Year C, EASTER 4

 

John 10: 22-30                                    (Sermon 1: “WOW!”)

Revelation 7: 9-17                   (Sermon 2: “Is Faith an Absurdity?)

Acts 9: 36-43

Psalm 23

 

PREPARATION

 

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed.

The living Lord is my Shepherd,

I shall not want.

 

Hear what the Good Shepherd says to us as we gather for this celebration:

“A new commandment I give you: that you love one another, even as I have loved you”.

 

Love is not just a matter of words, but is deeds of justice and mercy.

 

Let us worship God with a love that grows larger the closer we come to each other,

and which grows more inclusive the closer we come to God.

 

Amen! Praise and thanksgiving be to our God forever and ever!

Amen!

 

OR -

 

Jesus lives,

the generous Host by whose generous invitation we gather here today.

He prepares a table before me, in the presence of my foes,

he anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.

 

Jesus lives,

the Shepherd who knows each member of God’s flock by name.

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving

and honour and power and might

be to our God for ever and ever.

Amen!

 

PRAYER OF APPROACH

 

Most Holy Friend, your are the source and thrust of all that is bright and good and loving.

Please give to us an unabashed delight in the love of your true Son, Jesus. 

Let us so revel in his company, that we may be intoxicated with his attitude and actions,

and discover for ourselves that golden vein of happiness

which delights more in giving than getting.

In your honour and to your praise and glory.

Amen!

 

CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE

 

Dear Friends, Jesus our Shepherd and Saviour, has asked us to love each other with his kind of love

Sometimes we have gone close to doing just that, but usually our love has been selective

and veined with self-interest.  Therefore let us seek forgiveness and renewal.

Let us pray.

Whenever our compassion evaporates, and our feelings become as arid as the Stony Desert;

       Lord Jesus, rebuke us and have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

Whenever we harbour resentments, and our words are as piercing as a wild prickly pear;

       Lord Jesus, rebuke us and have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.

 

Whenever we allow worship to dry up, and our prayers become like an empty water hole;

       Lord Jesus, rebuke us and have mercy on us.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

Loving God, please renovate our feelings,  re-order our thoughts,

 and re-condition our world-weary wills.

May hope enlarge our goals, faith enliven our prayers,

 and love endower our relationships and deeds.

Through Christ our Saviour.

Amen!

 

ASSURANCE

My friends, it is good to be here in the flock of Christ Jesus, where saving grace abounds, and our cup is full and running over.

Here we “fear no evil’ for God forgives our sins and “restores our soul and leads us in the paths of right living for his name’s sake.”

 

In his name I declare the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of your true humanity, made in the very spiritual image of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

PRAYER FOR CHILDREN

 

            Jesus Our Shepherd

 

Dear Lord Jesus,

like a shepherd you love us,

like a shepherd you lead us,

like a shepherd you know our names,

like a shepherd you were willing to give your life

that we might be saved from evil.

 

For us just to say thanks is not enough!

No word is big enough!

 

Please, God, let us make our whole lives -

            all that we are now as children

            and all that we will become as adults-

into one big, happy song of thanks and praise.

Amen!

 

PSALM: 23

 

The loving God is my highland guide,

       there is nothing else that I need.

 

He shows me green banks on which to rest,

       he leads me beside still lakes.

He restores my flagging spirits,

       in his name I tread the best tracks.

 

Even though I must go through death gully,

       I will not be afraid of the darkness.

For you, my guide, are with me,

       the click of your staff calms me.

 

You prepare a meal for me

       in the presence of my fears.

You anoint me like a messiah,

       my cup is full and overflowing..

 

Your goodness and sturdy love follow me

       all the days of my journey,

and I will stay on in your house

       throughout ages to come.

                                                                        ©  B.D. Prewer 2000

 

OUTSIDE CHRIST’S HAND?

 

John 10: 28

 

Outside my hand

there are many slick folk

       caught up in the rush;

       always on the take

       in Sydney or the bush

       going around frenetically

       without a destiny.

 

Outside my hand

there is left not one soul

       who asked for my grace;

       none are let fall

       into a dark place

       to drag around fearfully

       without a destiny.

 

From out of my hand

no thief can snatch away

       those who are my own;

       for them night becomes day

       never going it alone

       moving ahead cheerfully

       caught up in destiny.

                                                ©  B.D. Prewer 2000

 

COLLECT

 

Most loving God, please stir that part of our brain where hopes are renovated and visions created, that we may have a faith that is open to wherever you wish to take us. In the name of Christ Jesus, the good shepherd of our lucky flock.

Amen!

 

SERMON 1: WOW!

 

John: 10: 28

 

I give them [my sheep] eternal life. They shall never perish. No one shall steal them out of my hand.

 

Sheep. Stupid creatures.

 

We citizens of the twenty first century do not take kindly to being likened to sheep. In Australia in earlier generations, we had ridden economically on the sheep’s back, but that was where our respect ends. The wool cheque was welcome but not a preacher who makes a comparison between us and those woolly imbeciles. Therefore, I will not be so odious as to make the comparison; I’ll leave it to you.

 

Actually, if you have ever had a pet lamb, you will know it is easy to become quite attached to them; rather like the shepherds of Jesus’ day who lived with them, knew them individually, and would risk their life to save them.  It was a natural thing for Jesus, like the writer of the most famous Psalm in the Bible, to see the men and women who followed him as a new flock of sheep which he had gathered together.

 

 THE SHEPHERD’S PROMISE

 

To this flock, looking small and vulnerable among the powerful “wolves and bears” of the Roman Empire, he made a promise:

       I give them [my sheep] eternal life. They shall never perish. No one shall steal them out of my hand.

 

What does eternal life mean?  Sadly, some people get the idea that it just means us living on forever. Let me say, that if that is all it means, I’m out of here. I do not want to be trapped in the limitations of this life, as I now have it, forever. If eternal life means just going on, and on , and on, then a permanent death, oblivion,  sounds like a good option for me. Just continuing ad infinitum seem an intolerable prospect; I could feel common ground with the agnostic poet:

       Don’t bother me now, don’t bother me never,

       I want to be dead for ever and ever.

 

But the God of Jesus of Nazareth offered something infinitely better. Eternal life (zoe aionios) is the fullest possible life, life of the limitless new age, the kind of life humanity has dreamed about. It is awesome life, unlimited life; unbounded in every way. No walls, no barriers, nothing to stop us going further.  It has new, infinite horizons, new depths, new heights; new joy and awe and love beyond anything we thought possible. I get close to defining it when I say: “Wow!” Eternal life is wow life! Life with an exclamation mark.   Not life with a comma or a tired semi-colon; not life with a question mark or life in parenthesis. Certainly not life with a full stop. It is exclamation stuff: Wow!

 

The timeless dimension, immortality, is just one of the many facets of eternal life. To be liberated from this time and space, is merely one of the wonders of its amazing abundance. Of course this is important. I am not trying to minimise this element.  For example, when I see a child wither and die from say, leukemia, I find profound comfort and encouragement that her life-force, her soul,  is not terminated; as a person she has opportunity to still be and grow and love.  Eternal life includes this facet of unlimited future .

 

But please, don’t limit your vision of eternal life to this one element. It is only one among a kaleidoscope of opportunities. Eternal life is gloriously expansive, opportunity beyond measure, a level of bliss and growth that no number of earthly words can possibly describe.

 

ETERNAL LIFE COMMENCES NOW

 

The next important thing I want to try and express is that this “wow life” life begins now.  The disciples already have commenced eternal life. To trust Jesus and His God is to begin that life now.  Today we taste and see that God is good. Those who believe have already passed from death to life.  As Paul says: If anyone is in Christ there is new creation, old things have passed away, all things have become new.

 

Caught as we are in the limitations of the here and now, eternal life is only a small foretaste, but it is the real thing. Our bodies and minds limit us, the social and political structures of the world limit us, but in Christ Jesus we begin to explore the unlimited dimension--- that for which we were created and redeemed.  We begin to experience the awesome “WOW!” which flows around us from the Holy Heart of all things.

 

When I look back upon my own little life, scratchy and patchy though it still is; when I remember how the dimensions altered and grew from the moment I threw my lot in with Christ Jesus, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. One is not aware of it coming all at once. The enlargement takes place bit by bit. Often I have been impatient, sometimes I have lost the plot, but my God! It has happened! Even to me! Wow life!

 

Eternal life is now. The next sentence I will speak is pathetically inadequate, but let me try to express eternal life this way: 

       It is as if with Christ at our side we are surfing the wave of eternity here in time;

       all around us are the many limitations of time;

       but on that wave with Christ we are riding for free on the wave of the unlimited;

       the wave of eternal life.

 

(By the way, if I picture myself as a woolly Merino, standing on the surfboard with Christ,

getting a ride I could never get under my own ability,

I have a cartoon that is a wonderful affirmation of  Wow Life!).

 

The most significant joy of eternal life is love. Love, love and more love. It is no surprise that John’s Gospel, which is the one that favours the words “eternal life,” is also the one that most forcefully speaks of the primacy of love. As does also the first Letter of John.  Any man or woman who thinks they are surfing the wave of eternal life but are not caught up in greater love-- divine and human-- is fooling themselves.  Love is the only valid test. Love of God, love of each other.

 

I have no doubt that love is a far more important ingredient of eternal life than is the fact of surviving death. Without it, surviving death would be a nightmare.

 

SHALL NOT PERISH

 

The promises of  our Christ do not end here. 

 

He assures us that none of his flock will perish. I give them [my sheep] eternal life. They shall never perish. Here we once again encounter that vivid word “perish”. Flowers wilt and perish, fruits perish, blue Ulysses butterflies perish, leaping red kangaroos perish, our personalities can be corrupted and perish, our bodies perish. But not the soul-being of those who Christ has already transferred to eternal life. The flock of Christ shall not perish.

 

He goes on. No one shall steal them out of my hand.

       We are always at risk. We are at risk from the robbers around us who tempt us, give false promises and seek to corrupt us.  We are also at risk from the negative, destructive influences around us in the jungle of this twenty first century - the bears and wolves that harry the flock. With the passing of the centuries, the life of faith has not grown any easier than it was in the Roman Empire. It was a precarious adventure then, it is so now.

 

As long as we entrust ourselves to the God of Christ, nothing shall snatch us from him. What matters in times of crises is not our grasp on the Lord but his grasp on us; not our belief in him but his in us.  It is by grace that we will make it, not our own skill or cleverness. When we think we can go it alone, then we are in trouble. But with Christ we will make it. Knowing that his is the stronger grasp is a part of the Wow!

 

Just look at me! You are looking at one surfing Merino who is at times afraid of himself but never of his shepherd. As one member of the flock said way back in the first century: I know the one in whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to look after that which I have committed to him until the great day of graduation arrives.

Wow!

 

SERMON 2: IS FAITH AN ABSURDITY?

 

Revelation, 7: 9-17.

 

I did something silly while I was in a day-dream the other day.

 

Things unfolded like this:

At the same time as I was thinking about a soon-to-come vacation, I took a pair of kitchen scissors off their hook to cut a small side branch off a large bunch of grapes. Completing this small task. I found myself trying to hang the rest of the grapes back on the hook where the scissors belong! My day dream had temporally diverted my attention from reality.

 

Is Christianity a silly day dream

that diverts attention from the rugged reality of this world?

 

More than that, is our faith just another absurdity?

Is life devoid of ultimate meaning? Is our devotion to love and truth a waste of effort? In the final analysis, when the last sod is placed on our grave or our little urn of ashes sprinkled under a rose bush, is the universe and whatever lies beyond it oblivious to our value? Are all the discipline embraced, all the deeds and prayers done in the name of the loving Jesus an absurdity?  At the end, is a dead person absolutely on par with a dead snail?

 

A TIME OF SUFFERING: THE BOOK OF REVELATION:

 

The questions are valid. But the answer does not have to be a dismal one.

 

Turn to the Book of Revelation, chapter  7: 9-17.

Here we read majestic, poetic words purporting to be a vision of the ultimate destiny of all who love and serve Christ ¾

 

After this I saw a vast crowd, which no one could count, from all tribes and every nation, of all races and languages, standing in front of the throne [of God] and the Lamb. The immense crowd were all clothed in white and had palm branches in their hands. Together they cried out with a mighty voice: “ Salvation’s joy belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”

 

Then a little later, in verses 16-17 ¾

 

They shall never again hunger or thirst. The sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb who is at the heart of God’s throne will forever be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.

 

Isn’t that beautiful? I mean, really beauty-full?

 

Yet I remind you of the terrible situation in which these wonderful words were forged. Violent persecution. Horrible, unrelenting persecution of Christians by the Roman  Empire.

 

John most likely penned this document to the seven churches of Asia Minor

during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, 81-96 AD.  Domitian was a taciturn and paranoid despot. Everywhere Christians were under threat of torture and death. John  was one of the luckier ones; he was banished and left isolated on the Agean island of Patmos. But many of his friends were not so fortunate. Thousands of his fellow believers were imprisoned. Thousands executed; some slowly and agonisingly. It was an awful time for the young churches. Morale must have been gravely undermined.

 

Many a Christians would have asked: Is it worth it?

Is our faith fact or fiction? Is it glorious to suffer and die for the sake of Christ or is it completely absurd? Has the eternal world of God and interest in this brutal, mortal world?  Could God be really concerned for the beliefs and fate of small group of the followers of Jesus who were thinly scattered across the mighty Roman Empire?

 

 How many Christians were tempted to forsake the faith and bow down and worship Domitian, we do not know. But many did.

 

JOHN’S BELIEF UNDER EXTREME PRESSURE

 

John on the Island of Patmos really knew how bad things could get.

Yet he saw further than the present sufferings. He saw beyond the persecutions right in the heart of final Reality. He had visionary experience, revelations, in which he saw what was ultimately true: Jesus! Jesus was right! Gloriously right! God was real and nothing would pluck loved ones out of the Divine hands. Jesus Christ was at the very centre of heaven. He, the Lamb that was slain,  was on the throne. No absurdity here for John.

 

John tried to express what he saw with colourful word pictures.

Many of those word pictures are foreign to our contemporary mind-set. He used the extravagant language, the metaphors of the then popular Jewish apocalyptic writings. His readers could decipher it.

 

In prosaic speech I might try to put what John saw this way ¾

Nothing done with or for Christ is ever a waste of effort.  No deed of compassion is lost between the cracks in existence. Nothing loyal, costly, loving, merciful, or brave, nothing spontaneously exuberant or faithfully dogged, is ever devalued or forgotten in God’s kingdom.

 

John likes to call Jesus the “Lamb.”

Not a word we would naturally use today.  But it’s an important image for John and his scattered flock.. Jesus is the Lamb that was slain for our rescue and healing. In his use of that word “lamb” there is always the picture of the Crucified. That gets to the core of some of our deepest fears. Does God care? 

 

Yes !” sings John, “God cares.”

God has placed the Crucified Christ at the centre of all things, at the very throne of God. The cross was not a noble but vain waste of life but the ultimate success. Not absurdity but the consummation and victory of saving grace!

 

THE FACES GATHERED AROUND THE THRONE

 

There is a large crowd gathered around the throne and the Lamb.

John looks out over this vast host of faithful Christians. They are wearing their white baptismal robes and they wave palm branches, just as some did on Palm Sunday. They are celebrating the rightness of Jesus, the success of Jesus, the ultimate truth of his word and way.

 

After this I saw a vast crowd, which no one could count, from all tribes and every nation, of all races and languages, standing in front of the throne [of God] and the Lamb. The immense crowd were all clothed in white and had palm branches in their hands. Together they cried out with a mighty voice: “ Salvation’s joy belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”

 

Let me now confess something that happened as I was preparing this sermon.

I found myself doing an odd thing. I looked into the faces of some of that immense crowd with the white robes. And I recognised some. 

 

I glimpsed Mary Magdalene and Simon of Cyrene. 

I saw Martha and  Thomas, the Woman of Samaria, Paul, Lydia and Timothy. I saw Martin of Tours, Brigid of Kildare, Hilda of Whitby, Julianne of Norwich. 

I spotted Kate Luther, John Huss,  Susanna Wesley,

William and Catherine Booth, Martin Luther King, some nuns murdered in East Timor, an Archbishop of Uganda, and my late friend, George the plumber.

 

( “George who?” you may well ask?  

George Davison.  Plumber by trade, server of humanity by practice, lover of God’s Spirit by creed.  George was one among the special, wonderful, ordinary Christians from the parishes where I have served. George, like others, ministered to me as I tried to minister with and to him.)

 

They shall never again hunger or thirst. The sun shall not strike them nor any scorching and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.

 

You and I are never out of the picture.

In the inclusive arms of God and his Christ, and through the energy of the Holy Spirit, is established for ever established the preciousness of every adoring soul, and the value of their glad deeds of love. None are ever discounted, nothing is ever written off. All comes to fulfilment before “the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne.”.

 

Is our Christian faith an absurdity in this capricious and cruel world? No way!

 

And with the crowd of saints who gather around the throne we shout our gratitude:

 

 “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honour, power and might, be to our God forever and ever!”

 

THANKSGIVING

 

We thank you, Loving Friend,

for encouragement and fellowship far beyond our dearest expectation.

At morning, noon and night, you are perfect grace and joy,

 

You are compassion,

our cup overflows.

You are our hope,

our cup overflows.

You are our truth,

our cup overflows.

You are our life,

our cup overflows.

You are our freedom,

our cup overflows.

You are our happiness,

our cup overflows.

At morning, noon and night, you are perfect grace and joy.

 

Holy and most wonderful is your name,

far above all other names on earth or in heaven;

and by your grace, holy is our gratitude,

through Christ Jesus our Saviour.

Amen!

 

INTERCESSIONS

       # For 2 voices.

 

God of boundless energy and unqualified love, help us and all people to enter into the joy of your purposes, not limiting our expectations to past failures but opening up to the optimism of eternal life.

 

We pray for your blessing on those who are physically or mentally handicapped, yet who live a full and creative life.

 

We pray for the salvation of those who appear sound in body and mind yet are handicapped by a selfish, cramped, and boring outlook.

 

We pray your blessing on those who extend the boundaries of love, forgiving and liberating those who sin against them.

 

We pray for the salvation of those who lose the zest for life under the sour influence of anger, jealousy, resentment and bitterness.

 

We pray your blessing on those who know Christ as a profound happiness to be shared by deed and word through all the common scenes of life.

 

We pray for the salvation of those who have fallen into pious exclusiveness, becoming  self righteous and judgmental.

 

We pray your blessing on those who in grave illness still believe in providence, and through deep sorrow continue to believe in life.

 

We pray for the salvation of those who, when ill or injured are in fear, and when in sorrow, are in despair.

 

We pray your blessing on those who on those politicians who, when in government, sincerely pray to be led by your Spirit of truth.

 

We pray for the salvation of those who, wanting to rule others, sell their souls for power and prestige and grow shameless in hiding the truth.

 

We pray your blessing on devoted Christians around us in this congregation for whom  abundant life has long been a reality .

 

We pray for the salvation of those who for reasons they cannot understand, are haunted by doubts and anxieties that inhibit the life of faith.

 

To you, precious Source of eternal life, to your gracious wisdom we bring these meagre but sincere prayers.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 Amen !

 

SENDING OUT

 

Go out from this place, surfing on the wave of eternal life with Christ. “ Watch carefully, keep your footing in faith, be daring, be strong. Let everything you do be done with love.”

 

The grace of our Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,

will be with you

from this time forth , even forever more.

Amen!