Leadership for Christians – 24 January, 2020
There are two good themes I would like to ponder today from the readings: the story of Jonah and the idea that we are called to be fishers of people.
Firstly, let’s look at the story of Jonah. It’s a short book, and a great tale. It is not meant to be a true story: one of my lecturers, a Uniting Church scholar who taught me , whom we called Rabbi Anderson, said it was missing the first four words that made sense of it: “Once upon a time..”
Anyway, God tells Jonah that he has to go to Nineveh to tell them to repent. Well, Nineveh is an Assyrian city, the people who had just conquered most of the area around them with a particularly bloodthirsty ruthlessness, including the northern Kingdom of the Jews, Israel, and sent them into exile. Jonah hears God but instead of going there, immediately takes off in the opposite direction, even taking a boat to get away – perhaps because water was seen as particularly effective at putting a barrier between a land-based God and oneself. However, God is having none of that, calls the storm into being, and eventually Jonah confesses his escape attempt to the crew and is thrown overboard into the belly of the great fish. There he repents of his decision and is thrown up on land and heads to Nineveh. He tells the people there of God’s wrath, and they repent. Jonah goes outside the city to watch its destruction in vain, and God shelters him with a vine, which God then allows to wither and die, so Jonah is angry about the loss of the shade. God then asks Jonah why he is so angry about the death of a plant, but not about the death of all the people and cattle of Nineveh?
There are many lessons the writer of Jonah seems to be drawing. An important one is that God has mercy on even the hated and foreign Assyrians. God is not just the God of the Chosen People. But the important one seems to be about Jonah – how Jonah won’t change unlike the pagan Assyrians. He is called to go and preach but won’t. God gives him a second chance from the belly of the great fish, and Jonah reluctantly goes. The people of Nineveh repent, but Jonah doesn’t – he still wants them destroyed by God. God then shows Jonah by the death of a vine that his priorities are wrong – he is after his own comfort and not feeling for the people and cattle of Nineveh – but the story ends on that question of why won’t Jonah feel for the people – we are left with no answer about Jonah. Jonah is presented as a man who despite being a Jew, a believer in God, continually sees the world as one not loved by God but under God’s judgment: the people of Nineveh are pagan bloodthirsty Gentiles and God should punish them. Jonah is the great failure – he never understands God’s mercy and never changes. The people of Nineveh change, God changes his mind – Jonah does not.
Now let us look at one part of the Gospel today – when Our Lord calls Simon and Andrew. He tells them to follow him and he will make them fishers of people. Have you ever thought how strange this analogy is? For think about what happens when you fish like they were fishing – you catch fish in nets, pull them out of the water, so they die, then sell them to other people to eat.
Is this what Our Lord is wanting from Andrew, Peter and, by extension, us? We often think of fishing as with a bait, and use the analogy that way, but giving some attractive food, a bit of God’s love for example, we can pull people from their world into a better world. But fishing even there involves death – to be lured by a false bait, for that is what a bait is, and a fish mistakes it for food, and then killed? But the fishing that was done here on Galilee was by nets so there was not any false bait, instead a group of fish, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Once you start to think about how they were fishing with nets, then the school of fish start to seem remarkably similar to that other well-loved analogy, a flock of sheep. Fish and sheep are both gathered in groups and ultimately have the same destination – food. As the disciples were called to be fishers of people, they are also called by the example of the shepherd as well.
But here lies the point – the shepherd they are called to follow and imitate is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. The model that Our Lord teaches is a reversal of the traditional model – not a fisher giving up his fish for death, or a shepherd giving up the sheep for death, but one who seeks out the lost and even dies for the sheep. This is the reversal that Our Lord teaches – the system is no longer for domination and death but one for protection and life.
To be a fisher of people or a shepherd comes down then to the person changing, not the school or flock. This is the point of Jonah again – God wants change from Jonah – why won’t he repent when everyone else does, including the people of Nineveh? We as Christians are called to change to be able to lead. To follow Jesus is to learn to change, to become more Christ-like, to die even, so we can guard the sheep and fish that we are entrusted with.
So, it’s no use blaming those around you for the lack of change – the people of Nineveh can repent and Jonah did not even care. The people around you may be just sheep and fish, catch up in their own needs and as mindless. But the question for us is not about the fish and sheep – it is about our role as shepherd and fisher. Do we really love those around us? Do we lay go and search out the lost? Do we lay down our lives for them? Do we try to change as Jonah could not?
Change is the theme in the readings today: change from one way of living to another. The first reading is from the Book of Judges, and is the start of the story of Samuel. It’s maybe from around the year 1000 BC. Then we have the Gospel reading and Paul writing to the Corinthians, which makes it early 1st C AD. Today we look at how change happened over this period.
The story of Samuel starts his life living with the Ark of the Covenant at Shiloh. Now that’s a small place, but a cultic centre around the Ark. But the Ark will be taken into battle and captured, before being returned. It will then languish and not return to Shiloh, before David takes it again. The capture of the Ark signifies that it is not an all-powerful talisman.
The big change here is the start and ending of the Temple. Samuel is the last of the Judges – he will anoint Saul and David, and start the Jewish Kingdom and the erection of the First Temple. The Jews will radically change their society to live under a king and to have a central place of worship in the Temple with all its ritual, away from a small cultic place like Shiloh. Samuel marks the start of the transition of Jewish life to a new Temple based worship.
Jesus and Paul are of course living before the famous Jewish Revolt in 66 AD. They mark the ending of that very era. For the Jewish revolt led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The Temple would not be re-built, and Christians and Jews would develop a spiritual life without a Temple focus.
So, Samuel marks the transition of a cultic crisis – the change of worship and organisation to a kingdom and a Temple, and the time of Our Lord and Paul mark the change from the Temple worship to another. The Temple is the sandwich between the two eras.
So, what is the point of the Temple? The Temple gave a focus on how to live. It gave rules on what to offer and how to be clean and live a life that was pleasing to God. It gave a structure on how to organise a society – with a king who obeyed and an altar for sacrifice. It marks the transmission of Jewish life from a series of prophets, often violent, who arise and impose leadership on the tribes and the scattered worship with places like Shiloh and the Ark to another form, with an organised and hereditary kingship and organised and structured Temple. The older way of chaos under the prophets moves to a more organised and hopefully less violent kingship and Temple. Samuel helps them move to a new way.
Yet a 1000 years later the structure was no longer working. The Temple, mark 2, was there, yet one faction of Jewish life increasingly controlled it. The country had no king – the last dynasty with kings like Herod were not of the right family, nor had there been a king of the House of David for centuries. The country was ruled by the pagan Romans, and before them Greeks. The old way was no longer working, and Our Lord and Paul prepare for a new way.
What Christianity is offering is a new way based on the incarnation, or enfleshment, of God in humanity. God has taken on human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our desires are to follow those of Christ – we are to live by how Our Lord wants, not by our own misplaced desires. Desires will still tempt: and in our prayer life we need to acknowledge them, and in one way, visualise Our Lord helping to build a wall between them and ourselves to help overcome them, but these desires never give contentment.
That is why St Paul gets so ratty about fornication here. He places our bodies on a par with that of the Temple – the centre of Jewish life, and the replacement to be. It’s a question of desire. What is our desire – to go to a prostitute or to go to Christ? The endless and never satisfying forms of sexuality will not bring contentment. What brings satisfaction and fulfilment and growth is a life following Christ.
This is the point about the exchange between the two disciples and Jesus in the Gospel reading today. Our Lord asks what they are looking for, they reply, rather strangely, where are you staying? The point is, what they are asking is more than where he is physically living – the words are sometimes translated as abide. It’s the same word that has just been used for John the Baptist saying the way the Spirit of God, like a dove, descended and remained, or abided, in him. Jesus also talks about abiding in the Father using the same word. There is the link between the dwelling of the Spirit and the dwelling the disciples are looking for. It’s not a question asking for an address – it’s a deeper question as to what makes Our Lord tick. The disciples are asking Our Lord to show them who he is, and that is why Our Lord invites them to come and see. John often has Our Lord asking one question, and the disciples answering with another question, but Our Lord then moves to meet the disciples on the level they are asking. So, he ask them what they seek, they ask where does he stay, and he answers their question at their level. God will always meet us where we are, and then move us to a deeper level of seeking.
For us it’s the same question – what makes Our Lord tick – why do we love him and follow him. The reply is still the same – come and see. We have become Christians in different ways – some from an experience, some from a lifelong sense of belonging to a church, some from the love that has been shown – but to each of us we are called to abide, to live in Jesus. This is the new Temple for us, the new presence of God. Yet living in Our Lord is not an address – it’s a continual experience of coming and seeing what he calls us to do. The Temple, with its rules about how to live is gone. What we are offered instead in a new way, a Temple of the Spirit, a Temple lived in Christ and ourselves in communion with him. Unless we see the point of the Temple, that pink elephant, the need to have God dwell in us, then nothing makes sense.
Themes of Mark – Baptism of Our Lord, 10 January 2021
Each of the four Gospels begins in their own unique manner. Matthew, for example, embarks from the very first verse on a lengthy genealogy of Our Lord, tracing his Jewish lineage all the way back to Abraham. Luke, by contrast, begins with an introduction that reads like part memoir and part history textbook. John, for his part, utilizes poetry to introduce theological themes that continue throughout his Gospel.
But Mark is in a category unto himself. He never offers a genealogy of Jesus at all, never claims to be writing history, and moves at such a breakneck pace. Instead, Mark jumps right into the fray and opens on the banks of the river Jordan, as Jesus is baptised.
Although the lectionary begins in the fourth verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, it bears pointing out that the first three verses of the chapter lend important clues about just what kind of Gospel Mark is writing, and how best readers ancient and modern should read it.
For starters, it is no accident that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t make it past the first two sentences without quoting the Hebrew Bible—in particular, Isaiah. St Mark, not unlike Our Lord himself, knew the Jewish scriptures well and quoted them often. He narrates the story of Our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection, not as a new story about God and God’s people, but rather as a pivotal moment in the larger story of God making Godself known in human history. The God we meet in Jesus, Mark tells us, is the same God spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures, who is doing a new thing.
The second thing these omitted introductory verses point out is that this Gospel that Mark has written (gospel means literally “good news”) is not all that can be, or should be, said of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, Mark makes clear from the first words of his Gospel that this is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark makes these two important points just prior to launching into the story of baptism because it turns out that baptism works in much the same way. In baptism, we don’t stop being who we are or get to ignore the history that inevitably and fundamentally shapes us. Just as Jesus doesn’t stop being Mary’s boy from Bethlehem, incarnate from the God we first met in the Hebrew scriptures, so too are we all someone from somewhere, for better or worse.
There is also a hidden understanding here as well that relates to how baptism was performed anciently. The candidate for baptism made the promises to renounce evil and follow Christ, professed belief in Jesus, then took off his clothes and was immersed in water. The person then rose from the water, was anointed with oil and clothed in new clothes, generally white. Baptism was the death to the old life, birth into a new life in Christ. Taking off the old clothes symbolised the life left behind, the new white clothes symbolised the new life as a Christian.
As a side point this was one place where female deacons were employed in the early Church, for the baptism of women. Unlike the Jewish religion for Christians both men and women had an initiation, and for propriety women deacons had a role in baptising other women.
Once you understand how baptism was performed then another theme in Mark becomes clear. Listening to the story of Our Lord’s baptism the listeners who were Christian would identify with their own baptism, taking off their garments until they were naked or nearly naked, then the plunge in the water and rising again.
There are two other points then in Mark where nudity is an element that connects with this passage – the young man who fled away naked in chapter 14, when they arrested Our Lord, and Our Lord’s own death.
Firstly Our Lord. Our Lord was crucified with either no or hardly any clothes. The reason was simple, it was part humiliation, and also that clothes had value, that was the spoil of the soldiers, hence them gambling for them. People were not crucified with anything of value. But it then ties in with baptism, for in baptism you take off your old clothes and die to the old life, and Christ literally died on the cross to make the new life possible. Our Lord’s death had clear baptismal connotations for those who understood baptism.
The last link is the young man who they tried to arrest with Jesus. Mark records how he fled naked, leaving his garment, a linen cloth, with the soldiers. The linen cloth he left is described with the same word in Greek that is used then when Joseph wraps the dead body of Jesus for the tomb. There is another connection here, between the cloth the young man left behind, and the cloth that Our Lord is wrapped in for the tomb. It is a grave cloth, a symbol of the old life. The young man then appears in the Gospel again – the word in Greek is the same; this time dressed in a white robe, to tell the women of the resurrection of Our Lord. He is the symbol of a newly baptised Christian, who flees naked with the arrest and death of Our Lord, who flees the old life, who goes naked into the waters of baptism to rise into a new life, a life that is possible through Our Lord’s resurrection, shown by the white robe.
All this may sound rather deep and confusing, but the Gospel, especially Mark, was not meant to be read in disparate chunks week by week, it was meant to be a way to listen to the whole story at once, to pick up themes. This is one of the deep themes of Mark that only the initiated Christians would be able to follow as they found food for their faith is the telling of the Gospel.
In Mark’s Gospel the ministry of Our Lord starts with his baptism and ends with his resurrection. In miniature, it is the story of a Christian. In baptism we start our ministry, with the assurance that our sins are removed, we are not to be hindered by the burdens of the past. So many people get stuck in the remorse of the past, our mistakes, and we wish we could change them. Well, it can’t be done. But they can be forgiven. We find the assurance of that in baptism. We find the working out of that by taking our daily problems to Our Lord in prayer and handing them over, which can be just as simple as telling Our Lord in prayer what we have done like a child and then letting him take care of the rest. It’s simple, as long as you keep on praying. Then our lives look to our own death and resurrection, just as Mark’s Gospel presents the story.
Mark’s gospel is centred around the themes of baptism and resurrection, deliberately, as it is a conversion document, designed to make us understand our own participation of Our Lord’s death and resurrection.
In Mark’s Gospel alone, the word “immediately” appears 42 times: three times more often than in the rest of the New Testament and seven times more often than in the entire Old Testament. It is as if Mark’s style of writing is a sermon in itself: just as the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection moves at a breakneck pace, so too does the life of the baptized! The work is urgent!
That’s why when Jesus is baptized, Mark wants us to feel the water and smell the breeze and see the spectacle! That’s why, when he describes the heavens opening, he says they were torn apart: schizomenous is the word in Greek. It shares the same root as the word Schizophrenia; a violent disruption in the status quo. God’s voice disrupts the status quo, declaring Our Lord to be God’s own Beloved!
If we want life to remain exactly as it is, and if we want to stay exactly where we are, doing exactly what we’re doing, perhaps we should re-think baptism and the Christian life.
But if, on the other hand, we desire a life dedicated to following the living God, as we work together to build God’s kingdom, then the place to start is at the water’s edge.
From there, find a good pair of shoes and a sturdy walking stick because the journey has just begun, and the work of the Kingdom is far too urgent to wait. Amen.
Will You Follow? – Epiphany 2021
There is a traditional Italian story about an old woman named La Befana who was the most renowned housekeeper in her entire village. She would happily spend the day with her broom sweeping the floor, cupboards, and front step. The neighbours all knew her home was spotless. One day as she was sweeping, she was interrupted by a knock at the door. When she opened it, she saw quite a sight: three strangers looking travel-worn but well-to-do. The first one said that they had travelled a long way. The second explained that they needed somewhere to rest and heard that her house was the most hospitable in the village. The third told her the strangest thing of all: they were following a star.
Old Befana eyed them warily. She had lived alone for a long time and was cautious. They did not look like robbers, but more like scholars or wealthy merchants or possibly nobility of some kind from lands far away. Hospitality was important and so she invited them in to stay. She showed them to where she slept and they settled onto her small bed, pulling up her blanket, and falling asleep immediately.
In between sweeping, Old Befana checked on the strangers from time to time, but they did not stir. She wondered where they were from, and why they were following a star.
When they finally awoke in early evening, she offered them food and drink and asked them her questions. They told her they came from the East and were following a star that would lead them to a new-born child who was the king of the Jews, and who would be the king of all kings. The strangers wanted to reward her hospitality by inviting her along to find this child and bestow gifts upon him.
Old Befana had been so caught up in their story that she dropped her broom in surprise. To travel with three strange men following a star? It would not be proper! Besides, who knows how long it would be before they found this new king? Think of all the dust and cobwebs that would collect around her humble house! She shuddered as she pictured it and told the strangers kindly, but firmly, “No, thank you,” and wished them luck as they walked on into the night.
When Befana went to sleep that evening, she tossed and turned as she dreamed of the strangers, the star, and a baby bathed in light. When she woke up the next morning, she could think of nothing but the strangers, their story, and their invitation. All the time she spent thinking about that little king who perhaps lived in a village just like hers interrupted her cleaning schedule so much that, at last, she had a change of heart and decided to follow the strangers after all.
That night, she set off on the road with her broom in one hand and gifts tucked in her apron, looking for the light of the star and peeking into every house along the way. If it looked like a child lived there, she would leave a little gift, as she could never be quite certain which child was born the king of all kings, for the Christchild could be found in all children.
The Italian story of Old Befana is typically associated with Epiphany celebrations, as it is related to the Magi from the East who come to seek where the king of the Jews can be found. The strangers that both the legendary Befana and our Gospel story’s King Herod encountered were not kings, but most likely Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult, which in Matthew’s time would have been understood as astrologists and interpreters of dreams. This would not have been seen as odd in the ancient world, as astrologers prophesied the birth of other prominent rulers, such as Alexander the Great, from what was written in the stars, and prophetic dreams happened to Gentiles and Jews alike – as we see in the Gospel of St Matthew, as well as in the Old Testament. Both the star and prophetic dreams reveal God’s presence in miraculous ways that call those who experience each to act in faith.
The star which the Magi follow becomes a bridge between the pagan astrological hopes that invite the Gentiles into God’s story and the Jewish Biblical promises of a Messiah from the “star out of Jacob” as mentioned in Numbers 24:17. Two different worlds, aligning in one same goal: hope for the future. St Matthew reminds us that even from Our Lord’s birth, we see the walls between races and cultures breaking down. The Gentile Magi are seen to have what is a common occurrence in Matthew’s Gospel – the ability to be obedient to God by literally and figuratively following the light – while King Herod, the chief priests, and scribes serve as foils to show the unbelief of some of the people to whom Jesus was sent. Furthermore, these strange foreign men are allowed by Mary and Joseph to see the Christchild, as were the shepherds, neither quite the respectable guests for a new born Jewish child.
St Matthew consistently relates everything back to Our Lord’s future story and puts it in the framework of the ongoing story of God. Perhaps the worst sin in Matthew’s Gospel is the hypocrisy of the Judaean leadership, which King Herod portrays well in his sneaky and murderous intentions when engaging with the trusting Magi. It also forebodes what will happen later to Our Lord because the past in Matthew always points to Jesus and Jesus’ future. This interpretation is appropriate both to Matthew’s era and the community to which he writes. There are two claims to kingship: the one in this world, which Herod is keen to retain, and the divine kingship which Our Lord represents. The wonder which the Magi see and interpret translates into faithful action as they seek to pay homage to Jesus, while Herod scrambles in fear and plots murder.
If the Magi were from the East – meaning the Persian empire in this context, consider what a long journey they would have had to make. It echoes Abraham’s obedience to God in traveling from Ur, in modern-day southern Iraq, all the way to Egypt and back to Hebron in the Promised Land of Israel. What would compel not just one person but three to follow a portent in the sky on such a dangerous journey so far from home? Like Old Befana, would you have joined them?
We have been living through a global pandemic for almost an entire year. Our journey has been long, and we do not know when the end will be in sight. This ambiguous loss creates discomfort. While we have not been wandering through the wilderness literally, we certainly have been well and truly stick in one place, devoid of holidays, devoid of family, devoid of friends from afar; all the anchors, which used to hold us in place, are uprooted, setting us adrift. Adapting daily to new information and ways of doing things is tiring. Personal losses, whether through death, a job loss, or other changes, deplete our emotional reserves. Many wonder why God would allow this to happen, and some have lost their faith in God. This is where our story and that of the three Magi converge. We are not lost. We are traveling toward something greater than ourselves and Emmanuel – God with us – is as close as our breath. As Christians in this broken, hurting world, we can act now to reach out to our neighbours and offer hospitality of the heart. We have what the Magi and Matthew’s community had: hope for a better future in Christ.
Like them, we follow the star that brings us to Our Lord, and, in knowing Jesus, we change course, going home another way. Life will never be the same as it was before the pandemic. There is a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch Renaissance humanist and theologian: bidden or unbidden, God is present. The Magi did not know God in the way that the Judaean people did. Yet God’s sign compelled them to become part of God’s hopeful story. In our Book of Common Prayer, the Christian hope is defined as living “with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” God is doing a new thing even now, and we are all invited to be part of the unfolding hope. Will you follow?
Based on a sermon by the Rev’d Danae M. Ashley, of S. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle.
Christmas is one of the greatest days of the year. We come together this day to celebrate the birth of a baby, helpless and vulnerable, yet at the same time God. It’s a contradiction, that God should come as one of us, and even as one of the most vulnerable of us.
But this morning we don’t tell the story of the birth in our Gospel. We did that last night, and this morning we expect you to have heard the story, or at least know it, and instead come her to ponder what it all means. So, this morning, we listen, instead of angels, shepherds, magi and manger; to the great prologue of St John. St John tells us a mystic revelation instead, that in the beginning was the word that all things were made through, and he was light, and the light was the light of the world. Word, Light and Life are the three key themes that St John opens for us as we contemplate the birth of Our Lord.
If you like what once were called penny dreadfuls, those books filled with dastardly conspiracies and buxom heroines, you probably have come across the name of the illuminati. They are often presented as some strange hidden group. There is more than that though. Illuminati means those who have seen the light, and those who were baptised were once called the illuminati, for they had seen the light and came to faith. For St John starts his gospel with this reflection on who Christ is instead of a story about his birth, because he wants to make a point about understanding. He wants us to be illuminati.
For in John there are many miracles about the life of Our Lord. But there is always a problem about them for those there. Many people see them, but don’t understand them. You see, it’s all about faith. People may see the signs, but only see them as a passing wonder. It doesn’t bring them to faith. The penny doesn’t drop for these people. They haven’t moved. They have seen, but haven’t been illuminated. The light has not shone for them.
The great Anglican monk and liturgist Dom Gregory Dix talked about becoming what you are. Baptised we may be; yet our illumination is not a static episode in the past, but a becoming which is part of our daily being. We are never finished with the growth into seeing reality as God its creator created it and sees it.
That’s the point of this great passage from St John this morning. It challenges us to move beyond a story about a child being born some two thousand years ago in a strange land. It challenges us to move beyond those angels, shepherds, magi, and manger to another reality. It calls us to have the illumination, to have light, to be illuminati, to be the baptised people we are, filled with the grace of God and the Holy Spirit and not just passive spectators of a tale told too many times.
There are many things that happen in the world that move and bother us. This year has been a particularly bad year. Sometimes we are so close to what happens that we have lost our perspective, especially as we wait minute by minute for the latest cases of Covid. We are so close we can no longer see the bigger picture and the light of God. I remember seeing a documentary once about the Carthusian monks in Parkminster in England in the 1960s. Once a week they were given a summary of the world news, pinned up on the noticeboard, in Latin! During the Cuban Crisis they had to wait a whole week to find out in World War III had broken out, unless the missiles arrived earlier. The point of this was to train them to let go of the world, to pray for the needs of the world, but to be detached from it. As the letter of St Peter tells us, with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. We are so close to the action at times that we cannot see the light, the reason, for why things happen. But this does not mean that God is not there, working through all this. We have been inconvenienced. But many, such as in our neighbouring countries, have been destroyed by the loss of tourism. Has this crisis of this year made us a better people? Are we more generous as a result? Have we just watched the signs of what have happened but not had faith and seen God?
That’s what the prologue from St John that we have heard this morning is meant to make us do. Go beyond signs to faith. Signs and stories are just the first steps to a deeper and better understanding, an understanding when we have faith. Be the illuminati, see the light, hear the word, and find the truth. With the truth that our god and Saviour, Jesus Christ has come into the world, and knows each and every person, sins and all, and still offers forgiveness and love to each and every person if we dare to accept such an audacious gift.
We have all heard the story. The baby is born. But do we have faith in what it means?
One of the things, that religion is very good at, is symbolism. We use things, items, symbols to point to deeper truths. Sometimes the connections are merely transitory, such as wearing white for the vestments tonight. It’s just a custom, that can change. Traditionally black was the colour for death for us, so we would wear black for funerals, but now it is increasingly common for black to be worn by guests as well. That symbol is fading. Other symbols are connected to the deeper truth, such as the wine and bread to the body and blood of Christ. You cannot break that connection without destroying the reality of the sacrament.
I’ve been pondering over this year and what symbols are appropriate for this year of crisis. There have been many suggestions: such as cancelled holiday tickets, zoom aps, covid codes – all things we knew little about a year ago. But for me I think the best one has been the surgical mask.
A year ago, most people had never worn one unless they worked in the medical field. And the first time I wore one I put it on upside down, and I have seen quite a few with the white on the outside instead of the blue. This year we all learnt how to wear one. Here in Adelaide it’s been only cursory, such as in the brief shutdown, but if you have been in Melbourne recently you would see them everywhere.
The interesting thing is what happens when you are in a situation where masks are expected but someone doesn’t comply. Plane trips or public transport in Sydney or Melbourne; or in our Nursing Homes until this week. There are looks at the person who has forgotten to put one or doesn’t care. Heaven help if that person then coughs, people move away, glaring at the person for the irresponsibility and danger. I travelled on a plane to Sydney a month ago and one man did not put on his mask, and didn’t people stare at him. There is a shunning, an avoidance, a fear.
Even more extreme is when a certain shop has been named as a hot spot for Covid infections. I doubt many of us will ever use a certain pizza shop in a nearby suburb. There is now a permanent shunning of it as unclean, dangerous: do not go there.
It’s good to think of this as we look at the gospel story tonight, the birth of Our Lord. Because that’s a story that is filled with symbolisms, some of which it is hard for us to understand. One that is hardest for us to understand is that Our Lord was born into a world of ritual purity. Only certain things and people were clean that you could deal with. For example, pigs and dogs were unclean animals and no good Jewish home would deal with them. It also extended to people – unclean occupations, or that the person was non-Jewish. It extended to places, such as tombs of the dead. The point about this was that life was unpredictable. You needed to stay ritually pure to be on the right side of God. It was like an insurance policy, you stay ritually pure, and God would look after you. If not, look out. So, eating the right food, avoiding the wrong people, were all symbols of a person on the right side of God.
Now when you understand that need to be pure, you start seeing something new in the Gospel stories. That’s the visitors. St Luke, as we heard tonight, tells of the visits by the shepherds, who are invited by the angels. St Matthew tells of the Magi who are lead there by stars. These two groups are noted particularly by the writers. The point about these two is that both were impure.
Shepherds were those who worked out in the fields, looking after animals in the night: it was a low status group thought to be little better than tramps and certainly unclean, both physically and ritually. Then the Magi, well, they were foreigners, and possibly involved with Zoroastrians, certainly not Jewish, and unclean as well.
Not the sort of guests that a good Jewish family would invite into the home for a viewing of a new baby.
Yet when they come, knocking on the stable door, so to speak, in the middle of the night, with no better excuse than angels and dreams, Mary and Joseph let them in.
The clean new baby is shown to the unclean.
Now when this baby grows up, he is going to do a lot with those who are unclean. He is going to eat meals with them. He is going to touch lepers to heal them, even though it is noted when he heals a Centurion’s child, that he does not have to touch, merely command. He deliberately touches to invite uncleanness, yet cleans the diseased instead. This is going to annoy a lot of people, so many in fact, that he is going to get himself killed.
All this points to a greater symbol: God is not afraid of becoming one of us. God is not afraid of impurity. God is not afraid of strangeness. God is not afraid of death. God loves us instead. So the Good Lord will eat, touch and even rise from the dead to show that love.
Now this is a year when many of us have been afraid: afraid of disease, afraid of changes. The symbol of the facemask is a good symbol for our fear.
Yet we are called by the Good Lord Jesus to not be afraid. All these things will pass, as wars and plagues have passed before. What is important instead is that love will win, the Christchild is born, vulnerable yet open to all even from birth, to shepherds and Magi and all sorts who are not the clean and pure of the world. Do not be afraid. In the symbol tonight of the bread and the wine, that great symbol that joins us with the body and blood of Christ himself made manifest in our midst, we touch again that hope that good will triumph and God’s will be done.
It’s Rose Sunday today. That’s why these magnificent vestments are being worn, in this lovely shade of pink. That’s why there are roses embroidered all over them as well, in reference to this day. We only get these colours out twice a year, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which we call Mothering of Laetare Sunday, and today, the third Sunday of Advent, sometimes called Guadete Sunday. The Latin names are just the first words in Latin of the entrance antiphon that is sung when I come in, which means Rejoice.
Why do we have it? Well, is our holiday break in Advent, when we are meant to lighten the mood, away from the sombre themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. Its origins go way, way back to before Christ, to the habits of the ancient Roman Republic. This time of the year there is winter, when there was not field work, and in Rome this was the time that the elections were held for all the public offices, like consuls and tribunes, as this was the time that an agricultural society could take off and electioneer. So, when the church arrived in Rome it adapted to the custom of the early Roman Empire, by that stage, which still had elections at that time. In the early church the members of the congregations elected the clergy: and that term meant then not just priests and deacons, but also the lesser offices of lectors and doorkeepers; there were seven in total. So it was done, at this time, before the midwinter feast, which became for us Christmas. Elections should not be done in a sombre mood, so Mother Church lightened the mood for the day, so off with the purple and in with the pink rose to show the change of pace. Hence the antiphon, “Rejoice!, gaudete” that is sung at the start of high mass.
But back to the readings. Today we tackle John the Baptist. If you ever go into an Orthodox church you will see a screen separating the nave from the chancel, usually it’s covered with icons, and as a result is called the iconostasis there is always one of John the Baptist there at the right of Jesus. In the Orthodox rubrics, he is always placed there because he was the prodromos, the one who pointed the way to the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah,” John said. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” And then John went even further in saying of the one for whom he prepared people, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Prodromos means in Greek the forerunner, and that word for runner, dromos, is the same we have for a dromedary camel, a runner camel.
There is something to be said about knowing your place. In politics or in business, underlings, even those with distinguished titles, sometimes forget their job description and say things or cut deals which only their superiors are allowed to do. It’s fun watching the underlings of President Trump playing this game saying in a comment something which seems to say what the U.S. President has not yet said, or worse, might not want to say. John the Baptist did not have this problem. According to tradition, he was a first cousin of Jesus, yet there were no problems with jealousy or confusion of role. As a forerunner, he challenged people to think about their moral failures so that when Our Lord appeared on the scene they could appreciate his message of forgiveness and love. Because John understood his role, the need for Jesus was advanced.
Humility gives more than it asks.
John’s role in today Gospel is therefore worth our consideration. John so depreciated his status that historically he seemed to disappear from the stage once Our Lord arrived. That’s how John saw his role as forerunner or herald, but some who had come to appreciate his charismatic personality may have thought otherwise. Groups of John’s followers are documented in a variety of early Christian settings, such as in Acts of the Apostles.
Not only was that not John’s stated intent, however, but there is much to be said for that quality in humility that gives more than it seeks. John describes his humility in servant-like terms. He isn’t worthy to untie the thong of his master’s sandal. The sandal, usually a flat, undyed piece of leather, was in constant contact with the dirt and it was the one spot where touch could show the unworthiness of the disciple for the master.
There are many humble gestures that Christians might be called upon to use in order to demonstrate their own humility before Our Lord in a John-like way. Touching feet clad only in sandals made dirty by dusty roads may be symbolic, but washing them and putting body lotion on them is an ancient custom familiar to us from Our Lord washing Peter’s feet and Mary’s anointing of Our Lord’s feet. However, such humility, in our shoe-clad society, encourages us to ask with what measure of love we might reach out to show our appreciation for others rather than calling attention to ourselves. The Advent-Christmas season often has us sharing cards, gifts and foods with friends, neighbours and relatives. However, it’s one thing to be caught up in the spirit of the season, and another regularly to ask, “How might I be a forerunner/ambassador to Christ every day?” The mark of John’s humility was that he pointed away from himself and to the Messiah. We might ask ourselves how our actions could encourage someone to consider Jesus. Often the simple things do this, a meal to someone in need, or a phone call. It’s a question that a prodromos should ask: What did I do or say today that made a person ask about Jesus?
It was St Francis who captured the essence of this humility is assuring that “in giving we receive” and it was his Master who taught us that in giving to others we shouldn’t let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. (Mt. 6:3-4) The essence of Christian humility lies in giving more thought to how another may discover Christ through our words, actions and shared feelings. The essence of Christian humility lies in keeping our focus on Our Lord, and looking for him in the face of a stranger.
This does require a reversal in our all-too-human need to see ourselves first and to consider how a caring action may affect our personal need, our wallet or our comfort level.
John, however, on the occasion in our Gospel lesson, not only recognized the importance of pointing others away from himself and to the Lord. He also knew that having found the Lord who alone could forgive, love and free him, he was happy to play second fiddle.
So, we to, must continue to learn the lesson of humility, to rejoice and wear our pink roses, and learn to be a prodromos, and point others to Our Lord and Saviour.
The Good News -6 December, 2020
We all know Christmas and Advent. We’ve all seen the Christmas plays. We’ve set up the Nativity crèche with the holy family, cow, donkey, and shepherds. It’s become almost too familiar. In part, that’s why we have the season of Advent. These four weeks serve to prepare the way to Christmas via a bit of liturgical wilderness. The penitential season provides a time of reflection and contemplation so that we can hear the good news of Our Lord’s incarnation afresh and let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives.
This year is a bit different, to say the least. For many, this does not feel like the usual joyous march toward Christmas. Hundreds of thousands around the globe will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one who has passed on due to the pandemic. Millions more will be attempting a celebration without their usual large and festive gathering, due to travel restrictions. For almost the entirety of the year, we have all been a people anxious and waiting for another lockdown. We missed Easter. We have been so fortunate here things are not so, so worse.
This has been a year full of new experiences, and every little thing is cast in new perspective. And yet, while the harshness of wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the same ageless truths remain constant. We are just able to see them more clearly. The fundamental truth of these wilderness seasons is that we are waiting on an imperfect and broken world to pass. The season of Advent reminds us that no matter who we are or where we are in time or space, all earthly things will come to an end.
Nearly 30 centuries ago, Isaiah wrote to God’s exiled people, who were longing to return home. God’s message to them is one of comfort. The Lord is coming. On first hearing, Isaiah’s message hardly seems one of comfort: The comfort offered in these verses is more complex than a “happily ever after” story. The comfort comes by putting things into a divine and cosmic perspective. All people will fade like grass, but God is mighty and endures forever. The goodness of God will prevail. The prophet does not give an immediate timeframe or an immediate solution to the heartbreak and suffering of the people in exile; what is offered instead is a message of hope for the future.
The Second Letter of St Peter is also written to a people longing for God’s return. The author’s message is not unlike Isaiah’s: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.” All things will, in the end, pass away. And in the end, God’s justice will prevail. While we don’t know the exact date of its writing, we do know that this epistle was written to the fledgling Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They are looking for Our Lord’s return and immediate relief from their suffering. But God does not descend with thunder from the clouds in triumphant material salvation. Instead, God’s word instructs the early Church to step back and seek a divine and cosmic perspective. A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God. Again, this does not seem like a happy fairy tale message for a people experiencing immediate pain and anguish. The author goes so far as to say that God’s lack of thunderous return is not to cause more suffering but instead is an act of love and patience. Once again, we are given a word of hope for the future, but we are also given instructions on how to live in the present: “Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”
In our gospel reading, we read the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Without much prelude or fanfare, we are thrust into the action in the desert. The prophet John the Baptizer proclaims in the wilderness a familiar message. At this point in history, Israel has been invaded and occupied by the Roman Empire. And now John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though crowds flock to John – the reading says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” – John still points away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John points to a hopeful future by promising one who will come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit.
Our readings also show us that waiting is not a passive action. We are to live out our hope. In waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we proclaim God’s message of justice. We name sin. We turn toward justice. We stand in the wilderness, pointing to the one more powerful than us.
Our Advent message from John the Baptizer is not to adopt a locusts-and-honey diet or de-clutter the closet to make room for the camel skins. The message isn’t even to level mountains or make a straight highway running through the desert! Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people that await the coming of the Lord. We are always in waiting – through victory and defeat, triumph and loss. It is certainly our job as the Church to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world. But it is just as much our job to be visible in the wilderness, naming injustice, oppression, and apathy as sins. We name these things as sin not to cast judgment or humiliate or ridicule. And least of all do we name sin in order to exclude people from our “in” group; it is precisely the opposite. We stand in the wilderness and welcome all to journey with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We point to something better. We point to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come. Our Church is always the hospital for sinners.
This Advent, many of us are already in the wilderness. Let us step back and pray for a glimpse of the divine and cosmic perspective. We remember that all things here on earth are temporary and passing, and we have to work to embody God’s patience and love here in this world. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming. As our collect says, let us live in such a way so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Based on a sermon by Michael Toy, of Princeton Theological Seminary.