Dare to believe! (a sermon on John 11 – the raising of Lazarus)

“So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
(John 11:53)

If you don’t recognise this verse, it’s taken from the end of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to St John, where the ‘they’ who planned to put someone to death were the ‘Scribes and the Pharisees’ (the religious leaders of first century Palestine) and the person who they planned to put to death was, of course, Jesus!

The verse comes at the conclusion of one of the most remarkable stories ever told about Jesus – namely, the story of Jesus’ raising of His dead friend, Lazarus!

Lazarus is raised from the dead! It’s like a scene out of one of those mummy movies where a corpse, bound in bandages comes staggering out of his tomb, with children screaming and women fainting! I think Steven Spielberg could have a lot of fun with the tomb scene in ‘Lazarus, the movie’. What would be harder, I suspect, is this epilogue, where the clergy gather to plot to kill Jesus in the aftermath of His miracle.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus’ great gift of life could result in His death. Mind you, I appreciate that for many people, what’s hard to believe in this reading, is not so much the ending of the story, but the whole thing! It all seems a bit unbelievable..

I can understand why people might struggle with this story. Dead people coming back to life is not a part of our experience. We might wish things like this happened. Indeed, anybody who has lost someone they truly loved has wished a million times that they would come back. It just never seems to happen. And there is another good reason for thinking that the story of Lazarus’ comeback might not be an exact account of the original event. It’s the fact that this story, as we have it in the Gospel of John, was written down a long time after the events described actually took place!

That’s the scholarly consensus anyway. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John was the last of the four great accounts of the life of Jesus to have been written. Mark’s gospel was probably the first –written within twenty-something years of the events described, whereas John is thought not to have been written until the beginning of the second century – seventy or more years after the event described!

Over seventy years, memories fade and stories get embellished. This would explain too why John’s gospel stores are so long as compared to those in the other gospels.

If you compare, for example, the Gospel of Mark (which, as I say, is thought to have been the first Gospel written) the stories there are short and sharp. Jesus almost seems to be on speed as He moves from town to town, healing dozens of persons in one spot, then immediately jumping into a boat, landing somewhere else, healing more people, driving out demons and doing some teaching – all in a day’s work!

The stories in John are long – very long – in comparison:

  • the story of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3)
  • the woman at the well (John 4)
  • Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9)
  • And now this story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11)

Could it be that these yarns were originally stories of relatively unspectacular events that, over time, became increasingly embellished and so evolved into tales of the miraculous and extraordinary!

You may be familiar with the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ (apparently also known as ‘Russian Scandal’, though I don’t like the Western Imperialist overtones of either title so I’ll just refer to the game as ‘Whispers’). In Whispers, you have a circle of people who pass on a message. The first person whispers the message to the second, who whispers it to the third, and so on, and by the time the message gets all the way around the circle, the final version invariably bears little resemblance to the original!

Was the story of the raising of Lazarus (along with other stories in John’s Gospel) like that? Was it perhaps initially a story about Lazarus catching a cold, and when he saw Jesus he suddenly got better? After all, how could a story that took place seventy years before it was written down really bear much resemblance to what originally happened? That just doesn’t sound plausible!

And it doesn’t sound plausible if the transmission of the Gospel stories worked like Whispers, and yet that’s not how it worked. For one thing, the early Christians didn’t whisper their story. The proclaimed it very loudly, for all to hear!  Even more importantly, the game of Whispers only works because the people who are doing the whispering are telling an unfamiliar story. No one player knows the story before it’s whispered to them. It’s not their story, and so they are likely to forget lots of details.

This was not the case in the transmission of the Gospel stories. The Gospel stories were performed, regularly and loudly, and I imagine they were regularly performed by the very characters who appeared in the stories!

I’m sure that Lazarus himself would have retold his story often to the church in Bethany. I imagine Mary and Martha would have too – standing up and giving a dramatic, blow-by-blow account of everything that happened on that fateful day.

The people who were featured in these stories were the same people who went on to retell their stories, and John himself was said to have lived to a great age (the only disciple who wasn’t martyred) which is presumably why nobody felt there was any need to write these things down until after he was gone.

I’ve been letting my imagination play with this idea for a while, wondering what it would have been like to have been a part of one of those early Christian communities where there was no Gospel reading, but rather a Gospel performance – a dramatic retelling of one of the stories of Jesus, retold by someone who was part of the original event! I think it would have been fantastic – almost as good as having been there yourself!

Of course, I don’t want to discount the possibility that the retelling of a story could lead to that story being embellished over time, but the opposite is often also true. That is, it’s often not until a story has shared around quite a few times that all the facts come to light and the full story is made known!

I think of the saga of my friend, Morde Vanunu – the man exposed Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons hidden under the Negev desert! When Morde’s photographs of the Dimona nuclear reactor were first published in 1986, and when he was then suddenly kidnapped and shipped back to Israel, I remember the stories that were first published about him – stories about him being a sophisticated spy, on the one hand, and others about him being a treacherous criminal who was selling out his country for money! Over time though, as the different players in the drama were able to make their contributions to the larger story, the greater truth started to emerge!

I think a lot of stories work like that, with different perspectives being added over time – perspectives that complete the story rather than embellish it.

I think of what we hear on the ABC about Syria. We generally get one very partial perspective on the situation there. Over time, more truth emerges (whether or not the ABC chooses to publish it). Eventually, I believe, the full story will come out about Syria, about Manus Island, about 9/11, etc. Often it takes time to get the full story!

I suspect these stories in John’s gospel developed like that. They grew over time, and as they were publicly performed again and again, I think they grew in truth, because the very characters who were a part of the original stories would hear their stories retold and would then contribute something, and so that story would be enlarged for the next time it was performed!

Of course, not every character in every story would have participated in those performances. It’s obvious that the woman at the well (featured in John chapter 4) was not involved in any of the church’s early performances. If she had been, we would know her name. The same is true, of course, of ‘the man born blind’ (John 9).

We know Nicodemus’ name! Does that mean Nicodemus ended up joining the early church? That’s likely, I think, and, if so, it’s likely that he stood up at more than one church meeting and shared his story of his encounter with Jesus!

This is how the Gospel of John took shape, I believe – through the repeated public performance of the stories of Jesus, eventually written down for posterity once the original characters in the story had all passed on and were no longer available to retell their stories for themselves.

If this is a reasonably accurate account of the way today’s story about Jesus and Lazarus reached us, the important question to ask, from my point of view, is what were the original performers of this story trying to get across to us?

I won’t read through the greater story again now, but when you get a chance, read through the entire story (that covers the entirety of John chapter eleven) and imagine that Mary was performing this story to a gathering of the early church (perhaps with Martha and Lazarus interjecting at regular points). My question is, when the performance is over, what has she left you with?

In truth, the first thing I get form this story is emotional exhaustion! It’s a story full of passion, though the emotions evolve over the course of the story.

Initially, there is frustration, as Jesus, who has been called to the side of His sick friend doesn’t take the illness seriously and seems to deliberately delay going to him!

When Lazarus then dies before Jesus gets to him, there’s a mixture of emotions on display. Mary seems to be angry with Jesus, and so has to spend some time by herself before she can bring herself to see Him, and there’s a broad sense of disappointment in Jesus and disillusionment, though the over-arching emotion is one of grief, which Jesus taps into, and we actually see Jesus weeping (John 11:35),

It’s in the midst of His grief though, Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back and for Lazarus to ‘come out!’ (John 11:4), and suddenly all that grief gives way to joy, and to shock, and to more confusion!

As I imagine myself listening to Mary perform this story (or to Martha or Lazarus or John) I get two strong messages coming through to me.

The first is that Jesus cares. Jesus cares about the big things – the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Kingdom and the reign of justice – but He also cares about Mary’s hurt feelings, and he cares about His friend, Lazarus.

The other thing that comes through very powerfully for me here is that Jesus is a very difficult person to deal with. It’s often hard to make sense of what Jesus is saying. He does things that are totally unexpected, and it is absolutely impossible to get inside Jesus’ head! And it’s this discomforting side of Jesus that helps us make sense of why the clergy of Jesus’ day became so determined to kill Him!

If you’re familiar with prison culture, you will know that persons who are about to be released invariably tell their mates about the antics they are going to get up to once they get out. I haven’t yet spent time inside personally, but I’ve been told countless times that there’s always boasting going on from persons about to be released – boasting about the drugs they are going to score and the crimes they are going to commit as soon as they get out! I don’t doubt that a lot of this is just bravado, and yet an extraordinary number of persons who have been in custody do reoffend almost immediately upon release, and so find themselves back behind bars within days.

It seems to be human nature that we easily become institutionalised. We find it difficult to deal with the unfamiliar and prefer our environments to remain the same, even when that environment is a prison!

We are all capable of being like this, whether we live in a real prison or one of our own making. We stay in relationships where we are brutalised because we fear being on our own. We stick it out in a job that is destroying us spiritually because it’s familiar and because we are not sure what else we can do. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t! If we don’t have freedom, at least we have security!

Jesus offers freedom, change and new life, and that’s very confronting! We see those who engage with Jesus in this Gospel story enter into a sort of dance with Him where they have to learn to live on trust, with all the uncertainties that carries with it. Conversely, those whose desire is for stability – those who are invested in keeping things the way they are – feel impelled to shut Jesus down!

It is hard to believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – for sure it is – and yet I have no doubt that Mary and Martha and Lazarus himself believed it happened! The question is whether we dare to believe!

Do we dare to believe in a world where dead people come back to life? Dare we entrust ourselves to someone whom we know cares for us, but who is difficult to understand and impossible to predict? Do we dare believe in Jesus?

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 2nd, 2017

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God is Wind and Water (a sermon on John chapters 3 and 4)

When Soren and I were recently in Damascus, you may remember hearing that our water was poisoned. This was on account of the NATO-certified ‘moderate’ rebels having taken control of the damn that fed water into the city, and these same moderate folk had poisoned the water by pouring diesel into it!

The result was that people were getting sick, and one friend of ours whom we met up with in Damascus had indeed been very sick, but was recovering when we met him. Soren started to get stomach cramps too, which worried me, and Mother Carol came down with a severe tummy bug that ended up excluding her from some of the key experiences of the trip though, thankfully, she recovered.

Of course, we couldn’t be sure whether Carol’s or Soren’s difficulties were due to the water but, either way, it was all a stunning reminder of how essential to life water is, and that is no doubt a large part of the point Jesus is making when he speaks of God as water.

“Everyone who drinks of [normal] water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14-15)

The quote comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St John, and it’s part of the dialogue that takes place between Jesus and a woman He meets at a well in Samaria – a woman whose name we never discover.

It’s a well-known story, describing a well-known encounter – an encounter almost as well-known as that described in the previous chapter of the same Gospel – namely, of Jesus’ meeting with the Rabbi, Nicodemus.

I confess that in my previous treatments of the scene in John four (the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman) my focus has always been drawn to the person of the woman – who she was and why Jesus dealt with her the way He did, whereas with John three (Jesus and Nicodemus) I’ve generally found myself focusing on the teaching:

  • “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit (John 3:8)
  • “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14), and, most famously …
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son” … (John 3:16)

The focus on the person rather than the teaching in John four is understandable as the Samarian woman is a startling figure! The fact that she is a foreigner, and a foreigner with a dubious past, make it noteworthy indeed that Jesus is spending time with her, though it’s simply the fact that Jesus is dialoguing with a woman that bamboozles His disciples. Either way, Nicodemus comes across as a relatively flat and uninspiring character by comparison.

It occurs to me this time though, as I look at the two stories side-by-side, that they were meant to be read together, and scrutinised in much the same way.

As I say, Nicodemus – Jesus’ special guest in John chapter three – comes across as a rather colourless figure in comparison with the Samaritan woman of chapter four. In truth though, I think the contrast between the two figures is deliberate, and the fact is that they contrast at multiple points!

Most obviously, Nicodemus is a man and the woman is a woman! Gender differences are always fundamental to who we are, but we know too that gender differences had even more pronounced social significance in first century Judea than they do today.

As mentioned, it was the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman that shocked His disciples! Of course, this may not have been simply because she was a woman as such, but also because she was the type of woman that ventured out to the village well in the middle of the day (and the story does make it clear that she did come out at around noon [John 4:6])!

As all students of Kipling know, it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen that go out in the midday sun, and persons whose social standing is such that they wish to avoid all contact with their peers during their daily trip to the well.

As is confirmed in the conversation with Jesus, we are not simply dealing here with a woman who is on the lower rungs of the societal ladder by virtue of her gender, but with a notorious woman – someone who occupies one of the lowest rungs on that ladder by virtue of her reputation!

We don’t know the woman’s story in any detail. Jesus somehow knew though that she’d had five husbands and that the man she was then attached to was not her husband. Quite likely, the man Jesus refers to in this way was her pimp!

However we reconstruct the woman’s story, she’s someone from the underside of society – an outsider, and certainly not someone that any self-respecting Jew would take seriously as a spiritual person. The contrast could not be greater between her and Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a teacher of Israel (John 3:10).

  • He is male. She is female
  • He is educated and literate. She is neither.
  • He is a respected community leader. She is social refuse!

Indeed, the contrast between these two figures is so stark that I wonder if the author of the Gospel doesn’t intend us to understand these two figures as two bookends between which all humanity is included?

However we interpret the author’s intention, what fascinates me when I read of these encounters, side by side, is not only that fact that Jesus treats each of his partners in dialogue with equal respect, but more so, the fact that the teaching He imparts in both cases is more or less the same!

I don’t mean to gloss over the complexities and differences in the conversations recorded in John chapters three and four. Even so, in both cases Jesus speaks in metaphor, and the metaphors all seem to point in the same direction!

In John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks of God using the metaphor of the wind: “The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes!” (John 3:8)

I said earlier that water is one of the most fundamental elements of human life. Perhaps the only element in the universe more fundamental to human life than water is air! Human beings can live for quite a while without food – forty days and forty nights, at least. We only last a few days without water. We can’t last more than a few minutes without air!

Jesus speaks of God as both water and air!

  • “You must be born of water and of spirit” (John 3:5)
  • “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit” (John 3:8)
  • “those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

The air and water Jesus speak of are the fundamental building-blocks of life! We are not talking here about some spiritual icing on the cake – how to cap off a life well lived by rounding it out with a spiritual dimension. The God that Jesus speaks of is One who penetrates to the very core of human existence!

  • You must be born again!
  • You must be born of water and of the spirit!
  • You must drink of this life-giving water if you are to have real life!

It is popular in our culture to think of religion as being an optional extra in life. We don’t mock anyone for being religious (so long as they don’t get too carried away) but neither do we see any necessity in religion, as if we couldn’t get by perfectly well without it. Obviously, this is not religion as Jesus understood it. Life without God, from Jesus’ perspective, is like living without air or water.   It’s just not something that is sustainable in any meaningful existence!

Now, I appreciate that there are lots of good reasons for not joining a church, and indeed, the church throughout history has done a pretty miserable job in terms of offering consistent witness to the life-giving stream of water that is supposed to be flowing through it. Even so, if we can get beyond the church to the message of the church, we know that that message is about what is as fundamental to human existence as the water we drink and the air we breathe!

This is surely at the heart of the message Jesus shared with both Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and if there is a second fundamental truth about God that Jesus wanted to communicate through the metaphors He uses in these conversations, it was surely this – that God is not easy to grab hold of!

Along with being fundamental to human life, this is perhaps the other most obvious quality that both air and water have in common – they are both difficult to hang on to. Getting a solid grip on water is not easy. Holding on to the wind is also difficult. And I don’t think I’m squeezing these metaphors here in a way that goes beyond what Jesus was doing with them. On the contrary: “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

We have real trouble keeping track of God. We have no trouble mistaking when the wind is blowing but we can’t work out whence it comes or whither it goes! God is like that! Just when we think we have God pinned down and think we know exactly what to expect, God turns up in the most unexpected places, such as alongside some notorious foreign woman in the middle of a desert!

In a similar vein, Jesus says to the woman, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jon 4:23). This is in response to her attempt to outline what constitutes true worship, in terms of where exactly you should go to pray. Jesus says it’s less an issue of where you go than of who you are, and it’s not about things visible but about things unseen – attitude, spirit, truth!

One of the great things about these two dialogues in John three and four is that neither of Jesus’ partners in dialogue really grasp what He is talking about! We might think that Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the teacher of Israel, would get it, or, being fans of Jesus and knowing the way He operates, we might think that the notorious woman would get it while the sophisticated intellectual misses it. Nope. Neither of them get it, and if the Gospel writer really is thinking of these two persons as something like bookends between which the rest of humanity is squeezed, perhaps we shouldn’t expect to grasp it all either!

I don’t know whether everyone saw the video I shared on Facebook on Friday, featuring a Rabbi, a priest and an Atheist smoking marijuana together. I didn’t create the video, and it already had around 3.5 million views before I got to it, so I can’t take any credit for making it popular either. Even so, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it, as I think you will find it strangely edifying!

The featured priest is an American Episcopalian (of course) and after about 45 minutes in to the session, he responds to the scepticism of the Atheist with a rather profound statement – “just think of God as all that is true, knowing that we don’t know all that is true!”

Now, I don’t know whether that was weed-inspired wisdom, but I thought it was pretty profound. Moreover, I thought it was a really good response to what Jesus teaches about God through these two dialogues in these two chapters from the Gospel According to St John.

God is mysterious! God is difficult to grasp. Just when we think we have God all worked out, God alludes us and frustrates us to the point where we want to give up. Even so, God is so essential to human life that we can’t go on without God. Such is the life of faith!

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 19th, 2017

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A New Hope (a sermon on Genesis 12:1-3)

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Robert Bly – the founder of the modern men’s movement – says that whereas most animals pass on their wisdom to the next generation through instinct, human beings pass down their wisdom through the retelling of stories.  Accordingly, Bly spends a lot of time in his writings taking apart ancient myths such as the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ legend and, most famously, the story of ‘Iron John’.

Bly’s source material is generally European myths and legends, but we know that the Indigenous people of this land (Australia) similarly passed down their wisdom from one generation to the next through the re-telling of the Dreamtime.

What has been sinking in with me lately is the extent to which this has been equally the practice in both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. We too pass on our wisdom to our children through the retelling of stories – Biblical stories, in our case.

Indeed, it is worth recognising that the Bible itself is a story – one big story, in fact, that starts in a garden and ends in a city, with lots of other smaller stories within it. This may not be obvious to the casual reader, perhaps because most of us start in the middle and so have trouble working out where the story begins and ends.

Jumping in at the middle though shouldn’t, in and of itself, be too big a hurdle. Most of us started the Star Wars saga at Episode 4, and that didn’t stop us from grasping the larger narrative. Even so, the Biblical plot-line is more complex than that of Star Wars, and the characters far more nuanced.

What I want to do today, at any rate, is to reflect a little on the greater Biblical story, and today seems to me to be the obvious day to do that because our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today is from the book of Genesis, from the opening verses of chapter twelve, which introduce us to Abraham – the hero of the Biblical drama – and hence function as the starting point of the Bible’s greater story.

Now I appreciate, of course, that the twelfth chapter of Genesis is not literally the beginning of the story. Obviously, the story begins eleven chapters earlier with “in the beginning …” (Genesis 1:1). Even so, I think it’s once again a bit like the Star Wars series (or like any modern movie, really) where the film inevitably opens with some action-packed battle scene, after which we are properly introduced to Luke Skywalker (or whoever the main character is).

In the Biblical drama, the opening scene is of the great battle over creation that rages throughout Genesis chapters one to eleven. In the beginning, God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and it is good, after which human being begin to unpick the handiwork of God, turning what is good back into something chaotic and violent, and the whole scene ends at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in division and confusion.

We could spend all of our allotted time today (and a good deal more) reflecting on those chaotic scenes that together create the backdrop for the greater Biblical narrative – the garden, the forbidden fruit, the murder of Abel, Noah and his flood, and the tower – but suffice it to say that it is a saga of growing alienation between God and God’s creation, where what was once good sours, and as Genesis eleven closes on the failed building project known as Babel, we see people who have lost all direction running about, unable to communicate with either God or with each other, and it is into this scene of chaos that Abraham steps forward as a new hope.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Thus, we meet the hero of our story – the man whose name will dominate the entire Biblical drama from this point on. He doesn’t look too promising at this stage, but neither did Luke Skywalker when we first met him, and, of course, the new hope that emerges with Abraham is not really grounded in the nature of the man, but rather in the promises that are made to him by God – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and … through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

As these promises are reiterated and unpacked in subsequent chapters, it becomes clear that they are three:

  1. That Abraham will father a great nation
  2. That God will give his descendants a land to live in
  3. That through Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Of those three promises, the first two find their fulfilment early on in Biblical story, with the growth of the nation of Israel and with the resettlement of that nation in the land of Canaan. It is the third promise – the promise of the blessing to all the nations that will flow from Abraham – that remains elusive throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the context of the Bible’s opening scene, we need to understand this third promise – that through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed – as the vocation of Abraham and his descendants to undo all the damage that was done at the very beginning of human history. They are to reverse the curse of Babel and lead everybody back to the garden of Eden, or rather, to that even-better-than-Eden place that supersedes it in the Biblical imagination – namely, the New Jerusalem!

Of course we are dealing with metaphors here, and metaphors that are alien to our own culture. We don’t dream of gardens or of glimmering cities any more, and, if we do, we generally dream of escaping the city and getting back to the bush, rather than vice-versa. Even so, I think we can recognise behind these metaphors a hope that is familiar to us – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love.

The Jews of the Ancient Near East were a very different people from a very different period of human history, and yet the Bible itself makes clear that their hopes and dreams were really not that different from our own. They yearned for a world where they could bring up their children in peace, just as we do.

Perhaps I’ve taken one too many trips to Syria in recent years, but those visits certainly have reinforced to me the centrality of the simple things of life – having people that you can love and trust, having enough food and clothing and clean water to get by on, and not having to live in constant fear. And let’s be clear that this is the essence of the happy ending that the Biblical story depicts as the New Jerusalem.

Generations of Christians have grown up with the idea that the goal of our religion is to help us escape this world to go to another world called ‘Heaven’ where we can live as disembodied spirits. This escape is generally supposed to happen when we die.

This form of religious hope was actually something we adopted from the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. It has little to do with the Biblical story that starts in the garden and ends in the New Jerusalem. The Biblical hope is for this world (albeit, a liberated version of this world) and it’s a hope for resurrection rather than for life in any form of disembodied spirit! It’s a very tangible, human hope, and it is this tangible, human hope that is the end-point of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, and the Bible’s story of the history of the people of Israel (at the risk of over-simplifying it) is the story of Israel’s repeated failure to help humanity reach that goal.

The key point I want to make is that the great Biblical hope is the same hope that all human beings cherish – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love. What is unique in our Judeo-Christian tradition is our understanding of how we reach that goal and what it was that got us into the mess we are in now in the first place, and what got us into this mess, from the Bible’s perspective, is idolatry!

Christian theologians normally describe humanity’s problem in terms of the far more abstract concept of ‘sin’ but the problem is really just idolatry. We worship the wrong god. We worship power and we worship money and we even worship other people – celebrities, rock idols and political leaders – and so we fail to worship God, and our failure in worship leads us into bondage – becoming slaves to the gods we worship.

It is idolatry that led the people of Israel into exile (with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BC) where they had to suffer for their sins – a tragedy that seemed to derail any hope we might have had that these descendants of Abraham might be the ones to bring God and humanity back together. It is in this context though that the New Testament writers point to Jesus as the one who comes into the world as the true representative of Israel, as the one who will suffer for the sins of Israel and so get them out of exile, and thus put the greater project back on track!

I’m going to stop the story at this point and raise what seems to me is the obvious question that arises out of the Biblical narrative when it’s framed this way – namely, ‘where do we fit into this story?’

It’s taken as a given in our culture that religion is a personal thing. That’s because religion in our culture is understood as being primarily about me! It’s about me and my personal relationship with God, me and my holiness, me and my salvation! The amazing thing I discover when I step back and look at the greater Biblical narrative is that it doesn’t seem to be about me at all! The story of the Bible is the story of Abraham and his descendants. It’s a very ancient story and it’s a very Jewish story. From a New Testament perspective, yes, it’s all about Jesus, but Jesus understood as the true representative of God’s people, Israel!

When Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and prevails over the devil, He does so, not to show me how to overcome my own temptations, but as the representative of Israel, who failed their 40-year period of testing in the wilderness. And when Jesus suffers for sin on the cross, He suffers first and foremost for the sin of Israel – the sin of idolatry that led them into exile.

Now I know that we ‘uncircumcised gentiles’ get included in the story towards the end, as the Apostles and the early church realise that God is expanding the family of Abraham to include all sorts of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and I recognise that this inclusion is indeed foreshadowed in those very promises made to Abraham at the very beginning of the story. Even so, to be quite frank, I had assumed that I played a more indispensable role in the greater narrative!

To translate this issue into the more familiar Star Wars context, let me ask, ‘at what point in the Biblical movie do we make our cameo appearances?’ We were not there at the beginning, nor at the climactic battle-scene.  Are we a part of the epilogue, right at the end? I’ve been giving this a fair bit of thought, and I reckon that we make our appearance in that extra scene that comes up after the credits have finished.

I’m not talking about the blooper reel that often appears in movies during the credits (though some of us might feel we deserve a spot in that). I’m talking about that extra scene that often (but not always) appears right at the end of the movie reel, after the credits are over and after the less-savvy movie-goers have already left the theatre. I’m talking about that thirty-second spot at the end that is the teaser for the sequel.

That’s our spot, I think. We are the teaser for the sequel. We are not the heart of the story. We are not the warriors in the great battle scene. The key victory was won long before we were born. Our role is simply to be the teaser for the sequel – signifying to the rest of the world what is yet to come.

My great spiritual mentor, Henri Nouwen, used to say that when you’re preaching the Good News, always make sure that it’s both good and news, and so I never finish writing a sermon without asking myself ‘where’s the good news in that?’ Where’s the good news in being told that the story of the Bible is not about you?

In truth, I think that actually is the good news – that it’s not our story – for it reminds me that the future of the world does not depend on me (thanks be to God).

The story of the Bible is Abraham’s story, it’s Israel’s story, it’s Jesus’ story, and ultimately, it’s God’s story, and it is God story that the world needs to hear because the world needs God, and not me!

Of course, we can make God’s story our story, and God invites us to do so – to make that story (as Kierkegaard put it) ‘the truth that is true for me, the truth for which I can live and die!’ Even so, that story will always be much bigger than me and much bigger than any of us, and indeed, that story will continue long after each of us has left the scene.

And so we pass on this story to our children, believing that this story not only contains the wisdom of our ancestors, but also a word from God for our world – a word of hope, of reconciliation, of freedom and of life!

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 12th, 2017

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You can’t serve both God and Money – Matthew 6:24


“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

One of the great advantages about working from the church lectionary, which rosters Bible readings each week in a three-year cycle, is that every three years you find yourself prompted to preach on the same readings, and when you’ve been preaching for as long as I have, and when you keep soft copies of every sermon you give, the cumulative effect of this process is a sizeable library of sermonic insights from years gone by that can be reworked into each upcoming sermon so as to minimize (if not entirely eliminate) the effort required to actually come up with anything original.

Unfortunately, I find that my most common reaction when I look back at sermons past is not, “Yep! That’s what I’m looking for!” but rather “No! what was I thinking?” That, at any rate, was my first reaction when I looked back at earlier sermons on Jesus’ words about the two masters and the exhortations that follow, urging us to model our lives on the birds and the lilies.

When I look back on those sermons given three, nine, twelve … and even twenty-four years ago, my assessment of those sermons can (sadly) be summed up in one word – smug!

Yes, there was a time when I would rale against those whose lives revolved around their pursuit of money and could do so from the perspective of a bird (more or less), but that was a long time ago!

‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go’ – take heed, you whose lives are controlled by your mortgages, you who live lives or quiet desperation due to your subservience to the Almighty Dollar, you who lie awake at night worrying about your wealth and whether or not you’re going to be able to hang on to it or whether thieves are going to break in and steal! Store up your treasure in Heaven, you fools!

It was easy for me to be haughty in those early days, and I confess that my early sermons on this passage contained a thinly-veiled smug self-satisfaction. But then, something terrible happened! I met … the other master!

It was my dad’s fault really. He never should have died!

In truth, I’d give anything to have dad back, but the reality was that when dad died in 2001 my life changed radically in more ways than one, and one of those ways was that, for the first time in my life, I had money, and lots of it!

I suppose these things are all relative, and some people wouldn’t consider inheriting a third of my dad’s house to be a significant endowment, but for me and my family it was completely transformative! Not only did it mean that we were able to take a family holiday to the US of A and buy a big TV set. It meant that we had assets to invest, such that we could set up share portfolios or even put a deposit on a house of our own!

As most of you know, I didn’t end up going with the ‘house of our own’ idea but opted instead to invest the money in a bush camp, in the hope of turning it into Australia’s greatest retreat centre for young people!

That then became the beginning of a new adventure, where we were able to house people and employ people and develop a property and see great things happen. At the same time, it was the beginning of an education into how easy it is to be defrauded by people, and how hard it is to make a business work, and how easy it is, as a business-person, to go bankrupt!

I don’t want to make this sermon about me, but I confess now before you all that I have never found anything more stressful than financial stress – than the stress of fighting off what seems to be the inevitable slide into bankruptcy!

I appreciate that in my case the prospects of bankruptcy are particularly nasty, as you can’t go bankrupt as an ordained priest and retain your priesthood.

I don’t know who brought in that rule, but there are three (and, as far as I know, only three) ways of getting yourself defrocked in our church tradition – namely, heresy, immorality and bankruptcy, and I really don’t want to be defrocked (that is, have my priesthood taken away from me)!

Yes, I know it’s all horribly unbiblical, but I like having people greet me in the marketplace and call me ‘father’. OK … I suppose I could get over the greetings in the marketplace, but the truth is that ‘Father Dave’ is who I am. It’s my identity. I don’t know how to be anybody else and the prospect of losing my identity is painful.

So I lie awake at nights, wondering how I am going to fix things up, wondering who I can trust, wondering how I’m going to get that million-dollar fight that will quickly pay all bills and put me back on easy street. I worry, I sweat, I stress about all the things that are going wrong and could go wrong, and it needs to be acknowledged at this point that this is EXACTLY what Jesus tells us we should NOT be doing!

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the measure of his life?…

And why are ye anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …

Therefore, be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? … Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:26-34)

‘That’s easy for you to say, Jesus! Did you ever try running a proprietary-limited incorporated company?!’

I suspect that I’m not the only person to have that gut reaction to these ‘what me worry’ teachings of Jesus. Even if you’re not managing a proprietary-limited company, what would Jesus know about life in this day and age? Did Jesus ever have a mortgage? Did He ever have to bring up kids in twenty-first century Sydney?

In truth, I suspect that Jesus’ contemporaries reacted in much the same way:

  • ‘What would you know about managing a fishing business, Jesus?’
  • ‘Have you ever literally shepherded a flock of sheep, Jesus?’
  • ‘have you had to bring up kids in first century Judea?’

In as much as we might like to romanticize life two thousand years ago, I suspect that it was not simpler to live then. For most people, life was a lot more difficult, and the truth is that the teachings of Jesus regarding material possessions, what we shall eat, what we shall wear, and money, have NEVER fitted comfortably into any culture during any period of human history.

Yes, I have met the other master, and yes, he has sunk his hooks into me, and yes, his servitude is harsh and exacting, and what I need is to be freed from my servitude to worldly wealth and freed to serve the better master, and I suspect that I am not the only one here who struggles under the same yoke!

In truth, I look back over church history and I wonder if we have ever got it right. Us Protestants, in particular, have always stressed the virtue of work and the virtue of savings, neither of which are ever extolled as virtues by Jesus. I appreciate that when the choice is between saving and spending that saving often appears to be a virtue, but we forget that there is always a third choice – namely, sharing!

There aren’t many people who live this way, apart from Jesus, and probably also apart from St Francis of Assisi – the man that G.K. Chesterton referred to as the world’s only Christian.

St Francis, in case you didn’t know, was the son of a wealthy businessman, but decided early in his life that he was going to become a ‘new sort of fool for Christ’. The upshot of this was a public confrontation with his father in the town square where Francis eventually stripped himself naked and declared that he had no father except his Heavenly Father (the idea being that he was returning to his earthly father everything that he had handed down to him).

Francis refused to even touch money, and when posed with puzzles such as what he would do if he came across some money in a field – the suggestion being that surely he should hang on to is at least until he could hand it over to the authorities – Francis famously warned that once we start hanging on to possessions, it won’t be long before we take up arms to defend them!

‘Consider the birds … consider the lilies’ … As I say, apart from extraordinary persons like St Francis, nobody really takes the teachings of Jesus regarding money and possessions particularly seriously. This is not the way we live. It’s not the way we were brought up to live and it’s not the way we teach our children to live, regardless of whether or not we are children of the church and followers of Christ!

The example of the birds is, frankly, too painful for us. These birds have no savings, no provisions stored up for the future, and no way of knowing for sure that they are going to able to feed their children tomorrow, and we don’t want to live like that – trusting, somehow, that our Heavenly Father will feed us.

The promise of Jesus, of course, is not simply that God will feed us because God is in the habit of feeding everything and everybody. The promise with which our passage climaxes is actually more specific than that: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (or ‘justice’) and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:34)

The promise, in other words, is actually an exhortation to focus our lives, not on satisfying our essential human needs, but on things of substance. The promise is that when we do that, all those essential human needs will be met as well.  All I can say about that is that whenever I have lived that way, perhaps more obviously back in the days when our lifestyles were a bit closer to that of the birds, God was indeed true to His promises. All our needs were met!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers today. On the contrary, I see myself as being enmeshed in the problem rather than a shining example of the way forward. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can shelve these exhortations of Jesus as if they form part of the eccentric fringe of His wisdom teaching, for Jesus presents the issue, not as lifestyle advice but as a choice between discipleship and idolatry!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

You can’t serve both masters! We might think that we can, and we might think that we can find a balance between the two. We might like to think of it as being like working two jobs or even just loving two children but it’s not! It’s more like fighting for two opposing sides in the same war! It can’t be done!

Let me finish with one final confession. Last week I got a visit from a friend who is a financial advisor. Admittedly, the reason I encouraged the visit was more because he was a friend than because he was a financial advisor, and because he told me that I would be doing him a favour if I let him give me financial advice as he’d only just started in his job and needed to show his firm that he had clients. Even so, I found the visit very discomforting, and when he challenged me with regards to my superannuation – ‘don’t you want to maximize your dividend on maturity?’ – I made a kneejerk response and cried ‘no!’ because the thought that I should restructure my life in order to maximize my dividend scared the hell out of me!

And I’m sure that wasn’t a particularly intelligent response, and I’m sure there has to be a better way forward than making knee-jerk reactions, where we kick feebly against the bars of the prisons in which we incarcerate ourselves.

In truth, I’m not sure exactly what form true discipleship takes for me or for any of us, but I know that the path begins with faith – faith in a God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, faith in the God who promises that if we focus our lives on seeking His Kingdom and His Justice that all our other needs will be met.

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on February 26th, 2017

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The 2017 Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

Hurstville City Council Civic Theatre, February 11th, 2017

It is a privilege to be with you once again to commemorate this, the 38th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and I appreciate that we meet at a time of great concern regarding the relationship between the nation of Iran and the Western powers with which our country, Australia, is closely associated.

Many of us had hoped that the (surprising) election of Donald Trump might herald a new era in US foreign policy – less concerned with global domination and more focused on domestic affairs. Unfortunately, while there are still hopeful signs regarding US relations with Russia and Syria, such (possible) gains seem to be being counter-balanced by renewed aggression against both Iran and China!

This development is particularly depressing, coming at a time when the dreaded sanctions against Iran that the US has had in place for so many years were finally in the process of being diluted. I appreciate, of course, that the people of Iran have adapted and have survived and thrived despite these sanctions. Even so, every time I visit Iran I feel that I can’t get through a day without being reminded of these sanctions and of the hostility that lies behind them.

Whether it’s a friend telling me how he can’t get the cancer medication his father needs because of the sanctions, or because I’m speaking to a craftsman who struggles to find a market for his goods because of the sanctions, or even if it’s simply because I can’t access some of my favourite websites, you can’t get far through the day without being reminded of Western hostility, and now, just when we had hoped that a new day was dawning, that hostility seems to be on the increase!

The only explanation I’ve heard for this that makes any sense to me is that America has an economy built on war, and regardless of who is running the country, the fundamental business of the country can’t change.

We can imagine, for example, that Apple Inc. might get a new CEO, but that wouldn’t mean that Apple would stop selling iPhones. Their primary product would still be fundamental to their survival as a company. Likewise, with an economy built on warfare, the markets can change but the primary product does not change, and so if the US is making peace with some powers, it will likewise have to find new markets for military expansion, and Iran and China seem to have been chosen as new growth areas!

I pray that this is not true, of course. I just struggle to make sense of what is going on in any other way. And the problem, of course, is that this is not just an intellectual puzzle any more than it is solely an economic issue. The issue at stake here is the life and death of so many of our sisters and brothers in Iran and around the world!

I don’t know what to do about this, apart from praying and doing my best to correct people’s misperceptions regarding Iran.

I appreciate that the people of Iran are working really hard at trying to present a friendly human face to the Western world. When I was in Iran last year, I was asked in every media interview I did, “What’s it like being in the home of moderate Islam?”  I had to respond “this is not how you are perceived in my country!”

There is, unfortunately, a vast gap between how Iranian people perceive themselves and how they are perceived in our country and around the Western world. The Iranian government has been working hard to bridge that gap and to correct misperceptions. I hope they will continue to do that, and I believe that there is more that they could do. Even so, there is much we can do at a grass-roots level too, and I pray that we are up to that challenge.

Each of us needs to commit ourselves to confronting all efforts to demonise Iran and the Iranian people. We need to do this in what we say and in what we write – in our mosques and churches and in conversations with ordinary people. This will not be easy, as we know that we will be up against a well-coordinated and well-financed media campaign. Even so, I do believe that people are wising up in this country and around the world, and I am very hopeful that the truth will triumph, and triumph in time to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes taking place around the globe.

There is much to pray about, and there is much to do. At the same time, on this, the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, I must not forget that there is also much to celebrate, and so I join with you in celebrating the achievements of the Iranian people over the last 38 years and in praying for a glorious and peaceful future for Iran and for all the world.

Salawat Ala Muhammad Wa Ali Muhammad.

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Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

“In the beginning was the Force, and the Force was with God and the Force was God” (John 1:1 – Father Dave translation)

Yes, that’s the Father Dave translation of the Gospel According to St John, first chapter, first verse, and my use of ‘the Force’ in this translation is not only on account of the fact that I’ve just seen ‘Rogue 1’ in the last week (which I enjoyed very much, thanks for asking). It’s also an attempt to convey the truth about God and about Jesus in the same way that the author of the gospel was trying to convey it – namely, by using the spiritual vocabulary of the day.

When John says that in the beginning was the ‘logos’ (which we normally translate as ‘word’) he was using a term that had high spiritual currency in his day.

Logos was a word with a long history in Greek philosophy that the Stoics had identified with the divine animating principle that pervades all living things. The Jewish philosopher, Philo, likewise adopted it and made it a part of Semitic religious thinking, meaning that by the time The Gospel According to St John, chapter one, verse one, was penned, it was the popular term across the Ancient Near East for that ultimate spiritual reality that we in the church generally refer to simply as ‘God’, which is why I translate it as ‘the Force’!

What I assume John was trying to do was to address a broad audience. In beginning his story about Jesus, he wasn’t interested in talking about what the tribal god of Israel was going to do for the people of Israel. John was talking about something that affected the whole world. He wasn’t focused on what a particular god was doing for a particular people at a particular time. The spiritual reality he was talking about had global (and even cosmic) significance! It affected every man, woman and child of every people and nation. It changed human history!

“In the beginning was the force, and the force was with God and the force was God”, and so John unpacks his story about God’s revelation of Himself to the world in the Force made flesh – Jesus – and through the prophet of the force, whose name was John the baptizer, and so we quickly grasp that this story of word and flesh and prophecy and fulfilment is not just Israel’s story but is the story of all humanity.

This Gospel not addressed to somebody else! This is our story, told in our language. You can sense that strongly in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, or at least you sense it right up to the point where John the baptizer opens his mouth!

It’s not until the twenty-ninth verse of this opening chapter that John speaks for the first time, but when he does speak he says (with reference to Jesus) “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) – to which the natural response from any self-respecting non-Jew would surely have to be ‘what the …?’

When John speaks of the ‘the Word’ or ‘the Force’ and how all things were made, and how without Him nothing was made that was made, he’s speaking our language, but when he speaks of ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’, what sort of language is that? It’s not ours!

Of course, if you’ve grown up in the church, this may well have become a part of your language by now, and if you’ve been a part of our church for any length of time, you may even have found yourself singing ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away our sin’, but do any of us really have any idea what we’re singing about?

I’m not suggesting that lambs (or at least sheep) haven’t played a significant role in the history of this country (or at least in our history since white settlement) but this is not the sort of lamb John was talking about!

‘It’s the Passover lamb’ I hear some seasoned readers of the Bible saying, and that’s my guess too! John is speaking in metaphor – associating Jesus with the sacrificial Passover lamb, whose blood was originally splashed upon the doorposts of the houses of the people of Israel before they were miraculously delivered from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians many, many centuries ago.

Even so, I don’t blame anybody for not making that association. Perhaps we have some in our church who have not been brought up steeped in the dreamtime stories of the people of Israel. Perhaps there are some here who have never seen Charlton Heston’s epic portrayal of Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, or even Disney’s more recent animated version of the same story?

I certainly would not blame any of my non-Jewish contemporaries for not knowing the stories of Passover and Exodus, or any of the stories of the history of the people of Israel, because it’s not our history! These are not our stories! And so we find, right here in the first chapter of the Gospel According to St John that this story of Jesus, which the Gospel-writer is at pains to point out is everybody’s story, is also a part of a story that is not our story. It is part of a specifically Jewish story which may be totally unfamiliar to some of us, and which I suspect none of us understands completely!

The problem with this, of course, is that if this designation of Jesus is fundamental to who Jesus is, then we won’t understand Jesus properly without understanding the story properly, which is why I want to have a go at unpacking it today.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Yes, it’s the Passover lamb that John is associating Jesus with, and the Passover was the feast originally held on the night before the great deliverance (or ‘exodus’) of the people of Israel from their years of bondage to the Egyptians. If you’re not familiar with the details of the narrative – the miracles of Moses, the plagues that fell upon Egypt, and the stubbornness of Pharaoh – you can read about it all in the book of Exodus (or you can just watch the movie or the Disney cartoon).

The important point to recognise here is that for the Jewish people of the 1st century (Jesus’ and John’s contemporaries) the Exodus was never simply an historic event. It was not one miracle amongst many. It was the archetypal act of God’s salvation in history. Indeed, it was the event that gave the Biblical word for ‘salvation’ its meaning!

The Exodus was not just a story of slaves being set free. It was the story of God’s people being liberated so that they could worship their God in freedom and build a new world together – a community of integrity and love, through which ultimately every family on the earth would be blessed.

The Exodus was a historic event, on the one hand, but it was also a dream of a world that had never been fully realised on the other! In other words, when the New Testament employs imagery of the Exodus, it’s pointing to the same reality that Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the coming Kingdom of God.

When John refers to Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ he is therefore designating Jesus as the long-awaited agent of God who is going to usher in a new age of justice and peace, just as the sacrifice of the Passover lamb had ushered in the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt.

Have you followed me this far? I hope you have. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie (or the cartoon) you probably can grasp the metaphor of the sacrificial lamb whose death is associated with the coming of the new age. Either way, I now need to complicate the whole analysis a bit further, for while the story of the Passover helps us make sense of John’s designation of Jesus as th e lamb of God, it needs to be recognised at this point that, historically, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb never had anything to do with the forgiveness of sins!

If you’ve read the book (or seen the cartoon) you know that the lamb was killed and eaten, and the blood was sprinkled on the door-posts of the Israelites so that the angel of death might ‘pass over’ their houses as vengeance was visited upon the people of Egypt in the final and most terrible plague!

The lamb was eaten to prepare the former slaves for their big journey, and the blood of the lamb played a role in protecting the people, but none of this had anything to do with forgiveness as such – sustenance and protection, yes, but forgiveness, no!

To understand the association between the lamb, the exodus and forgiveness of sins we need to look at a completely different episode in Israel’s history – namely, the conquest of Israel by the Babylonians many years later.

As mentioned, the miraculous exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt did not turn out as wonderfully as Moses had hoped. The Exodus experience did not result in a free people worshipping their God with integrity and love, and forming a community that would become a blessing to the whole world. On the contrary, the people of Israel had quite a chequered history from the moment they left Egypt onwards, and even after settling in ‘the Promised Land’, experienced more periods of bondage through a series of military conquests, the most significant of which (Biblically speaking) began with the sacking of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC.

Most of the survivors of that terrible day were taken captive back to Babylon where some of them spent out their days as slaves and others tried to build new lives for themselves as best they could. They were hard days. As the Psalmist writes:

“By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1)

The significant thing, from our point of view, about the Babylonian conquest and the subsequent exile of the people of Israel from their land was that it didn’t spell the end of the religion of the people of Israel. We might have thought that the defeat of the armies of Israel would be interpreted as the defeat of the god of Israel by the god of the Babylonians, and that’s certainly how the Babylonians interpreted it. Yet Israel’s interpreters stuck to their monotheism and refused to believe that their God could be defeated. Instead, prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah led the surviving Israelites to interpret their exile in a different way – namely, as a punishment for their sins!

It was the sin of Israel that had led them back into bondage, the prophets taught them, and yet these same prophets spoke of a day when sins would be forgiven and when there would be a new exodus from bondage!

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

These are the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah that promise and end to the exile and a new exodus of God’s people into freedom. These words are probably familiar to many of us and, indeed, they are followed by even more familiar words:

“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3)

And so we see in the fortieth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, words of hope that will be taken up by the New Testament writers and applied to John and to Jesus – words that are also pregnant with images of exile and exodus, associated with the promise of forgiveness of sins.

It’s this combination of stories in the history of Israel that help us make sense of John’s proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Jesus is going to usher in a new exodus for Israel, out of the bondage of exile. Of course, they are not suffering under the yoke of Babylon any more. It’s the Romans who are their latest masters. Even so, from the prophetic point of view, the Roman captivity that they were experiencing was a continuation of the same bondage that started in Babylon, and that really started in Egypt. With this tragic cycle of defeat and subjugation experienced by the people of God, each defeat was a successive wave on the beach, but all this suffering was going to come to a climactic end when the final exodus came, when the lamb of God would come who would liberate Israel from their exile through the forgiveness of their sins so that they could worship their God in freedom and become the people they were always intended to be!

Are you still with me? If you are still with me then you’ll appreciate that this great story surrounding Jesus – a story that the Gospel writer is keen to insist is our story – is well and truly somebody else’s story to begin with!

First and foremost, this is Israel’s story! The exodus being alluded to is Israel’s liberation from the Roman occupation and not ours! The sins being forgiven are the sins of Israel that led them into exile, and not our sins, let alone the individual sins of every human being on the planet (which is how statements like these are generally interpreted)!

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is, first and foremost, a word of hope for a better future for the people of Israel. I am sure that’s what John intended to convey when he said it, and I’m sure that’s how John’s disciples understood him when they linked up with Jesus. At the same time though, it is curious that John speaks of Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin ‘of the world’ and not simply ‘the sin of Israel’.

Was that just a slip of the tongue, or did John mean Israel when he said ‘the world’? Personally, I don’t think John saw anything in Jesus beyond the liberation of Israel, which is why, at the end of his life, John was distressed that maybe he’d got Jesus wrong – “are you he who is to come or should we expect another?” (Matthew 11:3)

I don’t think John ever really understood the full scope of Jesus’ mission, and I don’t think those disciples ever really got it either! At the same time, I don’t think many of us have every grasped the full message either!

Most of us Christians who sing about Jesus as ‘the lamb of God who takes away sin’ probably never make the connection with the exodus, let alone with the Babylonian exile! Most of us who speak of ‘forgiveness of sin’ don’t see this forgiveness as being linked in any way to Israel or to injustice and oppression or to liberation and freedom – not on a socio-political level, at any rate!

For the truth is that Jesus and the work of Jesus are a lot more complicated and elusive than we may have thought! The mission of Jesus is not only a hope for the political liberation of Israel, but it seems to start out that way, and I don’t think John the Baptist ever saw that mission as extending to anything further, and I’m not sure many of those first disciples did either! Even so, I’m not confident that many of us can claim to have overtaken John and the Apostles in our wisdom either!

In the beginning was the Force, and the Force was with God and the Force was God

This is the story of Jesus, and it is a complicated and mysterious story. It is a story that is alien to many of us at many points, and yet the Gospel-writer is entirely correct in insisting that it is nonetheless our story, and we don’t have to understand it all in order to own it!

For the truth is that the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – the liberator of Israel – is also the force made flesh, who came and made his dwelling among us, and …

“We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:14,16-18)

First preached to Holy Trinity Church of Dulwich Hill on January 15th, 2017

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The Kingdom of God is at hand!

note that there is no video version of this sermon (as I forgot to push ‘start’) 🙁

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:12-23)

I don’t know if you’ve been following the goings on in the USA lately, but I’m finding them fascinating (in a very disturbing sort of way).

Ever since the surprise election of Donald Trump as President, that country seems to have been thrown into turmoil in a way in which I’ve never seen before. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going on from this distance, but one thing that you can’t miss, even in Australia, is the extraordinarily well-coordinated media campaign that seemed to be designed to discredit Trump even before he took office!

I’m not pretending to be a Trump fan, and indeed it’s none of my business anyway, but I don’t think any of us would have anticipated the blow-back that came from the established people in power in the USA when their chosen candidate lost!

  • Initially, there was disbelief, as people thought it was a mistake.
  • Then excuses, increasingly focused on Wikileaks and the Russians.
  • Then, the formal expulsion of Russian diplomats by the retiring President, suggesting that the accusations against Russia indeed had substance!
  • And simultaneous to all this was a relentless media campaign targeting the President elect – vilifying his character, claiming he should not have won, and prophesying doom for American and the world should he actually take office!

A run through of articles on the Washington Post website make the point. These (and many like them) appeared in the last 24 hours, focusing on the inauguration:

One of my favourites was entitled simply:

And then of course we had:

Indeed, the only headline I found with a hint of positivity to it read:

Chris Hedges, who is a commentator I much admire, says that the whole campaign is designed to discredit Trump by depicting him as Vladimir Putin’s idiot puppet so that when impeachment charges come (which he thinks won’t take long) Trump will have zero public support.

I have no idea whether that is true, of course, but I do appreciate that Donald Trump is someone who is now deeply hated by a lot of people and, as my friend George Galloway said recently, “if I were Donald Trump, I wouldn’t be standing on top of any grassy knolls at the moment or anywhere a sniper could get a good shot at me.”

You’ll have to forgive me for going on like this about the current American political climate but I think it provides and excellent backdrop for our Gospel reading today which depicts the inauguration of the ministry of Jesus. I don’t mean to suggest any real parallel between the lead characters of the two stories, and I am certainly not suggesting that Donald Trump will turn out to be the savior of the world, but I do think that the controversy and the ambiguity that pervades America at the moment must have had real parallels in first century Judea when Jesus first burst on to the scene!

Who was this guy? What really was his agenda? How was it all going to turn out?

Am I asking these questions about Trump or Jesus? Well … the same questions could be asked of both, and while Jesus wasn’t hated at the inauguration of his ministry, that may have been largely because Jesus kept his plans for the future largely hidden. It was as His plans unfolded that hatred and opposition to Him grew.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” (Matthew 4:12-17)

What does this tell us about the person and ministry of Jesus?

For one thing, it tells us that Jesus didn’t appear in a vacuum. His very movements, as well as His work, were connected to the prophesies of His forefathers. Jesus was a character in a larger story – the story of the people of Israel. Jesus’ work (whatever that was) would bring light to his nation, as his forefathers had apparently foretold!

And the message of Jesus – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) – connects him not only to that historical narrative, but also more directly to the work of his immediate predecessor – John the Baptist – for this was exactly the same message that John was preaching!

In Matthew, chapter 3, we are told that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”” (Matthew 3:1-2), and now, after news comes through that John has been arrested and taken out of play, Jesus assumes centre stage and continues with the preaching of exactly the same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17)

What Jesus seems to be doing is not so much continuing on from John but rather repeating him, word for word! Their message was identical, but what did it mean?

Again, to understand the message, we need to be aware of the back-story, which is the history of the people of Israel, and we need to be familiar with the Scriptures of the people of Israel, for it is in those books – in the Torah in particular – that the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven (or, as it is referred to in the other Gospels, ‘the Kingdom of God’) finds its meaning.

In general terms, the Kingdom of Heaven is simply a better world. It’s not another world, in the sense of it being a world on the clouds somewhere, or a world in some other space/time continuum, and it’s not a world we go to when we die. It’s this world upgraded (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘debugged’).

Biblically speaking, the Kingdom of Heaven is a return to Eden. It’s a return to a time of harmony between human beings and all creation, and between humanity and their God. Of course, it’s never really depicted as a step backwards, but rather as a radical step forwards towards a new and better sort of world, where people live in peace with God and with one another, and where the earth gives forth its plenty!

“The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:8-9)

This is the ancient hope of the prophets – the dreamtime of the people of Israel – but for most Jews living in the first century, this great hope had a very tangible near edge to it. Whatever else it meant, for most Jews, the Kingdom of Heaven meant freedom to live their lives without the burden of foreign occupation. In other words, it meant getting rid of the Romans!

It’s at this point that I’m tempted to see the parallels again with the American (and even with the Australian) contemporary political situation.

To what extent were the Romans really responsible for the woes being experienced by the people of Judea in the first century? Were the Romans really any more responsible for their problems than Muslims or immigrants are responsible for our problems?

Charismatic leaders then, as now, appealed to popular resentment to get themselves a platform, and while I’m not suggesting that either John the Baptist or Jesus played the people in any way, there can be little doubt that nationalistic fervor and resentment towards the Romans contributed greatly to the popularity of both men!

In truth, I don’t doubt that John’s ultimate agenda was both political and militant. His great baptism ritual seems to have been a symbolic reenactment of the exodus narrative, where the people walked out of slavery, through the red sea, and into the promised land!

John, we are told, chose the Jordan river quite deliberately as the place where he baptised people, and that river was the border between his country – Israel – and the pagan world! It may have been that John had people quite literally marching from the pagan soil of the Jordan (symbolizing bondage and occupation) through the waters and back into the land which they could then claim again as their own!

John, of course, saw his work as only that of ‘preparing the way’ for the real freedom work of the Messiah, but I have little doubt that John foresaw the Messiah’s work as being both glorious and bloody! “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17) I think it’s pretty straightforward what John meant by that. It meant ‘let’s make Israel great again!’, and I’m pretty sure that’s what John’s followers heard, and I’m pretty sure that’s the message that the first followers of Jesus were responding to too!

You sense that very straightforwardly in the next part of the Gospel story:

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20)

What’s going on here, for you don’t normally leave your job and your family like this to join a seminary? What’s happening, I believe, is that these disciples think they’re being recruited into an army!

I know that modern translations translate “I will make you fishers of men” as “I will teach you to fish people”, using more inclusive language, but I suspect that’s a mistake. They are men that are being sought out here – big, burly, strong men! And these men are going to become part of the recruitment process so that they can get more men, for this is not women’s work (as traditionally conceived). This is war!

That’s how these early recruits understood the process, I believe, and Jesus’ proclamation, that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” would have meant the same to them as it had to John. It was a proclamation of a hope of national independence, which is not to say that it was a political hope rather than a spiritual one as the people of first century Judea would not have made that distinction. Theirs was a hope for national renewal, where they, as God’s people, could be free to worship without fear, upholding their spiritual traditions with integrity, and governing themselves according to God’s own rules in God’s own land! That’s how they understood “the Kingdom of God”, but how did Jesus understand it?

We get a clue, I think, in the closing verse of our Gospel passage today:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23)

I suspect that it struck both John the Baptist and those first disciples as somewhat strange that Jesus stopped his recruitment process after he reached only twelve men. Indeed, I think they were expecting Him to raise an army of at least twelve thousand, but instead of enlarging the army, Jesus starts preaching about His kingdom and healing diseases!

Twenty-first century people often find the stories about how Jesus healed people to be a bit disconcerting because a lot of us don’t believe in miracles. I suspect that Jesus’ first century contemporaries found His healing activities disconcerting too, but not because they didn’t believe He could do it, but because they would have had trouble understanding why He was doing it!

Healing people wasn’t part of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ agenda! To be quite blunt, Jesus wasn’t supposed to healing people. He was supposed to be killing people!

This is where everyone’s kingdom expectations start to come unstuck. Before too long, John the Baptist himself is asking Jesus – “are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:13). Jesus’ preoccupation with healing people and doing works of compassion simply doesn’t fit the revolutionary agenda.

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17) What exactly did Jesus mean by that? Well … I’m not going to give any precise definition today, and mainly because I want to stay true to the gospels. The Gospel of Matthew itself goes on for another twenty-something chapters with Jesus teaching us about the Kingdom through parable and metaphor and through healing and illustration, so maybe narrowing the Kingdom down to a tight definition at this point isn’t the way forwards.

What I think can be said at this point is that Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom that was at hand was broader than that of most of his contemporaries – John the Baptist included.  That’s not to say that the liberation of his people from political oppression wasn’t a part of what He was on about. It just wasn’t all He was on about!

‘Make America great again’, ‘make Australia great [for the first time]’ – these are the sorts of slogans that politicians throw at us in order to get our votes, and often these slogans prove to be nothing but empty rhetoric.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). Was that empty rhetoric too? I don’t believe it was, but I don’t think any of us was really ready either for the sort of Kingdom that Jesus was about to launch!

First preached to Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill on January 22nd, 2017

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Rules and Relationships – a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-37)

I suspect that all of us were shocked and dismayed this week by the latest published findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The statistics are devastating! The Catholic church’s own figures include:

  • 4,444 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse between 1980 and 2015
  • 1,880 people holding positions in the Catholic Church, including priests, identified as alleged perpetrators
  • In some orders, in particular, the problem seems absolutely rampant! 40 per cent of the members of the brothers of St John of God had allegations of abuse made against them between 1950 and 2010! 40 per cent!

What can we do about this?

This was the question I raised at the clergy Fraternal meeting we had last Thursday at St Brigid’s church in Marrickville (the largest Catholic church in our region). I asked my fellow clergy there “what can we do about this?”

I made it clear “I don’t consider this your problem. I consider it our problem. And not just for us, the church, but for the whole community! What are we supposed to do?”

As we might expect, nobody there had a simple solution. “Apologise, and try to be honest about the situation” was the main response, but this hardly seems sufficient.

If the church were a normal company, this tragedy would spell the end of the company. Assets would be dissolved, victims paid out as best as they could be, and those staff who escaped prosecution would seek gainful employment elsewhere. This isn’t likely to happen in the case of the church, but what is going to happen? What can be done to heal this gaping wound in the side of the body of Christ?

As I say, I didn’t get many answers from my fellow clergy but I was initially encouraged when I looked at this week’s Gospel reading, seeing Jesus come down hard on sexual indiscretion, and sensing that here we might find some answers!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-30)

Jesus, it seems, takes sexual immorality seriously! Admittedly, looking at a woman lustfully and sexually abusing a child are two very different things. Further, I think most of us would question whether plucking out eyes and cutting off hands is really the best way to solve the problem. Perhaps it would be worth trying dropping the mandatory celibacy rule amongst Catholic clergy first and seeing if that helps?

In truth, the more thought I gave to this teaching of Jesus, the less sure I was that it was intended to help us deal with our sexual problems, any more than the teaching immediately preceding it – about how getting angry at your brother is as bad as murdering him (Matthew 5:21-22) – is intended to help us deal with our tempers.

It’s not immediately obvious either how we’re supposed to make sense of these verses in terms of the moral equivalence they seem to teach, where getting angry seems to be as bad as murdering, and lusting as bad as committing adultery!

They remind me of a verse in the Qur’an (5:32) that says “whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption done in the land – it is as if he had slain all humankind”. My knee-jerk response to that is that even if it’s just as bad for the killer (in a sense), it’s obviously better for the rest of humankind. Likewise, with Jesus’ teaching, even if it is just as bad to be angry with someone as it is to kill them, and just as bad to lust after someone as it is to rape them (just as bad for the perpetrator, that is), it’s obviously a lot better for the ‘victims’, and in the case of the child sex-abuse tragedy, it’s the victims that we really need to be concerned about.

In truth, it’s difficult to be sure about the practical value of these teachings of Jesus, and perhaps that’s an indication that these teachings are not actually given to us as a part of some sort of manual ‘Four Simple Steps to a Holier Life’.

I read a fascinating book last week called “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien – a book that makes the point that reading the Bible is always an exercise in cross-cultural communication – and I found the book particularly helpful in the way it described the role of law in Ancient Near Eastern culture, as compared to the way rules and laws are treated in our day.

The key point that the authors of the book tried to make in this regard was that rules and laws in the Ancient Near Eastern world only ever made sense in terms of the relationships that they were relevant to, whereas in our world we tend to do things the other way around – we define our relationships in terms of rules!

When someone enters a working relationship with us, we draw up an employment contract with various rules and KPI’s (key performance indicators) that define the relationship. This is as true for the church as it is for any other business. The disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, had no contract, let alone superannuation, insurances, risk-management agreements, safe-ministry practices or KPI’s, but they did have a relationship that included various obligations and expectations. It’s just that these obligations and expectations often went without being said.

The patron/client relationship, to give another example, was one of the key relationships that defined the world of the first century, and one that is in the background all the time in the writings of the New Testament, though we tend to be blithely unaware of this. Once we understand the way patron/client relationships worked though, it helps us understand some of the things that go on in the New Testament and some of the theology of the New Testament as well!

When Paul refuses to accept money from the church in Thessalonica, for instance (2 Thessalonians 3:8), he’s not simply being proud. His refusal makes sense when we realise that accepting patronage from the church would have brought with it various expectations that Paul might not have felt that he was able to fulfil.

This is the way patron/client relationships worked. Patrons would give gifts and do favours for their clients. Their clients would respond by being available to them when needed and serving their interests as best they could. Interestingly, the two key Greek words used to describe this relationship were ‘Charis’ (grace), describing the generosity of the patron to the client, and ‘pistis’ (faith) being the proper response from the client, and we know how central those concepts were in Paul’s theology.

The point is that relationships – patron/client relationships, marriage relationships, family relationships, and any number of other relationships – determined how rules and laws were applied, and sometimes some laws would apply to some people when the same law wouldn’t apply in the same way to someone with whom we had a different sort of relationship, and this is not something we can easily accommodate.

Our understanding of laws is that they apply all the times and to all persons, regardless of who they are. Our image of ‘lady justice’ is that she is blindfolded and hence no respecter of persons. Even a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible though tells us that the God of the Old and New Testaments doesn’t work that way at all!

God’s eyes are wide open and God does play favourites! The God of the Bible does not treat all people equally, according to abstract standards. On the contrary, God elects certain persons and certain nations as His special people, and in matters of justice, God is biased towards the poor!

“He has cast down the mighty from thrones and has raised up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) This isn’t just the testimony of Mary. It’s the story of the Bible as a whole!

To take a different sort of example, Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, lays down (what appears to be) a hard and fast rule against the circumcision of non-Jews:

“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” (Galatians 5:2)

He is equally clear with the church in Corinth:

“Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.” (1 Corinthians 7:18)

Paul’s teaching in this regard is straightforward and unambiguous, and we’re told in Acts 15 that he argues his case with the other Apostles, and indeed convinces them that non-Jewish, uncircumcised Christians should under no circumstances be forcibly circumcised, and then, in the very next chapter (Acts 16:3) we’re told that Paul circumcises a Greek guy named Timothy. Why? Because the two of them were about to head in to a predominantly Jewish area and Paul didn’t want to offend anybody! What the …?

One of the authors of the book I mentioned spent much of his life as a Baptist missionary in Indonesia, where he says relationships still define rules. He recounted the first time he attended a pastors’ conference there, where he expected to see only men, as the Indonesian Baptist Church had a rule that only men could be pastors. He was surprised to see a number of women there and he asked the organiser about it. “I thought you had a rule that only men could be pastors”. “Yes”, responded the organiser, “and most of them are”.

The same author imagines confronting the Apostle Paul in a similar way. “Hey Paul, Priscilla and the Apostle Junia are pastoring churches, yet you said that only men are allowed to be preachers!” He imagines that Paul’s response would be identical – “Yes, and most of them are!”

Now … we seem to have drifted a long way from the teachings of Jesus about anger and lust, recorded in Matthew chapter five, but I believe this is actually all relevant.

I think that we get mixed up when reading Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter five because we go in looking for a law, when what Jesus is actually doing is trying to help us understand God’s laws in the context of the relationships that define them!

The law says “thou shalt not kill”, but what God is looking for here is not just that you abide by the rule, such that you can abuse someone as much as you like so long as you don’t actually kill them. There are lots of ways of abusing your brother that aren’t explicitly forbidden by any law, but that doesn’t mean that any of them OK!

Likewise, avoiding adultery is not in itself the key to healthy marriage! You can’t carry on lewdly and lustfully and think that you’ve done all that is required by both God and your partner just because you haven’t broken that specific law.

The problem starts when we let rules govern our relationships rather than letting it happen the other way around. When you have a relationship of love and integrity you tend to follow the rules as a matter of course, but the relationship must come first!

This is most obvious of all in the fourth and final exhortation that we get from Jesus in this Gospel passage – His exhortation regarding oaths:

“Again, you’ve heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

In the background here is a complex system of oaths that had been developed, allowing you to ‘keep your fingers crossed’ (so to speak) while making promises. Legal loopholes had been created that allowed you to break your promises without actually breaking the law!

Jesus says ‘let your yes be yes and your no be no’. In other words, have integrity in your relationships instead of letting your relationships be defined by these rules!

When seen in this light, Jesus’ apparently harsh words regarding divorce and remarriage make perfect sense: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

It is tragic, I think, that any number of Christians have understood Jesus here to be laying down more laws – harsher and less forgiving laws, in fact, than those initially established under Moses! Jesus’ point, in context, is surely that we should be putting the relationship first, rather than using the divorce law as a legal loophole – as a way of legitimising abuse.

I’ve recounted before the time I went down to Melbourne to appear as a guest on a TV show John Safran was doing, and one of the other guests I got talking to was someone who used to be a ‘professional wife’ in Iran!

Prostitution was illegal where she came from but polygamy was not, so she would marry the men who came to her as clients, let them have their way with her, and then get a divorce certificate from them before they left. I didn’t think to ask her how she did the marriage ceremonies without a Sheikh present (as I can’t imagine any self-respecting Sheikh being complicit in the process) but the point was that she was not a sex-worker, and the married men who came to her were in no way committing adultery! They had found a legal loophole in the law of God!

Jesus had no time for this sort of sophistry – manipulating relationships through the misuse of laws. If you’re going to trade in your partner for a younger, more compliant model, don’t think that issuing a divorce certificate makes the process less abusive! Abuse is abuse, whether it’s technically legal or otherwise. The goal must be to establish relationships of integrity. When we do this, following the rules is no longer an issue.

This in fact brings us back to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, though we’re no longer at same the point where we started.

If you read the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, you may have seen the article by Rachel Brown entitled Church laws deliberately misused to cover up sex claims”. According to the article, “Catholic church authorities deliberately misused their own legal code to excuse claims of child sexual abuse and protect alleged perpetrators.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly what Jesus is railing against in these teachings, recorded in Mathew chapter five – religious folk who manipulate the law in order to excuse abuse. Jesus, it seems, had zero tolerance for this.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)

The real way forward, of course, doesn’t necessarily involve cutting anything off. Rather, it involves putting relationships first, and living in love, for “love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13:1)

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on February 12th, 2017

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What kind of crazy story is this – a sermon on the virgin birth (Matthew 1:18-25)?!

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no sexual relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25)

Why did the Gospel writer have to include that last line? I don’t mean the “he named him Jesus” bit, but the bit just before that – that Joseph “had no sexual relations with Mary” until the child had been born? He “knew her not” says the old King James version. Either way, that’s too much information so far as I’m concerned!

I don’t want to know about the sex life of Mary and Joseph. Isn’t that the sort of thing that the couple should keep to themselves? Of course, if this were an episode of Neighbors or an installment on some reality TV show, this might be the very first thing we’d expect to be privy to regarding the lead characters, but it’s not that kind of show, is it?

That’s actually the key question I want to focus on today – ‘what kind of show’, or, more precisely, ‘what kind of story is this?’, for it’s not an episode from an early sitcom or some saucy first century yarn. It’s a Bible story. And it’s not just any Bible story either. It’s one of those core narratives that is not only central to the greater New Testament but which is also a defining story for us as a community!

Academics refer to these types of stories as myths, but I don’t like that term as it seems to imply that the story is make-believe, so I’ll stick to story or narrative. The point, at any rate, is that certain stories are central to the life of a people. They define who we are and what we believe, and so we tell and retell these stories, passing them on through the generations, from father to son and from mother to daughter, and this story of the birth of Jesus is most certainly one of these core narratives!

This isn’t just any story. This is our Christmas story. As a Christian community, we structure our year around this story. Look around the church building and you’ll see signs and symbols everywhere, echoing this story – the angels, the shepherds, the sheep and the manger – and at the centre of it all is this couple, Mary and Joseph, who are spiritual mother and father to us all in a sense. I don’t want to know about their sex life any more than I want to know about the sex life of my earthly parents!

What sort of story is this? What sort of couple is this? What sort of child is this?

‘What sort of engagement was this?’ – perhaps that’s an accessible point at which to start, for it’s clear from the story that Mary and Joseph’s engagement was something a bit more serious than the sorts of betrothals we are familiar with nowadays.

Mary finds that she is pregnant and Joseph knows that he is not the father and so “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly”. The crisis itself is not uncommon nowadays any more than it was back then – an unexpected pregnancy with doubts being raised as to who the father is, though these things aren’t normally resolved quietly in my experience, but neither is the woman ‘exposed to public disgrace’ if the relationship falls apart.

Engagements in first century Judea were evidently a more serious family affair than they are nowadays, and probably something more akin to the way ‘trial marriages’ work in Iran. For those who aren’t familiar with the practice, couples in Iran often enter into a trial marriage after consultation with their families. They live together for a fixed period – perhaps six months or a year – after which, if things are going smoothly, they are formally married.

It’s similar to what happens in our culture when a couple shacks up together, except that it’s all done with family support. I remember asking my friend, Sheikh Mansour, ‘but what do you do if the girl gets pregnant?’, to which he replied ‘what do you do?’

The question in our story, of course, is ‘what is Joseph going to do?’, and Joseph, like Mary, is called to walk a path of blind obedience – ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife’. He must maintain the relationship with Mary and father the mysterious child, whose origins and whose future are so obscure!

And so we are told that Joseph “took her as his wife”, which means what? Did they go down to the registry office and organise a quick ceremony, or did they gather together with whatever members of the family that they could find and organise some communal celebration? In the context of first century Judea, “he took her as his wife” could just mean that Joseph consummated the relationship (sexually), which is what we know it doesn’t mean, of course, because he ‘knew her not’!

And maybe that’s the whole point of that detail – that this vulnerable couple were left in a sort of limbo situation – being married but not fully married (as traditionally understood) – as they headed off on their painful pilgrimage to Bethlehem, with their lives and their future and their relationship with each other already being totally determined by this mysterious child who had not yet been born!

Perhaps that’s all the detail about the celibacy of Joseph is meant to convey to us, though, as we might expect, commentators over the centuries have found the story of the virgin birth to be fruitful ground for more detailed speculation.

Certainly, it doesn’t require too much imagination to suggest that there might be an ‘anti sex’ agenda in the birth narrative, reflecting the negative attitude towards human sexuality that became increasingly prevalent in the church as it evolved.

This anti-sex attitude has indeed been reflected in the writings pious souls over the centuries who have felt that it would not have been possible for the Son of God to have been born as a result of sex – a conviction that (to my understanding) did lead to the theory of the ‘immaculate conception’, which refers not to the miraculous conception of Jesus but to the miraculous conception of Mary, his mother, for if she were to be the pure vessel through whom the Son of God was to be born, she too would have to be conceived in a way that didn’t involve any human sexual activity!

Some of you may have read Shelby Spong’s book, “Born of a Woman” (published in 1994) in which he goes further and suggests that the virgin birth story not only reflects negative attitudes towards sex but more specifically, negative attitudes towards women and female sexuality in particular!

A number of scholars have likewise seen in the Gospels’ birth stories the influence of the Gnostics (who were most prevalent in the 2nd and 3rd centuries). Gnostics had very negative attitudes towards all things physical, and greatly influenced the early church, perhaps even the writings of the New Testament!

I’m personally not at all convinced that the Gnostics were active so early such that they could have influenced the construction of the Gospels, and I note too that where they were influential in later church history, it wasn’t always an influence favoring men over women!

I have actually been studying some of the second and third century Gnostic literature recently, and I believe that the formulation of the aforementioned theory of the immaculate conception of Mary was specifically tied to the Gnostic belief that sin of Adam is passed down through the human species explicitly through the male seed! That is why Mary, who had to be sinless, had to have been conceived without the involvement of any male in particular! Whatever you think of that theory, it doesn’t seem to me to be one that elevates men above women.

I mean no offense to any of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who might take the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary very seriously. I think though that we can all agree that it is not taught in the New Testament, and neither was it a belief that was circulating at the time the New Testament was written. Indeed, it was only formally adopted as a doctrine of the church by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

I’d like to suggest at this point that we may better grasp the full impact of the birth story in the Gospels, not through thinking about how it might have contributed to later problems in the church, let alone by thinking about how those problems might have influenced its construction, but by comparing the Gospel narrative with other great narratives that were circulating at the time that it was written.

Within the Bible itself there are a number of mysterious birth narratives, each auspicious in its own way. We might think of the story of the miraculous birth of Samuel to Hannah, as retold in the first book of Samuel, or even of the story of the birth of John the Baptist.

Further, it occurs to me that within the non-Jewish religious world of the first century there were countless stories circulating of auspicious characters who had mysterious births! And I don’t know if any serious study has ever been done comparing the blessed virgin Mary with the blessed virgin Athena – the only woman in the Greek pantheon who never had a male escort!

Those who are familiar with New Testament Greek know that ‘parthenos’ is the Greek word meaning ‘virgin’ or ‘young girl’. The word is used  with reference to Mary in the New Testament. Those who haven’t studied New Testament Greek will nonetheless recognise the word ‘Parthenon’ as referring to that amazing temple on the Acropolis in Athens, dedicated not to Mary, of course, but to Athena!

I mentioned that I’ve been doing some study of early Christian Gnostic documents of late. I’ve also been listening to a series of lectures on the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and they are fascinating indeed!

I am conscious too that a number of feminist scholars of the 1970’s took up fresh studies in the female goddesses of Greece in particular, hoping to find in them some more positive role models of feminine strength and independence, particularly in comparison with the negative stereotypes that have been propagated by the church.

The lecturer I’ve been listening to, Professor Kathryn McClymond, suggested though that looking for positive female role models in the Greek pantheon is a doomed quest as these women, while they often exhibit strength and independence, also embody all of the worst female stereotypes.

A story that well illustrates this regards a wedding banquet put on by the great god, Zeus, who forgot to invite along Eris, the goddess of discord. Eris turns up uninvited and tosses into the party a golden apple with the words “for the fairest” written on it. This then leads to a battle royal between goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite over who is deserving of the apple! They ask Zeus to adjudicate but he (wisely) gives the job to Paris, prince of Troy. The goddesses then try to influence Paris, firstly by stripping naked and then by bribing him! Hera offers him power, Athena offers him wisdom, but it’s Aphrodite who wins by offering him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Sparta. And that’s how the Trojan war really began!

I won’t continue with the epic characters of Greek mythology, and there’s not enough time to go into the specifics of Roman mythology, which gave us the other great narratives that would have been circulating at the time of Jesus.

Roman mythology was, or course, largely a retranslation of Greek mythology. The names were changed – Zeus becoming Jupiter and Heracles becoming Hercules – but the stories remained largely the same. Indeed, in my reading of the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, the only clear difference I can see between the two is that the Roman stories were even more violent than those of the Greeks!

Most have probably heard of the legend of Romulus and Remus – the founders of Rome. If you have heard of them, you may remember that they were apparently suckled by a she-wolf as infants, later to grow up and found the great city!

What you may not remember about Romulus and Remus is that the reason they were raised by wolves is because their mother, who was the daughter of a murdered king, was raped by Mars, the god of war. The twin boys that were subsequently born to her were therefore seen as threats to the throne, and so while their mother was buried alive, the boys were left to die of exposure by the river Tiber, only to be rescued by the wolves. The boys grow up and kill the king who killed their mother, after which Romulus murders Remus!

You’ll forgive me for indulging in such a bloody tale, but this is the sort of stuff that Roman legend is made of, and, as I say, these ancient myths are the stories that are passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter, and they are the stories that define a people.

What do the great stories of Rome tell us about the Roman people? They tell us that violence, rape, pain and struggle have always defined them as a people! Romans were descended from boys who had been left for dead but who fought back and vanquished their enemies through cunning, strength of arms and raw courage!

A community is defined by its stories – that’s the point.

The stories of the Romans tell us who the Roman people were, just as the great myths of ancient Greece tell us who they were as a people.

If we want to understand how the Indigenous people of this land understand themselves, we need to listen to the stories of the dreamtime, whereas we white Australians prefer to define ourselves through the story of the ANZACS.

The question then is, what do these stories in the Bible tell us about ourselves as a spiritual people, and what does the Christmas story in particular tell us about who we are as a Christian community and about who our God is?

I think the comparison with the great Greek and Roman myths is instructive in this regard, for one thing that both Greek and Roman mythology shared in common was that their great stories consistently said nothing about ordinary people!

The characters that fill out those great ancient myths are all titans or gods or demi-gods of some sort. They are larger than life characters who perform miraculous deeds, vanquish great monsters, build great cities and win great battles! When these tales speak of mortal men and woman at all, they are inevitably mighty warriors who drench themselves in both glory and blood. These are the stories that define the people of the first century, but not the Christian community!

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)

This is our story! It’s the story of an ordinary young girl, engaged to an apparently unexceptional young man, who turns out to be unexpectedly pregnant. Of course she goes on from there to become the most powerful woman in the known world … No. She goes on from there to give birth in squalid circumstances and she lays the baby in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

This is the Christmas story. It’s a story about a God works through ordinary people in the most ordinary of circumstances – a God who ‘brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52)

It’s an offensive story in many ways – this Christmas story – offensive in its simplicity! It’s a story that is more concerned with the personal lives of two Palestinian peasants than it is with telling us how to vanquish monsters or build great cities! Love it or hate it though, this is our story!

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