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Faith After Christchurch

A broken, inarticulate sermon preached in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque shootings. The world can seem like a very dark place some days, and it is hard to preach a message of hope. Nonetheless, this is what I am called to do.

This is the sermon I preached at Glen Iris Uniting Church the Sunday after the Christchurch terrorist attach. I was pretty broken by it, and I think that shows in the language and structure of this. I have thought hard before putting this sermon online, because sometimes good news can seem very remote. But, because sometimes good news can seem very remote, I have chosen to do it. Lots of unanswered questions for all of us. The texts were
Luke 13:31-35 and Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 which were the set text for the Second Sunday in Lent

This weekend feels like a more than ordinarily dark time. Fifty people killed in a terrorist attack in two mosques in Christchurch – it beggars the mind. Women and men, old people and children. All those people who should have been safe here. Killed in a deliberate act of terrorism. Killed because they were Muslim. What an ocean of grief rises up.

And our usual distancing techniques don’t seem to cut it. This is no distant figure, recruited and radicalised and doing his nightmarish work in far-off parts of the world. His background is like a lot of ours here. He’s the sort of person I went to school with, from a town a lot like the one where I grew up. An ordinary, middle class Aussie bloke from the regions. He should have become one of those salt of the earth guys, stalwart of the local gym, doing a sensible sort of job – maybe a teacher like his mum. Instead, he chose the path of astonishing evil.

The prince of this world rears up, and hovers like a shadow over all we do and say here, including over my broken, inadequate words. The terrifying power of sin, of a sort of voluntary satanic possession, shows itself, and we are overwhelmed by it.

But my job here is to preach the good news, even in the midst of tragedy. So, broken and inarticulate, let us do as our people have always done – let us turn to the words of God to see if there is some comfort, some hope, some wisdom for us there.

Let’s start at the beginning. Abram is, of course, the original name of the patriarch we generally know as Abraham. What can we make of his encounter with God? The first thing God says to Abram is this: do not be afraid. This is often the first thing God says to people, and it’s a good place for us to begin. The world can be very frightening – mysterious and overwhelming. I’m actually quite tempted to end here with those reassuring words. But why not be afraid? What is the source of our courage? If God is our shield, then, like Abram, we long for a little reassurance, some reason for hope.

God reiterates his promise of a great line to Abram. However, Abram, sensible, practical, Abram has done what I suspect many of us would have done: he has backstopped the promise. The years were passing him by, and there was no sign of an heir. So he nominated a slave born in his household – Eliezer of Damascus – as his heir, and just got on with things. But here God, who seems unworried by Abram’s lack of faith, makes the promise again. Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars.

The awesome God, the God who dwells in complete, terrifying, awe-inspiring darkness, comes to Abram in the form of a smoking firepot and a flaming torch, and God makes a mighty promise to Abram. The God who made all that is, the root and ground of all created things, who dwells in inaccessible glory, makes a bargain with a human. God comes close to us, in a way that we would never have thought of. God, it turns out, is invested in us.

This story of God’s promise to Abram is key in salvation history. Without going into a lot of explanatory detail, suffice it to say that Paul saw Abram as a prototype of saving faith. Abram believed in the promises of God, and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Paul sees Jesus as making the promise of God available to all people, not merely to Abram’s physical descendants. What is required is saving faith in “him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom 4:24b-25)

The promise to Abram applies to us as well – bought for us by Jesus Christ, for all of those who have faith in the God who saves.

It’s important, particularly on a day like this, to emphasize that we do not understand this as meaning that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s affections. The promises of God are the promises of God. We are grafted onto a renewed Israel: we are not a new Israel.

This provides the link into the Gospel reading for today. What Jesus has to say about Jerusalem: What does that have to do with us?

But first, a few thoughts about the text. Firstly: the role of the Pharisees. Given the poor relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, this seems surprising. Were they trying to warn him off to get him off their patch? Were they genuine? Perhaps some Pharisees were on his side and some weren’t? It’s hard to tell. But Jesus gives them a message for Herod. Surely it was pretty insulting, to imply that they had anything to do with that sinful, adulterous tyrant.

A contextual point: What does it mean to call Herod a fox? In our culture a fox is seen as crafty and clever. The fox, Isaiah Berlin said, knows many things. The hedgehog knows one big thing. So is Jesus calling Herod crafty? No. In Jesus’ world, foxes were things that ate your chickens and knocked over the vine props and caused havoc. To call Herod a fox was to call him a destroyer.

<Jesus’ mysterious words>

The next pair of verses – the repetition of “today, tomorrow, and the next day”: there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what they mean exactly: perhaps they are a common way of speaking? Perhaps they point to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day? One thing is sure: Jesus is not to be distracted from his task. A few chapters earlier (Luke 9:51), Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. It is only there, as he says, that prophets can be killed. The work that he has to finish (v.32) can only be finished in Jerusalem.

Then comes Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Luke 13:34

The deep irony that Jerusalem kills the ones who are sent to it by God is summed up in the maternal, moving image of the mother hen. God longs for us to come back to her, but we are not willing.

Jerusalem, of course, is us. We have inherited the promises of God: we are all Jerusalem.

Something like this seems very resonant in our context today. Terrible evil rises up, and we are left without any words to say. Those people who came to New Zealand, to be safe, to escape from broken countries and uncivil war, who we long to gather up: struck down.

And so we are back where we began: with the inexpressible mystery of evil. All we are left with is lament. Lament, and the question of how culpable we are? That’s part of what is so shocking in the news: the proximity. Is Australia after all somehow irredeemably racist? Is it something to do with the breaking of Christendom and atomising society that young men are left directionless, left without a compelling call to a better life, and act out their fantasies of justice and revenge against the defenceless? Has our failure allowed resentment and blood and soil racism to replace faith in God? Is this somehow our fault? Are we complicit as a society? And if so, are we complicit as individuals?

We are brought face to face with the stark, inescapable existence of evil. It is not some medieval fantasy. Not something that can be medically explained away. Not the result of bad upbringing. Evil gleams like a dark jewel, revealed for what it is.

The gravity of sin drags us in and down into the black hole of incomprehensible evil.

The gates of hell open, and we can see the glint of fire within.

Where is hope here? How do we trust in the promises of God?

And yet.

Today and tomorrow, Jesus is at work. And on the third day – God will fulfil God’s intentions.

Remember this and consider,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfil my intention’

Isaiah 46: 8-10

In the darkness of our world, Jesus is at work. All of our complicity, all the ways we could be working for the Kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of the prince of this world. All the resentment and hatred that lurks within our breast – it will all be reconciled in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

This marks a new start for all of us.

As Paul writes:

Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. 

Romans 4:23-25

We don’t know the details of what was going on in this murderous man’s mind, what led him to do this appalling thing, how he became possessed by an ideology that meant he saw worshippers as enemies rather than as people. As members of a hated group rather than the individuals that they are, made in the image of God just as much as we are.

But we all know what lurks within our own heart.

There is, it seems to me, to be only one solution. And that is the love that Jesus incarnated. As he died on the cross, Jesus forgave his enemies, rather hated them. The only response to a message of hatred is a life of love. The only answer to atomisation is community. The only answer to seeing others as examples of a hated out-group is to know that they are individuals, made and loved by God.

The church of God is more important than ever. It is too important to abandon, tempting as that can be sometime. Our share of the mission of God is more important than ever, because the ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. Not just as something we talk about – important as that is. It has to be something that we live out in our lives. Not just individually, sitting placidly with our generous opinions. Rather, it can only be something lived out in actual, real, gritty communities. Communities like ours.

All we have to offer, ultimately, is the way we worship, and the way that worship is lived out in our lives. The way in which we really treat others as made in God’s image, no matter whether we happen to like them or agree with them or not. And this community, and those like it, all over the world, are the seed-beds of a new type of community. Based not on projection, fantasy, and othering, but on sober awareness of our own sin, the joyful knowledge of our forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ, and on mutual love, as we forgive and forbear with one another.

This week, the veil has been torn back on our world, and on our nation. Yesterday and today we lament. And tomorrow we need to resume our work of being ministers of God’s reconciling work. And that is the Good News that the world desperately needs. Let us hold firm to God’s promise to Abram, and to us: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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