The following service was streamed live via Zoom on October 10th at 10:30am.
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“He who suffers much knows much.” (Greek Proverb)
CALL TO CELEBRATION
L: The creator of life and the giver of life is in our midst.
R: Life in all its fullness is God’s offer to all.
L: So let us celebrate the richness and diversity of life.
R: but God is always with us.
L: Sometimes we lift our faces to the sun,
R: and God is with us.
L: but then there is the hard journey through pathways of pain and fears in dark places.
R: But God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
PRAYER OF INVOCATION
Breath of God, flowing free, flow in and through us, to cleanse and bring a new beginning, a fresh start, right relationships and peace.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Reflection: ”Making Sacred” by Stephen M Shick
Here we have gathered the elements of our lives.
Aware and unaware, we have carried them to this place:
the joy of waking and living,
the pleasure found in meaningful work,
the blush of health, the pain of illness,
the grief of loss and the gift of love.
Some of these we have carried a long way.
Some have bent our backs
until our eyes could no longer see the horizon.
Some have carried us upward with purpose,
feathered wing in flight.
All we have carried through the seasons of our lives
has brought us here to this place
we make sacred by our corning together
and reciting these gathering words:
Come, you are welcome here.
Let us now open ourselves to the sacred silence of this time. Breath of God, flowing free, flow in and through us,
to cleanse and bring a new beginning, a fresh start, right relationships and peace. (30 seconds silence)
THE ASSURANCE (Psalm 22:9-10)
L: “Yet you drew me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts; placed on your lap from my birth, from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” And so I can declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.
R:Thanks be to God!
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – Job 23:1-9
Job, a hitherto prosperous family man, is suddenly overtaken by calamity, both domestic and economic. A dialogue follows between the unfortunate hero and three friends, who seek to comfort him with platitudes. Job is thus led to wrestle with the problem of suffering. In today’s passage, Job, in complete misery and degradation, cries out to God, but God is nowhere to been seen or heard. Job can’t understand why all this misery has fallen upon him, for he is a righteous man. What Job has to learn is that suffering cannot be interpreted as punishment from God for sin, nor does a person’s righteousness provide a claim upon God.
23 Then Job answered and said:
2 “Even today my complaint is bitter;
My hand is listless because of my groaning.
3 Oh, that I knew where I might find Him,
That I might come to His seat!
4 I would present my case before Him,
And fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would know the words which He would answer me,
And understand what He would say to me.
6 Would He contend with me in His great power?
No! But He would take note of me.
7 There the upright could reason with Him,
And I would be delivered forever from my Judge.
8 “Look, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
9 When He works on the left hand, I cannot behold Him;
When He turns to the right hand, I cannot see Him.
FROM THE GOSPELS – Mark 10:17-31
This passage is not a condemnation of wealth. Rather it is an illustration of an impediment to experiencing life the Kingdom of God. A man wants to find ‘eternal life.’ Jesus tells him what is required of him in his particular situation. The result for the man is sorrow, because he could not bring himself to act in the way that was necessary. Life in the kingdom is for the taking. No one is barred. It does not have to be earned, nor are we excluded because of our sinfulness. Rather we exclude ourselves through our failure to throw away the impediments. What those impediments are are unique to each person.
18-19 Jesus said, “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God. You know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”
20 He said, “Teacher, I have—from my youth—kept them all!”
21 Jesus looked him hard in the eye, and loved him! He said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
22 The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.
23-25 Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: “You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.”
26 That got their attention. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked.
27 Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
28 Peter tried another angle: “We left everything and followed you.”
29-31 Jesus said, “Mark my words, no one who sacrifices house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, land—whatever—because of me and the Message will lose out. They’ll get it all back, but multiplied many times in homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land—but also in troubles. And then the bonus of eternal life! This is once again the Great Reversal: Many who are first will end up last, and the last first.”
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS “The Grace of Wrath”
“How much longer will your anger last? Have pity, Lord, on your servants.”(Ps.90:13)
Psalm 90 is a song of lament – an expression of sorrow and fear – which ends in a magnificent prayer of confidence in God. The great hymn of Isaac Watts which we just sang was based on this psalm, conveying the despair of the human condition:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away:
they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.
The psalm reflects the feelings of a people at the mercy of the all-powerful Master of the Universe: the one who, in judgment, controls their destiny.
In particular, we are reminded of the terrible wrath of God that they believed was directed at them in response to their unfaithfulness. We probably can assume the psalm was written in response to some calamity or other that reminded the psalmist of the both the frailty of life and the human propensity to turn away from God’s ways.
Today I would like to take up as my theme, the wrath of God, and to put it in proper perspective listen to this story:
A family in a certain church long ago became inactive, and all the loving efforts of the congregation to re-involve them in the church’s life had been futile. But one day, one of the sons, John was bitten by a tiger snake. The father sent for the minister to come to pray for John. This was the minister’s prayer:
‘O wise and righteous God, we thank you, for you have, in your anger and wisdom, sent this tiger snake to bite John in order to bring him to his senses. He has not set foot inside the church for years. It is doubtful he has ever before in his life felt the need of prayer. Now we trust that this will prove a valuable lesson to him and that it will lead to his repentance. And now, Father, send another snake to bite Sam, and another to bite Jim, and another big one to bite the old man. We have been doing everything we could for many years, but all the efforts of our church could not accomplish what this one snake has done. We conclude that the only thing that will do this family any good is a tiger snake; so Lord, send us bigger and better tiger snakes. Amen.’
Poor Job couldn’t figure out what he had done to deserve the treatment that he was getting from God. The early Jews understood every misfortune to be punishment for unfaithfulness, and so the wrath of God was very real for them. The image of an angry, authoritarian God, dishing out punishment, was probably more real in days gone by when the phrase, “God-fearing,” was understood literally. I would guess that not many in this church today conceive of God as one who takes righteous revenge on sinners by delivering lightning bolts – or tiger snakes, but there are some people who certainly do, and probably a few more who wish that was the case. At least it provides an answer to the question, “Why me, God?”
After the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 an American magazine of the pseudo-Christian variety published an 8-page article explaining that the fire and drought were the result of God’s judgment upon Australia for its pagan ways. Unfortunately, such opinions are not confined to Americans. For example, I have heard some Australians proclaim, all too cheerfully, that AIDS is the agent of divine retribution against homosexuality.
Whilst this vindictive sort of God is not appropriate in Christianity, we cannot simply dismiss the notion of God’s wrath, either. It is a significant element in the Hebrew Scriptures. And whether or not God shows anger, people have believed that God does so. We must take seriously both the biblical witness and the experience of those people.
In fact, the concept of wrath is important and necessary to an image of a god who is faithful to God’s people and who is defined as love. Unfortunately, in our attempt to understand God by using human words and attributes, we often humanise God by assuming that God really does react and feel like we do when we are hurt or angry or proud and the like. If we can avoid this distortion by recognising that human analogies applied to God are very, very limited, perhaps we can use this concept of wrath to help us make sense of God’s creation and our part in it.
One of the most important things to realise about God’s wrath is that it is the beginning of God’s goodness, giving rise to the title of this sermon (with apologies to John Steinbeck), “The Grace of Wrath.” Wrath is part of God’s gift of life, for it is a response to that which hinders us from life and our intended fulfilment. The human equivalent is the parent who gets cross with a child who runs into the street without looking. It would not be a loving parent who ignored such a perilous act of disobedience.
The first evidence of divine anger in the Bible is in the 3rd chapter of Genesis. Even many of the unchurched in our society know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. Listen again to the story.
8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
12 Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
13 And the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”
16 To the woman He said:
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.”
17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
Now God had told them back in chapter 2, verse 17, that if they ate fruit they would die that very day, but when the time came for God to issue the punishment for their disobedience, there was no death penalty. Instead the sentence seems to have been commuted to life at hard labour.
And right after the sentence, in verse 21, we read that God made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and his wife, and God clothed them. So the expression of God’s wrath ends with continuing care for the progress and well-being of God’s human children. Note, also, that the garden – paradise – is neither destroyed nor an unbreachable wall built around it; rather; a way back to paradise remains, albeit a well-guarded one, and so the possibility of a return is left open.
It seems that, no sooner had humans ‘gone off the rails,’ God was making arrangements for their salvation. The pattern is repeated in the story of Cain and Able and again in the story of Noah and the great flood, and again and again in the writings of the prophets. The wrath of God has always been a prelude to God’s mercy, love and a yearning for humanity to turn back to God’s path to life.
The New Testament revelation of God is undeniably characterised by love and mercy, but there remains a love of justice which cannot condone evil. The New Testament has not simply replaced the angry Father God with a kindly uncle – one who is in a position to love, but not punish. There is still a response to evil which we call God’s wrath; nevertheless, we cannot properly understand this wrath as connected with personally delivered punishment. If we did, we could not explain why good people suffer the punishment as well as the ungodly, and sometimes more so.
I find it helpful to understand, as St.Paul explained in the first chapter of Romans, that God’s wrath is seen in the natural consequences of sin. Divine anger can be understood to be nothing other than a gracious gift, the grace of wrath which warns us that we are not on the path to life that was intended for us. Like pain which tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the grace of wrath makes our wayward paths uncomfortable enough to encourage us to change direction, and point us on the way to wholeness.
The story of the man in today’s gospel lesson illustrates the principle. The man came to Jesus seeking the key to life, and he was given that key. In his particular case, it meant giving up his reliance on his wealth, but he refused to take that step in faith and, as a consequence, he went away in sorrow; a sorrow which let him know in no uncertain terms that something had gone wrong. His sorrow could be understood as the experience of God’s wrath.
Put simply, living in relationship with God brings life, peace, hope. Living out of relationship with God denies life, and instead, leaves us with our sorrow, fear, anxiety and pain. And because we are inescapably inter-twined in relationships with other people, indeed, with all of creation, one person’s failure to live with God brings its consequences upon us all. In short, God’s wrath is consequence, not punishment, and it is something which is experienced collectively as well as personally.
Now this scenario is, on the surface, bleak indeed. It would be much better for us if it was simply a matter of crime and punishment on an individual basis; i.e. if I am bad I suffer; if I am good I have joy in life. But since we all know it doesn’t work this way, we have to acknowledge that sin and suffering appear to be the rule until all of creation is returned to a right relationship with God. St.Paul’s perception in Romans, chapter 8, of the whole world groaning in its birth pangs is, I think a very accurate one. In the face of this situation, we may find that the lament in Psalm 90 is still very appropriate. “How long with your anger last?”
But despite the universal failure of humanity to be faithful to God’s way, despite the inevitable consequences which God built into creation which we call God’s wrath, all is not lost. The lament doesn’t end in despair. When the hopelessness of human effort is set over against the eternal power of God, there can be but one response: prayer.
The person who wrote Psalm 90 obviously knew the inseparability of God’s judgment and mercy, for, like the other psalms of lament, this Psalm closes in a confident prayer based on the knowledge that God is faithful; that God has a steadfast love that has always provided hope, and that misfortune, whether seen as a result of divine wrath or human stupidity, never has the last word. We always are given another chance. Thus, the lament ends in the recollection of God’s love and faithfulness, in remembrance of God’s loving acts on our behalf in the past, and in the knowledge that, though today there is sin and sorrow, tomorrow is a brand new day.
PRAYER FOR HELP (based on Ps.22)
Lord, it seems at times that you have deserted us, and we feel so very far from the security of your arms. Our parents, our friends, have raised us to believe that you would be there when we needed you, but how empty their words seem when the events of this cruel world overtake us, and all we see is violence, conflict, illness, death. In the face of all these threats, fear turns our blood to water, we grow weak, we are unable to cry out or run, and we see over our shoulders death gaining on us.
As we suffer or watch those around us, we are unable to reply to those who mock our faith and ask, “Where is your God now?” Where are you indeed, Lord? Have mercy on us. Reach out and let us know you are here. Strengthen our insufficient faith.
RESPONSIVE PSALM 22 (21st century exploration by Francis Macnab.)
The writer is experiencing the ‘absence’ of God. and longs for the ‘closeness’ once knew.
L: God, we read that people in the past believed in you; and you apparently gave them the strength they sought, so why are you so distant from me? There have been times when I have reached out to you, but you looked the other way! My disillusionment comes under criticism from so many people, and those I thought were my friends, fail to support me.
R: Truth is, in my heart of hearts, I know that you gave me life at the beginning, and I felt you cared for me, but now I need you to be closer to me, because nothing makes much sense anymore, and there are so many huge problems gathered around me.
L: In all this tale of misery, I am talking to you because you know my feelings and failings.
R: And you will save me – even from my own negative thoughts. I continue to believe in your Presence, which is more powerful than I can really understand. You have planted within us the awareness of a love which is eternal, yet very important and personal.
L: I continue to believe that people are valued by you, even when they fall away from you.
R: You let that happen: but you go on feeling the pain and you are ready to support them in their difficulties. You are the Eternal God of us all: and I dedicate myself anew to you.
L: Regardless of my feelings of insignificance and inadequacy, I am in awe as I try to find a way to worship you.
R: One thing I can do: I can be a carrier of your love to people all around me.
WE OFFER OUR JOYS AND CONCERNS TO GOD
We thank you, Holy Friend, for the compassion you have placed within our hearts, for our ability to empathise with those who days are fraught with struggle and pain. If the magnitude of the world’s needs seem overwhelming, save us from closing our minds and hardening our hearts. Let us put our trust always in you.
We pray for those who sufferings seem to be the result of their own folly or sin. Those who try our patience and maybe offend our sensibilities. Please bless them, with our help or without it, as you think best, for you understand them with a love which never wearies.
We pray for those whose misery is the result of the wilfulness and sin of others. The victims of hatred and violence, war and persecution, crime and apathy, greed and exploitation, road rage, or drugs and alcohol. Please bless them, with our help or without it, according to your overriding wisdom and love.
We pray for those who are on the front line in serving others. Police officers and social workers, overseas aid workers and peace keepers, nurses and doctors, ambulance officers and counsellors, pharmacists and parents, teachers and magistrates. Please bless them, with our help or without it, that they may kept from chronic weariness or cynicism.
We pray for those who work hard to keep the church wide open, both to the Gospel and to the world’s needs. Committee members and hospital visitors, secretaries and editors of church newspapers, theologians and treasurers, parish ministers and evangelists, youth workers and street priests, denominational leaders and social justice campaigners. Please bless them, with our help or without it, that the witness to the word and way of Christ may never be dimmed.
We pray for those among us who feel burdened or distressed today. Any who are dealing with bad news, poor health, tense relationships, suffering, sorrow or any other hardship. Please bless them, with or without our help, that they may find the extra resources and guidance that they need.
Most holy Friend, we thank you that our prayers are heard before we even express them. May our deeds embody our prayers, and our prayers become more aware because of our deeds. Through Christ Jesus our teacher and liberator. Amen!
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name;
your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us in the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory
are yours now and forever. Amen.
WORD OF MISSION
May you walk with God
in the daily unfolding
in the sharp pain of growing,
in the midst of confusion,
in the bright light of knowing.
May you walk with God.
and live in God,
and remain with God,
May you always stand tall as a tree. Be as strong as the rock Uluru, as gentle and still as the morning mist. Hold the warmth of the campfire in your heart, and may the Creator Spirit always walk with you. Go in peace. Amen.