Tag Archives: time

26 May – I believe in miracles

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Easter 6

Revelation 21:10, 22; 22:1-5
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29

In a sentence:
Jesus, crucified and risen, is the one miracle in which the church believes

Our Prime Minister believes in miracles. More than that, he has apparently recently witnessed one.

At the same time, critical analysis has felt less need to invoke divinity and has pinpointed clever or even cynical political strategy as the cause of the election ‘upset’. If there were anything miraculous about the election result, it looks like God had at least a little help.

It doesn’t much matter how serious the PM was in his remark; my interest this morning is that doubtless many have sent thanks heavenward for the outcome of the election, even as the political strategy is acknowledged. In the interests of full disclosure, no such thanksgiving has been heard from me, but my point this morning is not narrowly political but broadly theological: what is a miracle? To turn the matter around, would it have been ‘miraculous’ had the opposition been successful? Probably not, as many thought this to be the most likely scenario and miracles are not usually what we expect to happen. Still, many would hold that a Shorten government implementing its proposed policies would at least have been ‘good’, even excellent. And surely ‘and it was good’ denotes the miraculous.

To some extent we’re just playing with words here but it’s in an effort to give substance to the question of miracles, or to what is sometimes characterised as ‘divine intervention’. More put helpfully, Where and how is God active in the world? For talk of miracles is talk of the activity of God.

The Bible, of course, is full of miracle stories: an axe head floats, the sun stands still in the sky, and a little boy’s lunch feeds a great crowd. But the Bible is not a collection of historical ‘facts’ from which we deduce a few definitions or patterns in which to believe. What holds the Bible together is not similarities between the stories it contains or even common themes which might be discovered between the covers. What hold the Bible together is very covers themselves. Those covers have been put there by the church – that community which springs from the pre-biblical confession that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. It is the experience of continuing to engage with this Lord which causes the Bible and our ongoing engagement with it.

This is to say that, so far as miracles are concerned, the one determining miracle of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet this needs to be qualified immediately because the resurrection looks too much like miracles looked ‘before’ the resurrection of Jesus(!). The resurrection looks to be ‘miraculous’ in itself, as might a dead-in-the-water government being returned to office.

But the resurrection is not like this, is not the most impressive of all the impressive miracles in the Scriptures. The qualification of the miraculous nature of the resurrection needed here is the totally un-miraculous-looking crucifixion, such that we must also say that the one determining miracle of the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.

There is, of course, apparently nothing miraculous about the crucifixion. It’s the ‘natural’ thing which happens when matters get a little too ‘out there’ for comfort, rather like what might be expected to happen to an opposition with too many new ideas for a loss-averse community.

Separated into mere history on the one hand and divine intervention on the other, the crucifixion and the resurrection become mere ‘seasons’, of the type we saw Ecclesiastes – a time for dying, a time for rising, a time for the Right, a time for the Left (Ecclesiastes 3.1-14; see the sermon for April 19). Elections are mere seasons. There are no miracles here – at least, nothing which endures – for history allows a time for everything. History buries all political messiahs without hope of (political) resurrection.

When the church as church gives thanks for God’s miraculous gifts, it is not for anything which comes and goes in the manner of the seasons. The quintessential thanksgiving of the church – found in the Great Prayer of the Eucharist – names the miracles of God as creation, redemption in cross and resurrection, and consummation of all things.

These defining miracles endure through the vagaries of history. And so, in seasons rich and poor, they are named as sources of peace, and this brings us finally to the Scripture text for this sermon!

The risen crucified Lord stands before his seasonally troubled disciples, and declares, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ ‘The world’ gives now peace, now division; now hope, now despair; now sunshine, now storms; a time for every politics under heaven.

Jesus does not give this way; what he offers here is not ‘with’ the times but through them – for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The ‘my’ peace is crucial here, for the peace of Jesus is not the peace of the risen Jesus only but also the peace of the Jesus with a crucifixion looming in the near future. The miracle in which we are to believe is the peace which was Jesus’ own way in the world. His way was as a presence of the kingdom of God in a time and place in which that kingdom was apparently quite absent. The miracle of God is the possibility of peace in the midst a world which is apparently hopelessly divided.

This is not an easy miracle in which to believe, because it touches us here and now, in our own sense of the absence of God’s kingdom. To believe in such a miracle requires that we rise to the command we most desperately want to hear and obey, and yet find most difficult to hear and obey: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’. This is not a word of ‘comfort’; it is no less a command than any other ‘do’ or ‘do not’ we read in the Scriptures.

As a command it is hard to hear because to let go of trouble and fear would be to rise to our responsibility to love and serve without reading the seasons as if they were signs of God’s power, without despair because of what has or has not happened, and without elation praising God for an accident of history.

Dis‑appointment ends when we recognise that our true appointment is to know who is God. To know who is God is to know what the miracle is which is being wrought: that, in life or in death, our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues loosed with a joy which will not end with a change of season, or an election, or even death itself. Any laughter or joy which might be ended by such passing things has known no true miracle, no deep good.

The miracle of this God is that, as much despite our efforts as because of them, God works our works to God’s own end. This end – in life and death, in wins and losses, in all things ‘under the sun’ – is a peace which passes understanding but under which we are to stand: to live and love and serve, testifying that even here the Father and the Son come to make their home with us.

May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus his Christ, now and always, Amen.

21 April – The wind blows where it wills – the vanity of the Christ

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Easter Day

Ecclesiastes 8:6-8
Psalm 118
John 20:1-18

In a sentence:
The risen Jesus only confounds us because Jesus in his entirety confounded us

The stark world of Qohelet, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, is not much different from our own, except in the brutal honesty with which he receives it.

Central to his account of life ‘under the sun’ has been the linked notions of ‘vanity’ and ‘chasing after wind’. On a first, fourth and tenth reading, these are clearly negative categories.

Yet reading him as we have – with the set gospel for each Sunday – they have emerged also with surprising positive connotations, even with significance for illuminating the gospel and the very character of God. On the first of these reflections on Qohelet I half-seriously tossed out the notion that bringing him into dialogue with the gospel might lead us to dare to speak of ‘the vanity of the cross’ which, by any other accounting, could only be impiety.

And yet that is where we have ended up – on Friday the vanity of the crucifixion and, today, the vanity of the Christ. What is crucial – literally, what ‘crux-ial’, ‘of the cross’ (Latin crux: ‘cross) – here is that for Qohelet, vanity is less a matter of vain emptiness and closer the literal meaning of the Hebrew, ‘vapour’ or ‘mist’. It is ‘ungraspability’ – pertaining to things which cannot be comprehended. The negative sense of this is the futile attempt to grasp the ungraspable world in pleasure, in wisdom or in work, in calculation or scheming.

But beyond this is a positive ungraspability: the very mystery of the world as God’s world, and so of God Godself. All that is and happens comes from God but it is not comprehendible how that is the case. God is just, and justifies, but the world is not and does not. Yet this remains God’s world, and we are given to live in it. This is ungraspability as a characteristic of the God-and-world thing itself. It cannot be denied, but just what and how it is cannot be said.

Something similar happens with ‘chasing after wind’. Negatively, this is the comic image of someone actually trying to catch the wind. But, positively, there is something at the heart of what we are which causes us to grasp after the wind, however comic that must be. We heard from Qohelet on Friday that God has put knowledge in us – the King James Version says, ‘he hath set the world in their heart, so that [none] can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. (3.11). Chasing after wind is the necessary yet impossible thing: the felt need to grasp the ungraspable world and its ungraspable God.

It is, perhaps, not for nothing that the book of Ecclesiastes is framed by the compounded ‘vanity of vanities’ (1.2; 12.8): the world is ungraspable, and yet what else do we do but seek to grasp it? Vanity for vanity. Qohelet has to affirm and deny at the same time.

– – – – – – – – – –

We have heard this morning of Mary Magdalene, left behind in the garden by the tomb. Here she encounters – but does not recognise – the risen Jesus. It’s tempting – and typical – to imagine that grief obscures her vision, that she does not recognise Jesus because her eyes are filled with tears and the world is just a blur. But John doesn’t write history like this; psychology and physiology and physics – as we think about them – are nothing here. Mary not recognising Jesus is about him, not about her: he cannot be seen directly; he is ‘vanity’: vapour, mist, ungraspable, ablur.

The world is turned upside down not by vision but by a word: ‘Mary’. She is caught by the wind, and then comes the recognition: ‘Rabbouni’, or, Teacher (perhaps only coincidentally one of the translations English Bibles use for the name ‘Qohelet’…).

This is not yet what we might call ‘conversion’. Mary has heard and – now in that sense – sees something, but she has not grasped what has happened. She feels the wind, but has not grasped him. And there’s a sense in which she cannot: ‘Do not hold onto me’, Jesus tells her. It seems to her possible to grasp the risen Jesus – is he not just there, in reach? It is in this way that she ‘feels’ the wind.

But he resists. And this is not a ‘cringe’. Jesus does not fear her touch, as if she would contaminate him. And he is not in some way ‘charged’, that he might wound her if she touched him. ‘Do not hold me’ is ‘you cannot hold me’. Ungraspability – the best of Qohelet’s ‘vanity’ – is a characteristic of the risen Jesus and what he brings: ‘No one has power over the wind to restrain it’ (8.8).

This is not a ‘mystical’ thing – Jesus is not now special in a way that he was not before. This risen Jesus is the same Jesus she knew before, and the revelation in the garden is that Mary did not really know him before, as he might yet be known.

The story of the resurrection typically seems to us to present the problem of a violation of the times, to recall what we heard from Qohelet on Friday. The report of the resurrection troubles us because the time for living is over, and now death has its time: for everything there is a season.

We cannot come fruitfully to the resurrection from this perspective. It is sheer violation and is excluded by the prior conviction that time – or nature – can only unfold in one way, from a living Jesus to a dead one. We can imagine that there was a Jesus who said and did what is reported. We can imagine him being crucified. There are times for such things. But the risen Jesus eludes us, for such a risen Jesus is not so much ungraspable as impossible. If we start with a time for every purpose under heaven, we cannot get to the resurrection.

But the gospel itself makes a different case: it is not the times which give Jesus his possible shapes but Jesus who gives shape to the times. If, as the gospels assert, it was the same Jesus now risen who yesterday was dead and the day before still alive – then the dead Jesus and the once-Jesus before the cross are everything the risen Jesus is. There is no distinction: in the cradle, on the cross and under the crown as risen lord (cf. the Christmas carol, TIS 321), Jesus is the same miraculous thing. Incarnation at Christmas and Resurrection at Easter are separated only by that ticking of a clock which separates one happening from another. Time does not bind them, they are the bounds of time.

To say, then, ‘Jesus is risen’ is only to say ‘the Word became flesh’. But the ‘only’ is the clincher, the shock of Jesus’ ungraspability by Mary, or by us. ‘The Word become flesh’ seems to most believers to be easy in comparison to ‘Jesus is risen’. Yet there the great ‘Christmas-y’ prologue to John’s gospel means nothing without Mary’s confusion, her seeing that what is in front of her and cannot quite be grasped was always in front of her. It has now simply been displaced a little in time.

The ungraspability of Jesus-as-the-Christ – and now we dare to say, the ‘vanity’ of the Christ – is not his waft-y nature as a risen body or spirit. It is that he was ever the very presence of God, from the very first. What Mary thought she had seen before was just a shimmer on the surface of the real substance of Jesus. Now she is confronted with him as he has always been, and the difference between then and now is the difference between death and life.

‘You cannot hold on to me,’ the wind cannot be restrained. And yet this is good news because not holding, not grasping onto, not chasing after, yields all the gospel: Jesus goes where we cannot go, and the effect is that all that is his becomes ours: ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’ The not-grasping of Jesus brings Jesus’ own eternity as our own.

And so Mary herself will begin to shimmer, and we with her. Those who are in such an ungraspable Christ are beginning to take flight.

This is the thought with which we ended on Friday: to be caught up by the unrestrained wind which is Jesus, is to fly. We will end the service today with the same thought from Charles Wesley,

Soar we now where Christ hath led,
following our exalted head;
made like him, like him we rise,
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Jesus is risen.

Life begins to shimmer.

Time being renewed so, there is nothing better to do, Qohelet tells us, than to eat and drink, and enjoy.

16 December – What we wait for

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Advent 3

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

‘Are you the one who is to come…?’

This question, at this part of the story, is very familiar to most of us – a familiarity like what we experience when we hear ‘What light through yonder window breaks…’ or ‘Frankly, my dear…’ or, more recently, ‘Ah’ll be bach’. These lines have a set place, and we wait for their beauty or poignancy or humour. So also the story of Jesus begins with the forerunner John and with the question – Are you the one who is to come?

Yet, while we know that the longing of the people is an integral part of the story of Jesus, their expectation is not ours and it cannot be. We are in a very different cultural place than they, not least because our culture is built on the assumption that the one to whom John refers has already come. Whatever we could expect now must be quite different from what John’s congregations expected because we are at a different stage of the story.

But apart from our being at that different stage, there is another sense in which we are different in terms of what we could possibility expect. In particular, and despite our Christian heritage (some would say, because of it), ours is an increasingly ‘pagan’ experience of the world. That is, our worldview has become an enclosed one. While we recognise that things change with time – that new(-ish) things appear – this experience is informed by our sense that change in the world is evolutionary. Internal conditions of environment and need work together to reshape and – if we are lucky – to improve us. Life in the world, then, is helical in character – like a corkscrew through time; if are lucky, we are always moving ‘up’ the helix. It is in this way that we are ‘pagan’ – everything which could happen is understood to be internal to the system and, in this sense, has already happened. The only ultimate end we can imagine today is the deep entropic cold which comes from the unwinding of a wound-up universe, of which our own more imminent deaths are the sacrament: whatever lesser ends we might reach for in the interim, the true end is not Goal or Purpose; it is Cessation, Nothingness.

This is very different from the outlook of John and his congregation, who saw history as moving to a climax, a determining moment. With the imminent arrival of ‘the one who is to come’, history comes to its end – its ultimate goal – however that end might be visualised (the book of Revelation being one such visualisation!).

Now the question is, Did they have it better than we? There was a messianic expectation into which John preached and out of which Jesus was interpreted, but is it necessary for the story? Is the expectation of that type of temporal ending necessary to hearing and believing the gospel?

This matters because we cannot re-enter into their anticipation, as much this or that religious sect manages to delude itself in this way for a what. We cannot hope again in this way, because that kind of hope is culturally excluded. They asked, ‘When will the world end?’; we ask, ‘What will make the world bearable?’

Yet these two questions are less different than they might first appear.

The earnest longing for the end of the world in John’s time and our earnest desire that the endless world be bearable meet in the scriptural testimony that the world is not God. Our goal, our purpose, our end is that we be creatures, and not God (mindful that the Genesis myth sees the primal human failure as the desire to be like God [Genesis 3]).

The confusion of God and the world – and our sense that this is wrong – is what makes John’s ethical teaching as striking and appealing now as it was then, despite our very different thoughts about the nature of history. The extra tunic given to one who has none declares that poverty is not a god to be respected; poverty is not ‘proper’ world. When the powerful act not against the weak but for them, they declare that power is not a god to be honoured. Generosity declares that greed is not a god to which we sacrifice the needy. There must necessarily be an economy but it is not a god, despite the sacrifices we make to it. There must necessarily be clans, tribes and nations but they are not gods, despite the sacrifices we make for them. Our children are not gods…and on it goes.

Everything we touch in the world, and everything which happens between us when touch each other, has for us the potential in that contact to be rendered either divine or mundane. When it comes to the things of the world, only the mundane is good, despite how miserable the word ‘mundane’ is for us these days. The world and everything in it is, properly, only world, ‘merely’ secular.

What ails the human heart in every time and place is its tendency to worship or fear some worldly thing as if it were divine: our money, our relationships, our kings, our power, our ambitions, our death. If we cannot any more expect that the world will end in the coming of a messiah, it is not because we are less naïve or more scientific, or even because the Messiah is said already to have come. It is because we feel that what is wrong with the world is too much a part of us to be properly treated. A thousand qualifications might deal with the inconvenience of a single God, but they are not enough to free us from fearing and worshipping the multitude of worldly things we turn into divine things. This is the Christian theological meaning of the every new book of regulations which issues from a Royal Commission or church enquiry: the gods being more tightly bound, morality merely evolving.

This dismal assessment is the same as that of John’s desert congregations: we cannot liberate ourselves. And John’s response to them is what we need also to hear now: it is only when God comes that the world finds its true end, its goal and purpose. This is why Christian worship properly begins with the prayer, Come, Lord. Again, it is only when God comes that the world finds its true end, its goal, its purpose. For God comes not to sweep away but to uncover – this is what you really are, this is how it all fits together: in me.

This is both a painful revelation and a creative one.

John declares, ‘The one who is coming baptises with fire’. Fire purifies by burning away all that is not solid and elemental, and there is much about us which must go in this way.

And John declares, ‘The one who is coming baptises with the Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit which puts things in their right relation to each other, which makes God God and us the creatures we are created to be.

What makes the world bearable is when we hear that all which can happen is not a mere – and often terrifying – extension of what has already happened, and that our even increasingly sophisticated methods of restraining the gods will not bring our liberation.

What we await is the clear declaration, and the initial signs, that there comes the fiery gift of God’s Spirit, which testifies to and makes real the Word which is the way, truth and the life for which God created us.

We wait in the words of the prayer, Come, Lord – the prayer of the church in every time – and we wait in actions which contradict the pantheon of powers which keep us in thrall and by which we keep others in thrall.

Let us, then, commit ourselves again to that prayer and to such works of love, that the glory of the coming of the Lord might be something to which all eyes are lifted.


25 November – The difference between a story and a book

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Reign of Christ

Ruth 4:13-22
Psalm 126
John 18:33-37

In a sentence:
God makes of our stories a book, of our words a Word

Our Prime Minister advised this week that Australians are concerned about population: ‘The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments… They are saying: enough, enough, enough.’ Hearing ‘loud and clear’ what the people have said, the PM indicated that, to ease the strain, he would move to cut immigration to Australia.

Now, this was an economic assessment. It has to be admitted that pulpits are generally places which manifest economic incompetence and, were I to attempt to analyse what the PM said in economic terms, I would demonstrate that this pulpit is no different in that respect!

My response to the PM’s announcement, however, was not to its economics but to its devastating blandness. There is here no sense of a bigger picture, no sense of movement to a goal, no sense of history. There is apparently nowhere to go, nothing in which we are involved beyond what is already before us – or, more to the point, what is behind us. What we look forward to, or perhaps can really only expect, is an intensification of ourselves and what we have already achieved – even safer streets, even better healthcare, even quicker transit, more accessible and better tailored entertainment on a faster broadband network and, of course, longer battery life in our smart phones. These are the kinds of things our politicians promise us because, to be frank, they amount to about as much as we can imagine it is worth being promised. The kingdom has largely come and what remains to arrive approaches in the increments which come with the passage of time in a stable society.

That is to say, history is for us chronos – the tick-tock of a clock, the accumulation of events and achievements. The old Greeks knew that the god Chronos ate his children, and we new Greeks know just as well that we will be consumed. Our politics – our life together – is directed towards being consumed later rather than earlier, while we hope that – when our time comes – Time’s bite proves to be quick and his teeth sharp. In the meantime, we work so that time ticks over quietly – less traffic, more space – in a world in which there is nothing to see except what can be seen.

But time and history – what we are doing in the world – can be imagined differently. We see this in our readings from Ruth if we take care to note the distinction between the book of Ruth and the story of Ruth.

The story of Ruth is the sum of all she ever did. The story of Ruth more or less comes to its end with the birth of Obed. Most tellings of a person’s story would end in that way, be they comedy or tragedy: the achievement or tragedy of the protagonist is the end of her story. This is time and history as the sequence of events – ‘What Ruth did’ and ‘What Ruth did next.’ In the end, Chronos catches up, and Ruth does no more.

By contrast, the book of Ruth is the ‘value’ of the story. The story of Ruth becomes the book of Ruth with the addition of a few verses running on past her to David: ‘[and Obed] became the father of Jesse, [who became] the father of David…’ So far as the story of Ruth goes, these verses are unnecessary. Ruth and Boaz don’t know what happens next. David is their descendent but not their story. Things going as they usually do –especially then – people tend to have descendants; there is nothing new to see here.

The book of Ruth, however, places her beautiful but also quite normal and self-contained story within the larger context of David who – in his brilliance and brokenness – becomes a sign of God’s presence to the world. The book of Ruth requires her story but also moves beyond it or, more the point, re-casts it. Story becomes book, words become Word, time truly becomes history – a movement not merely from necessary beginning to inevitable end but from divine inception to surprising consummation.

As a society, we today know only our story; we do not know our book. We know time but not history. We have our gods but not God.

The church, of course, is not much different most of the time. If there is anything to be said for the church, it is not that our story is any better but that we expect our story – with the story of the world – to become a book. We expect to be surprised at what the plot actually turned out to be, at how inception found its way to completion.

For we hold that, while we spend our lives writing our story, God is writing a book. Growing in Christian faith is about recognising more deeply that our lives in this world are the stuff of God. These lives in themselves are not God but they carry a plot which is beyond our sense and yet which could not be carried forward without us.

This is the case whether we lives which appear worthy or unworthy of such extraordinary purpose. We noted last week that it cannot be the righteousness of Ruth and Boaz which saw them the forebears of the great king; the king was always coming, regardless. And there is plenty of human failure in the Scriptures – not least king David himself – which nevertheless becomes the vehicle of divine blessing.

But if we believe that our lives are the stuff of God – the means by which God becomes God for us and redeems us – why would we not live as if it were so?

Why would we not pray for our enemies for the sake of the book – for the sake of where history will end – rather than crush them for the sake of our own passing story? Why keep for ourselves what could be given, to link stories which will finally be bound together anyway? Migrant visas come to mind, as well as loose change dropped into a beggar’s cup. Why eat and drink mere bread and wine when it might be God himself by which we are nourished? Why would we not choose to breathe and move through Spirit instead of mere air?

In such ways we sign that our stories are more than we can yet see, that we trust in One who declares,

Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people…

We trust in this One because when the promise is kept, we find ourselves caught up no longer in a bland hi‑story of a kingdom already come but in the advent of God’s anointed king.

This would be a story worth living.

Step out, then, not for more of our yesterday but for God’s tomorrow.