Reading for Vigils upon the Feast of the Nativity
‘Beloved borthers and sisters: Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us Rejoice!
It would be unlawful to be sad today, for today is Life’s birthday, the birthday of that Life which, for us mortal creatures, takes away the sting of death and brings the bright promise of an eternal hereafter. It would be unlawful for anyone to refuse sharing in our rejoicing. All have an equal part in the great reason why we are joyful, for our Lord, who is the destroyer of sin and death, finding that all are bound under condemnation, is come to make all free.
For when the fulness of time was come, the Son of God took upon himself human nature so that he might reconcile that nature to him who made it; hence the devil, the inventor of death, is met and conquered in that very flesh which had been the field of his victory.
Let us give thanks to God the Father through his Son in the Holy Spirit, who for his great love wherewith he loves us has had mercy on us and has quickened us together with Christ even when we were dead in sins, that in Him we might be a new creature and a new handiwork.
Let us then put off the old nature with its deeds, and having obtained a share in the sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh.
Be conscious, O Christian, of your dignity! You have been made a partaker of the divine nature; do not fall again by a corrupt manner of life into the beggarly elements above which you were lifted.
Remember whose Body it is of which you are a member, and who is its Head.
Remember that it is he who has delivered you from the power of darkness and has transferred you into God’s light and God’s kingdom. By the sacrament of baptism, you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not cast away this guest by evil living and become again a servant of the devil. For your freedom was bought with Christ’s own blood.
From the ‘Sermons on the Lord’s Birth’, St Leo the Great
Deut 12-13; Col 1; Psalm 119:65-80
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one of those texts, somewhat like John’s gospel, into which one almost fears to leap for fear the waters may be too deep. As with his letter to the Ephesians, phrase upon phrase upon phrase pour forth as if the vastness of his subject matter has taken him into a writing ecstasy.
As I have noted in the notes to this scheme – whilst there is a lower purpose of reading the scriptures through in a year, there is a greater goal, indeed a Unique goal. It is not right to say that this goal is greater, for it is not possible to compare it. And that is the goal of Koinonia, ‘Deep Fellowship’ with God in Christ himself. [For a far better exposition of how to read Scripture, Fr Stephen Freeman addresses it in depth HERE]
The Word of God is Sacramental. This nature is only fully apprehended as Scripture becomes not mere food for the mind, but the vehicle by which the Life of God, who fills everything in every way, fills and transforms us – lifting up to the heavenly places, to the fullness of life in Christ.
Thus as we read these verses, our goal is not primarily to get to the end, but to encounter the One who is The End, the goal of all creation. Thus our direction of travel through the text must be captured and taken hold of that we fall into the one who is present to us through the text.
Each verse of this opening chapter holds open a door into that life if we will but pause a while, but I would take a moment to focus on one verse, that is its heart, verse 27. The heart of it all, the Life bearing Seed, Christ in you.
there is nothing more guaranteed to release us from a religion of performance into the dance of faith than the deep apprehension of the life of God within us. It is the return to our Source. The Life we had at the first. The life which is eternal. It cannot be grasped, it cannot be attained for it just Is. Pure Gift. Glory. Grace.
Deut 5-6; Phil 2; Psalm 119:17-32
In St Paul’s letter to the Philippians we come to one of the great mysteries of faith. That God in Christ steps down into the fulness of the human condition, apart from Sin, becomes obedient, even to the point of death, death on a Cross.
A few days ago we considered Paul’s injunction to be subject to one another, out of reverence to Christ. Here we read how Christ becomes subject even to the point of death. The injunction in Ephesians that we moderns choke at, not wishing to be subject to anyone or anything, is not merely revealed as a rule or way, but The Way, the Fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.
So Paul in Ephesians is in effect calling on us to walk in the way of Christ. This of course is not a surprise when we recall that Paul understands the Church as the Body of Christ – thus of course the Church must walk in Christ’s humility and subjection, which is counter intuitively the Victorious Life, the Life of the one who Overcomes.
Thus once more we are enjoined to this way – ‘let the same mind be amongst you as was in Christ Jesus’- this Way is something we share in. So it is our common life, the Life of Christ.
There are several things we might say about this. Firstly we must remember that God never does Anything because he has to. Nothing coerces God. Rather that God is Pure Act. That which he Does, He Is. So God in Christ does not become obedient unto death because we in our sinfulness have forced his hand. Jesus death and Resurrection is not plan B, rather it is the revelation of the Very nature of God. That God is in and of himself humble love, he is the foot washing God, he is the one who dies for his friends, he will go to the utter depths – for that is what he does.
Secondly we are made in his image. Often the imagery of our growth in Christian life is one of ascent, but this is not always helpful. Christian Life is revelaed when with our Lord we too go down into the depths, following joyfully the one who has overcome sin and death.
Of course to many, the depths are frightening places, but our Lord speaks to us, do not be afraid, I have overcome the World. Thus there is nowhere so low that we might anymore fear it, for he now fills all in all, having been exalted to the highest place.
Every knee shall bow, to the one who comes amongst us as a Servant. The Last shall in truth be First.
Num 8-9; 2 Cor 3-4; Psalm 102
Paul gives us a beautiful picture of the Christian Life here
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
There are two brief things we might consider here
Firstly, once again, Paul has hard things to say to the Corinthians in the letter, yet at the same time he sees quite clearly the Life of Christ amongst them. The Life that he has proclaimed amongst them is now inscribed on their hearts.
Paul looks on the heart – he does not judge with the eye, he has learned to see as Christ sees.
What is more he sees the Christian Faith not in static terms but in terms of growth – extraordinarily ‘into the glory of the Lord’, or put another way, into the likeness of Christ. So much of Western Protestant Christianity in particular denies our ‘telos’, our end, an thus is directionless. It sets no path before us by which we may so e transformed, indeed it isn’t even expected. We rather ‘hope for heaven’ beyond this life, rather than look in Hope for its gradual emergence amongst us.
Secondly we may well ask of ourselves, in what sense are we ‘a letter of Christ’? How is this ‘shown’? How are we being transformed in and through our common life that as a people we are changed from one degree of glory to another?
Jonah under the gourd vine
Sermon for Sunday 17th February 2013
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
And we all think, ‘God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector with his puffed up self righteousness . . .’ Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Jesus’ parables have a habit of getting Us – we think that this one is about those dreadful people – those self righteous folk, and then it sneaks round the corner and comes up from behind, to undo us
Earlier this week I was in the company of a Saint – someone who offered me a cup of tea in the midst of a demanding day – not just a cup of water, but a cup of tea and some very unLenten cake – certainly, she will not lose her reward – but what marked this lady out was her pity, her mercy. As we talked of someone of a fair degree of notoriety, a real rogue – all that was in her voice and her demeanour was mercy and pity – no judgement – just mercy and pity.
Blessed, says Jesus, Blessed are the merciful, for THEY will obtain mercy – Father, forgive us, as we forgive others – the merciful receive mercy, the forgiving receive forgiveness. Those who reflect the image of God, receive the image of God in themselves.
At the heart of the Christian faith is God’s Urgent desire that his children once more reflect his image – become like him – merciful, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. This is why Christ comes to die for us, that we might be restored to the fullness of the divine image, that that which was seemingly irretrievably broken and damaged, that that humanly speaking was beyond hope, might reveal the life of God in the world. He comes to Save us, and that Salvation is the full restoration of who we are.
To be frank, one of the reasons at root we make such a poor fist of the Christian life is actually a subtle rejection of this life. We’re quite happy by and large with continuing to be in charge of our own life – to judge those we think worthy of judgement, to withold forgiveness and restoration to those whom, well, ‘You have No idea of how they have hurt me!!’ – we remain hidden from the life of God – His way of doing things when we are confronted with it seems Outrageous – at one level or another, we Are Jonah
The book of Jonah is one of the great books of the bible for so many reasons – it is the absolute epitome of an hilarious Hebrew story, full of humour, full of wonderful detail – and it encapsulates the Gospel, the Good News. This story is all about the Outrageous Love of God . . . and the smallness of the unredeemed prophet who sits and sulks at God’s mercy.
It has a powerful parallel in the parable of the Prodigal Son – Jonah is the elder son, the one who does not live with the mercy and forgiveness of the father – who Will not enter into the joy of his master. God’s forgiveness is too much for him to swallow. As I’ve said before, Once in my time of ministry, I discovered someone who really Understood, the story of the prodigal. Telling the familiar story in a small group, someone exclaimed – ‘That’s not fair!’ – interestingly, it was an eldest child – the parable had snuck round the back and her defences were down and she was exposed to the recklessly abundant mercy of God – and it was too much for her – she couldn’t swallow it. She, like the elder Son and like Jonah couldn’t allow herself to live in a world where the love of God truly reigned, where all of a sudden she wasn’t the judge of those around her, where those she thought were worthy of getting their just deserts jolly well got them . . . I’m glad to say that my friend has made some progress in that area now, but it is a long journey, into the reality of the Life of God, his outrageous Love, his Utter mercy, and his Complete forgiveness, it is hard to swallow
Which is an appalling cue for the story of Jonah and the fish . . . Jonah as we know has heard God – the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Nineveh – in the story of GOd’s people a byword for wickedness and evil – out of the line of Cain was proud Nineveh built. It is like being sent to some dreadful city in Mexico or Columbia, controlled by the drugs gangs – full of Violence and hatred and death – a place beyond human redemption – And he does what any reasonable person would do – he flees – he runs off in entirely the opposite direction – But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord – Immediately we are confronted with the humour of the story – ‘where can I go from your Spirit?’ says the Psalmist
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Our hiding from God is perhaps the most ridiculous thing about us – but Jonah does what we all do – flee from the command of God – to Love, to show mercy, to declare forgiveness – but God as business to do with Nineveh and also Jonah – and Jonah is not let off the hook – another bad cue for the fish.
The fish is the place of repentance – deep in the smelly innards – Jonah is confronted with the reality of a life away from God. It’s one of those moments when the reality of our lives breaks in – like the prodigal we discover ourselves sat amongst the pigs, hungry for swill. The idolatries of our lives are revealed for what they are – the truth of a life separated from God hits us – we discover we are in hell and out of the belly of Sheol we cry to the Lord. So Jonah cries out to God from the belly of the fish As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ And the fish spews him out – and so we pick up with the story this evening, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time . . . and of course we immediately see the grace and mercy of God, in not abandoning Jonah. Of course we maybe miss this – we think of being abandoned by GOd in the midst of our circumstances, which we never are – but here is something deeper – that God is working with Jonah through calling him to serve him.
When Jesus calls the disciples, they think that they are the centre of things – James and John want to call fire from heaven, Peter is continually setting himself up as the head of operations, even to the point of telling Jesus what he can and cannot do. They think that as his servants, they have made it – but actually in calling them to serve, to be involved in this Redemption, he is also working on them – God works his purposes out through his people, Through Jonah and Peter and James and John – but as he does this he also works out his purposes In his people. We need saving, every bit as much as those amongst whom we live and work and serve. God is at work through his church, he is also at work on and in his church, calling us also to the life we are chosen to proclaim
So Jonah, chosen to proclaim the judgement of God, and his mercy in the call to repentance – is also the object of God’s Saving love – this has as much to do with Jonah as it does with Nineveh. And Nineveh is converted – Extravagantly so! Jonah cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
We are so distracted by the fish- is it a real fish – is it a whale – is it just a metaphor – Jonah and the whale is the story we tell in Sunday School – not God and the Repentance of Nineveh – this place of wickedness ad hate and death – and they repent.
AND God forgives – Jonah does not stick in the throat of the fish – but God’s forgiveness sticks in the throat of Jonah. And his heart is revealed. He has not come to Nineveh because he has pity on the people of Nineveh – he does not come to Nineveh because he has mercy, but as the utterly unwilling servant – he would call down fire – God has poured down pity and mercy and forgiveness. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah cannot accept the Love and mercy of God. He has worshipped God with his lips from the belly of the fish – but his heart is far from him. Like the elder son in the parable, he cannot enter into the Joy of the Lord – he cannot rejoice that Nineveh has repented – he is as yet Far from the Kingdom of God – far far more troubled over a withered plant, that had given him shade, than anything or anyone else. And God opens the door to him ‘should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
People are caught up in wickedness and sin – and we don’t know why – but we try and separate out the worthy from the unworthy – God’s blanket forgiveness of Nineveh is voiced in terms of pity – ‘they do not know their right hand from their left’ – like the saint I was with the other day, all there was was mercy and pity – as there is from the heart of God revealed to us in Christ. ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing – and we say – YEs they do, It’s obvious isn’t it???’ And so we judge others and in judging others judge ourselves, being unknown to ourselves guilty of the very same things of which we accuse others
We see the Pharisee in all his pompous self righteousness ‘I thank you that I am not like other men – and we think I thank you I am not like that Pharisee . . .’
Jonah’s outward actions were right, but his heart was all wrong – Jonah’s story is a great story for Lent – a time, not for outward displays or actions, but for opening our hearts to the inner work of God – soaking in the utterly unreasonable love and mercy of God. Allow this story to confront us – to question us. What is Our Nineveh? What work of mercy are We fleeing from? What is the plant we are more concerned for than 120,000 souls and many animals? What is the scope of the outrageous love and mercy of God, and where are we holding out on it?
We see the mercy of God, the outrageous forgiveness and Love, we see that we cannot forgive everyone for everything, that we do not love our neighbour as ourselves – in God’s mercy he shows us that we are yet far from the Kingdom of God, and then if we like the prodigal come to our senses – we say with the Publican, Lord have mercy on ME, a sinner . . . and finding mercy from God, we grow in that mercy and pity towards others – those who do not know their right hand from their left, finding the words of Jesus on our lips and in our heart, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
One of the prefaces to the Lord’s prayer in the Anglican tradition, says “As our Saviour Christ has both commanded and taught us, we are very bold to say . . .”
As Stanley Hauerwas noted, it is good that we say this – and I must admit that as I pray it, it is a prayer that finds us out – it exposes us
We pray ‘Our Father’ – we make the dangerous presumption of belonging to those called into familial relationship to the One who has brought all things into being.
And we pray “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” – We are so bold as to say to the one we call Father – ‘use the measure of forgiveness we use towards others, as you forgive us’.
Both the initial address and this call for forgiveness are intimately related. It is only in being like him in being vessels of Grace and mercy that the truth or otherwise of the initial address are revealed – that we are shown to be God’s children.
Jesus twice makes a similar point – “Blessed are the merciful, he says – They [the Greek is very strong at this point – THEY] will receive mercy” Forgive us, as we forgive
and again “the measure you use, will be the measure that is dealt to you” Forgive us as we forgive.
In my readings of Orthodox Christians, I am frequently utterly challenged by their frequent call to complete and utter forgiveness. Their understanding of theosis, that we are being renewed in the image of God, leads them inevitably to this point
Can I so forgive? Dare I pray that prayer?