Gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2; Ash Wednesday)

The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).

The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing the Day of the Lord that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.

The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).

Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.

The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.

The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.

The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).

It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).

Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.

See also

It’s Transfiguration Sunday again!

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, given in worship at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 19 February 2023.


It’s Transfiguration Sunday again! We hear this story every year on the last Sunday of Epiphany, before we head into Lent—this year, from the version that we have in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 17:1–9).

The Transfiguration is about a vision. It tells a story where the power of the divine broke into the ordinary world to give hope and inspiration. It is a complex story, with lots of things going on. The true nature of Jesus’ identity, his relationship to the Jewish tradition, God, his relationship with his disciples, and what is going to happen when they come down off the mountain are all in this story. Then there is the question of what this means for us at the church today. So there is lots to think about.

To give the context, just prior to this, Jesus had revealed to the disciples that he is to suffer, be rejected, killed and resurrected. The disciples do not understand, and arehorrified. Jesus reminds them of the cost of discipleship: if any want to follow Jesus, let them renounce their self-centeredness. Those who play it safe will perish; those who give their lives for him and the gospel will be saved. These would have been hard words to hear, let alone live out.

But just six days later, something changes. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. There he is “transfigured”, that is, his clothes become dazzlingly white in Luke, and he is “metamorphosed” in Mark and Matthew, where his face shines just as Moses’ did when he had been “talking with God” (Exodus 34:29), a sure sign of God’s presence. 

Let us pause and consider the phrase “he was transfigured before them”.The word “transfigured,” is very important. It comes from a familiar Greek word that is known to us today: “metamorphosis.” It means to completely change or transform such as a cocoon transforms into a butterfly or a tulip bulb transforms into a flower.Jesus was transformed into something closer to God, and along with the appearance of Elijah and Moses, the disciples experienced a glimpse of the divine. A cloud, traditionally symbolic of God’s presence, appears and a proclamation is spoken by the divine voice, echoing the words of Jesus baptism, “This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him”. It is an epiphany moment. But the vision ends suddenly, and what then?

There has been a lot of debate about what really happened and what the disciples saw. To quote C.S. Lewis, “What you see . . . depends a good deal on where you are standing: It also depends on what sort of person you are.” (C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, in The Chronicles of Narnia [New York: HarperCollins, 2001], 75). As we might anticipate, what the disciples see is a vision that put Jesus at the heart of Jewish tradition alongside the great prophets, Moses and Elijah, and establishes his authority as the messianic one. It transcends the ordinary space-time dimensions of Matthew’s narrative, creating a “thin place” where the veil is momentarily lifted and the divine enters the earthly realm.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade in her article on the Patheos website describes it very well: “There in that thin place, divinity touches humanity. Transcendence touches immanence. Love touches fear.” (Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky)

I like to think that the disciples were touched by this vision, a vision that gave them to courage to abandon their former dreams of a Messiah who would reestablish Israelite rule over the land and instead keep going along the road to Jerusalem and death out of love for their master. It would keep them going in the days of the early church, continuing to nourish their firm belief in Jesus as messiah.

As well as an uplifting experience, Peter’s words show it was a disorienting experience and a frightening one. Matthew writes that upon hearing God’s voice theyfall on their faces in terror. Jesus has to touch them and tell them to rise and says the time-honoured statement of most heavenly beings when they encounter humans – “Do not be afraid.” Jesus’ presence reassures them and they get up and descend back to their mission and ministry.

What is the relevance for this is story from two thousand years ago? What can we draw out from its message of divine transformation?

Firstly, it reminds us that we all have those moments when something was transformed for us. Our wedding day, the birth of a child, the recovery of a loved one from illness, beautiful places in nature and the spaces inside soaring cathedrals can all be thin places where we become aware of the presence of God and find a glimpse of eternity. We find the memory of these things uplifting and inspiring and draw upon them to remind ourselves of hope and joy when things seem mundane or don’t go so well in our lives. Such things remind us we are loved by God who presence is available to us in our fear and gives us courage.

Secondly, this story reminds us that Jesus is with us, not just in a thin place or transformational moment, but also in our everyday moments, that divinity is always within the reach of humanity. The story affirms that in our normal lives, Jesus’ reassuring presence is still there, walking down or up the mountain with us, telling us not be afraid and to take heart and go on with our tasks and our work.

And the story reminds us of our long tradition of holy people, people whose stories inspire us and who we can draw upon for inspiration and courage. Jesus is not alone in his work in this story. He is with Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of Israel, and his transformation implies he is one with them at that moment. His words to his disciples imply that he is at one with them as well, as they share in the moment where God’s approval is bestowed on Jesus and addressed to them all. Jesus is notalone in the universe, nor are we.  He doesn’t just offer himself, but the deep hope and light of those who preceded him and those who will come after him. He is the human manifestation of the divine, where transcendence touches immanence.

Such is the power of God’s transformative processes that the cross, once an instrument of death, became the source of hope for all Christians. Through the cross, pain and sorrow were transformed into a luminous vision of hope and confidence in the future. Not only that, Christians believe Jesus’ resurrected presence lives on through the spirit and his words and the stories about him, undergirding our ordinary world with the resurrection hope of renewal.

At some point or another in our lives, all of us, like the disciples, will fall flat on our faces after the highs of life, too afraid to do anything or not knowing how to move forward. This story encourages us not to keep staring at the ground, which can only lead to despair, but to take heart and pick ourselves up to continue what we are called to do.

This story encourages us to know the presence of Jesus and take in our hands the power of this luminous vision of hope and renewal to not only inspire ourselves, but inspire those who currently see no bright future. Whether it is through feeding hungry people, providing a safe place to meet and socialize, or inspiring someone to keep on going, we can make the vision of God’s kingdom a real and infectious thing.

Reflective Prayer (from Spill the Beans)

May our imaginations inspire us, lift us from the mundane that we might rise above the clay and find ourselves within touching distance of what is eternal and sacred.

May our eyes unfold for us the shift on the horizon that reveals how thin a place this is, only a whisper away from the breath of God.

May our minds be unbound and dare see beyond the rules of religion that we might invite the One who is beyond all things to call us into your story.

May our prayers deepen us not with familiar and comforting words but with silences that call us beyond doctrine and dogma.

May our faith stretch us, calling us from moribund traditions towards the journey into God where we have not yet been and where the church dares us not to go.

And in such a place, may we wait, pause, linger, and wonder … and ponder what is yet to be revealed. Amen.

Prophetic messages and cleverly-disguised myths (2 Peter 1; Transfiguration A)

This coming Sunday—the Feast of the Transfiguration—offers an excerpt from the work which we know as 2 Peter, the second letter attributed to the leader of the first group of disciples (2 Pet 1:16–21). This section of the letter is chosen to provide a companion piece to the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which we hear this year in Matthew’s version (Matt 17:1–9), and the story found in Exodus, of Moses atop a mountain “for forty days and forty nights” in the presence of “the glory of the Lord” (Exod 24:12–18).

2 Peter presents as a letter; the first verses follow the pattern of the opening address of a letter: “Simeon Peter…to those who have received faith…grace and peace” (1:1–2), but nothing else reflects standard letter practice. There are no closing greetings, simply a reference (unique amongst New Testament books) to Paul and “all his letters” and a warning not to be swayed by erroneous interpretations of them (3:15b–17). The work ends abruptly with a truncated benediction (3:18b).

The true purpose of this short document is signalled by a series of revealing phrases in an opening statement. With his death in view, the author asserts, “I intend to keep on reminding you …to refresh your memory…so that you may be able to recall these things” (1:12–15). Rather than a letter, the work is more accurately characterised as a farewell testament, delivered by a teacher to his disciples with his imminent death in view, to ensure that his teaching is remembered after his death.

Such works can be found in Jewish literature (Gen 47–49; 2 Sam 23; 2 Esdras 14; 2 Baruch 57–86; Testament of Moses; Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) as well as in the New Testament (John 14–16; Acts 20:17–38; and we have noted that there may be elements in 2 Timothy).

The content of the teaching preserved in this document, however, is distant both from the teachings of Jesus (which the historical Peter would have heard) and from the first letter attributed to Peter. Rather than a letter penned by the disciple Peter, this book is a later work, written in the name of Peter in order to gain authority, to encourage believers at the end of the first century to hold fast to their faith.

The context in which this work was written was one of intense debate about doctrinal differences. However, in prosecuting his case, the author uses an argumentative style, with slogans and slanders to the fore, in place of substantive debate. Those who hold opinions different from the author are dismissed as “false prophets and false teachers” (2:1) and later as “scoffers” (3:3). Such people, it is claimed, are “nearsighted and blind” (1:9), “blots and blemishes” (2:13), “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm” (2:17).

Their behaviour is licentious (2:2, 18), greedy (2:3, 14), depraved (2:10), enslaved to corruption (2:19), defiled (2:20), irrational (2:12), insatiable (2:14), revelling in dissipation (2:13) and adulterous (2:14). What they teach is characterised as “the error of the lawless” (3:17); they malign the truth (2:2) and entice others (2:14, 18) by using slander (2:10, 12) and “deceptive words” (2:3); what they say is dismissed as “bombastic nonsense” (2:18) and “cleverly-disguised myths” (1:16).

The author claims that they once knew “the way of righteousness”, but have fallen away (2:20–21), in fulfillment of two rather odious proverbs, “the dog turns back to its own vomit” and “the sow is washed only to wallow in the mud” (2:22; the first from Prov 26:11; the origin of the second is unknown).

The author, by contrast, presents “precious and very great promises” (1:4) through his own “prophetic message” (1:19), which is further supported by the claim that he speaks as an eyewitness (1:16). The event which he witnessed is the moment when the divine voice declared Jesus as “my Son, my Beloved”, and Jesus was transformed (1:17–18).

This reference to the event known as the Transfiguration (reported in all three Synoptic Gospels) is intended to provide apologetic validation for his argumentative approach to things. His message is apologetically portrayed as “the truth” (1:12) and “the way of truth” (2:2), phrases familiar from the post-Pauline letter to the Ephesians and the “pastoral” epistles written by a student of Paul.

The author speaks this “prophetic message” as one “moved by the Holy Spirit” (1:21); the authority he claims is akin to “the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles” (3:2). Such apologetic claims are intended to support the views of the author, although whether they will have had any effect on those he criticises is doubtful, as he says of them that they “despise authority” (2:10)!

These words also indicate that the author writes at some remove from the time of Jesus, since the phrase “in the past” clearly applies not only to the prophets but also to the commandment of Jesus spoken by the apostles (3:2). The consistently negative, adversarial tone of the work indicates that constructive elucidation of the way of Jesus has taken a back seat to castigating those who hold a different point of view from the author.

The scenario is of a time late in the first century, perhaps even early in the second century, when conflicts over teaching had intensified. The scene of Jesus on the mountain is told purely and simply to buttress the authority being claimed by the writer—part of the cut and thrust of argumentation at the time.


See also

A mountain-top high, to end Epiphany (Matt 17; Transfiguration A)

The season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus, the one chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. Running through many of the scripture passages offered by the lectionary for this season is the motif of light—for light illumines, light reveals. The passages remind us that God’s light shines brightly on our lives.

Also key to many of the passages is the gift of the Law, first given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and a millennium later explicated by Jesus on top of another mountain. The Law was the light shining the way for the people of Israel: “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105), “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). The place where the Law was given was on the mountain: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’” (Exod 24:12).

The readings for this Sunday, Transfiguration, thus appropriately situates the stories told on the heights of mountains: Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God” (Exod 24:13); Jesus “took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matt 17:1); the eyewitnesses “heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him [Jesus] on the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18); and the psalmist records the words of the Lord, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6).

It was on Horeb, “the mountain of God”, that Moses had the startling experience of encountering a bush, burning bright, and not consumed (Exod 3:1–6). The call that Moses received in that encounter atop a mountain would lead him to Sinai, a mountain in the wilderness where Moses would hear the call to all of Israel to be the Lord’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:1–6).

That call to Moses would see him serve as the intermediary, receiving the Law from the mountain top and delivering it to the people camped below (Exod 19:10–14; Neh 9:13–14)—although another tradition appears to place the people in direct contact with the Lord, for Moses tells the people that it was at Horeb that “you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain was blazing up to the very heavens, shrouded in dark clouds. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets.” (Deut 4:11–13).

It was also on the top of Mount Sinai that Moses had the most direct encounter with God of any in the ancestral sagas: “Moses came down from Mount Sinai; as he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exod 34:29). It was said that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod 33:11).

It was on the top of a “mountain of the Abarim range” where Moses appointed Joshua as his successor (Num 27:12–23), and it was on the top of this mountain, identified as Mount Nebo, that Moses would end his life, according to the account preserved in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy (Deut 32:48—34:8).

Once Joshua had led the people into the land of Canaan, he oversaw a ceremony in which the covenant with the Lord God was renewed; that took place in the land between Mount Ebla, on which an altar had been erected, and Mount Gerizim (Josh 8:30–35). In the time of the judges, the battle in which the prophet Deborah led Barak and his troops to defeat the army of King Jabin of Canaan, led by Sisera, was waged on Mount Tabor (Judg 4:1–24), whilst the downfall of Abimelech at the hands of the lords of the Tower of ash Chen took place on Mount Zalmon (Judg 9:22–57).

It was on Mount Carmel that the prophet Elijah had his famous interaction with the prophets of Baal and of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19–46). In that scene, despite all the water poured on the altar, the prophet’s petition is effective, and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38).

The psalmist extols Mount Zion, the mountain on which David had built his city, as God’s “holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” (Ps 48:2), and this site is praised in other psalms (Ps 68:16–20; 87:1–3); “those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Ps 125:1). The people are urged, “extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy” (Ps 99:9).

The prophet Isaiah foresees a day after the troubles of his time when “the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy” (Isa 4:5) and also that “gifts will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of hosts” (Isa 18:7).

A central vision for this prophet is the picture “in days to come [when] the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isa 2:2–3; see also Isa 66:19–20). The vision offers an assurance of universal peace, stemming from these visits to Zion (Isa 2:4; see also Mic 4:2–4 and Isa 65:25).

More than this, it is “on this mountain [Zion] the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear; and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (Isa 25:6–7); “the the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain” (Isa 25:10).

When Israel is attacked by foreign armies, it is Mount Zion that symbolises the claim that the Lord God will fight for his people: “as a lion or a young lion growls over its prey, and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill. Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it” (Isa 31:4–5; see also Ps 78:54–55). It is from Mount Zion that “a band of survivors” will go forth, as the remnant who remained faithful in the face of these attacks (Isa 37:32).

Other prophets likewise foresee salvation and escape from tribulation on Mount Zion (Joel 2:32; Obad 1:17); “the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forevermore” (Mic 4:7). This mountain holds a special place in the hearts of kings and prophets.

However, in the apocalyptic fervour that Zechariah generates, he envisages that it will be the Mount of Olives, to the east across the Kidron Valley, that will be the place where “the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle … you shall flee from the earthquake … [and] the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” ( Zech 14:3–5).

Was this the mountain where, in Ezekiel’s vision, “the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city, and stopped on the mountain east of the city” (Ezek 11:23) ? Certainly, the prophet Ezekiel saw that the future of Israel, after their exile, was bound up with regeneration from the mountaintop down: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” (Ezek 17:22–23; also 20:40–41).

Ezekiel sees his idiosyncratic vision of a rebuilt Temple from “a very high mountain” (Ezek 40:1–4, and the ensuing five chapters), leading to his clear assertion of “the law of the temple: the whole territory on the top of the mountain all around shall be most holy. This is the law of the temple.” (Ezek 43:12).

So mountains are the places in the story where close encounters with the deity took place. As Jesus leads his closest followers up the mountain, there might well be high expectation that God would be encountered in a direct way, given all that Israelite and Jewish tradition had collected regarding stories. And it should be no surprise that those atop that mountain saw a vision, and heard a voice, and witnessed a transformation in Jesus, that could only signal that they had, indeed, encountered the divine.


See also

Changed. Transformed. Transfigured. (Matt 17; Transfiguration A)

The story that is told in the Gospel for this coming Sunday is a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel. It’s a story that in Christian tradition is called The Transfiguration.

The word transfiguration is a strange word. It is not often found in common English usage. It’s one of those peculiar church words, that seems to be used only in church circles. Like thee and thy, holy and righteous, sanctification and atonement … and trinity. These words don’t usually pop up in regular usage!

I looked for some helpful synonyms for the word transfiguration, and found these: change, alter, modify, vary, redo, reshape, remodel, transform, convert, renew … and transmogrify. I am not sure whether that last one gets us anywhere nearer to a better understanding, but some of the others are helpful. Transfiguration is about change, adaptation, and taking on a new shape or size or appearance.

One of the other words offered as a synonym was metamorphose; and that caught my eye, because that word comes directly from the Greek word, metamorphidzo, which is used by Mark in his Gospel, when he tells his account of this incident. “After six days, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone; and he was metamorphosed before them” (Mark 9:2). Mark then explains that this metamorphosis was evident in that “his clothes became dazzling white”.

The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Matt 17:5).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in a moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).


This key mountaintop moment contains the words from the heavens about Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (17:5). These words link back to the initial baptism of Jesus, when the same words were heard (3:17) and forward to the final scene of crucifixion, when a centurion and those with him at the foot of the cross witnesses Jesus’ death, and declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (27:54).

All three scenes contain the foundational statement, recognising Jesus as Son of God, reiterating the words of all the disciples in the boat with Jesus (14:33), and of two men possessed by demons (8:29)—and even, in the early scene of desert testing, the words the tempter supreme himself (4:3, 6). For, as Simon Peter declares in a pivotal scene at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16).

The voice, booming forth from the clouds, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (17:5) seems, at first hearing, to be quoting Hebrew scripture: perhaps the second Psalm, which praises the King of ancient Israel as the one whom God has begotten; or perhaps the song in Isaiah 42, which extols the servant as the one whom God has chosen, or anointed; or perhaps even the oracle in Deuteronomy 18, which instructs the people to listen carefully to the words of the prophet.

Whatever scripture, or scriptures, are here spoken by the divine voice, making this bold declaration from the cloud, it is clear that God has a special task, a special role, and a special place for Jesus. The words of this heavenly voice link this story back to the opening scenes of the story of the adult period in the life of Jesus, and also to a moment towards the end of that adult life.

As this voice is heard, Jesus is on a mountain, with three of his closest followers—and also with two key figures from the past of Israel: Moses, who led the people out of slavery, who then was the instrument for delivering the Torah to Israel; and Elijah, who stood firm in the face of great opposition, whose deep faith bequeathed him the mantle of prophet, as he ascended into heaven.

Mark says that “there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:4). Matthew reverses the order, placing Moses before Elijah: “suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him” (Matt 17:3). Priority, in Matthew’s narrative, goes to Moses. Indeed, Matthew’s concern has been to make as many parallels as possible with the story of Moses, the one whose life was imperilled by a powerful ruler (Exod 2:15; cf. Matt 2:13–14), who escaped the murderous rampage that occurred (Exod 1:22; cf. Matt 2:16), who fled into a foreign land (Exod 2:15; cf. Matt 2:14), and who then returned to where he had been born (Exod 4:20; cf. Matt 2:21).

The regular reminder that “this took place to fulfil what the Lord has said through the prophets” (Matt 1:22; 2:4, 15, 17, 23) underlines this Mosaic typology. The five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25) recall the five Books of Moses in the Torah. So, too, does the account of the Transfiguration in Matt 17 prioritise Moses.

The covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–6), accompanied by the giving of the law (Exod 20:1–23:33), is sealed in a ceremony by “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:1–8). The scene on the mountaintop, with Jesus and his three disciples, evokes the mystery of the mountaintop scene in Exodus. This story is but one part of a whole complex of events, from conception through birth to flight, which are (in my view) deliberately and consciously shaped in the light of the story of Moses, to make the claim that Jesus was the New Moses. (The theme continues strongly throughout this particular Gospel.)


The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responses, in metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. Especially, that has been the experience of people over the last few years. We have met the challenge of a global viral pandemic; patterns of behaviour have been modified, as we prioritise safety and care for the vulnerable, and wear masks, sanitise, and socially distance. We have changed as a society.

In the church generally, through the pandemic, we have changed how we gather, how we worship, how we meet for Bible studies and fellowship groups, how we meet as councils and committees, how we attract people to our gatherings. Transformation is underway.

In my own church, we are attending to the challenge of reworking our understanding of mission; we now see the importance of people from each Congregation engaging with the mission of God in their community as the priority in the life of the church. We have considered, and continue to consider, how we might grow fresh expressions of faith, nurture new communities of interest, foster faith amongst people “outside of the building” and outside the inner circle of committed people. It is an ongoing process.

Change is taking place. Change is all around us. Change is the one thing that is constant about life: we are always changing. Sometimes we think that the church doesn’t change, isn’t changing, even resists changing. But that is not the case. Our church is changing. Our society is changing. And the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus encourages us throughout this change.

A blaze of glory, to end Epiphany (Exod 24 and Matt 17; Transfiguration A)

The season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus, the one chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. Running through many of the scripture passages offered by the lectionary for this season in Year A is the motif of light—for light illumines, light reveals. The passages remind us that God’s light shines brightly on our lives. See

This coming Sunday is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and the readings for this Sunday do no disappoint in this regard. A theme of light runs through the readings: the appearance of the glory of the Lord” on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:17), the transformation of the appearance of Jesus as “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt 17:2), and a reminiscence of that event from one who styles himself as one of the “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet 1:16).

Light first figures in the biblical narrative in the Priestly narrative of creation that was placed at the head of the Torah, when the first word from God’s mouth was, “‘Let there be light’”; and there was light” (Gen 1:3; see also Job 12:22). Light is the companion to the Israelites as the traversed the wilderness: “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light” (Exod 13:21; see also Neh 9:12).

Light was to burn constantly in the Tabernacle: “command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly. Aaron shall set it up in the tent of meeting, outside the curtain of the covenant, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord regularly” (Lev 24:2–3). In Numbers, the command is for seven golden lamps to shine forth light (Num 8:1–4).

In David’s last words, he sings an inspired song about the king as one “who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, [who] is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Sam 23:3–4). In this regard, the king reflects the Lord God, for “he will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday” (Ps 37:5–6). Many centuries later, the prophet Daniel would declare that God “reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him” (Dan 5:22).

In like fashion, the psalmist sings, “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1), rejoices that God is “clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment” (Ps 104:1–2), and prays, “ let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” (Ps 4:6). “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”, the writer of the longest psalm sings (Ps 119:105), rejoicing that “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). The same thought appears in Proverbs: “the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light” (Prov 6:23), and “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov 4:18).

Israel’s vocation, according to the exilic prophet whose words are included in the scroll of Isaiah, is to be “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6, Epiphany 1A), “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6, Epiphany 2A). That same prophet evokes the creation story, affirming that “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isa 45:7), and reminds the people that God promises, “a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples” (Isa 51:4). Later, after returning from exile, another prophet rejoices in the bright shining of the light of the Lord (Isa 60:1–3, set for the day of the Epiphany).

This theme extends the call of the prophet Isaiah himself, who cries, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isa 2:5) and foresees a time when “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2, Epiphany 3A). For Micah, realisation of the scale of injustice within Israel lads him not only to call the the people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8, Epiphany 4A), but also leads him to express his deep penitence: “when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me … he will bring me out to the light; I shall see his vindication” (Mic 7:8–9).

The prophet Isaiah also links light with judgement, declaring that “the light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame; and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day; the glory of his forest and his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when an invalid wastes away” (Isa 10:17; see also 13:10–11

Other prophets use the absence of light—the presence of darkness—as a symbol for divine judgement in the face of human sinfulness (Amos 5:18–20; Jer 4:23; 13:16; 25:10; Lam 3:1–3; Ezek 32:7–8), although in his apocalyptic mode, Isaiah offers hope using this image: “the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days, on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isa 30:26).

In Third Isaiah this promise blossoms wonderfully: “the sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Isa 60:19–20). For Zechariah, the apocalyptic vision of the final victory of the Lord includes the affirmation that “ there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light” (Zech 14:7).

Light, of course, forms one of the famous “I Am”affirmations that Jesus makes of himself in John’s Gospel (John 8:12; 9:5; see also 1:4–9; 3:19–21; 11:9–10; 12:35–36, 46) and the description of his faithful followers as “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14, 16). Paul rejoiced that “it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

He urged believers to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12) and affirmed that they are “all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (1 Thess 5:5). He rejoices that “it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

The author of 1 John also uses this imagery to affirm that “ God is light” (1 John 1:5) and advises believers, “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7; 2:10). The final vision of Revelation includes a description of the servants of the Lamb, noting that “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5); indeed, “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb; the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev 21:23–24).

So the readings for this Sunday express a strong biblical theme that has run from the opening story of creation, through the story of Israel and the movement initiated by Jesus, to the vision of the promised future. What has been to the fore throughout Epiphany climaxes atop the mountains where Moses receives and Jesus interprets the Torah, with the appearance of “the glory of the Lord … like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:17) and the glittering transformation of the appearance of Jesus as “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt 17:2).

“We say sorry”: remembering 13 February 2008

Fifteen years ago today, the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, stood in a Federal Parliament packed with First Nations people, and delivered an Apology to the Stolen Generations: “we say, sorry; to the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry; and for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

It was Rudd’s finest hour. There were many more disastrous moments during the time of Rudd’s leadership. But this was a high moment—for him, as national leader, and for the nation, coming to grips with a long-enduring damaging factor in the history of Australia since the British invasion in 1788. “We say sorry”, that simple phrase, repeated with increasing intensity: short, pointed, focussed—and so, so needed.

Formally, the Apology which was delivered on 13 February 2008, was known as the National Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Apology recognised the injustices of past government policies, particularly as they related to the Stolen Generations. Throughout much of the 20th century, governments, churches and welfare bodies had forcibly removed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.

In April 1997, a landmark report on the Stolen Generations had been issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home. (Interestingly, that exact phrase was then used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.)

Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the then-President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”

The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.

Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see

They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see

The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997) and New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.

The texts of the above apologies can be found at

Guided by Howard’s refusal to acknowledge the depth of the realities that had been experienced by First Peoples, his government had described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or ”apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries. There would be no apology from this mean-spirited government.

With the election of Rudd’s government in 2007, the perspective on Indigenous matters, and the way of dealing with the Bringing Them Home Report of a decade earlier, dramatically shifted. It was very early on in the term of the first Rudd Government that the Apology to the Stolen Generations was delivered, in the midst of an overflowing outpouring of emotions from those gathered in Canberra on that day, as they heard a direct apology for what they and their forebears had experienced over many, many decades,

This speech is worth remembering today, in the midst of our considerations about Voice, Treaty, and Truth. The 1997 Report and the 2008 Apology were steps along the way of Truth-Telling. There are more steps for us to take, as a nation, in this regard. And there is a pressing need for a Voice, from Indigenous Peoples, directly to the Federal Parliament, to advise and guide on the best ways forward for the First Peoples of this continent and its surrounding islands.

See also


Plants and buildings, folly and wisdom (1 Cor 3; Epiphany 6A)

In recent weeks, we have traced the argument in the opening chapters of what we know as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter itself is positioned as a joint enterprise, written by Sosthenes, one of the leaders of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17), and Paul, a Pharisee who was well-trained in understanding Torah (Phil 3:5) and was known for being “advanced in Judaism” and “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14).

So it should be no surprise that in this letter, they make regular use of scriptures drawn from their Jewish traditions and terms already familiar from their occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptures (at least, in the Greek translations that were available, such as the Septuagint). In fact, each section of the opening argument is shaped around Hebrew Scripture texts, as we have seen.

The opening message about “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18–31) begins with scripture (1:19, citing Isa 29:14) and ends with scripture (1:31, quoting Jer 9:22–23). The second section with the declaration about “know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1–16) cites Isa 64:4 (at 2:9) and later concludes with a quotation from Isa 40:13 (at 2:16). In both instances, the concluding quotation is the lynchpin for the argument—delayed, in typical rabbinic style, to provide the “proof text” that draws the whole rhetorical sequence to a head.

A similar kind of structure appears in chapter 3 of the letter, although sadly the lectionary has severed the start from the end. This coming Sunday, Epiphany 6, we are offered 1 Cor 3:1–9, a discussion about the leaders of the groups that had developed within the community, fracturing the unity that was desired (see 1 Cor 1:10–17). In that early section, Paul had identified Cephas, Apollos, himself, and indeed Christ, as the leaders of four different factions. He returns to two of those names, Apollos and his own, in this section of the letter (see 3:4–6, 22).

In addressing that sorry situation at the start of the letter, Paul and Sosthenes affirm that their mission was “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). The irony, of course, is that the letter uses precisely the finely-honed tools of rhetoric to convey that gospel truth; see my analysis at


Sadly, the second part of the argument in chapter 3, where the writers build on what has been stated in the earlier part, is allocated by the lectionary to Epiphany 7 (1 Cor 3:10–23); but in the current year, when Easter falls relatively early, there is no Epiphany 7. So a strict following of the lectionary means that we miss the concluding section, and the punchline, of this third extended argument.

The argument of this third chapter comes to a head with the quotation of two scripture texts: Job 5:12 (at 3:19) and then Psalm 94:11 (at 3:20). Both texts puncture any claim to importance or priority amongst “the wise”—the heart of the argument that has been advanced since the initial scripture quotation, of Isa 29:14, at 1 Cor 1:19. So the conclusion.

Whilst the beginning of the argument in chapter 3 has no explicit scripture quotation, nor even any defined allusion, to scriptural texts, there are elements that bear on Hebrew Scripture. The imagery of planting and watering, and fruit growing (3:6) would surely have been evocative to those familiar with the agricultural history of Israel. A common symbol for the people, the nation, was the vineyard (Exod 15:17; Psalm 80:8–15; Isa 5:1–7; 60:21; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:5–10; 19:10; Amos 9:15). As was reiterated in these scriptural passages, God planted the nation, and God gave growth to the people as “the vine”—an affirmation that the letter to the Corinthians firmly maintains: “God gave the growth” (3:7).

The imagery of building (3:9–15) also has scriptural resonances. Hebrew Scripture contains a long history-like multi-book saga of Israel that the Deuteronomist constructed, drawing on various sources, to narrate the story of the creation and flourishing of the kingdom of Israel (including both Israel and Judah). There can be no doubt that a high point in this saga was reached with the construction of “a building” on Mount Zion. The house of the Lord was the pinnacle of the nation which had been promised (in Genesis), created (in the other books of Torah, and then in Joshua and Judges), and established (in the narratives of Samuel and Kings).

This building was the work of perhaps the greatest of all Kings of Israel, Solomon (see 1 Kings 3—8). It was the fulfilment of a promise made to David (2 Sam 7, especially verse 13). The house built was to the the Temple, where the Lord God dwelt in the Holy of Holies (Exod 24—27). The centrality of the Temple, the house of God, in the religious, political, and social life of the people of Israel was clear.

Paul and Sosthenes use these scriptural references to good effect in addressing the difficulties of the situation in Corinth. They affirm that they, together with others active in planting and nurturing communities of faith, as well as the people in Corinth who participate in such communities, are indeed “God’s field, God’s building” (3:9).

The imagery of plants in the field, watered and nurtured, growing together (3:6–8) both draws on the Israelite language of Israel as the vineyard, but also counters the situation of division and discord in Corinth. Rather than claiming “I belong to XX”, as was noted previously (1:12) and is repeated here (3:4), the Corinthians are challenged to look for a “common purpose” (3:8) and to be “God’s servants, working together” (3:9).

The language of a building (3:10–11) points to the central building structure in the kingdom of Israel, the Temple, and reminds the Corinthians that they have been carefully and deliberately placed on a form foundation, and “that foundation is Jesus Christ” (3:11). The language here recalls the central focus articulated earlier in the letter: “the message about the cross” (1:18), the singular focus on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). The wisdom that God offers through this follow of crucifixion is what will build up the community (3:12–13).

So the conclusion is drawn with a typical rhetorical question: “do you not know that you are God’s temple?” (3:16), followed by a strengthening affirmation, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:17). The introduction of the age-old Israelite notion of holiness here thus sets up the argument for what follows in subsequent chapters, as instances of unholy behaviour are addressed.

The argument of this chapter draws to a familiar close, with two scripture citations that underline the power of divine weakness (if that is what the crucifixion of Jesus might have shown), the folly of divine wisdom (again made evident through the cross). The advice is clear: “if you think you are wise … you should become fools” (3:18); and then, “let no one boast about human leaders” (3:21).

To substantiate this, the word of Job is first cited (Job 3:15 at 1 Cor 3:19)—God “catches the wise in their craftiness”—followed by the words of the psalmist, “the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” (Ps 94:11 at 1 Cor 3:20). The argument proposed in principle at 1:18–25 comes to its culmination here through its application to the Corinthians. Wisdom is folly, power is weakness; yet in God’s weakness, power is manifested, and in God’s foolishness, wisdom is declared.

Eye of the Heart Enlightened: words for the opening of the Parliamentary Year (2023)

Australia is a democracy, governed by a series of parliaments—one for each state and territory, and one for the whole nation, drawing together representatives from across the continent, to meet, deliberate, and legislate. The Federal Parliament meets in the Australian Parliament House, in Canberra, the capital city of the nation.

Each time a new parliamentary sitting commences, one of the churches of Canberra hosts a service of worship, to which come the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, their parliamentary colleagues, and others connected with the workings of the Parliament. The service moves around churches on a rotating basis, and the liturgist and preacher are provided each time by leaders in those churches.

This year, at the start of the parliamentary year, the preacher was a friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard, who is the Director of the Benedictus Community, which meets in Canberra and online. Sarah spoke words drawing from the scriptural heritage of Christianity and Judaism; the texts read in the service were Proverbs 8:1–4, 8–11; Psalm 24:1–5; and Matthew 5:1–10.

Sarah spoke directly, and clearly, to the parliamentary leadership, about an issue which deserves to have the central place in our public and political considerations during 2023: the Statement from the Heart, an offering written at Uluṟu in 2017 by leaders of the First Peoples of Australia, addressing the nation of Australia. With Sarah’s permission, I am reproducing what she said at that service of worship.


Every week in religious communities around Australia, prayers are offered for those charged with leadership and the government of peoples. ‘Give wisdom to those who have responsibility and authority in every land’, so the Anglican version goes, ‘that we may share with justice the resources of the earth, and work together in trust’. It’s a theme as old as human community.

To those of you who commit to this service, these difficult responsibilities, on behalf of us all – thank you. For as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, real leadership in the face of this complexity is demanding. It involves many elements – good intentions, good information, the willingness to nurture relationships and build consensus, and sheer hard work. There’s something else needed too, as the prayer I cited above suggests. Something absolutely vital. We call it wisdom.

The recognition that nurturing just and life-giving relationships between peoples, negotiating competing desires and interests in a world of gift and limit, while caring for the very conditions of existence, is no straightforward matter.

Wisdom is the quality of those we relate to as elders, of those who speak with authority, whether or not they have positional power. It has to do with judgement, discernment, seeing a bigger picture. Of course, like every human quality – wisdom can be corrupted or reduced by self-interest. Guile and cunning are its debased expressions.

True wisdom, though, is different. The wise perceive and connect to the depth dimension of reality and so enable creative, compassionate engagement with the fuller truth of things. Wisdom is a form of what the great Australian poet, Les Murray, called ‘whole-thinking’. (The phrase comes from his poem, ‘Poetry and Religion’ in Les Murray, Selected Poems; Melbourne: Black Inc, 2007, p.94. )

As one contemplative teacher has put it, ‘wisdom is not knowing more things. It’s knowing with more of ourselves’. (see Cynthia Bourgeault,

For the wisdom traditions of the world this capacity for ‘whole thinking’, fuller knowing, is connected to the ‘heart’ – where ‘heart’ refers not to feelings alone, but to the centre or soul of a person. Wisdom is an integrated, attentive, compassionate responsiveness. It embodies what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, former Senior Australian of the year, calls ‘dadirri’ – ‘inner deep listening and quiet still awareness’. (See Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, ‘Dadirri: Inner Deep Listening and Quiet Still Awareness’,, © 1988 Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr)

‘Give wisdom to those in authority’. But where does wisdom come from? How does any of us grow in it, amidst the messy, busy and often overwhelming circumstances of politics, work and life?

Strangely enough, experience teaches that our access to this integrated, heart’s knowing is usually by way of the heart’s breaking. And maybe you know this for yourself. A time, perhaps, when a disappointment, failure, betrayal or profound grief threw you out of the life you’d known and had tried to fashion for yourself. A time when your ways of making sense faltered, and you found yourself unable to go on as before.

Almost none of us undergoes heart-break willingly. Yet the great paradox is that if we can abide in this broken space without closing ourselves off by becoming bitter or repressed, we wake up at a different level. As the grip of our ego-ic illusions and fantasies of control loosens, we discover ourselves rooted in deeper ground. And gradually, we come to know ourselves more fully part of an interconnected, interdependent whole, capable of being responsible to the whole. Which is the beginning of wisdom.

This has nothing to do with valorising suffering or deprivation; licensing a society to neglect the vulnerable and dispossessed, or to fail to redress injustice. It’s simply the recognition that we don’t attain to ‘whole-thinking’ by cleverness, but through the integration of our wounds. We cannot acquire wisdom as a possession – it grows within us as we are opened at the level of the heart.

This is what Jesus means by poverty of spirit. And as he says in the text we heard read, it’s the poor in spirit … those who have touched the tears of things … those who walk humbly on the earth … who are blessed. For they are connected to the fullness of life and so are capable of truthful vision, of mercy and of making peace.

And this speaks directly to a matter which you, Prime Minister, have identified as central to the work of this current Parliament. Our nation has received the great gift of a Statement from the Heart of the first peoples of this land. This is a wisdom text. Born of heartbreak – of long and continuing suffering, yet marked by an extraordinary generosity of spirit open to the possibility that the wounds of our history might be reconciled for the good of all – the Statement from the Heart can only truly be heard and enacted when those to whom it is addressed make contact with and listen from their own heart

This is its gift and challenge to us all. The call for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution is thus not just another policy proposal, to be debated at the level of strategy and argument. As well as a condition of lasting justice for Australia’s first peoples, it’s an invitation to our nation as a whole to grow in wisdom’s way.

At a time when petty factionalism is tearing at the fabric of national and international communities, and the crises of our age escalate, the necessity for wisdom in the government and among the peoples of the world is urgent. May this Parliament, this nation – all of us – grow in wisdom that we may share with justice the resources of the earth, and work together in trust.

(A Sermon preached at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Manuka, in a Service for the Opening of Parliament, on 6 February 2023, by the Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard)


In a “doorstop” media interview after the service, two of the four questions asked of the Prime Minister related to the issue of a Voice. He was asked, “When do you think you will want to introduce legislation and set up the Voice? Would it be in this term of Parliament?”

Mr Albanese replied: “I’d be very hopeful that it would be, of course, in this term of Parliament. This is a task which we need to, of course, get the detail right. And there’d be a process as well of that parliamentary debate about the legislation. And I’d want to get as much agreement as possible, because I want this to be a long-term reform to benefit Indigenous Australians, to help close the gap. We’ll be talking about closing the gap, and the targets, and the fact that so many of them have not been met, when that is debated in Parliament over this sitting. And that is why this is a change that’s necessary.”

Then he was asked, “Will the Voice also advise National Cabinet?”, and he responded, “This is a Voice to Parliament, and it will be a Voice that will release its views publicly. Publicly, it will be available for all, is one of the principles that has been there. And of course, so many of the issues go across different levels of government. This is about consultation. It won’t have a right of veto, it won’t be a funding body, it’s very clear with the principles that have been put out.”

A little later, the Prime Minister tweeted, quoting Sarah Bachelard and affirming her words.

For information about Benedictus, see

Saltiness restored: the need for innovation. An Ordination Celebration.

“The church does not need inventors; rather, we need innovators.” This was the heart of the message delivered by the Director of Education and Principal of United Theological College, the Rev. Dr Peter Walker, at a joyful celebratory service last Sunday evening in the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in the ACT.

Dr Walker was speaking at a service to ordain Sharon Jacobs as a Minister of the Word and to induct her into placement in the Tuggeranong Congregation as the Relationships and Growth Minister, a newly-created position funded substantially by the Synod Growth Fund. The ordination was presided over by the recently-elected Co-Chairperson of the Canberra Region Presbytery, Ms Janet Kay.

Dr Walker was addressing a capacity congregation in the building, with more people connecting online, from Canberra, as well as Melbourne, Aotearoa—New Zealand, and Scotland—the places where the Rev. Jacobs has lived in the past. Speaking under the title of “saltiness restored”, derived from Matthew 5, Dr Walker noted that “whilst inventors create new things, innovators know what they have to offer, and work to ensure that others can appreciate this”.

We have the Gospel, he said; we know what we have to offer others; and we need to work to find ways in which this good news comes alive in the lives of others. Our charge is to be “salt of the earth”; the church in our time is to discover how to be “saltiness restored”.

His words were particularly appropriate for the Tuggeranong Congregation, which has been innovating its life and witness in recent years, under the energetic leadership of the Rev. Elizabeth Raine and a strong team of lay leaders. The Congregation has refreshed its worship life, and continues its online worship alongside the in-person gathering each week. The Rev. Raine has developed the Congregation into an intentional learning community, providing leadership in three weekly online BIble Studies throughout the pandemic lockdowns. These studies are also continuing, as they draw participants from across the Presbytery and beyond, even interstate and overseas!!

The Church Council has charted a deliberate course to make a difference in the wider Tuggeranong community—to be the “salt of the earth” in southern Canberra. Deliberate connections have been fostered with a number of community groups; the Congregation has participated in Floriade Reimagined, reinvigorated its Red Dove pop-up Op Shop, continued providing its weekly Emergency Food and Lunchtime Conversation group, and offered the wider community innovative events such as Christmas Reimagined and SpringFest. A partnership with SeeChange Tuggeranong has seen regular events with a focus on sustainability.

Members of the Congregation, Sally-Anne, Iain, and Delia, with Sharon as she holds the Rainbow Christian Alliance affirming that “you are loved”

The monthly Rainbow Christian Alliance now meets in the church and has broadened its membership beyond LGB people to include growing numbers of TIQ members. A monthly Messy Church under the name of Fam@4 now meets at 4pm on the 4th Sunday of the month. Regular intergenerational worship services are scheduled for key moments on Sunday mornings, and inevitably the church is filled with people of all ages, craft activities, vibrant music, with lots of colour, energy, and caring relationships growing.

Sharon will focus her 50% role on developing the Congregation’s work with families and children, as well as supporting and growing the leadership and membership of the Rainbow Christian Alliance. She brings experience and giftedness in pastoral care, working creatively with children, and generating enthusiasm—qualities that fit her well for this role.

During the service, Sharon was welcomed as she joins the team of the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, Minister in placement, and the Rev. Margaret Middleton, the Tuggeranong Minister-in-Association. She was charged for her life as an ordained minister by her former minister, the Rev. David Thiem, and presented with a colourful rainbow stole by the congregation.

The Revs. Andrew Smith, LizMcMillan, David Thiem,
and Dr Peter Walker, with Sharon Jacobs

Also participating in the service were Canberra Region Presbytery Ministers, the Rev. Andrew Smith, and the Rev. Liz McMillan, recently arrived from Melbourne. Many members of the Presbytery greeted Sharon after her induction, and members of the Tuggeranong Congregation offered their trademark hospitality of a generous supper, as friendships were rekindled amongst those present after the service concluded.

Keep watching Tuggeranong, as innovation continues, its salty contribution to the local community in southern Canberra develops, and the vibrant life of the Congregation grows!

Presbytery Co-Chair, Girls Brigade Captain, Scripture readers,
Andrew Smith, Sharon Jacobs, Liz McMillan


See also