Readings Isaiah 42:1-5, James 1: 17-21, and Matthew 8:14-17
At the end of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, having banished Satan from his midst, Matthew includes this detail:
Then the devil left him and suddenly the angels came and waited on him.
The angels serve Jesus following his battle with Sin and Evil, restoring his strength before he goes to Galilee and begins his ministry.
Following the calling of the disciples and the sermon on the mount, Matthew details Jesus performing a number of healings: the cleansing of a leper, the healing of the Centurion’s servant, and the mother-in law of Peter. Immediately following her miraculous healing, the woman got up and began to serve Jesus. Having been tended to and restored through such care, Jesus continues his confrontation of Sin and Evil by casting out demons and healing the sick.
This ministry of service to Christ, initiated by the angels in the wilderness and taken up by the mother-in-law of Peter in Capernaum will later be formalised and transformed by the early church into the ministry and service of the diaconate. Deacons, we read in the early chapters of Acts, were elected to serve the community, to wait on tables, ensuring the material need of the community was met and that those set aside for the ministry of the word, would not need to neglect their calling.
Now it is always helpful to point out, that there isn’t a clear-cut split between the ministry of service and teaching, or witness and word. These aren’t compartmentalised. Right away, Stephen, one of those chosen to serve, performs great wonders and signs among the people before delivering a 52-verse sermon, a proclamation that results in his martyrdom. Those called to serve also teach and witness, those called to the study and proclamation of the word, also serve and take up the ministry of mercy.
Whatever the specifics of one’s calling (be it ordained or lay, ministry of word or deacon) and whatever the specifics of giftings (be they teaching, prophecy, healing), to be a disciple is to be known by our love for others. A disciple is ready to serve, willing to take up their cross and fold others to their heart. To be a disciple is to be one who follows after Christ, seeking to live in imitation of Christ – and Christ is known by his love, his service, by taking up the cross so that sin and death would at once be overcome, and all of creation folded into his heart.
Both the readings from Isaiah and James direct our attention to the character of a servant of God. A character exemplified in Christ, and rightly aspired to by the Christian. One who faithfully brings forth justice without lifting their voice or breaking a bruised reed. One who is quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.
This doesn’t imply that anger is somehow unchristian, that demonstrative displays of rage toward injustice or unfairness are unsuitable for a disciple, that conflict is unbefitting of the churchly: for Jesus turned tables, Paul wished that those who insisted on circumcision would castrate themselves, and James wrote to the rich in his churches telling them to weep and wail for the miseries that were coming to them.
Rather than precluding the potency, and at times necessity of holy anger and righteous protest, the centrality of gentleness and service in the life of the Christian serves as a check. A check against bombast, against cajoling, against intimidation, regardless of the apparent righteousness of one’s cause. The centrality of service also serves as a check against the importation of worldly hierarchies into Christian communities. The church points toward the kingdom where the last are first and first are last, where worldly wisdom is a folly, where to be great one must serve, where to come to Jesus one must come like a child, where to find one’s life one must lose it.
No one should be exempted from the ministry of service, from tending to tables, from meeting the material and spiritual needs of those in our midst because they or others figure their particular ministry, gift, call too important for such lowly matters. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to set an example of service, to remind them (and us) that we (as Christ’s servants) are not greater than Christ (our master). Ours too is a life of service.
And so we return to the mother-in-law of Peter. She experiences the power and presence of Jesus bring healing to her life, and responds, immediately and without prompt, with service. Ministering to Jesus, as the angels did before her, pointing toward the ministry of service that not only marks Christ’s life but forms the church from its infancy. We give thanks for her witness, and imitate her as she imitated Christ. For we too, as those who have experienced the presence and power of Christ in our lives, as those who stand in freedom because Jesus overcame the powers of Sin and Death, as those who are the body of Christ, are called each day to rise, to rise out from the ways of the world which glorify influence and insulate us from service. We are called to rise to true greatness, found through the service of others, the faithful pursuit of justice, and the generous act of giving of ourselves to the righteousness of God.
Image: Rembrandt, The Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law (1658)
Readings Luke 10:25-37 and Acts 9:1-19
In 1938, following the annexation of Austria and amidst the alarming rise of Nazi persecution against German Jews, the Evian Conference on Refugees was held. Deliberations at the conference naturally concerned the need for resettlement and protection of European Jewish communities. However, the Australian delegate at the conference, Colonel T. W. White, stated emphatically, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”
The first time I encountered this quote was when I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York City. It was as disturbing and disappointing then as it is now.
And yet, there’s another story. Also in 1938, Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper led a delegation from his home to the German consulate in Melbourne to deliver a letter protesting against violent Nazi attacks on Jews in Germany. According to the National Museum of Australia, it is considered by many to be the only protest of its kind in the world at the time. The protest and solidarity displayed by Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League has since been honoured by a plaque at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, with the planting of trees in the State of Israel, and a tribute held at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial. In 2017, 79 years after the protest, the letter was finally delivered and received by the German government.
And so, to ask again Jesus’ question from the gospel reading: Which of these, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
Cooper, a union man and long-time advocate for justice, who it should be noted was in his 70s at the time of the protest, was not (at least from the from the accounts of his peers and family)motivated by personal relationships with Jewish people in Melbourne. Rather there were two factors in play. One, Cooper and other members of the Australian Aborigines’ League knew what it meant to be a persecuted racial minority: the violence endured, the indignity suffered, the violation of rights and freedoms. This understanding led to identification, compassion, and action. The second motivation, was Cooper’s Christian faith and his particular experience on a mission where the evangelists, Daniel and Janet Matthews, held “a view of humanity that encompassed all people as God’s children, and so held the lives of Aboriginal people mattered, too.”
The Matthew’s theology “provided a prophetic… view of history that promised salvation for the Yorta Yorta, just as the Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, had promised to the persecuted and suffering Israelites.” Cooper took to heart God’s love of justice, God’s siding with the oppressed, and God’s promise, proclaimed in the words of Christ, to deliver the captives.
In this way, we might say, Cooper was able to see and tell the truth in two ways – the truth of the treatment of his people, and the truth of the gospel which proclaimed that such treatment was not endorsed by God, but rather that God called for the overturning of injustice and the dignified treatment of all humanity. This comprehension of the truth, earthly and heavenly, is what it takes to love one’s neighbour.
And yet, the protest at the German consulate was not the only history Cooper made in 1938. For this was the year, as we referenced at the beginning of this service, when Cooper called for a Day of Mourning, and an “Aborigines’ Day” to be held in the nation’s churches every year on the Sunday closest to Australia Day. This was to serve as a reminder of the unjust treatment of Indigenous people and serve as a push for full citizenship and broader care for Indigenous communities.
The call for the Day of Mourning and the initiation of Aborigines Sunday are both acts of neighbour love. Naturally we can see how these are acts of love for Cooper’s Indigenous neighbours. But it is vital that we see how calling for such mourning, truth-telling, and solidarity is also an act of love for his non-Indigenous neighbours.
From the Bible we learn that the truth will set you free. The truth doesn’t lock us in shame, doesn’t humiliate, doesn’t lead to ruin, the truth sets us free. But for the truth to be witnessed, embraced, and allowed to renew and reconcile, scales need to fall from eyes. Truth needs to interrupt lies. Truth needs to interrupt lies such as that Australia in 1938, steeped in the White Australia policy, had no real race problem. It was the lie of assimilation that prevented the Australian government of the time from offering stronger solidarity and refuge to Jewish people, it was seeing the truth of persecution and suffering that led Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League to protest. Truth sometimes needs to unsettle, to disrupt comfortable narratives, to bring to a halt the very trajectory of our lives.
For what was Jesus’ most loving act toward Saul? Saul, we heard, was on his way to carry out further persecution of the fragile Christian community, on his way to bring (what he believed was) justice, on his way to protect his own community, on his way to serve God. And then Jesus knocks him off his way, blinding him with a great light. Jesus unsettles, disrupts, and reorientates all he knows through those famous words “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This is Jesus’ great act of love, for Jesus disrupts Saul with the truth and the truth sets him free to start a new life, no longer in hostility to the Christian community, but in reconciled service of that community. Paul needs to be taught to see again, to see the truth of his own violence, the truth of God’s plan.
This reading from Acts holds one of the most beautiful and moving moments in Scripture. It is Ananias removing the scales by putting his hands upon the vulnerable Saul and calling him a brother. “Brother Saul.” In this is the hope and promise of the gospel! Where there was enmity and estrangement, where there were persecutors and victims, something new can occur. Saul does not encounter revenge or retribution but repair, renewal, and reconciliation. Ananias lays down his right to get even and extends an invitation into a new life, one in which they are more than neighbours, they are family. Being confronted with uncomfortable truth of his actions sets Saul free from his path of violence, and the love Ananias shows for Saul finishes the process by which he is taught to see once more – this love opens before him a new life amidst and for those he was once against.
The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union acknowledges God has never left the Church without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word (BoU, paragraph 11). Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper is one such witness. One whose life displayed a love for his fellow Indigenous neighbour, his Jewish neighbour who he had never met, and his non-Indigenous neighbour who enjoyed far more rights and opportunity than he was afforded in his lifetime.
And so today we learn from Cooper and follow his invitation to a Day of Mourning. For we understand that just as Jesus confronted Saul with the unsettling truth of his actions in order to draw him into new life, community, and the service of God, we must confront the history of the land and churches in which we live and worship in order to be set free by the truth. We receive the invitation to listen and learn, to engage in services such as this one, offered by Indigenous Christians in much of the same spirit as Ananias. One which prioritises restoration, renewal, and repair through service, where scales fall from eyes, new family emerges, and we may be filled with the Holy Spirit, readied to be a neighbour.
Image: The Conversion of Saint Paul, Luca Giordano, 1690, Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy
Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 3:1-17
Last Sunday we spoke about the question of suffering and evil. We noted that while satisfactory answers might prove elusive, the presence of God amidst the pain and the promise of God that one day pain will end provide inspiration to act for justice in our own day. Today’s reading from Isaiah provides one of the most stirring images of the promised end in which strife, conflict, and cruelty will cease.
In the gospel, John the Baptist announces the arrival of God’s messiah, and the drawing near of the kingdom of God, which shall bring to an end the conflicts and violence, the injustice and inequality, the failings and fragility of earthly kingdoms.
So, how does this promised end come to be? How does God bring about the end of war, how does Christ bring the rectification and renewal of all things?
In Isaiah we heard:
God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.
In the Gospel, John says of Jesus:
His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Now at this point we might feel a little squeamish. Understandably, mind you, for so often divine judgment, the separation of wheat and chaff, is weaponised by Christians to drum up shame and guilt, making misery in hearts and homes. The invocation of divine judgment has too often served as a harbinger of human violence. Given this, we might be right to question how judgment brings about the peaceable kingdom.
So let me make a little case, for why the judgment of God is not a weapon, but a source of deep hope, and an act of great love.
The first thing to say is that God’s judgment is entirely beyond human control, and can never be uttered by a human voice. Indeed, God’s judgment is far more mysterious and unpredictable than most are confident to admit. Consider Jesus’s teaching about the sheep and the goats, who are judged by what they have (or have not) done for the least of these. Neither the righteous or the unrighteous understand why they are in that category, or when they were in the presence of the Lord. If we cannot know if we have served or neglected Christ, how can we know if others have, how can we stand in that place of Christ and say you to the right, you to the left?
Consider too, Jesus’ warning:
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Or consider this exchange between the disciples and Jesus:
John said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
There is seemingly no way to predict or know for certain our own place, nor the place of others in the eyes of Christ. Final, divine judgment is God’s alone, it defies our comprehension and categories, unable to be conformed or predicted by human whims.
The second thing to say, is that we each stand before the judgment seat of God. The line of righteous and unrighteous runs not between ourselves and our neighbour, but right through us. Each of us have actions and attitudes befitting the peaceable kingdom of God (the wheat of kindness, mercy, joy, and love) and actions and attitudes that are marked by sin (the chaff of selfishness, apathy, cruelty, and fear). When judgment comes it is not so much an act of sorting out the people who have been mostly good from those who have been altogether bad, nor simply ticking off those in Christ compared to those outside of the covenant. No, the judgment of God is an act of God’s purifying fire which separates out and burns away those aspects of ourselves that are unchristlike. God’s love comes in judgement to deliver us from the impulses and habits that cause harm, that estrange us from one other, God, and ourselves. As those made from the clay of the earth, we return to the kiln so that God’s may refine us, healing the damage caused by sin, and forming us back into the divine image we were created to bear.
God’s judgment is not about working out who to gleefully punish, but how to bring to fruition the beauty and peace of the new creation. Judgment is required because there are evils in our world and in our hearts that are incompatible with peace and justice, and must be cut away to make possible something new, something more fitting for a banquet.
The universality of judgment goes hand in hand with the centrality of confession in the Christian faith. Confession is meant to abate easy categorisation of us and them, saint and sinner. It reminds us that there are aspects of our person that fall short of the glory of God – insecurities that cause us to lash out, habits that lead to self-centredness, traumas that repeat cycles, prejudices we hold (sometimes against our better intentions, sometimes without us even being aware). These too, need to be reformed or cut away by the love of God which comes toward us in judgment and mercy.
This doesn’t mean – in the current age – that every person is just as bad as the other, that a war criminal is to be spoken of in the same breath as someone who neglects to give to the poor; there is great wickedness in this world, perpetrators of tremendous harm who need to be confronted, removed from positions to do harm, held accountable for actions, and ideally reformed and restored to community. Whole social, political, and economic systems of injustice, inequality, and indignity need to be dismantled and reforged, and Christians are called to this work.
Instead, this admission of the ways in which we are all – in different ways – not ready to live within the peaceable kingdom reminds us of the work we need to be doing to pursue peace and compassion in our own lives. It urges us to resist the temptation to place people into simple compartments and believe that God must see the world in the same way we do. And it reminds us that the teaching, vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, is good news… for it reminds us that while all worldly judgments are temporary and flawed, God’s judgment is of a different order all together. God comes not in wrath, nor in fear, rather the judgment of God comes toward each of us in order to restore, redeem, and bring about something new. God’s judgment is about stopping evil so that good may flourish. It is the act which brings a new age where swords will be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall no longer lift sword against nation. God’s perfect and loving judgment readies us live together, stripped of all that brought forth enmity, suffering, and strife. God’s judgment sanctifies us to live in the perfect presence of the beloved Son. In the meantime, having given up the right to final, divine judgment, we are freed to live together in a new way, freed to seek peace and justice in our own time, freed, as Paul says, to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, The Last Judgment (1912)
Readings: Hosea 11:1-4, 7-9, Hebrews 11:23-28, Matthew 2:13-18
The question of evil is one we can never really escape. Why do so many bad things happen, why do so many suffer untimely and unavoidable deaths, and how is any of this reconcilable with all we say about God’s love, goodness, and power?
Sometimes, I think, well, it’s an unanswerable question, nothing satisfactory can be said – all we have is God’s presence amidst the pain, God’s promise that one day pain will end, and so rather than seeking an answer let us just attend to the work of justice and mercy and love as best we can with the time we have, letting these questions slide away.
And then you stand in front of your year 3 scripture class, speaking about God’s perfect love, or God’s power in Jesus to heal the sick, and the kids ask you straight up – well why doesn’t God just stop COVID.
Last month, when we were preparing the kidzchurch nativity play, one of the kids asked us if Herod was going to be part of the play. We then got to talking about the chronology of the story and how, despite the massacre, God protects the baby Jesus by warning Joseph, so that was good news… to which she asked the most important question, which was (more or less): why didn’t God also protect the other children?
The question of suffering and evil, demands attention.
Matthew takes pains in his gospel to connect the story of Jesus with the story of Moses. Naturally here, the massacre of the innocents by Herod, recalls to mind the massacre of the Hebrew babies by Pharaoh; the salvation of the infant Jesus mirrors that of the infant Moses, placed among the reeves. Jesus, like Moses, escapes the violent tyranny of a despot, only to return to bring deliverance to the captives.
And so, one strategy to satiate the question from kidzchurch might be to point to this literary and theological tradition, to demonstrate the way Matthew is making a larger, perhaps even symbolic point and not to get hung up on the details of these innocent deaths – they serve to illustrate a greater truth, to point to a confession about Jesus and the world…
Interjection 1… and yet that’s hardly satisfying! Because even if that is true of the innocents of this story in Matthew, it can hardly be said about the many innocents of history who called on the name of the Lord but received no earthly deliverance, what about their suffering?
Absolutely, and to start one might say, look, at least the Bible is honest. The world is cruel and violent, and that cannot be ignored. Indeed, as we explored in the lead up to Christmas, part of what makes Christmas good news, is that Jesus is born into times such as these, into a world of suffering, a world yearning for justice, redemption, peace. If the Bible ignored the reality of evil, if it silenced the lament of those who suffer, if it stifled the questions of the harmed, what good would it serve any of us… instead, the story of God’s loving presence and God’s work of salvation is woven into the story of a violent, tragic, chaotic world. To which, a new voice retorts: [SLIDE]
Interjection 2 … why does the second of those stories (that of worldly violence and injustice) seem to triumph – or at the very least persevere – in spite of the story of God’s love and promise… couldn’t God’s love, God’s power be a little more visible?
Now here, one might point to the question of freedom. Human beings, created – adorned with honour and glory – must have freedom, lest we be simple automatons. We must have the freedom to act. Of course, when given the freedom to act, some see the suffering man on the street and cross the road, and others go to his aid, some achieve levels of power and influence and use that to preserve justice and equality, and others use it to crush all opposition. Human freedom, a gift of a loving God, can, because of sin, be abused and innocents suffer… someday all will be redeemed, including our own hearts and minds, so that this freedom will only be exercised in the way of love, but that day has not come.
Interjection 3… I don’t think that day will ever come because of the many reasons you have already stated above. All persons have the freedom to think but may not have or believe they can act or speak and show that love for one another because of embarrassment, cost, retribution and control by others more powerful than them.”
So if the day can’t come without God, without the eschaton, surely, we might say, enough tears have been shed, surely Rachel has wept enough, why doesn’t God bring about the promised end when every tear shall be wiped away and we shall study war no more? If there is a way out of the brokenness that allows a Herod or a Pharoah to perform unmitigated (and often unpunished) evil, why doesn’t God bring that to fruition in our days… or some century long past? How many, suffering in ways we cannot fathom, have called out for the Lord to bring about the great day of judgment so that their suffering will cease, their redemption will come, their hopes realised?
Interjection 4 … but yes, amidst all that was life – so much life in all its variety, beauty, compassion, tenderness, and touch – amidst even the most vicious of times people fell in love, produced profound art, sang songs together, enjoyed the scent of flowers, the feel of sunshine, the laughter of children, the wonder of community… the great mystery of being alive!
Yes, No one’s life is just one thing, and no one time is either… there are some whose lives were cut off before anything could come after suffering, but others have suffered a great deal and then their life became something else, that brought immeasurable happiness… no one person, from one point in history can make the call to end history; this is why no one, not even the angels, know the appointed time of the day of the Lord.
But here another voice might say…
Of course, we now see how this can go on and on… I mean, that’s the book of Job right, a host of reasons and rebuttals for the existence of suffering. It is not a modern concern, we have never lived without these questions and conversations. And again, I don’t bring this up to valorise the earlier position of “oh well, it’s all been discussed, let’s just focus on the presence and promise of God and get on with whatever good works we can” – though I don’t think that is an unhelpful approach. Instead I bring up the unfinishable nature of this conversation on suffering and life and evil and hope to draw us all in together.
I imagine at different points in this sermon you have identified more with some arguments, less with others, found some convincing, others infuriating – perhaps your feeling on the matter went entirely unsaid. For some the reality of suffering, personal or not, becomes too much to hold within the reality of God and so God can no longer be comprehended as active… for others the reality of suffering draws them closer to God… for many it is a bit of both.
To return to today’s readings, what might each of these offer us as we take up this ongoing conversation, as we consider what it means to be the church in between the reality of suffering and the promise and presence of God?
From the letter of Hebrews, we are encouraged by the example of the parents of Moses and the midwives; who were not afraid of Pharoah, and risked everything to preserve life. We are encouraged to follow the example of Moses, who chose the ill-treatment of his people rather than align with the mighty and enjoy the transitory pleasures of sin. In the face of the world’s pain, we, as Christians, are encouraged to stand in solidarity with the suffering, to risk our own comfort for justice, to choose love over fear, never giving way to the nihilism of evil, but the rewards (earthly and otherwise) that come from faithful living.
From the Gospel we are reminded that Rachel refused to be consoled, for her children are no more. We do not need to rush to silver linings, stifle grief, explain away tragedy… we do not need to assert a meaning in everything, nor insist that what people mean for evil God turns to good. If the church cannot be a place for the inconsolable grief at the violence and injustice of our world, then it is not ready to receive Emmanuel, who though he held the power of resurrection, wept for his friend Lazarus, lying in a tomb.
From the prophet Hosea we are drawn back to the steadfast, unwavering love of God. Despite the ways Israel contributed to their own calamity, God does not abandon them in their suffering. Instead, God recalls the relationship, as one of loving parent and child – God is the One who nursed Israel and taught them to walk. Despite human arrogance and apathy, God speaks,
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
My heart recoils within me,
My compassion grows altogether warm.
And here’s the vital bit, God says:
For I am God and not a mortal
(Unlike we who are so quick to anger and forget, so ready to hold grudges, to let our love diminish in the face of mistreatment (understandably of course), God is not like us… God isn’t a mortal whose love is conditional and finite, but God is love, God is love, The Holy One in our midst, who will not come in wrath).
Whether or not, after everything else, this is enough, this is what we are promised. God loves us and cannot give up on us. God loves us and lives among us amidst the horror, fragility, and violence of our world, in order to confront that which binds us. And God has never left us without faithful examples – be they midwives, prophets, saints, or martyrs –who exemplify and inspire us to live lives that neither ignore or accept the suffering and injustice of our world, but confront it – even at great personal cost – in the faith that with God, life and love will not be vanquished.
Image: Salvador Dali, Out of Egypt I have Called My Son (1967)
Readings Proverbs 23:22-25, Psalm 8, 1 John 5:1-5
Christmas is the season where we are reminded of the lengths God goes to, the action God takes, the love God shows to demonstrate what the Psalmist says is true:
What are we that you should be mindful of us?
Those born of women that you should seek us out?
You have made us little lower than God,
You adorn us with glory and honour. (trans. Gafney)
Christmas is the season in which we celebrate that God chooses to become incarnate, to take on flesh and live among us, to grow up in community learning the wisdom of his people, formed in the household of Mary and Joseph. God chooses to do this out of God’s freedom and delight in creation. God chooses to draw in near in Jesus to reconcile the cosmos, God desires the redemption of all things, to conquer the fallenness of this world with love.
Christmas is the season in which we recall that God, in Jesus, lives a life of perfect righteousness, not only so this righteousness might be imparted unto us, but so that we might always have the beautiful image of Christ by which to guide and form and shape the Christian life. Christ’s perfect righteousness makes a way for those who follow and believe to also conquer the world. Conquer, not through force, coercion, or violence, but through the small (often unnoticed and unreported) decisions to love the children of God.
Christmas is the season where we are drawn once more to the detail of Jesus’ life – to the way in which he lived so that we might live, to the way in which he loved so that we might love, to the way in which he proclaimed good news so that we might proclaim good news, to the way he confronted injustice and restored wholeness so that we might confront injustice and restore wholeness, to the way in which Christ (born of woman whilst fully God) chose to stand with humanity, to live amongst us in our brokenness, fragility, and hope, so that we Christians (those born of woman though little lower than a God) might stand in solidarity with those who suffer, might live together in our shared brokenness, fragility, and hope, so that we might encourage one another in love and good deeds, being known by our love for one another.
It is such a life, attempted if not perfected, that the proverb speaks,
The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice;
The one who produces a wise child will be glad in her.
Let your mother and father be glad;
Let her who birthed you rejoice. (trans. Gafney)
It is such a life that we attempt to lead, not to earn God’s love, or secure a place at God’s table. No, such a life is lived in response to Christ’s own life, in reflection of God’s own initiating love. Such a life is a response to the determined joy of God to adorn us with honour and glory.
This is the kind of life we attempt to live because of Christmas, because God has chosen to be Emmanuel, with us and for us, in life, death, and resurrection glory! This is the kind of life we live because the Light and Life of the World was not overcome by the darkness, but has achieved for us victory over sin and death. This is the kind of life we live because in stepping in and standing with humanity, Christ – who knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the kind of life we live because Christ, who in reconciling all things to God, charged us to be ambassadors of reconciliation. The kind of life we live because in Christ we have been made a child of God, and a child of God seeks to keep the commandments of God – to love one another, as God has loved us!
Christmas is the season in which we reflect on what God, in Christ has done for us, so that we might know what we, as those in Christ, might do for others. Amen
Image, Rowan LeCompte and Irene Matz LeCompte Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus (detail), 1970
Readings Isaiah 52:7-10 & Luke 2:1-14
Christmas movies tend to walk a fine line between the sweet and the sappy, the touching and the saccharine, hopeful and glib. The reason for this, in part, is that Christmas itself, is an incredibly sincere holiday. In its earnest appeals to the power of community, love, and charity it permits almost no irony. And a large source of this sincerity comes from what we see in our readings today: the Christmas emphasis of peace on earth.
It has become easy to be cynical about peace. To roll eyes at dreams of ‘world peace.’ Early in the C20th, when the war to end all wars turned out to be only the first world war of that century, which itself was followed by innumerable civil conflicts, ethnic cleansings, acts of terrorism, and neo-colonial occupations, a belief in a lasting, global peace feels like something many of us have put away as a childish thing.
And yet, when the choir of angels light up the shepherd’s sky they sing: glory to God and peace on earth! Fear not, the Prince of Peace is born, rejoice: Glory to God and peace on earth! We hear these words and think back to what God proclaims through Isaiah,
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace…
Peace is such a sublime and joyous announcement that even the calloused, dirty, sweaty feet of the messenger who has run barefoot across field and mountain might be declared beautiful. Because their arrival means the arrival of peace… it means good news, it means that the Lord has comforted God’s people… and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
The sincerity of Christmas and its ardent message of peace is not meant to make us feel bad for the way we have grown accustomed to war and conflict. We are not guilted for having forgotten or neglected in prayer the conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Myanmar, West Papua. Rather, Christmas reminds us it is not childish, naïve, or irresponsible to yearn and work and pray for peace. It might appear foolish given the state of the world and our knowledge of human history to this point, and yet, Paul reminds us, Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Is not the foolishness of God on full display at Christmas – the birth of the Messiah takes place amidst social scandal and governmental tyranny. God calls an unmarried peasant woman the Lord’s most favoured and entrusts to her the agent of the world’s redemption. God takes on flesh and promises deliverance to the captives with no army or cataclysm, choosing only love, fellowship, and that strange paradoxical cross that brings life through the snares of death. Isn’t it foolish to make the first announcement of Jesus’ birth to shepherds – to tell them with all sincerity and earnestness, glory to God and peace on earth?
And yet, such foolishness is what we are provoked by each Christmas. We are reminded and drawn back toward such an earnest hope for peace and asked to allow such a reminder to gently correct the ways in which we have accepted as inevitable the violence of our world. This doesn’t mean we ignore the complexity and scale of the world and its woes, but we don’t define the what can be by the what has been… after all, if we did that there’d be no Christmas.
The impossibility of Christmas asks us to put aside cynicism, to lay down irony, to give up worldly wisdom, and embrace the sincere, ardent, and foolish belief that with God nothing is impossible… not even peace. It is from here that we begin. It is not up to us to bring peace in its fullness (that will be God’s doing), but we are invited to participate in its forestates. The angels’ praise recalled each Christmas is an invitation to work sincerely for peace in our world, our communities, our families, and our own heart – it is an invitation to set our course by the star which announced the most impossible arrival of the Prince of Peace.
Merry Christmas: Glory to God and Peace on Earth!
The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 5 - Lost in the Crowd (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem)
From our Christmas Eve Service.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
The Census at Bethlehem, by Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1566 concludes our December series on the Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings, and provides us an opportunity to consider what it means that the place and manner of Jesus’ birth is determined by governmental decree.
There are some 200 figures going about daily life in this painting, many cramped in the corner to be registered and pay their tax. Toward the bottom, Mary, dressed in blue, is led forward on a donkey by Joseph. But they are hardly noticeable. They blend in amidst the masses, who are being forced to uproot their lives on the whims of foreign oppressors. Bruegel has been praised for the work’s political commentary – connecting the oppression of the Jews in Palestine suffering under a foreign military power (Rome) and the plight of his own Flanders being ruled (and harshly taxed and persecuted) by Spain. Into both contexts comes the holy family, into both contexts comes the promise of Emmanuel, but into both contexts they are almost unrecognisable…
It is the very indistinguishability of the Holy Family that matters most in this painting and in the story in Luke. They are not exempt from the emperor’s decree even though Mary bears the true King. They receive no special treatment in David’s city, even though Mary bears the Messiah come from the line of David. Their names are written on that census just like everyone else… listed with all those who lived at that time. In this Luke, and Bruegel, remind us that Christmas is the story of Emmanuel, God with Us, of the loving choice of God to take on flesh and live among us. At Christmas we celebrate that God has never chosen to remain aloof or aloft from humanity, but has elected that God’s history and our history will be a common history (Barth).
The census reminds us that we should we ever fear that Christ has indeed come to live among us and die and rise for us, look to the registry.
And Christ is registered and thus present among and with us in each and every generation. Bruegel understood this. His painting reminds us that if Christ was born amongst the Jews of Palestine taxed to fund their own persecution, so too is Christ born amongst the exploited Flemish Protestants of the C16th. And when we consider and pray for those sites of persecution, exploitation, dispossession, migration, yearning, and resistance around the world tonight, we can confess that there too, huddled and perhaps hidden in the crowd, is the Holy Family, there too Christ is born to deliver and redeem.
May our eyes be trained, by readings, carols, community and art, to seek and find Christ in these places, so that we might follow him into the crowd, placing our own names on the registry of the world’s population, standing together in the pursuit and promise of deliverance, justice, and redemption.
The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 4 - Christmas Comes in Times Such as These (Katherine Kenny Bayly, The Passion of Mary)
Image: Katherine Kenny Bayly (American, 1945–), The Passion of Mary, before 2006. Collage on paper, 8 × 12 in.
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 and Luke 2: 15-35
Last week we touched on the joy of Mary as she is greeted by Elizabeth. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit exclaims to Mary, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Mary, considering these words, sings her famous Magnificat, acknowledging that in receiving favour from God, all generations will call me blessed.
We pick up from there in the gospel reading today, Mary, the God-bearer, is greeted by the shepherds who tell her about their remarkable encounter with the angels. And Mary, we read, treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
The joy and good news continues for Mary when she brings the infant Jesus to the Temple. Simeon shares gleefully that in seeing Jesus he has seen God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people Israel. Mary is amazed once more.
From Gabriel’s annunciation, to Elizabeth’s joy, to the shepherds account, to Simeon’s glorifying, Mary has much to treasure and ponder, much to bring her joy, much to shape and affirm her calling as the mother of the Incarnate God – his nurturer and first teacher.
Katherine Kenny Bayly’s collage, The Passion of Mary, combines Michelangelo’s Pietà with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre. So far, what Mary (and we) have heard provides perfect motivation for the painted, La Hyre, portions of this collage. Mary joyfully and meaningfully embracing the Christ child, looking at him and cradling his head in love and adoration. Perhaps singing her song to the babe in her care, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.
And yet, there’s a turn… this very soul which magnifies the Lord, this very soul which has been pondering and treasuring this abundance of good news and wonder, Simeon says, a sword will pierce [this] soul too.
Mary’s child, who Gabriel announced will be called the Son of the Most High, who Elizabeth called her Lord, who the angels declared saviour, who Simeon named God’s light for all people, this same child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
This turn, this surprising and devastating counter-weight to all that has so far been announced, serves to interrupt the good news and wonder so far treasured and pondered. This interruption is so well captured in the over half of Bayly’s collage. The serene and undisturbed image of adoring mother cradling her lively young child is interrupted, unsettled, and pierced by the image of the grieving mother cradling her dead adult child. Michelangelo’s Pietà, one of the most famous Easter images, crashes into Christmas – for the one who found favour with God and blessing among women, a sword shall piece her own soul too.
No one’s life is one dimensional – not even Mary (herself so often reduced to a picturesque statue or symbol of meek and mild). Even the God-bearer is not insulated from the world – Mary has desires and determination, she experiences joy and terror, she theologises and teaches, she nurtures and asserts, she celebrates and she grieves. Because Mary, like all of us, lives in times such as these… times marked by seasons beyond our control: times to plant and pluck up, to weep and laugh, to mourn and dance, to keep silence and speak, to seek and lose. Bayly’s collage embodies these dichotomous times… a time to embrace your infant child in the perfect peace of their safe deliverance, and a time to embrace your adult child in the distraught desolation of their untimely and unjust death. Not all of us will experience the same times as Mary, but all of us know too well that life is never one season, never one time, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.
And so this painting draws us closer to the meaning of Christmas. First by bringing us nearer the fullness of Mary, in all her complexity, agency, and fragility, and then by reminding us that the story of Christmas, like the story of Christ, like the story of we Christians does not take place in insulated and idealistic times, but in times such as these, the time of seasons: rain and shine, birth and death. Christmas comes in times such as these for it is these times that need the salvation God has prepared for all people. It is these times that need good news to treasure and ponder in our hearts. It is in times of swords that we need most the Prince of Peace.
Christmas is the story of the eternal God moving into time, taking on flesh and finitude. It is the story of God, who is outside of time, and not subject to seasons, being born into time. This does not mean that time thus has mastery over God, but it is so God might redeem time itself. God steps into history to demonstrate God’s steadfast love in the midst of the changing seasons, and to show that though there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, there will be a time when we shall live on earth as it is in heaven… a time is appointed (though we know not when) when we shall live without sorrow or violence, we shall live without the sting of death, without fear and threat, absence and injustice, where the swords that piece the souls will be beaten into ploughshares, where the dead shall rise, where we shall walk together in the land of the living and sit at banquet tables in the household of God. A time is approaching where the feelings of peace, purpose, and joy that we – like Mary – experience in those moments where we gaze with love on Jesus, or one another, will no longer be interrupted, disturbed, or pierced.
Let us encourage one another to live in this time, like that time is coming, enjoying and sharing its foretastes in our life together amidst the seasons.
Readings Isaiah 55:10-56:1 and Luke 1:39-45
Image: Sawai Chinnawong's Nativity, (2004), Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 37 in.
This is our third painting in our series on the meaning of Christmas, and it is perfectly suited to this week of Advent. Because what this painting reveals to me about the meaning of Christmas, is that Christmas is joyful!
Now to say that Christmas is joyful is not intended to diminish or dismiss the many ways that Christmas can be a time of deep pain – when loss and absence is all the more acute. For this reason, tonight some of us will go to Forestville Uniting Church to take part in their blue Christmas service. Joy is never meant to be a forced emotion and so to say that joy is part of the meaning of Christmas is to say something else entirely.
For it is in the midst of terror and struggle that Isaiah proclaims that the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song as God brings deliverance and redemption. This promise of justice and salvation is given to people experiencing brutality and desperation, and joy springs forth!
In the same way, Elizabeth and Mary greet one another in the hills: the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and Mary bursts forth into song. This is the hard won joy of two women living in a time of persecution and violence, whose own pregnancies have been nothing but simple – but who know, nothing is impossible with God. Elizabeth in her old age will have joy and gladness, for her son will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord. And Mary, the favoured one, blessed among women, in her virginity and scandal will bear a son, and he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… he will reign over the house of Jacob and of his kingdom there will be no end…
Into generations of waiting, into a nation of suffering, into a world of yearning, the joy of these miraculous births signals the joy of the Lord, and the joy of the Lord is our strength! The joy of Christmas is active, bursting forth in surprising ways. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and a gift of a people who have not lost hope that the word that goes out from God’s mouth will not return empty, but shall accomplish salvation and deliverance.
And so this painting reminds us of the power of joy and the meaning of Christmas – not only for Mary and Joseph – but for the whole community of Christ. His extended family, his neighbours, his nation – all those in Israel praying for the coming Messiah. This painting also reminds us that given the culture of the time it was unlikely to just be Mary, Joseph, and a gaggle of farm animals present at the birth of Christ – the wider family and many more incidentally related folk would have been there, and the sound of their joy might have rivalled the sound of the angels hallelujah being sung a few miles away to a group of shepherds, rivalled even the song of the mountains and hills!
Christ was born into a community who needed good news, and his birth brought forth great joy. Sadly, over the next few years, the sounds of this joy will be replaced by the wailing grief brought on by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. But the world’s violence and the grief it brings is never strong enough to crush the joy of Christ’s birth.
And so we pray it might be for us. That amidst the pangs and worries of those absent to us in this season, that amidst the fears and lament over wars and injustice, that amidst the reminders of all the many ways this world can be ugly and cruel, there are moment where the joy of Christ’s birth bursts forth. Where that joy is heard in the songs of Mary, the angels, and the mountains. Where that joy is felt in the gathering of friends, family, and church. Where that joy warms our hearts in the familiar and fresh story of Christmas. Where that joy erupts in the promise that salvation and deliverance will come, that there will be a day unlike today. This joy does not smother all else we feel, it lives beside it, as Christ himself will live beside his people, in all their fear, loss, love, and hope, proclaiming good news, the deliverance of the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favour!
The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 2 - Jesus was Fully Human (John Everett Milas, Christ in the House of his Parents)
Readings 2 John 1:1-10, Matthew 1:18-25
John Everett Milas painted Christ in the House of his Parents (The Carpenter’s House) around 1849 and by golly did it cause controversy.
Those who read the e-news will have already seen this, but Charles Dickens, acclaimed (and beloved) author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and (importantly) A Christmas Carol despised this painting. Of the figure of Mary (in the centre in blue) he wrote, "so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England" and that Jesus resembled, "wry-necked, blubbering red-headed boy in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke ... playing in an adjacent gutter."
What was it in this representation of the Holy Family that elicited such anger and disgust from Dickens? And what might all this have to do with the meaning of Christmas?
Let’s get to that by way of our readings. Our reading from Matthew will be well known to many. Our reading from the second letter of John (that small little book, covering only about half a page right at the back of your bible) is perhaps a little less known. Both, however, are concerned with a central testimony of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ was fully human.
Jesus, to go back to the creeds, was born of Mary. Borrowing the words of O Come All Ye Faithful, "Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb," Jesus did not come to earth any other way than the way we all come to earth: born – a human baby, of a human mother. Immaculate as his conception might be, it does not take away from the ordinary humanness of his birth – and all the things that go with it (with apologies to Away in a Manger, I’m sure our Lord did a little bit of crying that first Silent Night). The openings of the Gospel of Matthew take pains to stress the birth of Jesus, not only in the narrative today, but in what surrounds it: the genealogy to place Jesus within a particular lineage and history, the detail given to the character of his parents, and the context in which they lived. Let no one opening a New Testament miss it, this Jesus you are about to meet, he is Emmanuel, God with us, and he was born of Mary, he is fully human.
Sometimes the fullness of this humanity can be difficult to grapple with. It asks us to admit that Jesus experienced the complete vulnerability of infancy – relying on the adults in his life for every need basic to his survival. It asks us to accept that Jesus learnt – in the way we all do, observing and listening to those around him. Jesus scuffed knees, got dirty, celebrated rites and rituals, and grew up in a family that laboured and toiled under difficult conditions.
And yet, just a generation or so after his death there are some within the community of Christians who are propagating the idea that Jesus was not actually human after all… he was certainly God, he was absolutely divine, undeniably transcendent… and because of that he cannot possibly be human… that would be unseemly, utterly unfitting for a God to take on flesh and dwell among us… I mean, have you seen us have you seen flesh?
And so, the author of the second letter of John has to write to the woman leading this Christian community and say, Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It is not for nothing that the first letter of John opens We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. This Jesus, the one we are always talking about – we saw him and more importantly we touched him! Retreating earlier in the corpus of John, the gospel ends with scenes of Thomas putting his hands in the wounds of the resurrected Christ and Jesus sitting on the beach and eating fish with his disciples – this man had a body, which could be touched, which ate, which shared rooms with us. This is what it means to say the word took on flesh and lived among us. Jesus, however immaculate his conception, however miraculous his resurrection, however full his divinity is human, fully human, no caveats or conditions.
And so we return to this painting and observe that what lies beneath its vehement rejection by those such as Dickens, is that this painting dares to present a human (and rather ordinary and mundane) holy family. The realism of the carpenter’s workshop (with its dirt and offcuts), the “plainness” of Mary and the balding of Joseph, the woundedness of Jesus who was – believe it or not – considered a little too Jewish in this painting… all of this combines to affront the viewer by making the holy family and the youthful saviour as too ordinary, too ugly, too human. Against the tradition of a beautiful, serene, ever-virginal Mary and a gorgeous, stoic, stern Jesus, and a sort of absent but if not then just kind of there Joseph, we are presented with a familiar and approachable domestic scene. The whole family at work, in a place well-worn by their labour, all now paused with concern to remove a splinter from the hand of the child who didn’t know you couldn’t run your hand across untreated wood. The very ordinariness of the scene is an affront to those who cannot abide the idea of a God who would get down in the muck of life, a God who would suffer, a God who would face the humiliation of public execution, a God who would need to rely on and learn from others, a God who needed to be nursed, a God who abhorred not the virgin’s womb.
And while we might chuckle at Dickens, and consider those who proposed an angelic Jesus floating an inch off the ground a relic of Christianity’s strange history with heretics, the true ethical danger posed by such an inability to see and accept a human Jesus, is that we become unable to see and accept Jesus in the humans he told us he would be present with… the hungry, the stranger, the imprisoned, the naked, the least and last of our world, the wretched of the earth, those most plain and unremarkable of people.
And so this painting draws us to the meaning of Christmas; Jesus Christ (Emmanuel) was born of Mary – he was a child who cried and nursed and learnt and grew. He was a boy raised in a poor family, who were forced to flee their homeland to escape persecution, who worked with their hands to survive. He was a boy who – as a carpenter’s son – got a splinter or two… it is in such places of modesty, humility, and vulnerability that the mission of God to reconcile and redeem all things took place, and it is in such places that we might encounter Emmanuel, God with us, today… if only we are ready to look.
Image: John Everett Milas, Christ in the House of his Parents (The Carpenter’s House) around 1849. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents-the-carpenters-shop-n03584
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.