1 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2 He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 3 You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. 4 I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ 5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. 7 “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. 8 “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them. 9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’” 10 And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. 3 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” 3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” 10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 2:1-3:10
The raging sea strikes fear into the heart of Jonah. It’s the fear of death. As he sinks deeper into the disturbed waters, he knows that it cannot be any other way. He has ignored his calling both as a prophet and also member of God's chosen people. He hasn’t preached and he hasn’t prayed. Now he gets what he deserves. After all, the God he wants to believe in is the one who condemns the sinners, or at least the Ninevites.
God, however, has other ideas. As Jonah sinks, God provides a salty saviour to sweep him up. The disobedient Jonah is saved by the obedient fish. Hemmed in by bones and blood, guts and gastric juice, what will Jonah do now? Well, there’s not much to do but to dwell on what has happened to him since he received God’s call to go to Nineveh. Why is he here, what has he done, why can’t he outrun God?
Have you ever found yourself in the belly of the fish? Wondering, praying, trying to work out where God is, or where you’ve left God? A spouse dies, or a close friend. You or someone you love struggles with an illness that threatens their life. A child disowns the faith you have handed down to them. You haven’t factored God into your choices, or blown up a relationship by your willful actions. There are seasons when it feels that God has withdrawn his presence, or you have run too far away. There's no light, there seems to be no hope.
It’s only now Jonah prays. He knows he has no one else to go to, even if his every move to this point has been to avoid God. He prays the prayers of those who have gone before him, using the words of Israel’s prayer book, the psalms. “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me…In my distress I called to Lord; I cried to the Lord for help. From his temple he heard my voice.” (Psalm 18:4,6). When we have no words of our own, God’s word takes over.
But Jonah’s prayer is remarkable for its lack of spiritual self-awareness. Nowhere in this prayer does Jonah take responsibility for the situation in which he finds himself. There is no regret, and no repentance over the actions which have landed him in the belly of the fish. Why doesn’t Jonah come clean with God? He prays, “I have been driven away from you…” when it was he who did the running away, not God.
And the other thing that stands out is that Jonah hasn’t changed his attitude to the pagan sailors. He prays: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit God’s love for them.’ But is that really the case? Didn’t the sailors turn away from their idols, and pray to God that Jonah rejected in his sullen silence? Didn’t they offer a sacrifice to the Lord and make vows to him after God stilled the storm? Jonah still doesn’t get it. As far as he is concerned, mercy is for him, and deservedly so, but judgement is what the Gentile sailors and their counterparts deserve. Isn’t Jonah the one who is forfeiting God’s love?
Jonah’s prayer ends with praise to God. “But I will sacrifice a thank offering to you. And I will shout to you with thankful praise. I will do what I have promised. I will say, “Lord, you are the one that saves.” We can only hope that Jonah grasps the irony of his words. Does he really want the people of Nineveh to know that God is the one who saves? Does he believe that God’s salvation extends beyond the borders of his chosen nation? Does his confession of thanks paper over a profound resentment at the depths of God’s love?
Jonah knew all the right words, but his heart appeared closed to the wideness of God’s mercy. How often are you and I like Jonah? We are every ready to grasp the gracious help that God offers us. We cry out to him because we know of his love. We know that he will not reject those he has claimed through Christ. But at the same time as we pray and praise, we don’t show mercy to others. What does Jesus say, “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Yet God is kind even to us in our ungratefulness.
How did God respond to Jonah’s psalm? He commanded the fish, “and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” The word ‘vomit’ is used in the OId Testament to express God’s revulsion at human behaviour that offends him. Have God, and the great fish, had enough of Jonah’s pious talk? The fish spews Jonah out on to the shore, where, remarkably, God permits him to make a new start. “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I give you.” And so begins his second journey, a long and perhaps reluctant obedience in the opposite direction, to Nineveh.
Do you find it astonishing, unbelievable, unfair that God continues to ply Jonah with grace, risking his mission to Nineveh on this unreliable prophet, so that Jonah might yet understand that grace that has embraced him, the love that will not let him go? It is worth pondering our reaction to the second half of Jonah’s journey. Has God given him one chance too many? Is God indulging him? But would we apply the same logic to ourselves? How many times have you and I broken God’s heart with our conscious disobedience? Don’t we desperately need to fall at the feet of the same generous, loving God, over and over again?
This God’s mission is to Jonah, while he on God’s mission to the people of Nineveh. Jonah has walked the walk to Nineveh, and now he talks the talk of God’s message. This great city was not just important in its own eyes, but precious to God. While their wickedness stunk to high heaven, God’s compassion wanted better for them: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Will the city be overthrown, or will it, to use the other meaning of this particular word, be transformed, as Saul was transformed, overturned by God’s spirit when anointed by Samuel.
We don’t have to wait forty days to find out. One day of preaching God’s word was enough. Nineveh falls to God. “The Ninevites believed God.” Repentance breaks out everywhere. From greatest to least, from the King downward, every heart has been cut to the quick. A fast is proclaimed, and even the animals of the city are required to keep it. And everyone is commanded to be clothed in sackcloth. And even then, the King speaks a word of caution: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let then give up their evil ways. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” There’s no presumption, no expectation. Just desperate hope of pardon, and a future.
Now if Jonah had learnt anything from the sailors, he might he suspected this. Even before the storm stopped, God has messed with their heads, and they were on the pathway to faith. Jonah, as we see in his psalm-prayer, seemed to presume God’s grace, and repentance was conspicuous by its absence. Just like God’s covenant people, who felt that they count on God without taking him seriously. But not the people of Nineveh.
And the result. “God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” God changed his mind. His threat achieved his desired outcome: that the people of Nineveh would take their focus off themselves, lay aside their pride in their power, and in their cruelty toward their enemies, and replace this culture of coercion and death with God’s justice and righteousness.
God wants the same for us. He wants us to face up to the depth of our disobedience but more than that, to celebrate the stronger truth of God’s saving love. The Ninevites didn’t deserve God’s change of heart, but then, nor do we. God wants all his creatures to enjoy his presence forever. The cross of Jesus proves this: how can we not take God seriously when he sent his Son to suffer and die to lock in new life for everyone who abandon their attempts at self-justification and place their trust in him.
We are three quarters in to the book of Jonah. God’s mission to Nineveh has been wildly successful. But what about God’s mission to Jonah. That’s what we will find out next week.
1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ 3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. 4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.’ 7 Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’ 9 He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 10 This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.) 11 The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’ 12 ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’ 13 Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the LORD, ‘Please, LORD, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, LORD, have done as you pleased.’ 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him. 17 Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:1-17
When Jodi became pregnant with our first child, we consulted the baby name books to find the right name. I had my short list of boy’s names-Jonathan, Giles, Farren, and Jonah. I thought Jonah would have made a good name, but Jodi didn’t, and I thankful that her choice, Henri, prevailed.
Jonah’s name means ‘dove,’ a symbol of peace. But a dove is also flighty and easily disturbed. This is the character of the man that we confront today: a recalcitrant, obstinate, silent and sullen prophet, who was strangely successful in the mission to which God called him, but from which he ran and only then reluctantly complied.
God called Jonah to prophesy to his own people Israel during the reign on King Jeroboam II. His message to the king was that, despite their idolatry and immorality, God would preserve Israel’s borders from attack. But then the prophet Amos came along and said the exact opposite: judgement would become because of his people’s disobedience. So perhaps there’s some question about Jonah’s credentials as a prophet in the first place.
Nevertheless, God has another mission in store for Jonah, one that is much more challenging. “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up against me.” Nineveh was the capital of the superpower Assyria, a city five times larger than Jerusalem, with walls 30 metres high, built on solid rock. This empire was feared and hated by all those who had been conquered by its cruel power, including the northern kingdom of Israel.
But Jonah wanted nothing to do with the place and with God’s message. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Why? Was it fear? Perhaps. But as Jonah lets on later, he was afraid that forty days of preaching this message might result in the possibility that sin-city would come to its senses and repent. That vile city didn’t deserve the time of day, let alone God’s compassion and mercy. What are the Nineveh’s in your life, the people you can’t forgive, those you consider beyond the reach of God’s love, those you have written off?
So Jonah ditched God's itinerary and decided on his own. He travelled down to Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast, and found a boat heading as far west as it was possible to go, to Tarshish in Spain. A few months on the Costa Del Sol would do the trick.
Exactly why Jonah thinks that he can flee from God’s presence is incomprehensible. For a prophet, he seems pretty unfamiliar with the word of God. Remember what David says in Psalm 139: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? …If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
Jonah gets on board, and immediately falls into a deep sleep below decks. He might be oblivious, but God is very much still on his case. God turns on a mighty storm. The ship itself is at breaking point. The sailors are petrified. But they know what to do in such a dire situation. There are no atheists on this ship. Each one turns to their chosen god, except the one who is supposed to be God’s messenger. His lips are sealed, as he snores below decks. The one who knows the true God doesn't pray.
The captain rouses Jonah. “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god. Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The pagan sailors understand that this is a life or death situation, but not Jonah. This is now the second call to Jonah to testify to God. God first calls him to prophesy. Now he is called to pray. But he ignores both.
Sailors are a superstitious lot, and they cast lots to determine who on board is responsible for this storm. The lot falls to Jonah. Instead of chucking him overboard immediately, they graciously give him the chance to explain himself. They rapidly fire these five questions at him: “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” Jonah, God's mute messenger, has no choice but to say something now. “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.' This is the right answer, but where’s the evidence of Jonah’s faith?
There hasn’t been any, sadly. The whole journey has been about Jonah ignoring God’s call on his life. Just like his fellow Israelites. Despite their history of God’s rescue, and their precious covenant relationship with him, they were no longer interested in living out this identity. Israel’s journey away from God took the path of worshipping other gods, and of living with scant regard for his standards of love and justice. God continually spoke a message of judgement and restoration, but they slept right through it. As they did also with God’s command to be a light to the nations.
This isn’t just Israel’s story, but also holds up a mirror to us. Haven’t we been on Jonah’s journey too, not once but perhaps many times. We are people of God’s new covenant, rescued from slavery to sin through the work of his Son Jesus Christ. But like Jonah and his compatriots, we forget the grace of God and rewrite our story to emphasis our achievements. The good news of what God has done becomes old hat, stale, yesterday’s news, and we no longer speak of it. Sometimes we ae conscious that we are on the run from God. Other times we slowly, imperceptibly drift? What, or where, is your Tarshish?
Back to Jonah’s story. The sailors ask him the big question: “What shall we do to you, to make the sea calm down for us?” His answer may seem noble, a preparedness to sacrifice himself for the greater good: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down, for it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” But why doesn’t her pray to God for their rescue. Is it because he can’t stomach God’s wide mercy, and doesn’t want to follow God’s command. Ironically, Jonah, the 'dove man' who doesn’t want to go to Nineveh to offer those citizens peace with God, now he finds himself bringing life to these pagan sailors.
Right through Jonah’s journey, it’s striking how people who don ‘t know God do what Jonah can't or won’t. Before the sailors toss him overboard, they pray. “Please, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” Then they try to row to land, but to no avail. And only then do they toss him into the chaotic sea. And the storm stops. At that the sailors rejoice, more than that, they offer sacrifices to the true God. They know that Jonah’s God has saved them from a watery death.
Where’s Jonah. Down among the dead men, away from God’s clutches. No, God is hard to shake: “The Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.” God isn't finished with him yet. And nor is God finished with us.
We’re only one chapter into Jonah. But already, there are so many questions for me. How do my actions reflect the call of God on my life? How do I bring God and his grace into the lives of others? Do I act as if some people are deserving of God’s grace, like you, my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and others are not? Do I really care about people outside the fold of the church? Would I bolt if God asked me to do something like he asked Jonah? Do I think I could outrun God? Do I fully comprehend the breadth of God’s love?
One thing I know so far from Jonah’s story. God never lets us go. The proof: his Son, Jesus, thrown overboard into the chaotic sea of our sin. In his death is life for the whole human race. This is what Jesus says: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Only to rise again to new life. We are pursued in love by the one who stilled the storm, Jesus Christ, dead, buried, risen on the third day. We get what Jesus deserves, and he gets what was coming to us.
Jonah is now in the belly of the fish. He has plenty of time to ponder his journey thus far. Next week we will hear what he had to say from his three-day home. Amen.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Mark 1:9-11
I sometimes wish baptisms were more like this one of Jesus. And not just baptism either. Confirmations, too, and first communions. And even our regular partaking of Holy Communion. In fact the whole of worship. Why isn’t every Sunday like this?
Like what? Well, with heaven opened up – I’m not sure what’s actually involved in that, but it sounds very impressive! And the Spirit of God descending, and resting on people – that would be very impressive, too! And then the voice of God himself coming from the opened heaven and announcing to people, ‘You’re my child. You’re someone whom I love. And I’m really pleased with you.’ Very, very impressive!
That would beat the rather routine, mundane and ordinary event that worship can tend to be. Sometimes some people may even find it hard to believe that what we do in our church buildings has anything to do with God – apart from our assertion that it has – or that God would want to have anything to do with it.
I suppose It tends to be like how I imagine all the other baptisms that John the Baptist performed. Okay, next please, just watch those stones under the water. And what’s your name? Okay, now I’ll lower you into the water. Well, there you are, back you go on to dry land. Next please, under the water for you, and off you go. Next, yes you, come on down… and so on and so on.
But his time! This time heaven opens, a dove descends and rests on Jesus, and there’s a wonderful voice from heaven! Suddenly it’s obvious that God himself is involved here. It’s not just John who is doing the baptising, it’s God as well. God almost takes over, taking it right out of John’s hands. There’s certainly no doubt at all about God’s presence.
Why doesn’t that happen – something, anything, just as impressive – when you and I gather to worship? Why doesn’t it happen frequently or, better still, every time? And as I ask those questions I start wondering why it is that I want all these amazing things to happen. Obviously, the main thing is the assurance that what’s going on in worship is genuine and real. So that anyone who comes along, and even those who hear about our worship, have no doubts that God is present.
And if something like this would happen to ME, then I’d be convinced that God is really active in my life, he’s really my Lord and my Saviour.
Of course, if these impressive things didn’t happen to me, but to my fellow believers who worship with me, or who worship in other congregations, I’d also be reassured that God is active among us as Christians. But it probably wouldn’t take too long before I’d get to feel a bit jealous that I receive nothing like this. And that jealousy would get me feeling all left out, like I’m nothing more than a kind of second- or third- rate Christian. I really want it to happen to me. Don’t I deserve the same impressive events that others experience, or claim to experience?
And those questions make me wonder why it is that I need assurances like that. Why is it so important for me to have God interrupt what he is doing just to pander to my whims and my desires? And why do I get this sense that worship is not real or is defective in some way, when nothing special, nothing impressive, happens? Why should I think that God is only involved, or involved to a greater or better degree, when there are things like heaven being opened and I can see or hear unusual phenomena? And why is the ultimate proof of God’s involvement that it happens to me?
As I reread this account of the baptism of Jesus, I can’t help feeling that these special and impressive sounding happenings would have meant very little to Jesus. After all, very little happened here that he would not have been aware of at this stage in his life. He’s just about to start his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming the good news of what he is about to do as the Son of God. So he knows the truth of the words his Father speaks from the opened heaven: You are my Son, whom I love. That’s not something new or earthshattering for Jesus – just the statement of fact. Perhaps the assurance that his Father is well pleased with him would have been good to hear, and been an encouragement as he began his work on this earth.
So probably, as another Gospel writer said on a different occasion, this voice didn’t come for the benefit of Jesus, anywhere near as much as it came for the benefit of those who were witnessing this event. So that they would know something about who Jesus was, and what he was going to do for them.
Now, I’ve come to know Jesus, and his love and mercy, so why should I expect and long for special events just to bolster my ego and to give me something to talk about as a new and earth-shattering event in my life and my faith life? Isn’t God nurturing me, and my faith, all the time, anyway?
This voice that came for the people who witnessed the baptism of Jesus, would have certainly shown them that there was something special about Jesus. But more than that, it would have been confirmation for them that God was involved in the total ministry of John the Baptism – not just in this one baptism, but in all of them. The special happenings around this one event would have substantiated John’s whole ministry as a messenger from God.
Why is it I wonder – and maybe it’s the same for you too – why is it that God’s impressive and miraculous events tend to make me suspicious and doubting when God does things without any special happenings taking place? Why do I desire so much to see and feel that God is active, that I lose trust in God doing things in ordinary and quiet ways?
I must drive God mad. There he is, active in my life, and yours, and in our world, constantly. Now and then he gives me evidence of his presence and involvement as he does something special, something that I can hear or see, even something miraculous. Just to show that he is always active.
But I misinterpret it all. I think he is only there when those special things happen – or worse still, only when those special things happen to me.
Forgive me, Lord. Forgive me for doubting you, your presence, your involvement in my life. Forgive me my preoccupation with myself. And for wanting you do show yourself more and more in my life, and in more startling ways. Help me to understand that when you show yourself that’s simply evidence that you are always present – even if there are no impressive signs or indications of that presence. And for that constant presence make me appreciative and thankful.
21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’ 33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
My older son Henri was born on the 20th January 1995, in Tasmania. He was the first grandchild for both sets of grandparents. He was also the first great grandchild for my grandparents. He was eagerly longed for. As we named him, we wanted to remember those who had given us life. So Henri’s middle name, Anton, was that of Jodi’s paternal grandfather.
We also wanted his great-grandparents to see him. Jodi had planned a trip to Alice Springs to see her parents. She would stop in Adelaide along the way so that the family there could be introduced to this latest addition. Two days before she and Henri were due to leave, we received a phone call. My grandfather, who had been unwell over recent times, had just died in Royal Adelaide Hospital.
We were shattered. Not just because of his death, but also because my grandfather could not meet, see, hold his first great grandchild. Never was the cycle of life more clear than in this exact moment. How often does it happen, that the birth of a child coincides with the death of an elderly person? We almost sense that the child carries on the life of the elderly person who has died. One life is replaced by another.
In today’s gospel, we witness the old and the new coming together. Firstly, the young parents Mary and Joseph, following the commands laid down in Scripture, have their baby boy circumcised on the 8th day. They name him Jesus, Joshua in their language. His name means “God is my salvation.” They didn’t choose this name themselves: it was God’s decree, communicated to Joseph through an angel. This name carries a lot of history: Joshua was Moses’ successor Joshua, and he led God’s people into the promised land. This newborn Joshua will follow in his footsteps, and lead his people along a new way, where no one has gone before.
32 days later, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple. Mary had to undergo the rite of purification. A woman who had given birth was considered to be unclean, and had to offer a sacrifice in the temple. The usual sacrifice was a lamb, but for the poor a “pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons would suffice” Mary and Joseph's poverty saw them take the second option.
The new parents dedicate their firstborn child, to God. They follow God's command, given after the Passover, to “consecrate to me all the firstborn.”
And here it is that the old meets the new. Simeon was a man of great age, steeped in God from his birth. He is described by Luke as “righteous and devout, looking for to the consolation of Israel.” He had spent years on his knees, praying, waiting for God to act. What kept Simeon going was God’s assurance that he would see the Messiah before he died. Today was that day. And the same is true for Anna, a faithful woman and prophet of God, widowed for decades, trusting in God because there was no one else she could rely on. Luke tells us that “she worshipped night and day, fasting and praying.”
Both of these people held fast to God’s promises. God’s old words were as real to them as the news of each new day. The passing years had taught them to trust through hard times and good. Now they are introduced to the new thing that God is doing, in the form of the infant Jesus. This is one of the most poignant scenes in the whole of Scripture. Simeon and Anna meet the one in whom all futures will find hope, meaning, and purpose. They have lived long and prayed hard that God would keep the promises he made to their ancestors to come in power and rescue them. Now, as the light of their lives dims, God grants them an audience with the promised one. In the place of his presence, the temple.
This scene, shown here in a painting by Rembrandt, is extremely moving. We may have witnessed it in our family experience. Simeon embraces the child, and is moved by the Spirit to praise for what the life of this child would accomplish. Words which are locked in our consciousness, as we thank God for how we have taken the Christ in our hands and mouths in Holy Communion.
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
Not for Simeon small talk about who the baby looks like, no comment about his cute nose or ears or hands. This child is too important to waste these kind of words on. This is the child long promised, whose life means life for all peoples. This child means that Simeon can leave this life in peace, knowing that his future is secure in life and work of Jesus. Here, in God's temple, was God himself, in the form of this tiny child.
Simeon has seen the salvation of the Lord. This is something that God has “prepared in the sight of all peoples.” There is nothing secretive about God's rescue mission. Here, in flesh and blood form, is God's answer to the mess that humanity finds itself in. This child will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Jesus will call himself the light of the world. Sent to dispel the darkness that characterised life under the burden of sin. Jesus was a child born for all nations, not just for the people of Israel. Jesus’ ministry will show that's God's love wasn't just restricted to his covenant people Israel. All people are the object of his love.
Simeon prays God's blessing on the child. His life is God's and he will do the work of God. Blessing is much, much more than wishing for the best, and hoping that the child leads and healthy and fulfilling existence. Blessing confers the active presence of God. But it is in the blessing that Simeon speaks some words that would shock any parent to the core.
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own heart also.” Mary and Joseph’s amazement at Simeon's earlier words is replaced with shock. The saving work that God will do through this child become man will come at the greatest cost. When the light comes, those who live in the shadow of death will find the scrutiny of the light too overpowering. In proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus will force people to consider if God rules as king in their lives. His words will cause a crisis of conscience: do we accept that Jesus is the Son of God or some religious fake.
The veneer of sentimentality that surrounds the way our society celebrates Christmas is torn off by the words of Simeon. There is no middle ground with Jesus. What does he himself say: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” This baby will grow into a man whose uncompromising message will turn many away in disgust, and whose ugly death on the cross would be seen as vindication of their rejection.
Yet to these aged saints, Simeon, and then Anna, “who began to praise God and to speak to all about the child…” this was the promised one. Through this child, God would rescue all humanity from an aimless existence and eternal death. Simeon now knew that he could greet death calmly. God was taking the decisive step in destroying death through this child, whose life would one day be spent on the cross. God the Father would share the sorrow of his death with Mary, his mother, who would suffer the cruel blow of the death of one of her children
The baby cradled in Simeon's arms, and praised by Anna, is the child who demands a response from us. Simeon says that the “inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” What do you say about this child? Will you respond as like Simeon did?
Through Jesus, Simeon’s words have become ours too. We have seen God's salvation. God’s light has been shone on us, we who once were Gentiles but now find ourselves in the family of God. We experience the presence of the Christ, first of all, through our baptism, where we are made “in Christ”; and then when Jesus gives us his body and blood in bread and wine, through Holy Communion. These tried and true practices, the old if you like, continue to fill us with the new life of Christ. The hurts and pains of the old, the offences committed, the ugly words spoken, can be confessed and wiped away by the forgiving love of Jesus our Lord our Saviour. He is the one who is making all things new. And what he offers is exactly what we need as prepare to lay 2020 to rest, and enter into 2021.
I pray that we might all live with the confidence and trust that Simeon had: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the life of all people.” God, fills our lives with the same hope, that you are creating a new and vibrant future for all people through this child, your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 20 December.
25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith – 27 to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
I bring grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. *Today I conclude my short time with you as St John’s part time Grow Pastor. It has been almost 8 months since I was told that my three year termed call would not be renewed. This was not easy news to receive. Since then, I have had plenty of time to reflect on what I have learnt over these three years.
My part time focus at St Johns has been to assist in the areas of children, youth and family ministry and work closely with the St John’s Grow team,…*…. focussing on the second part of the St John’s mission statement – Growing in faith.
Now, every 5 years, churches across Australia participate in the National Church Life Survey. St Johns will most likely be participating again in 2021. *The 2016 survey showed that, back then, 81% of St John’s worshippers had grown in their faith in some way over the past 12 months. I wonder what the 2021 survey will reveal?
I wonder, how you will answer this question? Have you have grown in your faith over the past year or so? If so, to whom do you attribute such growth?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to the fact that you chose to participate in the Shepherd of Souls studies earlier this year or the Beloved Dust studies in 2019?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to the fact that you have religiously watched St John’s worship @ Home on Channel 44 or youtube this year or… that you remained connected with others in the congregation through Zoom coffee and chat sessions while we were in lockdown?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to the fact that you disciplined yourself to use Grow Ministries …… ‘Growing Faith at Home’ resource to guide your caring conversations and devotions at home?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to the fact that you engaged in new faith practices, came to first communion and confirmation classes and created a mentoring partnership?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to your diligence in regularly gathering for worship or your dedication to prayer? Do you attribute your growth in faith to your participation in St John’s intergenerational activities or your attendance at St John’s Milestones events...and your growing collection of Milestone pebbles?
Do you attribute your growth in faith to your tireless service in your community or your regular attendance at your small group? In short, if you have grown in faith in recent time, do you attribute your growth in faith to your efforts or to someone else?
Well growing in faith is not about you and what you do. Neither is it about me as your departing part time Grow pastor! It’s all about Jesus and his Holy Spirit. He alone is able to strengthen your faith.
It’s all about Jesus, what he has done and continues to do by the power of his Spirit in you! He is able to strengthen your faith. – That’s what Paul says to us in Romans 16:25 today!
Therefore, as I wrap up my short time of ministry time with you. I want to simply point you to the one who is worthy to receive all Glory. For he is able to strengthen and grow your faith. Another common translation of Romans 16:25 puts it this way: ‘Now to him who is able to establish you … be glory forever through Jesus Christ.’ Or as another says: ‘All of our praise is to rise to the one who is strong enough to make you strong.’
Friends, God the Father together with his Son Jesus and Holy Spirit is the one who makes you grow in faith. God alone establishes you, strengthens your faith and makes you stand firm.
God alone makes you constant in faith and holiness – So Give God the Glory for ever and ever. Amen.
But how does God make us grow strong in faith? God establishes us according to the Gospel. The Gospel alone is the norm and means through which God works. Simply put – the Gospel is God’s love for us.
The Gospel is not a program or an activity or a spiritual practice. Our activities and programs and spiritual practices are simply relationship building tools which may assist us in sharing the Gospel.
The Gospel is a mystery that has been kept hidden and secret, unknown and undiscoverable by human reason from ancient times. It is the good news of God’s redemption of human kind. It has been revealed and made known in Jesus the saviour. Romans 16:26 says God wants all of us to obey him by trusting him!
That means: - Looking to Jesus alone as the one who saves us from our sin.
- Recognising that Jesus alone forgives us and make us right with God.
- and Having the confidence Jesus leads us through the wilderness…
…and dark valleys and storms to help us see who we really are - that we are not random nobodies competing against one another. But instead we are his beloved sons and daughters, made in his image and redeemed by his blood to live and love with him both now and forevermore.
His love for us is so incredible that he does not leave us on our own in the midst of the dark valleys and storms of life, he leads us through them so that we may discover his grace, and be established in him.
Friends, this has been God’s gift to me in 2020.
*When life breaks us down and we feel all alone like a heap of rubble, God says ‘I will build you up again’. This is my testimony of what God has been doing in my life in 2020. But my testimony does not stand alone. This is what God has done for others in the past and can do for you both now and into the future!
As the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah (31:2-5)
The people who survived the sword will find favour in the wilderness; I will come and give you rest.’ 3 The Lord appeared saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. 4 I will build you up again, and you will be rebuilt, made new, like a virgin. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful. You’ll go back to your old work of planting vineyards on the hillsides,.. And sit back and enjoy the fruit—oh, how you’ll enjoy those harvests!
There is something special about this picture of being rebuilt. When things don’t go to your plan and you feel like your life is a crumbling ruin in the wilderness, remember the Gospel that has been shared with you!
God Loves you - forever! – he walks with you forever. God alone is able to establish you. God alone is able to strengthen your faith. – God is not only able to establish, confirm and build you up once, but he is also able to build you up again! That is how much he loves you!
When you find yourself broken down by life – remember the gospel I have preached to you! The Gospel of Jesus alone will again re-establish you and make you stand firm.
Remember whose you are - and live and rest in his love!
If you want another example of a person who has experienced unexpected change and then saw God’s favour and grace in their life, go back a reread our Gospel for today: The Young Virgin Mary had her life turned upside down when she was told by the angel that she was going to have a child. How would she explain this to her fiancé whom she had never slept with? But Mary simply replied acknowledging whose she was saying: ‘I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.’
Friends, God alone is redeeming the world through the good news that is revealed in the birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, and the promised coming again of Jesus. God alone loves you with a never ending love.
So remember whose you are. You are dearly loved sons and daughters of the most high God. He will never reject you!
Wherever life takes you or whatever storms or dark valleys you must walk through, do so knowing that you stand, grow, live and rest in his loving presence forever and he alone is able to grow your faith!
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with this good news, to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 13 December.
Over the last couple of months, members of the St John’s community have been hard at work creating nativity scenes. They’ve been gathering in the well-equipped shed of one of our community and, with, a combination of their skill and creativity, and the right tools, they’ve made wonderful wooden witnesses to the story of Christmas.
This all began a few years ago, when some congregation members thought that our church should find a way to bring the Christmas story to life for our local community. For many years we’ve placed a sign along the fence in front of our church, advertising our Christmas service times. It was a perfectly well designed, serviceable sign. And each day hundreds of cars, and many pedestrians would drive by our walk past, and see what we are up to.
But we got to thinking that we could do something more. This is where the Christmas nativity scene came from. And some very handy people got to work in bringing this vision to life. We used the Lutheran Church’s tagline: Where love come to life. We placed one nativity scene in front of our church, and another at Concordia College, just around the corner. We’ve been amazed at how many people have commented on how much they love what we’ve done, and how it communicates the true story of Christmas.
Christians often lament how the real meaning of Christmas has been lost in the commercialisation of Christmas. And there’s much truth in that. We are saddened by the fact that it seems hard to get a word in edgewise about the God whose love impelled him to send his Son into the world to become a human being and to bring his Father’s love to life. We feel overwhelmed by the flood of advertising and the message about the meaning of Christmas being about partying and presents, and family gatherings. How on earth can we compete against that?
I don’t think all is lost. We just have to think differently about how to go about witnessing to work of God in his Son Jesus. An advertising agency, and a slick campaign isn’t going to get the message across. Rather, it’s all about being local, and personal, as we’ve seen with the nativity scenes in front of our church and chapel. It’s about what they communicate, and the conversations that they initiate. Just like the first witness to Jesus that we meet in today’s gospel, John the Baptist.
The Gospel writer John, no relation to John the Baptist, is really interested is signs, not the kind made of metal that give us directions, or indeed like our nativity scene, but people and actions that point us to one person-Jesus Christ- “the Word [of God] made flesh ...the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The reason John wrote his gospel is so that people may read the signs and find their home in Jesus, having fullness of life in his name.
In John’s first chapter, we see Andrew leading his brother Peter to Jesus, and Philip sharing the good news with Nathanael. All of them end up as Jesus’ followers. And then in chapter two Jesus performs his first sign, the changing of water into wine. But before any of these take place, we meet the first sign, John the Baptist. The signs are there from before John’s birth that God has something special in store for him. His father Zechariah receives a sign from heaven announcing John’s conception. The angel Gabriel informs him, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. Many of the people of Israel he will bring back to the Lord their God...to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:16,17)
The important things about signs is what they are communicating. And that’s especially true of John the Baptist. John was a wild man, living on the fringes of polite society, dressed in the latest desert chic of camel’s hair and a leather belt, enjoying a paleo diet. What he looked like, indeed what people thought of him, didn’t matter to him. It’s the way he lived and what he said that mattered.
We heard last week in Mark’s gospel how John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His message, as confronting as it was for his listeners, was hugely popular. John was drawing crowds from all over Israel. So much so, that the Jewish religious authorities sent a delegation out to the desert to find out exactly who he was.
Their questions were obvious ones in that day and age. Times were tough, and hopes were high that God would intervene is Israel's history. The Messiah would lead his people into a golden age, free from Roman control. So John, tell us about yourself. John was terse but to the point. “Who are you?” “I am not the Messiah.” “What then, are you Elijah?’ “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?’ ‘No.” John knows who he is not. And that’s quite helpful. Knowing who we are not helps us to be clear about who were are. And John also knows exactly who he is. First of all, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord’,” as the prophet Isaiah said.’’ ‘There you have it. I am a way preparer. I’m here to get things ready for the arrival of the king. I am simply a signpost pointing you in the right way.” There’s something captivating in a person who knew who is clear about their life’s mission. There was a clarity of both identity and purpose in John’s life, and this is what he called others to.
Secondly, I am the one called to baptise in water. John’s Baptism was a sign of repentance. People flocked to John because his communication about God was crystal clear. And confronting too. Repent. Stop heading in the wrong direction. But do so in the knowledge of God’s power, and desire, to forgive. This is the role of the one who is coming after me, who is greater than I, and who already stands among you. It could have been that Jesus was actually there listening to John, unrecognised but waiting for John to baptise him also, so that he could begin his ministry of revealing God’s forgiving love to us.
And thirdly, “I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals,” John says. This is not selfdeprecation, but an honest estimation of who John is, in the light of Jesus’, God’s Holy One. John is secure in his identity, his mission, and his message. And we can be too. How powerful is God’s grace when it’s seen against the backdrop of our inability to make things right before God by ourselves. We sing, “"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!" And this is what brings us joy and is the song we sing in words and actions that points to God’s undeserved love in our lives.
John’s place in God’s story is unparalleled. The gospel writer John calls John the Baptist “a witness, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And Jesus, the light of the world, says of John, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This is not damning John with faint praise, but getting to the heart of the matter. John’s task, and indeed ours too, is to let the light of Christ shine through us.
After Jesus’ resurrection, he gives his disciples the same commission. “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” God is sending us as signs of his love, grace and truth into the world. Our lives are signs pointing to the way home, in the God who has made his home amongst us in Jesus. We may wonder whether our witness is captivating enough. But ordinary lives of faithful obedience are ones with which friends and neighbours can identify, through the grace of God, living a life of integrity, communicating an extra ordinary message.
The Nativity scenes in front of our church and the Concordia College Chapel are simple and beautiful testimonies to the beginning of the story that changed the world. Love did come to life in that stable, as Mary and Joseph marvelled at the birth of their Son in the strangest, humblest of surroundings. This same love has been born in our lives, as we have received the grace of God by believing in Jesus, the Light of the World. And his light continues to shine through us, as we go about the business of preparing to celebrate his birth this year.
Your life is a sign, a scene, of the earth-shattering, life-changing impact of Jesus’ birth, and the whole of his life. What kind of sign will you be, especially in the next 12 days before Christmas? As you show patience to a frazzled shop assistant. As you catch up with neighbours and speak about what your Christmas holds. As you set aside a place at your table for someone who has nowhere to spend Christmas day. The story of the first Christmas is told and in through you, and God is glorified too. You and I are signs, our lives are scenes of the hope, the good news, the love that comes to life through Jesus. Amen.
Peace in Christ
Pastor Andrew Brook
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” 9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:1-11
Do you have family members interstate who you’d like to see this Christmas? I do. My oldest son lives in Melbourne. We haven’t seen him face to face since March. We are so much looking forward to having him come home for Christmas. We’ve been hoping and praying that the South Australia-Victoria border would open, and this happened during the week. But the current COVID-19 outbreak in South Australia means that we are not sure about his returning to Victoria.
We’re not alone. Many of you are in the same boat. Especially those of you who have family in Western Australia, and of course overseas. Over 30000 Australians are desperately trying to return home by Christmas. It seems that at least some of them will still be stranded overseas by the time that Christmas Day comes. How hard that will be.
The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Home is much more than simply some bricks and mortar. It’s a place where the most significant people in our lives have formed us, and to which we return because we feel secure, loved, valued. That’s what has made not being able to come home, or have our loved one in our home, such a difficult thing in 2020.
In a wider sense it’s true to say that we all felt a sense of dislocation in 2020. We’ve not felt fully at home in our community. COVID-19 has meant that we have approached interactions with other people with an increased degree of caution. It’s felt to some of us like we’ve been cloaked in a kind of melancholy, a sense of fear about what might happen next. The last few weeks have ramped this up, and we are on edge about how our Christmas plans might be affected.
Some people have called COVID-19 a circuit breaker. We’ve had to take stock of our lives, and the way that we expect things to work. We don’t have a pill for this, at least not yet. We can’t travel where and when we like. We have an invisible enemy out to get us. We’re not as much at home in our skin as we once were.
And with that, perhaps we’ve been rethinking how God fits into the equation of our lives. When things are going well, when we are on top of our game, perhaps God recedes to the margins. But when we strike a time like this, or when we experience the death of someone we love, the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship, we realise that we need something, someone outside of ourselves, to give us the strength we need to cope. But then, we might also be feeling sheepish that we’ve forgotten about God, and all of a sudden, we want him to be there for us. Does God feel taken for granted, and then used? Will he treat us as we have treated him?
These were the kind of questions that God’s covenant people were wresting with. Except that the stakes were much, much higher. They had lived through the fall of Jerusalem to the Assyrian army. Many people were force-marched to the Assyrian capital, Babylon, as the spoils of war, to live in captivity as slaves. This experience was deeply scarring, not just physically and emotionally, but spiritually too. What had happened to them tore not just at the heart but at the soul. They hadn’t listened to God’s pleas to turn back to him, and now destruction had come. They had run out of hope, believing that they had exhausted God’s patience, and were totally on their own.
Perhaps you feel like that right now. What can I expect from God because I have failed him so many times? Or you might come at this question from another angle. I’ve been through so much pain and suffering in my life that it’s hard to believe that God could ever be there for me. So all I can do is get on with life and roll with the punches. No point getting my hopes up, I’ll always be disappointed.
The time leading up to Christmas, especially this year, is the right time to deal with our questions. We know that it should be a time of great joy and good will for all people. Culturally, we are encouraged to put aside all of our worries and adopt a naïve positivity about our lives, our relationships and our plans for the future. Sadly, Christmas is a time of great stress as many people can’t live up to these expectations. What can I hope for?
Human beings can’t live a whole life unless they have a sense of their place, a home base from which they can live a secure and meaningful life. That’s what these words spoken by Isaiah bring to God’s people. They were exiles, people who were out of place. They also felt that abandoning God meant being abandoned by him. I don’t know whether they expected to hear an answer from God, but one came anyway, to speak into their vacuum of hope. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.’ Speak to the heart broken, the hope dashed, the home destroyed. Isaiah, speak of the God who wants his people to find their true home in him. No one is ever too far away from God, no matter what they’ve done, where they’ve been. That’s the first hopeful word.
and I can think of all kinds of reasons why this can’t be true. Isaiah rehearses them: “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.” Surely God, you are not setting us up to fail. You know our brokenness, our hope-less-ness. It’s a dangerous thing for God to place too much hope in us. But this promise is immune to our best efforts to stuff it up. We are indeed flawed, fallible, “but the word of our God endures forever.” This is the word of the one who created heaven and earth by the power of his word. He can and will do what we promises here.
What are we so sure about this? Because we know the one who has brought this promise to life: the Son of God, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate this Christmas. The birth of Jesus lays down the pattern for Jesus’ life: one of total engagement in our world. We see the way that Jesus relates to all people. He doesn’t shy away from those whose lives are broken by sickness or by their bad choices. He receives them, heals them, forgives them, fills them with renewed hope. He does, as Isaiah promises: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who are young.”
Jesus the Way, the Truth, the Life, is the way back home to God. He has paid the sentence of our sin in full, through his death on the cross. His hard service, his labour of love, his selfless sacrifice, means that we have a path back to God, a renewed future, a new life of hope. The one who has made his home with us through his Son calls us to live at home in him, no matter the personal, or indeed global circumstances in which we find ourselves.
You may have been feeling overwhelmed by the flood of bad news over the course of 2020. Much of this might be to do with COVID-19. And there will be other things you will have lived through that have challenged you, cut you deeply, pained you. If you find yourself in these spaces, listen to the way that Isaiah encourages you: “Get up…Lift up your voice…Do not fear…” This is what God’s good news does. It changes our orientation from fear to trust; from despondency to confidence. It reminds us that we are not helpless in the face of an invisible enemy. We are God’s; he is our shepherd. No matter what happens, we are at home in God; in this life, and in the eternal life God promises those who confess that his Son Jesus is Lord.
I’m still hoping that my son will be able to come home for Christmas. I’ll be disappointed if he can’t make the trip. Even if he does, there’ll still be one empty spot at the Christmas table, the one where my mother sat last year, in her wheelchair. It was the last time that she ever left her room in the nursing home. She died in March, and while I’m still sad, the good news that Isaiah proclaims, and Jesus’ enacts through his life of love, fills me with hope and a deep joy: She is now at home in and with God, where he tends her like a shepherd, and carries her close to his heart. Whatever happens, this is the arc of your future and mine. What a homecoming that will be. Amen.
Peace in Christ
Pastor Andrew Brook
Don’t panic. These are the words that came to my mind over the last week or two. They come from a book I love: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t Panic is the advice given to the main character, Arthur Dent, whose house, not to mention the planet earth, is about to be destroyed to make way for an inter-galactic bypass.
Don’t Panic. The late science fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke said that these words were the best advice ever given to humanity. I wouldn’t go that far, although they appear eminently sensible when faced with the kind of events that continue to erupt around us. COVID-19 is just one thing among many challenges that our world faces. And it seems that as a whole, Australians are significantly more anxious than we were two decades ago.
The Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, known as HILDA, shows that we are working more and earning more than we were two decades ago, but we aren’t as happy. There’s a downward trend in satisfaction with life, for all age groups.
Don’t panic. It’s easier said than done when faced with a whole raft of bad news. Panic often forces us to draw in the boundary of our world, to try and make it more manageable. It distorts our ability to engage with the breadth of our lives, and our world. We batten down the hatches. We don’t look to thrive, only survive.
Don’t panic. And then we are confronted with today’s gospel reading, which only appears to confirm our deep seated fears. Chapter 13 of Mark is called the ‘Little Apocalypse.’ This word ‘apocalypse’ means the revealing of something that is hidden. What Jesus reveals to us is the unfolding of global history, and the end of the world. Jesus speaks of impostors who will claim to be God’s messengers, but will lead people astray. Wars will be waged back and forth, and the planet will be thrown off balance with earthquakes and famines. Christians themselves won’t just face these universal problems, but will also experience persecution for their confession of Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
These, Jesus promises, “are the beginning of birth pains.” The more to come is what we read today. Plenty to panic about, it seems. The last century was the most violent in human history, and two decades into the 21st century, things are not getting any better. Natural disasters continue to take a huge toll. And scientists point to a climate crisis. How can we live positively in the face of all of this? How can we avoid panic and debilitating pessimism?
Does Jesus say, ‘Don’t panic?’ Well, not exactly. These are his actual words: “Be on your guard! Be alert! Watch!” This is a call to vigilance, to watchfulness, to be aware of the unfolding situation, yet remain confident in the power of Jesus’ words and his presence. This is how we can remain hopeful and engaged in this world. We are not meekly standing by while disaster unfolds, but using whatever time God gives us to continue living as faithful servants. “It’s like a man going away,” Jesus says, “he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”
Jesus is the master, of the universe no less. And the church is his servants. And the work we have to do-to tell the world of the God who couldn’t bear to see the world go to hell in a hand-basket, but instead did something concrete about it. And now, every precious moment, is the time for the church to tell this story, before it is too late.
The good news we have to share is that we don’t believe that the world will continue without purpose until the big crunch, just as we don’t believe that the universe came into being spontaneously. Above the events of history stands the God who gives life to the cosmos, his creation. And because we believe that, we know that what we see and experience in this world, the unrest, violence, terror, pain and grief, is not the end of the story.
The life of Jesus, the “Word made flesh,” tells us God’s response. It begins with Jesus’ birth as a human being. It is told through the powerful and life giving words that he spoke, and in the way he brought healing and life to others. But finally, the story reaches its climax when Jesus dies on the cross. This seems to be the final chapter with a tragic end. But Sunday morning, the story has another twist. The tomb is empty. The disciples are confused. But the world has changed forever. Jesus is alive, the world is still God’s, and there is hope, and a future.
Things won’t keep on rolling through day, month and year, ceaselessly and senselessly. The time will come when Jesus will return. “Then people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send his angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” This is not a threat. It’s a promise. And it’s the longed for, complete fulfilment of God’s promise to renew his whole creation.
The only thing we don’t know is when. Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert …” Waiting for Jesus’ return is not a matter of watching the clock running down. Jesus has given us his authority to continue the work he began while living on this earth. He has given us his name and his presence, through our baptism, his Holy Spirit, to be agents of his gospel of peace and hope.
When we hear Jesus say “Be on guard! Be alert…Watch!” he isn’t scaring us into obedience, but calling us to use whatever time he gives us to get his story out there into our world. This begins in our families, where we are called to confess our faith in the context of our primary
responsibilities as mother and father, son or daughter. With God’s story rooted deep in our hearts and lives, we move out to the next level of our lives, our wider family, friends and workmates. Notice how Jesus comments that the man “puts his slaves in charge, each with his own work.” Each of us has a different context, but all of us have the same privilege of being Christ and bringing Christ to others.
COVID-19 has provided the church with an incredible opportunity to speak a word of hope into a time of panic and anxiety. Change, hardship and crises can often cause a spiritual opening as people are forced to think deeply about what matters, especially our mortality, and what constitutes truth. COVID-19 has been a great leveller, as it has shown that we can’t put our trust in the possessions and structures around us. But way before the pandemic, there were already significant fault lines in our culture: family breakdown, declining mental health and rising loneliness.
What I’ve found, and perhaps you have too, is that there’s been an opening, a chink in the armour of people’s self-reliance, into which we can speak the good news of God’s overwhelming love through Jesus. This is the time to speak and to share, for people to see an authentic, down to earth spirituality in the way we are living through these challenges. We’ve got something to give away to others that is life-transforming. “Don’t panic. Keep awake”, Jesus says. “Don’t fall asleep on the job. The task I’ve given you is too important to ignore. Know that you have my authority, “all authority in heaven and in earth” to do the work I’ve given you of confessing me and serving your neighbour.”
Luther once said, ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’ This seems a strange answer, but his assertion was that since he lived each day with the hope of Jesus’ return, and had full confidence in the Lord of the church to protect his church and bless its witness, he wouldn’t change a thing. What would you do? However you might answer, remember this. ‘Don’t panic.’ Remember whose you are, and who you are called to be, a ‘faithful servant, each with an assigned task.’ And be confident in Jesus who promises: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Amen.
Peace in Christ
Pastor Andrew Brook