Lectionary Sermon for 27 January 2019 on Luke 4:14-21

And what of our own Epiphany?
Today is the third of the Sundays the Church sets aside for what is called the season of Epiphany. So, given we are now well into the season, it is fair to ask is there any way this season might speak to our own Epiphany. Epiphany can be a highly charged word. Technically at a popular level the word “Epiphany” simply means that moment or time when someone realizes the true significance of an event.

It is when the significance is life-changing that the epiphany is extreme. Do you remember hearing at high school about a naked Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and rushing through the streets in delight having just understood the significance of the water rise when he climbed into the bath? This was for him an Epiphany with a capital letter E.

Without wanting to take anything from Archimedes’ insight I cant honestly say from my science teaching days that my pupils shared his joy. Remember an epiphany for one – is not necessarily an epiphany for all. It is not unreasonable to assume that for most of the witnesses even of his day, spotting a naked Archimedes running down the street shouting out his Eureka, would have simply have found the moment to have been a bit of a laugh – it wasn’t their epiphany no matter what he was shouting.

An epiphany can make a difference to a whole life. I wonder if some here this morning might have seen the film Les Miserables and therefore might already know there is a different way to relate to the word epiphany. Let me set the scene. Victor Hugo’s hero a robber called Jean Valjean’s moment of epiphany came when the priest he had threatened and robbed, not only forgave him, but unexpectedly gave him the candelabra he had tried to steal. The evidence for this being an epiphany for Jean Valjean comes as our hero throws himself into the life of one who now cares and helps the poor children of post revolutionary Paris.

In Church tradition a few weeks ago we were thinking about the wise men astrologers – the Magi – realising they were in the presence of the true king, reportedly had their moment of epiphany and went home by a different way. BUT note this. The Magi were not portrayed by Matthew as having the same feelings for Jesus as Herod was supposed to have done.

Can I suggest some people (some here perhaps) might have been so used to Christmas that there was no discernible different way in their lives were lived despite living as spectators through the festival of Christmas. Such experiences don’t work for everyone.

Mary and Joseph finding out why the child Jesus was at the Temple might also be expected to have be experienced something akin to an epiphany in realizing what their son might represent BUT despite explaining himself to Mary and Joseph, we can’t be sure that the rest of his audience in the temple were now convinced followers as a result of that conversation .

In the old Testament passage today, we find Jesus revealing how the words of Isaiah talking of the Messiah might be seen as applying to himself, and from some interpretations, this might even conceivably have marked Jesus’ actual personal moment of epiphany.

The reason why we can be sure the congregation did not experience the same moment of epiphany is in the section which then follows (and which is down for next week), which goes on to show the crowd enraged by Jesus’ identification with Isaiah’s prophecy wanting to throw Jesus over a cliff. For his congregation there must have been something in his words which caused outrage.

It may help us if we were to recall the quotation Jesus chose to show the scripture had been fulfilled in the commencement of his own mission. How did it go?

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

It appears that here he is identifying with what these days we would probably call a personal mission statement, not necessarily a mission which his hearers would relate to.

So how does Jesus mission statement start? Jesus, using Isaiah’s words, saw himself anointed ….to bring the good news to the poor.

Very well then, if this is a part of Jesus’ epiphany, how might this become part of our epiphany?

Remember, acknowledging merely that Jesus said these words, wouldn’t make it our epiphany. Surely the ah ha moment for us would not arrive until Jesus’ Mission statement switched to become part of our mission statement.

And that is the catch. It isn’t enough to simply agreeing to recite the same words that Jesus found to quote. Mission statements always risk becoming sufficiently high sounding and politically correct to resonate for the listeners yet can remain devoid of real meaning, unless it becomes clear, even to outsiders, that the words of the statement summarize what we are obviously trying to do.

Jesus’ mission statement focuses first on what he calls good news for the poor. Had he left it at that statement, the good news for the poor referred to would have been total non-event.

In the same way when a total stranger rushes up to you to tell you something Jesus loves you, you are entitled to demand evidence. If, as is all too often the case, the stranger is a well-meaning self-appointed missionary who makes no effort to show he or she genuinely cares enough about you to at least learn your name or for that matter anything about your circumstances before telling you how to reorganise your life and be saved. Without evidence that the life of the missionary reflects Jesus teaching by word and action, whatever the missionary’s message, it has nothing to do with Jesus’ good news.

Jesus – at least as far as the gospel record spells it out –didn’t leave his mission statement claim at just stating the Isaiah prophetic words, no matter how impressive they might sound. Specifically, case after case, he showed he made time for society’s rejects. The tax collector, the leper, the prostitute, the Roman invader, the Samaritan woman, the hungry on the hillside, the cripple, the blind beggar, the common fisherman…… surely the good news for each of these was that Jesus cared in his words and in his actions. If the poor have heard the good news – the news will be discovered in the first instance from those who care enough to make a difference.

To pretend we share Jesus mission statement relating to good news for the poor, without being able to find signs of similar consideration in our own lives would make a mockery of any claim to share Jesus’ mission.
And then those next words proclaiming release to the captives…..

The Jesus attitude was to care about those imprisoned – whether the imprisonment is mental, or cultural or religious….. those in fact who are in effect imprisoned because they are not free of forces beyond their control. The release of the captives is also a consequence of those who genuinely care about their plight. Have you listened to talk-back radio lately and heard the angry words of listeners demanding that offenders be locked up and the key thrown away. Are those callers reflecting the gospel.

Again the way to show we value his words is not simply to mouth the same words from Isaiah. If for example, we can take practical action to do something about the imprisoning forces it is simply not good enough to ask a worship leader to pass the responsibility back to God with a platitudinous prayer. By all means pray – but why pray for something we don’t care to do ourselves?

Imprisoned by loneliness and wish to be released? …. surely taking a proffered hand of friendship is to experience release. But whose hand?

Imprisoned by prejudice?…The current protests – many of them violent – that have come to characterize the modern political world, show racism and prejudice at its worst.  There was a time when we would look to the British Empire and the United States for evidence of a growing tolerance.   Yet with the United States with its current sad rifts into opposing groups and talk of walls and tariffs , its reduction of international aid and daily examples of prejudice, is it surprising that international opinion is swinging against their example?   Britain is now looking to reduce ties with Europe.   Caravans of refugees from Central and South America are unwelcome everywhere and boatloads of desperate refugees from the civil wars of the Middle East and Africa are sinking in the Mediterranean.    Perhaps unwelcoming prejudice is part of the human psyche. So what should Jesus be saying through his current followers?   Oh, is that us?

Imprisoned by poverty? The proclamation of release will surely come first from the voices raised in indignation about unjust distribution of opportunity and resources. Our voices.

And do the blind now see? Even in a physical sense there are those who dedicate their lives to ensuring the blind have access to treatment that would otherwise be denied them. There are for instance teams of trained medical personnel who visit third world countries as volunteers bringing low cost operations for conditions like the removal of cataracts, the provision of glasses and even specialist treatment for a range of complex conditions such as for detached retinas and glaucoma. And yes because I know some of these volunteers, I admit some would not call themselves Christian. Yet surely when Jesus tried to awaken consciences to the point where people would be responsive to the needs of their neighbour, those who do share their skills with the needy may not articulate their own epiphany, yet their actions reflect the spirit of Isaiah’s prophecy.

In each one of these situations: the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed – their situation is met first and foremost by those whose personal epiphany awakens them firstly to the need and secondly to personal response to the need.

In reality those who live out the essence of Christ’s gospel would be far from agreed about their personal beliefs. The Muslim Red Crescent is hard to distinguish from the Red Cross in the humanity of their actions. But as with Jesus oft quoted story of the Good Samaritan, it is not for us to say that the absence of the Christian label makes Muslim compassion somehow invalid. Similarly the evangelical inspired Tear Fund works to meet many of the same dilemmas confronting the more liberal Christian World service…..and that is how it should be.

Make no mistake about it. Some will find true epiphany: that magic moment when suddenly the key to their life purpose falls into place. There are most certainly Christians and others too today whose inspired actions resonate with those words of Isaiah. But it is never the nature of someone else’s epiphany which should distract our attention. The real question for each of us separately is whether or not we have allowed our encounters with gospel to speak to our individual hearts. AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon 20 January, 2019, Epiphany 2, John 2:1-11


“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s not use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

A few years back I happened to see a Television documentary about Yogic Flyers. As far as I could ascertain Yogic flying was intended by its practitioners to be the “natural extension of transcendental meditation. Among its various claims was that, for its followers, it was a way of defying gravity. Further, in the documentary, they actually claimed to be flying as a means of bringing about world peace.

The young practitioners certainly appeared happy but far from flying they seemed to be bouncing up and down on very springy mattresses reaching the “dizzying height” of maybe one or two feet.. I can accept that they believed they were experiencing great clarity of consciousness, and yes they demonstrated happiness, and even levels of energy that as an older fellow I suspect would be quite beyond me. I also accept their word that they felt unbounded freedom which tied nicely with the looks on their faces.

As far as I could see, rather than accepting the claim they were flying it would have been more accurate to call what I was seeing as bouncing on ones buttocks. I am also prepared to assume that if I was to assert I had seen them defy gravity – there might be more than one or two here this morning who might be prepared to suggest I should go and have a wee lie down. Gravity is expected to be non negotiable.

I guess too that if I do insist that nature defying events happen, merely because ancient writings make such assertions, I should expect other people trained in science to be profoundly skeptical.

As one with background and training in science, I have to confess that if I were looking for impossible things to believe from the gospels before breakfast, (or at least struggle to believe in a literal sense), the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding feast in Cana would be high in the list. Unlike the healing miracles, where medical science does at least allow that the healing process can sometimes involve the release of helpful chemicals into the bloodstream triggered by various brain functions, turning water into wine involves using a simple word for the creation of transmuted atoms aplenty. Even water into ethanol (H2O into CH3CH2OH) would be hard enough without all those complex molecules in exact proportions required for a high class red wine.

Strangely the problem with claiming Jesus was literally in total control of nature in this way, is that this might then undercut many of his other reported teachings and actions. Someone so much in control would almost certainly be only playing at being a human with the strong suspicion that for such a being, temptations are impossible and suffering and even dying is then only an act.

Because we are separated by some centuries from the events that formed the basis of the gospels and because we know that objective recording of events was not always uppermost in the minds of those who wrote the New Testament, perhaps we should not be surprised that amongst the range of commentators on today’s passage in John about turning water into wine, that not everyone accepts this miracle is literally true. Because it is also important that everyone is at least honest about what they actually think, as opposed to the argument of the sort that I am right, therefore you are wrong which is hardly likely to convince anyone, rather than rushing to judgment, let us consider for the moment what some commentators are saying.

Certainly we should notice the problems with the story. Look for example at the way Jesus talks to his mother….. is that parental respect? And for those who understand the dangers of the unwise use of alcohol would we really approve of someone suddenly conjuring up another 500 litres of wine when the drinking presumably had been going on for at least two days previously.

Yet noticing problems with a literal story is hardly the best way to read John. A number of scholars have for example noted the way that John seems to have provided not so much an outline as a commentary of Jesus life. He almost seems to assume his readers will already be familiar with the main story. At the same time there is a growing recognition that John is in effect providing a commentary on the other three gospels. It is therefore probably not so much the facts that John now wants to bring to our attention. He seems far more interested in alerting us to meaning.

Bill Loader for example suggests we should remember that John collects “wow” miracles together to make the point that even if people have witnessed such miracles they still will not truly comprehend Jesus unless they first reorganize their basic attitudes (which John refers to being born from above). A little further on past this story of Cana, at the end of the second chapter of John’s gospel, Nicodemus almost gets to understand what Jesus is about through his miracles which he recognizes as coming from God. “Rabbi”, we find Nicodemus saying: “We can see you are from God because no one could do these miracles unless he was from God”. But even although Nicodemus attributes these great deeds to a man of God, John has Jesus telling Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above before true understanding will be his.

If we rush to focus on the factual nature of the miracle we are also in danger of missing the typical John type themes and symbolism.

As any expert in Jewish numerology would tell you, six stone jars represent initial impurity. Seven is the number the Jews associated with perfection, and six with incompleteness or imperfection. The jars have to be made of stone because stone is seen as unable to be affected by impurity and the water added is the purifying agent typically offered to clean those who have arrived as travellers or those about to eat. The oblique reference to the third day and the casual passing reference to the “hour” of glory yet to come in the story appear to be one of John’s frequent reminders of the impending resurrection event.

Further, the wine John uses as a theme seems likely to pre-empt the Eucharist where the wine will be seen to have value surpassing expected earthly values in its different context. The all important wedding imagery is a theme John returns to when he represents Jesus as the bride groom, with the church by implication representing the bride. You may remember that elsewhere in this gospel, John the Baptist makes passing reference to himself as a friend to the bridegroom.

Jesus brings life – and here in the story he brings new dimension to wine. The custom of offering the best wine first was a way of ensuring the first served, the important guests, were the best catered for, and leaving the cheap stuff for the uncultured drunks at the end would have been expected – so saving the best till last challenges the expected order.

The liberal catholic priest Dominic Crossan mounts a persuasive case that Jesus’ fressing [eating] was perhaps the most radical element in his life – and further suggests that his table manners pointed the way to his spiritually inspired morals. Jesus was of course living and acting within a Mediterranean Jewish peasant culture, which is (as it may well remain today) a culture of clan, belonging and recognition of cohort, in which who eats with whom defines who stands where and why.

The barriers between people were reinforced by the formal customs – and for good measure the conventions were given authority by the scribes and the Pharisees. This is why, as Jesus repeatedly violates the rules on eating for what the social biologists would call ‘commensality,’ he introduces changes which would have shocked his contemporaries. He dines with people of different social rank, which would have particularly shocked most Romans, and with people of different tribal allegiance, which would have shocked most Jews.”

The God Jesus presents, then, becomes accessible to saints and sinners alike. The prostitutes and tax collectors and women represented those marginalized by convention.

When we look back on this gospel story, we have the choice of being the disinterested spectator, or alternately, being continually seeking our own inspiration as the pilgrim. Because weddings are now very different in our culture, applying the principles of this story to our own situation is no simple matter. Most Western nations are set up with different social structures to those of first Century Palestine. The barriers of our own society are likely to be localized yet their identification is important.

If we accept the general principle that Jesus is using hospitality to show valuing of individuals despite society’s values, perhaps we should start by reflecting on our own cross section of acquaintances. The simplest test is to ask ourselves who we encourage to share our table. In a real world it is unlikely that we will behave totally without being influenced by local barriers – but if for example we live in a multicultural society but strongly favour those of the same religious, racial, political and socioeconomic persuasions as ourselves when offering hospitality we are not necessarily showing we follow the Christ of the New Testament.

I find myself increasingly drawn to John Dominic Crossan’s major hypothesis that much of the gospel writing was designed as parable about Jesus, as well as the more obvious parables attributed to Jesus. For those who share this interpretation, we might remind ourselves that when Jesus told his parables he often left some of the explanation to the interpretation of his hearers. Although it would be nice to have someone do our thinking for us, it seems to me, that such is the variety of individual situations, ultimately this is a challenge we should not pass off to others.

Gospel is intended as good news for all – and today’s story is part of John’s gospel. What part of today’s good news can we see as being good, practical and relevant as we attempt to live what we learn? As was sometimes explained at the beginning of a question in the exams I remember from University, candidates do not necessarily have to attempt all parts of the question in order to achieve a pass.

NOTE to the reader:

I am in the process of up-dating the complete set of lectionary sermons for the three year cycle. (sometimes this includes updating previous sermons).   Since other preachers tell me they use the sermons from this site as part of their own preparation I am keenly aware that others could make this collection of sermons more valuable as a resource by sharing good illustrations (or necessary corrections). Please feel prepared to add your own comments or suggestions in the comment box at the end of each sermon.

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Lectionary Sermon for 13 January 2019: The Baptism of Christ based on Luke 3: 15 – 22

So Baptism Means What?
Roger Fenn, who I believe started the Fenn School, in Concord in the United States, was known to enjoy telling the story of how, as a young boy, he had been present at the baptism of some relative, and thinking it inspiring, he decided to baptize himself. Baptisms in those days, as with many traditional churches today, were “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Ghost.” In his Church a required part of the ceremony was total immersion. Young Roger was fairly confident he remembered what was said and done in the ceremony, so he went home, sat himself on the edge of the horse trough, pinched his nose, said “Roger Fenn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and into the hole he goes….” — and dropped backwards into the trough!

For outsiders to Christianity, baptism must appear something of an irrelevant curiosity. Certainly the form of baptism offered by the various forms of the Church is by no means agreed. Sometimes it is seen as a naming ceremony, and sometimes more a ritual to mark entry to Church membership. I know of Christians take for granted the idea of total immersion, whereas those from other denominations seem to prefer a highly formalised symbolic ritual as for example we see with the touching or sprinkling of water to the head as part of infant baptism. Sometimes the baptism takes place in the sea or in a river, but for many of those who we might like to think of themselves belonging to the older more established Churches baptism is a much more refined and gentle process.

Although, at least as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned, while now baptism generally means a symbolic way of marking entry into membership of the Christian family, historically that wasn’t always the case. Remember in Jesus’ day there was no Christian Church to join when John the Baptist was calling for repentance and offering baptism as a change of life intention.

The early Jews had a place for baptism, but that was for gentiles, the non Jews who wanted to convert to Judaism and who needed to be cleansed of the beliefs they were renouncing. This, incidentally, is why John the Baptist would never have been accepted in formal Jewish circles in his day. By offering baptism to those who came to hear him in the desert, he was saying by implication they had strayed so far from the faith they needed as preparation for the Messiah, they should no longer see themselves as Jews and they needed baptism back into the true faith.

From what most Churches teach about Jesus, it may even seem strange that Jesus wanted to be baptised. After all, if he were indeed the Messiah, John would hardly be likely to think of Jesus as needing repentance and a return to the true faith. The other gospels certainly seem to record John as initially being unwilling to give him baptism but those of you who followed the Luke reading carefully might have noted that Luke does not even specifically refer to John performing the baptism even if from the other gospels it seems likely he intended this to be understood.

We cannot even be certain as to why Jesus chose to be baptised – particularly by John who many might say was Jesus’ inferior.

Perhaps this was partly Jesus’ way of showing his humanity and humility. Just as Luke points to Jesus growing in wisdom and maturity as a young man, perhaps the act of seeking baptism was a way of Jesus acknowledging that he was arriving at the banks of that river in need to take that significant step of public declaration of his intended mission. That Jesus was putting himself at the same level as the nobodies gathered to listen to John the Baptist gives us another dimension and reminds us that if Jesus himself can start his history-altering ministry with this act of humility we should look at ourselves again to see if our discipleship shows the same marks of humility.

But here is another thought….. What if Jesus had received his baptism, then returned home satisfied that now he had been put right with his faith, that now his relationship with God had the seal of religious approval, and therefore he might now retire with honour. Well would he still deserve our loyalty? Hoisting the “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely would surely have made no sense. It was the first step of a journey to be embarked upon, rather than a destination, that Jesus was declaring in his chosen act of baptism.

But if that is true of Jesus, surely the same should be said of the purpose of our own baptism. I am guessing that many here have had an infant baptism ceremony in their past, and I guess there will also be some here who are now adult, who have no doubt been present to recite the congregational promise to support the baptized child and their family as they grew in their faith. A simple question … how has it worked out since? Are the marks of our Baptism now evident to others in our lives and mission, not just in church but in our day to day world? And as to that promise to stand by the family as they helped the baptised one grow in wisdom and faith ….What did we actually do to follow through on that promise?

It is certainly not a given, that all who would be Christian understand that it is the living not the title that counts. I seem to remember Tolstoy once observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration:

“Everyone thinks of changing humanity, nobody thinks of changing himself (or herself)”.

One of the nicest Baptism services I have ever attended was with the Epsom Calvary Tamil congregation. It was dignified, thoughtful and impressive – followed by a celebration banquet … and what’s more I suspect it would have left John the Baptist and his baptism ceremony looking uncouth and amateur by comparison.

But let’s not focus too much on the form of the Baptism. Never forget that the Baptism itself is only the setting for the promises made. We can indeed work very hard to ensure that the setting is as memorable and helpful as possible, but the real test of the ceremony will probably take days, months, years and even decades to play out, because the test is not based on how we stage the ceremony, but is found rather in the fulfilment of the promises.

Certainly in the case of reporting Jesus’ baptism there was reference to great drama with Luke describing the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognising Jesus as the Son of God – yet this same Holy Spirit promptly sends Jesus into the wilderness for more than a month of reflection and tough living. For me if I had the choice I confess I prefer the catered banquet in the Church hall as a postscript to baptism but from what I have observed of the Christian journeys of others (and to a much lesser extent from my own journey), what I interpret as following the Spirit often leads into challenging and uncharted waters.

But let’s face the issue squarely, baptism only makes sense if we and our supporters emerge from the baptism to be committed… open to a new and different way of life. With infant baptism the commitment is one on behalf of the child which means of course that in the first instance the difference will need to be found in the acts of the supporters. Again let’s face it squarely. Unless the baptism signals some sort of genuine change why else would we want the ceremony in the first place?

I think that for me looking back I can say one unexpected benefit of entering into the contract of baptism is that through the new adopted way of life I get glimpses of wonder in the new possibilities it captures.

However baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet for those aware, a journey associated with a clear impression of destiny no matter how elusive the destination might appear to be. In my own case, honesty also reminds me that it is a journey to which I haven’t always been true.

Now contemplating my current retired state, and looking back, there have been those watershed highlights. In some ways I feel uneasy about two issues. The first is that the customs of the Church means that our focus is drawn to what happens in the Church building – but even there we should never lose sight of the contributions of all the church members. Our buildings are overseen and continually repaired and developed by skilled tradesmen in the church family, our social meetings catered for by generous and skilled cooks, our grounds maintained by those happy to give of their time and skills.

But you know the real efforts of the church family are probably better seen back in the homes and the streets where we actually meet most of the people. Yes in the Church there are good prayers that draw attention to real needs – but many in the community and those in the wider world are facing practical settings and real life issues which can’t be addressed in the comfort and security of the Church building. No matter how magnificent our Church music or familiar our medieval church customs this is not why Jesus entered the Jordan river or why our baptized selves are called to address issues of hospitality for strangers and finding practical solutions for issues of inequality and genuine need.

I guess each Church member who tries to act out the promises of Baptism and confirmation will find themselves living a life with its share of failures and frustration. Words said unwisely – or words left unsaid until too late. Harmful political decisions left unchallenged…. A dying person not visited in time, sick and lonely people not always visited … many, many missed opportunities.

In retrospect, strangely enough it isn’t our failures or successes that define the life – and if it comes to that I suspect most of us have failures as well as successes. What does make the journey worthwhile is the certain knowledge that there has been a feeling of shared destiny which, in truth, can probably find its origins in those initial decisions – baptism, confirmation and what Kierkegaard once called “the eternal Yes”. True perhaps the end goal seems as far away as ever, but the warmth of friendship and the support of a host of people who share the goals and frustration of ministry have added immeasurably to the joy of this stage of the journey.

Rex Hunt when he talked of this particular topic of the Baptism of Jesus referred to the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, where the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah to describe the significance of this baptism event, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering.

Until I thought it through, I was surprised when Rex said, it is not a word or call of mission, sending him into the future that provides a sense of identity. It is more a sense that in Baptism we are assuming a new identity, this chosen, this person called by name.
Not a calling but not so much so much to ‘do’.
But rather a calling to ‘be’… that liberates for life.

Baptism then is calling each of us by name. Whether or not we hear and respond to that voice is what makes the difference between the missed opportunity or alternately a life changing experience.

The 20th century prophet Howard Thurman put the words of Isaiah into contemporary poetry – and some of you will know the music version:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

The inward journey to claim and center ourselves in that divine essence within will hopefully encourage us back to the world to do the work we know goes with living the message. Perhaps we can relate to this and say our own AMEN

NOTE to the reader:

I am in the process of up-dating the complete set of lectionary sermons for the three year cycle. (sometimes this includes updating previous sermons).   Since other preachers tell me they use the sermons from this site as part of their own preparation I am keenly aware that others could make this collection of sermons more valuable as a resource by sharing good illustrations (or necessary corrections). Please feel prepared to add your own comments or suggestions in the comment box at the end of each sermon.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for Epiphany January 6 2019 on Matthew 2: 1-12

Returning Home by a Different Path
I guess if you had looked around any city where Christian traditions are recognised you would have been likely to encounter a number of nativity scene portrayals over this last Christmas season. In the aftermath of Christmas, one question that in retrospect maybe worth asking, is how well would such depictions actually help us in our understanding of what it all meant?

When it comes to the records of the original event, modern theologians like John Dominic Crossan remind us that since the two major gospel accounts of the nativity raise serious points of contradiction, they are best understood as parable rather than accurate eye witness reports.

For example: who would have been on hand to record the conversations with angels as they occur in Luke? Who jotted down what the ones we now think of as the wise men, the Astrologers, said when they met Herod? And for that matter, how on earth did the stable, the animals and the wise men ever get put together in our minds in the same scene when no Bible account justifies this interpretation.

On the other hand, as parable, we learn a great deal from the stories about such matters as the connection between Christ and his humble beginnings, and the underlying significance of the coming of a different sort of king. For example in this morning’s gospel, when we see the effort that even the reputedly wise had put into finding the Christ child, this implies that we too may have to make an effort if we wish to find anything worthwhile.
Moira Laidlaw, at the time of writing, a well known minister in the Australian Uniting Church, told her own version of what turned out to be an unintended modern parable in her efforts to set up a nativity scene. In her words: the following

…… “a church on the corner of a busy road in Sydney had lots of cars passing each day so it was decided to erect an ‘Australian’ nativity scene outside where everyone could see it. The woodwork and art classes of a nearby High School made life size figures, the shepherds were transformed into drovers, and the scene included a couple of sheep, a horse and a dog. The ‘stable’ was made of corrugated iron and there was a large sign fixed centre front saying ‘Peace’. The manger was made of sturdy timber and in it a baby doll was placed on some fresh straw. It looked good and was certainly eye-catching. The first thing stolen was one of the sheep, then the sign ‘Peace’ and then, the doll representing Jesus. Another doll was found and duly installed in the manger. The next day this doll was also gone and an empty Coca-Cola bottle was left in its place. (That’s a parable in itself!)

A handyman who was doing odd jobs in a nearby block of units was so angry that he said if someone provided another doll, he would fix it so that it couldn’t disappear. Well, he certainly did. The minister (Moira Laidlaw) couldn’t believe her eyes when she went out to see what he had done – he had nailed a piece of timber across the ‘manger’ and he had then nailed the doll (Jesus) to this piece of wood. With the straw arranged around the doll, the wood and nails were unseen. “There you are” the carpenter said proudly, “he’ll be able to stay forever now.”!! .

And a child who must forever be constrained to stay in the manger forever is about as far as most casual passers-by will allow the saviour to intrude on their lives.

There is also the mismatch between the typical nativity tableau and what we have to contend with in the real world. In the days leading up to Christmas we may well have found a comfortable familiarity in the carols and familiar stories and images of that first Christmas but once the New Year sales arrive we might be hard put to hold to the magic.

As with each Christmas, among the celebrations and family get-togethers, this year we note once again some harsh realities have intruded. A violent eruption and Tsunami created chaos in Sumatra. In the US there were two children dying after their detention at the Mexican- US border. The US Government has had a partial shutdown over an argument about building a wall and thousands of US Goverment employees are running out of money as a consequence. Here in New Zealand there were the usual Christmas holiday nasty road accidents and drownings.

In the Middle East, sanctions on Iran are making it difficult for many to survive. The Kurds after being abandoned to their fate by the US in Syria are seeking new allies before they are crushed by a neighbouring nation. The terrorist bombings in Afghanistan continue. The bombing of civilian centres in Yemen looks as if it will continue into the New Year. Refugees still drown in the Mediterranean. Protests in Gaza continue and the Israelis have just bombed a city in Syria.

It is hard to hold to the image of a Prince of Peace in the Holy land. All this is not to say the Christ child should have no place in our reaction to such events. But wisdom and thought are still needed before we can respond appropriately.

Every Christmas we may well intend, at least in our mind’s eye, to admire and worship the baby Jesus. In practice, our symbolic encounter with the Baby and how we allow this to affect our subsequent journey and encounters with reality may be more than a little problematic.

……Which brings us to the visit of the Magi. The scholars seem reasonably agreed that Matthew was implying the Magi may well have been Persian followers of the faith called Zoroastrianism and from Matthew’s telling of the story the wise men seem to have been astrologers. As a scientist by training and being of a sceptical nature I have never been particularly enamoured of astrology, seeing it rather as a primitive and largely discredited science, but I must say that Matthew’s description of these apparently wise men blundering in their journey, and despite their certainty that they were being led by the stars, their having to seek help has a certain ring of plausibility.

For those assuming GPS accuracy we might note they missed by something like 18 Km if they found themselves in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.
When giving sermons to the public, it is customary, and even expected of the preacher not to rock the boat too much by pointing to complications raised by scholars. My personal reaction to this is that hiding the complications is talking down to the listeners. I prefer to assume that those who encounter the story at any level have just as much right to the implications as those who set themselves up as teachers.

One point that often gets overlooked in post Christmas sermons about the wise men, for example is to remind the hearers (or readers) that here and elsewhere Matthew appears to have been interested in showing how gentiles might think of themselves as every bit as good as the Jews in finding the Messiah in the person of Jesus. By having the foreign gentile Persians as his wise heroes in this scene, Matthew makes this point in such a way that his readers should sub-consciously come to this conclusion for themselves. The Magi as Persians are non Jews, yet this is no barrier to them in realising the signs were pointing to an event that had escaped the local Jews.

Whether or not Matthew actually believed he was reporting this encounter of the Magi with Jesus as fact, would be hard to prove but we might also note in passing that Matthew has totally glossed over the angels, the shepherds and the manger in his story and unlike Luke, he has the parents fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the children instead of having the parents stay around to present the Baby Jesus to the Temple as Luke would have it.

As parable however it is a thought provoking story. The three gifts brought by the wise men for example have great significance. In those days it was assumed that stars were associated with the birth of the great ones. The Magi also came into some of those stories. Gold was the gift which was required for a king. For example, Senaca tells us that in Parthia there was a rule that no one was allowed to approach the king unless they were to bring a gift which was usually expected to be gold. Frankincense, the second gift, was a gift fit for a priest. It was in the Temple that frankincense (the expensive perfume of the day) was to be used in ceremonies involving sacrifice.

William Barclay reminds us that the Latin word for priest was Pontifex meaning bridge builder, with the notion that the priest was the bridge between God and humankind. Identifying Jesus as a priest with the symbolic gift underlined his bridge building function. Myrrh, the third gift, was the gift for one who was to die. Myrrh, again expensive, was the preferred embalming oil for those whose bodies were considered to have significance. Here the Magi gift anticipated the death of Jesus.

For me the wisdom of the wise men in Matthew’s tale was far more that their wisdom in reading the signs and showing Jesus’ significance by the nature of their gifts. There was also a reported common-sense practicality in their thinking. They understood their limitations in their star gazing and sought help. They understood the potential menace in Herod’s attitude and did not follow through on acceding to his request to tell him where the child lay.

There is one small phrase at the end of the story which has particular significance for me. “They returned home to their country by a different way”. They had encountered the Christ child and they understood that as a consequence things were now different.

As a post script to the story a few years back I once commissioned a carved wooden sign to be placed over the doorway of one of the two churches where I happened to be stationed. The wording of the sign was: “Enter to worship – Go out to Serve“. I honestly believe that what we learn in what we encounter in worship should make a difference to our subsequent actions. Like the wise men in the story perhaps we too should now reconsider what we have seen and if necessary return home by a different path.

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Lectionary Sermon for Christmas 1C, 30 December 2018 on Luke 2: 41-52

For me, the Church part of Christmas day seems a bit disconnected from what follows. Familiar Bible readings, carols, some artificial props to remind us of the Manger scene, and for families anxious to get back to family gatherings, with luck it will include a mercifully brief message which highlights the way some of the Bible story characters greeted the arrival of the Baby Jesus.

For those of us accustomed to the ritual of such a service, there is a feeling of belonging in that setting, yet, with the thought of the Christmas meal and perhaps a family holiday, the real issue might be to reflect on how the worship part of Christmas affects the life outside.

For many of the now decreasing population of Church attenders it will be clear that the celebration of the arrival of the baby Jesus is intended to mark the start of the human response to a Baby who will grow to bear the titles like “Son of Man”, the Christ and the Saviour. And what should our ideal response be?

Carl Rogers the famous psychologist used to stress the problems produced by the difference between the ideal self and the real self. The ideal self he said is how we would like to be, and even how we imagine ourselves to appear to others. But then there is the real, warts and all self – which is how we actually are, and all too often how we actually are, is a bit of a mixture between good and bad. To follow Rogers, we should feel close to at peace with ourselves if it turns out the two selves, the ideal and real, are quite similar, but when there is a yawning gap between the two, we can expect to find ourselves getting frustrated and even depressed.

To take a rather mundane example, if we would like to see ourselves as slim and athletic but can’t walk past the refrigerator without topping up, we begin to feel frustrated and even guilty at what we see in the mirror. In church terms we may also feel that we would like to be thought of as kind and even tempered but if, secretly, we know we probably come across as short tempered and selfish then we may start to feel uncomfortable and depressed.

But it isn’t just the difference between ideal and real selves – it is also with the difference between our ideal and real beliefs. I suppose it is always possible that somewhere out there, there is an ideal religion where every Christmas is pure worship, where every member automatically loves their neighbours (including loving those with weird habits and weird beliefs), where everyone relies on the Holy Spirit for guidance and of course where everyone invariably turns the other cheek when someone does them a mischief. I must also confess if this ideal religion exists I haven’t met it as yet.

I suspect for most of us there is the flawed expression of religion where bad habits stubbornly refuse to die, where there is some intolerance of those whose sins are different to those we display and that I guess might mean that intolerance can show up even when the difference is religious. There is of course that bitter form of prejudice which emerges when there is intolerance for those showing different sexual orientation. More than one congregation includes those who are sometimes found showing discomfort in the presence of those showing foreign cultural traits or a failure to conform to one’s own racial expectations.

When it comes to beliefs and expectations, there is also the hardy perennial – the ideal Christmas we expect and hope to arrive – and the real one which always somehow seems to fall a little short in what it delivers.

Perhaps here the real trouble is that we are victims of our own traditions and evolving religious propaganda. The standard Christmas story as it is was portrayed on sentimental Christmas cards and in those charming tableaux of manger scenes, now includes light displays that a few years ago would not have been believed and – lets face it – what is now done to Christmas couldn’t be much further from the Bible story. Nor I think should we be afraid of admitting doubts. Doubts are part of the real world if only because human perception is always limited.

One useful contribution that Luke makes is that when he presents Jesus, he presents someone who is not so idealized he becomes otherworldly… and in a setting which is very true to our present sometimes troubled world.

Some liturgies and some religious art, present Jesus as a Merlin type figure. There are for example gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible that talk of Jesus as someone, even at a young age, who was always doing great tricks to show his power. But this is not the gospel according to Luke. Luke’s gospel is incidentally the only one that gives us even a fragment of the young Jesus and even there – as with today’s reading it is not a young Merlin pretending to be human and certainly not a young God who can perform miracles whenever he so chooses.

Wise for his age perhaps – but if he heads off on his own and leaves his parents panic stricken while they look for him, had he really thought that situation through? Luke states an important truth when he writes that Jesus was not born with wisdom fully developed. Remember Luke also says “ and Jesus grew in stature and in wisdom”. Luke’s child Jesus was very much human.

From day one Luke’s Gospel does not portray any part of the Christmas story as sugary sweet Christmas card mush. Apart from the angels, for a start the setting is all wrong for the Christmas card image. If we follow the Bible story in its two different versions in Matthew and Luke we find the birth story set in a small country overrun by an enemy occupation in the form of the Roman Army, with Mary and Joseph facing a census, not so much organized for the good of the people, but rather so that that every last amount of taxation can be wrung out of the resentful population.

We have a heavily pregnant young teenage girl, instead of being allowed to stay at home to have the baby in safety and peace, being forced to walk a long distance just so she and Joseph can be counted. The name Quirinius to which Luke refers would not have awakened Christmas type happy memories for his first readers. The governor Quirinius would have been more associated with a memory of riots staged by a justifiably frustrated populace followed by vicious punishment to re-establish an uneasy and temporary peace.

The shepherds now portrayed on the Hallmark cards as clean and gracefully attired respectful worshippers would, if present in reality, have been dirty, rough spoken and highly irreligious.

Although the manger mentioned in the story was for feeding animals, in all probability it would have been the standard arrangement of a feeding trough stuck to the back or side outside wall of the house and inside the trough, some food scraps, no doubt the odd insect and dirty straw. The clean small barn and picturesque clean straw lined manger surrounded by clean little lambs and the odd cow is an entire fiction which has no biblical or historical meaning.

Some critics argue Herod killing the new born babies was only ever fiction in that contemporary historians of the day forget to mention this spectacular act of atrocity but at least that it is beyond dispute that Herod was not a benevolent ruler.

In short, the setting for the real first Christmas was never a setting of Christmas carols, peace and goodwill to all, least of all choirs of angels singing Away in the Manger or for that matter, whatever the equivalent was for the Hallelujah chorus. Rather the setting for the first Christmas was a tableau speaking to the dark side of humanity – a Christ child born into an age of tyranny, born at an uncertain date in humble circumstances in a region controlled by those who ruled by force, and born into a background of aggression and foreign greed.

But are any of these problems in the accounts likely to stop us recognizing the hope that comes our way in Jesus. It was after all people walking in darkness who encountered the great light.

It is true that there was love described that Christmas. Here were parents determined to make the best of the worst of circumstances for their concern for their child. Here were people searching for the Messiah because they knew his message would come to have more value than all the might of invading armies and ruthless rulers put together.

I would like to argue that at the very least we might try for a real Christmas that becomes real as it seeks the expression of hope and love in a real world complete with shadows of darkness. Our world too, as it happens.

People walking in darkness at Christmas are hardly a new phenomenon. Just as Luke appears to insist that we notice the bad as well as the good in his story of the birth and subsequent life of Jesus, remembering Jesus without remembering he comes, a truly real person to our sort of real world of good and bad, is to miss what he comes to offer. Think of those whose families are already under stress. Surely the relevance of the baby is that he grew in wisdom in this reality to teach us an approach to finding and offering hope when the clouds gather.

Think of those whose poverty or despair makes Christmas seem irrelevant. Surely the way to honour the child – is to use his teaching as he grew to adulthood as the inspiration for our response. Being reminded by the Christmas gospel of love breaking in to dispel the shadows should provide guidance for how we deal with all our serious interactions. Those who have lost loved ones on whom they depended prior to Christmas, those whose redundancy or continued unemployment, those whose real need is finding love in a place where love is in short supply…. surely these are the ones who would most appreciate an encounter with the meaning of Christmas.

Looking back some of my Christmases have been less than ideal. And I’ll bet you have your own equivalent stories. Yet there were probably some parts that went well. Even without the ideal family hopefully at least some of your families were able to set aside some of their differences and overcome distances to get together. Following what Christ later made part of his central teaching should remind us to work on our relationships.

It isn’t just Christmas day that some find themselves lonely and depressed. If the Christ of Christmas meant anything it should nudge us to action, for even if post-Christmas Christ is no longer in the manger others his coming might remind us we can care for others. Christmas day may have passed yet it is not too late to share something of its intentions. Small acts of friendship offered to lonely neighbours, a telephone call made to someone whose day would be made with a spoken greeting.

If Christmas is intended to make a difference surely that difference needs to become part of our daily lives.

Christmas may well have started under less than ideal circumstances and each year will continue to have a setting with shadows. But the light seen first in the Advent candles offering small flames of hope, preparation for peace, joy and love – small flames for dark realities maybe, but with the flame of the Christ candle at the centre, a light which is not easily extinguished.

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A Christmas Day Reflection by Bill Peddie

Would you be insulted if someone called you a heretic? Today I want to suggest that not all heresy should be condemned out of hand, and when it comes to Christmas, the occasional heretic might have something to teach us. A more cautious and reasoned approach to those who issue heretical challenges might even draw us back what is important to our society and world.

Before getting too uptight about safe-guarding details of favourite stories about Jesus and in particular worrying too much about questioning literal details of the all important birth story perhaps we might take a breath and give passing thought to what some commentators have noticed.

Paul who wrote his letters 10-20 years after Jesus finished his mission, and Mark who appears to have written the first gospel account, seem either not to have heard the birth stories or alternately not have thought them worth recounting. More to the point, Luke who wrote much more about the Christmas story than Matthew, has a consistent parable-like theme running through his account of the birth. The difference between straight reporting and parable telling, is that with the parable, the listener has to figure out what the story is asking by way of personal response. As the audience for Luke’s birth story, we might notice as with other parts of his gospel, Luke tells story after story of Jesus interacting with those outside the mainstream Jewish society.

If we are merely disconnected readers, there is no obligation to behave differently after we hear that story. Yet what would the story be saying to us if we saw it as our parable and started to believe that those outside the acceptable parts of our Church or society (like the shepherds in Luke’s story) were called to be witness for Jesus’ arrival? Does this remind us for example that we should open ourselves to care why such people moved into our community? This gives the story a particularly relevant dimension because we are rapidly moving to a situation in which there are more outside our Church community than there are within.

Those Persian Astrologers called the Magi, (not wise men or Kings) are also interesting although contrary to tradition, the number is not mentioned. The three gifts does not equate to three carriers of the gifts. But there again with such rapid changes to society, the thought that those outside our religion might be thought of as seeking the same message might provide the stimulus to reflect again on how we treat those coming from afar.

When it comes to Christmas it is interesting how many Church adherents you meet today who are already technically heretics – or at least they are heretics in the eyes of some Christians. Even affirming majority-held beliefs and customs is no guarantee of objective truth, even when the truth is about the coming of someone as important as of Jesus. The current heresy I am considering is to wonder if Jesus comes, not so much to be passively worshipped, but to start to remind us that we should become bearers and even demonstrators of his message of love and compassion, and even keepers of creation.

Not all self-claimed Christians insist that Jesus was born of a Virgin, or for that matter that he was attended by angels and surrounded by animals as he lay in a manger in a stable, that he was visited by three wise men (we three kings of Orient are!!?) following a moving star which led to the child in the manger, or that he was whisked away by his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the infants. In short, not all self claimed Christians even accept the birth stories as a literal record, and I know quite a few who question that the date December 25 is Jesus’ true birthday, and some can even point to evidence that many of today’s Christmas traditions have at best shaky Biblical foundations.

These days we think of a heretic as someone who questions mainstream traditional beliefs – and I guess we mainly think of a heretic as one who makes unwelcome challenges to what many think of as the accepted ideas about religion. But there is a caution. Any study of the history of religion reminds us that many of the religious beliefs have changed over time, so yesterday’s heresy might well become tomorrow’s commonplace belief.

And let’s face it, we are living in a time of major rethinking about religion. In an age where we are all becoming aware of the forces of nature as measurable and predictable in that they follow principles emerging from Science, we no longer feel at the mercy of an unpredictable God unexpectedly visiting identified sinful humans with mysterious diseases, bolts of lightning, or earthquakes when they fail to worship in exactly the right way. We no longer expect to find heaven earth and hell in a three tiered universe. Faced with the plague or any number of threatening diseases, relying on the prayers of religious leaders or placing a cross on our doors and making sacrifices of living animals has now given way to the growing science of medicine. When the all powerful God was considered to live in the dark recesses of the Temple, only speaking to the High Priest once a year, it made perfect sense to adhere to Judaism as the one true unchanging faith

Challenging old ideas is not new. In days gone by some heretics were punished severely for questioning the beliefs of their day. Heretics were tortured or executed to provide a warning to those questioning what the Church leaders had decided was the truth. Although there may well have been a desire on the part of the persecutors to hold to hard-won power perhaps we should remind ourselves that some of the punishment of heretics was motivated by a genuine desire to keep a chance for eternal life open for those who might have been tempted to stray.

Some branches of Christianity are still very strict in what they require of their followers and I guess many of us will know of Churches where members have been thrown out – sometimes even forbidden for ever talking to their own families because they happened to believe the “wrong stuff”.

By way of example there are some churches where homosexuality is considered not so much a consequence of heredity and environment but as a deliberately chosen sin, and as a consequence some congregations insist homosexuals either change their stated sexual position or alternately leave their congregation. Other churches will refuse communion to those who are divorced or will disfellowship those have not signed up to accept full membership which might for example include passing membership tests to establish minimum key beliefs and/or accepting various rites like baptism by immersion.

Perhaps for those prepared to identify heretics it would be salutory to remember that among those once labelled as heretics there were those whose heresy was thinking the Bible should be translated into other languages. So for example, as it happens, in my church the notion of having the scriptures translated into our own language is now assumed to be commonplace and even essential . Perhaps we could do with reminding that some of the first people who had the Bible translated into languages like English were declared heretics by the Church of their time and burnt at the stake.

The church back then did of course have a reason for preventing translation to the common language of the day. Before the Bible was translated, the Priests were seen as the educated class and had the task of being the keepers and translators of the Latin and Greek texts to provide a means of controlling the beliefs of the people on behalf of the Church leadership. Placing the task of reading in the hands of the largely uneducated people of the day risked what the leaders considered to be uninformed decision making. In the time of Henry the Eighth in England the Anglicans were attempting to replace the Roman Catholics and some churches and monastries were destroyed and their leaders arrested or killed.

In Greek the original word for heretic was “hairetikos”. Literally this meant someone “free to choose”. And how ever much we might believe that Jesus taught tolerance and forgiveness ,history suggests that for much more than one thousand years of Church history, group acceptance of Church authority over belief gave very limited tolerance for anyone who dared to believe anything outside the agreed collections of truths that went with each branch of the Church.

Among the trail blazers who started various reforms, many, despite their present status of great leaders, would have been seen at the time to be heretics presenting such strong challenges to accepted beliefs and practices that the religious leadership of the day reacted by calling for violence which seems curiously at variance with the teaching they claimed to be following.

A surprisingly large number of traditional beliefs about Jesus’ birth are not strictly Biblical in that what the majority now appear to believe are not embedded in the earliest versions of the Biblical texts.

Jesus being born of a Virgin is far from established. It is now generally accepted that the prophecy that the Son of God would be born to a Virgin is based on a Greek translation of a prophecy in which the original talked of a Young Girl rather than the Hebrew word for Virgin, which the prophecy did not use. Further, both Matthew and Luke provide geneologies for Jesuswhich include Joseph as the father of Jesus. Surely assuming a Virgin Mother implies no human father which creates a puzzle in that those same geneologies have the descent of Jesus through Joseph as the father. Since Joseph was not the biological father his genealogy is strictly irrelevant. We also note the two very different genealogies in Luke and Matthew trace Jesus’ birth line back from Joseph through a different lines.

When we compare the two genealogies we see that they were in effect symbolic to make two very different points. Luke has the ancestry going back to Abraham and right back to Adam, taking care to place Jesus in the prophetic line, whereas Mathew names the ancestors as the line of significant kings. Matthew reinforces the royal position of Jesus by having the star over the birth place shine its light on Bethlehem, and then having astrologers following the star bringing significant gifts while an enraged and jealous King Herod on hearing their mission panicked and ordered a mass killing of infants to remove the possibility of rivals.

The census data tells us that a diminishing number care about the Christian beliefs and I assume this means smaller number who are likely to care about the typical heresies that used to infuriate the supporters of traditional church traditions and beliefs.

On the other hand Christmas itself is still a major holiday for the population of most Western countries and there are certainly plenty of customs which have grown around the season. Gift exchange and Christmas parties are expected with no real thought to the religious significance of such customs. Town Christmas parades, Father Christmas being visited by young families in the malls and the modern habit of festooning the house and Christmas tree with lights and Christmas bling seem entirely incidental to Luke’s parables of Christmas.   The notion that we should use the birth as a starting place to give thought to our families and those outside the family who need our care and compassion may turn out to be central message after all.

If the Christmas season is really about drawing public attention to the arrival of Jesus , we need to admit somehow the message is getting lost. On the other hand if the message is more giving a forum to heretics attempting to bring the Christian community back on task, it is not the leaders’ message but our own that might need our attention. Maybe we need the odd wayward heretic to inspire us to choose our own path through the confusion of Christmas.

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Lectionary Sermon for 23 December 2018 (Advent 4 C ) based on Luke 1:39-56

If we were to step back and take an objective view of what happens in our Church services we might begin to understand why strangers to our faith can be so puzzled. One of the local Catholics in our town community said the Catholics play a game called “spot the protestant” when they notice strangers to their Church struggling to do the right thing when surrounded by the locals following through Church rituals during mass. I guess my own Church also has its own customs bewildering to those brought up in a different tradition. The gatekeepers of our denomination have shaped the different forms of worship to feature what they considered important in the inspiration of our faith. However it is always worth reminding ourselves that the joy of vision can’t be guaranteed in its entirety by any routine because it is also possible the process of over shaping the worship can begin to kill the very thing it is meant to preserve.

And Mary said “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This phrase from Luke today signals the start one of the great hymns of the traditional church, the Magnificat. True that it had more meaning for the Churches categorized as “High Churches”, yet every now and again it is good to let poetry speak for itself. It also serves as a reminder that parts of the Bible are valuable because there are other faculties apart from the ability to reason in an analytical sense.

Poetry can include key theological insights. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart”. I guess when we encounter Jesus via the gospel accounts, or watch the way modern saints respond to his life, there is a psychological truth in suddenly realizing most of the values we find ourselves striving for, count for little beside the Jesus way. Lifting the lowly, feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty turns out to be an excellent summary of Jesus in action not just here but right through the Gospel of Luke – and it still retains the ability to inspire – or alternately haunt our conscience as we contemplate what our lives have become.

So honestly…What have our lives become?

I remember once reading something reported by David Rhodes from his 1998 book The Advent Adventure where he expressed his frustration with the 500 representatives of the General Synod of the Church of England General Synod debating all afternoon the mystery of salvation with “not a hint that we should enjoy this astounding gift.” It was, he said “Like a conference of undertakers discussing the price of embalming fluid”. But it would be unfair to imply this is just true of Anglicans.

The mental picture of dreary Church of England representatives in a Synod session worrying over points of meaningless trivia, put me in mind memories of equally dreary Synod and Conference discussions I have witnessed from time to time over the years in my own denomination, where urgency and joy were the last things on anyone’s mind. Or if it comes to that, a memory of an Advent service I once attended in Christchurch where I witnessed an elderly Methodist minister (whose name I won’t mention) leaning wearily on a pulpit and droning on in a monotone about “….the joy of Christmas”.

There is something about the academic study of the gospels that can easily cause us to forget our faith only matters if it genuinely feeds our sense of well-being or promise of better things to come. And for that to happen, the gospel first has to connect with our lives.

The joy discovered in pregnancy is deep and primal it is true, but Luke is identifying much more in this passage. Elizabeth, already happy in her unexpected pregnancy is clarifying that Mary’s baby is the prophesized Messiah, and Mary’s response to be overcome with gratitude at what she identifies as God’s blessing, underlines her acceptance of the role as what we now think of as mother of the Lord. Luke identifies the baby leaping in the womb as the expression of joy.

We note in passing that this passage was used in earlier times to show those who thought John to be the expected one that even John’s mother knew that Jesus was the greater. Second, we should acknowledge that Mary herself was not so much seeing herself as worthy of God’s blessing, but rather seeing herself as blessed as the humble recipient of God’s favour…a subtle but important difference.

Now for today’s question about today’s gospel story. Assuming Luke was not present when Mary met her cousin Elizabeth, who gave him the transcript of what presumably was a private conversation between these two women – the young one and the old one both unexpectedly pregnant? And for the bonus point –what was so significant about the meeting that Catholics now claim that each day a good proportion of their huge church can chant their Ave Maria (Hail Mary, full of grace.)

I guess, for me, the answer to the first question will have to remain open ended. Perhaps Mary or Elizabeth told someone who passed it on – yet if we are honest we would also have to concede that it was at least as likely Luke might equally well simply imagined what was said and told the story to make a point. What however is absolutely remarkable for Luke’s day is that he recounted this particular story in any form at all.

While we would like to think of present attitudes to women’s rights as being part and parcel of our religious tradition, a good proportion of our recorded history show that for centuries, women’s position in society has been so firmly embedded in past structures and customs that there are few places where the Church has taken the lead. If for example you look at the stories of the Bible, there are a small handful only which treat women as deserving the same respect as men. Many of the women for example remain nameless, and a number of the Old Testament laws appeared to treat women almost as property of the men.

In an age where we are told women are as much valued as men in the world of commerce we might ask why the Church does not agitate for equality of wages in the community, or for that matter why so few of the major denominations have had so few women as senior leaders, Presidents or senior Bishops.

Attitudes to pregnancy in the Bible again reflect long standing cultural values of the time. If a married woman is not pregnant she was described as barren – never the man as infertile. A barren woman was despised and pitied – and again in the Bible, we see that sometimes used as an excuse for the husband taking another woman. When it came to illegitimacy, according to some Old Testament teaching, if a woman conceives a child out of marriage, she and not the man was seen as the guilty one and was often stoned to death. In general another issue was that a woman did not have property rights and widows consequently were frequently destitute.

It is against this background of ancient values Luke elevates Mary and Elizabeth to centre stage. Luke presents Mary and Elizabeth as key to the setting of John the Baptist and Jesus. In a way this is no more than Luke will do time after time later in his story. He notices the individuals and seems to take particular interest in highlighting what Jesus has to offer to those seen by society as most humble. Perhaps we might also acknowledge that it was only in much more recent history similar recognition is starting to be afforded women by the church in general.

Some might even argue that there is still some way to go as we contemplate the recent Church of England’s reluctance to agree to recognize women Bishops – or Catholics to accept women priests. I have in my bookshelves many books on theology written for a previous generation which refer to what Jesus has to offer men yet only rarely mention women, if at all.

But….back to the two women….. The notion of a pregnant unwed teenager like Mary taking shelter in her cousin’s house is certainly believable given the likely public disapproval.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Luke is not referring here directly to a Virgin conception. Of the gospel writers, only Matthew appears to make that clear connection. Although it may annoy some, particularly as I know the notion of a baby Jesus being born to a Virgin is accepted by millions, I would have to say, as one trained in science, everything we now know about biology makes that extremely improbable.

Any higher animal born to a female without conception (parthenogenesis) is also female since the genetic arrangement is the same as for the mother. While I can understand the problem of rethinking this popularist view that Jesus was born of a Virgin, which I admit we still certainly say in some of the creeds, it may be worth remembering that the only Biblical text on which this interpretation is based is a prophecy Isaiah 7: 14 (which is also quoted in the Gospel of Matthew. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”) Quoting Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23 reads, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us.’”

Traditionally Christians have used this verse as confirmation that the Virgin birth was expected and further that if Jesus was the expected one it follows that the Virgin birth was necessary. These days most Bible scholars appear to agree that “virgin” is not the proper translation of the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14.

For the record, the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 is “Almah,” and its inherent meaning is “young woman.” not Virgin. Just for the record, “Almah” occurs seven times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3; 6:8; Isaiah 7:14) and apart from the Isaiah quote none of the others refer to the Messiah. It is true that one of the early major Greek translations translated the word almah as parthenos – or virgin but again a number of scholars now suggest this was a mistake.

But don’t think that science is against the spirit of Luke’s passage for today. Again from modern science there is a growing understanding that from conception the developing baby is largely dependent on the mother and she is key to the baby receiving proper nutrition even in the womb. The developing baby is now known to sense sounds and even chemicals released by changes of mood into the blood stream. Conversely a mother who is worried, subjected to stress, or one who takes in harmful chemicals or inadequate good food, will adversely affect the early development of the child.

There is a sense in which Luke was far ahead of his time in thinking the joy of the mother either mattered or was in the slightest sense relevant to the developing child.

But for now, leave aside the science, and even the debate about a Virgin birth versus a mistranslation. Luke here calls us to some words which speak to the heart as well as to the mind. May I suggest that, for once, we think about this passage – not so much for its analysis – as for how it speaks to us at a deeper level. Can we begin to sense the primal joy, the leap in understanding about what the coming Jesus might mean this Advent and then for our main task in finding meaning for our lives in the days ahead? AMEN

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