Wednesday, December 23, 2015

CHRISTMAS DAY - The Power of Powerlessness

On Monday evening I participated in a subversive action under the watchful eye of the Australian Federal Police, the Western Australian Police Service and a Security Service Provider.

We arranged to meet around the corner from our planned action but the police tracked us down and came to give us all the once over.

Then when we gathered outside the Immigration Department Building to say prayers and sing Carols, the police took copies of our liturgies to see if there was anything subversive in them – yes they read them through very carefully.

In this day and age when the message of so many seeks to sow despair, the Christmas Story seeks to sow some hope in the hearts of people.  We have become so used to a political background of conflict and war that when the Christmas Story calls us into a peace which passes all understanding most people don’t get it – even some Christians.  Where so many want spread a message of hatred towards those who are different, the Christmas Story proclaims God’s love to all humanity.

It is in this sense that many aspects of the Christmas Story is a subversive one.  It is calling people into what is so often the opposite reaction to their instinctive reactions to the world around them.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to put on your “Peace-Maker Glasses” so that you might be able to understand the sub-text of the story we had read about the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry in Luke 3.

We need those same glasses on to make sense of the beginning of Luke 2 as well.  Matthew and Luke have relied on different traditions in the development of their birth stories.  Matthew’s is very much a Royal tradition – he makes much of Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem – the Home Town of the hero-king David – and he tells the stories of the wise men coming from far away to meet this new King of Israel.

Luke’s is a People of God tradition.  In the same way that he anchors his story with the names of all those people who were symbols of the domination and oppression of the People of God – Caesar Augustus, Quirinius etc. – he uses sheep and shepherds as code language for the people of God in God’s care.

With angels as the proclaimers of the people’s liberation Luke creates a picture that stands in stark contrast to their everyday reality under the Romans and in stark contrast to everyone’s typical expectations of the actions of a God.

Last Sunday the choir I sang in did a little concert and play in which in part we sang words from a poem by Elizabeth Jennings in which she said:

          “Put memory away and watch a world
           Grown almost still because a baby can
           Convince us that he is born God and Man.”

We have come to call him sometimes “Son of Man” and sometimes “Son of God” – either is right.

When most people think of God breaking into the affairs of the world, they think of God doing so with great power and might, breaking the laws of nature so that bad things don’t happen any more.

The story Luke tells and which we celebrate today is the complete opposite – and in some ways it is subversive, too. 

The miracle of the Christmas Story was not that a man was born who was also God – embodying the omniscience, and the omnipotence we associate with God-ness. 

The real miracle is that our God put those things aside and assumed our humanity, coming as a feeble little child into a very difficult time and place – like one of the millions of children born this year into war zones. 

It is the paradox of all this that gives us the ability to turn the world upside down – to overthrow the powers of the Principalities and Powers with love, offering a peace that is not born out of force but out of love freely given.  God came among us to show us the way – and Jesus is truly the Way to God.

Friday, December 11, 2015

ADVENT 3C - God's Song of Joy

If my name was recorded in the north African or Arabic way my name would be John Eric William Zephaniah.  My Great Grandfather was born in the south of England at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria and his father, William Henry Wesley, named him after that rather insignificant Old Testament prophet Zephaniah. 

Because of this link I have always had a certain curiosity about this old prophet.  But every time I try to read him it seems all too awful.  He is ranting about the people of Judah/Israel.  He is ranting about the neighbouring nations.  The people of God have abandoned their first love of God.  The nations around Judah have ridiculed and abused the People of God.   In fact, these verses sound very much like the God that Richard Dawkins and others refuse to believe in – a grumpy old divine who is going to wreak destruction on humanity because we have all be so naughty.

As a result I would generally give up reading Zephaniah before I got to chapter 3 – and I should not have.

In our Good News Bibles, the section we read today (3:14-20) is headed – Song of Joy.  It is actually two songs.

The first song is in the voice of Zephaniah and he is calling the people to rejoice because “there is now no reason to be afraid.”  God has withdrawn his punishment of them, and has removed their enemies.  Zephaniah says: “In his love he will give you new life.”

After all the terrible things he had railed against this seems to be an amazing change of fortune.

Many Christians have a little saying that helps them understand how and why Jesus would ultimately die.  They say “Without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins.”  In the context of the sacrificial system in Israel this seems a plausible rule.

Yet here, and it is by no means the only example on the Old Testament, God’s relents from all his threats of pain and destruction.  Dawn Weaks, in a sermon on this text, says:

“Something changes.  God relents.  Zephaniah ceases words of destruction and gives birth to new hope with words of comfort.  Maybe God remembers that we humans cannot restore ourselves on our own; perhaps God’s parental heart breaks at the thought of continuing to punish these precious children.  Regardless, Zephaniah stops telling the people what they’ve done wrong and starts telling them what God is doing right.”

And words like that can only be addressed in song – hence the poetic form in our Bibles.  But it is not enough for the voice of Zephaniah to tell us this.  Half way through he says “even God will sing you a song.”

In this second song, the voice of God says “I have ended the threat of doom and taken away your disgrace.  …  I will rescue the lame and bring the exiles home.  I will turn your shame into honour and all the world will praise them.”

God here sings a love song.  And this song is for the entire world.  It turns out the God longs for joy, too, and here God steps in and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves so that we can live in joy.

Here is a source of Joy for Christmas that is not based in the sentimentality of an innocent and helpless baby born in abject circumstances.  This Joy is totally focussed on God’s gracious action in putting aside our failures so that we can know him fully as he wants to know us fully.

But wait!  There’s more.  The remaining three selections from Scripture today (Isaiah 12:2-6 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28 and Luke 3:7-18) seem also to be a call to joy – life may seem tough with many things stacked against us, but we are called to remember always that God will bring us peace and hope and love and joy.

It is very easy for us to forget God has given us all that we need to be able to rejoice in him.  But we are not overcome by fear or sadness.  We should never lose heart.  Clarissa Estes says:

The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you.  It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here.  The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours.  They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.”  

Saturday, December 5, 2015

PEACE - Advent 2C

We all dream of peace.

We have become so used to a world in which violence is a “normal” part of the landscape that even our dream of peace has become almost a forlorn hope – I mean, we hope for it, but we know it is unlikely, at least in our lifetime.

The days into which John the Baptist was born were so similar to our time that the people of Jesus’ day could be forgiven for losing hope of ever seeing peace again – real peace.

In the beginning of our Gospel reading we have references to a whole lot of people – and we think of them as simply geographical time-markers that enable us to know when in history this story happened.  But let me offer you some peace-maker glasses – just like the 3-D ones you can get at the cinema - through which to view these people so that you can make a new kind of sense of them.

Emperor Tiberius – Among his many titles the Emperor was called “Son of God” and “Prince of Peace” and historians came to refer to the Pax Romana as the signal feature of this time.  But this peace was not true peace.  It was peace established and maintained by military force.  What a Jewish person in the Roman Province of Judaea would think of when faced with this name is the oppressive domination of their land by the Romans.  The emperor was the symbol of that domination and therefore the cause of their lack of freedom.

Pontius Pilate – As Roman Governor, he held all the powers of the Emperor in this local setting.  So, he, too, was a symbol of the oppressive Roman regime that denied them their freedom.

Herod, Philip and Lysanius – Vassal Kings of different regions within Judaea.  These men from the political aristocracy of Israel were given their power by Rome so long as they supported the domination and oppression of the people.  They too, were symbols of the lack of freedom the nation felt.

Annas and Caiaphus – These High Priests were from the religious aristocracy of Israel but they were appointed by the Governor and only held office so long as they kept the people from rebellion.  The average tenure of a High Priest during the period of Roman Occupation was about 2 years – some even shorter than that.  They, too, were symbols of the oppressive regime of Roman occupation that denied the people their true freedom.

These people then, were the antithesis of peace-makers in their time.  They supported the Roman occupation and thus were a focus of any forms of resistance.

Then came John the Baptist.  He was the son of Zechariah and he exercised his ministry in the area we now call “The West Bank” – wandering around these arid places calling people to undertake a baptism of repentance. 

In addition to this John had a message that was perfect for times such as those days.  “Get the road ready for the real LORD” he says.  “He is going to show everyone the SALVATION of GOD.”

When we hear that word SALVATION we associate it with the word SAVE.  It seems to fit in with other things that we understand about God’s saving grace.  But being SAVED is a really hard thing to describe.

Someone made a joke once about that picture of Jesus knocking on the door of our hearts.  It is in the form of what we call a “Knock, knock” joke.  It goes like this:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?


What do you want?

I want to SAVE you.

From what?

From what I am going to do to you if you don’t open the door to me.

Liberation is at the heart of the idea behind this word SALVATION and to the Jewish mind of John and Jesus’ day liberation meant real PEACE.

What I think is easy to overlook is the significance of that very last phrase that is quoted from Isaiah:

          The whole human race will see God’s Salvation!

We now understand that this liberating PEACE is brought by Jesus.  It is a gift that God is offering to all people – no-one is excluded from the offer.

Every year during this ADVENT Season, we are given an opportunity to get our hearts ready to understand something new about this story we all know so well – this story of God relinquishing all his heavenly powers to become a helpless little baby human being limited by time and space just as we all are.  And God’s powerlessness continues right through the story of Jesus even in his execution by the Roman authorities even though he had done nothing wrong.  But that, of course is not the end of the story.  If it were, it would just be a tragedy.  The resurrection was a declaration by God that our true liberation can only be found in his way of powerlessness that is totally reliant on God’s grace.  It is only in him that we find liberty and peace. 

The MIGHT of Rome could not overcome this.

The MIGHT of the Principalities and Powers could not overcome this.

The MIGHT of Materialism could not overcome this.

In this story the whole human race can see the SALVATION God offers us all.