Saturday, December 26, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
I saw an angel the other night. Now interestingly enough, in the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, the only two books of the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ birth, there’s no mention of many of the characters that we take for granted, like the donkey that Mary rode all the way to Bethlehem, or the innkeeper that grumpily told them they could sleep in the stable or the cattle they shared it with. The Bible stories don’t even tell us anything about the background of the main characters, we don’t know for example anything about Mary’s family even though popular imagination decided right back in the second century that her mum was called Anna and her dad was Joachim, and people invented all sorts of stories about how poor Anna reacted to Mary’s good news. The Bible stories themselves give us just the bare bones of the story and all through history people have used their imaginations to fill in the blanks, and I suppose that’s fair enough because when you think about it what we really want to ask about this story is what it’s got to do with us.
But you’ll want to know about this angel I saw. Because the one thing that both Luke and Matthew do give us in their stories of Jesus’ birth is angels, and the angels are there at every turn of the story to tell people what it means and what it’s got to do with them, and most of all to tell people not to be afraid because this is good news. Which I always thought was a bit crazy since nobody would have been afraid in the first place if it hadn’t have been for the angels suddenly appearing from nowhere in a blaze of light to tell them not to be.
Actually, forget all the cute popular depictions of angels, fluffy white wings and angelic expressions. In the Old Testament, where they take this sort of thing fairly seriously, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel angels are described as being like flying serpents with six wings. When Ezekiel claps eyes on one he assumes quite reasonably that he’s going to die. Then in other parts of the Old Testament, angels just look like regular human beings. For example in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, there’s the story of Abraham who entertains three mystery dinner guests only to discover later that they had been messengers of God, which is basically what the Greek word, angelos, means. In the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews, we’re warned, be kind to strangers because you never know if they’re going to turn out to be God’s angels.
So angels are one of the constants of the story, and one reason for that, I guess, is that they are a sort of narrative voice, like the character in a kids’ pantomime who every now and then turns and addresses the audience directly. ‘Psst! You wanna know what it all means? I’ll tell you what it means …’ We get the general amazement of it, that the God who made the whole universe, all 14 billion light years in every direction of it, the Spirit that underlies matter and energy and coaxes the inanimate building blocks of creation into more and more complex molecules, amino acids, self-replicating cells and after billions of years, reflective and creative organisms who know deep down that the meaning of their existence is love - that after all that, God chooses to share our physical existence. We get the whiz-bang ‘wow!’ of it, we get the paradox of it and we get that it’s not a problem to be solved, or a riddle to be explained or a doctrine to be expounded, but a mystery to be entered into and before which the appropriate thing is to be silent.
But angels are essential or else the mystery just becomes remote and opaque instead of being, as the deepest mysteries are meant to be, marvellous and personal and translucent. The angel says to us, ‘this matters – to you. And the reason that every year it stirs something so deep inside you that you follow it here in the middle of the night is because deep down you know that it changes something and that the universe pivots on it.’ Partly it’s because we know that this most ordinary of human mysteries is anything but - a young woman having a baby in circumstances that are difficult if not unfortunately that uncommon. And in the story of this birth we remember our own stories, and the stories of those we love - the waters breaking right at the most inopportune time, the frantic search for the car keys, the first drawing of a breath and the cry that tears your heart in two with helpless love. At this simple and direct level, tonight’s story reminds us that the deepest human experiences, the ones that define us and hold us together, the most spiritual human experiences involve shared flesh and blood. That the shortest line between earth and heaven now runs through the centre of the human heart. What moves us to recognise our own humanity is allowing ourselves to recognise and respond to the basic human needs of another.
So why angels, if it’s that simple? Maybe it’s because we human beings are too tricky, we distrust the blindingly obvious. We have to embroider, to cover it up with fancy logic and theology and so we forget that if the birth of Jesus is a message of love from God to the world then it’s first and foremost a message that we don’t have to be rocket scientists to actually understand, a message that speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself we actually need to have the angels popping out in a pyrotechnic blaze and say to us, ‘this is it! This is what is actually important!’.
So, as I said, I saw an angel. I’m pretty sure he didn’t realise he was an angel, he was probably just doing his best to build a bridge of understanding within our local community. It was on Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight, and to tell the truth our parish children looked more like angels with their pretty dresses and wings, and they acted the story of Jesus’ birth with a seriousness that showed they knew they were representing a divine mystery. And then when we had all sung ourselves hoarse and burned our fingers with candle wax - that was when I saw the angel. This angel was Imam Burhan, of the Turkish mosque on Welshpool Road, and the City of Canning had asked him to tell us why the birth of Jesus mattered.
I don’t know how well Imam Burhan knows the story of Jesus in the Gospel of John, but I was reminded when he spoke that in John’s Gospel it says that when God’s Word takes on human flesh and blood and lives among us, that turns on the lights for all human beings, everywhere. And Imam Burhan said that the birth of Jesus mattered because it was about hope. Imam Burhan told us what hope means in a world where competitiveness and suspicion divide us, where human beings want to do good but end up locked into patterns of distrust, what hope means in a world where some people have more than they need while others die for the basic necessities, what hope means in a world where we know that the planet we depend on needs us to care for it but we can’t trust each other enough to take the first step. He reminded us that human beings can’t live without hope, and he told us that the birth of Jesus is the hope of God’s presence with us that that we most especially need when we’ve lost our bearings and are looking for pathways toward an uncertain future.
And 1500 people fell silent while the angel told us about the hope that the birth of Jesus gives us. And then, because actually I left out the most important thing about angels, they don’t just tell us the message, in a mysterious way they are the message – then the angel wanted to have his photo taken with me, and so we stood there together, my friend Selim and I, Muslim and Christian, with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the astronomers – and that, it seemed to me, was what it was all about.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
A not-so-young woman bailed me up the other day and wanted to know what sort of church we ran here. 'Are you traditional or modern?' she wanted to know. I assured her that we did our best to be both of those things, and remarked that, after all, even our very oldest parishioners were living in the 21st century. Some of our youngest have never been alive in any other one. 'Yes', she said, not very satisfied, 'but do you have women priests?' 'Oh', I had to confess, 'I'm afraid not. Just me. Maybe next time?' 'Because', she explained to me, as if to somebody not very bright, 'there's nothing about that in the Bible, you know. That's why I had to leave the Church. I wouldn't feel right about a woman telling me what God thought about things'.
I thought at the time, though I didn't dare say it, that perhaps she had never come across the heroine of today's Gospel story, Mary of Nazareth. Here, it seems to me, we have the irreverent heart of God's cosmic joke that we call the Incarnation - not one lady prophet but two. Mary, the pregnant teenager with a wild tale of angels and a radical reinterpretation of God's agenda, not just thumbing her nose at all the social niceties but setting off on a gruelling and dangerous cross-country trip to tell the world about it - and Elizabeth, much too old to decently have babies. Two scandalous women celebrating the fertility of their bodies, rejoicing in the messy everyday realities of missed periods and morning sickness, daring to exercise the priestly prerogative of pronouncing peace and blessings on one another and the world in general while the actual, licensed and official priest, Zechariah, sits dumbfounded and speechless in the kitchen.
Actually, for about a thousand years beginning sometime in the fifth century, the tradition of the Church included a festival celebrated on the first of January that you don't hear much about nowadays. Not Christmas, a more recent addition to the Church calendar, not Epiphany, the early Church's festival of light that celebrated the Incarnation of Christ, but the subversive, chaotic Festival of Fools. If you've never even heard of the Festival of Fools, that's because it was eventually stamped out in Europe by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The Feast of Fools persisted for over a thousand years, sometimes officially tolerated, sometimes in secret, illicitly, always to the dismay of the bishops and cardinals and hide-bound sticklers for position and status who one day of the year came in for a good razzing. On the Feast of Fools everything was turned upside down in a 24 hour revolution - children presided as bishops, masters served their slaves. In the only surviving liturgical manuscript of the Feast of Fools, dating from 12th century France, the pretend bishop served until the evening office of vespers when, during the recitation of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, at the words: 'the mighty have been cast down from their thrones', the symbols of office were taken back by their rightful licensed owners.
So, what's this got to do with Mary? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Beginning with the prophet Micah, today we start to hear the note of surprise and delight. The entrance for God into our world is amongst the small ones, the least and the lowliest of the world, the ones who don't count. God loves to surprise, to hide in places we don't think of looking, to turn our stuffy preconceptions upside down, the holiest of holies turns out not to be in the inner sanctum of the Temple but in Bethlehem, a shabby little farm village 'too small to be counted among the clans of Judah'. Bethlehem is like Mary, too insignificant to be noticed, a woman in a society where only men had legal or religious standing, barely out of childhood in a society where teenagers weren't sassy or opinionated or armed to the teeth with mobile phones and iPods but just invisible and unimportant mouths to feed.
The first thing to remember as the story begins is that first and foremost it's about God, about God's way of being present in human history - and only after that does it also become a story about Mary or Elizabeth or the bewildered Zechariah or about any of us. God keeps interfering in history through his promises and his prophets. That's where the modern wishy-washy brand of Christianity that believes in a non-interventionist God is way wide of the mark. God is messy, God can't resist breaking into the world that human selfishness and competitiveness have spoiled, God breaks in again and again through the women and men who speak God's words and bring God's promises to fulfilment. God is always intent on resetting creation back to its original purpose, bringing it to the fullness it was designed for. And God is interested first and foremost in the insignificant, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, those who demand justice and peace. Why? Because that's the pivot-point of human history, that's where human yearning for flourishing and wholeness is concentrated. Right there in the credibility gap between human need and political reality, that's the ecological niche where God gets a foothold.
Today's Gospel reading gives us two episodes - the story of the Annunciation, the turning point of human history at which an angel, holding his breath, places the divine plan for the completion of creation itself in the hands of a Jewish peasant girl, who like Molly Bloom on the very last line of the last page of James Joyce's wild and wonderful story, 'Ulysses', says in no uncertain terms 'Yes. And then he asked me would I? and yes, and his heart was going like mad, and yes, I said, yes, I will - yes!' - and the story of the Visitation, in which Mary, full of the Spirit and with child, tumbles over herself in her haste to tell the good news to her aged and equally insignificant cousin, the inexplicably pregnant Elizabeth. We don't know why that's where Mary needed to go, what their relationship was, whether Mary could even have known that Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant, but it tells us something about this girl - in a society where unexplained pregnancy out of marriage meant at best being condemned to a life on the fringes of society, at worst the legal penalty of stoning, Mary sets off on a journey across country, the first missionary Christian journey of all time as within her body a cluster of cells begins to build a bridge between God and creation. She enters Elizabeth's house and utters the first word she speaks in the Bible to any human being: 'Shalom'.  A word that - even today - means peace and wholeness, flourishing and welcome and delight. It's the same greeting that the risen Jesus will speak to his disciples after the resurrection, when he enters the room where they are locked in fear. Both Mary and Jesus echo the words of the prophet Micah who in today's reading promises that the child shall be shalom. It is the word that the Jewish people believe God speaks to create the universe, the 'yes' of God to human life, God's 'yes, I said, yes, I will, yes'.
Elizabeth breaks into prophecy, reacting with a joy to a greeting that affects her physically and is felt by the child who jumps inside her. Right here we are in touch with the deepest mystery of human existence, the sacramentality of pregnancy and the spirituality of intuition that leaps from flesh to flesh. As men we maybe get this, but only just, by reminding ourselves of the deep physical relationships that create and recreate us. Mary and Elizabeth speak for women whose direct experience of the physicality of spiritual experience is so often suppressed, and for the young and the old marginalised by powerlessness and vulnerability.
This beginning is frighteningly fragile, like so many of the important beginnings in our own lives. So much can happen to distort and disfigure them, to shade them with doubt. Here the beginning of God in our own life is as fragile but as powerful as a child growing inside a woman's body, requiring our attention and our love, demanding all of our resources and all of our courage but promising that nothing will ever be the same again. This is how God creeps into human history, through the insignificant experiences of unimportant people, the ones whose experiences put them on the edge of respectability, perhaps the ones who hesitate to come through the door of our church for fear they won't be accepted. Elizabeth's question to Mary is also a question for us: 'who are we that that the mother of our Lord should come to us? Who are we that the Word of God should come to us in the presence or the voice of a pregnant teenager, or a mentally ill or a homeless person?'
The encounter of Mary and Elizabeth poses us some awkward questions. Who are we listening to? Are we listening at all? On whose voice do we hear God's promise of peace? Whose voices do we screen out? Do our own voices carry echoes of the Spirit, of joy and prophecy? Who is listening to us? Is there room inside us for the unborn promises of God to take over some of the physical space of our own lives? Do we even believe it's still possible for us to carry the child of God within us, or have we lapsed into a pragmatic atheism? Every year, the story of the Incarnation tells us that God is here and that the kingdom of God has been here all along in the lives of men and women who call out from us God's promises of welcome and hospitality: the old, the young, the poor and the useless, the one who grieves the child she can't have and the one who grieves the child she has lost. The one who comes into your life and hopes that you will have the priestly word of blessing and peace.
Are we ready?
 In the Greek New Testament Mary's greeting is contained in the word, aspásomai, a traditional formula of greeting that means 'Peace be with you'. In John 20.21, Jesus says to his disciples, eirḗnē, which means 'peace'.
Friday, December 11, 2009
In the church of my childhood, the Methodist Church back in the early 60s, fire and brimstone preaching was all the go. Mind you as a little boy, it wasn’t so much what the preacher-man said that registered, it was how he said it. Now I have to say my old Dad, whose sermons were my normal Sunday fare, was pretty mild-mannered in his approach - but I do have some spectacular memories of sitting through some proper tub-thumping preaching when we visited somewhere else. I remember one Sunday honestly wondering why the minister was so angry. God wasn’t very impressed with any of us, was the best interpretation I could put on it. At worst, it appeared God was so personally offended by absolutely everything I had ever done, and especially the fact that I wasn’t sufficiently sorry about it, that it was as much as the minister could do to convince God not to zap me on the spot. I remember furtively looking around at the faces of the grown-ups in the congregation, wondering why they kept coming week after week for such a right proper telling off. I’m not sure when I first started to hear the message that God loved me to bits, but it certainly wasn’t that morning.
Well, but what’s a preacher to do? Here we are, a week and a half before Christmas, the festive season is cranking up all around us, we’re already planning Christmas lunch, dusting off the Christmas tree decorations and singing carols in the shower – then we get to church and get a right proper telling off from John the Baptist, the scary cousin (or possibly early mentor) of Jesus. ‘You lot’, John assures the crowds who walk a day’s journey from Jerusalem out into the desert to hear him – and by extension, us too – ‘what a bunch of poisonous snakes you lot are’. I think even the monstrous preacher of my childhood memories would have baulked at calling his congregation a brood of vipers. But that’s what John calls them and for some reason, according both to the Bible and to the 1st century historian Josephus, John is wildly popular.
Zephaniah, one of the grumpiest of the Old Testament prophets writing about six centuries before Christ and maybe 30 years or so before the Babylonian invasion that brought the political and religious structures of ancient Judah crashing down, builds his prophecies around what he calls the ‘day of the Lord’. John the Baptist would have liked Zephaniah. Zephaniah sees clearly what’s wrong with Judah – its public servants are like roaring lions, its judges like scavenging wolves, its priests have profaned the holiness of the Temple and think they’re above the Law. Israel is going to get its come-uppance from God because the poor have been denied a fair go and the powerless have been abandoned. It’s pretty strong stuff. For Zephaniah the ‘day of the Lord’ is a day you’d rather not turn up for work on, a day on which self-serving elites and hypocritical religious leaders get what’s coming to them with a fair bit of collateral damage which Zephaniah describes in fairly vague terms: God’s indignation is going to be dumped on you, God’s anger is going to be like a fire that burns up not just Judah but the whole earth. And then, says Zephaniah, you won’t be quite so cocky. Mercifully, the lectionary writers decided we didn’t need to hear all that today.
But then in verse 14, where we started, the mood abruptly changes. After three chapters of giving us a right going over, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice!’. Not, please notice, rejoice because, ‘oh, I was wrong about that, I just got another communiqué from God and now he says he isn’t going to do it’. Not, ‘well that was just what was going to happen if you didn’t listen to me, but fantastic because you did listen and now it’s all good’. But rejoice because – ‘Guess what? You’re about to get overwhelmed by God’s holiness and God’s righteous anger, and all your rottenness is going to get blown away but the skerrick of goodness that’s left – the poor and oppressed – are going to be my humble and holy people’. The image Zephaniah gives us is an image of a putrid wound being cauterised: ‘Rejoice, because it’s going to hurt like heck, but the burning is going to leave only healthy flesh’.
And this radical surgery, Zephaniah tells us, is going to bring us back from the brink of the disaster of our own making. The very people now dismissed as a waste of space are going to be given dignity and honour, national shame is going to be transformed into a good reputation. It’s a vision of salvation, a vision of the good life that’s got to do not just with worshipping God and coming to church every week but about practical, concrete and everyday issues of social equity – salvation not as the individual practice of piety but the collective practice of justice towards the poor, the mentally ill, the asylum seeker, towards indigenous peoples, towards the earth itself as the visible sign of God’s goodness. It’s a vision of the good life that actually leaves none of us unscathed, that when you think about it indicts all of us by challenging our priorities, the way we live, and whether we put our money where our mouths are. To be honest, we can’t assume that the rottenness to be burned away is just the politicians or the clergy or the money market traders – we know that selfishness and humility, hypocrisy and generosity compete every day within our own hearts, and what needs to be burned away is part of how we ourselves live.
But when God’s judgement is finished with us, Zephaniah says, ‘Rejoice! Because God himself will be with you and he will renew you with his love’. That’s verse 17, and the remarkable thing about it is that the Hebrew word, haras, that our Bible translates as ‘renew’ actually means to make quiet, or still, to give rest. The Hebrew verb has the connotation of a baby at rest, fed and sated, lying safe and loved on its mother’s breast – as in psalm 131 (v2, NASB) ‘I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against its mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me’. Right at the end of his gloomy and threatening warning that ignoring the demands of justice is a recipe for disaster, Zephaniah gives us this image of God as a mother who cradles and comforts us – whether we have been among the haves or the have-nots, whether we have been among the powerful of this world or the powerless, the righteous or the self-serving. God, according to Zephaniah’s vision, works redemptively to bring both sides of our divided world and our divided selves together, making us whole and at peace within God’s own self.
‘Rejoice!’, John the Baptist tells us, ‘you brood of vipers’. Rejoice because you’re being given the chance to repent. That’s metanoia, the Greek word that means to do a 180 degree turn. Rejoice because the one is coming into the world who is going expose your hypocrisy, the one who is going to baptise not just with water but with fire. Even now, he’s getting ready to chop out of you all the rotten wood that’s sapping the life out of you, even now he’s getting ready to burn up every part of you that is unholy and self-serving. Interestingly, in Luke’s gospel, John singles out two professions as examples of what he’s talking about – tax collectors and soldiers – administrative and military power – two professions and one theme – money. ‘Don’t take advantage of other people, be content with your pay, with what you actually need, and recognise that your role is to serve and protect others’. This is totally practical stuff – especially in Luke’s hands, the message of repentance John preaches is to a holiness that works itself out in practical actions, in balancing our own legitimate needs against the needs of others. And like Zephaniah, John says ‘Rejoice! Because the one is coming whose holiness is experienced as white-hot judgement’.
I feel like I need to be careful in commenting on John the Baptist, because it’s clear that his message, though similar to that of Jesus, is not exactly the same. Towards the end of his own life John sends messengers to Jesus that suggest he is in an agony of doubt: ‘Are you the one, or should we expect somebody else?’ (Lk 7.20) Jesus doesn’t seem to be bringing the winnowing fork, the axe or the fire. Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptising with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Jesus is revealing the profoundly transformative practice of forgiveness which extends, ultimately, even to those who nail him to the cross. Jesus accepts sinful, morally compromised and divided human beings on their own terms and in their own homes, but in so doing, issues an invitation that’s in profound continuity with the one John himself issued - an invitation to repentance and conversion.
John apparently never gets to hear the full message, but he isn’t wrong. Jesus practice of forgiveness and compassionate acceptance is every bit as challenging and scary as John predicted. Jesus radical inclusiveness exposes our practice of setting up boundaries. Jesus’ healing ministry exposes our vindictiveness, Jesus’ table hospitality exposes our lack of generosity, Jesus’ uncompromising practice of forgiveness exposes our hard-heartedness. When we really think about it, it’s the Full Monty: the winnowing fork, axe and fire rolled into one. The ‘day of the Lord’ happens with 100% certainty just as soon as we are prepared to take the risk of actually opening our lives up to the judgement of Jesus’ totally unreasonable practice of forgiveness.
So rejoice – you brood of vipers -12 sleeps to go.
Saturday, December 05, 2009
What is it, I wonder, about ears? Like generations of little boys before me, and no doubt generations to follow, I grew up wondering why mine in particular needed so much attention at bath-time. Hands and faces, I could understand. I was under no illusions as to how dirty I was in that department after a hard afternoon’s playing with Robbie Gamble. Even feet. But why ears? One of my most memorable childhood experiences is having my ears cauliflowered with a wet washer as part of the whole routine of getting ready for church on a Sunday morning. Short back and sides, Brylcream and red ears. Very attractive.
Even back then, of course, the link between inner and outer cleanliness was well-known. “Clean hands, pure heart”, was one of my Dad’s favourite expressions. I could understand that readily enough. The dirtier my hands were the more likely it was I’d been up to something I shouldn’t have been. In our house we had a vigorous approach towards purity of heart, mostly involving scouring the hands and fingernails of small boys with a scrubbing brush.
Dad, no doubt, would have approved of the prophet Malachi. The name means ‘messenger’, the same Hebrew word we translate as ‘angel’. Last week, our readings from the Bible swung off the charts into the distant future and the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of history. This week we head backwards, three or four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the time-frame gets shorter. The one is coming, God’s angel informs us, for whom you need to be squeaky clean.
I sometimes wonder whether we might not have overdone the Christmas message of peace and goodwill. Whether or not we might be doing ourselves and others a disservice by so emphasizing the sweetness of the baby lying in the manger, the general agreeableness of wise men and shepherds and animals standing around in adoration, and the underlying message that despite the mess we’ve made of the world so far God loves human beings so much he just can’t live without us. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented how odd he found it that Christians every year celebrate Christmas with a sort of sentimental nostalgia, as though the idea of God coming into the world was just nice – and that we no longer seem to experience the shiver of fear that we should. Bonhoeffer thought we had become so accustomed to appropriating just the most pleasant and comforting aspects of the story that we forget how truly terrifying it is to have God burst into our world and lay claim to us. That God’s coming into the world is dangerous because – as Bonhoeffer put it – “God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in the world and also in us. Only by judging us, can God cleanse and sanctify us. That’s what it means for God to come to us with grace and love”.
It’s actually easy enough to acknowledge this, I think, on a global scale – on the scale of international affairs and big political issues. It’s easy enough to acknowledge how much of our collective life is unredeemed and in need of challenge and transformation. Just last week’s big stories – as a rusted-on Labor voter of course it wasn’t too hard to watch the implosion of the Australian Liberal Party over differences of opinion about climate change – but what does it say about our collective life that the major political parties - both of them – worry more about jockeying for position and short-term political advantage than about taking the long view of what decisions might need to be taken in the interests of generations who haven’t even been born yet, the long view of putting the needs of the earth itself ahead of the short-term interests of big business? And also last week – overshadowed by the Liberal Party’s woes but maybe even more somber and cynical – the announcement by President Obama of a troop surge in Afghanistan for the express purpose of extricating himself from a war the American people are sick of, begun nine years ago for reasons largely forgotten. The logic of a troop surge – as we already know from Iraq – is that it covers the confusion and moral recriminations of withdrawal by creating some appalling short-term statistics. On the level of global issues it’s not actually so hard for us to recognise, for example, that what leads to peace in our world is not military strategy but for us to practice peace, forgiveness, compassion and generosity.
Advent is a time when, as Christians, we need particularly to speak of peace, and we need to be clear about the reasons for its absence. But we also need to distinguish between true and false notions of peace. In our haste to get to the nativity scene we find familiar and comforting, to take our place around the manger contemplating the sweetness and innocence of God with us – we ignore at our peril the uncomfortable Advent texts that speak to us of ‘refining fire’, ‘fuller’s soap’ and ‘rough places made smooth’.
The peace of the Incarnation is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but shalom – that wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of fullness of life and wholeness and flourishing for those to whom it is denied. The peace of the Incarnation is the challenge for us to practice shalom towards those who are excluded, towards men and women and children fleeing conflicts in which we ourselves have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenge for us to practice generosity and justice towards asylum seekers. The challenge for us to work with Aboriginal people as equal partners to reduce the credibility gaps of life expectancy, housing, health and education. The challenge for us to recognise that effective action on climate change of course means accepting the cost and the restriction on our own consumption and lifestyles. God’s peace is abrasive, necessarily so, like the gritty grey cakes of Tru-Sol soap Mum used to use on my hands and knees - fuller’s soap, the soap used by the drycleaners of the ancient world was a harsh chemical peel that burned away the sweat and grime of living in the real world. Refiner’s fire removes impurities in precious metals by searing temperatures that simply strip away anything that’s less chemically stable than gold or silver. These aren’t comfortable images. God’s drawing near to us confronts us with the certainty that, before we will be fit to withstand the holiness of God, all that is unholy and vindictive and cynical in us needs to be destroyed.
As I said, it’s easy enough to acknowledge this on the global scale of international affairs and politics, and the public life of our own nation that’s largely conducted at some rarified level over our heads. It gets more personal and more difficult, however, when we start to ask ourselves what in our own life has become ossified and self-serving, how much in our own life is rusted on or encrusted with comfortable habit. And we can probably all make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable by thinking about the moral short-cuts we take and the ways we insulate ourselves in order not to notice the needs of others, in order to justify giving a little less than we should of ourselves, of our time and our money, or our tendency to notice more what other people should be doing for us, than what we should be doing for others. We’re surely all aware that the true practice of religion is not measured by how diligently we say our prayers or read the Bible or attend church, but by how diligently we pay attention to and how much we go out of our way to respond to the needs of others. It’s not even so difficult for us to recognise, I think, how much of our own personal life, our priorities and our relationships with those around us is called into question by the harsh words of the prophet who announces God’s coming into the world. Get out the Tru-Sol, it’s time for some serious self-examination. Advent is a good time to start a diary, to write lists of what we know all too well has got to be softened and dissolved so that our lives can be translucent with God’s radiance.
I actually think the very hardest exercise in repentance that the prophet Malachi challenges us with is to think what needs to be burned away or destroyed in our life together as a church. Church, after all, is where we come to worship, to renew our contact with God and with our brothers and sisters in faith. The ways in which we live together as a people of faith, most especially the ways in which we live as a parish, grow out of our deepest understanding of what our lives mean – and it’s hardest of all, I think, to ask ourselves what needs to be broken, what needs to be burned away or scrubbed to within an inch of its life in our own parish. Are there ways in which our parish life has grown to be an insiders’ club? Are visitors made to feel welcome, as though we are interested in their lives, or do they feel as though they have intruded on a private family gathering? Are we more concerned with tradition, with the right hymns and the right Anglican liturgy and less concerned with how we reach out to the community in which we live? Are we more concerned with what church does for us, with how church affirms our own values, and less concerned with how we do church together in a way that is a blessing to others? Why do we come here? For ourselves, or for others?
Advent challenges us at this most basic and most intrusive level. If, by the second week of Advent, you’re not feeling this, it’s possible you’re not paying attention. Are we awake yet? Are we ready? Only 19 sleeps to go! Quick! What’s most important?