Vision and hope

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany.  The Scripture it reflects on is Psalm 40:5.

Well, I hadn’t quite planned it this way, but sometimes happy coincidences give you a real gift; and today one of the verses in our Psalm relates very closely to part of the passage we’ll be looking at in Bible study later on,  so I thought that would give us an opportunity to explore some of the related ideas and themes in a bit more depth than we otherwise might have been able to.

So what I want to focus on today is verse five of the psalm; which, in the translation as we have it, says: Blessed are those who have made the Lord their hope: who have not turned to the proud, or to those who wander in deceit.

Now, later on in Bible study we’ll be looking at the beginning of the sermon on the mount, in Matthew, which has a group of similar sayings; blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  And so on.

Well, we can look in detail at the sayings in Matthew later.  But for now it’s enough to notice that the “Blessed are those…”type sayings have a long history even before Jesus, and an established place in Jewish and Christian thought.

One of the tricky things about these sayings, to start with, is that the word we have here as “blessed” is particularly difficult to translate into English.  “Blessed,” “happy,” “blissful,” “fortunate,” “flourishing”… each possibility shows us something of the meaning of the original.  In particular, though, there can be a confusion for us in reading it as “blessed;” does it mean that “God actively blesses those who….”?  Not really.  It’s more true to the original to read this sort of statement as an observation that a particular set of attitudes or behaviours contributes to some dimension of human flourishing.

So this verse, then, that says “Blessed are those who have made the Lord their hope: who have not turned to the proud, or to those who wander in deceit,” is a description of human flourishing; we flourish when we respond to God in hope, in trust and in truth.

This is a kind of blessedness or happiness which is about a state or a way of being, rather than a subjective feeling or emotion.  It’s more than just temporary relief from the varieties of human misery that we all experience; it’s about a relationship with God who is bigger than all of those human miseries; a God who saves and sustains, delivers and protects us.

But that doesn’t mean that this requires nothing of us.  The suggestion here is not that we are the passive recipients of blessedness; we are invited to hope, in an active and conscious way; we decide whether we turn to God, or whether we turn to idols (other translations bring out the point that the “deceit” in this verse is about the state of being so deceived that people end up worshipping what are not truly gods at all).

Not that God is absent from the picture; it’s God to whom we direct our hope and trust and reverence, God’s power that is acknowledged, and God who provides the knowledge and truth which are the antidote to deceit and confusion.  But this, as so many of the “blessed” sayings, give us a picture of human flourishing which is within our reach to choose.  The one who chooses to lead a life of hope and trust and truth, is the one who leads a truly blessed life.  And that’s true not just for individuals, of course; it’s also true for communities.  Communities flourish when we respond to God in hope, in trust and in truth.

So if human flourishing and blessedness comes from choosing hope, from cultivating hopefulness as a core part of our identity, how might we do that, and what would it look like?

It comes, at its deepest, from knowing God; from knowing God’s character, God’s purposes, and God’s disposition towards us.  It also comes from a clear vision of what God is up to, not just in the very big picture (an “it’ll all work out alright in the end” kind of approach), but in the here and now.  In our homes and our streets and amongst our neighbours. Hope requires a vision that is beyond where we are now, and practical ways to make progress toward that vision.

This is why vision is such an engine room for parish life; when we have a clear sense of what God wants to do, today, here and now; and a clear sense of how we fit into that, what God is calling us to be and to do, today, here and now; then that gives us a sense of purpose, of direction and of hope.  And out of that sense of purpose and of hope come the energy and the commitment to live out that vision, and to attract others to come and be part of that vision as well.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, put it this way.  “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  Why?  Because if people long for the sea, they will willingly work together to build the ship.

That’s the power of vision, and it’s rooted in hope.  I don’t think this parish has that kind of shared vision for its life together; a clear sense of God’s action, today, here and now, in this suburb; and shared commitment to be part of that action.  We don’t really have that sense of shared purpose, direction and hope, which inspires the energy and commitment to make it a reality.  Just like the shipbuilders need to “long for the endless immensity of the sea,” we need that horizon of hope, as well, as an indispensable part of what it means to be a flourishing parish; but it might take careful work for us to discern it, articulate it, share it and invite others to be part of it!

Hope is – according to today’s psalm – a necessary part of living a blessed life.  It doesn’t come either automatically or by accident, but it can take work to carefully cultivate and nurture hope; work that we do by deepening our relationship with God, our understanding of what God is up to around us, and our commitment to being part of God’s work in the world today.

But that is work which we can do.  Vision, hope and the flourishing which come from them are possible for us, today, here and now.  It’s up to us to choose.

Attachment and disruption

This is a sermon for the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  The Scripture it reflects on is Matthew 3:13-17.

I was preparing this sermon at the same time as I was starting to do some preparation work for the upcoming Bible study series on “Good news of the kingdom: Matthew’s vision of the reign of God;” and as I worked on both in parallel, it struck me that today’s gospel reading gives us a good way to introduce and begin to explore some key ideas and themes for that series; so this morning we’re going to look at Jesus’ baptism, in light of Matthew’s proclamation of the reign of God.

So with today’s reading, we move away from the part of the story that’s about Jesus as a child, and begin to hear about his adult ministry.  And what Matthew does, is he has a first section about Jesus as an adult which has an identical phrase at the beginning and the end.  To begin with, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Then Matthew gives us a bit of a description of John and his preaching, today’s section of the gospel with Jesus’ baptism, then Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and then, Mathew tells us, “from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

So this call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” kind of bookends this section of the gospel and tells us that we must understand this account of Jesus’ baptism in light of that call.  We can think of today’s reading as one window, one way to look into what Matthew means by repentance, and what it means to him that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  And one window too into how we might understand our own mission, here and now, today.

So let’s start with the kingdom of heaven.  This is Matthew’s preferred phrase to describe God’s presence with us, in the here and now, and to describe God’s activity as sovereign ruler of the cosmos.  So when Matthew says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he is saying that God is with us, near us, present to us; and that God is active; God is up to something; God is doing things.

So, because God is near, and God is active, both John the Baptist and Jesus call out, in this gospel, just like the Old Testament prophets before them, on behalf of that God, calling people to repent.  Calling people to take up God’s offer of renewed relationship, and to know the judgement, protection and liberation which come as part of being in relationship with God.

Part of the point here is that while “repentance,” as Matthew preaches it, did include repentance from personal sin, this was not the point of emphasis.  Rather the point is more positive; it’s about the mutual commitment, and mutual loyalty of us and God together in relationship.

This is why Jesus, despite being entirely without sin, can undergo a baptism of repentance; because it is his public statement about his loyalty to God, his commitment to God and – as we hear in the passage – God’s commitment and loyalty to Jesus as his beloved Son.

So Jesus presents himself for baptism as the one who fulfils all righteousness; the one who has perfect and unimpaired loyalty to God.  This is about his willingness to live his life in complete conformity with God’s will.  And after this very public action by Jesus, on the banks of the Jordan, God, as participating actor in the story, now empowers and authorises Jesus to speak and act on God’s behalf.  The relationship is mutual.

The implication is that God’s exercise of sovereign power – the reality of God’s presence and actions as ruler of all that is –  makes certain demands of us as human beings, when we respond to God with loyal commitment.  It impacts on our social and economic world, (as we’ll go on to see as we read through the gospel over the year), it reshapes relationships with family and to possessions.  (It’s not insignificant that what Jesus does next is call his first disciples, who leave family and livelihood to follow him in his commitment to the kingdom of heaven).  It also invites them to form with Jesus a new family, a community of men and women, dedicated to the task of preparing others to take on the yoke of God’s sovereignty and all that this entails.

So far I’ve kind of given you a big picture view of where this passage sits in Matthew’s gospel, and how it illustrates some of his key ideas.  But what I would suggest a lot of that boils down to is Matthew depicting the kingdom of heaven as disruptive.  God draws near to us, God is active in our lives and in our world, and as a result, old patterns and habits and loyalties are called into question.

And we lay ourselves open to that disruption by our practice of baptism.  In coming to the font, we in effect, commit ourselves to loyal relationship with God, and give permission to have everything in our lives which gets in the way of that loyal relationship, disrupted.

This isn’t always pleasant or easy.  We tend to resist being disrupted, as it’s uncomfortable and requires us to do some work on ourselves.  But it is what it means to repent.  It is what it means to respond to the kingdom of heaven.  And it is what is set out for us in Jesus’ baptism as the example of what is not optional in the Christian life.

Another word for this kind of disruption is what, in spiritual direction, is often called breaking disordered attachments.  This is not the same as what psychology would call attachment disorders; it’s more when your underlying attitudes and beliefs lead you to have inappropriate emotional attachments to something, and because of that, to behave in ways which fall short of the loyalty to God, and the commitment to the kingdom of heaven, which we see called for in today’s gospel reading.

A simple example might be the person who clings too tightly to a friend and expects that friend to meet all their emotional needs; that’s a relatively easy to recognise disordered attachment (we recognise it by its lack of appropriate boundaries, for a start).  But we as human beings are prone to all sorts of complicated and subtle disordered attachments, not least and in fact I would suggest especially in church, where we invest the objects, words and actions heavily with personal and emotional meaning.

(I once heard a story about another parish in which, at a working bee, someone had an absolute temper tantrum because someone else had dared move a particular cushion; that’s an extreme example, but that kind of “I can’t bear for things to be other than how I want them, even if there’s a good reason,” type reaction is absolutely a big red flag that there might be disordered attachments in play).

Now we all – including me – have these disordered attachments.  It’s part of being human beings who still have to deal with sin and fallen human nature.  But what I’m saying to you today is that what we see in these early chapters of Matthew’s gospel – the vision of the kingdom of heaven, and in particular, human loyalty to that kingdom expressed as commitment to righteousness, in baptism – is going to disrupt those attachments.

The decision we have to make is whether or not – when we find our particular attachments being prodded and called into question – we’re willing to take note of our responses, and to do the hard work of reflecting on the attitudes and emotions that they reveal.  Whether we’re willing to repent when we need to, and to reorient ourselves to God’s priorities despite our discomfort.  Whether we’re willing to cultivate gratitude, generosity and hopefulness when God’s activity in the world brings change that is discomfiting.

It’s not a small challenge.  But if we take it up and persevere with it, we too can find that we are beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.

Shadow curved in on itself

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas.  The Scripture it reflects on is Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 148.

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”  It really should have been the Herod family motto; in the whole of the New Testament there isn’t a positive mention of any of them.

What we heard this morning, though, gives us a particularly vicious glimpse into their world.  Herod the Great (father of the Herod who later was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus) has heard from the Magi that there is a child born as “king of the Jews.”  Unable to be sure which child it is, but knowing in which town he lived, he has all the boy children of the right age killed.

We don’t know how many children that was.  Contemporary historians, looking at the population of Bethlehem at the time, have suggested it was maybe a dozen; whereas medieval enthusiasm suggested thousands.  But in a sense, it doesn’t matter; the horror of this action can’t be reduced to a numbers game.

This is the first stirring of the hostility which will follow Jesus throughout his life; Jesus has come with all the power of God to bring salvation; and that threatens the people who have a grip on power and use it to oppress.  And, like any oppressive ruler whose grip on power is being threatened, Herod lashes out.

The real question for me is, why did Herod do it this way?  This isn’t an isolated incident, by the way; history records that Herod killed two of his own sons to prevent them becoming a threat to him.  (Prompting the Roman Emperor of the time to comment that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews don’t eat pigs).

But why this approach?  It’s not as if Herod didn’t have options.  Confronted with a similar message, another ruler might have decided to govern so well and benevolently that the people would never support another claimant to the throne.  Or he might have decided to identify the child, or a pool of possible children, and offer to train them for an important post – to be a future general or civic administrator or Sanhedrin member – and thus bring the child under his patronage.  He might even have simply decided to exile all of the relevant families.

But instead of doing something creative and interesting, or even boring but relatively harmless, Herod reached first for the most brutal solution.  What is that about?

Matthew sort of avoids the question by making it all about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament typology; just like the original sons of Jacob, Jesus goes into Egypt; and the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem answers the weeping of Jewish mothers in exile in Jeremiah’s time.  But while that might be a fruitful way of exploring connections, it can’t – for me, at least – be enough of a satisfying answer to the question of why.

Herod wasn’t a particularly devout Jew, but what would it have been like, I wonder, for him to read that psalm that we read this morning?  Would he have found anything with which he could identify, at all?  The sense of a creature standing in awe before his Creator?  That sense of the people being dependent on the Lord for their strength?  Or nearness to a God who has tenderly cared for his people?

What does it take to be completely closed to any of that?  Perhaps Herod was simply an atheist, culturally a Jew but without any sense of God.  Even if he were, I don’t think that explains his actions.  Most atheists don’t reach first for the most brutal answer to their issues.  Herod’s pattern of response goes far beyond passive indifference to the idea of God, and well into active resistance to moral as well as spiritual light.  Unable to be reached by the faith of his people, the boundaries of the law or the pleadings of the prophets, he stands as a fine example of what Martin Luther described as a “man curved in on himself;” a sucking vortex of anxiety and neediness, a horrible warning of what sin looks like, given free rein.

So if Herod is the warning, what do we make of that for ourselves?

Just because none of us is out to massacre babies, doesn’t mean we know nothing of this internal resistance.  All of us have dark corners within ourselves; there are plenty of private little hells behind the front doors of this city.  And if we deny it, as the apostle John wrote elsewhere, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  Herod points us to what John tells us is the only remedy; to be self-aware, to be honest, with ourselves and with God, about where those dark corners are and what lurks in them.  To be prepared to commit ourselves – over and over again, if need be – to open our closed selves to the light, and to allow that light to cleanse, heal and change us.

It’s a gradual process; the work of a lifetime. It’s sometimes painful, humiliating, or fearful to be willing to accept discipline; even from a loving father who delights in us.  But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

There’s one more point I want to make this morning.  This phenomenon of being curved in on ourselves, so closed to God’s light and hope that we give darkness free rein – or at least cut it a lot of slack – is not just something that happens to individuals.  It happens to groups of people too; even to congregations and parishes.  Such groups can obsess endlessly about petty things, and be blind to the wider horizons to which hope might call us.

It would seem that we have a choice about which we would rather be in the Christian life; a good example, or a horrible warning.  The apostle John tells us that God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.  All we need do is be open to that light.

God has spoken

This is a sermon for Christmas morning.  The Scripture it reflects on is Hebrews 1:1-12.

To make sense of Christmas, we have to start at the beginning.  Christmas exists because the relationship between God and human beings is broken; traditionally we call that broken relationship sin.  But whatever language you use for that, we lost our closeness to God and then were so hampered by our own brokenness that we couldn’t fix things by our own efforts.  C.S. Lewis – who of course was English, and therefore well-acquainted with miserable weather – described this state of being as living in a world where it’s always winter but never Christmas. A world waiting and longing for something better.

But God hadn’t given up on our relationship, and God was not silent. He promised to send a saviour; someone to heal all that was wounded, and put to right all that had gone wrong, for individuals, communities and the cosmos.  And Christmas – that coming to us of God in human flesh, sharing with us in all our vulnerability and suffering – that was the way that saviour came.

It’s easy to lose sight of the simple depth of this, amidst all the tinsel and bustle of Christmas.  So the passage we had today from Hebrews helps us, because it was written to a group of Christians who, like you and me, sometimes have a hard time listening to Jesus.

To get our attention, in the opening lines of the letter, the author reminds us that Jesus is better than everything else.  Jesus is fully God, and fully human.  He is everything a saviour for us needed to be.  The challenge to us in this letter is, will we listen to him?

So first, and this really is key, God has spoken to us finally and fully in his Son.

God has spoken.

We often don’t realise how much we need to hear what God might say to us.  We think we’re doing fine, figuring things out for ourselves, in control… but – if you’re anything like me – then something will come along which will give you a painful reality check.  We lose our bearings on our deepest values, our most authentic identity, or our sense of purpose; and get caught up in all the superficial things competing for our distraction.

But despite our human propensity for getting muddled, God doesn’t stop speaking to us.  He has been speaking since the foundation of the world. And what he’s been telling us all along is that he is God, we are his people, and he loves us despite everything that seems to prove otherwise.

And when it comes to Christmas, what shows us that love most deeply is that Jesus is not merely from God.  Not just a messenger or an especially obedient servant.  Jesus is God.  The very one who created everything that exists; who holds the existence of you and me and everything there is.  In Mary’s womb, that creator God enrobed Godself in human flesh, taking on the fullness of humanity without losing divinity.

Jesus left his home – and all that it means to exist only as God, which none of us can really imagine – to empty himself, take on human existence, to come to this dumpy world and live and die and rise again for us.  For our sake.  To mend that broken relationship that we couldn’t fix by ourselves.

In the beginning God created everything, and what he made was good. But we messed that up.  And the God who created us in the first place, put that creative power back to work in Mary’s womb, so that we could be re-created into the goodness we were meant to experience.

There’s good news in this for us.  It means that whatever we’re struggling with – whatever burdens we’re carrying, whatever darkness – whatever evil is at work in the world (and we know there’s plenty) – none of that is beyond God’s capacity to deal with, to re-create as something better.  God came to earth as Jesus for that very purpose, and is delighted every time even the tiniest aspect of that purpose is worked out.

Of course, God in Jesus is more than just the creator (as if that weren’t enough); because Hebrews also tells us that Jesus “sustains all things by his powerful word.”

Sustains all things.  It means he’s got the whole world in his hands.

And yes, there’s a cute song in that, but it goes way beyond cute songs.  Everything that exists – from the most far-flung star that we can’t even see to the tiniest sub-atomic particle that we can’t even see – the existence of all of that is sustained by Jesus.

Yes, the same Jesus who emptied himself, took on human life, and was born in some grotty stable on the edge of Bethlehem.

Hebrews says he sustains all things by his powerful word.  You know, sometimes we wonder why God isn’t speaking, but the truth is that God never stops speaking! If God did, the whole of existence would dissolve back into the nothingness it was created out of.  So, if you can’t hear God, it’s not because God’s not talking.  Maybe we don’t always know how to listen.  But God’s sustaining the cosmos by his powerful word, so nothing stands in God’s way of coming to us.  Even all the way to the manger in Bethlehem.

Finally – at least for this morning – Hebrew reminds us that as well as creator and sustainer of everything that exists, Christ is the ruler of it all.  We know that because of where he’s sitting; at the right hand of the majesty on high.  On the throne which governs everything that exists.

This is the one we come to worship as a helpless infant in the manger.  The one who created everything that is, including our very selves.  The one who sustains everything that exists with nothing more than a word.  The one who governs everything that is from the absolute centre of God’s power.

How much does that God deserve our worship?  How much does that God deserve our attention?  How much does that God deserve that at the very least, we stop and listen for what God might say?

This Christmas, I hope you’re able to hear that voice; that voice which chose human existence, which chose the manger for our sake, and for the sake of healing all that is broken.  And I hope that when you hear that voice, it you know the love and joy and peace of Christmas.

Good news

This is a sermon for the late-night service on Christmas Eve.  The Scripture it reflects on is Luke 2:1-14.

I have good news and bad news for you tonight.  Shall we have the good news first?

“Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

There’s the good news in a nutshell.

To you – for you, perhaps, might be a better way of putting it – is born a saviour.  One who – like Moses – will liberate his people from all that oppresses them.  One who will be a ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his realm.  One who will heal the brokenness of individuals, communities, and the cosmos.  One who will set to rights all that has gone wrong.  One who will make good on all the promises of God.  That’s what it means to be a saviour.

One who will bring peace “among those whom God favours.”  Now that’s a tricky clause, because it could be taken two ways; it could mean, peace to those people whom God favours (but not so much those other people whom God doesn’t favour).  Or it could mean, peace to all people, to whom God’s favour is made available through this saviour.  It’s more in line with the big picture presented to us in Scripture to think the angels mean the latter; in Christ, God’s favour rests on all people.  God’s peace and joy is available to all people.

What better news could we possibly ask for?

You don’t really need me to run you through a litany of all the things wrong with our world; all the horrors which show us just how badly we needed that saviour; still need that saviour.

But when the shepherds hear the angels’ message, and find the baby for whom they’ve been told to look, even though the baby himself doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable (yet); it’s says to them that they can have confidence in the rest of the message.  If the angels said there’d be a baby, and here he is, correct in every detail; then maybe we can trust the message about that baby being a saviour, a messiah.

That, for Luke, is how we know salvation; we hear the promise, we see the signs of the beginning of the promise being fulfilled, and that gives us confidence that the rest will come in time.  It’s about knowing that the God who is trustworthy in small things, can maybe be trusted with the big picture too.

So, that’s the good news.  What, then, is the bad news?

Well, it’s not really bad news as such, but it is challenging news.  The shepherds who originally heard the good news got to go and see baby Jesus in the manger and all the rest, and then, presumably, got to go back to business as usual; tending sheep and doing whatever shepherds do in their spare time.  The angels, even, got to finish their performance and go back to doing… whatever angels do when they’re not out startling shepherds.

For us, it’s not that simple.  For us, this good news has consequences.  But they may take some unpacking.

One of the things that I noticed, as I prepared for Christmas, was how often, as I was reading, people commented that shepherds were so disliked and distrusted in ancient Judea that many towns didn’t allow shepherds to enter at all.  And that’s sad, and kind of makes a point about how the angels came to people who were lowly and marginalised, but eventually someone I was reading pointed out what I should have realised earlier; that meant the shepherds couldn’t have come into Bethlehem proper.  If Mary and Joseph had found suitable accommodation, they’d have been inside the town boundaries, within which the shepherds could not approach.

But the shepherds could come to an animal enclosure on the edge of town, outside the places where respectable people were spending the night.

That detail really struck me.  There being no room at the inn, and all of that… that wasn’t just historical detail.  That was God making sure that when Christ was born, the people whom God thought most needed to know about him, had access to come and see.

I was prompted to reflect; what would it look like for us, as a church community, if we were to try to live out that example, here in our own context?

What are the barriers – of experience, culture, language, social standing, age, and so forth – which make us inaccessible to the people who most need God?  What would it look like for us to deliberately move ourselves outside those barriers?  To do the 21st century, Australian suburban equivalent of being on the edge of town, where nobody was prevented from being?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they’re questions which this encounter with the shepherds ought to encourage us to take seriously.

The other side of the challenge comes from the angels.  They are, perhaps, the first Christian missionaries; the first ones sent to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.

But that’s our mission too.  We’re also sent to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.  And if we make ourselves deliberately accessible, like Jesus in the manger, that’s a good start; but it isn’t on its own enough.

What would it look like for us a church community if we were to be fulsome proclaimers of the reign of God in our context?  What words and actions should comprise our communal song of praise?

Again, I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but they’re questions which hearing the angels ought to encourage us to take seriously.

Christmas will come and go all too quickly, and it would be easy, in a day or a week, to slip back into business as usual.  But we’re called to do more than that.  We’re called to be a Christmas people year-round; open and accessible to everyone, and living in a way which lets everyone who encounters us hear an echo of the angels’ gloria!

So good news, and challenging news for us this Christmas.  But in that challenge, if we take it up, lies the promise of joy which will ring through eternity.

Grace

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it reflects on is Romans 1:1-7.

Let me tell you a parable of grace which I read this week.

Once upon a time, there was a boy who grew up with a happy dream.  He was told when he was very young – as soon as he was old enough to understand anything, really – that a beautiful piece of land out on the edge of town was in trust for him.  When he was grown up, it would be his very own and was sure to bring him great contentment.  His family and other relatives often described the land to him in terms that made it sound like a paradise on earth.  They did not tell him precisely when it would be his, but implied that it would be when he came of age.

In his mid-teens, the boy began to visit the property and take walks on it, dreaming of owning it.  Two or three years later, he felt the time had come to take it on.  However, by then he had noticed some disturbing things: from time to time, he would observe people hiking or picnicking on his acres, and when he told them not to come there without his permission, they refused to leave, and insisted that the land was public!  When he questioned his relatives about this, they reassured him that there was no claim to the land but his.

He became increasingly frustrated about the failure of others to respect his ownership.  He first tried to manage the problem through compromise.  He set aside a small section of the property as a public picnic area and even spent his own money to put up some tables.  On the remainder of the land he put up “No Trespassing” signs and expected people to stay off.  But, to his amazement, people showed no signs of gratitude for his concession; instead they continued to help themselves to the enjoyment of the full area.

The boy finally could tolerate the intrusions on his birthright no longer.  He began screaming and swearing at people who trespassed and in this way succeeded in driving many of them away.  The few who were not cowed by him became targets of his physical assaults.  And when even his aggression did not completely clear the area, he bought a gun and began firing at people just to frighten them, not actually to shoot them.  The people came to the conclusion that the young man was insane.

One local resident spent a day searching through the town real estate records and found that the property was indeed public.  The claim made by the boy’s family on his behalf was the product of misconception, without any basis in fact.

When the boy was confronted with this evidence, his ire only grew.  He was convinced that the people had conspired to alter the records and that they were out to deprive him of his most cherished dream.  For several years, his behaviour remained erratic; at times it seemed that he accepted that he had been misled during his childhood, but then he would erupt again in efforts to regain control of the land.  Years went by before he was able to accept the fact that his dream would never be realised and that he would have to learn to share the land.  Over that period, he went through a painful, though ultimately freeing, process of gradually accepting how badly misled he had been, and how destructive his behaviour had been as a result.*

(That’s the end of the story).

Grace is a hard thing to define or pin down.  God’s grace is God’s unwavering, loving attitude towards us, and also the way God acts in our lives for the sake of our wholeness and joy.

The problem we often have with it is that, like the young man confronted with the reality of his non-ownership of the land he thought was his own, often grace gets to work disturbs comforting or comfortable untruths which we have embraced; it disrupts the attitudes which drive our habitual sins, and – ultimately – grace requires of us that we change.  In the story we just heard, embracing the truth about his situation was painful, but ultimately freeing; what the parable didn’t spell out is that, once the issue of land ownership was out of the way, there was a possibility for new relationship between the boy and those who used the land.

This is the grace that Paul desires and prays for from God to the church in Rome, those he describes as “called to belong to Jesus Christ” in our reading from Romans this morning.  It’s not just a feel-good sentiment or a Christian buzzword.  It suggests something as radical and disturbing as Paul’s own encounter with God’s grace, knocked off his feet on the Damascus road.

It’s worth thinking about, with only days left until Christmas.  What cherished assumptions of mine might turn out to be illusions in need of shattering?  What entrenched habits of speech or action might need to be upended?  What would grace, real, radical, life-altering grace, look like if it got to work in the depths of my soul, in a new way?

Paul describes the purpose of grace, at work through his ministry, as being “to bring about the obedience of faith.”  Grace might be what God does in us, but obedience – arising from profound trust of what God is doing – is how we need to respond.

So the other set of questions worth thinking about before Christmas might be, where am I not really trusting God?  Where am I unwilling to offer all that I am, in service to God’s agenda?  Where, in me, does the mention of obedience provoke something of an internal squirm and thoughts of, “Yes, but…”

Don’t stifle that squirming; notice it and reflect on it.  It may just be one of the signs of grace doing some life-bringing disturbing.

We can wilfully close our eyes and stop our ears to what God is graciously up to.  But in the end what that will do is cut us off from our truest, deepest, God-given identity.  It will cut us off from living life to the full.  It will cut us off from authentic love and joy.

Grace isn’t always easy, because our human sinfulness runs deep; it has its roots earlier than our earliest conscious memories.  Shifting that is a challenge.  But it is possible.  That possibility is the very reason Christ came.  So this week, of all weeks, let’s be attentive to that challenge.

*Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?  Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.

Gardens of joy

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it reflects on is Isaiah 35:1-10.

William Blake once asked, “Tell me what is a joy?  And in what gardens do joys grow?”

Today is the Sunday for joy in Advent, and that’s good; we all need joy!  But it doesn’t mean we can easily summon up joyousness just because the lectionary decrees it.  And of course not everyone feels joy at the same time or season.

Have you ever had a season in life when you wondered if your joy and hope would ever return?  Maybe loneliness, depression, grief, or just plain old stress, squeezed the joy out of you?  I know, for me, when my mental health hasn’t been good, it’s been a bit like sinking into an ever deeper black hole.  Perhaps you can relate?

If so, then today’s passage from Isaiah is for you.

Let’s take a bit of a closer look at it; maybe Isaiah’s vision of joy in the desert is just what you need this week.  Or maybe, when you carry it out of here, it might be just the thing someone else needs to hear.  Either way, this is a startling vision of hope and encouragement, and at its broadest, it is for everyone.  It’s a prophetic word, in the best sense, because it is so startling with its joy and with its hope in the midst of destruction, pain and terror.

And what could be more prophetic in our world today than unabashed joy, uninhibited hope?

This joy and this hope, even in the midst of personal and social wilderness, rests on the reality that we are not alone, and that God is present to us.

Isaiah declares that God is working for our good, our renewal, and even our joy.  God is always looking out for us, acting on our behalf and making a way in the dry deserts of life.

Isaiah fully acknowledges that the people who were to receive his message were experiencing pain and grief and disbelief.  Isaiah doesn’t sugar coat it.  He names that part of the story, and from naming that reality, he speaks his prophetic word, and makes his faith-claim.

This is something of a model for us, too, as we seek to be a community that proclaims the good news of the reign of God.  That good news doesn’t deny the pain, the grief, and the disbelief of our neighbours; but it takes that as a valid starting point for hearing from God.

One of the commentators I read this past week offers this reflection:

“The Good News at Advent is that God has not taken off on a retreat but that the God who cares for the dry and barren places cares for each and all of us.  God shows up even in the desert and barren places of life to await us in renewal, restoration and salvation.”

But, of course, there is more.  God is also in this passage a God of vengeance, of “terrible recompense.”.  Isaiah describes a God who realizes that much of the brokenness that the people of God, or the communities that they are a part of experience, is because of the evil and unjust actions of others.  And so God comes in as a protector, transforms injustice, and sets up a safe space for care and healing.

So what, then, follows, for us today?

If we see ourselves, the Church, as an instrument of the reign of God, this is part of the calling that we hear for ourselves in this passage as well.  We are called to be proclaimers and bringers of the hope and love of God; but we are also called be banishers and protectors where evil has taken root.  This is why social justice is an intrinsic part of the mission of God, and of the Church.

This is a fully conscious and active faith.

This is faith which notices each person, each community, each place that is out of sorts and sets out to make it right, make things whole.  This is faith which is lived out one conversation, one hug, one shared meal at a time.  Faith which joyfully celebrates what God has done for us and what God has empowered us to do on behalf of others.

As we look around, listen to the voices of those around us, and move around our local streets and shops, what does God want us to know about and share with our local community?  Where does God want us to bring words of joy and good news?  It’s worth taking some time to reflect, quietly and seriously, on those questions.

Some of the people around us might need a prophet like Isaiah or a choir of angels or a booming voice from the clouds to bring them joy and to remind them of the goodness of God.  But far more people will know the goodness of God through words of quiet encouragement or praise, or the sincere thanks of a friend.  Sometimes joy comes from the quiet and everyday places in life.

Fortunately for us, it’s not beyond any of to provide those quiet and everyday God moments to our friends and neighbours.

Let me come back to William Blake’s questions, which I started with: “Tell me what is a joy?  And in what gardens do joys grow?”

It’s not easy to define joy; it’s a quality of experience more than an objective fact.  But the garden in which joys grow; that garden is community.  That garden can and should be the community we cultivate and nurture with just as much care as any real garden; always aiming to extend that garden, that community, to include an ever-widening network of people with whom we share real and meaningful relationships.

That’s how the wilderness and the dry land – the blighted social landscapes which people inhabit – shall blossom abundantly, with springs of water and streams in the desert; with joy and singing; with safety and purpose.

It’s only a foretaste of what the fullness of the reign of God will be; but it’s a foretaste which can transform the whole landscape which we inhabit.  Let’s not neglect those gardens of joy this week.