Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Day

I guess we’ve all seen that New Year’s cartoon where the old year exits stage right, battered and bruised, while bouncing baby New Year enters, blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead.  Usually the old grandad makes some wry comment in passing.  I guess I look at a cartoon like that with a mix of feelings – who would envy the new arrival when we know what’s in store for it!  - But at the same time there’s a twinge of excitement – who knows what the New Year will bring?  We recognise all the frustrated hopes and the hurts of the year gone past and who can resist hoping that the new year will be different – why not get excited?  We’ve got a blank slate in front of us!

It’s a clever analogy isn’t it? It plays on the all too familiar problem of the young and the old not really understanding or appreciating one another – in a society that idolises youth, the wisdom and experience of age is all too easily overlooked – and looking from the other direction it’s easy to be cynical about the enthusiasm and brash optimism of young people!  The old and the new seem to be in opposition, never really learning from one another.

Nowhere, I think, is this more evident than in the life of the church.  Partly it’s about the different style that young people bring to worship, the preference for informality, movement and music that we can see really clearly in some of the non-mainstream churches, but which is also making headway in our own Anglican tradition – but at a deeper level it’s about how we understand and talk about the mission of the church, always connected at one end to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ – to the historical bedrock of our faith – and at the other end is always searching for new ways of interacting with an unfamiliar cultural landscape.  And here too, the church I think finds itself torn between the old year and the new year – the desire to preserve and cherish the tradition of the church on the one hand, and the need to connect with the currents of contemporary life and culture, on the other hand.  Critics of the old claim that the liturgy of the church – the Eucharist itself that informs us who we are – has become inaccessible and incomprehensible to people who wander into our worship.  Other Christians are equally anxious about the danger that newer expressions of the church might lose touch with the depths of Christian spirituality in an effort to connect with modern culture. 

Here in our own parish I think we are right at the coal-face of all this.  Certainly, when I look back over the last 12 months of our parish life I can see much that has changed, for example with very different services of worship and new ways of doing the Eucharist at 12.00 o’clock with the Open Door CafĂ© community and more recently at 6.00 pm with our small contemporary service.  We have also made a number of quite significant changes to the physical layout of our church, mainly in the front garden which really is starting to look like an informal and attractive Australian outdoor gathering space.  All this is going to make it possible for us to try new ways of connecting with the culture we live in.  Maybe the biggest – and scariest – possibility that lies before us is the ABC childcare centre project – to be quite honest I think this has the potential to affect quite fundamentally how we work as a parish and what sort of things we do – because it’s going to introduce a whole new set of relationships with families and child care centre staff.  These things are exciting and forward-looking, and I have to say that I am proud to be the priest of a parish that has been able to catch this vision of what could be.  But it’s not plain sailing is it?  And I think for all of us who love the church and who love the depths of our tradition and history, there’s also some anxiety about facing times of fundamental change.

Today, after the wonder and miracle of Jesus birth we find ourselves back in the realm of practicality – and addressing this same, age-old question – what is the relationship between the new thing God is doing in Jesus, and the ancient and life-giving traditions of the people of Israel.  Because this baby - in whom we invest so much hope - is born into a culture and a society that has some expectations, and we are told that Jesus’ parents, do everything that is required of them under the law. 

I think the very first thing we need to notice about the story we read this morning is that it doesn’t happen by accident – or even because any of the people in the story planned it.  The encounters between Jesus’ family and the old folk in this story – Simeon and Anna – happened firstly because the Holy Spirit guided and prompted them.  How many times in this reading does Luke repeat it?  Simeon is in the temple firstly because of the Holy Spirit’s leading – Jesus’ parents bring him into the temple because they faithfully observe the requirements of the Jewish law.  God’s coincidences aren’t coincidences at all, but the leading and the activity of God’s Spirit at work in our world.   

Thinking about what I would preach about today – New Year’s Day – I was struck by how the encounter between Simeon and Jesus is so different from the way the cartoon figure of the old year shuffles past the baby new year.  Simeon and Anna don’t represent the old ways giving way before the new ways, the old religion being superseded by the new – rather, we see the faithfulness and the holiness of these old folk finding its completion as they recognise in the child Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promises.  The writer of the gospel emphasises continuity between the prophetic voices of Israel’s past and the radical new experience of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth.  Luke doesn’t see the old story and the new story of God’s people as being in opposition, but instead sees their grounding, their promise and their fulfilment in one another.

The second point I want to pick up on in this story is that the context of God’s blessing in this story is Joseph and Mary’s faithful observance of Jewish religious ritual.  This story confirms that Joseph and Mary are poor folk from the bush – the instructions in Leviticus chapter 12 say that if parents can’t afford lambs they can substitute pigeons or turtle-doves as a sacrifice.  But even if they are country bumpkins, Joseph and Mary do it ‘by the book’, observing the requirements for Jesus’ circumcision on day 8 and the purification ritual 33 days later.  Luke emphasises the importance of ritual – not as an end in itself but as a way of interacting with the holy in day-to-day life.  I think this is something for us to think about in our own de-ritualised century in which much of our daily life has been hollowed out of meaning – as the pace of life reduces the opportunities for everyday rituals like family prayer and Bible study, or grace before meals gives way to the more secular ritual of a TV dinner – this exchange in the temple reminds us that the everyday experiences of life are filled with God’s presence.  By celebrating the goodness and mystery of God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth within the simple and familiar container of ritual, God’s promises are allowed to shape the unknown potential of human love and relationships.  We as a church, facing times of change and new possibility, must allow ourselves to be shaped in the same way, in the powerful and simple rituals of the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, the pouring out of the water of baptism, the reading of Holy Scripture, the rhythms of the church year.  God’s new thing for us grows out of this simple celebration of the holiness of life.

The last point I want to make is this – that the blessing of the child Jesus in the temple reminds us that God’s blessings for us, too, are known in community.  Mary and Joseph could have fulfilled the requirements of the law by staying at home and just sending their pigeons.  Simeon and Anna could have been holy at home.  But the name that that is given to Jesus in the temple ‘God saves us’ – only becomes meaningful as we experience the reality of it in our life together as a community of faith.  This child represents not just our individual hope or the hope of a Sunday morning congregation but the consolation of Israel – the hope and dreams of a community of faith.  And this is what it means to be the church as the old dodderer of 2005 hands over to the gurgling baby 2006 – just as the past and the future in this story are brought together in the temple and find their fulfilment in one another – that by praying and dreaming and working together we at Belmont might also become a community of faith rooted in the past but journeying toward the future.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas gifts

As a regular reader of The Australian newspaper, two items especially caught my attention this week – the first was an article on Monday in the Business section reporting on one of the greatest brand competitions of recent times – Jesus vs. Santa – well, the surprising thing was not that Santa is still outselling Jesus by a factor of about a hundred - we already knew that – after all, it’s hard to beat the marketing strategy of a fat guy in a red suit who can persuade you to punish your credit card by pretending to fly around the whole world in a single night, giving everybody exactly what they want – the truly surprising thing about the article that seemed to utterly flabbergast the writer – was that Jesus is catching up.  Fast.  Nativity scenes still have a long way to go before they’re as popular as Santa’s grotto – but according to this columnist religion’s making a comeback – it’s almost cool to be Christian.  Almost.

So I started thinking about this whole Santa vs. Jesus thing.  Of course, Santa’s got the whole present-giving scene wrapped up (if you’ll pardon the pun) – even small children realise very quickly they’ve got a vested interest in believing in Santa Claus when there’s a Nintendo at stake.  But even though Santa and the reindeers and all the paraphernalia of fake snow and tinsel might hype it up a bit – and even though Santa with all the secular mythology and the relentless commercialism of Christmas has added considerably to the guilt and the stress and the anxiety of the age-old practice of giving gifts to those we love - the giving of gifts at Christmas-time is something that Jesus and Santa very much have in common.  And it’s a practice that I think tells us something quite profound about ourselves – and about God.

You know the old saying, ‘it’s the thought that counts’?  Well, I’ve got to tell you something that generations of kids have known all along – it isn’t the thought that counts – well, not entirely – it’s the present!  On my bookshelves in my study – at least when I clear away a few layers of paper and stacks of books and used coffee cups – you can see a number of little gifts my wife has given me on various occasions – a couple of little wooden angels, a set of Chinese chiming balls, a few pieces of pottery – each of these little objects tells me that my wife loves me, that she thinks about me, and it seems to me that in some way Alison’s gifts for me are a part of her that she has given to me.  When you give somebody a present, you remember them, you affirm how much they matter, you say something tangible about your relationship with them.  Santa reminds us of this, and that’s a good thing, it’s an appropriate thing and I don’t even think that Jesus and Santa are in competition about this.  But the story we celebrate tonight – the story of Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago – I think that tells us that the idea of giving presents didn’t start with us, it started with God – and it tells us what God’s present to us really is.  And you already know this.  The reason every one of us thinks it’s worthwhile coming here in the middle of the night is because we know that in the not very remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth – 2,000 years ago – God is not just telling us he loves us, it’s not just the thought that counts but the gift – God making it tangible and real because in this unlikely birth heaven and earth have touched – God giving us himself, flesh and blood real, as the world’s first Christmas present. 

And that brings me to the second item in The Australian newspaper that caught my eye this week – and it was the cartoon in this morning’s paper – superimposed on a backdrop of an actual photograph of the devastation of an village in Afghanistan – destroyed by who knows what – earthquake or war – huddles a little Afghani boy and he’s hung a red sock on a makeshift washing line.  It looks utterly incongruous.  And the caption reads, ‘At least Santa won’t forget me’.  I guess, to some extent, we do forget, the suffering continues there but we move on, more concerned about troubles closer to home, terrorism, riots in Cronulla, industrial relations laws.  And that image is troubling because we know that the Santa story doesn’t help, deep down, we know there’s a fault-line that runs right down the middle of the Santa myth, because it affirms the haves and it leaves the have-nots out in the cold.  And deep down we know that Christmas isn’t good news at all, unless it’s good news equally for us and for that little boy in a forgotten village in Afghanistan.

And so we look a little bit closer at the other Christmas story, the one about Jesus.  It, too, contains much that’s glossy and romantic – stables and animals and mangers – angels bursting into song in the night sky – until we think about the reality of Jesus’ birth, not to a powerful or a wealthy family, but to a woman and a man too poor to grease a few palms to get somewhere to sleep for the night.  Born to a scandalously unmarried girl in an emergency shelter surrounded by animals and presumably some other equally unpleasant-smelling humans, put to bed in an animals’ feed trough because his parents couldn’t afford anything better, the Son of God enters the world on the very edge of poverty.  And the angels?  They don’t burst in on King Herod in his palace in Jerusalem but on a windswept hillside to a group of the smelliest social pariahs of the day – shepherds living rough out in the bush.  And what do they say?  A Saviour is born tonight – to you.  That’s what the story claims – that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is meant to make a difference to losers and outcasts. 

In Jesus of Nazareth we see the world’s first Christmas present.  Not just the thought that counts, but God taking away all the distance between the human and the divine; God remembering us, God wanting to be loved by us, God becoming vulnerable and helpless before us.  God, risking everything to give us a gift we might reject.  And we recognise this, because that’s what it’s like for us when we give gifts to one another; to really give a gift to one we love is to give ourselves, it’s to be vulnerable to the one we desire, to risk rejection.

And that’s good news for shepherds, good news in Afghanistan – how?  In part, I think, because the gift that God gives us in Jesus Christ is the gift that keeps on giving – the gift that transforms us as we dare to receive it.  Accept this Christmas present and you’ll never look at the world in the same way again.  Dare to accept the God who gives God’s own self – dare to take the risk of coming alive by giving your own self in love for the world that God loves.  The God who gives himself away for us blesses us to the extent that we become poor in spirit, the extent that we dare to stand in solidarity with those who are literally and unambiguously poor.

But mainly, it’s good news because of its sheer, breathtaking extravagance.  God desires us and chooses to live among us despite all that’s mean and small and corrupt about us – quite incredibly, despite the selfishness and he meandering and the inconstancy of the human heart - God wants us.  Despite the agony of bereavement, the anguish of a feared prognosis, the dull ache of unemployment or homelessness or out-of-control debt – right where you are is where God wants to be.  Despite the poverty and the dirt and malnutrition that one half of humanity forces on the other, the God who created us says tonight, ‘I’m with you, I’m going through what you go through.  I will always remember you.’  And within the embrace of that extravagant love we discover ourselves to be blessed, to be those for whom as St Paul writes: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Of all the treasures that have come down to us from the history of Christian spirituality, of all the various ways of prayer, the one that I think speaks most clearly of the mystery of Advent is the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, or sacred reading.  The reality, of course, for most Christians since the time of Christ has been that they could only ever hear the scriptures, not read for themselves, because until fairly recently most people couldn’t read.  And so in the monastery, every morning, a group of monks would gather together in the chapel around the lectern and a single monk, who could read, would come forward, approach the book and bow.  Then he would find the passage set down for the day, and, very slowly, he would begin to read the story of God’s words in the world.  When he had finished, he would bow again and back away from the lectern.  After a short silence he would again approach and read again the same passage.  He would do this, over and over, until there was nobody left in the chapel to hear.  Each monk, as he heard the word that he needed to reflect on that day, would silently leave, the Word having invaded not only his ears and his brain but his whole body.  Throughout the day, the monks would chew it over – ruminate on the Word they had received until it literally transformed them from within.  We don’t listen like that any more - since words to we folk of a more literate age have become black marks on a page that we scan at increasingly high speed, we’ve lost the art of allowing God’s Word to sink into us at the level of our flesh and blood.

The most scandalous message of Advent comes through loud and clear today as Christmas approaches: despite everything, the angel tells us, God’s true home is within us, God desires us and God chooses to be most fully revealed in us, despite all the violence, all the corruption and all the trickiness of human hearts, God chooses to be at home in us.  “My gospel,” Paul says in the final verses of his letter to the Romans, “The heart of the good news that I share with you - which has been completely misunderstood all through the ages, this mystery that I am giving you is going to change the whole world.”


What mystery?  What’s been so completely misunderstood?  According to St Paul it’s this: that God is not up there or over there - Do you not know, he asks almost incredulously, that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?  That God is incarnate in you.

It’s what David finds out in our first reading.  David’s intentions seem honourable enough – ‘here I am, living in a palace – it’s not right that God should live in a tent’.  It’s what we do ourselves – let’s do up the church, plant a garden, decorate the worship area – it’s God’s house and we want to praise God in it.  But God puts David straight – you’ve got it the wrong way around – you don’t build me a house – instead, I’m going to make a house out of you.  It’s a play on words – David is thinking about bricks and mortar but God has got something else in mind - a lineage, flesh and blood.  It might seem strange that in this last week of Advent we’ve left the sweeping visions of Isaiah to hear about David’s building plans but here’s the point – God doesn’t plan to be confined to a building we visit on Sundays, or to a book on a lectern – or even to the bread and wine of the Eucharist – God doesn’t even intend to be confined in the heavenly hereafter – God plans to live in us.

This isn’t new or radical thinking about God.  St Paul knew it, the writer of the book of Revelation knows it when he writes, ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them”’. [1]  And the monks who allowed God’s Word to seep into them in the practice of lectio divina also knew it.  The people of Israel knew it in their earliest writings, in the book of Genesis that tell how God breathes life into the dust of the earth, how God walks with human beings in the cool of the evening – but along the way we forget, we come to think of God as remote from us, as being up there or over there, or in a different dimension.

We forget so much that by the time of the prophet we call 2nd Isaiah the people of God have to be jolted awake by being called ‘ the people who walk in darkness’.  Even we Christians forget, when we elevate Jesus so highly that we want to make him the only human being in whom God is revealed.  When we so emphasise that God is present in Jesus of Nazareth that we fail to see the presence of God in the people we live with, that we fail to see the suffering of God in the faces of street children or homeless men; the God who is incarnate in those we fear just as much as in those we love.  When the Incarnation of God is an event that we think only happened 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, we run the risk of making Christmas too safe, mistaking the cuteness of the nativity scene or the sublime architecture of a city cathedral for the utter scandal of God choosing to be revealed amongst the scruffy and the unclean and the dangerous.

And so we come, in the fourth Sunday of Advent, to Mary.  Writer Madeline L’Engle reminds us of the legend that Mary was not the only or the first teenage girl that the archangel Gabriel visited – just the first one to say yes.

“Are you sure (L’Engle writes)

but I’m unworthy -

I couldn’t anyhow -

I’d be afraid.  No, no,


Do I have to answer now?

I don’t want to say no-

Let me have a few days to think it over.”


Sorrowfully, although he was not surprised

to have it happen again,

the angel returned to heaven.” [2]


What makes Mary extraordinary, according to this legend, was her willingness to stand face to face with an angel in all its scary splendour and open herself to God at work in her, the gift of God’s Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us...  As William Willimon writes, ‘incarnation means that the God who stands outside of time also enters into time, the God who is infinite becomes finite, the God who is all-powerful becomes all-vulnerable.  The God whose womb bore the world now grows molecule by molecule in Mary’s womb to bear the good news of peace on earth’. [3]

I think Madeline L’Engle gets it about half right – but it’s not just teenage girls in Nazareth who get a surprise visit from Gabriel – we all get the invitation to open ourselves up, to become pregnant with God’s Word – I think, over and over –such an intimate, gentle breath of angels’ wings that we often don’t hear.  The beauty and the wonder of Mary is that she stands for all who are powerless and vulnerable, the ‘yes’ she gives is so incongruously self-assured – she stakes everything she has and everything she is on the utterly preposterous notion that God’s Word taking shape within her is going to be sufficient not only for her but for the whole world.  Maybe you have to be poor and powerless to take a risk like that – how often, I have to ask myself, have I refused to let God’s Word find a foothold in my life because I think there’s more security or better prospects in following my own agenda?  The gospel of Mary is a gospel of challenge.

In a slightly grotesque image, St Augustine claims that when Mary says ‘yes’ she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit through the ear.  Maybe he could have thought that metaphor through a bit better, but what he means is that just as Mary conceives through hearing and responding to the Word, so too new life comes to us when we listen to the Word.  When we hear and allow ourselves to be transformed by the Word, we become "pregnant" with the Spirit.  The scandal of Advent repeats itself - Christ takes on flesh in you and me.


[1] Rev 21.3

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, And It Was Good: Reflections on


[3] William Willimon, Pulpit Digest

Saturday, December 10, 2005


One of the things I always love about the Advent season is the Advent wreath that we put right in the middle of the church, and each week as we light a new candle it seems we enter a new phase of our waiting – the quality of our attention seems to shift, the message seems to alter just a bit each week and the lighting of a new candle symbolises that.  Now the colour of Advent, traditionally, is purple, but today’s candle is rose-coloured -  maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself the last couple of weeks, Evan couldn’t find enough purple ones – And it looks good, in the middle of this muted season of Advent, that is almost like an echo of Lent, the rose-coloured candle is like a splash of joy – and that is exactly what it’s intended to be.  Because today is Gaudete Sunday – in Latin, that means Rejoice!, and it comes from the opening word of the traditional Latin entrance psalm set for today – if you listen carefully you can hear the joy bubbling up through the readings today, it’s as if even though we’re not there yet, halfway through the deepening spirituality and the introversion of  Advent we can’t resist breaking out a bit, celebrating a bit in advance.

And the reasons for letting our hair down today are right there in our first reading from Isaiah.  The Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting mixture of challenge and comfort was written for the people of the prophet’s own time, I think we’re right to claim them, because that’s exactly what Jesus does. 

You know how it was all the go at one stage for businesses and government departments and even parish churches to have mission statements?  A short, snappy couple of sentences that says what we think we’re about?  It was all the rage in the 90s, the idea is to create a strong image right from the start in your flyers or your TV advertisements – and that’s exactly what Jesus does when he bursts onto the synagogue scene in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus chooses as a mission statement for himself this passage we just read from the book of Isaiah.  And what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  As if that wasn’t a big enough claim, the prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in Jesus’ own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

This is the good news that Jesus packs into the mission statement that he adopted from Isaiah:-

1.     First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  I guess the good news for the rich is the challenge to adjust their priorities and their practices. 

2.     Second, the prophet says the good news is comfort to those who are broken-hearted – living with dignity also means hope for people whose lives are dominated by anxiety, humiliation or fear.  This claim is getting bigger and bigger!  God has got a special priority for those who are left out, for those who have got used to living without hope – if that’s good news for them, it’s also good news for those of us who are doing OK, because it carries with it the invitation to see things from God’s point of view, to be the agents of God’s good news.

3.     Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – oh, hang on, mate, surely not the ones who deserved to be locked up?  Well, apparently freedom is the condition God created us for – and I think that here we are meant to be reminded of people whose lives are not free, not just those who are literally locked up but people whose lives are dictated by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

4.     And the biggest claim of all – the prophet claims it’s the year of God’s favour, that means the year of Jubilee – even bigger than the Get Out of Jail Free card, this one says your mortgage is paid off, your credit card bill has been settled for you – in the most ancient law of the people of Israel the Year of Jubilee that came once every 50 years was when everyone’s debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all aliens living in the land were given permanent residency visas.  A fresh start.  By quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is claiming all that.

Has Jesus maybe overstated his case a bit?  Did he bite off a bit more than he could chew?  Has he really delivered?

In the movie, ‘Superman returns’, there’s a wonderful line from Superman’s dad.  Now Superman comes from the planet Krypton – I must admit I’d always thought he got to earth more or less by accident but apparently it had all been planned: "Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them...’ – this is what Superman’s long-dead dad tells him via a sort of hologram cassette-tape message - "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason, above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son." 

Well, apart for the obvious and kind of goofy religious overtones – don’t we sometimes wish that Jesus was a bit more like Superman?  – though when I think about it, it does seem that Superman’s presence in Metropolis have made the human beings there even more passive and dependent – so maybe it’s a good thing that God – the real God, that is, chooses a different way to work.  Over and over again, in the story of God’s people, God chooses those who are weak, those who don’t have super-powers, people who are ambivalent and indecisive like Jacob, and Jonah, and Peter; people who are old and barren like Sarah and Hannah; people who are crotchety and unattractive, like John the Baptist, people who are young and scared and poor, like Mary.  The big claims that Jesus makes are claims about how God works in the world – that we are not alone because God is with us, in Jesus himself, born to love and laugh and suffer with the rest of us, God shares the circumstances of our lives - but Jesus’ big claims are also, I think, the claim that God works through human hands and hearts in all their weakness.

There’s a story about a travelling rabbi who finds himself in the court of the king of Egypt.  He is treated like royalty and the king shows him around the palace.  In one room, the rabbi is shown the paintings of an illustrious master who died prematurely, hundreds of years ago.  These are paintings that take the breath away, every one a masterpiece, like jewels that open onto another world – but one wall of the room is bare.  ‘Why’s that?’, the rabbi asks?  The king tells him that the master had died young, that the wall is left bare to remind them of what else he could have painted. ‘But nobody else can do it’, says the king.  ‘Give me a few days’, says the rabbi, ‘and a few chemicals – powered silver, antimony, a few things like that’.  And the king does – a few days later he comes back to find the fourth wall covered with a great mirror that reflected all the beauty of the paintings, which seemed to have come alive and moving, shimmering and radiant. [1]

The Advent journey this year is getting closer to its end.  We find ourselves looking ahead to a pregnancy, to an insignificant birth in a forgotten outpost of the Roman Empire that tells us we are not alone, that God has come into our world.  The message of Advent is that God works through human hands.  And Jesus’ big claims, his extravagant mission statement, tells us what our part of that is – to reflect the light, to rejoice at the presence of the light, wherever we find it, to be the mirrors that bring the light into the dark places that still exist in our world.  To be good news in a world that desperately needs some.  God, strangely enough, chooses weak and imperfect people to do that, people like you and me.


[1] Megan McKenna (1999), Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: stories and reflections on the Sunday readings, (Orbis, Mayknoll NY), p.72.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Getting ready in the desert

A couple of years ago a journalist named Ann Medlock founded an award called the ‘Giraffe Award’ – so named because it is awarded every year to honour people who have stuck their necks out to speak up courageously on behalf of others or who have risked paybacks or worse because they have worked for justice in an unpopular cause.  For example, people who advocate for the rights of low-paid outworkers, people looking out for the rights of young women brought into the country illegally to work in the sex industry.  The Giraffe Award for people who stick out their necks in unpopular causes, for the year 30AD or thereabouts, could well have been awarded to John the Baptiser.

Last week, we started the season of Advent, and the liturgical year of Mark, with the Jesus final teaching according to Mark.  This week, we swing right back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel, back to ground zero.  But the theme is exactly the same: what’s going on in the world?  Last week the reading was framed by concern for the time of the end, and the gospel writer is addressing the anxiety of his own community who are living through dreadful events: the brutal suppression of a brief-lived uprising against the Roman occupying army, and the destruction of the temple around 70 AD.  But this week Mark begins his story from the beginning, writing about the events of another dark age, 40 years earlier.

And he starts with the whopping big claim that what he has to say is good news for the whole world!  The first 8 verses of Mark’s gospel set the scene, and some commentators might say, set the course of all four gospels.  It’s a bold claim for a people who have lived under occupation for a century or more and now face the destruction – for the second time in their history – of the temple that assures them of God’s presence in their midst.  What could possibly be good news?

For first-century folk who knew the Roman propaganda all too well, the good news that Mark dares to write about would have been nothing short of alarming.  There was after all only one person in the ancient world who you could safely call the Son of God, the Saviour of the world - and that was the Emperor Augustus.  Those were the Roman emperor’s official titles – if it’s good news to call an obscure Galilean peasant executed 40 years earlier the Son of God then it’s dangerous good news, it’s good news that thumbs its nose at the status quo, good news that means liberation for the poor.  So Mark himself, the writer of the gospel, is a bit of a giraffe – and then onto the stage steps John the Baptist, the most uncouth of all God’s prophets.

And what a fanfare he steps onto the stage with.  Mark cobbles together some of the most resonant verses in the Old Testament to make something totally new – the voice of the one who cries out in the desert as a messenger, not the good news himself but the one who announces the good news.  For anybody who knows anything about how Israel has been liberated in the past, here is something to prick up the ears.  There’s a sense of continuity with what God has done for God’s people before – the distant memory of a desperate flight from Egypt and a long journey through the desert.  We know that many of the revolutionaries who fought to liberate Judea from the Romans started out in the desert.  The desert was also the place for spiritual renewal and purification – home to the mysterious Essene sect who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls – wilderness to Israel in the first century was a symbol of hope.  And Mark does something even more dramatic, even more giraffe-like – he picks up his single verse from the middle of the book of Isaiah right where the prophet speaks of the turning tide of hope.

We heard it in our Old Testament reading, the full passage that Mark is quoting from.  After long years of humiliation and exile in Babylon that the Judean people saw as punishment and rejection by God, God announces in the council of heaven that they have suffered enough.  The lever is thrown abruptly from suffering and judgement to pardon and tenderness.  The change is immediate and dramatic – commentators are divided as to whether the effect of this is that God is bulldozing a track through the desert for the homecoming – a path from Babylon to the doorstep of Jerusalem – or is it something a bit more nuanced? – in the desert itself where the people are wandering, that’s where God’s path is to be prepared – not so much the promise of rescue as the promise of comfort in the middle of hardship.  But there’s to be no more punishment because – even though human beings haven’t changed – even though we’re as reliable as couch grass in the summer sun – God’s back in the business of nurturing, of being a shepherd to his sheep.

Mark pulls up that verse that reminds his hearers what God has done before in the face of military defeat and humiliation.  This is the God of the underdog, the God who brings us back from the edge of oblivion!  And onto the stage steps John the Baptist, spitting chips.

I can’t quite work out why, but the Jewish historian Josephus, writing during the time of the Roman wars about the same time as Mark is writing his gospel – Josephus reckons John was a popular preacher.  Can you figure it?  This guy is rude.  He dresses in coarse rags, and his message is blunt and uncompromising – repent – you take the day off work and you go out into the desert to hear him – and what he tells you is that you’re not in a good way, not spiritually, not morally – if you want to be able to receive what God’s doing, the good news poised on the brink of coming into the world – then repent – make a U-turn.  Both Josephus and the Bible tell us John came to a sticky end, so it seems not everyone wanted to hear his blunt message that things weren’t good enough.  Maybe the only ones who were flocking out to the desert to hear him were the ones who knew already that the way things were was intolerable.  It’s the poor after all who find the simultaneous message of repentance and hope intoxicating.  The rich find that sort of talk disturbing.

John does something else that’s disturbing to the status quo, and it’s going to set the stage for Jesus’ whole career.  He baptises.  A dunk in the river – nobody knows whether John made this ritual up for himself or whether it comes from some obscure rite practiced by the Essenes.  A dunk in the Jordan, that most symbolic of rivers because it represents the dividing line between the wilderness and the land of God’s promise.  Symbolically it’s about more than just individual forgiveness, it’s a whole turning again of a people towards the covenant made and renewed with God, over and over again, in the desert.  John thumbs his nose at the temple authorities who believe that they alone have the institutional means of forgiveness.  From now on, says John the Baptist, forgiveness comes wholesale.

And that’s where we come in.  Except that we’re not giraffes, we don’t want to stick our necks out any more than the poor folk who flocked out to see John in the desert.  Last week we got the message – wake up!  Something new is afoot – look around you and see for yourselves that the jacarandas are blooming and that summer is here.  Dare to believe the spirit is stirring, that God is doing something new.

This week the message gets both more personal and more urgent.  God himself speaks the intimate language of comfort and reassurance – your time of heartache, your time of grief and emptiness, your time of guilt is over, I am with you in the wilderness of your life.  And on the edges of our consciousness, John the Baptist picks up the counterpoint – you want good news in the desert? – then be good news!  If the one who is to come is going to make any difference, then we have to be ready for the Spirit of God to enter us and lay claim to our lives.  John picks up correctly that the job of making a straight path in the desert, the work of preparation, is up to us.  Advent is about stripping back our pretences, about preparation, purification and setting straight – both in our individual lives and in the world.  You want to receive God’s message of comfort and reassurance? – then learn how to give comfort, speak tenderly, proclaim an end to others’ guilt and grief.  On the second Sunday of Advent we are called back by John the Baptist to the promises of our own baptism, called to prepare the way of the Lord in silence, called to listen with one another to God’s Word, to share one another’s burdens, called to humbly wait for what God has to reveal to us.