Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas 1

I wonder if anybody else felt, as I did on Friday morning when I opened the newspaper to read of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, that the Christmas season had just come to a brutal and abrupt end?  Bhutto, the commentators are already reminding us, was not without her own political or personal baggage, her two previous terms as Prime Minister of Pakistan marred by accusations of corruption and failure to seriously address issues of social inequality and violence in her country – maybe the world would never have noticed Bhutto at all if she had not been the daughter of much-loved Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto executed by the military dictatorship in 1979.  Maybe a big part of Benazir Bhutto’s appeal not only to Pakistanis but also to Westerners was her glamour and relative youthfulness, the novelty of a female politician in an Islamic State, as well as the undeniable courage of her decision to return to Pakistan out of luxurious exile to challenge the grip of the military dictatorship.  Whatever she might have done if she had won a third term as Prime Minister one thing seems crystal clear – Bhutto represented hope for the people of Pakistan - with her assassination not only Pakistan but the whole region is in grave danger of descending into the hopelessness of political and social chaos. 

It’s a chill reminder of the fragility of the peace on earth we so eagerly claim at Christmas time, the peace that is as far beyond our grasp this Christmas as it was when Jesus was born into the middle of the toxic peace of Rome, the presumption of the then world-superpower that peace could be achieved by violently eliminating all forms of opposition.  One of the things that happens for me at Christmas time, despite all the falseness of commercialism and the frantic busyness of celebration, the transformation that steals in for me every year almost at the last moment, like a poor family creeping into a leaky farm shed at five minutes to midnight, is the sense that we are all connected, that we all have a stake in one another and that the well-being even of people I have never met is an essential part of my own well-being – why? because in the birth of Jesus God is saying to us, ‘now, I have a stake in you and you have a stake in me – blood’s thicker than water! now, we are all related’.  But we don’t get to stay very long in the warm glow of the stable, basking in the lazy euphoria of a young mother breastfeeding the child who we know somehow changes everything for us – the stable turns out to be all too flimsy a refuge because within a few days – in liturgical time, at least – the gentleness of the nativity scene is broken apart by the brutal realities of political power.

We don’t really know why King Herod was so insecure, why he became the tyrant that he did.  But it is historically very well attested, both in the Bible and outside it, that Herod the Great was a brutal and manipulative ruler.  Outside the Bible there’s actually no historical evidence for the Massacre of the Innocents, but the story we have in the Gospel reading today is completely in character. Herod’s bloodthirsty ways were so well known that even the Emperor Augustus was said to have remarked that it would be better to be one of Herods pigs than one of his sons – it’s a play on words, better to be a pig, the Greek word hys belonging to the Jewish Herod who of course abstained from eating pork, than one of his sons –hyios in Greek – who Herod had strangled when it appeared they might become a political threat.  Despite the fact that Herod must have known that someone would one day replace him – no one lives forever – the picture we have is of a man desperately clinging to power.  The children he massacred in his search for Jesus paid the price of his insecurity.  This is actually a fairly familiar story, even in today’s world.  In fact we take it so much for granted in our modern world that we have a chillingly rationalistic name for it, we call it ethnic cleansing.  Getting rid of whole populations.  Children massacred for no more reason than that some paranoid tyrant feels threatened, or some nation or ethnic group feels historically aggrieved.

In Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus only escapes Herod’s slaughter because Joseph receives divine warning in a dream.  Again, we’ve got no real way of telling how accurate this story is historically, and given the parallels with Old Testament stories of Israel going down to Egypt to seek refuge from famine, guided by another dreamer named Joseph - then being rescued out of Egypt away from Pharaoh’s murderous plot to kill all Hebrew boy children – there’s an almost irresistible mythical character to the story of the Holy family’s flight into Egypt.  The value of the story is less in being sure that it actually happened like that, more in being sure that the world that Jesus is born into, no less than the world that you and I inhabit, is a world defined by the ugly calculus of power.  Jesus’ family become refugees, asylum seekers – sharing the same reality of danger and uncertainty that millions of families do today.  Even though Matthew only gives it a line or two, the slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt has become the inspiration of all sorts of legends and stories down the centuries.  According to one legend, the Holy Family are sleeping in a cave when Herod’s men come looking for them, but while they sleep a tiny spider spins a web across the cave entrance to protect them - the soldiers don’t search the cave because they figure that nobody could have got in without breaking the web.  Maybe the reason for all the legends and all the imagination around the story of the flight into Egypt is that it touches a common chord in humanity – it resonates with the actual experience of too many ordinary men, women and children.  The Christ-child that represents the brightest hope of the world’s future miraculously escapes – too many other children who also represent everything that is new, hopeful and vulnerable in the world, do not.

Perhaps in the story the children represent our longing for the future.  How often do we repeat the expression, ‘the children are the future’? – that’s what they represent in the Gospel story as well.  But children are easily killed, and so are our figurative children – our faltering attempts to build a new life and a new world. They are smothered with cynicism, strangled by envy, shaken to death by our fears. There are too many King Herods abroad in the world – too many death-dealing tyrants that desperately need to kill off any threat to the status quo. And King Herod lives in all of us – we are all capable of evil.

But the message of the gospel is that, however great the power of death might be, the power of God’s life is stronger.  God will find a way, says the Bible, however unlikely, to bring hope out of what looks like a hopeless situation.  Just remember the history of God’s faithfulness to God’s people – remember how God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, remember how God brought them home from exile in Babylon.  Just remember, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, how God raised Jesus from the darkness of death to new life of resurrection.  God has done this in the lives of countless men and women through the ages who’ve lived in times of terror and yet found healing, forgiveness, a new dignity, and a new identity.

So this story is not just about the cruelty and hopelessness of the world – it is also about the survival of hope in the midst of the worst the world can do. Sometimes that hope seems to shrink to a single point, as it does in our story this morning when we see Joseph, with Mary and the baby, setting out across the Negeb into Egypt.  Sometimes hope seems forlorn when tyrants apparently prevail, as they seemed to do this week in Pakistan.  But against that we have the promise of God’s faithfulness, and the example of a family who trust enough in the future to disappear into the blurred uncertainty of a desert.

So, what’s the good news here?  Coming, appropriately enough, right at the beginning of a New Year with all of its unknowns, a blank calendar already stretched to the limit with its burden of hopes and anxieties, the story of the massacre of the innocents drags us out of the stable just in time and reminds us that what we really need is not just a baby for adoring in a manger but a messiah who reminds us that God’s grace is at home with risk, with uncertainty and with opposition.  God’s grace recognises the single spark of hope in the long, dark night of hopelessness that human beings manufacture for themselves.  We know that with the death of Herod the Great and the long journey back to Nazareth the danger is still not over.  Another Herod is coming onto the scene, and we know how that story is going to end.  The Christmas of angelic pyrotechnics and fluffy sheep is over, folks.   Welcome to Christmas in the real world.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day

What do you actually want for Christmas?

I guess if we’re honest, for many of us the answer would be, ‘to snap our fingers and all of a sudden it’s Boxing Day, the family have all gone home, the washing up’s done, the tree’s been put out with the garbage, everything’s gone blessedly quiet and the cricket’s on the telly’.  There’s no doubt, the season of peace and goodwill is stressful – trying to find a carpark at Carousel is bad enough but it only gets worse when you find yourself in the mall wedged in by a crowd of frantic last-minute Christmas shoppers on the same desperate mission as yourself.  Or the office Christmas party that you just know is going to make you shudder with embarrassment all next year.  The guilt of getting Christmas cards the day before Christmas from the long-forgotten relative you thought was safe to leave off your own list.  Maybe I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man, but isn’t Boxing Day the best day in the whole year?

So, what do you want for Christmas?

I guess the answer depends on what sort of year you’ve had.  My grand-daughter Charlotte has had a very good year.  This year she took her first steps and said her first word.  She’s as cute as a button with bright black eyes and a cheeky grin.  Whenever my son and his wife send Alison and me a picture of Charlotte she’s looking out at us with an expression that seems to say the world is big, bright and exciting and I can’t wait to start exploring it because I know I’m safe and loved.  We gave Charlotte a giraffe for Christmas – not an actual, 12 foot tall one but I just know that in a couple of years when she comes across one of those she’s going to love that too.  For a lot of people, like Charlotte, this has been a year of firsts – the first year of going to school; the first boyfriend; the year of leaving school; getting a job; getting married.  The universe is expanding, jam-packed full of possibilities – and Christmas with a baby lying strangely in a box filled with straw surrounded by shepherds, angels and exotic kings is just one more example of the infinite goodness of life.  God’s birthday present to the world that says, this is how much I love you.

But, what do you want for Christmas?

You might not have had quite such an exciting year as Charlotte.  The longed-for family reconciliation that didn’t happen again, this year.  The nagging awareness of debts that you know aren’t going away.  The growing knowledge that none of the bright ambition you once had is really achievable.  The letter out of the blue that changed everything.  The diagnosis you didn’t want to hear.  The first year you have to celebrate Christmas without the one you’ve shared your life with.  The world you live in maybe seems narrower and less friendly than it did this time last year. 

The big events of the year are swirling around in our grown-up heads on Christmas night.  Another year of listless violence on the world stage.  Business as usual in Somalia, Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe.  Earthquakes in Bangladesh where the poorest of the world’s poor face an even more precarious future as extreme weather events and rising sea levels threaten the viability of farming land.  Shocking revelations in our own wealthy nation of the extent of child abuse and alcohol-related social dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities.  In a world where hope seems to be in short supply, maybe that’s the only Christmas present worth asking for.

So, why are you here?  If, as the angels shout from the rooftops over Bethlehem every year, the birth of Jesus is God’s way of sending us a message, what does the message mean?  What’s the good news about Christmas?  Does Christmas really give us cause for hope?

I have a friend, a priest who said to me a little while ago, ‘Evan, nobody wants to hear a sermon on Christmas Eve.  Don’t preach a sermon.  Just tell the people why it’s good news, and then sit down.’  So that’s what I’m going to do.

I think Christmas is good news for two reasons.  Firstly, because the birthday present God gives to the world at Christmas time is not just something we thought we wanted, or even thought we needed.  The birthday present God gives us is God’s own self.  As the prophet Isaiah tells it, the baby of God’s promise is called Immanuel, God is with us.  The baby born in Bethlehem is called Yeshua, God saves us, and years later we know, as we read this story of angels and shepherds that years later as he dies on a Roman cross he is going to be called something else by an awestruck Roman centurion: ‘surely this man was the Son of God’.  We hear tonight’s story knowing how it ends, knowing that we encounter God in this baby born tonight, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see God’s purposes and God’s priorities laid bare – in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we see God’s intention for all human life exposed.  We know Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, because in Jesus we are brought into a living relationship with the God who created us.  In Jesus we encounter the grown-up reality that God with us is not a feel-good formula or a false expectation of happiness ever after, but the assurance of thick-and-thin solidarity – the God-with-us we encounter in Jesus knows something about loss and compromise and failure and chooses to be at home with us right in the middle of the mess and the heartache – as well as the joy - that we call real life.  That’s good news.

And the second reason it’s good news?  If the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem is a message that God is sending to us, it’s a message in code.  Not, fortunately, a code that’s very hard to break.  Luke spells it out very clearly.  You see, Jesus wasn’t the only royal personage known as a Saviour round those parts, certainly not the first.  That was one of the titles of another divine being known as the Emperor Augustus – the peace on earth that the angels sing about at the birth of Jesus comes right in the middle of another, more officially sanctioned version of peace on earth, called the pax Romana, the peace of Rome which was based on Rome having the best-equipped and best-trained armies the world had ever seen.  The birth of Jesus is good news because in it God is proposing a very different sort of basis not only for peace but also for power in the world that you and I live in.  The birth of Jesus turns the accepted logic of the world upside down – and note, even today, 2,000 years later, it still contradicts the accepted logic of the world we live in.  Because Jesus doesn’t get beamed down as an emperor even more powerful than Augustus, Jesus doesn’t make short work of evil-doers even though that was really the sort of Messiah everyone had been hoping for.  Instead, we see something totally powerless, totally vulnerable – a naked, helpless baby born to a poor family in an insignificant part of the world.  A baby who, you and I know, is going to grow up to be rejected and crucified as a criminal, deserted by his followers.  How’s that for a Christmas present?  You see, in the birth of Jesus, I think God is proposing a completely different basis for power.  Make no bones about it, the God of the naked, vulnerable Jesus is indeed a God of power but it’s what I think we could call relational power, the inverted power of vulnerable, self-giving love, the power of recognising our essential kinship with one another that, in the long run, out-trumps regime change and terrorism and nuclear weapons every time.  If God is giving us a message, it goes something like this: ‘think deeply.  What’s most important here?  Look at the people on either side of you – the ones you came with as well as the ones you find yourself sitting next to quite by chance.  Think about the people you share your life with, about the people whose lives are affected by the way in which you live your life.  Think about what it really is that connects you.  That’s my Christmas present for you, this year.’



Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advent 4

What do you do if you’re driving your car through the streets of Perth and you come up to an intersection with a red octagonal sign on the corner?  Well, I hope you know.  In fact, I hope you’d be preparing to hit the brakes as soon as you see the stop sign, because if the meaning of the stop sign isn’t second nature – if you have to read it and think, ‘now, what page of the road rules book did I see that on, and what did it say I have to do about it?’ – well, by then it might be too late.  Which of course is the reason that there’s some international standardisation about road signs, if you’re driving in downtown Dlakarta and you come up to an intersection with a red octagonal sign saying, ‘Berhenti’, then don’t bother with the phrase book.  Just stop.

To get by in life, we need to pay attention, and we need to need to be able to read the signs.  We live in an individualistic society, a society that encourages us to put ourselves first, to be self-sufficient, a society that admires decisiveness and success, and of course the downside of that is that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all the time, without even being aware of it, we do depend on the web of relationships that connect us to one another.  I think one of the tragedies of the individualistic, competitive age we live in is that we start to forget how to read the signs.

Today’s readings focus on two very different men – one a king of the ancient kingdom of Judah eight centuries or so before the birth of Christ, the other a nondescript tradesman – the Greek tekton could mean Joseph was either a carpenter or a stonemason – but both of them practical men, realists, and as it turns out, men who weren’t afraid to make decisions and act on them.  The other thing they have in common is that we find both of them at the cross-roads wondering what that red octagonal sign is all about.

King Ahaz did have the dubious privilege of being born into what the Chinese call ‘interesting times’ and finding himself on the throne at the age of 20 surrounded by the dangerously charged-up kingdoms of Moab, Aram and Ephraim who had formed a political alliance and were eyeing off a Judah weakened by decades of political infighting.  It was essentially local trouble, but Ahaz, ignoring all the best political advice, decides he needs to take decisive action and so he decides to ask the super-power of the day, Assyria, to come on over and sort out his troublesome neighbours.  Ahaz is a man of action – something clearly needs to be done – this is something, therefore I’m doing it – unfortunately he hasn’t read the signs very clearly.

Joseph’s dilemma is a bit more personal, but equally sticky.  He’s just found out his fiancĂ©e is pregnant, and he knows it isn’t him.  Marriage in the ancient world was a bit different to our modern custom – Mary had probably been promised in marriage since early childhood and the first stage of the marriage process – the betrothal – had already taken place so Mary was in a sense already Joseph’s wife though she still has to live under her father’s roof until she’s old enough to be taken into Joseph’s house.  Knowing that he isn’t the father of her child, and knowing that with the paternity of the child under doubt he risks losing his own honour just as much as Mary seems already to have lost her own, Joseph’s dilemma is not so much whether to divorce his wife as how to go about it.  Being a compassionate man, Joseph opts for divorcing her quietly, let her slip away without asking any more questions.  The alternative might have meant a public accusation which could have led to her being stoned to death – a penalty that was well and truly on the statute books in Deuteronomy.

But as soon as both Ahaz and Joseph have worked out their course of action, however, they each receive a visitor who challenges them to think again.

Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God –
“Don’t do it, Ahaz – ask God for help instead – whatever you like – as high
as the heavens or as deep as the grave…” Ahaz
, however, is too proud, too stubborn to look to God. He’s the king. This is his problem. He can sort it out. Unfortunately, he turns out to be mistaken. The Assyrians are more than happy to come and deal with his neighbours. They obliterate them. But while they are in that neck of the woods they think they might as well obliterate
Israel as well. They raze it to the ground, steal its treasure and take its
people as slaves. And that was pretty much the end of Israel.

Joseph’s visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but the message
is the same – think again. “It may not make much sense, Joseph, but actually
this is God’s work. Stick with Mary – God knows what God is doing…“ But
unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to trust God, even if he has
no idea how it is that God can bring any good out of this whole sorry mess.
And we all know what happens next.

The reason of course that we read these two stories today is because they are connected by the strange words of the prophet Isaiah, which Matthew quotes, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”  What sort of a name is that?  It means, “God is with us’.  Bible scholars still argue about what Isaiah means by this - almost certainly he is referring to a real woman who is pregnant right now, and he is saying, look, by the time this baby is ready to be weaned the enemies you are afraid of now are going to be dispersed – but this is more than just a roundabout way of saying all this will happen within 12 or 18 months – for Isaiah the baby itself is a sign of a new beginning, a new relationship with God.  The baby itself is a sign, a message from God.

Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with a
few twists, to refer to Mary.  Because he’s using the Greek manuscript of Isaiah instead of the Hebrew one his quote from Isaiah uses the word ‘virgin’ instead of translating the original Hebrew word ‘almah’ which means ‘young woman’.  It probably wasn’t a huge distinction at the time but it has thrown the Church into overdrive ever since with endless arguments about whether or not the virginal conception of Jesus is an absolute necessity of faith.  The danger with getting too hung up on this is that we get distracted from what really important, the really crucial point about these strange words.  You see, it isn’t really the mother that is the point, it’s the child. God’s sign, says Isaiah – his message to faithless Ahaz and frightened Joseph, is the baby itself.

So what sort of sign is a baby? For a start it’s not a stop sign!  A baby is a symbol and a reminder of newness, isn’t it?  It is a new life, a new
personality.  When a child is first born its future is a mystery, its character is
a mystery – unknown and unknowable.  It is not a repeat of an old pattern,
even if it does have its mother’s eyes or its father’s nose, and it’s not a clone, it’s something that has never been seen before, a completely new beginning. Having a child is an act of faith – you don’t know what will happen to it or how it will change you.

Every baby, everywhere, is a sign of the wonder and the miraculous underpinning of life, a sign that the everyday world we live in is woven through and through with God’s own life.  But this baby, born at this time and into this intersection of historical circumstances – if we are willing to see it, this baby is the sign of God with us, the sign that we no longer have to be self-sufficient, we no longer have to be afraid of ... because from now on human history belongs to God, just as Creation itself belongs to God, so now the future also belongs to God.

It’s a sign that Ahaz doesn’t want to read, and he decides to stick with the DIY model of international relations – history tells us that he crashes a bit further down the road.  Joseph, the man of action who also pays close attention to the truth of dreams, reads the sign and acts on it.

The point, of course, is how do we read the sign?  Like Ahaz, we find ourselves in a world global alliances are fraught with danger and human lives are filled with anxiety.  The path to peace is just as elusive as ever, even in our own wealthy country where with all our resources we find it impossible to guarantee that children born today in remote communities will grow up in safety.  We live at a time of unprecedented concern about the very future of the planet we live on, and we increasingly have cause to question our own judgement about the use of its resources.  Like Joseph, our lives are filled with anxiety over personal dilemmas.  We find it hard to live with integrity and trust, we find it hard to believe in the future when we also have to live with bad news – the job we so badly wanted, the relationship that should have been for ever.  Where is God in the middle of all that?

And God sends us the same sign this year.  A baby with a funny name.  Immanuel, God still with us.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Advent 2

I remember seeing on TV, a little while ago, a documentary about a group of troubled and troublesome teenagers who had been packed off somewhere in the US to a boot camp experience in the desert.  I was just a little bit interested in this, for two reasons – firstly because it kind of appeals to the notion of getting tough on antisocial young people, make ‘em squirm a bit and see how they like being on the receiving end for a change – and certainly this group did it tough under the watchful eye of a deeply unpleasant sergeant-major type who made sure they went to bed exhausted every night and didn’t have time to complain about all the creature comforts they were missing out on – but secondly because I knew about a very different kind of experience in the desert – the desert as a place of spiritual connection and retreat, a place of silence and refreshment – and so I wasn’t too surprised that after a few weeks of digging latrines and missing out on showers these surly young people started to change with the rhythms of the desert, to adjust to the vast emptiness of the landscape and to let the silence soak into them.  Paradoxically, the desert as a place of contraction and deprivation becomes an opportunity for renewal.

So here’s John the Baptist again, looking and sounding as grumpy as ever – maybe something to do with wearing the same scratchy camel hair shirt year in year out and eating grasshoppers – every year we go out into the desert to be confronted by him, and he’s got a list of complaints about us and he’s not putting it in very nice language.  Every year, we march into the desert to do boot camp with John. 

Matthew’s got a problem with John the Baptist, I think.  For the people Matthew is writing for, the problem isn’t his rough appearance and even rougher language – the Jewish historian Josephus who is writing around the same time also says John is wildly popular – in fact John’s funny clothes and his outlandish diet were a real plus, because that’s just what Elijah was like, and the popular tradition is that Elijah is coming back to announce the coming of the messiah – so for Matthew describing John the Baptist like this is a shorthand way of saying that John is here to set the stage for the long-awaited messiah.

That’s not Matthew’s problem.  Neither is it a problem for Matthew’s audience that John the Baptist is talking tough about repentance.  John the Baptist is a good, old-style fire-and-brimstone prophet – just the charismatic sort of character we’ve waiting for, and frankly we’d be disappointed if we didn’t get a bit of a bollocking.  John the Baptist is denouncing evil, that’s a prophet’s job, and just as long as he’s not pointing directly at us, we’ll cheer him on.  If he wants to tell important people and religious folk they’re a bunch of hypocrites, well, that’s a prophet’s prerogative really. 

That’s not the problem.  It’s clear enough why everyone flocked to this weird character out in the desert.  It must have been top notch entertainment, if nothing else.  But why Jesus?  We know from Mark, and Matthew repeats the story, that Jesus comes to John for John’s baptism of repentance.  That’s the awkward bit, for Matthew.  We know that Jesus is baptised by John, in fact quite a few scholars believe that Jesus may even have been a disciple of John out there in the desert but that somewhere along the way they parted company. 

That’s Matthew’s problem – he needs to make sure we understand that John is just the signpost, Jesus is the destination.  We know from the Acts of the Apostles that not all John’s disciples became followers of Jesus and there’s just a hint of some friction between them.  In fact there is still a sect today in Iraq called the Mandaeans who believe John the Baptist was the Messiah, not Jesus.  So Matthew emphasises John’s insistence on repentance, and he makes John the Baptist say some of the same things that Jesus says, for example later in the gospel we hear Jesus himself calling his opponents a brood of vipers (ch 12) and Jesus says the same thing about bearing fruit worthy of repentance.  But there’s one very important difference between John the Baptist and Jesus.  They agree on a lot, they certainly agree about justice and they agree about accountability.  But they’re saying something different about hope. 

Because Jesus, I think, has bought into the impossible vision of Isaiah – the section we read this morning probably goes back to the time of exile – the time of national defeat and the destruction of the Temple itself - and it says, look, something new is coming out of this disaster, even though the tree has been cut down there will be a new shoot, and a new branch that comes out of the old stump.  Isaiah is telling us that we can trust God to bring new life out of our disasters.  Living in a time when absolutely everything is defined by military power, Isaiah believes in the possibility of a world that knows how to live in peace, a world where things are ordered right way up, where God is at the centre and all the nations see themselves in relation to God’s way of doing things and God’s priorities.

You might think this is a utopian vision.  It doesn’t work like that in the world we live in, it didn’t work like that in the world that Jesus and John lived in either.  The paraphrase of Isaiah’s vision that we heard this morning rubs it in – here’s a vision of the world as it never has been and is never likely to be, at least not in our time.  So the gospel of Isaiah is the triumph of hope over experience – if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the dream of peace, then that’s going to transform the world we live in.

John’s vision is a bit more hard-headed.  None of that feel-good stuff – for John the kingdom of heaven comes with an axe; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to get chopped down and thrown in the fire, the chaff is going to get burned up.  John sees his own job as giving fair warning, one last chance – get baptised now and mend your ways because the one who is going to carry out this punishment is just around the corner – it’s a violent and scary vision of God’s future and a bit later on in Matthew’s gospel we hear that John began to have some doubts that Jesus was really up to the job.

Because Jesus doesn’t behave the way John says he’s supposed to.  Jesus doesn’t condemn anybody to eternal fire, Jesus doesn’t come with the winnowing fork in his hand and he doesn’t sweep away the wicked as John said he would.  Quite the opposite.  Jesus goes to his death with words of healing and forgiveness for those who arrested and condemned him, and instead of dealing death to others Jesus accepts the violence of others and draws new life from it.  Have you ever heard real fire and brimstone preaching?  The sort that scares you into repentance the way John the Baptist is doing here?  You’d better repent because Jesus is coming back, and boy, is he mad.  But here’s the funny thing – that’s not the way Jesus talks, Jesus is not a hellfire and brimstone preacher – Jesus never talks about cutting down people like trees and destroying with fire, instead Jesus talks about the sort of transformation that works slowly from within like a tiny seed that grows into a massive tree - Jesus teaches the way of wasteful and utterly indiscriminate love that transforms both the one who loves and the one who is loved.  Jesus demonstrates radical acceptance, which is about recognising the humanity and the value of those who are worthless in the world’s scheme of things, in fact, Jesus preaches not the way of punishment but the way of forgiveness.

Does that mean Jesus isn’t talking about repentance?  Does that mean Jesus is going to let us off going to boot-camp, we don’t need to follow Jesus into the desert?  Not at all.  Jesus certainly does talk about repentance, and he agrees with John the Baptist that repentance has to come first, before we can hear the message of God’s love.  Both Jesus and John take us into the desert of repentance, the difference is that when we go into the desert with Jesus we find that the dry grass and the bare stumps of our lives burst into new growth. 

Right now, we’re two weeks away from Christmas.  Sixteen sleeps to go before we experience all over again the miracle that God can think of no better way to show us how much God loves us than by coming to share the mess and heartache of human life with us.  The miracle that God’s own life is joined to ours through thick and thin means that God’s knowledge of us does not condemn us.  Being human means always having something to say we’re sorry for, it means always having some layers of self-deception and dishonesty to peel back before we can be ready for the joy and new life that God is aching to share with us.  That’s why Advent is always the time of being called back by the Church into the desert, into boot camp.  The time of waiting for God’s grace is necessarily the time of repentance, the time of being honest about ourselves and of recognising all the ways in which we have denied the gift of God’s life intertwined with our own.  When this morning [at 9.30] we baptise Hone, who is too young to know the grown-up reality that life gets murky sometimes, that we do lose our way over and over again – we’re going to claim for him the connection between repentance and hope that’s the key to human flourishing because it reconnects us with the rhythm of God’s own life.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Advent Sunday

I guess we live in busy times – we’re certainly living right now in the busiest time of the year – I’ve noticed in our fast-paced society there’s a general weariness that seems to set in around the middle of November and lasts until Christmas and then we enter the silly season – are we nodding off yet?  Anaesthetised by the nightly horrors on the evening news, we find it hard to feel sympathy for the victims who seem to have been there on our TV screens forever when we’ve got a few concerns of our own.  Snowed under with busy-ness and responsibility, we seriously try to do the best we can for the people we love, to do the best we can at work, to get on with our neighbours, contribute to our parish community.  But we’re too busy to pay attention to things of the spirit.  It would be good to have the time to think about things like Jesus coming back.  But there’s too much going on.  We tune out of the most important stuff of all.  So, are we asleep?

According to the picture Matthew paints for us, Jesus tells us we are indeed asleep – and it’s time to wake up.  The season of Advent begins with the big picture, with Jesus’ promise to return and his vague but worrying instruction to stay alert, and only then does it begin to converge and zero in on the concrete historical fact of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  Today we are confronted with the information that this is not just ancient history, that we personally need to get ready, because Jesus is coming back and if we’re not ready we’ll be left behind.  This might be alarming news, if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve heard it every year on the first Sunday of Advent, for as long as we can remember.  So if it’s not actually that urgent for us, if today’s message has become over-familiar and isn’t actually jolting us awake - what does it mean for us?

A few years ago I remember reading an article in the Messenger by the Dean of Perth, who of course doesn’t mind stirring up a bit of controversy.  The Dean hazarded the opinion that literal belief in the second coming of Jesus is a bit superfluous really, it’s the first coming that matters, the fact that in Jesus of Nazareth we see God becoming human, God bridging the unbridgeable gap between the finite and the infinite; that Jesus models for us what God is like and what God’s priorities are; that Jesus models the way of self-giving love that shows us what God’s character is like; and then finally that Jesus shows us that in God’s scheme of things life is stronger than death, because God has created us for love and for eternity.  Dr Shepherd argued we really don’t need the doctrine of a second coming, we just need to pay closer attention to the first one, to the reality that, in Jesus, God has become present in human history in a new way which changes everything, forever.  Dr Shepherd said he thought the doctrine of the second coming got tacked on along the way because Christians fell into the same trap the Jewish people fell into when they were expecting the messiah the first time around – which is the trap of triumphalism - this time, God, we want to see you throw your weight around a bit, no more getting pushed aside onto the cross, this time take out a few of the bad guys.  Of course, the Dean’s opinion piece provoked a bit of theological fisticuffs, which, I don’t know about you, but I used to rather enjoy a bit of impassioned argument in the pages of the Messenger.

I like his point, but I’d rather argue the exact opposite, I’d rather take issue with people who want to restrict Jesus to just two visits.  Why just two, I’d want to ask?  You see, not only am I happy to go along with Matthew in assuring you that Christ indeed is coming back like a thief in the night – surreptitiously, in other words, on the sly, when you least expect it – in disguise - and not only would I also want to suggest that the whole of creation is heading towards a culmination or some sort of joining together of all the threads and all the pain and joy of existence that all get joined together in Christ – some sort of climax of history and creation that we couldn’t possibly guess at - but I’d also want to suggest that the Christ keeps coming to us along the way as well, that when it comes down to it there is nowhere in creation and no time in human history when Christ is absent - because what we see in the person of Jesus Christ is the commitment of God to being present in creation, Christ is God’s commitment to sharing with us this whole joyous and confusing mixture of love and busyness and heartache that we call human existence.  The main question isn’t where and when Christ is coming back, the question is how often we notice when he does.  Or how often we’re too preoccupied.

The earliest generation of Christians certainly expected Jesus to come back bodily, from the sky, and in St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians which is the very earliest writing in the whole of the New Testament we see that he apparently held this belief quite literally.  Matthew is writing a bit later, so he’s concerned to wind back the speculation a bit.  You don’t know the day or the time, he insists.  Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped silly speculation to this day about people being raptured out of their cars in the middle of the freeway, or planes dropping out of the sky because their pilots have been whisked off.  To talk about just the second coming of Christ is I think to short-change the gospel; and to try to second-guess the details says more about us and our need for certainty, than it does about God.

What Matthew is on about with his talk about the day of the Lord, and the coming again of the Son of Man, what he’s trying to say is that the future belongs to God just like the beginning of all things belongs to God, and the here and now belongs to God.  Not knowing what the future holds for us personally, or for the church, accepting that we can’t have that knowledge means we have to be vulnerable, and we have to trust God’s good purposes for us.  What Matthew is getting at is that the only thing we need to know about the future is that the future is God - that the God who created the world we live in, and the God who brings the work of creation to perfection by coming to live among us, is also the God who comes to meet us out of the future.

But that’s not all.  You see, when Matthew talks about the ‘day of the Lord’ he is using an expression that goes back to the prophets.  It’s an expression that carries a whole history of meaning, to do with the hope of deliverance, of vindication for God’s people, the hope that in the future God would restore God’s people – but also the other side of the coin which is accountability – like the prophet Amos who warns us not to look to the day of the Lord for hope unless we are also prepared to look at ourselves and acknowledge our own failings and our own injustices.  Judgement is a big theme for Matthew – he says if the future belongs to God, then justice and judgement also belong to God, it is God’s judgement that is both the ground for hope and the ground of peace.  The two working together in the field both seem to be alive – but the one who is taken is the one who was truly awake, the one who notices that the day of the Lord has already come, the one who recognises the face of Christ in the many faces the world wears – this one is taken into eternal life.  This is symbolic language, an extended metaphor.  It is a dramatic way of waking us up to the importance of being aware of the world we live in and the God-connectedness of everything - it is a way of telling us that if we’re truly awake to what is happening in the world we live in we will encounter Christ in the middle of the busyness and the responsibility of our lives, and that when we do we will be taken – we will be transformed.  We get to choose – is that what we want?  Or are we too busy?