You never know what’s around the corner

“I am expecting the end of the world tomorrow!” 
With these words a visiting preacher began his sermon at the North Perth Church of Christ.
You might be able to imagine how stunned we felt when he said that.  We weren’t the kind of Christians who dwelt heavily on the “end of the world” stuff let lone setting a date for it.  In fact I think most of us rather felt that life would go on pretty much as it has been for a very long time – and if that was 40 years ago, maybe we were right.
Now, as it turned out, the preacher wasn’t really expecting the reverse of the big bang to happen the following day.
Firstly, I think he was wanting to get our attention – as I was by using this story.  But I think he had a deeper message that has stuck with me all these years and which I think is at the heart of the two little gospel stories we have considered this morning.
The state of our relationship with God is the most important consideration we can have in this life.  Getting this right is our most urgent priority.
In our guts I think we all know this, and sometimes this gets us into all sorts of almost superstitious difficulties:
  1. 1.      Like the Christian people who wanted to say that the mass-killing at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut was God’s judgement on the USA because of its slack stance on abortion and gays and lesbians; or
  2. 2.      Like the woman whose husband and daughter are killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver and in the depth of her grief she demands to know from God what she has done to deserve this sort of judgement or pain.

When sudden and tragic things happen we want to attach some sort of meaning to them, and the meaning we most generally like is something selfish – self-righteousnessif it reassures us that we are better than those people who got it in the neck, or self-centredness if it beats up on ourselves asking “What have we done to deserve this?”
The people Jesus was referring to had been confronted with similar sudden and tragic events – Pilate had killed innocent people mercilessly, and a tower had fallen killing innocent people as well.  Jesus makes the observation that the people who died were basically no more or less sinful than the people who survived – implying that we should not try to attach judgemental meanings to such events.
But what does he go on to say?
Jesus agreed with Job.  Happiness or misery could not be simply equated with goodness and badness.
Here we see Jesus taking up two news headlines of his day and as usual with headlines, it was bad news:
1/  Do you think that those Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices were worse sinners than other Galileans? 
Pilate was an intemperate and arrogant ruler, and he had his soldiers massacre some Galilean men as they were making sacrifices in the temple.  Did that mean that those Galileans were worse sinners than other Galileans who stayed at home and minded their own business?  Were they were being punished by God?
Jesus gave his verdict:  I tell you, NO!

2/  Or those eighteen men who were crushed when that tower in Siloam fell, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
You can easily picture this construction accident. Builders’ labourerstoiling on the erection of a tower near the pool of Siloam.  Something goes wrong; the tower collapses and eighteen men die.  Were these builders’ labourers scum that deserved to die?  Worse sinners than the other residents of Jerusalem?.
Again Jesus gives an emphatic verdict: I tell you, NO!

This old superstition is a lie.  The old gods of retribution and reward who lurk in the dark corners of our minds, are false deities.  The world of the God that Jesus called “Father” doesn’t work by giving blessings and good things to those who are good, and heaping punishments and “bad luck” on those who are bad.  Dismiss this superstition.   You have Jesus’ word on it.
Ah! But I have not completed the statement of Jesus have I?  So far I have left something out.  I must not be allowed to get away with that, eh?
After describing each incident and giving a resounding NO! Jesus went on to say:
      But unless you repent you will perish as they did.
      But unless you repent you will perish as they did.

Now I am sure that some of you will see that word REPENT there and think that Jesus is telling us we have to stop being bad people, or stop sinning, or else we will perish like those people.
I want to suggest that Jesus had a much deeper understanding of both human nature and the meaning of REPENTANCE. 
At its deepest level, the Good News that Jesus came to proclaim was that even though there wasn’t a single person whose life was good enough to merit God’s good favour, God reaches out to us and invites us into relationship with him.  When we turn-around in response to that – stepping into the relationship – that is REPENTANCE. 
There are two prongs to this:
Firstly there is a clarion call for us to enter into that relationship with God right now.  Don’t wait for some future day – you never know what is around the corner.
Then there is some sense of discouragement for us all from adding a sense of judgement to the tragedies and stories that happen around us – it only encourages our own self-righteousness or our self-mortification depending in the nature of the tragedy.  Neither response reflects the nature of God and our relationship to God.
This discouragement of judgementalism leads us nicely into the second story that is part of the text we considered today.
Nine or ten years ago I was on a work related trip in the country and as I was about to leave Wongan Hills I drove past a Nursery that was closing down.  There was a scruffy sign declaring huge discounts on citrus fruit trees.
I turned around and went in to see what they had.  I came away with a Mandarin, Grapefruit, Tangello and Navelino.
The Navelino, struggled and died over the winter. But the Grapefruit and Tangello settled in and went gangbusters.
That left me with a Mandarin that didn’t look like it was stressed or dying, but just didn’t seem to flourish.  Every spring, with it still showing no signs of vigour, my wife would say shall we dig it out and get a new one?  And I would say “Give it one more year, then we might pull it out.”
This past winter into spring has seen that Mandarin finally starting to flourish.  The central branches are shooting forth and maybe next year it will flower and set some fruit.
My story and Jesus’ parable both remind us of God’s grace and willingness to wait. 
It is very easy for us to nurture a judgemental attitude towards people who aren’t the flourishing Christians we think they should be, and we write people off and condemn them as lost. 
But in truth we are all lost.  Jesus calls us to follow in his way – out of our lostness and into a deep relationship with God – and each of us is at a different mile-peg along that road.
When I was working with Scripture Teachers for YouthCARE I used to spend a lot of time encouraging new Teachers to try and avoid that subtle attitude we often have that looks down on people who are not IN – who don’t believe and/or don’t go to church.  Kids will get those subtle messages even if we are trying to avoid passing it on.
I said to them, “Never write off a kid, no matter how hard they might be.  You don’t know the end of their story yet.”
And the same is true for you and me and everyone we come across in life.  If we write someone off as having been cut out of the Kingdom of God I think we are in danger of putting ourselves in more jeopardy than they are.
These two stories are, for me, an invitation to allow God to be much bigger than we generally allow him to be, and welcome others into our company as children of God all in need of God’s grace and acceptance.
And there is a sense of urgency in the stories – we don’t know what is around the corner, so let’s make sure our lives are connected to God right now.

The Real Jesus – The Real Me!

Epiphany has rather sadly slipped out of our everyday vocabulary but the BIG IDEA for this season is REVELATION or DISCLOSURE. 
So, during this season we should be asking ourselves “What do I need to take notice of here that reveals something special about who Jesus was and is and what he’s about?” 
This becomes the filter through which we listen for the word of God as we read our sacred scriptures and even other texts – devotions and the like.  And so we come to this amazing story.

 As Jesus was praying, the look on his face altered, and his clothes became radiant white……….. and a cloud came over them, and a voice  spoke out of the cloud: “This is my own Son, the chosen one; listen to him.”                                           Luke 9:29 & 35

If you reckon the story of the transfiguration is a bit way out, then you are definitely on the right track.
If your mind gags when you try to understand it, then I think Luke would be delighted.  You should mentally gag, you should puzzle over the picture that Luke frames for you.  You should feel out of your depth, because you are out of your depth!
Luke, in telling the transfiguration story, is attempting to convey the confounding mystery of Christ Jesus.  A mystery which in the final analysis is: “inaccessible to human mind and tongue.” (To quote one of my favourite New Testament commentators, Eduard Schweizer.)
It is a story of revelation.  That is why some churches use this Gospel reading at the end of the Season after Epiphany – a fitting climax to the Season.  But I will explain a bit later why it is also a fitting starting gate for the period of Lent leading up to Easter. 
What Luke wants us to take notice of in this story is this:  “We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
And that has to be Good News.
But this shining “otherness” which they saw in Jesus of Nazareth, was not a one-off event.
Peter, James and John experienced a brief break-through; they saw the Holy Light in Jesus’ face, but it had been there all the time.  The glory is mostly hidden, but on the mountain they were given a blinding glimpse.
We have been hearing stories from Luke over the past couple of months and this God-light had always been there from the very first.
·         Of course it was there in the star of Bethlehem.
·         It was there when then the boy Jesus went with his parents to the Temple and he ended up asking hard questions of the rabbis.
·         It was present when he was baptised in the Jordan.
·         It was there when he went into the wildernessto be tempted of the devil.
·         The God-light was focused in him when Jesus began his public in the villages and synagogues of Galilee province.
And I could go on.  As we have developed our understanding of God with us over the two millennia since Jesus was here we have come to believe that this God-Light has been shining since before the foundation of the universe, and it will still be shining when this cosmos is no more.
But why does Luke want us to take notice of this?
Firstly, and perhaps most clearly, Luke is pointing to what is to be the greatest controversy in human history – that somehow God has dwelt fully in humanity in this man we know as Jesus of Nazareth, whom we proclaim Lord and Saviour.
Over the centuries theologians and heretics have tried to explain how this can be but ultimately it is a mystery.  Science gets you nowhere, logic and reason don’t cut it, and even theology gets caught up in either circular arguments or dead ends. 
What we are left with is MYSTERY.  This wonderful word is what we use in our faith context for those things that we can’t understand or explain – BUT WE KNOW THEY ARE TRUE!
This is not the stuff of fantasy as Richard Dawkins would have it – we are simply saying there are some things that exist outside of the physical and scientific realm we call the real world – and they are still TRUE!
Luke is telling us in this amazing story – here is a glimpse of the Real Jesus.  I don’t think he really understood what he was saying, and here 2000 years later we are still trying to unpack the consequences of it.
But there is another really important thing that Luke wants us to understand out of this story and he has used other stories for the same purpose. In this story we find the essence of why it ended up that Jesus was publicly executed by both the Roman and Religious leaders.
Firstly – the Romans.  You will know that in the imperial theology of the day Caesar wore many titles that are familiar to us – Son of God, Lord, Saviour of the World and the one who brings peace on earth.
Then the early Christians and the Gospel writers gave these titles to Jesus they were engaging in a particularly subversive thing – they were saying that for them Caesar was no longer Son of God, Lord and Saviour of the World.  A new light had dawned in Jesus and he was the only one worthy of these titles.
In this and many other ways the things that Jesus said and did and the things that his followers said about him really got under the skin of the Romans, such that they happily colluded with the Jewish religious leaders to see him executed.
But in this story these things are just hinted at in the voice from heaven saying “This is my own Son.”
I think Luke is really keen for us to understand something very important about Jesus that really got up the noses of the religious leaders of his day.
Jesus was not a priest or a scribe or a Pharisee – in fact he often railed against them and the ways they used religion to abuse and distort what God intended.
Luke wants us to be sure to understand that Jesus speaks to us out of the prophetic tradition – Moses and Elijah were regarded as the two great prophets of Israel, and they were followed by many others who established quite a tradition.
Out of this prophetic tradition Jesus reminds us of the same things that the prophets did – that what God really wants from us is not religious rituals and obedience to a code of laws but:
·         A passion for JUSTICE;
·         A commitment to COMPASSION; and
·         The humility to walk with GOD allowing God to decide.
You see this when Jesus rails against the abuse and oppression of the poor in the name of religion.
You see this when Jesus reaches out in compassion to the lepers and the marginalised in society.
You see this when Jesus says there are some things that ONLY GOD KNOWS.
Living by these three filters – Justice, Compassion and Humility – was what caused Jesus to get into trouble with the religious authorities.
But it was in living by these three filters that we see the Real Jesus – and I dare to suggest that if we learn to live by them people will more and more see the Real You and the Real Me. 
The interesting thing about this, in my view is that as we choose to make these principles more and more a part of our lives, what Luke said about Jesus could also be said of us:
… the look on (our) face (is) altered. 
This is the pathway to the radical kind of discipleship that set the first century on fire and which has flared up again and again in the two thousand years since.

The Fall and the Death of the Earth

I was led to an interesting observation today by these works of the Native American, Seattle, who was chief of the Suquamish people:


“We know that the White Man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on.”

It seems to me that there is an almost universal common thread in the primordial stories of indigenous cultures by which the earth is characterised as the “mother” of the people and they they had “obligations” to care for and nurture the land – on pain of death.

The western world has been founded on many aspects of the Judeo-Christian world-view and when it came upon the period we call The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, I wonder how much these words from the Judeo-Christian primordial stories have shaped the world-view of the White Man described above:

    He told the Man:
    “Because you listened to your wife
        and ate from the tree
    That I commanded you not to eat from,
        ‘Don’t eat from this tree,’
    The very ground is cursed because of you;
        getting food from the ground
    Will be as painful as having babies is for your wife;
        you’ll be working in pain all your life long.
    The ground will sprout thorns and weeds,
        you’ll get your food the hard way,
    Planting and tilling and harvesting,
        sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,
    Until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried;
        you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.”  Genesis 3:17-19

 From these words I think many have developed the view that the earth is a resource to be exploited.  “The earth is not our brother, but our enemy, to be conquered, and when done we move on.”

I recognise some of the deep wisdom in “The Fall” story of my faith tradition, but in light of this observation I can’t help wondering if the world would have been in better shape today if we had been given a primordial story more akin to those of our indigenous brothers and sisters who try desperately to care for the land on pain of death.

It’s worth thinking about!
   
   

An Inclusive Vision

Now often have you gotten into trouble for doing what you thought was the right thing?

It has happened to me a few times.  As if it was to a be a sign of things to come for me this happened in the first parish I ever worked in.  It was an aging congregation and there was a growing number of young families moving back into the suburb, and we had a kindergarten and a toy library in the church buildings so it seemed natural that a fair bit on my energy would go into gradually including these young families in the church.
I noticed some resistance but pushed on with what I thought was the right thing – I thought they just didn’t like change, but when things came to a crunch and I asked them “Don’t we need to get more people coming from our community to help the church grow?”  Their response was clear cut – “Yes! But we don’t want those kind of people…!”
Some months later I was asked to leave.
I remembered the words that we read from Jeremiah today:
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
               See, today I appoint you over nations  and over kingdoms,
               to pluck up and to pull down,
               to destroy and to overthrow,
               to build and to plant.”
This text along with a couple of others was for me the voice of God in calling me from my chosen profession of teaching into the ministry – and you can see there that doing the right thing isn’t always going to be what people like. 
Poor old Jeremiah really got into trouble, too.  He ended up being put under a peculiar form of house arrest – he was put down the well, to wallow in the mud at the bottom.  The religious and political leaders didn’t like what he had to say about the best future for Israel.
And so it was for Jesus, again and again.
I remind you again.  Luke tells this story the way he does because he wants us to discover something very important about who Jesus was and is and what he is about.
You may have noticed in this story an amazingly quick turn-around in public opinion by the people:
22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
And …
28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
It is like a hint of Holy Week a little way ahead – acclaiming him King one week and demanding his execution the next.
So, what are we to make of these texts today?
I wonder what it was that turned the crowd against Jesus on this occasion.
Jesus said something that clearly provoked them.  He challenged one of their foundational beliefs.  He wanted them to begin to understand that God was much bigger than they had ever thought of before.
In the world of Jesus’ day there was a strong sense of national identity linked to the national God.  That is why so often, when an imperial power over-ran a nation they would take the people away – into exile – because they believed that away from their homeland their God would be of no effect to them.
During the period of the Babylonian Exile, the prophets and others had tried to break down this idea that YHWH was geo-stationary, with the stories of Daniel being the best examples of it.  If the God of Israel could protect Daniel from the lions then no wonder King Darius could write to his whole Kingdom commanding them to worship the God of Daniel as the greatest of all Gods.
Yet, the idea that the Jews were God’s special people, and that God’s favours were for them alone was deeply ingrained in the people – in their DNA as we might say today.
So, in the context of having just said to the people that the Spirit of God was upon him and that he now had a mission to the poor, the prisoners, the disabled and the oppressed, (which they all seemed to think was pretty good), Jesus reminds them of two little episodes from their history in which YHWH’s good favour was withheld from them and offered to gentile neighbours.
The ministry of the two great prophets – Elijah and Elisha – left Jewish widows destitute and lepers dying of that crippling disease, and yet through them God reached out to the Widow of Zarapheth and Naaman.
By putting these two examples into Jesus’ mouth right here at the beginning of his ministry, Luke wants us all to begin to see that Jesus had a much bigger inclusive picture in mind than could be contained within Israel – that God’s love and grace was to be seen as a gift for all.
It is hard for us to imagine how outrageous this proposition was to the good citizens of Nazareth.  These were good people.  They were in their place of worship as they should have been. 
But what they saw in Jesus that day was not a good fellow-citizen of their beloved town – here they saw a man who had gone off the rails; in fact his scandalous suggestion was almost blasphemy, and he deserved to die – ALREADY.  Remember, this is day one of his public ministry, according to Luke.
And they ran him out of town!
You can see this scenario again and again in the lives of the prophets in our sacred texts as well as in the stories of Jesus. 
In fact, the execution of Jesus by the Romans was a very clear declaration that the state found the things he had to say about our life in God was repugnant – scandalous is the actual word used most often.   The involvement of the High Priests and the Pharisees was also a declaration by the Religious Authorities that the things Jesus had to say about our life in God was also scandalous.
And so it is that when I preach “Christ Crucified” as Paul says, I am not drawing on any allusion to the Jewish sacrificial system, I am drawing attention to the scandalous fact that this humble Jewish carpenter who knew his God better than perhaps any other human being we have known, was such a threat to the “principalities and powers” of his day that they could only respond in one way – “Crucify him!”
It is this humble Jewish carpenter and The Way that he showed us to live in God that I preach – he’s my hero.
And he got it in the neck for speaking out of that simple prophetic tradition I spoke of last week by which he declares that God has an inclusive view of the world in which we are all called to:
            Do justice
            Love compassion
            Walk humbly with our God
When we lose sight of these simple things we are in danger of becoming like the Priests and Pharisees who were more concerned about protecting their positions of power and influence and so could not see that gracious hand of God that was extended to them.
I think that the challenge of our day when we consider this message is how do we give expression to this idea of an inclusive church.  Some of us feel really uncomfortable with the stance of some churches that say emphatically they want to be inclusive of gays and lesbians, and some churches that go so far as to want to be inclusive of people regardless of their religion.
Somehow it offends our sensibilities.  We like to be able to say who is in and who is out (and so has to do the right things to come in). 
Those who promote an “inclusive” idea of church are taking seriously the simple prophetic tradition that Jesus proclaimed by challenging the injustice that people who are “different” so often suffer, offering a compassionate welcome to those who are too often marginalised by society, and being humble enough to allow God to be the one who really knows the heart of people who seek him.
I have enjoyed these three Sundays with you here at St Mary Magdalene’s and it is fitting, I think, that I conclude with these remarks because Mary in the tradition of the Church has been identified with the marginalised – if you consider the 7 demons from which Jesus released her as a sign of mental illness then she stands alongside all those with mental illness who have been shunned by the church and Jesus draws them in. 
I am sorry that a pompous Pope in the 6th Century took it upon himself, without a shred of evidence, to say that she was a fallen woman – a prostitute – but at least her association with these outcasts, even of our day, declares an incredible thing – that they too are welcome in The Way. 
She should be a symbol and a call for us to be inclusive in our thinking about The Way.  None of us is good enough to be counted as “IN”.  We all stand as equals before God, and every day we are like beginners.

Jesus Shows the Way!

Begin as you intend to continue!
I have had people say that to me on a number of occasions, usually as I was setting out in a new job.  I like it.  It made me think about how I might do things differently in this place, or because of this job or whatever.
When you begin like this it creates a kind of overture like you have at the beginning of an operetta – something short and sweet that gives you a taster of what is to come.
Marcus Borg, who is an Anglican Priest in America is big on seeing overtures in the Gospels, and he suggests in a book he wrote with John Dominic Crossan called “The First Christmas” that the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke constitute overtures of the Jesus Story that will follow.
I am going to suggest that the very first theme that Luke develops after his Overture in the Birth Narrative is itself a kind of overture – in that it seems to be saying right from the outset “This is what Jesus’ ministry is all about.”
Luke gets right into it.
He begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and I think the Lectionary will deal with that on another day. 
He moves decisively from that story with the words:
“Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.   He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Of course he was heading to his home town, Nazareth, and the guts of our story today and next week occurs there and I am rather glad that I will be here with you again next week to be able to make my comments in the light of what I say to you today.
So…
He goes to synagogue, like a good Jewish man.  This may well have been the place were as a lad he learned the Torah off by heart.  It would certainly have been his spiritual home if he had actually grown up in Nazareth.
I have no idea how it is decided who will read from the scroll at the meetings, but this story has it that it was Jesus who stood up to do so, and he reads what is now for us that famous passage from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Now, last week, I mentioned to you that we have to ask ourselves each day during Epiphany “What is it that God wants us to notice about who Jesus was and is and what he’s about.
Luke tells this story differently from Matthew and Mark and I think it’s because he wants us to notice something very important.  The story told this way is like a programmatic announcement that concerns both the nature of Jesus’ ministry and the character of the Church that would follow it in time.
By having Jesus say to everyone after he has read the scroll Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” Luke makes it very clear that Jesus’ ministry would be a prophetic ministry.   Actually, he had already given us some hints of that in earlier stories – the prayer of Mary that we call The Magnificat suggests very much a prophetic role for this child she is bearing, as well as the child her cousin Elizabeth was bearing; and the words of John the Baptist also point clearly to this as a descriptor of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus was a prophet.
He was not a priest or a scribe or a Pharisee and we will explore some of the consequences of that next week.
But I hear a valid question forming in some of your minds already … “So what!?”
It is a good questions, and these are the two things I think we should take notice of as a result of it:
1.     It gives direction about what the rules will be in this new Way; and
2.     It sets out a framework for social policy in the church.
THE RULES
I am sure you are aware that Jesus was no fan of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees had turned the religion of Judaism into a Guinness Book or Rules with hundreds of rules about what you must do and hundreds of rules about what you must not do, and for every rule there were hundreds of little Mishnahs telling you what each rule really meant and how to keep it.
For example WORKING ON THE SABBATH is forbidden, but as you might expect, it is reasonable to ask “what is work?” So the Jews developed a definition involving 39 categories of creative activity that constituted work that could not be done on the Sabbath, some related to Temple work and some related to household work.
The trickiest one was the issue of CARRYING.  We all have to carry things – even the clothes we are wearing.  So they decided that carrying things around within a private place, or within a semi private place, or within a public place was okay but carrying something from one place to another was not.
Now the upshot of all this was that the Pharisees made it seem that their religion was a system of requirements (the Rules) and rewards (the Blessings), and the better you were at keeping the rules the more blessings you would receive.  And they, of course, worked out that you could say it the other way around too – if someone had lots of blessings (particularly if they were very rich) it must have been because they were very good at keeping the rules.
Jesus comes along and reminds everyone that it was the ways of the prophets that lead us into right relationship with God.
The work of the Spirit was an essential part of it – and our Second Reading today gave us the low-down about that – but at the heart of the prophetic tradition is that idea so clearly expressed by Micah
“What does the LORD require of you but to
do justice,
love kindness and
walk humbly with your God?”
This is not about a set of rules, but about a way of living and this can be as liberating for us in our day as it was in the days of the Prophets and of Jesus because there is no doubt that some in the church have turned our religion into a great long set of rules to be kept – when I grew up it emphatically included not playing cards, not dancing and not drinking or smoking.
Followers of The Way, then, are called to do justice and speak out for justice as an expression of their commitment to the LORD; and they are to so love kindness that it becomes the signature tune of their way of living; and finally, their relationship with God was to be one of humility knowing that nothing we receive is deserved but an outright expression of God’s grace; it also means that there can be none of the typical exclusiveness that religions often take on about who is in and who is out.
So, that’s a pretty important thing to take notice of.
But wait, there’s more.
SOCIAL JUSTICE
By citing the words of Isaiah, as he did, Jesus is saying that his ministry was going to be focussed on the seriously disadvantaged of his day:
The Poor
The Prisoners
The Disabled
The Oppressed
This should be a manifesto for the Social-Justice units of churches all over the world, and I am sure you will have observed what I have observed about these units in churches and that is that while they may be tolerated as “necessary” they can be rather discomforting and so are often marginalised in the systems of power within the church.  Nobody likes being told by the “prophets” that they are doing it wrong.
This goes for governments as much as church power-brokers, too.  The situations of greatest distress that I have experienced in our public discourse in Australia have related to failure by governments to act justly or even developing policies that perpetrate injustice:
Our current refugee policies;
The refusal of the Federal government to say “Sorry” to our first nations people;
Our failure to look after our children in care;
And I could go on…
The thing that I think Luke is wanting us to take notice of here is that things are not as they seem.  We look at those people who are respectable and doing well, and we think that this is because they are good people and that God is on their side.
Gods seems to have a preferential option for the poor, the imprisoned, the disable, the oppressed – in a word, the marginalised.  These are the ones that God cares about and God wants us to care about them, too.
Jesus demonstrated this very clearly again and again – and he got a reputation as drunkard and glutton, always hanging out with the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, rather than the good citizens of Israel.
I think we have our marching orders in these words and I trust that you as a community of people who are followers of The Way will commit yourselves to discovering what that means for you right here where you live let alone here in WA and Australia.

What is this season called Epiphany?

When we think of the seasons of the church year, we usually attach something of a theme to them
ADVENT            Waiting or Preparation
CHRISTMAS      Celebration Jesus’ Birth
LENT                  Penitence
EASTER              Celebrating  the Death & Resurrection
PENTECOST      The birth of the Church
So what do we make of this season called EPIPHANY?
The BIG IDEA for Epiphany is REVELATION or DISCLOSURE and I think that our special work for this season is to be on the lookout for those things that reveal to us who Jesus was and is and what he’s about.
Each week we are given a selection of readings from our sacred texts, and generally we seem to focus on the ideas that come out of the Gospel reading – which makes a lot of sense, given that we are followers of THE WAY OF JESUS.  The other readings, however, sometimes give us hints at a bigger idea than just trying to stick with the narrative or make sense of a miracle, etc. and that is very much the case today.
Let’s begin with the Gospel and see what there is to think about.
Now, here is the nub of the story:
Six stone jars where standing there, each holding 80 to 100 litres. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim. He said to them: “Now draw some out and take it to the MC.” So they took it. When the MC tasted the wine…….. he said: “Usually they serve the best wine first, and when men are a little drunk they then serve poor wine; but you have kept the best wine until now.” John 2:6-11
Was Jesus overdoing it?
What would you think of someone who near the end of a wedding feast produces another 500-600 litres of wine?  Now I can’t let this opportunity pass without telling you that any guy who can turn water into wine is a friend of mine.
Because this story deals with things that we really can’t prove – miracles – I think that it may be more helpful to think of it as a kind of parable-in-action – and remember that John wants us to notice something very important about Jesus from this story.  Indeed, John says so explicitly right at the end – “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
So, this story of turning water into wine points us to a God who is an extravagant Creator and Redeemer.  The God of Jesus Christ holds nothing back.  This God goes over the top, persistently over doing it.  We see this pre-eminently displayed in the life and teaching of Jesus.  But it is also present in the Old Testament.
The God of the Bible is most generous.
You may think 500-600 litres of wine are excessive, but that is the kind of God in whom we place our trust.  This story is a sign post pointing us to a remarkable, holy Friend.
THE EXTRAVAGANCE OF CREATION
Think with me now for a while about the extravagance of God in creation.
My wife and I enjoy walking on Mullaloo Beach in the mornings during summer – in fact, if I am not doing church somewhere, we are very inclined to worship at what we call Mullaloo Cathedral – there are generally hundreds of worshipers of all ages.
Every day it is different – the waves make the water different colours, the sand has moved around, exposing or covering rocky outcrops, seaweed has been washed up or washed away and if you were to stay until sunset, God would paint a different picture with the sky every night.
We often stop to inspect a shell or even a small microbe on the shore.  And we marvel at the antics of birds and the many different birds we see.  We are always on the lookout for dolphins just off-shore because we have seen them from time to time and once we even saw a sea-lion on the beach.
I am sure I don’t have to remind you of the amazing diversity – even extravagance – of the plant and animal kingdoms that surround us on planet earth, and if any of you are into the physical sciences you, too, will be amazed at the enormity, complexity and beauty of the universe that we inhabit with God.
On one level you could say that we don’t need all this abundance, but perhaps we do, if only to keep us in awe of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
In her celebration of God’s enthusiasm, Annie Dillard wrote in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.  After that one extravagant  gesture of creation itself in the first place, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusion on profligacies with ever fresh vigour, the whole show has been on fire from the word go!” 
I recognise who this profligate Creator must be!
It is characteristic of the One who in Christ Jesus confounds people towards the end of a wedding feast by producing about 600 litres of choice wine. The God who excels at overdoing generosity!
THE EXTRAVAGANCE OF THE KINGDOM
This extravagance is evident in our Corinthian reading this morning, too, but in a Kingdom setting.
The work of the Holy Spirit, enlivening the Church with the Breath of Life as well as Signs and Wonders, gives to us gifts such as will build up the life of God’s people.  These gifts range from very mundane gifts to the supernatural gifts – but all are given; none are withheld.
And cast your mind through so many of the parables and miracle stories of the Gospels and you can see a kind of sub-text there of God’s extravagance towards us.
The more readily remembered being those of the prodigal son and the surprising wages paid to the workers in a vineyard.  Time does not permit me to expound on them.  It is enough to recognise that in Jesus’ parables of the kingdom we have the same prodigal grace that is reflected in 600 litres of wine.
Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx writes that God is luxury:  
For believers, God is the luxury of life….. Sheer, superfluous luxury.”
As John’s Gospel has it: “Out of his full store we have received grace upon grace.”
WHY IS IT SO?
I am not sure how you would describe the purpose of your life as a Christian.  I think that as a younger man I was very much caught up in a quest to do the right thing and so satisfy God.
These days I am more inclined to a view that my Christian life is about living in the way Jesus showed us, The Way as it was called in some early non-Christian references to the Christians. 
In spiritual terms I would say my work is to become more Christlike every day, and what this looks like at its best is when I am able to be authentically human – caring about others fully and generously, as Christ has shown us.
Have you ever surprised yourself by exhibiting a similar generous spirit? 

To go back to where I began, if the BIG IDEA for Epiphany is REVELATION or DISCLOSURE then I think this story of Jesus’ e[generosity and extravagance is a call to us to live our lives with similar generosity towards others – not that we can turn water into wine for a wedding, but we can live lives that are disentangled from the materialism of our day and so leaving us free to share our abundance with others as Jesus did.  

Baptism, the Holy Spirit and Liberation

Last week I trust that you will have celebrated in fine form the 12th and final day of Christmas.  It is called the feast of the Epiphany and marks the episode in Matthew’s birth narrative in which some foreigners – those wise men from the East – paid their homage to the infant Jesus in recognition of his special status for the whole world.
So we call the season from now until Shrove Tuesday the Season of or after Epiphany and while this word has slipped out of our vocabulary by and large the BIG IDEA for this season is REVELATION or DISCLOSURE. 


So, during this season we are called to be on the lookout for those things that reveal to us who Jesus was and is and what he’s about.

The week before last I was addressing the short episode in Luke’s birth narrative in which Mary & Joseph observed the customary practices of their day by taking Jesus to the Temple on the eighth day of his life to name him properly and have him scarred for life as one of God’s people – he was circumcised. 
When we look at these early stories of Jesus life it is important for us to consider what Matthew or Luke wanted us to notice from them, and in some ways this is tricky. 
You are probably aware that Mary wasn’t keeping a diary of all the things that happened when Jesus was born and as he grew up – even though Luke says she pondered on these things deeply in her heart.
There are two important elements to remember about the way these stories were created.  Firstly, they were all created after they knew the end of the story; and secondly, they lived in oral form for a long while before they were written down.
This meant that by the time Matthew or Luke got to writing the stories down they felt at perfect liberty to build all sorts of code language and symbols into the narrative so that it passed on what they wanted us to know about Jesus.
So, as we listened to this story of the baptism of Jesus, today, I wonder what it is that Luke really wants us to pay attention to, to notice in particular because it will show us, reveal to us, something very important about who Jesus was and is and what he’s about?
Eira and I use a particular version of The Daily Office for our prayers in the morning and as an invitation to sing a short song they sometimes have these words from Psalm 95:
     “Come let us bow down and bend the knee,
             Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”
We stop there, but the next verse in the Psalm is a good one to ponder:
             “for he is our God.
We are the people he watches over,
the flock under his care.
If only you would listen to his voice today!”
That is what I trust we are doing every day, but also in a special kind of way when we gather here together on Sundays.
SO, what is it that Luke wants us to take notice of in his story of the baptism of Jesus.
Luke could have told the story differently.  Matthew, Mark and John all thought it was important that John, Jesus’ cousin, was the one who baptised him, but that is not important for Luke.  Jesus was simply baptised along with everyone else.
This, I think is picking up on something very similar to what I suggested about Luke’s story of Jesus’ naming and circumcision – it is a way of emphasising the essential humanity of Jesus – he was like us in every way. 
This is a common aspect to many of Luke’s versions of the stories of Jesus, and yet he is not afraid to embed some amazing code language in this story that emphasises is divine status and origins.
In the Orthodox traditions of the church, the story of the Baptism of Jesus has become far more significant than it perhaps is in the West.  Most of us are happy to see this as an example of Jesus fulfilling all the requirements of the law (even though, as I used to hear said when I was a young Christian, he never sinned so he did not need to be baptised for the forgiveness of sins, like we do).
The orthodox regard this as a “Theophany” story – etymology similar to “Epiphany” – one that Reveals God to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit all in one story.  The Son is in the water, the Spirit descends upon him in bodily form as a dove and the Voice of The Lord is heard from the heavens saying:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So, for the Orthodox, this story has embedded in it all the symbols of a most glorious Theophany of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the first Christian hint at this idea of the Trinity that is so important to us as Christians today.
Another key symbol that Luke embeds in this and the following stories of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry is the Holy Spirit.  Luke is the story-teller of the Signs and Wonders Holy Spirit. 
In all of the stories by Luke of the work of the Holy Spirit the evidence of the Spirit is found in signs and wonders – powerful events that point us to the Glory of God.  The story we read from Acts (written by Luke) has echoes of this and the Psalm we read today is calling all of creation to speak in praise of God’s glory.
I am not sure about you, but I have to confess that I am not a great one for the Signs and Wonders stuff of the Holy Spirit – they have never been part of my experience, and I am very glad the John’s Gospel gives me a completely different way of understanding the work of the Holy Spirit; but this confession leaves me with a dilemma:  “What sense do I make of this story if the Holy Spirit – in power and glory – is the central idea?”
I don’t think it is possible for us to read this story of Jesus’ Baptism without giving some thought to our own baptism, and as you may recall, there are some very special words and gestures within the Baptism/Confirmation liturgy concerning the Holy Spirit.  When the water for Baptism is blessed the Holy Spirit is invoked to sanctify the water and those baptised, the priest later signs the person with the sign of the cross to show that you are marked as Christ’s forever, using CHRISM OIL – made holy at Easter as a symbol of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and at Confirmation the Bishop prays with the laying on of hands “Strengthen, Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.  Empower and sustain them for your service.”
So, whether or not I am into a Signs and Wonders view of the Holy Spirit, something about the Spirit is central to this story.
This is where the Lectionary helps me, and I hope this will give you something to take away from our reading of the Scriptures today.
The Prophet Isaiah wrote an amazing piece of poetry for us which we read this morning.  The second verse has some clear allusions to baptism, as well as expressing something of the glory of God.
          When you pass through the waters,
     I will be with you;
          and through the rivers,
       they shall not overwhelm you;
          when you walk through fire
     you shall not be burned,
          and the flame shall not consume you.
John the Baptist, like most of the prophets was good at reading the political and social context of his day, and he describes the work of Jesus as like one who was “clearing his threshing floor to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  I think that Luke has John here hinting at the probability of a fiery end to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem – but with an assurance that the faithful would not be overwhelmed but would be saved, redeemed, liberated.
So Luke is saying to us that this Jesus is the one who will really get you through the mess of the world we live in.
I suspect if I was to ask you “What does Jesus save us from?” most of you would say “Our sins!  He forgives us!” and in many ways this is an important message of the Gospel of Jesus.
But I think Luke is opening a door here for us to add something quite different to our understanding of who Jesus was and is and what he’s about.
I think he is wanting us to consider that one of the big things he is about is our liberation:- freeing us to live fully and authentically human lives that glorify God.
We all easily acknowledge the struggle we have being the good people we know God wants us to be, and our inability to do this is not so much about sin as it is about an inner urge to look after ourselves before we look after others – and that messes things up all too often.
What Jesus comes along and offers is the transforming power of grace that assures us of God’s love for us thus freeing us from the tyranny of trying and failing to meet his expectations.  This freedom then transforms us so that we are able to live more authentically and for the good of others.
Perhaps such a transformation is a little less dramatic than the Holy Spirit signs and wonders that Luke likes to tell us about, but it is no less miraculous.
May you know this Holy Spirit power of transformation and liberation every day.

MY JESUS

I became a grandfather during the year; quite a milestone really.  When people approach their 60s their friends of similar ages are generally passing this milestone.  I suppose it is an important mark of moving on to the next generation – wherein our immortality lies in a sense.
One of the things that I have enjoyed about this experience is that the progress of my granddaughter through her milestones (she is 7 months old) has reminded me of experiencing those same milestones when my own children were babies:
·        The first smile response.
·        Sleeping through the night.
·        Holding onto something in the hand.
·        Holding the head steady.
·        Crawling.
·        Pulling themselves up on furniture (the scariest bit).
·        The first clearly enunciated word. 
·        Walking.   Etc.  etc. 
I think it is fascinating to realise that while these may achieve these milestones in a slightly different order from each other or over a different timeline there is sufficient predictability and pattern to make us really take notice if one is missed out or seems delayed too long; we check to see if there might be some underlying problem that needs attention.
CHRISTMAS MILESTONES
Because we compress the Jesus story of 33 years into a single cycle over 12 months, especially that within 3 months of our celebration of his birth we will be celebrating his death and resurrection, some of these things get a bit distorted, or overlooked.
The readings we are addressing today related to events a week after Jesus’ birth; the official readings for today relate to events when he was 12; and next week the readings will relate to events when he was perhaps 3 or 4 years old.  And then we have nothing of his story until he is about 30.
So the question that comes to my minds is:
“What does the gospel writer or the Church want us to remember or take not of by writing this story down?”
I want to suggest that while some of the supernatural events that surrounded the birth narrative might want us to know that this little baby was so special he was perhaps divine, this story wants to make it very clear that he was a little Jewish boy, like millions of other Jewish boys, who when he was 8 days old was formally given a name (usually related to his father’s name) and he was circumcised – scarred for life as one of God’s people, Israel.
In all the 2000 years of Christian history no theological debate has been more frequently and fiercely contended than the issue of the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
What gets us into trouble most often is when we try to explain the coexistence of these things using logic and empirical knowledge. 
No wonder, really, too, when you look at the Nicene Creed that we recite each week.  The middle section about Jesus begins with 11 lines that emphasise his divine origins and leads into a single line, simple statement that “he became truly human”.  His trial and his death are mentioned in two further lines and these are followed by 7 lines recounting his resurrection and ascension etc.
Anyone who tries to have these things coexist by any other means than “MYSTERY” is headed for tough times, because none of it is self-evident, logical or provable.
HISTORY AND FAITH
Modern biblical scholars generally manage this by speaking of Jesus in two ways – the Jesus of HISTORY and the Jesus of FAITH.
When you think about the processes by which the stories of Jesus life and teaching were recorded, I think you can accept that it wasn’t until the end of his life that people really recognised that there was something special about this man. 
No-one was keeping a diary of his birth and childhood.  Those stories came into circulation afterwards and so they tell us more than what actually happened.  Embedded in the narrative of what happened are things about who we believe Jesus is because we know the end of the story.
Albert Schweizer was the first modern scholar to try and pare away the Jesus of Faith bits so that we might begin to see something about the Jesus of History, and over a hundred years later scholars are still trying to unravel the puzzle.  Marcus Borg’s recent publication “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” sums this work up very succinctly in the title.  We all have well-founded ideas about the Jesus of Faith, but we know much less about the Jesus of History.
THE ESSENTIAL HUMANITY OF JESUS
I think we in the church live in constant danger of losing the essential humanity of Jesus, and thereby lose the profound mystery of the incarnation of God, and the wondrous brotherliness of our Christ.
I have heard people comment when confronted with some of the tough challenges and complexities of life: “But of course Jesus had the advantage over us; he was God’s Son.”
Not so! That is heresy.
This story and others emphasise for us that Christ Jesus was truly human.  He lived in the same real world that you and I live in.  He was very poor.  He experienced fear and pain and sadness just like we do, and to me, that makes him far more accessible than if he were simply a divine in human clothing.
Here is one of the ironies of my life as a minister of the Gospel: 
·        It is very hard to get non-Christians to confront the fact that Jesus was Divine,
·        yet it is almost as difficult to convince Christians that he was truly human.
Some of you may be familiar with the series of novels written by Fr Joseph Girzone called “Joshua”.  One of the attractions of imaginative books like these about Jesus is that they underline the common humanity of Jesus.  They are read mainly by church goers who have been in danger of losing the down-to-earth reality of the incarnation.  They warm our hearts by depicting a Christ who was one of us; really one of us.
This year I would encourage you to explore what you can of the Jesus of History and let his self-identification with our humanity fill you with hope that your life can be truly transformed by the grace and love of God.  This is not because I want you to ditch the Jesus of Faith, but because in him the human and the divine become beautifully and awesomely aligned and we need to take hold of both dimensions to fully understand him.
SO TRUST THIS MYSTERY 
This is the Mystery!  That Jesus is for us both fully human and yet divine.
·        Hold on to the Mystery.
·        Or better still, let the Mystery hold on to you.
Throughout all the year, with the special Christian festivals of Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost –
·        for goodness sake don’t let go of the hand of the human Jesus;
·        only in the human hand do we find the Divine hand;
·        and only in the Divine hand do we find our own destiny.
AMEN

Divorce and Remarriage

The whole issue of marriage is very topical these days as various parliaments in Australia are giving consideration to the issue of Marriage Equality — but that is a topic for another day.
We in the church have been grappling with the issue of divorce and remarriage for much longer, haven’t we’?  First of all it was an issue for general society and then for the church in particular. 
As I think about my own history with this issue I am reminded that as a young person, whose father was a minister in the church, I saw my dad move from a general opposition to the idea of divorce, to an accepting understanding of it – all in the context of the issue of divorce entering into the lives of his children.  My brother was first divorced and then remarried and is now divorced again.  One of my sisters married a divorce man, and then my other sister was divorced and is now remarried.  By entering into my close family experience, the opinion of my whole family about this issue shifted.
Perhaps this has happened in your family.  When we are confronted with difficult issues in real life — not as a theoretical reality — we often end up with different views in the matter.
THE TEXT – Mark 10:1-12
In this story, the discussion that follows between Jesus and the Pharisees it appears at first glance that Jesus utterly forbids divorce.  Jesus said that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts.  He went back further to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis, where it is written that man and woman “shall become one flesh,” and “They are no longer two but one. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.”
From this, some churches have totally forbidden their members to undertake divorce.  Others have tried to side step it by the device of “annulment” instead of divorce.  Other churches accept divorce as an unfortunate but necessary option where a marriage has irretrievably broken down.
If Jesus utterly forbids divorce, on what grounds can our church tolerate divorce and remarry divorcee’s?  I will attempt to make this clearer in what follows.
THE SITUATION IN JESUS’ DAY
I invite you to keep in mind two things when this passage from Mark’s Gospel is read.
First, it’s a man’s game.  The conversation started with the Pharisees asking if it were lawful for a
man to divorce his wife. It was a question about men’s rights.  In that era in Jewish culture, divorce was largely the prerogative of men, not women.
As far as I am aware there were only three grounds on which a woman could divorce her husband:
1.     lf a Jewish man wanted to leave the holy land and go an live in a pagan country, she could refuse and seek divorce.
2.     If the man embraced another religion, the wife could divorce him.
3.     The third ground for divorce l think was if the man committed blasphemy.
On the other hand, men had numerous grounds.  Women had no right of reply. If a man found anything “unseemly” in his wife, all he had to do was to write out a statement of divorce, listing the grounds, get it witnessed by another man, and then send the wife away.  This put a woman in a perilous situation.  She was disgraced in the community; her family were not likely to take her back.  lf she could not quickly find another husband, her options were either to become a servant, a beggar, or turn to prostitution to keep alive. So when Jesus speaks about divorce in his social environment; it should be heard as a vigorous protest against a grave social injustice.
Secondly, back to basics. Jesus immediately drives the Pharisees back to basics.  They wanted to have a discussion about their rights under the regulations of Moses; their right to divorce a woman.  Jesus pushes them back to Genesis and the basic intention of God: From the beginning a woman and man were intended to stay together in mutual respect, trust and love.  Basically marriage was meant to be a life-long commitment.
Jesus takes us away from the compromises and confusions that happen when relationships do not work well, and he moves us back to God.  That is the only valid starting point as far as Christ was concerned. 
What does God see as the best possible way of life?
Togetherness: an ever-growing love through a life of mutual cherishing. That is the goal.
SO WHAT IS OUT OF PLACE HERE?
This text is a bit like the story of Jesus refusing to heal the story in Mark 7 where Jesus refuses the request of a Gentile woman to heal her daughter.  There Jesus speaks in uncharacteristically racist language.
Here Jesus speaks in uncharacteristically legalistic language.  His words seem to echo what you would have expected the Pharisees to say; but do they?
There is a yawning gulf between Jesus and legalistic religion.  The Pharisees came asking ‘Under what circumstances is it right for a man to divorce his wife’?”
Like their imitators in today’s world, these Pharisees just wanted to be in the right – always.  They expected to get from Jesus a list of conditions under which they could divorce their wives and feel very righteous about it.  That was their thing; the thing that gave them a buzz. They had to be in the right.  It was not only in matters of divorce that they saw things this way.  It applied to every other moral and religious issue.  They were fanatical about justifying themselves.  Therefore they were continually looking for ‘mitigating circumstances’ – excuses that were deduced from the laws of Moses that allowed them to maintain their high and mighty self-righteousness.
There we have it.
In a society where marriage was in a mess, and where men were divorcing their wives for trivial reasons, these paragons of virtue wanted to talk about rights. Jesus stumped them by in effect retorting:  “It is never right to divorce your wife.”
The only thing that God intends and the only thing in God’s eyes that can bear the load of being called “right,” is a life-long relationship of committed love.  Such can only happen in an environment of shared grace, where forgiveness and respect is ever present.
So, Jesus is not so much forbidding divorce as driving us to recognize our inability to fulfill the perfect law of God, and then offering us grace.  Grace is the remarkable alternative to legalistic self-righteousness.  In matters of marriage and divorce, as in all other ethical issues, we fail often, yet can gladly avail ourselves of the liberating grace of God, through Christ Jesus our Saviour.
Let me quote from one of my favourite New Testament scholars Eduard Schweizer:
“A legalistic requirement forbidding divorce does not help…but also a freedom in which a man can avoid the confession of guilt is even less beneficial.”
He then goes on to say:
“Divorce can be a sign of repentance by which two people face up to their failure. It can be a confession that they have not succeeded in living according to God’s will.  Divorce can therefore set one free to experience the mercy of God.”
SUMMING UP
I believe that at one level, Jesus was confronting the male arrogance which had made divorce primarily a male privilege.  He was angry with their treatment of women.  His words about divorce and the hardness of men’s hearts are fundamentally a social justice protest.  Jesus was not putting a ban on divorce.  He was putting a ban on self-righteousness.
At a basic level, all of us has have committed adultery.  That is, we have watered down the perfect, beautiful, loving will of God on a dozen different moral issues.  Every one of us has compromised thousands of times.  Only when we stop trying to put ourselves in the right, when we cease asking “when is it lawful to do less than the best?” do we open up our minds and hearts the renovating mercy of God.  Then we are enabled to get on with life, gratefully and gracefully.
   
This is the Good News.   

The Authority of the Bible

A few Sundays ago I was preaching on Divorce and remarriage, and was confronted by the words of Jesus that said in effect that divorce was never right, and yet in most western Christian communities it has almost disappeared as an issue.  
Now if any of you are a bit like me, and have moved from being quite legalistic about divorce and remarriage into a position of understanding and permitting it, I wonder if you, too, have struggled with a wondering if you have done a bad thing to the Bible by disregarding something that Jesus seems to have said very specifically.
This strikes at our sense of the authority of the Bible and raises a question for us — “How can we
do what seems to be the opposite and not undermine the authority of the Bible?”
I have struggled with this question, mainly because l have never clearly thought through a framework for understanding what authority the Bible has.  For most of us there are two central planks in the
authority of the Bible – God wrote it, and it is infallibly correct. Anyone who disregards the text or its plain meaning is undermining its authority.
My seminary training taught me a different view of the text, but it didn’t give me an alternative
understanding of the authority of the text; and just recently someone wrote something that makes so much sense about it that I want to share it with you before l unpick this issue of divorce and remarriage.
Clearly, the text of the Bible was written by men (there is some suspicion that Priscilla may have
written Hebrews, l think), but as an easy example, when Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians he
was not writing Holy Scripture.  He was writing a letter to some friends to help them as a
community of Christians.  For him The Psalms and the Prophets were the Scriptures. 
Similarly, when King David and others wrote the Psalms, they were not writing Scripture. For
them, only the first five books of the bible were Scripture.
The process by which these texts were elevated to sacred texts was progressive and took a long
time.  In the case of what we call the Old Testament, at first there was just the Torah -— Genesis to
Deuteronomy — then they added the Psalms and some of the Prophets and finally some of the
later prophets and the writings like Job and Esther.  This took about 600 years and even then
some people want to leave bits out that others wanted in.
In the case of the New Testament the decision to include post-Jesus writings to the Old Testament
didn’t happen for several hundred years, and it all took three or four goes at deciding on the in-group of texts, and then Luther and others wanted to get rid of James and we still have a difference of opinion in the church about the Apocryphal books.
So, what is it that gives these texts their authority?
I was recently reminded that the authority comes from the determination by our forefathers in the faith that these texts should be regarded as sacred texts.  They were not saying they were written by God, as some religions do with their texts – the Quran and The Book of Mormon, for example – but they were saying these texts give us a great basis for discovering what God wants of us.
The task we have, as have God’s people have had throughout all time, is to discern from these texts how we should then live, and because the texts are constantly being considered in different times and places to when they were written, we have a complex task of interpretation.