- Our series on the prophet Jonah continues this Sunday, jumping to chapter 3. In addition to looking at chapter 3 before Sunday, read also the book of Nahum (only three chapters!) for background on Jonah’s distaste for Nineveh! See here for more information on the series.
- Details of our Lenten Studies for this year are now posted here; there are presently three groups in place for these studies in Nth Melbourne, the city and Hawthorn. Another great little Lenten devotional resource which might interest you is Walter Brueggemann’s, A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent.
- We are pleased to welcome Br Peter Bray back to Melbourne to speak more on the work of Bethlehem University; this time his public address in Melbourne will be jointly sponsored by Wesley Uniting Church (and the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network), and hosted at Wesley at 630pm on Monday February 24. See the flyer here.
Monthly Archives: January 2020
In a sentence
The ‘great fish’ of Jonah is a sign of how God’s plans for the world are dependent upon those called to fulfil them, even Israel and the Church
We begin our exploration of the book of Jonah with a question, the answer to which might seem very obvious: why does God appoint a big fish to swallow up Jonah?
It matters not whether such a thing actually happened; in fact, for reasons I’ll not expand on this morning, it’s more consistent with the apparent point of the book that the tale is ‘just’ a story. For our present purposes, then, we’ll just take the narrative at face value and deal with why it might matter for the story that Jonah ends up intra-fish.
The obvious answer to our question is that God appoints the fish to scoop Jonah up in order to save him, with the emphasis on the ‘save’ rather than on the ‘him’.
Clearly the saving takes place but who cares that Jonah is saved?
Again, there is an obvious answer: Jonah himself. The fuller text of the book would seem to suggest this purpose as well; the whole of the next chapter is a prayer of Jonah, praising the God who saves those who descend to the deep.
Yet this doesn’t sit quite comfortably with the story. Jonah has offered himself up to death: ‘Throw me into the sea; that should do it!’ Jonah apparently resigns himself to death. Die now or die in Nineveh? A death for nice people is better than a death by an enemy’s hand. Surviving isn’t really part of the plan because, so far as Jonah is concerned, that would mean still being in earshot of God’s uncomfortable call to preach repentance and forgiveness to the dangerous and hated enemies of Israel.
Still, Jonah is saved and the obvious answer to our ‘Why?’ about the fish seems the right one.
Yet there are two other ‘hidden’ beneficiaries from the intervention of the great fish in Jonah’s plight which shift the fish from amusing comic image to a necessity for understanding who this God is and how this God works.
The first of these hidden beneficiaries is the crew of the boat. Of course, they have been saved in the sense that throwing Jonah overboard seems to have calmed the wrathful God. But the fish is not connected to this. So far as the sailors know, Jonah is dead. If they saw him swallowed up, they would not imagine him sitting inside praying but rather being digested.
Yet the sailors have not merely been terrified and then relieved with the arrival and then departure of Jonah. In the course of this short episode these Gentiles have become worshippers of the God of Israel. And they have linked their status before God to God’s reading of their sacrifice of Jonah: ‘O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood…’
This prayer is answered by Jonah not, in fact, dying – although they do not know this. All they know is that the storm is stilled, which is the sign either that Jonah was not innocent, which they already suspect, or is the sign of what they might not suspect: that Jonah is not dead and so they can’t be accountable for killing him. Of course, both of these things are true but only we know that.
God, then, does not save merely Jonah with the fish. God saves the sailors with the fish; an alive Jonah is salvation to the sailors. Jonah, who has fled the call to preach to Gentiles, has been caught up in the conversion and salvation of unbelievers quite despite his best attempts not to be.
And this leads us to the second of the hidden beneficiaries of the gaping fish: even God.
For Jonah to drown is for God’s claim on Jonah to fail. But God is serious: Jonah, go to Nineveh. Jonah himself, as the means, is as important in the story as is Nineveh, the purpose of the call. God’s word is not a general proposal that Nineveh might be have the opportunity to be saved but the specific proposal that they have that opportunity through Jonah. God’s word, God’s intention, requires that Jonah be the means of this possible salvation; there is no one else who can be the means by which this intention is met.
This leads us to quite a surprising conclusion. God does not merely save Jonah with the fish, or even Jonah-and-the-sailors. God saves God’s own intention, which is ‘Jonah-for-Nineveh’. God’s word does not return empty. ‘Let there be light…, Let there be peace, forgiveness’…, ‘Let Jonah go to Nineveh,’ ‘Let them be fishers for people’ – these are not ‘suggestions’ of what might be the case but a calling into being of what will be.
The ridiculous means by which land-lubber Jonah is still alive despite being thrown into the sea is, then, not accidental and not silly: God’s intention for Nineveh is bound to Jonah doing what he has been called to do, and only Jonah. If Jonah dies by his own death wish, God fails. It is certainly the case that Jonah is not lost because the fish appears but more to the heart of the matter is that Jonah cannot be lost. At the risk of (only slightly) overstating it, we might say then that, with the fish, God saves God.
The chosen one is saved, the Gentiles are saved, God is saved, by the great fish. All of this is to say that, rather than being a comic interlude, the fish is a sign of the mystery of God and the world. The fish binds together the called people of God – in Jonah; those for whom the elect are called – the sailors and the people of Nineveh; and God Godself. Saving Jonah saves the world, and saves God.
God calls God’s people for a purpose – for the healing of others – and this purpose will not be thwarted. And it will not happen apart from those who are called.
Though often interpreted a symbol of the three-days tomb of Jesus, the fish is then also a symbol of the resurrection. The fish does not bury but returns to life in the chosen one all that he represents: the God who chose and loved, and those for whom such a setting aside took place.
To put it differently, God is for the world of Ninevehs in every time and place by the world: by those in the world God calls to be the means by which love and reconciliation. This is why Israel matters, why the Church matters, why the Word-becoming-flesh matters. The word is carried on the world which it created. This is what we are for, to bear the word.
God creates, calls and sends – ‘I will make you fish, for people’.
- Welcome to the first MtE update for 2020!
- This Sunday we’ll commence a short series on the prophet Jonah — a 3-4 week fill-in before Transfiguration and the beginning of Lent. See here for more information.
- A reminder that our Lenten Studies for this year have been set in place, with time, details are now posted here; there are presently three groups in place for these studies in Nth Melbourne, the city and Hawthorn. Another great little Lenten devotional resource which might interest you is Walter Brueggemann’s, A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent.
Other things of interest
- The following information about an asylum-seeker appeal is may be of interest to some: Operation Not Forgotten; Why it is needed.
When’s the last time you heard a series of sermons on Jonah? If ‘never’, let’s see what we can do over a few weeks in February 2020!
Preparing for the series:
- The best introduction to any scriptural book is to read the book itself! It’s not long — 15 minutes are more than enough to get you through it quite comfortably. Plan to do this a few times through the series.
- A short animated video introduction (9 minutes) can be found here, which tells the story well and gives a few clues to its structure and purpose.
- A more academic introduction can be found in this lecture, which sets Jonah in the context of a couple of other ‘outlier’ scriptural books – Esther and Ruth. The comment on Jonah begins at 9.20.
- A very brief introduction to the book can be found in the first few paragraphs here. If you’re interested in reading something more substantial and don’t already have access to a commentary on Jonah, Phillip Cary’s commentary in the Brazos series (available in hard and electronic versions) is very readable and, more importantly, very good!
The sermons in the series so far can be found below:
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood
What did the Baptizer mean when he saw Jesus and said, ‘Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’?
This is quite a critical question for a congregation like Mark the Evangelist if for no other reason than we sing these words nearly every Sunday. It is one of the ordinals of the Eucharist, one of the texts that are common to every communion liturgy. These include the Kyrie (Lord have mercy), the Creed, and the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy).
The choirs I sing with have extensive repertoires of Latin masses. They always conclude with the Agnus Dei – Agnus Dei qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us). It repeats this twice except the last time the miserere nobis is replaced with dona nobis pacem (give us peace).
The version we sing is a rewrite to get around the modern minds irritation with repetition and to introduce a few more concepts about the work of Christ. But still we begin by singing, ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.’
For a metaphor like ‘lamb of God’ there needs to be some context or it does not make sense. This particular image can be a bit confusing because a much stronger image in the gospels, that is to say a much more frequently used image for Jesus, is that of shepherd. Matthew, Mark and John think shepherd when they think of Jesus. Only John also thinks ‘lamb’ and only in the portion we heard this morning.
Understanding New Testament concepts often relies on knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. I remember a visiting teacher of liturgy telling us that if you need to leave out any of the set readings on a Sunday, don’t drop the Old Testament one. We can’t understand the gospels without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures.
That is certainly true for this metaphor of the lamb. However, we could start on this one without any ancient context to build on. The context of the story on its own stimulates interest and raises the eyebrow. John the Baptiser has been preaching that someone greater than he is coming along to step his mission to higher level. In the next breath he points at the man he is talking about and calls him the lamb. Not the lion or the bear or the elephant but the lamb. If that doesn’t make a first reader who has not sung the Agnus Dei hundreds of times for the last 40 years sit up and pay attention, then I don’t know what will.
John the gospel writer talks of Jesus as lamb only this once, but John the Theologian in Revelation calls Jesus the Lamb 26 times. We could write a few doctoral theses on whether the writer of John’s gospel and that of Revelation are the same person, but the lamb metaphor provides a link.
So, what was happening in the Hebrew Scriptures to help us understand what John was thinking? There are three that I have found and together they provide some of the richness and complexity for grasping the work of Jesus and his nature. Let’s go backwards through the books. This morning we heard part of the first of the Songs of the Suffering Servant of the prophet Isaiah. In Passiontide we often hear from the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant that includes the lines, ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ (Isaiah 53:7)
We are reminded of Jesus silence at his trials. John is also the one who records Jesus words, ‘17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ (John 10:17-18) Was John thinking of Jesus’ posture of silence before his accusers, his do nothing to prevent his death is why we speak of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of the world?
Let’s go back further to the Exodus, to the Passover lamb that was to be killed and eaten before the journey of escape. The blood of the lamb is given graphic mention in this story, but it is not sacrificial blood. This blood of this lamb is to be daubed on the door posts and lintels so that the angel of death will pass over the houses so marked, but the first born of households not marked with blood will be killed that night. John the Theologian lays great store on the efficacy of the blood of the lamb to maintain life for the faithful. Is this what John the Evangelist had in mind? Now to unwrap all that Revelation means of how the blood of the lamb works for the good of humanity would require a few more PhDs, so let’s leave it there.
Go back to Genesis to the strange and disturbing story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. At the last moment a lamb caught in a thicket provides the substitute sacrifice. Was John thinking of Jesus whose death is our deserving?
Well, we don’t know what John the Evangelist was thinking or what John the Baptiser was thinking when Jesus was named the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He did not go on to say, ‘Now, what I mean by …’ and then give a detailed explanation so that what it means is this or that and nothing else. It is the power of poetry, music, parables and metaphors that they do not nail down the truth but allow emotions, current contexts and the movement of the Spirit of God to shape and reshape how we know what God has done and what God is doing and the life of Jesus in our world.
However the ancient texts of our Jewish heritage tells it, the image of the lamb as a metaphor for God’s love and desire and power to save us points to weakness and vulnerability. God’s saving act in Jesus is so risky. Put the salvation of the world in the life of a human born into world where the geopolitics and religious extremism is rife – what could possibly go wrong. A world so familiar to our own – what can possibly go wrong.
I glanced at the Synod’s calendar for 2020. Did you know that yesterday was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? Well may we pray for Christian unity because if the church is better at one thing than another it is disunity. Did you know that today is designated ‘Day of Mourning, First Sunday before Australia Day’? Did you know that tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jnr Day? You probably knew that that next Sunday is ‘Australia Day’ (hurray for us) and, according to the calendar, ‘Survival Day’. The calendar asks us to remember the sin and trauma of the past, and this amidst current trauma of geopolitical chaos and natural disasters that would be less disastrous if we cared for the planet.
What goes wrong in our world yesterday, today and probably tomorrow? Just about everything. So we place our hope and trust in the vulnerable Christ who does not avoid his own destruction, who is caught in the thickets of the world gone mad, who marks humanity for life – to this one we pray:
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, give us peace – give us peace.
Baptism of Jesus
Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher
The Baptism of Jesus is a very rich subject, and I am going to leave most of it out in the interests of getting you home before lunch.
I want to work with three building blocks, The Baptism of Jesus, our baptism, and the righteousness mentioned in the text. Actually “righteousness” has some overtones of moral or legal correctness that I want to avoid. I’m going to say “rightness”, to express this sense of things being right when relationships with Jesus are right.
BAPTISM OF Jesus. Jesus, who was without sin, submitted to John’s baptism of repentance. It is part of his becoming one of us. As he descends beneath the water he is identified as one with this sinful human race. We acknowledge this in the liturgy, “Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us”.
OUR BAPTISM If Jesus identifies with us in his baptism, we are identified with him in our baptism. We are baptised into Christ. It is that mutual indwelling so simply yet profoundly expressed by John 17:21, “As you, Father are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us”.
RIGHTNESS And that is rightness. In the text, Jesus overcomes John’s unease with the words “It is proper for us to fulfil all rightness”. John accepts this and is accepted.
I wonder if you can sense this mutual acceptance in the way the symbols are arranged here. There are several ways of arranging liturgical furniture, and each has its own meaning. Since it is like this now, we’ll look at this one.
Start with the font, the reminder of baptism. I haven’t studied your behaviour closely, but I have the impression that most people acknowledge its presence only by avoiding it, or sometimes stumbling over it. I see it like the turnstile at the MCG. You pass through into another space, where exciting things will happen. The font is the beginning of sacred space. Once you have passed this point you are in the place of the baptised. There is a rightness about your being here.
Now look at the line from the font to the table. I wish we could call it the altar, the place of sacrifice, where the body of Christ is broken so that the baptised may be fed. I can give you several examples where the table/altar is also seen as the tomb. It is not just the body that is broken open to give life, but all the restrictive powers are fractured. So behind the altar is the empty cross, the new life of the resurrection.
So when you take your seat, you locate yourself between two great symbols, the font, the baptism identifying Christ with you, and also your identification with Christ, and secondly, the altar and cross that represents the final rightness between you and God. So there you are, somewhere in the space between the two symbols, the place of worship, sacrament and pilgrimage, the place of sacrifice, brokenness and renewal. There is a process going on. We speak today of spiritual journey. But that is a bit : New age-y”, a bit “me” centred The old fashioned word, “sanctification” seems stronger to me. The Spirit of God working in you, the descent of the dove on the body of Christ, till the Father says “I am well pleased”. That is rightness.
And it’s not just an individual holiness. Notice how the liturgy moves from “Jesus, bearer of our sins” to “Jesus redeemer of the world”. The rightness here is to be reproduced out there. Isaiah put it, “I have called you in righteousness … to be a light to the nations”. (Isaiah 42: 6) Even the lectionary moves us from Baptism, on this first Sunday after Epiphany through steps to Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany. You, and the world around you, will look different. You will see differently, rightly.
The three pietas of Michelangelo pick up some of these themes.
Look first at the best known, the one in St Peter’s in Rome, done when he was only 23. When Norma and I first went into St Peter’s we had two young children, so we took one each and went our separate ways, except that we kept bumping into each other as we went back to the Pieta for yet another look. It is the classic view of a young man who sees everything very clearly. It is highly polished, balanced in composition, expressing great emotion, yet serene. It is the view of someone looking in on the scene from the outside.
The Florentine pieta is different. Michelangelo is now in the fullness of adult life, in his late 60s. The figures of Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea have been added, and the face of Joseph is a self-portrait. He has placed himself in the scene. It is no longer smooth, the lines are not so clear, and the people supporting the body of Jesus with one hand support one another with the other hand. Bonhoeffer wrote a poem called “Stations on the way to freedom”. His second stanza contains this line: “Make up your mind and come out in the tempest of living”. When you are involved in the action, the lines are not so clear, the surface not so polished.
The third Pieta displays a stage yet further on. We discovered this in Milan, and I find it the most profound of them all. Clarity has given way to mystery as Michelangelo contemplates his own death. He is 89, and this is his last work. You can make out the two figures, but who is supporting who? While Mary is supporting the dead body of her son, the crucified one is supporting her. And when you look into the indistinct face of Christ, you see that Michelangelo has dared to carve his own features onto the face of Christ. Identification. Rightness. Can you see your own face on the face of Christ? We see the face of the hungry, the sick, the poor and the imprisoned as the face of Christ. But do you take the identification of Christ with you and your identification with Christ to this point? Do others see a Christlikeness in your face? Transfiguration!
As you sit amongst the baptised, ask, Where are you on your spiritual journey? How far has that descending, sanctifying dove led you, pushed you, towards rightness?
Soon you will be invited to reaffirm your baptism. As you return from the font to sit in the sacred space, I invite you to reflect on how far you have come from your beginning in baptism, and how close you feel you are to the altar, the place of sacrifice and resurrection life? Where there is a proper rightness connecting these three.
Christ’s baptism identifies him with us.
Our baptism identifies us with Christ.
Our growth in this relationship that is right, proper righteousness.
Sermon preached by Andrew Gador-Whyte
Today we are marking the Epiphany of our Lord. We celebrate the coming of the wise men paying homage to the infant they recognise as king.
We celebrate the revealing in Jesus of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles, all of us, in his saving work.
And we look forward to the coming restoration of all humanity and the whole cosmos in the reconciling death and life of Jesus Christ.
What has been revealed at epiphany is the purpose behind the life of all human cultures and indeed animals and the whole creation – participation in the life of God through Christ, Christ who is the unifying principle and radical generosity within and behind all created things.
In recounting the coming of the Gentiles to worship their infant Lord, Matthew is drawing on the rich prophetic imagery we have heard in the Old Testament today.
Isaiah and the psalmist proclaimed that exile will end, and the integrity of the nation and its families will be restored. In former times, Judah’s kings were humiliated before the violence of Babylon. But soon the nations will recognise in Judah their true centre, the epitome of human flourishing.
By God’s faithfulness, the roles will be reversed, and the kings of the Gentiles will fall before the king of Judah. But although Isaiah’s image is one of an imperial capital, it represents instead a reconciling power exercised in the world. This power will above all be for the restoration of the life of the poor and weak. A restoration beyond the violence that seems so intrinsic to the world and the exercise of power.
All of humanity, and particularly those in authority, will be transformed by obedience to the one reigning with the authority of this reconciling God. Judah’s king will act in a way that is recognisably authoritative in the true sense, that is, oriented in service towards reconciliation. Think of the spontaneous cry of the crowd in Mark’s gospel as Jesus begins his ministry – ‘A new teaching – with authority’.
God’s reconciling authority will be revealed to the nations through his people, and particularly through one who will act among God’s people with justice. This justice flows from receiving it as a gift to be worked out in the world through human integrity.
The coming of the wise men inaugurates the streaming of the nations to Jerusalem. Their homage before Jesus initiates the movement of those outside the Jewish nation now into obedience to the Promise. They herald the establishment of the Church as a wild olive tree now grafted into the Promise, now fellow heirs along with our brothers and sisters, the Jews.
Who are the wise men? There is a tradition of their being kings – for us, perhaps politicians, academics, other powerful shapers of public discourse. They are astrologers, possibly even sinister workers of magic. They are clearly not Jews. Yet these foreign, powerful, even shadowy figures have nonetheless become a means by which God discloses his reconciliation of all nations in Christ. God works through their human integrity and wisdom. Through their recognition, God makes them a source of revelation to the Gentiles.
But even more strangely, the movement of the comets and stars have themselves become a means of revelation. Time itself has not been left unchanged. With the coming of Jesus, no longer do the movements of celestial bodies dictate fate. Rather, their movements have become from now on movements of praise.
Time is now marked by the movements of the higher creation in praise of the Lord revealed at the heart of creation. So epiphany is the revelation that the whole universe has been invited into a new obedience to God in Christ.
Here God’s eternal purpose is unveiled, that all nations will find themselves included in obedience to God in Christ. But this is even more cosmic. The powers under which the universe labours, the authorities and forces which govern the world, will come to find their true purpose in obedience to Christ.
By the power of the Spirit, the Church will become a means by which God makes his will clear to all humanity. By its own obedience, the Church is to lead the nations and – startlingly –all of creation into obedience to Christ.
Matthew hints at a shift in the wise men. In searching for the anointed one, they go first to the place where authority is most visibly and brutally expressed, to Herod’s Jerusalem. But afterwards, they return by another road. They have been met by the authority of the Child, which upsets the violent balance of authority as we understand it.
TS Eliot imagined the return of wise men to their own country in this way – ‘we were led all that way for Birth or Death?… this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…’
In our times when for many the economic and social balance seems hopelessly tilted against them, there is an understandable desire for politicians who will at least upset that balance. The terrifying rise of racist and authoritarian governments is in part an indictment on the way progressive politics have often become distant from the needs of the disadvantaged. And to our shame Christians have often been complicit either in political elitism or in this impulse towards authoritarian, exclusionary, insular politics.
In these times, the Church must allow itself to be transformed by the feast of the epiphany. Our liturgical life, our life of prayer, is meant to bring us more and more deeply into unease in the ‘old dispensation’. Our life of worship and prayer, our living out of our baptism, is a slow birth out of a slow death.
Our life together in the Church is a slow dying to the violent patterns of authority that run through all our relationships and interior lives. And it is a life where, by the grace of God, the strong and the powerful grow into solidarity with the weak, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged; a life where a new unity is possible and where the lip-service of mixed economies is replaced by the radical equality of God’s coming kingdom.
The Church must be renewed in obedience to the Prince of Peace. Our urgent task – in our worship and our engagement in our national life – is to hasten to the feed-trough, where we lay the whole of our lives before the Christ Child.
And this urgent task is from beginning to end an act of joy – joy at the coming of Jesus into this world, this tangled web, these relationships, this crisis. Joy at the humanity of God who remains in our midst in this world. Joy against the crushing pessimism of our times, joy against the fearful exclusion of the stranger. Joy that persists in proclaiming that in Christ now nothing can separate my neighbour, my enemy, from life and communion.
We must allow our lives to be reordered from being the definers of our own fate, to become an act of praise. We must allow our lives to become a star pointing the nations towards Bethlehem, an invitation into the joy of obedience – just as we trust we are being renewed along with all of creation.
By the grace of God, may our lives become a constant invitation to kneel before the one who became poor, weak and vulnerable, in being born among us – the one who chose the cross as his throne.
The crucified and risen one, the Christ Child –
he it is who rules with the authority that is healing;
the one who arises as the dawn,
making our dark cities shine with their coming restoration;
the one whose body we are in the world. Amen.