Monthly Archives: August 2016

28 August – An uninvited prophet and the judgement of love

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Pentecost 15

Jeremiah 31:1-9
Psalm 32
Luke 7:36-50

Sermon preached by Andrew Gador-Whyte

All the Gospels record a story of a woman anointing Jesus, but Luke’s account is unique. In Matthew, Mark and John, the disciples complain about the waste, saying that the money could have been given to the poor. Jesus however commends the woman, who will be remembered as having anointed Jesus for his burial.

Luke, however, has Simon the Pharisee rebuking Jesus for allowing a sinful woman touch him. Jesus responds that the woman in her extravagance has shown how full of love she is, because she knows what it is to be forgiven without reserve.

In the other gospels, the woman seems to be the only one who takes Jesus at his word, preparing his body for the death his disciples cannot understand. This ointment mixed with tears foretells those burial spices that, against all hope, will turn out to be the fragrance of the new creation, the ointments ready to anoint the head of Israel’s Messiah.

In Luke’s gospel, the ointment is a gift for guests, a sign of love. The ointment’s costliness, like her complete, totally unreserved and undignified self-outpouring, is a gift that flows freely from the woman’s love, the love which is created in her by another’s free, unconditioned, costly advance of love.

In the midst of what appears as a strange irrationality and sensuality, it is as though the woman has seen with absolute clarity the events that are about to unfold in Jerusalem. Without being aware of the specific events to come, it is as though she recognises the character of Jesus’ love as the love of the slaughtered lamb. In withholding nothing of herself when she anoints Jesus’ feet, she seems to see that his is the kind of love that withholds nothing in anointing our whole humanity. Here she almost seems to be aware of the kind of love that will undergo with conquering forgiveness the violence and slavery, which, looking back, appeared to be the very thing that defined and constituted us.

If the woman’s actions were disclosing the mystery of Jesus’ Passion, it is not because she was somehow possessed or made into some automaton of revelation. Rather, the Holy Spirit, unconstrained by the linearity of our time, has reached backwards from the day of resurrection. It is precisely in what the woman does that the Spirit celebrates her healing, and makes of her act a living sign of the transformation that will be seen face to face at the empty tomb.

The Spirit, who effected Jesus’ Incarnation, here proclaims his death and resurrection in an absolutely incarnational way. He proclaims it through the woman’s freedom, without displacing it. The Spirit chooses to make his proclamation mediated by the humanity of the woman, just as God chooses in a remarkable way to work out the world’s liberation primarily through contingent human lives and relationships. In fact, in Jesus, God becomes himself completely as subject as we are to the contingencies of human existence, and yet through that very existence and death, proves himself faithful to his irrevocable promise. The Spirit creates unconditional love in the woman, not by undermining her freedom, but in fact in the ordinary way love comes about in human lives – that is, created in us by another, created as a free act of our own will by the prior gift from the other of her or his love.

And if we had any doubt that this is human love at work, enabled by the Spirit to be the holy scripture that makes divine love present and intelligible, then look at how Luke speaks about it. What he describes is immediately recognisable as what humans do actively when they love.

And what has brought this about? Is she responding to an earlier unrecorded meeting with Jesus? No, more likely the woman has heard about Jesus’ unreserved deeds of mercy and power for the poor in Galilee, and, more than most, has immediately been struck with the impression that Jesus has also healed her. Again, it is as though her deeds speak with an authority that we have heard elsewhere. It is as though by her open receiving of the love of Jesus, she has become a prophet, proclaiming the Incarnation. Though she may not fully understand the scope of what she has done, her deliberate act rings with these words:

‘Look, there is the bronze serpent raised in the wilderness that one need only look at to know that God has healed us’
‘Look, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’
‘See, the home of God is among mortals!’

Jesus’ merciful love creates in the woman a love that proclaims that creation of love. Her openness to that love turns out to be (and I think it would be to her great surprise) her openness to God’s anointing of her as a prophet. And like the elder prophets of God’s people, her ‘words’ pluck up and destroy and build and plant. She speaks a word of judgment against the self-justification that has enslaved many like Simon – a self-justification which is revealed as yet another of sin’s yawn-worthy disguise acts, merely a whitewashed tomb full of the familiar filth of human violence, merely another form of blindness, merely another form of slavery.

In what the world would call humiliation, the woman turns up at the house uninvited, laying everything at Jesus feet, in serving, selfless love, in agape. And Jesus’ words to Simon reveal this humiliation, this weakness, as the woman’s act of going up to the holy places, unsealing the ark, and unrolling the Torah, to proclaim God’s unfathomable and totally unreasonable love poured out on the her, Simon and all his people, liberating them all from Pharaoh’s taskmasters and gods.

In response to Simon’s indignation, Jesus tells a parable of two people whose debts are both cleared. This is not a moralising tale where the debtors realise they are in the wrong, are sufficiently sorry, and then turn their lives around. Rather the agency, the vivifying force in the parable, is in the sheer gratuity of the creditor. His forgiveness transforms unilaterally a relationship of dishonesty or slavery into one of mutuality. Simon insists on burdening the woman with the task of making herself just, with proving her own justice. But Jesus makes it clear that this is a dead end, because God’s will for both her and Simon is to bring about mutual love in them which will bear the fruits of that justice relationally.

God’s forgiveness is always the primary agent. The faith Jesus describes is the disposition to allow oneself to be exposed to that forgiveness. The love he describes in the one who is forgiven much is the trust that is the capacity to receive forgiveness as a healing judgment, a healing wound.

So Luke does not labour the point about the woman’s self-reproach. Her tears are simply called ‘love’. There is no doubt grief here at the brokenness of her own life, but it is grief that is simply an act of looking backwards from the starting point of having been met by unconditional and transformative love. What the church has sometimes called ‘compunction’ is, through our relationship to another, simply being exposed to what is real, and recognising that one has been living in fantasy.

Simon doubts that Jesus can be a prophet, allowing himself to be touched by the unclean woman. But Jesus’ incarnate love, come to birth in the woman, has not merely ritually cleansed her, but has effected a great exchange, such that the ‘mind of Christ’, the suffering servant, has become manifest in this prophetic woman. Her scandalous sensual ointment will become known as the water of baptism, recapitulating his baptism by John.

It is as though in her strange yet authoritative act, she is proclaiming baptism as a marking with the sign of the cross – an anointing for a life lived carrying the marks of Jesus’ forgiving death, a life lived no longer defined by death and in constant competition with the other to cheat death. The woman seems to point to a life where the presence of Jesus one step ahead of us enables our bodies gradually to learn reflexes of trust that are entirely new and yet more natural to us than we could have imagined beforehand.

And so when Jesus proclaims salvation to the woman, it is not that she has avoided punishment by recognising her sin and showing appropriate repentance. It is rather that her faith in even the mere presence of Jesus, in the mere hem of his garment, her wordless trust which simply knows his unreserved forgiveness and transformation – it is in this faith, this trust, that she has allowed herself to be transferred into the kingdom of the forgiving victim.

Her healing, like ours, is a baptism into Christ, which is a baptism that anoints each of us as a prophet, not to undermine our freedom but to make us who we each uniquely are. This baptism is a gift we could never have anticipated. And so we say, ‘We love because God first loved us.’

And when Jesus says to her, ‘Go in Peace’, it is not as a pleasant conventional turn of phrase, but as an assurance of his ancient promise, hurtling irrevocably towards its fulfillment in ordinary human relationships. Jesus assures her of the promise from Israel’s God of peace with justice, the promise that transfigures our bodies as no longer ‘for ourselves’, but as the oil of gladness, the source of the healing and the crowning of our neighbour’s humanity.

21 August – Abraham’s faith in Christ

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Pentecost 14

Galatians 3:6-14
Psalm 71
Luke 13:10-17

“Abraham believed”. At that point – after the second word – we need to pause because the word “believe” can cause our minds to run in all sorts of directions. “I believe” can be a statement of an opinion levered off certain observations I’ve made. “I believe that North Melbourne will win the premiership”; “I believe that gay marriage will be legalised”; “I believe that Donald Trump will be president” (some such beliefs being scarier than others, obviously!).

The concept of belief (rather than just belief as the result of the yet unproven calculation) brings other sets of associations: faith is set over against reason, with reason being the thing that we know, the thing that we agree to hold in common, as distinct from faith which has become a much more personalised and private thing. And of course we have, in our contemporary context, the contrary way in which belief has reasserted itself in the last 10 or 20 years as a major political consideration, and this after we in the liberal west thought that faith and belief had been safely marginalised to people’s hearts and minds, away from the public sphere.

So when we hear the Abraham “believed”, there are lots of things we might imagine being said.

When Paul talks about belief he relates it very much the person of Jesus Christ. He talks about being saved by believing in Christ. As Bruce explained for us a couple of months ago, this is more than just my generating within myself a subjective feeling of trust. It has to do with Christ’s own faithfulness is well, something which is outside of our individual convictions: I believe in Christ’s own believing. But Paul also talks about belief as being something more akin to participation. To believe in Christ is to participate in Christ himself. So Paul can speak of his belief as his having been crucified with Christ, and now having Christ living within him.

But then we come, a few verses later, to “Abraham believed God”. It is very easy here to forget what Paul has just said about what belief actually is – to cut Christ out of the picture and to drop back into a dynamic of Abraham believing (in a generic way) in God. But Paul is very consistent. When he says that Abraham believed God, he is basically saying that Abraham believed in Christ: Abraham was crucified with Christ and now lives by Christ living in him.

This, of course, makes no sense so far as chronological history goes. Abraham predates Paul by perhaps 1500 or 1600 years. How can Abraham believed in was not actually happened? What Paul is doing here is saying that the whole of God’s dealings with Israel are to be read through God’s engagement with the world in Christ. Christ is a kind of lens through which we can see what faith or faithfulness is, before and after the cross.

Now, that is all very interesting (I hope!). But it doesn’t yet have very much traction with the “real” world. It doesn’t give us a sense of what it might mean for Abraham to believe. To get this sense, we have to read the whole verse: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”.

“Righteousness” is our next focal point. This is again, like belief, a religious-sounding word which we don’t use very often in the secular sphere except the expression “self-righteousness”, which is often an accusation directed at the religious anyway. It feels like a religious word. But for the scriptures it is a legal and political word. It has to do with being set right, being justified, being lined up according to some criteria or standard. So it is important to recognise that there are “righteousnesses” all over the place, sets of rules according to which we are expected to perform.

There are economic orthodoxies. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a free-market capitalist or a state-controlled market Communist, each orthodoxy has its set of rules according to which we are expected to line ourselves up. There are social and political orthodoxies everywhere. Patriarchy is one of these, which sets men and women in the right place. To be righteous in such a context is to be in your right place and to be happy with that. Ecological orthodoxies dictate about how we should relate to the world around us. Moral orthodoxies concern themselves with what we should or should not do. Each of these come with their own sense of what righteousness is. And we find righteousness in those various orthodoxies by knowing the rules and lining ourselves up according to them. Now we might not ever actually agree precisely on what those rules are. We constantly debate the economic orthodoxies and the moral orthodoxies and so forth. But that doesn’t deny the dynamic. In those debates what we are looking for are those rules, seeking to establish how I might rightly expect you to relate to me.

What that produces in us is boasting that I know the rules and I am righteous according to them and that you probably aren’t and, correspondingly, accusations: that you do not know or comply with the rules and so you are properly set aside or excluded.

On this understanding, righteousness is pretty difficult work. You have to know the rules and be confident that you have yourself covered. It is also, in the end, isolating work. For the harder you press on what the rules ought to be, the more harshly you define how we ought to relate to each other, the more self-righteous you demonstrate yourself to be, and the less righteous others are. The effect is a kind of self-isolation: those who are righteous in this way are lonely.

But to get back to Abraham: as we read the verse “Abraham believed God and was reckoned him as righteousness”, it is important to get the emphasis right. The emphasis doesn’t really fall upon “righteousness”. This is not what Paul is arguing against. Righteousness is the goal which both he and his opponents have in common; the question is, What is the means toward that end? So Paul says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”, and not some other thing.

Now we must recall again that here “belief” is not just a generic religious affection. It has to do with taking on Christ. Abraham let himself be crucified; he allowed his life to come from something other than the impression that he can make upon others or upon God.

Belief becomes, now, a way of negotiating the many orthodoxies swelling around us in the world, each with their own corresponding righteousnesses. Belief is not a way of stepping out of the world; it is a way of being in the world with its various demands but engaging in a particular kind of way. The one who believes with Paul, and so with Abraham, the one who is crucified to the world and the world to her or him, this one is freed from the harsh demands of the orthodoxies of nature and society. And, more importantly, the believer is free from the implication that those orthodoxies are themselves God, or that the economics or the politics or the social mores are divinely ordered.

To believe God, as Abraham did, is not to screw up our eyes and posit that there “is” a God, even if unseen. It is not even to do Godly things, in a moral sense. It is to recognise that the gods – the orthodoxies, the righteousnesses which clamour around us – are not God, and bring neither true life nor true freedom. To believe the God who addresses us with the promise of more is to be able to be where we are, and to be complete – right, whole, just – despite the incompleteness of what is going on around us. To believe is to hold that God gives, and does not take, and to grow into an ordering of our words and our actions which declares just that.

By the grace of this giving God, may such belief be held with ever-stronger conviction by each of us, and all God’s people. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Bible 3

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“instead of that picture of the Bible as a book held in the hands of a solitary reader alone in a room, have in your mind another kind of picture, one in which somebody is proclaiming God’s story to a gathering of diverse people – and all of them asking themselves, and asking one another, ‘How do we find ourselves in this? How are we going to be renewed together by this reading?’ Because when that happens, the Bible is an essential source, as well as a sign, of the Christian life”

Rowan Williams, Being Christian p.39

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LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Bible 2

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…reading the Bible is about listening to God in Jesus – which is what Christians ought to be doing in all circumstances anyway. It is letting the Holy Spirit bring you inside the story of how God related to the ancient Israelites and the first Christian believers – letting the Holy Spirit bring you inside that story so that you recognize it as your story.”

Rowan Williams, Being Christian p.36

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14 August – ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God’

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Pentecost 13

Amos 5:6-15
Psalm 49
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Luke 12:13-21

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Christiaan Mostert

‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God’         (Luke 12:21)

[A]  Introduction

Today’s reading from the Gospel confronts us with a touchy subject and some very hard-hitting words of Jesus: about wealth, about being rich in assets, like property, bank accounts, investments, superannuation and the like. All of us are challenged by this little episode in Jesus’ ministry.

One way to avoid being challenged is to persuade ourselves that we are not really wealthy; and perhaps most of us – perhaps all of us here – are not really wealthy, compared to the very wealthy, the super-rich. But compared to the poor who own no property, have no car, no job, no money in the bank, no superannuation, I suppose most of us would have to say that we are well-off. Whatever our financial situation, Jesus’ words from Luke 12 are likely to touch a raw nerve.

[B]  Be on your guard against greed!

Jesus has been asked to intervene in a family dispute about the family property; he refuses to do so. Then he launces into his first disarming remark: ‘Be on you guard against greed of every kind! Your possessions don’t give you life!’ We’d probably all agree with this, but who would not like to have a little more (a lot more) than we do?

Regardless of our income and our assets, we are easily tempted to increase our wealth, our possessions, our bank balances, the earnings on our investments. We are easily drawn to promises of making quick money and schemes of ‘wealth-creation’. We are forever bombarded with messages that tell us we need this or that to be happy or that we deserve to treat ourselves to this new possession or that holiday of a life-time. It’s hard to resist these messages because at heart we are all acquisitive. We would all like to have more money so that we can live in a nicer house, or go on more holidays, buy more clothes or more things for our house or our hobbies.

If we were poor – really poor – it would be very understandable if we wanted more. We don’t blame people who live below the poverty line for wanting more! But what Jesus criticises in the little parable he tells – about a rich man who decides to build bigger barns to store his harvest of crops – is that he wants far more than he needs, that his desire to make money is insatiable and involves a disregard for God and the needs of others.

Let me also acknowledge that there are many people who are very well-off, perhaps extremely wealthy, who are correspondingly generous in their support of charitable causes and who in many ways help those who are poor and needy. Money in itself is morally neutral; intrinsically it’s neither good nor bad. How we come to have it and how we spend it are certainly moral questions; and the morality of these can range all the way from morally exemplary to morally deplorable.

[C]  The point of the parable

It’s hard to escape the impression that Jesus regarded wealth, possessions and elite economic status in negative terms. That’s certainly how Luke portrays him. But Jesus is far from alone in this. Amos’s God rages against those who trample on the poor and tax them unjustly, and who ‘push aside the needy in the gate.’ (Amos 5:11-12) And in the 1st letter to Timothy the Christian community is urged not to set its hopes on riches but on God: to be ‘rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.’ (1 Tim 5:17f.)

Many Christians have felt called to a life of poverty, making their life-style and their income the very least of their concerns. We find that deeply admirable! But it’s not so clear-cut for everyone; and we have to be careful to avoid easy moralising in this whole area of decision-making. Jesus himself seems to have had a somewhat differentiated view on this. He didn’t avoid the company of wealthy people, though he – admittedly in Luke’s version – declared ‘the poor’ blessed, for the kingdom of God was theirs! (6:20) But he also praised the action of a woman who poured expensive oil over his feet for showing great love and declared her many sins forgiven. (Lk 7:36-48)

The parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 is quite specific. The man in the story is not a simple farmer with a small plot of land who is fortunate enough to get a good crop. He is a rich man. He already has barns to store his harvest. But he wants to be able to store more, so that he can make more money from the sale of more produce. He wants a long life of taking things easy, eating, drinking, being merry. He is not satisfied!

The man is greedy! Enough is never enough! He is an example of the danger of wealth if it’s pursued for its own sake, i.e. in order to make more wealth, or acquire more luxuries, or indulge oneself more. His focus is entirely on himself. He piles up treasure for himself and he is ‘not rich toward God.’

[D]  Not rich toward others and not rich toward God

It’s reasonable to infer that the rich farmer is not only not rich in relation to God but also not rich in relation to other people. He is doubly poor. The Bible is unambiguous about the requirement to care for those who are poor and disadvantaged. The man in the parable is ‘so focused on himself that he has forgotten both the God who caused the earth’s bounty and the neighbour without access to that bounty.’ (A. West, Feasting / Word, Yr C, Vol 3,312)

Greed is not having any regard to the needs or rights of others; it’s wanting everything for ourselves. It’s our natural condition, just as it is in the rest of the animal world! When you throw scraps of bread to seagulls or ducks, the dominant ones want everything for themselves. Parents, especially mothers, do share what they have with their young, their children, but we have to be taught to share; and some seem to find it a very hard lesson to learn. Others share very readily: for them it’s a kind of ‘second nature’. But it is a second nature; it’s not our first, not our natural condition.

There is certainly plenty of scope for sharing: with people who live in real poverty, people who live in situations of war and violence, refugees and people who struggle to overcome multiple problems, often including addiction. Australians claim to believe in a fair go, to want an egalitarian society, but (according to Andrew Leigh, in an article called ‘Is the growth of inequality inevitable?’) inequality in Australia is rising. We’ve all heard about the growing number of people, especially young people, who can’t see themselves ever owning a house. Leigh contends that ‘since the mid 1970s, real earnings for the top tenth have risen by 59%, while for the bottom tenth they have risen by just 15%. Today, the three richest Australians have more wealth than the million poorest.’ (The Monthly, June 2014)


It goes against the whole tenor of Jesus’ teaching to think only of ourselves and to be blind to the needs of others. Not to be ‘rich toward others’, not to be generous in support of those who really struggle, is sharply at odds with our Christian faith and discipleship.

[E]  Not rich toward God

And so is not being ‘rich toward God’! Here Jesus’ words are very explicit. To build up more and more wealth for ourselves risks being poor toward God. In the end we leave it all behind us, though we comfort ourselves by leaving it to our children, not all of whom actually need it!

What does being ‘rich toward God’ mean? The text does not explicitly answer this question. But Jesus elsewhere teaches his followers to strive for the kingdom (reign) of God and God’s righteousness before all else (Matt 6:33). It is to centre our lives on God, God’s goodness, God’s extraordinary love and faithfulness, God’s on-going work in the world to enlarge and deepen our humanity, our generosity, our altruism, our compassion. It is the very opposite of making ourselves the centre of the world, the chief concern of our lives. To make ourselves the centre of the world – our own interests, our wealth, our posses­sions, our comfort ­– is to fall into the trap of idolatry, which has been the abiding temptation for humankind. It is, if you like, the great failure to be rich toward God.

So where is the centre of our lives? What do we most want in our lives, and why? What do we live for? What do we work for? Is it really just our own well-being and wealth – including, of course, that of our family and close friends? Or do we, in some significant way, embrace in our deepest concerns the plight and needs of multitudes of others?
And can we encompass them and ourselves in a rich love for God that redirects and reorients all our values and priorities?

[F]  Conclusion

Nearly 400 years ago (in 1648) at Westminster (London) a Catechism was drawn up and passed which began with what has become a well-known question: ‘What is the chief end of man?’, perhaps better expressed as ‘what is the over-riding purpose of humankind?’ And the answer was: ‘to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.’ It’s a superb statement!

To store up treasure for ourselves – like the man in the parable – is to be poor toward God; it’s also, incidentally, ultimately futile. To reflect daily, weekly, on our over-riding purpose as human beings, as children of God – namely to glorify God and to enjoy God forever – that is the beginning of being rich toward God. It is the fitting response to the God who, in the gift of Jesus Christ, has been rich toward us.

Thanks be to God.

MtE Update – August 11 2016


the latest MtE Update

  1. Matthew and Miranda are presenting the Sugden Fellow Lecture at Queen’s College, Parkville, on Monday August 22, 7.00pm for 7.30pm (RSVP by August 19); the full details are here
  2. The first Hotham Mission newsletter – the “Hotham Herald”, is available here.
  3. The moderator has circulated this letter regarding Synod budget cuts (staff reductions).
  4. There is a conference at the CTM in September on the relationship of church welfare agencies to the church itself. Some members of our congregation are attending, and others might be also interested; the details are here.
  5. Hotham Mission is running a special community screening of the documentary “Chasing Asylum”, which explores Australian asylum-seeker policy and its effects on those seeking asylum. For more details, the film trailer and the link to purchase tickets, please see the UCHM web site – tickets almost sold out!
  6. Our next study series has begun. If you’re keen to come but haven’t registered, details and registration page is here.
  7. As previously advised, the planned congregational meeting on our buildings and mission issues, set for August 21, has been re-scheduled this meeting for September 4, following worship. Papers for this should be available on two weeks beforehand.

7 August – God’s present absence

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Pentecost 12

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Psalm 33
Luke 12:32-40

[This sermon steps for a moment out of our series on Galatians although, as you will read, Paul’s arguments there are important here as well!]

Today’s reading asks us, “What are you waiting for, what are you expecting?”

We spend a lot of time waiting, expecting things. We wait for the birth of a new baby. We wait or look forward to retirement. Perhaps we look forward to our birthday or wait for our health to return to what it should be. And all of this type of waiting is usually pretty active. We get the nursery ready for the baby. We save for our holiday, or plan for retirement, or send out invitations for the party. There is work to be done in connection with this kind of waiting.

We might call this type of expectation “penultimate” – these are “not quite ultimate” things for which we wait. Their penultimacy is linked to their predictability. They are all the little expectations in our life about which we know basically what and when to expect them. A baby might decide that 40 weeks is just too long to spend in so cramped a space, or she might have heard something about what it’s like out here and so puts off the inevitable for a few days longer than expected, but we usually know pretty much when it’s all going to happen. We know when we’re likely to retire – in my case, only 6911 sleeps – or how long it is to whatever special day we might be looking forward to.

But there’s another type of expectation we could call an “ultimate” expectation; in fact there just two of these ultimate expectations. One is that we can expect to die. The evidence to hand is that this is pretty much inevitable. The other ultimate expectation is that God will come.

These ultimate expectations are different from the normal, little penultimate ones we live with. They differ in two ways. In the first case, while we know roughly when a penultimate expectation would be realised, this doesn’t mean that in fact it will be realised. I may, in fact, never retire; I may only have 6910 sleeps left in me. This is not the case with death and God; they will come, regardless. The second way our penultimate and ultimate expectations differ is that we don’t know when to expect the ultimate ones. The effect of this is felt in what we do in relation to them while we wait. We know what to do as we prepare for baby or retirement; how does one prepare for death, or the coming of God?

As a general rule, we tend to prepare either anxiously for these things, or not at all. And, in both cases, the anxiety or the indifference looks pretty much the same. Anxiety in the face of death takes the form of a kind of continually looking over our shoulder: are we safe? Is everything in place? Anxiety in the face of death looks like Brexit and Donald Trump and the need to buy a new car just because it has an extra airbag. This is not often much different from the anxiety we feel in the face of the coming of God: have we done the right thing, got ourselves covered? Anxiety in the face of God is circumcision in St Paul’s churches and the drive to financial sustainability in our own.

So it is perhaps not a surprise that we often imagine that God finally comes with death. It has sometimes been said that the church, when its early expectation of the imminent return of God in Christ within the lifetime of the first disciples was not met, shifted the coming of God – our meeting of God – to our personal deaths, thereby making it less cosmic an event but no less imminent. There may be some truth in this historical account for how the understanding developed, that we meet God in a special and defining way when we die. Yet linking our definitive meeting with God with our deaths has perhaps always been the secret logic of “religion”, linking or interpreting God’s freedom in relation to the unpredictability of our dying. Our preparation for God’s coming goes hand-in-hand with our preparation for our death, if we prepare for either.

Now, perhaps it might seem that we’ve wandered some way from our gospel reading this morning. There we hear of the master of a household who has gone away, and will return. The question is, Will his servants be found to be ready for him, or will they be asleep? Yet, the coming of the master could well be his servants’ death and the parable would still make pretty good sense, at least to our typical way of thinking about God and death.

The point of all this is to suggest that God and death are often “structurally” the same in the way that we think. They share the character of ultimate expectations, in that they are guaranteed to come, unlike our penultimate expectations. They share the character of being “unexpected” expectations, in that we know they are coming but we don’t usually know exactly when. And they are typically bound together, in that they tend to be imagined to be co-incident – to come at the same time: death is the occasion of God’s reckoning.

Now, more to move more intentionally to our text this morning – and the parable of the returning master of the household in particular: The point of this parable is not the same as the point of the threatened proverbial bus which might take you out if you as soon as you leave an evangelistic rally. If God is indicated by the master in the parable, then the point is not that God is absent and then returns, and that you’d better get ready. It is rather that God’s absence is the particular way in which God is present, until God comes “again”.

This is not intended to be a clever confusion of the issue, the statement of a paradox as a dismissal of what is a real question. It is rather what we might call a baptism of the text – a drawing of the text into the dynamic of life before God, in Christ. Jesus portrays the servants living their lives “as if” the master were present, such that whether the master is present or not makes no difference to how they act. This has the effect of indicating that there is really nothing to expect which will radically change things in the way that God’s arrival is usually expected to do; life in God’s apparent absence is lived as if God has already come.

And this has a startling effect with respect to our experience of death. If, in our minds, God and death coincide, then the already-having-come of God is the already-having-come of death. It is here that a baptism of this text becomes especially pressing, and we take our lead here from what we’ve heard from Paul in Galatians over the last few weeks. There Paul writes: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me. “I have been crucified… I died to the law”. For Paul, death – the weight of death and its sting – is behind him, precisely because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Death is not the moment of God’s reckoning with us or, at least, not our death is not that moment. Death is dealt with in the cross – Christ’s death – which is also God’s coming. And so God reckons with us at the point of faith – as Paul said of Abraham’s faith: the cross is the object of faith, the point at which righteousness is accounted to us.

All this suggests another surprising thing: that my earlier question, How do we prepare for our ultimate expectations – death and God – is in fact a “nonChristian” question. Christians do not prepare for God’s coming, or for their deaths. We declare that these are already decisively determined. Rather than “prepare” for God and death, all that we do is as testimony to God’s having already definitively come, to death’s having already been definitively dealt with.

There might still be a kind of consummation of what is now seen as through a glass darkly. But this consummation is not a threat – “God is coming, death is coming” – which causes us to scurry around like ants whose anthill a little boy has jumped up and down on. It is, rather, a promise: it will only get better. And it is here that the structural similarity of God and death breaks down. The full weight of death is behind us: I have been crucified with Christ; the life I live is Christ alive in me. The full weight of death is behind us because God as already come. But the full weight of God’s presence is still ahead of us. And this is promise to look forward and not threat before which we might cower.

This is the gospel: life opening up a head of us, regardless of how much the life insurance companies might charge us to open up an account at this particular point in our lives. Life is always opening up for the baptised, and no longer narrows down to death.

We began by observing that our reading asks of us, What are you waiting for? If the answer to this question is the God of the gospel, then the question takes on a different feel: What are you waiting for? Death is behind you, only life ahead, so get on with it.

Now is the hour appointed by God,

now is the moment for living and loving,

now is the time when God comes to us and we can leave death behind us.

By the grace of this God – by the power of God’s Spirit – may we be raised to the occasion which is life in Christ, to the glory of God and unto our own fullest humanity. Amen.

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