Friday, December 28, 2012

First Sunday after Christmas

One of the delights of being a parish priest is watching the growth of children – not only their physical growth and the passing of their developmental milestones but their growth in spirituality and faith.  Two particular things have reminded me of this in recent weeks – the first being the annual City of Canning carols by candlelight, in which, as I watched the kids performing their parts and waiting their turn to go onstage, I was stuck by their attentiveness and reverence for the story they were telling.  And the second was a birthday party – the tenth birthday party for a girl who already is taking her part in the leading of our adult worship, by reading from the Bible with clarity and understanding.  We need of course to allow kids to be kids – not only to care for their physical needs and to make our church a safe place for them, but to respect their need to learn through play and to express their curiosity and delight in ways that are appropriate for them – but we also need to give them space to grow, to express themselves in ways that are increasingly adult and to make the shift from teaching them to learning from them.

This, of course, is the dilemma faced by Jesus' parents in our reading from St Luke's Gospel this morning.  In fact in both the Gospel and the Old Testament readings we focus on two young people – Jesus and Samuel – each of them aged about 12 which in the ancient society was when a boy would be expected to undergo his bar mitzvah and take his place as an adult both within the family and in the religious life of his community.  Samuel, we are told, is still growing – every year his mum made him a new linen ephod – some sort of liturgical garment – and brought it up to him in the Temple presumably because he had grown out of the old one.  The boy is serving faithfully in the Temple – Eli is pleased with him because every year he repeats his blessing on Hannah for the gift of her son, and in the bit of Samuel chapter 2 that our lectionary reading skips over we read the account of the gross misdeeds of Eli's own sons, followed by the contrasting verse: now Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.

Jesus, meanwhile, is being typically – maddeningly, frustratingly and sweetly – adolescent.  Any parent who has ever misplaced a child, lost one however temporarily in a public place or had one run away from home, can relate to the sick feeling in the pit of his mum and dad's stomachs when they realise – halfway home to Nazareth – that their precocious 12 year old isn't with them.  Twelve is a wonderful age.  Developmental psychologists tell us that around 12 the adolescent brain becomes capable of what they call formal operational reasoning, which is a fancy way of saying that where at 9 or 10 your child will be an expert on dinosaurs or sporting teams or the exact make and model of every car that drives past, your 12 or 14 year old has suddenly learned to think and talk about abstract ideas like justice and ethics and algebra and God.  And just as suddenly, with a lifetime of experience and learning yet ahead of them, they become Experts on Everything.  So I can just imagine Jesus on the Temple steps, engaging the rabbis in conversation, astounding them both with his maturity and his immature enthusiasm, both with what he already knows and with his boyish passion to learn and understand, both with his humble desire for instruction and his innocent desire to show off.  And I guess we can all relate to the mixture of relief and anger and pride with which his parents discover him, on trekking back to Jerusalem, still on the steps of the Temple holding forth.

This is the only portrait the Gospels give us of Jesus as a child, and it is a wonderful, beautiful image.  It has verisimilitude, which is to say, it rings true.  Jesus would be like that.

But again what strikes me is the final verse of our Gospel lection – the comment that ends our glimpse of his adolescence: and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years – the Greek translates more literally as wisdom and maturity - and in divine and human favour.

It's about growing up.  The Hebrew word our Bible translates as stature, in Samuel's story, gadel – literally just means growing up.  Both Jesus and Samuel are doing it, growing in stature and in human and divine favour, beginning to define their own identity and distancing themselves in appropriate adolescent fashion from both their parents' expectations and ours.

This, I think, is a useful corrective against the tendency that perhaps all of us, as Christians, sometimes have – of putting Jesus on such a pedestal and of emphasising his divinity so much that we make of him an abnormal human being. A freak of perfection, instead of the world's most fully normal human being. A good way of putting together our reflection on Jesus as the one both human and divine is to reflect that humanity itself is made in the divine image and so has the potential to reflect the divine character.  Jesus, so we believe as Christians, and so the Gospel accounts of his life bear witness, is the only person in the history of our world ever to fulfil the vocation to which we are all called by wearing perfectly the human form divine.  This is why Jesus is called the first fruits, the forerunner of our human race, because Jesus exemplifies our own calling. The light that comes to focus in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person, that potential that is incompletely fulfilled and so often betrayed in our own humanity.  Jesus then becomes, not just a divine object lesson to impress us, but a template for our own humanity and our own growth.  As Jesus grows in wisdom and in maturity and in divine and human favour, so our own developmental path is to grow into Jesus – which means to focus not on what we can make of ourselves as self-made men and women, but on what Christ the incarnation of God in our own flesh and blood can make of us.

We are told that Jesus increases in wisdom and in years (or maturity), and in divine and human favour.  Four areas of growth that are not just a throw-away line to wrap up a cute story, but a guide to maturing in Christian faith, and not just for 12-year olds.

The Greek word the New Testament uses for wisdom, Sophia, alerts us that what is in mind here is much much more than the passing of exams or the learning of Bible verses or even the ability to do cryptic crosswords.  The reflection on Wisdom in the Old and New Testaments is a reflection on the depth dimension of human life and spirituality, growth in discernment and good judgement, the ability to observe closely and learn from the world around you, the lessons of creation and the ways of the smallest and least significant of creatures that reveal the wisdom of the one who made them.  Wisdom in this sense is the strength of character to turn aside from what is seductive and superficially attractive, and yet corrosive of integrity and will, and to persist with humility and patience in the study of God's Word revealed in the scriptures, in life-giving relationships, and in the pursuit of justice.  Wisdom is the refusal to be content with the way things are. Alert to the promptings of God's Holy Spirit in the world; facing the challenges and issues of our day. Using our mental capacities to the full in the issues, needs and questions of our communities and neighbours.  The pursuit of Wisdom is not just something to occupy your adolescence, the Wisdom tradition of the Bible tells us it is the work of the adult years, it is your true life's work which demands attentiveness and purpose.  Deep down, we know if we have grown cold in this – we know if we have stopped growing and started to contract, instead.

Growing in years, in physical and mental stature, growing up – means to become responsible, to assume our place in the world as adults rather than as children.  Do you know, many people never do this?  Many people effectively remain small of stature, demanding rather than giving of themselves, being tended to rather than nurturing of others.  The English word, stature, is about size, but not just physical size.  Size, in this sense, is also an important theological value – largeness of spirit, generosity of outlook is a measure of how much of the world you can embrace in all its diversity and contradiction without losing your own personal centre.  People of stature see things in bigger categories, look beyond their own interests to the interests of others, look beyond parochial or factional interests to the good of the whole.  And the funny thing is this – if we are not growing in stature, then we're shrinking.  Becoming smaller, our worlds and our capacity to care, until they are centred entirely on ourselves.

And Jesus grows in divine and human favour.  I put these together, because so does Jesus, when he is challenged about the most important law of all.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength – and your neighbour as yourself.  But again the key word is to grow.  It is intentional, and it needs to be reflected not just in what we say, what we give lip service to, but in how we live.  To grow in divine favour is to attend to your spiritual growth, to spend time in prayer and meditation; to study, not just skate over the top of the scriptures; to join with the community of faith in reflecting on the Word of God and on the meaning of Christian life.  But they go together because if the love of neighbour without the love of God degenerates in empty activism, then the love of God without the love of neighbour degenerates into an idolatry of self.  To grow in human favour is to grow, not just socially but in the ability to see the world through another's eyes.  To grow in empathy and in the ability to translate good intentions into action.  We grow in the ability to love and serve God, by learning to love and serve others.  Heck, we grow in the ability to even believe in God, to discern the movement of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, by loving and serving others.  There isn't any other way.

A theologian friend remarked to me a while ago that while the incarnation of God in Jesus is about hope, it isn't basically about the hope that God loves us, or the hope that God might forgive us.  That's always been the case, my theologian friend said.  Nothing new there. The only hope in the Incarnation is the hope that in Jesus, we might learn to become human, and that our humanity might become hope.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Advent 4

Any of you who were fortunate enough to watch the performance of our parish children last Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight – and especially the scene in which Nathan and Kelli (as Joseph and Mary) set out for Bethlehem carrying their donkey – would realise that this is a very fragile story indeed – a story beset with fearful risks and epic journeys undertaken on the whim of an imperial ruler.  Journeys, of course, can be undertaken for all sorts of reasons but this one was under compulsion, Kelli with a pillow stuffed under her robe and Nathan set out on a perilous journey through the badlands and the desert roads that lead down from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in the hill country south-east of Jerusalem because the occupation forces have decided on a head-count, presumably in order to ensure they are getting as much tax as they can possibly squeeze from the peasant population.  What happens in Bethlehem, of course, subverts the imperial rule in ways that even today are still being worked out – but that is another story, and you will have to be here tomorrow night to hear it.

But it's still Advent, the promises of prophets and angels are still coalescing in the cluster of cells taking vague shape within the uterus of a girl of perhaps 14 or so who has just had a mystifying conversation with an angel.  Let's face it, the account of Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel in Luke's nativity story does rather keep the human details of our Lord's conception shrouded in mystery, whatever it reveals about Mary's equanimity.  Translated into the teenspeak of today, learning from the angel (whom at the least we might think of as an archetype of holy insight and intuition) not only that she is pregnant but that the child she is carrying would be the holy messenger of God, Mary says, 'whatever'.

Two renowned Bible scholars, Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, have recently released a new book called, The First Christmas, in which they point out that Luke and Matthew each begin their Gospels with a sort of prelude, the nativity stories in which they introduce the major themes and theological purposes of their accounts of Jesus' life.  In Luke's gospel, the nativity story gives us notice that he is interested in emphasising the role of women, the poor and marginalised, and the wild card of the Holy Spirit which like a breath of fresh air blows wherever it will.  We do need, of course, to remember that there were no photographers or historians present when Mary had her sassy interview with the scary archangel, and Luke wrote his imaginative account of the conversation perhaps 80 years later, but the gist of it is this: as a girl child in the poorest part of Palestine – and proper Judeans looked down on Galilee not only as a rural backwater but as a suspiciously mixed-race and religiously unorthodox province – Mary was of no account whatsoever. Her only real value – her only real hope of living a secure and happy life – lay in marrying a tekton – the Greek word basically means tradie – maybe a carpenter, or a stone mason, but in any case, even though her betrothed Joseph wasn't a landowner at least he had a means of earning a living.  Becoming pregnant without an adequate or convincing explanation means disgrace, goodbye to any sort of marriage prospects, and a lifetime of hand to mouth scratching out a living.  The ultimate penalty of stoning for adultery was still on the books, though rarely carried out.  Mary, so her inner encounter with the angel of God assures her, has a problem.  But she also understands that the new life even then taking form within her is the initiative and holy purpose of God, the one who would incarnate God's character of shalom.  So, 'whatever', Mary concludes.  'Whatever God wills for me, I'm up for it'.  You see when we look at the story like this, when we focus a bit less on the mystery of the Annunciation or the precise mechanics of how Mary becomes pregnant, and just a bit more on what she does next, we realise that this young woman has courage and fierce resolve.  How much of Jesus' own character, and his vision of human life, does he get from his mum?

'Whatever', says Mary – and she sets off on a journey across country.  What the story doesn't say – significantly, I think – is what her mum and dad thought about it, or what the presumably peeved Joseph made of it (and peeping into Matthew's version of the story doesn't help us at this point).  The ancient Church tradition that Mary had devout and supportive parents named Anna and Joachim is, I suspect, hogwash.  My own feeling is that Mary sets out for the hill country of Judea, alone and pregnant, because she has realised that the one person who can really understand and share what she is going through is her aged and equally improbably pregnant relative Elizabeth.  And probably because being alone and 14 and pregnant back in Nazareth suddenly isn't much of an option.

So this is the first of Mary's epic journeys, and she sets out not at the dictate of a provincial governor, or because she is tagging along behind a parent or probably equally aged fiancé, but because she is filled with questions and uncertainty and new life – and with joy – and because she has to do what women all through history have had to do in such circumstances, which is to attend to relationships, to share her story with an older woman, and to prepare for the miracle of birth.  Mary, in short, is filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the breath of God that swirls around the questions and new possibilities that always accompany our journey into an uncertain future.

Luke has already told us the story of what has been happening for Elizabeth in the meantime, and the readings were set for our daily Eucharist during the week – and it is one of life's little ironies that the official priest Zechariah, to whom the fortunate Elizabeth was married, had lost his voice.  Literally, which as any of you who have the fortune to be married to one would understand, is the very worst thing that can happen to a priest.  We are told Zechariah didn't quite believe the angel's good news – or perhaps being a man with a responsible position and a reputation to think about he focused more on its negative implications than on the holy joy that was its main theme – but at any rate the irony is that when Mary meets Elizabeth on her well-swept front step after perhaps a four or five day journey on foot, Zechariah is out of sight and out of earshot.  This is a day for holy women who understand that God's purposes are known in the small and intimate experiences of missed periods and morning sickness, and the sudden jab of a tiny foot making its demanding presence felt on the inside.

Luke, you see is a feminist – which means that he swims against the tide of his own culture in noticing and celebrating the voices and the all-too-often invisible experiences of women – and as in this liturgical year we read through Luke's Gospel I would invite you to notice how time and time again Luke emphasises women's points of view.  It goes beyond gender politics, however, because what Luke is really saying is this: that God's purposes are more often revealed in the dreams and the experiences of those the world thinks of as insignificant, than in the privileged voices of political or economic or – yes, even priestly – authority.  If you want to know what God thinks is important, look at the fringes of society, listen for the voices in our community that are generally suppressed and ask yourself – what matters most, from the point of view of somebody who doesn't have enough to eat, or any chance of a decent education, or of an average life expectancy? Those are God's real priorities, and they are supposed to be ours, as well.

Yes, Mary in her song of joy announces the overturning of inequality, the reversal of fortunes where those who are downtrodden are lifted up and those who are rich and powerful get a taste of the daily experience of the two-thirds world.  We know, of course, because we are pragmatic realists, we 21st century types, that it is an announcement whose realisation is somewhat delayed.  You know the old song? The things that you're li'ble to read in the Bible … Mary's song is the subversive promise of the Incarnation, the claim that God's inbreaking into human history changes everything, sweeps injustice aside and ushers in a new deal where women and men and children can live in shalom – can live in dignity and peace and sufficiency.  But it aint happened yet.  This type of prophecy needs to be heard afresh by every generation, need us to hear it as the demands of God for our won time, and for us to believe in it as the promise of God, and for us to put it into practice in our own lives and relationships and to work for it in our world, knowing that it is the inevitable goal to which God draws all creation.

Mary is a prophet, and like all prophets we know she will suffer for her clear vision of what God intends for human life.  In the meantime she and Elizabeth sustain one another with their common experience of the miracle of pregnancy which of all human experiences perhaps reveals most clearly the wonder of God with us.  I like to think that during the following three months – which means Mary stayed up until the time of Elizabeth's delivery – as the two women went about their daily business of cooking and cleaning and making preparations for the birth – comparing notes about the changes in their bodies and perhaps their hopes and dreams for their unborn children – I like to think that the still-silent Zechariah joined in with good grace, listening and learning from the timeless silent wisdom of women and unborn children.

I wonder what his sermons were like, after that?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reflection at City of Canning Çarols by Candlelight', 16 Dec 2012

Do you remember the 2003 British movie, 'Love, Actually'? Hugh Grant as the dishy bachelor Prime Minister, Bill Nighy as the aging rock star desperate to rekindle a dying career with a Christmas hit.  People falling in love, falling out of love, trying to remember why they fell in love in the first place, lonely people just looking for friendship, ordinary people reliving all the different variations of what drives all of us - the need to find the meaning of our own lives in the love that connects us to other people.  

What makes the movie extraordinary, of course, is that it is set against the stress and hurry and empty kitsch of Christmas.  Nobody feels particularly ho-ho-ho, somehow or other the fake bonhomie and the pressure of the festive season reminds everybody of how much in their own lives is empty and meaningless until - at the end of the movie in one way or another all the main characters end up at Heathrow, that massive clearing house of comings and goings and meetings and farewells, and it is there, in the middle of the throng of distracted stressed-out humanity, that each of the characters discovers what it is that makes them alive.  Love - and the spirit of Christmas - creeps in unexpectedly.

We have of course just told the story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, but what strikes me about it is that it isn't really an otherworldly story, for all its angels and guiding stars – the original satellite navigation system, I guess! It's very much a
this-worldly story about what is most important, about God's love for us that we experience in human love.  Jesus is very big on love - before his death when he wants to give his disciples a final word of encouragement he says - love one another.  When a political opponent questions him about the most important religious law he says – love your neighbour - and then in answer to the question 'well, but who is my neighbour? he tells the story of the Good Samaritan - the despised illegal immigrant who shows what practical love is all about.  And just in case we haven't got the point yet he tells us - love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.

An impractical, other-worldly prophet?  Well, maybe, but let's face it - as a species we are pretty good at ideology and war and hatred, we're pretty good at competition and greed and me-first – and how well does that work out for us?  Let's face it, after 2,000 years of all that, Jesus' simple message of love doesn't look so impractical after all.

Despite the tinsel and stress, the simple message of Christmas, I find, has a habit of breaking through.  Year after year.  The smile of a small child - the beam of delight on the face of an aged parent.  Or the young Muslim woman I saw the other day, in jeans and a hijab with reindeer ears perched on top.  When she saw me in my priest's getup she waved and giggled - and we shared a Christmas moment.  I hope
Christmas for you this year brings many such moments - the connections in which love breaks through and we remember what it's all about.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Advent 2

What is it, I wonder, about ears?  Like generations of little boys before me, and no doubt generations to follow, I grew up wondering why mine in particular needed so much attention at bath-time.  Hands and faces, I could understand.  I was under no illusions as to how dirty I was in that department after a hard afternoon's playing with Robbie Gamble.  Even feet.  But why ears?  One of my most memorable childhood experiences is having my ears cauliflowered with a wet washer as part of the whole routine of getting ready for church on a Sunday morning.  Short back and sides, Brylcream and red ears.  Very attractive.

Even back then, of course, the link between inner and outer cleanliness was well-known.  "Clean hands, pure heart", was one of my Dad's favourite expressions.  I could understand that readily enough.  The dirtier my hands were the more likely it was I'd been up to something I shouldn't have been.  In our house we had a vigorous approach towards purity of heart, mostly involving scouring the hands and fingernails of small boys with a scrubbing brush.

Dad, no doubt, would have approved of the prophet Malachi.  The name means 'messenger', the same Hebrew word we translate as 'angel'.  Last week, our readings from the Bible swung off the charts into the distant future and the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of history.  This week we head backwards, three or four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the time-frame gets shorter.  The one is coming, God's angel informs us, for whom you need to be squeaky clean. 

I sometimes wonder whether we might not have overdone the Christmas message of peace and goodwill.  Whether or not we might be doing ourselves and others a disservice by so emphasizing the sweetness of the baby lying in the manger, the general agreeableness of wise men and shepherds and animals standing around in adoration, and the underlying message that despite the mess we've made of the world so far God loves human beings so much he just can't live without us.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented how odd he found it that Christians every year celebrate Christmas with a sort of sentimental nostalgia, as though the idea of God coming into the world was just nice – and that we no longer seem to experience the shiver of fear that we should.  Bonhoeffer thought we had become so accustomed to appropriating just the most pleasant and comforting aspects of the story that we forget how truly terrifying it is to have God burst into our world and lay claim to us.  That God's coming into the world is dangerous because – as Bonhoeffer put it – "God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in the world and also in us.  Only by judging us, can God cleanse and sanctify us.  That's what it means for God to come to us with grace and love".

It's actually easy enough to acknowledge this, I think, on a global scale – on the scale of international affairs and big political issues.  It's easy enough to acknowledge how much of our collective life is unredeemed and in need of challenge and transformation.  Just last week's big stories – a devastating typhoon that caused massive destruction and loss of life in the Philippines but was hardly reported on the mainstream news because, well, let's face it, they were poor people in a third world country – the second round of climate change talks between governments in Doha that looks like wrapping up without any sort of agreement at all on one of the most urgent crises of our time because wealthy countries can't stomach the thought that they might have to pay compensation to Pacific islanders whose countries are slipping beneath the ocean?  On the level of global issues it's not actually so hard for us to recognise that what leads to peace in our world is not competition and self-serving policies but compassion and generosity.

Advent is a time when, as Christians, we need particularly to speak of peace, and we need to be clear about the reasons for its absence.  But we also need to distinguish between true and false notions of peace.  In our haste to get to the nativity scene we find familiar and comforting, to take our place around the manger contemplating the sweetness and innocence of God with us – we ignore at our peril the uncomfortable Advent texts that speak to us of 'refining fire', 'fuller's soap' and 'rough places made smooth'.

The peace of the Incarnation is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but the much more challenging notion of shalom – that wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of fullness of life and wholeness and flourishing for those to whom it is denied.  The peace of the Incarnation is the challenge for us to practice shalom towards those who are excluded, towards men and women and children fleeing conflicts in which we ourselves have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, to put aside our cruel and punitive treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers and instead have a go at hospitality and mercy.  The challenge for us to work with Aboriginal people as equal partners to reduce the credibility gaps of life expectancy, housing, health and education.  The challenge for us to recognise that effective action on climate change of course means accepting the cost and the restriction on our own consumption and lifestyles.  God's peace is abrasive, necessarily so, like the gritty grey cakes of Tru-Sol soap Mum used to use on my hands and knees - fuller's soap, the soap used by the drycleaners of the ancient world was a harsh chemical peel that burned away the sweat and grime of living in the real world.  Refiner's fire removes impurities in precious metals by searing temperatures that simply strip away anything that's less chemically stable than gold or silver.  These aren't comfortable images.  God's drawing near to us confronts us with the certainty that, before we will be fit to withstand the holiness of God, all that is unholy and vindictive and cynical in us needs to be destroyed.

As I said, it's easy enough to acknowledge this on the global scale of international affairs and politics, and the public life of our own nation that's largely conducted at some rarified level over our heads.  It gets more personal and more difficult, however, when we start to ask ourselves what in our own life  has become ossified and self-serving, how much in our own life is rusted on or encrusted with comfortable habit.  And we can probably all make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable by thinking about the moral short-cuts we take and the ways we insulate ourselves in order not to notice the needs of others, in order to justify giving a little less than we should of ourselves, of our time and our money, or our tendency to notice more what other people should be doing for us, than what we should be doing for others.  We're surely all aware that the true practice of religion is not measured by how diligently we say our prayers or read the Bible or attend church, but by how diligently we pay attention to and how much we go out of our way to respond to the needs of others.  It's not even so difficult for us to recognise, I think, how much of our own personal life, our priorities and our relationships with those around us is called into question by the harsh words of the prophet who announces God's coming into the world.  Get out the Tru-Sol, it's time for some serious self-examination. Advent is a good time to start a diary, to write lists of what we know all too well has got to be softened and dissolved so that our lives can be translucent with God's radiance.

I actually think the very hardest exercise in repentance that the prophet Malachi challenges us with is to think what needs to be burned away or destroyed in our life together as a church.  Church, after all, is where we come to worship, to renew our contact with God and with our brothers and sisters in faith.  The ways in which we live together as a people of faith, most especially the ways in which we live as a parish, grow out of our deepest understanding of what our lives mean – and it's hardest of all, I think, to ask ourselves what needs to be broken, what needs to be burned away or scrubbed to within an inch of its life in our own parish.  Are there ways in which our parish life has grown to be an insiders' club?  Are visitors made to feel welcome, as though we are interested in their lives, or do they feel as though they have intruded on a private family gathering?  Are we more concerned with tradition, with the right hymns and the right Anglican liturgy and less concerned with how we reach out to the community in which we live?  Are we more concerned with what church does for us, with how church affirms our own values, and less concerned with how we do church together in a way that is a blessing to others?  Why do we come here?  For ourselves, or for others?

Advent challenges us at this most basic and most intrusive level.  If, by the second week of Advent, you're not feeling this, it's possible you're not paying attention.  Are we awake yet?  Are we ready?  Only 16 sleeps to go!  Quick!  What's most important?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent 1

Jeremiah, according to the timeless song released by Three Dog Night in 1971, was a bullfrog.  Nobody, the song tells us, could understand a word he said, but he always served a mighty fine wine.  After years of supposing these lyrics were some sort of deep commentary on the prophet's personality or flinty integrity, I found out the other day that the band, in early 1971, was on the point of breaking up, and decided that they needed to come out with a rip-roaring silly song to rekindle the fire.  Which it certainly did.

Jeremiah, of course, did spend some time – a couple of chapters after the bit we read this morning – incarcerated in a cistern, a sort of muddy underground water storage pit, so I guess he would have sounded like a bullfrog indeed, squawking up from there – and it is also true that nobody ever understood a word he said.  Jeremiah was also a priest, which hardly any of the major prophets were – only Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  During my priestly training we reflected regularly on different models of priestly ministry, but Jeremiah was never one of the examples chosen.  I've often thought, since then, that he should have been.  In our modern English idiom a Jeremiah is taken to mean a person who is relentlessly negative, a prophet of doom – but that, I think, is simply an example that proves the truth of the song.  Nobody ever understood poor Jeremiah, because he insisted on doing his job.  When the Babylonian army attacked Jerusalem with overwhelming force the king and the army and the newspapers of the day came out fighting – 'we'll soon see them off the premises!'  'No, you won't', says Jeremiah.  When the king negotiated an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt, who flew to the rescue with thousands of chariots, everybody thought it'd be over by Christmas. 'No, it won't', said Jeremiah.  When the Babylonian army destroyed the Egyptians and tightened their ring of iron around the capital, all Jerusalem thought it was the end of the world. 'No, it isn't', said Jeremiah – and to prove his confidence he went out and bought a ridiculously over-priced piece of land and deposited the title deeds in a safe place.  'You'll be planting crops again here before you know it'.  When the Babylonians swept into town and put most of the population to the sword and rounded up the rest and shackled them in chains to drag them into exile in Israel, everyone from the king down realised that God had finally abandoned them, God had brought down judgement on them for their past wrongs.  'No', said Jeremiah – and this is where we come in today, on the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year – 'No', says Jeremiah, 'all of the promises God ever made to you are coming true'.   Jeremiah has spent most of the book that bears his name up to this point criticising the kings of Israel and the people for their faithlessness, for their lack of justice and compassion, and has been promising God's judgement in frightening and explicit detail.  Now that it has arrived – 'No', says Jeremiah.  'God has not abandoned you'.

And of course, since it is the first week of Advent, the passage we read promises that mercy and restoration will come through a future descendent of David – we are only partly right to read this as a reference to Jesus, because it is also a reference to the historical reality in which Jeremiah lived, and what he is saying is this – if it is the faithlessness of Israel's kings who have turned away from justice and righteousness that has led to this humiliating defeat, then restoration will come through a future descendent of David – a king who will rule with integrity and compassion and justice.  Even when the people turn away from God, and reap the bitterness and misery they have sown in failure to show mercy to the vulnerable and the poor, and failure to live with righteousness according to their covenant with God – even then, the promise of restoration and mercy is heard.  And Jeremiah – as the people are being led into slavery in chains – encourages them and tells them to seek the good of the city to which they are going, to work hard, to marry and have children and to believe in the future.

Jeremiah isn't negative, but he is counter-cultural.  He tells the people what they don't want to hear, he challenges them to think wider than they want to, he gives them a dose of reality when they'd rather live in fantasy-land, and he encourages them to see new possibilities when they'd rather curl up and wallow in depression.  No wonder they don't like him.  No wonder he ends up in the cistern, squawking like a bullfrog.

But he does the work of a priest, which is to articulate the promises of God, and to do so in a way that leads the people from fantasy to reality, that reminds the people that the promises of God have got something to do with their own faithfulness and integrity and their own commitment to hope.

Advent is about hope, of course.  But we get it way wrong if we think that Advent is about hoping that Jesus will be born in a stable on Christmas morning.  No point in hoping for that, because it has already happened.  Yes, Advent points us to the hope for the world that is embodied and given flesh and blood reality in the miracle of Bethlehem, but Advent is also about present hope, and the incongruent juxtaposition of that hope against the reality of everything in our world, and everything in our own lives, that is hopeless and broken and unredeemed.  Advent is a dose of reality, and I'm sorry if you – like me – feel it comes exactly at the wrong time, when we are all frantically trying to get our Chrissy cards out and buying gifts and stocking up on tinsel and plum pud and trying to manoeuvre an oversized chunk of pine tree into our lounge rooms.

Advent points us to the hard lump of reality about ourselves that we wish we could keep pretending wasn't there – the indigestible truth about ourselves that we'd rather not own up to – and it says, that's where hope is at work in you.  That's where God's Holy Spirit is at work, that's where grace is, if only you knew it.  The irresolvable contradiction, the bit of you that hurts the most, that's where God is at work in you to transform you into light and grace and truth.  It just doesn't happen, however, unless we are prepared to work with it.  Believe it, the time is coming when the promises of God will come true in you, take on flesh and blood in your life – the time is coming when through the broken cracks of your life will shine joy and love and beauty.  Believe it, and live into it.

We also read today from St Paul's first letter to the church in Thessalonika – on the first day of the new year – how counter-cultural is that? the Church celebrates New Year's Day according to God's calendar! – we read from the very oldest document in the New Testament, way older than any of the Gospels, written maybe 20 years after Jesus crucifixion.  Paul has travelled to Thessalonika – maybe as early as 49AD and preached there to a group of day-labourers – the poorest of the poor – and from this unlikely beginning a new church has come into being.  Concerned to know how they are getting along, he sends Timothy to encourage them, and Timothy has reported back that despite discouragement and persecution – early Christians were an object of scorn for following the gospel in its insistence on social equality and inclusion for the poor and the vulnerable – the Thessalonian church was growing in faith and strength of purpose.  And St Paul says – 'thank God for that!'.  And he reminds them that Jesus is coming soon – this was the expectation in the first couple of decades of the church, that Jesus would return very soon – and prays that they should increase in love, and then he says to them, 'be blameless'.

Excuse me?  That's a bit of a back-hander isn't it, in this letter full of encouragement and compliments?  Be blameless – own up to the unredeemed bits, the not so wonderful bits of your life as a congregation – and do something about them?  Ah, it seems St Paul also knows what the work of a pastor should be about.  Point to what's encouraging and good about the life of the Christian community – point to the reality that there is still work to be done.  A bob each way, like Jeremiah.

We no longer know, of course, what wasn't yet blameless about the church in Thessalonika, what Paul needed to give them a nudge to face up to.  But the work of Advent is honesty, and becoming holy, which is not, actually, just a long-faced form of piety and carol-singing.  The work of Advent is the painful scrutiny of what is unredeemed about ourselves, our world and our church.

It occurs to me sometimes that we let ourselves off the hook, when we digress at this point to talk about the big issues of our world.  Our world is, as it always is, torn by war and the intolerable suffering of the innocent.  During Advent, we confess the failure of our generation to change that.  Our own nation veers unsteadily between wanting the rest of the world to think that we are good sports, that we believe in a fair go, and the enacting of brutal and punitive measures to drive the desperate and vulnerable from our shores – policies in fact that reveal our own deep insecurity and uncertainty about what, if anything, we stand for.  During Advent, we need to confess our own part in the national character and the policies enacted on our behalf.  But we let ourselves off the hook if we fail to also examine the realities of our own lives, and our life together as a church.

As the priest of this parish, I thank God for you, and I find great joy in my ministry among you.  What gives me joy is the evidence of my eyes and ears that the gospel of self-giving love is indeed being lived out here. That children are encouraged – being both heard and seen – and delighted in, that they are being nurtured and protected.  That the elderly among us are respected and cared for, that their experience is valued and their voices are heard.  That differences of culture and language and colour enrich, rather than diminish our community, that the fabric of our Christian community is daily strengthened by new relationships, by lives shared and by tasks undertaken gladly together.  I wrote this sermon yesterday in the office while listening to the happy buzz and clatter of the Op Shop – by now you know I believe it is in low-key and unglamorous activities like this that we proclaim the gospel and show hospitality to the community around us.

I hope it is an obvious reality that this work of community, of mutual love and care, is the work of the whole community.  As the priest, I get to notice it, and to delight in it, but this work is the priesthood of the whole community.  And we fail in it sometimes.  We are not blameless.  Too often, still, people quietly leave our congregation after having failed to find friendship and support here.  Sometimes they tell me off about it.  This saddens me.  It is not in our worship but in our hospitality and friendship that we proclaim whether or not we actually believe the Gospel.  The welcome and friendship shown to strangers is not an optional extra but the core business of a Christian community.  In showing hospitality to strangers and outsiders we proclaim the God who shows hospitality to us.  It is strangers and outsiders, in fact, who show the truth about us – as Jesus would point out to us, it's easy to be friendly to people you are already friends with – even Gentiles do that.

Paul gives thanks for the tiny working class church in Thessalonika, and he encourages them to grow in love, to find new ways of loving beyond the boundaries they are already used to, to grow in holiness.  Be blameless.  The bit you have to grow into yet is the bit where the Holy Spirit is hardest at work in you.