Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feast of St. Stephen - 26 dec

You wouldn’t think it would be that dangerous being a waiter.  The occasional grumpy customer when you forget an order, inconvenient hours and low wages – but stoned to death? You wouldn’t think so. Yet in the sixth chapter of Acts Stephen is chosen as one of seven who will "wait on tables," an occupation and a witness that will lead to his death. The 12 apostles must not be distracted from their preaching to attend to the daily distribution of food to the widows.  So Stephen and the others are chosen not to preach or to teach but to serve – an apparently lower-ranking occupation that is actually subversive because in his ministry of care for Jews and Gentiles alike Stephen manages to draw the ire of some powerful factional groups and that, Acts tells us, is what gets him killed.  The point, in other words, is that the first Christian martyr is not a missionary, not an orator or a theologian or a bishop but one whose calling is to feed the hungry.

And today’s reading picks up the story just as Stephen, having preached a fairly forgettable sermon, prepares himself to meet his Maker.  And in Luke’s made-for-Hollywood version we can’t help but notice some similarities between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Stephen is attacked by an angry crowd and taken out of the city. In his last words, Stephen commends his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his to the Father.  At the end, as Stephen prays for his enemies and forgives his attackers, "Lord, do not hold this against them," we hear the words of Jesus rattling in our ears, "Father, forgive them". 

Clearly, as he builds up the story so we can’t help but notice the echoes behind it, Luke is trying to tell us something, trying to make both a theological and a practical point.  Which is that discipleship – the decision to follow and try to behave like Jesus – leads inevitably to the cross.  Discipleship – bearing witness to Jesus by imitating Jesus’ model of self-sacrifice – carries a high price-tag.  If we do it right – that is, if we are actually whole-hearted about it, if we follow Jesus’ path of self-giving love even when it leads to confrontation with selfishness and vested interests – our own self-centredness as well as the insular attitudes of those around us – then there is a cost.  Comfortable Sunday Christianity, Luke is reminding us, the sort of Christianity that affirms our own view of the world without demanding too much of us, the comfortable congregation of the like-minded is not actually discipleship.

I maybe should clarify that I am not actually recommending – and I don’t think Luke is, either – that to be Christian means you have to go out and deliberately make such a nuisance of yourself that people want to throw rocks at you.  The bishop might have something to say about it, if too many St Michaels parishioners start coming to sticky ends ... actual martyrdom, after all, is not an end in itself but a consequence, in particular times and circumstances, of the choice to live Jesus’ way of love with integrity and without compromise.  But Luke’s basic point, I think, is this: that the way of Jesus necessarily costs us something – that the cross, ultimately, is not just something we hang around our neck but something that comes with the decision to follow Christ.  And it’s a good litmus test – the question to ask ourselves – has my faith got too comfortable?  is this just a lifestyle or even worse, just a habit, just a way of keeping in touch with friends on a Sunday morning, just something I do because I’ve always done it?  And the test is to ask yourself: what does my Christianity cost me?  Is there really a struggle for me?  Am I constantly finding I need to confront the contradiction between my own desires and the way of Jesus?  Am I giving of myself – financially, my time, my personal space – to the extent that it really costs me something?  Because if not, then Luke suggests I’m not doing it right.

Well, you might be thinking, what a cheery little number for the day after Christmas.  First, the Church says, all through Advent – hang on, we’re not ready for the stable and the star yet, we’ve got work to do!  And then the very next day, the Feast of St Stephen and the preacher is telling us to go out and get uncomfortable.  Can we at least wait until we’ve eaten all the Christmas dinner leftovers?

But you see, there is a reason why the Church puts St Stephen on the 26th of December, why we celebrate the martyrdom of St John on the 27th and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th – and that’s because unless we do, then Christmas is incomplete.

Christmas – God’s creative initiative to bless and perfect creation by stepping inside it, the joining together of earth and heaven – is incomplete.  Jesus, the Word of God made human flesh – who makes the mess and chaos of human life holy by taking it on himself – is unable to complete the work of incarnate love – without us.

There is an ancient Christmas blessing which I love, because it suggests that Christmas is not a fait accompli, not a done deal, until we do our bit.  ‘Receive Christmas’, is the greeting.  God has done this, God has entered our world and that changes everything – so long as we receive Christmas.  God has been born into human flesh and that makes us holy, that gifts us and all creation with the language of heaven – so long as we are willing to receive it.  We, in fact, have still to do the work of Mary of Nazareth, who consents to allow God’s Word to gestate and come to birth within her.  She, of course, is the first human creature to receive Christmas, to recognise the task of allowing her own DNA to be transformed by nurturing the enfleshed Word of God within her.  But the work of Mary is the work of Christmas that we all are invited to do.

God has entered our world, we are invited to enter the love-song of the angels, and yes – there is a cost for us as there was a cost for Mary, a cost for Stephen and as there has been a cost for every human child of God who has consented to be the parent of God’s Word.  The wood of the manger, as is often pointed out, is also the wood of the cross, and the shadow of Good Friday falls in the corner of the stable.  We know what this child is born to, and deep within us we also know what it means for us.  That our own burden of suffering and joy is made holy – that the burden of suffering and joy of our world has entered into the body of Christ and so is no longer separate from us – that our own lives are incarnate within the frail and wonderful web of all that draws breath.  We can never again see ourselves as separate from any creature for whom Christ suffered, the suffering, for example of those whose fragile boat was smashed against the limestone cliffs of Christmas island last week is the suffering of Christ, and wounds us wonderfully.  To receive Christmas is to look for the woundedness of Christ in your own life, in the lives of those you love and in those whose lives never intersect yours at all.

To receive Christmas is to be wounded, to know that Christ is incarnate in you, to receive in equal measure joy and sorrow, and to accept the way of the cross.

Receive Christmas!



Friday, December 24, 2010


A little while ago I watched a video that demonstrated a new approach taken by a group of therapists working with young people suffering from autism.  At first, it seemed to me that the approach being taken was somewhat strange.

One young man got so disturbed when the therapist came into the room that he started walking quickly up and down the room, twisting and untwisting a piece of string, refusing to acknowledge her presence.  It would have been hopeless trying to communicate with him.  So the therapist also picked up a piece of string and started twisting and untwisting it.  When the young man made a noise, so did she; when he began to do something different, like banging his hand on a table, so did she. Very slowly, over two days, the recordings of their sessions showed that a relationship had begun to form – when the young man glanced at the therapist she glanced back at him – eventually he smiled at her, and she smiled back.  Finally, the point was reached where the therapist could initiate some contact, and the young man would respond with a smile.  He was starting to trust her.

Apparently, when someone with autism feels they’re being bombarded with too much information – if there’s too much going on at the same time – to stop themselves panicking they withdraw into themselves, stick to doing only what is familiar, and don't acknowledge anything going on outside.  But if, after a while, they begin to notice that somebody else is also gently engaged in the same familiar actions and rhythms - slowly the wounded mind of the autistic person begins to recognise that here there is a part of the outside world that isn't fearful, that isn't threatening.  Here is someone doing the same things that I do - When I do this, someone answers - I'm not powerless.  And gradually communication begins: gradually a relationship starts to grow.

I don’t think we need to be autistic to know what this is about.  Perhaps most of us have experienced this from time to time.  When we’re locked into our own nightmares and we don’t know how to get out, the only thing that’s going to help is if somebody joins us in there, if somebody takes the risk of being there with us and going through the same thing we’re going through.

I don’t know about you, but for me it seems like there’ve been a few road-blocks this year on the road to Bethlehem.  Literally as well as figuratively.  Our world doesn’t seem to have learned a thing from two thousand years of hearing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill year in year out.  What’s Christmas got to do with the ugly reality of earthquake and epidemic in Haiti, car-bombings in Baghdad or last week’s closer-to-home tragedy on the limestone cliffs of Christmas island?  How is any of that helped by the cute Christmas image of reindeers and multiple store Santas – or the not so cute image the Western world offers of conspicuous over-consumption?  Might there be a credibility gap between what we tell ourselves at Christmas time that it’s all about – and what we see in the world around us?  I have to confess – I feel like I’ve got to Christmas Eve this year unprepared and a bit out of sorts.  There’s never enough time the week before Christmas is there??  The sheer bad temper of the last-minute rush seems to drown out any lingering strains of ‘peace on earth and good-will to all’ that you’ve been hearing all week.  Sometimes the problems aren’t exactly earth shattering but they still cause some stress, like the Christmas lights on the tree aren’t working.  Or you haven’t got all the cards out.  And then there’s the family celebrations, and you want to make a meaningful connection with family members you maybe haven’t seen for a while, or maybe there’s been some things said that can’t be forgotten, and not everyone in the family is talking.  Things start to get a bit frayed.  And for some of us, around Christmastime, emotions get frayed as well.  Relationships break up – ironically enough it really is harder to find a room for the night in a women’s refuge around Christmastime – and if you’ve got to deal with the hard facts of domestic violence or unemployment or a credit card that’s getting out of control, at the same time as you’re hearing the Christmas message in every department store that loving your kids means spending more money – at Christmas time when expectations are so high – if you’re by yourself or you’re not living in a picture-perfect family or you’re waiting for a medical diagnosis – it can be the hardest time of the year.  If there’s a credibility gap between the lifestyle the glossy magazines tell you should be having, and the one your reality check tells you you’re actually having, then the closer you get to Christmas the wider it gets.  There can be some road-blocks on the road to Bethlehem.

But the thing about Christmas is, it’s like one of those children’s pantomimes where the actor’s pretending to be deaf and everybody in the audience is yelling, ‘no, look behind you!’ – because all the characters in the Christmas story are like signposts, whether it’s the shepherds or the angels or the wise men it’s like they’re all yelling, ‘no, look over here!’ – and at some point on Christmas Eve whether we’re ready for Christmas or not, they get our attention and we find ourselves looking at a baby in a crib – even though at some level we’re still thinking about the road-blocks.  Which ever way we look, whether it’s up into the sky or over the horizon, we see these larger than life characters all yelling at us, ‘it’s not the road-blocks, it’s the baby!’  These characters have got one job to do, and that’s to get us here on time, to Bethlehem, whether we’re ready or not.

So, what is it with the baby?  How do you tell the woman whose defacto has beaten her up the week before Christmas, and she’s piled everything into the stationwagon, and the kids as well, and she doesn’t really know where she’s headed to, how can you tell her that this baby two thousand years ago matters?  How?  Because the meaning of the baby and the meaning of Christmas is that God is right here with us.  That’s what the name Emmanuel means. God is with us.  In our grief, in our mixed-up-ness, in our selfishness and our fear, in our love and our pain and our laughter, in the stuff of our everyday lives – God is with us.  God is born among us, God does all the same things we do.  And just in case we don’t get the point, this baby also bangs into the same road-blocks that we bang into.  This baby is born to parents who live in poverty.  This baby doesn’t make it to hospital on time to be born.  This baby is going to have to be whisked away in the middle of the night and smuggled across the border into another country to escape the authorities.  This baby is going to preach the way of peace but die the death of a common criminal.  If this baby really is God-made-flesh then it means that God is committed to going the distance with us, that God isn’t out there somewhere running the show from a safe distance.  God-made-flesh isn’t born into a fairy-tale world of cotton-wool snow and Santa Claus, God-made-flesh is born right in the middle of the great and gripping darkness that we sometimes call the real world, and that’s the good news.  That means that it’s OK to take the risk of living compassionately and loving wastefully because whatever happens the future is going to be in God’s hands.  God will be with us.

And that’s the good news. That while we’re wrapped up in our fears and our self-preoccupation, while we hide from our real selves in the darkness, God quietly creeps in beside us as a baby: who is born, who grows up, and lives a perfectly ordinary life just like ours, eating, sleeping, working, partying, loving, hurting, grieving.

God-made-flesh does what we do, feels what we feel, speaks our language; and slowly we learn that this is a God we can trust, and that we needn't be afraid.

And when God-made-flesh begins to do new things, shockingly different things like healing and forgiving, turning tables and the world upside-down, dying and rising again - when God-in-Jesus begins to tell and live a radically different story, the new story of the kingdom of God, then maybe we don't need to panic and run away and hide in fear.  Because maybe we’ve learned we can trust this God. 

In Jesus, tonight’s vulnerable baby lying in an animals’ feed-trough, God shares our life, in order that we can share God's life; God embraces our fears and frailty, in order that we can embrace God's faithfulness and love. Because God has become flesh among us, inhabiting our familiar world, becoming part of our story, because of this, we can dare to receive and embrace our unexpected roles in God's new story - whether as angels or shepherds, inn-keepers or pilgrims - and God can begin to draw us out of ourselves, mend us, call us, and make us back into who God always intended us to be.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflection at City of Canning Carols by Candlelight ...

Why does the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago in an unimportant corner of the Roman Empire still matter?  Why do we still sing about it, why does the story of the birth of Jesus have such power that somehow we understand even the magic and joy of Santa Claus to come from a rickety feed-trough in a run-down farm shed in Bethlehem?

One of the carols we sang this evening even stopped a war.  It was 1914, and the obscenely misnamed war to end all wars had only just begun.  The night of Christmas Eve was cold and clear, turning the slush of the trenches into ice.  As if by mutual understanding, the regular firing of snipers on both sides had fallen silent, when across the short gap of dangerous territory that separated them, the British troops heard the voices of the enemy singing - ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’.  As they listened and the snow began to fall the British troops on their side joined in with the English words, ‘Silent night, holy night’ – then one by one the first brave men climbed out of the trenches on both sides, enemies met as friends in the middle of the field of battle, gifts were exchanged and the next morning, on Christmas Day, a game of football was played.  History doesn’t record who won – but does record that despite their best efforts the furious generals were unable to get World War One going again for a full fortnight.

It matters, because Christmas tells us that God longs for a world in which human beings speak the language of peace.  At Christmas, God makes God’s self known to us not in power but in vulnerability – and so draws to us imperceptibly closer to our own better selves.  At Christmas, we pause and remember who we really are, what really matters in our lives, in our community and our world.  For a moment we forget to be competitive and self-protective, we become less hard-edged, more compassionate.

This year, the love-song of the angels echoes in the aftermath of Wednesday’s tragedy on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean off the far north coast of our own State.  It challenges us to reflect on the shared humanity that connects us with strangers who travelled so far only to perish on the rocky cliffs of their destination.  It challenges us to reflect on what joins us to one another, and to re-commit ourselves to building a community in which men and women and children of all ethnicities and cultures, of all religions and of none, might live together with dignity and peace.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3A

As a young university student I worked for two or three summers on the wheatbins – specifically at Balla, a little spot you probably won’t find on the map, the very northern-most tip of the fertile wheatbelt, within a day’s drive of Kalbarri Gorge.  We lived in a little tin shack in the middle of nowhere and day after day our only visitors were dusty farmers bring truckload after truckload of the wheat that somehow or other they had wrestled out of this unlikely looking country.  In fact it was very fine wheat they grew around Balla, we only accepted A-grade wheat and only once in my memory did we ever have to turn away a truckload to another bin that accepted lower quality.  But the country – as any of you who know the area – was spectacular – low scrubby vegetation, deep red earth hard-baked, the only living things seemed to be snakes and rabbits and emus and birds of prey.  The hot summer days were brutal – you sought out patches of shade and minimised your movements, any hard physical work you tried to get done early in the morning or during the cool of twilight – and the nights were cold under a sky brilliant with stars.  It was quite an experience for a teenager from the big city.  Just once I saw a different side of the place – a storm blew up from nowhere and within minutes in the middle of a scorching day we got an inch or more of rain – and the landscape turned from parched red earth to a slushy mud.  It rained solidly for a day or so, and spent another 24 hours drying out – and then the insects came, and the birds, and almost overnight a carpet of green shoots, and little flowers – and for a brief moment the parched and dusty spot we called home was transformed.

The desert, for Australians, has got a special resonance, hasn’t it?  Even if we don’t and couldn’t live there, we feel its presence at the heart of the country, and we have got an awareness of its power.  And the symbol that the prophet gives us this morning, the desert bursting into green flame – is one that as Aussies we ‘get’ – we can visualise the earth springing into new life and we understand the ramifications of that for human life, for farming communities that battle drought, and battle flood, in the hope of catching the once in a lifetime transformation that produces bumper crops and fat animals.  It’s an image of renewal, of hope and transformation that appropriately belongs to the third Sunday of Advent that we call Gaudete Sunday and mark with a pink candle, a day to celebrate in the middle of a season of waiting.

The prophet is talking to a people who have endured years of anxiety and terror at the hands of the besieging Assyrian armies.  It is a time of desperate political alliances, of betrayals and false hopes, and the prophet warns against relying too much on Israel’s stronger neighbours, counselling instead a return to faith in Yahweh, and encouraging those who have fled to return to Jerusalem and the Temple.  But we need to step back just a little bit in the Book of Isaiah, to chapter 34 just before today’s reading – where the prophet unleashes an oracle or prediction of judgement against one of Israel’s tiniest neighbours, the little, maybe 30 square mile kingdom of Edom that has apparently been an unreliable ally – and the images are horrible – of blood and fat and sacrifice, and rivers turning to boiling tar, and the land turning into sulphur, and an unending stench.  Faithless Edom, the prophet says, is going to become the haunt of jackals and ostriches and vultures – a hell on earth.

And then abruptly – today’s oracle of restoration for Israel, a delightful reversal, the land itself rejoicing and blossoming, an echo of images of Eden and of the Exodus stories of the miraculous provision for God’s people in the desert.  The prophet is talking about climate change – a very different sort of climate change to the sort that preoccupies us today – but still a message of hope to a people who have a long stretch of hostile environment between where they are now and where they need to be.  The sudden reversal gives the reader of this book a sort of theological whiplash – why would God act like this?  Doesn’t the prophet see the contradictions of his two chapters?  What are we to make of this sort of worldview that wishes destruction on others at the very same time as claiming a vision of hope for ourselves?  And I think we don’t need to rationalise it away, rather we need to see the contradiction as saying something about the mystery and contradiction of life and history itself, and the fact that sometimes the reversal and renewal God promises can only come out of the deep yearning of devastated hopes.

But the prophet is ultimately pointing to the mercy and power of God, and he is trying to get a people who have got used to hopelessness, ready for hope and transformation and change.  Political scientists tell us that change – in the middle of disappointment, when people have got used to limited horizons and thwarted hopes – that the promise of sudden reversal is hard to take, that it leads to instability.  People fear the very renewal they long for.  And the prophet has a hard time preaching hope to a people whose lives have been overwhelmed by fear, vulnerability, and lack of courage.  History tells us that the prophet was right – that in the middle of a long siege the Assyrian armies encircling Jerusalem suddenly got up and left, for reasons historians still can’t explain, in the middle of the night, and peace returned for over a century.  But preaching hope can be dangerous, when the people to whom you are preaching have got accustomed to dreaming to living with a small vision of themselves.

And so, before we can really hear it, we need to remind ourselves of our own hunger, to get in touch with what in us is still unsatisfied.  The message comes to us today in the middle of the Advent season when the world around us has already rushed on ahead into the Christmas season and by December 26th will be sick of it and looking for the next thing.  But the church counsels us to wait, and to listen to the message of hope with full awareness of how and in what ways we ourselves have run empty, have got used to minimising our expectations and turning the message of hope aside.  Of course we know we are in the business of proclaiming that the hope of the world is encapsulated in the child of Bethlehem – but what would that hope look like for us and for the world we live in?  What would the deserts of our lives and our world look like if they suddenly blossomed?

Well, the first thing we can do is look at the obvious level of the prophet’s own metaphor.  Last week in our reading from Isaiah we heard the prophet’s vision of universal peace – this week the land itself bursts into flower and demonstrates creation’s capacity for restoration and healing.  Not a bad image for a week in which delegates from the world’s major economies have sat locked in yet another round of talks at the climate change conference in Cancun.  It’s a reminder, perhaps, that the hope to which we commit ourselves when we assure one another of God’s actual presence in human history is not just a deferred hope for individuals at the end of their lives, but a hope for the whole of creation – and that the redemption of the whole creation that St Paul talks about needs us to learn to see the earth not just as a commodity for our use, but as God’s creation and as the very incarnation of God’s love.  And to learn the truth that human flourishing is inconceivable without a new view of ourselves as living in harmony with God’s creation.

And secondly, perhaps, we might reflect that the capacity for rejuvenation that we see in the desert country where the promise of new life lies dormant for years in the earth until the rains come – we might reflect that the same capacity is built in to human life despite our repeated failures to live in peace and to share our resources.  Because the promise of restoration – which as Christians we connect with the Word of God made flesh in Jesus – the promise of restoration is not just the blind hope that one day things will be different but the realistic assurance that ultimately all creation including we ourselves seeks its true purpose and reveals its Creator.  And the intuition of the prophets made explicit in the Word made flesh is that God’s promises are always made in flesh and blood, and that history itself is the painful, three steps forward and two steps back coming to realisation that we ourselves are templates of forgiveness and peace, that the coming true of God’s promises for our world depends on us realising and yearning for the promises to come true in our own lives.

For God to take on flesh in our world, in other words, requires our ‘yes’ to God taking on flesh in us – our willingness to take a new perspective on our own lives and our relationships as the landscape of God’s new creation – in which we commit ourselves to living God’s priorities and believing in God’s promises.  Our ‘yes’ to the greening of the deserts of our own back yards.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent 2A

I recently read a sermon on today's reading from Isaiah preached by a Jewish rabbi named Margaret Wening.   The rabbi was preaching about hope, and she made the point that while she loved to attend Advent services when her Christian friends invited her, she also found them troubling.  She said, "you sing songs like: 'O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel',  like it is a one-off event at the end of all things, like God sits back and observes human history for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years and does nothing, and that men and women are powerless to do anything except wait in hope that one day, against all the weight of human history, God will intervene to set things right, that - perhaps at the end of all things - Jesus will return and that will balance the scales.

And the rabbi told a story, the true story of the survivors of Buchenwald, a World War 2 concentration camp that held political prisoners many of whom had been rounded up and interned up in the years before the war, and which had a perhaps enviable record in that “only” about 30% of all the 300,000 captives that came through its gates perished there.  And in Buchenwald, in the dying days of the war, a dream was born that kept hope alive and perhaps also kept many of the prisoners alive - a dream of returning to Palestine and establishing a kibbutz.  And the survivors of Buchenwald did just that, in 1948 in the middle of another war, the war of independence from the British occupation forces, and they founded a kibbutz called simply, Netzer - a shoot from the old stump, regrowth from a forest fire - in reference to the passage we read today from the Book of Isaiah.

And the rabbi made the point that God's people are always waiting, always enduring injustice with hope, always resisting oppression and working for restoration.  And she explained, "to Jews, Isaiah's promise of redemption speaks not only of the advent of the messiah at the end of time but also of our recurring experience of redemption through time."  The promise of Isaiah, she said, has already been fulfilled over and over again, whenever God's people live with courage and live faithfully in hope toward the time when new green shoots of life appear from the ruin of injustice and oppression.  On the other hand, Margaret Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is also forever unfulfilled, because as we look around us we see a world in which competition and violence still reign - it is no safer today than it was in Isaiah's world for lambs to lie down with wolves - people still die of poverty and plague and the earth is filled with violence as water covers the sea.

So we are all still waiting for the advent of justice and peace. But, Rabbi Wening said, the promise of Isaiah is that God doesn't give death the last word. The promise that we see both fulfilled and at the same time unfulfilled is a challenge for us to work and to hope, to give flesh and blood to God's promises and to wait in trust for their fulfillment in situations where human efforts fail and human hope seems unrealistic.

I like Wening's point because it reminds us of our own responsibility, and it is a helpful rebuttal of a particular kind of Christianity that is passive, and that says, look, all you have to do is believe the right things - and of course this kind of Christianity fails the test of being Christ-like because it encourages Christians not to get involved, not to care about this world.  And the other reason I like Rabbi Wening's point is because she understands that God's promises are incarnational, they rely on human commitment and human flesh and blood.  This is the intuition of Judaism which in Christianity becomes explicit as we see it demonstrated perfectly in Jesus.  And I agree with her that the incarnational logic of God's love for human beings and for all creation is not just limited to the life of Jesus two thousand years ago but is built in to the structure of the universe, the breath of God's Holy Spirit which exhales the galaxies and is woven in to the life of every living creature.

But there’s also another, even more confronting, aspect of today’s reading from Isaiah, which is its hint of a great struggle between God’s yearning for human freedom – and the contrary choices so often made by God’s people.  Because right at the end of the chapter before today’s reading the prophet says God is going to cut down all the trees – that’s why the stump is there in the first place – it’s the result of what Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “great conflict and contest” between Israel’s political ambitions and the spirit of God for justice and renewal.  God’s own people, in other words, are sometimes the problem – but the prophet is desperately calling the people to take notice, and promising that this is not the end but the beginning of something new.  And in the context of Israel’s political situation, and the threat posed by the Assyrian Empire, the prophet promises something specific – a leader who will rule with justice and mercy, who will be guided not just by his own ambitions and his own counsel but by the spirit of wisdom and righteousness and mercy.  And the prophet promises that the whole order of society, indeed the whole order of creation, is going to be reversed – the rules of life are going to be changed, bent in the direction of God’s original creation and the re-establishment of God’s vision of peace, of shalom, of Eden as it should have been - when all God's creation turns away from hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating. 

And the prophet gives a hint as to how this is going to be accomplished, because the most striking and indeed uncharacteristic thing about the promised ruler is that he will live out of the humility of a deep relationship with the God to whom he knows he has to give an accounting, and whose priority is for the protection of the weak.  And it’s a reversal that again as Christians we see made explicit in Jesus, because the power of this ruler is not going to be the arrogance of military power or administrative control but the relational power of humility and compassion.

And of course the lectionary gives us this reading in Advent for a reason, because as Christians we reflect that the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled, and its challenge is sharpened and made more urgent in the person and ministry of Jesus, the one full of power and humility who demonstrates the way of peace.  And Walter Brueggemann points out that the reading from Isaiah is a challenge to images of Jesus that get reduced to a figure of private devotion, because – if we do identify Jesus with the promised one of Isaiah – then actually we are emphasizing the fact that he was “received, celebrated, and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of this vision of social possibility”. [1] And Brueggemann asks what might happen if Christians allowed Jesus to come out from behind the curtain of our religious piety and actually committed ourselves to bringing Jesus' vision to reality in our shared, public life.

Part of the problem, I think, is that – even as Christians – we have got so used to the way things are that we have forgotten to long for how they should be.  We’ve got used to hearing, for example, about violence in Iraq and Afghanistan – where just last month alone hundreds of innocent people were slaughtered – we’ve got used to hearing about the military dictatorship in Burma and we’ve even got used to hearing about the misery of tens of thousands of Haitians living in tent cities through the wet season and enduring the entirely preventable second tragedy of cholera.  Did you know that we – that is, Australia, our country – spent $46 million dollars this year on trying to persuade the World Soccer Federation to play a game of football here - but contributed only $10 million dollars in emergency assistance to Haiti after January’s earthquake that killed over 200,000 people?  And we get used to this, we accept it as normal, we forget who we are, children of God who have been promised better than this and whose job it is to demand and to work for better than this.

So this is the work of Advent, the deep listening to the voices of prophets and angels that tell us not just that a baby is coming, but that remind us of who we ourselves are, of what our greatest hope is, and of what it might mean for us to live towards that hope instead of settling for a restricted and insulated vision of reality.  What it is – Advent - is the season for setting aside romanticised and sentimentalised images of the child of Bethlehem, and looking instead with hope towards the upside-down, totally improbable Reign of God - the season of asking ourselves what we actually want, what we really hope for and what we are prepared to live for, to give ourselves for.  The season of asking ourselves: if this is really God’s vision of creation, then what’s yours?  If this is the sort of world you want – the world the prophet promises us – what are you prepared to do about it?


[1] Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster Bible Companion