Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

Of Burning Bushes and Messiahs

Sermon for 31-8-2008, based around Exodus Chapter 3, and Matthew 16:21-28. First published at a church rewired.

In Exodus, Moses has one of those inklings of God moments. Something lifts him out the everyday and confronts him with the greater reality. In this particular case, it's more of a confrontation and less of an inkling! Tchese things vary from the merest inkling to overwhelming experience that changes our life significantly because it has such and effect on us. I once stood on th verhanda with my friend Geoff. "Andrew, I may not be spiritual," he said, "but this is a divine sunset!" I said I thought that was absoulutely a spiritual statement.

God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.' I am... no name, I am beyond your naming, beyond your comprehension. I simply am... you can only accept or reject, remember and respond or forget and let fade. For all your wondering, you will never own this experience, or fully understand.

I was driving through the night, singing, when I met one of those burning bushes. Way out in the desert, supposedly alert so I would not run into kangaroos, or more dangerously- a bullock, I was taken over. The truck roared on and I sang louder and stronger, some song I'd never heard but for which I knew the words. I watched Andrew sitting there singing, and eventually was able to stop the truck, and slumped over the steering wheel, gasping for breath and comprehension.

I was manic for a month. My life was turned upside down, as they say. A friend from a neighbouring station told me with delight that one of the jackeroos said to him, "I knew a bloke like him in Darwin; he was on heroin."

Other people had the same experience. A man came in off the road at Kulgera, destroyed and delirious, full of wonder, telling of something he couldn't quite describe.

Now, thirty years later, I sometimes almost wonder if it ever happened. It is distant and pale. It was a moment that some of us seek after and long for. In this uncertain world, and in our Australian hostility to anything religious, an experience like this would be a kind of confirmation, a kind of certainty. We could say to the "Richard Dawkins" of our own life, not only that his reasoning is flawed, but that we know- we have felt and seen and been touched!

This longing is why a certain sort of worship happens, that seeking, longing, almost forced singing and swaying. It's desperately seeking certainty, and can still be empty, no matter how many times we sing the chorus, or how good the worship leader at the front. We can't manufacture the experience of God. It is a gift which happens despite us, often quite independent of our trying or desires.

It can also becomes an unsatisfying experience that loses it's reality. Perhaps I am graced with a glimpse of something divine. It is easy to want more... and more... and more.... and become a junkie, desperate for another fix, not seeing that the drug is destructive, delusion, and blinding us to greater joy that is all around us.

A religious experience on its own inevitably fades; one more discarded belonging in a consumer society.

What made Moses' experience become a foundational religious event? How come the experience did not die? How did it come to nurture a people and empower them, instead of becoming a stale Pentecostal party trick. The answer is that a thousand years before Jesus, Moses took up his cross. He didn't just enjoy the experience, and look for more. He lived with its consequences. He stepped right out of this new place of excitement and comfort, and went back to Egypt. He lived through the dangers.

We see the same pattern in the gospel reading. Peter is touched by God... he has a glimpse and insight of something more... and then comes the challenge of the cross. Peter has recognised the Messiah. Now he has to learn what a Messiah actually is; that being messiah is not all glory. True glory, and true life, come through pain, and suffering, and even death.

The experience of the divine moves beyond mere experience, and becomes nurturing when we take up our cross. Indeed, if we are not moved to take up our cross, we might wonder how real the experience was.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.' But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'  Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Taking up the cross can be literal. Don Helder Camera, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others are witness to that. The list includes the tens of thousands killed for being Christian, and the same numbers of others killed for their faiths. At one level, martyrdom seems to be the (un)luck of the draw. Security in this life is ephemeral and circumstantial. Safety can evaporate in seconds. For a few scant minutes I once had 400 people yelling and screaming at me. Most of it was not in English, so some may have been crying support, but it was clear that the situation was dangerous. Resolution came through the wisdom of a few friends. That incident was a stark demonstration to me of how isolated and vulnerable we are when we step outside the boundaries of societal approval. I spent days afterward looking behind me.

Sometimes the yelling and shouting degenerates into mob violence. Sometimes there is an assassin. Sometimes the bullet will miss, and sometimes not. Here in Australia there are not usually bullets of the leaden kind. But life can be battered by the powerful with political influence, unfair sacking, rumour-mongering and assassination of character.

Jesus tells his disciples ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?.

In this passage he takes Christianity irretrievably away from personal piety. He utterly removes it from some social observance we must make to be a proper member of society. There is no mere piety here. It is deadly serious.  But it's not mere threat theology; that is, do what I say or you won't get saved.

Instead Jesus tells us a spiritual truth that transcends religious orientation. It's the spiritual truth which takes glimpses of God beyond brain chemistry or psychology. It's the spiritual truth which nurtures us and protects us from the fraudsters and emotional manipulators who want to build a religion in their own image.

What is my life worth if I am rich, but have compromised everything I believe in? What does it matter if I have dreams and visions, if I am not willing to act on the call of the gospel? I may speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but if I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13)

Sometimes I take a hard look at who I am and who I have become. It's not that pretty. I discern a couple of things that relate to today: The first is what we call Grace. In the language of today's gospel reading, Grace is where God has not required perfection of me. Grace is where I have seen the cross I must carry and have run away. Or perhaps I picked up the cross and felt crushed, and carried it for a while and gave up, or collapsed under the weight of it. Grace is where God let me come back and try again.

Grace is where there is not recrimination, but only invitation to keep rejoining the church and keep trying to follow Jesus. Grace is where I am not called to be a martyr to the death, but there are plenty of small crosses to carry, plenty of small givings up of my life that give life to others. And grace is the small awareness that if the unluck of the draw means my cross becomes a cross that leads to physical death, it will be alright, somehow.

Grace means we do not have to be Eric Liddell, or Mother Theresa, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are called to be... just us, with the small pains and deaths of life in Greenacres. And grace means that if we are called beyond Greenacres to a greater and heavier cross to carry, we will manage.

The second thing I see is this.
When I think about life, and what I've achieved;
when I remember hopes and dreams and ideals;
when I regret things not achieved, and sometimes grieve over my failings and losses;
at these times I see something. I've been given a certain level of contentment, and gather that some people even like and respect me. And I see that the good in me seems correlates with living with the principle of taking up the cross, poorly done though it may be.

Where I have denied my own success and security and lived for what I believe, I seem to have grown and achieved. Where I have not had the courage to let go of my safety, I have been denied growth and discovery of new strength and life. When Jesus says take up your cross, and when he says loses your life and find it, he is not giving us a burden. He is pointing us in the direction of life. Amen

Rev. Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  


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