Thursday, September 21, 2006

B, Pent 16 Proper 20 - James 4:7-10 "Aussie Death"

In recent days our country has experienced some extraordinary events. Unprecedented in this country’s current generation is the public outpouring of sadness and heartfelt grief at the loss of two of its sons.

Peter Brock a hero of the 70’s and 80’s lost his life doing what he loved, racing cars. And Steve Irwin too, a hero celebrity of this era, tragically killed by the barb of a stingray. In the past week we have watched their funerals and memorial services in sadness and remembrance and said goodbye too.

There have been other tragedies in recent years: Lady Dianna’s death, the Twin-Towers attack, the Bali bombings, and the Tsunami in South East Asia. But these two men, especially Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame, have unified the country at the untimeliness of their deaths. Although we see most tragedies of the world through television images and printed on paper, these two deaths seem more personal and real than the images of death that have come from overseas. We have identified, even in part, with these two ordinary blokes, shot to fame in their fields, and then suddenly stopped by the same things that gave them their fame in the first place. Not since the great tragedies of WW2 has there been such a collective outpouring of grief in our country.

In fact death, for Australian society as a whole, has been put back on the table in these days. And we do well to stop and study this collective grief in our country. We do well to seriously look at the foundation or primary issues which lie before us, as all of us struggle to deal with death. Be it Steve Irwin, Peter Brock, or for that matter, anyone close to us, who has lost their lives.

Why should we stop for a moment and look at the realities of death? Some might be sick of the brew ha and publicity, and wish people would just get on with it! But I encourage those who think this way to take a moment and reflect. Perhaps you’re not that different to the person who can’t get over the debilitating grief of someone’s death. We all need to stop and look at death for what it truly is, for a number of reasons.

The first of these reasons is since WW2 death has been sanitised and life expectancy is between 80 and 100 these days, whereas years ago it was 60 to 80. Health carers have medically prolonged life; postponed the inevitable till later on. And when death does occur, generally it is in hospital, neat and tidy, away from the reality of our regular lives.

However, for some, this is not true. They experience the sudden death of loved ones un-sanitised up close and personal, in the everyday of regular life. But because it’s not commonplace for the majority of people, our society finds it difficult to deal with death. We feel uncomfortable talking about it. And when death strikes close to us, prematurely perhaps, we don’t know how to cope. We avoid grievers as if they were freaks and as if death was not the inevitable outcome for us all — only because we don’t know how to approach death. The end result being we just don’t know how to grieve. So either we slip into depression and other health problems or insensitivity increases demanding others “get over it” so “I don’t have to deal with death”. The reality of death affects all people.

The second reason we need to talk about death is because of its effects on us. All of us are going to die. Like Steve Irwin and Peter Brock, none of us knows when. We all expect to live till we’re old; putting off death, as if it was not applicable to us. Our struggle with death and not knowing when it will arrive is made all the more difficult because of death’s sanitisation and the debilitating and deadly doctrines of youth culture we foolishly consumed these days. We have taken away our ability to learn what death is, and have hidden how death happens!

However, medical delayed death will plateau. We are sitting just below the ridge of this plateau right now. The death rate will increase naturally, or perhaps an Australia wide tragedy will strike home. I pray that it doesn’t! But how will we cope when the regular death toll returns once again? As a church, what can we say about death to the aging generations who have shunned the reality of dying?

The bottom line is this: death is the norm for all people. But death was never meant to be normal in God’s perfect creation. This is why we grieve over those who have died; this is why the sting of death is so painful. We need to speak about death because at the core of living is dying, and in facing death we really only learn to receive the life God gives to us in Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that! It’s as confusing and troublesome as that! But even more so, it’s as refreshingly gracious and eternally peaceful as that too!

A church that seeks to put this one big reality of death aside, fails to do what God calls it to do. A church that hides death is a church that ultimately puts Jesus Christ, the light of the world, under a bowl. The only reason any church exists is because of death; if death didn’t exist we wouldn’t be here, Jesus wouldn’t have died, and everything would be “all good”.

However, in a society that’s not “all good”, has lost its taste for God, and is seeking comfort from other unflavoured fast-food spiritualities, the Christian church is called to bear the salt of the world. In a culture that seeks to forget its mortality, but has become increasingly frightened of its mortal briefness, the church has the true light of eternal life to shine on, and dissolve, the darkness of eternal death.

Everything that the church is called to truly proclaim has something to do with death. That’s what makes the truth of Christianity such an unacceptable thing today, inside and outside the whole Christian church on earth. Death is so obvious to us all but it is so quickly pushed aside as a taboo topic in favour of other happy subjects. And when this imbalance continues year after year the essential questions we need answered are not addressed. These are the same answers we as a church are called to proclaim before the world, but unfortunately more and more are trivialised and dumbed down into a confused baseless message of love, unity, and peace. And yet within our hearts there is no peace, no unity, and love exists as lust, until we repent and allow the true source of love and unity to give us peace.

Being a Christian is about the font and the grave. Both the font and the grave have everything to do with death, along with everything in between. Jesus was born and baptised to die, and we have been baptised into this death to receive life. Because of his death we eat and drink his body and blood, for life over death. If we don’t believe and trust in these fundamental gifts we are back at eternal death. On reaching our earthly death we receive eternal life only because we have trusted and received the very things God has put in place to overcome death.

This is why Jesus was sent by God and why he taught the disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31) And why Jesus says to you, “whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37b) Whoever welcomes Jesus through baptism, the loosing of sins, the preaching of his word, and the bread and wine, does not welcome things but welcomes the very God who seeks to save!

As Christians it’s not the multiplicity of sin that ultimately separates us from God anymore, it’s our unwillingness to trust, Jesus Christ, the one whom God sent and the means he put in place to save us from these sins and death. This persistent distrust of God’s way for the duration of one’s life is the sin against the Holy Spirit; the rejection of faith which leads to the rejection of grace and ultimately exclusion from God’s kingdom and eternal death.

Without these external gifts of faith and grace we have no way of escaping eternal death. God does not move past this reality; nor can we or nor should we. We need the love of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ his Son to cover the multiplicity of our sinful nature and save us from death, every day of our dying lives. This is the true light of hope for the world grieving its approaching death; Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is the salt which can give eternal flavour and hope to the lives of all people.

A young fellow was heard grieving over Steve Irwin’s death. His lament was that Steve was not going to go to heaven because he says “crikey”. This is a powerful observation for a child to make, as this word is a contraction and blasphemy of “Christ Almighty”. But it’s not our sin that separates us it’s our lack of trust in God to save us from sin. Steve Irwin now knows where he is, so too does God, but it’s not for us to speculate. Rather, do you know where you are going? Do you trust the word of God?

God calls us not to give up on the things given by Christ to save us from death. We hear in James, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.(James 4:7-10)

So come and trust in the baptism that saves from death, come rest in God’s presence in the church gathered in the baptismal name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Endure in the things of Christ, submit to God, come near to God and he will come near to you. Dear friends in Christ: Let us draw near to God our Father with a true heart to confess and be forgiven; to hear his word and be strengthened; to receive his body and blood and be assured; to pray for the world and be lights of God in a world that’s dying. Amen.

Let us pray. Save us, O God, by your name; vindicate us by your might. Hear our prayer, O God; listen to the words of our mouths. Surely God is our help; the Lord is the one who sustains us. For Jesus’ sake we pray, Amen. (Based on Psalm 54:1,2,4)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

B, Pent 14 Proper 18 - Mark 7:24-30 "DOG of GOD"

Text: Mark 7:24-27

24 Jesus …entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” 28 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30)


When you take the name God and spell it backwards what do you get? G-O-D D-O-G! When you spell God backwards you get dog.

Most people know what a dog is, because at some stage in life they, or someone they know, have owned a dog. We have all heard the phrase that a dog is a man’s best friend. Dogs are generally loyal loving beings and will faithfully follow their owners for many years through thick and thin.

But the bible takes a dim view of dogs; especially in the Old Testament where they are the epitome of dirty animals.

In Judges 7:5 the Lord helped Gideon sort out his fighting men by taking out those who drank at the water’s edge on all four, lapping the water like a dog.

Goliath said to David the shepherd boy, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” (1 Sam 17:43) For David he was a dog and was struck down with a stone, and then the Philistines were overrun in battle.

King Ahab and his wife Jezebel were discarded in the most despicable way after Elijah prophesied, “On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh. Jezebel’s body will be like refuse on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, ‘This is Jezebel.’(2 Kings 936b-37)

In Psalm 22 we hear, Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. (Psalm 22:16&20) Then in Psalm 59, “[Wicked traitors] return at evening, snarling like dogs, and prowl about the city. See what they spew from their mouths.Then in the Proverbs 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.

In the New Testament dogs get even sharper criticism, “Watch out for those dogs, those who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” (Philippians 3:2) Jesus says in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is sacred…. If you do, they may… …turn and tear you to pieces.” And he also says in Revelation 22:15, “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

Faithful Fido gets a bad wrap in the bible. He’s not the much-loved mutt living in our backyards. Instead the bible paints a picture of dogs as the uncleanest of the unclean. Their association with rotten flesh and human attacks makes them unclean animal; and for a Jew to associate with anything unclean meant they cut themselves off from God and worship at the temple. So when a Jew called another person a dirty dog, it wasn’t just unruly slander against a filthy un-kept person. Rather it was an attack against someone who was unclean in the eyes of God. They were spiritually and ritually unclean. As Jesus says, “Outside are the dogs!” That is: outside of God’s holy presence.

To call someone a dog, falls on our ears harshly, but in the gospel reading for today this is exactly what Jesus does. It might make us cringe, but the truth of the matter is: the woman was a dog in the eyes of the Jews, the law, and ultimately God. This ritually unclean Greek woman coming into contact with a Jew made a Jew unclean before God. And not only that, she had a daughter with an evil spirit. Therefore, even more so was she unclean. Her heritage and her immediate association with her demon possessed daughter made her unfit for God’s holy presence.

Jesus too was a Jew; he was the son of a Jew. So the truly surprising thing in this event, is not that Jesus called her a dog, but that he even associated with her and allowed her to come into his presence in the first place. After all one didn’t give what was sacred to the dogs, the dogs were put outside.

There’s a saying that you’ve probably heard before, “You can’t live with an old dog and not get some of its fleas! Well guess who has the fleas? Don’t look at who’s sitting next to you, but it’s probably not appropriate to scratch an itch at the moment. However, the truth of the situation is that we are the dogs; all of us have inherited the fleas of humanity. Just like the unclean Greek woman with the demon possessed daughter we too carry the uncleanness that should keep us from God’s presence. The truth is harsh but before God we were once detestable and unclean.

So what has changed us from being dirty dogs with fleas to being faithful friends of God? In the gospel today we heard two separate episodes in Jesus’ ministry. The second part we will hear first.

Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. 33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:31-35)

When we were brought into God’s presence for the first time we had ho capacity to believe him to know him or to even confess his name. But in baptism he brought us from our dogged ways into his heavenly presence. He put his fingers in our ears and said, “be opened, I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. And from that point on he touches our tongues with the spit of his word and the body and blood of his being.

Now let’s hear the first part of the gospel again. 24 Jesus …entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. 27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” 28 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30)

Now we, who were once unclean dogs outside, can come into the Father’s presence as the children of God. We, having had our ears opened and given faith, eat the crumbs of God’s mercy. But even more fascinating, God invites us up to his table to feed on his food, and rest with him and in him.

But a dog will always be a dog. Our best loved dogs still get fleas; they still do what dogs do. My dog gets fresh bones, but he still feels the need to bury them for a couple of days until they get that good rancid smell about them, before he returns to chew on them. He still vomits and returns to it, as well eats other unmentionable products from his body.

And we too, have our moments of dogginess. Jesus tells us that out of people come things that make us unclean, such as evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mark 7:21-22) Just as a dog returns to its dogged doggy ways, we too grapple with our sinful ways and return to the things that easily spew out of our human nature. Your very own doggedness is the greatest danger to your flesh. When we are called to watch out for those dogs, those mutilators of flesh, God is calling us to continually let the dogged sinful nature within, be cast out of us!

But like the Syrophoenician woman we too can approach our Lord God with confidence. We can come into his presence and seek the crumbs of his mercy knowing that he will not cast us out. We know this because he sent Jesus to take the doggedness of humanity’s sin on himself. By complete trust and faith in the will of his Heaven Father, he was cast out as a dog and was mutilated by the dogs. He was thrown out of the holy city of God's presence at Jerusalem to suffer the death of all dirty dogs on the cross. And because of this we now have been brought into the holy heavenly city of God and adopted as sons of our Heavenly Father.

We might say that a dog is a man’s best friend. We might love our dogs and take care of them even if they return to their despicable dogged ways at times. But in fact a D-O-G is not man’s best friend. G-O-D is every man’s, every woman’s, and every child’s best friend, because God freely forgives us our sins and brings us into his home where he cleanses us and feeds us for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ. Woof-woof. Amen.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

B, Pent 13 Proper 17 - Psalm 15 - James 1:17-27 "Perfect Law that gives Freedom"


Deut. 4:1,2,6-9; Psalm 15:1-5; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-9,14-15,21-23


If one was to summarise what the content of the bible texts is this week we would have to admit that they speak a lot about law. And where there is a lot of law there is a requirement for the hearer to take up the task of doing. In previous weeks we have heard Jesus feed the five thousand and offer his being as the bread of life, sent down from God for us to receive. Now we hear law and it seems to be a far cry from the being Christ has called us into! Or is it?

Now that we have Christ who has died for us and has been raised to life, there is a real temptation to think that the law is defunct; that it is no longer relative or that we no longer need it. Some even think that the law is a bad or evil thing, and spend their lives resisting the law.

However, the law is the wisdom of God, it is holy, and it sets God’s will before our eyes. The law was put in place so that a holy God could dwell in humanity’s presence, after doing it cleansed each participant.

God’s being is holy and for him to dwell in our presence, we too need to be holy. After all God tells us over and over again in Leviticus, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Our being has to be holy to be in God’s presence.

So the question is asked of us in the Psalm. Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1) This is a very good question to ask ourselves and it quickly reveals to us what our being is. In fact God asks of us: Are you blameless, are you righteous? Do you always speak the truth from your heart? Has there ever been slander on your tongue? Have you watched out for your neighbour? Have you wronged or cast any slur on others? Have you wrongly honoured evil people in favour of honouring those who fear the Lord? Have you made suspicious oaths and have you always kept promises even when it hurts? Have all your money dealings been acceptable? Those who do these things will never be shaken. Well, I am shaken to the marrow of my being with guilt!

The Lord has placed his statutes, ordinances, teachings, observances, or laws in place for us to follow. Our observation of the laws of God, especially the Ten Commandments, equips us with discernment and wisdom. And it does the same for our children when we teach them the law too.

The law is a boundary put there to keep us safe. There is one problem though. None of us can fulfil the law. None of us can do enough to be holy. The law shows us righteousness, but it also dooms to death when we sin or transgress!

Jesus came head long into conflict with the Pharisees. The Pharisees for all intentions and purposes were not bad people. They lived exemplary lives and were peaceful God fearing people. In our community today they would shine far above any of us, in their service of God, in their love of God, in their daily deeds, and in service to those in need. So why does Jesus come into such violent verbal conflict with them?

He says to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding onto the traditions of men. And he said to them:You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (Mark 7:8-9, 13)

In short they became so focused on the doing of the law in the external — their visual practises; they never let it permeate their hearts — the internal being. Their focus became the law rather than God who gave them the law so they could dwell in his presence.

Why they did this could have been for a number of reasons. Perhaps they thought, if they could keep their external acts of righteousness separate from the things going on it their hearts they might have “felt” justified before God? Perhaps, they did let the Law, in its wisdom and purity, penetrate their hearts. And what it revealed was a cesspool of sin. Being holy as the Lord was holy, proving too difficult for the hearts of these pious ones. So instead of throwing themselves on the Lord’s mercy, which even in those days was infinite, they projected an air of self-righteous holiness to work righteousness in themselves before God and man.

But when Jesus, both Son of God and Son of man, came before them as the Word made flesh. His word and their words were different. They had changed the rule of God for their own rules and the holiness they projected was not holiness at all. Their faultless external acts, which would far out weigh the acts of the most pious person today, were no curtain for the Son of God who saw the reality of their hearts. Before the perfection of God, manifest in his Son Jesus Christ, their pseudo self-righteous holiness was shaken, as is ours.

Today we hear from the Epistle of James, and in coming weeks we will hear more from this epistle. Hot on the heels of hearing about Jesus being and how we are called to believe in him and his doing, we hear in James about our doing. In Lutheran circles the book of James has not been held in high regard as its “faith without works is dead” mantra, seems to come into conflict with the Gospel and texts such as Roman 3:28 where Paul says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

However for us, holding these two views together in tension is important. We are justified by faith apart from the law, but then again if there are no works then faith is dead. So we ask the Holy Spirit for diligence to turn from our pharisaic ways, a sickness from which we all struggle to escape. We constantly repent and return to God’s word and the holiness we receive because of Jesus doing.

The issue for us is not so much that we should or shouldn’t do good works, but rather the issue is what works do we do, and how do they come about?

We are rightly told in James 1:17-18 that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

God give us our being, our Christian being, through the word of truth we are born — the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Our work is to believe, or as James says to persevere, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) And again, “Blessed is the person who perseveres under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

In perseverance you regularly repent and return, opening yourselves to receive faith from the Holy Spirit in the word, who brings us to the grace of God in Christ, worked on the cross, so that we might live in the peace of God’s forgiveness. In this gift of perseverance you are able to humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. This is the doing that God requires of us!

So we just don’t look at the word and forget it, we receive it by allowing the Holy Spirit to do God’s work within us. We look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom. This perfect law is Christ and the Holy Spirit’s faith-giving work to place Christ in us so we might have life.

The law convicts us to death and shows us the depth of our sin but the perfect law that gives freedom is Christ living is us freeing us to believe and trust we have an eternity of peace with God our Father. So as we continually see the horrors of our human nature we flee to God’s infinite mercy given and shed for us on the cross.

So back to the question put forward in Psalm 15, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” Because of Jesus Christ, we can dwell in the holiness of God’s presence; we are living on his holy hill! Jesus blood was spilt to atone for our sin — believe it and trust it.

If we work outside of enduring in Christ we step out of God’s holy and merciful presence and into his holy but wrathful presence and death. So stay under the umbrella of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.

God says, be holy, because I am holy. This is no longer just a command but now it is also a promise for those who believe in Christ. We are holy, our being is holy, because God the Son is holy!

We may be shaken at times, but we cling to the cross, we persevere in Christ and his word, and we live in forgiveness and in the holiness given through his death and resurrection. Amen.

A prayer of Martin Luther from 1516. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin.

You have taken upon yourself what is mine, and given to me what is yours.

You have taken upon yourself what you were not, and given to me what I was not.

You have made my sins your own, and made your righteousness mine. Amen