Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2010

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-end

Yesterday was a feast day which isn’t observed very much these days, the feast of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A week before Christmas, the Church as it were quickens the excitement by thinking about Mary looking forward to the imminent birth of Jesus.

That’s not all. Some old Church calendars listed the day as "S. Maria de la O", because (the Catholic Encyclopaedia tells us), ‘on that day the clerics in the choir after Vespers used to utter a loud and protracted "O", to express the longing of the universe for the coming of the Redeemer.’[1]

The whole creation has been waiting and longing from the beginning, for this, for the birth of the Son of God in human flesh.

We read today Matthew’s story about the conception of Jesus. Matthew is much briefer than Luke, we don’t have an annunciation scene, we are just told that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. But Matthew and Luke agree in the essential points, which we shall affirm together in the Creed shortly, that “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man”.

The Virgin Birth of Jesus is inescapably there, in the scriptures and the Creed. It’s part of our faith. But sometimes it seems to be almost an act of defiance to the modern age. Is not this something which militant atheists love to attack as irrational and unscientific? Where does the Y chromosome come from? Isn’t it something of a stumbling block to belief? Even Christian preachers and pundits sometimes seem embarrassed to affirm this article of faith.

Well, I think we need to ask why this matters. In Christian belief, God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, and therefore creation is good. God looked at all that he had made and it was very good, as we read in Genesis. But creation has a purpose which it can’t achieve by itself. The cycles of birth and death, of growth and decay, are closed in on themselves. Ultimately, left to itself, everything ends in death and futility. But God intends something more. St Paul says in Romans:

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.
So the labour of Mary, in bringing to birth the Son of God, has this deep connection with the labour pains of the universe as it awaits its redemption, which is the fulfilment of its created purpose.
Again, in Colossians we read:
All things have been created through Christ and for Christ. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And in Ephesians we read of:
A plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.
So nature awaits its fulfilment, its liberation from death and decay. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in and through Christ. Just as in the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep, just as we are told in the psalm that God “sends forth his spirit and renews the face of the earth.”
Grace, the work of the Holy Spirit which is a free gift of God, perfects nature, bringing everything to fulfilment in Christ. Creation has been made for freedom, but cannot attain it without grace.
Nature down the ages has always been being perfected by grace, by the hidden work of the Holy Spirit. Everything in human life and culture which points to a goodness and truth that endures beyond death testifies to this. People have always been feeling their way towards God. More particularly, in the history of Israel God revealed himself in a definite way, through the law and the prophets, pointing to a future fulfilment of all creation in a personal relationship with a personal God, the coming of God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace. In all of that the Holy Spirit has been at work.
It is therefore entirely fitting that the birth of the Son of God, the coming of the Messiah through whom creation is to find its fulfilment, should be by a particular and unique act of the Holy Spirit, the culmination of all the work of the Spirit down the ages. Nature is perfected by grace, but here we have something more. As Newman puts it in his magnificent hymn:
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God's presence and His very Self,
And Essence all-divine
The fulfilment of all creation begins in the union of created nature with God himself, in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth. This is therefore the supreme work of the Holy Spirit.
The Incarnation decisively breaks open the cycle of decay and death, and liberates creation to achieve its purpose in Christ. Therefore it is not only rational and fitting, but we might say even necessary, for the birth of Jesus to take place in a way which shows this to be true. The birth of Jesus from a virgin Mother is an interruption of the normal pattern of life doomed to decay and death, and shows that the liberation of the universe has begun.
So when we affirm in the Creed that the Son of God “was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” we are not posing riddles about biology or indulging in something unscientific or irrational. We are making a statement that in the birth of Jesus creation begins to attain the freedom for which it was created. The new creation breaks into the old and a fulfilment begins which will take us beyond the knowledge of the senses to the life of God himself.
In this week before Christmas we rejoice that our redemption has begun in Christ, and we look forward to the fulfilment of all things in him. Mary’s longing for the birth of Christ gives voice to the birth-pangs of all creation, its yearning for God who is its creator and redeemer. In that yearning we, too, join, looking forward with unclouded hope to the day when Christ will be all in all.


Monday, 13 December 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent III 2010

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent III 2010

St Pancras Old Church

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

“Lucia believed in God in much the same way as she believed in Australia, for she had no doubts whatever as to the existence of either, and she went to church on Sunday in much the same spirit as she would look at a kangaroo in the Zoological Gardens, for kangaroos came from Australia.”

That's from one of EF Benson’s delightful Mapp and Lucia books, Queen Lucia. Lucia is a snob and a social climber of great accomplishment, but it seems she could only cope with a God who kept a proper distance and didn’t make any inconvenient demands.

Not so John the Baptist. He was a prophet, like the prophets of old, and as we heard last week a bit of a fire and brimstone preacher, saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He saw himself as preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed deliverer, who would gather his chosen ones but, in John’s words, “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire”.

Time passes, and John has been imprisoned for making outspoken comments about Herod. He’s heard about what Jesus was doing, but curiously this seems to make him doubt whether Jesus really is the Messiah after all.  So he sends a message to ask, “are you the one who is to come?” Jesus does not give him a direct answer. He simply lists for him the things he has been doing over again, the things that John has already heard about:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
This in fact summarises the miracles that Jesus worked in the previous section of Matthew’s gospel, in chapters 8 and 9 there are stories in which Jesus does all of these things. So why does John doubt?
Perhaps he doubts because this is not quite what he expects the Messiah to be doing. As we’ve seen John expects wrath, fire, punishment. And not without reason, because the Bible seemed to say that’s what he should expect.

The way that Jesus lists his miracles in fact refers to five different texts from the Prophet Isaiah which give the signs which will mark the coming of the Messiah. We heard one of them this morning from Isaiah 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”.

But in each of these texts as Isaiah gives them the sign of healing and restoration is coupled with a promise of punishment and vengeance. Evildoers are going to get their comeuppance. So we had this morning “Here is your God, he will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” And there’s something like that in all five of the texts that Jesus references[1].

But Jesus only quotes the bits about healing and restoration. Now John knows the Bible. He knows that Jesus is giving some of the signs of the Messiah. But not all of them. The punishment of the wicked doesn’t seem to be happening. So can this really be the Messiah?

Jesus doesn’t say yes or no. He simply says, “blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”. Actually in Greek it’s “blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”. The concept of scandal runs right through the New Testament. Skandalon means an obstacle, a stumbling block, a snare, a trap. But it also has a mysterious attractive power. It has a kind of magnetic force that you can’t get away from, like something in your path that you can’t avoid bumping into. Jesus is saying that in what he is doing, in how he is proclaiming the Kingdom, people will respond to him like that.

The greatest scandal in the Gospels is the cross. That the Messiah should end up rejected, lynched by a mob, refusing to save himself, forgiving his murderers. That is a stumbling block, an obstacle to faith, if you expect God to descend with military might and destroy the wicked. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians,

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In the Gospels nobody’s response to Jesus is ever neutral. They respond either with rejection or with faith. People are drawn to Jesus willy-nilly, and find in him either a stumbling block they can’t get round, or the corner stone and solid ground of God’s salvation. Either way, they can’t avoid the choice. You can’t treat Jesus like a kangaroo in the zoo, you can’t take him or leave him as you please. Lucia’s safe tame God is not an option.

To come up against Jesus is to be brought to the point where we must choose. Rejection, or faith. Stumbling block, or corner stone.

So Jesus does not say to John the Baptist, yes I am the Messiah. It is up to John to choose how he responds. But Jesus does say, blessed are you if you do not find in me a stumbling block. Blessed are you if your response is faith, not rejection[2].

The cross is not the only scandal in the Gospels. Jesus heals on the Sabbath. He criticises the religious authorities. He teaches in strange parables which reveal to us our own inner stumbling blocks, our own scandal.

And now in this time of Advent we are preparing for Christmas. Bethlehem has its own share of scandal, too. God revealed to us in the muck and mess of chaotic human lives. God coming to live with his people in the midst of upheaval caused by the arbitrary dictates of an occupying Imperial power. God born in improvised accommodation, dispossessed, vulnerable, marginalised.

And that is what we are preparing to celebrate. Every year we come up against the scandal of Christmas. And every year we are invited to renew our response of faith in the God who did not stay remote from us but came to share our human life as it actually is.

The season of Christmas parties and shopping is in full swing, and I wonder how much that really reflects the good news that God has drawn near to us in Jesus. I don't know if you've seen the "Christmas Tree" in St Pancras Station. It consists entirely of Champagne bottles, piled up in a great pyramid, with a sign in front saying that anyone found tampering with the Christmas Tree will be prosecuted. And a very merry Christmas to you, too.

Now there's nothing wrong with a party, and Champagne is nice, but I don't need a whole tree full of it. When pleasure becomes anaesthesia it can also be a denial that there is anything of value in our lives as they are. And that is to avoid the place where God comes to meet us, in life as it is, in our own situation whatever we are dealing with, amid our failure and mess and falling apart and making do.

But Christmas says that’s exactly where God meets us. And blessed are those who are not scandalised in Jesus. Blessed are those who find in him good news for the poor, healing for the sick, new life for the dead. Blessed are those who find in Jesus the Messiah, the Saviour, the hope of all the world.

[1] The references are: Isaiah 29:18 (“vengeance” verse 20); 35:5-6 (“vengeance” verse 4); 42:8, 17 (“vengeance” verse 13); 26:19 (“vengeance” verse 21); and 61:1 (“vengeance” part of verse 2).
[2] After preaching this it occurred to me that this may explain verse 11, “the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than” John the Baptist: at this moment John is still poised on the cusp of choice, has still to accept Jesus definitively as the Messiah. In fact, the Gospels do not tell us how John responded after this scene at all, or what choice he made. It is left to the Tradition of the Church to tell us that John’s beheading was an act of martyrdom, of witness to the truth.