A lectionary sermon for Year B, Epiphany 3, 21 January 2018 based on Mark 1: 14 – 20

Called to Fish??
For those who stress how dependent Christians should be on Jesus, it may be timely to remind ourselves that Jesus is not recorded as being a one man band. As Mark recorded it, Jesus never set out to be the sole act. He certainly presented gospel as good news – but the good news had an essential place for partners in the enterprise. It was good news, not because now Jesus could say some clever words, but rather because something was set in place whereby individuals and even community might start to be transformed and values applied.

Gospel has no value if it is just past history. Although it maybe hard to admit, it is also worth reminding ourselves our gospel only performs in each generation about as well as the current batch of disciples allow it to perform.

If as the surveys suggest we have a present community that finds the Gospel to be largely irrelevant to daily life, perhaps we, as the modern day interpreters of Gospel might look to our current witness before looking elsewhere for someone to blame.

Unfortunately, and perhaps precisely because it is such a striking simile, this morning’s gospel call of the disciples to become fishers of men is possibly both the most famous – as well as the most misunderstood call to mission in the history of the Christian Church.

At its most simplistic it sounds a bit like a mission to build numbers. Don’t catch fish – treat people like fish – hook them, net them, catch them with baited words – fill the pews and when the pews are full, build another bigger church and fill that too. I am sure that is what the unfortunately misunderstood word “evangelism” has come to mean for whole branches of the Church. And yet if you listen carefully, that is not what Jesus said – and nor does it correspond with what actually happened with the disciples. That is simply not what Jesus taught them to do.

And did they need teaching? To a non fisherman, being offered fishing lessons probably seems completely superfluous. Throw a net into the water you catch fish. Bait a hook and throw it into the water, you catch a fish.
What is there to learn?

Well, as any real fisherman will tell you, even when fishing only for fish, there is a great deal to learn. The seine fishermen in Jesus time had to learn to fish at night when the nets would be harder for the fish to see – and when the fish might be attracted to a light in the boat. Certain types of fish only feed at certain times and are attracted to very specific bait. Some types of fish are found at specific depths and even at specific temperatures and at specific times of the year. These days it is even more of a science. For example the modern Tuna fishermen now use sea surface temperature maps generated from satellites to identify the warm patches where the tuna congregate. And that is only one of a host of things a fisherman needs to know

It may well have a lot more meaning then for a fisherman to be asked to learn a new way of fishing.

Come with me and I will show you how to be fishers of men (sic)”. In Mark’s probably reconstructed memory, that was what Jesus was saying. But that doesn’t mean simply preach at those we might invite. We have to be concerned for them as individuals, and these days we would mean men and women and note they are individuals facing unique situations, rather than as scalps or trophies.

For Jesus it was never going to be easy to use these fishermen for the tasks of the kingdom. We read in the gospels that these disciples were wilful, they were slow to understand and at times they were not in tune with what Jesus was trying to accomplish. On the other hand as they lived and worked with Jesus, they seemed gradually to wake up to what it was that Jesus was asking them to do. Of course they had doubts, and you might wonder why this did not cause Jesus to give up on them. But here is a thought. Perhaps it was in fact that these doubts justified their selection because doubts are essential to honest thinking. As Tennyson wrote in his poem dedicated to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
… then he went on to write……
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

When I hear people try to turn Jesus’ teaching into simple formula recitations leaving no room for thought or doubt I worry that they may overlook the way Jesus himself approached others.

Jesus showed by his actions he was not interested in reacting to labels. He showed by illustration and actions that the so called heretics of his day, the Samaritans, should be treated as individuals and that if for example the despised Samaritans showed compassion, this was to be genuinely valued. His disciples are called to share these same attitudes in living out their mission. The fact that some modern-day, self-claimed disciples, appear to be judging and even rejecting others in terms of labels like “Muslims” or “homosexuals” suggests that they may not be exactly on message.

Jesus showed by his actions he was more interested in the spirit of the law than the detail. If compassion was called for, this for Jesus took precedence over any imagined conflict with religious custom. In learning the Jesus way, Jesus’ focus on liberation and on renewal, had to become part of his disciples’ activity. This too was part of effective fishing.

It is hard to be certain from this distance in space and time how much of Mark’s record was intended symbolism. For example the notion of fishing for people also has scriptural precedence to do with justice. Amos for example talks of people carried off with fishhooks (Amos 4:20) and Jeremiah talks of God catching people to bring them to justice. (Jeremiah 16:16). Although Jesus is recorded as being more focused on compassion than judgment, there is no doubt that he too placed an emphasis on justice.

Presumably his followers also have to see that a concern for justice is part of what we now call the Christian message. We can for instance see that since Jesus showed a real focus on concern for the poor, that we who claim to follow Jesus, but who just who happen by accident of birth and opportunity to be living in the rich West, we also need to learn to be awake to the injustices visited on the poor. Why else might the poor be uninterested in what we have to offer if we are not genuinely concerned with their plight?

Those called to follow Jesus in his day found themselves with unexpected responsibilities, constantly encountering what we would now call situational ethics. What for example should one do when the institutional church puts its own wealth ahead of its duty to the people? Jesus reportedly cleared the temple.

What should one do when ostentatious display of religious status gets emphasized ahead of service? Jesus risks his own safety and calls it like it is.

What should one do when religious custom identifies the untouchable leper? Jesus reaches out and touches with the healing hand.

Each of these actions tell others about the way he is inviting others to follow.
Yet the thing about situational ethics is that situations change. It is not so much Pharisees as those with titles like Reverend or pastor or parish steward or Tele- evangelist or member of the leaders meeting that should now be our focus. With lepers now far less common, today’s untouchables may well be those with AIDS. Our modern-day Samaritans may just as easily be those we call extremist Muslims, or atheists spitting out what may appear to us to be words of vitriol.

One of the sad things about traditional Christianity is that it is slow to react to change and is often left behind when trade policies or environmental issues are being debated. To win hearts and minds, at a minimum, religion must be seen as relevant to current issues. This is why a strong presence of the church has to be involved in debates like genetic engineering, like climate change, like food production, like the arms race and sustainable energy policies. When for example the Catholic Church waited until 1991 before admitting Galileo was right(!?), and took almost to the same date to pronounce on Darwin it is another way of telling the general population that the Church is happy to be left behind in the modern world.

Conversely when the Christian World service is among the first to set up aid in a disaster area, or when the current Pope weighs into the current problems, the Christian message wins the right to be heard. But surely it is not just the Church leaders. What for example are we saying about accepting those displaced by the weapons produced by the wealthy arms dealers from our part of the world. Do we say we don’t want the refugees our side have displaced? Do we as part of our witness for Jesus support our leaders when they say have to cut down the aid to the United  Nations. I suppose we could always pretend not to notice less aid means that the UN sponsored refugee camps will become worse. Remember some politicians who are merely reflecting what the people want are saying those things.

Sometimes the rule book is not the issue, and those who are called to discipleship have to learn that they too have to take a message of responsive action as well as words if their evangelism is to have any integrity. The reason why Bonheoffer’s words continue to tug at the heartstrings is because of his self sacrifice in the fight against Hitler’s Nazi regime. I am certainly not sure that Bonheoffer thought of himself as a fisher of men (and women) – yet from the number who claim to have learned their faith from his example, he appears to have mastered his part in the fishing trade.

In his day Jesus called a cross-section of men and women to mission. Today the need is probably as strong as ever, since the need for compassion, for justice, for those concerned for their fellows and even a concern for the planet itself is as urgent as ever. The call for those prepared to share the tasks for the kingdom, may have changed in form – and the specific tasks and challenges change year by year and even day by day. How the fishing is to be done in a modern age must be continually relearned, but remember the gospel only has our present generation to depend on – and as for all the generations in the past, the success of this gospel depends on…..well… those like us.

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Lectionary Sermon, January 14 2018 (Year B) , on John 1: 43-51

Invited to Come and See
For those who think that God was guiding the hand of those who consequently gave accurate record of the life and mission of Jesus in the gospels, there are unexpected problems with the gospel of John. It leaves out things which might seem important like the birth of Jesus, his baptism, temptations, the last supper, Gethsemane and the ascension. John alone talks of the wedding at Cana, he changes the order in which things happen and by mentioning three different Passovers, John appears to describe a three year ministry mainly based in Jerusalem and Judea as opposed to the one year ministry based mainly in Galilee which fitted the other gospels. Yet for all that, in my view at least, from detail John supplies and the accuracy with which he describes places, his thoughtful theology, he is well worth the read.

Although John sets aside the parables, he brings Jesus’ interactions alive with details of conversation, even if his account of the first recruitment is very different to those of the other gospel writers.

When Jesus met newcomers we read (particularly in John) he often demonstrated three characteristics that set him apart from many others. It was almost as if he was determined to meet those he encountered at as deep a level as possible, and more than this, to leave them changed and thinking for themselves.

In John’s eyes, Jesus’ first characteristic was to notice what people were like. This sounds easy yet it is surprisingly rare. Think for a moment of your last walk through a city street. How many of those you encountered did you notice to the point where you picked up something interesting that told you something about these passing strangers. Did you for example have any inkling where they came from – or even better, did you read their body language? I guess most of us are concerned primarily about ourselves and simply don’t have the time for such attention. There is a New Year challenge in this for all of us.

Perhaps as those who claim to follow Jesus, we too might start giving our encounters this same intense attention and start really noticing those we meet.

Jesus’ second characteristic was to move the conversation past the conventional simple shallow statements to deeper issues….issues that required serious thought. The rich young man, the tax collector up a tree, the Samaritan woman at the well, the mere fishermen who Jesus thought to be potential disciples … for each the conversation often went far beyond the shallow pleasantries to a memorable challenge.

His third technique was to leave those he met with something imaginative – perhaps an unexpected act or even something he said that might have appeared miraculous or even mysterious. Think for example of the apt stories he would use from well known scripture or traditional folklore – or if none such came to mind, a simile that would take a hold of the imagination…..maybe to stay for many years.

As indicated at the start, strangely enough Jesus’ parables are largely missing from John’s gospel. Nevertheless compared with the other gospels in John’s account there are more detailed interactions with people recorded, and even without the parables, Jesus would leave plenty to make people think. Remember too, the gospel writers were assembling their remembered stories of Jesus many years later – yet think just how many words and actions that were still recorded to cover what John records as an estimated three year period.

Watch now as Jesus uses each of these techniques with Nathanael.

Nathanael is an unlikely potential disciple. When Philip goes to fetch him to meet Jesus, on hearing where Jesus is from, Nathanael immediately shows prejudice. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. This may even have been a fair question considering the size of Nazareth – (which I understand was in those days thought to have of the order of 200 villagers – and up until that time, none as far as we know of any significance).
The lazy view – and we would have to say, by far the most common attitude to strangers from a known area, is to lump them together as a class and treat them as a group – often with casual prejudice. For example here in Auckland you often hear disparaging comments about South Aucklanders or Westies. I dont know about now but a few years back there was plenty of prejudice between Maori and Pakeha in Pukekohe. Even amongst the Polynesians those born in New Zealand there are those can make disparaging comments about the new arrivals. How could they be any good if they were a “fob” (fresh off the boat).

Is this very different to what Nathanael was saying in this case when he makes his prejudgment about those they came out of Nazareth? Phillip is not arguing that Nathaniel’s prejudice is wrong – but he takes the pragmatic view. Come and see for yourself.

As Nathanael arrives, Jesus immediately puzzles him by knowing his name and identifying him, not only as an Israelite – but even one without guile. To me there is no need to invent magic where none is needed. Phillip may well have told Jesus who he was going to fetch, which might explain knowing his name, while recognizing him as an Israelite might have been no more that noting how he dressed and cut his hair… but to see what sort of person Nathanael was and describe him as without guile goes much further and suggests that Jesus was reading his body language. When challenged by Nathanael to know how he knew these things, Jesus says that he had noticed him earlier under a fig tree.
Nathanael rightly realizes that this is no ordinary degree of observation. One doesn’t normally take notice of people who are strangers merely because they are standing under a tree, nor to find who the stranger is before even being introduced and to even read their character simply in the way they move and hold themselves.
Nathanael sees this as so extraordinary that he thinks he has witnessed supernatural powers. His response – that Jesus is the Messiah, the king of Israel, may be prescient but notice carefully Jesus will have none of it. As far as Jesus is concerned Nathanael’s view, regardless of whether or not it happens to have a sense in which it is true, is also a view which is entirely premature and not based on sufficient evidence.
In effect Jesus asks Nathanael to join him – and work out what Jesus’ status is by what he might then witness. Jesus is asking Nathanael to suspend judgment until he has seen proper evidence. “Greater things than this you will see”.
Perhaps we should remember that when Peter later makes the same connection between Jesus and the Messiah or Son of God, far from rejecting Peter’s assessment, Jesus praises him for it – and yet there is a significant difference with Nathanael. Peter has been part of Jesus mission for maybe three years before he comes to his conclusion. He has done what Phillip has asked of Nathanael – he has come to see for himself.

Perhaps more striking, Jesus gives Nathanael an enigmatic reference to something really strange, which seems to be an oblique reference to Jacob’s ladder… a ladder connecting earth to heaven…and more mysteriously, one on which angels might come down and go up.

This is one of these seriously strange comments. And no doubt one which would be remembered in years to come. In terms of a prediction there is certainly no indication that Nathaniel ever witnessed such an actual ladder or saw angels physically ascending and descending, but I guess if you think of Jesus himself playing the part of that ladder there was a sense in which he set up a connection between humans and what we might call for the want of a better word, the divine. It is as if those who assumed the role of disciples would in time come to realise that what they were witnessing.

I said earlier Nathanael was an unlikely disciple. I know a number of Bible literalists act as if they would like him to go away. John’s account of the first disciples certainly doesn’t match those in the other gospels. The other gospels do not mention him in their lists of disciples and for this reason some literalists try to reconcile the lists by saying he is probably the same as Matthew or Bartholomew. Maybe Nathanael did go away at least for a while.

Yet perhaps there was something in that first meeting that kept him from forgetting Jesus. Towards the end of John’s gospel, if John has it right, Nathanael is certainly one of the disciples mentioned that Jesus appeared to on the lakeshore.

But Nathanael’s status is not the most important issue for us. There is a more important unspoken question which remains for us to answer. As distant observers of this first cameo exchange between Nathanael and Jesus – is it just history or there now a walk on part for us?

It is certainly true that we cannot simply do as Phillip did and invite others like Nathanael to come to meet Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is now no longer around – and to hear some talk, it is as if with other great figures of history, he is now safely removed. We can admire those in the past with equanimity whereas those in our present or those who now invite us to dream of the future can be unsettling. Be honest, if the equivalent of Jesus was to suggest to you today a future experience with a ladder and with angels, how would you react?

But for better or worse it won’t be Jesus making suggestions on this day of 14 January 2018. So who is physically there in our present and future, if it is not to be Jesus? And who will we suggest newcomers to our faith meet for themselves? Surely all we can now do is invite them to come and meet those who appear to have been changed by Jesus’ teaching.
To bring it right home, if we honestly believe we are representing Jesus, it is our lives we should have available for scrutiny. This may be almost embarrassing.

Remember for Jesus it was not enough to settle for a casual meeting. In His view, this was no way for Nathanael to form a view. Even knowing a person’s reputation or title is not enough for a sensible judgment to be made. “Come and see” Phillip might say, meaning a first meeting – but Jesus asks for more. “Come and see” is a good place to start, but it only makes a difference if we look for long enough to form a reasonable view – and even then it will only help us what we then see attracts us sufficiently to make it part of our way of thinking and acting. If not why would we expect others to join us in what we call Church?

Church membership of confessions of faith won’t do it. Because it is rather easier to join a Church than it would have been to join Jesus on his mission it does not follow that the casual hanger on to a congregation will necessarily show an intentional focus on living according to Jesus’ principles.

Those who now act on Jesus behalf will only be seen by others to do so if they can be seen in action and check that their words and actions match their claims…. just as we too will be recognized as acting on Jesus’ behalf, only if others see in our lives the sorts of interactions expected of someone like Jesus.
“Come and see” is the ultimate test for anyone considering the worth of a new faith. The real question is what others will see when they watch to learn how our faith has affected us.

This lectionary sermon is part of a complete set of sermons for the three year cycle. As the aim of the series is to encourage thought on the part of visitors to the site, disagreement or suggestions for more appropriate illustrations are welcome. Feel free to borrow whatever is found to be helpful, but in return, if you, the reader, notice aspects I have missed, or in your view, got parts wrong, please join the discussion by adding comments at the end. Questions are also encouraged, and if I can’t help, no doubt others can. If you find the sermons helpful please encourage others to the site.

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Lectionary Sermon for January 7, 2018 Epiphany 1 Mark 1 : 4-11 (The Baptism of Jesus)

Baptism for What?
The most thought provoking story I know regarding baptism comes from the days when royalty used marriage as a means of establishing new alliances and when only those who were particularly high born were considered good enough as life partners for the most significant leaders. Perhaps I should add that there are so many different versions of the story in circulation that I cannot be certain of the historical accuracy of this account but even if it has a good dollop of legend, like a parable it still has a very important truth to teach.

It is said that when it was Ivan the Terrible’s turn for his royal marriage there was no way he was going to waste time for the tedious business of extensive and arduous travel to select a consort. He dispatched some trusted advisors to visit a number of royal houses. After many weeks the advisors had returned from a Greek court with a picture of a Princess looking for all the world like what just a few years ago we might have called the perfect ten. Unfortunately there was a catch. The princess certainly looked attractive enough, but because those of her dynasty were members of the Greek Orthodox Church, their rules were clear. Only one who was a member of the Greek orthodox Church would be acceptable as a marriage partner for a princess from a Greek court, and very clearly Ivan, as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, was ineligible……. unless he was prepared to have himself baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith.

Ivan on the other hand was profoundly impressed with her picture and was not about to give up that easily, particularly as he appeared to have a somewhat cynical view of the meaning of religion. After giving the matter some thought he decided he would convert, undergo public baptism and in an extraordinarily magnanimous gesture, (or perhaps just an appreciation of a sense of theatre) decided that his personal bodyguard of crack soldiers should also be baptised into the Greek Orthodox faith. That sounded good in theory but the Greek Orthodox Priests raised an objection.

Once a person was baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith they were forbidden from taking life. Soldiers could not therefore be baptized while still in service. Well this was a total diplomatic impasse. ” Sort it out”, said Ivan, and his advisors went into a huddle. After a few hours they came up with a solution. Ivan’s baptism ceremony went ahead. On the given day, some accounts say two hundred of Ivan’s bodyguard went into the water with their Czar – each soldier accompanied by a Greek Orthodox priest. On the given signal each was to be baptized by total immersion…. yet not quite total – at the signal each soldier drew their sword and held their sword arm on high so that their whole body was baptized apart from the sword and the sword arm – which could then still be used in Ivan’s service.

This is of course makes a mockery of the real spirit of baptism – and we would probably agree that there was similar mockery in Ivan the Terrible’s subsequent action of forcibly baptizing those whose loyalty he wished to guarantee.

I suspect that today Baptism for most has become so automatic and symbolic that few would even understand how such issues might ever be a problem. Baptism is no longer such a big deal. In fact, for many, I would suggest Baptism is not even considered to have any implications for subsequent moral choices. I can’t imagine a soldier drafted into the army gaining exemption from active service on the grounds that he or she had been baptized. Nor for that matter is there any law that places different expectations on the behaviour of the baptized. It may not be a sword arm which is exempted from baptism but I guess we all know those whose questionable behaviour after baptism would be hard to distinguish from that which occurred before.

Over the centuries there have been many times when even church leaders have lost sight of the mission their baptism has signified. A few years ago (Christmas 2011) an event in Bethlehem should give us pause for thought. The international press reported on the annual Christmas clean up of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity where priests from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian congregations attacked each other with brooms and had to be pacified by club wielding Palestinian Police. The Police Chief Lieutenant Colonel Khaled al-Tamimi explained there were no arrests made because the protagonists were men of God(!), and he added that such scuffles were by no means unusual since the 6th Century holy site had been administered by the Latin, Orthodox and Armenian churches each anxious to vigorously protect their interests against incursions by their rivals.

Nevertheless it is interesting to reflect on the way that many are reluctant to allow the baptismal vows to direct subsequent life decisions.
To help sharpen our thinking we might also contrast the Baptism of Jesus with what has become the pattern of Baptism in many Churches today.

First there was Jesus’ chosen celebrant. John the Baptist obviously felt a strong call to baptize. Indeed some scholars have suggested that John may even have been a member of the Qumran sect whose members felt a need to baptize themselves on a daily basis. However from the description of John in a number of places in the gospels it is very clear that unlike typical celebrants today, it is very likely that John was both uneducated and unrecognized by the formal Church hierarchy. John himself is recorded as being acutely aware that he perceived Jesus his superior – and therefore as he said, if Jesus was going to insist on baptism it should be he, John, who was receiving the ceremony at the hands of Jesus. The best he could offer Jesus in baptism was informal in the extreme.

Second, there was the contrast of venue. The river Jordan today is slow moving, with pitiful flow and heavily polluted from farming and domestic effluent. Even in Jesus’ day there is nothing to suggest the River Jordan was anything like the clear flowing crystal waters portrayed in religious art. Soren Kierkegaard is clearly discomforted with the way in which modern Church practice has taken the concept of baptism and rarefied it to the point where it is virtually unrecognizable.

As Kierkegaard saw it:”A silken priest with an elegant gesture sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with a towel” Now contrast that familiar picture with a roughly dressed, and I suspect coarsely spoken and wild eyed, John the Baptist grasping his intended subject on the head and pushing him under the surface of a weedy and dirty river.

The third and let me stress – the most important contrast, is the conveyed sense of purpose and change. Today’s refined version of baptism typically resembles gentle acknowledgement of family position on Church, and in no way normally seen as the dedication to beginning of a serious mission in which family considerations are pushed to the background. That Jesus should have chosen this particular ceremony to mark the official start of what was to follow is interesting in itself but we should not let this distract us from the fact that it was a plunge into a new way of life and not just a plunge into a river. The baptism may indeed have been the chosen ceremony but without the mission that followed, even Jesus’ baptism would have been an empty gesture.

This is not necessarily to decry what the act of baptism has now become. For example the act of infant baptism is traced back to the dark ages when disease and hunger took all too many children. It is true that in those days a certain amount of superstition was attached to the urgency to have the children baptized in case baptism was needed to get them into the kingdom of heaven – but it was also a statement that the parents cared for their children and were trying to do the best for them. The service as it developed asked the family and those who supported the family to vow to bring them up in the fellowship of the church and in the love of God.

Fortunately, despite all those who regard baptism as a casual rite of passage there are others who accept the intended meaning of the vows and do their very best to deliver on their promises. When this happens it can be a very positive influence.

If we look at the words for adult baptism there is a similar call for commitment, both on the part of the one to be baptized and on the part of those in support. That the vows are often ignored by some subsequently is not in question. But just as clearly, again at least a few take such vows seriously and the marks of Christ are easy to discern in the lives which develop.

Since in a typical Church there are probably as many different views on baptism as there are congregation members it maybe that the reflection on what it means in practice is not so much a question to be answered from the pulpit, as by individuals in examination of their own conscience. Many present today will have either had the choice for baptism made on their behalf when they were children , by parents or guardians or perhaps later they were able to decide for themselves as adults. Many will also have later formally confirmed that decision in taking on the responsibilities as Church members.

I therefore invite a moment of reflection. Has that baptism made a clear difference to the life choices which have been faced since the baptismal act? And for those of us privileged to be present at a baptism in a support role as relatives or congregational members, when we too have been asked for our promise, has the promise borne fruit in action? As already mentioned, for Jesus the plunge into the Jordan was the beginning of a plunge into personal mission. What have the waters of baptism signified for you?

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Lectionary Sermon for 31 December 2017 (Christmas 1) on Luke 2 22-40

No doubt we all have all have some degree of warmth and nostalgia almost every time we sing a familiar carol at Christmas, yet stepping out of the Christmas service into the realities of Christmas Day and the days that follow, I can’t help wondering if we overdo the automatic worship bits and rather forget what the Gospel writers were trying to tell us about Jesus’ coming.

Although within the Church the Christmas message follows its well worn and predictable story line yet somehow the overall effect is to mix up images of the first Christmas with Herod and the Shepherds, with Father Christmas, with tables laden with food, Christmas crackers with appalling jokes, implausible paper hats and plastic toys so cheap they rarely make it from the Table. The catch is that twinkling lights on an artificial Christmas tree and even whole houses are now so overdone they seem far removed from the symbolic story of a wandering star guiding the uncertain journey of those coming to seek the reality of a baby who will grow to inspire and disturb.

I guess I am not alone in admitting I enjoy the seasonal excuse for families and friends to come together to share food and gifts but it doesn’t take much thought to remind ourselves that even formal settings for charming nativity scenes with festive Christmas decorations in our Churches and even in the own happy congregation gatherings it doesn’t mean that the Christ Child has automatically transformed our whole community. In an age where families are now scattered it is all too easy to forget that in the real community and in the real world most family Christmas celebrations typically only offer hospitality for a few of the family. Lifeline reports that Christmas time is the time where many ring desperate for a listening ear, some deeply depressed or even suicidal. I happen to know a woman who runs a woman’s refuge and she assures me that all the refuge houses are fully booked and there are so many abused women seeking refuge that many have to be turned away.

Don’t hear me saying that I am against the Christmas celebrations. But I do think that we get it exactly upside down if we think Christmas is all about the gifts, the partying, or even if I dare suggest it, the coming aside for the Church stuff. If I understand the message correctly I have a feeling that the gospel writers wanted us to see Jesus coming to inspire his followers to deal with some fairly grim realities. Perhaps getting Christmas right way up is first to notice that we welcome the Child who grows to cope with a refugee flight to another land, who grows to offer hospitality to all, who reaches out to the untouchables, and one who in effect grew to accept the world as it really is with its pain, with its unequal distribution of food and luxury, the one who became involved and here is the important part, the who grew to encourage his followers to do the same.

Certainly the presents are great but don’t forget that by mid-day on Christmas day unwanted Christmas gifts were already on Trade-me and the other equivalent web sites. And unfortunately even in the Churches, there is a danger that impressive occasions of worship do rather more for the significance of Church leaders than they do for what is supposed to be the humble message of the Child Jesus come so that we might learn better ways of helping in a hurting world.

Luke – ever the physician seems to have a particular understanding of what Jesus was about. In no way does Luke rabbit on about disembodied theology.

Look at today’s story about Jesus being presented to the Temple. Luke tells us Simeon is there to remind Mary and Joseph that their Son is there to bring comfort to the suffering people of Israel. Simeon is a realist and talks of opposition to Jesus and foretells the anguish Mary will face when he talks symbolically of the sword that will pierce her heart. The elderly prophetess Anna echoes his words and when Mary and Joseph leave the Temple, it is to the harsh realities of Galilee they return with Jesus.

It is by no means an original observation, but every year I am struck by the mismatch of what the Carols proclaim at Christmas and what we find going on around us away from the artificial setting of the Church and in the light of day.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all men…surely that was meant to include women…… (or was that meant to be…goodwill to all except ISIS and those who insist on protesting about unequal treatment in places like Gaza)
Joy to the world – or is that just the Christian parts.

Yet there are those who do listen to Simeon, those who listen to the Prophetess Anna, and those who do hear what Luke was saying in his selection of stories about Jesus.

As far as I can understand Jesus didn’t ever come just to be admired. My reading of it is closer to Luke’s message where he implies Jesus came to bring a new way of looking at the realities of life that challenges traditional cultural values and even challenges popular ways of doing religion.

I am not a Catholic, but I think that when Pope Francis challenged his inner circle of Bishops to return to the task of being Christian in a needy world instead of focussing on their own prestige and advancement, his words have a more universal application, and perhaps they also speak to us.
Instead of believing that Jesus is best served by repeating how adored he should be, surely if his coming is to make a difference, that difference should be centred on what we do with his message.

Although some might construe what I have been saying almost as an attack on the traditions of Christmas, I want to assure you that in no way is that my intention. At the same time I think we should be very clear that what Christmas has become is very much a product of cultural history and numerous borrowed traditions.

Many years before Jesus, particularly in cooler climates, there was a real fear of the cold. As the various tribes watched the days shortening with lengthening shadows and the plants losing their foliage – knowing no astronomy is it surprising that those entrusted with leadership would turn to all manner of magical rites. In order to entice the Sun back to a more favourable spot in skies to increase its light, throughout Europe fires were lit. The sun was thought to be turning on a wheel, a huel or Yule and the turning time (or what we now call Yuletide) was acknowledged with the fires and lanterns. Mistletoe became part of the ceremony because the fact that it stayed green when many other plants and trees lost their foliage was supposed to show that it had special magic properties.

We might also suspect that other traditions fed into the notion of the Christmas stories. We know for example that the Egyptian ceremonies to get the Sun back to doing its thing on the winter solstice was represented as a baby born that day. The Priests’ incantation included going into a cave on the day of the winter solstice and emerging that night crying out: “The virgin has brought forth, the light is waxing.” The Persian equivalent of Jesus, Zororoaster, was also said by the Persians to be born of a Virgin. The birth of the then popular Persian Sun God Mithra, happened to be celebrated on what we now call December 25 and witnessed by Shepherds coming with gifts to acknowledge the arrival of the wonder child.

The gift giving at Christmas is also thought to have part of its tradition come from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which was celebrated with feasting and gift exchange.

Despite the stories of Christmas in the gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, lest we should think that Christmas was acknowledged by the first disciples, it is worth remembering that it wasn’t until 337 AD when the traditions were combined to be allocated to mark the birth of Christ.
Of course the Christmas traditions have continued to shape and reshape since that time and at times have degenerated. It is not just the 21st century when there are places and communities when Christmas becomes an excuse for drinking. Historically of course in Europe when Autumn was the time of harvest and later in December the time when the wine and beer would be ready. With animals now old enough to slaughter, December was traditionally party time. Because excess leads to abuse every now and again correction is needed.

You will probably already know that Oliver Cromwell abolished Christmas, and the early Puritan settlers to the US brought the anti Christmas attitude. I understand that in Massachusetts in the US for example shopkeepers were required to keep their shops open on Christmas day and that Christmas could not be celebrated by law between 1659 and 1681. And to be perfectly honest I suspect the 25 December was chosen more to fit the ancient ceremonies to do with the Winter Solstice and the Roman festival of Saturnalia – than to be fitted for example with the shepherds watching their flocks by night, which some argue would only have happened during lambing – which in the Northern hemisphere was usually sometime in May.
Nevertheless if what Jesus’ message is at the fore-front of our thinking – rather than allowing ourselves to become unthinking slaves to custom in choosing how to acknowledge Christmas then it begins to fall into place.
We can relate Jesus message to what Simeon and Anna were seeing the baby as representing.

Jesus came to an Israel facing a grim future. If we do not address the threats to the most vulnerable amongst us on an almost daily basis, a grim future is still an inevitable dimension of our inheritance. Our Western societies are fine for those of us fortunate to find ourselves with security, loving families and good prospects for the future. We don’t have to look too far to find those without family support and with genuine worries. On the other hand if we have understood Jesus came representing hope, a compassion for the poor, an attitude of love, forgiveness and a desire for peace, and what’s more, understood we are part of the answer, there is every reason to celebrate his birth.

There is presumably little point is saying we adore Jesus for what he brings if at the same time have no real expectation that the same ideals become part of our reality of intention. There is similarly little meaning in apparently deeply sincere acts of worship and carol singing – unless we can take these ideals that the Baby will come to represent and affirm them in our words and actions when we step out of the Church building on this, the first Sunday after Christmas.

Peace and goodwill to all? Yes, but starting with me.

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Making America Great??The Polls say something different!

Did you detect any irony with the sight of the representatives of the cash strapped US Government going cap in hand to the White House to cobble together a temporary cash relief fix – then a few days later, watching  some of the same politicians applaud President Donald Trump signing off the proposed reduction of 1.5 trillion dollars from the tax take.  Wasn’t that the same tax which was already insufficient for the year about to end. I hope the GOP were making the most of what was left of their Merry Christmas!

Yes, there have been some spectacular changes under President Trump, but not always clearly for the better.   We probably all remember the Trump  gun violence declaration: “the carnage stops here, right now!” This was at least a crystal clear Inauguration promise.  Now that certainly would have the stamp of greatness if the promise had any substance. And what happened? Not only is the US still leading the way for gun violence amongst developed nations …. there was actually a 12 % increase in deaths and injuries from gun violence in the first 200 days of Trump.

While I am certain that Donald Trump is under the impression that he has been making America great again, a significant number of internationally respected commentators outside the US (eg from BBC and world leading academic institutions), a majority of American citizens (as measured in all the leading polls) and a vast number of non Americans observing events from afar seem absolutely convinced that the opposite is true.

It is true that one of Mr Trump’s favourite public promises is that he will be remembered for promising to make America safe again by stopping those new immigrant Islamic Jihadists who currently threaten the US public.  Perhaps no-one has told him the average number of US gun  deaths in America for last two years from right wing extremists (9) far exceeded the deaths from Islamic Jihadists (2) and is in turn far behind the deaths caused by armed toddlers (32), and of course, as that other highly intelligent US dignitary (Kim Kardashian) was able to tweet to her President, a worse threat is that of lawn-mowers (69 deaths).   If we follow through Mr Trump’s logic surely an embargo on lawn-mowers would then seem to offer more protection.

But that in turn is mere bagatelle when it comes to US citizens killed by fellow Americans (almost 12000).   If it is true safety that is concerning Mr Trump, surely turning back fellow Americans at the border has much more to commend it than stopping immigrants from usurping fellow Americans’ potential shooting rights on the ground that they might possibly be from countries that include Islamic Jihadists.

Well then – how do other nations view the US under Trump?The recent avalanche of opposing votes in the UN showing an overwhelming international rejection of Mr Trump’s judgment on the US policy in naming Jerusalem the capital city of Israel may only represent one aspect of a decreasing support but is far from the only concern. A much more serious dimension to the same issue was that when the UN vote went against President Trump he had directed the US Ambassador to the UN to respond with overt threats and bullying tactics. This was given substance when Mr Trump reduced the US contribution to the UN a few days later directly attributing the reduction to the substance behind his threat.. Should we be surprised that those actions have generated outrage?   When I read for example that a recent Saturday’s editorial of one of New Zealand’s leading daily Newspapers (the New Zealand Herald) was headlined “Trump rains disgrace on the Presidency”, I would have to say that seems very much in line with the majority of headlines on the same topic throughout much of the Western World.

While no-one is likely to ask for my opinion I would have thought that the Israeli government view that Mr Trump should be rewarded by naming a railway station in Jerusalem after Mr Trump is not a decision that most non American visitors to Israel would applaud. My best guess is that such an action is a way of setting up that station as a potential target for protests.   If I ever find myself in Jerusalem in the near future I will be asking my travel agent to make sure my travel plans avoided the afore mentioned Trump station!!

Don’t forget anti US reactions were demonstrated earlier in 2017 when Mr Trump signaled he was taking the US out of the Climate Change accord. That the US has not even rated an invitation to the next conference on that topic should register as a warning flag.

Then there was Trump telling the eleven other nations in the proposed TPP who were intent on setting up a free trade cooperative organization that the US would pull out to organize its own trade deals.  This may have seemed a good pro-American action at the time – but also assumed the other members would then pull out to focus on individual deals with the US.   This has not happened. On the other hand China, barred from becoming part of the TPP while the US was involved, appears to be taking the place of the US. Making America great? – not in the TPP partners eyes – but making China great? – now there’s a thought.

On the American home front there are other hazards on the horizon. Even if Donald Trump’s self proclaimed assessment of his abilities being that of a stable genius doesn’t quite include basic math, it is to be hoped that someone in his myopic Twitter world might draw his attention to some awkward statistics which look likely to spoil his coming year.

I am assuming that President Trump is taking it for granted that he will gain admirers as a consequence of his most substantial (and possibly only) clear victory to date – namely his apparent success with the Tax Reduction Bill. While I would agree with most commentators that Tax reform is well overdue in the US, I am assuming that until such a reform is tested in practice it is very premature to assume this is the long awaited answer to the current weaknesses in the economy.

From my own limited understanding of economics I would have thought that such a simplification of tax in no way should include ignoring what the economists call the Pareto Principle. Pareto efficiency, also known as “Pareto optimality,” is an best solution economic state where resources are allocated in the most efficient manner, and is produced with the intention of minimizing the damage.  In particular such a correction is needed when a distribution strategy is devised where one party’s situation cannot be improved without making another party’s situation worse.  Signing up to a tax rearrangement where some (in this case the rich) are the clear beneficiaries without first attending to the resulting damage to those who were previously dependent on the tax funded services provided appears foolish in the extreme.

Remember I am not an economist, but I can at least follow something of what the economists are saying and note that in one recent study from Chicago, when 38 economists were asked by those setting up a study on the current Tax Bill for their reactions, they drew attention to the following.

First those countries where such measures have been taken have almost without exception been countries where the economy was showing weakness rather than the relatively robust economy shown by the US at present.

From experimentation with economies in the past we do know reduction of taxes on businesses does free up money and can strengthen businesses in that strong companies can benefit shareholders as well as increase production.   However when this same “Trickle Down” legislation was tried at State level in Kansas, when the rich were given their tax relief, the results weren’t as predicted — growth lagged, tax revenues fell and the state had to cut spending on education and infrastructure projects. The State legislature finally had to reverse course and raise taxes.

The freeing up of the money evidently strengthens the dollar but it also makes it harder for exporters. This in turn acts against the current expressed Trump aim of helping balance exports and imports.

Another problem is likely to be introducing this particular tax bill where the proposed measures have been rushed together in haste and as a consequence do not take into account what has happened when other nations went down the same path.   For example when the Thatcher government attempted the same overall aim of sorting the tax structure to introduce efficiencies, unintended consequences included increasing unemployment, increasing the gap between rich and poor and the weakening of the Unions.

The Irish model was more carefully targeted than the current US proposal and for example gave foreign based business better tax relief than was the case for local industries. In the late 1970s, Ireland’s economy was struggling. So they decided to cut business taxes dramatically while also increasing individual taxes including taxes on the middle class. The idea was that stronger businesses would benefit everyone.

“For the following 25 years, they had really rapid economic growth and went from being the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. It really did help everybody,” but as economist James Hines a tax specialist at the University of Michigan pointed out the United States isn’t Ireland 40 years ago.   Hines further commented Ireland had coupled their tax reform with a lot of  sensible policies that they enacted at the same time.”  Heines was unable to find anything close to this type of methodical and targeted policymaking in the current Republican tax proposals.

“It seems that a lot was cobbled together just to try to get passage,” said Hines.

Here are some further points to ponder.

According to the polls of the order of 55% of voters say they are objecting to Trump’s tax bill. If the same voters are still around come the mid terms I would not have thought that is a recipe for Republican success.

The economists seem generally agreed that 83% of the undoubted benefits of the current Tax Bill are destined to benefit the top 1% of rich and super rich (cf the Trump family …just to take the name of a typical rich family at random)   The much smaller share of benefits go to the middle wage earners and the pathetic or non existent remainder is there for the relief of the rather larger group of the poor and disadvantaged.  While it is true that some will finish with more cash in their pocket, the tax take had been designed to pay for essential services which turn out to be much more expensive when directly paid for by the individual.   No doubt Mr Trump believes the majority won’t notice that this Bill is not there for their benefit.

Could it be the Bill slipped through under the wrong name.   Perhaps a more cautionary title should have been something like “the taking less money from rich people so that the Government can pay for fewer services for the majority unless money is borrowed from future generations Bill”.

The complicating issue is that the President who is introducing the Bill has gone out of his way to alienate people he now needs as allies. The catch with insulting people is only apparent when those insulted become essential for subsequent critical actions of cooperation.   As is typical towards the end of the year just passed, the Government was once again running out of money and needed to shut down unless extra money was found. Tax pays for Government sponsored services so essential to the poor and disadvantaged.

Tax also pays for walls with neighbours…. um…     Well, ahem,  now I come to think of it. I wrote an article last January pointing out that Mr Trump’s then current estimation of the likely cost of the wall was going to be much higher than the $10 billion he said it was actually going to cost.    Whereas Mr Trump was presumably able to use what he terms his very high and stable intelligence to work out his figure, as I tried to point out at the time, the construction engineers had already estimated the minimum figure to be more than twice his figure when he announced the wall’s cost to the US public.Perhaps he has got a little wiser in the interim because he is now in the process of asking almost twice the original Trump figure from his budget officials.    Might I suggest that this is just one item Mr Trump may have forgotten when he claimed far less tax was needed.

…Nancy Pelosi may have given Mr Trump a temporary stay of execution but is also hinting the Democrats may pull the plug in the New Year.

When the Tax Bill is enacted, what then? Surely removing a huge chunk of this Government income by going easy on those who happen to afford taxes means fewer services for the majority.  Ah well, there goes the diminishing Obama care, hopes of a good education for all, maintain structurally sound rail bridges and providing patches for holes in the roads.   With any luck there will still be enough left in the household budget to buy those essential assault rifles the NRA thinks the disenchanted should have the right to carry.

Government borrowing to make up the now increased deficit in basic services is doomed if the current tax take is significantly reduced because borrowing costs more than conventional tax revenue.  Borrowing through the sale of Government bonds has already reached a dangerous level and borrowed money needs an attractive rate of interest for the lender.    As the Government already runs out of money each year and has to struggle to find the difference, we live in hope that the GOP can explain why borrowing more is going to end well.

The real puzzle is the question of why Mr Trump has assumed that those who are not political supporters of the current President are safe to marginalize.   The popular vote last election showed that at that time there were fractionally more supporters for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump.   Previously President Obama had enjoyed more popularity than his opponents for President.  I would have thought one way of guaranteeing a subsequent fall off in potential support for Mr Trump is to stress to such potential opponents they are stupid and wrong. Certainly the large number of polls conducted since the last election all appear to have reflected a growing number disenchanted with the Trump leadership.  I would have thought it  likely that the vitriol in the Tweets aimed at popular members of the community may be a factor in the dropping support..

The same reasoning applies on the international stage.  Insulting and threatening leaders of other nations eg Pakistan has become a characteristic of the Trump phenomenon.   If that had been done behind closed doors the strongest partner (ie Trump) might have had sufficient clout to threaten or bribe an opponent to persuade them to change course.    On the other hand, if on the other hand he insults an opponent very publically they can no longer back down without conveying to their supporters they are weak.   When coincidentally other nations are vying to take the place of the strongest party – eg China is currently offering to take the US position by becoming the principal aid donor to Pakistan, it would appear that the tweet merely accelerates the handing over control to a key rival.   The Pakistani leadership as well as expressing fury for Trump’s recent insults have just announced that they intend denying the US their supply routes to their military engagement in Afghanistan, will no longer allow the US permission to attack their ISIS and Al Qaeda enemies by drone attacks over Pakistani territory near the Pakistan and see no reason to continue diplomatic negotiations with the US.  To independent observers it is hard to detect in these measures an increasing Pakistani admiration for America as a response towards Trump’s twitter diplomacy.

There are numerous lessons from history showing what a large percentage of the population  can do when they believe their masters are deliberately ignoring their plight.   Perhaps Mr Trump has heard of George Washington reacting to the English …or the French revolution …or since Mr Trump finds so much to admire about Russia what about the Russian revolution ?

If US protestors could eventually shut down an unpopular war in Vietnam, or change legislation about discrimination in the deep South, surely they can make life a little difficult for a leader who comes across to them as an arrogant rich dude who wants to make the widening gap between the rich and poor even greater.

If Mr Trump is lucky, some of the angry self perceived down-trodden lot will content themselves with mere processions of placards, scratching their protests on the paintwork of the limousines owned by the wealthy, breaking the windows of Trump luxury apartments and leaving slogans in weed-killer on some well-known golf courses.

Unfortunately as Mr Trump is already beginning to discover, abusing highly skilled intelligence personnel (eg the FBI) is very different to abusing someone whose main threat is to carry a placard in a procession of protest.  Those who genuinely know how to organize eavesdropping or hack into sophisticated computer systems are not necessarily the safest to abuse.     The same goes for publically humiliating those senior staff who have passed use-by date.   The difference between failed candidates for the reality show: “the Apprentice” and the appointed staff in the White House, is that the latter, who may well know some embarrassing secrets, have no reason to accept their fate without question.

So is Mr Trump actually making America great again?  Polls provide the independent measure.  Since greatness is based on perception I suspect that the answer depends on those we ask.   The US based polls show a declining but significant proportion of loyal Trump supporters still convinced that their President is delivery on promises for the sort of America they would like to see.  However, regardless of whose side we are on, we can all see for ourselves that Mr Trump’s support has declined at home.   On the other hand international polls indicate a much more significant erosion of support and even if we think the other nations have got it wrong we should be concerned that there is decreasing admiration for America.  True  that many in places like Israel, the Philippines, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Russia there are clearly those who still believe the US is worthy of respect, it is an inescapable fact that the vast majority in most other places are showing a loss of confidence.(c.f. the Pew Polls)

Remembering that Mr Trump is still relatively new to his position and acknowledging that political popularity is dependent on traditionally fickle support perhaps it is too early to guess what historians of the future are likely to conclude.   The signs are not particularly hopeful.


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Lectionary Sermon for 24 December 2017 (Advent 4B) on Luke 1:26 – 38

The literal truth of the Christmas gospel stories may not be the real issue for modern Christians.

Tradition has it that a wise man was once confronted by one of his disciples. “Why is it?” the young man wanted to know – “do you tell us stories without explaining them in detail?” “Well” replied the wise man “how would you like it if you went to buy a piece of fruit down at the market, and the shopkeeper took your money, then peeled the fruit in front of you – ate and enjoyed it – then handed you the peel?”

Today’s gospel probably needs some commentary. However I will try to leave the real tasty bit – the poetry – left unexplained for you to enjoy for yourself.

I freely admit we can’t use the Biblical versions of the first Christmas and construct a single, literal account without inconsistencies. Given for example that there was probably no one around to transcribe the claimed meeting of Mary and the angel Gabriel or subsequently Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the exact wording of their conversations is bound to be open to dispute. You may well already know that not all Christians agree how to answer the old conundrum of whether or not Mary was actually a Virgin – given that the reported term translated into the Greek as “Virgin” from the Old Testament prophecy recorded in Hebrew has now been confirmed by many scholars to be “young girl” in the original.

Given that Bible accuracy is often questioned, let us face squarely and honestly the problems in the recorded accounts. That there should be inconsistencies should surprise no one. The writers who were recording Jesus’ birth were not themselves primary witnesses and it was clear that other writers like Mark, John and Paul, simply bypassed his birth altogether and moved straight to the significance of his message.

The writer of the gospel of Mark, is generally considered not to have met Jesus and certainly seems have virtually no possibility of witnessing Jesus’ birth. Like Paul, who is considered to have done most of his writing before the other gospel writers were underway, Mark simply seems to have ignored the birth stories in order to concentrate on the man and his message. By the time, some years later, Matthew and Luke were assembling their accounts there was more reason to want to talk about the birth of the Christ because, in writing to those who were now unable to meet Jesus in person, the authors would be wanting to underline Jesus’ significance. Stories that might shed light on the claim he was the awaited Messiah – in other words to show for example that he was the one predicted by the prophets, was born in the right place to be thought of as the Messiah – and that he was descended from David – all needed to be presented in an appropriate way.

I know that to some conservative Christians questioning the Biblical record opens the questioner to a charge of heresy, but it is not a new observation to notice how the gospel accounts don’t match up.

If you insist on the literal truth of the gospel accounts there are awkward and glaring inconsistencies. If the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are not intended as a poetical presentation there are clear contradictions. Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has the Annunciation made to Mary by an angel.

In two places in the New Testament the genealogy of Jesus son of Mary is mentioned. Matthew 1:6-16 and Luke 3:23-31. Each lists the ancestors of Joseph the CLAIMED husband of Mary and Step father of Jesus. The first one starts from Abraham (verse 2) all the way down to Jesus. The second from Jesus all the way back to Adam. The only common name to these two lists between David and Jesus is JOSEPH, How can the two lists be simultaneously true? And in any case how can Jesus have a genealogy traced through the male line when a good proportion of Muslims and many conservative Christians believe that Jesus had/has no human father.

According to Luke on the eighth day of Jesus’ life he was circumcised, on the fortieth day of his life he was presented to the temple in Jerusalem (both in accordance with the law) and having accomplished these Jewish family requirements they went back to their own city of Nazareth in Galilee. (Luke 2.39). Unfortunately despite the assurances of some of the televangelists and the other proponents of biblical inerrancy – at the time of these events, at least according to Matthew, Mary and Joseph had fled for their lives into Egypt to avoid the vengeful Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and that according to Matthew is where they remained until Herod had died and where they remained before returning to their family home in Bethlehem (not Nazareth) only transferring to Nazareth when they felt it was too dangerous to remain in Bethlehem.

Certainly at the very least, Luke and Matthew cannot both be absolutely correct in their accounts and therefore literal inerrancy cannot apply to every verse of the Gospels.

From a personal point of view I freely admit I find myself among those who consider the Virgin conception of Jesus most unlikely given what I have learnt about biology. I acknowledge that science only studies repeatable phenomena and I know that Jesus comes across as being unique – yet even if we turn instead to histories such as those in the gospel accounts I note enough doubts raised by inconsistencies to believe I must avoid insisting on literal interpretation. I can respect that others have chosen otherwise.

There is of course an alternative way of reading the Christmas story based on the not unreasonable view that the story is intended as a powerful metaphor – even poetry -to signify the coming of Jesus as a very significant event for the history of the world which is certainly borne out by subsequent history.

Most have heard the song “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy…..” So how should we react?

Many choose to venerate the memory of Mary. The Catholics claim that many millions of believers recite their version of the angel Gabriel’s greeting now best known as Ave Maria. “Hail Mary full of Grace” each week. We can understand Mary being reluctant to accept the greeting under the circumstances. This young girl described with the Greek term “doulos” meaning servant and according to some scholars I have read, she may well have been no more than thirteen years old when betrothed was by tradition and, following the gospel stories, however it came about, was pregnant before marriage. Then, as now, this presents a familiar dilemma… a dilemma involving public humiliation and serious disgrace. But remember in those days just remember that the Jewish law proscribed stoning to death for the girl found to be pregnant outside marriage.

Perhaps strangely to our modern way of thinking, the claim of virgin birth was not as unique in that time as would be the case today. Other religious leaders were also believed to have had a Virgin birth. For example Zororoaster (whose Persian followers may well have included those like the astrologer wise men mentioned in the Bible) – was by tradition born of a Virgin – as too was claimed for some of the Roman Emperors of that age to justify their divine status. Nevertheless whatever Mary and Joseph claimed may have happened, it is unlikely back then they would have been believed by many others had they made the Virgin claim that first Christmas.

By tradition even in this more scientific age Mary’s status is still remarkably widely accepted as having conceived as a Virgin – and it may surprise many to learn that this tradition is possibly more strongly accepted in Islam than it is within the various branches of Christianity.

But for those who claim to take the birth of Christ seriously there is a more important question. The key question is: in what way do the stories of the first Christmas help our understanding, our thinking and our behaviour? Here we are then at the fourth Sunday of Advent when we focus on the theme of Love – remembering it is not so much that we are to admire Mary for her willingness to submit to God’s will in love – but rather the question of the degree to which we are inspired by what we read to submit to responding in love to the challenges we face today.

Virgin maybe …or not …but surely what we now believe about Jesus and his birth only matter to us if it makes a difference to our living and our attitudes in the here and now. In what way then does Mary’s birth of Jesus alter our life choices?

I have no particular view on how accurate the gospel account needs to be to retain credibility and worth, yet even if it if it is poetry it is still poetry with a gritty reality which gives the Jesus birth story impact and relevance in a less than perfect world. A census that even today requires people to return to the place of birth to be counted in places as they continue to be required in places like modern Turkey – regardless of the inconvenience – is a plausible setting for that Christmas story (even if no census of the exact right date is recorded by contemporary historians).

A potentially nasty world which a young unwed mother can find to be an unfriendly place still resonates with our experiences today. Certainly we remember the romantic symbols of a star, of wise men bringing gifts from the East, shepherds and angels, and these days these are further supplemented with the modern symbols of Christmas: decorations, of carols and coloured lights…but in the real world there are also those who would even slay infants to retain power. Love there may be – but it is love to be expressed in a world in which love remains in short supply, and a love that needs to be carefully guarded and shared lest it be totally submerged by the grubby realities which also characterise the world.

We have to be rather careful not to let the romantic and happy symbolism of Christmas dominate to the point where we forget that the world still needs the love which we claim first came down at Christmas. Notice too the coming of Christ in history has not banished all that is evil and that unless there are those like ourselves who are prepared to be inspired by his coming to the point where they too can respond in love, that message of his coming will be lessened in impact.

In looking back we may choose to view Mary in different ways – but this view will always have the historical dimension. We may for example lament the fact that she was recorded as so poor and so lowly regarded at the time that the new-born Jesus was left in a manger – an eating trough for the animals – yet after the event we are, at best, helpless spectators with no power to have any effect on what happened to Mary.

We can be offended that this young girl, pregnant outside marriage, should have been thus treated regardless of the importance of her son to be, but here too we are just receiving the gospel account second hand. More significant is that we might however reflect that her son Jesus whose birth we will celebrate this coming Christmas, came bearing a message about a more caring way for those who follow to treat one another.

Putting it more plainly…. Even if today we do not have the unwed and pregnant Mary to care for, we do have today’s unwed young mothers looking to folk like us to see if Jesus message has in fact taken hold in our hearts.

I think that there is every reason to give attention to Mary, but I also want to suggest that rather than venerating her as a saint, we might better honour her name if we too were constant in our efforts to live in a way consistent with the gospel we claim to follow.

Mary is indeed a useful focus for love for this fourth Sunday in Advent. It is a love that has the potential to grow but only if there are those prepared to allow it expression.

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Lectionary sermon 17 December 2017 (3B) on Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 and John 1: 6-8,19-28

If we think back a few years…. is it just me – or has Christmas become more impressive. Plug in lights are now so common that they not only typically grace the tree, they now sometimes light up whole houses with dazzling flickering displays. Christmas music once restricted to carols sung by small groups under a lamppost on the street or round a piano in the front room is no longer just carols but has now become an entire industry. Christmas in the park ….you now have to walk for what seems like miles to sit at best a great distance from the stage.

Christmas is thoroughly and efficiently commercialized – and some of the cards even play music.

But I guess like me you may have noticed something else as well. Christmas is largely done for us, almost as a show. The children no longer even have to make the decorations for the tree because the commercial ones are much better. The advertisers persuade the kids what they should ask their parents to buy for them. There is an efficient predictability about how the town will be decorated and even more predictable what we will see in the department stores and supermarkets.

The only catch is that much of the real light of Christmas no longer seems to surprise or shine into people’s lives. The more artificial it gets, the less it seems to have to do with the real world – and the Bible story gets filtered to the point it no longer deals with the real issues we face.

How many know about crossed Polaroids? Starlight or sunlight comes to us as beams of electromagnetic waves. The waves are generally mixed up in all planes and the visible parts are only a portion of the spectrum of waves heading our way. These waves can be passed on after they arrive if they are collected and transmitted in the right way. For example a piece of transparent plastic might allow most of the visible light to pass right through. If however a piece of Polaroid plastic is used instead, the Polaroid only allows the waves in one plane to pass. This drastically cuts down the amount of light passed through to the other side – which of course is why Polaroid sunglasses cut down the sun’s glare. If now the transmitted light is passed through a second identical Polaroid – but this time at right angles to the first we have what is called crossed Polaroids and virtually no light will get through. Using a filtered message which leaves out part of the light and further filtering it again is not a recipe for passing on the light.

Because Christmas is supposed to be a happy religious festival theme it is hardly surprising that the church perspective is to emphasize the celebration theme by giving this third day in Advent a joyous slant, which the Latin Church calls Gaudete Sunday meaning Rejoice Sunday. There is however a curious aspect of the chosen readings for this day. Why do you think today’s readings have been chosen to celebrate joy or rejoicing? Instead of angels and shepherds gathering and a baby in a manger receiving strangers from the East bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, John’s gospel has this strange figure of John the Baptist talking about being witness to the light – and what is more he appears to see himself passing on this light very directly in a very grim setting indeed.

This John may have been able to draw the crowds but I have sometimes wondered why John the Baptist should be understood to be a popular figure of his day when you may remember from last week’s reading he also seems so outspoken about doom, the need for drastic self examination and extremely urgent personal reform. John seems a complex and interesting man. He comes across as one who puts his message before himself. He is at pains to stress that he is not important in his own right – and specifically claims not to be the Messiah.

Reflecting on his speech, with the memory of the election still relatively fresh in our minds, perhaps we should also admit John would not have made a very good politician. In last week’s gospel he insulted his listeners. Later he would tell Herod to sort out his personal life – and are we surprised John was thrown into prison and finally executed as a consequence? Anyone with a thought to their personal safety would be unlikely to give total support to such a rebel. Yet perhaps it is that there is always a feeling of refreshing authenticity with a voice of plain spoken honesty.

Remember those who came to him for baptism would have included the farmers who were losing their land and income to the Roman invaders. This might remind us that even in New Zealand there are those who are struggling to make ends meet. And when the way ahead seems grim of course is the very time when light is needed. Light needed because times are dark.

We need that reminder. When we think of the festivities of Christmas it is easy to get into the mode of thinking that there is no real darkness, only a show or a festival heading our way and admittedly there is much about the season which encourages the spectator mentality. The Christmas parade to watch, carollers and brass bands to listen to, light displays to view, TV programmes with a Christmas theme…so much to watch – and listen to…yet perhaps even today there is a need to remember darkness.

A casual reading of the joy of Christmas might encourage filtering out the unpleasant realities. We need to be alert that Christmas not become a time of pretence. Surely honesty requires we admit that all is not entirely well with the world as a consequence of Christ’s coming. Just as Christ’s coming did not bring peace and joy to Israel, the reality is that the Joy to the World we sing of in our carols is sung to a world where the shadows persist.
In those days, Jesus arrival did not mean all was now well with the Jews under the Romans. Growing rebellion amongst the Jews brought the severest of reprisals from the Romans. No joy there.

And in December 2017 nor are we there yet in terms of Joy. World hunger has not been eradicated, and war has not somehow disappeared with the arrival of the Prince of Peace. We look at the destruction in Iraq, the Yemen, the Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and must admit frankly the absence of peace. Even for those of us fortunate enough to live in comfort and ease, poverty is side by side with the wealth we see about us. We do not have to look too far to find climate refugees, pollution, prejudice and despite the light in the darkness, the homeless even in our city are not thereby housed ….the list goes on.

In this other side to our Christmas preparation which suggests a darker backdrop to the need for light is somehow more true both to its present as well as its historical setting. Here in this city a surprisingly large number, will not automatically approach this Advent season with total joy. For many the shadows are real indeed.

We all know what end of year restructuring can mean for employment. The civil servants will similarly be worried at the Government line of their intended austere trimming of the fat – and of course there is the continuing trend of big business moving manufacturing off shore – both of which mean the loss of jobs.

Approaching unemployment translates to an escalation of money worries when mortgage repayments and higher purchase agreements start to resemble increasingly insurmountable hurdles.

The expected buying of presents and the inevitable round of celebrations can be the tipping point for stressed families, and those who run the women’s refuges say that at Christmas time there is always an upsurge in family violence. It is also a time when failing health or memories of bereavement seems somehow to be magnified. In many ways both the recorder of Isaiah and the writer of the Gospel of John seem more in tune with these grimmer realities of life, than for example Luke or Matthew with their Christmas tableaux.

Each year about this time, the good news is that there are some amongst us who will ensure that the food banks are resourced, that community meals for the homeless will happen, and that presents are distributed to the Nation’s poor. Indeed John the Baptist adds to the joy of Christmas by reminding those who listen that they are called upon to make a personal response. He heralds Jesus whose message is a call to personal responsibility to our fellows. It is true that not all will listen. There is nothing new in that. No doubt some who were present when John the Baptist harangued the crowd were unchanged in their attitudes, just as it was only some who listened to Jesus who were moved to take up his message. Today the call for social responsibility comes from multiple sources. Those who run our city missions, those who work with refugees, those who draw our attention to the needy among us can call from the wilderness. Whether or not we listen is part of our response to the gospel.

So perhaps this means that the rejoicing in Gaudete Sunday is there is potential, but only if we and those like us are prepared to move from darkness to the light. Perhaps we might reflect on who is likely this coming Christmas to find this light of rejoicing as a consequence of our witness and action in the darkness we encounter. It is certainly not a given that the light will be passed on.

If now we return to the light Isaiah refers to – in the quote from John, the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light, to extend the analogy, there is a question. What sort of transmitting medium will we be? Perhaps there is something of the polaroid in all of us, It is unlikely we will allow ourselves to see all the wavelengths – and what we then transmit is going to be less than the light we received.

Remember that if instead we choose to receive our inspiration in the form of light which has already been filtered by someone else, and then if we choose only to notice part of their message, the amount of light to be retransmitted will be even less.

Listen to the way Isaiah places his advent message in a setting of images of oppression, captivity and mourning. Listen to his words:

The spirit of the Lord God is
upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good
news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty
to the captives,
And release to the prisoners;
To comfort all who

There is joy for those who are in dark times that the light is coming – but the implication of his message is that it is only available to those who first prepare themselves to use as much of the light as they are able.

Perhaps there is still need for John’s message. If Christmas is not to be a “same old, same old” passing celebration – perhaps we too need to recognize the dark shadows about us – to seek whatever light we can find and to make every effort to bring that light to bear on the darkest places. Then we too might have reason to recognize this time of Advent as one of possibility, Gaudete Sunday – a time to rejoice for what might be.

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