Creation and re-creation

This is a sermon for the feast of the Birth of our Lord (Christmas Day), given in the “church next door.”  I gave slightly different versions of the same sermon at midnight and morning; this is the midnight version.  

So here we are. All through today, late into tonight and early in the morning, all over the world Christians are gathering to remember Jesus’ birth.  The presents are bought, the menus are planned, plans with extended family are negotiated; and if there’s anything left to do more serious than wrap a last present or two, we’re probably at the point where it’s not going to happen (or is that just me?)

It’s supposed to be a time of joy, and of peace, and of general good will, and all of that.  But I’ve observed in myself – and I worked enough Christmases in retail to know that it’s not just me – that over the last weeks there’s been plenty of stress and irritation.

But now we have a moment to pause; a moment to put all of that aside and consider other possibilities.  A moment to come to the cradle, gaze at the sleeping baby’s face, and ask ourselves what this might mean.

Here is the moment, in the Christian understanding of the world, when everything changes.  We have this idea that human beings are made in the image of God; not just a product of our biology or social context, but that our humanity is – or at least can be – the most perfect expression of God’s very being and life.

But we also know, all too well, how often we don’t realise that potential.  How much our inability to transcend our weaknesses or to overcome the obstacles around us, means that we end up living lives which are flawed, cracked, marred by animosity, melancholy, or distress.

God is a living God, and we are made to be alive.  God is good, and we are made to be good; not in the insipid sense of well-behaved but in the deepest sense of bringing blessing to our world.  God is wise, and we are made to be wise.  God is peaceful and joyful, kind and compassionate, powerful and gentle; and we are made to be all of these things.  God is eternal, and we are also made to be immortal.  God governs all that he has made, and we, the creatures made in his image and likeness, are made to care for that creation.  And most important of all, God is love, and we are made to be love as well.  Whatever God is, we are made by him to become.

But we’ve gotten off track somewhere along the way.  Call it sin or the fall, or use other language if you prefer, but human beings have failed to be what God has made us to be.  We have failed to love.  We use our godlike nature and energy for evil instead of good, for lies instead of truth, for destruction instead of creation, for death instead of life.  We distort the image of God within us and lose our likeness to God.

And here we come together to ponder God’s invitation to start again.  The God who made us in God’s image, takes on our own flesh, becomes like us, to enable us to begin to be what we are created to be.  In coming to live our common human life with us, he shows us perfectly what God is like, shows us our own human potential.

As a human being, Jesus does everything that humanity had been created and called to do, but had thus far failed to do.  He obeys God.  He honours God’s name.  He delights in God’s presence.  He gives thanks for God’s gifts.  He speaks God’s words.  He does God’s works.  He accomplishes God’s will.  And he makes himself available to us, fully and freely, as an example of what we can be and do.

This is the message of Christmas.  Christ is born, God himself in the flesh, and in him the human image of God is restored to what it should be.  In him humanity finds its fulfillment and perfection.  In him we can truly live, not bound by inner compulsions or external concerns or the need to feed an ever-hungry ego.  In him all people can discover what it is to be truly human, human as we were created to be.

I have to be careful here, not to make it sound as if I’m somehow claiming a sort of status for Christians that marks us off from everyone else.  To say that God is with us, is not to claim an extra dignity or privilege that makes us better than everyone else; on the contrary, it is to proclaim a new level of solidarity with other people.  If God is with us as human beings, God is with all of us; not just with you and with me but with those fighting for ISIS and with the refugees in detention centres; with drug dealers and would-be bombers and even – dare I say it – with Donald Trump.  God has come to be with all of us, and that means we’re all in this human project together.

In some of the ancient church hymns for Christmas, the words describe Christ’s birth as the opening of the gates of paradise; a reversal of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden and a welcome home to the place where we may eat of the tree of life.

Of course, in some sense the fullness of that lies still in the ultimate future.  But paradise is not a place on the map; it is a condition of the spirit.  When a person knows God and lives in intimate relationship with God, this is paradise.

And I think this comes back around to what Paul meant in the reading we heard tonight from the letter to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, …while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. “

That bit about training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions sounds like it might be severe, or at least not very much fun; but I think Paul simply meant the letting go of those things that get in the way of that intimate relationship with God; that identification with God – and of God with us –  that holds the key to our human potential.

God came to us in the form of a helpless, vulnerable baby, in order to remove all of the barriers between us and God; all of the barriers between us being all we were created to be.  So my question to you, this Christmas, for you to take away and ponder is what would you say has helped, or might help you into relationship with God, and into being all you were created to be?

Consistency

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

One of the most consistent problems in Christian thinking, is the idea that somehow when Jesus was born, God changed.  Or more specifically, that God in the Old Testament, and God in the New Testament, are really quite different; that the Old Testament God was all about rules and wrath and punishment, and that the New Testament God is full of warm fuzzies.  Taken to extremes, this has even led some people to suggest that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t really God at all.

That’s a mistake, and sadly, it’s a mistake that’s often made when people know neither part of the Bible well enough to recognise that there is love and warmth and grace in the Old Testament, and indeed that there are rules and wrath in the New!  But more than that, it’s a mistake that happens when we fail to see the way these texts, and their understanding of God, constantly connect with one another, giving witness to God’s unchanging character.

This morning’s reading from Isaiah gives us a good example of that.  Here is a prophecy, originally given to King Ahaz somewhere in the 730s BC, as he anticipated an invasion by Syria.  Isaiah makes it clear that the rescue from the Syrian threat would come very soon.  The baby – we don’t know who it was, maybe a royal baby, but the text doesn’t tell us – but the baby originally born to fulfil that promise was born in that time, and in that religious and political context.

The thing to understand here is that this isn’t a prediction of Jesus.  It’s a message that belongs in its own time and place.  But when Jesus was born, Matthew referred to this prophecy and said that it is fulfilled in Jesus; and what he is saying is that the birth of Jesus is, in some way, like the birth of this other, unnamed baby.  The birth of Jesus is also a sign that rescue is coming.  The birth of Jesus is also an invitation to trust.

Where God brought rescue for Ahaz and Judah from their enemies, so in Jesus does God bring rescue from every ultimate enemy. The withdrawal of the threat of Syria was a short-lived respite for God’s people in the time of Isaiah. But Jesus, the baby Matthew wrote about, will be and is God with us in a bigger, more lasting way.

What we’re supposed to see here is God’s consistency.  God rescued his people, God could be trusted with their welfare, in the time of Ahaz.  And God rescued his people, God could be trusted with their welfare, at the time of Jesus’ birth.  And God rescues his people and can be trusted today, and to the end of days…  You see the pattern.  God’s attitudes and behaviour are consistent and we can rely on them.

This is a really important principle for understanding all those Old Testament prophecies and texts which Christians have understood as being in some way about Jesus.  It’s not as if the ancient Jewish writers were writing only about Christ, making predictions about events centuries in the future.  No; Isaiah and the other prophets wrote about God’s attitudes and actions in their own day, and when Christ came, Christians saw the connections and the consistency with the writings they already had, and kept pointing to those writings to explain Jesus.  “He’s just like that.”  Just like those past events that we’ve already established were God at work among us.

So God’s character and attitude towards us is a constant; part of what makes God, God.

More than that, though, there’s also a point about the direction of God’s actions.

What I mean by that is, the original prophecy by Isaiah to Ahaz was for one small country in one particular twist of history.  By the time Christ came, although we are seeing the same attitudes, the same kinds of actions, from God, we see the birth of a baby who is God’s promise of rescue and safety for a much bigger circle of people; for all humankind, if we will have Him.  And as we look towards the future, we see a promise being held out of God’s rescue and safety on a cosmic scale, and into eternity.  So God is consistent, yes, but more than that, what we see in the Old Testament sometimes as small actions, get echoed and made louder and bigger and more open until that consistent attitude embraces everyone and everything in creation.

So I think that’s what hearing these two readings – Isaiah and then his echo in Matthew – is encouraging us to think about today.  About a God whose character is constant and whose embrace stretches ever wider to encompass the whole world.

There is also, I think, an implied comparison with other systems at work in the world.

For the story of God’s rescue of us, the safety and the offer of a flourishing life, to have real meaning, it has to be contrasted with a negative view of the alternative.  Isaiah’s audience understood this instinctively; the enemy army was over the horizon.  Perhaps the Jews of Jesus’ day, under Roman rule, understood it instinctively too; although we know that later some of their expectations showed they had misunderstood it, in expecting a triumphant rebel-king.  But I’m not sure that we always get it; I’m not sure that we look around, at our world, with its governments and economies and media empires and see it as something which we might need to be rescued from.

But if part of the message of Jesus is that God’s got something better on offer to us, then the corollary of that is that our current reality is deeply flawed.  It is – to use the vivid imagery of the book of Revelation – the whore of Babylon, the mother of all systems of power and oppression and exploitation.  That might be uncomfortable language, but I think we need to take that sort of idea seriously, if Jesus’ coming is going to mean more to us than just sentimentality.

The gospel, even at Christmas time, offers us so much more than sentimentality.  It offers us a vision of a world transformed by a God of steadfast and trustworthy character, and an invitation to be part of the transformation.

In the last week before Christmas, I encourage you to think about what God might be inviting you personally to, this year; and how you might respond.

Isaiah’s Messiah

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 11:1-10.

Through Advent we get a little series of readings from Isaiah, which are supposed to give us some background to the idea of Jesus coming as Messiah.  We know that the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting a Messiah, but it seems to me that often we don’t grasp what that really meant for them; and so I thought I’d take the opportunity, over Advent, to explore those ideas and see what they have to offer for our understanding of our own faith.

So what were (and indeed are) the Jews expecting?  They’re expecting a king, a human leader, biologically a descendent of David through the male line, who is going to unite the tribes of Israel, gather them all in to the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, usher in an age of global peace, and announce the final perfect age of the world to come.

Some of that, at least, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  We have some of the same expectations of what it might be like when Jesus returns.  In many ways, the big disagreement between Christians and Jews about the Messiah is about whether he will do all of this when he comes for the first, or for the second time.

But that’s a very big bunch of expectations, isn’t it?  It was built up by looking at a whole bunch of Scriptural ideas and references and seeing them as all being related to the one future figure, and continuing to reflect and expand on those ideas in the writings of the later Rabbis.  And so by the time Jesus was born we had already a well-developed idea of a Messiah and who he would be.

So what we can do now is look at just one of those passages – today’s reading from Isaiah – and see what that contributed to this set of ideas, and what we might then do with that.

To understand this passage, we really need to go back and look again at Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6.  Isaiah wrote:

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ “

It’s this vision of God in glorious majesty, high and lofty, which is the centrepiece of Isaiah’s thought.  Everything else – rulers, priests, prophets, armies – finds its place somehow beneath the weight and the authority of that throne.  And the same is true of the ruler envisaged here in the chapter we read this morning.  Whoever this ruler will be, he will be beneath the power and the presence which Isaiah has seen in the throne room of heaven.

So let’s look at the passage in detail.  The shoot and branch – the new growth from an old stump in verse 1 – comes straight after an oracle of the Lord cutting down trees and hacking at thickets in judgement.  So the idea is that after a time of removing the unhealthy “trees” – the destructive powers at work in society – there is a new hope, a new beginning.  More specifically than that, this is growing from the stock of Jesse; the ruler is seen as a new king David.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.  This kind of language is not actually usual for kings; the closest parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament is in Numbers, where God takes part of the Spirit that was on Moses and transfers it to the 70 elders, so that Moses can have assistance with his huge responsibilities.  (Do you remember that story?  When Moses was overworked and trying to do everything, and eventually his father-in-law told him he was being stupid and to delegate?  And 70 elders were chosen to help Moses in his work, and a portion of the Spirit came to rest on them as well).  This suggests that the role Isaiah has in mind here for this ruler is one of deputy, assistant, or mediator; and the throne room scene we’ve just reviewed tells us whose deputy and mediator he is; God Almighty.

And what does he do, in this role?  Mostly it seems to be a kind of supreme judge.  It’s his job to give the poor and meek a fair hearing, and to remove the violent and the wicked from the community.  And more than this, his personal attributes set him apart from everyone else around him; here he is described as not judging by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but by the most profoundly Godly standards.  This is particularly striking when we know that earlier in Isaiah the people have been condemned as not comprehending, dull, unable to see and hear, and unable to turn and be healed.  The ruler Isaiah describes here is not bound by any of the limitations of the people of Isaiah’s day.

But more than that, with righteousness around his waist and faithfulness around his loins, his role expands from being merely judicial to being the upholder of the ideal society.  He is to establish the kind of society God desires for his people; one which develops naturally from a true understanding of God, and God’s love for His people.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord, not in power for its own sake or for his own pleasure and amusement.

So this is – at least in part – what Isaiah contributes to our picture of the messiah.  A ruler under God; one who brings in a new age which is radically different from what has come before in the quality of relationships experienced in it; one who establishes justice and peace and the ideal society.

And this is what we also look forward to when Jesus returns; a new age which is radically different from anything we have ever experienced; an age of justice and peace and the ideal society.  We see the beginnings of it in the church that Jesus founded (or we should), but we look forward to the fulfilment of it in the age to come.

Come, Lord Jesus.