The Baptism of Jesus – Year A 2017

The Baptism of Jesus – Year A, 2017

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“All the prophets testify about him, that everyone who believe in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” Acts 10:43

The Baptism of Jesus is a bit of a puzzle for us. The custom in many church’s on this Sunday – one which we have observed here in the past, is to use it to remind ourselves of our own baptism. Now that is a good thing to do, and of course in Catholic churches a small stoop of water is provided at the entrance to the church that you might take a little to remind yourself of Baptism before coming to participate in the Eucharist. But it we are not careful we do what we always have a tendency to do, to make this all about us. So we say the point of the Baptism is Jesus identifying with us – but that’s not strictly correct.

Jesus’ baptism is the Baptism of John and has a very clear meaning. It is the baptism of repentance of God’s people who are called to turn back to God in preparation for the coming of the Servant of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah. It is very much a Jewish rite – indeed it had a special meaning in that it was the rite of purification for those wanting to become Jews – for proselytise – that is those seeking to convert The Odd thing about the Baptism of John was that it was Jewish people who were coming to be baptised. As John told the Pharisees ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, “we have Abraham as our Ancestor”’ Put another way, “don’t go relying on your Jewish heritage” God is looking for a response, that of Repentance for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.

But the baptism of Jesus was a bit of a puzzle for John also. He protests to Jesus “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” John who declares Jesus to be “The Lamb of God – who takes away the Sin of the world” doesn’t understand why Jesus has come for baptism. Clearly what is happening here is something to which we Gentiles are outsiders (a theme which Matthew comes back to later on in his gospel.)

Yet there is an identification going on here and a very significant one. Jesus replies to John’s amazement with the words “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” Such powerful words which we can discern even more clearly breaking it down phrase by phrase “Let it be .  .” Like the words of Mary – there is here a submission to GOd’s good purposes – Let it be to me according to your word.
“Let it be so now!” In other words in the Baptism of Jesus we are witnessing a special Time – that which Jesus announces as ‘The Day of Salvation’ In this moment of human History, something Special is happening – “Let it be so now” – “for, it is proper for us” Note how Jesus draws John in into this moment. Remember a few weeks ago how we heard in Advent that passage from Matthew – and Jesus asks the crowds ‘What did you go out in the wilderness to look at?’ The one about whom it is written, ‘Behold! I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way before you’.

“Let it be so now! For, it is proper for us” Jesus is saying to his cousin, This is Our moment. From this point on John the forerunner withdraws, becoming less as Jesus comes to fill our vision – but now – it is proper for us  in this way (that is through John Baptising Jesus). You John are going to play your Key part Today by baptising me – “to fulfil all righteousness.”

To fulfil – You don’t have to spend long in Matthew’s gospel before you hear what is a several times repeated word – ‘fulfilment’. We have already encountered it once, in our reading just before Christmas – where in Joseph’s dream – he is told by the angel ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means, God is with us’

All this was to fulfil . . . we’ll come back to this in a moment. Then Joseph takes the infant Jesus and Mary to Egypt – ’to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet – “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and then twice more – ‘to fulfil, to fulfil – before now – ‘this is proper to fulfil all righteousness’. Put another way, the other fulfilment seem to be coming to this point – “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”

Jesus doesn’t merely do things to fulfil God’s plans and purposes, He IS the fulfilment of those purposes. And this is revealed in this moment. The purposes of God for his people which he has been patiently working out through the history of Israel. As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan – ‘suddenly the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending upon him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”

Throughout the Old Testament story of God’s people – over and over again through the prophets God refers to Israel as ‘My Son’ So the ‘the people of Judea and all Jerusalem and all the region along the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by John in the Jordan.’ and finally – the fulfilment – The Son of God. The fulfilment of God’s purposes for His people – baptised and  affirmed as God’s beloved Son . . . and the question is – ‘What happened next?’

If we are to fully understand the baptism of Jesus, we need to see it in its context and that it is ‘Jesus, who will save his people from their sins’ The context is of God’s people preparing themselves for His coming – They are with John, in the wilderness – they are on the far side of the Jordan – they are outside of the place of promise – and we do not know but we may assume that after their baptism they go home . . . except one . . . Jesus comes from Galilee – like all the rest he has to cross the Jordan to meet John – he has to leave the land of promise but he doesn’t re-enter . . .What happened next? He is sent out back into the wilderness. to save his people from their sins.

All three gospels which specifically mention the baptism of Jesus, next have Jesus’ being led, or as St Mark has it – driven out into the wilderness . . . what is going on here? If we see the baptism as it were a renewal of the story of going into the promised land, Jesus would go back across the Jordan, but no – he is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness . . .

As I said last week as we considered the name of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us, to save his people from their sins. The Name of Jesus, the one who Is the fulfilment of God’s desire to save his people from their sins, the name Jesus – Joshua – ‘The Lord Saves’. John Baptises Jesus to fulfil all righteousness and then he is led back away from the Land and back into the Wilderness. All the others crossed the Jordan, were baptised and went back in – Jesus ‘to fulfil all righteousness goes into the wilderness’

At the heart of God’s work to save his people from their sins was under the Old Covenant through The Day of Atonement – And on this most Holy Day in the Calendar of God’s people two goats were selected . . . one was offered as a sacrifice and its blood was spread on the atonement seat, the cover of the ark of the covenant. The other? The Priest laid hands on the Goat and placed the sin of the people on the goat and it was driven out into the wilderness. After the waters have washed away the sins of all the people from Jerusalem and Judea and along the Jordan – Jesus finally, the sinless one steps into those same waters – and the sins of all the people are laid on him by John  who is of the priestly line of Abijah (‘My father is The LORD) — and he is driven out into the wilderness.

Now there is much more to all of this story – but remember ‘it is to fulfil ALL Righteousness’ In the Old Covenant – this was tied explicitly to the Day of Atonement. So Jesus is sent out as the Scapegoat – bearing the sins. It is interesting to note that at times of course the goat didn’t particularly want to disappear into the wilderness, and so to stop as it were a reinfection, it was thrown off a cliff . . . have you ever wonder why St Luke – after the baptism and the time in the wilderness notes that on his return to Nazareth – when he has declared the salvation of God in the synagogue – records ‘They got up drove him out of the town and led him to the brow of the hill . . .so that they might throw him off the cliff . . .’

Well as we know – this isn’t the whole story – for there is a second goat – the one whose blood is scattered on the mercy seat – the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant – for Jesus is the One who will fulfil ALL Righteousness – the entirety of the work of atonement foreshadowed in the Old Covenant – is to be found in Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins.

But this now does become about us – for in our baptism we are included in Jesus Baptism – so that all that was effected through him – the removal of Sin and its final destruction upon the cross – we are included in

St Paul sums this up wonderfully in his second letter to the Corinthians – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Every part of the Life of Jesus reveals who Jesus is – the one who will save us from our sins. He who IS the righteousness of God – who does what he is ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ – bears the Sin of the World, that we might become the righteousness of God. He is baptised and carries away our Sin so that when we are baptised we might know how righteousness. And so . . . when we are baptised we join with the crowds from all across Judea, and now indeed all across the world, an untold multitude – that we might go, not back to the wilderness, but forward into he land of God’s promise in and through Jesus. For ever praised.

Amen

(I am very grateful for an article by Alistair Roberts
which helped tremendously with this reading of Jesus baptism)

The naming and circumcision of Jesus

The feast of the naming and the circumcision of Jesus – 2017

 

‘And you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’

Why are we given the names we are? Usually nowadays for no better reason than these are names our parents like. But that is no bad reason – for our name always reminds us of our parentage – those through whom we have come into the world. The desire to change one’s name – to name oneself is not something we should encourage. For how would we name ourselves aright?

 

I know that for many years I struggled with my own name – I was named after an uncle who died in infancy and it seemed to me that everyone called ‘Eric’ was OLD. It was only in my later years when the French footballer Eric Cantona strode the stage of my beloved Leeds United that I began to think differently about my name. Latterly I have come to understand it as the most significant link to my parents, of blessed memory – they named me.

 

But in earlier days I began to wear it with a little more pride as I learnt it was an ancient Norse name given to Kings – most significantly Eric the Red, or Eric Bloodaxe 🙂 All of a sudden I had left the arena of old men in flat caps and had entered the stage of Norse Saga and myth 🙂 Of course, having the name Eric neither made me an axe wielding Viking, nor a great footballer . . . and one feels for those children named in a prophetic sense – Grace, Charity, or as many of the boys at the Catholic high school where I taught were named, Christian. It seemed to have the opposite effect!

 

Today in our gospel we hear how ‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’ Jesus is given his name in the prophetic sense – in response to the words of the angel to Mary and Joseph he is named Jesus.

 

The name Jesus was not all that unusual amongst Jewish boys of the time. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it would have been Jeshua – another form of the name Joshua, which literally means ‘The Lord Saves’. A name which linked Jesus to God’s actions in bringing his people into the promised land – a name with close associations with the prophetic tradition. Jesus is of course proceeded by John the Baptist, who is ‘the elijah who is to come’ Elijah – My God is The LORD! Elijah’s successor is Elisha – Literally ‘My God Saves!’ or God is Salvation! In other words Jesus as he is named is part of the long story of God’s people – and is circumcised on the eighth day as required by the Law of Moses.

 

And the name, given by the angels to Mary and Joseph means – ‘The LORD Saves’ for as the angel said to Joseph – ‘you shall name him Jesus, for he shall save His people from their sins’

 

Matthew links this announcement to the word spoken through Isaiah – ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means God is with us’ The name Jesus is given for he shall be with his people, to save them from their sins. He comes to be with His people, to save them from their sins.

 

When we ponder, or utter the name of Jesus, we are reminding ourselves of our need to be saved from our sins. Why does God send Jesus to identify with his people? That he might take their sin upon him and save them from it.

 

And it must be said, that this is an element of the Christmas story which in the carols excepted seems to be lost from the telling. Jesus comes to be with his people, yes,

To save them from their sins? . . . this element gets lost in the telling or has been of late.

 

A few months ago I was with someone who asked as it were to the wind, ‘what has happened to Sin and Salvation in this Church’ We had been sat through hours and hours of this and that or the other seemingly pressing matters at General Synod, but not one word about the heart of our Faith, or better the Reason for the coming of Jesus amongst us, to save his people from their sins. And the question was a good one. Why in this age has the centre of the Gospel of Jesus  – the one who shall save his people from their sins – disappeared pretty much from view?

 

Well the reasons behind this are multifaceted – yet a not unimportant part of the reason is the collapse of Community in this day and age. When you are living in such proximity to others that you are aware that your life depends on them, and theirs on you, not just in extreme situations, but for day to day living – the breaking of relationship which is the fruit of sin is of utmost importance – Life or Death in some circumstances.

 

Yet, ‘Relationship’ has become such a light word in our culture – meaning less and less. Yesterday I was speaking with a young man, what we are calling a ‘millenial’ – he spoke of how ‘Trust’ was not part of the meaning of modern friendship. ‘Nowadays one knows that people are only friends until something more interesting comes along’ – a dynamic I have seen worked out countless times in the life of those children I know well. We have fewer and fewer strong connections – and thus less to break – or to use the language of our tradition, less obvious Sin.

 

My grandparents grew up in tightly knit societies where one knew ones place – and more, ones obligations to others, not least the poor. Held in place in this way, Sin was often a public matter. Now we live lives with no local consequences – our purchasing decisions don’t seem to affect anyone in our immediate circle. Our lives are lives of disengagement – lived out virtually – disconnected. Sin is alien to our consciousness . . .

 

And in this arena of nothing really mattering, not only Sin seems to disappear, but also Jesus himself. We have less time for him as Saviour, rather he becomes a wise teacher, in a Private spirituality – our faith no longer specifically about Him. For it is not only Sin and Salvation which has disappeared from the life of the Church, but ‘Jesus’ is now reduced to a rhetorical tool to justify this or that or the other agenda of our own. His words ‘no one comes to the Father except they come through me’ seems a strange throwback to that age in which Sin and Salvation were what it was all about.

 

Witness for example the very strange language of our confession from the 1928 prayer book (a watered down version of the 1662 whose name it bears) If we compare it with confessions from ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’ the language of Sin and Salvation are much more to the front. They are a cry for HELP! We are in big trouble – Sin threatens to overwhelm us! Save us! Jesus, Save us!!

 

And of course – this is the Prayer he LONGS to answer – for He Is the One Named Jesus – so named for he shall save his people from their sins.  This is why He Came – that we might be reconciled to God in and through Him. It is of course the meaning of Confessing our Sins – it is the meaning of Our Baptism, It is the meaning of the Eucharist. All of which focus on Jesus – and Who he is – the one who shall save his people from their sins.

 

We are still in the season of Christmas – a season of 12 days in which amidst the feasting we meditate upon the Gift of Jesus to us. Let us take time to mediate upon the Name of Jesus – so named because he shall save his people from their sins.

 

You and I know each other by our names – let us in the same way Know Jesus.

 

Amen

 

Inside out Christmas . . .

Sermon for Christmas morning

 

Christmas presents – lots of excitement – but occasionally don’t deliver – the toy which needs batteries – which aren’t included – or the 1000 piece jigsaw, with one key piece missing -and it hasn’t fallen under the table =

 

 

 

The Christmas Sermon – perhaps less excitement 🙂

Of course all this talk of missing pieces – or the missing batteries might suggest that I’d be asking ‘What is missing to make your christmas complete – or rather whom??’ But I’m not . . . it would be most misleading to say that we need Jesus to make our Christmas complete – for Jesus isn’t part of Christmas . . .

 

 

Because it’s the summer – many of us will be heading away for a break and now more than ever holidays are about the accumulation of ‘experiences’ – perhaps bungie jumping?

Or walking the Routeburn?

Or visiting a vineyard? Or sky diving?

But there is one experience which everyone here has in common – can anyone guess what it is??

 

Actually this experience is common to everyone who has ever lived and who ever will live . . . and none of us can remember it – it is the experience of being born!

 

When you and I were born we came into a world of which we have no sense of ownership  – we don’t even begin to have the language to say – ‘this is my world’ – although ‘Mine’ is a word most of us pick up in our very early days . . . yet how easily we say that ‘Jesus is born into ‘our’ world’ . . .  where do we learn this way of speaking about things? That the message of Christmas is that God has come to us to be with us in ‘our world’ as if God was somewhere else? – perhaps lived in a different world – like a long lost relative visiting from the other side of the world . . .???

 

How often do we hear – ‘God in Jesus is born into our world’ . . . without thinking for a moment about it.

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ‘. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’.

 

Jesus came into our world? The babe of Bethelehem is born into that which he has himself created . . . He prepared a world to be born into!

 

Jesus’ birth is unique in that He alone is born into the World which he knows as his own – the world which cannot be known apart from Him – a world which makes no sense apart from knowing Him

 

St John picks this up – he says ‘although the world was made through him, the world knew him not . . .’ speaking through the prophet Isaiah God says ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ The rest of Creation knows its Maker . . . this is where the idea of the ox and the ass at the cradle of Jesus comes from, THEY recognize their maker . . . yet  ‘He came to his own and his own knew him not . . .’

 

YET . . . Yet  to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 

The message of Christmas is that by and large we have got Christmas inside out – it is not that God is on the outside of our world and is born into it – rather that he is at the heart of it and comes to us who are on the outside – cut off from his life and promises that we might be born again, born into His Life, to know the world as it really is.

 

‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness’ In so far as we might understand Christmas as Jesus coming to us – it is like the master of the house opening the door – filling our darkness with light and inviting us in to that Light and Life

 

It is not that Jesus comes to us as a present, but as an invitation

 

Jesus has not come to join in with Our Christmas, to share in our lives – he has come that we might share in his . . .

 

And so we come to his house – to participate in his life in Word and Sacrament, in Bread and Wine

 

Amen

 

‘Male and Female he created them’ Sermons for Advent 4

2 Sermons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent – Ss Joseph and Mary

‘Male and Female he created them’

One

St Joseph and the Fatherhood of God

Matthew 1:18-25

One of the great difficulties for us as Christians, especially in our day and age, is that we are completely unaware of the great biases we have. The logs in our eyes. Believing that we ‘know everything’, we are even more profoundly disabled by our ignorance. Like a stubborn older person who won’t use a walking stick ‘because people will think I am old . . .’ our pride leads us into terrible problems – not least when it comes to Knowing our faith as it has been passed down to us.

‘We know better nowadays’ is the mindless mantra drilled into us from our first encounter with what is falsely called ‘knowledge’. That the generation which knows so much is watching as the creation collapses around us, whilst simultaneously checking out pictures of cats on Facebook, betrays our deep ignorance of anything in the Real world. Hence the significance of The Tradition which Roots us in Christ and the Church and thus, anchored in Reality.

Our faith is Traditioned, it is handed down to us – we are given sight and understanding through the Grace of God by His Spirit, and don’t make it up for ourselves. And sight and understanding are embodied in a language. Christians when we are speaking truthfully speak differently to those amongst whom we live.

But, like anyone living in a strange land – we are tempted to try and fit in – we are too easily  embarrassed by the things that make us seem odd, which make us stick out. The dominant culture shames us more or less subtly for our foolishness in thinking and speaking in such and such a way, not least when it comes to how we address God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for ever praised. Indeed our own NZ prayer book, seeking to fit in and hiding shamefully behind the fig leaves of cultural relevance, invites us to name God for ourselves. the Power to name is the power to define – our Gift is to name all that which God has set under us, to seek to name God is no less than to make ourselves God.

The final Sunday in Advent is traditionally the Sunday when we as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the fullness of the Incarnation in the birth of Jesus, and consider the Mother, Mary the one who is the God bearer – the one who holds the One who is uncontainable. However, we are in Year A, the first year of the three year cycle of our readings and so our gospel reading comes from Matthew. Matthew directs us in passing to the Unique circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy ‘When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’, Yet Matthew is more concerned to draw our attention to the forgotten figure in the drama of the birth of Jesus, the male . . . St Joseph. St Joseph, the male who is not the Father

Every year around the world in Western Churches two difficult questions are asked in preparation for Christmas – the first is ‘whose turn is it to play Mary in the Nativity??’ , this is difficult for there is never a shortage of willing girls to take this most prized role, and we MUST make sure that every girl gets a go! The second question is less politically tricky, more the sort of question we all too often face in the church, ‘who can we get to . . .’, in this case ‘who can we persuade – challenge – bribe – or if it comes down to it, Force to be Joseph?’

Finding volunteers to be Kings – or even shepherds? No problem! Good strong male characters, but Joseph? Everyone knows that Joseph is just a bit part in the story – he just has to tag along and look after the main player. All the photos afterwards are with the mother – babe in arms. For frankly who would want to be Joseph – indeed Joseph himself in all likelihood wasn’t terribly struck by the idea. Upon realising that his betrothed is inexplicably with child, his first response, ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,’ was to resolve to ‘dismiss her quietly.’ Let us not suppose darker motives – for Matthew tells us Joseph is a ‘righteous man’ – such a description is not to be taken lightly. What might be in view here is simply to quietly and privately ‘write her a certificate of divorce’ – rather than go to public trial over the matter, and thus ‘expose’ her, for he is a good man. The Woman is not to be exposed.
Whatever, he is in a very difficult situation – but perhaps that is nothing compared to a deeper matter – that he is not the father. He is a little more than an extra – having no agency. like the unwilling boy in the nativity, told where to stand – Joseph is told by the angel what he must do – a passive player in the drama of the birth of Christ.

The theologian Karl Barth puts it like this ‘“Born of the Virgin Mary” . . .from the human standpoint the male is excluded here. The male has nothing to do with this birth. What is involved here is, if you like a divine act of judgement. To what is beginning here man is to contribute nothing by his action and initiative. It is not that humanity is simply excluded, for the Virgin is there. But the male, as the specific agent of human action and history, must now retire into the background, as the powerless figure of Joseph’

Removing the male from the action when God sets about his most profound work, is a common theme in Scriptures First Adam is asleep as Eve,’the mother of al the living’ is created, then Abraham is asleep as God pronounces his covenant, and I could go on – Joseph of course only gets his orders, whilst he is asleep, only the men see visions and dream dreams – when God speaks to them they are asleep – Joseph is told, there is no conversation, his agency is purely to do as he is told. And again as he must take the infant Jesus to Egypt, the instruction comes not whilst he is at work, but whilst he is asleep . . .

Perhaps it is no surprise that little boys aren’t eagerly queuing up for this nativity play role. But I suggest that both the feminine eagerness and the masculine lack thereof both point us to something deeper. As I said we shall contemplate Mary this evening – but Joseph . . .

You see, the issue is quite plain at one level, he is not the father. Joseph is not the father – he must bring one up as a father but without being the Father – The Father.

As I’ve already mentioned – our modern western culture finds the name of God as traditioned – as handed down – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – embarrassing. A throwback to ‘a patriarchal and therefore oppressive way of seeing gate world from which we have now been liberated’. But this is a profound and tragic error on several levels.

Jesus as we know refers to God as his ‘Father’ – he teaches his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’. Of course if one was of such a will one could dismiss this under the ‘patriarchal’ argument – except for this. Jesus teaches us ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’

Put another way – you cannot define God by your earthly understanding of ‘father’ – to be ‘Father’ is something that can only be known in reference to God.

God in moving Joseph to one side reveals the utter inadequacy of the human male as a reference point for fatherhood. If we are to know what Father means, we must look to God, only in Knowing God, do we Know the Father.

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

I had been a Christian for some time before I began to notice how I addressed God. In prayer and in my daily life I found myself crying out ‘Father’ – a spontaneous habit which only seemed to recede in those darker periods when I found myself rebelling against his Love. To Know Him is to Know The Father

Those sad cases one sometimes comes across in which a man (usually) says he cannot relate to God as Father because of his poor relationship with his own father only further highlights the essential point – that we cannot understand the Fatherhood of God from a human point of view. They are pointing right at the Fatherhood of God, for As one writer puts it ‘a strange discovery awaits every human being; the fact that a man does not possess the paternal instinct in the same was as a woman possesses the maternal instinct – there is nothing immediate in a man’s nature that corresponds directly to the principal of fatherhood’ for you have one Father, the One in heaven.’

Amen

 

 

 

Two

Woman and the Salvation of the World

Genesis 3:1-20
Luke 1:26-45

This morning we considered Joseph – so in the interests of equality it is only reasonable that tonight we consider Mary. I say ‘equality’, but it is notable that neither the Scriptures nor the Tradition treat Mary and Joseph as if they were equal . . . and as I said this morning we are wired by our culture to read texts in a certain way. If I say that ‘the Scriptures do not treat Mary and Joseph as equals’, then if we did not know any better we might fall into a lazy and easy assumption that Joseph as the man is held in far higher regard in ‘these patriarchal and outdated Scriptures’ than the ‘mere woman’ Mary, except of course, we know that is not so. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.

Joseph is that oxymoron – a ‘passive actor’, more fully a passive male – in the drama of the birth of Jesus. The birth of God into the World does not include Joseph – He does not speak a word. He is told what to do whilst he is asleep – in a dream. It is worth asking whether, because we live in a society which is profoundly masculinised, we fall too readily for the suggestion that the male is central to the Scriptural account and so fail to See, and be amazed by how marginal the male is in this narrative of the birth of Jesus.

Indeed as we explored this morning, do we miss the force of Jesus’ words ‘call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ That is, there is no earthly referent with regard to Father? When God reveals himself as Father, actually we are told not to try and interpret Father with reference to the male human?? The man Joseph gives us no clue to the meaning of ‘Father’, the Name Father by which the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God. We Know God as Father, but that is a profound divine mystery for He is in heaven and there is not earthly example – not even St Joseph.

How different to Mary! This morning we contrasted what happened at nativities. Children as I so often say get it – they are in spiritual terms ‘thin places’ that is they are Open. In some respect this is MOST hazardous – children in this age as much as any other are exposed to many and terrible things – they are utterly open and we are utterly careless. We are all about protecting children, for they are utterly vulnerable and, in the next breath in the name of ‘education’ we put devices in their hands which which are doorways for much that they are not able to comprehend or worse which can literally destroy their souls – to Know everything – Good and Evil. Yet, at the same time, whilst there are still children in the Church, by grace they come to know God in Jesus, and Mary his mother.

How interesting it is that whilst boys are often grudging to play Joseph . . . Kings, YES! Shepherds . . .OK, but Joseph? Girls queue up to ‘be Mary’. The paternal instinct is absent from the male – it is not instinctual – but the maternal is instinctive within the female. They instinctively want to pick up the doll. They Know. Watching our own girls growing up – Sarah and I have so many photos of them ‘holding the baby’ Whereas the male is the one who is only awkwardly ‘left holding the baby’

And that maternal instinct finds its correlative in the role of women in the faith who faithfully pass on Life in the Tradition. It is interesting to note that in the latter part of the C19 in Russia, some of the saints of the Church gave themselves unstintingly to instructing women in the faith. When the Church then endured the horrific suffering under Communism, as we all know it was the women who bore the faith, who carried it within them and transmitted it. What after all is it to become a Christian than to be ‘Born Again’ . . . the question of Nicodemus at this assertion not perhaps without some weight . . .

It is an observable principal that whilst the male teaches the dogma of the faith, it is the woman who passes on the Essence of The Faith, its Being, The Mystery of Faith – in a far deeper instinctual way – the way of Mystery. At my daughter Rose’s wedding I made reference to those who were missing – including Sarah’s mother who kept faith alive in her family and passed it to her daughter, and then through her mother, Rose and indeed all of our children. Life passes through the female. The female is the life giver – so, rather than equality – compared with Joseph and indeed Any other Saint, The Church has exalted Mary – calling her ‘Theotokos’ – literally the one who bears God. The frail finite encompassing the consuming Fire of the ‘infinite’. Frail human flesh bearing the One who is a consuming Fire . . . Our God, incomprehensibly contracted to a span within a Woman.

 

 

mother-of-god-hodighitria-daniel-neculaem04

In front of you you have two icons of Mary, The upper one  is called ‘the Hodighitria’ – Mary points us to Jesus, she posts us to the Way, and Christ blesses his mother – As the Father speaks from Heaven ‘This is my Son, the beloved, Listen to Him, so Mary also directs us to her Son. At the wedding of Cana, ‘Mary said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’’ This icon is so significant that mariners of Old would place it in the bow of the boat  The Virgin Mother pointing us to Jesus, ‘the Way’. Within her occurs the incarnation – the weaving together of heaven and earth – thus as as heaven is woven into Earth, so Jesus is The Way in toto.

Yet – Supremely it is Mary’s assent to the Will of the Father which is the gate of Salvation for all of humanity – for all of those, as Jesus calls us ‘born of woman’. Her assent becomes the human vehicle for the Life of God to enter into the World Incarnate – In flesh – and again when Jesus ascends to the Father who sends the Spirit – there on the day of Pentecost, St Luke names 1 woman present amongst the apostles – Mary the Mother of Jesus. (See the lower icon)

As Eve is named for she was ‘mother of all the living’, so Mary is the Eve of the New Creation – it is her ‘Yes’ which is the doorway for the life of God into the world, the Spirit of Jesus, that we might be born again. It is perhaps not going to far as some assent, that Mary is The Church – for the Church is the body of Christ – she is the one who within herself holds that body – she is the one who gives of her flesh that God might be born into the world. So in the second Icon as is customary we see Mary seated in the centre of the Church, our Mother.

Now it may have become apparent that I have been weaving together the story of Mary with that of Women in the Church, perhaps a note that we have lost. As The Church has forgotten the way in which the story of Joseph (and indeed many other men in the Scriptures who have to be asleep for God to work) puts the male out of the picture – so there has been in the Western tradition of the Church an approach to Mary which has divorced her from Womankind, and allowed the dominance of the male – to the point where as many say ‘it is a man’s world’. Neither Joseph not Mary conform to the way we are told the world is – which is a Sign to us that we are failing to See the World as it truly is – as God created it to be.

Deep in the story of Creation we come upon the story of the Fall. Why should the Serpent tempt Eve? Of course, if we wear the glasses modern thought has put upon us we would say ‘well here is an example of a Patriarchal text! The woman is being portrayed as weak, so Satan goes for the weak point’ This however is not how the Deep tradition of the Church reads it at all! No! The Woman is Receptive – that is at once her profound Strength and also the Potential of weakness. Of Glory, or of Shame. As the Ancient story of Achilles tells us, the weak point is always found in regard to the Strength.

Rather the Woman in the Story is portrayed as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. God’s Creative act culminates as he puts the man to sleep that he might do his most mysterious work – this is a Hidden thing. It is something which we can only begin to know in the Church in the Body of Christ. It cannot be known from outside of faith. The Serpent takes on Eve precisely because he knows that She as Woman is the source of Life for the human – both physical and spiritual. If he can deceive her, then all of humanity is lost. Eve receives the apple – she takes it into herself, and so the knowledge of Evil enters the world. How might this be redeemed, by the Woman taking Good, The Good into herself, in her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ Mary receives the Word of God into her being for the Salvation of the World. As Karl Barth put it, ‘here the Woman stands absolutely in the foreground.’ Yet this is hidden – it is a veiled truth for it is the stuff of mystery, the essence of Life and the feminine.

JRR Tolkien, a man versed in the deep myths and of course the Tradition expressed this well in the person of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings – she ruled Lothlorien with her husband Celeborn, and she is the one who gives to Frodo the Light which busts forth in the Evil darkness of Shelob’s lair. Frodo, the male, hesitates before her Mystery and offers the Ring to her, the Ring of Power. “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.

But she survives the test – the Ring is a thing of Evil and she will not receive it – lest the Old Magic be undone – and then ‘for all shall love me and despair’

This Truth is veiled. It is in the secret places that Jesus is woven together – it is the hiddenness of the humility of Mary that God comes into the world. It is only with the eye of faith that this young Jewish girl might be known as the Queen of heaven, it is not now public fact – the one who’s yes to God was for the Salvation of the World. And it is this profound mystery which is at the heart of the Eucharist – for because Mary received Life in and through her Yes to God, so the One born to her feeds us with His Very Life in the Eucharist.

We are in Advent – waiting for the bread of Heaven – which comes to us through Mary’s echoing the divine Yes – she is the one who calls Jesus to his Passion – ‘When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’’

In her ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’ – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb comes into being.

Alleluia

Amen

 

Awaken to the Theo-Drama – Sermon for Advent 2 2016, Year A

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

‘Awaken to the Theo Drama’

‘Just what’s going on in here??’ A question which brings back the presence of my mother, of blessed memory. Ususally addressed to me whilst ‘partying with my friends’ in my room, and to my memory, not after the age of about 10 – I got out of partying pretty quickly 🙂 But it is a Good question for us as we gather together today, ‘Just what IS going on here? Today? In this space?’

Just the other evening we were visited by the Roslyn Cub Scout troop. As folk will possibly remember, I enjoy having groups like the Cubs visit – for me, it is a sign that children are far far more alert to the realities of belief than adults, even adult Christians.

And when I use a phrase like the realities of belief we need to understand that in our culture these words, belief and reality, are largely disconnected. What do WE as the Church mean by ‘the realities of belief’??

Lets think for a moment about the word ‘believe’ – Like many word sin our shared language it can mean many things. I can believe in things in very different ways, even things that are true. But which way of believing brings me into the realm of Reality?? I can and indeed do believe that Lima is the capital of a country called Peru in South America. But this is just a thought, most of me is not engaged in that belief. I’ve never been there, I only know one person who has visited there. I have no ‘connection’ to Lima, my belief in Lima has no impact on my existence apart from a few flashing neurones.

This morning I came closer to a belief rooted in reality, because it affected me physically. My alarm went off, I Woke up – I believed that I had to get out of bed to conduct worship at 8. Now my belief has an affect on my actions . . . but note this, it doesn’t have to. Actually I didn’t have to – it was an act of Mind over matter. My belief forcing my unwilling body to do what it needs to so that I can conduct worship. ‘Well’, we might say ‘THAT is what we mean by ‘the reality of belief’ – I believe something in my head and so I direct my body in a certain direction to do the things that I believe my faith requires of me, like coming to Church’. For the vast majority of folks that is what we mean when we talk about faith and action, or the reality of faith. Does What you believe in your head affect what you do in your life – but I suggest that that is NOT the reality of Faith as the Church teaches it, and to which I introduced the Cubs.

Rather Faith goes much much deeper – it engages us to the point where ‘thinking about it’ is almost after the fact element of faith. That we have been caught up in something over which we are not the central players.

To give you an example of what I mean, lets conduct a thought experiment. Imagine yourself if you will stood near the top of a very very very high cliff, and in your thoughts you walk closer and closer to the edge. Notice how your body responds!! NOW you are believing. Your belief in Gravity now Really matters – it matters in the arena of what is REAL. Faith has moved from a thought, through a thought controlling an action, to an Action. Faith is Enacted – you in your Being are believing. THIS is what we mean by Christian Faith – ‘the reality of Faith’. our whole being is caught up in it.

So to come back to the cubs and their visit. How did we as it were engage with faith in their visit, Well I simply treated our worship as that which it is, the very centre of our faith, in the edge of a cliff way – that when we come here we are Entering into the depths of our faith, we are participating in what God is doing among us. I spoke of how we come through the door and are confronted by the font – that we beomce Christians when our bodies are immersed in the water of baptism. (I think that this may be why quite often folk want a second baptism, not primarily because they want it to be THEIR decision, but because they want a faith that involves all of who they are – a bodily faith)

I spoke of how we become Children of God by this baptism in which we are immersed in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are changed into new people, like new born babies. Now of course I could have taught them a whole load of Christians believe this, that and the other, but if we come back for a moment to our considering ‘believing’ then we see that this is at best like believing in Lima, or believing I have to get out of bed – most of who we are is disengaged. But when I declare the truth of our Baptism that through it we are included in the Life of God and become his children – that is believe in the deep sense of impacting our whole life. When we speak of our whole life we as Christians do not primarily mean ‘our work life or our family life or this or that aspect of what we label our lives, but we mean it is whole life in that our LIFE is engaged . . .

And so I spoke to the cubs of how they were entering a Theatre, where every week Chrstians come together to engage in like a Great Play – but not as audience, but as participants. Not in the sense that ‘someone prays, and someone reads etc. but in the deeper sense – That we are participating in what God is doing here – That God is Active in our worship – and we are being changed in who we are, and this starts with baptism. We are entering the Drama of God. We are HEARING him speak to us directly through his Word – which comes down from Heaven and into the body of the people, as I explained last week – and as I told someone this week, this is not a Symbol – it is NOT something we do to help us THINK better about our faith – it IS our faith. In Worship we are participating in what God is doing in and among us. As we confess our sins He is active and coming to us to forgive us, the Father of the prodigal children delighted to see his Children coming home!

The Word of God, Jesus the Son, Comes to us in the Gospel, to stand amongst us, We stand, we hear, we consider together what he is saying, we respond in prayer, we embrace one another in the Peace that he has announced and so made real amongst us – and then we come together to the banquet he has set for us, and God feeds us with the life of his Son, and so we grow more and more into the likeness of his children . . .

Not once in my talk with the cubs did I say ‘Christians believe’, nor did I try and couch it in the worlds terms about religion with which we are all far too comfortably familiar. Go speaks to his children, God listens to His Children, God feeds his children with his very life in this bread and wine – and we SING to him, and for him . . . and that through all of this God blesses not just us, but the Whole world, that through what we are doing here, God is holding all of Creation together, and their lives are affected and blessed

I must admit I have never encountered such an engaged group of youngsters – utter and complete Silence, in the best sense.

Human existence in the age of Virtual reality has become a thing that is almost unbearably thin -humans have been so reduced that the soul cannot even bear the slightest slight – someone has a cold and we call it flu and the whole internet is alerted to the fact and crowds rush to wrap the poor soul in cotton wool . . .  It reminds me of CS Lewis’ allegory, where people cannot bear to go to heaven, because it is TOO REAL . . . It is Too In your face 🙂 And then up steps John . . .

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

There is no arid philosopher here – he’s not coming to offer 10 tips to help us cope with life – rather he is the Herald of The Living One. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters remembering his Key Role in this Drama of God, call him not John the Baptist, but St John, the forerunner – He is the herald ‘The Voice echoing own through the ages from the prophet Isaiah – Crying out in the wilderness – Bellowing – ‘Prepare the way of the LORD’ God is coming – Repent! Get your lives, your ways straightened out – He is coming. Re Direct your Life – your whole being!!

Repentance is not about getting our thoughts straight, rather it is the result of the Encounter with the Herald of God – and to meet John is an Encounter! In powerful resemblance to that Old prophet Elijah – the Hairy clothing, the food of the wilderness, locusts and wild honey. The encounter with John is visceral – it is cliff edge stuff – we can feel our whole bodies either drawing back or running to him to be baptised.

I remember a friend who was converted under the preaching of a man like John. Eric Delve, A docker from Liverpool. Bob was a gentle sensitive man – and Eric preached about the ghastly horror of the crucifixion of Jesus, and at the mental level Bob was going – I am NOT going to respond to this, but his LIFE was at stake, and although his mind rebelled, as he said later, something took hold of me and walked me to the front of the hall and THEN I understood. His body said ‘I am not letting you get away with running away any longer.

So John’s message is perhaps to suitable for a culture of minor aggressions – I can see him up in front of the various varsity boards telling him to sort his act out, this Herald of the very life of God. And perhaps he might have used the same language for them as he used for those protectors of the religious niceties, the Scribes and Pharisees, “You brood of Vipers!”
For this, this message, THIS worship –  is about Life and Death – it is about our whole existence, not our bourgeois niceties – John is utterly in our faces, because to paraphrase, if you think I’M too much you have no idea of The One who comes after me. You do not Know Him.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Are you ready??

Advent is our opportunity to prepare ourselves. When we consider that when we drink the Cup we consume the Life of the one who is The Living God, who baptises with fire, who is consuming fire – how do we come to the Lord’s table? How do we prepare, for worship?

The Orthodox prayer at the reception of communion is “Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion. Burn me not as I partake, O Creator, For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy. Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.”

As the crowds come to John in preparation they divide into two streams, those who bodily enter into the Life of the preparation to meet with God, and those who stand to one side – thinking it through, not bringing their very selves to this transforming act – those who seek to be cleansed and made ready to meet with God. As we come week by week may we prepare well – may we desire above all the Life of God which is a consuming fire that we might be cleansed and transformed. This is our Faith – This is what we believe

‘The Quiet Apocalypse’ – Sermon for Advent Sunday, 2016. Year A

Sermon for Advent Sunday, 2016

Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 25:36-44

‘The Quiet Apocalypse’

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, has caused many who have a concern for Climate Change to despair. This despair is I suggest ill-directed. The despair, if it is an appropriate response should be directed at human beings in general, and their insatiable desires for more and more. We know more than enough about Climate Change to know that our lifestyles are its prime drivers – taking the brakes of American Industry will only have an adverse affect if people buy more and more stuff. Climate Change denial is much closer to home than we would like to imagine . . .

One group of folk who didn’t need any persuasion about Climate Change and saw it coming were the old farmers amongst whom I lived an worked in England. I’d been teaching it for a long time, but some of these farmers had known something was awry for much longer. Sensitive to the smallest changes in the smell of the air, or patterns of weather or the subtle shifts in the seasons, these men Knew what was coming. But their wisdom is increasingly lost as farming moves more and more towards total industrialisation. A sensitivity to the Land is ‘unhelpful’ in ‘economic’ terms and  these are the terms which must be obeyed, the god which must be placated.

Well with mention of Trump and the Farmers we might imagine that theme of what I have to say today is about what Rachel Carson noted in her book, ‘The silent Spring’ one of the first books to bring the evidence of Climate change to a wider audience.

The Apocalypse is happening and no one is paying much attention – but Climate Change is not the Apocalypse, the Apocalypse is much more difficult to discern than that. ‘No one knows the hour,’ not even the scientists . . .

For Apocalypse is not primarily about the end of the world, only secondarily so. The word ‘Apocalypse’ means what we translate it as in the last book of the Scriptures, Revelation. Apocalypse is not Catastrophe, nor is it a swarm of US helicopters swarming over the horizon the the playing of The Ride of the Valkyries – for those who know their Vietnam War Cinema. No Apocalypse is a Revealing – and is Quiet, it is taking place under our noses – it is hidden – no one knows the hour . . .

To get a better grasp of The Apocaylpse, and why it concerns us as Christians so much, we would do better to think about Noah. Noah is the archetype of the Quiet Apocalypse. ‘as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’ As the days of Noah  . . . ‘For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ –  people just getting on with their lives, going about their business. This Apocalypse, this end of the world revealing seems to quietly happen in and amongst the stuff of everyday existence – and it does, but look at Noah.

There is Noah, in the midst of everyone who is ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ and what is HE doing?? While everyone is ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’, Noah is building an ark.

Noah’s life, and that of his family, his sons Shem and Ham and Japheth, and their families are taken up in what can only appear to be a project of utter irrelevance. In terms of the world in which he lives, Noah’s actions make no sense whatsoever, and popular retellings of the Noah story have those amongst whom he lives mocking and deriding him – and Noah warning them back.

The Ark is utterly pointless to these people ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, – shopping holidaying, working’ And it looks like a huge Joke, as does Noah, and we might imagine Noah saying ‘A great flood is coming!’ and everyone laughing at him. But we would be wrong to do so.

The Noah narrative is utterly bereft of such details. No mention is made of him being laughed at. No mention at all of him rushing around telling everyone to save themselves from the coming flood and build an Ark like his. Just The Command of God, ‘Make me an Ark’, and Noah’s obedience, ‘Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.’ And the command of God, “Go into the ark, you and all your household,’ and Noah’s obedience ‘And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him’ and ‘after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.’

In the midst of all that  ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ – there is a quiet Apocalypse taking place – a revelation for those with eyes to see – but as far as the Noah story is told, no-one saw – as Jesus says ‘they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away’.

And while it may be tempting to make parallels between that flood and the forecast inundation due to climate change and sea level rise – such that even here in Dunedin the long term security of parts of our city are called at least into question – that would I suggest be an exercise in missing the point.

What is the command of Jesus in this respect? What does he call US to? ‘Keep awake therefore’ – pay attention. If we are alert to our story, our story as the Church, the story of God’s people, then we will know that in the Tradition, this Noah story plays a role far more important than ‘a story to keep the children entertained’. From the apostle Peter on, and so we might presume from our Lord Jesus himself, this story spoke of the Church, the Ark . . .

Noah’s building of the Ark points us to our response . . . not that stereotypical running around declaring ‘the world is coming to an end!’ (not least because if we know our faith well enough we know it already has) – not in the publication of lots of books in ‘the left behind’ series – but in a long slow patient work lived out in response to the Word of the Living God. Building the Church

It takes but a moments reflection to see the parallels in our day. ‘As in the days of Noah’ The building of the Ark made no sense to those around him. It was a work of seeming utter irrelevance – so too the Church today. Frankly it makes no sense.

In the many myriad accounts of ‘where the church is going wrong’, or ‘how we need to rethink God for the modern world’ There is no account given of what the Church actually is’ I grew up under the ministry of a Vicar who spent all his time telling us that we needed to abandon the old ways of thinking about God. He told us with abandon about how at theological college he and his fellow students had crossed out verse after verse after verse which no longer fitted with ‘the truths of the world as we have come to know them’ At this point I was a highly impressionable youngster, but I liked being in the choir, which increasingly seemed to be the only reason for me to be there. Shortly after leaving home, I also left the church, for frankly what was the point? God loves everyone – whatever we do we will end up in heaven, if there is one – why waste a perfectly good Sunday morning when you could be sleeping off Saturday night’s hangover?? Church made no sense to this rationalist, who still instead on calling himself a Christian, much as it doesn’t to many amongst whom we live . . . which perversely was how Jesus got hold of this lost sheep – but another time.

 

Why bother with Church when there are so many life enhancing things you could be doing? Playing tennis, tramping, worshipping god in your own way should you be so minded up in the hills? Church?? Who needs it?

In the midst of the continuing travails of the Church in the West – of which our Diocese is at the leading edge – one thing which seems to be missing is any account of the necessity of the Church. If its all a matter of being nice to one another and having a spiritual side, ‘who needs the Church for that?’.

The point of the Church, like the point of the Ark is that Quiet Apocalypse – The Quiet Revelation. The Church is the body of Christ and the business of the Church is to build up that body. As St Paul puts it ‘The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, . . . for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.’

What is the Church about? Why does it exist? That Christ might be revealed – that we might come to the full stature of Christ, ‘grow[ing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,’ That all the nations might See . . .
The Creation bears muted and increasingly Silenced witness to its dying – but the world carries on in denial ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, – shopping holidaying, working, driving here and there’ as if the Creation was utterly irrelevant. Yet still it bears witness

Noah built the Ark – and all around him they were ‘eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,’ as if it was utterly irrelevant that this huge Ark was being built when the weather seemed set fair. Yet it bore witness to a deeper Truth

Jesus is coming to his Church – coming to meet his bride. Is the Ark prepared? Or do other things seem more relevant too us?

This business of Church, of quietly and patiently – like Noah with a simple obedience to the Word of God – building the Church, clear in our minds that this is why we are here – this IS the Quiet Apocalypse – it is the Revelation of the Son of Man.

Let us stay awake – let us not be distracted from our task – ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed’

Christ the King – 2016 – Evensong

Sermon for Evensong, Christ the King, 2016

1 Samuel 8:4-20
John 18:33-37

Of Kings and Kingdoms

Usually our Sunday evening readings follow on from the usual weekday lectionary – but not this week as the Church marks the end of our liturgical Year with the celebration of Christ the King. However our morning readings this week have had a very strong emphasis on Kingdoms and Kingship which would not be out of place as we have followed the book of the prophet Daniel (and the Revelation of St John)

Both of these texts are examples of ‘Apocalyptic’ literature – stories and readings which sound strange to our ears – yet which were very much part of the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus, the years preceding his birth and afterwards for some two or three hundred years. Daniel may well date from the mid 2C BC. The Revelation given to John, although traditionally dated quite late in the 1C, may actually be one of the earliest pieces of Christian Scripture, and several other writings such as the books of Enoch had a strong place in the Christian culture really until the time of St Augustine not long after the conversion of Rome. Let us say that Apocalyptic texts, replete with references to the Rule of God, weren’t terribly conducive to the business of running an Empire 🙂 Early Christians were only taught The Lord’s prayer at the last moment before their baptism – it was and is so subversive to ‘business as usual’ to pray ‘Hallowed be THY name – Thy Kingdom come . . .’

So these texts were marginalised and many were not included in the final canon of the Scriptures as we have received them – which does give us a rather lopsided view of the milieu into which Jesus was born – and this whole question of Kingship.

There is in every age a legitimate desire for what we would now call ‘stable government’ – Earthquakes as events in the US suggest to us, can be political as well as geological and potentially every bit as much if not more destabilising. Texts which at the very least placed human authority under notice – such as the Daniel stories, which tell of Nebuchadnezzar exalting himself and thus being exiled to live amongst the wild animals as a judgement – or the narratives of St John the Divine, seeing the fall of the great trading power ‘Babylon the Great’ – these texts declare the provisionality of all human rule – and are so powerfully prescient in terms of their descriptive power – of how the meek and the poor suffer endlessly under ANY rule, so it seems – and of how nations rise against each other.

When Jesus says ‘nation shall rise against nation’ – he could be speaking of any time in human history – wars and rumours of wars. Daniel Sees in a dream a great Ram with two horns fighting against a great Goat with a single horn  – he sees these animals as it were charging back and forth across the world. Like Kingdoms, or competing trading blocks exerting their influence, across the face of the Earth. This vision and its interpretation to Daniel left him utterly ill and exhausted – like someone perhaps caught up in the terrible anxiety which seems to beset us at present. It is, I suggest the smallest of jumps to get from Daniel to Trump and Putin, To the USA and Russia and China – and of course Britain and France etc before them. Kings and Kingdoms do not generally get a good write up in history, once we look beyond the pageantry which is of course carefully crafted to deceive our senses. Or to use the Revelation motif – Babylon the Great can be discerned in this and every age

YET this is true throughout all of the Scriptures. We do not need to read long before we find a profound critique of Kings and Kingship. God’s people suffer terribly under the harsh economy of the Pharaoh who brings all of Egypt under a form of economic enslavement – and repeatedly the message is given to God’s people – remember from whence you have come. The Ten Commandments open with the words ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt . . . we can if we have an ear to hear, hear THEREFORE . . . the Ten Commandments as a framing for Life irrespective of the rule of any human king in a human Kingdom, and thus making these things at best highly provisional . . . The Kingdom of God is not to be found under the reign of any human authority

Yet that message is, to say the least slow to sink in, and people still seek ideological utopias through political systems and the people of God are not now, nor were then immune to such fantasies. So as we come to one of the most significant parts of the Old Testament for us, 1 Samuel Chapter 8 – the people, who had in the wilderness complained about their lot, their freedom, now, in the land of promise, hanker after a king, and come to Samuel, the prophet of the LORD asking for a king, for Samuel’s sons don’t follow in Samuels paths, looking for some kind of human certainty, rather than have to deal with the Living God – and Samuel tells them what it is like under a King – always . . . –

‘‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Rulers take some to enforce their military power – others to accumulate the wealth of the earth – militarism, economics, taxes etc etc it is always the same . . . down through the ages people say ‘If we just got the right rulers, all would be well . . .’ And in a democratic system of course . . . A choice between Donald Trump about whom we all know so much, and Hilary Clinton, whose campaign was funded by 11 of the 12 largest armament manufacturers in the world . . . Utopian visions of Egypt led the people to want to return – down through the ages there is either autocratic rule or rule based on utopian visions of making this or that or the other country ‘great again’ (Certainly this was in part what swayed so many in England over Brexit . . . Utopia, a word invented by Sir Thomas More to describe  place which doesn’t exist – literally ‘no place’ Which is a sign of the failure of Google, by the way, for strictly speaking, if you put Utopia into a search engine, it should come back, ‘Your search returned no results . . .’ 🙂

Which brings us to this feast day – Christ the King. And Israel has not learned after all these years. Her blindness is ours as well. She still believes in this Utopian vision – led on by an overly glamourised picture of the reign of David, who committed Murder and adultery and whose son, Solomon enslaved his people with his imperial pretensions. And Jesus’ encounter with Pilate brings it all to a focus in that Jesus will not take upon himself the mantle of King. To all of Pilate’s questions Jesus refuses a direct answer. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king . . .

Part – perhaps the biggest part of the danger with calling Christ the King is that we are still looking for a King. Yet as Brett showed us this morning, Christ is the King who subverts kingship – the one who announces the reign of God which instead of the hard work of rule over us, opens the door to something at once more wonderful and far far more challenging. God’s Reign in Christ is to live in the freedom which he brings – the Truth is the Life of God embodied in Jesus. to live as God’s children is to Love hIm with heart soul mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself – if your neighbour has no food and you have food . . . how difficult is this? This is the Truth . . . but we prefer Kings . . .

In crucifying Jesus we reject the demanding liberation of living in the pure, simple uncreated Light of the Command of God. We still hold out a hope a government or ruler who will put it right, rather than Live Right with relation to our neighbour and God. What doe this command say? If your neighbour is hungry, seek to change the government? No, King Jesus says, ‘if your neighbour is hungry, feed him, if your enemy is hungry feed him’ This is how Love works in and through the world to transform it – it is the only way, but it challenges us and faces us with our own lack of Love, and calls us to change, to conform ourselves to God’s King.

Reminds me once more of that moment at our last synod, when it was suggested that if parishes were having trouble with paying their share to the diocese, they could speak with other parishes around them, they could Love one another, they could as it were ignore the formulas handed down from on high and love one another as Christ has loved us – yet the idea of doing this, of living under the reign of Christ rather than the rule of formulae handed down from on high seems to hard for us . . . so we ask for another formulae, another ruler, another bishop another King . . . anyone but God’s King . . .

So today is the feast of Christ the King, but remember it is Christ the King. Christ qualifies and subverts our meagre imagination – and calls us into a freedom apart from the World’s Kingdom’s and utopian projects which continue to crush and enslave. The Son, and only the Son sets you Free indeed – let us live in his Freedom