Australia Day – St David’s Cathedral

A sermon by The Bishop of Tasmania on Australia Day 2020

Deut 8:11-20, Psalm 116, Acts 17:22-31, Luke 6:46-49


What is this day?

According to the Australia Day website Australia Day, 26 January, is the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge our history.

It continues: On Australia Day we celebrate all the things we love about Australia: land, sense of fair go, lifestyle, democracy, the freedoms we enjoy but particularly our people.

Australia Day is about acknowledging and celebrating the contribution that every Australian makes to our contemporary and dynamic nation.

From our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who have been here for more than 65,000 years – to those who have lived here for generations, to those who have come from all corners of the globe to call our country home. 

And in some ways, this is a really good thing to set aside a day of national observance to celebrate, acknowledge and give thanks for our great nation. For Christians this is especially important to have the opportunity to give thanks to God and to pray for the nation, things we will certainly do today.

But the date of January 26th is a curious date on which to observe this national day.

Of all the dates in the Calendar this one is the most profound. It was profoundly triumphant for an imperialist British government as on that day in 1788, yet another part of the world which had been previously annexed was now under their control. But that day in 1788 was of course profound for another reason. Profoundly sad for the people already living in the land that was to become known as Australia because that day was their own catastrophe marking the beginning of occupation and dispossession.

A National Celebration is good but why we will still hold it on this date as only a day of celebration is not quite clear to me. In a couple of hours the “Invasion Day Rally” will be held in our streets and on the lawns of Parliament House 400 metres from here; a time of mourning for the Aboriginal Community.

The Question is: How should Christians approach Australia Day and its celebration on January 26 in particular?

This morning I want to look at this question from a biblical lens.

The first observation I want to make is that God Orders the Nations of the World.

Our reading this morning from Acts 17 records a famous address that the Apostle Paul gave in the city of Athens. The sermon on the Unknown God of Athens. We don’t have time to think about that whole passage this morning, but it teaches us something profound about God’s interaction with the nations of the world. If you’d like to turn it up and have a look with me at v 24

It tells us that God made the world and everything in it and he is the Lord of Heaven and Earth. And when I hear those words I immediately think of the beauty of God’s created earth. The sea and the sky, the mountains and rivers, the plants and animals. But it is clear that Paul means other things as well.

v 25 everything in the world depends upon him for life. We don’t actually give him anything that he needs, it is entirely the other way around, even to the point of ordering the nations.

v 26 he refers to the primordial Adam, the one man of his creation, from whom all the world is descended

and then says that it was God who set the nations in their historic context and in their physical context

he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.

That is, when we think about Australia – it was God who gave 65,000 years of history to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It was God who apportioned the territory of these islands to the 300 nations that lived here prior to 1788. It is not political correctness to assert these things but biblical correctness.

This truth on the lips of the Apostle Paul exposes the untruth that the great southland was terra nullius. It was terra populus, by the Lord’s hand. His words expose the untruth of “empire”, that the British (and other world powers of the day) had ANY rights to conquer the lands of the world for their own economic gain and as a cure to their social problems. It exposes the untruth that the “Crown” could appropriate land and dole it out to others even making money from it as if it were theirs to give. It exposes the untruth of thinking that human beings are in charge of history.

The reason God did this is set out in verses 27-28 where we learn one further fact. The fact is all the peoples of the world are God’s offspring, his children, his beloved, put in their places that they might find him. Aboriginal Christians will tell you, that they knew the same God in their creation as we know. They knew him from creation, as we do. God knows us and loves us. The Indigenous people were and are known and loved by God, created in his image to reflect his glory in the world. And as such should have been treated with honour and respect and dignity.

But it is well known that this was not what happened In Australia Here in Tasmania, terrible atrocities, as land was stolen from its rightful owners to make way for the grazing of sheep.

I recently learned that what was happening here in Tasmania was known quite widely around the world.

HG Wells – the English writer of the late 19th century is sometimes known as the father of the science fiction genre. One of his best-known works is the War of the Worlds written in 1897. A science fiction work that tells the story of a Martian invasion into Southern England. In 1938 – it was so realistically portrayed as a radio play that there was wide-spread panic about an alien invasion!

What I learned recently was what was in HG Well’s mind as he wrote the story. He was reflecting on the catastrophic effect of the British on indigenous Tasmanians. What would happen, he wondered, if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians? This is what he wrote in the preamble:

We men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them [the Martians] at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. […] And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and dodo, but upon its own [so called] inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

You see, the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians was well known around the world. And it stemmed from the unbiblical invasion on January 26th 1788. And then subsequent invasions, wars, massacres, ethnic cleansing and genocide in other parts of the country

Responding to Australia Day on January 26

So how should Christians respond to Australia Day on January 26? It seems to me that we should at the very least mark it by lament and mourning and confession and repentance.

Human beings get stuff wrong all the time and you and I have benefited from this great wrong on Jan 26, 1788 and we continue to benefit from it while Aboriginal Australians still live with its impact.

Brooke Prentis (Aboriginal Christian leader who has been here in Tasmania this week) writes this: “For us, on the 26 January we will be commemorating, not celebrating,” she writes. “We will be commemorating losses – loss of land, loss of language, loss of life. Let us remember in 1788 it is estimated there were 1,000,000 Aboriginal people across this land and by the early 1900s that number had dropped to between 30,000 and 90,000 people. Our land, our Australia, is drenched in the blood of Aboriginal peoples where genocide, massacres, rape and theft occurred.”

The appropriate response for believers is not to pretend we are not part of it but to join the bible’s long tradition of corporate and historic confession of sin.

Listen to Psalm 32 – a psalm of penitence, and how King David reflects on this:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

For far too long we have kept silent about all this. We have ignored the facts, we have kept silent about this part of our history and it has become a festering wound in our nation. But the promise of Psalm 32 is the freedom that comes from honest reflection, honest confession of sin.

Listen to the next verses David writes:

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

January 26 should be a day that includes corporate lament:

a day to say sorry

a day to make restitution

a day to acknowledge the past

a day to tell the truth about our dark history.

a day to confess our corporate and historic sin.

And we Christians should be at the forefront of that reconciling work.

It is an abdication of responsibility to say: “I didn’t murder any Aboriginal people”, “I don’t have anything to repent of”. The bible is very clear that confession is corporate and historic. Nehemiah 9 records the confession of not just personal and immediate sin but corporate and historic sins. In confessing the sins of the nation Ezra said:

34 Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep.

The prophet Daniel does the same thing in Chapter 9: He prays: “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you.

And in my view it is only after confession and lament that we can get on with the business of celebrating Australia Day.

In the past I saw Australia Day as just a great day to kick back and enjoy all that we have in this land – freedom, multi-culturalism, equality and peace. A great day for a BBQ with a few friends as the year gets underway. But a mature reflection makes me want to bring this note of lament before I move too quickly to celebration.

I wonder if you know that the first sermon ever preached in Australia was a sermon of thanksgiving? Richard Johnson was the 31-year-old Chaplain to the First Fleet. The first church service was held on February 3rd the Sunday before (Jan 27) being taken up by the busy unloading of the ships.

The text of the sermon was our Psalm this morning and particularly verse 12: What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? The Psalm recounts the Lord’s deliverance and sustaining the face of difficulty. God’s faithfulness through trial. This would have had a certain poignancy for those had made the perilous journey at sea for the last three months.

And it’s not a bad text even for Australia Day in 2020. The Lord has been good to us in this nation even with our dark history. We are a land of many blessings: a peaceful democracy, wealth for many and opportunities galore, not to mention the incredible beauty and bounty of the land. So, we too can say “what shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me?”

And the answer is in the next lines:

13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.  

To honour the Lord for all he has done for us is to not forget him, to call on his name and fulfil our dedication of service to him.

A Warning to Heed

I want to finish this morning by reflecting on the Old Testament reading from Deut 8, Words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel just before they enter into the Promised Land. They were about to come to place commonly described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” – an abundant and beautiful land.

In spite of our harsh and getting harsher climate Australia is still a land of great abundance. And so the words have a particularly relevant ring to them don’t they

Have a look in your service booklet as I read:

11 Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

This seems to me to be exactly what has happened in this country. We have eaten and been satisfied, we have built our fine houses and settled down, our herds and flocks have grown large, our silver and gold have increased, and all that we have is multiplied. And we have fallen into the trap of saying, “I’ve done this.” “the power and strength of my hands have produced my wealth”. We have done exactly that! and become proud rather than dependent on the Lord.

If there is one thing we could do this Australia Day, if there is one thing we could say, it is to remember the Lord and call of the Lord of mercy to bring our nation back to him, to remember him who gives us the ability to be who we are.

I am up for celebrating Australia Day. Returning thanks to the Lord, for all his goodness to us. Praying for the nation not to forget the Lord but to turn again to him to find life. And while AD is on January 26th that we make that thanksgiving as we also lament and confess our sins, as we thank God and pray for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Our rich heritage and history and resolve for a nation that honours Jesus in all we say and do.