Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas night

This afternoon, as we do every year on Christmas Eve, we put on a special children’s Christmas Eucharist called Bethlehem Bop.  The name itself probably gives away that it’s a sort of controlled chaos, I tell the Christmas story while the kids each dress up as one of the characters.  I find this so fascinating – how come even in this age of Playstation 3 and iPods do kids think it’s a good thing to wrap themselves up in dressing gowns and cotton-wool beards?  The other thing I’ve noticed over the years is that kids think it’s cooler to be a shepherd than a wise man – for some reason Joseph seems to be the un-coolest character of all – I guess kids know a supporting role when they see one – generally speaking we end up with about six Marys.  Have you ever seen the absolutely beatific look little girls get on their faces when they play Mary?  It’s as those they know that right then and there they represent the most special moment ever in the whole of human history.  Course it generally only lasts until somebody pulls baby Jesus’s head off or one of the shepherds gets poked in the eye by an angel.

I remember a colleague telling me about a more ambitious nativity play he attempted, a few years back.  This one involved a group of 13 year-olds who my friend unwisely gave carte blanche to write, direct and act in a Christmas nativity play with a 20th century flavour.  Naturally the donkeys were traded in for Holden utes and Herod’s men all wore army pants.  Mary and Joseph would eventually find a place to sleep round the back of a service station.  So this was all going to be acted out for the mainly elderly congregation on Christmas night – but nobody quite realised how far Mary had taken the realism thing.  She got a few laughs as she assured her mum and dad that she wasn’t into drugs and no, she and Joseph hadn’t been up to anything untoward – but there was a bit of a gasp in the next scene as she came on stage with an enormous cushion stuffed under her terry-towelling robe.  This Mary was pregnant!  And then it got worse – behind the BP service station Mary threw herself down on a hessian sack and pushed and screamed and most realistically assured God that it was all his fault.  The birth of baby Jesus was noisy, red-faced and loud, and the congregation clearly thought 13 year-old Mary had taken the role a bit far.

The Christmas story most of us remember, and certainly the one we generally see acted out in church nativity plays and department store windows, is the romantic version.  The version with fluffy sheep, picturesque shepherds and saintly-looking Marys.  But the point is that that’s not how it is in the Bible, and I bet that’s not how it was back then in the year dot.  And I have the feeling that the Christmas story is better news for us if we let a bit of the dirt and the mess back in.

Take the shepherds, for example, huddled round the fire taking turns to sleep and keep watch for wild animals.  Shepherds represented about the lowest rung of Jewish society, for the very good reason that they were smelly, rough, not very honest and generally drunk.  Think of them as not very well behaved bikies.  Then there’s the stable itself, and the manger which was nothing more or less than the feed trough for the animals that lived there.  Again, smelly.  Think manure and lantana rather than sweet-smelling hay.  Not quaint.  And Mary was, of course, actually and hugely pregnant, a first birth at the tender age of somewhere between 12 and 14 would have been difficult and dangerous.  I bet she really did have a few choice words for Joseph, Gabriel, and anyone else who ventured close.

In our own corner of our world, of course, the actual birth of Jesus has been just about sanitised right out of the story altogether, replaced by red nosed reindeer, Santa Claus and fake snow.  Reality obviously needs a little help.  But even when we do get around to the religious message of Christmas, it seems we don’t much like the idea of baby Jesus coming in the middle of a messy world, where shepherds drink too much and fall asleep round the fire, where animals do what animals do, and where having a baby is accompanied by blood, sweat and tears.  It’s as though we think that God’s too genteel for all of that, so even though the story in the Bible tells it like it is, we rewrite it protect the ‘niceness’ and the ‘holiness’ of God.  Like the Hollywood versions of the life of Christ where everyone speaks in those fake, portentous-sounding voices.  It’s as though deep down we feel we need to keep God separate from the realness and the messiness of our humanity.

But when we do that – when we try to keep God for Sunday best – I think we’re missing the point of what God is actually up to in the Christmas story.  I think that God chooses to be born into our world, not in spite of all our faults and foibles, but actually because of them.  I think there’s a good reason God chooses to enter the world – not in a palace or a five-star private hospital, but right in the middle of the squalor and the stink, right in the middle of the injustice and cruelty, to a family wandering homeless from one end of an occupied country to the other. And that good reason is that God has got no place better to be than right in the middle of our mess.

And here’s another thing.  Jesus’ birth into this world is also a death sentence.  In the very next section of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s going to hear old Simeon’s not so encouraging prophecy, this child is destined for greatness and for conflict, he says, and oh, yes, a sword is going to pierce your own heart.  In Matthew’s version of the story we hear that Herod the king is so threatened by the birth of a possible rival that he slaughters all the babies in the district of Bethlehem.  Jesus enters a world of idealism and cynicism, a world of messy politics, of violence and religious extremism.  And I guess we all know the end of the story?  I guess we all know that Jesus grows up only to be executed on a Roman cross.  And this I think is the whole point.  The God who enters our world of pain and suffering doesn’t hold anything back.  God completely immersed in the mess of human feelings, human uncertainty, failure.  The whole ambiguous and complicated mess of selfishness and beauty, failure and self-sacrifice, competitiveness, love and self-doubt.

I think one of the greatest tragedies of Christianity is that for century after century we have held onto the picture of a distant and judgemental God as though it was the answer to a world torn by conflict and an over-abundance of certainty.  As though a God hell-bent on condemning everyone and anyone who didn’t look holy enough or miserable enough could ever make humanity more loving!  But the story of Christmas tells us plainly that that’s not what God’s like, not in the slightest.  Christmas tells us that the God of creation is not distant but intimately connected to all of creation. Christmas tells us that God becomes so vulnerable in the act of creation itself, and falls so foolishly in love, that when what has been created becomes fractured and broken God can think of nothing better to do than to creep in alongside.  Seeing God become one of us in the middle of the dirt and grime and the very human stuff of pregnancy and childbirth, we start to get, I think, the true picture of God as the one who is not distant but ever-present, not judging us but companioning us through the circumstances of our own lives.  God who loves us, so to speak, from the inside out.

And I think when we do start to see God like that, we also begin to get a different perspective on what our own lives are about.  If God is for us, no matter what, then who are we for?  If God is not just for us, but also for homeless nobodies like Mary and Joseph, or for unimportant shepherds on a lonely hillside, or for mothers mourning for their lost children in Bethlehem – then who are we meant to be for?  Because God is for all people, for people who live in fear rather than faith, people who lose their homes or their children in tsunamis, for African children orphaned by AIDS, even for wealthy Western men and women who live as though they can’t see the homeless or the unemployed in their own communities.  God is for all of us.  And so the Christmas message invites us to open our eyes and our lives, to live not just for ourselves but for others, and to believe that God’s power is greater than all the powers that be.

In the end, I think, that 13 year-old Mary got it about right.  In the end, what really matters when we hear the Christmas story tonight is that we understand it, not as a cute and romantic story, but as the stuff of real life.  That we hear God saying to us, ‘I’m with you.  Right when life is at its most confusing, its most painful.  Right when things are falling apart.  I’m with you, and I’m for you.’



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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Advent 3 - What, then, should we do?

Watching the movie-length episode of Kath & Kim the other evening, I was somewhat grossed out by the scene where the appalling Kim lines up to sit on Santa’s lap.  I don’t think Santa really enjoyed it either.  I forget what Kimmy was asking for, for Christmas, in fact I think the main reason she did it was just because she could.  Christmas, in Kim’s way of looking at things, is a time for maxing out on everything, over-indulging, getting your own way, behaving like a spoilt brat.  Even more so than the rest of the year.


So the store Santas are out in force, and you’ve got two shopping weeks left.  It’s a well-oiled drill for most of us, probably you, like me, have long since made a sort of compromise and decided which bits of the commercial overkill you’re going to buy into, which bits are just too over the top to bother about.  You probably have your family traditions all worked out, the tree, where the decorations go, whether or not you put sixpences and threepences in the cake, do you buy presents for absolutely everyone in the extended family or where the dividing line is between who gets a real present and who just gets a calendar. And one way or another, we generally survive with maybe just one or two family members getting offended.


That’s the whole family obligation subtext of Christmas, the tradition that pulls us back to long-lost aunts and uncles and family members we’d rather pretend we didn’t have, just as inexorably as Joseph and Mary find themselves plodding off to Bethlehem for the two thousandth time on a broken-down donkey.  And sitting alongside that we have the stuff yourself full and party hard tradition.  Both of them, of course, are pushed along by the department stores whose real agenda is to persuade us that somebody, somewhere amongst our nearest and dearest really really needs a new Playstation 3.  You can have it all, or if not, at the very least you should be buying it all.


Santa, of course, isn’t in the Bible, for which I personally heave a great big sigh of relief.  But the one we do have in the Bible, the sort of reverse Santa for Christians who take their religion seriously, the figure who all at the same time heralds, promises and threatens us through Advent is of course John the Baptist.  Just when you’ve got your Chrissy list worked out, just when you think Christmas is close enough to break out the first Lions Christmas cake and a bottle of Tia Maria, John the Baptist comes in, chewing on a grasshopper and smelling like an unwashed loincloth, calling you a viper.


‘Don’t even think about wishing me a merry Christmas’, John interrupts us.  ‘What makes you think you deserve to be having such a good time?’  And here’s the confusing bit, especially since the whole idea is that he’s supposed to be baptising everyone for the forgiveness of sins – ‘don’t even bother saying you’re sorry – if you’re really sorry you’ll do something about it’.


And the people in the story that John is talking to – in Matthew’s version it’s just the Pharisees but in Luke’s version it’s the whole crowd – good Jewish mums and dads, good churchgoing folk who came all the way out to hear a good sermon and he tells them, ‘you pack of snakes slithering out of the way of the fire.  Who warned you?’  The point is, they feel like they’re the good ones.  You spend a perfectly good Sunday morning coming to church and sitting on a hard pew, and I call you a snake and tell you to mend your ways.  That’s the first thing – who’s supposed to be doing the repenting here – us or the Pharisees, and if it’s us, what are we supposed to be repenting of?


In the story the people ask exactly that – ‘what do you want us to do?’ – and John gives them a straight answer, but see, it’s got nothing to do with what colour dove they’re supposed to sacrifice, or how many times they’re supposed to go to the Temple per year.  It’s got nothing to do with how the pews are arranged or what sort of music we have in church, it’s got nothing to do with curtains or altars – it’s got to do with sharing what you’ve got with people who haven’t got any, it’s about giving shelter to people who are homeless or food to people who are hungry, it’s got to do with worrying a whole lot less about what you think you’re entitled to have done for you, and worrying a whole lot more about what you should be contributing to others.  It’s simple, it’s confronting, and we can’t even say ‘well, that’s just John the Baptist’s opinion’, because Jesus picks up the same message right where John the Baptist leaves off.  Do you stand convicted by those words?  I know I do.  If, as God’s people, we’ve started to feel complacent, if we’ve started to feel, ‘well, I’m an Anglican.  I’ve been baptised and I come to church every week.  I read my Bible and I say my prayers’, then John the Baptist’s telling off is just for us.  God can make good Anglicans out of the bricks in the wall, so we don’t need to feel we’re that special.  If we insulate ourselves so we don’t any longer feel indignant about the fact that too many people in our world don’t have enough to eat, then the telling off is for us.  If we manage to get through our week without noticing that there are people in Australia, even people in Belmont who sleep rough or who can’t afford medical treatment, and if we don’t get cranky about that, then the telling off is for us.  If we think that church is a place we come to to be affirmed and to feel safe because nothing much has changed here for fifty years, and if we get annoyed when things do change, then this telling off is for us because coming to church should be what we do to make a difference and to make sure things change in the world we live in.


In fact one of the very best ways that Christians can avoid the full force of John the Baptist’s telling off is by being holy.  If what we hear is that all we’re called to is individual piety, if all that matters is our inner relationship with God, then we water down John the Baptist’s demand for justice and repentance.  We hear it as the demand to be more virtuous.  But repentance, John reminds us, is not real repentance at all if it’s just theoretical.


And if you don’t get it right, you get chopped down, you get chucked in the fire.  It doesn’t sound very promising and I don’t know about you but for me, it’s a bit like pulling myself up by my own whiskers.  I actually don’t think I’m capable of being as unself-centred as John wants me to be.  Looking back over my ministry here, I find I can relate pretty well to Kim Beazley’s comment last week – ‘regrets?’, he said - ‘only about 4,332 of them’.  My humanity does sometimes get in the way of God’s priorities, and realistically I know it’s going to keep happening.  Being in love, as someone once remarked, means always having to say you’re sorry.


Did you feel that, today, the reading from Zephaniah sounded a whole lot more promising?  Zephaniah sounds a lot like Santa’s boy, not John the Baptist’s – for Christmas this year, you get joy and laughter, dancing in the streets, you win the lottery and everyone else is going to barrack for you.  Maybe you’re thinking I should’ve preached on that instead.  But then you need to go home and read the 2 ½ chapters that came before, because what Zephaniah is really telling the people of Judah is that all this good stuff is going to happen on the other side of God’s judgement.  And a pretty rigorous going over Zephaniah is predicting, too, invasion and exile and desecration of the Temple for starters.  It’s on the other side of judgement that the dancing happens, because God’s judgement is never about condemnation but about healing, not so much about chopping us down but about chopping out the rotten bits so we can grow strong and bear the fruit we’re supposed to. 


This last week, we’ve been seeing the images of bushfires burning out of control in NSW and Victoria.  That’s the image that comes to my mind when I read John’s apocalyptic threats of being thrown into the unquenchable fire.  For us in Australia it’s like the serious side of silly season, first the cricket starts, long dull afternoons of Test matches on TV and then the inevitable bushfires, what Neville Shute called the February dragon.  By now you’d have to wonder what possesses people to build their houses in the Blue Mountains or on the Darling escarpment.  John’s image of fire conveys pretty well the idea that whatever it is that we substitute for God’s priorities just gets gobbled up – if John seems to us like a killjoy it’s because he’s announcing the end of all the false joys, all the substitute priorities that we create for ourselves – but we’ve also seen, haven’t we, what happens after fire has swept through the Australian bush, we’ve seen the pictures of tender new shoots peeping out through the ash, the seeds that actually can only germinate when they’re burned in the fire, we know how fire works in the bush to regenerate and reinvigorate.


That’s what John is offering us.  More or less, he’s saying to us, this is what you’re in for.  None of you can withstand what’s about to happen.  Just 15 sleeps to go and God is going to break your door down.


And the crowds asked him, ‘What, then, should we do?’

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent 2

It’s good to see so many of you here.  All of you, in fact, seem to be here.  I did wonder, when they sprung daylight saving on us with a couple of days notice, how many of us would get the message about winding the clocks forward overnight.  I thought we might end up this morning with a 9.00 o’clock service and a 9.00 o’clock service.  Still might.

It’s Advent, of course.  We’ve got the message to stay alert, if not alarmed.  We know God’s going to spring a few surprises along the way.  We’re all awake, aren’t we, despite the missing hour of sleep?

There’s a story that comes from the Muslim tradition about a man who, despite a long and holy life filled with prayer and good deeds, eventually dies.  Everything goes according to plan – being a Muslim he probably wasn’t expecting to be greeted by St Peter but he does make it to heaven.  Or, at least, to the gates of heaven where he sees a notice.  ‘Stay awake’, the notice says, ‘Gates open once every hundred years.’  This isn’t really what he’d been expecting and nobody, not even the imam, had told him there was going to be a delay, but being reassured that he was at least on the waiting list he settled himself down to pray and reflect on his life with, now that he knew for sure he was getting into heaven, a certain nostalgic sense of satisfaction.  Unfortunately, as so often happens, his mind began to wander, and he began to daydream, then his head started to nod and so he was fast asleep and dreaming of being in heaven when – the gates slowly began to move, and through the widening gap wafted a gentle, scented breeze and the sound of exquisite music.  It was the music, of course, that woke him up just in time to see the gates slam shut and read the notice: ‘Stay awake.  Gates open once every hundred years.’

So, it’s good to see you all here.

We’re well and truly in Advent now, but we’re nowhere near ready for the angels or the shepherds.  Last week we were told to expect the unexpected, this week we begin to get some idea what might be up ahead.  We’re coming home, the end is in sight – already the imposing and slightly scary figure of John the Baptist is striding out of the desert announcing the main event.  Just in case we’re not convinced about John’s own credentials Luke gives us a quote from Isaiah and the lectionary writers join the dots for us by giving us a passage from Malachi, otherwise one of the obscurest of the prophets whose main interest seems to be in lambasting priests for being lazy and the laity for not putting enough in the collection plate.  God’s own messenger, says Malachi – is going to turn up right in the middle of your worship and wash all your mouths out with soap.  You’ve been turning up here to church and saying that you’re seeking God, well, when he actually turns up you’ve got a shock coming because you’re going to get melted down and purified like silver in a smelter.  Not a comfortable image, actually.  Well, we stay with John the Baptist for two weeks of Advent, and next week we find ourselves confronted with his uncompromising message of repentance.  We can’t avoid facing up to the discrepancy between what we are and what God wants us to be.  In order for us to arrive at the destination, we need to chop out some of the rotten wood, we need to do some radical pruning in order to bear the fruit of righteousness.  The process isn’t pain-free, but the end result of all the scrubbing and melting down is that our lives and our worship will be genuine.  There won’t be a contradiction between what we say we’re doing and what’s really going on in our lives.  That’s the implication that we’re getting a whiff of already, this week, and you might want to stay away next week because that’s where we’ll be heading, but there are some other implications that come first.

Because first there’s this extraordinary passage from St Paul’s letter the church in Philippi, and I can’t let it pass because Paul has this reputation of being such a sourpuss, of being such an intellectual and so uncompromising, and yet this letter to the church he so clearly has a great affection for paints just the opposite picture.  It seems – we read in the Acts of the Apostles – that Paul’s missionary work in Philippi was not especially successful – I read recently that there is no archaeological evidence that there was a Jewish community in Philippi and it seems Paul’s work there was amongst the lower classes, women and slaves.  Not a very successful church, if we judge these things by the ability to maintain a full-time priest and pay diocesan assessments.  Not what we’d call today a mega-church.  Remember also that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison, where it seems he has a capital charge hanging over his head – he says he is in chains – but what does he write?  ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re not doing so well down there, please pray for me that I get a soft judge.’  No.  What about, ‘well here I am in prison but I just know that in spirit you’re sharing my afflictions.’  No.  Paul starts right off giving thanks – expressing joy because he recognises that it’s God’s doing that the Philippians have come to faith, expressing trust because God can be relied on not only to start the work of transformation in the lives of the Christians at Philippi – and in the life of the city around them – not only to start the work but to finish it as well.  Paul expresses joy, he expresses trust, he expresses affection and gratitude – what would he have to be so grateful for?  It seems that out of the little they had, they gave financial support to Paul himself as well as contributing to the collection he was taking up for the church in Jerusalem, but more than that, Paul is grateful for the fact that this little church has shared with him and grown with him in confidence and grace.  When I read this, I can’t help but find my own grumpiness confronted by Paul’s attitude of thankfulness.

Thank God, Paul writes, for Philippi, and as I look toward the last few weeks of my ministry here in Belmont, I take his point.  Thank God for Belmont, because as I look around here at our church I can’t fail to see the marks of where God has been at work, in you and in me, over the time we’ve spent together.  I see people who’ve grown in confidence and in joy, I see a community demonstrating the trust it has in the goodness and generosity of God by investing its limited resources in acts of generosity toward others, a community demonstrating the compassion of God by caring for one another in times of grief, a community demonstrating the beauty and the hospitality of God by creating an attractive and welcoming environment.  There are some tough times ahead for Belmont, the financial assistance we’ve received from diocese over the last three years has perhaps only delayed that somewhat - but I think it’s also allowed something else to grow here, a sense of the goodness of God and a delight in being the people of God.  A sense of expectation and of possibility.  Don’t lose that - the more you expect God to surprise and delight you, the more God will. 

And Paul says something else – ‘I’m confident that the one who started all this off in you – that’s God – will also bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ’.  That’s part of why we have this for an Advent reading, because it points us to the connection between our waiting for God to come into our world in Jesus Christ – and God’s waiting for us to bring God to birth in our own lives.  The act of Incarnation that we see in Jesus of Nazareth – and the act of incarnation which is God taking on flesh and blood in you and me.  We wait for God at the same time as God waits and grows in us.

Just one more thing that’s important for us to hear today – not only is Luke carefully showing us how John the Baptist with his wild announcement of God’s arrival is absolutely consistent with the prophets of the distant past – he’s also showing us that God acts, as God always has acted –from a position not of strength but of vulnerability.  John strides out of the desert not just for dramatic effect but because Luke wants us to draw the connection – to remember that the desert is where human beings encountered God once before - in the Exodus, not in strength but in weakness and radical dependence.  The desert is a place where survival depends on knowing your own fragility, on marvelling and even rejoicing in the sparseness and the extremes of temperature.  Be patient - stay awake.  Tune into the rhythms of God’s time, not ordinary time.  Expect miracles.  When we least expect them to – heaven’s gates will open.

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