Friday, January 29, 2010

Epiphany 4

I am indebted to theologian Kate Huey for her commentary on this text.  Kate’s reflection, ‘Prophet on the Edge’, can be found at


Somebody once said to me – no doubt by way of making me feel better about myself – that at any given moment there are about a dozen people in the world who think you’re absolutely awful.  Your motives are questionable, what you think is blindingly obvious they don’t see, and whatever you do, you get them offside.  At the same time, there’s about a dozen people in the world who think you’re wonderful, wise and witty, compassionate and that you can do no wrong.  The truly good news, my friend suggested, is that just about everybody else doesn’t really think about you all that much.  Which is quite good really because it means we can all just get on with things, and eventually manage to live down both the worst and the best of what we do.  The other part of my friend’s theory was that what makes people switch from barracking to booing at a moment’s notice is not you at all, but their own expectations which are unrealistic to start with.

Leaving aside that my friend was clearly world-worn and cynical, something like this seems to be happening to Jesus when he goes back to his old home town of Nazareth.  Remember while I was away you left the gospel last week on a cliff-hanger.  Jesus has come back home – not only is he all grown-up now but he has somehow mysteriously changed, he’s spent time in the desert with John the Baptist, he’s begun to acquire a reputation as a wisdom teacher and a worker of miracles.  Jesus takes his seat in the synagogue and, as all adult Jewish men were expected to be able to do from time to time, begins to teach from the scriptures.  He reads from the prophet Isaiah, or, to be more precise, he carefully selects some verses from the prophet Isaiah and then he says, with considerable audacity, ‘all this has come true, right now, right here’. 

That’s where you left it last week, right where, if this was made for TV, the theme music would come in to leave you hanging for dramatic effect.  No doubt Jesus' sermon was a bit longer than that, but we’ve got the gist of it.  He hasn’t come into town with something new, with something that contradicts or replaces the Torah, but with a message that invokes the ancient promises of the Torah, the promise of liberation that his people have remembered and nurtured for centuries, during all the years of exile, through the years of living under the Persian emperor, the Greek and now the Roman invaders.  Not only that, but Jesus comes from Nazareth, a country bumpkin town in the middle of the rural backwater of Galilee.  Remember Nathaniel’s comment about Nazareth – what good can possibly come from there?  This is a place at the back end of nowhere, a place that with the tenacity of the dirt-poor in every century and every place has hung on to the hope that the God who created and who loves all things will remember them, that the time will come when God would make all things right.  The expectations, in other words, as my cynical friend would observe, are about as high as they can possibly get. 

And this morning’s reading begins on the warm fuzzy note it ended with last week.  You know, another friend once told me, beware when too many people like your sermons.  It means you can’t be doing it right.  You can’t actually preach the gospel without getting up people’s noses, your job isn’t to make people comfortable but to encourage – in the literal sense of that French loan-word that means, to enlarge your hearers’ hearts.  Not always a comfortable process.  The people of Nazareth like what they are hearing, because it is obviously about them.  This is Joseph’s boy, after all.  He’s been away to miracle school, he knows his Bible like anything, did you hear about the miraculous healings he did down the road at Capernaum and now he’s going to put us on the map?  We like hearing about God’s priority for the poor in spirit, God's plan for the restoration of the oppressed – we like it when we can tell ourselves, that’s us.  Work all day in the hot sun for barely enough to put food on the table at the end of it, that’s us.  Just as many blind and lame here, just as many old and sick here as in Capernaum, more probably, that's us.  Not only under the thumb of the world superpower, though to tell the truth we actually don't see the Romans much up in Galilee, they haven't even bothered to appoint a military governor, just set up one of Herod the Great's nasty offspring as a local agent, not only don't the Romans even want to know about us the Judeans think we're all illiterate peasants, so liberation for the oppressed? - that's us.  Charity begins at home, mate.

I guess that's my take on it, at any rate.  Other commentators find some other reasons why it all starts to go a bit sour.  We do for example get cynical and cranky when somebody starts promising stuff you know they can't possibly deliver.  Perhaps, one Bible commentator suggests, the people of Nazareth don't want to hear Jesus' message because it's all too wildly hopeful.  The improbable promise of freedom – freedom from oppression, from infant mortality and the debilitating diseases of ageing, freedom from hand-to-mouth subsistence farming, freedom from political oppression, better to shut this troublemaker up than fill our heads with those sort of dreams.  Another commentator, the wonderful Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, thinks the problem is Jesus' use of the words, 'the year of the Lord's favour'.  It's a code, it stands for the year of the Jubilee outlined in the book of Leviticus, the once every 50 years restoration when all debts are cancelled, when bonded slaves are set free and ancestral lands revert back to their ancient owners.  Jubilee runs against the grain not only of capitalism but of every instinct of rich and poor alike to get ahead, put something by for themselves.  The idea behind the Old Testament idea of Jubilee is of course that everything belongs to God, that economic justice and the eradication of cycles of poverty is God's core business – have you ever wondered why the Bible is chock-a-block full of teaching about money and no matter how hard some Christians look only has a few obscure verses about sex? – it's because deep economic inequality diminishes all of us, deep poverty and unremitting human misery existing alongside great wealth is both an affront to God and a barrier to the building of the sort of relationships that lead to human flourishing.  And says Brueggeman, just maybe the Nazareth-ites didn't mind the idea that they themselves might be liberated but start to smell a rat when it seems it might cost them something.  We 21st century Christians don't like it much, either.  The year of the Lord's favour, the way the Old Testament talks about it, means big changes in our human priorities, big changes in how we live.

But at the beginning of today's reading Jesus' home crowd are right behind him.  According to Luke's version of events it's Jesus himself who smells a rat – there's something about the adulation and the approval that Jesus doesn't like.  Because it's focussed firmly on what Jesus can do for them, and so he quite deliberately dampens their enthusiasm.  No, he tells them, you don't get it yet.  God's promises aren't a safety-net, they're a challenge.  The year of God's favour isn't you winning the lottery, it's you learning to live with compassion.  And he tells them some Bible stories they'd rather not know about.  The great prophet Elijah – who did he help in the great drought?  Well, actually it was an outsider, somebody you maybe think shouldn't have been eligible.  Who did Elisha cure of leprosy?  Another outsider, even worse, the enemy commander Naaman.  Proper prophets don't let you get away with thinking you're more special to God than anyone else.  The message of hope exposes our own anxiety and our own insecurity.  Like the Nazareth-ites we get defensive, we refuse to even try to see the new vision for our lives that Jesus is trying to show us, because we are afraid to risk what we have for what might be.

Of course it’s a model for ministry – Jesus’ ministry and also our own.  The good folk of Nazareth flip in a split second from adulation to condemnation, from thinking Jesus is awesome to knowing he’s just plain awful.  We know we have it in us as well to act like that when we find our perspectives being challenged.  But actually we know that as Jesus is pushed out of town and up the hill we know that’s where we are meant to be also, out on the edge, on a path that might get us into trouble but that leads us towards an expansive, generous, justice-seeking vision of the world we live in. 

I wonder what would it look like for Jesus' first sermon and the reading from Isaiah to be fulfilled this day, in our midst?  How might it lift us up from self-preoccupation to compassionate care for others?  How might it inspire us, for example, not only to give more than we first intended to help the suffering people of Haiti but to commit ourselves to finding out why the people of this tiny country are so impoverished and so helpless, why it is that natural disasters always strike with more devastating effect in regions that are economically underdeveloped?  How might today’s reading help us to understand better our own relationship with the people of Haiti, and the possibilities for working in partnership with them?

No doubt many of you have already given generously to various appeals for the immediate relief of this devastated country.  I would like to urge you today to give some more through Anglican agencies working through the Diocese of the Dominican Republic, to commit ourselves to a more personal involvement and over coming weeks and months to follow through in assisting with medium and long-term restoration of communities and individual lives.  In the immediate context of our own lives, whether Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in our own midst is up to us.


Friday, January 08, 2010

Baptism of Christ

In preparing this sermon I have found Bill Loader's reflections on baptism, and especially on the issue of infant vs adult baptism, very helpful.  I have also borrowed a few of Bill’s words (which can be found at


One of the greatest mysteries of our physical existence is water.  Water gets to do all the hard work in the evolution of our world - softening, changing and shaping things over millions of years.  We’re more than half made of it, we can’t live without it, we swim and play in it, reverting to some distant amphibian genetic memory, it cleans and refreshes us, we find it beautiful and at the same time we are in awe of its power to destroy us. 

I remember when my twin boys were born, going on 30 years ago, there was this new-fangled way of having babies called the Lamaze method.  It’s probably embarrassingly out of date by now.  One of the things that made it different from established hospital procedure was that the delivery room lights were turned down low and the midwife put some meditative sounding music on.  Fathers had a very important role to play - not only was I definitely wanted in the delivery room but I had a special job - as each one of my sons was born I got to hold him for a few minutes in a bath that was just blood temperature, just like the safe environment he had left, so his first experience was not of sudden movements and hard sounds and noises, but of warmth and water and soothing sounds, and of being held safe in his dad’s hands.  It was an immersion into a reality of love, a sort of baptism that said, ‘you’re mine, and I’m yours’.

Baptism, it seems to me, is about origins, about reconnecting us to where we’ve come from and where we belong, and it’s also about transitions, about recognising where we are in relation to the world and to God.  In baptism God recognises us and chooses us, just as Jesus experiences himself to be recognized and chosen in the middle of the Jordan River, as a precious and unrepeatable moment of God’s expression in the world - the one in whom God’s love and God’s creative beauty is present, so that if we are open to it God’s own life sustains and energises our own.

It’s a big agenda of love and generosity, and it makes some big demands, as we hear in Luke’s account of Jesus’ own baptism.  The Spirit that, in Luke’s version of the story, is seen as a descending dove is the same force that, according to Mark’s version of the same story, immediately drives Jesus out again into the desert.  The word - ekballo - is the same word that is used when Jesus himself drives out demons, a word that warns us not to approach baptism as if it were just a cute rite of passage or family tradition.  Baptism implies vocation, a new way of being, and it implies that we are set aside, we have a purpose, we have been brought into a particular relationship with God and with the world, we are called to live within that relationship and we are brought into conflict with all that fragments, isolates or diminishes God’s presence in the world.  Baptism needs to be taken very seriously indeed.

Jesus’ baptism at the Jordon, the river that runs along the boundary line between the wilderness and Israel, the land of God’s promise, is a model for us of our own baptism - as the entering into a new identity as God’s sons and daughters, an identity defined by relationship with God and with one another, an identity that has consequences for how we choose to live.  John the Baptism announces that his baptism was specifically for repentance, the Greek word metanioa meaning more or less a 180 degree turn, a complete reversal of priorities that results not just in chastened hearts but changed lives.  The Jewish people had for centuries understood the symbolic power of ritual washing but John’s insistence on baptism as a once-in-a-lifetime event emphasised that this was God’s initiative and God‘s doing, something we could not do for ourselves.  It implies, for those old enough, an acknowledgement of our human capacity for drifting off target and a commitment to allowing God to recalibrate and retarget us, a commitment to holding our lives open to the correction of Word and sacrament.  In the baptism of small children, this emphasis on repentance implies resistance to the hyper-individualism of our age, and an acknowledgement that we don’t form ourselves, but are formed within communities of care.  In the earliest days of the Church, when whole households were often baptised together, it was more clearly understood that the repentance called for in baptism is the repentance of the whole Church.  This emphasis on the whole community agrees with what we now know about human development, in baptising babies and small children we are acknowledging that even in infancy God’s love is made known and experienced through the love of parents and in community – and as a community we are accepting the responsibility of love and care that places on us.

Jesus himself, in his washing of his disciples’ feet, offers us a similar understanding of baptism not just as service, but as the means of forgiveness and renewal within community, as an act that changes the disciples by opening their hearts to God and to one another, that allows them to move beyond petty competitiveness and self-interest, and to recognise the atmosphere of grace and love that holds flawed human beings in communion as the Church.  Peter’s denial hasn’t even happened yet, but it will, and the blessing Jesus pours on him in washing his feet is the ecology of restoration – the ecosystem that makes it possible for Peter to live beyond his own limitations, beyond obsession with his own fears and failures, to be a blessing and a baptism to others.

Part of the reason water is such a rich symbol is precisely because it is fluid, constantly in motion, resisting all attempts to categorise or contain it.  Colourless, it reflects its surroundings, without shape, it pours into the crannies and the empty places of our lives.  It washes, it brings new life from dry ground, it refreshes.  It is easy to see why water, in so many faiths, has come to represent the spirituality of change, of new beginnings, of refreshment and hope.  In Christianity, however, the fluid and invisible Spirit takes on a distinctive shape. We look to Jesus to see how the water of God’s goodness flowed.  In his life, death and resurrection we see new life and hope.  People like Paul came to understand the act of baptism as representing Christ’s death and burial, and his rising to new life.  In baptism we are joined to that, we in some sense participate in the paradox that is at the heart of the Spirit’s revealing of itself in Jesus.  Claiming for ourselves Jesus’ death which was in solidarity with all who suffer and all whose life is poured out, we claim also participation in Jesus’ resurrection which defeats death and which transforms human suffering by revealing that life, not death, gets the last word.  Our baptism puts us on the side of life, makes us a people who recognise and celebrate resurrection, transformation and new life.  As perhaps I’ve mentioned before, our baptism makes us people oriented toward the future, towards the world not as it is, but as it could be.

As Christians do we understand this?  We most assuredly do not!  It defeats our understanding even at the same time as we glimpse its truth for the very same reason that we are unable to hold a handful of water.  As soon as we think we’ve caught and defined it, solidified it in some ritual or represented it in some symbol then it trickles through our fingers.  What we’re left holding onto isn’t the Spirit.  The spirit of baptism is for living, for apprehending at the level of intuition and relationship, for getting at the same level as we get a joke, for allowing it to invite us in to God’s reality in which that which is old and worn becomes new, that which is failed or useless or lost is transformed into forgiveness and possibility and discovery.

In baptism we are called into a relationship, and we hear a promise.  It’s the same promise that echoes in the Hebrew scriptures for centuries before the birth of Jesus, and it’s the same promise that Jesus himself hears at his own baptism, the promise best expressed, perhaps, in the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard this morning:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.


Saturday, January 02, 2010


We human beings have always been fascinated by the night sky.  Right from the very earliest moments of civilisation we’ve been over-awed by the stars and planets and given names to the constellations and tried to work out what they mean.  As modern city-dwellers we miss most of it - in fact I was intrigued the other day to hear that the organisers of the Sydney New Year’s Eve skyshow included a representation of the Southern Cross in the finale because although it can be clearly seen across the southern hemisphere it’s too faint for most Sydneysiders to see.  It seems to me somehow significant that in this superficial age the signs in the heavens that most stir our excitement are the products of our own cleverness.

We do of course still get impressed by the natural variety.  One of my favourites happened just a year ago - on 30 November 2008, to be precise, when the whole of the southern hemisphere looked up to see a giant smiley face in the night sky – a rare conjunction between Venus, Jupiter and a three-day-old crescent Moon that looked for all the world like God winking at us.  Whatever it meant, this apparition seemed altogether too cheerful to be bad news.  In the ancient world, comets were routinely thought to be divine announcements of important goings on, and astrologers developed precise - if not particularly scientific - systems of interpretation which of course are still consulted today by people trying to find Ms or Mr Right.

So Matthew’s story of mysterious visitors from the East, following some sort of object in the night sky that behaved unlike any star or comet in history - leading them across the desert and over the Judean countryside like some sort of camel’s pace satellite navigation system before finally coming to rest over the roof of a house in Bethlehem - Matthew’s story of the magi tells us that we are in the vicinity of great and wonderful events, the birth of one who, if we are to call him a king, calls into question all merely human political power, puts in the shade all human claims to pre-ordained greatness.  It’s also – it seems to me - a story that verges on cheekiness, a story that pokes irreverent fun at the mythology of the Roman invaders of Matthew’s homeland.  The world superpower back then had a whole range of gods, and made a sort of secular religion out of treating its emperors as gods, much as we do with pop celebrities and footballers.  In fact, the current emperor, Caesar Augustus, actually had as one of his titles, “Son of God, Saviour of the world”, and according to official legend a new star had burst into the skies to greet his birth.

My New Testament professor, Bill Loader, points out how many different threads from the Old Testament are woven into Matthew’s highly symbolic story of the magi coming to worship the baby Jesus.  The wise and mysterious visitors from the East, from the direction of Mesopotamia, of Judah’s traditional enemies Assyria or Babylon, or even of Eden itself, reflect a long tradition of Israel’s hopes that the nations of the world would come to worship God on Zion.  This is part of the generous prophetic strand of the Old Testament, for example Micah and Isaiah, who both speak of swords being beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and that the nations will come together in peace to learn of God.  In our readings this morning we get two glimpses of this tradition - Isaiah’s vision of gold and frankincense being brought as homage, psalm 72 that speaks of camels and kings bearing gold as gifts.  Matthew - who clearly knows his history - would have been aware of the political delegation from the East that visited Herod the Great around 10BC on the completion of his great city of Caesarea Maritima, he would have known of the great comet of 12BC – more importantly he would also have known the stories of the Old Testament, for example in the book of Numbers where the pagan prophet Balaam testifies that a star would arise from Jacob.  In short, Matthew wants to tell us that Jesus wasn’t born just to be a Jewish messiah, but a messiah for the whole world.  And so he tells us this story about strangers travelling long distances to check out the signs for themselves.  

Interestingly, for such wise men, they seem to have been a bit naive.  Go figure - they pull into town, into Jerusalem, and they ask King Herod the Great, the puppet king installed by the Romans around 50BC, if he’s heard anything about the real, God-anointed King who seems to have been born hereabouts.  With considerable understatement, Matthew writes that Herod was agitated about the news that he had some competition.  And what he does next underscores that he, Herod himself, knows what the difference is, because when the travellers ask him about a new king he turns to his advisors and asks them straight off where the messiah is to be born.  Herod in other words is acutely aware that real power comes from God, but that his own just comes from Rome.

And straight away the religious leaders come up with the right answer – in Bethlehem – not from the seat of power but from the place of humility.  Matthew isn’t just thumbing his nose at the Roman authorities with this story, he’s also having a go at the religious leaders of his own people who had been waiting for the birth of God’s messiah – God’s anointed one – for hundreds of years, and when it finally happens, either don’t get it, or even worse, do get it but are too afraid, too in cahoots with the secular authorities, or too in love with their own power and position to acknowledge it.  You missed the baby, Matthew is saying, and you also missed the man.  Because the stories of Jesus birth aren’t primarily about baby Jesus, they are about the Jesus his followers knew as a teacher and healer, the Jesus who would eventually be crucified under the facetious sign “King of the Jews”.  As writer Scott Hoezee puts it, the story is ultimately about "the reach of grace … (reminding us that) the Christ child who attracted these odd astrologers to his cradle would later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracised lepers”.

And, says Matthew, you lot missed the signs that heaven itself was ablaze with.  The people who for hundreds of years had seen themselves as waiting faithfully for the fulfilment of God’s promises missed the moment when it happened because they were too afraid, too stuck in tradition and self-interest, unable to recognise the utter consistency of the new with the history of God’s faithfulness in the past.  The very people who should have recognised the signs were too busy with their religious rituals and power games to see that God had come near to them.

But some strangers didn’t miss it.  Looking for a sign, attentive to the world around them, in tune both with the ancient wisdom and the contemporary world, they recognised and responded to God’s initiative.  The star itself was not the epiphany, the sign is not the experience, the signs of our times just prompt us to be attentive, to be intelligent, and to respond with love – and the signs of our times can reveal that the God we worship is not confined to a dusty book or a received tradition.  The magi teach us the value of intuition and the imperative of being open to change, of allowing ourselves to be disturbed and redirected.  When they got there, the magi worshipped, and then Matthew tells us, they went home by a different road.  The experience of the Christ-Child is meant to change us, to direct us to new opportunities and new ways of being faithful.  Above all, we’re not meant to come to the manger and just stay there.

So the question that the story confronts us with is: who are we?  Are we among the faithful religious people who don’t get it, or who refuse to get it – or are we travelling with the magi, have we been sensitive to the signs of the times and have we followed them to an epiphany of God’s presence in the world?  We know the right answer – we know which group we should be travelling with but – deep down – we also know how hesitant we are to imagine that God’s dream for the world might actually be happening, that we are being challenged to notice and respond to something new.  People keep coming among us with new messages from God, having seen new signs, new patterns.  Sometimes we’re too busy to notice.  Sometimes we’re too afraid to consider it because it’s so different from what we’ve always done in the past.  Sometimes we just don’t like the messenger, they’re too confronting, too abrasive, too unfamiliar.

The Eastern Church has an interesting Epiphany tradition.  Each year, the priest blesses a piece of chalk and then writes on the doorway of the church the symbols “20+C+M+B+10”.  It’s a message to any wise people who might be passing – in the tradition of the ancient Church the magi were given names – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – C+M+B – a message that says to any passing bearers of divine insight, “come in here in 2010, you’ll be welcome.  We’re ready to listen.  This year, we’re ready to be changed and challenged.  This year, we’re ready to believe that God might just come among us in ways we haven’t thought of yet.  This year, we’re ready to welcome strangers on the off chance they might take us home by another road”.