Transfiguration

This is a sermon for the feast of the transfiguration.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:2-10.

I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Mark’s account here is brief, but Luke fills in some of the blanks for us, and explains that this is all about glory.   Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory.  A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies.  God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which both Mark and Luke come back to, again and again, throughout their gospels.

Glory exists the gospels when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”).  Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.

And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain.  So this tells us again who Jesus is.  The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.

In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death.

More than that, though, the transfiguration looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future.  The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony.  The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty.  Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.

So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just minor details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event.  They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation.  Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.  So it really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them another glimpse into deeper understanding of who Jesus was.

In order to make sense of the vision of hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises; by his vision of this hope.  One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering.  The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them.  Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”

What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in Burwood?  What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst?  Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.

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Commandments in context

This is a sermon for the sifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is John 14:15-21.

Culturally, I think we have a bit of a problem with the idea of commandments.  We tend to see the level of demand implied by being “commanded” to do something as too high, unreasonable, and certainly not loving; so we tend to prefer to treat commandments from God as something more like “guidelines” or “suggestions” for living.

The problem here, I think, is not that we reject the idea of the oppressive use of power – we’re right to be suspicious of that – but in our misunderstanding of how commandments from God are supposed to function.

See, the thing is that commandments are only one aspect of a much more complex relationship between us and God; a relationship that the Scriptures talk about as a covenant.  That’s a word which describes a relationship which is binding; where both parties are held together in relationship by their mutual commitment to one another.

The idea of our relationship with God being defined by a covenant is not, of course, an original Christian idea.  It’s something that developed in Jewish understanding first; where covenant is the core idea that underpins the distinctiveness of Jewish religion; the Jews are the children of God by adoption and free decision on both sides.  Through that free decision, ancient Jews saw themselves as bound in relationship with God who makes an exclusive and absolute claim on their loyalty in worship and social life, but in response, God gives himself to them in an exclusive and absolute way, as the one who will have concern for their welfare, and see to it that their society is structured with justice as a guiding principle.  And, as a result of these commitments on both sides, community is formed; the community of people who are bound together with God and with one another by their participation in this covenant.

So a covenant between God and God’s people has different aspects; there is the call from God, inviting us into relationship with Him; there is God’s presence to us, and our mutual belonging to one another (us to God, and God to us); there is an element of public witness; and there is the way the mutual love between us and God plays out in our keeping the commandments.

And this is where this ties into our gospel reading today, where Jesus began by saying to his disciples that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What he is really saying here is not some kind of guilt trip intended to provoke good behaviour, but an appeal to his disciples to live out to the full the reality of the binding relationship between them and Jesus (and, through Jesus, God).  Here “love” expressed in service and obedience is an expression of loyalty; our choices are shaped by our commitment to God, rather than to any other.

In this section of John’s gospel, the account of the last supper, even though Jesus doesn’t use the word “covenant,” (he does in the other gospels), it seems that he is framing his relationship with his disciples as being a mirror or an echo of the Jewish relationship with God.  That’s why we can talk about our own participation in a “new covenant,” one which Jesus created, and the terms of which are spelled out in passages like this.

And this is why the promises in this chapter, are so significant; they are the flip side to our loyalty to Jesus in keeping the commandments; they are Jesus’ (and God’s) loyalty to us expressed in enduring relationship.  So we read here Jesus’ promises that he will enable the disciples to do greater works than his, that he will send the Holy Spirit, that Jesus will return and that the Father and Jesus will make their dwelling among the disciples; that the Holy Spirit will teach them and remind them of everything Jesus taught them, and that they will receive the gift of peace.

These are big promises.  They are – or ought to be – promises which give us a huge amount of comfort and strength to draw on in our pilgrimage together.

These things that I’ve been talking about this morning; God’s choosing us (and our choosing God), intimate abiding relationship between us, God’s presence dwelling in us, keeping God’s commandments, and so forth; these sum up for us John’s idea of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  John shows us that discipleship is a covenant relationship; and it’s a relationship between us and God which mirrors the relationship between Jesus and the Father, in its mutuality, responsiveness, and intimacy.  Ultimately, the disciples are being called here to participate in the dynamic of the relationship at the heart of the Trinity; and this is supposed to give to the new covenant community – the church – our unique identity and distinctiveness from the rest of the world.

The unity the disciples are supposed to share comes from the presence of God dwelling in each of them.  This is, by the way, why the line in the Creed that says “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church,” comes in the section which begins “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s the Holy Spirit, given to each one of us, which makes us part of the Church, and it’s the Holy Spirit, dwelling in each person from baptism, which makes the Church something other than a random bunch of piously-minded people who decided to cooperate.  The Church is bigger than any institution or denomination, and is the network of all people everywhere who have the Spirit living in them.

It seems very likely that John felt the need to include all of this in his gospel as he wrote to a community unsure of their identity, in a world where their belief in Jesus meant they had to reevaluate all their previous religious commitments (whether Jewish or Pagan).  His gospel gave his community a solid footing for forming their own sense of distinctive identity, one which was robust and inspiring enough to strengthen and encourage them as they worked out how to live and worship as Christians in a hostile world.

Although our context is very different, we have the same need to be sure of our shared identity, so that it can give us strength and courage as we work through our very different – but no less challenging – issues.  These themes of covenant relationship, which Jesus presents so carefully to his disciples here, can be an important help to us in that; to be comforted by God’s continuous presence with us, and to respond with loyalty and love which sees us keep his commandments, not as a burden, but as an expression of our mutually loving and enriching relationship with God.

How will you live out your covenant with God, this week?

Resurrection and renewal

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  To my regular readers, I apologise for the delay in posting; I have had a small break, and it seems, was so exhausted after the Easter services that I didn’t even think to post my sermon on the day!

“This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.”  That’s what I just sang as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean in God’s sight – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as a social outlet or a bit of a club of the like minded, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean “not here” just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning; but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Dare we imagine?

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The main service of the day included a baptism.  The Scripture it references is John 11:1-45.

Recently I was talking to the father of a young boy; seven years old or so.  The father was a bit worried because his son had taken an action figure of the Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn, and was calling the figure Jesus and using it to act out various scenarios.  The problem was that Qui-Gon Jesus came complete with light sabre and was, in these imaginative scenarios, acting in a most un-Jesus-like way.  What to make of this?  The dad worried.  Should I stop my son’s play, tell him this is wrong, is it maybe even a sort of blasphemy to have “Jesus” cut down his enemies like a Jedi?

I was (I hope) able to reassure the father that this is very normal.  Children of that age haven’t yet learned to categorise fact and fiction in an adult way; all of the ideas they encounter get mixed up together and engaged imaginatively, and that’s how young children learn and grow.  It’s normal to play with ideas – even about sacred things – as young children, and we do, mostly, eventually grow out of it.

In fact, I have a suspicion that often we train ourselves out of it a little bit too thoroughly.  We need imagination in the life of faith; not that I want to imagine myself striding, robed and light sabre wielding, through all opposition, (satisfying though that might sometimes be); but that if we are to have hope, we have to be able to imagine that things can be different than they are now.  If we are to believe that God is up to something; at work in our lives, in our community, in our wider world, we have to be able to imagine what change might be needed, and how things might be, after that change.

In our gospel reading today we see Martha and Mary struggle with this need for imagination.  Lazarus is dead.  It’s been four days and the reality of that has started to sink in.  Jesus arrives and first Martha, and then Mary also goes to meet him, and each says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  They each have enough sense of who Jesus is at this point to know that things could have been different, but now that Lazarus is dead, their hopes for a resurrection are postponed to the last day.

Jesus’ response is key here; “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says.  I am here, now, present, and you don’t yet see how much that changes the range of things which are possible.  I am the resurrection and the life; and that means that Lazarus can rise today, that life can return to one whose body already stinks.  Throw out the normal rules, ladies, because where Jesus is, they don’t apply.

I wonder how often, in our lives, we do the equivalent of saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, things could have been so much better…” instead of looking around with the eyes of imagination, and seeing how things could still be so much better?

In a few minutes, Oscar’s parents are going to bring him for baptism.  And for them, too, this is an act of a hope-filled imagination.  They have seen that with God, with Jesus, there is potential open to Oscar which is absent if God is not acknowledged.  None of us can know, when a child comes for baptism, what God will do in the life of that child, how he or she will grow, what he or she will become or accomplish.  But we can claim the presence of God in that child’s life, knowing that that presence of God broadens the horizons of life, of spirituality, of hope for that child.

In baptism we claim that the one who raised Lazarus, the one who told Mary and Martha and the assembled mourners that all the usual rules don’t apply to him, will be present and active in Oscar’s life as he grows.  That God will help him to develop a character which expresses love and joy and peace.  That God will work through Oscar to bless those around him, in the uniqueness of Oscar’s particular gifts and strengths.   We claim that for each of us who has gone through the waters of baptism.

In baptism we claim that broadened horizon of hope even beyond this life, trusting that somehow even in eternity we will continue to be in the presence of God.

These are big claims.  It’s quite possible that some of you are listening to me, but thinking that they are not, in fact, very credible claims.  And I can certainly understand why you would think that.

But this brings me back to thinking about the other little boy I started talking about, the one with the action figurine with the light sabre.  Maybe he doesn’t know Jesus’ character so well yet, but he’s got one thing right; it’s a mistake to try to put limitations on what Jesus can and can’t do.  The innocence of a childlike imagination is helping him to avoid the very grown-up traps of preconceived ideas or rigid thinking.

Jesus once said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  It seems to me that one aspect of this is the ability to let go of our own perceptions of what is possible; to suspend disbelief, and to let our imaginations play.

So we come to the font, to baptise Oscar and to remember each our own baptism, and my question to you is, dare we imagine?

Naming and dominion

This is a sermon for the commemoration of the naming and circumcision of Jesus, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 8 and Luke 2:15-21.

Today we heard the story of Jesus’ being named and circumcised in our gospel reading.  I wonder if you noticed, though, the way that Luke put it?  “He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

In ancient near eastern cultures, and thus in Scripture, names and their meanings are important.  Who gets to name someone or something is about authority or power of some sort over the thing or person named.  The point of Jesus being named by the angel is that no human being exercises that kind of authority or power over Jesus’ life and ministry, but only God himself (with the angel as a mouthpiece).

So I was interested to see that, in some ways, today’s Psalm explores some of the same sorts of ideas, but from a different direction.  The Psalmist is marvelling at the heavens, the moon and stars, the awesomeness of all creation (“the work of God’s fingers”), and in light of the vastness and intricacy and wonder of it all, asks why God cares about us?  Aren’t we pretty insignificant in the scheme of things?

And yet God, the psalmist notes, has crowned us with glory and honour, and given us dominion over the works of his hands; sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and whatever unnamed creatures lurk in the deeps.  This points us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the story of Adam naming all the animals; just as the angel announcing Jesus’ name sets Jesus apart as being under the authority of God, the earth and its inhabitants have, in some sense, been delegated to us to govern in accordance with God’s purposes for it all.

So for Christians hearing these two passages this morning, we are being pointed in both cases back to the question of what God’s purposes are.  What are God’s purposes which Jesus came to fulfil?  And what are God’s purposes which God’s people have always been called to participate in,  as we exercise dominion over the earth?

In the Scriptures, we’re given a picture of a God who creates, not just the material world and its inhabitants, but also a human society of community and justice.  This purpose – the creation of a society of community and justice – underlies the whole unfolding story of the covenant with Israel, which in turn opens out to the salvation of the whole world.  This means that when we consider what God has delegated to us, it’s not just about stewarding the material fabric of life but also justice and righteousness; and if righteousness is a word we often don’t really understand, I’d suggest that for the purposes of this discussion we could also just as well say “human flourishing.”

In the mind of any Jew steeped in God’s law, as the psalmist would have been, the “goodness” of the created world is mirrored in the “goodness” of right relationships and behaviour.  The two belong together as part of the seamless whole of God’s creation, and the enjoyment of what we might call “the good life” materially cannot be separated from the worship of God who gave it to us and the ethical treatment of the other human beings who inhabit it alongside us.

What this suggests is that enjoyment of the good things of the world is not ethically neutral, but is bound up with matters to do with relationships with God and our fellow creatures.  If the story of the garden of Eden (before the fall) gives us a picture of innocent enjoyment, it’s because in the garden there is harmony between the man and the woman, between them and the other creatures, and between them and God.  And the harmony is not merely an absence of conflict or competition, but an actual interdependence, a being there for the other.  The humans care for the garden (in a loving partnership of equals), so that it can be productive; the plants bring forth fruit; and God walks amongst them all at the time of the evening breeze.

But we are not in the garden, and the relationship between the moral life and the good things of creation is not so straightforward for us.  Where our dominion was given to us so that we could regulate the security of every family and individual in the human community, living wisely and productively in our environment, when we look around at our reality we see that what we have wrought is, in the big picture, very different.

We live in a world where about one in ten people don’t have enough to eat.  Where about one in eight children don’t receive life-saving vaccinations.  Where about one in twenty people live in a war zone.  Where about one in seven people are not educated enough to be literate.  Where we have exploited our lands, waters and air beyond their tolerance limit, destroying habitats, poisoning what was once teeming with life, and playing havoc with the climate on which so much relies.

Why do I remind you of all that?  Because this morning, as we ponder our dominion over creation, and as we ponder Christ’s dominion over us (after all, it is his name we bear from our baptism), we need to confront the fact that we have not lived in accordance with God’s purposes, at all.  We need to confront the fact that social justice, peace-making, reconciliation, and the safeguarding of creation are not new and trendy ideas, which we can choose to take or leave as we prefer.  They are obligations on us in the Christian life; they are, in fact, part of our very purpose for being here.

What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God cares for us?  We are supposed to be partners in God’s purposes.  We are supposed to exercise our power for the good of the planet and of human community.  And I put it to you that we in the church do not ask ourselves often enough, as a community, how we are going to do that; today, this week, this month, this year?

As we remember Jesus being given the name God Himself had chosen; as we remember being given the name of Christ, each in our own baptism; as we remember the power we have each been given as the children of Adam, heirs of his dominion over the earth; I put it to you that we need to take these matters to heart, as a core part of our identity and purpose here, if we are to be all that this community is purposed by God to be.

The Lord be with you.

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.