Saturday, December 23, 2006
I want to put it to you this morning that the two Scripture readings that we heard earlier are some of the most exciting passages in the bible.
To quote from one of the commentaries on the Micah reading: “The God of Israel is a God of shimmering surprises, of outlandish innovation and renewal. At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes and…we are forced to begin again.”*
What more could you ask for on Christmas Eve than “outlandish innovation” and “shimmering surprises” from the Lord of the Universe?
Today we are waiting with expectation for Christmas, about 13 hours away. We are waiting for God’s greatest gift to humankind: the Gift of his Son, God incarnate, the one who will save us from our sins and reconcile us with God.
But in addition to the big Gift of his Son, God has another gift to give us in this morning’s readings. In fact that gift is a “little gift”. Or rather, it’s the gift of being little. It’s a gift for the lowly: little people, little places. A gift that has to do with the lifting up of the lowly and the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones.
It is the gift of hope.
Today’s readings proclaim the transformation that God intends to bring to creation through the arrival of his Son. Today’s readings are about hope, but not about small glimmers of hope. Today’s readings are about big hope – about understanding the final transformation of all creation. And we learn that it is the little people, the insignificant of society whom God uses to make that transformation happen.
This is the story about the outlandish innovation and renewal of all things. A shimmering, glorious hope.
Let’s begin with Bethlehem. A small town, an insignificant town. Now the Christian Church has always applied the text from Micah to Jesus and we most certainly want to do that today, but it is also important to know what Micah thought he was prophesying.
For Micah, perhaps the most important thing about Bethlehem is that it is not Jerusalem. It is not the Capital City.
If you can imagine living in a situation of “London versus the rest of the country” magnified about a hundred times, this is what was going on during the reign of King Hezekiah, the king of Judah during the time that Micah prophesized. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen less than ten years earlier and it no longer existed. Judah was under threat from Assyria to the East.
King Hezekiah had a two-fold policy for the country. His first policy was the reform of worship - and that was fine as far as it went. But his second policy was a policy of militarily strengthening Jerusalem and some outlying fortress cities in the event of attack by Assyria.
Literally all of the country’s resources – money, materials and labour - went to Jerusalem and these fortress cities whilst it was intended that the people in country towns like Bethlehem would be left to fend for themselves in the event of the country being attacked.
Even worse, the people of the countryside were conscripted to work on the fortification of Jerusalem. The resources they had in order to feed themselves and their own families were small. So despite King Hezekiah’s concern with making sure that the people engaged in the correct form of worship, many of the people lived in abject poverty and in fear of their very lives, injustices that occupy a great deal of the book of Micah.
You can see what sort of a system this is. It’s a system that says: The King matters. The Capital City matters. The army matters. The average person doesn’t matter and if he and his family happen to starve to death because his resources and labour have been used to fortify the Capital City, then so be it.
This was an ancient form of “I’m alright, Jack” starting from the King on down.
But here is the glorious bit of redemption. Here is the incidence of “shimmering surprises and outlandish innovation and renewal”… God says that the Messiah is going to come from one of these poor country villages! From Bethlehem.
The Messiah is going to come from a lowly place. A place where the people are oppressed and where the king is happy to use them as cannon fodder and abandon them to their deaths. God cares about this little village which humankind mocks.
God’s outlandish innovation is that the Messiah, the saviour of the universe, is going to born amongst the lowest of the low. God’s shimmering surprise is that that the people the world despises are people of infinite worth to God.
Imagine! The world tells you that you are dirt, that you are scum and God’s prophet comes along and says, “Out of you, I will bring a ruler for Israel and people all over the earth will acknowledge his greatness.”
The earthly religious system thought they had it all figured out. The Messiah was going to be born in Jerusalem of a prominent family. He was going to be a great military leader who would ensure a great victory of independence for his people.
But God had other plans. “At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes…and we are forced to being again.”* The Messiah is born in a lowly town of lowly parents. He is not a great military leader but the Prince of Peace.
Elizabeth & Mary
And what about Elizabeth and Mary? The mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Elizabeth is a shamed woman because she is barren and has never borne children. Mary is very likely a shamed woman for becoming pregnant before her marriage.
Elizabeth is too old to be a mother. Mary is too young to be a mother. The son that elderly Elizabeth will have, John the Baptist, will usher out the former age. The son that too-young Mary will have will usher in the age to come. As with Jacob and Easu, the older of the two will become the servant of the younger. John the Baptist first acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus when he leaps in his mother’s womb. It is his reaction to the unborn Jesus that causes Elizabeth to proclaim her praises to God.
More outlandish innovation on God’s part. He uses two shamed women to be the mothers of the Messiah and the latter-day Elijah, the herald of the Messiah. You’d think God would have been more sensible. If you or I had been told to pick two mothers for these two great men, would we have picked a childless woman beyond her child-bearing years and an unmarried teenager? Common-sense would have suggested that we choose two upstanding women in their twenties with good track-records of raising Godly, healthy, well-adjusted children.
But, once again, rather than using the safe option, rather than using the tried-and-true, God opts instead for shimmering surprises and outlandish renewal. After all, it makes sense that the circumstances of the Redeemer’s birth will also be circumstances of renewal and redemption, doesn’t it?
Both Elizabeth and Mary understand God’s redemptive purposes and Mary then begins to praise and bless God.
Mary’s words are amongst some of the most beautiful and exciting words in the New Testament – the Magnificat. These words indicate a profound understanding of God’s purposes in the salvation of the World.
In her hymn of blessing to God, Luke’s Mary opens up the Old Testament prophecies for us in a way similar to the way the risen Jesus opened up the texts for the Emmaus travellers.
One commentator suggested that we read the Magnificat as a summary of the Old Testament prophecies. The height of the Magnificat comes in verses 51 to 53: “He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” (Luke 1:51-53, GNB)
This is the very same vision proclaimed to us by Micah. It’s the same vision proclaimed to us by Jeremiah, Isaiah, by Malachi and Zephaniah and many other Prophets. God had a plan. I think this is really exciting!
God knew what he was doing and what his plan for salvation would be. The problem isn’t that God wasn’t clear. The problem is that we fail to understand because God does things in ways we don’t expect. We don’t expect him to use the powerless, the little people, those who are unable, to bring about his Kingdom. But that’s exactly what he does.
This is God’s outlandish plan for innovation and renewal: A world that is ruled by the lowly; A Kingdom where everyone is of infinite worth to God, especially those who the world despises.
This isn’t just a little ray of hope. This is hope with a capital H! Redemption is brought into the world by those who are small, feeble and unable. It is when we are small, feeble and unable that we are sometimes tempted to give up hope. But these are precisely the moments that God has chosen as the moments he uses to redeem the world.
The Redemption of Israel and of the world will come through the Messiah hanging on the cross. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“The God of Israel is a God of shimmering surprises, of outlandish innovation and renewal. At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes and…we are forced to begin again.”*
A little, insignificant, town. Two shamed women. A little baby who would become, not a warrior king, but a crucified Messiah.
Just when we are tempted to give up all hope, the power of the love of God bursts into the universe with a shimmering hope that is so glorious, as human beings we are not really able to understand its height and breadth and depth. The coming of this inexpressible Hope into the world in the form of a little baby will require the songs and praises of all the heavenly hosts to do him justice.
Let us wait in Hope for the coming of that baby. Our brother, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen
* Cousar, C. et. al. 1994. Texts for Preaching: a lectionary commentary based on the NRSV – Year C. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press. p. 30.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:4-9)
It was the phrase ‘The Lord is near’ that drew me to this particular scripture reading this morning.
‘Well, of course, the Lord is near’ you might think ‘After all, it is Advent, when the Church celebrates the nearness of the Christ-child on Christmas morning.’ There are all sorts of reasons for rejoicing at the arrival of the Christ-child, all sorts of reasons for rejoicing at Christmas.
What really strikes me about these sentences from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, though, is the context in which they were written. Paul himself was in a Roman prison when he wrote these words, and he was facing execution. And the church to whom Paul wrote was a church that was encountering persecution.
You might very well expect this letter read something like: ‘Times are difficult, we are all suffering hardship, pain and persecution, but the Lord never told us that things were going to be easy.’ However, instead of taking a sombre tone, Paul uses the word ‘rejoice’ 14 times in this very short letter. Knowing this information, we can either admire Paul or we can think him foolish. The one thing that we can’t do, however, is to disregard these words as being written by someone who did not have experience of life or who didn’t know pain and suffering.
What was it that gave Paul this extraordinary perspective? How did Paul acquire his ability to rejoice in the face of prison and death? I think there are two key phrases in this morning’s Epistle reading. The first is ‘The Lord is near’ (verse 5) and the second is ‘In everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God’ (verse 6).
In fact, I’d like to argue that the statement ‘the Lord is near’ is a prayerful statement
Prayer as Relationship
I want to put forward the idea this morning that ‘Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God.’
I almost hate to use the phrase ‘a relationship with God’ because it’s become so over-used in Christian culture. But I think the idea of ‘relationship, not audience’ is helpful, and I’d like to spend some time unpacking that idea this morning.
Now, I have to confess that I’ve never had an audience with any dignitary I’ve never had an audience with the Queen or an audience with the Pope. I imagine that, before the actual audience, something formalised has to happen, such as receiving a letter from the Queen's staff or perhaps approaching the right people to join in with an organised audience with the Pope.
But whatever happens in an audience, you don’t form a relationship with that person whom you have gone to see. You don’t become the person’s friend and you definitely don’t become part of their life.
I suspect that most of us – myself included – have had experiences of treating our prayer-lives a lot like having an audience with God. We kind of ‘check in’ with God at the formal times. Maybe that’s Sunday morning church service, house group or our personal devotional times. (And there isn't anything wrong with that, per se) Then we sit and [gesture] ‘say’ our prayers to God. Most of us probably thank him for things and ask him for things. Maybe we also spend some time praising God. And then, like having an audience with the Queen, we finish our prayers with God, leave God and get back to our ‘real lives.’ Does any of this sound familiar?
But what about a form of prayer that focuses on the nearness of God? It seems to me that, in order to have a relationship with someone, that person has to be near. The person has to be present with us in our ordinary lives and he or she has to share our everyday concerns. The Queen doesn’t get a look-in here. Neither does the Pope. When was the last time you and the Queen commiserated together about British Gas’ price rises? I don’t think so.
I suspect that the apostle Paul knew something about the nearness of God in prayer. If Jewish prayer in the first century was anything like Jewish prayer today, everything that Paul did would have been an occasion for blessing God in prayer. Small, mundane things like opening one’s eyes in the morning, washing one’s hands, putting on one’s sandals, all required a prayer of blessing. And the prayers themselves would have focussed on God’s presence in those daily tasks.
As an example, here is the modern Jewish prayer that takes place when a person washes his or her hands before eating: ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to wash our hands.’
I think that, even though these prayers are formalised, they certainly do bring God into a person’s everyday life. Whatever else one can say about such prayers, they are not the prayers of a person having a formal audience with God. They are the prayers of an every-day relationship.
I’m not recommending that we all adapt the prayer practices of Orthodox Jews. I am, however, suggesting that we might not go too far wrong in considering whether the everydayness of such prayers might give us some inspiration with respect to being aware of the nearness of God.
Prayer as Listening
There is another aspect to ‘prayer as relationship’. This aspect is ‘listening’. If we are going to have a relationship with God, doing all the talking ourselves is not necessarily the best way of going about it.
As Christians, we say that we believe that: 1) God the Creator is everywhere holding us in being; 2) that we meet Jesus – the Son – in the people around us and that 3) through the Holy Spirit, God is in our own spirits. If we truly believe that God is to be found everywhere around us, then it is helpful to practice the mindfulness of God’s presence. It is incredibly helpful to listen to God. To be quiet and ‘just be’ with God.
Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God.
The Peace and Joy of Prayer
Paul suggests that there are great benefits to having a prayer-relationship with God. 'And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 4:7)
Again, I think that the analogy of ‘relationship’ is incredibly helpful here because we’re not talking about ‘prayer as magic’.
In my years as a Christian, I have heard a number of people complain that they didn’t feel that they could go to church anymore because their lives weren’t particularly happy or peaceful. These people sometimes felt that to be a “real” – or a “successful” - Christian, they had to be happy all the time. They felt that their troubles would be seen by the Church as some sort of a spiritual failure. Or maybe it was just that they themselves felt that they were spiritual failures.
I don’t think that an unrealistic happiness is the sort of peace that Paul is talking about – nor the sort of joy that he’s talking about either. And I don’t think it’s the sort of the joy that Zephaniah had. His was the joy of a Jerusalem retaken after destruction by an occupying force. This is a bittersweet joy, not a Pollyanna joy that refuses to confront suffering.
Consider what it is to have a relationship with someone who you trust. Perhaps it is a spouse, or maybe a long-term friend. Someone with whom you do not need to put on masks. Someone who you can trust to accept you as you are – neither over-dramatising your pain nor brushing it away because they are afraid of it. It is in such a relationship that we can experience peace and joy even in the middle of hardship. It is in such a relationship that we can let ourselves go in the good times, knowing that our friend will be happy for us.
But relationships take time. They take commitment. They are about giving and receiving, about speaking and listening. Prayer is a relationship with God, not an audience with God. The Lord is near and constant mindfulness of the presence of God is the way that we can increase our experience of his nearness to us. Such a relationship can be a source of strength, of joy and of peace, even in difficult times.
In this third week of Advent, we draw ever nearer to the coming of Christ into our world.
Here and now, we also prepare our hearts to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion as we draw near to the Lord at his table. We are mindful of the God who is near to us. We are mindful of the God whose Spirit is in us, the God who holds us in being and the God who meets with us in our brothers and sisters in Christ.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
We pause now in silence to be mindful of his presence.
(Note to readers. I always leave a minute or two silence after every sermon.)
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Today we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent and the main character in today’s scripture readings is not Jesus but rather John the Baptist. In today’s Gospel reading, we read about the ministry of John the Baptist. The Old Testament Reading, from Malachi, was - of course - not originally written about John the Baptist but has been traditionally linked by the Christian church with the life and work of John.
The season of Advent begins on the first Sunday of December and it is a time of preparation and penitence. Like Lent, Advent is a time when we consider who we are before God and when we prepare our hearts.
Although Advent is generally a more ‘positive’ season of preparation than Lent, it is nevertheless a time to take stock of the state of our soul and our being before God as we prepare for his coming. Because it is not only Jesus’ first coming for which we are preparing, but also his second coming.
In Advent, we are not just waiting for Christmas Day so that we can mark the memorial of Jesus’ birth. We are also waiting - and hopefully working - for the “second coming” of Jesus, when Christ will reign at the right hand of God in God’s Kingdom. We are waiting for the baby Jesus and for our triumphant and risen Lord.
Today’s readings focus our attention rather dramatically on the penitential aspect of Advent. Both the readings are somewhat difficult and challenging; neither message is comfy and cosy.
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist demands that we repent and be forgiven of our sins. He calls us to get to work preparing the path to the Kingdom of God so that the roads are straight and smooth. In the Old Testament reading, we understand that although John’s message has been long-awaited (because it heralds the coming of the Messiah), that his message will refine and purify us and that the day of this purification will be difficult to endure.
It all makes you long for the gentle baby Jesus, meek and mild, doesn’t it?
The first thing that I’d like to do this morning is to consider the idea of “repentance”.
I think that sometimes the word “repentance” can conjure up images of our mothers or fathers standing over us angrily with their hands on their hips shouting: “You say sorry now, young lady! (or young man)” And if this morning’s readings do anything, they might very well reinforce this picture of God as an angry parent.
But the concept of “repentance” is actually a call to turn around. “Repentance” is primarily something that we do in physical space. Of course, you can’t change your direction unless you first decide to do it, but making the decision isn’t all there is to it. A change of attitude is necessary but not sufficient. We actually have to start moving in another direction. We actually have to start doing things differently.
If you think about repentance in physical terms, it’s as if we are walking a path and have our backs turned on God. If our intention is to arrive at the Kingdom of God, we are going in the wrong direction and have to turn around.
What John the Baptist is doing is saying “Hey! You’re going the wrong way! Change your direction and walk that way!”
Repentance isn’t so much about God being angry with us an threatening us, it’s more about actually changing what we are doing. Scripture is filled with many prophetic books, all of which are calling human beings and human society to repentance. If God’s primary interest was to punish us then, first of all he would not have sent a Saviour into the world, but secondly, he would not have sent prophets into the world to call us to repentance.
God’s main interest is not to punish us, but to get us to turn around and walk in the other direction. Repentance may not be easy. Repentance might be difficult, but it shouldn’t make us afraid of God.
Walking toward the Kingdom
What does “walking in the other direction” mean, though? Well, I think we are being called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, so we are called to “walk in the direction” of the Kingdom.
Because of Jesus’ first coming, and because of his life, death and resurrection, the fabric of reality has been changed such that sin no long has control over human beings. This is why we celebrate Christmas and the coming of the second person of the Trinity in human form.
Because of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, the second coming becomes possible and we are promised that the Kingdom of God will be established. And as followers of Christ, we are called to recognise and understand what the Eternal Kingdom will look like, so that we can live as if the Kingdom were already here.
So, in practical terms, what does the Kingdom of God look like? What are its traits? How can we recognise it when we see it?
Well, if I recall correctly, one of the first sermons I preached to you was on “Racial Justice Sunday” when we talked about the fact that that God does not judge individuals the way that our worldly society does. God does not think that one person is better than another by virtue of race, gender, ability, social status, education, or what-have-you. Each person has been individually created by God, God knows each of us through and through and he sees each of us as unbelievably precious.
The Kingdom of God, is a place where every individual is infinitely loved and respected by God. And citizens of the Kingdom of God treat each other in the way that God treats them. In the Kingdom, we will have no need to try to prove that we are better than others. In the Kingdom, we will have no need to try to put other people down.
Secondly, because the Kingdom is a place where individuals are not judged by the standards of the world, I believe that the Kingdom is also a place that is inclusive. We need to be slightly careful in this concept, because there are people who hear the word “inclusive” and think that such an idea means we have to abandon all attempts to tell right from wrong.
When I say “inclusive”, I don’t mean keeping quiet in the face of wrong-doing. When I say “inclusive”, I mean that God wants to offer his Kingdom – his salvation – to everyone. Picking up on the image of repentance being a commitment to walk in the direction of the Kingdom, what I’m saying is that through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, God has issued a general invitation to all people of all time to walk in his direction.
It is the work of Christ that has made it possible for us to make the decision to walk in the direction of the Kingdom. Having issued the invitation to all people of all time, there are no fences around the Kingdom.
God does not stop some people at the gate and turn them back. God issues a general invitation and all who respond to that invitation, all who repent and walk in the direction of the Kingdom will be welcomed.
Thirdly, the Prophets tell us repeatedly that the Kingdom is a place where justice and righteousness are the order of the day. But it’s important to understand how the Prophets define justice and righteousness. Although righteousness certainly starts with each one of us, it’s not a concept that is confined to the realm of personal morality.
In the prophetic tradition, “righteousness” is a social and communal issue. Righteousness is about establishing a society where the poor and the oppressed have rights, where they are not exploited by the rich and powerful. The prophets constantly rail against Israel and Judah for establishing societies where the rich get richer and where the poor get poorer. The prophets tell such societies that God hates their worship and their religious festivals when there religious obligations are conducted in the context of a society where the poor cannot eat.
So the Kingdom of God is also a place where justice and righteousness are the order of the day.
Repentance is Good News
Far from being bad news, I want to argue that God’s call to repentance is actually good news.
Repentance is possible in the first place because of God’s love and forgiveness as expressed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. So the fact that we are able to repent – the fact that we are able to walk in God’s direction – is the result of God’s love for us.
But in saying that repentance is good news, am I burying my head in the sand and ignoring the hard images in today’s readings? Am I ignoring the images of the refiner’s fire, the images of purification, the images of straightening that which is crooked and of smoothing that which is rough? I don’t think so. Good news does not always have to be the news that life will be easy.
Any individual who has asked God for the grace to give up a besetting sin will tell you that such a journey is not an easy one.
And, if we look at the unrighteousness in our society, we can also see that the solutions are not easy ones and that they will require difficult measures. Being good stewards of the earth and of the climate requires people in the developed world to reduce the energy we consume. Making sure that people in developing countries can earn a living wage requires the West to rethink the way it orders its economy, meaning that we cannot continue to grow our economy and suck in global wealth the way that we have done in the past.
But all of these actions, however painful and refining they may be, are Good News because they are reflections of Kingdom of God.
In Advent, we remember the coming of the baby Jesus into our world 2000 years ago. But Advent is not just a season of looking backwards to the first coming of Christ.
It is also a season of looking forward to the second coming of Christ and to the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a season that calls us to prepare our hearts for that Kingdom and to live as if the Kingdom were already upon us. Advent invites us to hope in a world where hoping sometimes seems impossible to do.
In this second Sunday of Advent, the prophetic voice of John the Baptist calls us all to repentance. John’s exhortation reminds us that God has made repentance possible. His exhortation reminds us that God invites all of us to change our direction, to straighten and smooth our path and walk toward the Kingdom. We are reminded that change is possible, that hope is possible, that righteousness and justice are possible.
As we go from this place, my prayer for each of us this morning is that we continue to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ by lives of on-going repentance. I pray that each of us can clearly hear the voice of God calling us with his message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. I pray that we each be given the grace of God to bring his forgiveness, love, justice and righteousness more fully into the world around us. Amen
Sunday, December 03, 2006
The Plight of Jerusalem
“In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 33:16, NRSV)
Imagine what it would be like to live in a small community that is literally caught between three superpowers.
The text we read this morning from the book of Jeremiah was written in just such a situation. This reading refers to a time in the life of the city of Jerusalem before the city had fallen, but it was also a time when the city’s inhabitants were well aware of their dangerous situation. The people of Jerusalem were caught between three superpowers: Egypt to the South, Babylon to the East and Assyria to the North.
Had the people of Jerusalem and Judah lived in another geographic location, it’s probable that none of these superpowers would have taken the slightest bit of notice of them. But geography was precisely their problem, because their city lay in a strategic location, in the corridor that each Empire needed to use on its way to attack the other. This obviously made Jerusalem desirable from the point of view of military strategy: control the corridor of access to your enemy and your armies will stand a higher chance of success in battle.
But many people in Jerusalem were probably not as concerned about this state of affairs as they ought to have been. The Temple of the One True God was located in Jerusalem. God was physically present in the Temple, therefore they believed that Jerusalem could not fall. Time and again, God had protected Jerusalem from foreign invasion.
Except the prophet Jeremiah had a different message for the King of Judah and for the people of Jerusalem. Because of the unrighteousness and unfaithfulness of Jerusalem and her King, the city was going to fall into the hands of her enemies. You can imagine that this message did not make Jeremiah very popular, either with the king or with the people.
Why did Jeremiah see the King of Judah (Johoiakim) as unrighteous?
If you look back to Jeremiah 22:13-17, Jeremiah accuses the King of dishonest gain, the shedding of innocent blood, and of practicing oppression and violence. (v. 17) Jeremiah tells the king that the essence of true kingship is not “building spacious houses with large upper rooms” (v 14) but defending the poor and the needy (v 16) as his father had done. So Jeremiah prophesies the unthinkable: the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple of God.
The Book of Restoration
But in the midst of all this doom and gloom, there are four chapters in Jeremiah which are given the name “The Book of Restoration”. These are chapters 30 to 33; and today’s Old Testament reading is taken from Chapter 33.
Even in the face of the prophecy of the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, these chapters foresee God’s eventual restoration of his land and of his people. This hope is reflected in today’s brief reading from Jeremiah.
Jeremiah tells his listeners that that God is faithful, and he will fulfil his promise. From the dead branch of the defeated Kingdom, God will cause a green shoot to spring forth from the house of David. Out of a desperate situation, springs hope; out of death springs new life.
This shoot will be a righteous shoot, a righteous King of a righteous people. A King will establish a Kingdom concerned with the defence of the poor and vulnerable. The name of “The Lord is our Righteousness” will be applied not only to the King of this Kingdom, but also to the people of the Kingdom.
Because of God’s faithfulness, God’s judgement of evil and his desire to establish justice and righteousness, a new King and a new Kingdom will be established where God’s promises will be fulfilled.
The Kingdom Comes
I wonder whether – when you heard this morning’s readings – you thought that these were strange texts for the first Sunday in Advent.
Just two weeks ago, the assigned readings for Sunday were all about the end of time and the Kingdom of God and here we are again, with these same sorts of readings. Instead of all this doom and gloom in Advent, shouldn’t we be reading about the coming of the baby Jesus?
The thing is that, like the Kingdom of God, Advent is one of those “now and not yet events”.
The “now” bit is the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, Christmas and the baby Jesus. The first coming. The “not yet bit” is “the Second Coming” – the Eternal establishment of the reality of the Kingdom of God. The celebration of Christmas is not just a memorial of the first coming of the Messiah. It is also a preparation for the second coming of the Messiah.
Earlier in the service with the children, we noted that, in Advent, we are looking forward to the coming of the baby Jesus. We said that Advent is about looking forward to Christmas.
But, as adult Christians we know that Advent is also about looking forward to the eternal and permanent reign of Christ in the Kingdom of God. That is why, like Lent, Advent is also a time of penitence and self-examination.
It’s not just the baby Jesus that we’re waiting for. Like Jeremiah, we are also waiting for the rule of the Righteousness of God, because that’s what the “Second Coming” is about. The Second Coming is about the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus tells us numerous times that we don’t know when that will happen. I personally also think that we don’t know what it will look like. It’s a personal interpretation, but I suspect that, in the same way that the disciples first did not recognise the risen Jesus and then were able to recognise him, that the Second Coming and the Kingdom will be something that is both familiar yet, at the same time, beyond the bounds of our current life experience.
But it is certainly something to hope for.
We ended our all-age talk earlier by mentioning some of the things we would like to ask the Son for God for – for the world and for ourselves. We mentioned things like acceptance, peace, justice, reconciliation.
As we acknowledged in voicing these wishes, being a human in this fallen world can sometimes be difficult. Faced with things like serious illness, chronic pain, unemployment, mindless vandalism, it can sometimes seem impossible to hope. In a world where people try to scrape a living together because they can’t get a fair wage for their crops or where they can’t afford medical treatment, it can sometimes seem impossible to hope. In a world where yet another natural disaster kills thousands of people and leaves many more thousand homeless, it can sometimes seem impossible to hope.
Advent can be a tough season because it does ask us to look forward and to wait in hope. It can be a season of great and genuine difficulty and loneliness for many people and yet we are asked to hope, a call that may sometimes seems like God is mocking us.
I suspect that Jeremiah understood this puzzle of trying to communicate hope in a hopeless situation. As we do, he looked at the world around him and saw the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. As we do, he saw a system stacked in favour of those in power where the weak had no-one to defend them.
But yet, he proclaimed his message of righteousness rising out of the death of unrighteousness. He proclaimed his vision of the covenant Kingdom of God. ‘The reign of God is coming!’ he proclaimed, ‘Justice and righteousness will conquer sin.’ It’s easy to see why people often thought that the prophets were mad.
Waiting for What is to Come
In Advent, we look forward to the celebration of Christmas – the birth of the baby Jesus and the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity – God with us. We remember that Jesus came into the world to be our Saviour and our Leader. We remember that Jesus came into the world in a mission that would change the very fabric of reality so that, no matter how bad things may seem, we know that God has the last word.
We remember that, as Christians, we can believe these things by faith, even if we don’t feel them, for that is the Truth that we proclaim. But we also look forward to the coming of the Reign of Righteousness, and to the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In thankfulness for the love, forgiveness and healing that we have received from Christ, we remember that we are called to spread his love and good news throughout the world. We are instruments of Christ’s kingdom and we are called to spread his hope in what we do as well as in what we say. We are called to live as if the fullness of the Kingdom were already upon us.
As we come to the table of the Lord in a few minutes’ time, I pray that we may each receive any healing that we need to grow in hope. I pray that we may receive the nourishment we need to live as if the fullness of the Kingdom were already here. I pray that we may meet with Christ as he comes to us as both helpless baby and as risen Lord.
May our Advent waiting be blessed with the presence of the Prince of Peace. Amen
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Sermon for the festival of Christ the King. Readings are: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and John 18. 33 – 37
It seems to me that this morning’s Gospel reading could be potentially interpreted as a scene in a Greek tragedy. Here we have acted out in front of us the story of the greatest of all men whose apparent downfall is brought about by conflict with society.
In our reading, Jesus and Pilate are discussing matters of kingship, power and truth. At the surface level of this scene, Pilate is apparently the person with the power because he possesses the power of the Roman emperor
But it’s not just Pilate and Jesus in this particular Act of our Greek drama. Lurking offstage, in a scene that has just happened onstage although we did not read about it today, are the religious authorities Annas and Caiaphas. They too have just pronounced Jesus guilty before sending him off to Pilate.
And so we have an intriguing triangle: Jesus in the first corner, the religious authorities in another and the secular authority in a third.
As Christians, we are already anticipating the punch-line to this well-known story: For those familiar with John’s Gospel, it is of course Jesus who is the true King, and Jesus who is the Truth. John’s Jesus tells us quite clearly: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
In the actual economy of God’s universe, the perceived power of Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas cannot compare to the authority of Jesus. Jesus is the true King.
As we celebrate the Festival of Christ the King this morning, I’d like to think a bit about whether these three sides of the triangle have anything to say to the world in its present situation and to us as the Church.
Annas & Caiaphas
I’m going to take the risky beginning and start with Annas & Caiaphas – representatives of the prevailing religious establishment - an establishment that Jesus spent his ministry opposing.
Now, there have been times in the history of the Christian church when the stories of Jesus’ opposition to the religious leaders have been used as a justification for engaging in the exact same behaviour that Jesus’ opposed during his lifetime. This is the behaviour that turns religion into a system of in-groups and out-groups.
Rather than seeing the religious authorities in the bible as examples of our universal human tendency to divide into groups of “them and us”, the Church herself has engaged in this sort of “them and us” behaviour.
The worst example of this has been the long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people, sometimes using these very stories of Jesus’ trial as a justification for doing so.
But there are many bad examples of the Church creating these sorts of “them and us” situations – with particular Christians casting themselves in the role of righteous hero and those whom they oppose in the role of “deserving victim”.
*In the 16th century, so-called good Christians drowned the Anabaptist heretics.
*Catholics and Protestants have waged war on each other for centuries.
*In my own childhood, Protestants of different denominations were suspicious of each other, viewing Protestants of a different denomination as heretics.
*And today we have suspicion in the Church along party lines with different flavours of Christians suspicious that other flavours are not as pure, as faithful, as modern or as enlightened as “our group” is.
* And, finally, over the last several years, especially since “9/11”, sections of the wider Christian Church seem to be flirting dangerously with scape-goatting the Muslim community as God’s enemies.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to speak out when we see Christian brothers and sisters expressing prejudice against other religious communities. We are called to speak out in the name of justice when we see any group expressing prejudice against another We speak out not just because Christian prejudice is bad for our witness, but because such behaviour is contrary to everything that Jesus taught.
At the heart of the Kingdom of God is the Great Commandment, a commandment that is also at the heart of Judaism: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.
Christian love is not defined by a feeling of warm affection (although we may have that in many instances); Christian love is based on doing the right thing; it is based on doing what Jesus commanded us to do. Jesus commanded us to leave the ultimate judgement of individuals to him and he commanded us to respect each other.
This doesn’t mean we can’t say that we believe that certain actions are wrong; it doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree with another’s opinions. But it most certainly does mean that we are not permitted to name other people or groups of people as “enemies of God” and use this as an excuse to shun them or do harm to them.
But of course, the Church isn’t the only group who get things wrong from God’s perspective.
The next character in our play is Pilate. Pilate, the Roman functionary who recognised the truth of Jesus’ innocence under Roman law but who sentenced Jesus to death nonetheless because it was politically convenient.
There is a testimony that Jesus could have given to Pilate in order to walk free. Jesus could have stated clearly that he was a spiritual leader and that his only interest was in spiritual matters. He could have uttered the words that many secular leaders seem to want to hear: “I am a religious leader; I do not get involved in politics.”
But Jesus did not do that. He did not explain himself in such a way as to assure Pilate that he was not a threat. He made what could be seen as a grandiose claim: that he is the embodiment of truth and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice.
It seems that Jesus may very well be a “spiritual” King, but he is also a here-and-now King. As the old hymn lyrics state, he is Master of Everything: King of both heaven and earth.
The Kingdom of God is not just about pie in the sky by and by. It is also about the here and now. It is about truth. It is about loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is about justice: food for the hungry and freedom for the oppressed.
Those who utter the cliché: “Christians should not meddle in the affairs of the world” are taking the worldly view of Christianity. They are taking Pilate’s view, not Jesus’ view.
At her best, when the Church is listening clearly to the voice of her King, we can bring the standards of truth, justice and fairness to bear on matters of this world. Indeed, as disciples of Christ we are called to do so. This is part of the Church’s mission and vocation on earth.
Christ the King
Next Sunday, as you may remember, we begin a new church season, the season of Advent.
But today is the festival of Christ the King. And today, we end a long cycle of meditation on the theme of Christian discipleship that began on the 11th of June with Trinity Sunday – the Sunday when the church and the minister put on the colour green.
And it is fitting that we end the season dedicated to discipleship with the affirmation that for us as Christians, our first loyalties lie with Jesus Christ as our sovereign and Lord.
For Christians, Jesus is not simply a prophet who knew and taught the truth, Jesus embodies the truth. Jesus is truth. And, as Jesus’ disciples, we are followers of truth.
We are not to be misled by the universal human tendency to form in-groups and out-groups.
Where we hear calls to name as God’s enemies people of a different religion, a different race, a different flavour of Christianity, we are to name such behaviour as wrong and to resist these movements in word and deed.
Christians are called to stand up to anti-Semitism and we are called to stand up to the current cultural mood of scape-goatting Muslim people.
We are not be misled by claims that Christianity has nothing to do with the here and now and that being a Christian is only about our private spirituality. Having accepted God’s love and forgiveness into our own hearts, we are called to bring that love to others. This is not just a call to witness to the Gospel doctrines. It is also a call to demonstrate God’s unconditional grace and mercy in very practical ways.
The Kingdom is to come, but the Kingdom is also here. Christ will be our King in Eternity, but Christ is also our King in the here and now.
As we come to Christ’s table in a few minutes to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, I pray that we may all be fed with food for our journey. May we come to his table invited by our crucified, risen and ascended King and rise from his table to take his invitation of forgiveness and reconciliation to all the world. Amen
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. (Mark 13:2, NRSV)
Make no mistake about it, this is an apocalyptic reading. The 13th chapter of Mark is considered by some to be the earliest apocalyptic text in the New Testament.
Mainstream Christians tend to be a bit embarrassed by apocalyptic texts in the bible. I think that perhaps the apocalyptic texts smack too much of Christian fundamentalism or maybe snake-handlers in America. But we ignore such texts at our peril, not the least because if we fail to engage with them by bringing to these texts our understanding of who God is and what God is like, then it will be the cultists who define them.
“Repent! The day is coming when God will come again in thunder, lightening and wrath and the world as we know it will be destroyed! The Temple will fall! There will be false prophets and wars and rumours of wars and it is by these events that humankind will know the end of the world is near!”
So say the doom-sayers.
This theology may have sold a lot of books, but I personally don’t think it’s very good theology and it is most certainly not Methodist theology.
The Persecution of Christians
If we put away this dooms-day idea, and look closely at the text, when Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples ask him the question, “So will the Temple’s destruction signal the end of time?”
Jesus’ answer is something along the lines of “Don’t be deceived by these false prophets of doom. There will always be wars and rumours of wars, so do not think that these things signal the end of time.” Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that all of his followers can be expected to be persecuted as a consequence of following him, but that Christians are only to be concerned with following Christ. They are not to worry about trying to justify themselves to the earthly power on its own terms; they are simply to rely on the power of the Spirit to give a faithful Christian witness.
Now, many biblical commentators believe that this message may very well have been pointedly directed at Mark’s own readers, who lived at a time when Christians were just beginning to be persecuted by the Roman empire. So you can see that there would have been a very real and concrete message here for those readers. In such an historical setting, it is a message of encouragement to persecuted Christians.
But what is there in this text for us who are lucky enough to live in a land where we are relatively free to express our faith?
I think that there is a great deal, but first we need to turn on its head any notion of the idea that “wars and rumours of wars” are tools that are used by God and instituted by God to bring about the end of time.
War is not God’s tool
We need to understand that “Wars and rumours of wars” – and I use this term metaphorically as well as literally - are not God-made. They are human-made.
The reason that they will always be with us - at least until God’s Kingdom comes - is because they are the fruits of our own sinful natures.
The word “apocalypse” means “uncovering”, and we need to ask ourselves what it is that is being uncovered in events of destruction and violence. I honestly don’t think that it is God’s nature or God’s will that is being uncovered; not if we believe that the fruits of God spirit are things like joy, peace, patience and kindness. And, if the fruits of an UNgodly life are things like hatred, discord and factions, then it seems reasonable that what is being uncovered is our own sinful nature.
The standard human solution for maintaining peace and social cohesion is “war or rumours of war”. In effect, human beings attempt to solve the problem of sin through an approach that is sinful itself – by reciprocal violence or the threat of reciprocal violence.
When we act our of our sinful nature, we get caught up in the human notion that justice cannot be served until the person who hurt us hurts as least as much as we do.
If we do not look beyond our sinful human solutions, we will forever be stuck in a vicious cycle of retaliation. And we may go on and on throughout our lives convinced that our retaliation is a manifestation of justice rather than a manifestation of sin.
It is only by looking outside of our worldly and sinful perspective that we are able to escape the vicious circle of revenge. What is the escape-hatch out of this vicious circle? The escape-hatch is forgiveness. Specifically, the sort of forgiveness that was brought into creation by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus and the Sacrificial Cycle
Today’s Epistle reading makes interesting reading in this context. In the Epistle reading, we have a picture of the futile task of the Temple priest, forever making sacrifice to God for sin. The priest repeats his sacrifice day after day because the people of Israel – and the priest himself – do not stop sinning.
However, we are told that Jesus is the final and perfect sacrifice. The never-ending sacrifice of the Temple priest is no longer needed because Jesus has done what is necessary to end the cycle of sacrifice. And the necessary thing that Jesus has done is to bring forgiveness into the world.
In the apocalyptic terms I’ve been using for the Mark reading, we can say that Jesus has interrupted our sacrificial cycle of revenge and retaliation and he has broken into our vicious cycle of sin with a new possibility, a new alternative: the alternative of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the totally new alternative to our sinful, worldly ideas about how to be at peace with each other and with God. Forgiveness breaks into our vicious circle because it is God’s idea, not our idea. Forgiveness is not of this world. Forgiveness belongs to the Kingdom of God.
A Foretaste of the Kingdom
The amazing Good News of the Gospel is not “repent and be forgiven”. The Amazing Good News of the Gospel is “You are forgiven, therefore you are free to repent.”
God’s forgiveness breaks into the world before anything we can do. We do not deserve forgiveness, but we are given it by God’s grace. Actions have consequences and our violent actions ought to have violent consequences, but God in his mercy gives us forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of God and it belongs to the Kingdom of God.
The Amazing Good News of the Gospel is “You are forgiven, therefore you are free to repent.”
In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table, in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that Jesus has prepared for us in his Kingdom. Jesus invites all individuals to his table; he extends his hospitality and his forgiveness to everyone. In celebrating communion with him, every single one of us is invited to encounter Christ’s forgiveness for ourselves as individuals.
But Holy Communion is also a communal act. We come not just to find strength and forgiveness from Christ as individuals, but also as a local community of believers and as a worldwide Church. What we receive at the Lord’s Table we are also called to bring out to the rest of the world. The forgiveness that we receive at the table of the Lord is something that we are called to take out to the rest of the world.
It is no good coming to church in order to receive forgiveness from God for ourselves and then to go back out into the world and play by the worldly, human rules of revenge and retaliation.
Forgiven by God and strengthened for the journey by the food from his table, we are invited to spread that forgiveness throughout the world. Indeed it should be our joy and our delight to do so.
The Kingdom is now and we encounter a taste of it here, at the table of the Lord.
The Kingdom is not yet because the world does not yet operate by the Godly rules of self-giving love and forgiveness.
By his life, death and resurrection Christ has changed the nature of our reality and he has redeemed the fabric of the cosmos, replacing the rule of sin with the rule of God. Where forgiveness was once not even possible, in Christ, forgiveness has the potential to transform all of human society: past, present and future.
The Kingdom of God is here. The Kingdom of God is coming. May God’s Kingdom come and his will be done. Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus! Amen
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Ethics Can be Difficult
It is a difficult business being a human being. The events of our lives are not always as clear-cut as we might like them to be. Things do not always work out according to our plans and sometimes we are faced with very difficult moral and ethical choices.
It can be even more difficult trying to be a faithful Christian in a sinful and fallen world. As Christians, most of us would like to think that we at least want to make the right moral and ethical choices.
It is our intention to try to live in a Godly way. But what happens, what do you do, when life presents to you a series of events where the best thing that you can do is choose the lesser of two evils? What do you do when there is no option available to you that is 100% moral or 100% ethical?
I think that dealing with the morals and ethics of war as a disciple of Christ is one of these complicated situations.
Love Your Enemies
If we look at today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ tells us that we are to love our enemies. Jesus cancels the old commandment of an eye for an eye and he gives us new examples of what we are to do as his disciples: we are to offer our other cheek to the person who strikes us; we are to give our coat to someone who asks for our shirt, we are to carry the burden the extra mile.
This might sound just about bearable in the ancient context – which seems so far away – but if we imagine these commandments enacted in the lifetime of any person in this congregation today, I can imagine that some of us might become angry or incensed.
This is truly a difficult commandment. Not just difficult – impossible; outrageous; a commandment that flies in the face of natural justice. And, what’s worse, I think it’s undeniable that Jesus meant exactly what he was saying.
We have had enemies in the 20th and 21st centuries who were genuinely evil. There were people and groups genuinely bent on destroying us. There are people and groups genuinely bent on destroying us. Yet, we are commanded by Jesus to love them.
Jewish and Greek ethicists in Jesus’ time both advocated non-resistance as a tactic for winning people over to one’s own side. The idea was basically that one would engage an enemy with non-resistance with the intention of eventually winning the person over as a friend, or at least as a neutral party.
Now, sometimes this works, but as Jesus knew and as we know, there are many times this does not work. We live in a sinful world and there are people in the world who are simply evil – for want of a better term.
But, in today’s reading, Jesus does not tell us that we are to engage people with non-resistance in order to win them over to our side. He says that we are simply to love them.
“Love”, in this context, is not an emotion, but it is a way of behaving. And we’re given these examples of what love might look like: Turn the other cheek when someone hits you, give someone your coat when he asks for your shirt, when the occupying solider exercises his legal right to demand that you carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles.
Jesus then leaves us to think of how we might behave in other circumstances. We are simply left with the impossible ethical principle: “Love your enemy”, followed by the even more impossible commandant at the end of the reading: “Be perfect – love your enemy perfectly – as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Evil and Real Life
So what does a person do in the face of pure, unadulterated evil? What does a person do when faced with their unrepentant rapist – and such people surely exist? How on earth can we love that person? My honest answer is “I don’t know”. “I doubt I can love that person, but I know I can’t do it in my own human strength.” I know that if I have any chance at all of loving such a person, it’s going to take an awful lot of prayer and an awful lot of anointing of the power of the Holy Spirit.
And what does a country do when faced with a political leader such as Pol Pot or Adolph Hitler – someone so evil and misguided that they are bent on the destruction of an entire people and society? Should the country refuse to defend itself? Pragmatically, I can understand why a country will want to defend itself. Scripturally, I can only come to the conclusion that nevertheless, Jesus tells us that this is wrong.
I’d love to be able to come to a conclusion where I could say to you, “As followers of Jesus, we can say that God approves of defensive war.” That would make my moral decision-making nice and neat and tidy and we could all go home with the self-satisfaction that we’d tied up all our moral and ethical loose ends as Christians.
But I can’t find this kind of moral and ethical solution in the teachings of Jesus.
And I can find the opposite instruction, right here in Matthew, telling us to love our enemies for no other reason than the fact that, as Christians, we are called to imitate God’s unconditional and self-giving love
This teaching comes from a man with the every-day experience of living in an occupied country – from a man who would eventually be executed by the occupier’s most painful and humiliating means. We can hardly accuse Jesus of pontificating from a comfortable sitting room; we can’t ignore him because he didn’t know what it meant to live day by day with the enemy.
Christians and Remembrance Day
And that brings us to Remembrance Day. What do we make of it as Christians?
It falls quite close to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and some churches bring these themes into Remembrance Day as well: not just a day of Remembrance for those who have fallen in armed combat, but a day of remembrance of all those friends and relatives who we have lost through death.
But because I think that there are some serious moral and ethical issues for Christians to consider on Remembrance Day, I think we have to be careful of sanitising the day too much. I would prefer to keep it as a day of remembrance for those who died in battle and for us to struggle with the implications of that.
Given the commandment to love our enemies, what might be a good and faithful way for Christians to observe Remembrance Day?
The observance of Remembrance day started after World War I. It was a war where very literally a significant percentage of the young men of one generation were slaughtered. It was also a war that many regarded as so needless and senseless that the world was supposed to have become sick of war – hence the term “the war to end all wars”.
So, first of all, I think that we need to take care that we do not make it a day of either nationalism or the glorification of war. I assume that’s an obvious and non-controversial statement in a Christian context. I doubt that many of us would want to do that, but I think that it’s well to keep aware that the commemoration may be used by some for such purposes. Some people may do it in an innocent way thinking that they are showing support for a loved one in the armed forces. Others may do it in not-so-innocents ways in order to stir up racism and fear and to give these sins the appearance of being noble causes.
Secondly, I do believe that we must be true to the original purpose of the commemoration: remember those who have fallen in the battlefield; mourn their deaths; mourn the sinfulness that causes human society to go to war and the sinfulness that causes us to need to go to war in self-defence; remember that every solider, sailor, airman who fell in battle – young or old, male or female – was a person fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And a person who was loved by God; remember their families and the consequences their deaths had for those who loved them.
Thirdly, we can remember the sacrifices that those of who endured war were forced to make. We can give thanks for their strength and courage. We can give thanks that they thought not only of themselves but of future generations. As human beings, we exist in relationship with each other, and relationships span time as well as space.
Finally, as Christians, we do need to remember that we are called to pray for the Kingdom and to work for the Kingdom.
In the Kingdom of God, the lion will lie down with the lamb and there will be war no more. Although we cannot bring about the final coming of the Kingdom by our own efforts, we do recognise that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that the Kingdom is both “now and not yet”. It is the grace of God and not the rule of sin that is now sovereign in this world, and so we are called to proclaim and to live out the values of the Kingdom.
And so, as we go from this place, let us remember those fallen in battle. Let us remember and be thankful for the sacrifices of those who lived through war. But let us also pray for the strength and the wherewithal to live out Jesus’ commandment to be perfected in love and to love our enemies. Perhaps this is an impossible commandment. Pray for the grace of God to show us the way. Amen.
The texts are: Ephesians 2:19-22 and John 17:5-8, 17-26.
It’s a Small World
In 1990, a playwright named John Guare wrote a play entitled ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ The play was based on the idea that, any two people in the world are separated from each other by an average of six other people – six other relationships.
So, if I wanted a personal introduction to George W. Bush, in theory, I should know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows George W. Bush.
This theory is absolute true, by the way. Something like it was first proposed in 1929 in a short story called “Chains”
Then in the 1950s, an American sociologist attempted to solve what he called ‘the small world problem’ by measuring the ‘degrees of separation’ between two people.
He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was delivered to its target recipient.
The sociologist actually thought that there would be hundreds of intermediaries between the two strangers. But, in fact, the usual number of intermediaries was between 5 and 7.
The experiment was repeated using email and the internet in 2001. Using the internet allowed many more people to participate in the experiment, but again, the average number of intermediaries was six.
It is indeed a small world.
Connected to Each Other
Who we are, what we do and how we treat others is important, because our lives affect the lives of those around us.
Anyone who has ever experienced any sort of upheaval in the family – and I expect that that is all of us – will know that this statement is true. Situations such as substance abuse, divorce or a sudden major illness or accident affect not only the person involved but the person’s nearest and dearest: spouse, children, employer, parents, teachers, friends. This negative events can have negative consequences that reach far beyond the individual or even their family.
But, on the positive side, who we are, what we do and how we relate to other people can also have far-reaching effects that are positive. Since we like and want these positive interactions, I think it’s sometimes very easy for us to take them for granted.
This past Wednesday, I celebrated All Saints Day with the Wednesday Fellowship Group and I invited them to tell me about the people in their lives who have been positive role models for them in their faith-life.
As one person told a story and then another, more and more people remembered the positive example that others had had on their faith. We mentioned people long since passed away – such as teachers, tutors and Sunday School teachers. We mentioned family members and members of this congregation and even – shock, horror! – a previous minister!
Christians and Community
But what’s any of this got to do with being a Christian? So far, I could be giving a motivational speech to the humanist society.
Well, I think that the bible reveals God to be a God of relationships. So, I think that we were created as beings who need relationships because we were created in the image of God.
I’m sure if you think your way through the biblical picture of God, you will be able to come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of God being in relationship with human beings. I’m only going to point out a few examples.
As the book of Genesis opens, God is in relationship with Adam, but God also realises that Adam needs to be in relationship with another human being. The only thing that is pronounced “not good” in the creation story is that “It is not good that man should be alone.”
The first sin was a sin against relationship, a determination to “be one’s own person” outside of the human-divine relationship ordained by God.
And the incarnation is God becoming human. “Stooping down to our level” as it were, in order to communicate with us better, in order to walk in our shoes, but ultimately to save us in the crucifixion and resurrection. In order to have a saving relationship with us.
And then there is the famous Christian question “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” This is truly an excellent question. he only problem I have with it is that it has been used so much, that – certainly in Christian circles at least - I think it’s lost the weight of its meaning. And I confess that I can think of no genuinely fresh way to pose the question.
All I can testify to is that being a Christian is about being a relationship with Jesus, and with the Father and the Spirit as well for that matter. It’s a real relationship even though we can’t see touch or feel God.
I think that faith is about relating to God, talking to God, or as an acquaintance of mine put it – listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd after we have asked him our questions.
Honesty in Relationships
Like all honest relationships, it’s OK to get angry with God, to argue with God, and to question God. The important thing is that we actually do make the effort to relate to God. In study of scripture, in worship and in prayer.
And that is what being part of a church community is all about. On the one hand, individuals support other individuals in their personal relationship with God.
In an ideal congregation, this means that each person feels able to be loved and known for who they really are. Each individual can be honest about where they are in their faith without fear of being told that they must believe this and mustn’t believe that.
On the other hand, I think that the congregation as an entity also has its own relationship with God and its own gifts. As an example of how a collective gift differs from individual gifts, one of this congregation’s gifts is clearly giving hospitality to young people in the neighbourhood. But as I’ve told numerous people, I myself do not have any particular gifts in that area. Yet God has called us together for a reason; and together, in relationship with each other, we can seek to find the mind of God for the congregation collectively.
And finally, I think that being a healthy Christian congregation means also to be a congregation that is open to new relationships.
And it’s not just about being open to new people who come and want to worship with us. It’s about being open to new relationships with other groups and other types of people.
To be a Christian means first to stand in relationship with God and secondly to stand in relationship with other people. To be a Christian means to know that being wrong can be forgiven – because we know ourselves to be forgiven by God.
Forgiving and Community
To be a Christian also means to spread the Good News to others that being wrong can be forgiven.
As people who have received the grace of God’s forgiveness, Christians are called to spread this grace of forgiveness to all with whom we come in contact. Our ability to forgive means that we are safe people with whom to have a relationship. We are people in whose company others can risk being known; because they know that their being-wrong can be forgiven.
This is the Gospel flame of grace that we have been given to carry to all the world. But we can’t give it away to others until we stand in relationship with them.
And so my prayer for this congregation this morning is that: First, that each individual in it truly knows the grace and forgiveness that God offers through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, that we support one another in our faith journeys and that every individual is given the space to journey honestly and to ask honest questions. And finally, I pray that our congregational life helps us to reach out to those outside the Christian community to spread the light of the Gospel.
Being wrong can be forgiven. We are known by God as we are and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. May we rejoice in the freedom of the Gospel. Amen.
Keen readers will notice the use of the same illustration as the morning's sermon; these sermons were preached in different churches! Even keener fans for Rene Girard or James Alison may recongise some Girardian and Alisonian theological themes.
The readings are: Galatians 5:16-26 and John 13:31-35
Holiness – What is it?
Holiness. What does it mean? Who can be holy? God alone? Or can human beings also be holy? Is human holiness the same as divine holiness or is it something different?
These are hardly simple and straight-forward questions that we have set before us for our consideration this evening.
As you will recall, we have been considering the four characteristic doctrines of Methodism as expressed by The Four Alls. All need be saved; All can be saved; All can know they are saved; And, this evening, the fourth and last of the Four Alls: “All can be saved to the uttermost”. Or, in other words, the doctrine of holiness.
John Wesley himself believed “that God had raised up Methodism chiefly for the sake of propagating holiness” And the twentieth century Methodist theologian, Eric Baker, believes that “holiness” is the defining doctrine of Methodism.
Yet the idea of human beings progressing toward holiness is not something that was unique to John Wesley. Personally, I believe that many of Wesley’s ideas about growth in holiness had their roots in Eastern Christianity – in some of the theological traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy.
I do not intend to explore this background at all this evening, but I simply want to point out that this thinking is both ancient – going right back to the beginning of the Christian Church – but that it was also rather new to Protestantism in Wesley’s lifetime. At the very least, John Wesley can probably be credited with being the spiritual father of the Protestant holiness movement, which was a large movement in both 19th century Britain and America.
There is also some controversy about what Wesley meant by holiness and I think the evidence suggests that Wesley’s beliefs were not entirely consistent over time. Within the broad holiness tradition – which has certainly included many Methodists – there have always been a range of views.
Some people thought that it was possible to become perfectly sinless in this life. This idea has probably died out in British Methodism, but I have encountered people in the US of the Wesleyan holiness tradition who have claimed to be perfectly sinless. As a friend of my observed, on the whole many of these people tend to be thoroughly unpleasant individuals - which gives you a hint of where my sentiments lie with respect to human sinlessness!
However, John Wesley certainly did seriously entertain the possibility of perfect sinlessness. Although he never claimed it for himself, he was – in my opinion - surprisingly willing to accept the testimony of some around him who did claim it.
Another possible way of looking at the whole issue of human holiness is the concept of “perfect love”. This was the definition that came to be accepted in British Methodism during the 19th century and you won’t be surprised to hear that this is the definition of human holiness that I personally accept – although I certainly do not claim it for myself either!
It’s the concept of “perfect love” that I’d like to explore briefly this evening.
Of course, the best place to look for an example of a human being living a life of perfect love is Jesus himself. So what was Jesus’ life like and how did he live it?
The Revd Dr Colin Morris, the former BBC Head of Religious Broadcasting and Controller of BBC Northern Ireland, said the following about Jesus: “Jesus is the one who puts himself outside every barrier, frontier and fence we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own...”
I think that this is a fascinating – and accurate – image of how Jesus lived his life and I think that reflecting on this picture can give us a good picture of what it means to live a life of perfect love.
Human society is a place where we erect barriers or fences in order to keep “the approved people” safe inside and the strange or different people out. As human beings, we absolutely love to divide the world into the categories of “us” and “them”. We construct categories like illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, working class, middle class, peace-loving citizens, and terrorists. All these serve to define us – the good insiders – by what we are not rather than by what we are.
If we are inside our protective worldly fence, we don’t have to actively do anything particularly special. We’ve defined ourselves as “good” simply by virtue of being inside. We’re not “one of them” – those outside the fence: the misfits and troublemakers.
But if we think about Colin Morris’ picture of Jesus…we can begin to see what Christian love looks like. It suggests a picture of Jesus rushing outside of any human-constructed fence we erect only to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the outcast. He consorts with the dangerous stranger, the shiftless, the shameful and the sinful.
And every time the established power structure moves the boundaries to in order to “include” Jesus and show that he really is against our enemies after all, Jesus once again rushes outside to identify with those we cast out. It’s not so much that Jesus doesn’t want to be associated with us inside our fence, It’s that Jesus does want to be associated with the people we call our enemies.
So what do you do with a God who persists in consorting with your enemies? Well, you either learn from your God and learn to draw your own boundaries to encompass all categories of people (that’s the way of holiness) .
Or you are eventually forced to attempt to kill God. We know which option humanity chose.
Every time we insist that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, we can become painfully aware of our own participation in Jesus’ crucifixion.
Everyone Inside the Boundaries
This drawing of boundaries to encompass all categories of people is a sort of pictorial image of what I think that perfect love looks like - of what I think that human holiness looks like. If you still suspect that this is wishy-washy romantic nonsense, I’d like to draw your attention to Galatians 5:20, which says that one of the marks of individuals living under the rule of human nature is that…“People become enemies and they fight; they become jealous, angry, and ambitious. They separate into parties and groups.” By contrast, living under the influence of the Spirit of God is witnessed by a life of peace, patience and self-control.
This picture of love and holiness is a huge challenge. Including everyone inside our fences means everyone. Absolutely everyone.
We’re not just talking about having sympathy for someone who is a bit of a misunderstood eccentric, although that might be the case in some instances, We’re talking about standing up and saying “those who society names as our enemies are God’s precious children too”: Muslims and asylum-seekers perhaps.
We’re also talking about recognising the spark of God’s presence in a person who is truly and utterly vile and who has done the most horrendous things; perhaps rapists, paedophiles and murderers.
Maybe I can show love to an eccentric person, maybe I can show love to a Muslim person, but how on earth can I show love to someone who has brutalised another human being? Why would I even imagine that God calls human beings to this level of standing in solidarity with another human being if I didn’t have the biblical witness of Jesus?
Every instinct inside me screams “No! These people do not belong inside the fences. They do not deserve to have anyone standing with them in their life and their trials.” Well, of course, neither do I deserve that companionship, but God gives it to me anyway.
Jesus stands in solidarity with every human being. Rich and poor, native citizen and asylum-seeker. Every time we try to draw a boundary that keeps Jesus inside with us so that others may be named our enemy, Jesus moves outside the boundary to stand in the shoes of our enemy.
As individuals, as a church, as a human race, our calling is to push out our own boundaries out until we have learned to offer God’s love, hospitality and comfort to all people. It is that process of expanding our boundaries, of learning to do away with the category of “enemy” that is our growth in holiness.
This growth is not something that a person can do unless he or she has received the Holy Spirit. Holiness – perfect love – is the goal of our earthly journey: “all can be saved to the uttermost.”
God invites us to change, to expand the parameters of our lives, to break down the walls that divide us from other people and to see the image of God in all human beings.
We killed God, but in the resurrection, the expansive love of the creator God overcame our hatred. Christ is risen, death is defeated. Fear no longer rules the universe. God’s Kingdom is now and not yet. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen
The Revd Dr Colin Morris, the former BBC Head of Religious Broadcasting and Controller of BBC Northern Ireland, wrote the following words about Jesus: “Jesus is the one who puts himself outside every barrier, frontier and fence we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own...”
As I said earlier, this Sunday has been designated as “asylum seekers Sunday” and when I read that sentence by Colin Morris it was a bit like being smacked in the face with the blatantly obvious. Because, of course, what could better describe national boundaries as “frontiers that we choose to erect in order to safeguard what is our own”? This morning, in conjunction with our scripture readings, I would like to meditate on “the Jesus who puts himself outside every barrier”.
I don’t want to stand here for the next 15 minutes simply observing in one way or another that “this is a good cause”. As a worshipping Christian community, I want to consider how we might reflect on the issue of asylum-seeking in the light of the Gospel message. And I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than the picture of a Jesus who deliberately “puts himself outside of every barrier”.
This morning’s Gospel reading is the pinnacle of Matthew’s account of what it means to be a Christian disciple. Matthew has spent the last little while in his Gospel telling his readers to keep alert for the coming of the King of Kings, and now, in this reading, the King has come at last and the Kingdom of God is ushered in.
And it’s a very interesting picture, especially if we look at this narrative in the light of Colin Morris’ insight into Jesus. On the one hand, we have the sheep – who allegedly welcomed the King of King but didn’t have a clue that they were doing it, and on the other hand, we have the goats – who allegedly rejected the King of Kings but didn’t have a clue that they were doing it.
How can a person have an encounter with Lord of the Universe and not know it?
I suspect that, as long as we expect to find God inside the protective fences that we have erected, we will not recognise that he is actually outside the fence. I think that, like the “goats”, the “sheep” also thought that God would be found inside the fence, but that they nonetheless walked outside the fence to help the dangerous stranger, the shiftless hungry, the shamefully naked and the sinfully ill.
In walking outside the fence, the sheep were quite literally exposing themselves. Inside the fence, a person is protected by the anonymity of accepted social norms. Outside the fence, among those who do not fit in, a person stands out like a sore thumb – guilty by association.
Insiders and Outsiders
In the ancient near East, people’s travel was regulated by an intricate system of hospitality. The stranger – the outsider – was regarded as a potential threat.
Possibly a physical threat or maybe a threat to a community’s power structure, the traveller had two courses of action open.
On the one hand, he might remain a stranger and therefore remain outside the “fences” that the community had erected to protect itself. If a traveller chose this course of action – or if he was rejected in his attempts to become part of the community – he understood that his status was tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst.
Now, the other possibility was to become a guest inside the community by having a patron host. This kind of guest is nothing at all like being a modern-day dinner guest in someone’s home. This was an intricate system of testing, formal roles and patronage that meant that the traveller really did get inside the community’s protective “fences”.
Once recognised in the formal role of “guest”, there were all sorts of mutual obligations involved but the traveller went from being a dangerous stranger to becoming a resident alien, the host’s patronage gave him rights within the community that strangers do not have.
In turn, the guest was required to be loyal to his host, to defend his honour and to reciprocate the hospitality should the host ever find himself in the community of the guest. In some ways, it was like becoming an adopted family member of the host’s family and it was a very serious obligation on the part of the host.
But here again we can see that we have the same image of those “inside” and those “outside” the fences of the community. This would have been the normative experience for most individuals in Jesus’ time.
Those inside the fence are safe, upstanding individuals who have passed the test of community. Those outside the fence are a potential threat to the community in some way – physically, morally or ethically.
The thing that I find really interesting about Colin Morris’ picture of Jesus, is that it suggests that every time the established power structure tries to claim Jesus as one of its own, Jesus steps outside the boundaries.
I don’t think that it’s so much that Jesus doesn’t want to be identified with the people inside the fence as it is that he does want to be identified with the people outside the fence. Jesus’ stepping outside the fence is not necessarily a rejection of those who are inside, but it is a recognition of the full humanity of those outside the fence – those whom society wishes to name as being without rights or of lesser rights.
Real Life Application
So what is the “real life” application of a Christian theology of asylum seekers? I will indulge for just a minute in telling you a story about a friend of mine…
[I’m afraid I’ve had to snip this bit for the sake of confidentiality.]
Now my point here is not that I think that this particular government is any worse than any other government. I think that these things happen because we are human beings. I think that, as human beings – to quote Winston Churchill quoting Franklin Roosevelt – we are afraid of fear itself.
The government denies basic human dignity to asylum-seekers because being “tough on immigration” wins them votes. We, as the electorate, are responsible for this state of affairs. It is part of human sinful human nature to divide people into groups of “them and us”, to try to designate “them” in such a way that “they” stick out like a sore thumb.
And what does Jesus do? He rushes outside of any human-constructed fence we erect and he ends up sticking out like a sore thumb too. He consorts with the dangerous stranger, the shiftless hungry, the shamefully naked and the sinfully ill. He is guilty by implication.
God incarnate, King of King, Lord of Lords, the one who ushers in the Kingdom of God, personally identifies with all who are excluded by “the system” and “the powers”.
Good News for All?
So, for whom is the coming of the Kingdom good news? Well, I think it’s good news for all people, although some may not see it that way. Those who insist that they must make an enemy of those outside the fence will not be able to see the Gospel as good news.
But, for all the outsiders, for those who are powerless in all or in some spheres of their life, it is unequivocally good news. Jesus’ message is that all people who ever lived are invited to his feast of life. My friend is a Christian and is able to endure her current status because she is certain in her Self that God sees her as an intelligent and dignified human being even if the government does not.
I also think that the Gospel is good news for those “inside the fences” of human society, although I also suspect that it can sometimes be harder to see from that vantage point what really good news the Gospel is.
The witness of Christ, his death at the hands of human fear and his resurrection at the hand of the Creator, can expand the human perception of what it means to be fully alive in God. The arrival of the King to usher in the Kingdom of God, is a “place” (a time, an event, a locus) where we will see clearly what it means that human beings are created in the image of God.
At the coming of the Kingdom, our understanding of what it means to be human will be expanded because we too will be joyfully rushing outside the fences of our human fear and suspicion to join Jesus in his holy ritual of inclusion.
"Outwitted" by Edwin Markham
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!