Tag Archives: justice

4 August – Known by God

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 8

Hosea 4:1-6, 12-14
Psalm 139
Galatians 4:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

In a sentence:
Knowing God is knowing that God knows us,
and loves us nevertheless

Hosea is not very strong on what some might characterise as the ‘classic’ prophetic theme of social justice. There are a couple of references in his preaching to moral breakdown – we’ve heard some of them today – but the emphasis on the poor, outcast and weak we hear in other prophetic voices is not so clearly to the fore in Hosea.

His interest is more in social failure as a sign of a deeper shortcoming in the life of Israel. What is going wrong in social relations is not merely a number of immoral choices instead of moral ones. As we have now noted a couple of times, sin – good quality sin – is always rational, always defensible, and so always arguably necessary. Unless we get to the heart of the problem, sin is just this or that particular thing we might have done wrong.

The deeper failing Hosea identifies is a lack of ‘knowledge’ of God: ‘There is no knowledge of God in the land…my people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge’ (4.1). Yet the knowledge which is lacking here is not knowledge ‘about’ God, or even the knowledge that God ‘exists’. The ‘knowledge’ which interests Hosea is that kind of knowing which involves an intimate integration with the thing known.

We get an insight into the extent of this integration in older translations like that of Genesis 4.1 in the King James Version: ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain…’ The Old Testament uses widely ‘knowledge’ as what we might be tempted to call a ‘euphemism’ for sexual intercourse; to know someone ‘in the biblical sense’ is to have moved into knowledge of the MA15+ kind.. Yet ‘know’ here is really only a euphemism for sex from our perspective as those who consider knowledge to be principally a ‘head’ thing. What matters scripturally is not the means or subject of the knowing but the intimacy it entails. To know something in the fullest scriptural sense – another person (sexually or not), or one’s craft, or one’s place in the world – is to have an intimate integration with it, to the extent even that we can understand ourselves to be known by whatever it is we know. The mutuality of the sexual metaphor is almost indispensable here.[1]

To say, then, that there is no knowledge of God in the land is not to say that no one thinks any more about religion – there is plenty of religion going on. It is to say that where there was intimacy with this God there is now not, and that other intimacies are now in place.

If we are made for this kind of intimacy with God, then we will naturally seek it: we will seek to know and to be known, to possess and to be possessed. This is not only in human relationships but in the broadest sweep of our being: we are built to seek a sense of ‘belonging’, of being part of a whole, of ‘fitting’ into a bigger picture. We express this in the fact that we attach ourselves to things, whether people, objects, ideas, or gods.

But what is important here is that although we do attach ourselves to such things, they do not determine the attachment. We understand ourselves to be the bestowers of meaning and value: this is life-giving, that is not; this is good, that is not good. The modern social media ‘like’ is a stroke of religious genius: in this we are fulfilled as arbiters of good and evil (Genesis 3), even if we might yet change our minds and exercise the power to ‘unlike’. That we might unlike is to indicate that it’s our choice of what is good which matters, and not the thing we choose. 

In the face of this – several thousand years before ‘like’ symbols appeared web pages – Hosea proposes a different choosing, a different knowing. We have already noted how Hosea takes the sexual metaphor over from the local pagan fertility cults which were so tempting to many in Israel (sermon, July 21). Yet he presses the metaphor further by portraying God as an active and interested participant in this ‘knowing’ intercourse.

That is, God’s activity and interest is not in mere participation as one possible partner among many. God knows before being known. In a whole other conversation, St Paul uses exactly the same twist in what we heard from Galatians today. There he makes a self-correction which might almost go unnoticed. Paul recasts salvation not as the obvious coming to know God but unexpectedly as coming to be known by God.[2] This is unexpected because piety holds that God knows everything and so has always ‘known’ us. To counter this we must then modify Paul slightly: salvation is coming to know ourselves known by God.

The failure of Israel – which is the failure of any one of us – is not that the wrong option for god has been chosen among the many options available. This would be a mere moral failure – like sleeping with a person you should not have, or not declaring an income source you should have, or hoarding chocolate. Moral failure matters but it is not at the heart of Hosea’s preaching.

Hosea announces, rather: your true self exists in knowing yourself known. This is what our psalmist today (139) understands.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, the beautiful intimacy that psalm is a terrifying prospect:

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me….
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
… 4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Such intimate knowledge could only be terrifying in a world in which we cannot help but be broken – and so in which we fall desperately short of the glory of God. Yet Hosea declares more than this. For our true selves exist in knowing ourselves known, and knowing ourselves nevertheless still loved.

For all the rage in Hosea’s preaching, the love and desire remains. The confronting ‘whore’ chapter we considered last week ends like this:

14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
   and bring her into the wilderness,
   and speak tenderly to her. 
15 …There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
   as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 

2.16On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband’, and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal’… 18I will make for you a covenant on that day…I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. 

Our Psalmist proposes, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’ (139.11)

But Hosea agrees with the poet’s self-reply: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

God’s knowledge of us is
as light to darkness
and life to the dead.

Let any who find themselves in darkness or death rejoice, then, for God knows you,
and this is light, and life.

[1] Yet it is not that sex tells us about deep knowing; deep knowing tells us about sex.

[2] ‘Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits…?’ (Galatians 4.9; 1 Corinthians 13.12).

20 January – Mourning and Dawn

View or print as a PDF

Epiphany 2

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

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

In the revised preamble to the Uniting Church’s constitution we confess that:

‘The First Peoples of this country had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in [this] land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.’[1] (UCA Revised Preamble to the Constitution §3)

In the continuing attempt to listen to the particular insights of first peoples the national Assembly of the Uniting Church has set aside today as a day of mourning. A day that recalls us to the terrible history of the treatment of indigenous people in this country by second peoples. In setting aside this Sunday as a day of mourning the Uniting Church has sought to hear the voice of God through the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters.

As we gather in this place, we acknowledge the commitment of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation to nurturing this sacred Land from time immemorial. We acknowledge their elders: past, present, and emerging. We strive to hear their voices.

The commitment to listen to the voice of God through the voices of our indigenous brothers and sisters sets the context for my reflection on today’s readings. This context challenges the very act of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel. The Uniting Church confesses that the very integrity of the Gospel was diminished by the church’s failure to speak the truth about Australia’s First Peoples, and in the church’s complicity in dispossession.[2]

I want simply today to proclaim the Gospel with integrity. And to explore the way in which the proclamation of the Gospel can be both good and mournful news.

Our reading today from the latter part of Isaiah shows us how the proclamation of God to the world carries within it both goodness and mourning. This is a poem written out of the experience of exile, proclaiming hope for God’s people. In holding together both the experience of exile and the proclamation of hope this poem may help to guide us to appreciate the mourning we are recalled to today.

Scholars have suggested that this latter part of Isaiah was written towards the end of the Jewish people’s exile by the Babylonian empire – or perhaps during the period the Jewish people had newly returned to their homeland. This text, therefore, speaks out of an experience of people being stripped of their land, stripped of their identity, stripped of the cultural and religious practices that sustained their relationship to God. If we hear the words of Isaiah 62 as the words of a people trying to find their roots again in their own land, we may hear the solemn undertones of grief beneath the surface that talks of hope.

Isaiah speaks a word of hope on behalf of Zion, the land of the Jewish people, and a word of hope for Jerusalem.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, | and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest | until her vindication shines out …” (v1)

It is important to note the focus of Isaiah’s hope: vindication. In pursuing vindication Isaiah does not simply hope that God’s people would be happy in their land. But Isaiah recalls the period of exile and suffering through which God’s people have come. Isaiah at this point refuses to understand the period of exile as a sign of failure or unfaithfulness, as a simple punishment from God. Vindication is the revelation that God’s people are justified, are right with God, and have remained faithful through their experience of dispossession. In setting up this song of hope with a focus on vindication Isaiah carries the history of his people into this song.

Isaiah’s hope is not abstract. It is not detached from reality. It does not look up to heaven and expect everything to be washed away. Isaiah’s hope is rooted in the survival of his people. Isaiah’s hope is rooted in resilience and return to land: in people who are faithful to God. (Faithful to a God who in turn is faithful, as in Psalm 36, whose steadfast love reaches from the land to the skies.)

That Isaiah forges his hope out of the experience of survival during the exile adds a solemn undertone to his hope:

“You shall no more be termed forsaken | and your land shall no more be termed desolate…” (v4)

For God’s people have been through the many years of forsakenness in exile, the land still bearing the marks of their dispossession and of desolation.

The newness of life and name that are heard in Isaiah’s song carries with it the memories and scars of the history of exile.

Isaiah, I suggest, teaches us about the solemn grief we are called to share with our indigenous brothers and sisters. By holding fast to the hope of God, but not allowing that hope to easily erase true and painful history.

Our indigenous brothers and sisters too have experienced dispossession. They too carry with them a history of pain, trauma, and suffering. Many were killed by the white settlers that built modern Australia. Many were subject to slavery, and slavery like conditions. Many were treated as little more than animals. Refused the basic rights that others enjoy: citizenship, voting rights, land rights. Children were stolen from first peoples. Our indigenous brothers and sisters have been shaped by experiences of survival. Experiences of forsakenness and desolation. We cannot erase this true and painful history.

And yet …

Can we hear the ancient words of Isaiah’s hope for our indigenous brothers and sisters? Can we bear a hope that refuses to see the suffering of first peoples as a just punishment? Can we bear a hope that does not erase solemn grief, and yet brings new life?

This is the task we recall ourselves to today. As we mark today as a day of mourning we are challenged by the hopeful song of Isaiah, that yet carries within itself solemn grief. We are challenged to ask ourselves what the hope of the Gospel might mean for our indigenous brothers and sisters. We are challenged to proclaim the Gospel with integrity.

The Gospel is the proclamation that in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, the reign of God’s love has been established once and for all. This love is made visible through acts of mercy and justice. Through the Spirit we are empowered to faithfully participate in making this reign of love take root in this world. Like Isaiah we do not proclaim an abstract hope, detached from reality. But a hope rooted in the experiences of people who have suffered, people who have survived — and many who have not. We preach a hope that moves towards us in Christ, and catches us up in the movement of God in the world. We preach of a love the traverses chasms, and reconciles communities.

To proclaim this Gospel with integrity means we must commit ourselves anew to the experiences of our indigenous brothers and sisters. We must commit ourselves to hearing their stories. We must commit ourselves to telling the truth about our collective history.

In so doing we participate in the ever unfolding reality of God’s reign of love in the world.
Echoing Isaiah:

For Australia’s sake we must not keep silent, | and for the sake of our indigenous brothers and sisters we must not rest, | until their vindication shines out like the dawn …

We must learn to understand our Christian hope in the light of Isaiah. Pursuing concrete forms of love, through mercy and justice. Rooting our hope in the history and the land in which we find ourselves.

In this may we follow Christ to the cross, and be led to the hope of resurrection.


[1] UCA Revised Preamble to the Constitution §3.

[2] UCA Preamble §5-6.