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Thursday 31 January 2013

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness - a response to my induction

Balkara Parish, Jan 30, 2013

Hello everyone. Thanks for your welcome, and especially your prayers, as I embark on this new part-time ministry within the Parish of Balkara in Oakleigh.

Apart from a few friends and colleagues who have come tonight to offer their support, not many of you know me at all well. It would perhaps be helpful, therefore, if I share with you something of what you can expect, and not expect, of your new minister: what you can rely on me for, and something of what you should not – under any circumstances - rely on me for.

First, you should not expect me to be a messiah-figure who will convince all your young people to return to church, solve your financial problems, and return the church to its former position as a place of power and influence in our society and culture.  I am not the messiah, you see.  And the reasons why the church is no longer at the centre of people’s lives are complex and long-standing. I cannot, and will not, resolve that situation any time soon - even though I understand the whys and wherefores of our situation better than most.  Sorry about that! You can reply on me, however, to be a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe the good news!’  You can rely on me, in other words, to be a witness, a witness in the midst of this community to an ancient way and word that  - I believe with all my heart – indeed has the power to save us.  But I am not myself that power. And you enjoy the liberty, of course, to do as you please with the witness I bring. 

Second, you should not expect me to slavishly imitate the workaholism of Western capitalism, which values a person only if she or he can produce things – goods and services – that are valued by their social betters.  I cannot be relied on to work frenetically, or for more hours that you have employed me for, or when I am sick or my family is sick.  I won’t do it.  Because to do so would be to conform myself not to the gospel of grace – a grace in which we are loved and valued by God quite apart from what we produce – but to the gospel of karma by which we must earn our salvation by the sweat of our brows.  Instead, you can rely on me to bear witness to the love and beauty of God: a love which makes a nonsense of striving, because in Christ God has already given us everything we possibly need; and a beauty in which we may behold - if we will still ourselves long enough to notice  -  the good creation that God has given us, not as a reward for work, but as a gift.  A gift, pure and simple.  You can rely on me to bear witness to such things by my slow and steady method of work, and by my essentially contemplative spirit and imagination.

Finally, you should not expect me to immediately do and say things as they have always been done and said.  You cannot rely upon me to support and confirm whatever projects you have personally or collectively taken upon yourselves. You should not assume that the new minister will immediately see the goodness and sound logic of the ways and means by which the congregation or the parish or the Presbytery runs and follows its course.  Why? Well firstly (and this is perhaps very obvious) you may find that I’m just not very bright.  What is obvious to all and sundry may not be obvious to me!  In this circumstance, I beg your patience as I seek to listen and understand.  It might take a while, but even the dimmest person can get there in the end. And so shall I! But there is a second reason why I may not immediately come to the party, and it is this: sometimes, despite devoting considerable time and effort to a desire to understand, I simply will not come to see a harmony between the word and Spirit of God in which I have immersed my life and the way things are commonly thought and done.  In such circumstances, you can rely on me to be somewhat contrary, even iconoclastic.  In such circumstances, you can rely on me to carefully explain the difference between what already is, and the new thing God would bring into being.  I will do so, of course, as gently and carefully as I can.  I will do so in a spirit of service which wants only good for you, and not ill. But I will not demure from my calling. Where I perceive a difference between the ‘way of the world’ and the way of Jesus Christ, you can rely on me to bear witness to the way of the gospel, even if it renders me rather unpopular in the process.  Coming from a long line of dissidents, as I do - Irish, Aboriginal, Christian - I am quite prepared for that if it is God’s will.

So there you have it. That is what you can expect, and not expect, from your new minister and, indeed, from any minister of Jesus Christ. For the calling I’ve described this evening is not mine by virtue of my individual personality or personal vocation.  It is mine because I am called into a company of people and an order of ministry.  It is a vocation in which all ministers are called to share.  This is so by the gracious call and election of God which, in my experience at least, is completely irresistible. 

In that spirit, I should like to conclude with a prayer of John Wesley, which we are encouraged to pray each year at the renewal of baptismal vows, my friends, if not every day:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will; rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or laid aside for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing.

And now most glorious God
- Father, Son and Holy Spirit –
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever, 
to the glory and praise of your name.  Amen

Sunday 20 January 2013

Transformed by Love

Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; John 2.1-11

The Psalm we read just now speaks about the ‘steadfast love of Yahweh.’  In Hebrew the term is chesed Yahweh, a deeply loyal kind of love which is able to persevere and endure even when the loved one chooses to spurn and trample the lover’s careful attentions underfoot.  It is important to note that the chesed Yahweh is a strictly divine kind of love.  The Psalmist never once uses the term to speak about the love of human beings, probably because he believes that human beings are incapable of performing such love.  To his mind, God alone is capable of chesed love, yet it is human beings who are most in need of its healing and transforming powers.   This because we tend, as human beings, to be so very inconstant in the covenants and promises we make—whether to God or to one another.  So this morning I would like us to contemplate chesed love for a little while, this strong and constant love that we all need so very much.  And I should like us to do so by fixing our attention on four evocative images, which the lections conveniently provide for us.

In the first image, the chesed love of God is likened to that of a mother bird who gathers her chicks under the shelter of her wings when a storm is at hand.  The Psalmist writes “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”  What a wonderful picture!  The Psalmist, like many of us, is riding out some storms in his life.  He is being mocked for his religious faith, and there are apparently wicked people nearby who would very much like to remove him from the place and work to which God has appointed him.  He is afraid, and he feels alone, so he calls out to the one who has promised his protective presence and love, no matter what.  The Psalmist believes that God’s love for him is far more constant and reliable than the machinations of a royal court, where people are only valued insofar as they are politically useful.  So he cries out to God as the one who will shelter him from the cyclone of inconstancy to which he is being subjected.  He looks to God to be a kind of still-point for him, a loving gaze of reliable compassion at the eye of a very scary storm.

A second image comes from the same pen, in the same Psalm, where God’s chesed love is likened to the hospitality of a generous host.  Again, I quote.  “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  [All people] feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.”  Here the refuge of God is not merely a tiny corner to hide from the wind, but God’s own homestead, a wide and spacious place of welcome and delightful refreshment, freely available to all who ask.  Of course, the Psalmist has a very specific place in mind, when he imagines God’s homestead.  It is the temple where he worships and prays each day.  For him, the temple is precisely that place in which he experiences God presence, a place of beauty and peace which continually draws him into God’s embrace.  There, in the sacred liturgy, God reaches out to feed him with sacred words that are sweeter than honey, and with the water of the sacred vessels, a veritable draught of Holy Spirit to sustain the worshippers.  We Christians have taken exactly this meal-imagery of Jewish worship into our own liturgy.  For us, Jesus is the great host who feeds us with himself in the bread, the water and the wine.  He is the bread of heaven and the cup of life, offered to sustain us on the long and weary journey towards healing.  For that reason, the desire of Christians for the eucharistic presence of Christ is not all that very different from the Jewish desire for Torah and for the ritual meals of the Synagogue.  For all of us desire the healing touch of God’s chesed love.  And for all of us, Jew or Christian, it is the story of God told in worship that is able to show us what that love is like.

A third image is found in the reading from Isaiah.  There the chesed love of God is compared to that of a bridegroom who delights in his bride.  I quote:  “As a young man marries a young woman, so shall your Maker marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”  Now, lest you get the impression that God’s love is only as good as the starry-eyed infatuation of the newly-married—which (let’s be honest) is largely blind, and lasts only for a short while—please take note of the context in which that image is invoked!  The wider passage speaks about God’s continuing concern and loyalty toward a people that has completely deserted God’s ways, becoming both morally and spiritually desolate in the process.   This is a lover who is able to delight in his bride even though he knows what she is really like, ‘warts and all,’ as they say.  God, we are told, is like the bridegroom in his delight towards the bride.  Yet he is very unlike the typical bridegroom in that he delights in his bride even as she runs after other lovers.

Now, there is good news here, is there not?  For we are not so very different from the chosen people of old.  We are people who swell with love and devotion for God when it suits us, when we want to fill our empty lives with a little spirituality and pretend we have risen above the mediocrity all around us.  But we are so easily distracted, so easily lured away from our devotion.  All it takes is the prospect of a little more cash, or a little romantic attention from an attractive somebody.  Sometimes all it takes for us to abandon God’s ways is the prospect of relaxing into some television.  This is who we are.  This is the pathos of our inconstancy.  Thank Christ, then, that God is not like us!  Thank Christ that God is chesed love, loyal and steadfast even where we ourselves fail.  For without that love, we would all fade into the nothingness and desolation of beings who have no anchor, no centre out of which to be anything at all.  We would exist only as clouds exist—accidently and ephemerally, for only a moment.  In the end, it is only God’s loving attention which holds us in being and gives us a future which is of more worth than that of a cloud’s.  In the end, we are what we are only because God holds and purposes us according to the horizon of his gift.  In God, we become who we are only as we receive ourselves from God.

Which brings me to the final image I wanted to speak about this morning:  God’s chesed love as the primal power of transformation or alchemy.  We read in Isaiah of a love which is realistic about who we are in our sin, and yet looks and hopes for our transformation into people of substance.  I quote.  “You shall receive a new name from the mouth of the Lord.  No longer shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ and your land ‘Desolate’; instead, you will be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘Beloved’.”  There is an additional claim being made, here, for God’s love.  Not only does it continue to regard us with delight, even as we sin.  It is also able to change us, to change our deepest motivations and desires so that we begin, however slowly, to desire what God desires and become the people God desires that we be.  How does this happen, how is love able to change a human heart?  It is a mystery!  Yet I believe that the apostle John had an unusual insight into such things, and that the first hint of an answer may be found in his story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee.

Now, I’ll be up front with you.  For many years I really didn’t ‘get’ this story where Jesus turns the water into wine.  Even when I learned that the Gospel of John was built around seven ‘signs,’ of which this miracle was the first—even when I learned that the signs were supposed to tell us who Jesus really is—I still didn’t entirely get it.  I mean, turning water into wine.  What that’s all about?  How does it show us who Jesus is?  Doesn’t it show only that Jesus was a conjurer, a magician, an alchemist?  What have any of those things to do with the deeper theology of the Gospel—Jesus as the Word of God and the Bread of Life; Jesus as the great ‘I Am’ who repeats only that which he had already heard from his Father; Jesus, whose miserable, dark cross is the very place where the light and glory of God is made known?  But then it hit me.  The alchemist’s trick of turning water to wine is exactly the right thing for the Word of God to be doing.  For the message it conveys is one of transformation:  the Word of God crucified, a word and pledge of sacrificial love, is precisely that reality which is finally able to transform the sinful-ridden self into a self redeemed and made new.  For John has a very sacramental imagination.  The water is us, my friends.  We begin the transformation journey at the waters of our baptism, the most ordinary water in the world.  But when Christ dies for us, when he signs for us the chesed love of God through the sacrificial spilling of his blood, we become extraordinary, we rise from the waters to receive the eucharistic wine.   At that point, Christ himself becomes our life—our lifeblood, our joy, our future.  The water of our humanity is changed into the wine of Christ, as it were, that substance which we imbibe in order to envision a blessedness, and a cause for celebration, we could never have generated for ourselves.

Now, I know this reading makes for a rather radical re-reading of the significance of wine for Christians.  It has often been said amongst evangelicals that drinking wine is a sin primarily because it causes the drinker to lose control.  But that is exactly why wine is such a great symbol for the transformation which Christ would forge for us!  It is only in ceding control of our lives, it is only by giving ourselves over to the intoxicating effects of Christ on our hearts and minds, that we shall ever be transformed into his image and likeness.  For the chesed love of God transforms us by intoxication.  It reaches into the places where we are afraid and ashamed, and displaces those powers with something far more deeply interfused:  the certainty of a divine mercy which is outrageous in its audacity and totally unreasonable in the sheer size of its vision.  Let me read to you from another of John’s writings:  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .  we love because first loved us.” (1 Jn 4.18, 19).  How does God’s chesed love transform our desire?  By driving away the fear of karma that is harboured so deeply in our hearts—the fear that we shall have to reap what we sow.   It is the intoxicating joy of being forgiven that changes us into people who are able to forgive others.  If God is for us, who can stand against us?

So there you have it.  Four images of the steadfast chesed love of God.  God’s love is like a refuge from the storm and the hospitality of a generous host.  It is like the continuing delight of a bridegroom for his bride, even though the bridegroom has learned what the bride is really like through harsh experience!  Finally, the love of God is like the alchemical power of the miracle-worker.  It can transform even our fear and inconstancy into the power to love, forgive, and cherish.  Even to love, forgive and cherish ourselves.  Imagine that!  So as you receive this love from your host in the liturgy, in the form of sacred words and a sacred meal, be mindful of the enormous power of the gift you are being offered.  May God give you power to receive the gift with thankfulness, and faith enough to submit yourselves to the intoxicating joy it promises.

This sermon was first preached to a mission of the Tamil Church of Melbourne in 2005.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Luke's baptism of Jesus

Texts:  Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  You will remember, in Luke’s story, that John went out from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness.  There he took the pose and demeanour of an Old Testament prophet, preaching apocalyptic sermons about the coming of God’s judgment upon a wicked and adulterous generation.  You will remember that he looked for a day in which God’s anointed would arise to accomplish God’s purposes.  “I baptise you with water,” said John, “but one is coming after me who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Luke saw John’s baptism as a kind of shadow or figure of that more terrible baptism to come.  By being baptised in water, the penitent could prepare themselves for the judgement day; having been purified of sin, he or she could face the coming deluge with a certain amount of hope.  In the baptismal practise of John, then, the primary actors are the penitent (who repents of their sins), and the prophet (who baptises).  

The baptism of Jesus is somewhat different, however.  There is no trace in the gospel accounts of a penitent Jesus, especially not in Luke.  In fact, Luke goes to great lengths in the previous chapter to establish that Jesus already enjoys God’s favour (2.40, 52), and is therefore not a sinner who is called to repent or be baptised in the sense established by John.  Neither do the gospel accounts consider the agency of John in the baptism to be of especial significance.  Luke, indeed, leaves him out altogether.  He is present at the scene by implication only.  So, if the baptism of Jesus is not a baptism of repentance, what is it?  It is two things, I think.  It is fist a unique sealing of the relationship between Jesus and the two other Trinitarian figures—Father and Spirit—a relationship characterizes by filial love, blessing and mutual empowerment.  And it is, second, a modelling of what baptism must signify for all who are baptised “into Christ”, as the liturgy has put it since the first Christian century.  Let us look at each of these meanings in turn, and then consider what their importance might be for ourselves, we who meet here tonight.

The scene of Christ’s baptism is rightly regarded as a key source for any genuinely Christian understanding of God.  For in this baptism we are given a small insight into the nature of a God who is otherwise rather mysterious.   There we find that our God is a Father, who has a Son, and that the two are related to one another through the agency of a Spirit who embodies both hope and a mission of love.  The baptism passage is rich with a symbolism which is not so readily understood these days, so allow me to spell it out a little. 

First, when we read that the Spirit descended upon the baptised Jesus in the form of a dove, we are meant to recall a story from the Hebrew Bible.  In the story of Noah, God decides to destroy the earth with a flood because human beings had become wicked beyond belief.  So God places Noah, the only righteous one to be found, with his family and many animals in a huge boat which is able to ride out the deluge.  When the sun comes out, Noah sends out a dove.  When it returns to him with an olive branch, he knows that the waters are beginning to subside and they are saved.  In Jewish tradition, then, the dove became a symbol of God’s salvation from disaster and calamity.  The appearing of a dove meant that the difficult times were nearly at an end, and that the new day would soon appear.  In the context of Jesus’ baptism, Luke therefore wants us to understand that the Spirit has come to Jesus as a sign and promise that all will be well, even though his life will be like being swept away in a deluge of water and fire.  This is a message that Jesus really needed to hear, because he was about to be swept up in the fear and hatred of both Jew and Gentile authorities!  

Furthermore, when the Spirit comes and the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, Luke’s hearers would have been reminded of that cycle of oracles in the book of the prophet Isaiah often called the Servant Songs. There God promises an Anointed One, a messiah, who will save the people from their sins, and from the oppression of their enemies, though not without pain, suffering, and terrible loss to the Servant’s own self.  When Jesus receives the Spirit and hears the voice from heaven, Luke wants us to understand that he is being given an identity and a vocation in life which stands in the tradition of the Servant from Isaiah.  The Spirit comes to empower him for his messianic mission.  The voice resounds to confirm him in his identity as a Son specially beloved by his Father, a Son encouraged to remain in that love no matter how difficult the road ahead may be.  The story of the baptism is therefore rich with images which establish both the identity of Jesus in God, and the vocation and mission to which he is called: to save the world from itself.

Which leads us to the second purpose for which Luke apparently intended the story of Jesus’ baptism, namely, that it should become a model and a paradigm for every Christian baptism.  Now, when I say that, I’m not only talking about ceremonies and rituals, although I certainly mean those things as well.  Since the second century most of the church (the ‘free’ churches are an unfortunate exception) has included prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit as an essential part of every baptismal celebration.  Here the Spirit is called upon to gift the newly baptised person with a new identity and purpose in Christ, and to enable that person to carry out their mission only in the power which the Spirit is able to give.  Most traditional baptismal liturgies rightly conceive of baptism as a ritual which symbolises far more than the moment of getting wet itself.  They understand (with Luke and Paul) that Christ’s baptism was a shorthand way of talking about the life, the death, and the resurrection he was to undergo after he was baptised.  In a similar manner, the traditional liturgies understand that every Christian baptism is a participation in Christ’s own baptism, that is, his life, his death, and his resurrection.  Every baptised Christian is therefore called to find themselves by losing themselves, to plunge themselves so totally into Christ’s messianic journey, that nothing of the old self remains at the end of it all except what belongs to Christ.  The traditional liturgies understand that baptism is life, and that to live is to live from Christ, in Christ, and for Christ, and to do so in the power of his Spirit.  With Luke and Paul, these liturgies therefore encourage us to think about salvation—the redemption of our bodies, minds and spirits—as entirely dependent upon the grace and mercy of God in Christ.  Only by joining ourselves to Christ, both ritually and ‘really,’ can we ever pretend to a sure and certain hope that is free from illusion and wishful thinking.

We so we come full circle.  I began by pointing out the difference between John’s baptism and the baptism of Christ.  The first emphasises the will for repentance in the soul of the baptised, while the second emphasises the mercy and love of God.  Of course, both are necessary for Christian baptism.  But the second is infinitely more important.  Without a consciousness that one will be saved because of God’s unconditional love alone, penitence could easily take on the aura of a good work which can performed in order to secure God’s favour.  Even baptism itself can take on that flavour sometimes, and I think that this is especially the case in churches where the traditional liturgical forms have been abandoned.  Such churches forget that we are saved from our despairs and our fears only because God has called us by name and promised to persevere in mercy towards us even through the very worst that life can dish out for us.  Such churches often revert to the baptism of John, which tried to immunise the penitent from judgement through an act of the human will.  

It is not the human will that will save us, though.  Which one of us can honestly say that we might save ourselves from ourselves by an act of our wills?  I couldn’t even stick to a diet, let alone a programme of spiritual formation!  No, you, like me and everyone else, ultimately depend upon the mercy and love of God to which this baptism of Jesus bears witness.  In baptism he sought to submit himself, utterly, to the destiny and vocation he could never have generated on his own.  Only by a similar submission to God, only by allowing Christ to live out his baptismal life in us and for us, do any of us have even the twinkle of a hope.  Only by believing that God loves us, and will never abandon us to the futility of our own intelligence or will, do any of stand a chance of surviving the deluge which is life itself, or, indeed, the apocalyptic deluge to come.  I thank Christ that it is so! 

This sermon was preached at South Yarra Community Baptist Church on the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in January 2004.