The Last Wake-Up Call

LENT 2C – 24th February, 2013 – St Matthew’s, Guildford

A few weeks ago, as many of you know, I was rather badly unwell during the first service of the morning and had to go home leaving others to do an impromptu service of Morning Prayer. The next day, I went to my doctor, who diagnosed a chest infection and severe dehydration. When I was talking with my doctor about all this, I made the mistake of saying that the episode was a “wake-up call”, to which he replied, “How many wake-up calls do you need, Stephen?”

When Jesus is speaking in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, he is talking to the Jewish people who have had quite a few wake-up calls over the centuries. God has chosen them from time almost immemorial to be God’s people. This morning we had God talking with Abraham, the very first of the “Chosen People”, promising him “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And God literally cuts a covenant with Abraham, guaranteeing him what we might call “most favoured nation” status.

The story of the Old Testament is the roller-coaster ride of the people of Israel. Abraham and Sarah settle in Canaan and have Isaac in their old age; Isaac and Sarah have twins, Esau and Jacob; Jacob, the younger of the twins, is chosen by God and renamed Israel and produces twelve sons who become the “patriarchs” of the twelve tribes.

Jacob’s second-youngest son, Joseph, is sold by his brothers into slavery, ending up Prime Minister and Treasurer of the nation. A famine brings Jacob and his now large family to Egypt where that are given a goodly plot of land and they flourish.

Four hundred years later, Israel is a substantial nation, but they are in servitude to the people of Israel. God appoints Moses, a Hebrew who has been brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, to lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the “land flowing with milk and honey”. The “wake-up call” here is a reminder to this people of who they are and whose they are – they are God’s chosen people, destined, not for slavery but for glorious freedom under God.

So they escape Egypt and travel into through the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula. Over and over, we are told that they “forgot God” and alternately pined for the familiarity of Egypt and sought to do away with Moses. While Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law which would govern their relationship with God and with one another, the people are busy making a “golden calf” to worship. God is, unsurprisingly, angry and seeks to destroy them; but Moses pleads with God to give them another chance.

And God – always merciful – relents, sort of! Many of the people die and the rest are “under caution”, so to speak. Eventually – forty years later – the people of Israel enter the Promised Land and settle into their various tribal areas. They live under a number of “judges” who often help them to fight off the invading armies of the original inhabitants of the land, whom God allows to trouble Israel whenever they forget him.

Eventually, the people demand a king of their own, which the great judge Samuel perceives as a wish to dethrone God. Be that as it may, God permits them to have a king, and appoints Saul. Sadly, Saul lets God down –as do all of us human beings from time to time.

When Saul is killed in battle with the Philistines, David, whom God has chosen many years earlier, assumes the throne, but battles continue with the neighbours. One spring, David sins against God by taking Bathsheba, the wife of one of his senior army officers, and compounds the sin by having the man killed. God sends Nathan the prophet top give David a “wake-up call”, in the form of a story, ending with “You are the man!” David, to his credit, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. The “wake-up call” is effective!

After David, comes his son, Solomon, who enjoys a long and peaceful reign, and who builds the first Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Solomon serves God well, until late in his reign, when he strays to worship the gods of his many wives and mistresses. When he dies, the nation is split into two kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
For the next three of four hundred years, both nations seem to ride the same roller-coaster as their forefathers. Time after time, they turn away from God, God sends prophets to challenge them, and they suffer for their unfaithfulness.

Eventually, they have ignored enough “wake-up calls”, and first Israel and then Judah are taken into captivity in Persia and Babylon. Prophets again are sent to speak God’s message of judgement and hope, and eventually the people are able to return to their land.

Now, some four hundred years later, the people are subject to the Roman Empire, and God has sent the wake-up call to end all wake-up calls – Jesus, the Messiah.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”. Jesus is God’s final “wake-up call”. As Peter, James and John heard on the mount of Transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”

In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, he tells of the owner’s sending messengers to collect the harvest. The messengers are variously rejected, beaten up and even killed. The owner then sends his son, assuming the tenants will treat him better. But, of course, they kill him too, as we know will happen to Jesus.

And so we come back to today’s Gospel.
‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

I imagine many of you listen to Sabrina Hahn who appears on ABC 720 Afternoons and on the Saturday Breakfast show. She has almost always has solutions to people’s many gardening problems. But occasionally she has no other suggestion than to dig up or cut down a plant or tree which is unproductive. A few times I’ve even heard her tell people to lean an axe against an offending tree, and if the threat doesn’t work then there is no other option.

Jesus is speaking about and to the nation of Israel when he tells this story. He, of course is the gardener, and God the owner. For three years, Jesus has been preaching the good news of the kingdom, with its accompanying message of repentance or judgement. And the leaders of Israel have not listened. Now the point of no return is approaching. And Israel must decide.

We know, of course, what the leaders decided, as we’ll see again in Holy Week. The end result was the destruction of Jerusalem, and all the leaders held dear, in 70 AD.

Meanwhile, we are in the Church’s season of Lent. It is a time when we are called to review our lives and to renew our commitment to follow Jesus. This is a time when we are given our own “wake up call”. Will you and I follow Jesus, or will we go our own stubborn way. Will we seek to follow him in “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, in letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”?.

There are a few more weeks before we come to the font at Easter, renewing our baptismal promises. Let’s take time to read the Scriptures, to meditate on them and to pray. Let the words of Jesus speak into our hearts, causing us to be fruitful, both in piety and good deeds, that there be no need for the axe to be leaned against us, let alone for it to be used! 🙂

The Lord be with you!

“Listen to him”

LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – 10th February, 2013 – St Matthew’s, Guildford

Since the 6th January, we have been in the period of the Church’s year which is the season of Epiphany. It’s about the repeated and growing revelation of who Jesus is and why he was born.
• The Feast of the Epiphany itself celebrated the arrival of “wise men from the East: to see the new-born King of the Jews. The “aha” moment is when we realise that Jesus is born not just for “God’s chosen people”, the Jews, but also for Gentiles, those not born of the tribes of Israel;
• Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John at the River Jordan culminates in a massive “epiphany” – the Holy Spirit settling on him like a dove, and God the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well-pleased”
• The Wedding at Cana in Galilee showed us something more of who Jesus is, as he turned water into wine, saving the feast. John calls it a “sign” an indication of a truth greater than the miracle itself;
• In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ reading from Isaiah and his statement that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” reveals to us his mission – and, ultimately, ours;
• And, last week, Jesus continued his sermon, revealing even more controversially and clearly that his mission is wider than just to the people of his native Israel. And he is thrown out for his boldness.

So, today, we come to the end of the Season of Epiphany, and the season culminates with another undeniable “epiphany”. The word means light bursting forth, a revelation, and “aha’ moment. And as Jesus is praying on the mountain with Peter, James and John, he is seen in his true light – literally as well as metaphorically.

In Luke’s Gospel, from which we read this morning, our story is preceded by Jesus’ having asked his disciples who people were saying him to be. Then he had asked the disciples for their opinion of him, and Peter has declared him to be “The Messiah of God”. And Jesus has proceeded to tell them of his impending suffering and death and resurrection. It seems we are getting to the pointy end of his three-and-a-half year ministry.

So, a week later, Jesus takes the “inner circle” of the apostles – Peter, James and John – with him up a mountain to pray. And we read, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
I find myself wondering what this event, so succinctly described by St Luke, means to Jesus, to the disciples who were present, and eventually, to us.

For Jesus, coming to the end of his ministry, as he turns shortly to begin his last journey to Jerusalem, there is a reaffirmation of who he is and why he is here. “This is my Son, my Chosen”, comes the Voice from heaven, almost repeating the words Jesus heard at his Baptism. The one who affirmed him at the beginning is still with him. The calling he received at the beginning is still current and relevant. Jesus is on track. He has been with Moses and Elijah “speaking of his departure” – the Greek word in Luke is “exodus”, which clearly reminds us of the events recorded in the book of the same name which has Israel rescued from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land. Jesus is the Moses and Joshua, the rescuer and saviour, freeing all from the tyranny of evil.

As Peter and his off-siders see all this happening, they are, not surprisingly, overwhelmed. Peter – ever practical – offers to build tents or dwellings for each member of this “holy three”. Like most of us would, he wants to prolong this “mountain-top experience” as long as possible. But this is not to be. They are not to concentrate on Moses and Elijah, or even on the extraordinary experience which has been their privilege.

The Voice is addressed to them – and to us – “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Whatever else may have been their focus to this point, they are to listen to Jesus. When he has told them of his impending suffering, death and resurrection, they have not understood. He will tell them twice more on different occasions, but still they will not understand. But whatever may happen, they have Jesus on whom to focus. If they will listen to him, they will do what he says and come to their own ultimate glory. So they went down the mountain, and “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Matthew tells us that Jesus told them not to tell anyone; so perhaps they were obedient. Or maybe they thought no-one would believe them! 

If you’ve ever had a major “spiritual experience”, you’ll have some idea of why Peter didn’t want to allow this wonderful moment to pass. Building tents would be one way to preserve the moment. Your “spiritual experience” may have been a moment of falling in love and finding that love to be reciprocated. It may have been an overwhelming sense of the presence of God – for me, one such experience was “Clausura” at my first Cursillo. It may have been the first look at your first baby. It may be observing something wonderful in the creation – a rainbow, a sunrise or sunset. It could even be the final siren when your team won the AFL Grand Final! 

For any of these emotional/spiritual highs, we might want them to last – and they do, but only in memory and in the telling, if we are able to communicate them. Luke is able to tell us, presumably from the memories of Peter, James and John, of the wonderful event we call the “Transfiguration”. And we can only see this glory of Jesus through their eyes and the limitations of language.

We have walked these last few weeks with Jesus from Bethlehem to Jordan, to Cana and to Nazareth. And today we come to the mountain. But the message has never changed. This One whom we see transfigured, this One whom we glimpse in glory, is the one whom we saw in a manger, born to save the world. The One whom we see glorified today is the One who declared his – and therefore our – mission to be
“to bring good news to the poor.
… 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”

Jesus’ transfiguration is a step along the way – undeniably an important step – but the “mount of transfiguration” is not the ultimate destination. Another “mountain” is where he is headed – the “mountain” which is Calvary. Neither Jesus, nor the disciples, nor we, are to be distracted from his calling and purpose.

This Week we leave behind the season of Epiphany and begin the season of Lent. We will journey on with Jesus to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane and Calvary. And we make that journey knowing that we follow one whose glory we have seen “as though reflected in a mirror”, as St Paul puts it in today’s Epistle. We are encouraged, strengthened and renewed to listen to Jesus and to do whatever and wherever he calls.

The Lord be with you!

Manifesto at Nazareth – part two

EPIPHANY 4C – 3rd February, 2013

St Matthew’s, Guildford



No prophet is accepted in his home town”, says Jesus.


I have a colleague who, a few years ago, was appointed rector in the parish in which he was born and grew up.  I don’t know how it’s going; though since it’s been three or four years, perhaps it’s OK.  He was born in the parish, went through Sunday School, CEBS and youth group, and found his calling to ministry while a young adult member of the parish.  Now, as rector of the parish, he has his mother and grandmother and some other relations in his congregations.


When Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth, he is in a very similar position.  He was born in a somewhat scandalous manner to a Nazareth couple, Joseph and Mary; he went to the local school, attended synagogue regularly, made his bar-mitzvah at twelve or thirteen, and learned and practised his trade as a carpenter in the community until the age of thirty. His mother and brothers and other relations are almost certainly in the congregation.


Now after a possibly quite short absence, Jesus returns to his home town.  Some stories have come from Capernaum, where – apparently – he has done some miracles of healing.  The Chazzan, whose duties included everything from looking after the holy scrolls to being synagogue janitor to teaching in the village school, hands Jesus a scroll, inviting him to read the lesson from the prophets.  It is possible that there was a lectionary with readings set for each Sabbath, or Jesus may simply have chosen the passage from Isaiah, which we heard him read last Sunday:


“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.”


Having read this passage, Jesus hands the scroll back and sits down.  It was customary for the reader to provide some commentary on what he had read, and Jesus does exactly that. 


Today”, he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  


And, as I said last week, you could probably have heard a pin drop!  The prophecies of Isaiah have been read in Jewish religious gatherings for over eight hundred years by this time, but never with such conviction and never with such immediacy.


“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


And that’s where the lectionary left us last week. Jesus has declared his mission in compelling terms, and we were left for a week to await the reaction of his hearers.


This morning, we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Their initial reaction was one of admiration and amazement.  A nine-word sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, has the people sitting up in their seats, amazed at his eloquence!  J


On Tuesday, I attended a clergy gathering at Wollaston with Stephen Than Myint Oo, Anglican Archbishop of Burma.  Archbishop Stephen told us of his being invited to preach twice at St George’s Cathedral last Sunday.  To his surprise, he was instructed that he had ten minutes at one service and twelve at the other.  He is accustomed to preaching at least forty-five minutes; in fact, many of his people feel quite ripped off if he goes for less than an hour.  Wouldn’t work here, would it?  J

Anyway, Jesus might have been better if he had stopped at his nine-word homily!


Once they’ve expressed their amazement at Jesus’ eloquence, they begin to enquire further.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask.  They have heard him read the Scripture beautifully.  All Israel looked for a time when God would intervene in history and restore Israel to its proper place, honoured throughout the world as God’s chosen people.  And there are many Jews – and even fundamentalist Christians who look for the same thing.


But when the prophets wrote of the coming Kingdom of God, they very often spoke of the inclusion of all the world, all peoples and nations, coming into God’s glorious future. Isaiah often speaks of the Gentiles’ being included in the restoration, the new creation.  When Jesus reads the words from Isaiah about “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, about letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”, it is to them good rhetoric.  Many people enjoy a good sermon – well-written and well-presented.  But far fewer people want to hear a sermon which demands change in themselves.


Jesus’ “Today” is way too immediate.  If this scripture if really to be fulfilled today, Jesus’ hearers will need to change and to make a commitment to his mission.  And they don’t want that!


How much easier it is for them (and us?) to speak of Jesus’ heritage.  Basically, it’s a case of “Who does he think he is?”  Jesus knows what they’re thinking and challenges them head on!


And he does so by challenges their narrow-minded thinking.  The comfortable exclusiveness of Jewish thinking is that they believe themselves to be the only ones for whom God cares.  It’s as though the cry “God for the Jews!” is carried across the congregation and all they want to do is lynch Jesus.  There are, sadly, many Christians who seem to think that God is their own particular preserve – and that many others – even would-be fellow Christians – are outside of God’s love and care and of God’s welcome to Heaven.


Jesus’ words about the prophets Elijah and Elisha challenge a whole lot of presuppositions and prejudices there in the synagogue of Nazareth and here and now at St Matthew’s, Guildford.  In a land full of “God’s people” in a time of famine, there were, of course, many poor widows facing starvation.  Yet God sent Elijah to a Canaanite widow in Sidon, part of the old Philistine territory.

And we all know the story of the Syrian army captain, Naaman, to whom Elisha brought healing from his leprosy. 


God is always acting beyond the narrow boundaries which we place.  God’s love and grace cannot be limited by our notions of who’s in and who’s out! 


As Jesus read the passage from Isaiah, all was well.  When he began to speak, the people were overawed and admiring.  But as soon as his mission becomes immediate and inclusive of the “other”, all they want to do is kill him. 


We, of course, wouldn’t want to do that.  Our preferred stance as middle-class Western Christians is to ignore him – to close our ears and our hearts to whatever call of Jesus would take us beyond our fixed ideas and our cultivated “niceness”.


Last week, I concluded my sermon by reading two versions of the “Five Marks of Mission”, from the Anglican Communion and from the Anglican Board of Mission, Australia.  They were even printed out and included in the pewsheet for your further consideration.


I do not know how you react to them – personally or corporately as congregation and parish.  I hope they have called you and challenged you.  In fact, if you have read them at all, you cannot have been unchallenged.


What you choose, however, to do with them and in response to them is between you and God.


I say again, as I said last week, we who belong to Christ, who bear the name Christian, are called to share in Jesus’ mission.


With Jesus, we are called and anointed

“to bring good news to the poor.

… 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.”


How will you and I respond?


My fear is that we are already too familiar with God’s call, but we choose not listen and act.  My Grandma used to “There’s none so deaf as them that don’t want to hear”. 


Will you hear and take the challenge?



The Lord be with you!