|Pen and Ink Reflections||
As I have lived most of my church life primarily in Anglican and ecumenical settings, I have to admit to some bemusement about the annual marking of the Uniting Church’s founding. I guess it is partly the equivalent of the patronal festivals in other mainstream Churches. However these typically centre on a particular saint, or an aspect of faith (such as the Holy Trinity), after which a particular congregation is named, not a particular Christian denomination. Denominationalism is, after all, a modern idea, and would be a horror to our Uniting Church Reformation forebears. Jean Calvin, for example, sought to reform the one universal Church of God, not to create an alternative. The great Methodist pioneer John Wesley also formed a vital and innovative new movement but never sought to leave the Church of England. That is pertinent in marking this anniversary. For it directs us back to the Uniting Church’s crucial ecumenical and ‘open future’ charisms. These are clear in The Basis of Union, the key Uniting Church founding document. As a body, we are only one very small part of the universal Church through time and space. Therefore, rather than being yet one more denomination, we are called to help pioneer new paths of faith and relationships. Our calling is always to be a Uniting Church, holding our structures lightly and open to new ways of being followers of Jesus with others. So how what might today’s story about Hagar say to us in that? For it is certainly a powerful challenge...
John the Baptist is an angel. This is explicit in the biblical text, where Mark writes of them, quoting Isaiah, “behold I send my messenger ahead of you” – and the word used for messenger (as everywhere in the Greek text) is angelos - angel! John the Baptist probably does not fit the picture we have of an angel – no wings, no obvious glowing light, no message of peace. But he’s an angel. He’s pretty unmissable – wild, eccentric to say the least, and certainly not welcome at the average family tea table. As Jo has written in her brief Biblical commentaries in Insights for this season, “If he was a toddler someone might suggest his emotions were disregulated by his diet and he needed to calm down and get a good night’s sleep! Yet, his prophetic voice is one we cannot ignore. He reminds us that there is always a place for righteous anger and that sometimes the new and better requires actions of clearing and letting go that can be painful and disturbing to some. His voice acts as corrective to tendencies in some Christian circles to associate the gospel with niceness or respectability. John was not respectable. But his message was essential.” His was the message of a disturbing angel calling us to change.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent is traditionally devoted to the prophets – and in particular to the voices of second Isaiah and of John the Baptist as recorded by Mark’s gospel. Those voices, spanning the centuries, call us home from various kinds of exile...
The contemporary mystic Andrew Harvey once wrote that ‘the things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us.’ I have been pondering this week whether this is what all wild places have in common, whether they be the Australian outback, other deserts, mountain places or wilderness forest. Regardless of the particularity of their wildness, wild places ignore us – in a healthy and health-giving way. In a wild place we cease, as human creations, to be at the centre of our own worldview and become aware of all that is beyond us. As the American Presbyterian theologian Belden C. Lane expresses it in his great work “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: exploring desert and mountain spirituality”: 'There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokenness we find within.' When we find ourselves bereft of human company and resources, then we find ourselves in a place to let go of the demands of ego, the trivialities of our everyday lives, and to receive something of the incalculable and transforming presence of God...
Who likes tests? When I was at junior school I did – that was because I was a smarty pants and enjoyed getting all, or at least most, of the answers right. I even enjoyed testing myself. I was probably really annoying to some of my peers! Time goes by though and the tests get a little more exacting and sometimes even scary. Academic tests are one thing – or even exams in music or dance – but life throws tests at us that we had not expected and for which it is much harder to prepare – sickness, unemployment, the break -down of relationships. These test our character and the strength of our relationship with God.
One of the meanings of the word temptation which appears in our reading today is ‘testing’. But just what is being put to the test and why?
When we first came to Australia on a permanent basis, we lived and worked in the Anglican Parish of Gosford. One of the very lovely things about the parish, and its main church building, is its baptistery. This includes some modern stained glass windows, with words from the Gospel story of the baptism of Jesus strongly and beautifully emblazoned: ‘This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ It is such a joy to see and take to heart. Indeed, increasingly, I have come to believe that this is at the very core, not just of the baptism of Jesus, but of the baptism of every Christian. When we baptise a child, we are helping to share with them, and with those who love them, the message of God for us all: that ‘you (too) are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ What an amazing truth that is if we could but all believe it. Surely, this is a gorgeous message of love which Christians should be able to share with every person. For everyone is a child of God and everyone is created as beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Imagine if that was the main message, the heart of the Gospel, the truly good news, we shared as Church with others. After all, this love - not sin, nor judgement, nor moral concern – is the ultimate reality of all our lives. Yet this astonishing love for each one of us comes at a cost, and with a challenge…
Lent 3A, Sunday 23 March 2014 by Penny Jones
The marvellous Celtic poet and mystic John O'Donohue described faith as 'the absolutely irresistible longing for God'. This is why Jesus in today's gospel describes himself as 'living water'. For every human being on this watery blue planet of ours has an irresistible longing for water. We literally cannot live without it. Indeed almost all of our bodies is made up of water. The longing and thirst for water is more desperate than the longing for food, or sex or companionship or home. Thirst is an elemental, irresistible longing. We need water. And not just physical water.
Moses led the people out into the wilderness and they became thirsty. There was no water for them to drink. So of course they complained. In that barren place they experienced their need, their dependence on God. And through Moses, God satisﬁed their physical need, striking water from the rock so that they could drink.
The experience of wilderness, of longing and thirst is essential to our mature spiritual growth...