Sermon: Ascension Sunday -The Seventh Sunday of Easter (A) – 1st June 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Acts 1: 1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15- 23; Mark 16: 15-20;

Ascension Day is the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, commemorating the Ascension of Christ into heaven; an important part of the resurrection.
In the Eastern Church this feast was known as the taking up and as the salvation, denoting that by ascending into his glory Christ completed the work of our redemption through the resurrection.  The terms used in the Western Church, signify that Christ was raised up by his own powers.  Tradition designates Mount Olivet near Bethany as the place where Christ left the earth.  Ascension Day falls on Thursday but recently churches across the world such as ours offers an alternative, today the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

The observance of this feast is of great antiquity.  Although no documentary evidence of it exists prior to the beginning of the fifth century, St. Augustine says that it is of Apostolic origin, and he speaks of it in a way that shows it was the universal observance of the Church long before his time.  Frequent mention of it is made in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in the Constitution of the Apostles.  The Pilgrimage of Sylvia (speaks of the vigil of this feast and of the feast itself, as they were kept in the church built over the grotto in Bethlehem in which tradition suggests that Christ was born.  It may be that prior to the fifth century the fact narrated in the Gospels was commemorated in conjunction with the feast of Easter or Pentecost.  Representations of the mystery are found in diptychs and frescoes dating as early as the fifth century.

Certain customs were connected with the liturgical celebration of the feast, such as the blessing of beans and grapes, the blessing of first fruits, the blessing of a candle, the wearing of mitres by the deacon and subdeacon, the extinction of the paschal candle and triumphal processions with torches and banners outside the churches to commemorate the entry of Christ into heaven.

These days the Paschal candle is extinguished on Pentecost Sunday because Easter it is understood to not be completed by Ascension but with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.  Easter is resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Spirit.  It is all one act.

There is an English custom of carrying at the head of the procession the banner bearing a lion and at the foot a dragon, to symbolize the triumph of Christ in his ascension over the evil one.  In some churches the scene of the Ascension was vividly reproduced by elevating the figure of Christ above the altar through an opening in the roof of the church.  In others, whilst the figure of Christ was made to ascend, that of the devil was made to descend.  On one Ascension Day in England Christine and I went with members of the local church in Devon up to the church tower to sing hymns to welcome the Ascension.  It was very cold!

To say that Jesus was taken up or that he ascended does not necessarily imply that they locate heaven directly above the earth; no more than the words “sitting on the right hand of God” means that this is his actual position.  In disappearing from their view “He was raised up and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), and entering into glory he dwells with the Father in the honour and power given by the reading.

The celebration of the Ascension, reminds the disciples and us that we are the ones who are to demonstrate what it is like to live in the footsteps of Jesus.  When their Lord Jesus was taken from the disciples, when the clouds received him, there was no sky gazing for them, watching after their ascended Lord.  The proclamation of the good news would no longer be through Jesus, but through Jesus’ disciples, down through the ages, as they lived out the faith he had brought to them.  Disciples then and now have a mission.  By the witness of believers, the word spreads from Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth.

Even though there were just a few witnesses to this Ascension event, it had great implications for the future of the entire church.  Up until that moment, Jesus was seen only where he was, in and around the towns surrounding Galilee. Now, with his Ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus was Lord of heaven and earth, present to all believers.

This is the great paradox of the Ascension.  By removing himself from the world, Jesus would no longer be confined to a single place or a single moment, but he would be alive and available in the Spirit to all people for all time.  While it seemed at first glance to be an isolated heavenly event, in truth that moment opened the way for the message that Christ is risen and has conquered death to spread throughout the world forever.  The message reminds all people that wherever people live in his Spirit by faith the Spirit abides in them.

The church is the Body of Christ, his presence in the world and it is only as we live as the Body of Christ in our lives that the good news of the Resurrection can continue to be spread throughout the world.  We are his presence in the world, seen by all as they observe how we treat one another, in our work and in our worship.  This should bring to all of us who call ourselves by his name, who call ourselves Christians, an awesome sense of responsibility.  Such responsibility is why we are staging our “Fully Alive: Fully Human” festival week beginning on Trinity Sunday in two weeks time.

In many of our churches these days, the celebration of Ascension Day is in danger of becoming a forgotten practice.  However, in church or out, the message of the Ascension of our Lord continues and the proclamation of that message of Easter that falls to each of us.  We are to proclaim that Jesus’ does metaphorically sit at the right hand of God.  He is in God’s presence pleading our cause.  In the early church this proclamation fell to the disciples.  Unsure as they were they were able to muster their strength and go forth, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to do the Lord’s work.  As frail as we are we too are to go forth rejoicing the power of the Spirit to do the Lord’s work.

All of us who are baptized have that same Spirit, and now it is our turn to proclaim our Lord’s message of love and forgiveness, to bring the good news of the Gospel to this weary and war torn world.  Let us go forth.

As we carry out our proclamation of the message of God’s saving grace being freely available to all, we should bear a few things in mind.

The resurrection is the ultimately decisive event for human history, not merely something spectacular that happened to Jesus.  Thus resurrection faith is not merely believing that a dead body came back to life, or that a tomb was empty on Easter morning.  Those who believed that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead did not have resurrection faith.  The soldiers and chief priests who knew the fact that Jesus had “come back to life” did not have Christian faith in the resurrection.

The resurrection itself is not to be described.  No one was there to see it take place.  No Gospel narrates the resurrection, only the discovery and appearances of the risen Christ.  The event happens offstage, a matter of testimony and proclamation, not of empirical observation.  Therefore we should understand that the stories of the Resurrection are the vehicles of faith, but is not to be identified with it.  The Easter stories are not to be harmonized, but each describes a different view of the Easter faith, much the same way we each have different ways in which we have come to faith.

The resurrection is not merely the happy ending of an almost tragic story of Jesus.  The resurrection permeates the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and it is testimony to the risen Lord of the church.  Without the resurrection, the whole story evaporates: Jesus is meaningless.
Resurrection faith does not arise on the basis of evidence, of which the chief priests and soldiers had plenty, but on the basis of the expected presence of the risen Christ by accounts of those to whom he appeared, and by his own continuing presence among his disciples today.  Faith in the resurrection is a matter of worship not of analysis and inference; it does not exclude doubt, but takes doubt into itself.  As Jesus said to Thomas, “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Resurrection faith is not to be identified with faith in an empty tomb.  The whole New Testament affirms the resurrection, but stories of the empty tomb are only one way of expressing it, a way found only in the Gospels.

All of us who are baptized have that same Spirit, and now it is our turn to proclaim our Lord’s message of love and forgiveness, to bring the good news of the Gospel to this weary and war torn world.  Let us go forth.

 

Sermon: The Sixth Sunday of Easter (A) – 25th May 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Acts17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 7-19; 1 Peter 3: 8-22; John 14: 15-21

Our Parish Mission “Fully Alive: Fully Human” commences in just three weeks on Trinity Sunday. One of the most difficult questions for non-fundamentalist Christians, which I believe is “how shall we do mission and evangelism in a pluralistic age?” For the most part, we happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity but how then are we to promote the value of Christian faith as we experience it?

While most of us lack the missionary zeal of Paul in Athens, we may find his experience of the Areopagus quite familiar. Still, like Paul we look for a point of contact with seekers as well as persons from other religious faiths. Today’s readings call us to wrestle with the reality of Christian proclamation in our time and where we might find a point of contact between our Christian beliefs and the hopes and searching our family and friends.

Today, we need to recover a reason to share the good news, not just for others but also for our own vitality. Paul’s approach to the Athenians is two-sided. He agrees that there is truth in their quest. Then he asserts that Christ is what they are truly seeking. He does not exactly say they are not “lost”, nor do we. Still, he calls them to experience something more profound: the God of all peoples, who is beyond human control, yet embodied in the Risen Christ.

Paul’s words say, perhaps, more than he intended.  Indeed, despite the evangelical and fundamentalist critique of there being many god’s being as heretical, Paul comes close to supporting such a position. Indeed, his use of non-Christian philosophical sayings to bolster the Christian message further under girds the possibility of global revelation. Paul affirms that God is “not far from each one of us” and, then, quoting Seneca a Greek philosopher, he describes God as the One in whom “we live, move, and have our being”. Even bolder, he continues his dialogue with Greek philosophy and Seneca, “for we too are God’s offspring”. That is, despite humanity’s God-forgetfulness and alienation, we live in a divine environment. Our sin and brokenness do not disguise our original wholeness as God’s children, nor do they create an insurmountable chasm between God and us.

Still, Paul believes the gospel must be proclaimed. Perhaps, he remembers another passage passed down among the apostles, and later inscribed in John’s gospel, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)  Though we are always connected with God, we may be unaware of our divine heritage.  We may forget our true identity and the source of inspiration and growth. When we are consciously connected with God, we bear fruit and live abundantly. We can confidently share the good news as a means of helping others, particularly our families and friends, “find” themselves as God’s beloved children, the recipients of gift and grace.

John’s gospel speaks of the Divine Advocate, the inner Spirit of truth. Though this truth is accessible to all, only those who seek the truth will know God’s truth for themselves and the world.  Only those who seek God’s truth will experience the Spirit consciously in their lives. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. Yet, this treasure may remain buried apart from the awakening word of a loving community or friend.

The passage from John opens to us two concepts, both of which must eventually be joined in our personal and our congregational faith: the path of spiritual discipline and practice and the path of public proclamation. To use the words of Thomas Merton, we need to practice contemplation in a world of action. Our faith must be a faith of action. We are to be God’s ambassadors.

John’s Gospel tells us that God’s Spirit always calls in “sighs too deep for words” we need to train ourselves to listen. We need to practice awakening to God’s presence and listening for God’s purpose for our personal and communal lives. This is what we hope will be the result of “fully Alive: Fully Human”.

God speaks to humanity in many and various ways. God has revealed God’s self to the world over the eons in many and various ways and continues to so in our age. We meet God usually in the most unexpected occurrences and places. We must be alert.

In the burning bush God revealed to Moses his plan for Moses to be God’s agent in the salvation of the captive people of Israel.

Isaiah was participating in the Temple liturgy when, he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him. Amos was tending his sheep and his trees when God spoke to him.

Elijah thinking that the whole world was against him, meet with God in the most unexpected way, in the sound of sheer silence.

The Psalmist met with God in the beauty of creation. “I lift up my eyes to the hills from where my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

Paul, full of zeal to destroy the fledgling church, was unexpectedly confronted with the Son of God through a blazing light and a booming voice.

Thomas met God in the evidence of the resurrection. He said ‘My Lord and my God!’

We are all different in how we discover God and the impact of God’s will affects each of our lives differently. Whether God is revealed to us in a fire, or in worship in church, walking along a road or in silence; each of our special revelations is important to us and our experience is helpful to others.

The contingent movement in faith once we have heard God speak is often more difficult for most of us. How shall we share our faith to seekers and non-Christians? This, like the spiritual disciplines, takes practice. We need to be reminded of the God moments in our lives, the moments when God became more than a word or when God made a way when there was no way. From these God moments we can discern the gospel we will proclaim. We do not speak a truth from above, but we can speak of a living truth grounded in our own lives that do not have all the questions, but are informed by our experience and faith, and this personal and experienced truth will speak to our families, friends and neighbours.

We need to live and breathe a gospel that reflects Christian wisdom and experience from the perspective of a broad and inclusive faith. Our faith is inclusive not exclusive. Our faith is based upon the example of Jesus who met with sinners of all sorts and loved them.

With the example of Paul speaking in the Areopagus and John understanding, there is an understanding that can be broken down into a number of spiritual affirmations upon which we can build a way to speak of our faith to others.

God lives in all things, and in my life.
We are all children of God.
We can experience God in our life.
We can experience God’s wisdom and abundance in every situation.
Christ reveals God to us.
Christ constantly gives us the wisdom we need to flourish and serve.

Yes, we dwell in the modern Areopagus and are ourselves Athenians in our quests for an inclusive faith. In our continual searching we need to let our light shine; to speak the truth of faith, as we know it, to connect that truth with the experiences of the people outside of the Church. This is achieved by using the example of our own experiences of God in our lives. This is real benefit for the people with which we come into contact in our daily living.  That is how we can validly speak of faith in both word and deed.

God is “not far from each one of us”. The dynamic, loving and inclusive God is in our midst. When we promote this understanding then it will be heard in the Areopagus’ of today.[1]

 

 

 

[1] This sermon is based upon the work of Bruce Epperly found at www.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2005-05-01/6th-sunday-easter

 

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (A) – 18th May 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 31: 1-5, 17-18;  1 Peter 2: 11-25; John 14: 1-14

When you think of home, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of a building. Perhaps you think of home as a shelter from the storm, a place of refuge. Perhaps when you hear the word “home”, you think more of the hopes and dreams of the people who inhabit a home, a place where people build and share a life together. A place where families share the hopes, hurts, the joys and sorrows of life. Perhaps when you hear the word “home” you think of a place of solace and comfort a place where you feel safe and whole.

Some say home is where the heart is. Others say home is where you hang your hat. The American poet Robert Frost once wrote, “Home is the place, where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Somehow, someway, home has a special place in the human heart. It seems as though we are all longing for a place to call home. Whenever we feel lonely or abandoned, we want to go home. Whenever we are filled with doubt or despair, we want to go home. Whenever we feel cut off or lost, we want to go home. I want to go home. I want to feel at home. It’s a phrase that expresses the deepest longings of the human heart.

St. Augustine gave famous expression to this longing when he wrote of God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”. Somehow our restless hearts are always looking for a place to rest, a place to find true and abiding peace, a place to call home. Maybe we feel like if we only had the perfect job in the perfect community, then finally we wouldn’t feel so restless. Maybe we feel like if we could meet that perfect someone, that perfect spouse or partner, then finally we would be ready to settle down. Maybe we feel like if we can just get the children educated then finally we can rest.

And yet even when we land our dream job, and find our soul mate, and raise our children, somehow the human heart is still restless, still looking for a place to find true and genuine peace. Somehow, we are all still longing for a place to truly call our home.

“Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” In the good times and the bad times, we are all longing for a place called home.

In our gospel reading today, we hear words that speak directly to the longing of the human heart for a home. Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be.”

The Gospel reading is part of the central section of the Gospel of John that follows Jesus’ public ministry and precedes his passion. After an account of the last supper and foot washing, John presents Jesus’ farewell discourse, followed by his high priestly prayer. The lengthy farewell discourse focuses on topics relevant to the disciples after Jesus departure. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in the flesh. They must have been broken-hearted, but Jesus assures them that even though their relationship is changing, it is not ending. Even though he will no longer be with them in the flesh, they will remain connected. Jesus is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, where they will remain united to him forever, “so that where I am, there you may be also”.

Our true home is with God, and Jesus, who comes from their very bosom of God, is preparing a place for his disciples in God’s home, in God’s heart. Our true home, ultimately, is not a place, but a relationship, a relationship in the very heart of God, made possible by Christ, eternal in the heavens. Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

Here’s the surprise thing. Even though the fullness of this relationship remains in our future, even now we can know the reality of this relationship. Even now we can experience a foretaste of this eternal home. When we do the works that Christ commands us to do, when we love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, then God’s love will dwell in us, then God’s love will make a home in us. When the brokenhearted are comforted, then God will make a home with us. When people lay down their lives for one another, then God will make a home with us. When all of God’s children are invited to God’s table to share in his body and blood, then God will make a home with us.

In her memoir, “Traveling Mercies”, Anne Lamott writes about why she stays so close to her church. She says, I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, when I hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home.”

“Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[1]

 

[1] This sermon prepared using the work of the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano found at www.episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw and material found at www.processandfaith.org.

 

 

 

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday of Lent (A) – 6th April 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John11: 1-45

What do we make of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones?  The central message is clear enough: God can breathe new life into old bones.  It applies to a community of faith that appears to have been defeated, even destroyed like an army that was overcome in battle.  It applies to the individual person who feels defeated in life and faith and has lost hope.  The message is, “You can live!”  If you hear the Word of God and respond to it you not only can live, but you shall live.  The dry bones will come together no matter how far they have been scattered.  Sinews will come upon them so that they can work together again, and flesh will cover them.  Even the breath of life will come into those dead bodies when the wind of the Spirit blows.  It is a message of hope.  It’s the same hope that Jesus gave when he raised Lazarus from the dead.

The story of Ezekiel is not really focussed on what happened to the dry bones.  The actors are not the bones, or the bodies they represent.  The real characters in the drama are God, Ezekiel and the Spirit.  They are the characters who produce the action.  It was quite a challenge for the prophet to do what God told him to do.  It was an act of faith to tell the dry bones that they would live.  The first point of the drama, even in a dreamlike vision, was to decide whether Ezekiel had the faith to do what was asked of him.

Does it make any sense for the prophet to speak to the bones if they don’t know that they dead?  Well, you might say it is a silly idea anyway talking to a lot of old bones.  Whoever thought of any sane person doing that.  Like Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, you must have great faith in what you are doing to do that.  Jesus calling froth Lazarus must have looked very silly.  He had been dead four days.  He had great faith in what God can do.  Yet if you really believe in the power of God to give new life and you believe that God cares enough to answer our pleas for life, then you will have faith enough to speak the word of hope to even the most hopeless.

What if the dryness of the bones goes unrecognised!  What if people, as individuals or as the church or nation, do not know that they are dead?  I suspect that in fact, when the life has gone most people do know in their bones, that it has gone.  Yet I fear that all too often we are afraid to admit the state we in.

The message of hope can only be heard when you are prepared to admit you are in trouble, when you can feel the dryness of the bones.  As Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher, said, We hope only when we cease to hope”.  It takes a lot of faith to proclaim the message of hope with honesty when you don’t know whether people recognise the marks of death that are upon them.  We are a people who live by hope.

We must be realistic and stop looking for quick fixes or easy ways to bringing new life to a life that has gone dry.  The short cuts to the new world are an illusion.  First we must face the reality.  There is not just a little bit of sickness around, but a mortal shadow is cast.  To change the metaphor if you don’t know that the ship is virtually on the rocks you might not be very interested in changing direction.  It takes a lot of time and effort to turn a ship around.  It can be done if your small strength is multiplied by the mechanisms that are built into the ship.  If you make use of power beyond yourself, especially the driving force that propels the ship you can change.  In nautical terms we would have said we must allow the wind to blow the ship in the right direction.  The point is that whether you are steering a ship or commanding an army in the desert you have to know the dangers you are in and the source of life which gives you power to change if you are to survive.

Ezekiel had the faith to proclaim the word of hope to a people without hope.  He believed in the power of God to breathe new life into old bones in a bleak windswept desert valley.  That is what we able to tell our family, friends, associates and ourselves, God can make the dead live.  Ezekiel reminds us that there is meaning in the world and life where there was once death.

This is a beautiful world.  There is life were others say that there is death.  Whether there is life or death God is there and we need not fear.  Because of our hope many will believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  They will see that those who believe in him although they are mortal and will physically die, will live and they never die.

 “I am the resurrection and the life.”

How many of the central and most fundamental sayings of the gospel that have brought new hope and courage to a hard-pressed world, were given in the first place to single, unimportant individuals.

Martha had hoped against hope that her friend would quickly come to her.  However it wasn’t to happen, it was too late, Lazarus had died.  So politely she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you what ever you ask of him.”  What did she mean by that?  She probably had no real idea.  Yet her attitude was very natural.  It can be seen in other, troubled confused souls who have faith in the power of God, yet who can’t see how their troubles will be overcome.  For those who know Jesus Christ well, learn to give him blind trust.  They don’t know what it is that he will do, or what they themselves ought to ask from him.  They are however sure of his interest in them, and his power to carry through what no one else could do for them.

To help Martha, Christ gave her that saying which has benefited Christian’s ever since; “I am the resurrection and the life.”  These words have been spoken on many occasions since to give reassurance, particularly at the time of death.

Those words can give hope in times of life too.  In ordinary, everyday life, for those who seek it, resurrection comes from Jesus.  Through him the day-to-day lives of ordinary people have been resurrected.  Souls, which appear dead and lifeless, are restored to life and vitality.  They are like Ezekiel’s dry bones.  Those people can rise out of the sleep of death into which they have descended.  Lives that do not produce anything but dust can produce very abundantly.  They are restored, grow sensitive, active, purposeful and be endowed with powers they haven’t had before.  Where there was once death there is life, because of the way, the truth and the life that only Jesus can give.

What Jesus said to Martha has leaped out through the barriers of death, to give all members of humanity a tremendous promise for the future life.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Calvary was not the end but the beginning.

As we partake in the sharing of the Communion cup we are recalling that Jesus is still today for us the resurrection and the life.  Not in some disembodied, impersonal way, but in a real sense here and now!  We proclaim our, past, present, and future in Christ.  Sharing the cup bonds us as Christians and identifies us as followers of Jesus who proclaim his death and resurrection, as we await his coming in glory.

Wine conjures times of enjoyment and friendship.  In the Psalms it is said; (God you make) “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine and bread to strengthen the human heart”.  (Psalm 104:15)  To often we meet as the body of Christ, as if it was a funeral.  We meet as if Jesus had not risen from the dead, or as if he did not offer hope for the future.  We meet as if Jesus’ life death and resurrection means nothing.  He is risen from the dead, our lives do have a purpose and we must celebrate.  Easter is for celebration.  The word Eucharist means to give thanks and so every time we meet like this we must celebrate.

The need to celebrate is why we have an Easter party.  We certainly do have much to celebrate.  As the father of the Prodigal Son said, to his other son, who complained about the party given to celebrate the return of his wayward son: ”My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.  But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”

We have much to celebrate.  Let’s throw off our sad faces and begin to enjoy ourselves when we meet together.  Let’s show ourselves, our families and our neighbours that we are more than just dry bones, that we are people of substance who have a purpose in life and in death.  We have Jesus who has given us direction, truth and life!

Let’s party!  Shake those bones!

 

Sermon: The First Sunday of Lent (A) – 9th March 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8:30 am

The readings for the first Sunday in Lent take us through the sweep of salvation history: the fall in the garden, the lament over sin in the Psalms, the hope of acceptance through Christ given in Romans, and then straight to the story of the temptation of Jesus, participating in our frailties yet triumphing over them, in Matthew,

Traditionally the Genesis story has been told as a tale of disobedience: God gives a clear command; Eve is tempted by Satan to disobey the command, and gives in.  Christ parallels the story, being tempted by Satan not in a garden, but in a wilderness.  But, unlike Eve, you and me, Jesus resists the temptation and triumphs.

Look closely at Genesis and notice that the temptation is direr than simply disobeying a divine command.  God has created humanity and then made a garden in which the creature could live.  We are given a God’s eye view of the garden: it is pleasing to the sight, good for food, and contains two trees, one of life, and the other of knowledge.  Then God gives a command Adam and Eve: do not eat the tree that gives knowledge.

The serpent accomplishes the temptation indirectly: “Did God say you couldn’t eat any of the fruit in the garden?” and Eve rushes to answer that it’s only one tree that is forbidden.  The serpent refutes the statement that the tree will cause death; instead, he says, this tree will make you like God.  The woman sees that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes and desirable for wisdom.  What she doesn’t know is that she is mirroring God’s own perspective; she is already like God but she does not believe it.  The fall is not simply disobedience, but a failure to own herself as the image of God that she has been created to be.

The significance of this reading is that when Genesis is read only as a tale of disobedience, our interpretation turns disobedience into an pompous pride in a desire to be like God, to storm heaven, as it were.  We fail to live up to what God created us to be.

In Genesis, the temptation is in the midst of a garden; in Matthew, the temptation is in the midst of a wilderness.  Symbolically, we can see the garden represents the richness of living as the image of God: as God wishes.  The wilderness, on the other hand, is the loss of that richness.  For Jesus, the only garden is Gethsemane, not Eden.  His temptation is not lush surroundings, but a desert.

Eve, not knowing who she is, gives in to the temptation to “be like God”.  Yet she is already in God’s image.  Jesus, knowing who he is, is also tempted to “be like God”; doing the miraculous things that only God could do: make stones into bread, demonstrate dramatic rescues, be recognized as the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world!  Be like God!  Jesus, knowing himself, answers each temptation simply with the refuting word of God.

Had Eve repeated the words of God she’d have felt no need to take the fruit.  Jesus, repeating God’s word, defeats the temptation, and goes on to complete redemption’s journey until once again we find ourselves in a garden, where Jesus himself is mistaken by Mary for a gardener: the garden of resurrection.

Genesis and Matthew offer contrasting stories about human responses to “temptation”.  They also offer contrasting stories about the presence and absence of God at times of “temptation”, reminders that we need to reconsider what we think the final double petition in the Lord’s Prayer means: “Save us for the time of trial and deliver us from evil”.

Some traditional unjust theologies appeal to Genesis 3 when they blame “Eve”, and all women thereafter, for spoiling life in the Garden of Eden and for handing sin on to their offspring.  Those misunderstandings limit human judgments about “good and evil” and lead to misreading and abusing scripture.  Some things the Bible says do not pass the test of time like tracing labour pains to the disobedience of the first humans, or the view that husbands are to “rule over” their wives.  The primary theme in the readings is that sin is part of the human condition, and forgiveness and Jesus’ faithfulness is its solution.

Although many have identified the snake with Satan, remember that the snake is one of God’s creatures.  It is a symbol of cleverness or shrewdness.  The woman’s reasons for eating the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” are not in themselves bad; on the contrary, they sound natural and good.  Although the snake tells the woman, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” the woman and her husband do not desire to be “like gods”.  They only wanted to eat good food and become “wise”.  How can we, or God, fault their desire for food and wisdom?  It was not the desire, or the object of their desire, that was wrong: what was wrong was their disobedience to God’s explicit instructions.

We hear lots of clever voices in our world trying to persuade us, usually successfully, to disregard what God would have us do, or not do.  We know that God wants us to care for the earth and for the poor, the sick and the hungry.  Yet we all participate in an economy that is destroying the earth, forcing more people into poverty and expanding the gap between the poor and the rich, keeping the sick in other countries from receiving healthcare, and failing to feed millions of children who die from hunger.  We know that God wants us to “love our enemies”, and not kill them; and yet, our elected politicians wage war on our behalf.

This story is good at naming the problem we face but, apart from reminding us to what God would have us do, or not do, it offers no solution to the problem of our disobedience.

It is noteworthy that the focus of Paul’s retelling of the Genesis 3 story is on the disobedience of “Adam,” and that he doesn’t mention a serpent, Eve, and the tree with the forbidden fruit.  His retelling shows an interest in only one thing: the way one person’s disobedience brought about a change in the world.  From that point on, everyone had to deal with the possibility of disobedience to God as a way of life.  That everyone subsequently participates in that way of life is an indication of its power, attraction, in the face of which our will is too weak to resist.  So, Paul’s customary way of talking about the human condition focused on human “weakness” in the face of the power of “sin” that invaded the world when “Adam” introduced disobedience as possible a way of life.

It’s not just that individuals decide to disobey God as a way of life, but also, and more fundamentally, that “Adam’s” disobedience changed the world, the human condition.  For Paul, “sin” and “death” are powers present in the world from the time of “Adam”.  “Sin” came into the world not as a power from outside the “created order” but because of the first act of human disobedience to God.  “Death”, however, came into the world as the form of God’s punishment for disobedience.  However “the whole creation” was affected, changed, by this chain of events.

Confession is first and foremost about creative transformation.  It is not about drowning in guilt.  As today’s Psalm so eloquently says, it is about opening up with full honesty in the sheltering presence of God’s “steadfast love”; it is about letting God, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, teach and counsel us about the way to new life, in the knowledge that God’s loving “ye is upon us.

In the account of Jesus’ baptism “a voice from heaven” repeated the witness of the story of Jesus’ birth, that Jesus is God’s “beloved Son”, with whom God is “well pleased” and it leads directly to the story about Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness.  In short, today’s Gospel reading is wedged between Jesus’ baptism, and what that says about Jesus’ identity, and the beginning of his public ministry following John’s arrest.

This reading does not say, “so, you, like Jesus, must resist temptation”, no matter how true the latter is.  You and I are not at all like Jesus!  It’s a story about Jesus, and by implication God and the world, and it invites our response to this Jesus, God and world.  It’s a story is about a test of Jesus’ faithfulness, and it is God who puts Jesus to this test.

Matthew now has Jesus demonstrate to God and the public that he is worthy of God’s good judgment.  Three times Jesus’ faithfulness to God stands up to the test.

The world is full of temptations to make idols of food, to live dangerously and test God’s providence and to make an idol of power and wealth.  The point of this story is that Jesus refused to make food, dominion and wealth idols; and he refused to exploit God’s “angels”, God’s “steadfast love”, for his own self-interest.

Confession names these ways, and others, that the world lures us into unfaithful lives.  Confession turns our attention to creative transformation that comes from God’s “steadfast love” for all creation.  Confession reorients our lives to Jesus’ faithfulness as the source of our faithfulness.[1]

 

Sermon: The Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany (A) – 2nd March 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom.  Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic divine-human call and response.  As the season of Epiphany portrays, God can choose to be more present in some places than others: for example, the birth of Jesus, the encounters with Jacob and Moses, the call of Mary and Joseph and the dream of the magi.  However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed.  Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point.  Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop.  The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.  During Epiphany, we are given vision to experience God in our individual vocations and gifts and then in all persons and places.  This truly is a transfigured world.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message.  This message focussed on the Commonwealth of God that through his work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being.  We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and also how it transformed it.  We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition.  It was about him that the prophets spoke.  He was God’s King: The descendant of David.  He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity.  It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

Today our attention is called to the person of Jesus and how the true God was revealed through him.

For the second time in Matthew’s account, God breaks in to tell us who Jesus is.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism by John.  If we wish to get to the root of the question of who was Jesus, we should pay attention to God’s recorded statement about him.  In today’s passage, God repeats the words he spoke at the baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.  This time God adds: “Listen to him”.

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”.  To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully.  Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased.  God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God.  Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians.  Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being.  Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission.  For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable.  Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, it is Jesus whom God singles out for recognition.  This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God.  Matthew shows that through Jesus God is fulfilling all that the Old Testament prophets spoke about and predicted.  That was sufficient for Matthew.  Listening to Jesus’ words over the years has too often been blocked by mystifying disputes, the Gospels reveal Jesus.  The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

Today is the anniversary of Wesley’s death.  We who sing Wesley’s hymns are fortunate.  We sing two of his hymns this morning.

“Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.”

And,

“Author of faith, eternal Word,
Whose Spirit breathes the active flame;
Faith like its finisher and Lord,
Today as yesterday the same.

To Thee our humble hearts aspire,
And ask the gift unspeakable;
Increase in us the kindled fire,
In us the work of faith fulfil.”

More than the other Reformers he put listening to Jesus ahead of speculations about his nature.  For Wesley listening to Jesus opens us to listen to others as well.

Of course singling Jesus out as the one to be listened to involves beliefs about him.  One must believe that he was peculiarly free from the distortions of race and gender, nationality and culture, social role and economic class that block the understanding of all of us.  We can see that from his dealing with the people of his age; Jews and non-Jews, women and men, adults and children, sinners and saints, that that is so.  We believe that his openness to God attained a truly extraordinary purity.  God is in all of us, but in Jesus, God becomes uniquely visible to us.  We need an exalted view of Jesus just because he was truly and fully human.  Matthew gives us that.

It is interesting, however, that in Matthew’s account Jesus forbids the three disciples who were with him to speak of their experience until after his death.  One may wonder that once again Jesus wanted to avoid using marvels as an argument for supporting him.  He wanted people to respond to the truth of his words on their own merit.

In the passage from 2 Peter we see the alternative approach at work.  After his death, the story of God’s confirmation of Jesus in the transfiguration is used as an argument supporting the teachings of Peter.  The resurrection appearances were more often appealed to in this connection.  None the less, Jesus would have preferred that we believe these stories because we listen to him rather than listen to him because of these marvels.

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus invites us to think further about the relation of Jesus to Moses and Jewish tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount we found Jesus both affirming the Mosaic Law and transforming it.

In Exodus God speaks to Moses.  God’s words are as follows: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there, and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction”.  God has singled out Moses for an enormously important role.  It is he who is to take God’s written words to the people and demand their obedience.  Much as Jews admire and appreciate Moses, it is the law mediated to them from God by Moses that is the focus of their spirituality.  They have learned over the centuries how to refine, develop and apply this law in ever changing circumstances.  The person of Moses and the law given through Moses are quite distinct, even separable.

It is different with Jesus.  We are to listen to him.  His followers wrote down some of what they remembered.  This enables us to listen.  But our listening is bound up with what we know of his person, his life, his transfiguration, his death and his resurrection; listening to him giving careful attention to what he is reported to have said.  But none of this is separable from his person.  We interpret what we believe he said in light of what he did, just as we interpret what he did in light of what we believe he said.

God’s call to us is to listen to Jesus.  To do so is dangerous.  It is also saving.  It transfigures us.[1]

Sermon: The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (A) – 16th February 2014 – Jane Chapman

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Deut: 10. 12-22; Psalm 119: 1-18; 1 Corinthians: 3: 1-9; Matt: 5: 21-27

“Go and first be reconciled to your brother

or sister and then come and offer your gift”.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of

the Holy Spirit, Amen.

All of today’s readings have something to say to us about how we do relationship: with God, with each other and with ourselves.  The Old Testament reading has that lovely image where it bids us to: “circumcise the foreskin of your heart”;  i.e. to prepare ourselves for a life made ready to be lived in the image of the God who made us.  Circumcision is the preparatory ritual to a life lived within the compass off God’s love: to walk in God’s ways; to learn of the heart of God; and to live both in concert and communion  with the One who is all love and all-loving.

The psalm assures us that ‘walking in’ God’s way is the process of keeping us within the boundaries of love.  In Corinthians, Paul assures us that growth  in relationship and life,  is also growth in God:  we do not have to construct our own growth in this relationship: Paul and Appollos have planted the seed , but it is God’s-self who holds the relationship together and will guide us in the way of love.

And so, we come in the Gospel to the part we have to play:

in response to God;

in response to each other; and

in response to ourselves.

As God’s creatures, we are invited into intimacy on each of these 3 fronts: God, other people and our own inner world.  But it is only an invitation…until we take it up and start to work with it, and in it.

Jesus reminds us today that we have a particular kind of relationship to be aware of and concentrate on:  And it is the kind of relationship that needs to be protected from rivalry and bitterness.  Thus, he bids us to repair relationship with each other, well before we approach God in acknowledgement and worship.  Indeed, Jesus wants us to go out of our way to reconcile with each other.  Only then, he implies, are we free to come before his Father’s throne.

And it’s not always easy to do that act of reparation.  God is often much easier to approach than someone who seriously gets up our nostrils.  God is reliable, merciful and ‘out-there’: no real threat.  Our “enemies” and “rivals” are dangerously and annoyingly close-by…and, of course we avoid them like the plague.  Who wouldn’t?

Well, Jesus wouldn’t…and it is the human Jesus as much as the divine Jesus who urges us into reconciliation.  ‘Reconciliation’ is an interesting word.  It comes from a word in Latin which means to “reunite with”: i.e. to reconcile is to become ‘one-with’, or, more specifically, to become ‘one-with’ again.

This command from Jesus is sometimes very difficult to respond to: all the more so if, in the process of splitting away from another person, we are – or believe ourselves to be – firmly “in the right”.  But Jesus does not deal in right and wrong: indeed, we would be in serious trouble if he did.  Jesus deals in love.

‘Love your enemies’, he says…and this applies to “neighbours” who become enemies in our minds through friction, disagreements or – most difficult of all – guilt within ourselves.  None of these things is comfortable to live with.

To live reconciled to Christ, we needs must be reconciled to and with each other…and to find the courage and the generosity to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, we need first to be generous enough to become reconciled – more “at one with” –  ourselves.  The path to reconciliation is much more a matter of personal wholeness than it is a function of a begrudging movement towards someone who tees us off.

To put this hard commandment into practice, often I need to ask myself the question:

“What kind of person do I wish to experience myself to be?”

If I want to be hard-nosed -‘right’ all the time, I’m going to be extremely hard to live with.  Nobody but God is ‘right’ in that sense of the word.  If I want to be whole and happy – and that is the wish and the will of our heavenly Father – then ‘right’ makes no- never-minds.  It’s love that works: not always the emotion of loving but both the willingness and the decision to be loving: to be what the God who makes us in God’s image, dreams we are to be.  This – and only this – is the path to wholeness.

‘Love your neighbour’ is a tough call.  ‘Love yourself’ is a tougher one.  ‘Love God’ is seriously not a cliché:

We need to practice loving: it’s something that requires work.  God is our starting point.  Jesus is our sign-post to God.  Indeed: that is Jesus’ primary task: to make God accessible.  Once we truly know ourselves to be not only made in love, but always held in love, we can reach out for the Jesus who unites us with his Father and his Spirit.  Only then do love for neighbours and love for self begin to come easily.

It’s hard to appreciate how much work we may have to do to be loving. But it is a world’s-worth harder to live without love and a fundamental belief in the love for which God has fashioned each of us: including – indeed, especially including –  those we experience as enemies.

 

Sermon: The First Sunday after Christmas (A) – 29th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Sermon:              The First Sunday after Christmas Year A

The Christmas season is a continual reminder that God is with us, sharing in our joy and sorrow, moving through ordinary life and providing insights when we are in greatest need of them.

God comes to us directly, Isaiah claims, without the mediation of others.  God doesn’t need messengers to convey God’s will, although prophets are often sent to share divine wisdom and challenge.  God is with us in the here and now.

If God comes to us directly, what are the medium of divine communication?  Does God directly speak to us or provide insights, and dreams?  Does God come to us through our encounters with others?  How do we know that our experiences of the divine reflect divine direction rather than personal self-interest?  Does our perspective and life experience shape the nature of divine revelation as well as our understanding of it?

God comes to us each moment in terms of possibilities for actualization and the energy to achieve these possibilities.

God comes to us in our experiences of general and personal transformation.

We experience God through our encounters with other people.

God encourages us to share God’s possibilities with others.

All revelation can reveal as much about ourselves as they reveal about God.

The initial praise to God is not only about mercy in times past, but is the statement of faith that provides a foundation for asking God’s continuing mercy in the present.  These verses invite us to praise God for divine mercy shown in the birth of Jesus in the past; but they are not only about the past; they also invite Christians to pray for God’s mercy made obvious through God’s action in the life and ministry of Jesus and continuing today.  This is a picture of a God intimately and feelingly related to God’s creation; it is in direct opposition to the idea of a God who feels no emotion even though divine actions may appear compassionate to human recipients.

God’s salvation is manifested in “no messenger or angel but his presence”, stresses God’s real and personal involvement in saving action.  The saving significance of Jesus is not simply in the message he proclaimed or the divinity he revealed; the saving significance of Jesus is in the active presence of God in and through him, a presence into which he invites the faithful to come be present to God themselves.  What is unique about the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus is the intensity, intimacy, and deliberate manner in which Jesus received and actualized in his human occasions the divine aims of God’s saving love.  Thus Isaiah’s recognition of God’s presence, in the history of salvation serves to enhance, not to diminish, the recognition of God’s saving presence in Jesus the Christ.  It encourages us to recognize God’s real presence in contemporary acts of prayer, liturgy, community and justice.  Therefore the celebration of Christmas is not only about a birth two thousand years ago; it is about God’s mercy and love made present today.

Psalm 148 reminds us that all things can praise God because God touches all things, both human and non-human.  God is present in the groaning of creation and our own yearnings.  God is revealed in the sighs too deep for words within us and the sighs of all creation.  The universe reflects a dynamic call and response at every level.  Although we have defaced creation and ourselves, we still live in an enchanted universe in which all things reveal the movements of God’s Spirit.

The Letter of Hebrews tells us that we can grow in grace and share in Christ’s divinity because Christ transformed humankind through the incarnation.  Christ saves us by becoming one of us and experiencing the world from our perspective.  God became human so we might become divine.  Christ lived through every stage of life, thus making every stage of life holy.  Christ suffers as he experiences our pain; God feels our pain and is truly the fellow sufferer who understands our experiences.  Christ invites persons to holiness.  God’s experience of our world is fundamental to divine revelation.  In sharing our lives, God lures us toward full humanity and the glory of God in human history.

The Gospel reading needs to be rated “R” for violent content.  The slaughter of the innocents is graphic in its violence, and sadly we are familiar with such images of death and destruction, whether by terrorist actions, ethnic violence, drone attacks.  Institutions, like persons, are ambiguous: they can do much good in the world, but they can also wreak violence on innocent children.  Military instruments such as drones, intended to reduce innocent suffering, become instruments that destroy families.  As we ponder the killing of toddlers in Bethlehem, we are forced to our own examination of conscience as individuals and citizens.  In what ways are we, through our own actions, the actions of churches, the actions of our lawmakers and political leaders, harming children?  How do we cope with the institutional and family sexual betrayal of our young children?

We catch a glimpse of the members of the Holy Family running for their lives.  Joseph, Jesus and Mary are political refugees, immigrants, similar to today’s legal and illegal immigrants throughout the world who depend solely on the kindness of strangers.  Their flight reminds us of our responsibility to today’s immigrants.  Regardless of their legal status, they are God’s beloved children who deserve our compassion and support.

The first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel are filled with life transforming dreams: Joseph chooses to stay with pregnant Mary as a result of an angelic message in a dream; the magi have a dream that warns them to return home without reporting to Herod; Joseph is warned to leave Bethlehem; another dream inspires Joseph to return home.

One of Matthew’s ongoing motifs throughout the Gospel is to present Jesus as a new Moses, mediating a new Covenant.  The brief episodes in this passage echo episodes in the life of Moses.  As Moses’ birth was threatened by the decree of Pharaoh that Hebrew boys should be killed, so Jesus’ birth is threatened by Herod’s murderous order.  As Moses was separated from his people and raised among Egyptians, so Jesus was separated from his people and raised in Egypt.  As Moses returned to the land of promise but did not dwell in it, so Jesus returned to Judea but did not stay there, moving instead to Nazareth in Galilee.  What is being suggested is that as God was at work in Moses, and more so is God at work in Jesus.  Jesus is the true representative of the people in mediating a new Covenant

God comes to us in many ways.  We need to take time to pause, notice and then respond to the many ways divine revelation emerges each and every day.  In this holy season we remember and celebrate that God came to us as one of us so that w can be one with God.[1]

 



[1] This sermon prepared using mater written by Bruce G Epperly and Paul S Nancarrow found at www.processandfaith.org.

 

 

 

Sermon: Christmas Day (A) – 25th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am

Readings: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 2:11-14; Matthew 2:1-20

The Christmas stories are provocative propositions.  The theologian A N Whitehead said that, “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than true” and that “the importance of truth is that it adds to the interest”.

The Biblical accounts of the first Christmas have been under vigorous study for the last two hundred years, by scholars and religious leaders and even Pope Francis has entered the debate concerning the accuracy of our Christmas pageants.  Such study and the resulting findings are important; but are they interesting?  Do they add to the vitality of life or lead to personal transformation?  There is a deeper truth that has emanated from the Christmas stories that can never be captured by scholarship alone.

When it comes to the important business of passing on our Christian tradition, we tell stories.  For the most important stories, we dramatize and make them tangible.  At Christmas we tell our stories in many ways such as the crib scene below me, we sing carols, have Sunday School presentations; all these are to anchor our memories.  Our legacy to those who follow us in the journey of life is a rich storehouse of images for the times, both good and bad, that may lie ahead that point out that no matter what may happen God, who is revealed as a human baby in the usual process of life, goes with all those who have faith in the stories of the Nativity.  This treasury of images and stories combine both personal stories and the overarching, transcendent story.

While we may never know the exact details of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel shows the holy family as a pilgrim family, temperately without shelter and desperately seeking a place for the birth of their child.  No one would have noticed them as unique among the many travellers that evening.  They were citizens of an oppressed people, compelled to take an inconvenient and life-threatening journey and subject to the whims of forces beyond themselves.  Soon they would have to flee for their lives as political immigrants, dare we say illegal immigrants, depending upon the kindness of strangers for their survival.  Yet, God’s universal energy and power, God’s vision for the ages, is centred upon the birth of a baby.

The Christmas stories mark both Mary and Joseph as particularly sensitive to the divine possibilities and their perceptiveness opened the door for a leap divine self revelation to them and their child Jesus.  The stories of this season are those of birth.  Perhaps unconsciously, we will return to them at other times during the coming year.  As some of you know, I love to play Christmas carols through out the year, especially in the depths of winter.  At times when we feel dead inside, we will turn to those memories of birth and some trace of Christmas will stir within.  Then we who were suffering from amnesia will remember who we are and whose we are.

Luke sees divinity bursting forth in a stable and in revelation given to shepherds, people at the margins of society.  There is nothing romantic about the real life of real shepherds.  They live their lives in the moment unsure of their future.  They lived outside in all weather conditions, were a bit shiftless in the public eye and were not part of polite society.  Yet, they receive a visit from angels, which opens their eyes to a new possibility for themselves and for all humanity.  Dwelling in darkness they have seen a great light.  God’s salvation comes at the margins of life, making the margins the frontiers of a world to come.

The accounts of the first Christmas are not a process that would fit in a rulebook or on a balance sheet, because they are more closely akin to poetry.  The poet knows that everything has the potential for grace, that the divine can reveal itself in the smallest, strangest places.  Isaiah would never fit on a ledger sheet, he wrote of the ruins of Jerusalem breaking out in song.  It wouldn’t appear in an anatomy text, but John imagined people born neither from human will nor physical processes, but from God.  The pragmatists might scoff at such insights, but without such stories, we perish.

So today we celebrate the poetry of new life.

“There is something afoot in the universe that looks like gestation and birth”,

wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  In John’s gospel, it looks like order and purpose, a design established from the beginning.  At the designated time, the forerunner appears, then in a burst of light, the Son.  The letter to Hebrews calls him

“the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

As though the brilliance might be too much for human eyes, the story tells all who wish to listen that God comes to us in a form we can handle, the light filtered, the glory toned down.  God so honours our freedom that God does not dazzle us with radiance, but comes in what is closest, most intimate, small as a baby.

Another way of telling the story of the festival, is to talk about the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay entering our hearts at Christmas.  This recognition that it can only be the risen Christ whom we encounter seems strange and out of context, yet the atmosphere of the liturgy drives us to make the connection.  For this is above all else the day of light.

To tell the story of Christmas by showing the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries.  Together they consti­tute the basic framework of God’s activity in and beyond his­tory and time, as they form the heart of Christian faith and hope.  Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christ­mas, Easter has no meaning.  Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh.  The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.

The light of Christ is a persistent light.  It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them or making sense of them.  The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions.  It is a persistent and defiant light, its persistence is paradoxical for the truth of the gospel of incarnation and resurrection is paradoxical.  For the truth of the story of the gospel of incar­nation and resurrection stands in contradiction to, and seems to be contradicted by, the realities of the world in which there is still no room and where the dead bodies pile up, inexplicably, meaninglessly.

Is the story we tell of the light of Christ, then, no more than an illusory comfort, a false reassurance that all is well when in fact all is clearly unwell in the “demented inn” of the world?  Certainly religious light is often of this illusory kind but the gospel of incarnation and res­urrection cannot be told in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaning­less death.

These two realities provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ.  For it is as the story of the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and as the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persist­ence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical pro­cess, lights in the world.

May the stories of Christ’s birth two thousand years go, bring you the light of meaning this Christmas enabling you to see God’s presence in the world and in your life.[1]


[1] This sermon produced using material from ”The Living Spirit”, editor by M Hebblethwaite, Canterbury Press, Norwich, www.preparingforsunday.com/ Living the Good News, Episcopal of East Tennessee and material written by B P Epperly, www.processandfaith.org

Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (A) – 15th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; The Magnificat; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11

Advent invites us to imagine “impossible” futures for our world, and then open ourselves to their power of the Spirit to lure us forward.  Advent invites, and it also judges.  Advent asks, “Where are we going in our personal lives?  How far are we from the vision imagined by Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus?”  Spiritual teachers speak of the examination of conscience and this examination is at the heart of Advent.  We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, but the spiritual arc of history challenges us to continue our pilgrimages toward God’s realm.

The metaphor of a highway through a desert that is in bloom is an exuberant way to describe the heart-lifting experience of opening oneself fully to God’s creative, transforming power.  A desert is usually thought of as trackless, or with barely discernible routes.  A highway is a broad thoroughfare that invites travel, incites curiosity about what lies ahead and implies companions along the way.  A desert in bloom is a landscape of beauty and wonder that welcomes travellers.  With words like gladness, rejoicing, joy, abundance and singing, the prophet declares the pathway of God, the “Holy Way”, as endorsed by Creation itself.

Although this passage is a poem of return of the exiles, is it any surprise that early Jesus followers would associate these verses, with the advent of Jesus?  In a world famous for the mastery of Roman roads, one can almost imagine these early followers picturing Jesus as striding down this highway, a living link from the prophetic vision of the past to the pressing need for its renewal in the present.  They would see this “Holy Way” of God, in contrast to the Appian Way of Rome, as a declaration of the right road to take.  They found in Jesus a way to affirm the peace of God over the peace of Rome achieved by violence.

The desert shall bloom, the weak will become strong, the lame will dance and the frightened will become bold.  God’s plan for us is aimed toward wholeness and redemption.  The adventures of ideas of a transformed world reflect God’s vision for nature and humankind.

How shall we respond to Isaiah’s amazing vision?  Is it just a picture in words alone?  Will God somehow bring about this new age of Peace?  Are our efforts essential to realizing the realm of Peace in our world?  However we look at this passage, it is an ideal that shapes history, leaving us with a holy discontent, and an inspiration to creative transformation, first, of ourselves and then the world around us.  In contrast to world-destroying apocalyptic writings, Isaiah’s vision emerges from our world, imaging what a transformed world could be like.  Isaiah seeks a restored world, continuous with the past, but revealing new energies and possibilities, and a new human orientation.

Mary’s song places God on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.  God’s justice will be done and the poor will be uplifted, the wounded healed, and the wicked punished.  The creator of heaven and earth is biased toward justice.  In the beginning, God brought forth order from primordial chaos.  Throughout history, God continues to bring about new forms of order, confronting the disorder of injustice with the powerful vision of a just and orderly society.  Order is not static in the song’s vision but the foundation of creaturely creativity and adventure: a new heaven and a new earth.

The Advent readings connect divine order on the intimate and the inclusiveness of the cosmos: humanity and nature are synchronized as a result of God’s dynamic call, eliciting innovative responses from human partnership.  Mary’s song imagines a divine reign radically different from any religion past or present.  There is no coercion or domination, but invitation and transformation.  Freedom and creativity are preserved and aligned with the greater good of all creation.

The song exalts God’s preferential care for the poor and dispossessed.  It unites the microcosm with the macrocosm: what God is doing in her life reflects God’s aim for history.  Mary shows the way similar to John the Baptist.  She discovers herself as a bearer of a new age to come.  Her humble and risky situation mirrors the challenges the vulnerable and poor are facing.  God’s work in her life reveals God’s intention to lift up the forgotten and desperate.  God is praised for God’s justice and care for the “unimportant” and not the exercise of brute and coercive power.

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire.  The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable; limit the gap between rich and poor do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor.  So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed.  This is the way of God, definitely not the way of empire.  Nor is this news as reported by political tricksters as it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

The question put to Jesus is this: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come?  If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus?

The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbours, our friends and family members, and to ourselves.

John is looking for signs of the Way.  Jesus responds in terms of action there are no creeds or self-referential Messianic statements.  Take a look he says.  Here’s what’s going on.  Jesus has inaugurated a healing community that potentially encompasses the whole creation.  Jesus is embodying Isaiah’s dream and Mary’s praise.  Healing abounds: cells and souls are transformed.  God is doing a new thing that transforms minds, bodies, spirits and relationships, and God wants us to become part of a divine holistic healing adventure.

The passage ends with what, at first glance, appears to be a diminishment of John the Baptist; “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  This should be read as similar in tone to John 14:12, when Jesus asserts that those who follow him will be able to do greater things than he.  Jesus is affirming our role in the realm of God.  We are to be agents in God’s realm of healing.  We are God’s creative partners in healing the earth.  We are to claim our own energy and power in relationship to God’s loving vision.  Open to God’s vision, we can do great things that heal the world.

Advent presents us with an invitation to partnership, grounded in a holy unrest.  God’s aims for history and our personal lives are always somewhat at odds with the concreteness of our lives and social structures.  Their dissonance invites us to imagine and then embody God’s vision of a new heaven and a new Earth.  We are prone to hopelessness, as reflected in our complacency regarding the growing gap of wealthy and poor and the threats to the Earth through global climate change.  Still, Advent’s horizon of hope inspires us to join a healing pilgrimage, with no certain destination, but with the companionship of God.[1]



[1] This sermon based upon material written by B Epperly and J Slettom

found at www.processandfaith.org.