Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How silently...

Word came of a royal pregnancy, and the world was on fire with the news. St James’ palace announced that the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital with severe morning sickness. They had to make the announcement earlier than they would have liked, but as soon as the news was out, there was scarcely a corner of the world which didn’t know of the royal pregnancy. The media had shouted it everywhere. It is hard to imagine news like this not spreading like wild fire.

But how silently, how silently the wondrous gift was given on the first Christmas day. I’ve sometimes wondered what Phillips Brooks meant when he wrote those words. It is of course possible that he was simply peddling the classic, sentimental picture of Christmas: The blessed mother, so virtuous that she scarcely felt any pain during child birth, but quietly delivers her child. The infant Lord, so splendiferously holy that he doesn’t cry or scream, but lies there, quietly gurgling, emitting a strange, etherial light. It’s the image of the Bethlehem stable found on thousands upon thousands of Christmas cards up and down the country, and which, we too, have represented in our own, beloved bucolic Christmas shed. If our statue of Mary is anything to go by, she has easily beaten Megan Fox, having lost her baby weight a matter of minutes after giving birth!

It is possible that Phillips Brooks meant us to think of Jesus birth that way. But I like to think that he knew better than that. Real babies don’t come without pain. Real infants don’t keep blissful silence. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”!? Pull the other one. How silently he came, but not in an otherworldly sense. Silently in that hardly anyone noticed that the greatest gift had come from heaven to human beings. Silently in that the Bethlehem advertiser wasn’t on the doorstep to report the news. Silently in that this birth was completely ordinary, just like millions of other births throughout history. There are many children whose lives get off to a worse start.

It is the ordinariness of this birth which Luke’s story captures so wonderfully. Politicians have plans to count up the inhabitants of the world, hoping to get a good idea of available wealth so that tax revenue can be maximised. A man travels to his home town, just like many other people, taking his fiance with him. He arrives to find a crowded town and makes his way, probably not to a commercial inn, but to the home of a relative to find lodging in their guest room. But the room was already filled with other relatives who had also made the journey to Bethlehem. So Joseph and Mary were were put up underneath the living quarters, where the animals might have slept, and the baby was found a feeding trough to sleep in. There isn’t anything too unusual about this scene, certainly nothing to betray the significance of the events.

When the infant Lord of all creation receives visitors, unlike Matthew, who has Jesus visited by members of a royal court, Luke’s visitors are ordinary working men, going about their ordinary business, perhaps gathered round a fire, playing games or music. Think of a night-watchman playing cards with his colleagues as they kept half and eye on their CCTV monitors. It was these ordinary people to whom the only royal announcement came on that beautiful, awesome night. Not to Augustus, or Quirinius, or Herrod, but to the kind of people you might meet at the pub. And it’s these ordinary people who, if we had read on a few lines, are themselves made God’s messengers: after the had seen the child,  they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. (Luke 2.17–18)

A second century bishop, St Irenaus once said, ‘Just as the skill of a doctor is revealed in the care of his patients, so the nature of God is revealed in the way he relates to us’. And so at Christmas God is revealed to us as the lover of the ordinary. He is born in an ordinary place, in the ordinary way, he reveals his glory to ordinary people, and he asks for our ordinary lives to proclaim the good news of his love to a waiting world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jesus was baptised... as a baby?

The year of Luke has barely started, and I'm already having a gripe at the lectionary. For those who had more than enough the last time I wen't ballistic at the lectionary compilers, please forgive this additional outburst. I was doing some forward planning with our parish administrator this morning, and something struck us as rather odd about the chronology of the readings for the next month or so. Allow me to demonstrate:

Christmas day   –   Jesus' birth (Luke 2.1-20)
1st Sunday of Christmas   –   The twelve year old Jesus is found in the temple (Luke 2.41-52)
Epiphany   –   The infant Messiah is revealed to the Gentiles (Matthew 2.1-12)
Baptism of Christ   –   Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan (Luke 3.15-22)
3rd Sunday of Epiphany   –   The wedding at Canna (John 2.1-1)
4th Sunday of Epiphany   –   Jesus teaches in the Synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4.14-21)
Candlemas (if transferred to the Sunday)  –  The infant Jesus is presented in the temple (Luke 2.22-40)
Sunday before Lent   –   Jesus is transfigured (Luke 9.28-43)

That is a really strange chronology. Jesus is born, and then is found reasoning with teachers in the temple. Next Sunday he is an infant again, being adored by the Magi. The next Sunday he is being baptised (yes as a grown man). You then ge a couple of weeks of 'grown man Jesus' texts. But then Candlemas arrives and you are back at an infancy text. The next week, inexplicably, Jesus is transfigured.

I really cannot help but think that all of this shows how the church calendar consistently mangles the narrative of the gospels. I often hear laments about how people don't know the basic gospel story anymore... perhaps the reason for that can be found at our own doorstep? When Jesus is baptised before he is presented in the temple, confusion is completely understandable. I don't even want to think about how the feast of the naming and circumcision of Jesus can come after he was found in the temple as a twelve year old! 

I know that the lectionary is not supposed to be chronological, and that there are difficulties with easter changing date every year. However, if your study of the gospels comes solely, or even mainly through Sunday worship, the odds of having a pretty weird understanding of the events of Jesus' life are huge.

Monday, December 17, 2012

God Sings in Advent – Zephaniah 3.14–20

I think it is fair to say that we live in a world which people afraid a lot of the time. The shocking news on Friday of the murder of twenty primary school children and six teachers in Connecticut in the USA, reminded everyone of how dangerous the world can be and how fragile human life is. That the hands of one man could end so many lives, barely begun, certainly fills me with fear. Fear of what human beings are capable of. Fear of what the response to all this might be, with people calling for teachers to be armed to defend their pupils.

Sometimes our view of God reinforces our general state of fearfulness. Advent is a time when we dwell long and hard on the coming judgement, when God will make all things right and just and true. But the world we live in isn’t just and true and good. I am not just and true and good much of the time. If God is coming as judge, what will happen to me?

It’s in the middle of this season where we are asked to think about the coming judgement, that we read a remarkable passage from the prophet Zephaniah. This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in year C, is the only chance we get to read the words of this Old Testament prophet on Sunday mornings. Zephaniah lived in the seventh century BC. Moral, religious and social corruption had chipped away at the life of the southern kingdom of Judah for almost fifty years under the reign of two terrible kings, Manasseh and Amon. Judah had become a wicked society, full of idolatry and the abuse of the poor. Zephaniah’s prophecy doesn’t take long to read through. It is only three chapters long, and it is full of God’s judgement, of fear and impending doom. 

But right at the end of the book is this joyful prophecy. Zephaniah tells us of the day of the Lord: a day of singing, a day when God’s judgement on his people has come to an end. Where Israel is no longer paralysed with fear. A time when arms that hung limp with terror can be raised up in praise to God. A time where God’s love will cause the people to rejoice and grow in strength, because God has come to live with his people.

Zephaniah is very carefully spelling out the hope of Advent. It is the hope that, however horrendous the world sometimes seems, judgement is never the last word. That God will come to save us and that we should not be afraid.

We live in a world of fear: ecological, environmental, political and economic fear. The media thrives on terrifying us on a daily basis. Depending on what news paper you read, you might have heard that the world will be coming to an end this Friday, according to an ancient Mayan calendar. Unless, of course, you live in the small french village of Bugarach, whose residents will be rescued by aliens. It is all quite ridiculous, but silly stories like the Mayan calendar apocalypse give voice to the deep, underlying fear which we all experience. 

So the question I want to ask is this: in a world permeated by fear, what would it look like if the church placed less emphasis on the fearful, terrifying God of judgement, and more on the God who rejoices and sings over us (Zeph 3.17). In the Hebrew scriptures the word most commonly used for God’s love is hesed, it means an unfailing, steadfast love and fidelity. It is as much a matter of the will as of the heart. It is a beautiful word which reminds us that God’s love for us is not dependent on how lovely we are. But in Zephaniah’s song, a different word for love is used. Zephaniah uses the word ahaba, a passionate love which delights in the beloved with songs of adoration. It is a beautiful word, because it reminds us that however bad we feel, however much we feel morally ugly, God finds us beautiful, and a delight to behold.

Perhaps the calling of the church in our day is to not be overcome by fear, but to rejoice, because God has come to be with us in Jesus Christ. It’s right to observe Advent properly, to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming, and to try not to arrive at the manger too early. Advent is, after all, a time of waiting. But we’re not waiting to find out whether God loves us or not. We wait for our lover to return home. We wait for Jesus’ return with confidence and hope, rather than panic and fear. When God came among us in human form, when he united heaven and earth in his own person, he was singing a song of delight in his creation.

As we move further through December, the world is getting physically darker and darker. As it gets darker, we string up lights on trees and in the high street. In a way we try to battle against the darkness; to proclaim that light has come into the world and the darkness has not and never will overcome it. We are full of joy and excitement about Christmas. But I think when you scratch the surface, Christmas cheer soon disappears. We often feel a lot of Christmas anxiety: Are the family going to get on at the big get together? Will they like the gift I bought for them? Where on earth am I going to find the time to do everything that needs to be done? How am I going to pay off that credit card bill in January?

Advent is a time when we don’t have to burry those fears we have. It is a time to be honest about the things that trouble us. But as we feel the darkness around us, it is also a time to  listen to and rejoice in God’s song: ‘Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.’ (Zeph 3.16–17)

Brother Martin on Zephaniah 3.14 & 15

"The Lord has taken away the judgement against you." That is, "He does not want you to rebuke yourselves anymore. He does not want you to hate yourselves anymore. Rather, he loves you like a beloved daughter. You have a God who is a very gentle Father, and no longer a judge who wants to terrify your conscience with the law."
(Martin Luther,  Lectures on the Minor Prophets)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Being a Pastor – Gregory the Great

“Our Lord said to his disciples, ‘See, I am sending you out like a lamb among wolves.’ There are many people, when put in positions of authority, who became hard and severe. Relishing the chance to tear their subordinates to pieces., and using their power to terrify and hurt those whom they are called to serve. There is no love in their hearts because they always need to be in control: they forget that they are called to nurture their people as a parent. They exchange humility for pride in the positions they occupy, and though outwardly they may sometimes appear indulgent, inwardly, they are full of anger. It is of them that in another place in the Gospels our Lord says: ‘They have come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.’

My friends, we should remember that we are sent as lambs among wolves, and must therefore guard our innocence lest malice overtake us. Those who undertake any pastoral office should never be the cause of evil, and should actually be prepared to have to endure it. By gentleness they must soften the anger of the violent: wounded ourselves by ill treatment, we can bring healing to other sinners. If on a particular occasion a zeal for justice requires a display of severity, then let severity have its source in Love and not in brutality. In this way, authority is demonstrated outwardly, and inwardly we experience a true paternal love for those in our care. This is what our blessed Master was teaching us when he himself demonstrated that his was no selfish love, being unconcerned with worldly honour or ambition.

Our Lord Continues: ‘Take neither purse, nor bag for the journey, nor sandles, and greet no one along the way.’ We should have such confidence in God that though we have no material security, we will never lack the necessities of life. Such confidence obviates the necessity of spending time in the pursuit of temporal goods when we should be securing eternal goods for others. We have no leisure for idle conversation in our calling; rather we hurry along the path of preaching.”

(Homilies on the Gospels, Number 17  'On the Pastoral Office',  Sections 4 and 5)

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The coming of the Son of Man — Luke 21.25–36

As I speak there are 22 days 13 hours and about forty minutes until Christmas. If you haven’t done it already, you have less than a month to get all your gifts, you have slightly over two weeks to get your Christmas Cards together if you want to send them second class, and Christmas Pudding… well, you can forget about making one now! Last week was Stir Up Sunday, the point of no return for Christmas Pudding makers! The countdown has started and the next few weeks are sure to be some of the most frenetic of the year. And whilst it can be hard waiting for christmas, particularly if you’re a kid, I am sure that we are all glad that we have just a little bit more time before it arrives.

To be honest, it is quite good that Christmas is predictable. Every year, the same date. How can you possibly prepare for a big celebration if you lack even the most basic details, like when it’s supposed to be! Imagine how you would feel if you knew that all your friends and family we going to turn up at your house, and you had to prepare yourself and your home to entertain them all, but, nobody was prepared to tell you when they might descend upon you. All you know is that it’s going to happen.

Advent feels a lot like that. Everything we say and do in worship points us to the future. Not to the baby in the manger but to the return of the king. Just listen during the Eucharistic prayer, “Confident that your promise will be fulfilled, we now watch for the day when Christ our Lord will come again in glory.” We are supposed to be preparing for something, the event to which Christ’s coming at Christmas directs us, for his second coming. But the details of this advent, when it will be and what it will look like, slip through our hands like sand.

The gospel reading for today is tantalising. On the face of it, it appears to offer ‘signs’ which will help us, or some future generation, work out when Jesus will return. And just like observing a budding tree tells us that summer is a coming in, so observing these signs tells us of God’s coming kingdom. In the USA there is almost an industry which specialises in speculating about the signs of the end of time. But when you read this passage more closely, there are some big problems with reading this as Jesus’ roadmap for the apocalypse.

The main hint that there might be more to this reading than appears at first comes when Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” (Luke 21.32) Now that is a very tricky verse. If Jesus is talking about his second coming, then it looks like he might have made a mistake. The first generation of Christians lived and died, and Jesus didn’t return. Subsequent generations have come and gone, and Jesus hasn’t returned.  And there have been lots of wars and natural disasters since the first century. There have been plenty of ‘signs’ of the king’s return, but still, we’ve been waiting rather a long time. So did Jesus make a mistake? Has Jesus made a massive theological blooper? Well, I don’t think he did. And before you commit to thinking that I have gone out of my mind, let me explain why.

It all hinges on the word ‘generation’. When I hear ‘generation’, I usually think of a group of people born roughly at the same time, like ‘Generation X’. Either that or it sometimes means a period of about 30 years, so you might talk about a famous scientist and say ‘She was the kind of mind that comes once in a generation’. But the writer of Luke’s gospel uses ‘generation’ in another sense. We often hear Jesus talking about ‘this generation’, and he doesn’t have kind things to say about it. There was a crowd who were constantly badgering Jesus to perform miracles, treating him like a circus magician, and Jesus says to them, “you faithless and perverse generation” (Luke 9.41). A bit later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about an unjust steward who cheats his master to build up his pension pot. Breathtakingly, Jesus commends the steward saying, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Luke 16.8). For Jesus, ‘generation’ is often used to refer to the attitude of opposing God’s rule, people who are keen to have Jesus perform magic tricks, but who do not want to take up their cross and follow him.

I think that it’s quite possible that Jesus is using ‘generation’ in this way in our gospel reading. So rather than making a prediction about the world ending within thirty years, Jesus might be saying something like this: “Don’t be fooled, God’s kingdom won’t come easily. God’s purposes will be opposed, his love will be rejected. Don’t expect a golden age. The generation which opposes God will be around right to the very end, but even so, God hasn’t deserted the world, his rule is very close.”

Gloomy message, hey? Where is the Christmas cheer? But in our desire to be constantly cheery, might we be missing something really important? When God was born as a human being on the first Christmas day, a radical chain of events was set in motion which will lead to God’s final triumph over all the forces of evil. All injustice, all cruelty, all selfishness and violence will one day dissolve away as God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness. God’s becoming a human being and living  with us, and dying and being raised for us and ascending to heaven has consequences for humanity. 

Those times when we tolerate injustice, when we are happy to see one group of human beings trampled under the feet of others, when we use violence or cruelty to get our way. Those types of behavior which we all from time to time engage in are shone on by the floodlights of God’s kingdom. And we’re beckoned to, to live the life of the future in the present. Jesus calls us in a sense, not to look for signs of his coming, but to be signs of his coming. Whilst we are trying to get the last of the Christmas shopping in, and making sure we don’t miss the nativity play, and trying desperately not to get fed up with it all, Advent points to the future and asks us to think about the end of time, and how we should live in the light of God’s coming kingdom.

Jesus’ message to us is that, if we genuinely seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, to be a sign of his good, just and peaceful reign over all things, life may very well be difficult. The old world does not easily give way to the new. The fact is that life isn’t always like a Christmas party. Faith doesn’t always, or even often, lead us to the crib, with the infant Lord quietly cooing.Very often, faith leads to conflict and trouble. When everything seems to be going wrong, should we freak out and panic? Should we pour ourselves another drink, and try to ignore it (Luke 21.24)? When things seem difficult, God and his rule are very close. At that time, Jesus says, ‘stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28).