Tag Archives: Judgement

15 December – Offended at Jesus

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Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

In a sentence
Jesus’ ministry troubles even his closest allies because, if this is the Messiah does, everything must change

A report this week related that Bill Shorten, the former leader of the federal opposition, was the least popular of Australian major party leaders for nearly 30 years. The apparent offensiveness of Mr Shorten and the policies of his party was enough, of course, to bring about the surprising election result of May this year.

Whatever we might make of that, what are we to make of Jesus’ declaration, ‘Blessed are they who take no offence at me’: ‘Blessed are they who are not scandalised by me’ (the key Greek word is the root of our English word ‘scandal’). We have some pretty clear ideas now about the offence given by Labor and its policies but why might people take offence at Jesus, given the kinds of things he has been doing? The blind are regaining vision, the lame are walking, illness is being overcome, the deaf are hearing, the poor are hearing good news and the dead, even, are being raised. What political leader could imagine that, if she were doing that kind of thing, she could possibly fail a political popularity test? To those for whom life is struggle for relief, Jesus is said to bring precisely what we desire, and we would consider anyone a saviour who performed such wonders for us.

So where is the offence? It is not the rumour of the miraculous. John would have expected the Messiah to be working miracles, and it is to him that Jesus makes this unexpected declaration: ‘Happy you are if I am no scandal to you.’

Indeed, John already knows and believes what is happening; it is Jesus’ incontrovertible miracles themselves which seem to cause him concern: are these the miracles the true Messiah would perform? What matters is not the miracles themselves but the kinds of miracles they are said to be, and for whom they are performed. This is to say that the offence which might be taken here is not the offence implied against ‘the laws of nature’. The offence is political; it is against the social, moral and religious order. Why is the Messiah performing this type of miracle? Why is the Messiah concerned with the blind, the ill, the poor and the dead? What are these in face of the expected approach of the reign of God?

Of course, we know – after a fashion – that God is concerned about such things. This is the source of Christian activism and political engagements, and also of many of their secular equivalents.

But the needs of the poor are not quite the point in Jesus’ comment, ‘take no offence’. That Jesus happens to help the poor is less the point here than that helping the poor is all that Jesus does; the only evidence that Jesus is the Christ is that he does these things for these people. In the context of his own preaching, John hears what Jesus is doing and wonders to himself: Is this the axe at the root of the tree? Is this the winnowing fork that sifts the just and the unjust? Is this the baptism with fire (cf. 3.1-13) which is God’s oncoming storm of righteousness?

Jesus tells the crowds, There has never been one ‘born of women’ who has been greater than John the Baptist and yet the one who can answer those questions with a Yes – the one who knows that the Messiah of this God would do such things – such a one is greater than John. The wild-eyed prophet who calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord knows that that the Lord is coming, but does not yet know the Lord. For it is the healing touch of Jesus which is John’s axe and winnowing fork.

What does it mean that the Messiah does this? It does not mean that we are to do as Jesus does. We are, of course, to do as Jesus does, but this text is not about us becoming healers or helpers. This is because the possibility that the greatest of us all might be offended at Jesus is the possibility that we might be offended at Jesus.

How could it be that a vision towards the improvement of the lot of those with less might be offensive? Mr Shorten would be right still to be pondering that. In that connection we might say that to be offended at Jesus’ expression of God’s righteousness is a ‘vote’ against him. And a vote against Jesus is a vote for what?

A vote against Jesus here is a vote for ourselves, against others. It is a vote against the thought that when God comes it might not be for us but perhaps against us. For, if we are not those in need of Jesus’ healing touch are we, then, among the ‘brood of vipers’ against whom John railed (3.7)?

In fact, the gospel doesn’t accuse us in this way. It simply raises the question: do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes for those who don’t look particularly righteous? Do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes not in disintegrating judgement but in integrating reconciliation?

Funny kind of righteousness it is which puts the axe to the root not of the person who might seem to deserve it but to the weeds which have grown strong and choked out the gospel for her. Funny kind of God it is whose winnowing fork does not separate the good from the bad but the needy from that which has made them so. Funny kind of fire it is which burns to heal.

There is a shock in ‘Blessed are those who take no offence at me.’ The shock is that we have no part in Jesus if do not, in one sense or another, know ourselves to be poor, blind, lame, in captivity, dead. If this is what the Messiah does, then the unrighteous and the unrighteous, the poor and the rich, the dead and the alive have some something to see and receive here.

The greatest of all born of women sits in a prison and wonders, Are you, who does this, the one we have been waiting for? Because, if you are, this changes everything.

1 December – The coming God

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Advent 1

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44


In a sentence
The God who is coming is the one who has already come, and comes again in the same way

On the first Sunday of Advent each year we hear a gospel reading like that today, from the synoptic gospel of the liturgical year’s new cycle of readings. These texts are strange to modern ears. First century Palestinians expected the world to end in a way not unlike Jesus describes but we have great difficulty committing to that expectation.

The difficulty is largely in that these texts appear to us to be someone else’s ideas about the arrival of God. In fact, it is the force of the ‘someone else’ which makes them mere ideas, mere speculation in our hearing. Because we cannot find ourselves in them or – more to the point – because we can’t find these ideas naturally within ourselves they are mere ideas, and don’t seem to be very good ones at that.

But this ought not to trouble us too much if we understand how the Scriptures work. For not even Jesus’ own ‘ideas’ are to be found in the Scriptures. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is not that they are the ideas of Jesus which makes them important.

This is because, despite all appearances, such passages are not in the Scriptures simply as theories about the end of the world. They are, rather, part of the Scriptures of a community which believed they had something to do with that end of the world which has already been seen in the person of Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection. This is the true end of all things, around which all other Scriptural thoughts revolve.

And so, our text this morning is not speculation or even sure information about what will happen ‘next’. If Jesus ever said anything along the lines of our reading this morning – and he almost certainly did – the importance of what he said is not in his authority as teacher but in that he himself is the ‘Son of Man’ he describes. The ‘Son of Man’ is a complex figure in the New Testament, drawing on several Old Testament concepts in nuanced ways. Yet, in the end, we do justice to the concept by recognising that Jesus himself is this figure. This is because, in the end, Jesus is the reference point for everything which matters in the Scriptures.

Who he is, then, deeply affects what he speaks about in these sayings. Or – to put it more concretely – any approach of the Son of Man will be in accord with what we have already seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who is coming is the God who has already been in Jesus. That Jesus is Lord – that Jesus is the Son of Man – changes everything, even what seems to be Jesus’ own understanding of what is yet to come.

The effect of this is to introduce a deep irony into our hearing of Jesus’ words in today’s readings. For if Jesus himself is already come as the Son of Man, then the result has not been the radical shaking of the world in old-style apocalyptic terms. Amazingly, and in stark contrast with the expectation, the Son of Man comes and scarcely anyone notices, even after the resurrection.

But this hiddenness of the end of the world is not a weak thing. Remember that there is a resurrection from the dead at the heart of this story – the radical creation of something new from the nothingness of death.

For the New Testament asks the unexpected question: what is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is the Son of Man, is the Christ, is judgement, is grace; what is the end of the world if Jesus is the economy, is the environment, is the significance of death? What is climate change or a terrorist attack or crushed protests in Hong Kong, if Jesus is Lord?

‘What is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord?’ is an important question  because our worlds are full of endings, full of public and personal ‘apocalyptic’ moments which come crashing down upon us: the news of serious illness, the death of one we love, lasting disability from an accident, road rage, divorce, the loss of employment or reputation. These are apocalyptic not only in the narrow sense of ‘thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening’ but also in the sense that they reveal who we are and who we think God is (‘apocalypse’ come from Greek words meaning ‘[bring] from hiddenness’). ‘Why did this happen to me?’ is not just the pathos-filled cry of the suddenly wounded; it speaks deeply of my sense of my own righteousness and of God’s obligations, both now under serious strain.

The same applies, of course, to the positive ‘apocalypses’ in our lives: falling in love, the birth of a child, the receipt of a much needed gift. We don’t usually ask ‘Why did this happen to me?’ on these occasions but even that is telling.

For despite our assumptions about how our worlds should end or continue, if God is part of the picture there is no real ‘why’ about what good or ill happens, because God is not properly part of any equation.

To find God in these things – to see God’s proper relation to the ups and downs of our lives – is a difficult and rare thing, because we prefer life to be an equation. That God does not fit into this preference makes it difficult to see God, present in God’s own strange way. It is rare, that is, to hold that the world is God’s natural habitat, that God could be with us in the midst of all this mess and still be God, still be calling us and enabling us to be more richly and deeply human.

To borrow from the imagery Jesus uses, we all experience the same world of gift and threat. In his example, two are working on preparing the same rows in the same field, or working together on the same meal in the same kitchen, but this is the work of God only for one of them. It is not so much, then, that one is taken and one is left behind. It is rather that one was not really, fully, there in the first place.

And this is the question put to us when God comes: are you really there in the midst of the swirling world? Do you know, in that storm, who you are and where God is? The answer for us all will be, at some time – most likely just now – that we do not know: that we have not heard, or that we have forgotten, or that we fear that God’s naming of us is not true. The question in Jesus’ vivid account of the end is not so much ‘will you be ready?’ but will you recognise God as the one who has brought you ‘safe thus far’, and who comes finally to ‘lead you home’?

Such recognition takes practice – eyes trained to distinguish between dots and blurs on the horizon, ears attuned to hear unexpected harmonies in life’s discord. For this we have the faith of the church, not that Jesus is Lord – mere information about God – but that the crucified Jesus is Lord: that God is shown to be present in our very midst, whether in the unbounded possibilities of gurgling life in a manger or in the hopeless last breath of a executed criminal.

God is already shown to be present to the height and length, the depth and breadth of our worlds.

This is to say that the Son of Man does come at an unexpected hour – this very hour, claiming us again as God’s own. Our end is in God’s beginning with us, which has already begun.

Now, then, St Paul reminds us, is the time to wake from sleep and walk in the Lord’s light.

25 August – God’s stillborn children

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Pentecost 11

Hosea 13:4-8, 13:12-14:1
Psalm 32
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 13:31-35

In a sentence:
We are called to ‘step up’ to be the children of God

Does God really send the cruel Assyrians as punishment for Israel’s sin, so that the people’s ‘little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open’?

The warning that God would do this appears often enough in the prophets, those champions of justice who fire our political imaginations and yet whom we would like to edit here, and more than just a little.

We hesitate at this point because this ancient terrorism continues as modern terrorists maim and kill for God’s sake. We hesitate because Hosea’s reading of history as a sign of God’s judgement also continues: AIDS or earthquakes or bushfires have been declared by some to be the response of God to this or that moral failure. We hesitate for our own sake: if something goes wrong in my life, did I deserve it? The plaintive cry, ‘Why has this happened to me?’, makes the connection Hosea seems to make: perhaps it happened because of sin.

And not least, we hesitate because we cannot reconcile the God of love with such brutality. Does God do such things? Does God pose to us this kind of threat?

The short answer is, No: AIDS, the earthquake, the bushfire and the Assyrians were coming anyway. And yet Hosea connects historical events and judgement; we cannot simply dismiss him and the other prophets here.

It helps to pose another question: Does God send Jesus to die on the cross? At first glance, this is not quite the same question, even if the idea is equally grating to modern sensibility. Yet we have already noticed the similarity between what happened to Jesus and what happened to Israel (Hosea 3.2). On this understanding, Jesus becomes the ‘little one’ dashed, the expectant mother under cruel steel.

But if there are similarities between the fates of Israel and Jesus, there is also an important difference: in Hosea, the oncoming storm is the terrifying Assyrian army; in the case of Jesus, the oncoming storm is Israel itself – Jerusalem, the only place where a prophet should be killed (Luke 13). The question about God being a threat to us in the form of an army or some other plague becomes one of whether we are a threat to God. These two scriptural threads portray, respectively, God and the people of God approaching each other with murderous intent.

And yet, there is an asymmetry here, and it is not that God always wins. The difference between these two conflicts becomes clearer through Hosea’s evocative mockery of Israel – in the guise of ‘Ephraim’ – in the middle of our reading this morning:

13 The pangs of childbirth come for [Israel],
   but he is an unwise son;
for at the proper time he does not present himself
   at the mouth of the womb. 

Hosea describes Israel as having refused to be born, and so as not being really alive. This makes no sense literally, of course. Clearly they were alive as most of us are. And this, to allow ourselves to be drawn into their story, was their problem: in their identity as the children of God (Hosea 11), they are not quite born. Israel is ‘unborn’ in the sense of Nicodemus, whom Jesus told, You must be born again (John 3).

God does not ‘send’ the Assyrians, in the sense of set the historical wheels in motion. Rather, their coming is cast as judgement, echoes the judgement. A child which will not be born is death to itself, and to its mother. Hosea proclaims the devastating effect of the Assyrians as proof of what is already the case: Israel is stillborn. God is the context of the Assyrian conquest, not its cause, and as the context God brings a particular reading of that disaster. The Assyrians are just doing what Assyrians do: conquest and pillage; Hosea overlays the disaster with meaning in order to reveal what is at stake between God and Israel.

And now we come to the asymmetry of what I called the murderous the approaches of God and Israel to each other. If Israel is a son who refuses to born, there was another son waiting to be born in our readings this morning, described by Paul:

But when the [proper time] had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… (Galatians 4.4-7).

Jesus approaches Israel as one born ‘at the proper time’ (literally, ‘in the fullness of time’) and here is the contrast with Israel in Hosea. In Jesus is one born, in the fullness of that expression: he is one really alive. And so his death becomes a real death and different from that which Israel suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, or from what anyone else suffers. For, being truly born and truly alive, only Jesus really moves in the gospel story. Jerusalem is static, waiting for him. The same might be said of Israel and the Assyrians. Both these really only do what usually happens here: the weak is subject to the strong, and nothing new is seen, nothing really moves. It is only when God claims the Assyrians that movement happens, that meaning enters, that a new word is said and heard – even if it is a deathly word:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, [we heard last week]
   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
   and my judgement goes forth as the light (6.5).

The crushing army becomes the occasion for the revealing of God’s justice and of the expectation that God’s justice shape the lives of God’s people.

The Assyrians, or the leaders in Jerusalem, or the earthquake, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Americans, or the ecological apocalypse are always coming. The world ticks over as Ecclesiastes describes: ‘for everything, a season’ (Ecclesiastes 3). But this is not truly an unfolding of history, not really a movement, not really the entry of a new thing under the sun; it is just the world turning, around and around, and our lives upon it a vain chasing of the wind.

Only God really moves, and God’s true children. The proof of this is that Jesus moves even when he is supposed to be dead. The question which Hosea puts – with the rest of the Scripture – is, When the time of the sword comes, which kind of children will we be?

God’s call, to shift to the similar metaphor in Paul, is to enter into our inheritance, to cease being ‘slaves’ buffeted by the whim of a master and to become true children – and so heirs – of God’s promise. To be less than this is really only to wait in fear and without understanding for whatever horror might be about to rise on our horizon, and to set ourselves for defence against it.

For if we are true children of this God, we know that God comes with every dawn, looking to see in our response to the joys and terror of the new day: whose children are we?

The children of God know that nothing can separate them from God in Christ Jesus the Son, our brother by adoption (Romans 8; Galatians 4).

Let us seek, then, to be children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5.5), that we might, in all things, see clearly our way in the ways of God, and that others might see with us.

2 September – Having life

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Pentecost 15

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 15
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In a sentence:
Love is defined in the coming of the Son in Jesus

Christian faith has an extraordinary capacity to become its opposite, at least in the hands of Christians. We have seen this recently in the scandals about cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the churches. We can see it also less dramatically but no less seriously in understandings of how God deals with us.

Consider, for example, John’s declaration this morning: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (5.12). This, with a good number of similar verses in the New Testament, is a matter of scandal even in many churches. The scandal is the exclusivity it seems to imply: that only those who ‘have’ Jesus have life. This seems obviously to be wrong on account what we’ve just noted – that Christian confession is no guarantee of moral righteousness. And even when this isn’t the case, it seems seriously wrong to suggest that only those who know and confess Jesus ‘have life’, that there are not other ways to life.

Often posited over against the notion that ‘having’ Jesus is the only way to life is the confession that ‘God is love’. God’s love is felt to ‘supersede’ any requirement of confession that Jesus is the Son, to overcome the limited scope for life which knowing and confessing Jesus seems to imply.

The irony is that it is the same John who tells us both that only those who have Jesus have life and that God is love. We address any embarrassment about the need for confessing Jesus only if we force a split right down the middle of John’.

We might believe we have good reason for this, that we can see more we know than John could. But, then, we cannot then sensibly appeal to John’s declaration that God is love. For to do this would be to turn Christian faith into its opposite, no less so than when the church covers up the abuse of innocents for the sake of its own good name.

This inversion, this making-opposite, is in that what we do here is turn the statement ‘God is love’ into a premise – a starting place – rather than a conclusion.

For John, ‘God is love’ is a conclusion. Love is nothing other than what God does, and the central, fundamental thing God does is send the Son in the person of Jesus that we might live through him (4.9,10). John’s ‘take home’ message is not so much ‘God is love’ but what we’ve heard him emphasise a number of times now – that the crucified human being Jesus is the divine Son. That this is the case – or at least the confession – is the meaning of ‘God is love’.

‘God is love’, then, cannot ‘correct’ any overemphasis the connection between Christian confession and having life. For John, having life is what comes with seeing that the crucified Jesus is the Son; life is not some other thing than this. Love is what the cross means and does, as the very cross of God in the Son.

It is, in fact, not clear how the cross does this. There is no divine equation or formula or recipe which shows how the cross of God saves. John knows only that it does save, does bring life.

And so it is at least clear what the cross means. It means life: a life founded on the cross as an act of love. For John, this life springs from, and so looks like, love.

Our anxiety with John’s connection of ‘having’ the Son with ‘life’ – including ‘eternal’ life – comes from our concern for the lovely – those whom we love – and our concern for the loving – those in whom we see good things. That is, in rejecting John’s connection life with Jesus, we make judgements: this one deserves love, deserves life, because of what we see and judge to be of value in him or her.

The declaration that God is love, however, is not a judgement about anything in you or me. We want to say: if we are valuable, then God will love us. John says, God loves us – we must be valuable. Nowhere in John or in the gospel as a whole is love bound up with judgement. Nowhere is there an ‘If this (the condition) then love (the judgement)’.

Love is, rather, judgement overcome. ‘God is love’ does not supersede the confession of Jesus as Lord; it is the meaning of it. The two things are the different ways of saying the same point.

And so we are not to judge the love of others, or their loveliness – for better or for worse. We are to love them, as God has loved us, because it is in this kind of love that God is met, that we have life.

This life is not a thing we have earned, and so not a possession we hold; it is a common-wealth. It creates, it transforms, it connects – to God, to others.

To have the Son is to have life in all its fullness. It is to see life not in effort and reward, not in what we hold to be lovely, but in need met with gift. The need is very great; the sign of our need is Good Friday. The gift is even greater: it is Easter’s transformation of Good Friday from our judgement of God into life together beyond judgement, life on God’s own terms.

Imagine what ‘Life together beyond judgement’ would look like. Imagine what it would look like in the family, in the work place, in the church, across divisive borders, across racial and gender divides.

To ‘have’ the Son, to confess that Jesus is Lord, is to have begun to imagine such things, and to live them, because Jesus is where our own experience of love without judgement has begun. Discovering this, and then exploring what it means in the lives we are given to live, is the meaning of ‘God is love,’ something which we speak only in hope as we ‘prove’ it in testing and demonstration.

Our faith does not divide us from others, neither does it place us above or before them. It turns us towards them, that the life we are discovering in God might be uncovered by them also.

To ‘have the Son’ is to have work to do. This is life.

Let us, then, live that work, that the world may know…

LitBit Commentary – On Confession of Sin 1

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



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