‘Church in the stormy sea’

Mark 4:41
They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this?’

            A great wind and huge choppy waves, out on the boat in the middle of the sea; it’s bad enough caught in a storm on land, pushed around by the wind, and pelted by the rain, but if even what we stood on was shaking, it’s no wonder the disciples said, don’t you care if we perish?

            Out on a boat in the middle of a sea. Out in the church buffeted on all sides, and even the ground beneath us shaking. It’s a worrying place to be. And yet here we are, our congregations and parish, shaken in recent weeks by the loss of two key members. Yes, we’ve had other troubles, and they still continue for many of us; worries about how we’ll get things done, about the future of this congregation, about the safety and salvation of our families and friends. And now perhaps things are coming to a head for you, for this congregation, this parish. What will happen next? Will we just abandon ship? Jump into the stormy waters? And what is Jesus doing? He promised to be with us, that the Holy Spirit would guide us, that His Church will never die. What is Jesus doing? Is He asleep?

            The boat was and is an ancient picture of Christ’s church; the disciples, those who would pass on the faith down to all who believe; the sea, a place of chaos and monsters, the uncertainty of this broken world; and the winds of temptation tearing at the sails. This event has long been used as a picture of the Church in this broken and tumultuous world. Here we are together, as in a boat; yes like a boat out on sea there are calm times for us, and yet also times when we feel uncertain, when we feel attacked both from the chaotic waves on the seas and the water sloshing about our feet in the boat threatening to sink us lower. We like the disciples are unsure of what will happen, in the Christian Church today, in our LCA Synod, in this parish and even in your own Christian life. When things are threatening to fall apart, even when we are sinking under the pressure of all this. What do we do? What can you do?

            Remember that Jesus is in the boat with us, call to Him for help, to do what we cannot. Trust in the Lord. And make no mistake, Jesus is Lord, Master over all. He stood and rebuked the wind and waves, Peace! Be silent! And they obeyed. Jesus is Lord of all, Victorious over sin, death and the devil. The chaotic waters and powers of the air submit to His Word. Silenced by His command they obey Him. The disciples ask ‘Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey Him.’ Of course the answer is, God Almighty, Creator of all, the one who laid the earth’s foundation, who marked it’s dimensions, who set the boundaries of the seas, who came before Job in a storm! And Job in his life was certainly rocked about, just like the disciples, just as we heard with Paul, just as the Church has been down the ages, and just as we in the boat of Christ’s Church also suffer today. Who is Jesus? He is God Most High! Now how do you respond?

            Job submitted, the waves stopped, the disciples feared, yet you know the Gospel, the truth of why Jesus came, to reconcile us together with God our Father, by the Holy Spirit. He has opened His heart wide to you, shown His love for you; today forgives you again, speaks with you again, strengthens you for going out into this broken world. Will you respond in prayer, praising Him the Lord of Hosts, God who created even you, who commands the storms of this world; and thanking Him for His mercy and teaching? Will you respond in song, singing of His greatness, and proclaiming His love? Will you respond as we go out into our communities, amongst those people we meet, and those trials we suffer, will you respond with love?

            Just as the disciples were in the boat with Jesus, under His protection, we are too. This doesn’t mean that there are no hard times in our lives, no hard decisions for our congregation, no persecution for Christ’s Church; and yet through all this, Christ is with us as He promised. We need not fear, yet even if you do that is good if it brings you to call on Jesus. Like the disciples, you might have little faith at times, ‘How can Jesus save if He sleeps, if I don’t see Him here?’ yet you’re still in the boat. We are in the boat together, and Jesus Lord over all storms, is here with us; we can call on Him and He listens, He will save His people despite our troubles in this world. Yet that question remains, how will you respond?

            The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

The mysterious way

The Text: Mark 4:26-29


In today’s Gospel, Jesus is addressing the frustration and impatience of humanity as we try to understand the mysterious way the kingdom of God grows and extends itself in the world. I say that because of the way the ‘parables of the Seed’ follow close on the heels of the ‘parable of the Sower.’ The parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation help us understand why it is that not everyone who hears the Gospel believes it and bears the fruit of faith.

There’s a background story for every set of ears that hears the word of the Lord, and some of those background stories get in the way. Having said that, notice how the parable of the Sower ends: some of the seed falls on good soil and produces a yield, some thirty, some sixty and some a hundred-fold. That’s exciting, and that’s what we want to see happen, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen as often as we would like it to. And so today’s gospel assures us: “Night and day, whether the farmer sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, but he doesn’t know how. All by itself the soil produces grain, first the stalk, then the head, then the kernel in the head,” and there is no shortcut to that process. Modern fertilizers and farming techniques might help a little, but there are no short cuts. It takes as long as it takes, and that’s what Jesus says the kingdom of God is like. There are no short cuts. His work in the Church, his work in us, and his work in others takes as long as it takes, and that can frustrate us, just as it frustrated the people of old, as we see what’s happening to the Church in our time.

The book entitled: “The Benedict Option” begins by tracing some cultural changes right back to the 14th century, when the western world in general stopped distinguishing the connection between God and his creation. Then there was the Renaissance in the 15th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, the Scientific revolution of the 17th century, the so called Enlightenment of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, WWI and WWII in the twentieth century, capped off with the sexual revolution in the 1960’s.

The author gives an overview of how those historic events have altered the way people think since the days of the Medieval Church. Not just in terms of knowledge, and what humanity has learned in the last 700 years, but the thought processes we have, and most especially about ourselves. He names the people of the Medieval day “Religious man,” and says, “They were born to be saved.” That’s what they thought about themselves! Then he names the people of our day “Psychological man” and says “They were born to be pleased.” That’s what we think about ourselves. A key idea in the book is that the Christian Church needs to detach itself from today’s culture, because the two are incompatible.

An article from the Lutheran Theological Journal titled “Reflections on the status of the Church as we look towards the future” makes these observations[1]:

.. “A completely new form of culture is upon us, one which rejects the long Western tradition of commonly held beliefs (namely, the Christian faith) and the structuring and ordering of society which flows from it (namely, the Church, family and state institutions such as government). It rejects the moral code of sacrificing self-interest in favour of community interest. Instead, this culture puts the individual first and at the centre of everything, with the highest good being individual freedom and choice, personal happiness, self-definition and self-expression… Anything that restricts the individual must be re-shaped, deconstructed or destroyed… It believes we are inherently good, and that more individual freedom will improve the world… He says “It’s easy to see why this culture is called post-Christian, but in fact it’s actually stronger than that – it’s actually anti-Christian and we can see that by its aggression toward the Church in the media… This is the culture which has shaped those born into it over the last 50 years and explains much about why our churches are emptying out of people under 50. Even those with the best Christian upbringing are being pulled in this direction…

The idea that strong biblical Christian faith can be maintained with little or no friction with contemporary Western culture doesn’t hold up. The two are incompatible…It’s time to hunker down and keep the gospel alive for those who are wrecked by this new culture.”

The authors of these two works recognise that our Western culture is toxic in terms of faith in Jesus Christ. Finally there is recognition that buying into today’s culture is something we need to repent of for faith in Christ to survive.

It is a grim picture I’ve painted for you this morning. You might even say it’s a depressing picture, and yet it explains so much of what we’re seeing all around us.

So, is there any good news for us to hear today? Thank God there is! Night and day the seed of God’s word, the seed of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, has continued to grow in us and sustained us in the faith.If that weren’t the case, then we might have joined the exodus from the Church as well. But God in Jesus Christ has kept his word. As often as we have been troubled and perplexed by the experiences of life, his word has strengthened us and held us in the faith. And as often as we’ve been tempted to take this new culture on board and live that way, his word has called us to repent.

What about the friends and loved ones we know who have turned away? How are we going to save them? The reality is, we can’t. We can’t save anyone, not even ourselves. That’s Jesus’ work in us, and it’s actually dangerous for us to even try. The very best thing we can do is bear witness to Christ, and the very best witness we can give is to live the life Jesus is calling us to live; to come regularly to worship, to pray for the lost, show loving kindness for them, and be there for them in need—to “to hunker down and keep the Gospel alive for those who are wrecked by this new culture.”

So Lord, we thank and praise you for grace and mercy to us, that day and night your word has been at work in us, drawing us into your kingdom. Help us give a good witness to you and your kingdom, so that others might join us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] The article was written by Pastor Greg Pietsch, former Bishop of the Victorian District.

‘You and the Dragon’

2 Corinthians 4:16
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

            They say when the going gets tough the tough get going, yet that is not quite what is going on here. We are talking about the struggles of the Christian life, and particularly here for Paul, the struggles of the preachers; earlier he wrote, “as we [ministers] share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Even so this suffering and comfort is for all those who live by Christ, to the goal we share of full reconciliation with God our Father (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) and the renewal of all Creation. Things you cannot do by your own strength, I mean can you even heal your own hurts? When things get real tough, when death comes knocking can you fix it? And then we look around at God’s Creation, around at this broken and groaning world, and the tough times happening. The tough times of COVID and those restrictions, those riots in the USA, civil war in East Africa, the death of a loved one, waking up to your son coughing throughout the night; tough times. And of course, when God’s Son, the prophesied Saviour of humanity and all Creation, was abandoned by all, handed over to those tough Romans be tortured, to die by crucifixion. The going got tough and the tough killed Jesus.

            But Jesus, He got going. To those looking on from outside, Jesus had wasted away to nothing, yet truly He was renewing not so much Himself as all Creation. God had said as much, all the way back at the beginning of this world, telling the serpent, that dragon, what was to happen; the dragon would crush His heel, yet He would crush the dragons head. More than a heel Jesus bleeding, bruised and killed, He crushed the devil, He bound the strong man unto the end when this dragon, stripped of power will have more than just a crushed head, the devil will be thrown into the pit of burning sulfur. The devil is defeated and Christ is victorious. And by the Holy Spirit, according to God’s promise in Baptism, we are united in this victory, the Ultimate Victory that yet outwardly looks like a defeat. When the going gets tough, Jesus gets things done.

            Therefore do not lose heart. Though outwardly you are wasting away, things falling apart, stressed, suffering, even facing death; cling to Christ, to the promises of our Heavenly Father, and be renewed daily by the Holy Spirit. When this world and it’s distractions fall apart God may grant us the ability to see what is truly happening underneath it all, what is happening inwardly. Not the inner workings of council bureaucracy, rather the reality of demonic attack and Christ’s defeat of the devil both at the cross and here in our lives. As we receive those words of God, “I forgive you” the devil runs in fear; as we taste Jesus, He binds that so called strong man, the lies and temptations and we receive the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ Himself. As He told the Pharisees, Jesus binds the strong man and takes what he has stolen; and so as we heard last week, we are freed from that slavery to sin, to failure and guilt, you have been freed from the lies of the devil.

United to Christ in baptism, and returning to that union in the Absolution, the demonic has no power over us; the Lord of Hosts has His angels to guard us, and the Holy Spirit Himself lives in us, sanctifying us, making us Holy. And if you need certainty that Christ is in you and you in Him, come to the table and receive anew His most wonderful gifts; receive into your body, His Body and Blood. Be strengthened, but don’t let your guard down. Yes the devil is defeated, yet like a snake beheaded he thrashes around causing pain and suffering, but without fangs he has no power to kill us who live in the Victory of Christ.

So through the trials, the sufferings, the outward wasting away; hear the Word of Jesus, receive the renewing gifts of God from the Spirit, and know that our enemies have lost, our Lord is Victorious and our light and momentary troubles with Him will result in an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And so the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and unto glory. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:34
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

            The sheep and the goats, faithful and lazy servants, the foolish virgins and the wise. A long chapter in Matthew’s gospel, we’ve heard it over these last three weeks. I wonder what Jesus is trying to tell us?

            As our church year comes to an end, we look to the end of the church on this earth. Since Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church, who we are and what we can do. But now we hear the end. The Last Judgement, when Jesus reveals Himself to all, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Jesus, high above all the rubbish and corruption of our governments here on earth. Jesus is the King of kings, Lord of lords, simply He is in charge (Revelation 19:16). And when He finally reveals Himself, He will reveal all things. He will show who you are to the whole world, what you have done, just as at a court case. After all He is the righteous judge (2 Timothy 4:8). He will say to the sheep, come; and to the goats, get lost! So, who are you? A sheep? Or a goat?

            To the goats He said, depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Eternal punishment, not meant for people. Rather Jesus tells us God prepared it for our enemy and his agents, not for those people who reject God’s love, who refuse to love others, but made just for the demons. As God says through Ezekiel, just a chapter before our reading today, thus says the Lord, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). But still, this is where the wicked condemn themselves to, what those who reject Christ’s love and mercy receive. Those who reject life, don’t get it.

            Does this make you uneasy? Does it make you afraid? For yourself, your friends and family? For all those people in our community, in our world who do not know Christ? Yes? Good! When Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, He knew His words would not bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Christ speaks harshly throughout the gospels, it’s no different than the prophets who proclaimed His coming. God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus, the King, speaks harshly to those at peace with their sin. To pierce their hearts, to terrify and crush the conscience, showing us our sin in the face of God’s holiness, seeing our sin as God sees it.

            Yes, Christ came to crush the unrepentant sinner, He is harsh with the arrogant and individualistic goats. But not with the humble, listening sheep. To the sheep He says, ‘come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world!’ ‘Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Gentle and tender He speaks to the broken sinner, to the lost sheep, healing the injured, strengthening the weak (Ezekiel 34:16). The kingdom prepare for you, not angels, not just those great saints since the beginning, for you. God declared to the serpent in the garden, His foot will crush your head (Genesis 3:15). From the foundation of the world, our Heavenly Father planned for you to come into His kingdom, to receive life, life forever in peace, joy and love with Him, Father, Son and Spirit (Ephesians 1:3-5; Titus 1:1-2). When Christ does return, we will know where we stand, everyone will. Yet what hope does He give those listening 2000yrs ago, what hope does this passage give you?

            Who are the sheep? They are those blessed by the Father. You are blessed by the Father, at the end of every Divine Service He makes this clear. And the sheep inherit the kingdom. You are children of God, adopted in Baptism by the Holy Spirit, you are now co-heirs with Christ to this Heavenly Kingdom prepared from the beginning (Matthew 3:17; Romans 8:17). The sheep come to Jesus. You come to Jesus and receive from Him His flesh and blood (John 6:53; Philippians 3:21). The sheep, made righteous in the blood of the lamb, receive eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:21). You receive the life of Christ as we, His Church, are united with Him in the mystery of God’s love (Ephesians 3:6, 9). In His presence today (Matthew 18:20). In His speaking to us through His Word. In His forgiveness and life given in baptism, absolution, Holy Communion. Who are the sheep? We are, God has promised. Who is the church? We are, alongside all the saints across space and time. And what can we do now, as the Church? Serve those in need, those locked up or housebound, those suffering addiction or disease, those hungry, hurting, naked and needy people in our families, in our parish, in our towns. Lord have mercy on us and make our desires yours, that we may care so much that we don’t even notice when we serve others.

            And as you serve, as we wait, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Twentyfourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Thessalonians 5:5-6
For all of you are children of light and day, not of night and dark; therefore we should not sleep as the rest, rather we should watch and be sober.

            Careful. A word I say often to Nathaniel as he waddles around. Watch out! A sentiment we are very aware of under these COVID restrictions. Be careful when you go to the shops, cautious and aware. Sanitise your hands, wear the mask, if you’re at all sick stay home and get tested. The kids at school know it; watch out or COVID will get you!

            It reminds me of another warning, one from so many years ago we struggle to count them. The Lord said to Cain, ‘why are you angry? … if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. (Genesis 4:6-7). Watch out or sin will get you. And 2000yrs ago Peter sent out this letter to the faithful, ‘be watchful and sober-minded. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8). Watch out or the devil will get you. But there is something far greater than our enemy, far more powerful than any sin. The Day of the Lord is coming.

            Judgement day; the final revelation, in Greek: apocalypse. When Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31f), the foolish virgins cast out, the wise ones brought into the wedding feast of the Lamb! They say are you ready for your death; forget about death, are you ready for this? Do you know who you are? Since Pentecost God has been teaching His church, the Holy Spirit has been speaking to you. Telling you who you are, bringing you wonderful gifts, yet soon the King will return from His journey to settle accounts. Did you hear who you are? Who God declares you to be? Who He makes you to be in Jesus? … Do you hold on tight to the gifts you have been given? Relying on Christ, on God’s grace, on His love for you? … or are you worn out, loosing energy and sight of the goal, just as our country is becoming lazy with our COVID restrictions?

            Today the Holy Spirit is telling you and me, to wake up, to know who we are, to know what is to come. Some may refuse to listen, some just throw away Gods gifts, like those at night in deep sleep, or drunk running from their problems. But you are not of the night, not of darkness. Your sin, darkness has been taken away from you, your failure has been dealt with by Christ crucified. You have been made anew in Jesus by His washing in Baptism, by His Most Holy Blood in Communion. Brought into His light, guided by The Holy Spirit, you are children of the day, you are the light of the world ()! And since we are children of the day, since we belong to the New Day in Jesus, let us not give up hope, let us not loose heart, you are forgiven, you have all the Heavenly hosts on side. Let us be aware of who we are everyday, our heart on our sleeve, showing Christ’s love and faith to those around us, always knowing, even thinking on our wonderful hope of salvation.

For God did not destine us to anger, to wrath, but rather to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. This salvation, separation from your failures and union with God in Jesus with peace, joy and love; this salvation given to you today through the absolution returning you to the grace, the gifts, of your baptism, and through Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for you, forgiveness and union with Christ. Know this, you have been saved. You are already one of God’s people, awake in the light of Christ. This is who you are, child of God our Heavenly Father, coheir with Jesus our Lord and Saviour, friend of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. As awesome and terrible as the Day of the Lord may be, as we hear from the prophets, us who are united with Christ in His death, will live together with Him. Encourage each other with this, build each other up! I need reminders of who I am because of Jesus, of what is truly important; and I’m sure you do too. So encourage each other, speak with each other and the other Christians you know about the faith, the wonderful gifts of God, His promises to us all. Children of God, Baptised into Life, you are Christ’s! Go in peace, love, and joyfully serving and praising Christ Jesus, your Saviour!

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Twenythird Sunday after Pentecost

Joshua 24:22
Then Joshua said to the people,
“You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”

            Last week I asked, who are the saints? Now I want to ask, who do you serve? What do you live for?

            Today we hear from our ancestors in the faith, the ancient Israelites, after that patchwork conquest of Canaan, before they settled down. This is the children of the generation who saw God’s mighty works in Egypt and Mount Sinai, who followed the pillar of flame and smoke, who fed on the bread of heaven, whose clothes never wore out all those 40yrs in the desert. God had shown His great love and mercy, shown that He fulfils His promises to Abraham, bringing these people out of slavery and delivering them into this paradise of a promised land. Now who did they serve? Their ancestor Abraham had been an idolater before God called him to Shechem (Genesis 12:6-8). Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whose wives had been idolaters but abandoning their false and powerless gods again at Shechem where Joshua is now speaking (Genesis 35:2-4). The great grandsons of Jacob, brought out of Egypt to Sinai worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32). Now Joshua rereads the Law, the Word of God, to His people. Fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and faithfulness (24:14).

            And so to us here, Fear the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in sincerity and faithfulness. You know what He has done for you, not just His suffering and death for your sin all those years ago, but His constant love for you throughout your life, despite your failures. Now if you don’t want to, if it’s evil or wrong in your eyes, choose who you will serve. Those things you used to serve, money and alcohol, pleasure and productivity. Those things that trapped you. And you know better than anyone else those things you desired, you devoted yourself to; those things you have wanted and relied on more than the Triune God. Or choose to chase after the things our Australian society worships, perverse sexuality, aggressive nationalism, … You who have been joined to Christ Jesus in Holy Baptism, in Holy Communion, choose who you will serve.

            Hopefully, we respond like the Israelites, knowing the good Jesus has done for us, and the wonders He has promised you; ‘far be it from us that we should ever forsake the Lord to serve other created things … we will serve the Lord, for He is our God.’ As I’ve been listening to you and you to me, we have confessed just this already about seven times in our response to God service today. This is your confession as a Christian, that you rely on Jesus only, that you live life united with Him for the benefit of others, that we all together desire what the Holy Spirit gives us, we want what the Lord wants. But then what does Joshua say? You are not able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God.

            In yourself are you holy? Do you everyday reject what is against God, and live for what is good? Do you always strive for what is true and right? Or have you lied, deceived someone, have you ignored the needs of another, the homeless down the street, the sick in hospital, even your friend, your children, your spouse? Do you rely on coffee or alcohol instead of Christ’s strength? Do you drink more than pray? Does your life look no different to those around you who hate or reject our beloved Christ? Do you not want to live better, to as Paul says, die to sin and live to God in Christ (Romans 6:11)? Do you fail to live up to God’s holiness, failing to serve Him? In short do you sin? … I a poor helpless sinner, as Luther wrote, ‘we are beggars this is true’.

            But are we those 5 foolish virgins (Matthew 25:3)? Begging for oil then shut out from the feast? No, Jesus Christ came to save sinners, you can be sure He came to save you. Just as Joshua said, by yourself, without the Holy Spirit, you cannot serve God. Yet you have the Spirit, who is that oil. Just as He came down on Christ at His Baptism, He promised that He has come down on you at yours. Rely on Him, the gifts He brings and all the promises of God to you in Jesus. This is that oil. You have them, don’t neglect it like the foolish virgins; forgetting the promises and left outside in the weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25:10; 22:13). Receive the Holy Spirit well, and receive the salvation won by Jesus through Him. Tend to these gifts, hearing again God’s promise to you, in the Bible; again the way of the New life we have been given, exampled by the saints; again confessing the truth of both our failures and our Heavenly Father’s love for us, in His service to us every Sunday. To not neglect meeting together as Christians, to pray, to thank God, praise His great love and power, to be holy even as Christ makes you holy. Encourage one another with the promise of God. Just as Jesus died and rose again; all of us, who are united with Him by Holy baptism and Holy Communion, have been promised we will be with the Lord in peace forever. In short, as people saved in Jesus, you belong to Him, live for Him and serve Him in all you do. You are a witness.

            And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Twenteeth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:21
Then He says to them, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

            The Pharisees come up and ask, do we have to pay tax? Unfortunately/fortunately Jesus says yes, you do have to pay tax so here’s a reminder to do your tax return if you haven’t yet. Our government provides us with maintained roads, protects us from other governments, prints our money, and for all their flaws we still live in relative peace and safety. For that we give them back some of the money they printed for us. Now, we don’t have Caesar Tiberius on the back of our coins, it’s the image of Queen Elizabeth; and as a democracy, the most important building for the government is on the $5 so even the poorest might know who governs them. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

            But what does Jesus mean by that second bit? Give to God what is God’s? When He picked up that coin, whose image was on it? Caesar’s. Then where is God’s image? All the way back at the very beginning, God said, let us make humans in our own image (Genesis 1:26). Both a subtle nod to the Trinity, and an answer to our question. Humans are made in the image of God, every one of us. When you see another human, they are an image or icon of God. Then again, in Paul’s letters the Holy Spirit tells us that Jesus Himself is the icon or image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). And then we, as Christians, are of course being united with Christ, conformed to the image of God’s Son, as we heard earlier this year (Romans 8:29). So, we are the image of God from creation, and more so as Christians being brought into the perfect image of God in Christ. Give to God what is God’s, give to Him yourself, give to Him Christ, and with Christ be given to God.

            But what does it mean to give yourself to God? Practically what does giving your life back to the one who gave it look like? Specifically to you, I may not be able to say, yet generally we know it is to keep the Ten Commandments, trust and rely only on God Almighty who loves you, use His name well, keep holy His day and His Word, honour your parents and those in authority, love each other as Christ first loved you. To do this in every part of our lives is difficult, yet it’s what the Holy Spirit is calling you to, that in everything you do, say and think it is to the glory of God with thanksgiving, or more simply in everything, love God and love those around you (John 14:). But it’s not easy, and we need help. Thank God for His great and wonderful mercy in giving you the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide you, and for taking your guilt, shame and sin onto the cross and killing them; some of the many wonderful gifts He gives in Baptism, absolution and Holy Communion. And He has asked us to use His name, the name He’s given to you, and pray to Him for that help: Your name be kept holy, Your kingdom come, Your will be done, in my life today, that my life is for you Heavenly Father, giving back to God what is God’s. God serves you, now you can serve Christ. Remember God’s promises to you, and if you need a reminder of what giving back to God looks like, we can all take the advice of our small catechism and speak God’s Word of the Ten Commandments and pray God’s Word of the Lord’s prayer everyday, and try not to forget it after 10min.

            So give taxes, respect and anything else owed to the Government to the government; and give to God the things that are His; your life and all He has first given to you. Give yourself to Him, give yourself to Christ and with Christ be given to God. Recognise what God has first given you, life, forgiveness, separation from sin, love, and live it in honour of His grace, to the benefit of those around us.

            The strange days don’t let up, do they? Eight months afraid of a pandemic and frustrated with government restrictions. As a pastor out here, some of it does seem confusing to say the least. And yet last Sunday we read the words of Jesus, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

Some people were trying to get Jesus in trouble with the government and asked if we need to pay taxes. Jesus asked for a coin. “Whose face is on it?” “Caesar’s.” Whose face is on our coins? Queen Elizabeth, but parliament house is on our $5 note and I’m pretty sure that’s where the taxes really go. So, if the government gives us our money, gives us roads, utilities, protection, then Jesus says to give back what they ask in return. That’s a reminded to do your tax return if you have forgotten.

But money and infrastructure isn’t all we have been given. You’ve been given life by God through your parents, taught by teachers, helped by friends and family. Jesus doesn’t want you to be in debt, but more so He doesn’t want you to forget the good things you have been given; to treasure your morning coffee, those who love you, the rain and sun for the crops, and, for those to whom God has promised, separation from sin, shame and guilt, and new everlasting life with Him. To thank the government for the good that they do do, respecting them for it. And to recognise Jesus as above the government, to thank God for every good He gives in our lives, even life itself.

And another gift, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 4:8-9
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if any excellence, if anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

            Well, that was a big, long list of words. True, honourable, just, pure or holy, toward brotherly love, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy; that’s part one, part two: what you have learned, received, heard, seen in those faithful who taught you the faith. Honestly that’s too big a sentence for me to remember and meditate on easily. So fortunately, God’s given me something smaller, like a bug: ‘be the bee’, also ‘don’t be a fly’. But what does it mean to be the bee? Well it’s Spring, the grass is growing, finally, the flowers blooming, and Bill is busy with his hives because the bees are buzzing. And what do bees seek? Those beautiful colours of the flowers, and the sweet nectar they contain. To bring these back to the hive is their life, you could say what they always think about. Sweet beauty from which the beehive makes that wonderful, healing honey! Thank God, and Bill for that!

            But what then, about the fly, what does it seek? Rot and stench, from which flies produce maggots. The fly doesn’t think about sweet nectar, the bee doesn’t concern itself with the backside of a sheep. So simply, be the bee, not the fly. And we all know grumpy people who do not let go of past hurts or regrets and constantly reflect on them, meditating on the evil that was done, and forgetting the wonderful things God is doing for them, and also hurting others with their constant whining, complaining and insulting. Then there are others, who recognise God’s wonderful gifts every day, who are thankful even in evil circumstances. There’s Paul writing this letter from prison threatened with death, and Joy with MS in Cooee Lodge. People like these are thankful for what they have, for what God has given. They thank God, even in their requests, and receive well His joy. Joy that rejoices in Christ, just as Paul wrote, a gentleness known to all, not anxious but bringing everything, every request and praise to God with thanksgiving; and receiving the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

            Up to now any non-Christian could be nodding their head: be that bee, focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful, think on those things in Paul’s first list. Wonderful, yet we are not non-Christians, you are Christ’s and you were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). It’s not ‘think on whatever you may regard as true, honourable, just, holy’ … not ‘what our society might’, rather it’s specifically those things you have learned, received, heard, and seen. The true, holy, and admirable things passed down to you from our ancestors in the faith, preserved by the Holy Spirit since God first gave them, yet also under threat by false teachers (John 16:13; Matthew 24:24). And those things are the Bible, most commonly for us from the English protestant tradition (the Luther Bible still contained the intertestamental books); and the Divine Liturgy, God’s service to us every Sunday, though we may continually be revising it especially in this strange time; the practise of evening devotions within many of our families, morning and evening prayer as suggested by the small catechism; the sanctity of marriage; the ministry of the means of grace; the festivals of the church year; a history against government intervention; of course, Lutheran lunches; and any number of other practises and teachings. To keep what has been given to you and to pass it on is vital to our Christian Faith, to our life in Christ, our life as His church.

            Of course, just as we don’t change for change’s sake, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), we also don’t continue everything our parents in the faith did without examination. Afterall, be the bee, not the fly. Seek what is true and lasting, what has been kept pure down the ages. Recognise and avoid the shameful actions and ideas that were passed on to you, but focus on those honourable, lovely and praiseworthy traditions kept down through the years, practise them faithfully and, now Paul doesn’t mention this here but, pass them on. We have these wonderful gifts because the Holy Spirit working through His Church has preserved them, because faithful Christians, Polycarp, Augustine, Pope Gregory, Luther, Kavel, for many of you our parents or spouse, and all the thousands whose names we have forgotten, these who have practised and passed on God’s wonderful gifts down to you. Treasure His forgiveness and everlasting life promised to you according to His word in Baptism and Holy Communion, receive His promises with thanksgiving, be the bee,

            And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to live everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21:42
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is wonderful in our eyes’?

            Two weeks ago I said ‘here is a clear parable’; but today I think, this one’s a bit hard. And yet the Holy Spirit has preserved this word for us, for you today, so what might it mean?

            Are you to relate to the Pharisees in charge of the teaching of God’s Word and the care of His people? We can ask, How well do we listen to the messengers He sends to receive the fruits? Those needy people in our congregation, our families, and our community? Is there at the end utter destruction for those who failure to care for each other and those with less? Perhaps this is why the Holy Spirit has brought this Word to us today to condemn our failures (Matthew 25:31-46).

            Or maybe it’s just to let you know to role of the pastor, the carer or healer of souls. That I, and the other pastors and bishops, are to point you always to Christ for the sake of healing your conscience, saving your soul. And if I fail … gone! Just as the Lord revealed to the prophet Ezekiel (3:16-27). So, a condemnation to sinful pastors.

            Could it be another parable of the kingdom? After all, since Pentecost we have been hearing and remembering our history of the church, of who we are and what we do. And Jesus Himself says, the kingdom of God will be taken from the Pharisees and given to a nation producing its fruits. So this vineyard, this walled garden, ‘paradise’ in Persian, is taken from the Jews who rejected it and given to Christ’s church. The holy nation of both Jew and Gentile (1 Peter 2:9). Condemning the Pharisees rejecting the faith, yet I wonder, what is Jesus saying about a stone?

            I’ve had to grapple a bit with this so I invite you into the wrestle. After the Pharisees give their answer, an easy and understandable one, Jesus doesn’t really affirm it, rather instead points to scripture. ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone, the Lord has done this and it is wonderful in our eyes’. But where was this stone in the parable? Who was rejected to become the place where two walls originate and join? I suppose yeah, the servants were killed, but chiefly it was the landowner’s son who was rejected. He should have been respected but instead was despised and killed. Just as Jesus was rejected and despised, arrested, thrown out of the city, and crucified. But now He tells them, and us, that the one rejected will be made the most important stone, on which all is centred and all comes from, for the corner stone, as far as I understand, is placed first then the measuring and construction begins from it. This then would be a clear statement, a promise that though the Pharisees will reject and kill Jesus, God the Father will make Him the origin of a new construction, or the New Creation we hear of elsewhere, and for us particularly the new creation in our baptism into Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). So, may Jesus be using this parable to show the sin of the Pharisees, the situation they find themselves, and then that He fulfills the promise God gave through Isaiah and the Psalms, just as Peter later explains, and this truth is wonderful in our eyes (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Psalm 118:22-24; 1 Peter 2:1-12).

            But He says something else about a stone, those who fall on it shattered, those it falls on crushed; those who can’t swallow the truth of Christ, who stumble at it will be shattered and when Christ comes in judgement they will be utterly crushed. Lord have mercy on those people, and on us too. Clearly Christ is no less harsh in the Old Testament than the New, all is the Word of God. And the care of God’s Word to His ancient people in that Law has been taken from the Pharisees and given to us, a nation producing it’s fruits; those words that tell us the Lord our God is a zealous God, punishing the children to the third or fourth generation of those who hate Him (Exodus 20:5). Yet the Law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul, making wise the fool, giving joy, light, and far more precious than gold, as we have just confessed in today’s psalm (Psalm 19:7-10). The Law, the ten Commandments, those words that many think of as a burden, we confess as refreshing the soul. The stone that crushes those it falls on, is wonderful in our eyes. Why? Why is it good news that the Pharisees who rejected Jesus are themselves rejected? Why is it Good News to hear these Words from God before confession, to reflect on how you have relied and sought help from other things before God, have neglected the gift of God’s name in failing to live up to it or pray for those who need it, have even rejected the holy things of God in favour of work and busyness? How can this revelation of truth, this condemnation of your failure and sin be a good thing? A wonderful thing?

            Paul tells us. Whatever good I thought I had done, like those Pharisees, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. Compared with knowing the wonder of Jesus Christ our Lord, everything else is filth, rubbish, a word starting with s … Just as God’s Law reveals about what the world thinks is a good life. But to be found in Jesus, part of the New Creation, the paradisal vineyard of God’s people, the living temple built around this wonderous cornerstone, not having a righteousness of my own, not measured by my sin rather justified and measured from the cornerstone, receiving the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. This Jesus who was rejected has become the foundation and origin of something new. And you have been joined to Him in baptism, your old, condemned, self crushed by the stone, now created anew into Christ’s body. The holy things of God, represented as a vineyard under care, have been given to the care of this New Creation. God’s people are now defined and find our source in Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. And this is the wonderful thing! That God cares for you, He wants the best for you and that is to be fitted next to Christ, conformed to Him as we heard Paul write weeks ago (Romans 8:29). To be joined together with Him as His church. To live for each other, to the glory of God and the good of those around us.

            The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The verses read for the scripture from St Matthew’s gospel chapter 21;verses 23-27, concern a puzzle, a conundrum, posed by Jesus to the Jewish leaders. It is on these verses I wish to concentrate our attention this morning. They relate to a meeting between, we are told, Jesus and “the Chief Priest and Elders of the people,” (v23) and the incident occurs in wider discussion by Jesus about the nature of faith in God the Father of Jesus Christ, the question of faith in God is the context in which this encounter is recorded.

The encounter between Jesus and the “Chief priests and the Elders”, concerns the question of authority. With this question they seek to elicit from Jesus an explanation by which they can understand the basis of  His actions and teachings. On the surface this seems a perfectly simple and understandable question to ask of Jesus who comes amongst them doing and saying many things without any recognisable credentials that they can understand or accept. It is there right as the custodians of the community’s wellbeing that they should ask of Jesus, ‘Well, why should we believe what you say? Tell us by what authority you preach and teach?’ Give us an explanation of your right to be teaching and acting in the manner of one who speaks on behalf of God.

The way the question is posed means that Jesus authority needs to be explained in terms that they, the Jewish leaders, understand their own authority. For their authority is understandable, they stand in a long line of traditional authority stretching back to appointment by Moses. They can point to their descent and lineage of priesthood and eldership which originates in the formation of Israel itself. But what of Jesus, the itinerant teacher from Nazareth? Their assumption is that since Jesus cannot point to any recognisable or understandable authority or tradition He will not be able to say by what authority he teaches and thus be shown to be a fraud.

But in Jesus reply to their clever question about authority, we are meant to see the impossibility of faith in God as a human possibility, a human undertaking. This incident between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in the Temple confirms the well-known words of Martin Luther concerning knowledge of and faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he makes, to us, the somewhat puzzling statement,

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth……… This is most certainly true.” (Commentary on the Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism)

You may well ask the question, but Jewish leaders that day in the Temple questioning Jesus authority did not have Luther’s Smaller Catechism in their pocket to which they could conveniently refer? Of course, they did not. But Jesus reply indicates the same understanding of knowledge and faith in God as Luther’s statement in the Catechism.

According to Jesus reply to the Jewish leader’s question about His authority they are directed  to their view of John the Baptist’s Baptism. Was John’s baptism of God or man? The Jewish authorities know they cannot answer that it was from God because if they did, they would be shown to be unbeliever’s in Israel’s God for whom they claim authority to speak.  They did not recognise John as a prophet who’s coming is directly related to Jesus as the promised Messiah. They cannot admit that John spoke in the name of God, as it would show them up as unbelievers and their authority a fraud.

But on the other hand, they cannot say that John’s baptism was a human action because if they did their credibility, their authority, amongst the people would be questioned since the people recognised John as sent by God. So, the Jewish leaders are seen to be caught between a rock and hard place and thus they refuse to answer Jesus question.

The point of Jesus question, in answer to the Chief Priests question about His authority, is that the witness of the Baptist, His preaching and baptism, raises the possibility of God coming to His people in grace and judgment: a God whose will and purpose is expressed, not in some far off heaven but here and now in the midst of His people. The word of the Baptist was that this reality was soon to be realised and realised in Jesus who came to him on the banks of the Jordan river whom John recognised as the Son of God. John told his disciples Jesus was “the Lamb of God”. In St John’s gospel Chp. 1:29, we read “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Jewish leaders in rejecting the possibility that the witness of the Baptist to God’s coming to them in gracious judgment denies the very reason for Israel’s existence. For Israel’s very existence in the world was witness to the fact that their God comes to them and acts for them, creating them as a people in the world for His redemptive purpose for all people. The God of the Jews is a God who acts in the world. He lives and acts in the historical relationships in which His people are involved. That is the whole purpose of the witness of the Old Testament scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is a living acting God who comes to His people in grace and judgment throughout their history, even to this present day.

Jesus refusal to answer their question concerning His authority is intended to heighten the dilemma in which the leaders of God’s people find themselves. Jesus silence, His refusal to answer the question as to the basis of His authority, proclaims what the Baptists word indicated, that God’s action is ungrounded in anything but God’s freedom. God’s action is grounded only in the inexpressible freedom of God to be the God He determines Himself to be for His people.

The great declaration of God to Moses question as to who God’s identity is, in the book of Exodus, “I am who I am.” or “I will be who I will be” is God’s response to Moses’ request for His name. He gives Moses an unpronounceable name which indicates He determines Himself to be the God of Israel in the inexpressible freedom of His grace. So, to Moses He gives Himself a name which the human tongue cannot pronounce based on the consonants and vowels of the Hebrew verb “to be”. And to this day the Jews do not take the name of God on their lips since it is not only holy but is unpronounceable. So, when reading the scriptures, they say “Ha Shame”, “the Name” when they come to the word signifying Israel’s God. The authority of God’s presence in the world is ungrounded, precisely because God’s presence was and is the activity His free grace, His realised salvation for His people. His voluntary, free action, towards them in Jesus cannot be demonstrated by any authority in this world since it is the authority of the ungrounded love of God, His free grace. If we are to know this God then we must recognise this fact and know Him only by believing Him and not try to establish His authority by something we regard as authoritative aside from the action of God Himself who has come to us in the humility of His free grace.

Jesus silence does not simply confront his questioners with a puzzle. This puzzle reflects the contradiction of their existence before God. Their question shows the impossibility of their faith in God being real. For faith, and therefore knowledge of God, presupposes that God’s coming to His people is not motivated or grounded in who they are or in what they understand the world to be; but simply in His free condescension, His grace. Jesus silence is an invitation to the Jews to again allow themselves to be grasped by the mystery of their being the people of God. God’s unfathomable mercy toward them which in terms of who they are is completely inexplicable, ungrounded. In Charles Wesley’s memorable words, God’s grace is His “undistinguishing regard, that is immense, unfathomed and unconfined.” Its nature cannot be conceived even by the angels, for “In vain the first-born Seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine”, “Tis Mystery all that thou my God shouldst die for me.”

For Jews will again be confronted with Jesus silence to which His silence here points. This silence is before Pilate in the judgment place, Gabatha, where Jesus is asked the same question as the High Priest in the Temple. Jesus refuses to answer precisely because the mystery of God’s grace deepens and widens in that now God Himself becomes in His Son identified with His people’s sin. He refuses to justify Himself. He thus allows Himself to be put in the wrong in order that His people in their god forsakenness may be given to participate in His own eternal righteousness.

What does this incident in the Temple teach us about our faith in terms of Luther’s words: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” It teaches us that we cannot give a reason for our faith and hope in Christ that is related to who we are or what the world is. Faith in God is something created by God’s action, His grace toward us in His action in Christ. It cannot be demonstrated by anything in this world but comes to us by God’s free grace. The Jews refused to live by this mystery of grace and sought to make Jesus tell them how his authority is based in what they regarded as their authority as leaders of the people of Israel. This was an impossible request, because Jesus presence in the world is grounded in the unfathomable action of God’s condescension in grace to redeem and renew His people. We must heed Luther’s words and understand that faith is not some magic trick which we perform because of some religious skill or motivation we have.  Faith is true knowledge of God  because it is not our knowledge, it is God’s knowledge of us in Christ.