Consider Christ

This is a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Hebrews 9:19-28.

I wonder what you do to build your own resilience?  Is it something you do consciously and deliberately, or is it fairly instinctive (like, in my case, reaching for the chocolate)?

There are, of course, as many different ways of building resilience as there are individual people, but one which is very commonly used now is imaginative visualisation.  So there are no end of resources out there helping people to imagine, say, a peaceful place, a place of complete safety, to calm anxiety; or warmth to ease pain; or a comforting touch to allow you to have compassion for yourself.   These are incredibly powerful techniques, and widely used across various caring and healing professions.

But what brought them to mind for me today is the way the author of Hebrews is doing a very similar thing.  He (or she, perhaps, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews; but he for convenience) is using words to describe something none of his readers or listeners have ever seen, inviting them to explore and interpret that reality in relation to their own lives.

What I mean is this; the part of Hebrews we read this morning compares the system of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, with which the people who received this letter would have been familiar, with what Christ has accomplished in heaven; which these people would, of course, not have seen; but can imagine as the author builds a picture out of elements familiar to them.

So the author here compares Christ’s ascension to heaven to a priest going into the sanctuary of the temple; and says that Christ has accomplished everything the priests accomplished, only more perfectly, more fully, more completely, and more powerfully, than any merely human priest ever could.

The overcoming of sin?  Christ did it.  All enemies defeated?  Christ did it.  Emptying death of its power and terror?  Christ did it.  Destroying the powers of destruction?  Christ did it.  Human beings made holy and acceptable to God, able to enter into intimate and loving relationship with God?  Christ did it.  Allowing us to experience freedom, confidence, flourishing and hope?  Christ did it.  Christ has done what is needed, to stand in the place which makes all these things possible for us.

This is the image the author of Hebrews wants us to come back to: Christ eternally in heaven, in the very presence of the depths of God’s being, on our behalf.  Whenever we’re anxious or overwhelmed or feel defeated or worthless, this is what we’re supposed to hold onto as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  Christ is in heaven, and his presence there is sovereign and effective in our circumstances here and now.  Holding onto that, reminding ourselves of that, helps us keep all our struggles and concerns in the perspective of eternity.

Part of the interesting thing about the images here is that it seems the author has kind of mashed up different events to do with the Exodus and the giving of the law, and says that what Jesus has done expresses the ultimate meaning of all those things.  Because there’s no time in the Old Testament where Moses is described doing exactly what is described here; but there are lots of references to Moses and blood and hyssop and sprinkling, which each separately contribute something to our understanding of how God was present to and active in the ancient Israelite community.

From Moses escaping Pharoah’s edict to kill all the baby boys, to the river Nile being turned to blood, to the calves sacrificed for sin, to the goats sacrificed for protection from death at Passover, to the waters of the Red Sea parting, to the scarlet wool and hyssop that the law required for cleansing a leper… all of this incredibly rich imagery from Exodus and the law drives home one point: God is absolutely in control of the forces of life and death.

(As an aside, there are worse things you can do than to read over Exodus again, looking for how it connects with the gospel).

But the image of the tent – the primitive sanctuary – is central. To put it in really blunt terms, for ancient Israel, God was in the tent.  That was the place where people could know God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s glory.  And the author here says that that tent was not the real deal!  God was present there, but it was only like a shadow or a copy of being in God’s utter presence in heaven.  That’s where Jesus has gone.  Not to the pale imitation but to the place where God is utterly God, unveiled by anything created or human.

And it’s from that place that grace and mercy then flow to us.

So it’s one natural consequence of this that we don’t need the pale imitation any more, because anything it might have pointed to or accomplished is fulfilled in Christ.  But I don’t think the point is just to tell people they don’t need to go through the motions any more.  Deeper than that, the point is to give people a clear vision of how everything they could ever possibly need from God is freely available to them now.  Even the law, which governed all the sanctuary rituals (as well as so many other details of everyday life) wasn’t needed in the same way now that Christ had fulfilled the purposes for which it was given.

This is why, later in the letter, the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  None of the people to whom he is writing have seen Jesus enthroned in heaven.  But they live by the assurance that that event is real, and that the consequences of that event have meaning for their lives.  In fact, that event is the source of eternal life for them!

“Consider Christ,” the author writes, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”  Remember who Christ is, and where Christ is, and on whose behalf Christ acts, as a way of resourcing yourself for life in a disheartened world.

The author of Hebrews has deliberately given his readers and hearers a mental picture of Christ in heaven, intended to deepen their resilience as they faced persecution and difficulty.  It’s well worth us taking that same reality, with all of its consequences, on board for our own lives, in our own difficulties, moments of hopelessness and grief.  There’s a great deal there to offer us strength.

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Spoilers

This is a sermon for All Saints’ Day. The Scripture it references is Revelation 21:1-6a.  (Apologies that this is posted a week late, it’s been… rather busy with one thing and another here!)

I may not know what the future holds, but I do know – and trust – the One who holds the future.

This holds true on a number of levels; the future as in what will happen to me in my life; the future as in what I will experience after death, and the future as in what the ultimate end of everything will be like.  I may not be able to anticipate any of my experiences in that, but I can know that I am safe with the God who will hold all of those circumstances under his sovereignty.

But, sometimes, God gives us spoilers.  And God did just that in our reading from Revelation this morning.

Now I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.

So I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a genre which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  In particular, by this bit of Revelation – when we’re getting very close to the end of the book – John is sharing with us his vision of the ultimate future; the reality towards which everything we know now is progressing.

And it’s important, because this vision of the ultimate future is shared with us, to give us hope.  It’s shared with us to encourage us to live now in accordance with the vision of how things will ultimately be.  It’s shared with us so that we will press on towards bringing a foretaste of that future into the here and now.  We don’t just get spoilers, we’re meant to let them shape our lives and decisions so that through us, everyone else also gets a glimpse

So what do we see?

New creation.  The end of all that currently exists is not the end; not a descent into darkness, silence, and absolute zero.  It’s a new beginning!  A new heavens, a new earth, and a new city.  This is a vision of reality as we know it reimagined; remade to be whole and perfect and without any flaw or blemish.

The people who first received the book of Revelation were all city dwellers.  And they weren’t powerful or privileged within those cities; they were excluded, illegal, persecuted.  The power and wealth and culture of those cities was all brought to bear to oppress them.  The city they might once have looked to, to be something different – Jerusalem, God’s holy city – lay in ruins; temple and palaces and all that it was, torn to rubble.  But in this text, those earliest Christians – and we – are   promised a different kind of city.  A city of inclusiveness.  A city of human flourishing.  A city where power is only ever used to uplift and uphold each person, never to advance one person at another person’s expense.

And this city comes down out of heaven.  This is important.  The city of the future is not our doing; not something we will build of our good intentions (in fact, Scripture is full of stories where we tried to build perfection of our good intentions, and none of those stories ended well…).  But this new city is God’s creation.  It is beyond us to conceive or build; it comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.

It’s worth noting that some things are absent from this new, perfect creation.

There’s no sea, for example.  This isn’t literally about large bodies of salty water, because Revelation’s not that kind of book.  Rather, as with other places in Scripture, the sea represents the forces of chaos and destruction.  The fact that the new creation has no sea means that it is safe; there is nothing threatening to suck the land back under the water, drowning us in overwhelming waves.  There’s nothing here to threaten or harm or destroy.

There are also no tears, death, mourning, crying or pain.  I don’t know, to be honest, that I can really imagine what that will be like.  These are so much a part of what it means to be human as we know it, that to have a new creation where nothing will make you cry, nothing will make you hurt, nothing will rob us of life… it’s life, but as they say, not as we know it.  Life radically re-imagined in its very depths.

So those are things which are not there, in the new city.  But then, there are things which are there.  More important than anything else, God is there!  “The home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them.”  This is the ultimate fulfilment of the promise made to us over and over again in Scripture; God will make his home among us.  Later in this chapter John tells us that he sees no temple in this city, and that’s because the whole city is itself the temple; the whole city is the place where God dwells among God’s people.  The saints no longer gather before God, but God totally encompasses every aspect of their existence.  In every moment they are engulfed in God’s splendour and holiness and healing and love.

And who else is there?  The peoples of God.  Not people; not only one group or tribe or ethnicity.  But peoples.  This is a very cosmopolitan city, where people different races and cultures and languages all dwell with God and with one another.  Becoming a citizen of this city doesn’t eradicate our diversity; rather the citizens of this city are a riotous celebration of everything good in humanity.

There’s a lot more packed into this and the next chapter of Revelation, and I do encourage you to read over it for yourselves.

But for now, let me just reiterate that this isn’t some sort of fantasy of John’s.  This is the glimpse God gives John of what is to come.  God’s spoiler, if you like, on eternity.  “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”  God holds this future in trust for us.  God holds this future out to us to inspire us to hope and courage.  God lifts the curtain to show us what’s in store for all the saints, and to invite us into that unimaginable new, recreated, perfect creation.

We know and trust God as the one who holds the future; so let us take hold of the future he offers us, and let it seep into our present in ways which create hope and joy through our lives.

Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.

Trinity

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.  The Scripture quote it begins with comes from Romans 8:12-17.

Paul wrote: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Did you catch it?  In that short quote we heard references to all three persons of the Trinity; the Father – Abba – the Son – Christ – and God’s very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

And yet it took another four centuries or so for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

So we talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Last week for Pentecost I talked about spiritual gifts, but more than that, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is there to be seen in other ways.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.

Crossroads

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*

Did you spot why I started with this poem, this morning?

The psalm we just read wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.  Two roads in the wood of life, perhaps; and sometimes difficult to choose between.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit (because you’re going to be sinning!), without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the Church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But it’s not that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider our own ethical questions – our own moments in which we are confronted with real choices – and to make our choice in trust that if our heart follows the heart of God well enough, even our very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through our integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And that, if we choose it, will make all the difference.

*The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

A matter of trust

This is a sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas).  The Scripture it references is Isaiah 9:2-7.

I’ve often wished that Scripture told us more about the thoughts and motivations of the people in the Christmas story.  What did the shepherds really think when the angels turned up with their good news?  Did they trust what they were told, or set off in search of the child with more than a bit of doubt in their minds as to what they would find?

Trust can be an issue for us, too.  Was Mary really a virgin, or are the gospel writers glossing over a more mundane start to Jesus’ life?  How come Luke and Matthew tell completely different stories about Jesus’ birth, and just what was John on about, anyway?  And is coming to church to be reminded of all of this going to somehow make me a better person, or at least give me something to think about, or is this really just a comforting tradition with which I can soothe my secular anxieties, but which isn’t going to provide real answers to any of life’s questions?

Do I trust Christmas, trust the part of the Christian story celebrated at Christmas?  And if I did trust it, what would that mean for the rest of my life?

The Old Testament reading we had today, from Isaiah, was actually aimed at people with very similar questions.  In a corrupt society, where justice and piety were given lip-service but not much more, and the king was more interested in personal and political gain than his people’s welfare, people wondered what they could possibly trust; and whether their God actually offered them any hope or was a prop to the status quo.

(Some things don’t change so much, it seems).

But in the midst of that situation, Isaiah sets out to systematically build a culture of trust and hope.  He pointed to the things people worshipped which were either powerless or evil and called them out for what they were; worthless and not deserving of our devotion.  He pointed to our tendency to be selfish and egocentric and highlights that all manner of evil comes about when we build a society which treats some people as more important or valuable than others.  And he points to God – the one God who really exists and has any capacity to cut through our human darkness and chaos – and points to that God as a solid foundation for our hopes; the one stable point which we can trust to the depths of our being.

His message today starts with “the people who walked in darkness…”  The darkness is real.  We don’t have to look for to see it.  War, terrorism, refugees in detention, poverty, addiction, abuse… we know these things.  We carry the burden of them in our hearts.  But Isaiah insists that in that darkness a light has shined.  In that darkness there is still hope.  In that darkness, there is still one we can trust.

I doubt that Isaiah really understood who Christ would be.  But when God set aside all the power and dignity of heaven to become human; to become small, vulnerable, and helpless… then Christians looked back on what Isaiah had written and saw how well Isaiah understood the character of that God.  The trustworthiness of that God.  This is how far God would go, to bring light into our darkness.  This is the price God would pay for our hope.  To become part of our human family and, in doing so, to bring the potential for radical transformation of our darkness.

Christ is born; glorify him!  Says one of the most ancient Christian hymns for this time of year.  Glorify him – praise him – because in doing this, he demonstrates more love for us than we can fully understand in a lifetime.  Knowing our own inner darknesses, it’s extraordinarily difficult for us to believe that we are truly and completely loved.  But as you look at the manger and consider what motivated God to exchange the throne of heaven, the seat of power and authority over all of time and everything that exists, to be born in a stable; doubtless a bit grotty and certainly highly undignified; remember that it was love.  Love for each of us.  Love that wanted to create light in darkness and let that light shine, unconquered, as a source of hope and strength and joy for each of us.

It’s a powerfully humbling thought.

If we can trust this, though; if we can take hold of it and let it sink deep into our hearts; let it transform our doubts about our own worth or lovability, this truth can change us.  And as it changes us, it can change the world.

This is where the joy of Christmas comes from.  Not from all the pretty (or tasty!) things the shops are so eager to sell us all, but from the love of God for us so profound, that it holds the potential to bring light to every darkness there is.  Mine, yours, the churches’, Manus Island, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and wherever else that darkness currently holds sway.  What would you do differently tomorrow, if you really trusted that love?

God came in human flesh; so we celebrate with trembling and with joy.  With trembling because of our darkness – our sin, even – and with joy because of the hope we have that that darkness will finally be defeated.  It will not have the last word; the last word belongs to the one who spoke the very first word; “Let there be light.”  And there was light; and it was good.  We who have seen that light can trust that the last word will be just as good.

And so at the manger we can let go of our burdens, as Isaiah urges; the burdens of our sins, our despair, our doubt and our fear.  We know who it is who has come to us.  We know why he came.  And we know that nothing will ever be the same again.

Earlier I asked you, if you really trusted that love, what would you do differently tomorrow?  My own answer is that tomorrow – or at least once all the celebrations are over – the work of Christmas begins.  To live in the light we’ve been given and seek to magnify it for others.  To find the lost, heal the broken, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations, pursue peace, and inspire hope.  Each of us will bring different skills and passions to that work, and it’s something we must realise is a group effort; not to be done on our own but undertaken together.  And we must do it with genuine trust that it’s an extension of what started so long ago with a baby in a manger.

But not just any baby.  A baby we can trust.

Impulse towards the Infinite

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.

“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

What do you reckon?  Are you looking forward to your wings and halo?  And would that somehow compensate for being single?

At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.

The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all.  The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility.  The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that.  So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.

Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination.  Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature.  Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.

But what does that mean?  To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence.  But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships.  The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way.  I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.

But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance.  Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth.  They can be a crucible for holiness.

Marriage is an all-embracing experience.  We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.

And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!).  There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward.  It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).

This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish.  If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.

I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!”  And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”

Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!

But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself.  As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage.  This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened.  When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”

Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope.  If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.

Of course all of this takes work.  It takes commitment.  It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority.  This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little.  The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.

Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.

Now, I do want to add a disclaimer.  Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways.  Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities.  But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.

So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to.  And may God continue to bless you richly.