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

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Christmas 1 2013

Massacre of the Innocents (Cogniet)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Hebrews 2:10-end
Matthew 2:13-end

The story of the massacre of the innocent children, at this time of year, at any time of year, seems like a rude shock. This is not the deed of an ogre from a fairy tale, or of a pantomime villain. It is an act of ruthless cruelty, perpetrated by an all too real historical tyrant, King Herod the Great. 
Apart from Matthew’s Gospel, there is no other account of this particular massacre. But it would certainly be in character for Herod. He was famous for his cruelty, and had several members of his own family executed for fear they would become rivals for his throne. He suspected that the population would rejoice when he died, so he gave orders that one member of every family in Judea should be killed after his death, so he could be sure that everyone would mourn. The emperor Augustus is said to have remarked that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son, because Herod, in his superficial observance of the Jewish laws, would be less likely to kill a pig. 
But why does Matthew’s Gospel tell us this particular story? All four gospels are rooted in Jewish history and faith, but this is particularly the case for Matthew. His Gospel may have been written for a community of Jewish Christian believers who were under attack for their beliefs from the Jewish religious authorities. So his Gospel is at pains to demonstrate how the life and teaching of Jesus are in continuity with Jewish belief. 
One of Matthew’s devices is the ‘fulfilment text’, a quotation from the Prophets used to demonstrate that Jesus really is the long awaited Messiah. In today’s reading we had, for example, “This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’”. And we can watch out for other examples as we read through Matthew’s gospel during the course of the year.
But the story of the Innocents does more than just refer to isolated texts. It shows that the pattern of the life of Jesus is like that of God’s saving work through history. For Matthew’s first readers, the story of a cruel king who orders the massacre of children would immediately recall Pharaoh ordering the killing of all Hebrew boys at birth, to prevent them becoming a threat to his power. And it would recall Moses, one of those children, who as a baby was rescued from Pharaoh’s ruthless designs and grew up to lead Israel to freedom. 
So the story makes a parallel between Moses, the saviour of Israel of old, and Jesus, who will become the new saviour of Israel and indeed of all humanity. And one of the signs of the Messiah was that he would be a “prophet like Moses”, a motif that recurs through Matthew’s Gospel.
But the story does more than just look back to Israel’s past. It also looks forward, to the fulfilment of Jesus’ story, to the particular way in which he will become the new Saviour of his people. The massacre of the innocent children foreshadows the crucifixion, the killing of the innocent Jesus. For this reason the Holy Innocents have always been venerated in the Church as martyrs - witnesses to Christ, not in their lives but in the way they died.
Herod’s title was “King of the Jews” - a title given to him by the Roman emperor. The Romans kept him in power because, in spite of his cruelty, he was politically capable and reliable. But his sons were not, and were only allowed to hold lesser posts. After Herod’s death Rome never appointed another King of the Jews. His political successor, at the time of the crucifixion, was the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. 
So the massacre of the innocent children, on the orders of Herod, foreshadows the killing of Jesus, on the orders of Pontius Pilate. And the title that Pilate put on the cross, “this is the King of the Jews”, was a typical Roman joke, cruelly ironic, because there was no King of the Jews - Rome wouldn’t allow one. 
At the heart of this story is a collision of worlds. And Jesus, while yet a baby, presents us with a choice between the two, as he will throughout the Gospel. 
There is the world represented by Herod and Rome, a world which is ultimately governed by death. Death is what defines and limits its imagination. Resources are limited, life is short, so grasp what you can while you can, before you die. In particular, grasp hold of power, for with power you can fend off death for a while, or inflict it on others instead of yourself. This is the world of sin, with all its envy, rivalry and violence. 
But Jesus has come to save us from that. He has come to bring in a new world, a world redeemed from sin. As the reading from Hebrews today puts it, he came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”. 
Jesus has come to reveal God in whom there is no death. He has come to open the way to God, so that all might enter life without limit, the life of God. But he does not do so by opposing might with might. If he had, by some omnipotent act, just struck down Herod, then he would have been a mirror image of Herod, exercising power as the world does, fending off death with death. 
Instead, Jesus defeats death altogether by suffering it himself, freely, as the innocent victim who is also God come into our world to make it anew. In the providence of God, it is only by sharing our death that he is able to free us from death. Because it is through the resurrection that the path to the new world is opened, and all are able to enter in and come to dwell in God in whom there is no death.
So this story of the Innocents both looks back, to the history of God’s saving work in Israel’s past. And it also looks forward, to its fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Jesus. 
But it is a story that is told in this in-between time, the time of sin when the world of envy and rivalry and violence is still very much in evidence. And Saint Joseph in today’s reading gives us a pattern for how to live, as believers in the resurrection who are still in the middle of this world of sin and death.
What did Saint Joseph do? Firstly, he stayed faithful. He did not always understand, but he was attentive to God and stayed faithful to the guidance he received. He may not have seen the full picture, he may not have seen the glorious future of the resurrection. But he did what was given him to do, and it was enough.
Secondly, he did not despair. In a world of great evil and violence he carried on and did what he could. It may have seemed little enough, at the time, to save himself, one woman and one child from Herod’s violence. But in fact it was a crucial part of the story of our salvation. Because of Joseph’s faithfulness in little things, the great thing which was the life and teaching and death and resurrection of Jesus was able to unfold to its conclusion. 
Joseph did not live to see that end himself, except by faith. His name disappears from the story after the childhood of Jesus. But what he did was enough. In the midst of a world of violence and sin, he stayed faithful, and did not despair. He trusted in God, whose ultimate victory was promised by the prophets of old and fulfilled by Jesus, through whom all people now may be saved from sin and death and enter into the life of God.
And we, too, in this time of sin, are called to be attentive to God, so that we can discern what we are called to do. Christ is risen, and the new world he came to inaugurate is open to all. His kingdom will never fail, and we are to bear witness to that kingdom even in the midst of a world that resists it deeply and, in some places, with great violence. And so we are to stay faithful, and not despair. For the resurrection transforms not just our ultimate future, but how we live in the world here and now.

Homily at Christmas Midnight Mass, 2013

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, was built about 300 years after the lifetime of Jesus over the site of a cave which local tradition had revered since the first century as the birthplace of Jesus. And it is quite a likely site. The ground is riddled with caves and many first century dwellings in the region of Bethlehem consisted of one room above ground, for the family in summer, and one under ground, where the animals lived, and the family kept warm in winter. So if you went to a home in Bethlehem and wanted a manger - an animal feeding trough - you would find it down below, in the cave. 

That cave is still there, and the pilgrim can descend beneath the Church and see, beneath ornate hangings and rich altars and marble claddings, a small round place on the ground, surrounded by a golden star, where the original limestone floor can still be seen. The precise spot, it is said, where Jesus, God in our human flesh, first touched the earth.

We might ask, how can we know it was that precise spot, rather than one in another corner of the cave, or in the cave next door?

But actually it is very important that there was a place, a little spot where God first touched the earth in Jesus. There and not somewhere else, that time and not some other. 

Because in coming among us as a human being God becomes particular. In entering the world, coming to us to save us, God must confine himself to a particular place, a particular time. In order to redeem all places, all times. 

Bethlehem then was crowded and hectic, suffering a housing shortage as a result of a piece of distant and inept bureaucracy - the decree that everyone must go to their ancestral town to be registered. Historically this was probably a decree about land registration, doubtless with some revenue in view. Government and administration are necessary, of course, if they are for the good of society. But a decree issued without any thought for the impact on human lives does not serve society. Distant and faceless bureaucracy can be an instrument of oppression, making sure that everyone remembers who is in charge, and who is not. And instruments of oppression are ways of forgetting the human.

Bethlehem today is much changed, in some ways. The security barrier - a twenty foot high concrete wall - snakes its way across the landscape, those fields where the shepherds once kept watch over their flocks. It does do what it is said to do, which is to keep radicalised terrorists from getting into Jerusalem. But it also stops local people from farming their land or going to work, dividing ancient communities many of which are now abandoned and derelict. 

But in some ways Bethlehem does not change. Whether it be faceless bureaucracy, or fear, violence and division. Bethlehem has seen them all. As has every part of the world. All are ways in which the human tends to be forgotten, the human project imperilled. 

Human beings have been created, gifted, with the extraordinary gift, that we can love. And therefore, because love has to be free, we can choose not to love. And the human project fails, in society, in ourselves, when we turn away from love. And that has been the tragedy of the human race from the beginning.

But the child born in Bethlehem is the ray of hope in this weary, dehumanising world. Then, and now. Because in the middle of humanity forgetting to be human, God remembered the human. God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. Gave himself, as one of us. Gave himself in order that the human project might not fail. 

When Jesus first touched the earth in Bethlehem he did so as the human being who would live the love for which we were created, perfectly. And he did so also as God, our Creator, come to raise us to himself so that we might participate in the Divine Nature. Divine and human, in one person, so that the human might become Divine.

As Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to save the human project, so also he waits to be born in every place that needs that good news, that salvation. In every place of conflict, division, violence and fear. And in every heart, in every human life. In yours, in mine. He longs to be born in us to redeem the human project that is me and you. He longs to be born in us so that we might live in and from his love.

The little space of our hearts is always enough for Jesus, he who dwelt in that “heaven and earth in little space” in Mary’s womb, he who was born in that cave at Bethlehem. The cave of the Nativity is found in our hearts too if we will let Jesus be born there.

And we do not need to fear. Are there ‘security barriers’, divisions that make us afraid, in other people or in ourselves? Christ overcomes all barriers, unites the divided, in humanity and in ourselves. 

Tonight Jesus comes to us in love, to overcome our sin, our fear, our division.  He comes to us because God remembered the human, even when humanity did not. He comes to us that the human project might not fail. He comes to be born in the little space of our hearts and our lives, where he longs to dwell in the fullness of his divinity and love. Like that little star on the floor at Bethlehem, if we let him be born in us Jesus will make of our lives a “touching place” where his love becomes real for us and for the world around us.

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2013

A very sound painting by Francisco Rizi

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

A scientist decided to have an argument with God. Not, perhaps, the wisest thing to do.

“Look”, said the scientist. “We know how life was created. We’ve worked it all out. All you need is some earth with the right kind of clay in it, water, free radical molecules, and ultraviolet light. Mix it all together and you get life. In fact, I can do it right now, I’ll show you!”

“Alright”, said God. “Go on then.”

So the scientist bent down and started gathering together a pile of earth. “No, no, no”, said God. “That’s cheating. Get your own earth.”

That little story illustrates the difference between making something and creating. We can all make things. It involves assembling different parts into something new, or changing one kind of stuff into another. So for example you can take dried fruit, flour, butter, sugar, eggs and brandy and make a Christmas cake. But you can’t create one, in the sense that the Christian tradition understands creation. That is, you can’t create a Christmas cake out of nothing. In fact none of us can create anything at all. We cannot call anything into being where nothing exists. We can only change what already exists.

The fact of existence is something that we accept, because it is there. There is earth and life, there are people and Christmas cakes. But we cannot explain existence. There is no process by which nothing can become something. So the fact that there is something rather than nothing confronts us with a mystery. And the Jewish and Christian traditions refer to that mystery by the word “God”.

That is what the creation stories of Genesis do, those grand dramas of epic myth at the beginning of the Bible. They point us to the mystery called “God”. God, they say, is that which is beyond and beneath all things, giving existence where otherwise nothing would have existed at all.

This truth of creation undergirds the whole Christian understanding of human history and salvation. It undergirds the whole story of God coming in to the world to save us, taking on our human nature in Jesus. The Gospel writers knew this, of course. And we can see it in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, because the story of the birth of the Messiah is a creation story.

This is perhaps more obvious in the original language, Greek. The Greek word for “birth” is “genesis”. So today’s Gospel reading opens with the words, “The genesis of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”. That immediately points us to which other part of the Bible we should have in our minds when we read the first chapter of Matthew: the Book of Genesis. In fact Matthew’s gospel begins with the words, “The Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ” – referring to the genealogy of Jesus that then follows.

And Matthew tells us that Mary is with child “from the Holy Spirit”. This too recalls Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

That “wind from God” is the Spirit of God, bringing into being what was not. And it is just the same with Mary. Mary is the virginal depth, the new formless void, over which the Holy Spirit hovers to bring into being something new.

The meaning is clear: in the birth of Jesus, something new is being brought into existence in the way that only God can bring something new into existence. The birth of Jesus is an act of creation: new creation, in fact. St Paul calls Jesus the “new Adam”. “Adam”, in the Hebrew creation story, means “humanity”, and stands for the whole human race. In Jesus, humanity is created anew. In his conception we are present at a new beginning.

This is why the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus matters. It is not a puzzle about biology, but an affirmation that something new was happening. The birth of Jesus does not continue the same old humanity which has been around since Eden: divided, fallen, sinful, seeking God but unable to rise to him. The birth of Jesus begins a new humanity, and comes about in a new way. It is not the “same old same old”. So the birth of Jesus happens in a way that only God can bring about, because it is an act of creation. This does not make Jesus less human, but rather more so. The new humanity, begun again in Jesus, is humanity without the fall, humanity as it always was meant to be.

But Jesus, of course, according to Christian teaching, is both human and Divine. His human nature was created at his conception in the womb of Mary. But from that moment the Divine nature of the Eternal Son, who had existed with the Father before creation began, was indissolubly united with that humanity. From the moment that Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, the Divine was united with the human; humanity was deified. Human nature, joined with God, in one person.

We might ask, that is all wonderful for Jesus, but how does it save us? Well the good news of our salvation is that what Jesus is by nature we can become by grace. Jesus is the pattern and beginning of the new humanity, the new “Adam”, in which we all come to share by grace as the Holy Spirit renews our nature in the image of Christ. As our old human nature dies, the new human nature of Christ comes alive in us more and more.

That death and rebirth is signified in the sacraments of the Church, in Baptism and the Eucharist. At the font we declare that we have died with Christ and been buried with him, so that we also might rise with him to new and eternal life. The prayer of blessing over the waters of the font speaks of the Holy Spirit hovering over the deep at creation, as we come to the font to share in the new creation in Christ.

And the Eucharist of course is the sacrament of the Body of Christ: or, to paraphrase, the sacrament of the new human nature in Christ. Through the Eucharist we become what we receive: the Body of Christ, the new humanity, joined with the Divine nature. The Eucharistic prayer expresses the understanding of the Church about the nature of this change when it says:

Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit, and according to your holy will, these gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That is a creation prayer. The Creator Spirit is invoked that something might come to “be”.

The transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the transformation of human communities into the new humanity in Christ, are acts of new creation. And they flow from the one definitive act of new creation, which was the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary.

The great good news of this Advent season, the good news that Mary bore, is that the creator and the redeemer are one. The power which called the universe into existence out of nothing at all, is the same power which is redeeming us in Christ.

Therefore we can be absolutely sure and certain of that good news. Our redemption is sure and unshakeable. In Christ we are being made new. In Christ we are being united with the Divine nature. And no power in all creation can prevent that, for it is the creator himself who is bringing it about.

No power, that is, except our own freedom, for we cannot be saved against our will. So Advent is a time for us to choose, once again, to receive God’s grace, as did Mary. To co-operate with his loving purpose to save us in Christ and unite us to his Divine nature. For this, Jesus was born, and for this we look forward in hope and rejoice.

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent III 2013

Giovanni di Paolo - Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples

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

It’s a scandal! How often those words are said, or thought. Yesterday, the front page scandal in the Sun concerned the alleged domestic habits of Nigella Lawson. Tomorrow I expect it will be something else, perhaps MPs’ salaries. And scandal is always about what someone else has been getting up to.

But although scandal is something we disapprove of, we also can’t help wanting to know about it. Scandal both attracts and repels. And scandal is one of the key ideas running through the Bible. Skandalon, in Greek, means a stumbling block, a trap, a snare. It is an obstacle in our path that we can’t help falling against. And it occurs in the Bible again and again.

It is there in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says, in the translation we use, “blessed is the one who takes no offence at me”. But actually what he says is “blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”. Blessed is the one who does not find in Jesus an obstacle or a stumbling block.

Jesus says this in response to the question he has received from John the Baptist, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Things seem to have changed since last week’s reading, when the Baptist was proclaiming that the Messiah was about to appear. Then, you may recall, John said that he baptised with water, but one was coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But now things have changed, John is in prison, Jesus has begun his ministry. And John, it seems, is having doubts. Is Jesus really the Messiah after all?

Jesus does not give him a direct answer. He simply lists for him the things he has been doing:

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 has worked in Matthew’s gospel up to this point. So why does John doubt?
Perhaps he doubts because this is not quite what he expects the Messiah to be doing. As we heard last week 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 that 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 refers to[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. The corrupt Herod is still in his palace and John is still in prison. If Jesus is the Messiah, surely he would have thrown Herod out and taken over by now.

John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the forerunner of the Messiah. But he does not yet understand what the Messiah’s kingdom will be. As Jesus says, “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John”. And Jesus puts his finger on what John does not yet understand by saying “blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”.

Why would anyone find Jesus to be a scandal, a stumbling block? St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians: the crucified Messiah is “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”.

Jesus is the Messiah who has come, not to inflict wrath, but to suffer it. And unless we believe, that is unless we can enter into the mind-set of God in Jesus, that will be a scandal and a stumbling block for us.

And perhaps John, for all the depth and the strength of his faith, is a person who has been scandalised. He has viewed the world in two camps: us, the righteous; and them, the wicked. Scandal enables us to point the finger and think that we’re different. Last week we heard John’s response to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”

And John is now in prison because he has been scandalised by the behaviour of Herod. Herod had married his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive and John had kept telling him, “this is unlawful”. He couldn’t leave it alone. The sins of Herod both drew him and repelled him.

The key to understanding the verses in the prophets about judgement and salvation is that both apply to us. So when Isaiah says “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance… he will come and save you”, we are not to hear the bit about salvation as applying to us and the bit about vengeance as applying to someone else. We need to hear both, together, addressed to ourselves.
There is no “us” and “them” of the righteous and the unrighteous. The whole of humanity is in this together, as St Paul says in Romans “all have gone astray”. And the judgement of God comes to us for our salvation.

Judgement is when we see and know the truth of ourselves in the light of God. When we see our sins and failures as God sees them, that is judgement. But it is also salvation, because it is precisely when and where we fall into sin that God is waiting to save us. That is his nature. The name “Jesus” means “The Lord saves”. And the Lord in his death, in his becoming a scandal on the cross, meets us in the place of our judgement to set us free.

But we only can be saved if we are not scandalised by the Saviour who comes to redeem us right where we are in the squalid shameful mess of our sin. Which means that we must not be scandalised by him wanting to save everyone else as well.

If we own the truth about ourselves in God’s light then we see also that we are one with all humanity. One in our need of salvation, and one in God’s mercy and love freely offered.

The confession of our sins is not a morbid exercise of wallowing in guilt. To own our sins is to find ourselves where God finds us in his love and forgiveness. It is the opposite of being scandalised. This is why we begin every Mass with an act of confession.

And the Church offers to all the ministry of reconciliation through personal confession to a priest, and the declaring of absolution. It is an experience of great liberation to hear those words, said by a frail sinner, yes, but with the authority of Christ, “I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. That ministry is available here, and in many other churches. You can make an appointment or just call in when I’m here before or after services.  And it is particularly to be commended as part of our preparation before the great feasts of the Church’s year.

Because Christ is coming to save us. Coming to meet us right where we are. Because the place where we discover ourselves to be sinners, like everyone else, is also the place where we fall into the arms of the God who loves us and is waiting to embrace us in his forgiveness.

[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).

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

It seems as though Christmas comes earlier every year. The lights go on and the trees go up in the shops just after the summer holidays, Santa’s grotto opens around September - and here is John the Baptist getting in on the act, because he’s a week early. The Sundays in Advent have four themes, which are alluded to in the prayers when we light the advent wreath: first come the Patriarchs, Abraham and Sarah standing for all our ancestors in the distant past who first had faith in God.  Then the Prophets, who proclaimed God’s word to Israel. Then, next week, John the Baptist, and finally the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But in fact we see John the Baptist again next week, so all is well. This week’s reading reminds us that John the Baptist has two roles: he is both the last of the Old Testament prophets and the forerunner of the Messiah. He comes after the Old Testament witness, and before the coming of Christ. And this week we look back to the prophets of old. 
What were prophets in the Old Testament? What did they do? Sometimes we think that they predicted the future, but they didn’t do that in detail, and it wasn’t their primary concern. The prophets of ancient Israel spoke the message of God to his people, according to whatever their need was at the time. If they were going wrong, they needed to be corrected. If they were suffering affliction they needed comfort and hope. But the prophets always proclaim what God is like, and the standards he expects of his people. God demands justice, righteousness, equity for the poor, liberty for the oppressed, because that is what God is like, and God calls human society to reflect his nature. 
Today I am sure many people are recalling Nelson Mandela, a real prophetic figure of our own time. His courageous witness for what was right and just, for all people, his stand for forgiveness and reconciliation, his hope that South Africa could become a free, just and inclusive society, when that must have seemed impossible to many. He was a true prophet, and through his witness saved his country from the terrible violence that might otherwise have happened. 
But the prophets of ancient Israel also look forward to God’s action in the future. And this was because God is consistent. God is always both the judge and the saviour of his people. So the prophets looked forward to future salvation, even when things seemed to be going terribly wrong in the present. 
So the prophet Isaiah, who we heard in our first reading, looks forward to a Messiah, a righteous Spirit-filled king of the line of David. And this is in contrast to the weak and corrupt kings of Isaiah’s own time. God’s chosen leader will get it right and accomplish God’s whole purpose. The Messiah will bring about Isaiah’s vision of justice for the poor and equity for the meek in a restored paradise (which, by the way, is vegan, as was Eden - there is no violence even in the animal kingdom in Isaiah’s vision).
And as St Paul reminds us in the letter to the Romans, and the prophets themselves said, this salvation is for all people, Jew and Gentile, for every one of us.
John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading is fulfilling an Old Testament type prophetic role. This caused tremendous excitement at the time as there had been no prophets for centuries, and it was widely believed that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by the appearance of a new prophet.
So John goes our into the wilderness and enacts the repentance that he was calling people to. His dress and his diet are truly penitential. And he’s quite clear that repentance had to be sincere. Like the prophets of old John does not restrain his language about insincere religious leaders. How about this as a strategy for greeting new people arriving at Church: “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”? Well, perhaps not. We are Anglicans...
There are two important ideas in John’s message: wrath and repentance. “Wrath” in the Bible is closely related to desire. It is the craving for an insatiable desire that eats us up and torments us. A tangled writhing brood of vipers is a very powerful image for the Biblical idea of wrath. This is always rivalrous desire, wanting what others have, trying to grab and hold on to what we feel we lack, leading to envy, violence and hatred. 
Repentance is the conversion of our desire. Repentance means turning around. From wrath, the death-bound desire that closes us in on ourselves, to the open, generous, loving desire of God. If we are open to God’s desire then we are open to receive his life, to be baptised with the Holy Spirit. 
John’s baptism signifies the first part of this, repentance, the conversion of desire. But John looks to Jesus to give what he himself cannot give - the life of God.
And John is clear that to receive this gift there has to be a real change within. We cannot rely on having Abraham as an ancestor. Or on any other “automatic” guarantee of salvation. Be that living a respectable life, going to church, or whatever. True repentance is essential. No external sign can substitute for the true interior conversion of our desire.
But, John is still the last of the prophets, before Jesus. So he does not yet know the way in which the Messiah’s mission will unfold. He is the forerunner, but of something he cannot yet imagine. In today’s reading he seems to imagine that the Messiah himself will bring wrath for the evildoers, but things turn out differently, as we shall see next week.
For the time being, we are to examine ourselves and seek to repent, to re-order our lives according to God. To seek the conversion of our desire from what is death-bound and turned in on ourselves, which the Bible calls “wrath”, to the overflowing, utterly generous and self-giving desire of God, in which alone we will find our true life. And this is how we, like John, prepare the way for the Lord, and for his Kingdom to become known.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent 1 2013

'Watchman, what of the night?' by Sonia Lawson 
(By Leightonb3 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:1-end
Matthew 24:36-44

You may experience a sense of deja vu on hearing that Gospel reading. Didn’t Luke say something similar two weeks ago? Well yes he did. But now we are in a new church year, and this is the year of Matthew. Nevertheless, we start near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in the equivalent place where we left off Luke.
As with Luke, this section of the gospel is called “apocalypse”, that is, unveiling, seeing what is going on behind the scenes of the world. But we are told to be watchful for something unknown and unexpected. What we are going to see is not what we expect. That something is the “coming of the Son of Man”. Jesus does not say what exactly that means. But he does go on to say that the coming of the Son of Man brings both judgement and salvation. 
Judgement that will bring to light things hidden in darkness. St John says that the light has come into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. If you’re not expecting the light, if you are not watching for it, you will act as though you can keep on hiding and covering things up. But the light will come, and the truth will be exposed.
And the coming of the Son of Man will bring salvation because everything will be brought into the light. Reward, therefore, for those who have been faithful and watchful. Redemption for those who have been the victims of the deeds of darkness.
And this is Advent, which means “the coming”. The character of this season, of penitence, sobriety, and renewed prayer, is a preparation for the liturgical feast of Christmas. But it also reflects the way in which we should be constantly watchful and awake for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.
We look forward of course to the celebration of Christmas, the coming of the Son of Man as the Baby of Bethlehem, the light come into the world. And that was unknown and unexpected. Even the Magi from the east, who followed the heavenly sign to find the new baby, went to look in the palace of Herod. Where else would you look for a Royal birth? Certainly not in an animal feeding trough in an overcrowded town in a backwater like Galilee.
And Herod, too, was watching for the wrong thing. He expected a rival, a brutal king like himself. What else could such a birth mean? And so he was consumed with fear and violence. The coming of the light brought judgement for him, for it revealed what Herod was really like, and his choice to turn away from the light.
But the coming of the Son of Man is also something enacted in various ways throughout the ministry of Jesus. Always unknown and unexpected, Jesus enters the scene for judgement and salvation. 
Salvation for so many. Usually, for the outcasts, the sinners, the excluded and unclean. All those who had no reason to hope, no thought that the world could ever change, suddenly found themselves, with Jesus, touched, healed, forgiven, embraced. Hope unlooked for entered their lives and opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
And judgement too. Usually, for the powerful, the content, those who were sure of themselves. For Pilate and Herod (the second one), for the religious authorities, the Pharisees. All those who judged and cast out and condemned  so that they could be secure and safe. In the unexpected coming of Christ the light shines on them, revealing them for what they really are. And suddenly their security and safety are taken away, for Jesus reveals a new way of being human in which condemnation and casting out have no place. The way they respond, to embrace the message of Jesus and the life it offers, or to reject it, is their own judgement.
Then, too, there is the darkest and most obscure coming of the Son of Man, the road to Calvary. And that is just over the page at this point in Matthew’s Gospel. We are near the end of the story. Here too is something unknown, unexpected: the Messiah goes to his death on a cross. Here the coming of the Son of Man goes beyond comprehension. No wonder at this point Jesus says to be watchful and awake.
For the Cross reveals, in the starkest light, what human life has been like from the beginning, what has always been driving the world. A false security built on the exclusion of the innocent victim. A violent society displacing its violence onto a scapegoat to avoid its own self-destruction. And in all of this the illusion, the lie that seems so terribly real, that the victim deserves what he is getting. Be alert, be watchful, for this is an hour that you do not expect.
But all that is the prelude for the most unexpected coming of the Son of Man. When all was over, finally and definitively, when the victim was dead and buried and tidied away. What could be more unknown than that the victim should rise from the dead? And what could be more unexpected than that the victim should return, not to seek revenge on those who had betrayed and killed him, but to forgive them? Indeed, to empower them to go and spread his forgiveness throughout the world.
And all of this is bundled together in an image that Jesus also used, and which we repeat in the Creed, that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
At the end of the Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven in the cloud of God’s glory, and the disciples are told that he will come again in the same way. Which is to say, that Jesus, the risen victim, is the supreme power that rules creation. Jesus is Lord, and the powers of this world that put him to death are not. 
The world can be re-imagined in hope, because the way that things always were turns out not to be the final truth. Condemnation, violence and casting out are not the principles behind the universe, although the human race has been living up to now as though they were.
The final coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead is of course apocalypse, that is, unveiling. It is that moment of universal seeing, when the truth that Jesus is Lord will be known and realised in all things. But this is the truth that is already established in heaven and is breaking in to the here and now. 
This therefore means that hope is not displaced to some remote end point that we aren’t at yet - whether that be millions of years from now or the day after tomorrow. For the coming of the Son of Man is the way in which God is redeeming the world, here and now. And, as in the lifetime of Jesus, it is experienced by many people in many ways. 
For us, as for those in the time of Jesus, hope is the rupture in the system. Hope is what happens when things don’t carry on as they always have, the new and unexpected thing breaking in where human life seemed hopelessly death-bound and lost. We cannot save ourselves, for salvation is God’s initiative, God’s interruption and disruption of how life has been up to now. 
So we are called to be watchful for the coming of the Son of Man. The unknown and unexpected breaking in to our lives. The sudden fissure in our hearts, letting in the light from which we might shrink, for it brings judgement, but which also brings healing and forgiveness. Brought into God’s light the truth about ourselves is no longer told as judgement and condemnation but as part of God’s bigger story of mercy and love. So too are the ruptures in the world where forgiveness, reconciliation and peace suddenly break out where before there seemed no hope. 
Watch, therefore, for the signs of the Kingdom. Signs that Jesus the risen victim is the Lord. Signs that the one who was cast out and killed is on the throne of the universe, to judge and to save, to forgive and to heal. Watch and stake awake, because if we think that everything is always going to be the same we will not see the unexpected place where the Lord breaks in, the unknown way in which he is making known his Kingdom. 
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.”