Satan, Wild Beasts & Angels

THE FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT – 26th February, 2012

ST MATTHEW’S, GUILDFORD

During the week there was a small furore when “The West Australian”’s cartoonist, Alston, portrayed Kevin Rudd as Jesus on the cross. Some letters to the editor protested Alston’s blasphemy or, at least, irreverence, suggesting (probably correctly) that he wouldn’t dare use Mohammed in a similar vein.  Another letter-writer, a self-declared Christian, offered forgiveness along with a plea for the cartoonist’s increased sensitivity.  Personally, I found the cartoon relatively inoffensive and quite relevant.

Since that edition of the “West”, of course, much has changed.  Now, it seems to me, both Kevin and Julia find themselves in the wilderness being tested.  Tested and tempted by the demons of power and success and popularity, as – in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the Temptation – was Jesus.  For both the Prime Minister and her predecessor and challenger, I am sure there is a genuine wish to lead this country so as to bring about the greater good.  But I am equally sure that each, like every one of us, experiences less altruistic, self-denying temptations.

In Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ temptation, Satan and angels seem to play an equal part in attending to Jesus.  “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  It is almost like the old cartoons where we see someone being tempted – perhaps to eat chocolate – with a horned demon on one shoulder and a winged angel on the other, each whispering into his ear.  Kevin and Julia have many people whispering – and some yelling! – into their ears, offering good and bad advice, good and bad motivation, good and bad dreams.  And did I mention the “wild beasts”?    And, of course, whoever loses the ballot on Monday will probably be in the wilderness for a lot longer than forty days!

Personally, as a regular conservative voter, I quite enjoy seeing the other side falling apart and heading for self-destruction.  But I am praying – as, of course, must we all – for a good outcome for our nation, regardless of my/our personal political views.

But, for now, back to Jesus.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation is so brief that we almost could blink and not notice it.  On the first Sundays of Lent in years A & C, we read lengthy accounts of this event from Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels respectively.  Each list three different challenges offered to Jesus in return for an easy ride to success in his declared mission.  And to each challenge of Satan, Jesus responds with a carefully-chosen rebuttal from the Scriptures.

For Jesus, there is no easy way to bring in the Kingdom of God, no painless democratic process, no popularity contest.   For Jesus, as for his disciples then and now, the way of the cross is the only way of success.  It is costly and requires daily self-denial – a refusal to compromise on God’s standards and to contravene God’s call.

The brevity of Mark’s account as we read in this morning’s Gospel has much to say which we need to hear, regardless of the specific temptations put by Satan in the other Gospels.

Let’ look at those verses again:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God.”

I want to say three brief things about Jesus’ temptation, though probably not quite as briefly as St Mark does!

  • Firstly, it is about the timing of the temptation: It comes immediately after Jesus baptism by his cousin, John.  It is something of a “reality check” after the affirmation of the Voice which declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It’s similar to last week’s story of the Transfiguration, when the Voice declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.”  In that account, Jesus and the disciples faced a tough “real-world” situation on coming down the mountain.  Whatever experience we have of God’s affirmation will often be “crunched” shortly afterwards by the difficulties of life in a real and hostile world.  There are always people and powers that will try to distract or deter us from following Jesus all the way.  But in our baptism we are declared “members of the Body of Christ, children of the heavenly Father, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God”.  And so we remain whatever is thrown against us.
  • Secondly, we read, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”  It was not Satan who was in control.  The fact that the Spirit “drove him out” tells us that the whole exercise was under the control and care of God.  Jesus was never alone or abandoned by God (except at the last on the cross).  Jesus’ testing/temptation was always within the limits set by his Father.  And so is whatever tempting/testing we might face in our own lives as followers of Jesus.  St Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” [1]  And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews adds, “Because [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”[2]  In our testing, we are not alone.  There is One who has been there, too.  And God is in control.
  • And, thirdly, there were not only Satan and the wild beasts there in the wilderness.  We read, “and the angels waited on him.”  Sure, Jesus was without food for a long time; and certainly he was under severe attack to cause him to doubt and to desert his calling.  But God saw to it that there was a “support team” on site to encourage and affirm as and when needed.  In Lent, and whenever we resolve to follow Jesus more closely, God provides “angels” for us – and they are mostly our fellow-Christians.  We can – and should – be “angels” to one another.  The hymn, “Brother, sister, let me serve you” puts it well:

“We are pilgrims on a journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.”[3]

And another hymn has it: “But His angels here are human”.  We can provide the support and encouragement each of us need.  We can be open to bearing with those who face challenges.  And we can be more understanding of others because times like Lent make us a little more aware of our own humanity and failings, as well as of the forgiveness and fresh starts that come to us through the love and grace of God.

The tempting and testing of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd will continue till a little after 10 o’clock on Monday morning.  And any outcome will necessarily be less than satisfactory to most people.  And such tests and challenges will continue to come to political leaders everywhere.

And tests and trials and challenges will come to each of us as followers of Jesus and children of God.  But we are not alone in the trials.  Jesus has been there and Jesus continues to walk with us all the way to the cross and beyond.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God.”  It is my hope that this season of Lent will prepare us to go likewise proclaiming the good news of God – as Bishop David Murray often used to say, we’ll be “keeping alive the rumour of God”.

The Lord be with you.

 


[1] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[2] Hebrews 2:18

[3] © 1977 Scripture in Song

“Moving Right Along”

LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY B – 19th February, 2012

St Matthew’s, Guildford

Today is “Bombing of Darwin Day”.  Seventy years ago, 19th February, 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked ships in Darwin’s harbour and the town’s two airfields, in an attempt to impede the Allies from contesting the invasions of Java and Timor.  The events of that day have been called “Australia’s Pearl Harbor”.  It was a huge psychological blow to Australians, being the first-ever enemy attack on our soil.  Those who were there and survived – and most Australians who were alive on that day – have never forgotten the shock to our nation’s pride.  I imagine a few of you (well, one or two anyway) can remember that day and its impact.

Yesterday, our Governor-General, Quentin Bryce opened a new museum in Darwin dedicated to the memory of that day, remembering the suffering and sacrifice of those who witnessed the event.

A few days ago, another 70th anniversary was commemorated – that of the Fall of Singapore.  And some of you will naturally remember that too.

And on Thursday, a somewhat less dramatic event, only thirty-eight years in the past, was celebrated with considerably less fanfare – KT’s and my Wedding anniversary.

The war events of seventy years ago are something I can only know by listening to those who were there, and by reading historical accounts of what took place.

Our wedding, on 16th February, 1974, is something I well remember.  I was present and experienced it.  Even then, there are aspects of that day which I don’t remember, partly because, in the middle of such an emotionally involving day, the fine detail can easily be forgotten.  But I know it happened and I know I was there.

It seems to me that Mark’s Gospel account of the “transfiguration” of Jesus bears the hallmarks of an eye-witness account, along with some blurring at the edges.  Tradition has it that much of Mark’s Gospel is recorded from Peter’s telling of the story to Mark.  And I think we can see that in some of the details in this story.  The “six days later”, the “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”, and Peter’s suggestion that they “make dwellings” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, all bear the ring of eye-witness accounts.

I do like the fact that this Gospel doesn’t attempt to set Peter up as much of a hero.  He appears occasionally as insightful, but more often as brash, impetuous and unreliable.  He is one of us!

As St Paul says in today’s Epistle, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  In other words, we will only ever be a poor reflection of Jesus in this world, but we can show Jesus to those around us.

Let’s get back to the transfiguration story.

But first, a little context.  Today’s reading begins, “Six days later”, so I think we should ask, “Six days later than what?”

The gospel for last Thursday, as we read in the Eucharist at the Sutcliffes’ home with the Bible Study group, was the “six days earlier”.  It told of the time when Jesus took the disciples aside and asked them, “Who do people say I am?”   The disciples’ responses were varied – “John the Baptist”, “Elijah” and “one of the prophets” were among the answers they gave.  Then, Jesus put them on the spot by asking, “But who do you say that I am?’”

Crunch-time comes for the disciples, as it must from time to time come for us.  Peter, inspired, says, “You are the Messiah.”  And that is all that is said on that matter.

And before Peter can get carried away with the excitement and anticipation of Messiah’s coming to overthrow the Romans and rebuild God’s rule in Israel, Jesus puts to rest that mistaken idea and explains to the disciples what his being “messiah” is going to mean.  He says, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

And Peter is not happy!  So he tries to talk Jesus out of such a silly notion, and cops a serious backlash – “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Talk about “rooster to feather-duster” in one easy step!

And so, “six days later”, here we are on “a high mountain”.  Jesus has brought his “inner circle” of disciples – Peter, James and John – with him.  And, suddenly, Jesus is “transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white”.  Mark is describing the indescribable.  No doubt, words fail him.  The word which is translates “transfigured” is the Greek word from which we get “metamorphosis”.  If you remember your school biology lessons, you probably remember that metamorphosis is what occurs when an insect – notably a butterfly – changes from larva to adult via the cocoon or “chrysalis”.

So, when Jesus is “metamorphosed”, the disciples see fleetingly his true nature and glory as the Son of God. And Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus.

And it is no surprise that words fail them – except, of course for Peter.  “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”, he says, impetuous as ever.

And this is where we can make a connection with “Bombing of Darwin Day” and the building of a museum to remember the events of 19th February, 1942, and with all the other memorial buildings and plaques by which we can say “Lest we forget”.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with constructing such memorials.  What is wrong – or at least unhelpful – is the determination to live in the past and feed only on past glory.

I have met many ex-service-people for whom it seems life stopped when they retired or were demobbed from the forces.  I have met ex-footballers whose life seems to have faded to nothing when they hung up their boots.  And I have often met Christians whose faith seems centred only on some experience they had of or with God or Jesus somewhere in the past.  It may be a powerful conversion experience; it may have been making their Cursillo; it may be a time when they “were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke with tongues”.

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus warns us against being lost in the past; surviving only on memories and long-distant experiences, however memorable and powerful and life-changing they may have been.

Moses and Elijah represent two of the greatest figures in the history of Israel and of God’s dealings with God’s people.  Moses is the great hero who stood up to the Pharaoh and demanded that he “let my people go”.  Moses is the one who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and across the wilderness for forty years.  Moses is the one who brought Israel the commandments and the laws by which they lived for over a thousand years up to the time of Jesus.

Elijah is a great prophet, who stood up to another powerful and evil ruler, King Ahab and his equally evil and manipulative queen, Jezebel.  Elijah is the one who stood up to the prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice when the prophets of Baal were powerless to do the same.

And both Moses and Elijah has mysterious endings – Moses went out into the desert and his body was never found.  So, legend had it that he had not died, but simply gone straight to heaven, body and all.  And in our Old Testament reading this morning, we heard of the whirlwind and the chariot of fire and horses of fire which took Elijah bodily also into heaven.  No wonder Peter was excited to encounter these great “heroes of the faith”!

But the covering of the three great ones with a cloud and the voice coming from that cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him”, focuses all the attention where it now belongs – on Jesus the beloved Son, God’s ultimate revelation.

The Letter to the Hebrews begins “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,*[who] is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”.  It is something of this that is seen and heard by Peter, James and John – an experience overwhelming and pretty much indescribable as well as totally unforgettable.

In all the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration, we are told that following this event, Jesus and the disciples come down the mountain and immediately encounter a challenging situation of a boy who needs healing, and of the failure of the rest of the disciples to deal with it.  Jesus, Peter, James and John, fresh from a wonderful experience, still have to face “the real world’ of sin and suffering.  And so do we!

Coming to church most Sundays is probably pretty ordinary and routine.  Occasionally though, as bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, as we hear the words of Absolution as God forgives our failings and wrongdoings, as we encounter Christ in one another, there will be moments of transfiguration, moments when we can see and rejoice in the bigger picture.

Today’s Gospel story encourages us to rejoice in those moments past and present, but never to lose sight of Jesus and the ongoing mission we have as his disciples of today.

None of us can afford to rest on our laurels – the glory days of our church – the Sunday Schools and Youth Groups that flourished, the days when the church was full two or three times on Sunday, and the wonderful times we had with this or that priest in our “heyday”.

Jesus calls us to remember, to celebrate and to move on.  Down at the bottom of the mountain, there is always work to do.  And we will do it best because we have seen “the extraordinary power” which “belongs to God and does not come from us”.  And we will tell it best because, like Peter and James and John, we have seen and believed.

“Who’s Your Leper?”

EPIPHANY 5B – 12th February, 2012

St Matthew’s, Guildford

Eight days ago, on Saturday about lunch-time, I had finished a marriage preparation session with a young couple, and had a spare hour to relax before doing it all over again with another couple.

And the door-bell rang!

There was a lady there who wanted to talk to me about praying for Muslims.  She felt that “the Lord has laid on my heart to pray for Muslims in Australia”.  And she came equipped with a booklet entitled “Twenty Days of Prayer for Muslims”.  It had daily notes on different aspects for which to pray.  And I found it interesting to talk with her for a few minutes.

I wasn’t really interested in keeping the booklet and less interested in having copies for distribution to members of my congregation, especially when it said on the cover words to the effect of “Do not leave this booklet in a public place”!

I’m sure you all pray for Muslims in your daily prayers, just as you probably pray for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and even Christians!   And I’d be prepared to bet that the intention of the prayers would be very wide-ranging, depending on your personal beliefs and prejudices!

On the ABC’s “Family Confidential” last Thursday evening, Australian author, Bryce Courtenay, spoke of the illness and death of his youngest son, Damon.  The boy was born with haemophilia and in his teens was infected with HIV/AIDS through blood transfusion.  What wasn’t mentioned in that programme, but was in an interview Bryce gave with Gillian O’Shaughnessy on 720 Afternoons was that, when it became public that Damon was HIV positive, he faced much public shame and ill-treatment.  HIV/AIDS was the big bogey-man of the 1980’s, its victims frequently being assumed to be homosexual and therefore “getting what they deserved”.

Prejudice against people living with HIV/AIDS was rife, and these folk were often treated, even within medical institutions as outcasts.  One might almost say, “as lepers”!

It seems that most human beings carry prejudices and intolerance as second nature.  In Australia, there has been discomfort since WWII (and possibly before that) as successive waves of immigrants have arrived on our shores – Italians, Greeks and other Europeans, Vietnamese and others from SE Asia, and now refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.  This latest wave of migrants/refugees come with a new challenge to many Australians – that of Islam.  It is a blending of religion and culture which challenges, and perhaps threatens, much of what we hold dear in our national self-perception.

We may well fear that our tolerance and welcome are being stretched just too far.  And I confess that I find the challenge of Islam and the culture of many of its adherents quite threatening.  I would prefer that migrants to this country adopt our language, dress and customs; but, perhaps that is not mine to decide.

In today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, we see cultural and religious prejudices being challenged by leprosy – a disease which carried all the stigma and fear then which HIV/AIDS did in our communities in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.

To be a leper, was to be an outcast, cut off from one’s family and friends, from work and the ability to earn money, from all religious and cultural activities.  Lepers had to live in camps well outside of the towns and villages, and ring a bell and cry out “Unclean” whenever they were within range of “normal” people.

All the Bible commentaries remind us that the words “leper” and “leprosy” in our scriptures can include a wide range of diseases and disorders of the skin – one thinks of psoriasis and eczema, ringworm and skin cancers as possible candidates – as well as the classic leprosy; which really means that there were probably many more outcasts than mere “leprosy” suggests.

The laws of Israel in regard to “leprosy” were for the protection of the health of the whole people; but that did not, of course, reduce the impact on families and individuals, and probably did nothing to decrease or prevent the fear and resultant prejudice suffered by its victims.

So, a powerful Syrian military leader by name of Naaman develops “leprosy” and looks like losing his status and income and family.  (I presume the Syrians had similar measures in place to deal with the disease as their southern neighbours).  When all looks hopeless, a young servant-girl, originally taken captive from Israel, cares enough to suggest the master go to the prophet down south in her homeland.  By a roundabout process, Naaman comes to the house of the prophet Elisha, and is told by Elisha’s servant to go wash in the River Jordan seven times and he’ll be cured.

Naaman, naturally enough, protests, but on the bravely-given advice of yet another servant, does as the prophet says.  And we read, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”

We could draw from the story at least two messages:

  • Never value your greatness too highly to take advice, and
  • Never value your humility so much that you fail to offer help

In the Gospel story, a leper disregards all the legislative and societal taboos, presenting himself to Jesus, challenging him with, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus pulls no punches, showing absolutely no prejudice when he says, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  Sure, he tells the now ex-leper to go and show himself to the priest and make an offering in accord with the Law; but he certainly shows no reluctance to accept the man.

I’ve been thinking about what the “leprosy” of today is, and who the “lepers” are.

I suppose it’s different for each of us; so I can only make some possible suggestions and let you touch base with your own fears and prejudices.

  • People who have a different language, culture and/or religion to our own
  • People whose sexual orientation is different to our own (GLBTI)
  • People with addictions to alcohol and other drugs, legal or otherwise
  • Outlaw motorcycle groups
  • People with physical disabilities
  • People with mental illness, including many of the homeless people we see

This morning, we are  welcoming into the Church through Baptism “one of our own” – Elizabeth .  She is stereotypically “acceptable” to us because she is a baby, beautiful, healthy and innocent.  As yet, we have no way of knowing how she will grow up; though we do know her parents and they, too, are perfectly “acceptable”.

It is only too easy to welcome Elizabeth

“as a member with us of the Body of Christ

as a child of the same heavenly Father

and as an inheritor with us of the Kingdom of God.”

But I can guarantee that your week will not be made up entirely of “acceptable” people.  I hope that you will encounter between now and next Sunday someone whose presence and personality with challenge your likes and dislikes, your tolerance and prejudices.

For it is they whom Jesus came to serve and to save;

and it is they whom Jesus calls us to welcome and serve.

St Paul reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”[1].

We are called in our Baptism, in our being declared children of God, to love and welcome all of humanity as God in Jesus has welcomed us.  Of course, that is not always easy.  It took Jesus all the way to the cross!

Loving and welcoming doesn’t always mean agreeing.  Praying for Muslims may well include praying that they might come to know God better through Jesus Christ.  But that’s a pretty good prayer for us all, Christians included.

Loving many people who make us uncomfortable may need change in ourselves or them – most probably in both!

Jesus and Elisha didn’t welcome the lepers and leave them in their disease and isolation.  Both welcomed, accepted and acted for the healing of their petitioners, and thus brought about a reversal of their fortunes.

Result?

The Syrian Naaman declared the God of Israel to be the only true God and determined to worship God alone.  The Galilean ex-leper “went out and began to proclaim it freely”.

Perhaps if we were to show more acceptance and welcome, more folk would turn to the God whom profess to love and serve

Like my visitor of last Saturday, I will continue to pray for Muslims and for all people.  But I recognise the need to pray for myself – as perhaps you will for yourself – for the love and tolerance and understanding of Jesus; for the challenging and breaking-down of my prejudices and the fears that prevent me from being what St Paul called in last week’s Epistle, “all things to all people, that I might by all means save some”.


[1] Romans 5:8

“Have You Not Known?”

EPIPHANY 5B – 5th February, 2012 – St Matthew’s, Guildford

SERMON NOTES

 

Did you see this, the front page of Friday’s “West Australian”?  It’s about the hills areas to the east of Perth and how unprepared they seem to be for the prospect of bushfires.

 

It’s just a year since the horrendous fires which raged through Roleystone and Kelmscott, destroying 71 homes and damaging 39 more.

 

And, according to this report the level of fire danger in the hills, from Mundaring to Armadale, is still very high, especially since we have had good winter rainfall and corresponding vegetation growth.

 

According to the “West”, “firefighters are frustrated at the ‘apathy’ of residents in fire-prone areas who still fail to safeguard their properties”  The article continues, “Roleystone volunteer fire captain took The West Australian to a forested area with houses he described as his ‘worst nightmare’.  ‘If a fire gets going in there, you’d have 100 -120 houses go without any way of stopping it because the terrain is so steep and people have bush up to their houses”.

 

And the people of these areas could well do with hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading:         “Have you not known? Have you not heard?

                        Has it not been told you from the beginning?

                        Have you not understood…”

 

Surely no-one can complain that they’ve not been told, but as the article continues, it is clear that many home-owners (and possibly local government authorities) are not listening.

 

The people of Israel to whom the prophet is writing are in a vastly different situation to that of the folk of the Darling Scarp, although they might well sympathise with those who have lost the homes and livelihood.

 

The Israelites are mostly descendants of those who were taken captive to Babylon some seventy years previously.  Their land and houses had been destroyed, as had their beautiful city of Jerusalem with its Temple and artefacts.

 

They are in mourning still, as represented in Psalm 137, made famous as a song by the group, Boney M.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’


How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy
.”

Chapter 40 of Isaiah, from which we are reading this morning, begins a new section of the book.  In the first 39 chapters, Israel has been admonished by God for their sins of idolatry and forgetting or neglecting to keep God’s commands.  As a result of their sins, they are to be punished and the captivity in Babylon is the result.

 

Now, seventy years later, there is a new message of hope. Chapter 40 begins (as we heard a few Sundays back,

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

 

And then we have “a voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’”

 

As the chapter progresses, the people are reminded that God is still on the throne and still cares for God’s people, being very much aware of their suffering and grief.  God has not forgotten them, but they seem to have forgotten God.

 

A sad state of affairs, indeed!

 

If we read the Old Testament books of the history of God’s people, Israel, we see a roller-coaster ride of times when the people and their leaders and kings seemed to alternate between honouring God and going off to serve the gods and idols of the land – the Baal and Ashteroth and Molech and the rest.  When they serve God, they prosper; when they desert God for other gods, they suffer.  But they never really seem to learn!  L  And the exile to Babylon is the ultimate punishment.

 

Reading the history, we might think Israel would have learned their lesson.  And maybe now they have.  They are in a depressed and downtrodden state and help seems impossible.

 

Until, “Comfort, comfort my people” rings out across Babylon.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

                        Has it not been told you from the beginning?

                        Have you not understood…”

 

Take a look at the sky, says the prophet.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?

  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name;

  because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”

 

God knows that the people feel forgotten and deserted.

‘Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,

  “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?’

 

And how often, when our own circumstances are bad, when we feel lost, lonely, depressed, grieving over lost youth, lost opportunities and lost people, do we feel like these people, as though God has deserted us?

 

So God’s words to Israel are words to us in our situations of loneliness, loss and grief;

 

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

                        Has it not been told you from the beginning?

                        Have you not understood…”

 

One of the reasons we need the church and our gatherings together on Sundays and at other times is that we need to be reminded.  So easily and so often, we forget that God is God, that:

 

“The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

 

We need to hear again and often the stories of God’s greatness, of God’s grace and compassion and forgiveness.  We need again and often to celebrate what God is doing in the lives of God’s people in this place and in myriads of places all over the earth.

 

We come to draw strength from worship, reading of Scripture, preaching, prayer and Eucharist.  We come together, in the prophet’s words, to “wait for the Lord”.

 

And the promise to Israel is a promise to us,

 

“[God] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;

but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

  they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

 

I do not know how people in our “fire-prone areas” will respond to the calls for greater care and attention to the bush-fire threat.  Though I doubt enough will ever be done.  We forget so easily.

 

But never forget this: We have known and we have heard and it has been told us from the beginning that God, our God, is with us, and God, our God, is for us.