December 26, 2010
Isaiah 63,7-9. Matthew 2,13-23
On Christmas Eve we were with John the Divine, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. On Christmas morning we went with Luke to the manger and worshipped with the rustic shepherds.
But this morning we are back in the real world, with Matthew. This is the part of the story that is never depicted on Christmas cards and is never acted out in children’s nativity plays, because human beings cannot bear too much reality. It didn’t even get into the BBC Nativity last week – the one that was supposed to be as real as Eastenders! For many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is a short escape from the harsh world of reality, and they would prefer to forget this part of the story, lest it spoil that escape.
The exotic magi have gone home by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, leaving Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to face an uncertain future. Herod has realized Plan A is not going to work, and has put plan B into action – kill all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the one among them who may grow up to be a threat to his power.
So, like many families the world over, Mary and Joseph are forced to take their baby away from their home, and become refugees in a foreign land, camping out there until the threat to their child seems to have gone; but even then, they continue to take precautions, keeping away from area near the capital, and setting up home in a Northern backwater, while their son grows to maturity.
Politics and plots, massacres, flight and life in a refugee camp: it’s just like the new we see in the media. Not very Christmassy, is it?
But it is Christmassy. Christ’s Mass is not about making the world a fairy tale place, with only sweet smelling straw, starlight and candlelight, cuddly animals and foreign visitors who bring rich and exotic gifts. It’s about living on in the real world, a world where tyrants do send their soldiers to slaughter whole populations including woman and children; where families do have to leave their homes and face insecurity to escape persecution; where fathers do have to think carefully about where they choose to live, in order that their wives and children may be reasonably safe.
But yet it’s about living in the real world transformed, because of Immanuel, God with us. It’s about a world where we no longer feel ourselves alone or powerless in the face of such evil. As Isaiah tells us, it’s about a world where we know God’s presence alongside us, experiencing the worst that life can throw at us, but never defeated, nor destroyed. It’s about living in a world with the hope that there is a better way, and that ultimately, in spite of all appearances, that better way will triumph.
Christmas is not just about the children, it’s not just about December 25th, it’s about how we live through the whole year, in the faith that God is our saviour no matter what our trouble or distress, and that his presence will support us and save us no matter what we have to face on our journey.
Happy continuing Christmas to you all.
December 19, 2010
(Isaiah 7, 10-16;Romans 1,1-7; Matthew 1, 18-25)
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year – we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day -but the decade. There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation – and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.
When we chose names for our children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!
What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out this week that the name of our son means exactly the same as the (different) name of our grandson. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if any of you know what names they are?*
In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. This was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated. Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning God plants, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.
Isaiah (whose own name means Salvation of God) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning a remnant shall return; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah.
It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find him advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning God is with us, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.
In English (as in most of Northern Europe) surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations or with those names.
Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.
In the opening of the Letter to the Romans, our N.T. lesson, Paul defines Jesus as the Son of David according to the flesh. So he identifies his place among the rulers of the Jewish people, and argues that he is a continuation of God’s provision for his people. Then he calls him Son of God, identifying his coming as a new initiative on God’s part, since he is proclaimed Son of God by being raised from the dead, something which has never happened before. Paul also gives Jesus the surname, which is really a title of Christ, the Greek form of Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’; kings and priests are anointed, and Jesus was both.
Finally, Paul gives all of us a name: those who belong to Jesus Christ, or Christians. In that name we receive the gifts of faith, obedience and peace.
Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.
Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but Matthew’s account centres on Joseph.
He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery, and have her and the father of her child executed. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.
But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the name of God, which is another way of saying he knew the character of God, and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that would have spared her from death, but it would have left her with very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.
Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’, that is, one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.
The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.
Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.
The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.
One of the hymns we sang this morning, contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.
Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. The name Jesus reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our sins. the name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.
Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives.
* Simon and Samuel
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11, 1-10; Matthew 3, 1-12.
In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.
The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time First Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.
The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and, initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.
Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people as the messengers of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.
Some may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. All of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse, and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.
Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words.
He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.
This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom such as the lion and the lamb will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.
No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a heavenly Messiah who would be sent from God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist! You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.
His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah. He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: so, to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, they needed to pass through water again.
John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. And, like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.
Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.
That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.
Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.
The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.
And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard, and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.
And do we need prophets in the church today? Not if we want a quiet life! Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, there are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, and include everyone within the covenant people.
But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.
As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, no matter how disturbing they may be.