Monthly Archives: August 2015

30 August – Being God’s favourite

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Sunday 22

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132
John 18:33-37

Some while back we bought for a friend a T-shirt which declared “Jesus loves you” and then, underneath and in slightly smaller text, “but I’m his favourite.” I know the man to whom we gave this well enough almost to be certain that he wears his T-shirt as a joke and for the response it gets, and not as statement of some eternal truth! For we all know that God doesn’t have favourites. Or, we know this, as long as we don’t read the Bible and discover that in fact it seems that God does.

We’ve heard from the second book of Samuel this morning what are purported to be the last words of David, which ran like this:

The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man whom God exalted,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the favourite of the Strong One of Israel:
The spirit of the LORD speaks through me,
his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me

What are we to make of such divine favouritism? For, while we might find ways of explaining away this particular text on account of its antiquity or cultural context or whatever, the theme of God’s favouritism won’t go away. How is it possible – to make the point most starkly – that the man Jesus can have attached to him such an extraordinary list of appellations as we hear, for example, in Revelation: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (e.g. Revelation 1.4b-8)? This declares what the rest of the New Testament also preaches: that this Jesus who stood “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, as you or I might also have done, is the particular point at which God touches the world. All that matters comes down to this one. Jesus is, we might say, God’s favourite.

Now this is, of course, patently ridiculous to much modern religious sensibility. If we do take an interest in religion, is it not clearly the case that the “one” which matters is “God”, who favours no particular place but in his omnipresence is also omni- and equi-gracious? Many of us need this to be so because we’ve seen that any hint of divine favouritism is extraordinarily dangerous in the hands of arrogant human beings. It is theories of divine favouritism which have fuelled so much destruction among us; “Gott mit uns”’, “In God we trust”, or that unholy trinity “God, King and Country” are but three slogans which particular peoples have wrapped around their sense that they are the chosen ones. What fuels the diatribe of modern popular atheism is not merely the alleged irrationality of religious belief but the sheer destruction which can spring from those who believe themselves to be God’s favourites. In the hands of the Church, Jesus as “special” has proven no less a danger in this respect. Favourites divide and division brings harm, which is why Grandma knows never to have favourites – or, at least, never to declare them!

It seems a good thing, of course, that we know better than all this these days. We’ve seen how human beings have claimed “God’s” favouritism for themselves, and employed the rhetoric of divine blessing as justification of all kinds of violence and destruction. And so there are, for us, no divine favourites – or, at least, if there are any favourites there is a bunch of them, the number of which happens to correspond to the number of different types of religious systems and affections we recognise. Everyone may have their favourites so long as they don’t impinge upon the favourites of others.

And yet, the language of favourite is implied and used in the Scriptures for Israel-in-David-to-Jesus, without apology. More scandalously, this favouritism is not of the kind which allows us others at least to be left alone in our unfavoured ordinariness. God’s favouritism in David, and finally in Jesus, is something we must take heed of, for it is not only about them but about us on the “outside” also.

A community which confesses the Incarnation ought to know something about how God works in the world. For the point of the doctrine of the Incarnation is not only that God enters into the world but that God can do that thoroughly and still remain God. The “Word becomes flesh” – and is now both Word and flesh. Fleshly, fallen things – even “God-forsaken” things – are all potential means by which God might work in the world. Things marked by human disorder are ready and sufficient instruments for God’s healing works. Human favouritism is a divisive and deadly thing but it is precisely this deathly thing which God uses to heal. For divine favouritism reworks what brings division and death in human favouritism and makes it an enlivening thing.

The test of specifically Christian faith is not whether or not we can convince ourselves that God “exists”; there is nothing particularly Christian about that. The test is whether or not we believe that the instruments of death might yet prove to be useful to God to bring life, quite contrary to the intention or expectations of those of us who are so adept at applying such deathly devices.

None of this is to justify human weakness and failure; it is simply to speak of what might yet be done with us by such a God. For favouritism takes on a different guise in the hands of this God. Just as the church declares that Jesus bears the divine judgement so that nobody else has to; and just as we declare that Jesus bears the loss of God in abandonment to death so that no one else any longer has to bear that loss, so we can also say that Jesus is God’s favourite so that no one else has to be. That is, when this God takes a favourite, it is not in order relegate all others to a lower order. It is to free us from any need to be or, perhaps more importantly, to seek to be, God’s favourites. Jesus is “King” so that no other has to be. This is the character of his kingship: an exaltation which lifts up us all.

With us, favouritism implies division, and what divides only kills; for God what we divide with our favourites also kills – even God himself. But the gospel is that for God there is nothing which cannot be an instrument of healing unto life in his hands. To declare that Jesus is God’s favourite or, in different ways, David, or Israel, or even(God forbid?!) the Church are such favourites – is to declare not that we or anyone else outside those circles are not God’s favourites, but simply that we and they don’t need to be. When it comes to this particular God, I am blessed enough, in that he favours another.

Is there not good news in that for us who labour and are heavy laden by many burdens, whether the burden of our own dreams for our lives, or that of anxiety for the future of the church, or worry about the future of society and world? For these are, at root, worries about whether or not God favours us or, if we are “atheists”, that society or even the universe somehow favours us? Yet, whatever we might choose to do about those things, that Christ is God’s favourite – God’s king – means that we know that we are not responsible for building up a kingdom, for this has already been done. God has chosen a kingdom and a king, and it is not our kingdom or our crown.

This actually frees us to give, to love, to serve, to forgive, simply to be ourselves when that is the best we can manage, or to become something extraordinary when the Spirit falls. For our hope is that, in the end, all that will really matter is what God does with us and for us. In Christ, God’s favourite, God has favoured me. I am blessed in that God has blessed Jesus of Nazareth. And that is enough of a blessing.

For such a hope and the liberated lives it makes possible here and now, all thanks be to God, now and forever. Amen.

Mark the Evangelist Update – August 27 2015


the latest MtE news update:

  1. This Sunday August 30 we’ve another of our occasional hymn-learning sessions following worship. If you’re especially keen you can have a look before we get together; the list will likely include TIS 394, 673, 183, 628, 178, 393 – some new, some refreshers!
  2. The President of the UCA National Assembly has sent this Pastoral Letter on Same-Sex Marriage to all congregations.
  3. If you’re interested in something more to read, here’s another “Worth a read” suggestion, principally on the theme of worship.
  4. The most recent Presbytery Update (August 20) is here.


LitBit Commentary – James Torrance on Worship 1

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“…worship is the gift of grace. The Father has given to us the Son and the Spirit to draw us into a life of shared communion – of participating through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father – that we might be drawn in love into the very trinitarian life of God himself.”

James Torrance, Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace, p. 25


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Worth a Read – James Torrance’s “Worship, Community, and the triune God of Grace”

James Torrance’s Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace is a readable little book which argues the case that much of what passes for Christian worship is actually unitarian in form and concept, as distinct from trinitarian.

His central argument is that properly Christian worship occurs when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the congregation is recreated as the body of Christ, the Son, to worship the Father. Torrance contrasts this with a mode of worship which focuses on the efforts of God’s people to conjure up appropriate modes of worship by which we “reach up” to the one, distant God.

The chapter headings indicate well the territory he covers:

1. Worship – unitarian or trinitarian

2.The sole priesthood of Christ, the mediator of worship

3. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: the way of communion

4. Gender, sexuality and God.

Along the way Torrance engages with a number of important trends and emphases in modern western culture, and with the impact of these trends for the Church’s sense for what worship ought to be. The last chapter tackles the question of gendered language for God in prayer and worship. This is probably the most controversial part of the text for many, but his summary of how the traditional language should be understood to operate is important.

To my mind the book suffers a little in some places from a turn of phrase and way of summarising the gospel which feels a little “old school”-Reformed, but this does not distract too much from its helpful content.

The book is available in several hard-copy editions from the usual places.

23 August – Between the messiahs

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Sunday 21

2 Samuel 18 Selected verses
Psalm 130
John 1:1-14

Over the last decade or so most people who like to take photographs have disposed of their old film-based cameras and replaced them with smaller and cheaper digital cameras, or simply with their telephone. These cameras can take thousands of photographs for almost nothing, so that no one needs to worry about waiting for the shot to be just right. All you need to do is just keep taking photographs in expectation that at least a few of them will be okay.

For the most part, however, most people tend to save not just good photographs but all of them. Again, this is because it is cheap and easy to do so. The result is computers loaded with more photographs that anyone is ever likely to want to look at, but this is no problem. For us today information is easy to obtain, to store and to share, and photographs are just a kind of information. We might not necessarily be any better than our predecessors at responding appropriately to all that information, but there is no question that we live in an information age. The detail we can record about the world around us is increasing exponentially, even if our capacity to process that information effectively is not.

By contrast, consider what it took to record information in Babylon in the sixth century before Jesus. This is when the Old Testament as we now know it was being pulled together and the stories of David and his successors were being edited into the form that we now have them. Whereas today I could replicate this sermon 1 million times with a few clicks of a mouse button, then it would have taken days or weeks to write out a scroll containing a single copy of the story of David.

This being the case, the question I want to reflect upon this morning is this: why bother with all the detail we have about the life of David? For the detail abounds.

We have skipped over a lot of the story in the space between our treatment of David and Bathsheba and the story we have heard today of the death of David’s son Absalom. Absalom’s sister Tamar was raped by their half-brother Amnon. Knowing this, David nevertheless refused to act against Amnon. Eventually, Absalom kills Amnon. As a result of this Absalom flees into exile, later to be reconciled to David. Absalom, however, has high political ambitions, and campaigns to replace David as king. David is forced to flee Jerusalem. Absalom pursues David but, despite David’s insistence that he not be hurt, the young man is killed by Joab, as we heard in our reading this morning. In the midst of all this there are defections and spies, emotions and suicide – all the makings of a great TV series.

Whatever judgement we might make about all that, I am more interested in the question, Why even tell the story? Why do we need to know the “days of our lives” of these 10th century BC Israelites? Of course, we can moralise happily about this or that event in the story. But if that was the intention of the writers themselves, then perhaps they might have given us a bit more of their own moralising because there isn’t very much of it.

Why, when it was so difficult to record and reproduce this information, risk leaving it to readers to work out the moral of the story for themselves?

The reason for the detail would seem to have something to do with the very humanity of the story. We might imagine those early editors looking at all the material they have in front of them, ranging from the innocence of David as a young shepherd and his courage in fronting up to Goliath, to his murder of Uriah and his loss of strength and sense in the face of Absalom – looking at all this and simply wondering how it could all be so.

And so they write it all down, or enough of it to make the point. Here is the breadth and length, the height and depth, of the life of any one of us. Even though the story has comparatively little detail compared to a story we might tell about ourselves today, in a context where recording and storing information was so expensive the story displays an extraordinary interest in the details of human relationships and the impact of those details upon those people themselves. That David is the king makes the story all the more compelling because, as we have noted a number of times before, David serves here not simply as one man among the billions of men and women who have lived before and since but as a representative sample. “Here is the human being,” to recall the words of Pilate we heard last week.

When we come then to speak of God’s dealings with us, we must remember that it is with this kind of humanity that God engages. When we declare with John’s gospel that “the Word became flesh” it is precisely this flesh, this complex ethical and political confusion which was the ancient, and is the modern, world.

For the most part, however, we prefer either to oversimplify the complexity of the problems which we are, or to distract from them. Comfort food, shopping till you drop or the extra-marital affair are all distractions from the unbearable heaviness of being – from being and living just where we actually are. “Stop the boats”, a woman’s “right to choose” or imagining that marriage can be whatever we define it to be in this particular moment are unthinking oversimplifications of deep and complex human realties.

In such things, not only do we misrepresent ourselves in whatever fudging of the details might suit us. God is also simplified as we seek to simplify ourselves. It should not surprise us that, if we do not take ourselves as we actually are very seriously then, in the end, we will also not take God very seriously.

But even if oversimplification serves us nicely in distracting us from those less than pleasant details which are our reality, this doesn’t work for God. God will consider us without reduction, without covering over. There are no fig leaves adequate to shielding us from the God who already knows what we look like uncovered.

This is not necessarily good news. We oversimplify and distract ourselves and others from the details of our personal and collective humanity for good reason: we would rather others did not know, often enough even that we ourselves did not know. The complex mess which we are – now right, now wrong, now strong, now weak, now sure, now unsure – makes the world more than we can bear without over-simplifying or letting ourselves be distracted. But we are not in this way brought to heaven. And the result is that we cease to be either properly of the world or of heaven.

Rather, we are strangely suspended, like the unfortunate Absalom: hanging between heaven and earth. This is where we live most of our lives. But if we prefer to simplify and be distracted, the gospel is that this is precisely the place that Jesus himself occupies: our actual place, if not our proper place – hanging on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, apparently devoid of humanity and of God.

Why does he take up this space – our space?

Over the course of these reflections on David’s story we have noticed again and again that David is the blessed one, the anointed one – literally, “the messiah” – and yet he constantly falls short. The blessed one over-reaches and loses himself. This is the story of us all. In contrast to this messiah is another – Jesus himself. Our reflections have looked at what is happening “between the messiahs” – between ourselves and Christ. Because David cannot be the messiah, neither can Jesus; the Christ is “dragged down”, as it where – crucified, forced to occupy the no-man’s land and no-God’s land which is “the between” of the cross.

But in that space, at the between of the cross, is the revelation that the Christ is willingly dragged down because, by the power of God, it will be the means of lifting us up. The Word became fleshour flesh in all its messy detail – in order that we might finally truly become ourselves. The detail which matters most about us is that we are known better than we know ourselves. The detail which matters most is God’s very knowledge of us, and its purpose: that we be loved as we are.

The details of the stories – David’s and ours – matter first because they are what make us us. This is us, for better or for worse. But the details matter also because they are known by a God who – sometimes in spite of the details, sometimes because of them – loves us and cherishes us in health and in sickness. This is not a simple God for a simple people. God is complex and variable because we are. And God is this, in order that we might simply be his. The scriptural writers invest so much in the detail of David’s life because it is the life of one of us, as we are; and it is a remarkable thing that such a one as this does not simply fall within God’s capacity to love, but is in fact the focus of that love.

This is a love which shines in our darkness and yet is not overcome by it.

For such an all-searching, all comprehending and all-embracing love, all thanks be to God. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – On Confession of Sin 1

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We are not our own judges. We can neither justify our sin nor guarantee the righteousness of our good works. We stand before God only because, in the bad and the good, God stands for us, not simply wanting that we be good, but making it that we are. This is the gospel, the free humanity of Jesus given to be our very own, no judgement to fear.



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Yarra Yarra Presbytery Update August 20 2015

·         August Presbytery day – a quick reminder that our next Presbytery-in-council meeting will be held this Saturday 22nd August at Kingswood College, Box Hill. The agenda and papers have been sent, please let me know if you did not receive them.

·         Mission Shaped introduction (MSI) – this introductory course exploring new ways of building communities which connect with Australians unfamiliar with traditional church will take place over the course of three evenings in August, September and October. Information is attached.

·         Fundraiser for Asylum Seeker Resource Centre – Glen Iris Rd UC will be hosting a Jazz evening (and I see there will be cheese platters) to raise funds for the ASRC. An image with further information is attached and you can book here

·         Thriving: Resilience and 40 Developmental Assets Training – a one day workshop for people passionate about the holistic and positive development of young people. Saturday 29th August. More information here

·         Child, Mission and Education Symposium – a great opportunity for ministers, pastors, chaplains, religious educators and Christian teachers. Friday 11th  September. More information here

·         Justice and International Mission Unit convention – the 2015 convention will be held on Saturday 12th September at the CTM in Parkville. A registration form is attached.

·         Disability Inclusion – the VicTas Synod’s Disability Action Plan will be launched by Victoria’s Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce on Friday 25th September. An invitation is attached.

·         Transform Conference – “Let’s talk about sex: the Bible, faith and relationships” is the theme of the second Transform 2015 Conference for young adults, over the weekend of September 25-27, 2015 at Pallotti College. Prof. Bill Loader is the key presenter, with lots of other great presenters and stuff! Some registration subsidies are available for those not in full time paid employment. For more information:

·         Living Leadership intensive – Living Leadership, resourced by the CTM, works to enhance the capacity of individual leaders and leadership teams across the church to exercise effective leadership. For anyone in a le

16 August – Our true story

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Sunday 20

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Psalm 51
John 19:1-7

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our “internal narratives” – are the basis for how we live in the world around us. They place us, give us meaning, set an agenda for us, open up possibilities or close them off. The things we are likely to do or say are rooted in these stories. Because of this, we can also read something of a person’s internal narrative about themselves from the way they behave.

David can take – probably rape – Bathsheba, have her husband killed, and imagine that the matter is dealt with. What story is he telling himself, that he imagines that this all “works”?

David is king, probably at the height of his powers. The palace is established, the ark has come to Jerusalem, and the promise of an eternal throne has been heard. The security of the borders needs to be maintained but this no longer requires David’s oversight and can be entrusted to his generals. His life approaches one of leisure. He is then, on a number of levels, free. And in freedom he acts – an almost absolute freedom from the obligations of moral leadership and observance of custom: freedom with a woman’s chastity, freedom with a man’s life. His is a freedom to act with impunity, he apparently imagines. This is the story he tells himself. David acts as a king can: according to desire, almost without fear of contradiction. Yet, of course, there is some fear here. Uriah dies because David fears discovery; David knows that others will not affirm this degree of freedom. But Uriah does die and so the threat of discovery seems to be dealt with. This would all the more reinforce for David his freedom – not only to transgress against command and convention but seemingly to do so and to get away with it.

David acts as if the only story which matters is the one which he himself tells. And this would seem to be so until Nathan appears. What Nathan does, in effect, is re-story David. This applies both to the method and in its effect. The method is one of distraction. David is invited into another story, seemingly bearing no particular relation to his own. In his focus on the rich man’s theft of the poor man’s ewe David both forgets himself and becomes himself. His own actions are not even in view at the outset, and so he is free to act as a king should in response to Nathan’s tale, “becoming himself” and declaring right judgement on the rich man. The trick, of course, is that having forgotten himself, David has declared judgement on himself. Human judgement and divine judgement are in accord here: David is guilty. To recall our reflection from last week: the blessed one has over-reached, and knows it.

In our gospel reading this morning we heard a kind of echo of Nathan’s “You are the man” accusation in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowds: “Here is the man” (John 19.5). It doesn’t matter whether there is intended to be a link between the two stories in the mind of the gospel writer; David and Jesus are each playing the role of “the man” or, more helpfully, the human creature of this particular God.

On Pilate’s lips “Here is the man” is both a declaration and a question. For the gospel writer John this is a much stronger statement than “Here he is”. We are rather to hear: “This is the man, the human being”; here is the human story (we might recall here the parallels, or type, we have noted between David, Adam and Jesus here). The implied question in Pilate’s declaration is, then, “Do you agree? What is your judgement on this?” The judgement of the crowds, expressed in the call for crucifixion, is that Jesus is not the human being, and so not the sign of the presence of God in the world, not the “image of God” (Genesis 1.27f). David was judged because he was human – too human, in the negative sense of fallible. Jesus is judged here because if this is what humanity looks like, it is unbearable. The story the crowd tells itself does not include the kind of freedom which Jesus represents. For like David’s, Jesus’ own “internal story”, if we dare to try to reconstruct it from his actions, is also about freedom. But it is a different kind of freedom from that exercised by David. For Jesus freedom is in knowing what he is given to be, called to do, required to say, and what will “justify” what he does. It is the freedom of one who knows himself in relation to the one who commissioned him. It is the freedom of having received in such a way that he remains bound to the giver in order to receive more. By contrast, once David had received, he acted as if his own account of himself was the only one which now mattered: the gift separated him from the giver. Jesus’ story, of course, conflicts with others’ account of him and – more importantly – conflicts with their account of themselves. This is how he comes to be standing before the angry crowd. This conflict renders the judgement, “He is not the man; this is not what God requires”, and the sentence, Crucify.

From the perspective of the resurrection, which returns our attention to the crucified Jesus, in the judgement of Jesus we are at the Uriah level of the story. The crucifixion is out attempt to cover up what Jesus’ own story has exposed: the great gap between the kingdom of God as it was embodied in all that Jesus said and did, and our own orderings of the world. Uriah lies dead and the story is over until Nathan arrives to tell a different version of the story. Jesus lies dead until the resurrection comes. Jesus’ resurrection, then, is a kind of parable like Nathan’s story of the stolen sheep, doing the work of re-storying.

But now the problem is deeper, and so the story much more wide-reaching. In the case of David and Nathan, the re-storying “re-inserts” God. David has ignored God – we might even go so far as to say killed God – but specifically for David’s own sake. This is an important, but relatively low-level “moral” failure – living as if there were no God, knowing that in fact there is. God’s “being there” is a matter of inconvenience and so is conveniently overlooked. In the case of Jesus, however, the problem is much deeper. The crucifixion takes place not in order to deny God, but to honour God. Jesus is executed because he is thought to have misrepresented God; the crucifixion is an act of piety on the part of those who demand it. For their part, God requires the crucifixion. Whereas what was bad in David killed Uriah, what is “good” in his religious opponents requires that Jesus be killed.

And so the pressing question is: is there any hope for those whose attempts at good works even deny the presence and call of God? Here the whole summation of as Christian faith being about doing good is called into question: can we be sure that our assessment of what is good actually gets “Good” right? And is it enough simply to declare, “I did the best I could” when religious piety kills the Lord of life? It is not a brave person who declares his or her works good. It is an arrogant one, for such a judgement is God’s alone.

This is the re-storying done by Jesus’ resurrection. Here the crucifixion of Jesus by wrong-headed piety is not just forgiven but made a good thing, and so it is not forgotten. We remember the body and the blood because the body broken by us becomes the body broken for us. There can be no forgiving and forgetting, because it is the good the pious do which is the problem. The crucifixion of Jesus cannot be forgotten without allowing ourselves to imagine that we might still be “good enough”, that we’ve done well “enough”, that we’ve done “our best”, and that this is all that matters. For all our talk about justification by grace through faith, there are few of us who are not at heart quietly earning our standing before God, resting in a job well done rather than in the gift of God’s love.

We must, of course, “do,” act; only the dead are free of this obligation. And we must, to the best of our ability, do the right, seeking to align our actions with God’s call. But we are not our own judges. We can neither justify our sin, as David wanted to, nor guarantee the righteousness of our good works, as Jesus’ executioners imagined they could. We stand before God only because, in the bad and the good, God stands for us, not simply wanting that we be good, but making it that we are. This is the gospel, the free humanity of Jesus made our very own, no judgement to fear.

For such a story, exposing and re-working the untruths in the stories we tell ourselves, all thanks be to God. Amen.

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