God works most powerfully in our weaknesses, not our strengths

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 4 C: Mic 5 2-5a Magnificat, Lk 1 46-55, Heb 10 5-10, Lk 1 39-45

The message that’s come to me time and time again this Advent is that God works most powerfully in our weaknesses, not our strengths. I guess we’ve all heard that before, but we never really seem to believe it. It’s hardly encouraged, even in Christian communities. In just such communities, so often I hear people being told to focus on their strengths if they really wanted to succeed – and I doubt that I’m the only one hearing this. Yet it’s a core teaching of the Church that God chooses to work through our weaknesses, not our strengths.

And it’s actually true. Particularly in ministry, I find the great moments come when I get out of God’s way – when I put aside the notion that my gifts or my insights are the best measure of what God wants to get done – and simply open up to God’s leading. Trust; just let go. Let go, and watch God get on with it.

In the context of parish life, for me it means that I try to avoid being controlling or managerial, because I think that squashes spontaneity and confines the parish’s ministry within the horizons of my vision. Instead, I want to encourage a culture of openness to God’s values where we risk God’s leading. So we study Scripture together to find out how God works. That helps us become people who recognise and respond to God’s promptings; promptings that might come to any of us – not just those with designated positions.

The Scriptures show us that God works through weakness and not strength. A central symbol of our faith is our crucified Saviour. We see this God-is-most-present-in-our-weakness theme most obviously in the story of Jesus’s life – even from before his birth. And that’s what we see in today’s readings.

Today we met two first-time mums-to-be: Mary and Elizabeth. I have a friend, Katrina, who is a counsellor to new mums. With her neo-natal counselling hat on, Katrina tells me that such women aren’t necessarily all that realistic about how they’re going to manage life with a new baby. Often the point at which these mums first ring her for some good counsel is a day or two after they’ve returned home from hospital – once they’ve tried to be super-woman; resume normal life and care for their baby – and after two sleepless nights, things aren’t quite going to plan.

If God were in the life-coaching business, I’m pretty sure consideration would have been given to choosing experienced mums for today’s two babies, John and Jesus. There’d have been a worldwide search for mums with a proven track-record of raising MENSA-type gifted and talented children; supermums fit to raise tomorrow’s little leaders. But that’s not how God operates. Elizabeth and Mary had no prior experience of raising their own children. Mary, utterly irresponsibly, rushed off on a four-day journey to be with Elizabeth. I look at them, I think about the God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing again, and I get it. In Mary, God picked a woman who knew she couldn’t go it alone; she looked for connection with someone else; she found strength by being with someone else in the same boat.

So lesson one for today: this God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing reveals its true meaning when we’re in community. Lone-ranger spirituality is an oxymoron; our full humanity is only found in relationship; in community. The quality of our life is not measured in our personal accomplishments, but rather in our belonging.

That’s a message it’s almost impossible for people in our developed-world societies to hear – at least until someone close dies or goes away.  We live in a society that tells us home and family are just a launching pad from which we rocket off into a stellar career, armed with all the competitive edges we need to carve out status for ourselves.

That’s exactly the wrong focus. The real goal of being human is actually found in family – like here – among the people who know our weaknesses best. Mary set off to face her predicament together with someone who’d know it from the inside.

So Mary went to Elizabeth’s home.  And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, her baby leapt in her womb.  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

Mary responded by saying, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’  They were clear it was God who’d done something wonderful; not them.  God had done something wonderful in looking ‘with favour on the lowliness of this servant.’ God chose to work this wonder through these ordinary, very vulnerable women.

But while it’s an honour for Mary to be chosen as the mother of the Lord, it’s not going to be easy. (Barclay, 8) ‘That very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart … God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy, but for a great task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it’. The woman who’ll cradle her newborn in a feeding trough will also see that child of hers die on a cross.

And that’s the other lesson about this God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing. Letting go and letting God might sound easy, but it’s not. Accepting God’s calling doesn’t stop the death of our loved ones; it doesn’t give us the power to stop a world system where the strong seem to crush the weak; where the tongues of the proud and mighty prate as though the Earth is theirs, and for a time it seems they are right. And harder still, because we’ve responded to God and taken to heart God’s way of vulnerability to these evils, it hurts us more than it would if we’d just ignored God, kept our heads down and plugged away in our part of the rat-race.

But the Gospel also opens us to the Advent hope – the expectation that Jesus, who swallowed up the power of this evil once and for all in his death – that the same Jesus, who rose from the dead, will return and bring forth in us the resurrection life he has nurtured and cherished in our hearts – bring it forth throughout Earth – and our hearts will leap for joy too on the day of his coming.

So we approach the close of the Advent season in the knowledge that we are waiting; we are keeping watch; we are staying awake, so we are always careful to be ready to meet him on the day of his coming.

And today’s lesson from Mary and Elizabeth and God is that none of us is too old, too young, too weak, too silly, too untalented or too inexperienced to be called by God to change Earth. When God calls us, we simply need to be ready to say yes. Then we’ll have used this Advent season well.   Amen

The Sunday of the Baptist

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

The Sunday of the Baptist  Advent 3C:  Luke 3.7-18

You offspring of vipers! Imagine being greeted by your preacher like that. People sometimes tell me about very rough street preachers they’ve come across in Rundle Mall; preachers who berate passers-by and hold up placards telling how hot it is in hell; preachers who openly attack the lifestyles and life choices of particular groups in our community and pronounce harsh words of judgement on them – preachers who would think of themselves as prophetic voices. People complain to me about them because as a representative of the church, to an extent, I’m held accountable for what these preachers have to say.

But prophets in the Bible preached moral standards more to people inside their faith community. And they told their people to look after others; insiders and outsiders. Eg Mal 3.5. Ez 47.22-23 So if I were listening for Biblical prophecy from a street preacher, I’d expect them to champion the sad, needy and lonely people in the crowd – like refugees and outcasts. Such people should be hearing that in the community of Christ, they should expect to find belonging and care; that in the community of Christ they should find people who support them in their need. Why? Because that’s what God is like, and God’s people try to live in God’s image; to live guided by the example Jesus has given us.

But a preacher speaks differently here in church than on the street, because here, the preacher is speaking to insiders; encouraging us, as a community, to keep on being the people who embody God’s love and acceptance and welcome and care to the sad, the needy, the poor, the outsider. And if we forget we’re that sort of community and drift off, the preacher has to remind us to turn back; to repent. Again and again, this is the message from the scriptures set for Advent. The lesson of today’s Gospel is that everyone can start exactly where they are and turn to live a more God-centred life. God meets us where we are, begins to transform us, and leads us into a fuller life. Today this message of repentance – of a new start in life – gets fleshed out in very direct language. We just heard John the Baptist preach this repentance in three ways.

He began by warning of potential judgement and he called us insiders to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. (7-9) John’s preaching assumed that the people who came down to hear him were insiders; believers. John says our faith must shape what we do with our lives; it must result in our lives bearing fruit so we can nourish and strengthen the lives of people around us – both insiders and outsiders.

The second aspect of John’s preaching concerned the ethics of power and responsibility. He told influential Jewish people they should live justly; not misuse their power for their own enrichment or to put others down. (10-14) He specifically addressed tax collectors and soldiers, so we can imagine the sort of people he’d speak to today; people who can influence the stability and security of needy people’s lives. So John was speaking to people like us.

Finally, John told them who it is that we must turn to face: Jesus, the one who is to come, and who will baptise us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.(15-18) Can we wonder for a moment what it would feel like to turn to face Jesus?

It was people of good will who came out to receive John’s baptism. They were insiders, and they were filled with expectation. But was their expectation relevant to John’s message? John had called them into the wilderness. That made them remember that Moses had once led God’s people into the wilderness and God had rescued them from their Egyptian slavemasters. So were they wondering if it would be like that with John? Would God use John to free them from the Romans? For an answer, John meets them with those shocking words. You offspring of vipers! They came to John with the wrong questions – the wrong expectations.

Like many a good teacher, John is very tough from the word go. These people might think of themselves as the children of Moses and Abraham, but John interrupts their thought patterns to tell them that they’re actually living like descendants of the serpent; the tempter of the Genesis 3 story—You offspring of vipers!

That temptation story – and we’ll hear some of it in this afternoon’s lessons and carols service – was all about presuming on God’s grace; the idea that we’re God’s people, so whatever comes from God is simply ours for the taking.

John believes the people coming down to see him are like that – Have you heard? There’s a new religious sensation down at the river; let’s go down and cash in on it; it’s an attitude of entitlement which John attacks head on.

John’s style of preaching is very difficult for us to hear. He got right in your face – literally. Nowadays, if people come to us to ask for baptism, we smile and speak gently to them. But maybe John is a bit more realistic than we are. He warns that God requires honest repentance, transformed lives and fruitfulness.

We’ve got all that in our baptismal services too, and our candidates for baptism and their sponsors say they’ll fulfil those requirements in the context of the church community. But so often, we seldom see them again. So do I fail to make sure they understand the seriousness of what they’re promising? Should I try out John’s preaching style on my next baptismal family; You offspring of vipers!? I doubt it’d work. But that’s speculation. Is there a solid lesson for us in today’s Gospel?

Yes. There is a definite message today. We’re God’s community – not our own; God’s. And God calls us to keep on bearing fruit; yielding grain for those who need it. God knows we can – believes in us. And we can; like we do for Mary Mag’s, St Luke’s Mission and St John’s Youth Services. And it’s always a team effort; none of us is exempt. We have to grow and multiply our missions because the needs are growing and multiplying. We have to turn to God and honestly face both the needs and our abundance, and decide together to respond. There is no other option.

The Advent message also reminds us that every one of those needy bears the image and likeness of our God: we meet Jesus, child of God, in each of these whom we serve. We must be ready for him, today and at any time, with fruit, grain and water to share, for we never want to see him arrive here to find a barren tree or an empty plate or cup. We could never leave any child in such need, could we.   Amen

John the Baptist: the voice crying out in the wilderness

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 2 C:  Mal 3 1-14 Song Zech Phil 1 1-11 Lk 3 1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert – in the wilderness. The word of God didn’t come to John in a religious school; nor in a Synagogue or the Temple – the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert. Desert places are often where God comes to us.

A desert can be a place of intense, forbidding silence. Most of us are not desert dwellers. When we imagine being in a desert, we think of a place where you have to focus on sheer survival – as though it’s basically a hostile place – where the focus can’t be on our spirituality but on physical endurance. Yet the Scriptures are full of wonderful stories of God meeting people in the wilderness; God coming to lonely people in dry places. It’s actually quite central to being Australian as well. I have a book called Heart Gone Walkabout where the preface is a brief quotation from an Aranda elder who says, When things get too much I go walkabout. Bush helps me work it out. I come back when it feels right.

The Church down the centuries has also discovered that desert and wilderness are spiritually significant places, and also metaphors for times in our life where we feel alienated and vulnerable – caught in a spiritual vacuum where the breath of hope and purpose fail us. That happens to us as individuals, and as communities.

Much of the Church in Australia and other rich countries is experiencing this desert experience collectively. Where we aren’t being actively mistrusted, resented or ridiculed, we feel invisible to most people. We’re worried about survival – talking about strategies. We don’t notice God’s at work; that in much of the majority world, the Church is growing explosively. Many people in India, Iran, China, Russia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa experience life as a hostile spiritual desert. The Holy Spirit is touching these people in huge numbers and calling them to new life as followers of Jesus. The CSI Bishop of Madras regularly conducts baptisms involving more than five thousand people.

We need to embrace our wilderness. We rich Christians should be praying that as the illusion of materialist self-sufficiency is exposed for the spiritual desert that it is, the millions of people lost in this cruel wilderness are going to be surprised by God coming to save us – led to Christ by the Spirit who opens eyes and hearts. God comes unexpectedly in the desert; in the silence; in our waiting – at our lowest ebb.

We see this in the story behind the canticle we said as our Psalm today, Zechariah’s song. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have children and they were getting on in years. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that they would have a son whom he should name John, but Zechariah doubted this. So Gabriel said, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in that time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. Lk 1.20 The canticle which we said together was the song which burst from Zechariah’s lips moments after he had mutely affirmed God’s wish that his son should be called John; the John we have come to know as the Baptist. Zechariah sings to his eight-day-old son, … you child shall be called the prophet of the Most High: for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

Just as his father’s prophetic song sprang from silence and waiting, the prophetic ministry of John would also erupt from the silence of the desert. The word of God came to John in the wilderness, and his mission became clear. Next week, we’ll get a very strong dose of John’s teaching – which, like that of Malachi who we heard today, focussed on loyalty to God, personal ethics and justice for the vulnerable.

John deliberately called people into the desert; into the wilderness. We heard in today’s gospel that John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was Isaiah’s voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

To reach the place where John is traditionally remembered to have baptised people – including Jesus – you go down the road from Jerusalem as if you’re headed to Jericho. You descend to the lowest place on Earth. You’re in an incredibly arid desert where it almost never rains. The soil under your feet is a dust finer than talc. You don’t take the turnoff to Jericho. You head straight on several more kilometres to the Jordan River, not far from the place where it flows into the Dead Sea.

John’s gospel tells us that John the Baptist called people to the other side of the Jordan River receive his baptism. So these people from Jerusalem and Judea had to cross an international boundary – leave the country. They had to leave the promised land of their birthright. They had literally, physically to turn their backs on God’s promises and leave them behind. This is enormously powerful symbolism.

Across the river, still facing east, they’d meet John and unburden themselves of the things in their lives which separated them from a living relationship with God. John would have had strong words to say to them about the way they’d lived their life. Then he’d physically repent them; he’d turn them to face again the land of the promise. And in the living water of the river, he would drown all the burdens they’d confessed and lead them as spiritual new-borns back into the land of the promise. Washed and renewed, they were given a new life; a new beginning.

This is a strong picture for Advent. It says that we can be in an utter spiritual wilderness, and God will come to us bringing new life. It says we can take the lowest, most destructive parts of our lives to God, and God will transform them into new life. It says that the terrifying silence and hostile dryness of the desert is a place of God’s coming to us – you could almost say it’s a necessary precondition of God’s coming.

Like the people who went to John the Baptist, we need first to acknowledge our burdens and our failings, and bring them to God. For the space and time to do that, we need the stillness of the desert. We need the desert to mock our absurd culture of instant gratification and deadlines and frightened escapist busyness; we need the desert to draw all that to a halt and force us to stop and wait, and finally in our waiting, to see the One who is coming to save us. When things get too much I go walkabout. Bush helps me work it out. I come back when it feels right. Amen

Advent a time to listen, hear, prepare and respond

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent Sunday: Jer 33 14-16, Ps 25 1-10, 1 Th 3 9-13, Lk 21 25-38

I was listening to Big Ideas on the radio last week and heard a conversation between the wonderful cartoonist-philosopher Michael Leunig and Peter Catt, the Dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. Michael talked about the way today’s pace of life alienates us from each other. He said, When people hurtle along, the soul gets very frightened and our anxiety levels go up … and when the anxiety goes up the anger goes up and there’s no time to listen.

Then in his inimitable way as Australia’s unofficial spiritual director, Michael offered us an antidote that he’d accidentally happened on last year. He’d said he’d missed a train, and instead of worrying about it, he thought to himself, Hang on a moment, I can sit on the station in peace and wait for the next one. And now it works. I’m always trying to miss trains these days because I sit there and there is peace. And peace in this modern world is not a given.

Have you ever thought of simply sitting and waiting as a cure for the social ills of our time? Michael’s insight has made me think again about Advent, this season of waiting that we’ve entered today; waiting and preparing.

Advent has its roots in the experience of the very earliest Christians. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, they waited and prepared for Jesus’s second coming. They believed he would come again in their own lifetime, and at his coming again, all the ills of the world would be cured. They remembered prophecies like the one we heard from Jeremiah today; The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.

But can you imagine the crisis when the people of the earliest church began to see fellow Christians dying? Where was he? What about the promise? The days are surely coming when I will fulfil the promise.

The first Sunday of Advent is the day when we remember that promise. But for us, the watching has not been mere decades as it was for those early Christians; it’s been two millennia. We in the later Church have responded to the delay in Christ’s return by redirecting our focus. Rather than looking for the healing to come at the end of all time, we’ve come to focus on our own personal end; our death. Of course, there are groups that do get obsessed with the end of time, but generally the Church hasn’t gone down that path, but rather a more individual one. And realising our own end could come at any moment, we’ve commended living our lives better – living in a way that honours God’s gift of our life. But that can also lead us to live as though there’s no tomorrow; it can also engulf us in a ridiculous pace of life.

So Michael Leunig’s idea of deliberately missing a train in order to find some peace and tranquillity isn’t such a bad idea. But we live in a world where most people don’t have the leisure to miss the train and hang around. Life is a daily struggle either for material survival or in many places even personal safety. That’s been brought home to us again by the catastrophic fire events in Queensland and California; and by those schoolchildren who went on strike to protest our parliament’s inaction on climate change. For them, the future obviously feels very precarious. They’ve reminded us that like the members of the early Church, we are also waiting in a threatening present, and hoping for rescue from a terrifying future.

So do we roll up our sleeves and get busy, or do we sit and wait for God to do something? The answer lies somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that God is already doing something. The stories that we so often hear – of unexpected help and care being offered to people suffering any form of catastrophe – are signs that God’s gifts of compassion, grace and kindness are already active in the world. Why can I say this? St Teresa of Avila explains: Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which he is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.

Paradoxically, Teresa’s wisdom is a call both to action, and at the same time, to waiting and silence. She was a contemplative – free to listen to God and to think.

We’re not. We live in an age of instantaneous communication; communication on a relentless, industrial scale. We can be swiftly overwhelmed and paralysed by the number of calamities that call on our compassion. Yet in order to discern our own mission – the way Christ wants us to be his hands and feet and eyes – we also need space and silence to listen to him. God has provided enough compassion in the world for every need to be met. So what need is our particular compassion called to meet? We need time to listen, to hear; then time to prepare, to get ready to respond.

Advent is that time, and we must protect it. Otherwise for us, as for so many, Advent will be crammed with school / uni / work holiday busyness, end of year deadlines and windups, and the lunatic demands of consumer culture. We need time to listen to God; we need time to prepare so we continue to be Christ’s hands, feet and eyes; so that we are not repeatedly ambushed by immediate and insistent calls which can gut us of the compassion and resources needed for the next time. Drowning people will do that to others – any of us would in their situation too.

Silence and listening for God; these are two rare commodities in the type of world we live in today. And so in addition to Advent, it’s actually significant that we choose to gather here regularly to wait on God and deliberately incorporate silence into our lives – or at least a lack of interruption.

My bad habit has been to turn an unexpected time of silence and waiting into an opportunity to do jobs that I haven’t been able to get to yet. I mustn’t do that. I must wait on the stillness. Michael Leunig is right. So when an appointment is cancelled or I miss a train, I should receive that unexpected time as a gift for listening and stillness and peace.

But what’s the point of this stillness, waiting, listening, peace, preparation? Wouldn’t you be better off finishing this job now so you’re free for the next?

No; that’s like running on a treadmill where something else controls the speed and the slope.

This stillness and listening as silence mean we’re stepping aside to let God get on with things – in us, certainly. Human hands, feet, minds and eyes will still be God’s instruments. But the vision, the power, the scope and the blessing will be from God. Things will change; life will flourish – you and I will run again, but with wild new breath.

This evening’s concert is a fund-raiser for St John’s Youth Services. Their amazing work has broken through the noise which once shrouded young homeless people in anonymity. Through the silence preserved in this place, Christ gave birth to St John’s Youth Services; a carefully-considered gift of his care for the homeless, the outcast and the lonely.

So what might God be planning to call us to as we wait this Advent? What might our renewed silence, listening and waiting prepare us for?                      Amen