My Blog

While you Wait…

Message:  While we wait between chapters, we grow closer to God, a sermon based on Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11 (Easter 7A).

Introduction

Today we begin the last week of Pascha, the fifty-day celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The fifty days ends next Sunday with the Day of Pentecost. 

On Thursday was Ascension Day: after walking resurrected with his disciples for 40 days, Jesus was taken into heaven to be everywhere present. As he left, he told his followers to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have to wait for the Spirit – who’s already here with us. But then again, sometimes we do face similar in between times, don’t we?

Sometimes the job is done. The mission is completed.

We look to God for the next step and God says “Wait”. How do we relate to God in the times when God tells us only to wait?

The Gospel of John, Chapter 17

In our Gospel reading, we heard 11 verses from the “farewell discourse”. It was Jesus speech, 4 Chapters long, to prepare his disciples for after his Ascension. Much of it is about relationships: Father, Son, Holy Spirit and us.

If we tried to draw it, then it would messy – just like real life.

We are drawn into the mystery at the heart of the universe, life, love and meaning. I’m not keen on mystery: I like the real presence of Jesus: words; and actions.

What’s important is that we surrender to this relationship with God. Maybe that’s what the in-between times are for.  When we’re busy we don’t always have time to spend with God.

Just before Jesus Ascended into heaven, the disciples asked ‘Lord, when will you restore Israel?’  They wanted some action! Jesus told them it was not for them to know when, but that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes; they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Action and Waiting

You’ve known action.  The busyness of employment, homemaking, community building, paying bills, raising children, service, socialising and caring for others. 

You’re still doing things, perhaps the pace is a bit slower now. You’re still witnessing – witnessing to other residents, staff & family. We wait.  Like the Disciples, we ask: ‘what next?’

Perhaps we don’t feel refreshed & renewed. Like the first disciples waiting for Pentecost, it sometimes feels as though God is absent and avoiding us in these times.

But we need it.  A pause between activities.  Time for God.

Conclusion

So let’s thank God for the gift of “in-between” times, for retreat, waiting and not knowing. Let’s accept this time for growing into the mystery in God, waiting (Isa 40:31). We can rest in the unknown. A new chapter will open soon enough.

God will call us to new life and purpose and mission – we don’t know what, but that’s OK.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come.

This sermon is based on one by Nathan Nettleton, ©LaughingBird.net, 4 May 2008, which you can find here.

Finding Meaning in the Story of Ruth

A sermon on finding meaning in the Book of Ruth, based on Ruth 3:1-9 (Proper 27B).

Introduction

The Book of Ruth is story about the harvest.

A fortnight ago, we heard about Naomi’s husband taking them away during difficult times: ‘the grass is always greener somewhere else’.

Last week, we heard that Naomi, embittered by the loss of her husband AND her two sons, returns to her people:

  • Ruth is extraordinarily faithful to her mother-in-law.
  • Ruth’s character attracts Boaz’ attention and brings blessing on both women. 

This story is set in a patriarchal society, yet it lionizes the women.

(N.B. In Israel, there are two harvests per year, one at Pentecost and another one later in the year.)

Meaning at the Time

We can see that this is parable about:

  • Being faithful to God, faithful to one’s people, community or group, faithful to family. Being true to oneself.
  • Naomi sees a way to secure her daughter-in-law’s future (also hers and Boaz’s!):
  • Ruth needs a husband; Boaz needs a wife – he is a kinsman: it’s traditional!
  1. Why hasn’t Boaz made the first move, when he should?
  2. It doesn’t matter: Naomi obeyed her husband, and look what happened to them!
  3. Ruth asks for a corner of the blanket (God’s wing) – marriage.

Meaning During the Return from Exile

When this story was written down (we think) it may be a story about identity:

  • The remnant of the Jewish people return to their land.
  • Some have compromised and married outside the faith.
  • Who is ‘inside’ and who is an ‘outsider’?
  • This story reminds the people that Ruth – a Moabite, a hated foreigner – was the grandmother of King David.

Meaning for Today

Today we can see all these things and more:

  • Ruth is not only the ancestor of King David but of Jesus himself.
  • This is a story about the common sense and dignity of ordinary folk being more important than dogma and labels.
  • This is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil – there are never enough of these!
  • The harvest in this life or the next is there for those who will work with God and in accordance with His will and character, and not against him!
  • How fitting that we should be reminded of this every year, or even twice a year! 

The Temptation of Weeding

Message: The Church will always contain more than its fair share of nastiness, but weeding it out is a temptation to abandon the way of Christ and make things worse.

This message is based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (Year A, Proper 11). Please note that this sermon is not advocating turning a blind eye to abuse or any other illegal activity in churches.

The Problem

A question then, in the fields, and now, in the church: “Why aren’t people in the church able to get along peacefully and lovingly?”  Where did all these weeds come from?

We expect advice on how to get rid of the problem, but we are told that we had better learn to live with the problem or we will end up becoming the problem.

So what is Jesus telling us about the sort of people we are and the sort of situation we face in this church and in every church?

  1. Pettiness will be in every church; where the Messiah sows good seed, Satan will try to spoil it.
  2. Places that promise healing and renewal will attract those who are damaged and unstable.
  3. Some people come to church to hide from God.  Every church has some people who talk the talk but don’t really respond to God.

Before we look around to categorise each other, we remember that these things are in all of us.  I come here with: bitterness and anger from the wounds of my past; parts of me willing to respond to Christ, but holding something back, and hiding it.  So do you.  It’s easier to spot in others!

Human Weeding will Go Wrong

We are tempted to take action to make the church holy, to make room for the good wheat of love, mercy and justice to grow.  We look to Jesus for advice on how to go weeding in his name, but Jesus says “Don’t! Don’t even try!”  Why?

  1. Weeding is not our job, but God’s. Our job is to be good wheat, not to be the gardener.
  2. We’d get it wrong.  The weed described in the story is a common grass that looks a lot like wheat. Given that we are all something of a mixture of each, no wonder.
  3. Any attempts to weed out the problem (people or things) will uproot and harm the innocent.

Conclusion: Growth, not Weeding

“Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.” It is that word “let” or “permit” or “allow”. The same Greek word also means “forgive”.  This is not just a passive ignoring of the problem. It is an active naming and forgiving of it. We are being told that the means to purge the community of malice and pettiness and nastiness is not through the violence of weeding but through the grace of courageous forgiving and accepting.

Let’s allow the weeds and the wheat to grow together until the harvest, and when the harvest comes, we may find that we have a whole lot more wheat and many fewer weeds than we thought.

This message is based on a Sermon by © Nathan Nettleton, 17 July 2005, which can be found at www.LaughingBird.net

A Christian’s Duty

A sermon on a Christian’s duty, based on Romans 13:7-14 (Proper 18A).

Scripture: Romans 13:7-14

‘Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.’  Romans 13:7-14 [NIV]

Context/Structure

Chapters 13 and 14 of the Letter to the Roman church deal with issues, as follows:

  • The Christian and the State –13:1-7.
  • Christian Duty –13:8-14.
  • Balancing Liberty and Charity in the community–14:1-15:13. 

Exegesis: a Christian’s Duty

Verses 8-10

What single guiding principle should control the Christian’s life in society?

“Love.”  Not a mushy emotion, but an endless debt of charity to others.  Not just to other Christians, but to all people, particularly those in need.  We ‘love’ (care for) ourselves, constantly, faithfully to the end of our lives – for example, we breathe in and out!

Verses 11-14

C.f. Romans 12:1 ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.’

A motive for why we should live like this.

What further motive does he present here?

We now live in the age of salvation.  People no longer need to get what they deserve – God’s grace through Jesus can save all.  Therefore, we are motivated to live as generously. 

No further actions need to take place to fulfil God’s plan for humankind.  None of us know when the last days will be – except that for some of us they will be soon.

What will wearing the ‘armour of light’ mean for us, both positively and negatively? 

We have nothing to fear from living openly and plainly.  Christians do not need to play games with God or with each other.

Conclusion

We do not have the option to be ‘economical with the truth’ for our convenience! Christians may not hide their faith or stop doing their duty. This may bring trouble from those who don’t want to hear about human shortcomings, or that we can live a righteous or holy life only in God’s mercy.

March on the Deniers!

I am pleased to announce that my short story ‘March on the Deniers!’ is being published.

FICTION on the WEB

Excited, or what? You guessed – I’m excited!

The story will appear in FICTION on the WEB, which is run by Charlie Fish, a short story writer and screenwriter – thanks, Charlie! I will let him tell you about his site:

FICTION on the WEB is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet. Hundreds of stories have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of readers. This new incarnation of the site aims to take advantage of the latest trends in connectivity while keeping things nice and simple.”

If you want to support Charlie you can do so on his Patreon site.

What’s it all about?

‘March on the Deniers!’ is set in the delightfully-named suburb of Nudgee, near Brisbane, Queensland. It is a climate-fiction (“Cli-Fi”) piece, but I’ve used humour to try and avoid being preachy. The humour is quite dark, and this is not a ‘G’-rated story.

I find having a definite location for a story helps, so the image at the head of this page is a little map of Nudgee after some sea-level rise and storm surge. As you can see, nearby Brisbane Airport is long gone! The flood map is generated by firetree.net, and you can find it here.

Monday, June 3rd

Yep, ‘March on the Deniers!’ will appear on this date, so go and have a read – and leave me some comments, please!

Best Regards, Simon

P.S. Sign on for regular, free speculative fiction Stories here!

Strength and Authority

A message contrasting God’s pure, unblemished strength & authority with the way humans corrupt these blessings, based on Matthew 23:1-12 (Proper 26A).

Introduction

After the Pharisees had finished arguing with Jesus he was able to teach the disciples/people.

  • The key to understanding the Pharisees is that they were politicians!
  • Many people justifiably fear human power and authority, from experience; sadly, they assume that God will be like that, so they fear or reject God.

Teaching on Authority 

Jesus teaches us to obey the religious leaders, but not to live like them.  They have compromised their principles to gain and keep power.

  • Instead, we are to avoid worldly power and status, seek service and be modest.
  • Yesterday was All Saints Day, when we traditionally celebrate the heroes of the Faith.  Some were powerful leaders, some suffered terrible things.  All served.
  • How do we understand this?  What should we do? Is there a balance?

A Poem about Strength

The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Conclusion & Application 

So, human power is not the answer. This is good news for us who are powerless!  Yet we are not powerless, we: 

  • Have the power to build up or tear down with our words.
  • Can welcome or reject new people.
  • May smile or frown, encourage and sympathise or ignore.
  • Can pray, lift others to God for blessing, or fail to do so.

We are still responsible to God for our attitudes, words and actions.

The Israel Folau Controversy

Israel Folau is an Australian of Tongan descent. Until recently he was best known as a talented rugby player. He has won 73 caps playing for Australia, has been the Wallabies’ Player of the Year for a record three times and he is the fourth-highest try-scoring Australian international player ever.

However, Folau is also a Christian, and his social media posts have got him into trouble in the past. This month posted a message saying “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” This prompted Rugby Australia to terminate his contract, and the Australian Rugby League banned Folau from any NRL team in the future.

These events have been widely reported, both nationally and internationally. His comments are usually reported as being “anti-gay” or “homophobic”, something that Folau himself denies.

A Personal Reaction

My personal reaction is that Folau’s comments are simplistic and negative.

The Bible says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, my emphasis). It emphasises that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). One of the most famous of all Bible verses states “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, again my emphasis).

In my view, the problem with Folau’s judgement is that it sounds like he wants sinners to be punished. This is the exact opposite of the Christian message. From the first disciples to this day, Christians have sought to spread the ‘Good News’ (Gospel) of forgiveness.

Other Reactions

Some will post or tweet “hate speech shouldn’t be allowed”. I’ve seen this simplistic and negative reaction on social media. Others will point out that social media is full of simplistic and negative statements, so why is this any different? Folau is just another troll: ignore him.

Many Australian rugby and football players have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Posting lewd videos of themselves on social media doesn’t get reported much anymore. Players have been in the news accused of drink driving, rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. Folau’s lifetime ban for making a controversial statement looks harsh compared to the sanctions that others have suffered.

The Core Issue

Now Folau’s comments are, IMHO, misguided, but are they ‘hate speech’, ‘anti-gay’ and ‘homophobic’?

The first thing to note is that Folau isn’t just stating a personal opinion. He is reporting what is in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t spend much time talking about gay sex, but when it does it forbids God’s people from practising it. Jesus himself said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mathew 5:17).  It’s worth noting that when Jesus found people being punished for their sins he never said that they weren’t in the wrong. Instead, he forgave them.

It’s also worth remembering that other world religions and cultures take a similar view to Folau’s. Western, liberal views are not commonly found elsewhere. Even in Australia, when we had the vote for same-sex marriage, 38% voted ‘NO’.

Same-Sex Marriage in Australian Politics

For the benefit of readers outside Australia, it’s worth briefly explaining why this issue is not just controversial, but a party-political football (no pun intended).

Back in 2004, the government of Prime Minister John Howard changed the law so that “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman” and “A union solemnised in a foreign country between: a man and another man; or a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.” Understandably, this move enraged the LGBT community.

Now, the Australian left hates John Howard, and his legacy, with a vengeance. He has a similar stature to Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. All three leaders took their countries to the right of politics, and all three were very successful, repeatedly humiliating their left-wing opponents in popular votes.

Same-Sex Marriage Vote

I didn’t know any of this when I came to Australia in 2012.

I was puzzled. The Liberal Party (‘Liberal’ means right-wing in Australia) had promised this vote in their manifesto, they won the election, and then they tried to hold the vote. The Australian left did everything they could to prevent it.

‘Why?’ I wondered – the left are bound to win! (Maybe they weren’t so sure.)

Eventually, the Liberal Prime Minister found a way to hold the vote, despite opposition from the right wing of his own Party. In the run-up to the vote, there was a positive campaign for LGBT rights. However, there was also simplistic and negative campaigning on both sides.

Some LGBT pressure groups sought to suppress or eliminate any kind of debate, and they were very effective. Anyone who disagreed with them, however politely or respectfully, risked being labelled a bigot, being reported to the police or having their business boycotted.

Even when we voted decisively for same-sex marriage, this vengeful spirit persisted. As the Prime Minister celebrated (he would probably have lost his job if he had lost the vote), some on the left sought to deny him any credit. This was ironic, even hypocritical, seeing as they had tried to prevent it in the first place!

A Different Standard

So when Folau fired his Instagram broadside against “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” he was kicking a hornets’ nest.

Interestingly, he hasn’t been taken to task for lambasting the other groups – that barely gets a mention. Don’t their feelings count?

I also note that Christians are frequently insulted and derided by atheists and secularists. (Some in Australia are calling for all churches to have their charitable status revoked, even though they raise their funds through voluntary donations and do valuable work in the community, just like…a charity.) Nobody is suggesting that these critics should not be allowed their say, or that they should be fired from their day jobs.

Whether we agree with him or not, Folau might think that he is being judged by a different standard to many others in Australian society. He is.

Forgiveness

As I write this it is Easter weekend, when Christians commemorate Jesus’s death on the cross to win our forgiveness: forgiveness we don’t deserve. Jesus said, “do not judge, or you will too be judged” (Matthew 7:1) Perhaps this is good advice for Folau, the rugby authorities, the PC bullies, and for many of us on social media.

The Game Changer

A message about Jesus, the game changer: Matthew 11:2-11 reminds God’s people which side of history we are on (Advent 3A).

Introduction

Matthew, the most Jewish of Gospel writers, has a lesson for impatient followers of Jesus.  John the Baptist asks about Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” [v3]

Then: is Jesus the Game Changer?

John the Baptist was so confident that he knew who Jesus was when he could see him face to face, when he baptised him.  Now he is in prison he is not so sure. 

  • Why is he there, waiting to die? 
  • Why isn’t Herod, that Roman puppet, in prison instead of me? 
  • Why aren’t his foreign masters gone? 
  • Why aren’t us Jews, God’s own people, free; why are we not well on the way to ruling the world?  

Jesus replies, reminding John that he is doing EXACTLY what was prophesied. 

Jesus reminds the crowd that John is more than a prophet: “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’ ”  [Mal 3:1]

Malachi was telling the Jews that God was fed up with their moaning, expecting to be saved, not because they were faithful, but just because they were Jews – born of women (not of God the Father).

Now: a Different Perspective

John the Baptist could not imagine that we could be followers of Jesus, could be God’s people, because we are not Jews.  We live twenty centuries after him in a country he never knew existed.  The Roman rulers of the world are a distant memory!

We do not see Jesus face to face and yet we know him, we believe and trust him.  We who are saved by his sacrifice and live with the Holy Spirit in us are born again – born from above; we may be the ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’ but we are greater than John, the prophet who baptised Jesus.

We have a different perspective!  So, in Advent, we wait.

Godless Foreigners!

A message about seeing with a fresh, Godly perspective (just like those Godless Foreigners), based on Matthew 17:1-9 (Epiphany, Year A).

Today we have a well-known passage that describes the wise men coming to see Jesus – now a toddler.  But there’s is more to it than that! This is satire, a set of jokes at the expense of the rich, powerful, religious and nationalistic.

Wise Men (Godless Foreigners) Arrive

  • The Messiah (God’s chosen one) born in poverty, not even at home;
  • Godless Foreigners (GFs) funny-looking people, who can’t even speak the lingo properly, tell God’s people that their new king is born;
  • The GFs come to worship the Jewish King!
  • Herod, a king who is not chosen by God but by the Pagan Romans (GFs);
  • Herod is so insecure, his moods are dangerous to his own people;
  • The clueless religious experts caught on the hop, answering the fake king and the GFs;
  • Sneaky Herod asks the GFs (not scripture or the religious) for information – for his own devious ends;
  • Only the GFs both see and understand the sign from heaven (a star), and only they get the joy;
  • They see a young mother and baby in a house and worship Him, giving him top presents (with dreadful meanings); and
  • Then God warns the GFs in a dream (like Joesph/prophets!) about Herod and they sneak off back home, job done!  

Some points to note:

  • It’s like it is all a big joke, but it’s the (second?) biggest event in history and deadly serious;
  • It is chilling to think that the Jews, God’s people had become racists – judging people on their ethnicity (they had their reasons, but…);
  • How should we avoid making the same mistakes, how we can avoid our status and security as God’s people from making us smug, blind?
  • How should we treat strange visitors (GFs or not)?  What message are they carrying from God? 
  • What is going on under our noses that God is alerting us to?

Application 

As we start a new year, let’s ask God to give us an epiphany: fresh insights, an open mind, eyes to really see, ears to really hear and renewed hearts to love.  Amen

Following Christ’s Example

A message exploring the true aim of life, no less, following Christ’s example in Philippians 2:5-11 (Palm Sunday, Years A, B or C).

Introduction

Today is Palm/Passion Sunday.  We have had five Sundays in Lent and now we turn to Christ’s final week before Easter.  Philippians 2:5-11 is not from that time/place, but it captures the essence of it.

Christ’s Example Then…

Paul is writing to a church that is doing good things, partners “in the gospel from the first day until now”.  Yet they are in enemy territory – a strongly Greek/Roman city (pagan).  Paul:

  • Urges the church to be of one mind, united in humility, working to complete their salvation as pure children of Christ “shining like stars in the universe” (v15), to ‘run the race’ if you will, so that his own efforts might not be for nothing.
  • Says “…Christ Jesus…did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”
  • Describes how Jesus is humbled (vv6-8) then exalted (vv9-11).

… And it’s Opposite Today

The context for us today is just the same.  You are good people, better than the Philippians, even!  You’ve run the race of life, stuck with God and the gospel, you still shine like stars in the universe!

We, too, live in enemy territory, where things that are not god are worshipped:  

  • Individualism – it’s all about me and MY needs, MY feelings;
  • Consumerism – I am valued because I have $$; and
  • Materialism – ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’.

These three things work in an endless, aimless cycle, until we die.

Conclusion

We don’t have to reject the things of the world, just not worship them.

We have them AND the true, living God, who is alive in us.  Our aim is to be humble like Jesus, because we have a job to do alongside Him, and then we will be exalted with Christ.

Amen.