Saturday, December 31, 2011


Novelist Stephen King is best known for his horror stories.  In 1991 he published a story called Needful Things – an elderly gentleman arrives in a small country town and sets up a little gift shop.  It's a quaint little store with nooks and crannies in all the right places, and the gentleman himself – Mr Gaunt – reminds everybody of their favourite uncle.  The gifts are quirky, if a little old-fashioned, and so within a few weeks just about everybody in town has been through for a look at the stock, and a chat with kindly Mr Gaunt.  Turns out this is a store you can lose yourself in – in more ways than one.  Because everybody who comes into the store and starts browsing finds – underneath the piles of dusty paper-weights and china dolls and calligraphy supplies and parchment – the one thing he or she can't live without.  The one thing that – as soon as they clapped eyes on it – they recognised as what they have always wanted, always hoped to find in a little gift store like this one – now that they think of it, the one thing they always knew they needed but never even knew existed.  The one thing – now they knew it did exist – that they couldn't live without.  But priced just out of reach.

But Mr Gaunt is in the business of making wishes come true, and so he offers the desperate shopper a deal.  You can have it, he says expansively.  My pleasure.  Just – perhaps a little favour?  A harmless practical joke on one of your neighbours?  Indulge an old man's sense of humour.  And so the deal is done, the townsfolk start to turn on each other, the worthless objects they guard so jealously make them selfish and paranoid – and Mr Gaunt who naturally turns out to be the devil himself moves on to the next country town to use the acquisitive self-centredness of its citizens against them.

This first day of the new year, it seems like a good idea to pause to reflect on the things we 'buy into' in our lives – what our actual behaviour tells us about where our central priorities lie – the actual centre of our lives around which everything else revolves.  We also observe today – because the actual day falls between Sundays this year – the feast of the Epiphany, the ancient feast-day of the Church that celebrates Matthew's tale of foreign kings or magicians or astrologers coming to visit the infant Jesus.  The word Epiphany is quirky enough in itself, literally meaning something like a sudden apparition from another dimension – in our common speech we use it to mean a sudden moment of insight, the idea that springs fully formed into your head when you're cleaning your teeth, the 'ah-hah' moment.  And in our Church calendar we associate it not just with the birth of Christ at Christmas, with the entering of the divine into the physical here-and-now world – but with the realisation that there is something here to be noticed if only we will look.  Something that bursts in from outside us, that changes everything.  If just we can be bothered paying attention.  Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest, that search, that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider the main thing.

It's a quest that we are all on, whether we like it or not – and as the Stephen King story points out – a quest on which we all too often take a wrong turn – mistake something worthless for the main prize.  But I think a close examination of Matthew's story of the wise men from the east who follow the leading of a star to Jerusalem and beyond in search of the one who would make all the acquisitions of wealth and knowledge relative, gives us a few clues about our own quest. And there are three things that this story tells us about the quest, about the search for what's most important.

The first is that they follow a star.  According to Matthew's story, these travellers are not kings but magoi, something like a cross between astrologers and scientists but at any rate people who looked to the heavens for guidance and to the natural world for signs.  The quest for the main thing begins for them with an upward look, with a posture of prayer and an attitude of humility.  Their journey begins, in other words, with the assumption that the spiritual world and the natural world – and the social and political worlds too – are not separate but interpenetrate each other.  It's an assumption that distinguishes them from we supposedly enlightened 21st century men and women who for the most part assume we inhabit a mechanistic material universe and a social and political universe driven solely by the clash and interaction of self-interest – with the holy, the divine or the spiritual world confined – if we admit its existence at all – to our inner landscape or even to the remoter dimension of the hereafter.  Without abandoning the benefits of a modern worldview driven by science we do, it seems, have much to learn from the ancients who more readily than us looked for signs of God's leading in the world around them, in the subtle undercurrents of nature and in the movements of empires and the dreams of women and men.  The attitude of prayer is fundamentally one of perceptiveness, of paying attention not just to your own circumstances and your own needs and desires, but to the signs of movement in the world and the community around you that show where God's Spirit might be leading.  And so they put their own agenda behind them, they accept the instruction of the cosmos and they follow the star.  This is the first lesson for us, and of course it has nothing to do with futile literalistic arguments about how a star can lead people across a desert or signal the arrival of a king.

The second thing is that the quest continues with a journey.  Perhaps it is not coincidence that Matthew's story of the magoi involves a similar sort of journey of faith to that of Abraham and Sarah, who left their home in the east and journeyed across the same landscape on the assurance that God would be with them, that all peoples would be blessed through them and that their descendents – among which we surely must be counted – would be more numerous than the stars in the heavens.  In purely physical terms the journey of the magoi driving camels across the deserts and mountains of Mesopotamia and the Middle East would rank with any of the tales of courage and endurance in the modern world, with ever-present risks of predation and thirst and exposure – but the point is this – that standing as a metaphor for the quest for what is truly most important in lives the journey of the magoi tells us that we can't do it from the comfort of closed minds and sheltered lives.  To encounter the numinous in your life – to touch the spirit – means to sacrifice other options, to leave behind some creature comforts, to get out of the rut of easy routines and self-centred choices, and to take some risks.  The goal of the quest for the spirit doesn't just land in your lap as you watch TV, but comes into focus only as you travel towards it.  The journey as a metaphor might stand for the choices we need to make in how we can sacrifice our own self-obsession and think more about the lives of those around us, how we can move out of our own comfort zone and give up some of our own resources and our own certainties in order to provide for the needs of others. 

The journey also involves opposition, and the need for intelligence and discernment, as the magoi discover when they make a wrong turn and find themselves in Jerusalem being interrogated by the wily despot, Herod.  The journey of the spirit – the quest for what is truly most important in our own lives – will lead us into places where we need moral courage, where the easiest thing might seem to be to go along with somebody else's agenda but the important thing is to think clearly about right and wrong, to remain true to our purpose.

And the last thing is this.  That when the magoi reach their goal – and we can trust that we are in fact led reliably – they offer gifts.  Matthew tells us they are overwhelmed with joy.  The New American Bible translation reflects the Greek even better I think – they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy – four Greek superlatives piled one on top of the other.  This is not just being mildly excited, but connecting with the very source of joy, because they have discovered that which is undeniably the object of their quest, the very main thing embodied in the unlikely looking surroundings of a farm shed.  And they give the costliest treasures of their lives – yes, myrrh might sound a bit funny as a birthday gift, but the point is that the realisation of the treasure of the spirit makes everything else relative and leads them to offer up those treasures of earthly wealth that all too often we cling on to for security.  Even when you encounter the treasure of the spirit there is something you have to give up in return.  To realise the joy of the spirit in your life and to own it as the one thing you can't live without – means giving up some of the other stuff we all too often act as though we can't live without.  If the spirit is the main thing, then your iPad or your expensive car or your overseas holiday isn't.

Like the townspeople in the Stephen King story, we make choices.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Day

I wonder if you have ever heard of the Higgs boson?

It's certainly not surprising if you haven't.  But it might – or might not – be one of the fundamental building blocks of time and space, it just might be the subatomic particle that kind of glues everything together and prevents the universe from falling apart into a kind of cosmic soup.  Because without the Higgs boson – and bear in mind that scientists don't even know for sure whether it exists – but without the Higgs boson scientists have got no explanation for how physical objects have any weight.

The Higgs boson has been likened to a pretty girl at a party.  As soon as she enters the room a crowd of adoring young men start to gather around her, and as she moves through the room she attracts a bigger and bigger following.  She's as light as a feather herself, but surrounded by admirers she's harder to stop – both she and her fans have gained momentum. 

So without the Higgs boson - there wouldn't be anything very much.  It's the explanation for a lot of things we take for granted and rely on – like gravity for example.  Unremarkably enough, scientists have nicknamed it the 'God particle' – the one that makes sense of reality as we know it.  But here's the really remarkable thing – since Higgs started talking about his theoretical particle, the particle that he thought must exist so that reality would make sense – scientists have been looking for it for 60 years.  And spending billions of dollars in the process.  The latest news – just a few weeks ago – is that they are really very excited right now.  Because finally they think they have a pretty good idea where the Higgs boson – isn't.

You might think this is a remarkable exercise in faith.  In staking everything on the hope that what you think has to be there or else you don't understand what the heck is going on – is there.  Or maybe an exercise in wishful thinking.  Scientists of course don't call it either of these things.  They call it hypothesis testing.  You work out a hypothesis that might account for what you can observe, and then you test it.  You see if your theory can predict some things that happen – even more importantly, you see if you can find some evidence that your theory isn't true.  Some things that do happen that shouldn't happen if you were right about your hypothesis.  You test the evidence.

But the point is that like all the most interesting and worthwhile exercises in life, the mystery you are making hypotheses about is subtle and slippery and generally invisible.  Otherwise science wouldn't be hard, and we'd all be doing it.

But you know I'm going somewhere with this.  And where I'm going is to suggest that actually we all are.  Young children do it, when they first start to learn about the world and they look for evidence that they are going to be safe and loved, and that their needs are going to be met.  They work out the theory that the one who matters most is the one with milk and warmth and a soft voice and strong hands.  Adults do it, when they look around them for evidence that who they are matters, and that their life has meaning and purpose.  And they work out the theory that to be happy they need to live generously and with integrity, to practise hospitality.  To be concerned for the needs of others, and to nurture and care for those who are vulnerable.  To practise giving and receiving love.  And elderly people do it, when they review their lives and ask themselves why? and what it all meant? and they look for evidence that the love that they have experienced and the love that they have given might be sufficient for whatever their lives might open into next.  We are all scientists of the mysteries of our own existence and our relationships with one another.  This science, of course, is called human spirituality.  Unlike religion, it is always evidence-based.  You form a hypothesis.  Some people, for example, form the hypothesis that the really important thing is to go shopping.  What's going to make sense of everything else in life is an iPad 2 and the latest fashion and an overseas holiday.  Or you might form the hypothesis that the God-particle of human existence - the invisible glue that holds everything together and gives it meaning and direction - is love.  Not the icky kind, but the strong, compassionate kind that the New Testament writers call agape.  And then you live as though it were true, and you see how far you get.  The basic questions are always the same: who are we? are we going to be OK? do we matter? what does it all mean? And you see how far your hypothesis sustains you in the dark passages of life.

Spirituality isn't the same thing as religion.  You can have spirituality without religion, atheists search along with the rest of us for the Higgs boson of embodied human existence, which is to say the invisible, un-pin-downable something that makes sense of everything else.  The God-particle.  And as generations of churchgoers could attest you can also have religion without spirituality.  It's just not a very good idea.

The people of Israel started their search about 3500 years ago when – at first – they thought what they really needed was a war-God, a fearsome God of the desert who would give them a military advantage, and maybe a fertility-God who would ensure that animals would breed and that crops would be reliable and that children would be born and survive.  And then they started to perceive that the God of all this would be the creator-God, the God through whom the world as they knew it came into existence. And over the centuries they came to know this God – not as a remote, set-and-forget God who wound up the springs of the universe and then sat back for the rest of eternity to see what would happen – but as a God who came into creation alongside of them, who in the words of the Book of Genesis walked in the garden with the first humans in the cool of the evening, who wrestled with them as with Jacob as he faced the dark night of his own selfishness and indecision and cowardice, who spoke with them as with Moses on Mt Sinai when he received the Law – as a God whose main characteristic was compassion and whose main desire for human life was mercy and justice and love.  In short, the religion of Israel came to understand that the love that created the earth and all its creatures – was also actively present in and to and through the fabric of creation itself.  It's what theologians mean by Incarnation – the logic of God's own life that takes on concrete, flesh-and-blood existence, in our own lives and in the life of all creation. 

Christianity, which of course grew up within and is grounded in the religion of Israel, recognises what the Jewish people have always understood about the God who is hidden within God's own creation.  That God's impulse is always to share our humanity - as St John's Gospel puts it, that the Word that is with God in the beginning pitches a tent and lives among us, or as St Luke tells it in his epic tale of angels and animals and shepherds and innkeepers, and a scared young woman with her equally scared husband looking for a place to have their baby – that in this baby at this time God reveals most fully what God always does – which is to inhabit our human lives at their deepest and most everyday level.  Jesus, whom we call God's Son because his life unfolds perfectly out of God's own life, and because in him we see revealed the nature of the God who created us – Jesus becomes for us not a strange or freakish exception to the rule of how human beings are normally conceived and born – but a message or a Word of God that says, 'see? this is what I always do.  Hidden inside your human DNA, the impulse of love that gives birth to galaxies and stars also gives birth to you.'  This strange and wonderful tale which we hear every year, over which theologians and Bible scholars – yes and amusingly enough, atheists – love to argue and say, 'well, but this bit can't be literally true, surely? Yes but was the star really a comet? Seriously - angels?' – or my favourite of all time – 'well, a virgin birth I can believe .... but three wise men?'  this strange and wonderful tale that won't go away because it has the power to tell us who we really are, why we matter and what we mean – this story tells us that the fundamental particle of our everyday lives is love.  And that the love that created us is what we need to discover within ourselves to make us who we most truly are.

Christmas time is the miracle of creation itself.  The miracle of the goodness and beauty of creation and the redemptive capacity of human goodness and love that is made possible by the fact that the one who created us in love – also chooses to dwell within our humanity.  The miracle that – despite our pettiness and selfishness, and despite the failure of our best efforts to live in peace and our struggle to care for the fragile planet God created us to care for and delight in – makes our humanity holy, and capable of bearing the image of Love itself.  That's what the birth of Jesus – the Incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God – actually means, however much poetic licence the Gospel writers used.

The Higgs boson of human existence.  Telling us that despite our nightmares, we'll be OK.  That despite the triviality and wretchedness that pervades our human lives, we matter.  Showing us, despite our inattention and the distractions that clutter our minds, what we mean.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflection at City of Canning 'Carols by Candlelight', 18 Dec 2011

You sometimes hear that Christmas is all about Jesus.  I'm not sure that's entirely true.

Sometimes you hear that Christmas is about family.  Or about Santa, and about lots of good things to eat and drink – about being generous to the people we love, and about remembering the needs of those who don't have enough.  About hospitality and laughter and being grateful that we have other people in our lives.  About celebrating the first steps of the newest members of our families, and reminding ourselves of the lifelong love that has been the gift of our elders.  I think that's what God thinks Christmas is about, too.

Other times, you hear that Christmas is about community, about reminding ourselves that despite differences of language or skin colour or religion – we are all brothers and sisters, united by our common humanity.  About claiming the possibility and the urgency of peace - despite the deepest conflict that continues to shape our world.  About claiming the wonder and beauty of our fragile planet and all its countless creatures and living systems - despite our struggle to live in ways that nurture and protect it.  I think God agrees with that as well.

Christmas, in short, is the rejection of cynicism and the commitment to hope.  The rejection of everything in our world – and in ourselves – that is manipulative and violent and self-centred and unjust.  And the commitment to finding ways to live that are generous and inclusive, and healing and forgiving.

I don't actually think Christmas is about Jesus.  I think Christmas is about us - just God's way of telling us all this – about us.  The most ancient story of Christmas-time tells us quite simply that God can think of no better way of telling human beings how loved we are – than by taking on our own humanity.  Which means that the love that wove the whole universe together is now a part of our own human DNA.  And that human spirituality is to be found in our relationships and the physical circumstances of our lives – it means that to be authentically human is to be oriented towards hope, towards wholeness and towards others.  Even when we fail – which of course we do all the time – deep down we still know this to be true.

Christmas is God's way of saying, 'you are not alone.  I love you.'  And Christmas unites us – men and women of all faiths and of none – in recognising this truth about one another and about ourselves, that we are not alone, that to be human is to be loved.  That for all our fragility and foolishness, to be human is to have meaning and purpose.

Christmas is a gift that comes around once a year, a mirror that we hold up to ourselves that shows us who we most truly are.  A gift that reminds us of what we already know – that our lives are lived to the fullest when we live for others.  This year – receive the gift of Christmas.

Advent 4

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Are you sure? (L'Engle writes)

but I'm unworthy -

I couldn't anyhow -

I'd be afraid.  No, no,


Do I have to answer now?

I don't want to say no-

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


Sorrowfully, although he was not surprised

to have it happen again,

the angel returned to heaven." [2]


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

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

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



[1] Rev 21.3

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


[3] William Willimon, Pulpit Digest

Friday, December 09, 2011

Advent 3

I wonder if you have ever worked in an organisation with a mission statement?  These were all the go in the 80s and 90s, it was very fashionable to have a mission statement, and I remember in a couple of places where I worked, Government Departments, having mission statements that more or less stated the bleeding obvious.  Stuff like, “we aim to provide clients with services to which they are entitled ...”.  Churches also got into the mood – the Diocese of Perth has a mission statement which is more or less a copy of the World Council of Churches version.  Our own parish has a mission statement too, which we print on the pew sheet every week, and like all mission statements maybe says more about us than we realise.  If our mission statement sums up whatever we think is most important about what we do as a church, it always begs the question as to whether God agrees with us.  Actually I think the best mission statement for the Church is just the Gospel – that we proclaim it, and that we are doing our best to live it – but basically a mission statement is also about being succinct and memorable.  A bit like one of those popular competitions where you win an overseas holiday if you can cram into 25 pithy words or less why you want it.  Anyway, today we have the mission statement of the second – or perhaps the third – prophetic voice in the Book of Isaiah.

We read a lot of Isaiah during Advent.  Of all the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah is most unambiguously a prophet of good news – some commentators even refer to the Gospel of Isaiah.  And the Christian church has never hesitated, right from the beginning, to pick up the bold announcements in the book of Isaiah and say, that’s about Jesus!  That prophecy comes true in Jesus, that’s what Isaiah is really talking about.  And even though the prophecies of Isaiah are written hundreds of years before Jesus comes on the scene, even though we know Isaiah’s confronting words of challenge and comfort are written for the people of the prophets’ own times, I think that as Christians we are right to claim them.  Because that’s what Jesus himself does. 

Because it’s Jesus himself who adopts these words from Isaiah’s Gospel as his own personal mission statement.  In Luke’s Gospel when Jesus bursts onto the synagogue scene at the beginning of his ministry he takes his place at the lectern as all observant Jewish males were expected to do, and he opens the scroll at this very place in the Book of Isaiah, and he reads these words and says: ‘Today, right in front of you, these words have come true!’  Jesus himself is claiming that this passage from Isaiah sums up his mission and his agenda.  That Isaiah’s words are about him and for him.

What a claim – and what a passage!  It’s nothing short of an announcement by the prophet that he has been called by God, that the words he speaks are not his words but God’s words, and that God is going to do great things through him.  The prophet claims that he is anointed by God – the Hebrew word for this is moshiach and that’s a huge claim because it’s only kings who are anointed – it is the claim that God’s message and God’s purposes have come true in the prophet’s own words and in his own person – it’s a huge claim because this is also the word - moshiach – that we know as Messiah.  It’s the most confronting claim imaginable, and it’s a claim that carries with it good news - not of the airy-fairy kind, but good news of the kind that alters history.

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

First, it’s good news to the poor – in Luke’s gospel, the word literally means those who are bent over, the lowly.  That’s the first priority, and it’s echoed in the announcement by the angels not to important folk but to dirt-poor shepherds freezing out in the hills near Bethlehem.  God taking on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth is good news for those who are literally at the bottom of the heap.  We go seriously astray whenever we forget this.  Because the good news for those of us who are not dirt poor - is that we are challenged to adjust our priorities and their practices. 

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

Then the prophet says the good news means freedom for prisoners – because freedom is the condition God created us for – the good news of God is good news for people whose lives are not free, for those who are literally locked up whether or not they deserve to be.  For real prisoners, of whom in our supposedly progressive country we have more and more.  For asylum seekers in immigration detention – for the young men who last week were moved into our newest immigration prison in one of the most inhospitable places in the Northern Territory.  Good news for them.  And for all whose lives are limited by their circumstances – the uneducated, the unemployed – refugees, those who are locked away in prisons of mental illness, the sick and housebound.  People locked away in prisons of loneliness and shyness and disability.  Jesus claims that the good news he embodies is powerful enough to open the gates of the most powerful prisons human society can invent.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Advent 2

In the mythical world of fairy-tables and fables, one of the most important roles in the royal court was that of the court jester.  The jester, of course, was a clown, something like a blend of stand-up comic, Laurel and Hardy slapstick guy, social circuit-breaker and political commentator.  I say in the mythical alternative history of fairy tale because it probably never functioned quite like this in real history.  But the jester’s job was to say what everybody else was too frightened or too busy sucking up to the king to be able to say, the jester was the one who could make cruel comments about the physical appearance or the personal habits of courtiers, the jester was the one who could do a silly walk to defuse an awkward diplomatic moment, and the one who could tell the truth about that less than clever policy while everybody else was busily assuring the king how wonderful it was. The jester in fact was no fool, but acting the fool was how the jester managed to do his real job, most of the time without losing his head – the job that is of telling it like it is.  You can see how a jester might be quite useful to a king or queen.

So the jester is the fairytale equivalent of the prophet.  There’s a lot of misconceptions about prophets, for example that a prophet’s main job was to tell the future - like some sort of grumpy religious fortune teller.  And of course prophets were concerned about the future, because the job of a prophet was to tell the truth about who we are and what we have become.  The future grows out of the present like the present grows out of the past, so the prophet’s job was to remind people where they had been and how they got where they are now - and where they are likely to end up if they keep doing what they are doing.  Prophets didn’t sit easily with the Temple system and the priestly class, for the simple reason that religion and priests were what they all too often had to tell the truth about.  The religion of Israel didn’t know what to do with prophets, just as we in our world of the 21st century don’t quite know what to do with people who insist on telling the truth about things the rest of us have decided to put our heads firmly in the sand about.  Basically, prophets were and still are a pain in the proverbial - but the genius of the religion of Israel is that the role of the prophet was ordained by God, and deep down everybody knew that the costly truth of a prophet was a word of God.

Well the book of the prophet Isaiah is actually the work of at least two prophets, maybe even a whole prophetic school or tradition, because it spans the history of several centuries – and one very clear shift happens around the end of chapter 39.  Before this, the so-called ‘First Isaiah’ had been warning the people of Jerusalem about 8 centuries before Christ, just what is going to happen if they persist in playing the dangerous game of international politics instead of being faithful to the covenant relationship with God.  Then into chapter 40, right where we begin reading this morning, we abruptly jump forward two hundred years – the Assyrian Empire has come and gone, the Babylonian Empire has risen and the people of Judah carted off into the sort of captivity that First Isaiah had been warning about – the long exile that actually turned into a creative and life-giving experience for God’s people because it led to some overdue soul-searching, some new thinking about God and new thinking about what it means to be faithful in a shifting and changing world.  Historically, between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah, which begins in chapter 40, comes the Book of Lamentations, that long poem of self-accusation and grief with just one single glimmer of hope, right in the middle where the poet pauses and recollects: 'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…' (3:21-24).  It was a military defeat in which the whole culture and religion of a people was all but extinguished, a defeat which – actually our modern world knows this sort of tragedy all too well, even if most of us in our safe country haven’t experienced it for themselves.  The people must have wondered where God had gone. The bottom had fallen out of their world.  They felt cut off from God, rejected by God and painfully aware that the apparent absence of God was connected to their own faithlessness.

And our passage this morning speaks of this, and it reminds the people that they were and still are bound to God by a covenant.  In verse six of today’s reading, the word ‘constancy’ in Hebrew is hesed – the word that is often translated as loving-kindness or covenant faithfulness, and the point is this – that while God is ever persistent, faithful, and dependable, the people’s response has been inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable. The prophet points out that yes, we do have our moments of faithfulness, yes, in moments of vulnerability we do turn toward God and live out of the centre of our relationship with God – but our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful for a brief moment but fading and dying as soon as trouble and distraction come upon us. Prophets, you see, are realists.  And the prophet reassures us that God's love is the opposite of that: we sin, but we can count on God's faithfulness anyway.

And the prophet makes an announcement in God’s voice – the season of suffering and exile and self-recrimination is over.  The consequences of faithlessness don’t last forever and in God’s scheme of things there is always renewal and restoration.  Yes, this is partly just about catching the tide of history, recognising how our own self-centredness and failure to reach out in compassion has made the times when nothing made sense and God seemed to be far away that much worse and more meaningless, recognising too how times of reconnection and fresh hope offer opportunities for the renewal of our spirituality and relationships.  But the prophet speaks of a way being made clear of obstacles – maybe the promise is that from now on there will be no more hardship or struggle – or maybe more realistically the idea is that even out there in the desert, which is to say in the struggle of real life, that the people who have remembered their covenant connection with God will no longer be lost or overwhelmed.  It is a good word for us in Advent – in a year when like all years we are in danger of losing our centre, overwhelmed by everything that the newspapers tell us is wrong with our world, overwhelmed by the need to decide what we should even believe about the big issues of our world, overwhelmed by the everyday struggles of our personal and family lives – the word of Second Isaiah tells us to lift our heads, to clear some space, a path between here and there so that God can come into our lives again.  In Advent, we hear the reminder to attune our hearts and minds to the ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives as well as the momentous affairs of the world we inhabit.  Especially the momentous affairs – especially the big picture – because Advent calls us out of self-preoccupation and into collective reflection, recognition of the collective hope we have for a world of justice and shalom. 

Funny thing about exile is that even the gruesomeness of defeat and the humiliation of being led away captive can get forgotten.  Over the years and decades Babylon, that great and splendid city of the ancient world, had become home.  Babylon after all wasn’t just a military super-power, but a culture - more sophisticated, more attractive and wealthy and learned and just as morally nuanced as anything the exiles had ever known.  Yet Second Isaiah’s call to renew the vows of covenant faithfulness is a call to leave all that, to go home the hard way, through the desert with only the promise that God will be there with them, that mountains will be made to seem like footpaths.  Yes, the world is under new management, yes, the exiles are free to begin living in new relationship with God and with one another – but it might not have sounded like uniquely good news to families with jobs and comfy homes and mortgages in the leafy suburbs of Babylon.  Going home means leaving everything we have substituted for home along the way.

You see like a good court jester, a prophet doesn’t only look forwards but also backwards, reminding the people of their past filled, not with meaningless turns and accidental choices but with the fruits of faithful obedience – not with self-serving achievements but with life-giving miracles.  And the hard way home is the promise of shalom – the promise not of never having to struggle or sacrifice, but of the right ordering of relationships, the mutual recognition of needs and sharing of resources instead of competitiveness, the honouring of promises of faithfulness and the practise of compassion.  Shalom is always communal, an alternative history and a reliable promise that the ways of materialism and militarism don’t get the last word.

Advent asks us to consider – to what are we captive?  From what are we being offered freedom? And the reading gives us two ways to unpack the message in our own world.  For captives, for all who suffer and are oppressed – for the poor - the word of Isaiah is the hope of freedom, the promise that you are not insignificant to God, that you are beloved and that God is with you and will lead you into freedom.  It’s an intoxicating word, a word that sometimes seems elusive, that mostly depends on the turning of history and the recognition of God’s priorities being enacted by men and women of good will.  We look around us – especially during Advent – for God’s purposes being made actual in the hard places of our world.  But the second way – the word for captives who have become comfortable, for captives who have learned to settle for the false promises of this world and have forgotten their costly calling to grace – for most of us, most of the time.  Captives to consumerism, captives to the privilege of living in a wealthy country where we take security and safety and social services like welfare and health-care and education and housing so much for granted we forget how privileged we are – the word for us?  Is to wake up, to prepare to be de-centred, to be led away from self-preoccupation and into compassion, away from the worship of goods and self, and into the worship of God and the love of neighbour.

What are you captive to? Advent is the call to freedom – the call home by the hard road made easy.