoing quarrel between those who welcome LGBTIQ people as full members of the church and those who deny them full participation in the life of the church. 

In the past, people have put it to me that I am for the inclusion of queer Christians because I’m a ‘liberal’ Christian, or because I’m some kind of ‘woke inner-city latte-sipping greenie’. A label I utterly reject! — I take my coffee black. 

Really though, I am for inclusion because of the way I read the Bible. Today’s reading from Acts comes from one of the foundational scriptural texts of inclusion. Let’s turn to the scripture together, and look at Peter’s dilemma. 

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Weeping with Rachel

Reading
Matthew 2.13–23

 

Jesus has come to save God’s people, but if this passage is to be taken seriously, that salvation will occur in the midst of the struggle between good and evil in the world, not in the creation of a utopia that does not match our experience of reality. — O Wesley Allen, Matthew (Fortress Commentary)

Hope takes root as the ability to express compassion for others develops. It blossoms when people grow in their capacity to take concrete steps to make things different. And where real hope lives, there is also a constant invitation to broader and deeper meaning. As we learn to talk about our own suffering and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater suffering of others. Because hope emerges from processing grief and suffering in community, it draws its practitioners to consider matters from a much wider field of vision. As we grow in our ability to imagine a different world, hope emerges among us. It all begins by talking about it. — Daniel Schultz, ‘Living by the Word’, Christian Century, 18 December 2019

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We know how Matthew’s Christmas story continues, once Jesus is born: in time the magi come, wise ones from the east. They come to honour the new king whose birth was foretold by a new star. 

These magi may be wise in the ways of stars and other heavenly bodies, but politically they are naive. They assume the new king is in the palace of Herod. Ok, fair enough; but they don’t see that Herod is playing them, trying to find out where this new king is so that he can kill him. 

The magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod on the way home, and so we come to today’s story: the horrific slaughter of all children two years old or less in Bethlehem. 

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember we spoke of Matthew’s theme. Let me repeat what I said then: 

Jesus had fulfilled the story of the Old Testament. Jesus was the promised Messiah, greater than Moses or Elijah, he was the son of David who is greater yet than David. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel, in fact he fills it to overflowing. Matthew’s aim wasn’t to inform his readers about history; his aim was to convince us.

Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. So, Jesus fulfils Isaiah 60, which in part says:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.…

They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.   Isaiah 60.3, 6b

Matthew ransacked our Old Testament to find ways to show how Jesus fulfils the scriptures. So it is to the light of Jesus the nations come to; they bring him gold and frankincense. 

Matthew adds something to the mix: myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used in burials, and it foreshadows the death Jesus would die. 

And there’s death aplenty in the story now. When he has told the tragic story of Bethlehem’s tiny children, Matthew tells us:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah [31.15]:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’

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Filed under Christmas, Church & world, church year, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon

Emmanuel, God with us

Screen Shot 2019-12-22 at 2.46.44 pm

Readings
Isaiah 7.10–16
Matthew 1.18–25

Word of Love,
  enter our hearts
  as you entered the virgin’s womb.
  Come, Lord Jesus!

Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th St

———————

I’ve been trying to preach from Isaiah during Advent, and I’m going to at least start in Isaiah today. We’ve come to a well-known verse: it’s Isaiah 7.14.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

What’s does that mean? What was Isaiah talking about? Let’s see, shall we? Isaiah was addressing Ahaz, the king of Judah. Ahaz was facing a difficult situation.  

Back then, about 800 BC, the country we know as Israel was divided in two. The northern part was called Israel; the southern part was Judah. Judah was under military threat from Israel and also from Syria, which is where Syria is today. Israel and Syria wanted a three-nation alliance to fight off an invasion from an invasion from Assyria, which is where Iraq is now. 

The city of Jerusalem was in Judah, and that’s where Isaiah and Ahaz were. Isaiah’s prophetic word was for King Ahaz to trust God, rather than form any kind of military alliance. 

That’s enough history. Ahaz was in a pickle, Isaiah was counselling him to trust in God. And Isaiah says, 

Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

It can be anything in all creation! Ask away, Ahaz! 

But Ahaz replies, 

I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 

What an interesting answer! It’s pious (‘I will not put the Lord to the test’). It also neatly avoids having anything to do with God.

Ahaz must have been to diplomacy school. 

Isaiah isn’t satisfied though. So, he says,

the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  

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Strengthen the weak hands…

Reading
Isaiah 35.1–10

 

To spend time in Advent in the company of the prophets is to open ourselves up to the great and costly truth that the world is God’s and can be lived in peaceably and joyfully only by people who know who they are and whose they are. In that sense, we are all called to be prophets, in that we point to the bigger narrative of which we are a part; we point towards the action of God in Jesus Christ, and prepare ourselves to live in the world that God has made. — Jane Williams, The Art of Advent, Day 8

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In some Advent traditions, today is Gaudete Sunday, Joyful Sunday. It comes from an old tradition of Advent as a time of repentance leading up to the celebration of Christmas. At one time, Advent was a time to think on the ‘Four Last Things’: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. For some, Advent is still a time of fasting, like Lent. 

So the Third Sunday of Advent became a little break from the focus on the Four Last Things, a time to focus on joy. One sign of that can be a pink candle, though ours is still purple. (One thing I’ve decided: God is less concerned with the colours we use that almost anything else. The colours are for our benefit, not for God’s.) 

Giving you this potted history helps to understand why the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent direct us to joy. Isaiah 35 begins,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

I wish that were the case right now in Australia. Instead, the land burns and is laid waste, and the powers that be do anything except address the issue. Perhaps true joy, deep joy, comes once hardship is faced and lives changed so that we can feel a worthwhile, lasting joy—along with peace and hope and love, the Advent themes that we are more familiar with. 

Perhaps there’s no joy until we face the pain of our land, which goes beyond those unprecedented fires. This pain includes the frontier wars that decimated the first peoples, who today are still not recognised as they should be. This pain is a result of greed, which means that water is not allocated properly. 

Pain runs deep in our country, and it will not be patched over. Until the roots of its pain are addressed, we shall not know true joy. 

Advent is about looking for Jesus as he comes to us; does he come to us in painful times? Is he ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ through those times? 

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Swords into ploughshares

Readings
Isaiah 2.1–5
Matthew 24.36–44

 

Our nature is goodness. Yes, we do much that is bad, but our essential nature is good. If it were not, then we would not be shocked and dismayed when we harm one another. When someone does something ghastly, it makes the news because it is the exception to the rule. We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable. Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world. — Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving

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Isaiah the prophet wrote this: 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2.4

Well, Isaiah, someone might say—if you’re going to dream, dream big. 

Let’s look at this verse a bit more. It doesn’t only tell us about whatever dreams Isaiah may have had: it tells us of God. 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples…

Nations have gone to war with other nations for centuries. Often—far too often—they claim that God is on their side. They pray for God to make them victorious, and to grind their enemies into the dust. 

Yet in Isaiah’s vision, when God judges between the nations, it is for peace. Not for victory for some or defeat for others. God is the God of peace. When God arbitrates, when God is the umpire, God decides for peace. No one wins, no one loses. Instead,

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks…

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Father forgive

Readings
Jeremiah 23.1–6
Luke 23.33–43

The old Coventry Cathedral

It is as if [Jesus] were saying ‘Yes, you did this to me, as you do it to each other, and here I am undergoing this, occupying the space of it happening, but I’m doing so without being embittered or resentful. In fact, I was keen to occupy this space so as to try to get across to you that I am not only utterly alive, but that I am utterly loving. There is nothing you can do, no amount of evil that you can do to each other, that will be able to stop my loving you, nothing you can do to separate yourselves from me. The moment you perceive me, just here, on the cross, occupying this space for you and detoxifying it, the moment you perceive that, then you know that I am determined to show you that I love you, and am in your midst as your forgiving victim. This is how I prove my love to you: by taking you at your very lowest and worst point and saying “Yes, you do this to me, but I’m not concerned about that, let’s see whether we can’t learn a new way of being together.”’ — James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim

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A week ago, we spoke about the hope of a new heavens and a new earth, even while creation groans in unprecedented and catastrophic bushfires. We spoke of the need to have hope in the new creation that God has brought into being in Jesus the risen crucified One, and that God is giving birth to even now. 

So last Monday, it was a bit of a jolt for me to see what another preacher had been saying last Sunday about those same bushfires. 

Israel Folau, former rugby player for Australia and now media celebrity preacher, told his church that the bushfires and droughts we are seeing now have come straight from the hand of God:

You think it’s a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys, Australia, you need to repent.

What you see right now in the world is only a little taste of God’s judgment that’s coming, it’s not even a big thing.

And what is God saying, according to Israel Folau? That we should repent of laws on marriage equality, laws legalising abortion. That we should repeal those laws and go back to how things were. 

Mr Folau says God caused the bushfires because of our sin. And if we don’t repent, there will be much, much more. 

The god that Israel Folau preaches sends judgement in a haphazard way. People died in the bushfires. More lost everything. Some of them might actually agree with Mr Folau about a number of things. But they get caught up in it anyway.

The god that Israel Folau preaches lacks basic discernment and compassion. 

What about the God that Jesus embodied? Does this God send thunderbolts to start bushfires? Our Gospel Reading gives us a hand to discover just who the God who came to us in Jesus really is. 

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Creation groans

Reading
Isaiah 65.17–25

 

Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart. — Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club 

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea as a result of people’s actions, so he will make them taste (the consequences of) some of their actions, so that perhaps they will return (to righteousness). — Quran, 30.41; and

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left. — Isaiah 24.5–6

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Creation groans; and we are part of creation. So let me ask: did this last week frighten you? Like we’re on the edge of a precipice? About to fall into an abyss if we don’t burn to a crisp first?

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Filed under Basis of Union, Church & world, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon, suffering, Uniting Church in Australia