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Friday, 15 November 2019

the sun shall rise

ORDINARY SUNDAY 33 (November 17th) 2019


Isaiah 65:17-25 / Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21: 5-19

In recent weeks our readings have reflected growing emphasis on apocalyptic, on often quite zany expectations and depictions of the end of time, of cosmic implosion, a divine mic drop that brings all existence to an end. Apocalyptic of the most lurid sort is only one strand in scriptural writings, but “apocalyptic” theology underscores most, though not all, scripture. The word simply means to reveal that which is hidden, and the hidden dimension, Jews and Christians amongst others would proclaim, is that God has a hand on cosmic history.  

Some Christian communities dwell on the “beam me up Scotty” dimension of these writings. They are not some cushy opiate of the people. These writings issue a deep challenge. We are called to hold to and provide hope as expectations collapse around us, especially expectations that our descendants will live in an improving word. Those expectations are dissolving. When I was a kid all was rosy, work would soon be a thing of the past, and all would be most well. As I watch newscasts of conflagrations in Australia, California, South and Central America, or deforestation, rising sea levels, glacier retreat, dying species, the never-ending plight of refugees, the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer controlling hands, as I watch I cannot help fretting. Perhaps it was ever thus. Perhaps it is now more thus than ever it was.

The lens through which most biblical writers view the universe and its fate is often condemned for its other-worldliness. So it should be, if complacency is all it breeds. But God’s promise of hope-beyond-reason is not an excuse to sit comfortably and wait our rescue from the universe and its problems. As one commentator puts it, writing about Isaiah, “it was very tempting to dissolve the dialectic [the tension between choices] in favour of flight into apocalyptic visions of a blessed realm unsullied by the political realities of this world.” That, the scriptures warn us over and over again, is not the way to which God calls us.

Nevertheless the focus of our readings is on a goal beyond our sight. When I was a child my boarding school was visited annually by the indefatigable Keith Elliot VC. His only sermon, it seemed, was “keep your eye on the ball, keep your eye on the bible.” We pre-teens used to groan; still, first I have to acknowledge Eliot’s is probably the only sermon I have ever remembered, and second, I have to acknowledge a sense in which the old Wellington City Missioner was probably right, if at one remove. The focus of the bible is fiercely futurific, a future far beyond our sight or understanding. Again and again the biblical writers affirm, as Malachi puts it, “The sun shall rise (Malachi 4.2).” It’s pie in the sky, yes, and it has led from time to time to obscene Christian nonchalance, but at its best it has inspired the People of God, Hebrew and Christian alike, to profound endeavours in the service of God’s promise of hope.

Apocalyptic writings, often lurid and bizarre, often containing vivid references to the destruction of God’s enemies. They were never designed to be a detailed road-map of the future. They promised not a rosy immediate future free of climate change, cancer or anything else we don’t want, but the strength and focus to withstand whatever dwells ahead. As we encounter report after report of troubled times on God’s earth their message is clear: fear not, for I am with you, always. Whatever tragedies befall us and those we love, these are not the final word. These are not easy promises to adhere to, but they are the promises we are given.

Personally and publically, privately and universally, we as humans, and not least we who are Christians may face hard times. Faith in the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter, Bethlehem and Future Coming, is not a passport to easy highways. Again and again the words are words of “hope despite.” “They will arrest you and persecute you,” Jesus says, and this has been the lot of countless followers of Jesus. Our paths may be less spectacular, we pray, but the principle is the same. Persevere, and I, Jesus persevere with and within you, even to beyond-time.

In a fortnight or so we slide into Advent, with its growing confusion of expectation of the Coming Christ of timelessness and the already-come Christ of Bethlehem. But they are one and the same. Our footsteps are in his, wherever we stumble: “Oh let me see thy footsteps, and in them plant my own,” we used to sing. With that comfort we are called to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” for those in the world around us. Or, more accurately, we are called to ensure that our lives and resources are put at the service of those thoughts and prayers. For those whose homes have disappeared in the world’s fires or wars, for those whose cancers grow, for those whose banks call in and foreclose loans, “thoughts and prayers” mean little. Are we bold enough, our writer demands, to be the answer to our prayers for those whose crises come to our attention? Are we bold enough, empowered by the Christ-bringing Spirit, to be the hands and feet, the comforting arms and perhaps even the listening ears of Jesus to those around us? “It will be a sorry world,” says Old Testament theologian Paul Hanson, “that takes a vision of God’s new heaven and earth out of its social justice equation.” But vice versa, too. We are called to be a part of and to encourage that social justice equation for all who stumble in dark times.

We are called not to be, as the Thessalonians were forcefully reminded, “not to be idle … not to eat anyone else’s bread.” We probably don’t need to be Shakespeare to work out that there’s something of a metaphor as well as a literal meaning operating there: as we see the gap widening between rich and poor in our own country, and between rich nations and poor nations internationally, we might wonder if we are indeed “eating someone else’s bread,” or being idle in the face of national and international injustices.

With all our failings we are called to cling to the hope that is the weird, beyond rational, hope that is the crucified, risen coming Christ. We will never understand that intellectually, but as we practice over and over again the worship of God in liturgy, as we refocus over and over again in our liturgies on the presence of the Christ who draws us into God’s future, we will be, despite all that goes on around us, empowered to be “soul-gainers”: faith-growing, love-and-hope-sharing bearers of apocalyptic Jesus in the communities and world around us. 

May God so help us.

Friday, 8 November 2019

swearing at God

ORDINARY SUNDAY 32 (November 10th) 2019


Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9 
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

I recall only too well the day I learned to swear at God. (This is not necessarily a practice I recommend as some sort of pious discipline, at least on record or when wearing my Educator’s or Archdeacon’s hats. I'm keen to keep my job! Yet in a strange way I do recommend it, and so, for those who reach for their pens to complain, I’ll stand by my words).

I was in my early twenties, walking across a large block, an acre or two of vacant land on my way home from university in Palmerston North. I was hurting. At the time I was dating the vicar’s daughter, and constant interference from fellow-parishioners who rightly or wrongly did not think I was a suitable companion for her had placed immeasurable strain on the relationship. We broke up, and as I walked I told God how I felt.

It wasn’t pretty.

Okay, a bit of post-adolescent Romeo and Juliet angst is not really the stuff of grand spiritual or theological profundity. I was grumpy with God. There was little point in hiding it. The God of our faith is not a god we can hide from. “Omniscient” is the technical word. Omniscient, omnipotent … lots of “omnis” are applied to God and it’s pretty darned clear to me that while God may not choose to flick the “on” button on those “omnis” at any given time or any time at all, a god without them is pretty second rate. I was angry with God because God wasn’t doing what I wanted. I suspect I didn’t have the final word that day, nor should I. Ever. And sometimes that hurts.

Still: Job was having a worse day than I was. He and his so-called mates were engaged in a bit of a tussle, but Job was engaged in far more than that. The “mates” were the sort who knew best what was good for Job. The sort of sanctimonious mates you do not want when life is full of nasty things, when the fan is slowly turning and the nasty things hit it, and the only words you can find are what Paul Simon errantly called “words I never heard in the Bible.”

Job had far more to contend with than a love-struck 21 year-old did.

Old Testament theologian Norman Habel puts it succinctly: Job saw himself to be a “solitary mortal under siege, surrounded by the troops of God” (Habel 1985:295). It’s too easy to read Job 19 from a position of complacent comfort, too easy to lean back in our spiritual armchairs and hear, as another commentator Carol Newsom puts it, “the strains of Handel’s Messiah in the background” (Newsom 1996: 477). We can of course know that our redeemer lives, but that wasn’t Job’s experience. 

Sometimes we have to acknowledge the deep pain of human existence, the deep morass that gives New Zealand the highest rate of teen suicide and one of the highest rates full stop of suicide in the western world.  We may know that our redeemer lives, but we also live the grungy side of hope. The hope we find in the death and only-then resurrection of Jesus was no picnic in the park, after all.

Job like Jacob long before dared to wrestle with God, and his friends were unimpressed. God is not a matey, tame God, as C. S. Lewis once reminded us. But on the other hand there’s no point in playing games with an omni-many things God. God is not a mate, but in Christ we are enabled to be out there, to be honest, to be transparent to God the Father of the Crucified Son.

So I learned to swear at, within even, God. It’s a pity in some ways that the Thessalonian Christians hadn’t. Because they were beginning to play games with God, worse, to turn God into a plaything, “God on our side” as Bob Dylan famously put it.

The Thessalonian Christians were a cosy bunch. Like the Corinthians and Galatians that Paul would address later in his writings, these Christians had become complacent. Thessalonica itself was a city and region that prided itself in its cosiness to that other Lord, Lord Augustus Caesar. But the Christian converts were the God thing a little too far. They had become complacent, holier than thou. God was their mate, the return of Jesus was imminent, and they gave less than a fig about the world around them.

I am reminded of a strain of pseudo-Christianity in the world today. These pseudo-Christians are convinced that Trump is the chosen one of God, that the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, that Christians don’t need to worry one iota about the environment or any other human predicament because they soon will be rescued from mere mortal existence, and literally to hell with the rest. This, the author of Second Thessalonians saw clearly, was obscene.

These are strange times. Apocalyptic even. Times often are. These may not be the last time foundations of human experience are shaken. In the wake of World War Two Paul Tillich wrote (I have altered his pronouns in the interests of inclusive language):

humanity is not God; and whenever we have claimed to be like God, we have been rebuked and brought to self-destruction and despair. When we have rested complacently on cultural creativity or on technical progress, on political institutions or on religious systems, we have been thrown into disintegration and chaos; all the foundations of our personal, natural and cultural life have been shaken …
These are strange times, and not the first. So too were the times of the New Testament authors. Today there may well be a “lawless one” (the word in 2 Thess. 2:3 is untranslatable), a leadership of chaos unleashed on the world wherein lies are truth and truth is fake. Donald Trump is not the first, and may not be the last anti-Christ to saunter God’s earth. [In the light of responses to this comment in my sermon I was delighted to find these thoughts from a worthier source. ] There will always be thuggery and corruption in corridors of power until the final surviving apocalyptic cockroach breathes its last. 

This though is no reason for Christ-followers to dance arrogantly on the hopes and fears of Greta Thunberg’s Millennials, or to ignore the plight of dying species or surrender our Christ-mission in any other way. God is not our mate, even if we stand in the embrace of the Son who pleads our case.

We have a God of hope, who “loves us and through grace gives us eternal comfort and good hope, who comforts our hearts and strengthens them in every good work and word.” 


Nevertheless we are still called by God’s Spirit to be a people who perform good works and deeds, whose good works and deeds match or better those of the most sacrificial givers and doers of the community around us, empowered to be so by God’s Christ-bearing Spirit.

Only in that way can we proclaim to our world the death- and annihilation-transcending God who turns Good Friday to Easter, who transcends suffering and death, who reaches beyond the empty world of the Sadducees to eternal hope.

 We will not proclaim the one who many will consider to be our rather invisible and laughable friend if we do not reveal divine love, mercy, justice and compassion by our lives. I may well have learned to swear at – or at least to be brutally honest in my relationship with – God, but there is no earthly or heavenly use in my having anything to do with God at all if I am not willing to put my hands and heart and feet and mind, such as they are, in the service of God’s love and justice and compassion and hope.

I may learn to be honest with God, to worship God, to dance and pray and read and mow church lawns and attend church meetings, all these things and more.  But if I have not, as Paul hinted in a letter to another troublesome group, if I have not the love made possible only by again and again surrendering to God’s rather prickly Spirit, then I am no more than a noisy stone in a tin can or nails on an old fashioned blackboard. 

I learned to swear at God once, but that was not the point. I learned that day to hold nothing back, to surrender my life again and again to the God of the Cross, the God who breathes order into chaos, life into death, eternity into mortality. I don't always remember, but sometimes I do.