Horrock's Pass, Wilmington 2016

One Man's Web

This is an Advent 4 cum Christmas sermon written for Adelaide, in South Australia, 2019. This morning at 6am it was 95F in our suburb,  (that's 35C,) a whisker under 108F at mid morning, and heading for 116. A major blaze is developing near Cuddly Creek as I write, another one is headed toward the hills behind Blakeview, and the NSW fires, so far, have "a total perimeter of 19,235 kilometres. That’s the equivalent distance of Sydney to Perth four times over." (And the Prime Minister has finally realised that it was not a good time to take Christmas off on an overseas holiday.)

In 1990's Adelaide a mother duck used to nest in the fountain outside Police Headquarters in the middle of the city. Each year she would walk the ducklings down to the River Torrens, along the busiest street in the city centre, and across six major roads. It was a small media phenomenon accompanied by TV cameras and a police escort.  There is also a Victorian joke in the text, but the sermon is serious.

It's like being in paradise...

If you've been in the Botanic Gardens, you'll know what a beautiful place it is— walled off from the heat and the noise of the city, lush, shaded, every kind of plant. It's a beautiful, and feels like... a safe place.

People have understood for a long time that if we were close to God, if God were with us, then the whole of life would be like that garden; it would be paradise; we would literally live in Paradise. That's why we have the story of Paradise, the story of Garden of Eden where God walked with Eve and Adam in the cool of the day. Paradise... is the Latin word for garden.

The problem for us— and we've known this for a long time, too— is this thing we call sin. Sin is not some list of moral wrongs which varies according to where we live. My friend Ann, from North Carolina, married a man with family in the Barossa Valley. She said, "I can't help noticing that in North Carolina it's a sin to drink, but it's fine to smoke. In the Barossa churches, it's a sin to smoke, but wine is fine." Sin is something much deeper than that.

Sin is that much deeper thing about us which means we are separated from God. It's not that God leaves us alone or deserts us, but that something about us— so deep we wonder if it's in our genes! — means we have walled ourselves off from God; we've fallen dreadfully short of what we know we could be, and we can never get there. We are outside the garden. Life is hot, hopeless, and full of violence and fear. The idea that God is with us seems not so much untrue as completely ridiculous!

So what if you met a man who made you feel that when you were with him... you were somehow in the very presence of God, a man who made life — with all its pain, and despite all its pain — what if you met a man who made it feel like you were in the Garden again? ... Read on >>>>

It begins with Joseph

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We need to know who we are, and to be known. Knowing our family and origins allows us to make sense of the world. It identifies us for ourselves, and to others. It locates us in society. Perhaps Australian western society does this in a more muted fashion than the culture of Jesus' time, but even here in Australia, we carefully curate our "book of generations" with small lies about parentage, with taped together pages in our research records left waiting for a later generation, and even with carefully erased wayward children. Genealogy is only partly about history. It is also the defining of ourselves and who we would like to be. 

Matthew begins his gospel with a family history for his people. WD Davies says

The genealogy implicitly reveals the identity and status of the church. Congregations which included both Jews and Gentiles could not find their identity in a shared racial heritage. They found it instead in their common Lord and saviour... and since he was the Messiah, the Son of David and the son of Abraham, those who adhered to his words and participated in his destiny knew themselves to be heirs of the promises... In other words, the history of Jesus was his followers history, and his heritage their heritage. Despite its belonging to the rootless Hellenistic world of the first century, the church, by virtue of its union with Jesus, had a secure link with the remote past. (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary.  Davies and Alison pp 11)

In a rootless post-truth, apocalyptic world of political lies, where all that seemed solid is now under threat— and for people of all persuasions, and where all westerners find themselves complicit in the destruction of the biosphere, such a belonging  may provide an anchor— if we choose to use it. Christmas without the genealogy leaves out half the story; it leaves us afloat with theories of salvation which are not anchored into the history of our species... Read on >>>>

John has come to the end. He knows he will not escape prison alive. Yet there has been no fire, no judgement, no felling of trees. (Matt 3:1-11) It seems nothing has happened at all. That which might be his only rescue has not come. How do you keep believing when nothing has worked and it seems everything you had hoped and dreamed for is going to elude you?

How many people later in life, when death has become a reality which will not stay ignored, and how many people who began a path with plans and high ideals which they realise will not be achieved, wonder if their choices were correct? Should they have looked elsewhere? Could I have done more? Was the church wrong? Have I wasted my time— even my life?

"Are we to wait for another?" John asked, voicing the grief and doubt of countless Christians and people of all faiths, at those times when the kingdom seems more absent than present. Indeed, when a respected scientist says he thinks it is "'at least highly unlikely' that his teenage children [will] survive beyond late middle age," what is there to wait for? The person I am quoting said of herself "At that point, three decades of climate unease crystallised into debilitating dread, and I’m far from alone." 

To all this, Jesus says

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Which is to say... Read on >>>>

In this story, John says he is not worthy to carry the Messiah's sandals— but of course he is! Jesus didn't belong to the kind of mindset— the kind of Kingdom— that lorded it over people. He accepted all people. He found all people worthy of God's love, and he was "the image of the invisible God," in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." This means God finds us worthy even if we feel unworthy to the bottom of our soul. We are worthy to carry his sandals and much more.

Indeed, when it comes to being found worthy, John was the one who understood that the world was "about to turn" as the hymn puts it. He understood the Messiah was on the way. He came preaching a great hope. He took the ancient words from the time of the exile in Babylon, words of hope which were spoken at a time when the exiles must have had no hope of ever returning home. We read some of them this morning.

The story of John uses them to say that there will be another return from exile. The Messiah is coming, the time is now.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep.... (Isaiah 40:11)

John dresses for the part of a prophet. Any Jewish person in Jesus' time would recognize he was dressed like Elijah, whose devotion for God burned fiercely... Read on >>>>

from the text... Matthew ... is not merely proof texting [when he quotes Isaiah 40.] Yes, he is saying that the word of Isaiah is coming true, but even more, he is saying that if we want to understand the significance of John and of Jesus, we need to understand Isaiah from whom he understands that the time for the glory of the Lord to be revealed is now and that Jesus is the one. The kingdom has come near. It is arriving. The return from our exile has begun.

Nonetheless, John is presented to us dressed as Elijah. We know he is to be heard through the lens of Elijah because when the King Ahaziah interrogates his messengers who failed to ask Baal-zebub the god of Ekron about his future health he is told someone sent them back.

7He said to them, ‘What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?’ 8They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’  (2 Kings 1:7-8)

In my ear of my mind, I always hear him add: I might have known!

In the ensuing confrontation Elijah calls down the fire of God from heaven and one hundred men are killed.  Elijah's coming again is an occasion full of threat. His appearance heralds "the great and terrible day of the Lord" with which Malachi ends... Read on >>>>

It helps to consider a couple of things before we wonder what the text was trying to say to its original listeners and readers.

One thing we often ask ourselves in our church Bible study, is what the church has taught us about a text. This is not only a question for those who've been to  theological college. We all come to many texts and, consciously or not, think, "This means….  " Our received reading of the text is perhaps the culmination of years in church, or of a particularly influential minister, or perhaps even the route of a relatively recent entry into the church. What we bring to the text will influence what we hear in it. In our Bible studies we don't initially critique the things we find the church has taught us; we place them on the table so that we can be aware of their influence as we begin to read.

One particular influence upon the reading of Matthew 24, for me, is that it was a text of identity and belonging.  When we sang, "I wish we'd all been ready," we were not only learning a particular theological interpretation of Matthew. We were identifying ourselves as part of a group. The interpretation of the text found in Larry Norman's song is one of the marker texts of fault lines that run through the church. It sits with a certain view of the means of creation, the "how" of the Virgin Birth, the mechanisms of Resurrection, and with the method of interpreting Scripture,  as a group of identifiers which we are all tempted to use to assess the veracity of the faith of others; whether they have really been saved by grace, or not. We use these texts as measures of holiness.

So, our text this week concerns a "hot button" issue. We will inevitably be part of a congregation where there are discernable groups of people. Ronald J Allen describes three groups... Read on >>>>

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When my daughter was about 4 she would ask lots of questions. Sometimes we'd have 20 questions in a row.  One day, after many, many questions, I was stumped. I said, "I don't know," because… I didn't. She must have thought I didn't hear her properly, because she asked the same question again, and again. And when I said, a bit wearily, "Deb, I really don't know!  I don't know how that works," she exploded at me: "Of course you know," she shouted. "You know everything."

It's a very scary world when we don't know, and when no one else knows either.  Deb, like many kids starting school, soon attached her affections to the prep teacher, Ms. D. And each night during tea we would hear Mrs D. this, Mrs D. that, Mrs D. said….

So one night I said, "Nah… what would Mrs D. know about that? She's just a school teacher." This was a very smart just-five year old. She knew I was trolling her. She didn't bite. But she gave me a death stare that would have frightened Julie Bishop. And behind that, I think, there was a little fear: "What will happen in my world if Mrs D really doesn't know everything!? Surely somebody knows?"

But we don't. We spend our lives trying to find out how life works. We spend our lives afraid of death because that's the worst kind of unknowing of all. No one knows what will happen.  And so we do our best to avoid it—at any cost.

And if we're brave enough, or obsessive enough, to look more closely at life, we realise that when it comes to the meaning of things, and the purpose of things, we mostly… don't know. We struggle on in life taking it on faith that something, somewhere, sometime, will make sense. What else can you do?  We sort of get used to it. It looks like we’ve forgotten, and that we are not afraid. But it dogs us. It hounds us in our times of fear and weakness. It is a terrible thing not to know... Read on >>>>

We don't know.

We don't know where we come from, or how. We don't know how we began, or what sustains us and sustains the world in which we find ourselves.  We can guess. We have instincts about our being. We may be convinced by some deep experience. The scientific method has allowed us to see the complex molecular structures and the climate physics which allow us to exist. But when we are honest, nobody knows what it means, or how it began. No one. Everything we discern is shaped by the reality which engulfs us, and is larger than us, and is shaped by the culture which gives us birth.

What we do know is that we die. What we do know is that our futures are always uncertain. We know we are afraid; death rips us from our small ark of love and casts us into immeasurable depths. The knowledge we have from the narrow sphere of our scientific endeavours, warns us that we are destroying our ability to live, yet we seem powerless to act. When we allow ourselves to consider all these things, the words of Luke in the Psalm for this week are true: we are "those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"

How then do we live?

We endure. We hope. We are patient. We faith; that is, we trust. (Colossians 1) This is the space in which we are given to live. It is here that we find mercy and that things hold together, and it is here that we rail at our existence or endure darkness, when they do not hold together. This is our place. There is no other place anyone can be. No amount of money or privilege or any other human power can remove us from this place. It is here that we will embrace the light which enables us to see glory and God, and it is here that we will resist it.

It is here that we trust that "He is the image of the invisible God." Use the word faith, or believe, if you will; trust, faith, belief: all three words have the same essence. They describe the place of those who are created, who cannot know of themselves, who cannot be in and by themselves, who need mercy and forgiveness, who need to be guided into the way of peace. Perhaps trust (τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ — the faith of you (pl) in Christ Jesus) at its deepest, means to accept what we are given and who we find ourselves to be.

This is where Luke begins, in Chapter 1, and in the reading set for the Psalm... Read on >>>>

We don't really believe the end will come. There will be disasters, certainly, but not for us. We live as though

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
   ten thousand at your right hand,
   but it will not come near you. (Ps 91)

But it will, Jesus says.

They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name... 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name...

The author of Psalm 91 thought

8 You will only look with your eyes
   and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91)

But Jesus warns of a time when it will be us who are the hated ones, even though we are not wicked.

I have lived my life in a bubble, seeing the ill fortune of others and deciding almost without consciousness that something about their living had been wrong; it would not come near me.

I was like a farmer's kid who helped fire the stubble during the autumn. Not knowing the day had been carefully chosen for its lack of wind, not knowing that the neighbours were on alert, blind to the fact that sheep had been left in the stubble for weeks, feeding and trampling it down, I would accompany my father with excitement as the torch was dragged around the paddock. The tame fire meant we could cultivate the land a few weeks later without clogging the machinery.

And then one day I went to a real fire, and stood with the men as they debated how to control the burn. It was only a small fire, really, at the base of a gully.  And then in a flicker towards the slope it jumped a quarter mile, roaring into our faces almost before we realised it was coming. We staggered back into the fallow paddock behind us; without that, most of us would have perished... Read on >>>>

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