The Gentle Revolution.

December 22, 2012

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very imagesMaryyoung, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

Walking MadonnaIn complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of  the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist  urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he  touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. 

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.

 

Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.

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Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

The Politics of Christmas

January 8, 2012

(Isaiah 60, 1-6; Matthew 2, 1-12)

May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!

Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.

But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means  to follow him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.

Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?

Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?

Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?

Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.

But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.

The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!).  Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.

In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.

The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19  and the dreams of Daniel.

But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.

The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God;  and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.

But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.

It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?

It asks, who is king and emperor over our lives? A secular ruler or party leader, or the one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom? When we vote, who is uppermost in our minds.

It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?

It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?

Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts.   It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about  the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.

The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!

Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?

Isaiah 9, 2-7; Luke 2, 1-14.

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

Have you ever sung the song about the 12 Days of Christmas?

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

Everything mentioned in the song stands for something else:  4 calling birds are 4 Gospels, 2 French hens are the Old Testament and New Testament, & partridge in a pear tree is Jesus; & ‘my true love’ who gave all the gifts to me over the 12 days of Christmas is God.

I thought I might do a version of the song with you today – with presents in this Christmas stocking which stand for 12 of the gifts we are given at Christmas with the coming of Jesus.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a baby boy – a son; as Isaiah prophesied in Jesus we are given the Son of God. (baby doll)

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a royal child. Isaiah said, & the angels said baby would be Prince of Peace, King of Jews, reign on throne of his ancestor David. (crown)

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a Saviour. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and angels told shepherds baby born would be their saviour. (St Bernard dog with brandy. This might not look like a saviour to you, but if you were buried in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, it would!)

“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Messiah, the Christ. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be born. Messiah or Christ means anointed one. Priests and kings anointed with oil (jar of oil)

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a light. Isaiah said people who walked in darkness would see light when the special child was born, and John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as that light. (torch)

“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Word. John’s Gospel says Jesus was the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh. Gospels and NT are words about the Word of God. (New Testament)

“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” A shepherd. The prophets foretold  a shepherd King like David, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep. ( model sheep & crook)

“On the  eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” A vine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the True Vine, of which we are all branches. If we remain in him we bear fruit. And in this Holy Communion we drink the fruit of the vine to remember him (grapes)

“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” some bread. Bethlehem where the Gospels tell us Jesus was born means ‘House of Bread’  & in John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the true Bread, the Bread of life. In this Holy Communion we share bread to remind us we are the Body of Christ. (roll)

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”: A Lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, and we remember that in this Communion service, when we give thanks for the Lamb of God who died to save us from the wickedness of this world. (lamb)

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” a Redeemer. In the olden days, money was paid over to redeem people from slavery. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose life and death redeems us from slavery to evil (money)

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:”

Emmanuel, God with us. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus was both human and divine, the Son of Man and the Son of God. (Rubik’s cube puzzle)

That’s a mystery, that Christians have spent 2000 years thinking about, trying to puzzle out what exactly it means for us. And we will go on trying to puzzle it out throughout this coming year.

I hope you will enjoy your material presents this Christmas, and the spiritual presents that God gives us in the birth of Jesus. I hope you will go on trying to puzzle out what exactly the birth of Jesus means for you and the world, and that you will be here with us during the year to help us unwrap all the gifts that God gives us.

Are you Ready for Christmas?

December 18, 2011

(Romans 16, 25-27; Luke 1, 26-38 & 46b-55)

 

It’s a question people constantly ask you this time of year. “Are you ready for Christmas?”

 

Is anyone ever ready? There’s so much to do, so many things to arrange at home and at church: services to plan, shopping to do, meals to prepare for, presents to buy for different age groups, and celebrations with family members to co-ordinate. No wonder so many people collapse exhausted on the actual day!

 

The trouble is we all want to have a ‘perfect Christmas’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought’ last Thursday http://tinyurl.com/7qk9g5t, he spoke of his belief that God doesn’t wait until we are ready and everything is perfect; God comes to us, in the same way as he came at the first Christmas, in the middle of the mess, to bring love and joy.

 

In the account we heard from Luke’s Gospel, it’s quite obvious that Mary wasn’t in the least bit ready for the events of the first Christmas Day. She wasn’t ready to be a mother: she was betrothed to Joseph, but, as she explained to Gabriel, they weren’t yet living together and she was still a virgin. She certainly wasn’t ready to be the mother of the Messiah, the Saviour of the World and the Son of God. So her response to the angel’s announcement was, “Why me?”

As she knew, she wasn’t anyone special. Two thousand years of Christian devotion may have turned her into something remarkable, through doctrines such as her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, and titles such as Theotokos (God-Bearer), Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Co-Redemptrix; but, as many of our TV Nativities show, in reality she was a simple girl, probably still a teenager, from a provincial village in an occupied country, with very little education, destined for a life of hard work, marriage and motherhood. The choice of her to be the mother of Jesus was nothing to do with her special qualities; it was an act of God’s grace.

 

Luke’s account tells us about Mary’s response to the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth, and at the same time, gives us pointers to how we can make ourselves ready to receive him when he comes into our lives.

 

Mary responded with humility. She puzzled over the announcement that she was ‘highly favoured’, because she didn’t think she had done anything to deserve that. But she accepted God’s plan, not just as a ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ as the text is usually translated, but as a slave, which is what the Greek original usually means. She demonstrated that she was ready to go along with what would happen to her, even though she knew it would make her life very messy and turn the ordinary life she was looking forward to upside down.

 

She also responded with acceptance and obedience. “Let it be with me according to your word”. She accepted in spite of her doubts and questions, believing that with God’s plans, even the most unlikely events were possible. She demonstrated at the Annunciation that ‘obedience of faith’ that Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans.

 

Mary also responded with joy. The Magnificat, which we heard in our second reading from Luke, is a psalm of praise to God for everything that will come about through the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.

 

But she also responded with insight. The Magnificat is a prophecy, which describes the distinctive and revolutionary character of the Messiah which Jesus will be. Through his coming, the poor will be exalted, the mighty will be brought down, the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. This anticipates the whole of Luke’s Gospel, which  proclaims that  the titles which were given to the Roman Emperor – Saviour of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of God – actually belong to Jesus, not Augustus Caesar. The coming of Jesus undermines the worldly standards of wealth, status and power; his reign is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles and those considered outsiders (Romans emphasises this as well). A peaceful revolution is about to begin!

 

What the Magnificat also tells us is that Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is about the birth of a whole new order of peace, love and justice, which this child brings into the world. It is about the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. How ready are we for that this Christmas?

 

The celebration of Jesus’s birth should not be an escape from the harsh realities of life, as is the case with so many people’s Christmases these days. Mary is not going to escape reality. Luke’s story shows her as part of a poor family, which is pushed around and has their lives disrupted by the decisions of the civic authorities. She gives birth in squalor, away from the support of her own family and the familiarity of her own home. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

 

It’s very different from the sanitised version that we are so often presented with in Nativity plays, where politics and poverty are very much in the background. Most people prefer it that way, and see the Christmas holiday as a chance to retreat into domestic life, and forget the problems of the world. But the Magnificat calls us to the very opposite of escapism. It calls us to active engagement with the powers of this world, in the name of a God who comes to undermine the established order. At Christmas we are challenged to be part of the new order of things which the Magnificat describes.

 

We are called to called to engage with the way power is exercised in our world – but to do so as servants, as Jesus  did, not as dictators. We are called to tackle the issues of poverty, but with generosity and through sharing, as Jesus did, rather than by assigning blame. We are challenged to do something about the causes of disease, homelessness, and prejudice; but we are called to do so as collaborators, as friends, as welcomers, as Jesus did, rather than judging and excluding those who suffer from them.

 

The story Luke tells us this morning, and the psalm which Mary sang, tell us of a new way of living within the old order; a way which is messy, which turns our normal lives and expectations upside down, but which is ultimately joyful and transforming. They call us to connect with the outcasts, the marginalised and the poor of the world and of our community, and to live Christmas in the same servanthood, humility, and simplicity as Mary did.

 

So, are you ready for Christmas? Am I?

 

No, I’m not! If I knew one of the local clergy was coming round, I’d have a tidy up. If I knew a member of the Royal Family was going to pop in for tea, I’d get some new crockery and make sure the front room was newly decorated. But how  can I be ready to welcome our heavenly Priest and King into my life, if he’s going to enlist me into his revolution, and turn my life upside down? I’m not a revolutionary, and I like my life the way it is.  How can I be ready to be a servant of the poor and the marginalised, to be open to those whom society disapproves of, to be someone who challenges those who exercise power in church and state in the name of Christ.

I may be ready for the comfortable, sentimental family Christmas, that concentrates on the baby and the animals and the Magi with their strange useless gifts, but I’m certainly not ready for that sort of Christmas.

 

Yet I know I have to try. That’s what Advent is about. Advent 2011, like every Advent before, is when God gives us an opportunity to become more Christlike, a fresh chance to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and an invitation to make ourselves ready to welcome the Baby of Bethlehem as the bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, our King, and the Saviour of the World. So, let us get ready together!

Let us pray:

God of all hope and joy,

open our hearts in welcome,

that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming

may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself.

Amen

(© New Zealand Prayer Book)

 


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.