Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Annunciation: a theological insight to God's life with us.

Over 60 years after Jesus birth a doctor and follower of Jesus known as Luke wrote down a story which portrayed an intimate scene between Mary and an angel called Gabriel.  No one else was present and no one else wrote the story down in the same way.  In fact the only other version we have of the birth narrative of Jesus is found in Matthew’s gospel and it is quite a bit different.

To quote from Luke himself concerning this particular situation it would be easy to be “much perplexed by his words”.  Or maybe we might want ask with Mary “How can this be?”

The kind of conundrum which is presented to us in this classic Biblical story, known as the annunciation, is a conundrum which leads me into speaking about something which is foundational in my faith – how I read the Bible.

It is quite fanciful to think that Luke’s fly on the wall account of this miraculous event has any real sense of absolute historical truth about it.  Even if there was a tradition handed on, a story about what had occurred, the idea that it would have remained accurate and intact for 60 years in naive at best.

So what do we do with this story?  How do we understand it? Does it have any real authority for us?

My answer is, “Of course.”

The notion that we only read the Biblical text as some kind of accurate and literal account of events has only really been around for about 100 years or so.  Narrow literalist readings of the scripture seem to be reaction by many in the church to the liberal theology of the nineteenth century.  A theology which, for example, had no real trouble accepting Charles Darwin’s theories expressed in his ground breaking book “The Origins of Species”.

But, just as there are problems with literalist readings of the scriptures which seek to enshrine the words of the text in a way which I believe is idolatrous, so too I have great difficulty with those who would disregard the text because it does not make scientific and historic sense to them.

Many of the so called liberal theologians would say that there is no evidence for what the scripture is saying or that it is inconsistent, and more than that, that the church has indoctrinated us to have naive beliefs about the scriptures.

To both literalist and liberal I would want to say Luke was not writing history and nor was he writing science – Luke was writing theology.

The purpose of Luke’s story is not to make a claim about the historicity of the encounter between the angel and Mary which may or may not have actually happened in the way that he described.  Nor is it to provide a scientific explanation concerning the notion of a virginal conception.

Luke’s task is theology: to explain who God is and how this God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God.  This is where the authority of the scriptures lie and it is how they should be read.

To do theology, to think about who God is and who we are before this God, is to stand on the precipice of a vast mystery.  It is as if we are looking into the far reaches of the ever expanding universe seeing the glimmer of billions of stars, aware and in awe, whilst not fully comprehending what is really out there.

As Luke fashions his story, of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary, what he is seeking to do is to convey some basic theological truths as had been revealed to him; truths which may have some historical grounding in an encounter which Mary may have described to others.

Not surprisingly one of the key truths that Luke explores, not just in this story but throughout his gospel, is the incomprehension and incredulity of people when they encounter the divine.  To push the miracle of this story a little further I would argue that what is occurring here is a theophany, which essentially means an appearance of God.

When Mary encounters the divine she is perplexed, she ponders his words, she even doubts by asking “How can this be?”  My sense of Mary’s response “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, is not that of a humble faithfulness that we can extol in any way rather it is a simple acceptance of what she has come to realise is fait accompli.

This is part of Mary’s story and it is part of our story too.  In the years I have spent in ministry many people have shared with me encounters with the divine: visions, feelings, angelic appearances, dreams, words of wisdom and insights.  These are intimate stories of witness, which we seem so often reticent to share in our scientific and ordered world, and they have been a gift to me.  I would continue to encourage you to take the confidence to share these intimate moments of your faith, your divine and miraculous encounters, with each other far more freely and so I believe to be surprised at just how common they are.  God is at work among us!

It is fascinating to me that Mary moves from a place of questioning, into obedient response and acceptance, and then when she visits Elizabeth into praise and thanksgiving to God.

It was in the sharing of her story that Luke depicts Mary as praising God openly.  A praise possibly born out of the joy of knowing that her story had been heard and her witness had meaning for Elizabeth; but we know not only for Elizabeth but for the millions of Christians who have treasured Luke’s narrative since that time.

Luke is telling us that even Mary who bore Jesus in her womb found it difficult to comprehend and accept what God might be doing and that the reality is that any encounter with God can lead us into confusion and questioning, “How can this be?”  If anything the story reassures us of our own questions concerning our spiritual experiences and should encourage us to know it is in the sharing of these experiences that both enlightenment and praise can occur.

This leads me into making a comment on another of Luke’s key theological points in this passage – the incarnation.

I remember a few years back making the comment in a sermon on this same passage that Luke’s point is not to get us to believe that Mary was a virgin but that Jesus was God’s Son.  When I made this statement I was leaving room for those who might struggle with the science of a virginal conception and other historical anomalies which lie around this story.  The question I asked at the time ‘was it more believable that Mary was a virgin or Jesus was God’s Son?’  At worst Luke is telling a stock standard story for his era to get his point across: if Jesus was to accepted as divine including the story of a virginal birth was really nothing new. 

I would say however after years of contemplation on the issue I have come to the conclusion that the idea that Mary was a virgin is not such a difficult leap after all and like most Biblical inclusions has deep theological significance in itself.

What Luke conveys to us is that God chose in God’s own mysterious way to reach into Mary and create within her a new life.  Psalm 139 describes the mystery of our embryonic life with these wonderful words: “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.  Whilst biological science may explain these processes there is still an awesomeness and mystery to be embraced in the miracle of life.

So when God knit Jesus’ life together in Mary’s womb he did so in a new way.  In the womb of this woman Mary, who was a child of Adam and Eve, God did something new in the creation.  This is the miracle of the incarnation, the eternal Word of God being made flesh, he is a new creation!

For so many Christians the cross is the focal point of our faith and rightly so.  Great theologians such as Martin Luther, Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann have pointed us to the cross to understand God.  Yet the cross is given its meaning so profoundly because of who it is we believe is hanging there in Jesus – God incarnate: the Word made flesh knit together in Mary’s womb!

This is why Luke’s story is so important because he describes for us a theological truth which has us standing with mouths agape just as Mary did: “How can this be?” “How can God become a human being?”

You see the incarnation stands us something which is completely unique about our faith.  The story of a God who as John puts it pitches his tent among us; he tabernacles with us!

It is his presence in the world that alters the reality of all existence.  This means that for me Christianity is never about telling you how to live or what you need to do to get into heaven or what kind of morals you should have.  These may be side effects of the good news but the heart of our faith, its essence, is about what God is up to in Jesus.

It would have been far simpler for me over the years to have taken the well worn route of preaching moral truths telling you how to behave or what to do but this to me would lack the truth of our faith and of eternal life, which is described by Jesus in John “as knowing him and the Father who sent him”.

As I continue in ministry in this place it is my prayer, and my hope, that you have not found anything of value in knowing me beyond that you have come to know God more deeply, for this is the task for which I believe I was sent.  To point away from myself and at God incarnate who is Jesus, and him crucified and risen for the life of the world.

To return to where I began, Luke’s purpose was theology.  The story of the annunciation is our story – the story of our confusion and disbelief when God appears.  Yet it is also the story of God’s faithfulness and immeasurable love revealed in the Good news, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Is it any wonder that when Mary began to really comprehend this she extolled God before Elizabeth saying,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

May we in grace and hope join her song.


Monday, 8 December 2014

Filled with Joy, not pursuing happiness!

Today on the third Sunday of Advent the readings encourage us to contemplate the theme of joy.

In Isaiah 61:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”

In Psalm 126:

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy”

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”

This theme of joy is etched into our Christian existence; it is a response to God’s grace and goodness, it is part of the Christian DNA.  So strong is this theme of joy that the word for joy is found over 300 times in the New Testament.

Christians are meant to be people filled with joy.

But what does joy sound like? What does joy look like?What does it feel like? 

Is joy found in the pursuit of happiness? 

Is joy found in the ownership of goods? 

Is joy found in status and wealth?

Or even in a bar of chocolate?

If one were to examine the Western culture in which we live one might think that the answer to these things is ‘yes’.  In fact most of our advertising encourages us to think that if we consume a particular product we will be happier or our lives will somehow be more complete.

A recent campaign by Cadbury chocolate called ‘share the joy’ included the slogan “A glass and half full of joy”, whilst a previous Coca-Cola advertising carries the catch phrase “Open Happiness”. 

Ultimately, a great deal of our advertising does the same – it suggests that by owning or consuming a particular product we will be more fulfilled and that we will be imbued with joy or happiness or contentment.

Of course most of us see through the advertising and know that products do not necessarily produce the joy in life that we seek.  In fact it seems that our very opulent lifestyle is failing to fulfil us let alone bring us joy.

Despite the indications of how high a standard of living we as Australians enjoy, how wealthy we are on a world scale, we continue to speak of ourselves as Aussie battlers and wear that badge with a sense of pride.  And there are clear indicators as Australians that we are not a very happy people. 

Statistics indicate that at any given time one in six Australian men is suffering from depression and that women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression after puberty. (http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=1.7)

Now whilst mental illness is a complex issue this is a disturbing statistic in such a wealthy culture.  This statistic is made more concerning but the figures of suicide rates in Australia.  More than one in five deaths which occur in 15-24 year old men occurs through suicide.  (http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/IgnitionSuite/uploads/docs/LIFE%20factsheet_3_web.PDF)

Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order, noted in his devotional book “Seven last Words” that in his travels around the world it was in the wealthiest countries that he found that people seemed to be the most worried.  It appears that we are afflicted by our anxiety despite our wealth or maybe even because of it! (http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Last-Words-Timothy-Radcliffe/dp/0860123979)

We have not found joy!  This seems somewhat paradoxical given our Western culture has its roots in Christendom.  If joy is meant to be etched into our Christian existence where have we gone wrong?  Where is the joy?

As I examined the passages set down for today apart from the theme of joy another theme came through, a theme which anchors that joy of which I am speaking and for which I think we long.

Listen for the theme in Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me


I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

He goes on,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Do you hear it?  Do you get it?  Isaiah’s confidence, his task, his joy was there because he believed and trusted that God had acted, was acting and that God would act again in human history.

So too in the Psalm:

“the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

And once again in Paul’s letter the strength of hope expressed in a trust in God’s faithfulness:

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

People of faith through history have found their joy in knowing and believing in a God who acts.

The God who we are told sent John into the world to prepare the way for Jesus coming into the world.

I wonder whether as a culture we have become so reliant on our own abilities, so disconnected from the struggle to survive, so individualistic in our pursuit of happiness that we have lost focus on the heart of our faith – the faithfulness of God.  The faithfulness of God expressed to the whole creation in his willingness to share our human existence in Jesus and to point a way forward into the hope, peace and joy of life with God.

To recover our joy as Christians means that maybe we should stop pursuing happiness as it is being sold to us and rather pursue God: to pursue God, knowing that the joy that we find in relationship with him has led Christians through the millennia to face hardship and peril with a sense of joy and peace.  The joy of the Christian life is a joy which can and does transcend personal hardships.

When the Psalmist fills mouths with laughter it is done so in the face of adversity.

So the first step may be to stop trying to pursue joy and happiness and rather focus again on God.

But more than this, the reading from Isaiah should also bring to mind that Jesus chose these words from Isaiah to preach the good news to his home town of Galilee.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Jesus declared that the year of the Lord’s favour had come in him and truly if we understand this it should be a source of joy for us.

The year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee, was meant to occur every 50 years.  When the year of Jubilee came it “was a time of social renewal when all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and every dispossessed family returned to their ancestral lands that may have been sold or lost over the decades. (Leviticus 25) People may lose their land, their freedom, their stake in civil society for many reasons—whether by natural calamity, parental mismanagement, oppressive government, or moral failure—it does not matter. A new generation gets a stake in life. All is graciously restored in the year of Jubilee.” (http://shalomconnections.org/SC/SC07Sp2H.pdf)

If we place our confidence, our faith, our trust in God and if we listen for Jesus words our joy comes from a shared hope in renewed community, in renewed relationship with God and with each other.  It is about shared joy not simply individual happiness.  Our joy runs deep as we live with hope that all will share in the joy of life lived in God’s creation. 

I think sometimes the difficulty for we who have so much is to find joy in God and not our possessions and luxury.  To be grateful for what we have and not constantly seek after more, but this is such a counter cultural idea.  Yet not only this but to take seriously the concept of the year of the Lord’s favour in which we hear a vision to bring good news to the oppressed and to forgive debts and to bind up the broken hearted and to comfort those who mourn. It is meant to be an eternal year of Jubilee.

Personally I find that the struggle that I have with joy at times is that it is difficult to be joyful about how good my life is when so many are suffering in the world.  Yet part of this conundrum is that not to be thankful for the things that I have and the opportunities would somehow seem ungrateful.

I believe Jesus presence in the world releases me and all of us from this conundrum and invites us to live celebrating joyfully the salvation we have found in him whilst at the same time caring so that others may know and experience salvation: life and life in all its fullness.  To put it another way to be joyful in our thanksgiving but also to care and give generously until all people can share in the joy.

To rejoice in the Lord always means being set from our anxieties about the future and trusting in the God who acts and so to share his concerns for others.  I don’t think we can respond to a command to be joyful rather having encountered God and heard that we can place our trust in him we can be liberated from our anxieties and so rejoice.

For me this is about getting things in the right order.  Seek after God and we will find joy. 

The Christian story has a theme of rejoicing a tone of celebration.  This joy comes from the hope we have in Christ and the peace that we have been given in our relationship with God.  It is a joy that causes us to take stock of our lives in this community of creation and as we do so to share in Christ’s ministry as his disciples in the world.

The facade of joy that surrounds us is a sales pitch that has no depth.  As we edge closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus let us be surprised by the joy of our relationship with God and share that joy with others, especially those in the world who need it most as we say with Isaiah:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

It's the good news of Jesus the Son of God, for you! "Come on down!"

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

I think one of the most dangerous things that we can do as human beings is think that we have arrived, that there is nothing more for us to learn.  When we take this stance, on any issue in our life, in my opinion it is less likely that we have actually come to a place of complete understanding and more likely that in our ignorance or our arrogance we have put the brain’s full sign on our foreheads and become belligerent about change.

When Mark wrote his gospel he begins with what I believe is a phrase that has layered meanings for us if we listen closely - “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ!”  It is the beginning of Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus.  Now right from the start of his gospel Mark let’s us into the secret - Jesus is God’s Son. 

If you sit and listen to the whole book from beginning to end it’s as though we as listeners are privy to a bit of a joke.  Jesus is God’s Son but most of the rest of the characters in the story don’t get it.

So on one level Mark’s words are just telling us that this is the start of his story.  But on another level there is a more personal impact that comes from these words – this is the “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!” in our lives as well.

For the words are not static, stagnant things left festering on the page, but are words which are meant to speak to us at a personal level.  This is good news for you!

As I was thinking about this and how this emotion attached to these words might be expressed I kept thinking of that old game show The Price is Right.  Contestant were selected from the audience with the word “Come on Down!”  And as the words were spoken the audience erupted into cheering and excitement – it was good news to be picked. 

Family members jump up out of their seats, the rest of the audience cheers and claps, the host smiles his cheesy grin and the person who had been selected could look shocked, amazed, astounded, elated, asking is it really me?

To me this is the image we need to have in our heads when we consider the excitement of the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is almost as if we should read:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Bob!”

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Jane!”

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Fred!”

And as we hear those words, as fellow participants in the event we cheer and we encourage and we share that excitement.

This is life changing stuff and there is newness about it – begins are about newness.  For someone in the game show there was the beginning of their opportunity to win some prizes; there were new games to play; and if they did well there were new household items – even to the point of being life changing for a person.  The consequences of coming on down could have longer term implications.

For us as Christians it should be no different.  With the excitement of hearing the good news and our name being called there is a new beginning and ongoing journey a different kind of engagement.  This is not the arrival this is the beginning and a beginning that would recur.

In Mark’s gospel he goes on to set the scene by speaking about John the Baptist and the call to repent and be baptised.  I think over the centuries in many ways we have sanitised baptism and made it nice.

Reading the Biblical scholars many will say that the strongest association with the image of baptism is not so much being washed cleaned as being drowned and being brought back to life.

This is why full immersion baptism is considered the most effective sign of baptism.  You dunk people under the water, they are drowned and rise from under the water in new life.  Unfortunately, for most Uniting Churches we have baptism fonts that are more like thimbles and our celebration of baptism whilst containing powerful words of grace often feel more like we are just giving a nice blessing to the child. Let alone the complications of baptising adults in droplets of water.

Yet our baptism, our calling to come on down, daily confronts us and calls us to change and to grow.  Baptism is not the arrival!  It is the new beginning of our relationship with God which is renewed everyday.  The words of the Psalmist come to mind – God’s mercies are new every morning, so great is his faithfulness.

I think somehow I would like to capture that sense of excitement and call every day as if Jesus is saying to me “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God, for Peter Lockhart!”  To live with eyes wide open to the transformation God is working in my life and the world around me, for God’s promise in Jesus is to make all things new.

As God’s people we need to be wary that we have not put up the brain’s full sign; that we can be open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

This is not always easy for us as people.  We like the security of the familiar, it is safe and comfortable.  And new beginnings, newness can be viewed as blessing and gift but also can viewed as change, and we don’t always like change.

Yet if we consider the birth of a child, the newness and excitement that accompanies this change is fantastic, but it is also not easy.  Caring for a new child takes work, adjustment, and learning new things.   

As a congregation we have been thinking about the new things God might be calling us to: a church open day, brunch on the lawn, a service down at the park, different views about music and how we use it.  As God brings these things to birth new opportunities, new excitement, and even new dread fill us but we remember that God’s mercies are new every morning and that each day is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God!”

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Advent 1 Hope

“And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

I want to invite you to take moment and think about the issues confronting us at the moment. 

As a congregation we are very small. We may be growing slowly but it takes so much energy.

On a personal level I know that for many of you have health issues which are of serious concern. For some of you your future in terms of where you are living is also playing on your mind.  all of us have our personal struggles and issues.

As a society Australia has become increasingly disinterested in the church and as we have found our selves on the sideline of the community we have become more insular.

I believe that we are facing far more serious global issues than ever before.  The issues of global warming and economic meltdown are raising question as to our way of life. Is this all indicating that the way we live now in the West may not be sustainable?

The confrontation between the West and other ideologies and religions has contributed to global instability.  The Middle East is in a state of terror.

To put it mildly you could say we are in a bit of a pickle.

It is exactly this kind of tumultuous environment that Jesus declares his hope to his disciples as he approached his death.

The words at the beginning of Mark 13 envisage a time when the temple will be destroyed and Jesus followers will be persecuted.  In these words Jesus indicates what lies ahead for the early Christians.  In the year 64 Nero began his persecution of the Christians in Rome – when Christians were subjected to horrors unimaginable.  In 70 A.D. the Temple was destroyed. 

Jesus words were words that described almost an end of the world for the Jews and early Christians.  But Jesus also spoke hope into this setting – the promise of the coming of the Son of Man, the promise that in the fullness of his return new life and hope would spring forth.

This said Jesus was what we are to do: we stay awake and watch with hope!

But staying awake and being hopeful is not that easy – some of you find it difficult not to doze in my sermons – but in this you can find yourself in the good company of the disciples.

In Mark 14, the following chapter, the scene shifts half way through the chapter to the garden of Gethsemane where we know the disciples kept falling asleep, even though they had been asked to stay awake with Jesus.

At the height of Jesus agonising over his impending death, when he needed a friend, his friends were found wanting.  When going gets tough the tough fell asleep!

In the midst of the demons of our time, the problems facing the world and the church, are we not like the disciples who found themselves alongside Jesus dozing off.

It is hard to stay awake if you think about it.

Have we been sung to sleep by the lullaby of the comfortable culture which surrounds us?  We live in safe homes, eat our nice meals, and access our almost free health care system.  We have good friendships, people to look after us, TV to entertain us.

Or maybe… have we become dazed by the bright flashing lights of the frenetic society around us?  Are we rushing around being busy because if we are not busy people might think worse of us?  So busy that we are all but asleep on our feet!

Do we think that we are stuck in bad dream waiting to wake up?

Jesus challenges us “And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

What are we staying awake for?  To see the signs of Jesus presence, to see the signs of Jesus coming!  Like a new leaf on the fig tree hope springs forth.  Little by little signs of new are growth stirring – the coming of Jesus.  Peace breaks out as the kingdom breaks in and Jesus reign is established.

As we struggle in this Gethsemane time, half way between sleep and wakefulness, like the disciples we can find our trust and hope in Jesus promise: whatever the outcome of our drowsy estate Jesus will come to make all things new!

So in this, our waiting is no passive thing, it is not a nothing time.  Our waiting takes place context in the rhythm of the pattern of our worship, of our lives lived with God and with each other.  Whatever confronts our God is with us; Jesus has come, is here and is coming!

As we begin our Advent journey as a congregation we face uncertain times and difficult choices what is God asking of us now.  How will we be God’s people awake and attuned to Jesus presence in the world around us?

I want to invite you to take a moment and think of the challenges that we face, what do you perceive God is calling us to do now. 

What hopes do you have for Jesus presence with us as a congregation and how will that shape who we are and what we do in the year to come?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns!

Christ the King Sermon 2014: Peter Lockhart

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar.  It is the end of our Christian year.  Not unlike New Year’s celebrations at the end of December, or possibly even our birthdays, it is a time for both reminiscing and a time for looking ahead. 

The readings for the day lend themselves to helping us as they give us some criteria with which we might assess our faith: the criteria of our engagement with those who suffer.

The imagery from the readings that we heard from both Ezekiel and Matthew are images which contain an edge of judgement.  God, or Jesus, is described as a shepherd separating the flock into those who are righteous and those who are not.

The notion of Jesus acting as a king sitting in judgement over his people is not one that we might necessarily be comfortable with.  And even more tempting is to go down the path of trying to work out who is and who is out and why.

Of course most, if not all preachers, would encourage their congregations with the notion that they are numbered among the righteous or if not an invitation to become one of the righteous ones would be given.

But I do wonder whether this is the most helpful approach and on deeper reflection on the passages, especially the one from Matthew I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective which can be encapsulated in three ideas:

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns! 

Let me unpack these three interlinked ideas with you.

Firstly, ‘it comes as a surprise’.  In his commentary on the passage David Lose from Luther Theological Seminary notes that for both those who are identified as ‘sheep’ and those who are identified as ‘goats’ the judgement comes as a surprise.

After Jesus has outlined when he was present in both cases the response is to ask Jesus the question “When was it that we saw you.”  I must admit that the repetition of this phrase really struck me as I thought about this passage this:

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

This notion of being surprised emphasises a couple of things for us.  The first is that it was not through careful planning and behaviour that the sheep or goats are judged but on actions that they were simply not aware of.  And, secondly, and possibly also more disturbingly, it is God alone who makes the judgement.

Unlike the sense of assurance of salvation that the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley spoke of, in this passage we encounter that those who are chosen are rather surprised by their inclusion.

God alone decides the who and what and why and wherefore of salvation. Listening carefully to broader span of the New Testament we are also aware that the judgement day is the day of Jesus own death.  A factor which should be considered as we listen to Jesus words. 

Nonetheless, as we listen to this parable and to other teachings of Jesus around it what appears most certain around notions of judgement is that is God who decides and not our plans for inclusion that matter.  If our behaviour saves us it is not through our deliberate actions but the surprising choices that God makes.

This releases from the concerns about trying to do good deeds to save ourselves and allows us to turn to God in trust and faith knowing that the word of judgement encountered in Jesus death is matched by a word of grace exclaimed in Jesus resurrection.

We do not carry the burden of saving ourselves but trust in a God whose mercies are new every morning for God’s grace, ‘It comes as a surprise!’

Which brings me to the second phrase or point: That God is present!

The notion that God is present with us can be fairly vague but not in this reading.  God is present in a very specific way as an extension of the incarnation.

The incarnation extended and apparent not in the presence of the people of God but rather more confrontingly in those that Jesus describes as the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.

In identifying his personal presence within these people Jesus continues the tradition and understanding expressed by the prophets like Ezekiel: God has specific concern for those who suffer in this life.  Salvation is not meant to be an after we die event but a restoration of humanity and community to those who are excluded in this life now.

One of the things that this challenges us on if we reflect on our personal journey of faith is whether or not we have viewed others as being Jesus with us.

As we engage with other human beings our starting point as Christians should always involve the idea that Christ is already present.  The notion of incarnational ministry, which is often expressed as we who are the holy ones being Christ for others, is actually around the wrong way: others are Christ with us.

Which brings me to the third idea if we understand that salvation comes as a surprise and that God is present then as people who know this we are invited to respond as we share in God’s concerns!

Growing up I kind of had this idea that being a good Christian was primarily about moral decisions accompanied by attendance at worship.  Don’t drink too much, or swear, be polite and kind, no sex before marriage, work hard and be honest.

But in Jesus judgement the criteria are far more confronting for us.

Feed the hungry
Give water to the thirsty
Welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Heal the sick
And visit the prisoner.

Marrying these comments with Ezekiel’s similar prophecy concerning judgement I believe that the criteria to which we are responding to be Christian and the call to follow Jesus must necessarily involve us in those God is concerned for.  Otherwise we simply and silently participate in the systems that allow others to suffer.

Listen again to Ezekiel’s words:

18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? 20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

On a global scale we are among the fat sheep and as our reflection on abolitionist Sunday has reminded us many of the slaves around the world are propping up our lifestyles.  We are trampling on their pasture and muddying their waters.

So as we look ahead into the year to come, as we begin again next week our advent journey let us think about what it means for us to be Christians personally, followers of Jesus, and corporately as the people of God who gather in this Uniting Church.

The good news is that salvation comes as a surprise! Something out of our control that we do not need to worry about. That God is present!  Which calls us to honour other beings as a continuation of God’s presence in the world in Jesus. And lastly that we are invited to share in God’s concerns for those who are considered ‘The least of these’! 

For when the least of these experience God’s grace in the meal provided, in the clothing given, in the welcome of the stranger,  in the healing of the sick or the release of the prisoner then it may be actually true that it is on earth as is in heaven, even if only for a fleeting moment.