Posted by: owizblog | July 5, 2015

No Small Change: Sermon, UCB, 5 July 2015

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Mark 6:1-13

Here’s a wee preliminary thought. I’m going to show you something, and I want you to remember your first thought when you see it. Imagine it tells you something about your own life.

A sign that change is ahead

How does this sign make you feel? Uneasy? Excited? Apprehensive? Unsettled? Expectant? Think about that, and store it away for a few moments.

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It’s a big day in Greece today. It may be a bigger day than we imagine for all of us. I can only imagine what it’s like for people casting their vote in a world which must look pretty much the same as it did in 2008, when the financial world went mad, and the global economy shifted to the brink, but which must, for millions of them, feel as though it has become utterly unfamiliar – indeed, as though it’s gone mad.

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This was the BBC’s Joe Lynham at three minutes past seven this morning. Steph McGovern, on BBC Breakfast, has just asked him if it’s busy yet. And what’s interesting is why he’s looking at his watch. He says: “It’s quite busy, but it’s going to get busier. It’s quite early, around 9 a.m. local time, and it’s going to get busier because the local church services finish around 9.30, just round the corner – the Greek Orthodox Church – and quite a few people will come from the services to cast their ballot…”

Straight from church to cast their ballot, a ballot which will affect the whole of their lives, whatever happens. Straight from church to vote, in a world nobody seems to understand any more. Some people will doubtless have gone to church because it’s familiar, a link with what’s always been, with the old patterns, in a world without pattern or form, something to cling to in a world gone mad. But some, perhaps many more than we might think, will grasp on a deep, almost wordless level what encountering God in Christ in a world that’s changing beyond your control might actually mean. The past has gone, leaving only its patterns, its shapes, the things it has taught us. The future is clouded and uncertain – but somehow, too, faith tells us that the future is full of God in ways we can’t imagine, if we will only trust. There is only the present, and the promise of God which has accompanied us from the past, and which we have to trust will take us into whatever comes. There is nothing else.

Hebron King

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Familiarity. That’s what today’s Old Testament reading’s about. They know him. The Ten Tribes of Israel know David; they know him personally, and they know his style. He’s been King of Judah for a while now. When things fell apart after the death of Saul, their first king – and Saul had been king of all twelve tribes, in name, anyway – and with the Philistines running the tables, David and his band of men had gone back to their base, David’s own tribe of Judah and the tiny tribe of Benjamin, and he’d set himself up as their leader, and he’d been successful.

So it’s only natural that, with things going so badly for them, the other tribes would fall in behind the idea that you turn to what you know, who you know. “Come and be our king, too…”

And that’s what this morning’s Old Testament reading is about.

But it’s more complicated than that!

The situation that they’re in is taxing the mountain tribes of Israel, pushing them beyond their limits. They are dwellers of the hill country, who have always had problems with the Canaanites, and are now having terrible problems with the Philistines, and although we aren’t accustomed to thinking of it in these terms, the issue is technology. The Israelites are a late bronze-age people, and the Canaanites had begun to use iron, and the Philistines have the mastery of it. We know that from the Philistine artefacts that have been found, beautiful things that demonstrate that the last thing the Philistines were was – well, “Philistine”…

The world has changed – and here’s the odd thing, here’s the paradox. The world has become unfamiliar. What the Israelite tribes need is someone who will lead them into the unfamiliar, the challenging, the dangerous – because they are there anyway; it isn’t as though they have a choice about it.

A sign that change is ahead

The world is changing, has changed, will change more; their lives are out of control, and they need someone who will be able to make sense of this newness for them.

And they turn to someone they know, and let him lead them into what they don’t know.

They turn to someone they know to help them “go where they don’t know and never be the same…”

They turn to someone they know, because what they know about him, this David, is that he has the measure of this new world, he has grasped it, understood it, mastered it. David is the bridge between today and tomorrow, the anxious, desperate present, and what comes next. What he will make of the future, they can’t know. From the perspective of this point in the story, survival, and perhaps stabilization, would be nice, because they have no other source of hope for these things.

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But the pattern of “what happens next” in the story of David deeply imbues Scripture down through the rest of the Old Testament, and into the New. The fulfilment of God’s promise, the foundation of a rule, a kingdom, which is of God, peace, wholeness, shalom…

And of course, from the perspective of Christian faith, what comes next, is Jesus. And it’s what happens next after Jesus comes that gives our living in the world, yours and mine, its meaning in faith.

So we’ll break here, and sing our next hymn, and then we’ll hear today’s Gospel reading from Malcolm. Look for the pattern. Look for the similarities, and the differences, and the pattern in both. Remember, as you hear of the suspicion and dismissiveness of the people of Nazareth, when the celebrated local boy finally shows up at their synagogue, and their determination to let the old patterns strangle the new possibilities.

[Break: Hymn]

Gospel Reading: Mark 6:1-13

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Let’s put the Gospel reading to one side for a moment, and go back to the story of David being made king at Hebron.

Let’s pretend that that story is a nice piece of meat from Macqueen’s or MacIntyre’s. Let’s fillet it, to see where the bones of it are. Because this is one of the things that bind together the disparate, disconnected books of the Bible into the unity of Scripture. Patterns. Along with the common framework of tradition, along with the understanding of the authority of texts – which is, by the way, nothing to do with the spurious and unbiblical ideas of Biblical authority that you have all over the place nowadays, which are nothing to do with Scripture, and everything to do with wacky, neurotic understandings of faith, stemming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – along with all of that, what holds Scripture together is patterns.

And the pattern here is one of the most important. David is the anointed one, the Masiach, the Messiah. That’s all the word “messiah” means – “one who has been anointed with oil.” But his anointing, by Samuel, a long time ago now, as the one who would become king after Saul, makes David a figure of promise and hope.

And that’s why the Jewish tradition could, looking back, take the bones, the framework, of the story of David, out of “what actually happened,” out of the history of the tenth century BC, and say “This pattern is something to do with how God deals with us.”

That’s what the prophets did, when they distilled from this long story of God’s dealings with his people a call for justice, for right dealing, for truth, and respect for all, down to the lowest, so that nobody would be left out, nobody excluded. That’s what the prophets were doing when they started, with Amos in the eighth century, two hundred years after David died, to measure the gap between things as they should be.

But they did something else, too. Instead of just looking back, and saying how great things had been long ago, instead of just looking at the familiar figure of David, and the familiar stories about him, and hoping for a re-run of them, the prophets filleted the stories, and looked at the bones, the structure the pattern.

And they used that structure, that pattern, to look forward. They said “This is the pattern of God’s dealings with us. And when God moves to fulfil his promises, it won’t be the same story, but it will show the same pattern. The new David – the new masiach, the new Messiah – will have a different story to the first one, but he will be recognizable, his story will be recognizable as it unfolds, by people who can look at the familiar and see the unfamiliar, and look at the unfamiliar and grasp the pattern we know already – the pattern of God’s dealings with us…”

And the pattern is this. God leads us from chaos and disintegration and deadly danger, to peace, and wholeness, and the rule, the kingdom of God – which meant not the recreation of a tenth-century regional superpower in the Near East, but things as they should be, things as God would have them be. And one will come around whom all of this will come together, who will bring it in by his decisive action. And when that happens, some of it will be unfamiliar, deeply unfamiliar. Not everyone will get it, because of the radically new among the old, and the familiar, and the misleading.

And it’s this pattern that is beginning to coalesce around the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, in ways people can barely begin to grasp, as he starts to do what he does, sets out on his brief career. It’s this pattern that people steeped in the ancient faith are put in mind of, when Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, and calls people not just to get ready for it – John the Baptist did that much – but to follow him into it; when he heals, and frees people from their past, when he forgives, and changes people’s relationship with their own history, their own captivity. So many threads converge on him, so many old patterns seem to form anew around him: not just David, either; Moses, the Prophets, Elijah…

But one of these patterns is certainly that of David, the Messiah. The lynch-pin of the promised future.

And so he comes to the Synagogue in Nazareth. And this is different. They know him here. He’s familiar to them in a different and difficult way. You can sum up their problem in three words:

“Kent his faither…”

And what they do is this: they fit him into the tiny patterns of their own thinking. They refuse to put him in any different frame to the one they already have.

But what they are simultaneously doing is this: they are refusing to re-frame their own lives. The old world is passing away, but it’s all they understand, and all they will let themselves understand. By clinging to the familiar, they are choosing to live, not in a world that makes sense, but more and more in a world that makes no sense.

The tribes of Israel, in our Old Testament reading, had come to the point when they recognized that they couldn’t live in the world as it was any more. There was nothing left for them there. The world as they understood it was the world that was killing them. They needed a way into the world as it was going to be. The people in the synagogue in Nazareth were nowhere near that realization. Jesus arrives, proclaiming but also embodying the coming of the Kingdom of God, and they want not a bar of it. They reduce what is new and liberating to the terms of what they already understand.

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It’s what human being do, habitually. It’s what we do. The wee patterns, the patterns of familiarity, of what-can-possibly-be-different, better-the-devil-you-know, Ah-widnae’-presume (and neither should you) keep-your-head-down-and-hope-for-the-best – these are the things we cling to.

But God’s patterns aren’t like that. God’s patterns are to do with newness and hope and things as they should be, not things as they are.

And when Jesus arrives at the synagogue in Nazareth, instead of grasping the great patterns of God’s dealings with his people, instead of recognizing something huge and familiar through the unfamiliarity of the disturbing present, they settle for the opposite. They ensnare Jesus in the small patterns they know. Kent his faither. This is the carpenter. We know his family, we see them every day.

And we do that, when we think we know what the world is about, and that things can be no other way. When we despair of the possibility that things might be different, that all things might be made new. Because the great patterns of God’s dealings with his people are not about how the future and the present must be like the past. The God of the Exodus, the God of the promise, the God of the coming Kingdom of God, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, this is the God who makes the future different from the past, whose prophets open up the gap between things as they are and things as they should be, and refuse to let us ignore it, and invite us to trust the promise of God that God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

That’s the pattern of the Gospel. And it puts us in the same position as the people in that synagogue in Nazareth that Sabbath morning. Do we let our understanding, our long acquaintance with this Jesus, smother for us the huge patterns of God, and the hope of the Gospel? Do we sit and assess this Jesus with the cool eyes of long acquaintance? Or do we see the familiar, and suddenly awaken to the deeply unfamiliar newness that is there? Do we keep God stifled and imprisoned in the tiny patterns that we understand and are comfortable with? Or do we let the huge patterns of God pull us out of our tiny understandings, and into the risky freedom of his coming Kingdom?

I wonder how many people going to church in Athens this morning before voting in the Greek referendum had this on their minds?


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