Readings, Genesis 9:8-17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22
Image, The Rainbow: Study for 'Bathers at Asnières,' Georges Seurat (1883)
Today’s readings lead us into Lent, the church’s season of repentance and preparation, with two reminders:
Earlier this week, I was speaking with a young guy who was very passionate about justice actively organising campaigns on climate, refugees, Gaza. He asked what had inspired me in the past to get involved with justice campaigns and action. I was able to share about how both my faith motivates a love of justice and relationships within the Christian community played a key part in guiding our activity. But what I also noted, was that a key way faith and relationships play in drawing one into the work of justice is that they allow a path for repentance without shame.
I think one of the principal barriers prohibiting people committing to a justice issue, is that we must accept that the world is worse than we want to believe or have experienced. We have to accept, for example, that the astronomical and devastating statistics about domestic violence are in fact true (and who would want to accept such a thing). And if true, then also they are closer to home than we would like (present in our neighbourhoods, community organisations, schools, sport clubs, and churches). We then have to accept that these are not isolated, individual occurrences, but there are insidious and harmful views and values baked into our culture, which we have imbibed and need to do the work of unlearning and relearning.
It is difficult to stay open through this process. It is difficult to remain open to the truth. All the more so today with the onslaught of news, exposing us to a preponderance of tragedies happening around our world in real time, and the rigorous work of history exposing us to injustices and atrocities long swept out of view.
To be confronted with the prevalence of sin and harm in our communities, world, and history is not easy. We can quickly become ashamed that we didn’t know, that we hadn’t spoken, that we might have profited, that we could be unconsciously complicit. And shame is a negative spiral. Shame grabs right at the core of our being and activities that flight/fight/freeze response. When confronted with the truth of the scope of injustice and harm, it is so easy to run, to push away, to shut our ears and hearts. Insisting that the rose is on the bloom is one of the more understandable human responses to ugliness. And all the more understandable when we are alone.
The call for us to acknowledge the truth, repent of our sin, and take up the work of justice that lies before us, is impossible alone. Alone it feels awful, immense, impossible. Alone guilt and shame dominate the conversation. Alone we falter and flail without hope.
Lent is not meant to be about shame; it is about readiness. Repentance is not self-flagellation; it is a return to Christ. Truth is not scary; it sets us free. Justice is not punitive; it is restorative. To confront sin, we first must comprehend grace. To confess we must know we have been forgiven. To take up our cross we must first behold the empty tomb. For it is only when we know, deep in our bones, how loved we are, how safe we are, how accompanied we are, how saved we are, that we are ready to receive the truth of the world and ourselves, to repent and return, and to go forth in love for the sake of the world.
And so we begin Lent with these reminders. 1) The bow in the sky signifies the promise of God’s covenant with all of creation which shall not be forsaken. And 2) Christ has died once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that all shall be brought closer to God. Christ even went to those spirits in prison, thought condemned from the days of Noah, to proclaim deliverance and salvation. We cannot be cut off or estranged from God’s love. We shall not perish, for the one granted all authority over heaven and earth has shared all things with us.
It is only after all this is accomplished, only on the heels of this promise, only within the covenant, only when we know ourselves as under the umbrella of grace that we can begin the work of confession, repentance, and renewal. It is from here that we can tell the truth about ourselves and face the truth about our world and not be struck down by shame, stuck in apathy, or led away by falsehood. It is only from here that we can look rightly at the sin in our hearts, homes, and world and trust that we can make a change, trust that we can work for justice, trust that what has been doesn’t need to determine what will be. It is from the sphere of nurture that is the saving grace and restorative love of Christ Jesus our Lord that we begin our Lenten journey. Let us not fear, nor let us delay, the Spirit is calling, repent, be reconciled, and become the righteousness of God.
Readings, Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Mark 9:2-10
Image, Maquette for tapestry 'Death and transfiguration,’ John Coburn (1986)
We have reached the end of Epiphany. Ash Wednesday is days away and with it Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. Through the season of Epiphany the glory of Christ is slowly revealed. The Wise Men arrive before the Christ child with gifts and praise. At the temple Simeon and Anna recognise him as the messiah. At his baptism a heavenly voice proclaims his belovedness. The first disciples witness signs of his power. And now, atop the mountain, the heavenly voice returns, Moses and Elijah surround Christ, transfigured in dazzling light.
We enter Lent having seen Christ’s glory revealed and proclaimed by Gentiles in their pilgrimage, Israelites in their hope, demons in their anguish, and the heavens in their majesty. The hope of Advent and the joy of Christmas are vindicated in Epiphany – we were right to wait, right to rejoice, for Jesus Christ is the glorified one of God.
And yet we move into Lent, where Christ is revealed to also be the man of sorrows, crowned with thorns. Opposition increases, contest heightens, confusion abounds, tragedy looms. Right back at the beginning of Epiphany, Simeon warned Mary that Jesus was destined for the falling and rising of many of Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, and that this would mean a sword will pierce [her] own soul too. And now, as Jesus is enshrined in light atop the mountain and yet chooses to step back down to the woes, worries, and violence of the world he came to save that sword draws ever closer to its target.
For the story of Christ is never one thing… or perhaps, it is, but that one thing is the story of glory amidst and through crisis. For the glory of Christ’s birth is followed by the massacre of the innocents. The glory of Christ’s baptism is accompanied by John’s arrest and execution. The glory of Christ’s miracles is accompanied by antagonism. The glory of Christ’s teaching is met with confusion and rejection. The glory of the Last Supper is punctuated by betrayal. The glory of Palm Sunday is followed by the trauma of Good Friday. This is not a fault in the plan of the incarnation, nor an unforeseen side-effect of the mission of Emmanuel. This is what it means for God to take seriously the world as it is and yet choose to be with and for us. This is the holy one coming to dwell in a fractured world and choosing not to enforce glory and submission on the creature, but to invite us into fellowship through the proclamation of good news and the ministry of mercy.
Glory revealed amidst crisis is good news, because we know all too well the world is neither all one thing or another. Crisis and pain abound, but they are not all there is. Glory and joy break through, but they are not perpetual. Christ walked among us in a world of mountains and plains, and he abides with us today as we traverse our own peaks and valleys.
It is for this reason we have the commands; a vision of the world as God wills it. The beautiful passage we heard read from Leviticus is the heart of the book, the heart of the ethical code of the Torah. It crescendos with the (equal) greatest commandment: love your neighbour as yourself. But this command doesn’t come out of nowhere; love takes a concrete and communal form, a structured, societal form. It is not simply a matter of affection, but action, not simply kindness, but justice.
Because how else will we, as a community, buffer ourselves against the harsh winds of the world’s crises? How else will we organise ourselves to protect and dignify those most likely to feel its harsh effects? Ill-weather falls on all people but it does not affect everyone equally. The poor, the labourer, the refugee, the alien, the blind, the deaf, the widow, the orphan, are all adversely affected by the universal crises of life, not to mention the additional specific and particular crises an unequal society places upon them. And thus what it means to live for the glory of God is to head back down the mountain, back to our neighbours (particularly those most vulnerable and forgotten) and place ourselves amidst the crises of the world offering compassion and advocating a more just order.
The culmination of the season of Epiphany is not to build tents on the mountaintop. Rather it is to draw strength from the power and wonder of Christ’s glory, take up our cross, and return to the world. After all, Christ is already there, his presence hidden amongst those most adversely affected by the world’s crises. Present with those who await most acutely communities that take seriously the ethical responsibility we owe to the least and last.
We who behold the glory of Christ and hope in his resurrection, cannot simply live as if this glory didn’t stake a claim on every corner of our lives. For just as Christ didn’t not regard the glory of equality with God as something to be exploited, nor the mountaintop somewhere to retreat; so too we who have received a spirit of adoption, do not exploit that glory or shelter on mountaintops. Rather, in humility and purpose, we step humbly into the world, ordering our lives after God’s commands so that we might be ready to love our neighbours as ourselves. In the spirit of Epiphany, we stand alongside one another in the crises of the world, constructing shelters and addressing their sources, so that further glory might yet be revealed.
Readings, Isaiah 40: 21-31 and Mark 1: 29-39
Image, Henriette Browne, La Lecture de la Bible (1857)
“What do I love when I love my God?” Saint Augustine asked this most wonderful question that spurs us into thought today. What do I love when I love my God?
Instinctually we might want to propose a simple answer: well, I love God (but we all have different views on what God is/does). We might try and specify by saying, I love Jesus Christ – God made flesh (but there are many competing accounts of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished). This, of course, isn’t a fault in the question, nor in our faith, for our God is no idol but a living God, and Christ is no idea but the crucified and risen one. We cannot fully comprehend or exhaust what there is to know of the holy and divine mystery. Like Moses, we cannot look directly upon the face of God, but see God’s back through a cleft in the rock as the glory passes by.
What do I love when I love my God? We’re not going to do written reflections like in Advent, but I’ve no doubt we would get a fascinating and inspiring range of responses. The ways in which we have encountered God differ, the stories from scripture that sustain us differ, the hymns that form us differ, the needs we have for God in our lives differ. And all of these differences shift and shape how we picture and speak of God, what aspects of God’s nature and activity we are most drawn, or how we understand the good news of great joy.
This does not imply that all these different images of God, appreciations of Christ, and proclamations of good news float about disconnected and untethered. Rather they are interrelated, overlapping, intermingling. Like points on an astronomical chart these differing conceptions and accounts relate to each other because they orbit the one centre: the effusive reality of God’s love as revealed in Christ Jesus. The gravitational pull of this reality holds all our responses together in their differences and delights.
The love of God made known in Christ Jesus is a mysterious infinity (it cannot be controlled or comprehended in totality by any mortal being) and yet – out of God’s generous grace – we are able to approach this mystery, glance at its passing glory, through the event of God taking on flesh and living among us. That God condescends to human likeness means that we can approach the question, what do I love when I love my God and have these personal responses be part of something as concrete and intimate as a church community. We are not all asteroids floating untethered through the darkness. In all our diversity we are held together in the orbit of a singular inexhaustible reality. Indeed, it is this reality that not only makes possible our community, but the confession that there could be (despite all divergence and disagreement) such a thing as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
This is not to say that all accounts of who God is, or what Jesus is like, or what makes up the good news are now relativised and equal. There are beliefs about God and humanity that have and continue to do great harm. Theologies that disregard God’s creation, that dismiss mental health struggles, which see women as lesser, cultivate racial hierarchies, and denigrate trans bodies. It is good to challenge these theologies and offer alternatives that we have seen bear good fruit. We have come to be part of a particular community with faithful commitments through prayer, discernment, and witness, and this is a source of joy.
Holy Scripture, of course, read with community, prayer, and rigour, remains the well-spring through which we consider and construct our response to the question: what do I love when I love my God. From Isaiah’s poetic joy, we are drawn to the wonder of God’s majesty and creative force. God is the one who stretches the heavens out like a curtain. The one so awesome as to make the rulers of the earth seem like nothing. And yet, God is also the one from whom no one is missing. The one who, as Mark will tell it, abhors neither the sick or possessed but comes at once to the bedside of the one laid low to take them by the hand and give power to the faint. God is the one who wills that we shall be renewed, who acts that we might be mount up with wings like eagles, who desires that we who have been fearfully and wonderfully made will run and not be weary, walk and not be faint.
And it is for this reason that the table is set. Because the God we love, first loved us. The God we love searched us out when we were far from home and said follow me. The God we love has a house with many rooms and a banquet with many places. We might not be able to gaze upon the face of the God we love, but the God we love has freely given body and blood so that we might be sustained on our way to the promised end. The God we love says come, all who are weary and I will give you rest. The God we love has given us this meal so that we might orbit nearer the heart of creation. What do I love when I love my God? It is, at least in part, the one who says come as you are to the table of grace.
Readings, Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Cor 8:1-13
Image, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, 1602-1603.
As we grow, the same activity might become increasingly less beneficial. Shoshanna can leap off a high place onto the hard earth and not even flinch. I can recall being able to do similar through my teenage years and perhaps (in the right shoes) into my twenties. Were I to do it now, I might not crumble to dust, but I won’t be able to turn my neck for a fortnight… as the decades pass the carefree leap becomes less a flight into fancy than a crash into reality. All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
Alternatively, anyone who has picked up a new hobby knows that while there may be all kinds of tricks one can learn to expedite a process or revel in wider freedoms, it is not altogether wise to teach that to a beginner. Sure, Rodger Federer can hit a cross-court pass from between his legs, but don’t try that your first afternoon at the local club. All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
This phrase comes just a bit later in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth than what we heard, but the logics are already developing. In a stark contrast to the way Christian ethics are often flattened into a list of do and do not, Paul outlines a far more complex and neighbourly way of determining the appropriateness of any activity.
Paul takes up the question of whether it is ok to eat food offered to idols. And yet he offers neither an unequivocal don’t eat the meat, nor go ahead and eat the meat. For the case of “go ahead and eat” Paul reminds the people that idols do not exist (they aren’t real in and of themselves, but only have the power we give to them) so eat, because all things (including that food) exist in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. God is real, idols are not, sin is vanquished, grace abounds, eat and be merry for these things cannot harm.
However, Paul quickly notes not everyone has this knowledge. There are those in the community who still believe in the reality (and power) of idols. They might see you eating and become confused and unsettled in their faith. And so, for the sake of those weaker members of the faith, refrain from eating the food given to idols.
There are things that are permissible, but not always beneficial, because of what they might communicate to another. Rather than shalt or shalt not, we (as those in Christ, under grace, reconciled and liberated) are given freedom. Yet with freedom comes the responsibility of neighbour love, the compassionate care of our fellow, the encouraging and upbuilding of the community. And so, sometimes, freedom comes with a responsibility to refrain.
How we ought to behave as Christians, what is appropriate Christian ethics, is so often treated simplistically. At the one end we can make our faith an entirely individual matter and not consider how the grace we have received from Christ ought to impact our consumption, treatment of others, or use of our gifts, wealth, and time. At the other end, the entirety of personhood is removed, and we are told exactly how the grace we have received from Christ ought to be followed. We are given a list of do this and don’t do that, with no conception that the ways we move through the world are radically different and diverse influenced by societal structures, cultural mores, family histories that are often wrapped up in sin.
A side effect of such an approach is that it flies in the face of Paul’s main point: Filled with fear that any wrong decision, any misplaced word, any ill-advised mouthful, any inappropriate affiliation risks our salvation, the flattened approach gives too much power to evil, too much credence to malevolence, too much authority to sin. There’s a great line in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which captures this theological misstep. It’s when the villainous Bishop Frollo, blaming his feelings of temptation on another, sings “It’s not my fault, if in God’s plan, He made the devil so much stronger than a man.” No, says Paul, fear not. The Devil is a nothing. There is one God, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we exist… for the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.
Mark’s gospel makes clear that Christ has already triumphed over all other powers. Before recording any teachings, Mark details Jesus’ authority over evil through this confrontation with an unclean spirit. This confrontation and victory (foreshadowing a larger victory) sets the ground for Christian life and ethics, for the shape of the Christian community. Jesus has come, confronted and overcome sin and death, ascended to God’s right hand and been given all authority over heaven and earth. In doing so Christ has dealt with the sin of the world, issued a spirit of adoption, and ushered us all under the umbrella of his grace. We are alive in Christ, and with him we are more than conquerors. It is from this position that we consider what is permissible and what is beneficial, the gift of freedom and responsibility.
To give way to fear and live as if there are monsters in every closet and snares in every snack disregards and diminishes what Christ has done. To scorn the concern of our neighbour and live as if we’re in an ethical vacuum, disregards and diminishes what Christ has called us to do. By grace have received freedom, hallelujah, and community, amen.
Christ’s liberating act draws us into the church. It is with one another that we discern, time and again, how we ought to live together in service of the world. This may be daunting – and in many ways is more complex and time-consuming than the ‘shalt and shalt not’ – but oh is it so much more life-giving, so much more beautiful and noble, and oh is it such a better testament to the freedom and joy that is found in Christ. And though it may be complex, and though all our choices are provisional (open to the changing needs of the community and fresh wind of the Spirit) we should not worry. For we do this work together within an environment perfect love that drives out fear. For what once held dominion is vanquished, and freely we step out into the world as those who live in, with, and through Christ!
Readings, Psalm 139:1-18, 1 Sam 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
Image, Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree), Mark Cazalet (1993)
The story of Samuel’s calling opens with two important details, the word of the Lord was rare in those days, and Samuel was asleep. We are clued in as the reader that Samuel is completely unexpectant of hearing the voice of the Lord (both because of its general rarity and because, well, he’s unconscious).
The story of Nathanael’s calling also contains two important details, his disbelief that anything good can come out of Nazareth, and that he too was asleep. We are clued in as the reader that Nathanael is completely unexpectant of hearing the voice of the Son of God (both because of his presumptions and because, well, he’s unconscious).
That neither is expecting the calling of God in these moments is confirmed by their disbelief. Samuel does not expect God to come to him, Nathanael does not expect God to come to him from over there.
But before we go further with human misgivings, let us dwell on God’s grace. But let’s do it somewhat circuitously. In Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (I warned you this was circuitous), the cursed Dutchman is able to alight from his ship and walk ashore just once every seven years. His only hope to lift the curse is to find a wife who will be true.
On the eve of his allotted time on land, the Dutchman approaches port. Little does he know that waiting ashore is a young woman, Senta, who is devotedly and passionately in love with a portrait (despite not knowing who the portrait is of, or where he is, or if he will arrive). That is until the Dutchman walks into the room, the subject of the portrait and coincidental guest of her father. Before Senta has met the Dutchman, the love is there, a love marked by truth, goodness, and sacrifice, a love that shall redeem. This love is not earnt or elicited, the Dutchman is loved because it is Senta’s character to know, love, and redeem the Dutchman.
God relates to us in such a way. God know us before we have heard God’s voice. And having known us, God loves us first and without reserve. And having loved us, God calls us into freedom and life in the Kingdom of God. God calls us before we know what to listen for, without us having to prove a worthiness of our spirit or the virtue of our labour. God calls us, because God simply is the One who knows us perfectly, elects us freely, and loves us infinitely. While we were still at sea, while we were sleeping, God knows and loves and awaits the moment to awaken us to our redemption and calling. As the psalmist says, I awake, and am still with you... not awake and am now with you, God is there, abiding, enveloping, holding.
So there’s the initiating grace of God, let’s get back to human misgivings. Being a tragic opera, the Dutchman gets in the way of Senta’s perfect love. His insecurities, his past failures, his jealousy and rage burst forth when he suspects Senta’s love of being fickle. He rushes back to his ship and seven more years at sea. But Senta is true to her word, to her love, and she casts herself into the ocean. Her perfect love, sealed in sacrifice, redeems the Dutchman and they ascend together, embraced in free and joyful bliss. A great act for an opera, though not something any are encouraged in our own love lives.
Despite hearing the call of God, Samuel and Nathanael have misgivings. Their misgivings are typical of the two great human misgivings that inhibit our response to God’s call and experiencing the epiphany of God’s glory in our lives: self-dismissal and worldly values.
Samuel, a young apprentice, outside the family of priests, hears the voice of God but rushes to Eli. If the word of the Lord is rare and visions not widespread, why should Samuel assume himself special enough to be one of the chosen few? His arm might be short, but the list of reasons he ought to be called in the night couldn’t reach past the elbow. It’s not even that he doubts that God is calling him, it is simply beyond the categories of the possible. How many, I wonder, would behave the same? How many of us have felt (or been made to feel) that the calling of God, the great work of faith, the commission of the disciple is not for us. We might be able to believe we are loved (sure, isn’t everyone), but called? Known by name? Sought out and led forth? That’s a little too much for one so modest.
Nathanael’s misgivings are built on worldly values. There is a place called Nazareth, which isn’t worth the three syllables it takes to conjugate. If God’s anointed One is going to come from somewhere, it is going to be somewhere else. There are more fitting places to look for the one whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. How many, I wonder, behave the same? Have we missed something God was doing because of who told us about it? Has our image of God and vision of the Kingdom been truncated because we presumed that the only good things to know about God emerged in our own backyard? Have we neglected the presence of Christ in the least of these because the least of these were from the Nazareths of our world? Which would be a little too much to bear for one so respectable.
Thankfully, like Senta hurling herself in the ocean, God does not abandon us to our worst instincts (whether they be about ourselves or our neighbour). God pursues, God abides, God knocks and knocks again, calls and calls some more. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we ascend to heaven, God is there; if we make our bed in Sheol, God is there. If we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there God’s hand shall lead us, and God’s right hand shall hold us fast. God keeps on calling us, because that is what perfect love requires, an insatiable desire to awake the beloved to their redemption and calling, to a way of life where they are free.
A final word. We dwelt on God’s grace, and considered human misgivings. But there are also Eli and Phillip, two people in the stories we do well to emulate. For it is the task of Eli, Phillip, us to gently dispel the self-dismissal and push back on the worldly values. Our role to say come and see, or to encourage our neighbour to say Speak Lord. To remind each other that the good news of God’s grace can come to any of us, from any place. For the one who beheld our unformed substance, is the one who loved us first, laid down his life for his friends, and calls us by name into the abundant and meaningful life of a disciple.
We are known before we know, are loved before we act, and called before we hear. Such is the way of the goodness of God.
Readings Gen 1:1-5 and Luke 3:10-22
Image, JMW Turner, Study of Sea and Sky (1823–6)
The baptism of Jesus occurs against a backdrop of injustice, amidst calls to redistribute wealth, lay aside profit, and fight corruption, and within a growing sense of religious fervour and political hope. The people were filled with expectation and hopes that John might be the messiah, and yet he is violently swept off the scene.
This is a stark difference to the peaceful quiet beginning, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. When God, uncontested and unrivalled, slowly and sublimely spoke the world into being. Where God once looked on creation and saw that all was good… now, Christ walks among this creation looking upon despots and desperation.
Toward the end of that first account of creation human beings are created in the image of God. We bear God’s image and in doing so are called to live as God’s emissaries on earth. Like still waters our lives should reflect the image of the Holy One, on earth as it is in heaven… and yet generations of struggle and strife have muddied the waters, the reflection is disrupted as rough tides occlude the vision of the sky above.
So Christ comes to the river. The eternal Word, through whom all things came into being, comes to be with us. Jesus comes as the image of the invisible God so that if we should struggle to reflect that image, or fail to see it in another’s visage, we can look to Christ. In an act of new creation, Christ plunges into the waters of our worries and woe and emerges in glory. He sees the Spirit that hovered from the first, hovering once more, hears the voice which first spoke all things into life, speaking once more. This scene, taking place in waters marked by human yearning and imperial violence, shows that God remains committed to the goodness of creation, inviting us still into the great work of love and life. The world may no longer be formless, the waters might not be so resplendent, but God is with us and for us.
Jesus plunges into the waters of human struggle and frailty, sharing the burden of all that distracts us from the way of God, all which distorts our ability to behold the image of God in our neighbour and ourself. In his baptism Jesus stills the waters. He is the reflective pool in whom we see the invisible God and understand the gift and responsibility of image-bearing. Jesus shares in our baptism so we may share in his life. So that the divine pronouncement of belovedness offered over him, should be offered over all of us as well. He goes down into the waters with all of us sinners, and draws us up siblings.
And as siblings we not only share what is Christ’s by grace, but are called to what is Christ’s by nature. We who share Christ’s righteousness now share in Christ’s commission. A commission to proclaim and pursue the justice of the kingdom of God. For just as John’s teaching before the baptism of Jesus concerned the material requirements of justice and community, the teaching of Jesus following his baptism takes up the same: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Baptism leads us into action, leads us into a particular way of living together, where we pursue justice and equity in our material relations.
We behold the invisible God in the image of Christ, and are led forth with renewed sight into the wilderness of the world to proclaim with Christ the things that make for peace, and to perform with the Spirit, the works of justice and mercy that unbind, raise up, and restore. We are called to become part of Christ’s body the church so we may live together in such a way that stills the waters around us. So that we might better reflect who it was that made us, and who we are made to be.
Readings Isaiah 62:1-3 and Luke 2:22-40
Image, Severino Blanco, Simeon Blessing the Christ Child, 1980s.
Following the account of Jesus’ birth, Luke includes a brief section devoted to the infant Jesus. At one level, this section demonstrates that Mary and Joseph fulfil all righteousness under the law, drawing the reader’s attention to the way Jesus is part of his people and their covenant with God. At another level, the section demonstrates how, in being part of his people, Jesus’ birth is very much a response to their longing. That the arrival of Christ as the awaited messiah is an answer to prayer.
Despite only gracing the pages of Luke’s gospel for a handful of verses Simeon and Anna are rich characters. Both have lived long lives devoted to God, shaped by hope, and open to the movement of the Spirit.
Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, holding onto the promise that death should not take him before he had laid his eyes on the messiah. The Spirit draws him to the temple to see the Christ child, letting him gaze upon the consolation of the people, the light of revelation, the salvation God has prepared.
The prophet Anna never leaves the temple, passing day and night in prayer and fasting. Anna been widowed 60 years, committing those many decades to a life of religious devotion. She too is drawn to the child; she too is led to praise.
Both Simeon and Anna respond to the presence of the Christ child and the long-awaited promise of God. Simeon, having given thanks, turns to Mary with a word of preparation: and a sword will pierce your own soul too. Out of deep compassion for what the Spirit has led him to see, Simeon’s gaze moves swiftly from the child, to the one who birthed him, who shall know much suffering.
Anna follows her praise not with a word to the family, but to the city. She spoke about the child to all who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem. What’s interesting to consider is, does this imply she, who never left the temple, went out with the good news of great joy that the longed-for redemption had arrived? She might not have needed to, for many looking for redemption would be coming to the temple, but either way, her gaze moves swiftly from the child to those the child was born for, who have known much suffering.
The angels announced to the shepherds that they bring good news of great joy for all the people. Simeon and Anna are such people. They stand in for the many in Israel who live lives of devotion and hope. The righteous and devout, the praying and fasting, those who walk with the spirit and exercise the gifts of God. They are those who are steeped in the words of the prophets, awaiting the vindication of the people and the glorification of God’s name. Those who know that despite the fear and frustration of living under tyranny, God’s people will be a crown of beauty in the hand of God. Simeon and Anna are those who know they shall not perish before they have seen salvation.
Simeon and Anna, like Mary and Joseph, like so many others come to this temple in faith and hope. This temple, which just 160 years before this story (and only 75 years before Anna’s birth) was attacked and occupied by the Romans. This temple that, in an act of anti-Jewish suppression, was transformed into a temple of a pagan religion. 160 years since this temple became the focus of the Maccabean revolt, and was reclaimed and cleansed as a sign of the righteousness of the guerrilla resistance and the faithfulness of God.
This is the site of Christ’s presentation. The place that Anna never left. The place the Spirit drew Simeon. This is the place where Christ has come, for Christ comes to the needy and long-afflicted. To those who have fought tyranny and held onto their identity amidst oppression. To those who long for deliverance, salvation, and redemption. To those clinging to life in the face of death because they know that with God they will be vindicated. That with God they shall find again their jewel set in God’s own diadem.
The Christ child was not born into a fairy tale kingdom, but a world of trial and woe. Simeon knew that the empire which ransacked God’s temple would employ similar violence against God’s messiah, and warned Mary of the sword aimed at her soul. The Christ child was not born to a land of plenty. Anna knew this and rushed to tell the people that God had once again heard their cries and had acted with beautiful impossibility for their redemption. So too the Christ child is born today in the homes and hearts of those who have known the brutality of worldly tyranny and imperial disregard. The Christ child is born today in the heats and homes of those who long for deliverance and cry out for justice. The Christ child is born today into the bombed homes and broken hearts of his birthplace. The Christ child is born today in the homes and hearts of those who gather faithfully before the promise of God with hopes that shall not be vanquished. The Christ child is born today in the homes and hearts of all who know they shall not perish before they see the salvation God has prepared. Today we join with all of those, then and now, to receive the coming of Christ into the world, proclaiming good news of great joy to all who look for redemption.
Readings Isaiah 26:16-19 and Luke 2:1-20
Image, Stone Nativity by Juan Manuel Cisneros, Ventura, California, December 2016
Earlier in the month I was listening to a discussion on the radio about which not-explicitly-Christmas-music, do people nonetheless associate with Christmas. Time and again listeners justified their choices not by appealing to the content of the song, but because, to them, the song felt like the feeling of Christmas.
Christmas is a deeply feeling holiday. We have a sense of the temperature Christmas ought to feel. The feelings evoked by Christmas lights, shopping, and foods. The feelings of being with a particular group of people. We know the feeling of coming to church on Christmas, both like and unlike a service on any other Sunday. That Christmas is such a feeling holiday is what makes it all the harder, when things feel different. When those dear to us have departed, or our table needs a more modest setting, or time together grows increasingly sparse.
And while the feelings of Christmas unsurprisingly result from the startling connection of sense and memory, the gospel accounts are themselves full of feeling. The shepherds were fearful on a fearful scale before hearing the good news of great joy. And everyone is amazed by their account. Even before this, the story of Joseph and Mary being forced by bureaucratic whim to uproot their lives has a certain feeling known to those who spent a morning at Services NSW. So too the feeling of Mary placing her swaddled child in a feeding trough, because there was no other place is comprehensible to all who have held or beheld a tiny new-born and all of a sudden gasped at how large the world feels.
At its heart though, Christmas is centred on feeling because we feel like we need Christmas. We walk into Christmas through the season of Advent, honouring the woe of our world while lighting candles for hope, peace, joy, and love. If our hearts are stirred by the good news of great joy, it because we yearn for good news! Because we feel that the restoration of the world requires nothing short of the impossible arrival of the God with us and for us.
In this way we share much with those in Isaiah’s day, who are likened to expectant mothers, writhing-in-labour and crying for deliverance but who cannot bring it about on their own. We feel their honest to God yearning for the radiant dew which brings new life, their palpable hope that those who dwell in the dust will, Awake and sing for joy!
So when the expectant mother, writhing-in-labour in a borrowed room, brings forth Emmanuel we are more than ready to receive good news of great joy. For the scent of the morning dew no less than the sound of the heavenly choir blows the dust off and proclaims a saviour has been born. At Christmas we awake and sing, joyful and triumphant, pushing ourselves into the story to greet the child born then in Bethlehem and today in our hearts.
Christmas is brimming with feeling because in this story (both familiar and strange) we get the sense that something is answered. As the song teaches, he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. The disquiet we feel about the state of the world and the hope we hold for its restoration, finds its response in the vulnerable infant swaddled in a feeding trough. Here lies love: love incarnate, love divine, love to shake and shatter sin. Let us open our hearts to the feeling of Christmas and may it transform us day by day into those ready to rise and meet a weary and worried world with peace, hope, joy, and love.
Readings 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 and Luke 1:26-38
Image, Nativity, Paul Gauguin (1896). Oil on Canvas
This Advent we have lit candles for hope, peace, and joy. We reflected on what it means to hold onto hope even now, to confess that even now after so much historical inequity and present injustice Jesus can call life from death. We committed to be people of peace, drawing strength in the wilderness from Christ who appears on the stage of human struggle in full sprint, bearing our burdens and leading us into the kingdom. And last week we not only experienced a great deal of joy, but we reflected on where we might find the joy in our lives today that leads us back to the angelic pronouncement of good news of great joy.
Advent ends with love, because everything ends in love. Paul reminds us that even when everything else comes to an end, when all else fades away, love never ends. Even faith and hope fade in the age to come. For when we see God face to face, and live before the enteral and undiminished light of Christ, only love remains, because God is love.
The writers of scripture tend to excel when they are writing about love. Love is patient, love is kind, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Not height or depths nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Perfect love casts out fear. Cloth yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. For God so loved the world… it is fitting that some of the most stirring passages in all of Scripture should be those that orbit most closely the nature of God.
Advent ends with love because we are at the precipice of Emmanuel, God with us. Christmas celebrates that out of infinite compassion and steadfast kindness, God elected to be with and for us so that we should never doubt that we are loved such a great deal. The good news of great joy is that we are loved enough that Christ would not exploit his equality with God but was born into human likeness. Humbling himself to share in our suffering and death so that as he is exalted, so we shall be exalted, as he is raised so we shall be raised, as he shall triumph, we shall triumph.
In the first Advent of Christ, the light of the world stepped onto the stage of human struggle. In his love Jesus conquered death, swallowed sin, and issued forth a spirit of adoption so that we should be called siblings of Christ, children of God. Because he lived a life of perfect love, all that is his by righteousness is ours by grace. And for this reason, we trust that until and beyond Christ’s second Advent our lives, like our death, will be held in love.
It's time of year where we are want to revisit favourite films and books. The act of rewatching a film or rereading a book is a dramatically different experience than reading for the first time. Because all the various character decisions are shaped by our knowledge of their end. We rue all the more a father’s decision not to tell their child the family secret before departing on that streamliner because we know they do not return. We tear out our hair at the protagonist’s impatiently rash decision to take the stairs rather than wait for the elevator because it means they miss their beloved and thus remain estranged for 236 more pages. The knowledge of a character’s end, exposes the virtue or folly of all the little actions and attitudes that lead them there.
Advent is a season which asks us to reflect on our lives in light of the horizons between which they are lived. To consider the way in which the shape of our life conforms to its end. The knowledge of the location of our end (in love) affords us the capacity to almost reread our lives as we live them, searching our actions and attitudes for the ways in which they befit our end. And because our end is love, so too the shape of our life is love. Our lives of love do not procure us this end, rather, like opening a present on Christmas Eve they celebrate it in advance! We live lives of joyful, abundant, prodigal love, because it is satisfying when an ending is foreshadowed throughout the narrative.
Mary knew she could trust God’s love. When the angel asks her to do the impossible, she responds, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Mary might not know all the chapters of the story she embarks upon, but she knows that with God, it will end with the glorious triumph of love. Mary exemplifies the faithful life shaped by love. She knows that the tumult of the present is given perspective by the promise of the end. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her saviour, because the Divine Love does not abhor her womb. The Divine Love does not abhor the suffering of the people nor the lowliness of the manger. The Divine Love does not abhor the crown of thorns nor the ugliness of the cross. The Divine Love comes swaddled in humility and will return dazzling in glory, because it is God’s nature to love. It is who God is. It is because of love that God abides with us in our struggle, confronts oppression, and acts for justice. Because of love that God makes a way through the impossible to restore and redeem all creation. Mary knows, that she can declare herself ready, because God gifts us hope, peace, and joy, until we find our end in the perfection of love that is God’s very being. And as she does, so can we, because we too have beheld the great truth: nothing is impossible with God who is love.
Readings, Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-13
Image, Christ in the Wilderness - The Hen, Stanley Spencer (1954)
Peace is central to the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Christ is the heavenly born Prince of Peace, God with us in a world of worry and woe, violence and fear. A world shouting out for comfort, longing for a highway through the wilderness to reveal the glory of God. In the Gospel of Mark, of course, such a path appears with a bang!
We do not wade into the story through genealogy, we are not serenaded by an overture of creation, no births are foretold, no maternal songs sung. Mark, steeped in Isaiah, heard the voice say Cry out! and the desperate response, What shall I cry? And decided to begin at full steam, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is the comfort that God speaks tenderly to the people, this the Word of our God which will stand forever.
Christ bursts onto the scene of repentance and trouble, of yearning and resistance and goes straight into those waters with his people. As soon as he does the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and the voice from heaven announces: You are my Son, the beloved.
We remember last week the longing in Isaiah for God to tear the heavens open and come down. Now the presence of Jesus, bursting onto the scene of human struggle, opens those very heavens. Here I am, the great I Am, joining you in the waters of repentance, ready to baptise with the Holy Spirit. In Jesus shall the glory of God be revealed. He is the shepherd come to gather the lambs in his arms, to carry them in his bosom.
But not of course, before the Spirit drives Christ into the wilderness. It is this immediate move to the wilderness that is so essential to the comfort that God speaks through the eternal Word, the peace God provides through the Advent of Christ. For it was in the wilderness that the voice cried out for the coming of God, and thus it is to the wilderness that Christ is driven. Christ goes to the wilderness of our lives to face the temptation we all suffer, the erosion of peace we all endure, the evil of the world under which we all grow weary. Christ faces it with the angels and the beasts, and returns to proclaim: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.
Advent is an anticipatory season where we hasten and wait for the eschatological coming of Christ, by recollecting his historical arrival. Usually this recollection centres Christ’s birth, but as today’s readings remind us, Christ bursts upon the scenes of human drama in various ways. What is consistent, of course, is the announcement of his identity as the beloved son of God, his sharing in our struggle, and his overcoming of that struggle as the good shepherd who gathers us up with a word of comfort and peace.
Mark’s account speaks, I think, most acutely to those of us who, when we hear Cry out, very much identify with the responding question What shall I cry? Those of us who (whether this year or all years) feel so deep in the wilderness that we cannot see any straight paths (let alone highways). Those of us who aren’t even aware of how much we need that word of comfort right now! Those of us who want to say, ‘God, I don’t have time for the impossibly docile child sleeping through the night in the manger. I don’t have time for the shepherds and the magi, the beginning and the word, the precocious boy and his temple escapades.’ For those who want to say ‘God, the wilderness has grown so thick I can’t see the sky let alone your star.’ For those who want to say, ‘God the temptations are overwhelming, I don’t see any angels, and these wild beasts are baring their teeth.’ It is to we who need nothing short of the precise immediacy of God’s saving action to whom the Gospel of Mark comforts this Advent. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here he is, already on the scene. In less than half a page Jesus has been baptised by John, anointed by the Spirit, named beloved from the heavens, and rushed into the wilderness to be with you.
Peace isn’t only silent nights. Peace bursts into the wilderness with machete and torch. The peace which surpasses all understanding doesn’t always need the paths to be made straight. For Jesus is the shepherd sent by God to seek, search and save. Jesus finds us in the wilderness and says (in a tender voice) comfort, and (in a mighty voice) here is your God. Jesus shows up in the wilderness to share its burdens and to provide the way out.
Let we who long for peace, look ahead and back to the coming of Christ. Let us find peace in those advents. Whether that be the quiet, poignant, and stirring stories of the infant who upturns the world and rewrites the skies, or be that the man running through the story at full sprint arriving as the world’s redeemer without a second to waste.
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.