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God’s Covenant: Journeying into God’s promise

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1 March 2015:

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Today’s readings (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Romans 4.13-25 and Mark 8.31-38) tell us about God’s promise to us: they make known to us God’s promise to be with us in what lies ahead, just as they are about God’s promise that you and I symbolise for this place and community. They reflect on the promises that have been, promises that have been fulfilled and for which we can express our thanks, just as they invite us to make God’s promise of a future in his presence our own by entering into a loving covenant with God. And they invite us to face the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead by becoming bearers of God’s promise ourselves.

At the heart of the story of God with his people stands a complex relationship between promises made, promises heard, and promises followed. God’s promise is founded on a recurrent pattern of constancy and faithfulness, and the regularity in which God’s past promises have been fulfilled can give a sense of certainty. The story of God also teaches us about the way in which promises have been fulfilled and opportunities been grasped; it tells us something about how we humans take up opportunities, or whether we let them pass by.

The story of God, then, can tell us more about ourselves: whether we grow into a promise and the potential that lies within us, or whether we disregard God’s promise in us altogether. And today’s lessons give us a particular insight into the pattern of promise fulfilled and followed found underlying all our Scriptures, show well the pattern of God’s promise in order to give us hope for our own futures and journeys of faith.

Our first two lessons (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4.13-25) take us the patriarch Abraham, the father of God’s people, and spiritual parent for three world faiths. It is in the promises made to Abraham that the story of God and his peoples begins. As, of course, does the story of the promise itself. In our first lesson we meet Abraham as he grapples with the implications of having believed in God’s promise. God had called Abraham from his home to travel to ‘the land that I will show you’ (Genesis 12.1). God had promised that he would be with him, and bless him, and that he would make a ‘great nation’ of Abraham. Our first reading, with its poignant conversation—in a series of visions—between God and Abraham, comes after many miles of travel, and numerous adventures on the way: conflicts in Egypt, troubles by the Dead Sea, battles with local rulers. Our first lesson follows Abraham’s victory in battle. He should be contented, one would think, about having left the field victorious, prosperous in flocks, land and men. But Abraham is anything but happy: one crucial thing in his life is still lacking—he has no children, no heirs, to call his own.

‘How can I become a great nation without populating the lands that I have gained’, Abraham asks himself, and questions God about his intentions again and again: ‘You have given me no offspring’, he says, ‘how then am I to inherit this land?’ (Genesis 15.1-2) And God responded to Abraham’s plea, led him outside his tent, asked him to observe at the night-sky, and assured him: ‘As numerous as the stars of heaven, so shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15.5). And ‘Abraham believed in the Lord’, we read, ‘and the Lord reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness’ (Genesis 15.6). God not only gave direct answers to Abraham’s questions about whether the promise he made was true. God also took note of Abraham’s trust, of his faith, and he counted that trust as righteousness, we read.

The fact that Abraham took God’s promises on trust, and continued to put his faith in God’s purposes for him, is of great importance for us, the people who trace our spiritual lineage back to Abraham. That certainly is what St Paul believed when he wrote in our second lesson from the epistle to the Romans. For if Abraham’s faith in God’s promises was counted by God as righteousness, as setting the relationship between God and Abraham right, then that says something really important about the role of faith, and of trusting in God’s promises for all us, St Paul explains in our second lesson. For Paul, the story of Abraham becomes a test case for all the other promises God makes: Abraham’s trust in God’s good purposes is not only a sign of Abraham’s faith but a source of confidence for us, as we seek to discern God’s purposes, trace the pattern of new promises, and promises fulfilled, in our own lives.

For those who already believe in Jesus Christ, Paul says, the fact that God kept his promise to Abraham shows that they will never be disappointed in their faith in God. And for those who do not yet believe in Jesus, Paul says, the fact that God fulfilled the promises he made says something essential about God’s constancy. God is faithful and keeps his promises, Paul tells. And if we put our trust in that belief, then we, too, can grasp the promises that lie ahead of us in confidence, can safely step into the future, because we are entering into a pattern of many promises already fulfilled.

That is why Paul concludes: ‘The words “it was reckoned to him” were written not for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also’ (Romans 4.22-23). For these words give us hope that we, too, can safely put our trust, our faith, in God’s promises and purposes.

Where Abraham was promised to be the father of a great nation, we are promised to be children of God, are promised eternal life through Jesus Christ, Paul says. Knowing that Jesus died so that all people who believe in his promise can have life, Paul says, is the greatest hope there can ever be. A hope that will enable us to bear hardship and suffering, secure in the knowledge that God will keep his promises to us, just as he kept the promise made to Abraham. Immediately after the end of our second lesson, Paul reflects on that truth, and explains: ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Romans 5.3-5).

As we enter God’s promise, we won’t be shielded from setbacks, Paul makes clear, echoing our Gospel reading (Mark 8.31-38). ‘If anyone want to become my followers’, Jesus said in Mark’s Gospel, ‘let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8.36). No, we will not be kept from suffering. Rather, our setbacks will teach us endurance, a quality that will shape our characters, St Paul knows from his own experience. Endurance and hope, in turn, is what will make us the people we are called to be, St Paul says, is what will help us fulfil the potential that lies within us. And even though that potential may, at present, only be a promise, it certainly is already there. It is this potential and trust that invites us to step into what lies ahead with confidence.

God’s promise of a new life, and a future ‘throughout all generations’, his promise ‘to be God to you’ is fulfilled in each generation (Genesis 17.9). It embraces the past and the present; was there for the generations of Abraham, Jesus and Paul; and now is there for our generation.

God’s promise is fulfilled in every age, whenever people join together to enter into the covenant God makes, whenever people are marked as God’s people. Its future is ensured because every individual, each bearer of God’s promise, is invited to contribute their own gifts to perpetuate God’s gift of promise to those who have yet to hear it. For God’s promise of a future is only ever achieved in community, when many contribute their skills and, by fulfilling their own promise with other promise-bearers, fulfil a greater promise, accomplish abundantly more than they might have been able to do on their own.

Each one of us can bear God’s promise of a future to our world, where we recognise signs of that promise in one another, and together act to live as members of God’s covenant.

This morning’s readings invite us to make our own the promise made by God to Abraham and to Paul, and the promise made by Jesus to his followers. They invite us to step into the pattern of promise that God is faithful and constant, to experience and learn for ourselves that God worthy of our trust in him, and his purposes for us. They invite us to step into the promise that God will give us a life-long journey, give us a future, and a new life in return for our own lives.

They invite us to discern the promise that lies within us, our hidden gifts and talents, our potential for leadership or service in this community. Just as they invite us to regard one another in terms of promise: I have found that it often was other people who identified some of the potential and promise that lay within me. Above all, they invite us to step into what lies ahead together: as promise-bearers who, with others, can shape this community in the terms of the great promise that is given us; the promise that God will be constant, will bless us, and remain close to us, in all the opportunities that he will bring.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, give us, your people, grace
to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes and chances of this fleeting world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where lasting joys are to be found,
that we, loving you in all things and above all things,
may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.

Joining the song of heaven: of songs of covenant, justice and redemption

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St James’ Old Cathedral on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 27 July 2014, marking the Feast of St James, Apostle, and the 175th anniversary of the Foundation of the Church:

Trumpeting Angel

This morning’s readings (2 Chronicles 5.11-14, Revelation 15.1-8Luke 9.28b-36) record three extraordinary moments in the life of the people of God that tell us about the importance of music, and of silence, in experiencing and responding to the presence of God. They take us back to the moments at which God manifested himself in worship, in glory and in judgment.

They encourage us to learn to sing new songs ourselves in worship of our God: both songs of liberation—the songs that celebrate our being set free from the slavery of sin and death, the songs that celebrate our relationship with God, and songs of judgment—the songs that give voice to our desire for God’s vision for this world to be fulfilled, and to become a place of justice and peace that is shaped by God’s will ‘in earth as it is in heaven’.

Our first reading from the second book of the Chronicles (2 Chronicles 5.11-14) celebrates the culmination of a long journey of faith for God’s people, a journey that began in exile and slavery in Egypt, was granted symbols of the assurance of God’s presence at Sinai, in the form of the tablets of the covenant of Moses contained in the ark of the covenant and tent of meeting, and ended in the dedication of a permanent place to house these signs of faith: the building of Solomon’s Temple. We join God’s people at the moment at which they set apart the holy place that was being built for more than a generation. Not only the Temple itself had taken a generation to shape in stone, cedar, precious stones and gold. The setting apart and formation of a generation of Temple priests and Temple musicians, from among the families of the tribes of Levi and Aaron, also had commenced a generation ago, during the reign of King David.

And it is at the moment of the dedication of the Temple—the permanent physical symbol of God’s presence in the heart of the people of Israel—that the Temple musicians sing a new song to God’s glory. They sing a song of God’s glory that celebrates their long journey of faith: it is a song in praise of their creator, their liberator-God who now deigns to dwell in a house made of human hands. And so the 120 Temple priests, and the singers from three Levitical families, lead the people of God in song. They sing a song that celebrates God’s constancy, lead the people in singing of the Hallel (הלל‎)—words that we now know as Psalm 118, ‘For God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever’, they sing. And as they sing their song of God’s constancy and presence in the house set apart for the symbols of their journey—the tablets and the ark of their covenant—‘the House of the Lord was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud’. They are prevented from moving, or entering the cloud. That cloud, our first reading tells us, was the ‘glory of the Lord filling the house of God’ (2 Chronicles 5.14).

Through the music-making of the Temple musicians, God’s presence was made manifest. Extraordinarily, it was their new song—the song of God’s liberation and constancy—that made visible all that the Temple stood for; made visible the presence of God among his people. God’s presence was made manifest in the form of a thick cloud that covered the entirety of the sacred space—‘the glory of the Lord filled the house of God’—and his ministers were blinded by God’s presence, unable ‘to stand to minister because of the cloud’ (2 Chronicles 5.14). Their song of the steadfastness of God’s love for his people made visible the grace-filled presence of God, as the Temple musicians led God’s people in singing their new song. And from that moment onwards, the singing of the Hallel Psalm has become part of the celebration of the liberation of the people of God at Passover, as God’s people recall the constancy of God’s love and his liberating power—even though the Temple building that first revealed the physical presence of God’s grace in song had long been destroyed.

Our Gospel reading, from Luke’s gospel (Luke 9.28b-36), takes us far away from the assembled people of God to a place of isolation. Jesus takes with him his closest followers—Peter, John and James (for whom your church is named)—away from the crowds that had followed him on his journey through Galilee. He takes them to a mountain-top to pray. And while they were praying, the disciples have a spiritual experience that is as extraordinary as the experience of the Temple musicians at the moment God’s House was set apart for service: their teacher and master becomes transfigured before them; ‘the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white’ (Luke 9.29). And standing by his side, talking with him, were the champions of God’s people—Moses who had led his people through the wilderness to the Land of Promise, and Elijah who had led his people through times of great godlessness and idolatry.

Two long-departed heroes of faith flanked Jesus to talk with him about his own departure Jesus ‘was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’ (Luke 9.31). They spoke about Jesus’ liberation of God’s people. Jesus’ ‘departure in Jerusalem’ is, of course, a reference to two departures: his departure from life at his ignominious ascent to the cross to die there for the sins of the people; and his departure in glory from this world in his resurrection body at his ascent to the Father. In the increasing darkness of the fading light Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus. Speak of the darkness of the cross and the glory of resurrection. Speak of the life of heaven they already have shared, and will once more share. And the disciples beheld ‘his glory and the two men standing with him’, saw Jesus as he truly was: the glorified Son of Man, and his face reflecting the light of eternity (Luke 9.30). And as Moses and Elijah depart from Jesus’ presence, they sense another presence, might perceive the strains of another song, a song of suffering and glory: the song of Christ’s departure to the cross and to the Father, the song of death and resurrection.

In his sleep-filled thoughts, Peter still thinks about how to capture this awe-inspiring moment by a marker, when a cloud descends on him and the other two disciples. And, unlike the manifestation of God’s glory at the dedication of the Temple, when the cloud prevented the movement of God’s servants, here, on the mountaintop, the cloud opens up to envelope them. And the disciples ‘were terrified as they entered the cloud’, we hear in our gospel reading (Luke 9.34). They were terrified indeed, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31). Not only are the disciples entirely surrounded by God’s presence. They hear God speak to them—for the voice they hear is for their benefit alone—and they hear God confirm that the Son of Man they saw bathed in the light of eternity is, in fact, the Son of God: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen’, God speaks to them and charges them, ‘listen to him’ (Luke 9.35). And when the heavenly voice had spoken, there was no more voice, no song. Only silence on the isolated mountaintop, and Jesus alone with his disciples. ‘And they kept silent’, our gospel reading concludes. For sometimes the music of our new song may be the stillness of silence (Luke 9.36).

Where in our first lesson and gospel reading we heard about God’s servants experiencing the presence of God in an extraordinary way on earth—through music, voice and silence—the final song our lessons speak of is a song that is sung in the physical presence of God (Revelation 15.1-8). It is a song of praise and justice, of sovereignty and judgment. It is sung in an awe-filled place: a sea that is both still as glass yet at the same time awash with living flames of fire. At its shore stand the servants of God who, in this world have been sustained in their journey and battle of faith by the songs of God’s liberation and faithfulness: the songs of Christ’s death and resurrection, the songs of longing for God’s physical nearness.

They sing a new song, combining the song of covenant—the song of Moses—and the song of sovereignty—the song of the Lamb. A song of God’s presence—for he is among them to hear their song in person at the entrance to the tent of witness—and a song of judgment—for he is about to bring judgment to the nations.

With harps given them by God, they sing of God’s glory, his justice and constancy: ‘Great and amazing are your deeds … just and true are your ways’, their song confesses (Revelation 15.3). You are ‘Lord God Almighty’, you are ‘King of the nations’, ‘you alone are holy’ they sing in God’s presence (again, in the form of a cloud). And, in their song, proclaim the endpoint of the journey of all faith: ‘your righteous acts have been revealed, and all nations will come and worship you’ (Revelation 15.3-4). All nations will be judged, and all nations given voice to worship God, to join the new song of covenant and sovereignty at the shores of the sea of glass and fire; to sing the song of love, glory and adoration at the approach to the heavenly temple. And, as they—in this vision of the endtimes—themselves foreshadow the very end of all things, they behold both the destruction of all evil—‘seven angels with seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God’ about to be poured out on the universe (Revelation 15.1)—and the completion of all justice—the ‘temple in heaven, and the tabernacle of the covenant of the law open’, for from now on God will do away with evil, and open up his sanctuary to those who have responded to his covenant in love (Revelation 15.5).

Three dramatic and extraordinary visions are set before us: the vision of the glory of God filling the earthly sanctuary as the Temple musicians’ song resounded; the vision of the disciples of Jesus beholding the light of eternity and the brightness of resurrection in the silent music of the mountaintop; the song of the redeemed about the behold the judgment of the universe and the coming among them of their sovereign king, their ‘Lord God Almighty’, at the sea of glass and fire. They tell us that it is in silence and in song that we can give voice to our experience of the presence among us of the living God.

And they invite us to enter ourselves into the covenant relationship with God that the singers of new songs of old—both those chosen for the service of God and who have come to know his nearness through their art, and those who have come to know God’s presence in the music of silence—have come to share. The covenant that promises us the knowledge of God’s presence on our own journeys of faith on earth; the covenant that is for us an invitation to be numbered among those who, at the end of all time, will come to behold the gates of God’s tabernacle in heaven, and Jesus Christ opening his kingdom to us.

Today we are invited to join in the new songs of faith ourselves: we are called to join in singing the songs of covenant, and commitment; the songs of calling and service, the songs of love and adoration. We are invited to join our voices with countless who have gone before, in the harmony of earthly and heavenly songs. We are invited to join their song confident that our music-making can resound with theirs in our worship on earth. We are invited to learn new songs to add to those of many generations in adoration of the God who is from everlasting. And, as we sing the song of earth and heaven, we do so in the firm and certain hope that one day, our own voices will resound in God’s dwelling place in heaven.

And now, ‘may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,  so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 15.5-6). Amen.

© Andreas Loewe, 2014

Sent from the Cross: the Spirit that renews the face of the earth

ImageInto the darkness of the first Good Friday, when sun and moon were eclipsed, Jesus speaks his last, ‘It is finished’. And breathed his last, bowed his head, and gave up his spirit (John 19.30). This work of completion is accomplished alone, in darkness. It is witnessed only by those who cared for him most: his mother, his aunt, his beloved disciples Mary and John. They see the man they love wrestle with death; see him struggle against the human sadism that invented this torturous way of ending another’s life. Parched, dried out like a potsherd, they see his lips purged with hyssop and sour wine (Psalm 22.15). They see his final struggles against death and see him lose. They see him gasp for breath like a drowning man, as his life is ripped away from him. They hear his last words. ‘It is finished’. It is accomplished. All is completed, all is now done. They see his head drop in death, and see him give up his spirit.

There, from the cross, God sends again the Spirit that brought into being our universe. The Spirit that hovered over the darkness of an unformed void on the day when God called our world into being. The Spirit that called into being light in darkness, gave shape to sky and earth, created all the creatures that inhabit it. The Spirit that called into being a man and a woman, made human families and gave them life; a life God proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). The Spirit that taught us of love, and goodness, created bonds of belonging, shaped an entire people chosen by God for living. It is that Spirit which now again is given to the world. On the cross as the world is re-created in the formless void between day and night. As the world completes its descent into the dark that gave shape to the knowledge that so much of what once had been ‘very good’ had become cruelly distorted and broken by human selfishness and sin, God in Christ sends out his Spirit once more. Not to create a new world, but to complete his work of restoring the world which he has made to be very good.

‘It is finished’. The work of re-creation is complete and there, in the darkness of Good Friday, all that has to be done to bring about the world that can be ‘very good’ is already accomplished, God knows.

Where those who stand by in the darkness of this death can only see brokenness, God sees the beginnings of a new creation, the potential of a world that can be remade by his Spirit. Where those who stand at the foot of the cross can only see a man ‘struck down by God and afflicted’, God sees his servant ‘wounded for our transgressions’, sees his only, beloved Son, ‘on whom was laid the punishment that made us whole’ (Isaiah 53.5). Where those who bear the weight of grief this first Good Friday, God opens the ‘new and living way’ into his presence (Hebrews 10.20); the way that will transform the finality of death into the gate to life eternal, at the triumph of life on Easter morn. Where those who witness Jesus’ final moments on earth may only feel a dying man’s breath, God sees his Spirit call into being a new covenant. A covenant in which God himself transforms our hearts and minds. A covenant in which God will humble himself to dwell in us, by placing his laws in our hearts and writing them in our minds (Hebrews 10.16). A covenant in which sin gives way to forgiveness, and death to life.

And when, at the end of that long first Good Friday, the soldiers come once again to take Jesus—this time to remove him from the cross—those who saw Christ accomplish all on the cross also witness the signs of that new covenant. They see a soldier pierce Jesus’ side; see blood and water flowing from his body (John 19.34). Blood to sprinkle clean our hearts ‘from an evil conscience’; water to wash our bodies from sin, as we read in today’s epistle reading (Hebrews 10.22). Signs of the new covenant that God established on the cross, symbols of the faithful promise that God made of sin forgiven, lives transformed, and death defeated. Signs for us to share whenever we meet together to worship: water that reminds us of our own baptisms; blood that reminds us of the meal Jesus gave us to remember him. Symbols of our new hope that encourage us to ‘hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful’ (Hebrews 10.23).

At the foot of the cross, those who saw Jesus die, witnessed the death of an old order and the birth of something new. As they were looking on then, they may only have seen death. But as they came to write the story of this extraordinary death, they began to see the signs of new birth even as they documented death. They wrote down this story, ‘so that we also may believe’ (John 19.35). They knew their testimony to be the truth, and tell the story to us, so that we may share their conviction. The conviction that God will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more, where we seek his forgiveness and friendship (Hebrews 10.16). The conviction that in dying, Christ has brought to life a new covenant on the cross. The conviction that because he bore the sins of us all, we might approach God ‘with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts … clean’ (Hebrews 10.20-22). The conviction that because he gave his life for us, Christ also opened for us a ‘new and living way … through his flesh’; has opened the gate to life eternal (Hebrews 10.20).

This conviction was informed by witnessing the tragedy of the cross, and the miracle of the resurrection. It was confirmed by seeing life taken by human cruelty and sin, and life restored by God’s grace and love. It was strengthened by seeing soldiers torture a loved one and by touching the same marks of death—the enduring marks in his hands and side—in Christ’s resurrection body. Today, these witnesses invite us to share their beliefs. Today, they invite us to believe with them that the words Jesus spoke from the cross, ‘it is finished’, marked not the end but a new beginning (John 19.30). Today, they invite us to share their beliefs that the signs of death the soldiers saw, the water and the blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, were the symbols of life. Today, they invite us to share their confidence that he, who has promised to make a gracious covenant of life with us by dying on the cross for us, is faithful (Hebrews 10.23).

This Good Friday, I invite you to place your trust in the witness of John and Mary, the beloved disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Clopas. I invite you to share their grief at the loss of one greatly beloved. I invite you to share their sadness at the brokenness of our own humanity, and the sorrow of our own sinfulness. And I invite you to share their certainty that the one who was broken for us on the cross, has conquered death and is alive, and delights in sharing his life with us today. I invite you to approach their beloved friend, Jesus Christ with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, and to find in him your Saviour, Lord and friend. Thanks be to God.