Lectionary Sermon 30 January 2022 (Epiphany 4) on Luke 4: 21-30

Today’s gospel seems to present a puzzle. Luke portrays Jesus as an accepted and invited young preacher coming back to his own home patch. From Luke we can guess Jesus had already been teaching in synagogues in the area, otherwise why else would he be handed a scroll and be invited to read and expound on the text.

Luke has Jesus described as speaking so well and so in-tune with what the congregation of the synagogue wanted to hear, they were amazed at his words of grace. Yet in the next minute – apparently in response to a couple of sentences, (about non-Jews being blessed) – the congregation is so infuriated at what they are hearing, they not only want him to stop – they actually pull him away from the teaching place – manhandle him to the edge of a cliff and try to throw him over the edge. Hey, how would that be today for conveying assessment of a trial service for a young preacher?!

Luke is a great storyteller. Did you notice he is not such a good historian or geographer? Nazareth is a village on a slope – not above a cliff, and there are no handy cliffs to throw anyone over. Perhaps this was Luke doing theology rather than literal history.

Can I also confess there is a puzzle about the first part of today’s story (which we encountered last week) with Jesus recorded as reading from the scriptures yet coming up with what Luke records him as reading. If Luke has it right, perhaps Jesus like many of his time, was not strictly literate and may simply have been quoting from memory.

If as in last week’s lectionary passage Jesus was actually reading from Isaiah, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourselves, the verses Luke claimed Jesus chose were far from consecutive and definitely in a different order. This is of course not a serious problem for today’s episode and far more interesting is pausing to ask why his audience hates being reminded of some non-Jews being seen as those true to the Prophet’s teaching.  Is that different from our generation showing intolerance for followers of different faiths? 

You would think that Jesus would be on safe ground talking of Elijah and Elisha. I suspect Elijah, in particular, would have been considered significant when it came to foretelling the Messiah. On the other hand, the examples Jesus chose, seem calculated to rile his audience.

To understand the swing in the attitude of Jesus’ congregation we need to remind ourselves that the Israelites associated their beliefs with a strong sense of a localized God who had guided their history as the chosen people. And further, that all their history was bound up with a popular notion that God traditionally took their side against the troublesome enemies who surrounded them on every side. We can imagine such people approving of the story of Elijah killing the priests of Baal.

But no! What do we see here? Jesus chose to highlight this particular Elijah story when Elijah was sent to help a woman who was not a Jewish woman.  Are we surprised that such a story would be repugnant to a majority, particularly those who had come to believe in a totally partisan God who wanted them to prosper and have their enemies destroyed.

Even worse for the listeners, would have been Jesus’ second example starring Elisha. Jesus reminded his audience Elisha had not cured any of the many lepers in Israel, but instead had healed the commander of the enemy army.   Dare I suggest those who choose the readings for the lectionary tend to down-play the awkward readings that don’t fit with current mainstream beliefs.

If we attempt to bring the Elisha story up to date in a modern context, perhaps we ought follow Tom Wright’s commentary and imagine Jesus standing before us telling us about God curing someone like Adolph Hitler. Or to bring it right up to now, if we heard God was using a famous religious leader to cure someone like a current leader of ISIS (perhaps even) curing him of AIDS while ignoring the plight of many Western Christians  with AIDS, would we be taking this as good news?

There was of course a deep and pervasive underlying problem which is almost universal in its expression and which Jesus seemed to be attempting to address. The Jewish faith, like many other faiths had developed for a community surrounded by enemies. That they should then have perceived their understanding of God as being partisan and exclusively interested in their own well-being and care should not surprise us. Unfortunately as any student of the Psalms would tell you, one of the consequences to developing a self-belief of being a chosen people was a belligerent attitude to people who belonged to tribes of traditional enemies.

When we read at the end of Psalm 137: – “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” we should hear in these words a sad reflection of the human condition. Just as fire-bombing Dresden, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dropping white phosphorous on Iraqi citizens in 1981, and causing very many infant deaths in Iraq by imposing sanctions, was regarded as regrettable but necessary in more modern times. Even today many seem to accept such retribution as inevitable against one’s enemies.

But make no mistake, retribution is incompatible with Jesus’ typical teaching for showing compassion for a wide range of people and forgiving one’s enemies.

Unfortunately, the collective self-belief in exclusivity for the favoured few would not have accepted Jesus’ notion that believers should be seeking to develop attitudes of concern, particularly with their difficult neighbours. By reminding the people that the sort of Love he was teaching applied to those outside the Jewish faith Jesus was challenging a deeply held tradition. Should we be surprised that this indirect way of telling people they were wrong, was unpopular with his congregation?

Bluntly, is it fair to ask ourselves if we have really progressed since Jesus’ day. Are we for example now comfortable with the notion of treating those of other faiths and other cultures with equal consideration as our own, or do we feel our exclusivity and sense of rightness gives us something of an edge? I wonder for example if anyone here has heard the expression “I’m not a racist, but……?”

Growing up in post Second World War Christchurch I was very familiar with the expressed distrust of the “Japs” and the “Krauts”. Next it was the Commies and the Red Peril, and these days it is Islamic extremists.  I don’t hear many Christians insisting it is God’s nature to invite us to give our enemies a fair deal.

Each nation has its own social history and invariably these histories include periods when belligerent myopia edges out embarrassing memories for those who claim to be living by the principles of their faith. The treatment of pacifists and the treatment of foreign nationals in times of national stress provide a barometer test of what happens in practice when the war clouds gather. In the First World War New Zealand pacifists were treated abominably for little more than decrying what modern historians now tell us was international stupidity.

I think also of Archbishop Liston for being tried for sedition on the grounds that he drew public attention to shameful behaviour of British troops in Ireland.  In my own local church there is the story of a young man being arrested for giving a speech about pacifism outside our Church on a Saturday afternoon during the Second World War. Or what about the pacifist Ormond Burton who lost his job as a Methodist minister in World War 2? We may not share his view of pacifism, but in terms of allowing him to speak his conscience we can at least ask if we would have allowed him his voice?

Unfortunately, despite optimistic and self-flattering terms used to describe our own circumstances like:” multi-cultural” and “inclusive”, there is limited evidence that these are deserved terms of self-description. Even in liberal New Zealand, Church union founders on the inability of different yet related forms of Christianity to recognize the denominational claims of close cousins. Anglicans are reluctant to accept the ordination of Methodists as giving authority for administering the sacraments in their churches while Catholics and Anglicans view the authority structures of one another’s churches as incompatible.

In today’s drama, Jesus is confronting his audience (and us) with the notion that we can find value in… the other – the foreigner. If we stop to think about it, the certainty that we have already arrived at the true faith, is an unfortunate way of cutting ourselves off from further development.

This notion of separating ourselves into exclusive camps is doubly unfortunate when we think of what we might learn from one another if we were to become more interdependent. Perhaps reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be helpful for those who find themselves in positions of Church leadership.

In his book “God has a Dream” Archbishop Tutu reminds us we do not come into the world fully formed – we are shaped by what we learn from interactions with others. This makes us highly dependent on our interdependence, which Tutu introduces with the word Ubuntu from the Nguni language. If we don’t realise this interdependence and cut ourselves off from all groups we don’t understand, we are in effect stunting our growth as persons.

Does our faith have to offer anything to the people of the world or to learn from others? if we don’t want to talk to 1.5 billion Muslims? Tutu argues that we should accept shortcomings in others, since none of us are born with a complete set of developed gifts.  I must learn from your gifts and the gifts of others if I want you to learn from mine.

I guess the reason why Luke records Jesus as in effect being run out of town was that Jesus was prepared to tell truth as he saw it regardless of the personal consequences. We go on to learn he  totally identified with the message. If we are to assume that we would give Jesus a fairer hearing, then at the very least let’s be honest about how we currently deal with those who are telling us truths we do not wish to hear. The real test of our sincerity in claiming we support Jesus for speaking unpopular truths – is to ask if we are prepared to speak out in the same way.

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Lectionary Sermon 23rd January 2022 Epiphany 3 (on Luke 4 14-21)

And what of our own Epiphany?
Today we have arrived at what the Church lectionary writers call Epiphany 3. So, given we are now well into the season, it is fair to ask is there any way Epiphany 3 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 for an individual that it matters but … notice …only for the affected individual. 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 can’t 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, those wondering spectators would have simply  found the moment to have been a bit of a laugh – it wasn’t their epiphany no matter what he was shouting.

For those of us interested in Church tradition we might have wondered about the wise men, astrologers – the Magi – realising they were in the presence of the true king. They 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 at least some people (OK possibly some here perhaps?) might be so used to Christmas that there was no discernible change in the way their lives were lived after Christmas, despite living as spectators through the stories of the festival of Christmas. Such experiences don’t work for everyone.

In the Gospel 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 his 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, 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?    The blunt truth is that most churches show token concern for the poor which presumably is why a good percentage of refugees are currently living in sub-standard conditions at a safe distance from our hospitality.

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. It would be silly claiming a mission statement if we have no intention of living it out in practice.

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 like “Jesus loves you”, you are entitled to ask how the would-be missionary knows. All too often, 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.

In the gospels we learn specifically, case by case, that Jesus goes on to make 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 by those who care enough to make a life changing response.

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 risks making 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 only real for 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 means many suffer. What is more the protesters sometimes 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?   Or, is that us? What have we said?

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.

I suspect 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.

So we reflect on this week’s challenges.   The volcano in Tonga?   If Paul’s words about the Spirit are true what will we now do that is different?  Obviously as individuals we are not expected to solve all the world’s problems – but if we claim to be living lives reflecting Jesus and believe that stuff in Corinthians surely we should not expect to leave it at being spectators.

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 to ask if we have allowed our encounters with the gospel to speak to our individual hearts. AMEN

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LECTIONARY SERMON,11 January 2021JOHN 2:1- 11

FINDING A PLACE FOR IMPOSSIBLE BELIEFS

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 no 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 on 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 – it was a way of defying gravity.   Further, in the documentary, the practitioners 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, happiness. Certainly they were more energetic than I am at my advanced age.  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 one’s bottom.  I am guessing, if I claimed – based on what I saw – yogic flyers actually 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. Most of us would believe gravity is non-negotiable.

I guess too, that if I do insist that such nature defying events happen, I should at least expect anyone in this congregation trained in science to be profoundly sceptical.

Similarly with my own background and training in science, I have to confess that if I were looking for impossible things to believe from the gospels before breakfast, the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding feast in Cana would be high in the list. At least for some healing miracles, 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. But turning water into wine presumably involves uttering 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.

Another catch is that if we were 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, are we surprised, that at least some of the scholarly commentators don’t accept this miracle is literally true.  Resolving who is right wont get sorted by a style of argument that says I am right therefore you are wrong.   Perhaps we should at least hold judgement until we hear what some commentators are saying.

At the very least we should notice the problems. 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. Some scholars have for example noted the way that John seems to have provided not so much an outline as a commentary on Jesus life. John writes as if his readers will already be familiar with the main story. At the same time the scholars tell us there is a growing recognition that John is in effect providing a commentary on the other three gospels. It is therefore agreed by many that it is not so much the facts that John now wants to bring to our attention. He seems far more interested in alerting us to what the stories mean.

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 reorganise 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 recognises 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 then has Jesus telling Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above before true understanding will be his.

If we leave it at 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 as 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 marginalised 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 localised, 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. I leave you with a question only you can answer.  What part of today’s good news do you see as being good, practical and relevant as you attempt to live what you learn?  

At the beginning of some questions in advanced exams at University I remember they would sometimes slip in a phrase that said, candidates do not necessarily have to attempt all parts of the question in order to achieve a pass.    Perhaps that should also apply to choosing which part of the sermon you apply when we leave this place.

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Lectionary Sermon for 10 January 2016: The Baptism of Christ based on Luke 3: 15 – 22

Roger Fenn, who I believe started the Fenn School, in Concord in the United States, evidently used 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 of the Holy Ghost.” In his Church the essential part was baptism by total immersion.  Young Roger was fairly confident he had 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 Over She Goes” — and dropped backwards into the trough!

For outsiders to Christianity, baptism with its extreme variety of forms, must appear something of an irrelevant curiosity. Even 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. Some Christians take for granted the idea of total immersion, whereas those from other denominations seem to prefer a highly formalized 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 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, it now generally means a symbolic way of marking entry into membership of the Christian church, 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 form of sanctification.

The early Jews practiced baptism, but that was for gentiles, the non-Jewish 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, 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 as adults, 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?

I would like to suggest that it is not a given, that all who would be Christian understand that it is the living not the title that counts. Some here might know the Tolstoy once observed, with perhaps only slight exaggeration:
Everyone thinks of changing humanity, nobody thinks of changing himself (or herself)”.

I guess most of us can recall Baptism services which were dignified and efficiently organized.  One such service was for my oldest son (more than 50 years ago) in Christchurch, conducted by the Reverend Selwyn Dawson in Durham Street Methodist Church.   It also happened to be a National Broadcast service…and because Selwyn Dawson also chose to use the sermon to ask the congregation and I guess the listeners up and down New Zealand and invited them to imagine what sort of world my son was going to have to face.  I can still remember parts of that sermon.   In terms of preparation presentation and even timing I suggest the Selwyn Dawson version 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 or lack of fulfilment of the promises.

Certainly, in the case of Luke’s reporting Jesus’ baptism there was great drama implied with Luke describing the Holy Spirit as a mysterious disembodied voice recognising Jesus as the Son of God – yet this same Holy Spirit in effect 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 a 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 and be 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.

At its best, baptism can only signal the start of a journey with uncertain and unpredictable way points – yet 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 in looking back, there have been those watershed highlights. In some ways I am sorry that congregations often seem to save their nicest words of appreciation for leaders, because perhaps the greatest learning Shirley and I have experienced is that the highlights are usually the result of team effort. Rebuilding and refurbishing churches, running large functions, meeting for community meals, dances and concerts … all of these are not projects attributed to a single leader.

When projects work, look about you ….in the pews are the real workers for the parish. And just as well. If it were up to me to cater for the many visitors who came to what was then our parsonage – many would have left disappointed. If I had been the cook, I can assure you indigestion or worse would be the consequence.

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 the failures or successes that define the life – and if it comes to that I suspect many 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 in his comments about the Baptism of Jesus, reminds us of that 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.

Surprisingly Rex says, 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 so much to ‘do’.
But 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.

I am also indebted to Rex for drawing our attentions to Julie McGuinness’ Celtic poem ‘Reflections on life’s road’ (Quoted in Bradley 2000: 243-44) Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T

This poem also captures the spirit of this ‘calling to be’: Listen to it now:

Some people travel in straight lines:
Sit in metal boxes, eyes ahead,
Always mindful of their target,
Moving in obedience to coloured lights
and white lines,
Mission accomplished at journey’s end.

Some people travel round in circles:
Trudging in drudgery, eyes looking down,
Knowing only too well their daily,
unchanging round,
Moving in response to clock and to habit,
Journey never finished yet never begun.

I want to travel in patterns of God’s making:
Walking in wonder, gazing all around,
Knowing my destiny, though not my destination,
Moving to the rhythm of the surging of (the) spirit,
A journey which when life ends,
in Christ has just begun. (Quoted in Bradley 2000: 243-44)

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Lectionary Sermon for Epiphany January 2 2022 on Matthew 2: 1-12

Returning Home by a Different Path
I guess if you had looked around any city churches where Christian traditions are recognized, 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, eg 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?  Was it Matthew who jotted down what the ones we now think of as the wise men, i.e. the astrologers (or Magi), 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 Jesus 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, who at the time I first came across the following story, was 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 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.   The new variants of the COVID-19 virus are disrupting countless sporting events and causing chaos in overloaded health systems.   I noted that in one New Guinea hospital many bodies were left uncollected by their families and had to be disposed of by the authorities.   A week ago there was also the story of a cruise ship turning back with forty nine cases of COVID on board.

 Unfortunately the virus has also highlighted the huge differences between the various national public health systems.    A few minutes of thoughtful perusal of the current daily international statistics where tallies are kept for case numbers and deaths per million suggests that the self claimed Christian nations are not all succeeding in looking after their citizens.

While it is good to see some amongst our population ask that our government take international responsibility for care of neighbouring nations in trouble, in practice it is ironic that the fine ideals expressed by the few who care fail when there is insufficient support from the majority.   Foreign policies are a reality check. Please remember it is not just a matter of who in the population classify themselves as Christian.  Faced with the interminable squabbles over a greater share of diminishing resources, if  ours like most nations look to their own interests first, perhaps we need to admit the label “Christian” is not always entirely deserved.    Many of our neighbours have found it difficult to live with unexpected natural disasters, particularly when the will of neighboring nations to offer meaningful assistance to victims of flood, fire, earthquakes and volcanoes is limited in practice.

Given the recent history of the competition for resources like mineral wealth, oil and the unequal sense of entitlement, 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 skeptical nature I have never been particularly enamored 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 of the guiding star we might note they missed by something like 18 Km if they found themselves in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem.

When taking 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 that view 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, 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 realizing the signs were pointing to an event that had escaped the local Jews.

Whether or not Matthew actually believed he was accurately reporting as fact this encounter of the Magi with Jesus, 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 than 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 and 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, 26 December 2021 on Luke 2: 41-52

For me, the Church part of Christmas day is in danger of being disconnected from what actually follows. Familiar Bible readings, carols, and uplifting words surely remind us of the first Christmas scene.  Yet Christmas only becomes relevant if it continues to challenge us in the days and weeks that follow.

For many of the now decreasing population of Church attendees it should have been clear that the celebration of the arrival of the baby Jesus was designed to mark the start of the human response to a Baby who will grow to bear the titles like “Son of Man”, or the Christ and the Saviour.  Are we going to be part of that human response?

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. 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 only if it turns out the two selves, the ideal and real, are quite similar.  Rogers claimed if 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 I am guessing , secretly, I suspect some of us probably come across as occasionally short tempered and selfish. 

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 delight, 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, and where there is some intolerance of those whose sins are different to those we display.   I guess 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 – let’s 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 should 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 suspected 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 seek to apply some of that 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.

Remember 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.

It isn’t just Christmas day that some find themselves lonely and depressed. If Jesus had to learn how to make a positive difference in the real world then following him should nudge us to action, for even if post-Christmas Christ is no longer in the manger,  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 can be offered to lonely neighbours, perhaps a telephone call to someone whose day would be made with human contact.

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. We might only remember that Advent candles offered small flames for dark realities maybe, but with the flame of the Christ candle at the centre, we claim a light which is not easily extinguished.

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A Sermon for Christmas Day on Luke 2: 1-20

Among the decorations we have seen over the last few days I guess we have noticed that some still set up charming settings depicting the manger scene.  Perhaps it is as good a way as any to start honouring the coming of the “Son of God”.

Just one point though.  In case you may have missed it, the apparent recorder of this event, Luke was setting down his version some years after the event knowing that the first followers of Jesus were being persecuted for failing to worship the Roman emperor as the Son of God.

When the Romans wanted to show how amazingly powerful and totally respected their Emperor was they would use terms like the Son of God – but of course they used it to signify the grandeur for a strong military commander and ruler. That being the case, let’s look again at how Luke talks about the birth of Jesus, thinking about what it says about Jesus as the Son of God.

It is almost as if Luke is deliberately contrasting the grandeur of the birth of a Roman Emperor or top king. There is of course a sense in which he is using the poetry of the story to get the essence of what he is trying to convey. It is simply not factual reporting.  Modern Greek scholars remind us that for this section of the gospel it is written in a style of Greek normally reserved for story-telling.    It would be inappropriate if we accepted Luke is telling this in poetic form but then argued about how Luke knew about the angels and what they said!

Sure a ruler important enough to be called Son of God would be born in a fancy palace of high born parents. Yet this Jesus, portrayed by Luke as Son of God is born in the lowest of settings and what is more born to an unmarried teenage servant girl. Shortly after the birth we learn that Mary and Joseph are forced to flee as refugees with the baby Jesus.

Yes I know we’re used to seeing charming tableau of the scene in shops and in Churches but “charming” is not the word for a food trough. Luke might have chosen other things to talk about – but he must really have wanted us to notice the manger bit – because he mentions a manger three times. A manger or a crib is a food trough for animals…… straw?  possibly – and no doubt other vegetable material but also, dirt, and I guess insects.

But when you gather around this manger or crib – what do you imagine you would see on that first Christmas? This morning’s lesson includes the shepherds coming to pay homage – but in passing we might also remember that by tradition (alluded to by Matthew) other visitors included the wise men (the Magi).

There is a traditional fable – which comes out of other writing of the early Church. This story concerns the so called three wise men. Yes I know the Bible doesn’t name them or say how many there were, but Christian tradition puts the number at three and some years much later gives them the names which according to the 6th century mosaics found at Ravenna in Italy which were: Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar. There are a number of thought provoking stories about the wise men or Magi.

The one legend that appeals to me about these three wise men has it that they were actually men of very different ages. Melchior was the very old man, Balthazar was the middle aged one and Caspar was the young wise man. When they arrived at Bethlehem at the cave of the Saviour’s birth, Melchior as the oldest and wisest went in first – and there was this old man to meet him. Melchior immediately felt at home and together they spoke together of memory and the things they had found in life for which they were profoundly grateful. Next, in went middle aged Balthazar and he encountered there, not the old man – but a middle-aged man with whom he felt a great bond. There they talked of what it means to have responsibility and how best to exercise leadership. Finally it was the young man’s turn – and what did Caspar find. No old man – no middle-aged man – but a young prophet – and with him the two spoke of reform and the promise of the future.

Then the three wise men gathered outside the cave, talked of what they had seen – then re-entered the cave – this time with the gifts. There they found not an old man, a middle aged man or a young prophet – but simply a 12 day old infant.

Afterwards they puzzled about what it meant – and then they understood. At each stage in life there would be a form of the Saviour that relates to the seeker both in age and experience.

The writer and priest William Bausch points out that there should be a better connection between the experience of the wise men and that of ourselves than there is for example between ourselves and with the shepherds in the setting of that first Christmas. The shepherds had it all done for them. An angel went and told the shepherds exactly where to go, and lest they should doubt that he was an angel he had a chorus line of heavenly angels backing him up. This heavenly messenger told them exactly what they would find when they got there – and yes – it was exactly as they expected to find. When they arrived there was even an angel there to confirm they had come to the correct place.

When the shepherds set out home why would they need to have doubts? The whole deal was handed to them on a plate.

I don’t know about you – but for me I don’t find myself as directly led as those shepherds. I constantly need direction. I have doubts and do not always understand what things of faith mean.

I relate better to those struggling Magi – always searching and wondering – in a real world of vindictive Herods – who these days are just as likely to be after our children with false advertising which panders to materialism and greed.  Mine is a sometimes uncomfortable real world of real conflict, where there is hunger and diseases like the current COVID epidemic, where there is want and lack of justice …. Forget the shepherds with their heavenly choir, these Magi were in the same type of world we now experience.

It would no doubt be great to be like the shepherds with clear angelic guidance so that we might have a clear line of connection to Jesus – and the answer to all our fears including the removal of fears of meaninglessness and even death. Yet that is not my experience and I suspect for some of you, not yours either.

It might be great to be led to an idealized Saviour who is all powerful and magic – a ruler who can crush the enemy – and who feels no pain. Yet I find Luke’s version of a vulnerable infant in a world of dangers and surrounded by less than perfect, doubting and weak followers to be a much truer picture. If the wisest like the Magi need to seek help in finding this Saviour we should be able to identify with that. It does at least mean there is room for our doubts and questions.

We do of course have the choice. We are told constantly we should be mission-shaped church … and with the numbers in the community who clearly find the Church irrelevant we can see why we should be concerned for mission. Yet our mission is hardly likely to have much relevance if it is not grounded in a Saviour who is rather than one who might be. Angelic choirs are great for mood and Hollywood escapism. “Mission shaped” to my way of thinking is mission that faces the real problems in the company of real people and does not try to manufacture a false and separate religious experience and setting.

Just as there is an alternative Son of God to the Roman emperor version we are reminded this Christmas about what might be. The baby is no ordinary baby – and having started life in the most humble of circumstances and being surrounded by difficulties and dangers right up to the end – when Jesus says , “… my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives”. He offers a clear alternative to some very real issues – and his own experiences give his claim an authentic setting.

When we notice the world offers famine, cruelty, aggression, uncertainty, insecurity, interracial tension and intolerance, the Christmas message of peace on Earth would need to be more than a platitude. The hope is that just as Jesus moved into his neighbourhood with a message that offered the alternative – that those wise enough to seek out an encounter with that same Christ will in their turn be prepared to do the same.

Jesus brought a new way of understanding people in their actual situations. We may start by only noticing the manger and perhaps only then a tiny vulnerable baby – but as the baby grew in understanding – so too our understanding can grow. No matter the age of the Magi, the saviour can offer hope because he has been there before us.

I heard recently of a wise engineering professor who asked his students, what is the best thing that can come out of a mine? The answers were predictable. Minerals – like coal, like gold, like tin and so on. The Professor listened, then answered his own question. “ The best thing to come out of a mine is the miner”. This is why we may need to shift our understanding from valuing presents at Christmas – to valuing the actual presence of the other.

The most important step in noticing this Jesus – is to notice that we too must become part of the tableau. It is one thing to passively observe – and as outsiders sing the carols and admire the baby. It is quite a different matter to interact with the one we find in the crib, valuing the same things he valued, and understanding that the peace he talked of will remain an unrealized ideal until there are those to extend the peace on his behalf.

The perspective that finds a place for living relationship is gospel. It is gospel that starts with noticing the crib is more than scenery. It is gospel that discovers the baby and what is more, a baby in an uncomfortable setting – and as the baby grows we too might find an expression for: “… my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives…”

This Christmas, do we intend to encourage growth in that part of our faith?

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LECTIONARY MESSAGE FOR CHRISTMAS EVE Year C (on Luke 2:1-14)

I would imagine a good proportion of families in my local community have had at least a passing exposure to some elements of the Biblical Christmas story.    Even today when Church attendance is rapidly dwindling and despite few talking of the Bible as acting as cornerstone for essential beliefs, some parts of that birth story persist.   Many adults for example can tell you that Mary and Joseph, in town for a census, found no room at the inn and instead had to settle for a straw-lined manger.   That story also has it that shepherds in the field were visited by an angel to tell them where to go to greet the new born child and eventually at this same place the Magi, wise men from the East would turn up with their symbolic gifts, guided by a mysterious moving star.  

Regrettably, if trends in church attendance around Christmas are anything to go by, that story has become almost incidental to what many think of as important in day to day life.  It is as if a good number in the community have decided that while that story is fine for children, in all honesty in the adult world, there seem more urgent matters to address.

Although there is always something of the fairy tale for the typical modern Christmas Eve service with its traditional setting of candles, carols and various appropriate props like the straw lined manger we would do well to remember some of the unpleasant realities in the background.   A census had been ordered on behalf of an unjust invading force to ensure that everyone would get to pay their taxes to the invaders.  And as if that wasn’t enough, there is nothing particularly romantic to insist a heavily pregnant Mary should be forced to walk with her husband to be, all the way to Bethlehem with no adequate shelter to greet her on arrival.     The “manger”, basically an animal food trough, usually attached to the outside of the back of a house, was hardly an adequate crib for a new born baby.

I concede there is much in both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth stories of Jesus that have fed the skepticism of the critics.  If Mary was indeed a virgin (which seems unlikely to many, particularly given what we now know about biology, then why is the key Prophetic prediction about the Messiah’s birth to a virgin now known as based on a mistranslation? For that matter, if a virgin gave birth to Jesus then why do both Matthew and Luke provide two very different lines of descent for Jesus finishing with Joseph as the father?  Then there are those other worldly touches.  Angels appearing to shepherds with urgent messages would not seem very plausible today.   Knowing what we know now about stars how could a very distant moving star lead the wise men all the way to the side of the manger?   How come Herod killed all those babies without contemporary historians noting the massacre?    And yes there is much more of the same.

Yet I want to suggest that arguing over the plausibility of the two gospel versions of that first Christmas is to miss why the gospel authors were there with their stories in the first place.  Their purpose was not simply to document a series of events.     The Gospel writers self -appointed mission was to confront their listeners and readers with stories and events calculated to help shape a new way of life.   Perhaps instead of worrying about the literal record we might start by asking ourselves what the followers of Jesus were currently facing at the time the stories were set down.   By so doing we may begin to understand why particular stories and acts were chosen as a focus.  

Most modern Bible scholars seem agreed to date Luke’s gospel approximately the same time as the Romans were attempting to finish their war against the rebellious Jews in Jerusalem, and at the same time the scattered survivors  of the Jewish faith amongst the survivors were trying to re-establish their ancient beliefs.  Perhaps we would be wise to remember what is now thought of as the first Christmas had its own backdrop of unpleasant reality.   

For the Jews, the emerging groups of Christians with their insistence that Jesus was the embodiment of the Messiah were an unwanted distraction while the Jews  themselves were in the process of being expelled from the synagogues.   An even more serious problem for the Christians was that the Romans were insistent that all groups in society should acknowledge their Emperor as “Son of God”.  Those like the Christians who refused to take that final step were starting to be persecuted as heretics.   Rather than having Jesus come across as a direct alternative to the Emperor, Luke appeared to be presenting Jesus as a very different type of Son of God.

While the self titled “Son of God” Emperor was born into a position of authority and surrounded by all the marks of power and luxury.  Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth accentuated Jesus’ humble beginnings. 

Luke was writing about Jesus’ birth at a time well after the crucifixion and even more years after the birth of Jesus.    Luke should not be expected to know the exact circumstances of the birth events, but what he does include in his account would certainly help with the other themes he highlights later in his gospel.   Remember Luke is also the same  Gospel  writer who emphasizes Jesus’ concern for foreigners and those typically overlooked.  

The shepherds would of course been representatives of the lowest class of society.   That they are chosen by God for the angel’s good tidings should remind Luke’s readers (like us?) that having time for those at the bottom is adopting a key part of Jesus’ message.  Over recent weeks we need to reflect on whether our share of the good news has been shared in word and action with those traditionally written off by our society. We know that Luke went on to recount stories of Jesus interacting positively with non-Jews, so should we then be surprised at  finding wise men (the Magi) bringing gifts to Jesus from a related religion in the East.   Very well then, how are we making ourselves known to those of different faiths?

So then where does all this leave us?   While the story of Jesus’ arrival has a backdrop of unpleasant reality –yet it is also the arrival of a life that went on to extend understanding and hope.   Looking back through the history of those who became followers of the Child Jesus we see much unfinished business.    Luke reminds us in his story telling that the good news of Jesus arrival is not just good for the signed up followers of the Church because that is always an unfinished story.    Perhaps the real challenge is for each of us to write our own gospel message in the way we too choose how to pass on the message of the child this Christmas.

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Lectionary Sermon for 19 December 2021 (Advent 4 C ) based on Luke 1:39-56

I suspect we do ourselves a great disservice when we forget that significant parts of the Bible are presented as poetic expression awaking glimpses of underlying truth.  Not all stories make sense as eyewitness reporting.    No, Luke was almost certainly not present to provide a journalist style record of the now famous encounter between Mary and Elizabeth.   Yet when Luke has Mary say “My soul magnifies the Lord” this phrase from Luke’s gospel even today still signals the start of one of the great hymns of the traditional church, the Magnificat.  Despite “High Church” denominations giving such passages additional focus, 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 only valuable if they draw the reader into a sense of personal response.

Poetry can open us to unexpected insights. Here is another.  “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart”. I guess some such key passages encourage us to look again at our styles of thinking and behaviour patterns until there comes a point of realizing most values we assume are normal may 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 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?

Some might remember David Rhodes from his book The Advent Adventure where he expressed his frustration with the 500 representatives of the General Synod of the Church of England General Synod once debating all afternoon the mystery of salvation with “not a hint that we should enjoy this astounding gift.” It was, to him “Like a conference of undertakers discussing the price of embalming fluid”.  Nor should we 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 of 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, for me it triggers a memory of an Advent service I once attended in Christchurch. There 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 tempt us  to forget our faith should only matter if it genuinely impacts on our sense of well-being. Remember for that to happen, the gospel first must connect with our lives.

The joy in a discovered pregnancy is deep and primal, but Luke is identifying much more in this passage. Elizabeth, already surprised by her own unexpected second chance at pregnancy, is clarifying that Mary’s baby is even more important. Mary’s response to be overcome with gratitude at what she now identifies as God’s blessing. This underlines her acceptance of the role as what we now think of as mother of the Lord. Luke in effect identifies the baby leaping in the womb as the expression of joy.

We note in passing that this passage was used in earlier times of the emerging Christian Church to win over those who persisted in thinking John the Baptist was the chosen one. Note Luke’s story indicates 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 that earlier implied question about today’s gospel story. Assuming Luke was not present when Mary met her cousin Elizabeth, is it plausible for Luke to encounter 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 were honest, we would also have to concede that it was at least as likely Luke might equally well have simply imagined what was said and told the story to make a point.   Remember that Luke was the gospel writer who highlighted instances when undervalued people became essential.

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 shows that for centuries, women’s lower 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, remarkably few treat women as deserving the same respect as men. Many of the women for example remain nameless, and a good number of 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 was slow to 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 failed to conceive she was described as barren – never the man as infertile. A barren woman was despised and pitied – and again in the Bible, we see this 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 conceived 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.

So 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 7:14Matthew 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 whether the Virgin birth was reality 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 to 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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LECTIONARY SERMON FOR 12 December 2021 ADVENT 3C

I asked my wife if as worship leader, I should greet the congregation when they arrived this morning the same way John the Baptist greeted those coming for Baptism…..”You brood of Vipers!”   Can I suggest that we would be totally unprepared for that form of greeting.

In one of his books Tom Wright recounted a message from a newspaper cartoon that, as I remember, went something like this.

A man, apparently a real skeptic, was drawn looking up at the sky – yelling at a passing cloud.   “Oi – God!! You up there, if you really are up there – what do I have to do to experience your greatness down on Earth?”   A loud echoey voice comes down from the cloud.   “Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice.”

“Just testing…” gulped the startled skeptic.

“Me too!”   boomed the voice.

John the Baptist, or as some called him “the Prophet”, came to tell his audience that in effect people of that time had failed to heed the warnings of the prophets of the past.  His message was that the people needed to change before they would be ready for the Messiah.

But you know, perhaps today’s story about the Baptist also set us wondering.   Surely John’s warning implies a similar caution for us today. Do we really think, during this Advent Sunday, that it is just only skeptics and non-Church goers who a have been in danger of missing the real nature of what it should mean to respond to Jesus?  You may have noticed from Luke’s dramatic version of events that there is also an implied puzzle. Those who took the trouble to seek out John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading were certainly not likely to be all the real villains from the towns, certainly not those most guilty of leading the people astray with their false message and inappropriate behaviour so why should it be that John the Baptist is curiously uniform in his condemnation?

We can’t truthfully relive that scene, yet here we are, just about to be overtaken by the arrival of yet another Christmas.   I would like us to imagine some modern version of John the Baptist coming again only this time to our typical cross-section of church members who are simply here for a zoom service gathering. Would John if we met him also put us on the spot?   And be honest.   Should it be entirely unexpected to find as Church members we are accused of failing to deliver on past promises from our respective membership .  NOTE John didn’t restrict his accusing message only for leaders.  Several of the recent Church conferences also reminded us we should be living to live out past spoken claims about what our Church membership means?

Putting it another way,,, since the Baptist was on about the need for a new start through baptism do you ever wonder if there are those of us already baptized among our congregations who deep down inside know we show few signs to others that our lives are different from the non-baptized in our approach to living our faith.

So how are we doing?

The season of Advent has undergone some curious changes down through the ages.  The symbols of Christmas are constantly modified and used in such a way that sometimes the Gospel is effectively edged out.

Let me start with one of the other standard features of a typical Christmas:  that Jolly, rotund smiling white bearded Christmas figure of Father Christmas.  A.K A. Also known to some as…. Saint ……who?……Saint Nicholas.

Don’t get me wrong – I have always liked the idea of Father Christmas.   But did you know the first Saint Nicolas started out very unlike the white bearded tubby friendly gent who, according to the story we tell small children, spends the last few weeks before Christmas in our very own city.  When that version of Father Christmas is not Ho Hoing at parties or sitting listening with glazed eyes to non-socially distanced children on his lap as they rattle off lists of hoped for incredibly expensive toys, he is organizing his annual home delivery service.   Then on Christmas Eve I imagine he jumps on to his sleigh and flies through the skies I guess with his GPS switched on and his 5 G cell phone at the ready, remembering no doubt to register his QR code on each of the chimney tops before delivering all those presents then scoffing the goodies left by the fireplace.

But the first Nicolas – before he became elevated to sainthood, way back when the Christian Church was still being formed was not fat and cheerful.  He was a fairly ordinary serious looking, skinny chap.   He was born to wealthy parents in a town in Turkey – yet while he was still a young man, he actually became a Bishop in a town called Myra. And why was that?  He wasn’t particularly learned. He wasn’t exactly a stunning preacher. Nor was he elected Bishop as a result of being an obvious saint when he became a priest – when you hear how he was made Bishop you could be excused for thinking it was purely by chance.   

The old previous Bishop had died and the rest of the Church leaders thought they should be guided by God in their choice of who the next bishop would be.   Some of them had a meeting and they decided that God was telling them in their prayer that the first Priest who walked through the door of the Church next would be the next Bishop and lo …it was young Nicolas.  True he was much younger than they were expecting – but they reckoned God’s choice had to be respected.

Anyway, he was at least a very kind young fellow and because he was rich by courtesy of his rich parents he was able to do a lot of kind deeds for people who had fallen on hard times.  In his teaching he would remind everyone that they should look for people who needed helping – and, where possible, help them without them even finding out who was helping.   

One event which impressed the whole town was when he came across a man who was so poor he was going to have to sell his three daughters into slavery so that they could survive.   Bishop Nicolas hid outside one evening their tiny house and according to the agreed version of the story over the next two or three nights he dropped gold coins down the chimney so that the daughters could afford to pay a dowry so that they could get properly married.  One version of the story was that when he dropped the gold coins into the room down the chimney some coins finished up in the girls’ stockings drying by the fire.  Tradition has it that that was supposed to be the origin of the tradition that children still hang up stockings on Christmas Eve. The story goes that Bishop Nicolas was spotted the second time he was throwing the coins down the chimney and although he asked that no one say anything about it, the story soon spread and it is still repeated across a good part of the world.

There were many other stories of his kindness and eventually he was made a saint. 

Well that is no doubt interesting, but there was a catch.   Although there were some who followed his teaching unfortunately a larger number decided rather than follow his teaching instead to work him into their worship and asking him in their prayers for his blessing.    When eventually he had died (and some historians say that was on December 6) they built a church in his memory and what remained of his body was buried in the local Church.   Then some robbers stole part of the body and took it off to a distant place where they built another church in his memory.   They prayed to him, admired his teaching, but certainly didn’t all follow what he had taught.

Of course he also changed in people’s memories.   A number of groups including the Dutch built him into their Christmas preparations and on the 6th of December each year one of the typical Dutch customs is to celebrate his memory with pre-Christmas gift giving. (and I think in places this still includes giving lumps of coal instead of gifts for children who have been naughty).   Worldwide the image of St Nick has steadily faded to be replaced by the advertising image of Jolly Santa.   Perhaps what is most needed is to continually return to Nicolas’ central message to remind us to be kind to one another and caring towards to those in need.   

Surely this should remind us there is a time for hearing yet again the call of the Baptist.  Jesus himself reflects this same message and is recorded as saying (and no doubt with a degree of sadness) “Why do you call me Master, Master – yet do not do as I tell you?”   Do you think we need to ask ourselves if we are better than those who disappointed John the Baptist and Jesus?

 I suspect this is not the time to lower our guard.   For each generation there is no guarantee how John’s call back to the central message will work out.?  I don’t think we should take that for granted.  

I am absolutely convinced that the potential for the Joy of Christmas is still there.  Yet it is also a season where the wild-eyed John the Baptist disturbs our preparations with his urgent message.   Ultimately the challenge is now over to us to find a way of living our response, not simply with words and repeated promises but with reshaped lives and hearts.  AMEN

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