Sunday, January 26, 2014

Into obscurity...

Mat. 4.12–23

When I was a child back in the 1980s, the milk marketing board had an advertisement in which two Liverpudlian boys, fresh from a game of soccer come into the kitchen. One boy asks for some lemonade and duly gets passed the bottle while the other boy pours a glass of milk. ‘Milk’, the lomonade drinker says, ‘yuck’. ‘It’s what Ian Rush drinks,’ says the milk drinker, ‘and he says that If I don’t drink enough milk when I grow up I’ll only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley.’ ‘Accrington Stanley’, says the other boy, ‘who are they?’, ‘Exactly’ the milk drinker replies. Well, in Jesus day, you might very well have heard two boys talking about their future career as Rabbis and one boy saying to the other ‘If you don’t pay enough attention in Torah class when you’re older you’ll only be good enough to be a Rabbi in Capurnaum’, ‘Capurnaum, where’s that?’ ‘Exactly’. Capurnaum was a small Galileean town of about a thousand people on the fringes of Jewish culture and religion. It really wasn’t the place to begin a great public ministry. It was an ordinary sort of place. A boring sort of place. A place of no consequence. And so as we continue to  think about the Epiphany of the Lord, the making clear to all who will see that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, we come to this reading in which Jesus divinity is made manifest, not through traveling stars and heavenly voices, but in the mundane, in the smallness of and obscurity of life in first century Galilee.

The first thing to notice about Jesus’ glory being revealed in the ordinary is that this is the path that he consciously chooses. When John the Baptist, the forerunner was arrested and Jesus knew that he would now take centre stage, he retreats. He takes a step into obscurity. And this isn’t just any old obscurity. Galilee, the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be subjugated to foreign rule when they were conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 723BC. This was the region of Israel which first descended into the darkness of foreign occupation. These territories, deep in darkness, would be the first to have the light of the Kingdom of God dawn on them. And so Jesus glory is clearly seen in his going not merely into obscurity, but stepping into to the darkest region to start his ministry. This is, after all, going to be the path that Jesus the Messiah follows. He walks into deeper and deeper darkness until it finally takes him to a Roman Gibbet, and from that Gibbet, he sines the light of the kingdom of God into all human darkness.

The second thing we should notice is how Jesus shines in the darkness in the message he proclaims. He doesn’t come up with a novel, exciting, new message. He says exactly the same thing that John the Baptist has been saying. Jesus first sermon in the gospel of Matthew is borrowed material, a great comfort to every preacher who reads his sermon and thinks, ‘there isn’t an original idea on that page!’ Jesus was there long before. But more significantly, the message that Jesus borrows from John the Baptist is the message which has just earned John a place in jail! Jesus doesn’t choose to soothe with kind words, but to echo the same words which, on John’s lips had caused such offence. Words of the approach of another kingdom; heaven’s kingdom, which will look radically different to the kingdoms people like Herod preside over. So Jesus shows forth his glory by choosing an unpopular, risky message. A message which could make his career every bit as short John’s. But a message of profound importance, which calls us all to prepare for the day when God will get involved with every aspect of human life, from our money to our relationships. ‘Turn’, says Jesus, ‘start living the kind of life that will find approval when God’s kingdom comes.’

The final way manifests his glory in our gospel reading, is by calling. Again, the people he calls are only remarkable for how unremarkable they are. They are fishermen, blue collar workers. Not the super wealthy, the learned or the powerful. These workmen are the people Jesus calls to follow him in bringing light to the world. So just as Jesus’ glory is revealed in his journeying into the far country, it is also made manifest in the humdrum traveling companions he chooses. And the disciples follow. They catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and they cannot help but follow. And that following involves great sacrifice –the leaving of a stable income, and even scandal –it was religiously disgraceful to leave your father and wander off on an adventure. Responding to Jesus’ call and following him was risky business. But follow they do, and in following they teach us perhaps the greatest truth about how Jesus’ glory is made manifest. Just as Jesus’ makes his glory clear in the ordinary place he chooses to exercise his ministry and the ordinary people he chooses to  follow him, so to the disciples most clearly glimpse the vision of his glory in the ordinary, every day business of accompanying him, of listening to him and learning from him. Jesus is most clearly seen as the incarnate God, not by assembling evidence, or reading books, but by becoming his friend, his companion, his follower. It is in becoming a companion of this extraordinary man, in his vulnerability and his humanity that we most clearly see his divinity. And in beholding his light, we become radiant with it ourselves, attracting others like fishers of people to Jesus Christ, the source of all goodness, beauty and truth. So may we take seriously, the call to turn from all which keeps us from following Jesus, to live the sort of life that finds approval in God’s kingdom, and to devote our lives to the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jesus calls us...

For those preaching Matthew 4.12–22 this Sunday, here is some Herbert McCabe on the necessity of discipleship in experiencing the manifestation of Jesus' divine nature:
"So long as we are asking historical questions about what Jesus was like, we shall, according to the traditional doctrine of the incarnation, come up with answers to the effect that he was a man; not, therefore, an angel or a 'supernatural visitant', but a human being like ourselves except in not deceiving himself or playing at being superhuman when we do when we sin. But, of course, we do not simply examine Jesus historically to see what he was like; we listen to him, he established communication and friendship with us, and it is in this rapport with Jesus that we explore a different dimension of his existence – rather as when we say that the world is created we are considering a different dimension of it from the one we look at as physicists. 
  The insight that Jesus is uncreated, that he his divine, is available only to those in whom this rapport is established, to those 'who have faith in his name'. That is why the Church alone, the community founded on this rapport, is able to pronounce on the divinity of Jesus, as she has done (I would maintain) implicitly in the New Testament (especially in John) and later more explicitly in the conciliar pronouncements. It would, I think, be absurd for a man to say: 'I am not a Christian myself, but I do see that Jesus must have been the Son of God'. 
   It is in the contact with the person who is Jesus, in this personal communication between who he is and who I am, that his divinity is revealed in his humanity, not in any, as it were, clinical, objective examination of him. Any such examination will simply reveal correctly that he is splendidly and vulnerably human."
(Herbert McCabe, God Matters, 71) 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

On sharing bath water...

Matthew 3.13–17
It had to be an i-pad. The parcel was the right size, the right weight, and you’d been dropping hints like mad for the last twelve months. You pick up the package every day, and gently squeeze the box… that’s good packaging. That’s Apple packaging. That’s ‘made in California from sustainable card stock’ packaging. It had to be an i-pad. Then eventually the day comes, the family gather around the tree, hand out the presents and you all begin unwrapping. Just to appear humble, you open the boring presents first, the socks, the jumper, the book. You want to save this one till you have almost exhausted your pile of gifts. And there it is. You slowly unpick the wrapping paper and peer inside… a cheese knife and board… a cheese knife and board! “Well we know how much you like cheese, and with this you can eat it in style”, says your mother. I’m sure you’ve had moments like that, where you have built up a sense of great excitement about something, a gift, a new job, and it doesn’t turn out quite as you had expected or hoped.

Poor old John the Baptist probably felt much the same way as his encounter with Jesus unfolded. John had been proclaiming to anyone that would hear that the people of Israel desperately needed to turn from sin and to turn to God again. And as a powerful symbol of this repentance, John called people to be baptised, to be washed, to be cleansed in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. So here is John, raising everyone’s sense of expectation, everyone’e excitement at the coming of the Messiah: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mat. 3.11–12). The one John prepared the way for was powerful and righteous and just, he would clean up Israel and clean up the world. John proclaimed loud and clear to all who came to hear him that when the Messiah comes, you better make sure that you are on the right side of the track. Repent, cleanse yourselves, get ready because he is coming, and when he does he will clear out God’s barn so that only the good wheat is left.

And then the moment arrives. Here he is. The long awaited gift is about to be unwrapped. Everyone waits with bated breath. But wait. How strange. This isn’t what we’d been expecting. He doesn’t sweep through the crowd with fire and judgement. He doesn’t come and condemn those sinners who haven’t repented, and pour God’s Spirit on those who have. He gets in line with them to go down into the murky waters of the Jordan. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the unrighteous, and presents himself to John and asks for baptism. You can imagine John’s surprise, his alarm. “You want me to baptise you?” he says. “I want to receive what you have to offer, I wan’t you to baptise me with God’s Spirit.” “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mat. 3.13).

Here, for the first time, John wonders whether he has got the cheese board rather than the i-pad. And I suppose John has a point. He already knows that Jesus doesn’t look like the Messiah people had expected. He had come from Nazareth for starters, and his birth was far from uncontroversial. How easy it would be for Jesus’ detractors to pour scorn on him: “The Saviour? Really? You did know that he went to the Jordan with all the other spiritual losers to get baptised by John, don’t you? How can he save us? He’s as rotten as the rest of us.” But Jesus baptism wasn’t the outworking of a guilty conscience, it was to fulfil God’s righteous plan for our salvation.

In his baptism, Jesus identifies with sinners, he joins them in the waters of repentance, and in doing that, he transforms those waters. He sanctifies them so that they no longer merely remind us of the pressing need to repent, they are now the waters which declare our adoption as daughters and sons of God. Jesus joined himself to us in his baptism, and now, through our baptism we are joined to him, and we hear those same words, “you are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” We who are unrighteous, who however much we try to hide from it know the wrong we have done, the people we have hurt, the times we have failed, we hear those words, ‘you are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter’, and we learn that God’s approval comes to us not as our just deserts, but as a gift, completely unwarranted, but given freely and entirely without reservation. Given in person by one who made God’s glory and love known by standing with us in the grime of life. As we follow him, who will he call us to stand alongside? Whose bath water will he ask us to share?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Let's not get too pompous about the (proposed) new baptism texts...

The brouhaha over the Liturgical Commission’s document “Christian Initiation: Additional Texts in Accessible Language” has intrigued me. First and foremost, I have been amazed at how many evangelicals (sorry to my many evangelical friends who haven't got involved with this) are now passionate supporters of the Common Worship project! When it comes to the Eucharist, the only liturgical fight is whether it is necessary to use it at all, it being so wordy and boring and all. But when it comes to baptism, the liturgical gloves are off. Suddenly the Church is full of ardent Cranmerian purists who loath any prospect of “dumbing down”. I find it interesting that some of those who have spoken against the proposed new texts seem not to appreciate that, if these were ever approved, they would be an additional provision, not a replacement. It would, I presume, be possible to keep a fairly traditional Common Worship format with one of the proposed prayers over the water in place of one of the existing ones? In essence, if this was formally accepted by Synod (I assume it is Synod that has to accept it?) it would merely enlarge the ‘Supplementary Texts’ section of the current Christian Initiation volume. So why get so worried?

I actually don’t mind the current baptism service all that much. While there are a few bits which are overly wordy and are uncharacteristically lacking classic Anglican economy of expression, but it does provide a theologically rich backbone to infant baptism. It is regretful that Common Worship has expunged baptismal regeneration from the Church of England’s liturgy —as far as I am aware, there is no modernised equivalent of the BCP’s “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate”— but it is still present enough in the liturgy to preserve this tradition within the Church of England.

Nevertheless, I do see the need for some additional texts. The current Common Worship prayers over the water are a good example of this need for addition. The prayers are, I think, too wordy and too theologically dense, and dare I say it, a touch pompous. I was pleased to see the two sensible additional suggestions, but would have liked to see more, picking up some (though not all) of the themes in the current prayers.

Looking through the sample service further down the document, I found it to be merely a lesson in how the current rubrics could be creatively and pastorally read. With the exception of the decision (I really don’t like the new offering) the prayer over the water, and the presentation (the existing rubrics for this are very confusing. Can it be omitted???) it doesn’t, as far as I can see, do anything that one couldn’t already do. The Commission is a good case in point. The new suggestions just make it clear that the unfortunately prosaic provision which Common Worship currently has needn’t be slavishly followed, but that ‘similar words’ may also be used.

All in all, the flap about ‘dumbing down' has, I feel, brought out an excessive amount of rather uncharitable pernicketiness, particularly when you consider that no one is proposing a wholesale change to the baptismal liturgy, which the introduction to the document makes quite clear. Yes, the suggested additional provision isn’t perfect, but neither is the current liturgy, neither is any liturgy for that matter. We should all just get over it.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

God in man made manifest...

Matt. 2.1–12

"Let no one be found among you… who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 18.10–13)

So says the book of Deuteronomy. Stern stuff! And it is certain that first century Jews and Christians didn't viewed astrologers as jovial Russell Grant types. They were morally dubious people who worshipped the stars as gods, and looked to them for guidance, rather than looking to the creator of the universe and the Law he had given. Isn’t it strange then that three of the most popular, most memorable, most mysterious and enigmatic characters in the Christmas story are these Magi: astrologers, soothsayers, diviners, interpreters of omens, magicians. These are the first non-Jewish people to fall at the feet Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, and it is their extraordinary journey which we remember today as we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. And they teach us something about the search that we all make to find God.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this story is the way that God guides the Magi. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Magi had decided to look for the new born King because they had read some prophecy from the Old Testament about the birth of the Messiah, and had dedicated themselves to searching for him. But no. That isn’t how this journey started. God used their idol, a star, to lead the Magi to his Son. And whilst that is unusual it is actually quite beautiful. People are led to Christ many different ways. Some are led through reading scripture, or through the nurture of a Christian home or Christian friends, or maybe through an Alpha course or something like that. But others may come to Christ through less orthodox routes: through New Age Spirituality perhaps, through a twelve step support group, through belonging to the Free Masons. If the journey of the Magi tells us anything, it is that God really isn’t too worried about the method he uses to draw people to his Son. Why? Because every desire and expectation it is possible to have, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Every desire for companionship or love is fulfilled in him. Every expectation of justice is met in him. Every yearning for goodness truth and beauty finds its source and goal in him. So don’t be surprised when people, following a star, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, are still led by God to worship at the feet of Jesus Christ.

But here is the irony of this story. God leads these morally dubious characters, by means of their idol to his son. But those who have the Law and Prophets don't join them in pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Perhaps they fear that this moment of Epiphany will challenge the status quo, or will undermine their power and authority, perhaps they are just afraid of change. For what ever reason the religious leaders choose not to look for the Messiah with the Magi, “After they had shown the fountain of life to others, they themselves perished of thirst”, in the words of St Augustine. And the king! Herod's heart is filled with even more darkness still. He knows that the coming of the Messiah means one thing and one thing only for tin-pot dictators like him. And in a desperate attempt to cling on to power, he plots murder of the vilest kind. Those who were the guardians of the oracles of God, who stood in the great line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the leaders of the people of God had become so accustomed to hearing God’s word, that it had become almost meaningless to them. They had become deaf to its cadences, fearful of its promises. And a group of unclean, idolatrous, star-gazing outsiders, proclaimed the good news of the birth of Christ to them. The outsider becomes the teacher. The first will be last, and the last will be first. 

So this new year, may we never become so accustomed to the things of God that we fail to seek the one who is born king of all. May we welcome the insights which God brings to the church through unlikely people, led by strange means, but still led to the crib and cross of Jesus. And may we be willing to lay everything at his feet, knowing that our deepest desires are all fulfilled in him.