Isaiah’s Messiah

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 11:1-10.

Through Advent we get a little series of readings from Isaiah, which are supposed to give us some background to the idea of Jesus coming as Messiah.  We know that the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting a Messiah, but it seems to me that often we don’t grasp what that really meant for them; and so I thought I’d take the opportunity, over Advent, to explore those ideas and see what they have to offer for our understanding of our own faith.

So what were (and indeed are) the Jews expecting?  They’re expecting a king, a human leader, biologically a descendent of David through the male line, who is going to unite the tribes of Israel, gather them all in to the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, usher in an age of global peace, and announce the final perfect age of the world to come.

Some of that, at least, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  We have some of the same expectations of what it might be like when Jesus returns.  In many ways, the big disagreement between Christians and Jews about the Messiah is about whether he will do all of this when he comes for the first, or for the second time.

But that’s a very big bunch of expectations, isn’t it?  It was built up by looking at a whole bunch of Scriptural ideas and references and seeing them as all being related to the one future figure, and continuing to reflect and expand on those ideas in the writings of the later Rabbis.  And so by the time Jesus was born we had already a well-developed idea of a Messiah and who he would be.

So what we can do now is look at just one of those passages – today’s reading from Isaiah – and see what that contributed to this set of ideas, and what we might then do with that.

To understand this passage, we really need to go back and look again at Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6.  Isaiah wrote:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ “

It’s this vision of God in glorious majesty, high and lofty, which is the centrepiece of Isaiah’s thought.  Everything else – rulers, priests, prophets, armies – finds its place somehow beneath the weight and the authority of that throne.  And the same is true of the ruler envisaged here in the chapter we read this morning.  Whoever this ruler will be, he will be beneath the power and the presence which Isaiah has seen in the throne room of heaven.

So let’s look at the passage in detail.  The shoot and branch – the new growth from an old stump in verse 1 – comes straight after an oracle of the Lord cutting down trees and hacking at thickets in judgement.  So the idea is that after a time of removing the unhealthy “trees” – the destructive powers at work in society – there is a new hope, a new beginning.  More specifically than that, this is growing from the stock of Jesse; the ruler is seen as a new king David.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.  This kind of language is not actually usual for kings; the closest parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament is in Numbers, where God takes part of the Spirit that was on Moses and transfers it to the 70 elders, so that Moses can have assistance with his huge responsibilities.  (Do you remember that story?  When Moses was overworked and trying to do everything, and eventually his father-in-law told him he was being stupid and to delegate?  And 70 elders were chosen to help Moses in his work, and a portion of the Spirit came to rest on them as well).  This suggests that the role Isaiah has in mind here for this ruler is one of deputy, assistant, or mediator; and the throne room scene we’ve just reviewed tells us whose deputy and mediator he is; God Almighty.

And what does he do, in this role?  Mostly it seems to be a kind of supreme judge.  It’s his job to give the poor and meek a fair hearing, and to remove the violent and the wicked from the community.  And more than this, his personal attributes set him apart from everyone else around him; here he is described as not judging by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but by the most profoundly Godly standards.  This is particularly striking when we know that earlier in Isaiah the people have been condemned as not comprehending, dull, unable to see and hear, and unable to turn and be healed.  The ruler Isaiah describes here is not bound by any of the limitations of the people of Isaiah’s day.

But more than that, with righteousness around his waist and faithfulness around his loins, his role expands from being merely judicial to being the upholder of the ideal society.  He is to establish the kind of society God desires for his people; one which develops naturally from a true understanding of God, and God’s love for His people.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord, not in power for its own sake or for his own pleasure and amusement.

So this is – at least in part – what Isaiah contributes to our picture of the messiah.  A ruler under God; one who brings in a new age which is radically different from what has come before in the quality of relationships experienced in it; one who establishes justice and peace and the ideal society.

And this is what we also look forward to when Jesus returns; a new age which is radically different from anything we have ever experienced; an age of justice and peace and the ideal society.  We see the beginnings of it in the church that Jesus founded (or we should), but we look forward to the fulfilment of it in the age to come.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Law and Sign

This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Romans 13:9-14.  This week, we were also completing the National Church Life Survey, and as a result, the sermon is shorter than usual.  

Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

This is familiar stuff.  But it did strike me as an interesting choice for the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is a time when we look forward, think about the ultimate future: the end of the world as we know it, if you like, but only because it will be replaced by something unimaginably better.  And what have Paul’s ramblings about law got to do with that?

We tend to think of the law – even religious law – as a bunch of rules which tell us what to do (and what not to do) but which can’t actually change our attitudes.  But I think that that’s really underestimating how the law functions in the spiritual life of those who follow it.

Law was given to Israel not just as a bunch of rules, but as a sign; it was to be a constant reminder of the relationship with God which was above and beyond the rules.  Circumcision, Sabbath, and the regulations for temple worship are all described as “signs” for the people which remind them of the deeper reality of God’s covenant with them.

The law was also the way by which people could participate in that relationship.  It gave them a way in to claiming that covenant of God for themselves, for making it real in the fabric of their own lives.  It was an instrument – or a cluster of instruments – which kept Jewish faith alive during all the historical circumstances which could have seen it ended.

And the law was meant to be a foretaste; the prophets in particular pointed out to Israel that what they had now was not the whole reality but that an even better future was coming; but for now, the law gave them a little taste of what that future – with its radical justice, peace, and joy – would be like.

And all of these things functions of the law – being a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God – have their parallels in Christian experience as well.   Paul wrote that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” and in the love we have for God, for God’s world, and for one another, the church should now be sign, instrument and foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God, to which all of creation looks forward with longing.

Our presence should be a constant reminder to the world around us of the relationship with God that is made possible for all.  The communal life of the church should be a way for people to be drawn into and participate in that relationship.  And in doing so they should find that what we have now is just the beginning of better things yet to be fulfilled.

So perhaps Paul’s comments on law are not so out of place for a time when we’re focussing on the future.  If the ultimate future is the complete revelation of God, and the completion of God’s work, this reading points us towards how we ought to orient ourselves towards that.

This is only the first Sunday of Advent.  We have between now and Christmas, a time to focus particularly on what we’re pointing to.  It should be our aim to be sure that in every aspect of our life together, we are pointing to Christ.

What kind of king?

This is a sermon for the feast of Christ the King, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Colossians 1:11-20.

I don’t know how much of the internet commentary on the American election any of you have been watching, but amidst the many moments that have made me very glad to be Australian, there have been some real moments of humour.

One satirical piece I saw was purporting to be a letter from the Queen to American citizens, graciously offering to put them out of their misery, and allow them to become her subjects again.  The twist in the tail of it, for me, is that while a monarchy might not represent much democracy or freedom, it is at least assumed to be relatively benign and mostly harmless.

In the same sort of way, it’s sometimes tempting, I suspect, to think about titles like “Lord” and “King” for Christ and think that they represent something of the same thing; a relationship with Christ in which he is assumed to be distant, relatively benign and mostly harmless.  That they might have meant something heavier to people centuries ago, when everyone knew what it was to live in feudal obedience to Lords and Kings, but that today, when Kingship has no real impact on day-to-day life in a place like Melbourne, it’s become a bit irrelevant, and that using this kind of language almost plays into the stereotype of religion as a hangover from medieval times.

It might surprise you, then (as it surprised me) to find out that a feast day for “Christ the King” began as recently as 1925; why begin such an observance at a time when Kings generally were in decline?

In 1925, in Italy, fascism was on the rise.  Democracy had just been abolished.  The question posed to all Catholics – because Christ the King was originally a Catholic observance, which Anglicans and others adopted later – but the question posed by this new feast was sharp and clear: where do you stand?  With fascism or with Christ?

That’s a question which doesn’t date.  Political movements come and go, but on all sorts of questions, each of us would do well to consider from time to time where we stand.  We gather together to support one another as we live out our commitment to stand with Christ, and we have a chance to think about that a little more deeply this morning.

What can we say about this Christ whom we call King?

I think we get some good insight into that from the reading we heard today from the letter to the Colossians.  They were a community of people who had chosen – over against their culture – to stand with Christ, and Paul and Timothy wrote to them to encourage them and deepen their understanding of what that meant.

So this passage emphasizes for us that Christ is our creator.  All things have been created through him and for him; including us.  Christ’s work on the cross is not out of keeping with what has gone before; but even as He originally made us, through the cross He continues His work in us, bringing it to fulfillment.  His work on the cross brings all of creation a step closer to its ultimate perfection.

There is no doubt in this passage that Christ is God Himself.  All the fullness of God dwells in Him.  That, combined with the fact that Christ created the world, gives us another important understanding: Christ is supreme over all the world today.  There is nothing in existence which is more powerful than He is.  There is no other ruler which can withstand Him.  There is nothing, ultimately, which can get in the way of His purpose.  On the cross it seemed that Christ was weak and abused unto death, and yet He rose, and He has the triumph over all hatred, fear and evil.

Just for a moment, consider those dominions and powers mentioned in the letter, which Christ is above.  Paul and Timothy haven’t spelled it out in great detail, but it seems that these refer both to spiritual realities and to human ones.  These are things which – like everything else – are created in and for Christ and whose true purpose is to serve Him; when that purpose gets bent out of shape, that’s when they become agents of evil. Evil isn’t a popular word, but it’s one that we need to take seriously as part of the landscape of our faith.  It’s a mistake to think of this in over-spiritualised terms; Scripture talks about Satan, but most of us meet him not in visions but in the very concrete realities of human oppression, injustice and hurt.

Even the church, which is described here as the body of Christ, can participate in that evil when we forget that our purpose is in and for Christ.  Over against that very solemn warning, though, we need to be encouraged that although these kinds of powers have some limited authority now, it is the work of God in the cross which gives our existence its ultimate shape and end.

As this reading talks about the Church as the body of Christ, it tells us that ultimately, we belong to Him, and not to anyone else.  We have our origins in Him, and also take our identity and our unity from Him.  We aren’t always good at unity, but wherever we are reconciled and at peace with one another, that is a true expression of what it means to be Christ’s body.

What then?  What does it really mean to stand with Christ, to have him as our King?

We actually started our reading this morning in an odd place; although it begins by saying “may you be made strong,” and so forth, it’s a continuation of a thought from earlier in the letter, where they say that “we have not ceased praying for you,” and in fact the first part of our reading is their description of their prayer for the Colossian Christians.

Here’s an insight, then, about what it means to stand with Christ; to pray for one another, not as a one off, but as a way of life.

Paul and Timothy prayed for the Colossian Christians to have strength, and they saw that strength as coming from the glory and power of God.  Glory has two important aspects to it; the sense of light and beauty, and also the sense of praise and honour.  It reminds all of us today that praising God, also, is part of what it means to stand with Christ.  Notice also the emphasis Paul and Timothy place on giving thanks; that goes together with praise.  This is one of the reasons why it is helpful for us to meet together to worship God; on our own it is difficult to maintain the habits of praise and thanksgiving to God, but together we help and encourage one another to do so.

Paul and Timothy talk about our being made fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  There is a sharp distinction here; in their minds we can be under the power of darkness, or in the light of Christ.  This is another way of considering where we stand; there’s no option here of a twilight in between place.  The good thing about this for us, is that God has enabled us to share in the light; it’s not up to us working on our own, but allowing God to work in us.   It is God who gives us the freedom and the power to live in the light.

To stand with Christ, then, also means allowing God to work in us, so that we can experience His light.

We commit to standing with Christ in His Kingdom, being assured that all other kingdoms, all other allegiances, all other loyalties will pass away; ultimately no other power will stand in the presence of the power of God.  Choosing to stand with Christ means allowing ourselves to be part of God’s kingdom, and to share in the sure promise of eternal life.

Paul and Timothy write that the Colossians “have been transferred” into Christ’s kingdom, to belong to God and to live in fellowship with all the reconciled people of God.  Today we are reminded of our own transfer in just the same way.  We have been given some important insights into what standing in that kingdom means: continuing prayers of praise and thanksgiving, prayer for and unity with one another, allowing God to work in us, and trusting in God for eternity.  Today, on the feast of Christ the King, I hope we can hold on to all of these as blessings in our life together.

The Year of Change

When I was in college, I remember having a guest lecturer once who was famous for having been dean of a Cathedral during a time when its interior furnishings were completely changed and the worship life of the place renewed, with the result of transformed encounters with the people of the local community.  This dean, then, had come to talk to us about the question of leading a faith community through a time of change (and when, I ask you, is a faith community not in a time of change?)

Anyway.  One piece of advice that he gave us was that in order to help people become willing to engage with the challenge of change, you had to spend at least a year telling those people at every opportunity that the gospel is all about change.  That the gospel should change us, change our relationships, change our churches and our world, and that we should not be satisfied with the status quo when we know how far it falls short of God’s will for our world.  But it took a year, he said, for that message to begin to sink in and be internalised into people’s understanding of how things are.

Well.  I came to the two parishes where I am currently ministering just a little over a year ago, at a time for them of very great, and in some ways very unwelcome change.  I remembered this advice from college, and set myself a challenge; that for a year, I would try to preach, at every opportunity, about change.  That I would scour the readings set in the lectionary and ask myself, “What does this have to tell us about God’s heart for change?” and use that as a reference point in my preaching.

It’s been a very interesting exercise.  I was concerned, when I started, that it would be boring; that after a week or two I would find myself repeating the same basic points over and over again.  In fact it has been positively eye-opening, for me as much as for those listening to me.  And I have explored in depth some texts that otherwise I might have glossed over without paying much attention.

Because I don’t preach every week, and on some occasions my “change agenda” had to be interrupted for other important themes, over the year I preached 30 sermons which came out of this concern to build a theology and spirituality of change.  In reviewing those sermons I see 13 on the gospels, 6 on the epistles, 4 on the psalms, and 7 on the prophets.  Now, partly that’s a function of what the lectionary has given us this year, but I found the prophetic texts particularly interesting.  (Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised; who has more of a heart for change than a prophet?)

I’ve never done something like this before; usually my approach has been to look at the readings week by week and focus on whatever seemed right at the time.  But I certainly found a longer-term focus enriching and challenging for me.  I’m not sure how the congregations found it; whether they quite realised what I was doing, and whether they found it helpful.  I will admit, though, that by now I feel ready to leave this theme behind (change will always be a challenge to a church community, but hopefully by now we are a little better equipped to reflect on that challenge).

(And I wonder how you, the readers of my blog, found it, too?  Did you recognise the theme or see some consistency in topics addressed?  Did you find it helpful?  All comments welcome!)

So what next?  I am wondering whether to choose another focus for another long stretch or go back to my previous pattern.  I found the experience this time valuable enough to ponder whether it’s worth experimenting with further.  But then, what’s the next priority, I wonder?

A culture of encounter

This is a sermon for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 21:5-19.

I know that one of the small groups has been doing some work over the last little while on “sharing Jesus without fear,” and although I haven’t been able to go, I’m glad that they’re looking at such an important topic.

In a way, I think this morning’s gospel reading tells us something important about sharing Jesus, too; but it might need a little bit of unpacking to see the implications.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they have an opportunity to testify, (because of being persecuted), they should make up their minds not to prepare their defence in advance, because they will be given the words and the wisdom at the time.  And that’s all well and good, at one level, but one might wonder – especially if, like me, you’re a little bit prone to anxiety and you like to be prepared – why you can’t be given the words and the wisdom in advance, when you’re carefully and prayerfully preparing.

After all, we expect it to work that way for sermons, don’t we?

But the thing I learned at college, when I was being taught to preach, is that good sermon preparation doesn’t start when you sit down surrounded by all the best books, determined to craft the best possible explanation of the text.

Good sermon preparation starts at people’s hospital beds, over cups of tea in the kitchen, in the ordinary things of parish life; and it starts with listening.  It starts with really hearing where people are struggling, what people are feeling and thinking.  And it’s only after you’ve listened carefully to all of that, that you come to the books, ready to make connections between the text and the things that you’ve heard from people’s hearts.  That – or so I was taught – is where a good sermon draws its power from; from the hopes and faith and fears of the people listening to it; the people who have already been listened to and heard and who are now being spoken to with genuine love and care.

That’s the ideal, anyway.  I leave it to you to judge whether or not I often get near it.

But the reason I tell you about that is because it seems to me that sharing Jesus in other situations is a bit the same.  You can sit down and write the best, truest, clearest explanation of the hope that is offered to us in Jesus, but if you share it in a way that totally fails to connect with real people, it’s a pretty pointless effort (and hence we get “Bible bashing”!)

On the other hand, if you can really listen to people, hear their needs and longings and know them for who they really are, then you can respond by presenting the gospel in ways which really connect with those realities.  You can answer need with promise, longing with hope and identity with meaning and purpose; you can present each person with a tailor-made explanation which fits them perfectly.

And I suspect that that’s why the disciples are told not to prepare their words in advance.  Not because the Holy Spirit couldn’t help them prepare an absolutely knock-out argument, but because it would be something totally impersonal, and lacking in any connection to the people who would eventually hear it.  Think how many of the sermons in Acts are given before rulers and judges, and how they weren’t just a defence for the person being accused, but also were an appeal to the ruler or judge to take on board what they were hearing for themselves.  But you can only make that kind of appeal effectively if you’re willing to take seriously the person sitting in front of you, for who they are.

The point of this, for us, I think, is that it shows us how important it is to be people who really listen.  We can’t expect to create opportunities to share our faith in genuinely life-changing ways, if we’re not building relationships in which the other person is really known and valued for who they are.

Listen first.  Then speak.  (Maybe think in between, too).

I think this is one of the things which has made Pope Francis someone so admired.  People talk about his compassion, but it’s more than that; he’s gone out of his way to put himself in situations where he can really listen to, and connect with, people who wouldn’t normally get to speak to a Pope.  And then the things that he’s heard have shaped the way that he speaks and writes, so that the genuine hurts and needs of real, ordinary people are actually being taken into account.

What fascinates me about this is that it’s driving some more “traditional” Catholic people quite nuts.  They think the job of the Pope is to speak first, to articulate official Catholic positions, and to require all the faithful to adhere to them.  Francis’ approach of listening first, and then trying to lead the church in ways which actually open the doors of faith and hope wider, so that more people can walk through them, is to them something of an abandonment of what the church should stand for.

But Francis talks about creating a “culture of encounter.”  A church culture in which our encounter of people who are not part of our church community allows us to relate to them, in ways which allow them to encounter something of God.

And it starts with us listening.

As I think about it some more, this shouldn’t seem counter-intuitive or surprising.  After all, God does this with us, too.  I know it’s certainly been my experience that God meets me where I am in life.  He didn’t tell me, for example, when I was twenty-one and deciding to be baptised, that oh, by the way, eventually this would mean ordination (which is just as well, because I wasn’t ready to think about that!)  No; God knew where I was at and gave me just enough to take the next step.  Over and over again in the Psalms we read about God listening to us; our cries, our prayers, our requests; and responding to us at our point of need.  Not overwhelming us with teachings we’re not ready for or demands we can’t meet, but in his love and mercy measuring his goodness to us by what we can handle.

Of course God knows us perfectly and doesn’t have to get to know us in the way that we need to get to know one another, but the basic principle holds of tailoring what is being given to the person who is receiving it.

So from this gospel passage we can take more than just assurance that the Spirit will help us to find the words to say (although that is there too).  I think we find encouragement not to take on the task of sharing our faith as if it were an abstract thing, but to create a genuine culture of encounter, in which we take other people seriously, and getting to know them and their situation as the starting point for any meaningful exchange.

So that’s my encouragement to you, as we seek to build one another up in Christ.  Listen.  Really listen.  And then trust that God will be at work in what comes after that.

Power and presence

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Joel 2:23-32.

The prophet Joel wrote, “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

I wonder if you think that’s about the end of the world?

It isn’t, actually, but in order to make some sense of it, we need to know something how these kinds of images are used in the Bible.  Because of course, this isn’t the only place where we see this style of writing; Revelation and Daniel are the most prominent, but there are little bits of this kind of writing in several of the gospels and dotted through Paul’s letters too.  But what are they about?

These verses from Joel, like the other passages of Scripture I mentioned, are written in a style called “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is the not the whole truth about reality.  Behind all of life – says apocalyptic writing – is deeper truth and deeper meaning.  This kind of writing is a little peek behind that veil – beyond the physical things we can see and touch – using symbols to let us into the deeper truths and meanings of life.  Things are not as they seem!

It’s almost like writing in a kind of symbolic code, crafted to be a powerful source of encouragement when read as they were intended.

So let’s try to read them as intended, for our encouragement and benefit.

It’s probably easiest to start with the idea of the “day of the Lord.”  Here, it doesn’t mean, the day the Lord comes back and the end of the world and all that stuff.  What it means is a day – any day – when the Lord’s presence is known among us, whether in grace or in anger.

So Joel is basically saying, the Lord is coming, and it is not possible for us to experience the awesome – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – and holy presence of God in a way which leaves us unaffected.

Small wonder, then, that in the New Testament when the gospel writers wanted to find words to describe what they had experienced in Jesus and at Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Spirit, they echoed the images we find in this section of Joel.  They needed language which would talk about God’s presence in a new and powerful way among them, and a way to make sense of it, and this kind of writing from Joel gave them the words for that.

So the portents in the heaven and the earth and all of that: what Joel is trying to say is that, this is big.  It’s not just a matter of personal piety in my heart, or our little community believers.  This is for everyone, everywhere – “all flesh,” Joel says – and even has cosmic implications reaching to the heavens.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s basically what Joel’s saying here, in a nutshell.

And I wonder, sometimes, whether it’s a message we need to be reminded of.  There is a temptation, I suspect, to get a bit comfortable with God.  To come to church because it is familiar and we have an affectionate attachment to it, or to the people.  To come to communion because the ritual is comforting.  To want a tame God, a God who doesn’t stretch us too much but lets us feel at home.  (Even worse, a temptation for those in ministry to see what we do as just tasks in a job).

And I wonder whether, when this temptation is at work, we lose something too important to let go so easily.  Sometimes non-churchgoers joke with me that they don’t come because the roof would fall in or lightning would strike; and while I recognise that they’re being flippant, at least there is, in those comments, a lingering sense of a God of unexpected power, who interrupts our lives for God’s own purposes.

Why do atheists recognise that side of God, so often more readily than we do?

What would it be like if we came to prayer with the sense that in reaching out to connect with God we are doing the spiritual equivalent of touching a live electrical wire?  What if we expected to be, in some way, jolted, thrown, disrupted; dare I say changed?

What would it be like if, when the Eucharist is placed in our hands, we looked at it not as a familiar object but as our invitation to God to be at work in us in the most intimate way possible, even to the breaking and re-making of whatever in us most needs God’s attention?

What would it be like if we opened the Scriptures expecting them to re-shape our minds, so that we look out at a world which seems new, full of God’s hitherto unrecognised possibilities and potential?

I believe that kind of encounter with God is possible.  More than possible, I believe that kind of encounter with God is and should be normal.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s what Joel was saying.  It’s what the apostles recognised.  It could be our own experience as well.

This is, of course, the fundamental sort of experience which drove the charismatic movement, but it’s not true only for charismatics.  The Holy Spirit is at work in the whole church, men and women, young and old, powerful and disempowered, according to Joel; and therefore knowing something of the transforming presence of God is for the whole church too; for each of you and for me and for every person around the world who knows that Jesus is Lord.

When we get past the language of blood moons and portents, that’s the deeper reality behind the veil of the surface of our lives which Joel is pointing us to.  A God of power, of dynamism; and a God of presence, a God who comes to us and is at work amongst us.

And Joel’s challenge to us, I think, is to take that God seriously; to pay attention and to reach out to connect with that power and that presence.  And to accept that that might mean that things will never be quite the same again.

Have you ever thought about the radical implications, when someone says to you, the Lord be with you?

God-breathed

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.