Sunday, September 2, 2012

Refreshed in the Spirit (an ordination sermon)

Photograph of Mer (Murray) Island by Allan Pair 
For details, and the original, go HERE

For some time I have had on the Forward Ministry Website a slightly edited transcript of the sermon I preached on Mer (Murray Island in the Torres Strait) at the ordination as a Deacon of Island Chairman, Mr Ron Day, on Sunday 2nd July, 2006. The suggestion was made to me that the sermon should go on this blog as well. So, here it is. 

Mer is one of three very small islands at the eastern end of the Torres Strait, near the beginning of the Great Barrier Reef, closer to Papua new Guinea than to the Australian mainland, and, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, has a population of 485, most of whom were present for the ordination which took place in an "outdoor cathedral" created in the bush for the occasion. Mer is also the home of the famous "Mabo Case" which resulted in the Australian High Court decision to grant native title to the Meriam, the indigenous people of the island. 

My Lord Bishop, Assistant Bishop Townson, Bishop Passi, Reverend Fathers and Reverend Brothers of the Church of Torres Strait, Pastors and Ministers of other churches, Elders, Island Councillors, brothers and sisters, people of Mer: 

It has been a wonderful privilege for me to share your life over these last two weeks, to learn more of your culture and history, to see how the Holy Spirit is moving among you exalting the Lord Jesus Christ who saves us from sin and brings us life in all its fullness, and to make many, many new friends. It has been a special privilege to share with you, Bishop Nona, and Mr Day, during the ordination retreat. Dear people, thank you for all you have given me over this last fortnight. It is an honour to be part of this great occasion. 

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

I begin with a text that comes from way, way back in history - over two and a half thousand years ago - when the Old Testament people of God had been brought very low. The Kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, and many of the people were removed from their land and lived in exile. They longed to return. They longed for their own land. They longed to be free. They were down in the dumps and wondered if they would ever be free again. Through the prophet God speaks to them in Isaiah 43:19-22 and says: 

"Behold, I am doing a new thing; 
now it springs forth, 
do you not perceive it? 
I will make a way in the wilderness 
And rivers in the desert . . . 
I give water in the wilderness, 
rivers in the desert, 
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself 
that they might declare my praise." 

In the previous chapter we read these words (verse 9): 

"Behold, the former things have come to pass, And new things I now declare . . ." 

And then, chapter 44:3 says: 

"I will pour water on the thirsty land, 
and streams on the dry ground; 
I will pour out my spirit upon your descendants, 
And my blessing on your offspring." 

Australians on the mainland as well as here on Mer understand what it is to dwell in a dry and thirsty land where no water is. Parts of the mainland are having the worst drought in history; and although the hills on this island are still green, I notice that you, too, have very heavy water restrictions. In a drought, the vegetation shrivels up, some animals die, others stay underground for longer, the birds have no feed and go away, and human life slows down to a weary trudge. Sometimes even experienced bushmen die in the desert because there is no water where they always found water before. 

I want to tell you something today, something that you know already, but something of which we all need to be reminded: the driest, most parched place in this world is not the arid desert, the drought ravaged agricultural lands and cities of mainland Australia, or the islands begging for good soaking rain. 

The driest place in the whole world is the human heart - your heart and mine - when we leave God out of the picture, when we think we can run our lives on our own. You know what that dryness is like. We all do. There are many, many dry, parched, brittle and cracked hearts among your people and mine who need refreshing and healing. 

Maybe there are even people here today who have come out of respect for Mr Day, but you know deep down inside that your heart is like that dry old desert because of your wandering away from God. I want you to listen to these words right now, because I know that nothing would give Mr Day more joy in his soul than to know that at his Ordination Mass some of you reached out to Jesus for the first time in many years! 

The picture that God gives us in his Word is of the driest, most drought stricken land receiving rivers in the desert, water in the wilderness, streams, and even floods on the dry ground. 

One year when I was a student I went into the far west of New South Wales during a drought. I remember standing still, looking out into the desert and thinking that nothing at all could possibly grow there. But the next year I was back in that district not long after the drought had broken. In fact they had had serious floods! I was standing on the same spot, and I could not believe all the grass and the thousands of wildflowers of many different colours that had come up out of that desert when God sent the rain. It took my breath away, and it helped me to understand the promise God made about the "new thing" he planned to do way back in Old Testament times. 

Of course, as with other aspects of the prophecies of Isaiah, the real fulfillment is in Jesus. 

One day Jesus was in the temple at the time of a ceremony that involved priests pouring water all over the altar. He stood up, and said these amazing words: 

"If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 
He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 
'Out of his innermost being - his heart - 
shall flow rivers of living water.'" 
Now this he said about the Spirit, 
which those who believed in him were to receive; 
for as yet the Spirit had not yet been given, 
because Jesus was not yet glorified." 
(John 7:37-39) 

Well, there it is! The refreshing, the outpouring, the river in the desert, is the Holy Spirit. And we would be able to receive him once Jesus had been glorified. 

Strange as it may seem to some people, St John's Gospel teaches that Jesus being glorified is what happens on the Cross. 

It is there that he hangs as a bridge between heaven and earth to reconcile God and man, with his arms outstretched in a universal embrace of suffering love. 

It is there that he lays down his life as a ransom for many, paying the price for our sins so that we might be forgiven and completely discharged of our guilt. 

It is there that he engages Satan and the demons in a terrifying but triumphant battle that shakes the very foundations of hell, setting the captives free, and enlisting them in the "mopping up operation" that will be complete when he returns in glory at the end of the age. 

No wonder the old chorus says: 

"I know a fount where sins are washed away; 
I know a place where night is turned to day; 
Burdens are lifted, blind eyes made to see, 
There's a wonder-working power in the Blood of Calvary."  

Looking forward to his death, Jesus said, "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to myself" (John 12:31). This refers to his "lifting up" on the cross. But many Christians instinctively believe that by extension it can also refer to how we live and how we worship. When we look into the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St John, we see the coming together of the archangels, angels, elders, apostles, and the whole people of God, that great multitude which no man can number, people of every tribe, colour, language, race, nation and culture, worshipping together, singing and praising God with all their voices, because they are redeemed through the sacrifice of Calvary. 

Do you know how Jesus is portrayed at the heart of this heavenly worship . . . yes, truly risen, victorious, triumphant, the King of kings and all of that . . . but chiefly as "the Lamb that has been slain"! (Revelation 5:12) He is "high and lifted up" in the heavenly worship (cf Isaiah 6:1) in the power and glorious victory of his sacrifice. That's why I was so blessed at Mass last Sunday morning when we were swept up into that self-same sacrifice, into the worship of the heavenly Mount Sion (Hebrews 12:22-24) and Victor led us in that wonderful chorus: 

"He is exalted, he is exalted, 
he is exalted on high; 
creation will praise him 
the saints will adore him 
for he is exalted on high." 

Let's all stand up to stretch our legs and sing it now, just as we did on Sunday, honouring the Lord Jesus, and giving him the glory.

[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] 

Now please sit down again. 

Well, Jesus WAS glorified on the cross, he WAS exalted, he WAS lifted up, he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and on the day of Pentecost, it says in the Acts of the Apostles, he poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit, the "promise of the Father" upon those who believe (Acts 2:33). He fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and the other prophets who looked forward to the day when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh. 

And ever since then it has been possible for you and me, the people of Jesus, to know that refreshing in our hearts, those rivers in the desert, fountains and springs in the drought, and even floods on the dry land, enabling us to experience growth again and to be a channel of that same spiritual life to others. What a wonderful picture of the abundant life and ministry that Jesus offers us. 

"Behold, I am doing a new thing." 

This statement from my text is a favourite verse of your Bishop. He has shared this with me over the last fortnight, which is why I am preaching on it today. Bishop Nona feels - and I agree with him - that this ordination on this significant land belonging to the Komet tribe is not just about the new ministry that Mr Day is to have among you. Of course it IS about that. But there is a growing feeling among the leaders of the Church of Torres Strait, and in particular the leaders on this island of Mer, as well as among the pastors of some of the other churches, that paralleling the movement for political autonomy in Torres Strait, and in a very real way undergirding it, is a spiritual renewal that will gather up the strands of Torres Strait heritage and culture with the Gospel of Jesus for the blessing, not just of this region, but in time spanning out from here to the east, west, north and south. 

It was difficult not to sense the reality of this when we were here yesterday rehearsing for this service and watching so many people preparing this space to be today's outdoor cathedral. 

Brothers and sisters of Mer, we have already heard Mr Wailu explain the significance of this location and the traditional events that took place here. We have already heard about the Day family's acceptance of the Coming of the Light 135 years ago, and the importance of this day, 2nd July, to them. In a few moments, Mr Ron Day, a tall man in every way and a renowned leader, your island Chairman, will fall before Jesus, prostrate during the Litany, prostrate on THIS ground, and then kneel for the actual laying on of hands on THIS ground. 

As we said on Thursday night in the words of Jacob: 

"Surely the Lord was in this place . . . 
How awesome is this place! 
This is none other than the house of God, 
and this is the gate of heaven." 
(Genesis 28:16-17) 

Mr Day has been a faithful layman, having been raised in a family that taught him to know and love Jesus as his Saviour and Lord. As an adult he has added to his many civic responsibilities a real commitment to advance the Gospel and the Church, and as a laymen he has already exercised a wonderful ministry of leadership and encouragement in Church life. 

Very soon - now - through the laying on of Bishop Tolowa's hands Mr Day is to be caught up into the apostolic succession of ministry stretching back 2000 years to the first apostles and Jesus himself. That ministry is threefold: deacons, priests and bishops. 

The ministry of a deacon has to do with the Word of God. Mr Day loves the Bible. I know that because I watched him during the retreat. His Bible is well worn. He knows his way around it, and he understands its message. He is learned in the Scriptures, and knows that like all of us he is a sinner saved by grace. I believe that he will be an anointed preacher of the Word. 

The ministry of a deacon has to do with the Sacraments, especially assisting the priest in making sure that all God's people, including the sick and housebound, are able to receive Holy Communion. I have observed Mr Day's devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He knows that Holy Communion is a supernatural event, a miracle, when the risen Lord comes to his people under the appearances of bread and wine, in a manner that defies even the best attempts at putting it into words. Mr Day, because of how much you love this particular way in which Jesus comes to us, I know that you will sometimes be taking him to an old housebound person and find yourself shedding a tear at the idea of being so closely associated with the Sacrament of his Presence. 

The ministry of a deacon has to do with Pastoral Care. Again, Mr Day's concern and compassion for you, brothers and sisters of Mer, is something that I don't even have to mention - it is evident to all. But now, to his civic role, the Lord is adding in this ordination, the spiritual dimension of pastoral ministry. 

In this regard, my mind goes back to the year 258 AD in Ancient Rome. It was a difficult time to be a Christian. Some people visit Rome today and look at all the churches. They imagine that the Gospel was received easily by the people. But even 200 years after the Gospel first came, the people as a whole did not believe. That's why I think your ancestors were people of remarkable insight and spiritual discernment. THEY received the Gospel with great joy as soon as the missionaries landed on that beach just over there. They saw that the Gospel of Jesus was the fulfilment of the ancient yearnings and powerful symbols of your own culture. It actually took the Romans 250 years; it took my English ancestors a great deal longer after the first Christians arrived! 

Anyway, in 258 AD there was a deacon in Rome called Laurence. (We know him as Saint Laurence.) He was a very loving and holy man who cared for God's people with all his heart. One day he was taken captive by the authorities who asked him for the treasures of the Church. The authorities thought wrongly that the Church of that time had precious gold and silverware. Do you know what Saint Laurence did? He rounded up some of the poorest people he could find and said to the authorities, "Here you are - here are the treasures of the Church"! Isn't that amazing. May God give all who are involved in pastoral ministry that same love for their people, especially the poor. Laurence, of course, died a martyr's death, bearing witness to Jesus. 

The other thing about today is that on this date you celebrate the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when Mary, as a girl probably around the age of 14, who - having conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit was pregnant with Jesus - journeyed up into the hill country to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, who herself was pregnant with John the Baptist. It is a beautiful story. I don't know whether it was easy or difficult for Mary to climb up those hills, but the fact is that she made the effort, and when she greeted Elizabeth, little John the Baptist leaped for joy in his mother's womb. Imagine that! And then the Bible says Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and honoured Mary as the "Mother of my Lord." 

Have you ever thought of all the ways that Mary represents the Church? On this occasion what she did was a kind of symbol of what we are supposed to do. She made the effort to take Jesus within her up to the hill country and in so doing brought joy and blessing into the lives of others.  

There is a beautiful prayer that reminds us that following the example of Mary visiting Elizabeth, WE are called to "bring Jesus to a waiting world" - a world that is parched, dry and crumbling - a world that is selfish, violent, lacking purpose and tearing itself apart. Not even the Torres Strait can escape this in an age when the wider world inserts its influence into your homes and into your culture through the television and other forms of information technology. 

But if we really bring Jesus into our world as Mary did, men, women, boys and girls will respond to his love, and discover that "if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus will cause rivers of refreshing - the refreshing of the Holy Spirit - to flow upon them. Out of their innermost beings will flow rivers of living water, and there will be transformation and healing all round where there was previously hopelessness and despair. 

Mr Day - Ron - I return, now, in these closing moments of this sermon, to Isaiah 43 where I began. Right at the start of that chapter is a very precious promise that God gave to his people, and I leave it to you this day as a reminder to you of the faithfulness of him who has called you and is now setting you apart for this special ministry: 

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; 
I have called you by name, you are mine. 
When you pass through the waters I will be with you; 
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; 
when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, 
and the flame shall not consume you. 
For I am the Lord your God." 
 (Isaiah 43:1b - 3a) 

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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