Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

One Man's Web

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

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

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

To all this, Jesus says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen here

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

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

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

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

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

We don't know.

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

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

How then do we live?

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

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

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

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

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

But it will, Jesus says.

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

The author of Psalm 91 thought

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

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

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

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

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

From the text ... he has a little dig at them, which probably delighted the people who were listening. These guys were the Fundamentalists of their time. You can't change anything in Scripture, they said, so Jesus puts a little challenge in front of them.   Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac— the fathers of the faith,  had been dead for centuries by the time of Moses. But God did not say to Moses, whom the Sadducees understood had written their bible,  that He had been the God of those three men. He said I am the God of Abraham. I am the God of Jacob. I am the God of Isaac. They're not dead, but raised. How can you not believe in the resurrection, Jesus says!

It's not an argument that carries any weight for us, or even makes much sense to us, but if you were a Sadducee being  put on the spot in a public place, it meant people would laugh at you: Because you reckoned you were the ones who had really mastered the Bible. You knew what was right and wrong. Your theology was pure. And yet here Jesus is, making you look a bit silly with an argument that you haven't got an answer for.

The key thing in this passage was not that Jesus won a schoolyard argument. The key thing is a verse that Luke leaves out, for some reason. Jesus said one other thing to the Sadducees which Mark and Matthew tell us. The beginning of Jesus' answer to the Sadducees is a blunt repudiation of them. He doesn't argue with them at all. He simply says, "You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God."  And that statement is as true today as it was then... Read on >>>>

We come to God for comfort, peace, a way to live in a harsh world.

And God says Yes, always Yes.

But what do we really seek? We are human. We inevitably seek the shortest, most obvious way, which seems will take less effort. And, in our pain and need to survive, it tends to be all about us. We can take the cheap option and miss the deeper pleasures of life.

Some theologies reward this.  If we "say the magic words," and believe, affirm, say the right thing, we will be saved. There will be some shibboleths— don't smoke or don't drink... whatever, but as long as we fit the mores or habits of our group.

These theologies have two underlying effects. One is that they demand little change in us outside of the group mores. Any group wants stability, not change and its discomfort. The other implication is that theology and faith are an intellectual exercise; that is, we can master them by intellect and by adhering to various doctrines.

It seems to work because if we can swallow the doctrines and group requirements we feel inclusion, approval, and some reduction of anxiety.  Church can be entertaining. The contacts of a wider group can be a bit like being a Mason or KSC: employment contacts etc can improve. There can be the relief of a well-defined set of rules to live by, for which we are constantly approved.

But it is a short cut. It makes faith all about us.  By contrast.... Read on >>>>>

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