An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Where To From Here?

A sermon on Isaiah 43:16-21 & Philippians 3:4-14  by Nathan Nettleton

A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

You’ve probably heard the old story about the bloke who was travelling through rural Victoria in the days before GPS and SatNav systems, and he was a little bit lost. Not really lost; he knew where he was, but he wasn’t sure how to get to where he was going. So in the next town he pulled up in the main street and saw an old local in the street and asked, “How do I get to Quambatook from here?” And the old local looked at him, and scratched his beard for a minute and then said, “Quambatook, eh? I wouldn’t start from here.”

Now if you are trying to get to Quambatook, or Moorabbin or somewhere, then one way of doing it is to follow someone who knows the way there. But there is a significant risk in that method. Maybe you’ve had this experience. You’re following someone who knows the way, and then something goes wrong and you lose them at the lights or something, and then you realise that you’re in a real mess because while you were focussed on following, you didn’t need to keep track of where you’d been, and now you’ve lost them and you’ve got absolutely no idea where you are or where to go next. Following is not always as easy as it sounds.

If we are committed to following Jesus, and that’s what most of us pledged ourselves to do for the rest of our lives when we were baptised, then it is obviously pretty important to know where he is, where he is going, and what he is doing. Like, if I told you to spend the day tomorrow following Shelley around, so you headed up to Horsham, only to find that she’d driven down to Melbourne yesterday and will be down here for the week, then you’d be off to a pretty bad start. If you didn’t even know where Shelley was, let alone where she might be going next, then your following of Shelley is going to come up short pretty quickly, isn’t it? 

Now following Jesus doesn’t usually involve driving up and down the Western Highway like following Shelley would, but it still requires us to be able to stay up to date with where Jesus is and what he’s doing. At other times we might talk instead about needing to be able to tell where the Spirit is moving in order to be able to go with the Spirit. In most cases, those ideas are expressing much the same thing.

So the bit of Christian jargon that comes up here is the word “discernment” which basically means being able to spot the signs that show us where Jesus is and what he’s up to, or which way the Spirit of Jesus is moving at any given time. As followers of Jesus, discernment is something we are involved in all the time, but in this season of Lent, it comes up as one of those spiritual practices that we try to work on a bit harder and get better at.

So this evening, I want to pick up an idea that came up in at least two of our Bible readings that speaks of an important aspect of discernment, in fact of one of the difficulties of discernment, and I want to relate them directly to something that I’ve been giving rather a lot of time to lately, and that is the proposed constitutional changes for our Baptist Union. My point may seem a bit discouraging, because it illustrates how difficult good discernment is, but I hope it will be helpful, because owning up to those difficulties is actually an important part of learning to deal with them and follow Jesus despite them.

A word about the Baptist Union situation first, and then a look at what our Bible readings might be saying to us in this context. 

The Baptist Union of Victoria has announced that it is seeking to make some changes to its constitution, and to some of the policies that go with it. The changes roughly fit into three main groups. The first group is what you might call routine maintenance. There are some new sections that need to be inserted because some national laws have changed with regard to not-for-profit organisations like churches, and we need to change some things in order to comply with those rules. And while we’re at it, there’s a few other little tweaks and updates that we might as well do at the same time. Nothing much controversial about that group.

The second group is some changes that emerge from a project undertaken over the last few years to work out how we should deal with churches that have dwindled and died but are reluctant to admit it and close the doors. Now there are some parts of the proposed solution that I don’t like, and in particular one which I think causes a conflict of interest for the Baptist Union Council and should be changed, but I recognise that these proposals have been under discussion for several years and they are attempting to deal with a genuine problem.

The third group has come as a surprise, and at a consultation last Thursday night, it was admitted that there has been no prior consultation about these ones. The general idea behind them is to ensure that Baptist churches have an ongoing commitment to being just that – Baptist churches. And I support that idea in principle. It is just that I do have some established expertise in Baptist identity and Baptist theology, and it appears to me that the same cannot be said for the people who put together this proposal about ongoing commitment to being Baptist churches. Instead, it appears to me that several key aspects of the document are fundamentally unBaptist, and that its adoption would, in significant ways, make us much less Baptist.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think there is anything deliberate or malicious abut this. The people involved are people I know and trust. They are good people with good intentions, but in this case it appears to me that they were so oblivious to the issues of Baptist identity that they failed to consult both their churches and the experts on Baptist history and practice who could have alerted them to the flaws in their proposals.

The issues involved are big enough that for the first time in all my years as a Baptist pastor, I’m wondering whether if this went through I might be wanting to talk about whether we should withdraw from membership of the Union. And I know quite a few other pastors who are asking the same question. 

It is strange, because I’ve seen some pretty big fights over some pretty high profile issues over the decades, but here we are with something that many if not most of our churches haven’t even noticed, and this is the first one I’ve really thought might split the Union.

So then I come to tonight’s Bible readings, and I hear God saying through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

And I hear the Apostle Paul saying, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Now you can perhaps imagine how those lines sound to me at the moment. God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Can you see it coming? Can you smell it like approaching rain? 

This is the discernment question. Can you sense what’s happening, where the Spirit of God is moving, which direction the footsteps of the risen Jesus are taking us? So for me right at the moment, that can easily sound like it confirms what I’m thinking. Perhaps it is time for something new. Perhaps the Union that has served us well has served its time and needs to be left behind. I’m doing something new now, says the Lord, can you sense it coming.

Maybe the Baptist Union is now one of those things which the Apostle Paul describes as lying behind us and needing to be forgotten as we press on towards the goal of the new things that God is doing. You can see how easily these lines can be heard as reinforcing just what I’ve been wondering. Thus says the Lord, and all that.

But I’ve got to be honest with you and urge you to be sceptical of any preachers who try to make out that it is all that easy. Because look what happens if I try to stand in the shoes of the current Baptist Union leadership and listen to these same verses from their perspective.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Sure Nathan, you have some expertise in the way our Baptist forebears thought and the sorts of things they held to be important, but do not cling on to the former things, or stay bogged down in the ways of the past. God is doing a new thing here, and sure, it might be at odds with what some Baptists of the past thought, but new things are like that. They’re new. God is doing a new thing here, can you not perceive it? Forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead, the new thing that God is doing in the Baptist Union.

If I’m honest about it, I know that neither of these perspectives on how God might be speaking through these passages into these current events is any more obviously correct than the other. One of the most important disciplines in the practice of discernment is learning how to recognise the way your personal biases impact on the way you hear and interpret things. When you hear God saying exactly what you were hoping to hear, there’s far more reason for caution than if you hear God saying something that’s obviously good but personally costly and disappointing.

Beware of jumping up and grabbing on to some verse that came up as though it was a personalised message to you for just such a situation as this. God can, and sometimes does speak to us that way, but these verses are very old, and they have spoken to a thousand situations already and the next one may not be the one you wanted it to be. But we are always tempted to grab on tight anyway, because we’d so love to have something that made the issues clearcut and relieved us of the responsibility of doing the hard work.

Good discernment usually involves some significant work of thinking and talking and praying and researching and nutting things through. Usually, and especially when it is about discerning what God is asking of us as a group, it is a communal activity. We need to get together and listen to one another. We need to make sure we have got the range of views represented in the room. We need to call in some expertise if we don’t already have it among us. We need to make sure we have started talking to one another before anyone has invested too much work in developing an almost final proposal. 

That’s been one of the big failings of this Baptist Union process. On this third and most problematic document, they’ve only called for consultation after distributing a document that they thought was ready to be voted on. And so of course, when people start seriously questioning it, the people who did all that work are naturally going to want to defend it, because otherwise all their work might have been a waste of time. 

Good discernment processes require us to invite everyone to be involved as early as possible. And they require us to listen respectfully to the views of those who see things differently. This has been one of the things we Baptists should understand well, because we are a tradition founded in respect for dissenting views. We have always believed that the voice of God may come to us first through the lone dissenting voice. Think Jeremiah. Think Jesus. The voice we might be most tempted to suppress may be the voice through whom God is speaking to us. This kind of serious discernment takes time and care and imagination, but it is the pathway to recognising what is going on when God is moving on and doing something new.

In Jesus, God is certainly doing something new. It is something that brings love and mercy and liberation and joy and outrageously abundant life. But most of us are at least partially clinging to some former things, some ways of the past that lie behind us, and those things make it difficult for us to even recognise the fingerprints of God on the new things that are emerging, let alone embrace them with joyous freedom.

But God doesn’t leave us stuck at the lights, bewildered and wondering where to from here. That’s actually precisely why God came to us in Jesus: to show us exactly what it looks like when the new things that God is doing are embraced and lived to the full in a fully human life. Now we have so much more than the rather vague concept of discerning the movements of the Spirit. Instead we have a model for exactly what it looks like when lived out fully by one of us.

And while that doesn’t answer my questions about the Baptist Union, or give me a short cut out of the hard work of grappling properly with those questions, it does assure me that there is One on the road ahead of us, One who knows exactly where he is going, and whose love and mercy surrounds us and lightens our path, even when the road to where we are going doesn’t seem as though it should have started from here.


  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    I am of course limited in my address to Nathan’s great sermon since I do not have a Baptist Tradition. So just as Nathan did not get down to the actual proposals so to I will stay away from them. My main thought as a complement to Nathan’s description of change processes is to say that the material point in these types of processes is to ask – not what is the answer and/or is my answer better than yours. I prefer to start with the questions and the goals- what are my conversation partners trying to change and thereby what are they trying to achieve? THis is really relevant for John’s Gospel fom which we heard this week. JOhn has the BIG BIG question/goal at the opening of his Gospel and at the end. To the first disciples he asks them…WHAT DO YOU SEEK? and at the Mount of Olives and in the Garden of the resurrection He again asks WHAT DO YOU SEEK? Rather tan pitting one view (mine) against another( them) I try to start with their position….where are you trying to get to? Sounds like Nathan’s opening bit of humour and his big conclusion too. I differ from him slightly – my question is – where is the Baptist Union seeking to go? Obviously the past traditions are relevant but I think the Scriptures are really asking for the way forward and maybe using a new roadmap? As Nathan said the issue is whether you want to focus on the road ahead and how much does the road behind tells us about that direction. As Nathan said we are maybe at the lights and we have no reference points in the prior jorney to help us go forward…or go anywhere for that matter.

    Now Catholic Bishop Barron’s homily on the Gospel of the Woman caught in adultery ( read in Catholic Churches on 5 Sunday rather than the Anointing of the Woman story) focussed on two main streams. One was scapegoating but I think his other point is much more relevant to Nathan’s line of sermon. I especially liked Bishop Barron’s Introduction about the return of Yahweh to the Temple. Jesus coming from his overnight sojourn on Mount of olives echoes the return of yahweh to the Temple. First temple scriptures had Yahweh leaving the temple never to return. Personally I was always perplexed about this opening as the text seemed to be screaming out something but I could not get it….Jesus went to Mt of Olives and returned to the Temple in the morning…..Barron’s explanation ticks the box well. Now however while I talk about Jesus return to the temple the import of Christian scriptures is developed in Paul along the lines that the Church is the Body of christ and we, its members, are “living stones”. The Spirit of God now inhabits those living stones as the way forward. Jesus resurrection gave way to the Spirit.
    I have been reading in past week the very large double volume work of Anglican Tom Wright on St Paul. Now in that volume he has been describing Paul’s opposition to the circumcising of gentile Converts. I was focussing upon Romans but mainly 2 Corinthians 5(16-21) from the Readings of Week 4. That took me to Galatians and the big storm that Paul had with Peter, James and Jerusalem Church over gentiles and the application of the Torah practices to them. A lecturer at ACU (Ian Elmer _ I think but forgive me if I am wrong. His PHD thesis was about Galatians 3 and this bun fight about Gentiles and what bits of the Torah could be left aside by Paul in bringing them into the Christain assembly. . Sadly Ian’s PHD preceeded Wright’s Publication by 10 years or more and he does not mention Wright in his PHD bibliography. Anyway I will see if I can make my point following.

    The Sunday readings of past 2 weeks address Forgiving Father in Luke and Adultrous Woman in John. Listening to Tom Wright and also Nathan Nettleton ( for Prodigal Son story) I draw the conclusion that maybe the point of the two accounts is not to be held just at the personal level of sin, individual behaviour and psychology of the group. It is about the status of Christians viv a vis the Torah. In Luke the father is in breach of the Torah – he does not discipline the sons and actually is complicit by giving the younger money that is not his as the Father is still alive. The Elder Son ( as persona of Torah) is correct in admonishing the Father. Leviticus ( per Nathan) required the deviant younger son to be stoned. I think this is how nathan put it.
    In the Second reading ( 2 Corinthians 5 16-21) Paul is berating those who would want gentiles to be subservient to the Torah and not Faith in jesus. So the argument per Paul and Luke is whether Jesus is the “new thing” from Deuteronomy 30 – covenant renewal – and that a return to the temple literally and circumcision are literally is NOT part of the formula for being a follower of jesus. The text in Greek of the prodigal Son has a lot of resonance with Torah language – slavery; inheritance; far off country; refused to come it; transgression of the Torah ( father) versus sin of the individual ( Younger Son); idolatry – harlots; etc etc.

    Now the John story of the Woman in adultery is also couched in Torah language. I think the punch line is when Jesus uses Torah language – “condemnation”. Paul in Romans uses the examples of being “condemned” – NOTE ROMANS Chapter 8 – if we are in Christ Jesus we are not condemned. The story in John is about the Elders trying to convict Jesus of NOT being a Torah observant Jew. They are hoping he will be publicly shamed – either by stoning the woman and denying his previous teachings or else he is a transgressor of the Torah. Transgression was more then sin. Transgression was a contemplated rebellion against the Law. Sin was “hamartia” – missing the mark through weakness. Now the ones ( from elder to younger) who refuse to stone the woman actually are ALSO transgressing the Torah – they are refusing to follow the edict of the Torah. Now Jesus says to the Woman ( only Mother of Jesus is called “woman” in John – Cana and Foot of Cross) – “.neither do I condemn you”. So this story suggests that Jesus has changed the point of attack from one that tried to show him as a non observant Jew to one that showed his lack of condemnation of the woman was completely in agreement with the Torah observant group who minutes earlier were promoting the Torah and its commandments to stone an adulterer. So Jesus is in the clear about Torah. This is a much bigger issue than personalindividual sins. The Gospel accounts of Forgiving Son and Forgiving Son go to the entire meaning of Jewish Salvation History. What does it all mean if we are going to throw out our traditions and embark on some entirely unchartered direction that preferences a man who has been cursed by being hung on a tree and executed as a criminal.

    So the point is not just personal morality. The real point is – is Jesus an apostate or not – Tom Wright and others suggest the turning point for Paul and the later Gospels is the Resurrection, Ascension and Spirit. These events “justify” who Jesus is..and why the Torah is now fulfilled in Him. This also accounts for Paul’s theology of the Body of Christ = Ecclesia. We are Living Stones in which the Holy Spirit dwells if we are “in Christ”.

    I heard a sermon once in 2018 where it was said at the opening of a significant community church building – the building is secondary to the community it serves. he then wonderfully outlined scripture- Firstly we have had the moving Tabernacle” – start with Exodus wandering and moving accompanied by Tent of Meeting The scripture describes the establishment of permanent Temple in Jerusalem. Finally we get back to another ‘movement’ – Paul’s ‘The Body of Christ’ – living stones- new temple. In his homily he stressed the building was at the service of the community and not just the repository of a static but beautiful tabernacle. This was despite standing in front of a very nice new tabernacle and also having paid for an ornate new tabernacle in another church which replaced a perfectly good tabernacle that’s only fault was that it did not agree with his vision of sacred art!. So conversations are always fraught with change and no change all intermingled.
    Finally in Sunday’s Second reading yesterday taken from Philippians Chapter 3 we encounter Paul writing in the most vile of language – he describes the “loss” of his previous loyalty to the Torah as – ‘skubala’ in Greek -“sewerage rubbish” – “crap” – and much more crass imagery. This epistle is all about “joy”; about his high regard for their support and perseverance. But in Chapter 3 he dishes up the most “vitriolic of imagery” for what had gone before. Maybe he was influenced by the recital of the “hymn” in Chapter 2 – what is regarded as the ‘self emptying of Christ jesus’ – the “kenosis” as it is known in Biblical Spirituality. Maybe Paul is overwhelmed that Jesus surrendered all his equality with God for our sake to take on “the likeness of a slave” – ” being born in human likeness”. Jesus took an entirely new path at the cost all that had been his personal tradition. And for Paul he knew thai included a cost – not just living among us but being excluded outside the camp -Crucifixion. Philippians was a ‘retirement village” of former Roman soldiers. They knew about disloyalty and being outside the camp!.
    So getting back to Nathan and how a church should evolve. Nathan gave us a hint about the need to maintain our “roots”. The Gospels and St Pauls’ letters seem to be about the opposite – what is ‘skubala” and what must be “retained”. Paul and the Gospels emphasise that to share the Victory of Christ we must also share His Sufferings. So I guess that the Baptist Union proposals are not unlike the proposals before the Catholic Community in our Plenary Council process – the key is how much we are willing to “suffer” and have “patience and perseverance”. Tough talking – from either side- is not a sign of disloyalty. But closed minds are terminal. What are they seeking? What are we seeking?

  2. Sylvia Sandeman

    While rereading this I remembered the opening story of a book- the book I thought it was in is not the book – so have not revisited it but it was about the church and change
    “The tribe were living and working where they had always been, beside the river – which was where their Elders had lived and all seemed well but there was less fish in the river they noticed but the river was still there where it had always been. So they were not concerned. Then they noticed that the water was not flowing as well but still they continued with there lives, But nothing was as it had been and nothing they did seemed to improve things.
    One day a stranger came by and the tribe got talking with the him and they told him their problems. “Where do you think you are? he asked. “Beside the river of our Elders” they said. Then the stranger replied “This is no longer the river but a Billabong – the river is flowing freely some 100 yards from here – go and see” The tribe were amazed. They went and found it just as the stranger had told them.
    Not sure this is relevant but I thought on this story – and it is a good story.

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