All posts by Judy

Follow Jesus anew

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 3A – Matt 4 12-25

Children: The baby possum and Mum reunited – I don’t know how many of you got to read Barbara’s email last Friday week, but please do. Barbara told a story of a ringtail possum joey that she and her cat Wolfie rescued. The tiny possum must have fallen off its Mother’s back.

Barbara wrote that the baby possum made a hissing clicking sound, which is its distress call. Possum rescue people came to help Barbara get this joey reunited with its Mum, and they made a recording of its distress call. ‘Then, after dusk, with the joey tucked up in a pouch, they walked around playing the recording and looking for a possum to show some interest. If a possum does respond, they place the baby in a box attached to a very long pole and hold it up as near as possible to the adult possum to see if it will come down for the baby.’ They were out for four nights looking for the mother, but ‘after several false alarms they found her on a neighbour’s property and mama and joey (or Joanne, in this case) were reunited.’

People have distress calls too; we’ll hear one from today’s Psalm. The writer was surrounded by enemies and cried out, 9O Lord, hear my voice when I cry: have mercy upon me and answer me. I’m sure God heard that distress call: and did something about it.

I want you to remember two things. First, we all have different voices, and we believe that God recognises each one – yours and mine and everyone’s. And second, if anyone’s too sad or sick to cry out, God wants us to cry out for them – help them cry out and find help – like Barbara and her friends did for that little possum. God will hear you when you cry out for yourself, or for anyone else.

Sermon:     I talked with the children about distress calls – like the one we read in the Psalm. It’s really important that we hear distress calls and respond to them. In the Gospel, we heard another kind of call. Jesus found Simon and Andrew, then James and John and he called them, saying ‘Follow me’. And they did, immediately. They left everything and took up their new calling – their vocation.

Jesus called those four fishers to follow him. And the example he gave them to follow was: 1, to preach the same message that landed John the Baptist in prison, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ – that was risky; 2 to teach in synagogues and proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom – that would mean trouble too; and 3 to cure every disease and every sickness among the people; not for the faint hearted. Simon and Andrew, James and John were called to follow Jesus, as he put it, as fishers. Their fishing changes from hunting fish to a search and rescue operation for people: to net people to safety from the trials and dangers of life.

There’s a definite link between Jesus’ call to follow him and the distress calls we thought about with the children. Jesus was building a team to work with him and respond to the distress of people trying to live up to a religious system where they were told they had to earn God’s acceptance and love. And he and his disciples shared everyone’s distress as they endured the corrupt, dangerous rule of Herod Antipas. And Jesus called his team to work like him responding compassionately to people who struggled with illnesses, disabilities and spiritual burdens. Jesus is a team player. He called Simon, Andrew, James, John, and he calls you and me to follow him and, like him, to get alongside people and face their burdens with them: as fishers, to net them into the safety of the Kingdom. Jesus’ call – follow me – is his call to us as well. So how are we to respond?

At Christmas I said we study the Gospels and the stories of Jesus to learn to be like him – like Simon, Andrew, James and John did, to learn his passions and his motivations, his methods and his priorities: to learn from Jesus how to show everyone just how much God loves them and us.

It’s always shocking how even a few days of illness can make us doubt God’s love for us, never mind chronic debilitating conditions. The people Jesus cured didn’t just get better and carry on. They experienced God’s love for them. That meant they were healed in more ways than they imagined, not just cured of their presenting condition!

And that’s a major part of the vocation we’re called to. In a way, it’s part of the justice focus of Jesus’s ministry that people who are suffering should be relieved of it as soon as possible. But in our busyness, it’s easy put compassion on the back-burner and to lose touch with Jesus as our foundation. Following him is a constant re-connecting process. Reading the Good News each week, like new Christians, we renew our passion and our understanding for this vocation – this thing Jesus calls us to do with our lives.

This re-focusing – re-newing – re-starting process is something we find Jesus modelling more than once in the Gospels. And today’s Gospel records one of his new starts. It began this time with Jesus hearing of the imprisonment of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas (probably in nearby Sepphoris; Herod’s temporary capital). Upon hearing this, Jesus withdrew from Nazareth to relaunch his mission down by Lake Galilee. His new start after that withdrawal signalled an explosion in new ministry; it’s something of a pattern in this Gospel. Mt 12.15f, 14.13f, 15.21f

Two things in the past week have made me ponder this withdrawal – restart pattern. One was the weekly email from Bower Place, a well-known psychology teaching practice in Adelaide. They wrote about New Year’s resolutions, saying it’d be better if our resolutions weren’t about taking on new things, but rather about dumping things that undermine us. One thing they advised was to put our phones out of reach for several hours a day so we could be present to people who are actually physically with us. – like the Gospel’s withdrawal, re-start message.

The other thing that made me ponder this withdrawal – restart pattern is the stonework that’s happening in the rectory right now. Peter, Zac and Kim are getting rid of the rising salt damp that’s been fretting plaster away from walls in several rooms. The method they’re using is called undersetting, and it’s astonishing; I’ll show you later if you’d like. Starting at floor level, the stonemasons remove the first six or eight courses of bricks and stone from the bottom of a wall, everything infected by the salt damp. Amazingly, the wall doesn’t fall down, but stays suspended above the hole. Then they put down an impervious plastic barrier and lay new bricks on it to rebuild back up to the wall, hanging above. – also analogous to the Gospel’s withdrawal, re-start message.

So, New Year’s pruning resolutions and the act-of-faith shown in undermining a wall to repair it – they give me a helpful, more courageous perspective on today’s Gospel, where we saw Jesus withdraw strategically from his vulnerable home-base only to explode out of the blocks from a new base with an invigorated mission.

We were recalled to that mission with him today – 1. Proclaiming repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven, 2. Teaching in places where people gather and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, and 3. Curing … all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.

These three ministries take courage and energy to get on with; a freedom from inhibition and very clear priorities. And they need a regularly renewed, fresh, clear sense of who Jesus is – the one who calls us to work with him, and shows us how to do it.

So does today’s Gospel challenge any habits that disconnect us from Jesus and each other? Are we smothering our spirits under busyness or habits of uncompassion? Is there any salt damp rising to dissolve our ways of being disciples?

Jesus left behind a toxic environment in Nazareth and started again in a new home. He built a team of co-workers to join in his mission to turn people’s lives around to the free Kingdom of Heaven, to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and grace where people gathered for worship, and to bring healing to needy, suffering people. The messages I’ve heard from the psychologists and the stonemasons this week align with Jesus’ decision to cut loose from old danger and decay, and freed from them, to follow him anew, turning other lives around to experience his love, his wisdom and his healing.

Have we received a new perception of Jesus today? Has the Gospel challenged anything in our assumptions about the way we follow him – even foundational assumptions? And if so, what do you think we might do with our old ways of thinking; our old ways of doing things?

Let’s pray, and then observe a time of silence.

Inviting God, you call us to follow in many ways:

  • to witness with public deeds of justice;
  • to the quiet work of companionship;
  • to proclaim your truth from our hearts;
  • and to sing your love.

Invite us to follow you by respecting the many different ways of witness, and rejoicing that we have so many chances to answer your call. Amen.

Reflect on the mysterious ways that God has been working his wonders in you

Canon Bill Goodes

Second Sunday after Epiphany – Isaiah 49: 1-7,  Psalm 40:1-14, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29 – 42

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…”  (I Cor 1:1)

The apostle Paul begins all his letters to the Churches with a statement of his authority for writing.   In some he goes to considerable lengths — the letter to Titus begins, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is accord with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began — in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Saviour”.   Quite an impressive qualification!   In today’s reading, however, he simply states that he is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”

If you were writing a letter to the Church today, how would you describe your authority for doing so?   Indeed, how would I describe my authority to preach to you this morning?   Where is “the will of God” in these questions?

Today’s readings all have a theme of calling and authority — perhaps they can help us to answer my question.

When we think of Paul’s call to be an apostle, we naturally go back to that earth-shattering experience on the Road to Damascus, when he was knocked off his horse by the blinding light of the presence of the risen Jesus.   That was followed by the encounter with Ananias, the restoration his sight, and his retreat into the desert for some substantial period.   But was that really the beginning, a “bolt from the blue” call to follow Jesus and be his messenger?   The Book of Acts before this conversion event, has him holding the coats of those who were stoning Stephen, and so observing something of the depths of Christian obedience.   Paul describes his “former manner of life” as a Pharisee, learning at the feet of the wise rabbi Gamaliel‚ and his writings show just how steeped he was in that tradition as he worked out his apostleship in controversy with the conservative Jewish parties.   Perhaps his call to be an apostle could be traced back rather further than Damascus!

The Servant of the Lord portrayed in the passage from Isaiah 49 that we heard as the first reading today speaks of God’s call to him “before he was born”, naming him from the very beginning as God’s servant.   When the servant pleads that he has “laboured in vain” in this capacity, then the Lord lays on him an even more challenging task — that of being “a light to the nations”, a role reaching “the end of the earth”.   The “song of thanksgiving to our God” that the Psalmist sings about in the portion that we recited issues finally in the resolve to do God’s will, and so to “declare God’s righteousness in the great congregation”, “not restraining his lips”.

All this talk of callings in the earlier readings, and even in the hymn we sang, came to a head in the Gospel reading with its three separate calls.   John Baptist was the first of these.   As Luke tells the story, John was marked out at his conception as the one who would “make ready a people prepared for Lord”.    Then, in today’s passage he describes his place in the will of God by saying, “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”   In giving his witness to Jesus’ baptism, he speaks of the one who “who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”.    John’s calling is both life-long and tied to a particular occasion.

Andrew and his companion were already called into God’s plans — they had become disciples, learners and followers, as part of John’s ministry of Baptism.   But in today’s story, they reach a new stage in this calling:  John sees Jesus and he says to his two disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God” — and clearly, he encourages them to “follow Jesus”.   They follow somewhat tentatively, and don’t quite know what to say — but they respond to Jesus’ invitation “come and see”.    Then one of them, Andrew goes to his brother Simon and calls him to come to Jesus.   Jesus in turn calls him “You are to be called Cephas — Peter”.   As the story of Jesus continues, these and other followers are led to new understandings, and new commitments — new callings.

So, what of your calling, callings?   Can you identify occasions when the will of God seemed to issue to you a call that you could obey?   Is this when you were “called to be an apostle by the will of God”?

As I reflect on my own life as a disciple, I see both the occasions, and the life-long process at work.   I was baptized as an adult, in what my mother described as “taking a stand”.   In spite of the rather low-key ceremony in a half-dark Church with very few witnesses, it was a significant occasion for me.   However, to treat that as the occasion of my call to be a disciple would be to discount a whole lot of earlier influences — a congregation that looked after my sister and me as little children while our parents sang in the choir, the life of the Mount Gambier Methodist Church throughout my primary school years, ministers, Sunday School teachers, friends.   The experience of the school chapel at Saint Peter’s College which led the Chaplain to say to me as I was leaving, “Well, Bill I am handing back to the Methodist Church one who is as good an Anglican as I am!”

Then there was my confirmation when I finally admitted that I was an Anglican — but that in turn rested on other influences, University College life with its chaplains and committed students, singing in a parish choir, and finally in the Cathedral choir.   Then when I went home for vacations, influential clergy at the local Methodist and Anglican Churches made their mark on the direction of my life.

There have been lots of different “calls” since then, but this vocation as a Christian disciple has been worked out in my life on both significant occasions, and in a life-long process.   Thank, you for the way that you have been a part of that process for me, as have numbers of other Christian communities over the years.

Remember the hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”   In a period of reflection during this morning’s service, and indeed in the week to come, I invite you to reflect on the mysterious ways that God has been working his wonders in you, calling you into his service through both significant occasions, and in life-long processes.

This feast of Epiphany is all about inclusion!

Canon Bill Goodes

Epiphany – Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-2,10-24, Ephesians 3:1 – 12, Matthew 2:1 – 12

“Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace.” (Ephesians 3:7). The Feast of the Epiphany has for some years now been a rather ambiguous one for me — I went to Perth in January 1987 to become Rector of the parish of Mosman Park, and arrived on the train on Epiphany. We went to the Cathedral, and the Dean’s sermon began, “We in Perth have always been suspicious of wise men from the east!” I took this rather personally, and was only a little mollified when after the service he assured me that I was really from the Middle East!

I’m sure you have heard lots of sermons which have explored the notion of kingship — and how kings in our day are very different from kings in New Testament times, and so terms like “the Kingdom of God” or “Christ the King” require a fair bit of unpacking!. And in spite of the “we three kings” aspects of this feast of the Epiphany, I don’t intend to go into that contrast, but rather to explore the ambiguities of the idea of “servant” — that expression in the letter to the Ephesians really stood out for me when I looked at today’s readings.

So, what does it mean for Paul to say he is ‘a servant of the gospel‘ — and is it a term that we should try to apply to ourselves? There are two Greek words that are commonly translated as “servant” — one is δουλος which is also translated “slave”. This word speaks particularly of the subservient role of the servant, owned by the master. In some Roman households, and indeed in some of the Gospel parables, slaves were given considerable responsibility, but always there is the “at the master’s pleasure” undertone to their position. Remember the unworthy slave in the parable consigned “to outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”!

The other word frequently translated as “servant” is the one used in today’s passage from Ephesians 3 — the word διακονος which comes into English as “deacon”. This word is also translated as “minister”, and so it has two directions — one of “being under authority”, and the other of ministering to others. So, the apostle in this passage is stating that he is both under the authority of the Gospel, and also responsible for ministering the Gospel to others.

This ministering involves both the transmission of the Good news, and its living out in practical terms. If this is true of the apostle, it is true also of the apostolic Church — we are both under the authority of the Gospel, and also responsible for its transmission and its day-to-day expression.

Incidentally, this two-fold nature of the servant, the minister, has its echoes in other places — when we describe a personas an ordained minister, we acknowledge that that person is both under the authority of the Church, and also responsible for transmitting the Church’s message and living it out in daily life. In our tradition, this is symbolised by the granting of the Bishop’s licence to minister in a particular pastoral situation. And when we style someone say, “Minister for health” or even “Prime Minister”, we are saying that they act under authority — nominally of the Crown, but also of the Australian Constitution — so they are sworn in as “ministers” by the King’s representative before they are permitted to undertake their task of transmitting the Australian way and living it out day by day. I loved the story of the man who ended his letter to a government minister, “You have the honour to remain, sir, my humble and obedient servant…”

Now we are servants, ministers of the Gospel — but I’m afraid that we don’t always act as though we were under the authority of the Gospel — we often behave rather as though the gospel was under our authority — our authority to determine its content and decide how it is to be expressed in daily life. Certainly there is a need in each generation to express the Good News of Jesus in ways that are appropriate to the time and its way of thinking and speaking, but our diaconal nature as “servants of the gospel” does not allow us to choose which bits we like and which we can neglect! We are under authority!

The writer in this passage that we read this morning speaks of the gospel in terms of the revealing of a “mystery” — and there will always be more to the Gospel than our limited understanding can fathom. “Servants of the Gospel” should always be open to the revealing of deeper understanding of God’s gracious will for us.

For those to whom the letter to the Ephesians was written, one deeper thing that was being revealed to them by the apostle was about the inclusion of Gentiles in the loving purposes of God. When Matthew includes the story of the wise ones from the east visiting the infant Jesus in his account of the story of Jesus he has that same purpose. Gentiles were to be included in the faith community along with the faithful members of God’s Old Covenant people. This feast of Epiphany is all about inclusion! So, as ministers of this Gospel, we have to be all about inclusion: Jews and Gentiles share in the good purposes of God — share in the company of God’s chosen people.

In the material for last year’s Lambeth Conference of Bishops, it was highlighted that the typical Anglican today is an evangelical African aged in their 30s — I can’t remember whether it was a man or a woman! In spite of the fact that a significant number of African Bishops could not or chose not to attend the Lambeth Conference, it was clear that the African Churches represent a growing majority of the Anglican Communion. Are white English-speaking Anglo Saxons now “the Gentiles”? Are we being invited to rejoice that we are included?

But putting aside that revolutionary thought, how are we to transmit this good news of God’s radical inclusion? Can we enter more deeply into this aspect of the mystery of the gospel? Have another look at your Mission Action Plan and identify some of the ways that you have committed yourselves to stand for this inclusion. This parish has a long history of ministering this aspect of the Gospel in word and action. Your notice board regularly placards God’s gracious will that all can participate in his work.

Your work with Saint John’s Youth Services and your charity shop try to express in action this good purpose for all people. Your welcome to people of varied backgrounds into your services speaks of this ministering of the Gospel.

As “servants of the Gospel” we are invited to bring to the Christ-child our treasures — what the wise ones brought in their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and to recognize what the apostle describes as the “wisdom of God in all its rich variety” that God’s church is to make known to the world, to the authorities, and even to the “heavenly places”.

Let us rejoice in the authority under which we serve, and minister this wonder both in our message to the world, and the way in which we live.

We celebrate the naming and circumcision of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Rev’d Susan F. Straub

Introduction
Happy New Year, one and all! New Year’s Day doesn’t fall on a Sunday all that often but does the round of the days of the week. Speaking of rounds, it happens every year. Yet each year we look back on the events that happened during the previous year and our experiences, and feel a sense of … what exactly? Again! That went fast! Of renewal? Of progression, a moving forward? Maybe a fresh start as we look at the year stretching before us like an untrodden path but with some known milestones and landmarks. Bit like the view of parenthood seen for the first time even though we know that it was similar for our parents, their parents, and our ancestors. Similar, but not exactly the same in an ever-changing world. No wonder Hebrew thought saw time like a spiral!

Luke 2:15-21
On this our healing Sunday, we celebrate the naming and circumcision of our Lord, Jesus Christ. People everywhere are aware that names convey meaning and usually choose a name for their little one with care. At Christmastide, we celebrate the birth of the one named before his conception. The Archangel Gabriel spoke his name to Mary, his mother elect. His name was confirmed, post-conception, with its meaning and messianic purpose to the understandably troubled Joseph. Jesus, the one who saves his people from their sins (Matthew 21), the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Thus, Scripture too testified to the faith God had in Israel and has ultimately in humanity. It was the joy, wonder, and witness of the shepherds that made real for Mary God’s faith in her and Joseph, a treasure. God came in Jesus to be Emmanuel, God embodied like us to be with us, ever-present. This was the fulfilment of seeing and understanding God as desiring to be in a living relationship with us. That desire is part of the wonders of the faith which we Christians inherited from our Judaic religious forebears and share with them today.

As people of faith, we are signs of God in the world, just as were Jesus and his male, female, Jewish, Greek, Roman, fishermen, Pharisee, tax collector disciples; as were Mary and Joseph, and all those right back to Abraham and Sarah. Let’s begin at the very beginning just like the song in the ’Sound of Music’, the doh-ray-me of faith: call and promise!

At the call of God and in faith, Abram and Sarai journeyed to the Promised Land, settled, and prospered, except they remained childless. Now Abram means ‘exalted father’, and Sarai, ‘princess’. Just as we use ‘princess’ today, Sarai has the meaning of an exalted, noble one or of a contentious, self-entitled, or bitter one. It was Sarai who contended that Abram should follow a custom for otherwise prosperous couples with no heir. Abram was to father a child for Sarai with her maidservant, Hagar. But the adoption of Ishmael as her son brought neither happiness to Sarai and Abram nor, as can sometimes happen, did it bring Sarai a child. Yet God had promised Abram that they would have many descendants and that their descendants would become a great nation. It seemed that their increasing age was making a mockery of God’s promise and of their faith in that promise.

Then, God appeared to Abram again, saying “I am God Almighty (El Shaddai), walk in my ways and be blameless, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” To underline the promise, God said “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham”. The addition of the syllable, in Hebrew ‘heh’ changed the name from ‘exalted father’ to ‘father of many’, a multitude of nations. Likewise, Sarai was named Sarah meaning ‘my princess’, one blessed. Thus, Abraham and Sarah each had one of the ‘heh’ sounds of the unspoken name of God ‘Yahweh’. Their names now conveyed the meaning of a close relationship with God, a mutual belonging.

As an everlasting physical sign of this belonging and of the covenant with God, Abraham obeyed God and every male of his household was circumcised. It was following Abraham’s own circumcision that Sarah conceived and bore Isaac. Circumcision among the nations around them was a rite of passage at puberty signifying entry into manhood and fertility. But every following generation of male babies born in Abraham’s household was to be circumcised eight days after birth. What was the full meaning, then, of circumcision for Mary and Joseph when they brought Jesus to the priest at eight days old?

For Mary and Joseph, circumcision clearly had no association with a male fertility rite. The significance of the eighth day is found in Leviticus. There is the prohibition: “When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as the Lord’s offering by fire.” (Leviticus 22:27). No animal was to be removed from its mother for sacrifice to God within its first seven days of life. God’s prerogative was deferred out of respect for the intensity of the mother-child relationship. Circumcision on the eighth day signified the very first time that a male infant might be dedicated to the service of God symbolically. The rite renewed the covenant between God and Israel, in continuity with Abraham, and Sarah. The mark became a lifelong external sign of apartness. A baby was considered almost an extension of his mother until the eighth day, when it became clearer that the child would live and could enter into partnership with God. The giving of the name at this time highlighted the infant’s transition to individuality and responsibility to live according to God’s law.

This holy day points us in the direction of another innovation of God and his people: The baptism by John in the Jordan to return the wayward but would-be-faithful to their inheritance by the washing away of sin. In his way of living and dying, Jesus was, and is today, also the sign pointing beyond facts and events to his meaning for humanity. Jesus saves his people from their sins (Matthew 21). Jesus fulfilled the meaning of his name. Yet there is more, there is always more. Jesus inspired his church to the fulfilment of his circumcision. Whatever constitutes our worldly identity, we have a higher one. We are set apart at baptism as those who walk our life-path in the way of faith, who belong to Christ, and are Abraham’s offspring (Gal. 3:28-29). For the ultimate reality of faith in Jesus, Son of God, in God the progenitor, Father of all that is, and the Holy Spirit whose loving-kindness in us reaches out to heal and bless – the reality of faith is this: This God and we belong together. God is not against us. God is with us.

Christmas – God’s grace as seen through Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas 2022 – Grace

Intro: A priest is being chased through the woods by a hungry bear. As he runs, the priest cries out: Oh please God, make this bear a good Christian! Suddenly, he trips and sprawls on the ground. The bear catches up, stops, kneels, puts its paws together, and says: “Lord, thank you for this meal that I am about to receive. Amen”

One way lots of people express their faith each day is by saying grace before eating – giving thanks to God for graciously providing our food and drink. But that’s a limited way to think about that word ‘grace’. There’s much more to it! The invitation to communion today calls Jesus ‘the grace of God’ and our epistle reading says we have been justified by the grace of Christ our saviour.

So the grace prayer we say giving thanks for the life-sustaining food we receive is a small step towards Christmas where we celebrate the astounding grace of God who comes to us as a baby: as one of us! We Christians believe Jesus was – and still is – God with us.
Why do we need God with us? Because we people hurt; we need help; God’s help; God’s grace. There’s an epidemic of loneliness among young people; persistent epidemics of violence against first nations’ people, against women and children and against our fellow creatures. We’re right to fear for the survival of life on Earth. We have great needs. We hurt on a world scale – the desperate needs of more than 100 million displaced people; the armed aggression causing so much misery; people caught in floods here and overseas, and so many other disasters – a relentless cycle of suffering. And often, we just look for someone to blame. That won’t help.
Indeed, Centre for Public Christianity senior research fellow Natasha Moore writes that Christmas is … the opposite of the question Santa Claus asks – ‘have you been naughty or nice?’.

Humans have rejected God but instead of rejecting humans, God goes so far as to become… a baby, to suffer human frailties and indignities, and to dignify and restore the relationship: God’s the one who breaks the cycle. Christmas 2022: Santa Claus’ gift he can’t keep from us (theage.com.au)

There are huge needs we can’t deal with. Only with God’s help can we bring healing; that’s why we need God with us. And he has come. The Christ child, Jesus (God saves) coming to save us is the grace who can break the cycle of suffering.

That’s grace for you: not judgement, but grace; God doing what it takes to bring healing and hope. There’s judgement a-plenty to be had in the tabloids and online. But that helps no-one; it only compounds people’s suffering. We need the grace of God; grace which brings forgiveness and healing love. That can break the cycle.
Our Bible study group discussed the word grace last Tuesday. One group-member found a definition of grace which perfectly describes what happened when God came as the baby of Bethlehem. It goes something like this.

Grace is the generous action of God stooping / bending down to us in kindness to reach us in our need, and to bless us. Hebrew Roots/The original foundation/Grace – Wikibooks, open books for an open world 

That’s what happened at Bethlehem; God bent down to us in kindness from being transcendent divinity to becoming a vulnerable baby. That’s what we needed God to do: to be with us; one of us. And God did it. That’s grace.

Quoting again, Some people call God’s grace ‘unmerited favour’. But grace is more than just favour or mercy. God’s mercy expresses compassion with us, but God’s grace is generous kindness enacted. [God acts and] grace releases God’s enabling power into our lives. Again, the baby born in Bethlehem – God as one of us is exactly that; God’s enabling power released into our lives. The life example Jesus gave us – from his birth in Bethlehem through to his death and resurrection – was all focussed on offering and equipping us with healing grace.

In the Christmas story, we’ve just read how grace challenged social stratification. Christ came first to farm animals. The first people invited to meet Jesus were from the bottom of society; shepherds, who were usually children – the ones who seldom feature in great histories. God stooping down in kindness to reach us in our need – coming to the least first. It’s the opposite of how most societies do things. Jesus spent his ministry with the people left behind by his society. God stooping down in kindness to reach us in our need.

The baby of Bethlehem would grow up teaching us how to live – being neighbour to outsiders, healing the sick, restoring outcasts to community, and building a community of people equipped to reach out with healing grace to a world of people locked out.

That healing community is us. Who can you think of who needs this grace? And are you and I equipped to offer it? Do we know how Jesus helps, includes and heals? Are we familiar with the way he does things? Because you and I are his hands and feet now; instruments of his healing grace. How would Jesus look after the one you’d like to receive his help? Can you and I help and heal the way he would? This is why we study his actions and words week by week; that as his body, we might ourselves embody God’s grace in the way we’ve seen Jesus do it. He showed us what to do, and he told us to go and do likewise. Are we doing that?

The Christ child, Jesus coming to save us, is God’s generous kindness in action; stooping down to us in kindness to reach us in our need and to bless us. We’re called to pass on that blessing. As we say grace before eating, and it reminds us that God is looking after our needs, can it remind us that God wants everyone’s needs met; their wounds healed. Jesus shows us how to be instruments of God’s grace, committed to peace on Earth, healing divisions, freeing captives. Let’s recommit our own lives to the Christ-child’s vocation for us; bearers of his inclusive, loving blessing of grace. Amen.

Waiting for Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 4, Mary’s song – Waiting for Jesus

Today, we lit the candle for Mary, the mother of Our Lord. But today’s Gospel was all about Joseph. But you might remember that last week, in place of a Psalm, we had the Magnificat, Mary’s song. Our third hymn today is based on that song. It comes in the part of Luke’s Gospel where Mary, a young woman engaged to be married, was visited by an angel; just like Joseph was today. The angel told Mary she’d have a special baby who was to be called Jesus. Mary’s immediate response was to say, I am the Lord’s servant, … may it be to me as you have said.’ Lk 1. 38

That’s an amazing reaction; and there’s more, too. When Gabriel told Mary she’d soon be Jesus’ mother, he also said her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, was also expecting a baby in a few months. Mary may already have known that. But the way Gabriel gave both bits of information together clearly linked the two babies’ destinies. Mary twigged to this, and she headed off to visit Elizabeth in Judea; about a 100 km journey! It’s a decisive beginning to her discipleship, setting out to visit Elizabeth. … Mary’s obedience…I am the Lord’s servant… and immediately acting on Gabriel’s message is vindicated when she reaches Elizabeth’s house. 41 filled with the Holy Spirit …42 [Elizabeth] exclaimed: “Blessed (eulogemene – praised by people) are you among women, and blessed (eulogemenos) is the child you will bear!”

Mary responded to God’s prompting by going to see Elizabeth. Elizabeth also responded to the prompting of the Spirit. She prophesied that Mary was blessed by people because of what was happening to her, but she was blessed in God’s sight because she believed (v.45 where she uses the word makaria- receiving God’s favour) ‘blessed is she that believed…’ Mary responded to Elizabeth’s prophecy with the joyous canticle of praise we shared last week. Mary’s words and actions model what to do as we wait for Jesus; the song of the prophet Mary models the way we should pray as we wait.

We are commanded to pray and to proclaim the kingdom; Mary’s Song is a model of prayer and testimony. (Memory aid, our 3rd hymn TiS 173) It begins with an impulsive outburst of Mary’s wonder and delight. ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…’ Soul and spirit are the deepest level of Mary’s being. She’s saying there’s nothing more important in her life than her relationship with God. So too with us: this is the absolute heart of prayer.

Then Mary gives her testimony. The most miraculous discovery of all for anyone getting to know God better in prayer can often be the realization that God actually cares deeply for us. That’s often obscured by personal tragedies, but it’s true.
Like Mary, the moment we sense the love of the God who created and sustains the whole universe—that God loves us—we’re overcome with awe, and we break out into joyful praise. Mary declares that she will be known for ever as one who’s received God’s favour (makaria); she’s been called to join in God’s work.
Prayer and testimony; it’s vital for us to pray and proclaim, because both open us up to God’s perspective, and bring that to others. That’s what Mary does—she chooses to open herself to God’s perspective by praying the way she does. She does this by dwelling on three things about God. God is the Mighty One; God is Holy; and God is Merciful. This is the God she knows; this is the God we know too.

Mary cries out about God the mighty one in relationship to herself—[who ‘has done great things for me’]—proclaims God’s holiness—proclaims God’s love and care for all of humanity in all time. This links the personal, loving God that Mary knows with the God of Israel; the God she’s learnt to know as the merciful and just ruler over all. With this perspective, Mary teaches us about prayer, and about our relationship with God. We don’t just relax in God’s embrace, trust to his love, and ignore the rest of humanity. No, Mary sees God’s concern for people everywhere, and teaches us by word and obedience that God’s concerns must be ours too.

The God we meet in Mary’s song is a God who is involved—a God who acts with mercy and with justice. God is described time and again the same way through the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s acts are at once vigorous, political and tender. God is a fire cleansing us of petty conceits; God is disgusted by oppression and determined to oppose it; God is passionate for the welfare of the lowly, and longs for the starving to be fed. We open our hearts to this perspective when we pray Mary’s song. And with such a transformed perspective, we proclaim it fearlessly and, as God’s servants, we model transformative justice and compassion in our own lives.

Mary declares in the final part of her song that God is trustworthy; God doesn’t change. The promises God made to people millennia ago remain true for all their descendants forever. Where we see the Church formed of praying, proclaiming, responsive disciples waiting and preparing for Jesus to come again, we see all the marvellous things about God that Mary proclaimed happening amongst us.

Mary’s prophetic song is a wonderful model for us of prayer and proclamation. Acting on what God says, giving testimony, praying a prayer that resonates with God’s heart—these were the right things for Mary to do while she was waiting for Jesus. They’re also the right things for us to do as we wait for him to come again.

We are called to see and tell that Jesus loves us all

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 3 A  –Isa 35 1-10, Mt 11 2-11.  Baptism of Sasha Obi

Sustain us, O God, with the power of your love on our journey to meet the One who is coming.

 Our collect prayer and scriptures speak of a journey we’re on to meet Jesus who’s coming to us. Isaiah 35.8 says we’re on a highway called the Holy Way. James 5.8 says the coming of the Lord is near. And the Gospel (quoting Mal 3.1 in Matt 11.10) speaks of John preparing our way for that journey.

So today, we’re on a journey with little Sasha to meet Jesus. He’s coming from the other direction to meet us. But Sasha will find, as we have found, that he’s also walking alongside us. We don’t ever travel the journey alone. If we fell and couldn’t go on, the One who’s walking with us would help us carry on and meet the One who’s coming. It’s tricky, but lovely, isn’t it. In Advent, we think about what that companionship and that journey are like. On this 3rd Sunday in Advent, we think about it with the example of John the Baptist to learn from.

John’s life was shaped by the way he understood his journey to meet Jesus. And that understanding was shaped by the way he read the prophets. For John, the prophets said wrath and judgment would clear away evildoers. And then blessings would come to the faithful remnant. So John – a prophet himself, also preached that judgement preceded blessing. And he preached it without fear or favour. Remember his confronting words to religious leaders; You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Today, we meet John after he’s taken this to another level. He’s confronted the ruler Herod Antipas over his irregular marriage to his sister-in-law. You don’t get off lightly if you do that, so today we meet John in prison. There, he has time to ponder his life-long understanding of the coming Reign of God.

In his prison cell, John hears stories about the ministry of ‘Jesus the Messiah’ – the one he baptised; the one he said was the One who is to come. But apparently there’s been no final judgement yet. This makes no sense! Can he be the One? John sends some of his own disciples to ask Jesus: 3. Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’ Matt 11.4 – referring to the prophecy in Isaiah 35.5-6

John believed he’d been sent by God to call people to repent so they’d be fit to survive a fiery judgement. That was how he understood his vocation to prepare the way for the Reign of God.

But the message Jesus sent him effectively said the Reign of God had already arrived, and without the judgement. This left John confused. How can the blessing of citizenship in God’s Kingdom be given before it’s even been established who deserves to belong? How can the immutable sequence of justice before reward suddenly get subverted like that?!

For John himself – in his preaching and baptising work – nothing much had really changed after his meeting with Jesus down at the Jordan River. John had kept on proclaiming the fiery judgement that he’d been preaching all along. He didn’t seem to register the fact that Jesus was doing something totally different.

The point of meeting Jesus is that it challenges us to become disciples of Jesus. But John the Baptist met Jesus, and he didn’t become his disciple. He kept on preaching fire and brimstone. He missed the astonishing fact that while we people were not yet good enough, Jesus shared all the blessings of God’s Realm with us. John didn’t get/understand blessings without judgement; didn’t get Grace – which is forgiveness and inclusion before an apology has even been thought of. How could John have missed this; John of all people. It’s a tragedy. It’s as sad as Moses seeing the Promised Land to which he’d led God’s people, but never entering it himself. (Deut 34)

In prison, John sounds like someone who’s thinking about joining a church, but waiting ‘till he finds one that’s good enough. We mustn’t get into that prison with him.

The Gospel is this: God didn’t wait until we were good enough before blessing us in Jesus. We must return the compliment: we mustn’t get ourselves so tied up in our preconceptions that we can’t accept the call of Jesus. Ours is a gospel of Grace, not perfectionism. Love is our rule, not safety. We are not called to an obsessive fixation on other people’s worthiness – or our own. We are called to see and tell that Jesus loves us all already. Transformation is needed, sure. But it’s his love that does that transforming through the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

We’re on the way with Sasha to meet a special person – a wonderful person – our Lord Jesus. When we look back on our own lives, we’ll see that Jesus has travelled the whole way with us. He was beside us even before we knew about him. That’s a joy we can share with Sasha and with anyone else who needs to know it.                                           God… open blind eyes to the dawning of your kingdom, so that our hearts may rejoice as we behold the majesty of our GodCollect prayer – Advent 3A

God wants our true selves to shine out

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 2 – Matt 3.1-12

There’s an apocryphal story of a journalist asking the Archbishop of Canterbury what he’d do if he learned that Jesus was coming in the next half hour.

The answer: ‘I’d look busy.’ Do you think it would help?

John the Baptist called his people to Prepare the way of the Lord. He challenged people to do it through repentance – and by that, he meant a complete change of direction in life; a complete transformation.

Dictionary: μετάνοια (metanoia) ‘repentance’ – change of mind, the state of changing any or all of the elements composing one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviours concerning the demands of God for right living; this state can refer to the foundational salvation event in Christ, or to on-going repentance in the Christian life.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Advent is far more than getting ready for a one-off event or a casual visit – we’re not rolling out a red carpet for a VIP’s whistle-stop. No, God’s coming to the world is much more than a single event. It changes everything; everything changes for ever; everything; for ever.

John the Baptist tells us that the way to prepare for God’s coming is to repent: to turn from the priorities we serve – especially any greed or selfishness or apathy – and to live as genuine citizens of God’s realm; to make God’s priorities our own,  and live them out.

For Christians, repentance is ongoing because it means taking on a life-long commitment to following the example of Jesus – to live a courageous life committed to justice, mercy and faithfulness (the weightier matters of the Law that he referred to in Mt 23.23). Jesus took on that risky, radical lifestyle and it led to his crucifixion. That’s his example to us; his challenge to us. Are we that serious? Are justice, mercy and faithfulness important enough to us that we’d risk everything for them – life included?

But that was Jesus; what about … people? Let’s look at how John the Baptist walked that walk. He also walked it to the end. How could he do that? Was he some sort of rebel with a cause? Two weeks ago, the Song of Zechariah was our Psalm. It’s stayed with me. Zechariah was John the Baptist’s Dad. Telling the children, the story behind his song reminded us that Zechariah was a priest working in the Temple in Jerusalem. Lk 1.5-25, 57-80 So John the Baptist was a PK – a priest’s kid. The Aaronic priesthood was hereditary; but John never took his father’s place in the Temple.

We met John preaching today not in the Temple, but in the wilderness. Instead of rich Temple vestments, John wore what the desert provided; the hair of moulting camels tied on with a skin belt – like Elijah did before him 2 Kgs 1:8. And like Elijah, he ate what the desert provided 1 Kgs 17:4; wild honey and locusts. He was very alternative. John answered God’s call to be the itinerant radical preacher we meet in the Gospel. When his Dad’s colleagues, the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to him, he confronted them with the threat that after Christ’s baptism, there’d be nothing left of them. Through his asceticism, John lived out his call to turn from all the finery and lavish lifestyle that had displaced the justice, mercy and faithfulness God wanted of religious leaders.

What of us? I’ve said before that the baptism John called people to was very counter cultural. Baptism back then was normally part of conversion; leaving your birth religion behind to embrace Judaism. So, the people who came from Judea and Jerusalem to John at the Jordan technically didn’t need baptism. But John was saying that cradle Jews or not, they needed it anyway. They needed to wash, and cleansed, turn back to faithful living. Their heritage as Abraham’s children was not of itself all that God required of them.

And that’s the challenge of today’s Gospel for us – whether we’re cradle Christians or new converts. Have we been tranquillised by a faith that proclaims comfort and security, a cousin of the health and wealth gospel?

Martin Luther King caricatured that as our being seduced by popular preachers delivering soothing sermons on How to Be Happy and How to Relax. Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, “Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.” A knock at midnight Lk 11.5 ff – 11 6-67 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=460_76M6y7E  God wants better than that; we are better than that. God wants our true selves to shine out. Our faith should bear the fruit of the repentance that John called for – justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Advent is our opportunity to identify the things which keep us spiritually dormant and to turn away from them. When we want to know how to do that, remember John the Baptist; remember Jesus. Let’s test our own inclinations above the Bunsen burners of justice, mercy and faithfulness. When we see dross rise to the surface, we are to skim it off and bin it. What remains in the crucible will be the self that Jesus wants us to continue giving to our work in the Kingdom. Who will that be, that self? In the healing prayer now, we might want to come forward and offer our search for that self to God’s anointing.   Amen.

Called to hope

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent Sunday A Isa 2.1-5

Kids: Puddleglum’s farewell to the underworld. The Silver Chair CS Lewis – Ch 12.

* Anyone confident that all is right with the world? Everything’s in good hands? World peace just round the corner? Hunger, injustice and inequality all but under control? Wise, decent leadership at every level of our societies? What might make us confident?

The call of Advent is that we should actively look forward to these good things – peace, shared resources, justice, equality, wise and decent leadership. The call of Advent is that we confidently hope for them; that God’s people truly hope to see God’s Kingdom come; a reign of justice, peace, joy and love. Advent 1 is called the Sunday of the promise. It’s also often celebrated as the Sunday of hope. That’s what we remembered in the prayer of the day: * Faithful God, whose promises stand unshaken through all generations: renew us in hope, that we may be awake and alert.

The focus of this hope in Isaiah is hope for peace. It’s the great Advent hope; that we look for one who will come to us bringing peace on Earth and good will among all people.

It’s clear that this universal peace and good will is not our present experience. But it’s especially important in times of difficulty that we can keep ourselves alive to the promise – the hope – of God’s kingdom. When things have looked grim, confidence that the future belongs to God has always given hope in the present. And we know hope changes the way we behave; but it changes more than we know. Hope has seen oppressed people overcome terrible evils over the centuries. And every generation needs hope that the powers of the world do not ultimately determine the future.

Is this choosing a pipe dream – a willful self-deception? It may be. But even then, does that make it worse than not dreaming? Look at the possibilities Isaiah opens up for us. When Isaiah was given today’s vision, Jerusalem was facing terrible danger. Israel and Damascus had tried to force the southern kingdom of Judah to join them in opposing the all-powerful Assyrian Empire. It was a foolish move. The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, and the king turned to the prophet Isaiah for advice and assurance.

Isaiah offered today’s vision of promise. No matter where the power seemed to lie right now, the day was coming when God’s reign would be established for all the Earth to see. And he showed it graphically in a vision of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem to learn the ways of God – to learn to walk in God’s ways.

Isaiah saw the wisdom of God coming from Mt Zion – from the Temple. The Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem was far more than a matter of local geography. It represented God’s presence in the midst of God’s people.

So Isaiah’s vision of Zion as the focus of pilgrimage by all peoples was not a political claim; it was a spiritual claim: God’s presence is the true center to which all nations will eventually flow. When I think that this vision was given to the Judean king while the army of the mighty Assyrian empire surrounded Jerusalem, I’m tempted to think it was at best unrealistic. Yet as I read both the Biblical and the Assyrian accounts of this siege and both agree that this huge army failed to capture Jerusalem, I have to think again.

Isaiah didn’t just tell his king that they’d survive the siege. He’d been given a far greater vision. All the nations shall stream to [God’s presence]. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” [The Lord] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (= Micah 4.1-3)

Learning God’s ways; walking in God’s paths, the nations would accept God’s way of determining what is just and right, and as a practical outworking, war would end. Killing people would be replaced with feeding them.

Again, imagine the people of besieged Jerusalem hearing Isaiah proclaim this vision. The Hebrew for crazy is מְשֻׁגָּע, and I’m sure it would have been muttered pretty freely about the city – until it was clear they’d been spared.

Isaiah was a prophet who could hope. In one of Jerusalem’s most frightening times, he could proclaim a vision of all nations – all peoples – drawn to good, decent living; world peace based on justice. Jerusalem desperately needed this person of hope.

It’s about 2,745 years since Isaiah gave this vision to a terrified, besieged city. The same obsessions with wealth, power and control which caused their danger still threaten all life today. And every new generation of idealists and peaceniks seizes on Isaiah’s image of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and they ask very serious questions of those who would settle matters by the use of force – those who would produce and peddle armaments while poor people starve.

And though these idealists might be rubbished for living in fairyland – lost in wilful self-deception – they remind me of someone else who apparently lost track of pragmatic, political realities; someone who risked everything rather than live by the sword. We celebrated him as our King last Sunday, enthroned on the Cross. And we wait for his coming now – coming as a King born in a stable; coming as a King who will usher in a reign of peace on Earth and good will among all on Earth. * Amen

Praise and Glory to Christ our King! 

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christ the King Sunday C – Jrm 23.1f, Song Zech (Lk 1.68f), Col 1.11f, Lk 23.33f

I wonder what you’d think about a king who goes about among his people disguised as an ordinary person. That’s just what King Abdullah II of Jordan does. Every now and then in the Jordanian newspapers, a new article will pop-up to say that today, their carefully disguised king joined the queue at a taxation office or a hospital, or he spent the day driving a taxi. While he’s in a queue or driving, he talks with people about how they’re being treated; what sort of service they’re getting. People confide in taxi drivers.

This is King Abdullah’s way of finding out for himself what sort of experience his people have of his government. So people who work behind hospital desks and tax office front-counters must always wonder if the next face they see hidden behind the beard of a shabby old man might actually be that of their King. Maybe they behave now as if everyone is their king – just in case. Wouldn’t that improve things!

King Abdullah does this because he cares for his people. He wants to find out what he needs to do to make life better for everyone. It’s an unusual king who does something like that, and today is all about the King who’s done this for all of us. The Servant King Jesus came in solidarity with people on the bottom rung, the ones he loves; to be one of us; to save us. No-one is beneath this King’s notice!

Today, we’re told about God’s commitment to his little ones. In our reading from Jeremiah, we’re told that bad shepherds will be dealt with, and God will take their place. Bad shepherds wreck lives; they betray trust and fracture the community of God’s people. They publicly disgrace the name of God. Jeremiah said this would change. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, [who] shall reign as king and deal wisely, and [who] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Jrm 23.5 So expectations were huge; people waited and hoped.

In our canticle this morning, Zechariah’s Song, we sang with an old man who’d waited all his life for this prophecy to be fulfilled. His son, John, would finally get God’s people ready for the coming of that righteous king. Lk 1.17 Finally, Zechariah held his child in his arms: John the Baptist, harbinger of the Messiah. And Zechariah sang, you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,    to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. Lk 1:76-77

This is a glorious preparation. You expect so much; hope so deeply; all that cripples us will change. What a wonderful King this will be. But nothing prepares us for the moment of that King’s revealing: the one we see today; our King, dying on the Cross. He didn’t just come disguised as a vulnerable person like King Abdullah does; he actually became one. He didn’t just come for a quick, harmless experience of people’s inconvenience before being whisked off in a motorcade back to the palace. He suffered what oppressed people do; he died the way the most ill-treated victims of tyranny do; by government-sanctioned murder.

Jeremiah says God will demonstrate solidarity with such people by replacing bad shepherds with a good one. But then what? Even if you replace a bad shepherd, they leave such a terrible legacy: suffering, confusion, hopelessness, bitterness and betrayal – no clear sense of right and wrong any more. Jesus takes this terrible legacy to the Cross so it can die with him once and for all, and in its place he offers healing forgiveness.

Before Jesus dies, leaders, soldiers, even one of the condemned hanging beside him—each taunt him with the same demand: Save yourself! But he’s not in it for himself. He’s not a false shepherd; not a false King. If there’s a cost to be borne, he will bear it, because ultimately, he’s the only one who really can. He doesn’t save himself; he’s determined to save us all. And as Zechariah sang, he does it through forgiveness. v. 77 He bears the cost himself – the spread of the disease stops with him.

Listen to Jesus, as much a victim of evil as anyone can be; listen, as he asks God to forgive his persecutors. Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing! Suddenly, the legacy of pain and suffering, confusion and hopelessness, betrayal and bitterness, of no clear sense of right and wrong – suddenly that legacy, and even the power of death itself – all of it is defused. That King – not seated on a throne, but hanging before us on a senseless, violent instrument of tyranny – that King is both the good shepherd who has come to us, and the embodiment of the new realm where we now live forever.

The other criminal still asks him for a future hope: Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom. What we witness here is the complete change from criminal to saint’ what we call repentance. He names what he has been, renounces it and turns to Jesus. He calls on Jesus’ name and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.

And Jesus replies that the Kingdom is here now: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. Jesus receives him immediately – takes him at his word and receives him. Today you will be with me in paradise; restored to everything you might have hoped to be.

This is astonishing. The people Jesus keeps company with here show that none of us should ever imagine ourselves beyond the reach of his love; no-one should ever imagine themselves as beneath the notice of Christ our crucified, servant King. And most astonishing of all, this is all here now – today – here amongst us and within each one of us. Praise and Glory to Christ our King!    Amen