Friday, 24 January 2020

Steps in the Right Direction.

The crucial moments in which we choose directions for our lives aren’t
usually marked with caution signs, bright red flags, or even the feeling
that we are about to make a big decision. Some of the decisions that matter most slip by without our even noticing. Some of the choices that seem small are bigger than the ones that appear big. Because the sacred is present in the ordinary, we can’t be sure that any decision is unimportant. Because life is holy, every moment matters. Every day and hour are crucial.

Jesus is walking beside a lake one afternoon ion this week’s scripture reading from Matthew 4, when he sees two men in a rowboat waiting for unsuspecting fish to wander into their nets. It’s hard to believe what happens next. Jesus offers them a job with no pay, and they accept: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  So, the four fishermen drop what they are doing and head off to God-knows-where, to lives they can’t imagine.

People always try to explain away big-fish stories, and this one is no
exception. Some commentators suggest that young men often left their occupations to become students of a rabbi. They say it sounds more unlikely to us than it would have to people in the first century. We read the story and assume that this isn’t the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus. Surely, they knew Jesus before this.

The disciples’ instant acceptance of Jesus’ peculiar invitation is as dramatic as any moment we will ever encounter. On occasion, we face big decisions about family, jobs, and faith. We stand at a fork in the road and need to choose. We have moments when we feel that we need to act in a particular way for reasons that we cannot completely explain. We feel the need to sacrifice something we would rather keep in order to follow. We have taken a few big risks. But most of the time, it isn’t that dramatic. We don’t drop everything to start a new life very often. The calling of the disciples is more spectacular than what happens to us most days.

Most of my life is routine. I have gone to work each morning often with a list of things to do. There are phone calls to return, e-mails to respond to, and meetings to attend. There are a dozen administrative details to take care of. The urgency in what I do is usually the urgency of keeping up. Most of it doesn’t feel that holy at all. One positive thing is that often my day is filled with pleasant people.

I receive too much credit for what I do. My work is enjoyable, but it’s not spectacular. My life doesn’t feel as adventurous as that of the disciples, leaving their nets and following Jesus into the unknown. There are women and men who live each day in danger because of their faith. There are people who do astonishing, heroic works. Maybe someday we will do something spectacular. For now, most of us feel called to less-dramatic discipleship.

Maybe Jesus’ disciples had days when their lives didn’t seem sensational, as they walked up and down Galilee from village to village. Maybe they had days when they thought things were going too slow. On those days, perhaps their faithfulness was more modest. We tend to forget the importance of details in the journey of faith. We focus on dramatic conversions, overwhelming encounters with God, and powerful moments of prayer. We search for peak experiences and end up assuming other people are born with a spiritual talent that we just don’t have.

But God is in the details. God calls us every hour of every day. God invites us to be friends, practice kindness, and pray for our daily bread. We live out our faithfulness in worship, work, and study. As Christians the routine, everyday ways in which we follow Jesus, the way we read scripture, welcome strangers, and love the people with whom we live are all crucially important.

God is at work in a variety of unspectacular ways. God is present in
every way that grace is shared, hope is proclaimed, and healing comes. Love spreads word by word. The bucket fills drop by drop. Wrongs are righted one by one. Our calling is to be faithful, to live God’s grace on routine days in ordinary ways.

There is no event so commonplace that God is not there. Every moment and every word have possibilities. Slowly but surely our priorities change. On the day they first followed Jesus, the disciples were brash, impulsive, stubborn, and they smelled of fish. They had to learn day by day how to be the church. We grow in faith, not only in memorable, never-to-be-forgotten moments, but also in forgettable moments when we decide to pray instead of turning on the radio, to do better with the next hour than we did with the last, and to give something that we would rather keep.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Come and See.

How would your life be different if you were A Christian or for that matter not a Christian? For some of us who have lived surrounded by Christian people, it’s hard to imagine, but what if you had no interest in God? So, I am going to explore the question from the perspective of a Christian reflecting on how different my world would be without my faith. How would your life be less or more or just the same? What would you miss about church? I would probably resist singing out loud in public were it not for church on Sunday.
Which of your friends would not be your friends? If you had never met the people you have met in Sunday school, how great a loss would that be? How would your family change? How would you spend your time differently? Would you be at home reading the Australian? What do you do because you are a Christian that makes you happy? Which religious activities could you do without? What would be easier if you weren’t a Christian?  Do you feel good about the time you spend helping strangers? Do you wish you still had all the money you’ve given away? Have there been experiences you would hate to have missed—hope-filled books you are glad you read, experiences of God’s grace in worship, times you’ve cared for hurting people?

If you were not a Christian, would your life be less interesting? Every once in a while, the disciples thought about how different their lives would have been if they had never met Jesus. It started so quietly. John the Baptist is standing with two of his students when Jesus walks by. John says, “That’s the one. You know how cocky I can be, but I’m not worthy to tie his sandals.” The two disciples are understandably curious. They start following Jesus. He turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer nervously, “We thought we would see where you’re staying.” In other words, “We don’t have anything better to do, so we’re wondering what you’re doing.”

Jesus offers the invitation that will change their lives: “Come and see.” They stay with Jesus all day because he’s interesting. They have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They don’t know that they will end up leaving behind their nets, boats, homes, friends, work, and retirements. They will end up changing their ideas about almost everything. Andrew goes to get his brother. “You have to come and see this guy,” he says. Simon is dragged along, going more so that his brother will leave him alone than out of any great faith. When Jesus meets Simon, he says, “Your name is going to be Rock.” The often-confused Simon is anything but a rock, but everything is starting to change.
Most of the time, we move toward God in small steps taken as much out of curiosity as out of faith. So, what are we looking for? What are we looking for in our world today, in the actions and life of the Church? Why do some join Church and worship in a church? Some of those attending worship are in Church because their parents didn’t give them a choice. For some, their mother’s voice told them to go to church and somehow this has lodged in their minds, and they can’t get rid of it.

Some are in church because it’s easier to come than to argue with their spouse about it. Most of us didn’t attend with great expectations. The religious reasons we have for being here are mixed at best. We’re interested in thinking about how we could live better lives, but only up to a point. If we’re in worship today for no good reason, that’s okay. Lots of people find their way by accident.

Jesus says, “Come and see.” The disciples stumble along, following without knowing where they are going, discovering well after the fact that they have wandered onto a path that leads to grace. “Come and see,” Jesus says. In John’s Gospel the disciples soon taste water turned into wine, watch in horror as Jesus clears the temple, and listen with amazement to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that the spirit of God blows wherever it wills. They stumble onto a way of life they have never imagined.

So, what are we looking for? Deep in our souls, are we looking for something to believe in and hold on to, something important enough to live for, and something big enough to claim our passions. Are we looking for challenge and purpose? Are we looking for God? What begins with curiosity becomes a step toward grace. The emptiness we feel from time to time is God calling us to the paths that lead to meaning. God lets us know that we can look beyond our computers and coffee cups into the enchanted possibilities of grace. God is the one who makes us long for something that lasts. God draws us toward life even when we don’t recognise what’s happening.
“Come and see” is how the disciples’ story begins. It’s a wonderful line and a great way to start a story. “Come and see” is the invitation to explore, discover, and travel without knowing exactly where we are going, but to know that if we catch a glimpse of God, we will also catch a glimpse of who we can be. Come and see. Come and look for places where we’ve never been. Come and see what it means to hope, believe, and follow.

By being in church we open ourselves to God, who will lead us to new places. The people who follow Jesus end up doing the things Jesus did. They care for the hurting, listen to the lonely, feed the hungry, pray for the broken hearted, bandage those who are wounded, do more than is expected. They look for God and find extraordinary lives. The spirit of adventure is what calls Christians to worship.

Christians are seeking the meaning of life, joining with people on the journey, and asking God to help them see where grace invites them. We are there to look at the gifts we’ve been given and the needs of the world. We come to worship together to discover the possibilities. If we worship God, if we share our lives with other people looking for God, we will see beyond what we have assumed. If we look for God, we will find that God is looking for us, offering life.

Friday, 10 January 2020

To Belong to God.

John Milton, who once marvellously celebrated the birth of Jesus in his "Ode to the Morning of Christ's Nativity," later attempted a sequel upon the Passion. After writing a few stanzas he ceased in despair and later published the fragment he did write with an appended note: "This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and not satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished." Whatever our years may be, they do not mature us to deal with a theme of such magnitude as the suffering and death of our Lord. When we have said our finest word about the whole redemptive drama, there is something that breaks through language and escapes. Similar words could be uttered about the Baptism of our Lord. As we move into that dim borderland where our reach exceeds our grasp, we must be measured at last in terms of our splendid failure to say the impossible.

In the movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duval, there is a powerful scene. Duval is running from the law. He has bludgeoned the youth pastor in the church where he was pastor. The assumption is that he has been baptised and ordained as a minister of the Gospel. The scene in the movie shows a contrite and repentant Duval baptising himself in a river. He announces to God and to no one else that he is baptising and ordaining himself as an apostle. (There is an old black man who has just finished fishing who witnesses the baptism and ordination. Duval is not aware of his presence.)

The scene raises questions about the Baptism of our Lord. Why did he not baptise himself? Why should he seek out John the Baptist and insist that John baptise him? Perhaps an even larger question without an adequate answer is: "Why did Jesus feel a need to be baptised?"

At the risk of attempting to answer questions that have difficult answers, perhaps some conjecture will suffice. John the Baptist, recognising the difficulties in this situation, refused to baptise Jesus. He insists that Jesus should baptise him. Someone has suggested that Jesus "is baptised as a witness to God's claim upon him. He is baptised and by that action says, in effect, 'I belong to God.'" In Baptism, Jesus identifies with a community. We do not know all that we would like to know about John the Baptist's community.

We do not know who was present at this baptism, other than John the Baptist himself. We can surmise that there were others in the community who witnessed this Baptism. While we are now in the season of Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus is a ratification of his Incarnation. He identifies with a community and with the people in that community.

In our Baptism, we too gain an identity. At the time of our Baptism, person carrying out the rite makes the sign of the cross on our forehead and announces that we "are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever." We become a part of what God has been doing in the world since the time of creation. Baptism is the initiatory rite into the church and indicates full inclusion into the household of faith. Like our Lord, we too become incorporated into the human condition.

The season of Epiphany is the season in the Church Year in which the identity of Jesus is made clearer to his followers. Baptism calls us to claim our place and our power. There is a period of silence in the life of Jesus from about the age of twelve to his thirtieth year. From the time of Jesus in the Temple, we know little until his Baptism. Out of his Baptism comes a clearer view of what his life's work was to be.

Gabriel Marcel Marques, in his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, writes about a village in Central America. A virus strikes this community and the effect of the virus is that is causes amnesia. It becomes necessary to hire a person from the outside world to help them recover their memory. This person, from the outside world, goes about the village putting signs on all things with their names. The signs remind the villagers that "this is a ceiling," "this is a floor," "this is a table," and all through the village everything has a sign naming what it is.

Outside the village, the outsider places two signs. On one sign is written: "This is the village of Macondo." A sign posted above that reads: "God Exists." Our Baptism and the Baptism of our Lord are signs and symbols of God's delight in us. Each time a person is baptised, it is a sign that God exists. The sign of the cross on our foreheads reminds the world that God exists. It is also a sign that the Creator takes delight in us and calls us to the community of faith.

So for those familiar and those who have never read or heard it let us again hear again these words drawn from the baptismal rite:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith baptising them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Sharing the Light.

It seems that I have either lost track of time or my mind has switched off having almost missed putting up my Blog this week. I think we were out at Coles Bay area yesterday and driving from Swansea to Cradle Mountain today through haze and smoke most of the way. Little in comparison to those in the South East of Australia where we have been focused for the last week or so. Thoughts and prayers are with all those supporting the battle or who have been affected. Certainly needed some sharing of the light in places as we were driving. Also had a visit to Marakoopa Caves and there was so much beauty that one would have missed without light. But back to thoughts about the upcoming feast.

Well, the Twelve Days of Christmas are ending in a burst of celebration and light. The Christmas biscuits and cake are nearly all eaten, even the fruitcake has been nibbled down, and the tree is starting to shed if you have a real one. The presents, every last one of them, are open -- and lots of them are already in use. I think I’ve spotted a couple of bright new ties, some wonderful shirts, and a fancy new dress or two out there! Did you get everything you wanted? What? You didn't get seven swans a-swimming or eleven lords a- leaping? Well, never mind. Maybe you will get them next year.

This year, at least, we got what we always get: the carols of joy, the angels' promise, the shining star, the glowing faces, the mysterious hush of the shepherds and animals, gathered around the newborn baby. And in them, we got the age-old promise: that there is peace, there is joy, there is hope. God will not leave us alone, stranded, lost in darkness and misery. God will come to us in joy, in light, in peace.  Here on this very last of the days of Christmas, we celebrate another part of the promise: that God will come to us ALL, everyone, if we seek his presence, if we invite him into our hearts.

Through these twelve days of Christmas, while angels and shepherds and donkey’s and sheep have surrounded the baby, a group of three stargazers have slogged along their weary way, day after day, seeking the promise, coming to find the baby. And today -- this day, this blessed day -- they have arrived at last. Have you spied the three figures, on their camels, moving closer, every day, to the crèche?

At last, here they are. And who are they? Oh, you know: "We three Kings of Orient are, one on a tractor, two in a car, one on scooter tooting his hooter following yonder star...." No, no, I've got it wrong: "We three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar..." And you probably even know their names: Melchior, and Casper, and Balthasar. And you know that they brought gold and frankincense and myrrh. But who are they?

Well, you know something, they are us. You may have noticed, when we read the gospel, that it doesn't say anything about "Caspar, and Melchior and Balthasar." Those names date from stories people told of them in the Middle Ages, not from the Bible. And the Bible doesn't even say that they are "kings."

It calls them "magi" or "wise men." Scientists, scholars, learned students of the stars and the signs, they were, and not necessarily "kings" at all -- though Isaiah's prophecy, that "nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning," has helped us come to think of them as royalty, not researchers.

But most important, scripture says, they are "from the East." They are from outside Israel, outside the ancient covenant with the people of Israel. They are foreigners and strangers. Isaiah tells us, "Foreign nations will stream to your light and the rulers of the whole world will be drawn to you because you are a beacon of light, a sign of peace, of shalom." The Israelites are called upon to make room for the "stranger and sojourner". As the phrase goes all are called to welcome the strangers, to offer hospitality to all comers, to receive those who would come to live among them.

Matthew's story of the visit of the Wise Men says that the matter was decided by God, long before Peter and Paul fought it out. These "wise men from the East" were Gentiles, who saw the star -- a sign from God -- and followed it. And when they saw this King, Jesus in the manger, they knelt down and offered homage to him and in that sign permanently committed themselves to follow him. They were welcomed -- as we are. How do we know they were welcomed? Well, their gifts were accepted and symbolised the whole meaning of the life of this newborn King.

The gold, which represents wealth and royalty, was the sign that he would be king. The frankincense -- incense, which was burned daily in the Jerusalem temple as a holy offering to God was the sign that he was holy, our "Great High Priest". The myrrh was a bitter spice used to wrap the bodies of the dead, was the sign that, royal and holy though he was, he would die. And so, it was.

This newborn baby was given by God to be a king of a new and spiritual kind for all the people who come to him. We are the gentiles, called to be part of the covenant of love and peace, the promise of God given through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Not very many of us actually have to cross a trackless desert on camelback. But we do have to transcend our own barriers: our scepticism, our self-centeredness, our pride.

Remember, there are still strangers and sojourners in our world, people seeking light and truth, the love of God and the peace of Christ. The stable door is always open -- to all. And we, those of us who have arrived earlier, are called upon, like our Hebrew ancestors, to welcome the stranger and sojourner to the stable, to the table, to our hearts, and to the life in Christ.

This Feast of the Epiphany not only marks the end of the Season of Christmas, but the beginning the season of Epiphany. Through centuries of tradition, Epiphany has been the season to remember and celebrate the mission of the church, as it spreads throughout the world. As the light of the sun strengthens and lengthens each day of this season, so we are reminded that the light of Christ reaches ever further into our hearts and the hearts of the world -- even into its most troubled corners. As Christians we are called to move steadily into the world, bearing the light of Christ -- to the places we work, the places we study, the places we play. And we are called always to welcome all who come to share in the light.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Precious Days, Precious Meaning.

This is the Sunday of Christmastide when we begin to consider what God has done in the birth of Jesus. In some homes by now the tree has been taken down, perhaps decorations put away. Stores are advertising year-end sales. Some people have already bought presents and cards for next year at significant savings. In the church though it is still Christmas. We have 12 precious days to focus on the wonder of God's love and what it means.

Here are some principal ideas about what the birth of Jesus means. Each of us can find insight in them and grow in our understanding of why the church has held these days to be a festival second only to Easter. For those who wonder, the 12 days of Christmas run from after Christmas Day until the festival day of Epiphany on January 6th.

The first principal is the Incarnate Christ: "The word became flesh and dwelt among us - in the Hebrew Emmanuel." God decided to enter into a personal relationship with humanity. God became like you and me—flesh. God could have chosen simply to watch and see what would happen, but instead chose to connect, interact, and experience the human condition. Not only that, God limited the experience to ours—no special privileges. God took on the living conditions of the time: the smell, the thirst and poverty, the ravages of disease and discomfort. Jesus was not offered anything better than others because of who he was.

So, what does the Incarnate Christ mean for us? It means God wants a relationship with every one of us, not just a chosen few. God wants us to know we are loved, valued, and worth saving, that we are precious. God wants to draw us together into a kingdom of life that is abundant and rich, that has lots of entry points and that involves many different people. Yes, we are all the beloved and loved despite many not knowing or not wishing to know this.

The Incarnate Christ also gives us a guide for mission. If God chose to come and live among us and be like us, then our mission is to seek out those especially who are marginal, lonely, lost, in prison, hurt, angry, afraid, and unsuccessful right where we live—and hang out with them. We can be their light in the darkness, and we can experience God's grace in solidarity with them. If some think that is socialist and to be avoided, sadly they have missed God’s purpose and the love offered and the grace given in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

This leads to the second principal - the Redemptive Christ. Helen Keller, whose life is depicted in the classic movie, The Miracle Worker, lived in a world of deafness and darkness. Her teacher, Ann Sullivan, after much frustration in trying to communicate, takes her to the family well, pumps water over her, then spells the word W-A-T-E-R into Helen's hand, and then pronounces the word as she holds Helen's hand to her throat. Suddenly, the world becomes real and connected to Helen, and her life is never the same again.

Redemption is something like that. God decided the world was worth redeeming and chose to act by coming among us and giving us a model for humanity in Jesus Christ. We no longer have to stumble in the dark, wondering who we are supposed to become. God has begun redemption in each of us through our Baptism. It's a life-long work of remodelling and rebuilding. But Jesus has moved into the neighbourhood, and nothing will ever be the same because of it. Instead of God saying, "Let's see what they do…" God says, "Here is what I am going to do". God acted in a profound way, and we celebrate the action in every Eucharist, reminding ourselves of God's project and of our part in it.

A third principal is that of the Cosmic Christ. Jesus didn't simply show up one day, and he wasn't adopted. We are not just enjoying a chummy relationship with a guy from Galilee. When we are baptised, we enter into a personal relationship with everything that is created and with the divine creator. This principal has never quite caught on in our culture, but other cultures, including many first nations of many countries including the Maori, Aboriginal and Native American, have always known and believed in the sacred relationship of all life.

Having a relationship with the Cosmic Christ means the world is not ours to possess. The title deed already belongs to another. It is rather ours to care for, and includes the land, water, the animals, and plants, and the people of this earth. How we live as a people of the Cosmic Christ should be notable in terms of how we use things, preserve and recycle them, and what we leave behind for others. Since we as Western Nations consume much of the world's available resources while others are in want, believing in a Cosmic Christ should make us want to do everything in our power to see, out of our abundance, that all people have what they need. The Cosmic Christ expects nothing less.

We have come quite a distance from the babe in the manger. Our journey should not be one away from the crib but into it, for the babe of Bethlehem has brought to us profound power for relationships that redeem. Although many will be glad to see the old year pass away, especially with its turmoil, terror, and upheaval for all of us, we can greet the New Year with something more than relief. We can with joy celebrate what we asked for in Advent: Emmanuel—God with us!

Friday, 20 December 2019

Emmanuel – God with Us.

As any introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures will emphasise, biblical prophets were not predictors of the future, but rather social commentators, analysing their own time and describing the consequences that would result from current political practices. When Isaiah tells Ahaz that a young woman is pregnant and will have a baby named Immanuel (God with us), he does not mean this will happen some seven hundred years later. Instead, he points to a pregnant woman right in front of them and says that Ahaz’s political distress will be over before that child is old enough to know right from wrong.

It is easy enough for us to understand that as we read through Isaiah 7, but what do we do with the fact that gospel reading for this week from Matthew 1 seems to identify that child with Jesus and not with a child of the eighth century BCE (Before Common Era)? More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew is concerned with demonstrating ways the life of Jesus aligns with Hebrew Scripture prophecy. He makes connections wherever he can between the Scripture he knows and the story he wants to tell.

But even if we discount a literal association between the Isaianic prophecy and its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, we should not be quick to dismiss the ways that both Isaiah and Matthew are, in their own ways, answering the same question: in times of great distress, when uncertainty looms, when we are faced with “wars and rumours of wars,” where is God? Isaiah assures Ahaz that God is with us, and he offers the king a sign of God’s presence in the child whose birth is imminent. The birth of Jesus assures us that God is with us, not just as a sign, but as God incarnate. “Do not be afraid,” say Isaiah to Ahaz and the angel to Joseph. So, too, says the word of God to us today.

Further, a newborn child evokes so much hope. The miracle of a child’s first breath and the powerful love that binds a parent to a child inspires poetry and song alike. The trappings of Christmas so often associate Jesus’ birth with these inspirational notions. And yet the story Matthew recounts is dotted with threats. Like the many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures when God’s promises seem to be at stake, it is the faithfulness of God’s followers, their trust in God’s promises, that make all the difference. Unlike Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew focuses on Joseph. In this account, Mary never speaks or acts.

Instead, it is Joseph who is the recipient of an angelic visitor, Joseph who must take a step of faith. Upon learning that Mary is pregnant, Joseph seeks to act in a righteous matter and do the right thing. He will “dismiss her quietly” and avoid placing upon her the opprobrium that too naturally falls upon women in such situations, a harsh criticism or censure that Joseph may want to avoid for himself as well. The angel intercedes, pointing to Isaiah’s prophecy of a child who would be a living confirmation of God’s promise that God would never desert God’s people. This is but the first of many threats that would loom over this child’s young life according to Matthew.

If we pay close attention to the contexts of Isaiah’s prophecy to a king worried about encroaching armies and Matthew’s application of this prophecy in the context of imperial domination, we see that Jesus’ birth is not to be avoided or escaped and is political. Why else will Herod react with such naked violence in just a few verses? In short, Jesus’ birth declares an end to the reign of fear that threatened his life from the first and would eventually be the cause of his death.

Another thought from this week’s reading from Matthew 1 is as to what this word ‘Emmanuel’ means and why is it used and how does it engage us today. So, we hear that they shall call his name Emmanuel—to be called, only means, according to the Hebrews manner of speaking, that the person spoken of shall really and effectually be what he is called, and actually fulfil that title. Thus, unto us a child is born—and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace— that is, he shall be all these, though not so much nominally, as really, and in effect.

And thus was he called Emmanuel; which was no common name of Christ, but points out his nature and office; as he is God incarnate, and dwells by what Christians call Spirit in the hearts of God’s people. It is observable, the words in Isaiah are, you/thou (namely, his mother) shall call; but here, they—that is, all his people, shall call—shall acknowledge him to be Emmanuel, God with us. Which being interpreted—this seems to be proof that St. Matthew would have been writing his Gospel in Greek, and not in Hebrew, even though he writes for the Hebrew people. Sometimes these insights help us understand who Jesus is for us today and is for all time.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Is This too Risky for You?

When I was growing up, I did not have the extraordinary experience of going to any of the large Royal Agriculture and Pastoral shows in NZ. For many country people, I believe going to these shows can be an extraordinary experience in their childhood. I suppose the Expo in Brisbane in 1988 would have been an extraordinary event for those able to attend. The closest thing to such an event I had experienced in my childhood was the local Agricultural and Pastoral Show. It wasn’t until my late 30’s that I got to the Hawkes Bay Royal A and P show that I was able to experience such a thing.

There was a time when country people would drive long distances to see, exhibit and participate in such events and often stay with relatives.  I wonder what you, who have had such experiences, reacted like when first going to such events.  Often there would be a central place or exhibit where many would get their picture taken. I also wonder if you reacted with that Wow reaction to sights and sounds of the cities or large regional towns these events were held in, especially if you didn’t often go outside your local area.  

Let’s return to the scripture readings for this week though, especially Matthew 11.  Jesus appears and says to the crowd that day, regarding John the Baptiser, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind. What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes. Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

I have a suspicion the people that day were just as taken aback by what they saw along the Jordan River as many of us from smaller towns have been wowed when arriving at a major event in a big city. Many of us would have gone expecting to see a show that would take an afternoon to survey. Instead we probably found a mammoth fortress of exhibits that a week’s visit couldn’t traverse. The people that day went out to the river probably expecting to see a madman putting on a religious show. What they got was a man announcing the advent of God’s Messiah. Many weren’t ready for what they received.

Perhaps we’re still not ready. Expo’s and Agricultural and Pastoral Shows showcase todays corporate culture. The scene that day along the Jordan River could be described as a showcase of God’s call to redemption—John the Baptist–style. It was probably a pretty good show. Can’t you see the religious dignitaries’ heads popping up over the heads of the locals and trying to get a glimpse of the long line of people responding to John’s message and requesting baptism? They went to see a showcase of Israel’s popular religious culture. Instead, what they found was quite disturbing. It didn’t take long for people to determine it was not a sideshow. In fact, what they witnessed was life changing.

They went thinking they would find a local minister doling out religious tracts and favours, a religious carnival of sorts. What they didn’t realise was they were witnessing the forerunner to God’s Messiah. John wasn’t calling them to a once-in-a-lifetime experience of God’s redemption and then a quiet return to their religious comfort zones. John was calling them to live redemptive lives— the rest of their lives. As we read this episode, we too are challenged to reconsider what we expect to find when we leave the safe and acceptable confines of our own churches, communities or context.  

What do we expect to find in our neighbourhoods once we leave our safe zones? Who do we anticipate will be the recipients of what we do in our lives? Do we expect to move and work in settings that meet our expectations of the good life, where people think, act, and dream like us? Even more if we see ourselves as a disciple of Christ, do we manipulate our worlds so that we are comfortable and have all the amenities and creature comforts of the Australasian way of life? Are we, speaking truth to the powers that exist in our day and time, or do we fear ridicule and chastisement of those who pay the bills?

Do we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to injustice so that we won’t upset the people who are the power brokers? If the answer to such questions is a painful yes, then we seek to treat the way we live and if we are Christians ministry as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes,” as Jesus put it. The image here is not only soft Christianity but also soft humanity. It lacks any spiritual backbone to confront injustice. Jesus’ cousin was in prison because he, as one writer puts it, “was incapable of seeing evil without rebuking it. He had spoken too fearlessly and too definitely for his own safety”

In the twenty-first-century humanity and the church is being called once again to leave its safe and unthreatening confines and enter the world, shocked by what it finds. Our shock is to motivate us to speak truth to injustice just as John, Jesus, and his would-be disciples did in their own day. But let’s be honest. It will take disciples, not just admirers of Jesus, to do this.

We have a choice in the matter. Many left Jesus that day, perhaps because he was too demanding. They preferred a life more defined as “a reed shaken by the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes” than a life of servitude marked by sacrifice and compassion. What John and Jesus were bringing was too risky, too demanding. They preferred “admirer”-ship over discipleship.

Consequently, they walked away. I find the news that some walked away encouraging because we are called to discipleship by a Christ who won’t dilly-dally with us. He wants us to know up front what we can expect when we follow him. To follow Christ is to speak truth to injustice and be willing to accept the consequences. To follow Christ is not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To follow Christ is a journey even “the least” among us can take.