Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Second Sunday of Christmas : Predestination


Ephesians 1:3-14
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; who is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

John 1:10-18
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


All of us, if we are honest, have parts of the Bible that we are uncomfortable with. If we know our scriptures well, there will be sections that we find hard to stomach. A classic example of that may be that famous Psalm 137 which begins, ‘By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.’

So far so good. But then it becomes a cry for retribution when the composer writes, ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’

Shocking stuff, and I simply cannot believe that to do so is God’s will. Instead I read it as the heartrending cry of a people who have lost everything, but not that this is God’s will, that anyone who kills the children of an oppressor will be blessed.

OK, now this is a fairly extreme example, but once we are honest enough to admit that there are passages of scripture that cause us difficulties, then I think we can begin to wrestle with God’s word in a way that he fully intends us to do. Our problem is that we tend to decide what the passage means without knowing the background to why it was written.

Then if we don’t agree with what we’ve interpreted the passage to say, then we tie ourselves up in knots of guilt because we don’t like what God’s word appears to say whilst feeling that actually we ought to agree with it because it’s the Bible.

However, what God intends, I believe is that we should wrestle with such texts to see a) whether they actually say what we think they say, and b) even if they do, is that still relevant to our modern culture or has it been superceded by the grace that Christ brought. God does not treat us as children to be mollycoddled but as adults who have to grow up to maturity.

All of this is a way of saying that this text from Ephesians is one that I find hugely difficult. Taken at face value it seems to suggest that before God even began to create, every Christian had already been chosen to be a believer, that we were all predestined to be here and to be adopted as his own children, and the trouble with that it’s not fair and we expect that a God of love ought to be fair.

What about those he didn’t choose? What about all the lousy things that happen in the world? Were they predestined too? Do we really want to worship that kind of God?

For a number of years now I have made quite a point of preaching about collaboration, that God works with us through prayer, and that the future is reached through God initiating plans and redrafting them when we get it wrong. That seems to me to be so much more Godlike, loving and parental, than this vision that St. Paul seems to paint here of our salvation having been decided for us long before even our species existed, let alone we ourselves.

So this is one of those difficult texts for me, and that, I believe, is one of the reasons why it is so important. The Bible has plenty of texts like this and they are intended by the Holy Spirit to kick us, to drive us out of our complacency, and so that is what we’re going to do this morning.

Firstly I need to map out why I think individual predestination is an incorrect interpretation. Secondly we need to look at what this passage therefore really says, which may not be quite what we think it says at face value, and thirdly we need to therefore decide on what we need to address in our own lives as a result of wrestling with this as God the Holy Spirit intends us to do.

So firstly, why do I disagree with predestination, the belief that God has specifically chosen those who will believe in Christ and accept him as saviour? You see I am well aware that there may be plenty of you for whom this is not a difficult doctrine to believe in, and that’s absolutely fine. After all, ever since about the period of Augustine, something like three hundred years after this was written, it has been a part of church history and doctrine based on verses like the ones we have before us today.

I am also aware that the very fact that I am disputing what appears to be clearly and straightforwardly written in the word of God may be quite disturbing, but that is part of my function as a priest, and it is why we sometimes pray, ‘Lord bless us and disturb us’.

So for me the issue with predestination is that it seems to me that it takes away your free-will. If God has foreordained that you be here today, then is there any way that you could have done otherwise? No, of course not. If the future is set in stone then that is what will happen. If it is God’s will, then it must take place, at least according to the doctrine of predestination.

But we don’t treat our children like that do we. We help them to grow to maturity by instructing them into making wise free choices as they reach adulthood, and living with the consequences when they get it wrong. That is the role of a parent. Therefore if God is meant to be our Father, and we are created in his image, then surely he must be doing the same thing with us, enabling us to grow as believers who become mature in Christ. We must be offered genuine choices or we cannot grow into mature believers capable of making wise decisions.

I believe that the bulk of the story-arc of the Bible is of God growing a nation for himself of people who would choose to follow him. Yet that seems to be in complete contradiction to what the Ephesians passage says, but is it really?

Actually, no I think the problem is with how we read the passage, not with what St. Paul wrote. You see we are doing what we so often do which is to read the passage having already made up our mind what it says from a modern perspective without realising the cultural nuances that were present in the original.

You see although St. Paul was writing to a group who were not Jewish in background or heritage, this section has a very Jewish feel to it. It is one long hymn of praise in a Jewish style, and so we need to read it in that context. The reason that is so important is because the Jews did not believe in the predestination of individuals by God, and this is the key point:

They believed that God chose Israel to be a nation of servants. Individuals like the prophets were of course important but they fulfilled the roles of calling all God’s people back to repentance. What I therefore mean is that this passage does not refer to you each as individuals. When St. Paul writes about us he does not mean us as a collection of individuals but us as a group.
That comes over loud and clear at the end of the passage when he uses the plural word for ‘you’, as in ‘you also, (you - all of you collectively)... were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.’

Let me put it another way. I completed this sermon on Wednesday with the intention of preaching it on Sunday. Now you could, at this point, say that I predestined you to hear these words today. However that wouldn’t be fully true. By planning this sermon I predestined that I would preach it, but you came here of your own free-will. You might have stayed in bed.

I was always going to be here to preach it - my choice, but you’re here because you made your own choice. The sermon was predestined, but not those who heard it, nor how they choose to respond to it.

And that, I believe is what the passage is really saying. It’s like this. Before God began this creation he always knew that the likelihood was that sentient creatures in this universe, if given real choices, would probably rebel and choose their own will. That’s God in God’s wisdom knowing in advance what was likely to happen rather than foreordaining it to happen.

Therefore God has always known that he would have to come to save us in order to have a people who chose to love him rather than people who had to love him because that’s what they were predestined to do. God planned to do this from the outset so that there would be a people in Christ who he would regard as being holy and blameless, but that is not the same as our westernised individualistic view that God chose me specifically, or you specifically.

I don’t think the passage is saying that, and I think that kind of interpretation flows out of an inflated sense of our own personal importance which is derived from the secular western individualistic mindset that the individual, or rather ‘I’ am the vital component to God’s plan, rather than the biblical standpoint that the community is what is of greater importance.

So when we’re reading difficult texts like this we must try, in so far as we are able, to read them from the cultural perspective of the writer rather than from our own cultural perspective. If we do that in this case what we find is one great long hymn of praise for the way in which God’s plan has come to fruition in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

It is this movement from heaven to earth, from earth through mortal life to death, from death to life and from life back to heaven which has gathered up together the things of heaven and the things of earth. All this has been accomplished by the Word of God, our Lord Jesus.

How then are we to respond to this? Surely it must be exactly as St. Paul did, by being caught up in wonder and praise that God should have planned, long before the human race, or even this planet, was in existence, that he would come to offer salvation and achieve the mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

If we think on it from that perspective then the focus is on God’s initiative rather than our inflated sense of self-importance. That’s vital and I think it’s one of the key reasons for why the Church of England is in a perpetual battle within itself. We are caught up in trying to get our own way in how we should worship, who should lead that worship, who is acceptable as a priest or bishop and who isn’t.

If we could only put aside these petty, stupid and insignificant quarrels and start instead to see that we are only here because God himself came to earth to open the way back into heaven, then just maybe we would be lost in praise and respond to him in worship. Then we might have a church he could be proud of. Amen.

(And basically anything written by Greg Boyd, John Sanders and Clark Pinnock on the Openness of God, and of God as one who takes risks with us.)
Also see writings by John Polkinghorne on this subject who approaches it from a scientific standpoint to reach the same conclusions.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas Midnight : Hope

When it says that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, do you know what ‘bands of cloth’ are? They used to be called swaddling bands. Basically it’s strips of cloth that are wound around and around the new born baby so that they are all wrapped up tightly and can’t move. It sounds cosy, if you’re a baby. But you’re not babies.

So what does it sound like for us? To me it sounds terribly constricting, and I think that’s the problem. The church, the culture and the media have unwittingly worked together to contrive this limp and rather effeminate version of faith that it is about something constrictive, robbing it of its life, and more importantly, robbing us of the hope that the church is supposed to bring.

And I think that hope is really why we’re here, because there is something about Christmas that deep, deep down, way down in our psyche, inspires us to hope. But what is hope? This Christmas night I want to think about this question, and I want to change your perception on hope, just as mine has been changed in recent months.

The social activist Jim Wallis said these words, ‘Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.’ Wallis goes on to tell a story of being in South Africa back in the days of apartheid, and he was in St. George’s Cathedral when white South African police broke into the cathedral during a service at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu was preaching.

They lined the walls with their notepads and pens and their recording equipment. Their presence there was to demonstrate that the powers of the government were stronger than the anti-apartheid movement. They wanted, dared, Archbishop Tutu to say something that would give them grounds to arrest him.

So, Wallis said, he watched this little archbishop look around the cathedral, taking it all in, bouncing up and down on his heels like some preachers do, looking at all the police who were waiting to arrest him if he dared defy the regime, and pondering his next words carefully. And then Archbishop Tutu said these words:
“Yes you are powerful, but I serve a God who will not be mocked. Since you have already lost we invite you today to come on over and join the winning side!”

Of course nobody believed it. Who would have done? But Archbishop Tutu believed it, and look at where we are today. Apartheid has been confined to history. Hope is not optimism, it’s much more powerful than that. Hope is believing despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.

Now when I first heard that saying I thought it was mind-blowing. And then I thought about it some more, and then I began to be somewhat troubled about it, because that’s not what we necessarily see is it. Every one of us, every single one of us, will at some time in our lives have hoped for something; hoped for it with all our worth, only to have that hope dashed.

For some of us those have been defining moments in our lives. Those are the times when maybe we finally lost the childhood faith that we clung on to, and maybe we’ve never been able to rebuild an adult one. The job we lost, the partner who left, the relative or friend who died young. I could go on, but every single one of us will know of hope stalling... dying.

How dare I stand up here and say, ‘Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change’!? I dare to say it because it’s the gospel truth, but the trouble is we only read one gospel.

Tonight, as through much of the Christmas season, we have focussed on the Gospel of St. Luke, which is great, but it’s only told from one perspective, and that is the perspective of Mary. It’s beautiful because it’s a mothering story, but it’s also a very passive story. The initiative is taken by God, which is usually the case whatever Gospel you read, but Mary’s role is pretty passive.

When the angel Gabriel spoke to her nine months earlier and told her what was going to happen to her she said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’, and the trouble is, that’s the Gospel which has got so deeply ingrained in us. And so for us when we hope for something, we sit back and see whether what we’re hoping for is going to happen. We have a Luke’s Gospel faith, but the trouble with a passive faith is, when what we want to happen doesn’t happen, then we risk ending up having no faith at all!

‘Let it be to me according to your word’, is what we’ve grown up thinking is proper Christian doctrine, but it’s only half the story, and it’s because we haven’t read the other half of the story that we have let hope die and replaced it with cynicism. But if you read Matthew’s Gospel, like we did last Sunday, you get a whole different picture of hope, because Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, and Joseph’s faith was anything but passive.

When Mary is found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s hopes die and he decides to break off the engagement, that is until an angel tells him what’s really going on, so instead Joseph acts. And when they get to Bethlehem, and after the baby is born, the angel returns and tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod is going to try and kill Jesus.

And then, after some time in Egypt, the angel returns and tells Joseph to bring his family back to their homeland because Herod is dead. To fulfil Joseph’s hopes, the key thing is that he has to do something. Joseph’s model is fundamentally different to Mary’s. It is an active ‘get up and do what God is telling you to do’ kind of faith.

Or to put it another way, Hope is believing in something, despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change because God has called you to actively change it!!

Look, remember back to the story about Desmond Tutu? In that story we saw the evidence change as apartheid was dismantled, but did Tutu sit back and say to God, ‘Let it be to us according to your word’? Of course he didn’t. He knew that what he hoped for was what God intended for the cause of justice and righteousness, and so he responded to God; he worked with God, and together with so many others they changed the evidence.

And this is what Christmas is all about. The other name given to Jesus from the Old Testament is ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’ The whole point of this is that the birth of Jesus means God has been let loose in the world. We are in this with him. He is in this with us. The promise of God is not, ‘Let me take away this pain’. The promise of God is, ‘Wherever you are; whatever you go through; whatever I call you to, I am right there with you: Emmanuel’.

So my message to you this Christmas is, don’t let yourself be wrapped up in spiritual swaddling clothes so that you have to sit back and be passive. That is not God’s intention for you. That’s what we do to babies, not to adults. God works with us. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and watching the evidence change, and sometimes that’s because you are called by God to change it.

So what are you hoping for, and I pray your answer isn’t something as shallow as ‘A new car’. What are you really hoping for? What is really important for the future, perhaps for your children’s future? Or your company’s future? Don’t be passive about it. Don’t sit back and wait for it to happen and then complain when it doesn’t. Yes, sometimes God does expect us to wait, and if you ask him he’ll show you when you have to wait, but that’s only half the story, because often he expects us to work with him like Joseph did.

Emmanuel, God with us, means exactly that. God isn’t meant to be confined within these walls and visited occasionally. The whole point of Christmas is to underline that Jesus is loose in the world, your world, every part of it; your marriages, your families, your jobs, your divorces, your hang-ups. There is no longer sacred and secular, there is simply God let loose in the world, and that changes everything because that means there is hope, but it’s not a passive hope.

Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change, and the message at Christmas is, you might be the one who is called to change the evidence. Amen.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

4th Sunday of Advent - Joseph the Humble


Isaiah 7:10-16
Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-end
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.


Although it’s still a week to go before Christmas it’s important that we pick up the first of the birth narratives this week because it gives us a new perspective. Over Christmas itself we tend to use the deep mysticism of John’s Gospel; ‘In the beginning was the Word’, or the beauty of Luke’s account showing the passivity of Mary in terms of receiving God’s call to bear the Son of God and agreeing to do so.

But here in Matthew’s Gospel we get a very different perspective as we meet Joseph and see his point of view which is far more action dominated. Matthew’s nativity is full of testosterone and underlines that our role in God’s plan is not just to sit back and let God do his thing, but to be deeply involved.

What do I mean by that? Well if we read this narrative alongside the ones that follow we find that three times Joseph is visited by an angel, and each time the angel asks him to do something. On this first occasion the angel asks Joseph to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. Later on in the nativity the angel asks Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt because Herod was about to try and kill Jesus...

...And finally the angel visits Joseph once more when they are in Egypt to call them home again once Herod has died. In each case Joseph responds with obedience. What this highlights for us is the holiness of the man and his willingness to do what is right. Indeed that desire for righteousness comes over even in the way he intended to treat Mary when she was found to be pregnant. But what we find here may not be what we have always supposed. Let’s see if I can explain.

According to Jewish law, as you will find in Deuteronomy 22, Mary was guilty of a capital crime. Now under the Romans, no one could be executed unless it was on their say-so, hence Jesus himself having to be tried by Pilate even though the Sanhedrin had already found him guilty of the capital crime of blasphemy.

We often think of Mary’s pregnancy outside of marriage as being akin to the shame that was perhaps felt back in the 1960's if such a thing happened, but in first century Jewish culture it was a far graver issue than an embarrassment to the family. It is with that in mind that we interpret Joseph’s decision to quietly call off the betrothal.

We assume that Joseph was deeply hurt at Mary’s apparent adultery, yet because he was a kind and merciful man he didn’t wish to cause her even more agony by calling attention to her crime by a public dismissal. ‘Good old Joseph’, we think; ‘What a good man.’

But what if it was more than that? Certainly that is the usual interpretation that we have, and it’s called the ‘suspicion theory’. However, in my reading around this passage I’ve found that this is not the only reading, and there is another way that alters our perception of Joseph still further, that not only is he active in the early of life Jesus, ensuring his survival, but perhaps he was deeply holy in a way we might never have considered before.

This other interpretation is called the humility theory. Let me remind you what the text says, using a modern translation: ‘When Jesus’s mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Those final three words are vital. It’s not that Mary was found to be with child, but that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. We usually assume that Joseph discovered her pregnancy, immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion and was then talked out of divorce by the angel. But what if instead that Joseph discovered that she was with child by the Holy Spirit and was so humble that he dared not marry someone who was carrying such a holy child?

In essence her womb had been made sacred by the work of God, and who was he, a mere man, to marry and have sex with a woman whom God had chosen? Now if this is a true interpretation it makes us realise just how holy and humble Joseph was. He was right there with Mary, supporting her, knowing that she carried a very holy child within her.

This would probably make sense of why Matthew includes the sentence, ‘...Joseph took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.’ If he was that much in awe of what God had accomplished inside Mary he would not have wanted to have embarked on a physical marital relationship with Mary until the child was born.

So this different understanding suggests to us that, far from being the silent partner in the relationship that we normally assume because of our traditional use of Luke’s Gospel which focusses on Mary, instead Joseph was a hugely holy and deeply God-fearing man whose humility and servanthood were integral for the plan of God.

He would have fathered Jesus with great care, tenderness and awe, knowing that God had entrusted to him a supreme burden, of caring for the child in his care and for his young wife.

Now you may be wondering where this new interpretation of events comes from. Well in fact it’s not new, but is very ancient and supported by Origen who was perhaps the first Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux.

And it also issues us a very deep challenge. Mary’s model is one of passivity, of a type of holiness which allows God to have his way. Joseph’s, however, is of a radical, humble holiness, and a deep regard of the things of God, desiring always to do that which is right, and willing to change his intentions according to the command of God.

So I wonder, how do we compare to that kind of holiness? How carefully and reverently do we value the things of God? Yet more questions to add to our advent self-examinations. Amen.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

3rd Sunday of Advent: playing with branding irons

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

“Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” I love the letter of James and commend it to anyone as an antidote to false religious piety because over and over again he gives practical wisdom about how to live as a Christian. “Beloved, do not grumble against each other so that you will not be judged.” Be positive about each other, only, where’s the fun in that?

Six months ago in Canada a company decided to launch a newspaper that would only report good news. An online poll asked people if they would read it. One of the answers that jumped out at me was this one: “...if it's anything like the community paper in my town, it will be horribly, horribly boring. I think it's grand when a group of school kids launches a penny drive for cancer research, but I really don't need to read about it.”

In fact I seem to remember something like this was tried back in the 1980's in this country. It sank without a trace. We don’t, it appears, want to read good news. If you look at the comments pages on your usual newspapers what you will see is plenty of grumbling and negativism. The tabloid magazines like Heat are even worse in their incessant digging for juicy and negative gossip. ‘Disgraceful’, we might say to each other, but the question today’s reading throws at us is, are we, in the church, any different?

When writing his letter James, it strikes me, seems to be reacting primarily against impatience in this section, but elsewhere he warns against most of the petty mindsets that catch us out as believers. Let’s be honest, we do struggle with each other’s failings, but why is that such a problem? I think the answer is that judgementalism stems from using ourselves as a yardstick.

In essence, when we grumble against someone else it is because we have seen the way that they have acted and decided that we are better than they are. We have put ourselves in their shoes and made the decision that we would have done it better than they did. We have judged them against our own measure and decided that we are better than they are and are therefore justified in moaning about them.

The problem is that the Lord made it clear that if we do this to other people, then we can expect him to do the same with us, except that his measure is one of perfection. If we grumble against each other then we can expect to be judged against his perfection. So the command is simple, ‘Don’t grumble about each other.’ End of story.

Now, you may be thinking that I am asking too much of you, to expect you to never grumble. But actually I don’t think I am. There is a well known clergyman in this diocese who has a bit of a reputation amongst other clergy, and it’s a well deserved one. This particular gentleman will simply never say anything nasty about anyone else.

Yes, I know, I didn’t believe it either, but I worked alongside him for over four years before he moved to a new parish recently, and it’s absolutely true. He has learnt this lesson and applied it in his life and consequently he is perhaps one of the most trusted vicars in the area because we all know that he will never, ever betray us or say something unkind about us.

We may not agree with him, and he may disagree with us, but he will never be petty about it, and he will never grumble about us. And I don’t think it’s just in his nature. I think he has had to work at it just like any of us would have to work at it, but he’s succeeded. It can be done! It is possible! Grumbling about other people need not be a part of human nature.

I think what makes this particularly interesting is that we see the alternative in our Gospel reading and we see how much it is praised by the Lord. Matthew picks up the story from when John the Baptist had been imprisoned. John’s ministry had been a fiery prophetic one, declaring that he was coming to prepare the way for the Messiah whose sandals he wasn’t fit to untie; the One who would bring judgement. You may remember these words from last week:
“...he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

That was what John was expecting Jesus to be like. But then reports began to reach John in prison of how the Messiah was eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes. This was not what he expected. Now what would you or I have done? Would we have started to declaim this so-called Messiah as being a worthless sham? Would we have started rumours about him and asked questions in public hearing regarding what was really going on when he invited children to sit with him?

Those are the kind of reactions that can completely undermine a person’s reputation. We decide that we don’t like what we’re hearing, and so in our judgemental way we try and bring down the one we disagree with. And because of human nature the rumour mill catches fire and before you know it all sorts of untrue things are being said. It’s every teacher and vicar’s nightmare because it can destroy a lifetimes work, and in village communities like this one it is a huge temptation that many succumb to.

But that wasn’t how John the Baptist played it. He was confused because Jesus was not doing what he expected him to do, and so he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus a simple question,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ In that question was a huge weight of confusion and maybe desperation that John’s work had landed him in prison, and had it all been for nothing?

But Jesus’s response was to ask John’s disciples to look around at the fruit of what he was doing. Yes it may well have seemed unorthodox for the Messiah, the Holy One, to be hanging around with the kind of people he was with, but look at the result:
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

There was a gentle rebuke in this too; a sort of loving cousinly reassurance. ‘Don’t worry John, this is how it has to be. Unless I go among these people I cannot call them back into the family of God. We must share at their tables for them to trust me. This is how it must be because love and acceptance is offered before judgement.’

So what then is the message for us in this? Let me give you a mental image. A farmer has some cattle to be branded so he takes out his branding iron and heats it up. When it’s red hot he pushes it on to the rump of the animal. That animal is marked, it’s burned by the heat of the branding iron. On and on the farmer goes, relentlessly marking his cattle.

Then when he is finished he plunges his red hot branding iron into a tub of cold water. There is a cloud of steam as the cold water robs the iron of all its heat. If the farmer were to push the branding iron on to the rump of another animal, it would make no mark because all of it’s heat has been quenched. The tub of water took away its heat.

Our role in the world is to be like that tub of water. We cannot stop people branding others with their gossip. Ask yourself how many of your opinions of people in this church, the parish or amongst your workmates have been formed by other people’s grumbles. People will grumble about others, but we don’t have to join in.

By refusing to grumble with another we take the heat out of their complaint. In so doing we are like a tub of water, quenching gossip instead of passing it on. Grumbling only hurts if it’s passed on, but if it stops with us, we take its power out of the world.

This is such a Christlike behaviour. In fact you can make a very good argument that this is exactly what Jesus accomplished on the Cross by saying, ‘The buck stops here. I will take the consequences of sin out of the world.’ It’s also rather like John the Baptist, because in stopping the grumble, we help prepare the way of the Lord.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of self-examination as we prepare to receive again the message of the Son of God being born into the world, and look forward to his return. The readings today challenge us about our own behaviour, so let us consider carefully our conversations and our responses. Amen

Saturday, 4 December 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent - Revolution


Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matt. 3:1-12
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.’

For many children and teenagers there is a very uncomfortable moment that occurs at some point before they’re sixteen, and it’s that moment when they realise that one or both of their parents might be wrong about something. Now I’m not talking about abusive or broken backgrounds; just your average family, but there will come a point in every young person’s life when the penny drops and they realise that their parents have flaws.

What happens next depends a great deal on how the situation is handled. At one end of the scale an insecure parent who has a child lacking in wisdom could suffer a great loss of authority as rebellion becomes steadily more of an issue, whereas at the other end of the scale it may be just a simple acceptance that things were not as once thought and the child makes a mental adjustment and decides that, in this instance it genuinely does know better but doesn’t need to make an issue out of it which will disrupt the home.

In the latter case we see a triumph of accepting love, that parent and child are able to accept their flawed natures but love each other despite that. In the former case a complete breakdown may occur that takes an eon to repair, if indeed it can be repaired. But it all comes down to what is always a revolutionary idea, that something (or someone) that was once thought to be correct has been shown to be wrong and a response is demanded by the person who has uncovered the error.

And that is what we find in both of our readings today. So I want us to think about revolution, how we deal with it, particularly if our beliefs are entrenched, and how it may apply to the modern church.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Now in order to understand the context of this you need to be aware of the situation of the Roman church. When the early church began it sprang out of Judaism. It was initially another sect like Sadduceeism or Phariseeism, but that gradually began to change, largely through St. Paul’s group, as they found the Holy Spirit leading them to preach to Gentiles, non-Jews like us.

The church in Rome was probably started as a result of Jews from the day of Pentecost taking their new found faith back to the city, rather than from any direct mission by any of the apostles since they began their church before any missionary activity spread. There was a widespread Jewish population in Rome and had been for about a hundred years or so.

The pivotal action, though, was in AD49, the on-going dispute between Jews and Jewish Christians resulted in emperor Claudius expelling all Jews, both Christian and Judaistic. Now the expulsion only lasted about five years because Claudius died in AD54, but that was enough. The Gentile Christians were left alone for just a few years, and in that time the character of the church would have changed.

Imagine, then, what it was like for a Jewish Christian to be able to return to the city only to find that the essential style and nature of worship in church had changed dramatically and lost a lot of its Jewishness. It would be like you going away for a few years and when you come back and rejoin this church you discover that this service has become a charismatic one with lots of singing and dancing.
[Note - this sermon was preached at Prayer Book Communion and Evensong!]

You can quite easily put yourself in their shoes. There had been a revolution because the Gentiles who had been left behind had concluded that Christianity was not predominantly Jewish. Now there had to be a reckoning. Would there be love or a split? So Paul writes to try and show them that this had been foreseen by the prophets, quoting the prophets and showing that even the early Jewish patriarchs had seen this coming.

He was instructing them that Jesus was making the Father available to everyone, and that it was right that Gentiles should come into the church, and that the Jewish Christians should rejoice with them because this was part of God’s plan for the Jews to lead this mission. You can truly sense the pouring of oil on troubled waters as he exhorts them to worship together and be mutually filled with joy and hope in believing together.

And there is a similar kind of revolution going on in Matthew’s Gospel. Here we find Jews relying on their heritage for salvation only for John the Baptist to declare how worthless that is, and that God can make new followers out of stones if he wants to, and that what is really needed is repentance. Once again we have a revolutionary teaching, that being born a Jew isn’t enough; one had to live a life that was bearing fruit to be counted as a child of Abraham.

Over and over again, throughout church history there have been revolutions overturning the old order, or attempting to do so. Was the Gospel also for non-Jews? Did not-Jews have to be circumcised? Was slavery appropriate? In every case the revolution has stood or fallen depending on whether it was deemed correct to reject a previously held teaching and accept a new one.

Those who sometimes declare a wish to return to how the church used to be when it first began should note that we have grown in Christ a great deal, and perhaps it would be unwise to return to a time when Christians accepted slavery, that circumcision was demanded and only ‘clean’ foods could be eaten in accordance with Torah.

But the question I think this raises for us is, what are we to do with the revolutions that are currently facing us? If you follow the news about the Anglican Communion you will be aware that we are facing a difficult time ahead as we try to decide whether or not it is right for women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.

For me I find that, if I apply all the rules and tests for how we have made decisions in past church history, then I can see every reason to go ahead, that this is indeed the will of God, but I recognise that there are many who would disagree. At some point, when the readings suggest it, I will go into this in far more detail and explain why I believe in the consecration of women bishops, but in terms of today’s readings I think the more prominent issue is therefore going to be, how do we live with each other in the face of the revolution of ideas that are coming through?

Jesus said that people would know who we were by our love for each other. I don’t see a great deal of evidence of love amongst disagreeing parties in the church. We seem to be far more concerned with being right than with expressing brotherly and sisterly love for fellow believers. In this time of Advent preparation, then, the question it raises for us to consider is, when we disagree with other believers, will we regard loving unity as being more important than theological correctness, or is that we’re no different from the rest of the world, and all we really want is to get our own way. Amen