Tag Archives: kingdom of heaven

The Kingdom comes near in Crisis

Readings
1 Corinthians 1.10–18
Matthew 4.12–23

 

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise. A nation more concerned with styles of life than with achievement has managed to achieve what may be the most evenly prosperous society in the world. It has done this in a social climate largely inimical to originality and the desire for excellence (except in sport) and in which there is less and less acclamation of hard work. According to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune. ― Donald Horne, The Lucky Country

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. ― Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, para. 23 

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Do you have a favourite book of the Bible? I do. My favourite is Jonah, a funny, witty extended parable about a prophet who tries so hard not to do the right thing but is manoeuvred by God to do it anyway. He’s called to preach to Nineveh, the enemies of Israel; when he finally gets there, when his work is successful, when Nineveh repents and turns to God, Jonah sulks. In the very last verse of Jonah, God tries to bring Jonah around to the Divine way of thinking. God says:

…should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? [Jonah 4.11]

At least 32 people have died in this heartbreaking bushfire season. Over 2000 homes have been lost. 

I love that Jonah reminds us that God loves animals too. We’ve been made aware of the deaths of over a billion animals this bushfire season. For some reason, that number doesn’t include fish, frogs, bats or insects. (How many insects must have died? How many bees have we lost?) 

Whole ecosystems are in peril. 

Bushfires have long been seen as carbon-neutral events. The forest burns, the forest regenerates, the carbon is once again locked up in trees. But doubts have been expressed about this current season. Are we in a new, dangerous time? Will the forest regenerate, or will the land formerly occupied by trees become grassland? If that occurs, Australia’s carbon output this year may be increased by a third because of this bushfire season. 

And so we have come to 26 January 2020, Australia Day. Or Survival Day. Whatever we call it, it’s surely a day in which we must take stock of what we are doing to our country. 

Australia Day/Survival Day has been a day of controversy from the beginning. At first, 26 January was only the date that New South Wales held the day, as the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson where Arthur Phillip raised the Union Flag on the land of the Eora nation. 

Other dates in other states have been called ‘Australia Day’: 

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Left to right: 30 July; 1 July; 28 July

26 January was only made the ‘national’ Australia Day in 1994, 26 years ago! Before then, we always had a long weekend. I don’t blame people for finding the date offensive. I mean, it’s Sydney-centric (hello, Australia is much more than Sydney!). And as it commemorates the first steps of the British on Australian soil, it is humiliating and unacceptable to First Peoples in our country. 

As we heard last week, the Uniting Church stands in covenant with the First Peoples of our church. Therefore, we recognise the pain they feel about the choice of 26 January. 

So now that 2020 is here, what have we done to the land that the First Peoples lived on for more than 60000 years? 

We have imposed European-type farming methods on land that is often unsuitable for it.

We have introduced species such as the cat, fox, rabbit and cane toad that disrupt the ecological balance of the land. 

We have driven species such as the Tasmanian tiger to extinction. Others may now be on the brink.

We have made Aboriginal and Islander people strangers in their own country. In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death in Aboriginal children. Many Aboriginal people have died in custody; the latest was earlier this month in Victoria. This 37-year-old woman had been remanded in maximum security. Her alleged crime? Shoplifting.

To cap it all, our government still refuses to engage in any meaningful action on climate change. 

Australians have thought of ourselves as ‘The Lucky Country’ since Donald Horne coined the phrase in the 1960s. We should remember the fuller—and very ironic—quotation by Horne, which begins: 

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.

That we are run by second-rate people has now become frighteningly apparent. It is no exaggeration to say that Australia is in the midst of a crisis. No less a figure than David Attenborough has made this claim. (See here also.) This bushfire season is the worst ever seen, and this is partly because of the abnormally dry conditions which climate change has brought in the south east of the country. 

You can hear all this on the nightly news. And this sermon is not a news report. So what can we say that’s not on the news? What must we say as the church of Jesus Christ? 

In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus says 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [the kingdom of God] has come near.

Jesus wasn’t living in easy times right then. He began proclaiming this message after John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus himself was already under threat from the powers that be. The kingdom of God comes near in times of crisis. 

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‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him’ (Epiphany 3A, 22 January 2017)

Reading
Matthew 4.12–23

Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)

In Matthew’s Gospel, these are the first words John the Baptist speaks:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

By the time Jesus begins his public ministry, John has been thrown into one of Herod’s prisons. At this stage, Jesus was a ‘known associate’ of John’s; what would you do in Jesus’ place? Hide out? Run away? Change the message into something safer, more palatable?

I don’t know what you’d do, but I would take one of those alternatives. What does Jesus do? He preaches exactly the same message. He cries out:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Let’s stop for a moment and look at this. John has come across political opposition. This isn’t the first time political opposition has come in the Gospel of Matthew. It was there from the beginning.

First, Herod the Great tries to trick the wise men into revealing the whereabouts of Jesus, because he wants him dead.

When Joseph and Mary return from refuge in Egypt, they live in Nazareth because it’s off the beaten track and therefore safer.

Years later, John is arrested by Herod Antipas. Herod the Great, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus, was his father.

After John’s arrest, Jesus does withdraw from Judea, the southern part of Israel, where John was baptising. He goes to live in the north, in Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee.

But he wasn’t going into hiding! ‘From that time,’ we read, ‘from that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’

Jesus wasn’t being cautious. A lot of Christian people are cautious. But Jesus had a mission, and he was far from cautious.

Jesus preached about the same thing as John: the kingdom of heaven.

What is the kingdom of heaven?

It’s not where you go when you die.

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Repent, rethink, return (Advent 2, 2016A)

Readings
Isaiah 11.1–10
Matthew 3.1–12

‘In those days,’ as Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, ‘John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’

When the kingdom of God is near, we’d best repent. Or we may miss it.

The kingdom of God is full of grace, peace, justice, hope, love and joy.

The kingdom of God is greater, wider and deeper than we can possibly imagine.

The kingdom of God is full of people from all races, languages and cultures. Repentant people. We’d spoil it if we didn’t repent.

I want to talk today about the repentance that is needed for the coming kingdom of God. I’m going to do it in two ways:

  • Firstly, repentance from sin;
  • Secondly, the repentance needed as we grow in maturity.

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Repentance—a way of life (Advent 2A, 8 December 2013)

Readings
Isaiah 11.1–10
Matthew 3.1–12

 

 

Some of you—ok, maybe only one of you—may not have heard this story before.

Charlie V decided the church needed a new coat of paint, so being an expert with a big heart he decided do it for the cost of the paint. Charlie wanted to save money for the church, so he thinned the paint down. It started to rain when Charlie was halfway through, so he had to find some cover. After the rain stopped, he looked out. He was horrified to see the paint had run in a long series of soggy streaks. While he was still staring aghast at the wall, a voice rang out from heaven: ‘Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!’

And that’s almost what Matthew’s John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel Reading. He says

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

What do we do when we repent? Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: Repenting isn’t necessarily about guilt and being sorry. When we ‘repent’ we change our way of thinking, we turn around and walk in a new direction. That may mean turning from something that is wrong. But not always. When I’m shopping in Coles, I sometimes realised that I’ve turned into the wrong aisle. So I rethink what I’m doing, and I turn around. That’s repenting too. We all repent all the time.

And what is this kingdom of heaven? It’s what Jesus asks us to pray for:

Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.

Matthew has already give us a glimpse of it. Continue reading

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Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A, 6 February 2011)

Blessed are…the salt of the earth

Reading
Matthew 5.13-20

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In my early years, growing up in the north of England, I was conscious of something about myself that my kids have never had to think about.

I was part of the working class.

Above me were the middle class and above them there were people in the upper class. Below us were the unemployed and the homeless, but our family was near the bottom. That was where we fitted; as working class people, we didn’t count as much as middle class people.

Once upon a time, working class people were meant to stay working class. My dad did have aspirations to get us into the middle class; and we lived at a time in which kids like me, kids with the ability to pass exams, were at a great advantage because we were given a grammar school education.

If I were living in England now, I would have made it all the way up to the middle class by now.

We talk about the ‘middle class’ in Australia, but ‘working class’ is a phrase you don’t hear too often. Don’t be fooled; it still exists! We do talk about people who live in ‘low socio-economic areas’. That’s a whole mouthful of intelligent-sounding words. It sounds kinder than ‘working class’. Possibly it is—it feels that it should be easier to escape a ‘low socio-economic area’ than it would be to get out of the ‘working class’. But really, I have my doubts about that. People who are on the bottom tend to get ‘stuck’. They tend not to be noticed as much as the people who make ‘the news’.

In the first century, they didn’t talk about the working class, or about people living in low socio-economic areas. They spoke of ‘the poor’.

The Greek word Matthew uses for ‘poor’ is ptochos. The ptochoi were the lowest of the low. Much lower than English working class people. They were expendable (Rohr). They didn’t count. Jesus says, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. It’s here and it’s now, because they get it.

So when Jesus says,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,

it comes as a shock.

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Third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A, 23 January 2011)

Near occasions of grace

Readings
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Matthew 4.12-23

There’s a strand of Christian belief and practice that talks a lot about ‘near occasions of sin’. For example, the Baltimore Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says this (Question 207):

What do you mean by the near occasions of sin?

Answer: By the near occasions of sin I mean all the persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into sin.

This teaches us to avoid situations that lead us into temptation. It ranges from the obvious: I don’t go to brothels in order to give pastoral care. (I found out the whereabouts of the local brothel at a recent ministers’ fraternal meeting, of all places. Everyone else seemed to know.) But avoiding near occasions of sin may also lead to things that are less black and white than that: should I as a minister go to the local bottle shop? Some would say that’s a non-question, why worry about that, while others would tell me I just shouldn’t go there.

We can see that what for one person is a near occasion of sin is nothing for another. Personally, I find entering a book shop can be a near occasion of sin, in that I’m often tempted to spend way too much money. You might enter the same bookshop and be totally bored.

Avoiding near occasions of sin is a good teaching; why should we put ourselves in harm’s way morally, ethically or spiritually? I am happy to say that we should avoid near occasions of sin.

But if all we do is avoid sin, we’re missing out on a lot of living. If all we do is avoid sin, we may do no good. If all we do is avoid sin, we may miss God.

The spiritual writer Richard Rohr is someone I listen to closely. He writes about ‘near occasions of grace’, rather than near occasions of sin. He says:

We want to plant ourselves in near occasions of grace, yet we spend all our life avoiding near occasions of sin. Can there be situations that we allow ourselves to enter which will force us to reevaluate everything?

So a near occasion of grace may be where there are persons, places, and things that may easily lead us into further grace.

Near occasions of grace are often places and times in which we are confronted with something beyond us, perhaps way out of our control. In that place and that time we may find God’s grace waiting for us, loitering with intent, just around the corner. An ordinary day may be the time when God’s unexpected grace reveals itself to us.

Grace often surprises us, and it may not look like grace. When the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John set out for a day’s work one morning, it probably seemed like any other. The sun might have been shining, or it may have clouded over, but my guess is that it started as an ordinary day.

Then Jesus came along.

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