Monthly Archives: August 2020

Sunday Worship at MtE – 30 August 2020

The worship service for Sunday 30 August 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

30 August – For God’s sake

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Pentecost 13

Ezekiel 36:16-32a
Psalm 8
Matthew 16:21-26

‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’.

In this way we exhort our children not to take too seriously the mean things which might be uttered in the playground. What then are we to do with a God who seems to take too seriously the unkind things said about God?

36.20…when [Israel] came to the nations…they profaned my holy name, in that it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ 21But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.

22Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name…

The point is driven home a couple of times in our present text, and we’ve also heard it before (Ezekiel 20).

To act for the ‘sake’ of something is generally to act for its benefit, to bring it direct or implied honour. Acting for ‘sake’, then, is also cast as a kind of sacrifice – something we didn’t have to do but did ‘for the sake’ of (whatever).

In Ezekiel, however, God’s action is explicitly – and with emphasis – for God’s own sake or, more specifically, for the sake of God’s ‘name’. In view of what we normally do in acting for the sake of something, this makes God’s motivation here seem self-involved, self-serving and so almost petty.

At the same time, the effect of this apparent self-interest is the restoration (or at least promised restoration) of Israel. This, surely, is not petty or self-interested.

From this, at least two possibilities emerge to account for what God says and does here. One is that the restoration of God’s people springs from God’s ‘vanity’. On this reading, God thinks, ‘They are saying nasty things about me’, and acts to improve God’s own reputation. If perhaps it seems not a little impious, this nevertheless works reasonably well as an explanation of why God moves from punishment and rejection to forgiveness and reconciliation.

The other possible motivation for God here, and one equally impious in a different kind of way, is that the being of God’s people is intimately and ineluctably, inextricably, linked to the very being of God. God’s concern with reputation is indeed petty for a god, unless God is who God says God is.

Important here is that God’s name is not like our names. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ doesn’t apply to God. The ‘name’ of God is like the ‘appearance of the likeness of the glory of God’ we considered back in Ezekiel’s extraordinary opening vision (1.28). The name of God is as close as we can get to God. It is a placeholder we use to mark where God would be if God is anywhere, a sign to wave if there were anything which could catch God’s attention.

Our schoolyard chant distinguishes between us and our name – it is our bones which are really us, while a name is a mere label. But, for God, God’s name is God’s bones. The broken bones of God – the broken bones of God’s body, Israel – amount to a kind of misnaming of God, a ‘calling God names’.

Here we might also note that it is nothing Israel does in exile which causes the dishonouring of God. It is rather God’s own action in bringing them into exile (36.20).

We arrive, then, at a deep mystery: The reduction of Israel is a reduction of God, by God’s own hand. It is by both God and Israel that God is brought into disrepute among the nations. A restoration of God’s reputation, then, requires a restoration of Israel, because this God survives the death of God’s people and feels their loss.

This is not the impiety of suggesting God is vain but the impiety of tying God so closely to a particular historical people.

Ezekiel is not the first in the Scriptures to hold this impiety, and not the last. The last is the gospel of Jesus, in which a particular human being is condemned, and with him is also condemned before all the God whose kingdom he proclaimed and embodied. To utter another impiety – Jesus becomes, on Ezekiel’s terms – something of a profaning of the name of the God he proclaimed: ‘…let him come down from the cross now’, cry those who witness the crucifixion,

‘and we will believe in him. He trusts in [‘]God[‘]; let [‘]God[‘] deliver him now, if he wants to…’ (Matthew 27.42f)

But to pick up where Ezekiel goes with this: if God is who Jesus said God is, and if Jesus had the relationship to God his words and actions suggested, the resurrection is not an impossible ‘miracle’ but a matter of divine ‘necessity’, if God’s name is not to continue to be mocked. The mockery of Jesus on the cross is the mockery of the God he proclaimed. The resurrection of Jesus is, then, ‘for the sake of God’s name’.

The upshot of all this is that whether condemned as Israel was for getting God wrong, or condemned as Jesus was for getting God right, hope lies not in us but in the God who’s very being is tied to ours.

To have been chosen by God is to have had our lives tied to God’s, such that we are now and forever more, ‘for God’s sake’. Wherever we find ourselves, the question of who we are and what we can look forward to as our hope is always answered with the name of God.

This is surely good news for anyone who suspects that their own name will not be enough to carry them over, and a challenge to any who imagine their name will suffice.

Let us then rejoice, or repent, as God’s name and promise gives cause.

MtE Update – August 28 2020

  1. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster  (Aug 26)
  2. Next edition of MtW. If you have something you would be able to prepare for inclusion in the next issue of Mark the Word, please let Rosemary or Suzanne know!
  3. This Sunday August 30 we continue our preaching series following the prophet Ezekiel. The focus text this week will be Ezekiel 36, with the set reading from Matthew as well, see here for comment on the Matthew text.  
  4. A brief account of ministry of the saint(s) commemorated this Sunday can be found here: August 31 – John Bunyan  

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 22A; Proper 17A (August 28-September 3)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Exodus 3:1-15 see also TBA By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 105:1-6: 23-26, 45c

Series II:

Matthew 16:21-28 see also  TBA By the Well podcast on this text

Romans 12:9-21

23 August – The challenge and comfort of the closeness of God

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Pentecost 12

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 30-32
2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

A friend of mine recently commented that, in the present circumstances, he was feeling a palpable sense of living through history. Of course we are always living through history in varying ways: our personal histories, family and local histories, and even taking our part in world history. In part accelerated by increased connectivity between all parts of the world, we are constantly aware that there is always something of significance going on somewhere at any given moment. We seem far removed from the BBC news broadcast in 1930 which was forced to end 10 minutes early because there was nothing newsworthy left to report.

This palpable sense of living through history, however, points to the present context of a once in a century pandemic. It feels like we are not simply passing idly through time, but are experiencing the sort of thing that will be recorded in history books, and studied by future generations. The kind of event which in the past has prompted the question, “where were you when …?” The key difference being we will all know the almost universal answer: at home.

This sense that the road of history has come up to meet us, and here we are compelled to journey through it, seems akin to the feeling the prophet Ezekiel is seeking to evoke in our reading today from chapter 18.

Throughout the prophetic utterances of Ezekiel we hear, often with stark imagery and detail, about the judgement due to the people of Israel, and the nations around. Spoken into the context of exile, when God’s people were taken from their land and subjugated, Ezekiel’s prophecies interpret this experience of suffering and dispossession as the result of divine judgement. This judgement is due because of the idolatry and sinfulness of the Israelites: their unfaithfulness to God’s holiness and God’s commands.

As we read through Ezekiel, any notion that the Israelites can be a people apart from God is definitively rejected. They cannot make of themselves what they like. The Israelites cannot fashion their devotion, their common life, or their identity in whatever manner they see fit. The call of God comes relentlessly through Ezekiel: the Israelites are God’s people because they belong to God . They are God’s people because they were called out of Egypt, because they were formed into a people by the law, because they were known by God. There can be no self-reliance, no sense of a people persisting through history apart from the God who has formed them, and sustains them. Ezekiel makes clear the condemnation for Israel’s departure from God, and the judgement which follows from their infidelity.

In one sense, Ezekiel 18 might be construed as a sort of relief from the unceasing judgement of previous chapters. In this text the focus shifts from the broad sweep of geo-political change: the Babylonians rising as an agent of divine retribution against Israel; the history of God’s people narrated against the drama of God’s long-standing faithfulness to unfaithful Israel. In chapter 18 the story becomes, in an odd way, intimate. The striking images of winged beasts, and executioners, and desolate temples, give way to stories of parent and child.

“Know that all lives are mine,” says the Lord, “the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine …”

Against all that has been said about the grand sweep of history here Ezekiel lays out that while the whole world is held in God’s hand, so too is every life. The life of the parent, as well as the life of the child. The God who is Lord over the rise and fall of nations is portrayed here as also incredibly close.

It is tempting to hear in these words a comfort against the backdrop of crisis and exile. God holds each of us, owns each of us, keeps us: every one. Perhaps, after all, everything will be okay.

Yet, in the midst of crisis the closeness of God can rather feel, not like a comfort, but like a cold and bitter challenge. The God who is close cannot plead ignorance, or that we are collateral damage. God holds every life, and yet … the city is destroyed. The people are dragged away from their homes – or locked within them. Many of these lives perish. Far from easing the burden of God’s judgement, this reflection on the closeness of God can make this judgement feel even more acute.

The received wisdom, which might have helped us through the crisis, must be set aside. As the proverb says, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Perhaps it isn’t us: our forebears were unfaithful, and so we are only bearing the consequence of their actions. While it is true that we are suffering, perhaps after all, we are not the direct targets of God’s judgement. This was not merely the conventional wisdom, but the law. The law sets out that the iniquity of parents will be born by their children, “to the third and fourth generation of those who reject God.” (Deut. 5.9)

Ezekiel challenges this wisdom, and even this law. Through this chapter Ezekiel sets out the story of a parent, and a child, and their child: three generations. The Grandparent is righteous, and so shall live; their unrighteous child shall die for their own sins; and the righteous grandchild shall live, despite the sins of their father. The point Ezekiel is making is not about locating the reader as an individual in the midst of the crowd. As if what mattered was who exactly is at fault for an entire nation being cast aside and dispossessed of its land. Rather, Ezekiel is locating the reader as the focal point of history: it is this generation which is experiencing the judgement of God, it is this generation who is responsible for turning back in faithfulness, it is you : now, dislocated in exile: you are the ones who must walk towards righteousness and life, and away from guilt and death. The road of history has come up to meet you. The responsibility we find here is not the responsibility of blame for what has happened, but the responsibility for acting now in order to shape the life which might arise out of the present circumstances.

Ezekiel’s prophetic address is perhaps not so far away for those of us in the present circumstances, with a palpable sense of living through history. What matters is not who is to blame, but that we (all of us): now, dislocated in our homes: we are the ones who must walk towards righteousness and life, and away from guilt and death. The road of history has come up to meet us. God has come close.

The comfort of God’s closeness cannot be heard without first hearing the seriousness of this responsibility. We are called to respond, called to be concerned with the oppression of the poor and the needy, called to give food to the hungry, to exact true justice, and adhere to the ways of the Lord. Let us cast away a narrow focus on ourselves, and step into the moment which has come to us.

The echo of Ezekiel can be heard saying: God comes to us in this moment, and calls us to respond. This is a serious responsibility.

But let us be clear: God does come to us in this moment; and does call us, that we would respond. The responsibility is great, and also a sure sign of God’s closeness in the midst of crisis. We must not think that God is only a figment of history, or that God is always to come. God is close to us even now. And though it is as much a challenge as a comfort, it is a comfort. Because God seeks for us a renewal in this moment: a new heart and a new spirit. God desires for us to meet this moment and turn in faithfulness and live. God desires us, yearns for us. As a mother yearns for their daughter, and desires that they would grow into goodness. God takes no pleasure in death and suffering, but calls and beckons us – evermore, even now – to come close to God as God has come close to us.

What it means for God to hold the whole world in God’s hand, all of history, and each of us, is not a simple accounting of rights and wrongs. But is a yearning to be bound to us, and us bound to God; a desire that we should turn and be transformed, renewed not by wisdom and law, but by a new Spirit of the living God. In the midst of chaos, uncertainty, and what feels like the crisis of divine judgement, Ezekiel reminds us that God does not cast us down from afar, but turns the divine eyes of life towards us.

May we embrace the God who comes embraces us, yearning with God for the life of the world.

Come Holy Spirit. Come.


Sunday Worship at MtE – 23 August 2020

The worship service for Sunday 23 August 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – August 21 2020

  1. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster  (Aug 18)
  2. The most recent Synod eNews (August 20)
  3. Next edition of MtW. If you have something you would be able to prepare for inclusion in the next issue of Mark the Word, please let Rosemary or Suzanne know!
  4. See the latest update as to what has been happening at Hotham Mission
  5. This Sunday August 23 we continue our preaching series following the prophet Ezekiel, although our preacher will be Matt Julius, and student at the UCA’s theological college. The focus text this week will be Ezekiel 18, with the set reading from Matthew as well, see here for comment on the Matthew text.  
  6. A brief account of ministry of the saint(s) commemorated this Sunday can be found here: August 28 – Augustine of Hippo  

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 21A; Proper 16A (August 21-August 27)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Exodus 1:8-2:10  see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 124 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Series II:

Matthew 16:13-20 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Romans 12:1-8

Sunday Worship at MtE – 16 August 2020

The worship service for Sunday 16 August 2020 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

16 August – The thread through our lives

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Pentecost 11

Ezekiel 20:1-9
Psalm 67
Matthew 15:10-20

In a sentence
What holds us together and makes us ‘us’ is God’s address to us, God’s holding of us

Our present circumstances present a considerable challenge to our assumptions about who we are, what we can expect, what control we have over our destiny.

If we are honest about what we’re experiencing, and are to take seriously chatter about the development of ‘new normals’, we might ask what it is we think makes us who and what we are – what it is we seek to preserve in our struggle against the new normal, and what new realities we might look to see develop there.

These are questions which concern our identity. This identity is not merely the kind of thing displayed in a passport or a driver’s license. Those details are only a ‘presenting’ identity which locates us for a particular moment and purpose. But identity is not merely momentary – a here-and-now thing. Identity is also about what makes us continuous with what we were, and what we might yet be. Put differently, our identity is about what makes us identical with ourselves – me, now, with the child I once was, and with the person I might yet be, and whatever – if anything – continues when I die.

Reflecting on what it is upon which are threaded all the pieces we are, we might propose that our body is what holds us together, continuing as it does more or less intact through time for as long as we are alive. A problem here, of course, is that bodies don’t last all that long. If we were to invoke the notion of ‘soul’ to overcome this problem, we then have the difficulty of telling one soul from another – which is what having an would identity allow us to do. Souls require some link to their bodies in order to be the particular souls that they are. Whatever a soul is, it is nothing without reference to a body. And yet bodies eventually stop.

And so one way faith has dealt with the problem of continued identity is the notion of resurrection – specifically the resurrection of the body. It needs to be ‘of the body’ because otherwise we could not know that the thing raised was continuous with the thing which died; recall how the risen Jesus proves his identity by showing the disciples the wounds of the crucifixion. Yet the resurrection of the body raises a whole lot of other problems which we’ll not go into now other than to say that ‘body’ here doesn’t mean quite what we usually think it means, but it does mean at least more than a spooky soul(!).

I raise all of this because the events described in Chapter 20 of Ezekiel concern the interaction of Israel with God over the course of some 700 years, from Israel in Egypt all the way to the exile out which Ezekiel speaks. At each of the crisis points along the way – all rather death-like – the continuing identity of Israel is under threat. Israel is regularly at a point of turning away from God, of ceasing to be the one who ‘wrestles with God’ – the meaning of the name ‘Israel’.

What keeps Israel ‘continuous’, however, is nothing in its own choices. The thread which strings together these various episodes – and many more besides – is the constant presence of Israel’s God, something altogether external to Israel. We have previously noted a ‘refrain’ throughout Ezekiel to do with the revelation of God’s own character: ‘and you shall know that I am the Lord’. Had we heard the whole of Chapter 20 today we would have heard several times another refrain. In response to this or that unfaithfulness of Israel in the story, God remarks:

I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them…, to make an end of them. But I acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations… (8f; cf. 13f and 21f)

The possibility of ‘wrath’ is the threat to Israel’s continuity, the point at which it could be dissipated and forgotten, its identity dissolved – ‘I thought I would pour out my wrath…’ At each point along the way, then, it is not anything within Israel itself but God’s own action ‘for the sake of my name’ which maintains Israel’s identity.

This opens for us another way of thinking about what makes us, about what provides us with continuity of identity, about what ‘brackets’ our lives. It is not merely that Israel ‘survives’ because God does not act to destroy it. It is that Israel does not stop being God’s people because God continues to address it, despite its unfaithfulness. When God acts ‘for the sake of my name’ – this is not a petty preservation of God’s own reputation but the grounds of Israel continuing to be identified in relation to God.

This is to say that Israel’s identity is found in God’s very address to it. God names Israel as God’s own: ‘and then you will be my people, and I will be your God’ is another refrain we find in Ezekiel (11.20; 14.11; 36.28; 37.27).

Over the course of those 700 years, and since then, Israel’s continuity is not guaranteed by there being a few still standing at any particular time. Israel’s continuity as Israel, as itself, continues because God keeps ‘saying’ ‘Israel’. Chapter 20 recalls much to be lamented in the tale of Israel. But the very fact that the story is retold with Israel and God as the central actors returns Israel to its true identity. Israel’s character may be sadly wanting but its identity is undeniable – Israel is the one which belongs to God.

This is the case even when Israel seems totally lost – dead, for all intents and purposes. What restores Israel – what resurrects it – is the address of God: ‘you are mine’. To be claimed by God is to be restored to life, from whatever state we are in.

So it is for all resurrection moments, whether the restorations of ancient Israel, the raising of Jesus or coming to faith today.

Whatever it is we think most fundamentally makes us who we are – whether it be our body, our race or culture, our family, our gender, our achievements, our failures, our enemies or anxieties, our being shut down for fear of the coronavirus – these are not the threads of our identity but are rather threaded upon God’s own identity, which causes God to claim us as God’s own.

There may be much of our story on that divine thread which is tarnished, and corrupted, and rank with the stench of death. But this God is a thread upon which all things become jewels. This is the miracle of resurrection by this God: not a mere call to continue but a claiming of all that we have been and done as God’s very own, now made whole and presented back to us as also our own, as a blessed aspect of our identity.

This resurrecting call is the constant in our lives, the key to our identity and so also to our future.

Who we are is not our circumstances. No circumstance – not even those deathly things we weave around ourselves – cannot be re-woven into a robe of righteousness, a garment of joy.

For our name, our identity, is ever on the lips of God: You-Are-Mine.

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