Lectionary Sermon, January 26 2020 on Matthew 4:12-23 (Epiphany 3)

DANGER AHEAD!
Although there is no shortage of examples of potential danger in the modern world, there are some situations where unnecessary risk is just plain daft. When we read of a teenager stepping over the warning barrier to be among the geysers at Rotorua, is he brave … or stupid? It is hard to be sympathetic when his stunt goes wrong. Similarly when we read of some dim-witted tourist backing over a cliff edge to get a better selfie we might even secretly smile at the thought that Darwin had the last word. But you know, even if a stunt performer were to scoff at danger with misguided intention to demonstrate God’s power I suspect some of us might still shrug in derision.

My favorite example of a religious show-off was that misguided African Pastor from North Nigeria who (a few years back) decided he was going to show his congregation that as with Daniel, God, would reward his faith by keeping him safe literally in a den of lions. According to the news on Stuff, despite the protests of the keepers at the local zoo (at Nibazon), our modern day self appointed Daniel, brushed past the zoo staff telling them they were enemies of progress and before they could stop him he had opened the gate to the lions’ enclosure – where resplendent in his scarlet preaching robe – he stepped in to demonstrate how his faith would be rewarded. The lions were understandably grateful and did as lions are expected to do as they fell upon him, tearing him into bite-sized pieces.

While we might shake our heads at the pastor’s foolishness, we might also suspect that his was a foolish cause in the first place. A Pastor’s focus should be on the care for the interests of those he or she serves … and not on self-promotion. Remember caring for others is what the essence of Jesus’ mission is always about …and come to think of it, that reminder isn’t just for the religious show-off leaders.

I would think we would need a good reason to motivate us to attempt a stunt like stepping in with the lions. So what then do we make of Jesus in today’s reading. Here he is having just heard his cousin John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas – and what does Jesus do? He heads straight for Capernaum right in the centre of Herod’s centre of control. Surely this was an equivalent of the lions’ den?

But there is a difference. Following a Jesus centred philosophy, genuine feelings for others sometimes means putting one’s own safety to one side to do what needs to be done.

I suspect if Matthew had been updating his gospel and writing about today’s acts of courage I would understand him recording and approving the acts of bravery among the fire-fighters working against almost impossible odds to rescue people (and animals too) trapped in the recent fires in Australia.
We return then to Jesus himself, in all probability outraged at the injustice that had befallen his friend John the Baptist, so regardless of the risk, he was in effect taking over where John the Baptist had left off.

Notice for Jesus going into the territory of the king who had imprisoned his cousin is not entering the lions’ den for the sake of being admired. This is accepting danger because the cause mattered more than personal safety.

From another angle, strategically choosing Capernaum as a base for Jesus’ new ministry made very good sense. As the biggest port on the Sea of Galilee, boats would set out, not just for fishing or trade, but also taking news with them. Jesus’ teaching, to have maximum impact needed to have access to some means of getting the message out there and Capernaum was ideally placed.

Some of you may have noticed Matthew was clearly editing as he went, no doubt well aware of those to whom his message was addressed. He apparently bends the accuracy of his report of Isaiah’s prophecy in order to underline a few points for his readers and listeners. Certainly he wants his audience to be under no delusion that Jesus in this action was acting by chance.

Rather, as far as Matthew was concerned, by going to Capernaum Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. However when he locates Capernaum “by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,( 14) so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: (15)“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan….” Here Matthew was being economic with the truth about what Isaiah had actually said. The sea Isaiah had referred to was actually the Mediterranean not the Sea of Galilee and although Capernaum could be considered to be the territory of Naphtali it was not as it happens, the territory of Zebulon.

If we take a wider focus we might remember that Isaiah had said in effect that the Messiah was going to appear, not in the central power base of Israel but in the Northern fringe areas where there were larger proportions of the non-Jewish population. For Jesus to see such areas as worthy of his concern should also remind us that we too as his followers should be concerned for those who represent the gentiles in our equivalent situations.

Because Jesus addressed part of his subsequent message to Gentiles as well as Jews, Matthew also appears to be getting in early so to speak when he talks about Jesus fulfilling the mission to the gentiles. Stories such as Jesus’ encounter with the Caananite woman (which occurs in Ch 15 of Matthew’s gospel) or the other stories like Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, or for that matter his later encounter with the Centurion would demonstrate that his message was not intended exclusively for the Jews. Perhaps, in passing, it is also appropriate to reflect that those in our own age who give priority to the exclusive needs of their own faith are not exactly being true to the teaching and actions of Jesus of the gospels.

Although the next bit of the reading appears to assume Jesus’ role as a foreteller of end times, a quick reality check shows us that when Matthew reports Jesus as saying “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” He may even have been talking of his own teaching – otherwise he was at least 2000 years out in his prediction. We might also note that as it happens Matthew appears to be generally following Mark in his account of this same section (Mark 1: 14 -20) yet Mark had Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is near” and Matthew apparently changes this to “the Kingdom of heaven….” and today I will leave it for wiser minds than mine to explain the reason for the change. The only observation I would make is that since Jesus’ words appear virtually identical to John calling for repentance because as he too said the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven is at hand, we should be asking if both Jesus and John had the same basic message in mind.

Although some of John’s disciples were probably looking for some new direction after losing their leader because John and Jesus were very different in style Jesus was clearly not assuming they would automatically change their allegiance. What should strike us as unusual is that when it comes to assembling a likely group of followers, Jesus sets about the task in a way that would raise very serious questions in a company board room today.

Frankly I don’t think Jesus would have lasted more than a day of two at most as a recruitment head-hunter for an HR office today. These days matching skill sets with even the most humble of positions would be the very least we would expect – and without references and a good CV there really isn’t anything worth chasing in today’s job market. When it comes to modern religious leadership we are even more careful, and require evidence of a good standard of basic education, appropriate prior experience – and even then, there are virtually no leadership roles available, let alone the responsibility of taking over from the boss after a few months erratic unstructured “tag-along apprenticeship” without extensive interviews and several years training at an appropriate institution.

On the other hand there may be two significant aspects to learn from in Jesus’ calling of the common fishermen, presumably chosen almost at random. In the style of his call we see virtually the same approach as Jesus set for the location of his mission. Remember in his mission he was choosing to care about, and where necessary heal those who are normally overlooked on the fringes. This is only underlined in his finding room among his disciples for those who others would have passed over.

Since Jesus didn’t seem to discriminate between those who had the theoretical gifts of learning and leadership before choosing those capable of following, then by extrapolation, perhaps this teaches us that becoming deeply involved with the kingdom of God is within reach for virtually everyone.

The second point is that even if his call for discipleship wasn’t dependent on prior significant formal training, it was still a call for significant commitment. In effect dropping the nets to take on something new and unknown was risky then and the equivalent would be just as risky today.

There is a sentence at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading that we have probably heard so many times, we pass over its implications.

What was it Matthew said? “He went around the whole of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and curing whatever illness or infirmity there was among the people.” The point here surely is that Jesus was not just interested in delivering a message in words. He was interested in the situation of each of the people he met and was prepared to help where he could.

I freely admit I don’t pretend to understand the miracle part of Jesus ministry. On the other hand miracles are only one of a myriad of ways of extending help to those we encounter.

True we are not Jesus any more than we are a Martin Luther King or a Mother Teresa. On the other hand perhaps any day now it will come to us that our call to mission is NOT merely to admire Jesus or the disciples who followed. Certainly listening to stories about Jesus and the disciples has its own attractions but surely sooner or later we have to decide if we want to restrict our mission to a retelling of stories in the past. We may not be particularly good at mission – yet moving forwards and attempting to apply the principles of Christian living in a host of contemporary and unfolding situations has more to recommend it than passive and mute admiration of fragments of other peoples’ past memories.

Soren Kierkegaard, the theologian and philosopher spent most of his later career encouraging folk to risk testing their faith in a style and attitude he called existentialism. One of his statements is worth thinking about.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
Are we up to that challenge?

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Lectionary sermon for Epiphany 2 January 19, 2020 on John 1:29-42

CHALLENGED BY THE “AHA” MOMENT
I was recently asked an intriguing question by a Minister from another Church who was using his long service leave to find out the variety of ways different church congregations round New Zealand were being the Church to the community. Instead of asking the typical questions about the size of the worshipping congregation or the age cross-section of those on the roll, what he most wanted to find out was how involved were our congregation members in living out their faith in the community. How many were being Church away from here. A tricky question…and one I could only partly answer…even for myself.

While I guess some come to our Church without any intention of changing the pattern of their lives when I started to list just some of the examples I happened to know of, I was surprised just how many were helping outside our worship services. Those who offer hospitality to strangers, those who give time and resources to help needy people – those who help with Commercial property so that our investments can help others, food parcels, gifts to the leprosy mission, the birthing unit, Christian World service, and all those individual efforts eg our farm day, those who help with the Friendship Lounge and so on.

Yet we can never get too comfortable. The comedian Flip Wilson had a standard stock reply to anyone who ever asked him about his religious affiliation. “I’m a Jehovah’s bystander” he would say proudly. “They asked me to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved.” When I first encountered this answer, although I laughed at the time, I have since come to realize that there is a sense in which Flip Wilson’s religion may yet turn out to be the biggest denomination of all.

Certainly, if measured by size of congregation, some individual Churches appear very successful indeed, but attendance as part of the crowd may have little or even nothing to do with participation in the principles of living that a particular Church claims to be teaching. In the same way attendance at a top sports event may indeed measure side-line popularity, but is a very poor indicator of how many among the spectators are actually players of the observed sport.

Some of the older members of the congregation may even remember a time back in the nation’s social history when Church attendance was almost taken as a given, because with no Sunday trading, no Sports events permitted on a Sunday and strong social expectations for Church attendance, Church in effect was the only game in town. Although Church members looking at todays dwindling congregations may look back with some nostalgia to those days, the theologian Marcus Borg has a different view. He looked at the decline in mainline churches over the previous forty years and said: I quote (and this from Borg’s book entitled: “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” P303)………

The good news in this decline is that, very soon, the only people left in mainline congregations will be the ones that are there for intentional rather than conventional reasons. This creates the possibility for the Church once again to become an alternative community rather than a conventional community, living into a deepening relationship with a Lord rather than the Lords of Culture. This is exciting.”

In the events portrayed by the gospel writers at the start of the faith we now claim to follow, intention not convention was called upon at every step.

It is also appropriate to remember that this particular Sunday on the Church calendar is called the second Sunday in Epiphany. An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, (epiphaneia), literally translated as a manifestation or a striking appearance, is commonly used to refer to a sort of an “aha” moment when suddenly ideas seem to click into place. Although probably originally intended for new insights of a religious or philosophical variety, these days Epiphany often refers to a major scientific insight or in fact any re-organization of ideas which allows a situation or major puzzle to be understood from a radically new perspective.

Today’s reading is relatively straightforward and to the point. It lists a number of these aha situations, each centred on intention rather than convention. I doubt if the participants described in the gospel writer John’s account later realized why they had been affected to the point that it made a difference. However as Mark Twain, that master of homespun philosophy once put it: “You cannot rely on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

John the Baptist had been anything but following convention when he accepted the task of telling the Jews that in order to show they were ready for the coming of the promised Messiah they would need to behave like gentiles converting to Judaism and have themselves baptized in the river Jordan. We can only imagine how annoyed the Priests and Pharisees became at when they saw Jews participating in John’s baptism. Each of those being baptized, were in effect stating, by their participation, that they were living in a time when the convention of their existing religion had not been true to its principles.

Notice too that the choice John offered was very different from our modern equivalent of confessing we have gone astray which is sometimes nothing more than inviting people to shut their eyes and say AMEN to someone else’s prayer. By contrast, the only way someone might have accepted John’s baptism was to undergo an undignified and very public intentional display of a kind which the participants would have known full well was unacceptable to conventional religious leadership.

Jesus himself not only reportedly made his own intentions abundantly clear with his own baptism, but did so in such a way that it was clear to his observers that he was setting himself outside convention. When John the Baptist pointed to him and reportedly called him the Lamb of God it may even be that John had suddenly realized by that stage, by Jesus’ acts and words, that here was a probable Messiah who was setting himself up as an eventual sacrifice to what he believed. An “aha” experience if ever there was one.

John the Baptist was so affected by his encounter with Jesus that according to the gospel writer, he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and found in this confirmation that, unlike his own Baptism offered with water, that Jesus would be the one to baptize in the Spirit.

Jesus also apparently recognized that gaining followers was not simply a matter of offering explanation in an intellectual sense. We cannot be certain what had been in his mind, but by requiring action instead of offering pat answers to their questions the net result was to give the disciples a new way of seeing.

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were so struck by John’s reaction to Jesus, their imagination was roused and they saw Jesus as a Rabbi and asked him where he was staying. Notice he didn’t answer directly but instead said come and see for yourselves.
This appeared to have given them an even clearer view of Jesus as someone really significant and they went off to fetch the man Peter who was eventually to become the leader of Jesus’ disciples. Whether or not Peter would have dropped everything to follow if Jesus had not quickened his imagination by renaming him Cephas (the rock) we can never know. What we do know is that Peter’s experience of Jesus changed him from being an observer, to that of an intentional participant. His imagination was awakened and he now saw things differently.

Now for the more difficult part….. Well strictly speaking it only becomes difficult if we accept the challenge to learn from this passage and then try to apply what we have learned for our own individual situations.

Listen now to Henry Thoreau “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And don’t forget what we see now isn’t the same as those first disciples.

If we were for example to think of ourselves as the modern equivalent of the disciple Andrew, whose main contribution appeared to have been as with today’s reading, namely that he was often the one who introduced people to Jesus, now days, straight away we come up against a small problem. Jesus is no longer present in the flesh.

So where is this Jesus we would like people to see? After all for those we bring – the only flesh and blood they will encounter is that of his modern day interpreters and followers. In short, they can only encounter Jesus as in nothing more or less than those like us. And that will inevitably mean encountering as many different manifestations as there are individuals attempting to follow Jesus.

We are by no means all John the Baptists, or a Peter the rock, or an Andrew the introducer. Yet for all of us, flawed as we are, whether or not others will see part of the Christ in us, will ultimately depend not we sing choruses or hymn of praise, nor on the conventions we follow, but rather on the areas of life into which our intentions take us.

Remember Thoreau. It is not what they look at (or, let’s be truthful…. rather….. not what we hope they will look at) which matters. It is what they actually see ….. in us! And unfortunately if they stick around it will not be simply meeting us in the controlled, safe and regulated environment of a Church setting – or a service of worship.

If the first disciples had to come and see Jesus in his own local setting, surely those who come to see his modern day representatives are going to have to settle for doing the same.

We may well prefer that the Church should post advertisements to invite people in to meet the minister who can then organize a meeting with Jesus by proxy through his or her sermons? But isn’t better to admit we probably all know that the poet Edgar Guest had it right all along when in one of his poems he wrote : “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”

Like it or not, if we want to throw in our lot with Jesus, our lives are the sermons that will be seen. Since Jesus was able to summarize all that was important into two simple interrelated commandments, love God and Love your neighbour as yourself, perhaps the quality of our lived sermon will be discovered in how well we are able to live our love for neighbours – because in so doing we live our love of God.

Most of us have not been to theological college – but neither had John the Baptist, Andrew, Peter or even Jesus himself.

By the law of averages we are unlikely to have the right characteristics to make us likely successful disciples. Even some of Jesus’ original bunch might not have scored too well in that department. But it is not our eloquence, or education we are measured by when it comes to discipleship. Perhaps it is simply the matter of getting our imagination into focus as we come to realize how Jesus might appear when we see him in that new way.

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Lectionary sermon for 12 January 2020 on Matthew 3:13-17

BAPTISM CAN BE THE START!
Can anyone here remember that, just a few days ago, in a myriad of Churches and religious gatherings around the world, congregations were singing lusty joyous carols. Joy to the world….. Or was it perhaps: While shepherds watched their flocks by night.…. ? The last verse to that one goes:
All glory be to God on high And to the Earth be peace Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men Begin and never cease.”

So how are we doing in the goodwill department now we have witnessed the dawning of a New Year? Like me you probably saw the news clips of huge and vengeful crowds in Iran weeping and crying “death to America!” as they burned American flags. Goodwill – er perhaps not exactly!

The Saudis are reportedly using bombs and shells supplied by our allies on the Shia rebels in the towns and cities in Yemen. Idlib has just been bombed yet again in Northern Syria. ISIS is undergoing reorganization in Iraq. Elsewhere the Australian Prime-minister is fending of angry protests about the inadequate Australian Government reaction to the increasing bushfires. Our daughter-in-law whose family Skype her from Chile tells me that in Chile the current riots are being met with terror tactics. And these are just a small sample of the way in which ostensibly religious people treat one another despite their self-proclaimed religious truths. The Israelis want to continue their forced resettlement of Palestinians despite the protests of the UN. The Methodist Church in the US is splitting over disputes about whether or not to accept homosexuality in the Church.

What happened to Peace on Earth and goodwill to all?

Well fortunately the news isn’t all bad. For some who take the challenge of living what Jesus taught seriously some are making a difference. In places individuals and occasionally whole Church congregations have quietly got on and transformed whole parts of their communities and environment. But it isn’t automatic. Saying we agree with Jesus – and even signing up for Church membership – could never be sufficient.

After 2000 years waiting, in many places in the world the goodwill doesn’t always seem to extend to women. So instead of enjoying the continuing goodwill begun that first Christmas and assuming it will never cease, here we are, reading about the record number of homeless in New Zealand, nervously waiting for the next act of mindless violence in the community or perhaps opening our news feeds on the computer, reflecting in sad despair at the burgeoning refugee camps and wondering when the next shooting at a shopping mall or school in the self proclaimed Christian US is going to hit the headlines.

Today the lectionary gospel reading finds us celebrating the Baptism of Jesus. I want to suggest that first, as with Christmas, we are fond of using over-blown statements about how the coming of Jesus and the start of his mission transforms the world. The question I want to ask myself is whether or not we as individuals and followers of his message actually encourage his coming to continue to affect the everyday world. In the same manner I wonder if we are also often guilty of treating the topic of his baptism casually – assuming perhaps that since we got baptized as Jesus got baptized we are thereby transformed into Christians and everyone benefits. As with Christmas, could it be we are making assumptions that don’t necessarily fit reality?

It kind of reminds me of the well-known story about the little girl who started crying after she was baptized? The minister asked her why she was upset. “Because,” said the little girl, “you made my parents promise I would be raised in a Christian home. But I want to live with them!”

In a way it is entirely understandable we don’t necessarily understand what baptism is about. There have been many different types of baptism through the centuries and even the experts in Church doctrine have been divided about what it is intended to mean.

An additional problem was that for the early Church, baptism was being offered for different reasons. The Jews said that only the unclean gentiles needed Baptism when they were demonstrating they were renouncing their old ways to become Jews. John the Baptist was baptizing because in his view Jews needed baptism that they too needed to renounce their old ways so that they in effect would be proper Jews, and hence ready for the Messiah.

It therefore followed that Matthew’s account had John telling Jesus he wouldn’t need baptism. In retrospect, Jesus’ insistence that he too needed baptism made a kind of sense even if he were only signalling the official start of his mission in faith. It has also been noted that part of the symbolism might also be that he totally identified with the others being baptized. Some have tentatively suggested their suspicion that Jesus was sufficiently human to consider himself to be a sinner in need of repentance. True this is not widely accepted, but we might at least acknowledge the possibility.

Although Matthew and the other gospel writers don’t say so, for those familiar with the customs and scriptures of the Jews, there is a further possible symbolism in that some of the priests and high priests were ceremonially washed and there were pools set aside in the Temple for that purpose. To the Jews this had a scriptural antecedent For example in Leviticus 8:6 we’re told that, in accordance with God’s instruction — “Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water.” Then, later, during that ceremony Moses “poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.” Leviticus 8:12

The early church offered several variants for Baptism, including sprinkling with water, the baptizing of whole families regardless of age, and usually associating this with initiation into the faith. About the only aspect of baptism which appeared common to all the forms of baptism is that it was intended to mark a new phase of life.

While the varying layers of meaning associated with baptism offer different things to people at different stages of different faith journeys, this in itself is not a serious problem. Indeed discovering new dimensions of chosen symbols brings a faith to life and looking back with new perception on a chosen sacramental act has the power to open us to new meaning.

Where unfortunately it can and actually has gone wrong in the past is if we come to believe that there is only one permitted form for baptism and only one allowed meaning for the symbolic act. At its worst, what was intended as a public demonstration of a step forward at the beginning of a new journey can then become disciplinary dogma, used to confine actions which ensures little more than the establishment of power for those who wish to control others, particularly those who wish to act as arbiters for judgment on who is entitled to salvation.

To show just how lacking in compassion dogma can become we might remind ourselves that Anabaptists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were persecuted for daring to suggest that adult baptism was needed even for those who had been baptized when they were too young to have understood what was happening. Thousands of Anabaptists were executed at the decree of some traditional Church leaders, and by a cynical and cruel imposed irony, this was usually accomplished by drowning, which their judges insisted on calling a third baptism.

The other way baptism becomes inappropriate, is when it is presented as a ceremony disconnected with what follows. We might acknowledge for example the large number of Christening ceremonies carried out at the request of families who have virtually no other contact with Church teaching other than for the traditional hatches, matches and dispatches.

Jesus’ baptism was not a religious ceremony disconnected with the life that followed. Indeed if it had been, it would long since have faded into oblivion. Because his baptism marked the start of a relatively dramatic period in which ordinary people had their lives transformed, and because it also marked the start of new ways of challenging outworn conventions and nationalistic faith, we then find significance in the ceremony Jesus chose to begin his ministry. Had there been no mission, no concern for the nobodies of his society, no challenge to a close minded priesthood, no crucifixion and no new life for the Church as a consequence of the dimly understood event we now call the resurrection, why else would we be concerned about Jesus’ baptism?

Yet there is a caution here as well. His baptism is not our baptism. Indeed, if the truth be told, we have no way of knowing with certainty even which of the gospel accounts of his baptism was most accurate – nor indeed exactly what was in Jesus mind when he stepped into those waters.

We do know that our own Baptisms, if indeed they have already happened for all those present today, were almost certainly arranged for different motives. And not all Churches have a common view even today. But what we also know, is that baptism – or for that matter – whatever your preferred action you undertake to signal the start of your own faith journey – only takes on meaning if it is followed by steps in that journey.

This is the second Sunday in the New Year and yes – all is not well in the world. Yet we assemble with the intention of affirming the lead of the one we follow. Jesus taught a new way of relating to one another, our neighbours and even our enemies. Each of us has, however briefly, no doubt considered Jesus’ proscribed way – and through our baptism, or confirmation – or whatever our chosen symbolism may be – we may have already signalled our association with his teaching.

Yet the only way baptism will eventually have meaning for ourselves and those we meet is first to start – and then continue to attempt to live his teaching.

Christian faith is not simply listing and affirming statements of belief as a superficial exercise of intellect. It is primarily about establishing relationships with God encountered in creation and in acts of love, forming and improving relationships with neighbours, living according to ethical standards and in serving others. Of course we cannot expect to transform the whole world, stop all conflicts and force others to live with peace and goodwill. What we can do is acknowledge we intend to make a start and realize that the nature of our journey, good or bad, will be our personal witness.

This will not make the mounting horror of human distrust and conflict go away but it does at least set us on a path where our faith can make a difference.

So we leave the last word to L.R.Knost.
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time as they say but with intention.. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The Broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for Epiphany One: January 5 2020 on Matthew 2: 1-12

Returning Home by a Different Path

Some parts of the Christmas story are so much part of our culture that they seem embedded in very dubious un-Christian customs. This year in one Christmas cracker, I encountered the following “joke”. ” What have Bethlehem and the White House got in common?” The answer: “It would be a genuine miracle if three wise men were found in the present White House”.

But perhaps there is a little more to the original wise men story that give it its deserved place in St Matthew’s gospel..

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. (Even that part is 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 symbolic 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 season, among the celebrations and family get-togethers, this year we note once again some harsh realities have intruded. This year seemingly unprecedented and widespread fires are devastating whole regions in Australia. Once again violence has flared in the Middle East and US troops have been dispatched to protect American interests in Iraq. Chile and Hong Kong are just two of the many places where Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all seems more ironic than real. Here in New Zealand the festive season has been marked by incidents of family violence, unnecessary road deaths and preventable drowning.

Like the wise men at the Stable we might well have turned up at Church with the notion of worshiping the Christ-child but it is back to an untransformed world we are expected to return through the Church door. Confronted with the prospects of a disturbed reality 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 at least 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 personally 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 from God’s guidance 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 by many that the preacher should 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, Seneca 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 1 (29 December 2019) on Matthew 2:13-23

No flight of Fancy
You have to hand it to Matthew in the way he follows a sense of wonder for the coming of Jesus with the grimmer bits. First we had the angels, a Virgin Birth and even the wise men and a guiding star…a good story, filled with awe and wonder and even with a touch of magic. Now in today’s reading suddenly Matthew switches the mood of his story from pure wonder to pure horror. Herod is furious. Learning that he has been tricked by the wise men, who, despite their previous promise, evidently have no intention of coming back with information about a potential king being born in the area, Herod now in effect throws his toys. He flies into a rage and sends his soldiers to kill all young male infants in the neighbourhood. Joseph and Mary are warned and flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt.

Many modern scholars happen to claim that this story seems unlikely as literal history. In the first place it seems at odds with the parallel story in Luke which has no flight to Egypt, and in the second place, none of the detailed contemporary histories of Herod record such an event. On the other hand, even if Matthew was recounting this story almost as if it were a parable about Jesus, it offers more than a typical “midrash” or pious legend. If the world was all sweetness and light after Jesus arrived on looking back ,we might have side-lined the bad bits, yet the grimmer bits are inescapable and even today the real world is not transformed, even at Christmas.

Matthew’s version of Christmas is important because first it matches what historians describe the time into which Jesus was born. The misfortunes which befell many of that time created more than enough refugees to have the commentators on the Bible passages find parallels with previous ages. I suspect there were so many incidents where ruthless rulers and invading forces exacted terrible punishment on the population that I am by no means certain that a small scale massacre of infants (some suggest maybe 20 or 30 for the then size of Bethlehem) would have made it into the histories of the day.

Even if Matthew was only intending his story as parable, it is still plausible for the age. The Romans’ occupation and the dark moods of King Herod can but only have exacerbated the vast number of refugees almost constantly on the move. The Jews in particular seemed to be singled out as easy targets and historians point to the large population of Jews scattered to the cities of neighbouring countries. For example Alexandria in Egypt was claimed to be host to something like a million Jews at the time of Christ.

No matter what we decide about Matthew’s story of Herod, we have plenty of evidence to confirm to us that Herod was a dangerous neighbour. He may not be independently confirmed to have ordered the murder of the infants of Bethlehem but child murder was very much part of his character. For example he had three of his own children murdered on the grounds that they may have been plotting against him, and for good measure had one of his ten wives executed for adultery.

The Emperor Augustus is said to have remarked about Herod that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig that to be one of his sons. As an aside we might note that since the Greek word for pig (hys) sounds very close to the Greek work for son (hyos) we might assume that this was intended as a pun to entertain the Roman nobility who spoke fluent Greek at the time.
The second reason why Matthew may have wanted to stress the flight to Egypt was because some of the prophecies that Matthew quoted drew a parallel between Jesus and Moses.

So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and
went back to the land of Egypt. – Exodus 4.20

This is very close to Matthew’s rephrasing for Joseph and his family flight to Egypt

And he (Joseph) rose and took the child and his mother, and went
to the land of Egypt.

For Matthew’s readers, the image of Jesus as a new Moses returning to lead his people out of their bondage would be readily understood symbolism. After all here we had the infant Moses saved from almost certain death, and brought up in Egypt so that he might rescue his people…. and now in Matthew’s parallel story Jesus saved from almost certain death to be brought up in Egypt that he might rescue his people.

For Matthew’s readers listening to the words of this gospel at a time when once again the refugees were fleeing Israel this time from the wrath of the Romans after yet another Jewish rebellion had failed, there must have been those wondering if God had not only abandoned them but had deliberately set about destroying them. The modern parallel of God deliberately destroying is revisited by the religiously credulous time after time in the aftermath of each new major disaster. Yet Matthew pulls back from this conclusion.

What Matthew appears to be trying to teach as an alternative is that when disaster threatens, for some who take wise action there may be a way through.

Although other accounts may fail to highlight Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus as refugees, to fail to notice refugees is hardly a new phenomenon in the Bible lands. This is why Matthew’s account is a challenge for us today. Christmas with its tinsel, carols all add to the Christmas shopping mall experience, not to mention piles of presents under the Christmas tree.

In practice much of what we do seems designed to take us far from the challenges of the real world where many will miss out. For many Christmas is a time of joy – it is true – but don’t forget the joy is supposed to be about one come with a message that can make a difference to the problems of the real world. We emerge from the Christmas celebrations where we rejoice at Jesus coming to address the problems – yet over the next few weeks we are reminded from his teaching that this addressing of problems is through the actions of his followers. We are hardly true to the message if we pretend that the problems are not there. Matthew does not shy away from that part of Christmas. Perhaps we might learn to do likewise.

What have we seen this Christmas? There was no miraculous intervention to free the multitudes in the refugee camps. The mass prisons in China, the riots in Iraq, in Hong Kong, in Iran, the steady stream of frightened and dispirited refugees from the Middle East and some of the Central and South American countries, grossly unfair trade practices, the widening gap between the rich and the poor , the fires in Australia, the deforestation of the Amazon … none of these is automatically set aside by the arrival of Jesus.

Yes Jesus may well have come as Messiah two thousand years ago but the joy at his coming should be interpreted as forced and artificial if a good proportion of His followers see no urgency to make any difference to those who suffer today. But here is the point. If we claim Jesus came to transform lives, whose fault is it if we measure Christianity by the numbers claiming to be members of his Church?

Face it, if many continue to suffer, there is not much point in blaming Jesus if at the same time we as his followers are not doing our best to be his eyes and his hands in a world where pain continues to be part of the Christmas season.

This of course should not be taken a judgement on all Christians today. In reality there are a good number who work tirelessly on behalf of those who suffer. On the other hand accepting responsibilities for doing something in response to the situations we encounter is individual in nature and just because someone in our immediate circle is doing something in response should not provide the excuse for total inaction on our behalf. We cannot be followers of the Christ child by proxy.

If we go back now to Matthew’s account of today’s gospel we might notice a strange twist at the end. We can certainly understand that the family of Jesus would have been reluctant to return to Bethlehem despite the death of Herod. By all accounts Herod’s son was every bit as ruthless as his father and it made perfect sense to settle further away in the little hillside town of Nazareth. The problem comes when Matthew, ever ready to find parallels for Jesus in the prophecies inserts the words: 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (or in a number of translations “Nazarene”)

The truth of the matter, as William Barclay points out is that there is actually no such prophecy – or at least not in the part of the scriptures often referred to as the Old Testament.

As an aside, as Barclay reminds us, the ancient writers often used puns and plays on words. Accordingly Barclay suggests that here Matthew may be intentionally playing on the words of Isaiah in Isaiah 11:1 : “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Hebrew word for branch is Nezer which in turn looks and sounds virtually identical to the Hebrew word for the word Nazarene which seems to have been Netser and which presumably means Matthew is saying for the scholars in his audience that at one and the same time that Jesus was from Nazareth (the Netser) while in another sense he was being Isaiah’s promised Branch or nezer from the stock of Jesse, the descendant of David, or if you like, the promised Anointed King of God.

It is an interesting metaphor which implies a question. If Jesus was indeed a branch from the stump of Jesse, how might we who wish to be part of his mission, become grafted into that same stump? Now that is a challenge for reflecting back on the Christmas season.

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Lectionary sermon for 22 December 2019 (Advent 4a) on Matthew 1:18-25

Growing Up with Christmas
A Christmas card slogan caught my attention. It read “ When you stop believing in Santa, you get socks!” Funny yes, yet there is the underlying thought that “grown up” thinking affects our thinking about the Christmas narrative.

We can’t go too far into a personal religious journey of discovery before we realize new insights and encounters with new ideas are continually modifying or changing our preceding beliefs. I am guessing that for most of us we now know that at least some of our first ideas needed thoughtful adaptation for the challenges of modern living. What is more, just like every other form of learning – even with our new insights, and even if we have made progress, now we may be less wrong but we should be honest enough too realize on some issues we are probably still at least partly or even seriously wrong today.

While most agree that Christmas has real significance in the history of the Church shouldn’t we expect changing views about Christmas as Christians become more adult in their faith? Just as some change their views on Father Christmas as they grow in maturity shouldn’t we expect a similar range of changing conclusions about what the first Christmas meant in a literal sense and, if it comes to that, does it matter if we don’t all agree?

Perhaps we need to distinguish between what puts people in the mood for the festive season and which parts of the Christmas customs are essential to retain this part of the faith. Are we being cynical to wonder if some who decorate their houses with ostentatious light displays have anything to do with the Christian message or even in any way relate to what the gospel writers were attempting to convey.

Have you noticed Christmas tableaux and Religious Christmas card illustrations typically place the manger in a stable, surround the scene with animals, and if wise men are called for, of course there must be three. Even the standard Christmas tree, again with absolutely no justification from the Bible, is now considered almost obligatory in many family homes. The fact that the gospels fail to confirm such detail does not stop the false memory becoming a key part of our tradition.

In some ways getting anything like a clear picture of exactly what happened that first Christmas is thwarted by the gospel writers themselves. The authors of the gospels were almost certainly handicapped by having little access to eyewitness accounts, and writing years after the events would have made it very difficult to sort out how much was hearsay and how much was accurate. The mismatch in detail between Luke and Matthew on such matters are probably largely due to the varying sources they were obliged to work with.

The earliest gospel, that of Mark, leaves out the birth stories altogether, while John prefers to use a poetic – almost cosmic approach.

Certainly Matthew and Luke tell stories describing what they suggest happened, but since their accounts include inescapable contradictions even to the extent of providing different genealogies – this should make us suspect that they are each telling their version of the story to highlight different understandings as to what the birth meant.

There are also problems in trying to reconcile birth details with other measures of reality. A massacre of children may seem in character from what we know of Herod, yet it does seem strange that contemporary historians of the time who noted many other details of his reign should have missed such a dramatic event. Similarly the nearest census which gives us a date for the birth apparently did not happen while Herod was still alive.

For modern scholars who try to reconcile modern understandings of conception and birth with the Bible accounts, Virgin birth seems to them to be highly implausible. Certainly a good number of followers of traditional forms of Christianity are still apparently committed to the Virgin birth story, yet a growing number of religious leaders are now talking of symbolic rather than literal meaning.

Nevertheless it should be stressed that the ancient creeds are firmly in place and somewhat to the bewilderment of those familiar with the scientific explanations for conception, whole branches of the Christian church hold to what many critics say is out-dated superstition.

If nothing else this is a good reminder that knowledge in religion is often more than factual description, and that tradition, poetry and a sense of wonder and mystery overlay and shape our realities.

When it comes to Matthew and Luke on the topic of the Virgin birth, rather than laughing at the gospel writers for their apparent naivety, it is also worth reminding ourselves, that to those in that age who had no way of knowing any different, not only was Virgin birth a plausible happening for the arrival of special people, there were even written histories of the day confirming that it had happened in a number of other instances.

Some histories of the time claimed virgin birth for both Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great, both of whom were assumed to have the god, Jupiter as progenitor. We might also note in passing that both of them as well as a number of the Greek Kings had been also described with the title of Saviour of the World. We also know that there was an additional reason why Matthew would favour the notion of Mary being a Virgin.

Matthew – clearly a Greek scholar, would presumably refer to his text of Isaiah which for him would be the then two hundred year old Greek translation which had changed the original Hebrew which said Almah….. meaning young girl… to the Greek word Parthenos …..meaning Virgin. We have no way of knowing in this instance if Matthew was treating this as symbolism to show that Jesus was special and at least the equivalent of Caesar Augustus or whether he was genuinely unaware that the original Hebrew quotation gave a rather more prosaic meaning.

Some of the scholars here today may remember that when a group of modern scholars were tasked with coming up with a more exact translation it so happens that they decided to correct the Isaiah quotation in Matthew and turn the Virgin back to young girl. When their final offering of what they called the Revised Standard Version was circulated in 1951 and 1952, it horrified traditional Church folk and both the Catholics and the Anglicans insisted that the offending phrase be changed back to Virgin. The translators reluctantly gave in and the mistranslation was reinstated.

One Baptist minister took a rather more direct and dramatic course of action by incinerating the RSV with a blow torch in front of his Sunday congregation. (We might note in passing that this spectacular act did not have quite the desired effect in that members of his congregation were reportedly so intrigued that they promptly went out and bought their own copies to see what the fuss was all about).

It is not my place to challenge the findings of the translators or arbitrate on the protests of the critics of the translation. While I am quite happy to admit a personal view that Mary was most unlikely to have been a Virgin in a literal sense, my immediate concern is that we have the grace to listen to one another before leaping to judgment.

I also want to suggest that if instead of focusing on the so called facts that that draw the fire of the critics with apparent contradictions and historical puzzles, if instead, we were to look at the symbolism we suddenly start to notice points we might otherwise miss. While we can delight in stumbling across weaknesses in the Bible records ultimately it is not what Luke or Matthew makes of Jesus and his coming that will matter, it is what we ourselves might notice that will set the stage for our reactions to Christmas.

For example if we were to notice that Matthew is entering the male dominated traditional exclusive Jewish belief by setting out a genealogy for Jesus which, counter to custom, includes not only four female names, but also some known to be gentiles, we might start realizing we are faced with a Jesus who may not be the exclusive preserve of Judaism. Further if we notice the extreme respect Matthew attributes to Mary’s status, he is underlining an attitude which Jesus will later make an essential part of his teaching. Even if Protestants don’t echo this respect by according her the status of Virgin, can I suggest they should at least come up with an alternative to show they respect the female role?

Don’t forget that when it comes to Joseph, Matthew shows a man who is prepared to put compassion for his betrothed wife ahead of the rather brutal and unforgiving laws in Deuteronomy. Is this the same compassion that will guide our attitudes to those whom society would judge?

Matthew, despite his violent and harsh setting for his story of the coming child amid righteous rigid laws, facing the cruelty of a brutal ruler and having a humble and uncertain start in life, manages to inject just enough mystery and magic into his story line to remind us that Jesus is about to start a life in which true value will be found. To argue over which of his statements of mystery are justified by translation is to miss his purpose.

And yes, of course this Christmas again there seems to have been over-use of tinsel, and supermarket jingles…. and twinkling lights in the night. But above all we might remember that the show of Christmas is not where the real relevance lies. Certainly it is a birth we will celebrate but the child of promise should not stay as a child. The reality we face in the coming weeks and months ahead calls for a child who will grow up to an adult Jesus, just as we too will need to take the starting principles he offers and find what it will mean to have them live in the complexities and even the dangers of our adult lives.

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Lectionary sermon for 15 December 2019 (Advent 3 A) on Matthew 11:2-11

One significant contrast between many modern Christians and what we know of New Testament stories of followers of Jesus is that all too often these days the emphasis has become centred on what happens in acts of Church worship?  The problem here is that our faith then risks seeming to have nothing significant to offer to the real problems of our age.  I look at today’s news and see bush fires in Sydney, unfair trade practices, refugees helpless in the face of war and famine, mounting evidence of genocide, destruction of whole ecosystems, corruption in high places, and we are left with the question as to why the Churches are so muted in their response.  Emphasis on Church ceremony seems far removed from what was highlighted back in many gospel stories.

Today’s typical singing and affirming religious words of admiration for God and Jesus in our worship may make us feel we are responding as serious Christians but is very different from those earlier followers who apparently saw a good part of their main response to what Jesus taught should be following his lead in terms of needed action in the everyday world.

To use John the Baptist as an example, if I were looking for a single word to describe his words and actions, the word would not be “religious”.  John was very much a straight talker – and from the Gospel record, some might say even unwisely so. Last week we encountered John berating those who had come for baptism because he saw them as hypocrites.

As background to today’s Gospel, we might need reminding the reason why John was now in prison was not so much that he was a religious prophet as it was that he believed in telling it as he saw it and in the process didn’t seem to soften his challenges just because in the process there might be some offended.

John’s undoing in this instance was that he believed Herod Antipas the Tetrarch had done something quite immoral, and despite knowing Herod Antipas’ unpleasant reputation, told him so. Herod Antipas had been named as king by Caesar Augustus on the death of his father King Herod the Great, but the Romans had decided his power should be limited and only gave him a quarter share of his father’s territory.

Antipas set about trying to win back more power by building the city of Tiberius in honour of his current patron the Emperor Tiberius.

The immoral action which had offended John was that Antipas also fancied his brother’s wife, Herodias, so he divorced his own wife and married Herodias. Well it is one thing to believe the king had done wrong, but telling him so was quite another. It is understatement to say upsetting a ruthless king from a ruthless family by calling him immoral was not a wise career move and it was probably no surprise to any of his contemporaries that John was now imprisoned, and, according to the historian Josephus, in the forbidding fortress Machaerus.

Remember John had been offering Baptism in the first place to prepare the faithful for the appearance of the Messiah. Now as the stories of Jesus teaching and healing in Galilee began to circulate, John appears to be a bit uncertain as to whether Jesus was in fact the expected Messiah. He somehow manages to send a message to Jesus from his cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In referring to deeds rather than any claim he might make, Jesus focusses on what matters. After all there were others at the same time apparently claiming to be the Messiah, and such claims can only be substantiated with evidence.

We should note in passing, that even today there are many claiming to be modern day prophets, and I understand most large psychiatric units have had at least one patient believing themselves to be Jesus reincarnated. Others are convinced that they are chosen by God to pass on a message, including a substantial number through the centuries who have wrongly predicted the date for the end of the world. Almost invariably their behaviour is not consistent with their message and accordingly we would be wise to be extremely cautious about such claims.

We would not for example be very much inclined to accept that Jim Jones was the prophet he claimed to be particularly after he is known to have made his followers commit mass suicide, any more than we would wish to follow a Church leader who absconded with Church funds or to seek moral guidance from one who was known to interfere sexually with children.

When Jesus describes John as more than a prophet or says that he is not one who would bend with the wind like a reed, he is doing no more than relating what would be public knowledge.

The Old Testament prophets were probably better known for their ability to stand up against kings and religious leaders than they were for their piety and John was certainly in that mould. John was a servant of the truth he had discovered and was going to speak that truth no matter how inconvenient this might have been for his personal welfare. Small wonder then if some assumed that John was Elijah returned.

And yet this is where the commentary gets puzzling. Certainly we can admire John the Baptist, a man who gave everything – even ultimately his life – to express his understanding of truth and right and wrong. Regardless of his uncertainty about Jesus, we can also acknowledge John the Baptist as a prophet – not so much in the modern sense of foretelling the future – but particularly in the Old Testament sense, when a prophet would describe the current state of affairs and the direction it appeared to be leading, regardless of who might be upset by the analysis.

But the tricky part comes in realising that this Sunday, when we remember this exchange between the imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus, apart from being Advent 3, the third Sunday of the Advent season, is also known as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word meaning “to rejoice”

The problem is really a question. Did John really have much to rejoice about given his impending execution? And the more serious question. What of the rest of us in the first part of the 21st Century?

Clearly we need to be honest. Jesus’ coming did not solve all problems. For example there are still those who live in grinding poverty, there are still areas of the world where personal safety is threatened, places where there are refugees facing a grim and pitiless future and cities where the air is acrid and poisonous, and the water polluted.

When I last looked, $1.25 per person per day was the threshold for extreme poverty as the standard adopted by the World Bank and other international organizations to reflect the minimum consumption and income level needed to meet a person’s basic needs. That means people who fall under that poverty line can be identified — and according to the international surveys, that turns out to be about 1/10 of the world’s population, in other words 1.4 billion people who lack the ability to fulfil basic needs, whether it means eating only one bowl of rice a day or forgoing health care when it’s needed most. At the same time some of us live in great luxury. What does Gaudete Sunday mean in that context?

Perhaps it is just as well that John the Baptist now has his story associated with this Sunday because if the cause for rejoicing has any meaning at all it is that when times were grim someone cared enough to speak up. Since there is widespread agreement that Jesus’ coming brought thought provoking teaching and an attitude of compassion which is a source of hope, we may need reminding that there is an urgent need for those prepared to act in his name. The alternative of leaving this teaching and set of attitudes within the walls of the Church would hardly be good news for those on the outside.

I have heard it said that the real reason why Church attendance is now smaller than it was one hundred years ago, is that for many it is now the most boring hour of the week. Certainly if the only call for response is to expect us to drone fatuous words of praise without for one moment considering that the praise should affect any of our consequent decisions during the week, then it is both boring and irrelevant. If that was indeed the case, the sooner the Church closes its doors the better we might all be.

If on the other hand the call is to use the teachings of Jesus and example of the prophets like John the Baptist to seize on the injustices of our time and insist on a change of priorities, then there may be genuine cause for rejoicing.

I suggested at the outset that John the Baptist does not come across as being particularly religious. I even wonder if Jesus himself cared much for formalised religion. This does not mean that there is no purpose served by coming to Church. Where else might we be likely to encounter the stories of practical people of faith and reflect on the thought provoking teachings of Jesus.

But surely the real cause for rejoicing is that we too have the potential to respond to those teachings, not in history, but in the here and now. Perhaps then hopefully, inspired by those like John the Baptist, we can go out from our worship with the determination that what we learn as history will help reshape our future and the future of those like the folk for whom Jesus and John the Baptist first came.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who risked his very life for what he knew to be right in his speaking up against Hitler. He is quoted as writing “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spike into the wheel itself.”

Clearly as an everyday occurrence we are unlikely to be called to speak up against evil yet as we move towards Christmas we still need to ask ourselves what part we are playing in Jesus coming, and perhaps if the example of John the Baptist or those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer should also challenge us to speak up for what we know to be true.

It seems to me that if we only find the gospel in the deeds of those in the past then we will never find the gospel of our present. Now that is a challenge, and a gospel discovered in the here and now may even be a real reason for rejoicing.

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