All posts by Judy

Candlemas/Presentation/Purification

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 4a. Lk 2 22-40

In every one of our families, we have stories of the first visit to the baby health centre; particularly that nerve-wracking first visit with a firstborn child. Some of those baby health nurses could be pretty daunting people to meet. But I doubt any of them could hold a candle to what awaited the first outing of a baby boy in the first-century Jewish community. On his eighth day, he was taken to be circumcised and named by the Rabbi; a pretty rugged outing. But for Jesus, it didn’t stop there, because he was also a firstborn child.

This meant that forty days after Jesus was born, and as soon as Mary was able to rejoin public life among her people, she and Joseph had to bring Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. This was Law for every Jewish family with a first child; a command that came out of the Exodus story: a reminder that God rescued all the first-born Israelite children from death in Egypt.

We remember how the last of the plagues sent on the Egyptians killed all their firstborn – humans and animals. The Israelites had been warned beforehand to sacrifice animals and mark the doorways of their houses with the blood. The Angel of death ‘passed over’ all the houses marked in this way – didn’t go in – and so none of the firstborn in those houses died. This was the first Passover.

In Jesus’ time, families of firstborn children went to Jerusalem to make offerings on the fortieth day after their child’s birth; an offering for the mother’s purification, and they also offered their child to God, and then redeemed him – symbolically bought him back: a very profound ritual, laden with history and significance. We’ve just read that the holy family went to offer the best an average family could manage, two doves or pigeons for Mary’s purification. They were also there to present Jesus to the Lord. And they should also have paid five shekels to ‘redeem’ him. (Num 18:15-16)  But Luke doesn’t mention this – some suspect deliberately. “Jesus is never ‘bought back’, but belongs wholly to the Lord” (Farris, 302)

Every family across the length and breadth of the Land travelled to the Temple to perform this ritual; there were probably several families arriving every day. But things didn’t happen in quite the straightforward manner that Mary and Joseph might have imagined it would. As they came, they were greeted by some very old people who seemed to expect them; Simeon and the old prophet-woman Anna.

We read that the Holy Spirit had once revealed to Simeon that he wouldn’t see death before he would see the Lord’s anointed—the Messiah. And today, guided by the Spirit, Simeon came to the temple finally to meet the one God had promised; the one who would bring God’s blessing to all nations. Simeon took little Jesus into his arms. He gazed on the face that Jewish people had been praying to see for thousands of years. Out of all those devout, prayerful people, Simeon was one who saw his prayer answered. Simeon, as did Anna. And then Simeon sang:

Now, Master, you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon tells God, ‘you’ve done it! Just as you said you would! And I’m not just seeing the one you always said would come; I’m holding him in my arms. He’s in my arms, so now I can know the whole world is safe in your arms. Now my life is finally complete; I can die in peace; happy; content.’ In our tradition we sing or say Simeon’s beautiful song at the end of each day, and also at the end of every funeral. In the presence of Jesus, with Simeon, we may also welcome death with peace. And with Simeon’s insight into Jesus, we see light given to all who are lost in shadows of fear and hopelessness. That’s why today is called Candlemas.

And Anna was a prophet; a very old widow. She never left the Temple day and night, but worshipped there with fasting and prayer. When she saw Jesus, she too prophesied about this child to all who looked for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Think of their decades of waiting; Think of the turmoil of the world around them: an invading army; a king as bad as Herod the Great; a religious establishment obsessed with power and wealth; so many people missing the point.

Yet here were two people who didn’t seek power or wealth; they didn’t fear death. Simeon had longed for the moment which would herald his death. And today, when that moment came, he welcomed it as the mark of a life fulfilled – he saw only peace and hope in it.

Simeon and Anna had lived very long lives of faithful service to God. For them, this was at once a moment of exultation and of release. They could let go; they could die in peace; somebody else could carry the load now. It takes the eyes of age – the experience of years – to be able to trust that all this hope can possibly be left safely in the hands of a baby. It takes the certainty that God is involved.

Simeon’s song is called the night-prayer of his life and it remains the Church’s night-prayer; handing over to God the troubles of each day. Simeon and Anna give us a vision of that moment as a sign of new birth – fulfilled hope – joy and peace; an insight into our death as a sign of God’s coming to us; of God’s love for us.

How does this connect with you or me? Is there a Simeon or Anna here, and is there someone here to hand over to? M.K. Gandhi revived a classical Sanskrit expression Satyagraha – holding on to truth – whose power he demonstrated in the campaigns he waged. We have faithful seers and servants here, people who’ve held onto faith for a very long time; people who received the gift of faith from their forebears, and who, by God’s grace, have borne its light aloft for many years.

Faithful fathers and mothers of our church, I address you. Your children and grandchildren must hold the light aloft in a different world. What do you see ahead of us? Maybe you can help us better understand how to hold on, knowing that the life of faith is just as vulnerable and exposed as anyone else’s life. How, in the Christ Child, can we see God with us in those trials and joys?            Amen.

 A hymn for Candlemas – Ephrem of Syria (4th Century Deacon and Hymn-writer)

Praise to you, Son of the Most High, who has put on our body.

Into the holy temple Simeon carried the Christ-child and sang a lullaby to him:

‘You have come, Compassionate One,

having pity on my old age, making my bones enter into Sheol in peace.

By you I will be raised out of the grave into paradise.’

Anna embraced the child; she placed her mouth upon His lips,

and then the Spirit rested upon her lips, like Isaiah

whose mouth was silent until a coal drew near to his lips and opened his mouth.

Anna was aglow with the spirit of his mouth.

She sang him a lullaby:

‘Royal Son, despised son, being silent, you hear;

hidden, you see; concealed, you know; God-man, glory to your name.’

The barren woman Elizabeth cried out as she was accustomed,

‘Who has granted to me, blessed woman,

to see your Babe by whom heaven and earth are filled?

Blessed is your fruit that brought forth the cluster on a barren vine.’

Praise to you, Son of the Most High, who has put on our body.

Australia Day: We can be better than this

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Australia Day 2020

I wrote in my weekly that today we wouldn’t use the readings set for Australia Day. They are scriptures which were used by the deeply religious Apartheid regime in South Africa to justify their exploitation of that land, and their treatment of its First Peoples. Such cruel irony is not appropriate to a worship service.

Tony Wilson replied to my weekly yesterday with a story. He wrote ‘Years ago on the farm, one of my employees was a native, Herbie Lovatt. He was one of ‘nature’s gentlemen’. The white employees liked him, and our young children adored him. He was a returned soldier. I have [a copy of] a neatly hand-written letter of Herbie’s, applying for a returned soldier’s block of farm land. He was refused because he was black!

The readings we are using – those set for the third Sunday after Epiphany – are far better for a day as ambiguous as Australia Day. The readings from Isaiah and the Psalms are prophetic words of hope for the people of Israel. They were themselves a colonising people. They’d taken their land by force, but now they’ve been colonised and exiled themselves. Isaiah offers words of hope to this people who fear God has forgotten them, this people who live with the fear and shame of being controlled and exploited by foreigners. Isaiah’s words also speak to us who carry the burden of our own colonial heritage. They call us to hear Aboriginal Australians with more compassion.

I often hear people say they find the Old Testament difficult; that it’s so violent. But our story as colonisers of this land is very much the same. Ours is a too-little told story of continent-wide, calculated mass murder, theft and cultural genocide.

And it still continues today both physically, and in its bureaucratic form. In August last year, the Queensland government extinguished native title to a part of the Galilee Basin so its traditional owners couldn’t impede proposed mining developments there.

It’s still happening; we are still taking the land, we are still disregarding its spiritual significance to its traditional owners, and we are still turning a deaf ear to demands for common justice.

This is why many First Australians are so desperately hurt by our celebration of the day when all this horror began for them. It’s also why many First Australians read today’s prophecies in Isaiah so differently from the newcomers. The people who walked in darkness – on them, light has shined. … For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken. Imagine reading that literally; reading it as a promise that your people’s undeserved suffering will end; that God will do justice.

What’s our response? While I was away, I read some of Stan Grant’s recent book, Australia Day. An Aboriginal Australian, Stan Grant starts by focussing on his time as an Australian journalist working overseas. From that perspective, he is able to share the pride and delight we all do in Australia’s beauty, in our freedoms, and in the relaxed, friendly nature of our culture. An Australia Day barbeque is a lovely break from the tension of a journalist’s overseas posting. So he knows how we feel about the wonderful things that bind us together; how rightly proud we are of the sort of humanity and compassion we’ve seen time and again – and most recently in people’s compassionate response to the recent bushfire disasters.

Yet when he’s back in Australia, Stan Grant is deeply aware of First Australians being shut out of this beautiful community on a daily basis. He tries desperately to balance what there is to celebrate with what there is needing change.

So he reminds us of the 17-year mortality gap, reminds us how football crowds persecute Aboriginal players and commentators deny that it’s racist behaviour; he reminds us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2% of the national population, yet constitute 27% of the national prison population; he reminds us that frequent Aboriginal deaths in custody continue; and he reminds us time and time again that we are better than this.

So our first job as Australian Christians is to make sure we can be better than this; that the Church offer leadership to the wider Australian community. And we’ve been offered a clear path to follow.

The National Constitutional Convention held at Uluru in 2017 gave Australia the Statement from the Heart so that we might have a way to be better than this. In its last paragraph, it says this. In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. So listening is the first step.

In 2017, the Anglican Church of Australia responded to the Statement from the Heart. General Synod backed its call for a constitutionally-entrenched First Nations’ Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament and asked that study resources be prepared in consultation with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council. The result was a study book called A Voice in the Wilderness. https://www.abmission.org/resources.php/163/a-voice-in-the-wilderness Last year, Vicky and I joined with a group of young parishioners to listen to this wonderful statement by using this book as a study guide. We’d welcome the opportunity to do so again this year with any of you who may be interested.

The next step after listening is to allow ourselves to be changed – to repent and do things differently. In today’s Gospel Jesus interpreted our reading from Isaiah in his own words. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. He interpreted it like John the Baptist did before him; he called people to repent – to turn from our present life in the shadows and to follow him into the light. Next, we saw him put that straight into action; he called Simon, Andrew, James and John to drop what they were doing and follow him on that journey into the light. And they did.

Can the Church follow this call? The Uniting Church in Australia did so in 2009-10. It added a preamble to its constitution which affirmed something about Aboriginal Spirituality that, until then, every church had rejected.

Paragraph 3 of this preamble reads, The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways. In short, the Uniting Church repented of its former views, and acknowledged the truth of God’s recognisable presence with Australian Aboriginal people since time immemorial.

Following Christ’s call can be hard. We’re asked to take risks, trust, and step into the unknown. Sometimes, we have to leave the familiar behind. Sometimes, our actions may make us look foolish. Following God may require us to admit and face our fears. Yet, we remember that we are all God’s children; we are never alone.

So may God give us courage to bite this bullet, to trust and to offer leadership to Australia. Amen

Everyone belongs – here is your home

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany 2020. Isa 60 1-6, Ps 72 1-7, 10-14, Eph 3 1-12, Mt 2 1-12

We’ve celebrated something very special at our church door this morning: Epiphany is the festival which tells us that God is for everyone. Born as a baby, God offers a hand of trustful, vulnerable, curious invitation to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you think, what you’ve done – or what you think you’ve done – God holds out a hand of trust and welcome to you. Epiphany says that God isn’t interested in a system of insiders and outsiders. So that means God also wants us to invite – to include, to trust – and not to lock out. Everyone belongs – here is your home; this is the Gospel message of Epiphany. Everyone belongs – here is your home.

That’s a particularly powerful and poignant message today. Belonging and home are such fragile things. We’re regularly reminded of this every time we pray for the eighty-five million displaced persons around the planet – people who’ve been forced to leave the home community they belong to.

But especially in recent days, the horror of their plight has been brought closer to home for us in a way that scientists and emergency-services personnel have predicted for far too long. We have bushfire refugees; we have our own displaced persons – thousands of them, taking refuge at beaches, community halls, ovals, roadhouses – you name it. And there many of them learn that their communities and homes no longer exist. There is no home for them to return to. This tragedy is happening to farm and domestic animals too, and it’s happening to native wildlife. Those poor creatures who haven’t perished in the fire have no habitat to belong to now. Home is gone; dead. Some species will even disappear as a consequence.

How does our Gospel message today address this? Everyone belongs – here is your home; the Gospel message of Epiphany. What does it call from us? I find it very challenging, but perfectly clear. Those of us who have been spared these tragedies are called to offer whatever support we can to those who need it.

Generally, we do this by getting onto a help-line and making a donation. That’s a wonderful thing to do. But are there other possibilities we need to think about?

Many millions of displaced persons around the world – and now in our own back yard – don’t have the option of going home. They’re forced to find another place to call home. Yet communities willing to adopt these people are hard to find. Few countries or households are willing to share what we call our place with strangers. Adoption of any type is a very fraught matter, isn’t it; long-term help is very scarce.

Yet this morning we heard that we’ve been adopted. In the reading from Eph 3.6, we heard that we ‘…Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.’ We strangers to the chosen people have been offered adoption into God’s family before we even knew we needed it: easy to say, but how do we grasp the wonder of this?

The Epiphany story is one of a displaced family just about to be forced into exile to save their child’s life. It speaks to us about the uncertainty of our life. Any moment might lead us out of the world we know; any moment might be our last. I’ve written this sermon with one ear to the fire reports. Life is uncertain: our links to family, community and even nation can change in an instant. The Epiphany story reminds us of that very forcefully—but why? And what are we meant to do about it?

The trauma people suffer doesn’t end when the fire is put out. On-going contact, support and love are essential to people getting their lives back – to belonging, to feeling safe, feeling at home. Thinking of the support we might offer to local people in distress, we’ve already looked at the option of opening our homes to hills parishioners who need to evacuate the night before a day of catastrophic fire conditions. That’s an immediate, short-term, very valuable and practical thing we can do. But there are long-term needs developing right now too. You may not know that there’s an ecumenical and indeed multi-faith programme coordinated by the Uniting Church which trains and supervises chaplains to offer on-going support and care for the survivors of disasters. It’s well worth considering. https://sa.uca.org.au/disaster-and-recovery-ministries/  But enrolling in that programme is a long-term thing. What if we don’t feel we know how to help right now, but would love to roll up our sleeves and do something manageable – how might any of us offer the support we long to give?

A parishioner wrote to me on Friday about one way of doing this. She’d been through the Ash Wednesday fires in the hills as a child, and back then, her family adopted a fire-affected family for a year – in small ways.

As a child, she made cards to send those people, to keep in touch with them for a year or more. Her family sent them gift cards and letters of encouragement. Her grandparents prayed for them, invited them over and helped them with toys for their kids and things like that. Her grandfather also adopted another person who was on their own too; a young person to encourage – so it wasn’t just families.

This parishioner who wrote to me wondered if we could set up something like that; to provide a bit of support to those who’ve lost everything in the fires; a bit like a buddy system and not just to families but to anyone. If many of us did this, it could support a lot of people. Or we might adopt a small church or parish in any of the places that have been burnt – either in South Australia or interstate. We could make contact through their minister or church council or their central body.

And my correspondent also talked about fundraising to help maintain this support. So please talk about this over morning tea, tell the nearest member of parish council your ideas and see what comes of it. It may be this or something else – something small, but a light shining where at present, the only prospect is gloom and pain.

It’s important that we discover ways to embody the Gospel vision of the Epiphany – Everyone belongs – here is your home. Our calling is to embody God’s call which would see light extinguishing darkness, acceptance inviting diversity, and grace welcoming all with love. This may be one way for us to do this. Amen

The centrality of human senses to their witness of Christ

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

St John, Apostle and Evangelist: Good senses

When our lovely friend Christobel Mattingley used to teach children how to write good stories, she used to insist that they describe as fully as possible how things in their stories looked, how they felt, sounded, tasted and smelt. She taught them that this emphasis on our senses was going to draw the reader most completely into the story; it would make the story real for the reader.

The community who handed us down the Gospel of John and the three letters quite obviously shared Christobel’s opinion. We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the Word of life. The first letter of John thus proclaims the centrality of the human senses to their witness to Jesus. And it’s the same again at the end of today’s brief passage from that letter; God is declared to be light. God – the uncreated light – reveals what all things are really like.

It’s appropriate then that all of our readings chosen to mark St John’s Day are filled with the witness of the five senses. In Proverbs 8, the world’s first bits of soil are about as primally physical as you can get. We hear the voice of wisdom describe her delighted partnership with God in creating the physical cosmos. The Psalm too is an intensely sensate poem, and our Gospel features a foot race!

If we think about it, we only have to consider the name ‘St John’ in the wider community to recognise that an emphasis on physical practical care is central to our heritage; St John’s first aid and St John’s ambulance services for a start, and the ancient Hospitalers of St John; it’s all there.

I’ve always found this parish to be true to the character of our patron, St John the Evangelist. Many of the distinctive qualities of our gatherings and the way we care for this parish environment demonstrate our emphasis on physical, sensual care. We know how things which address the senses can also uplift the spirit.

I think of the weekly touch of the healing ministry, the scent, the beauty and the inviting welcome of the gardens, the care of the buildings, the quality and the abundance of music here, and the impressive culture of hospitality. And even things which in other parishes are private, secluded times – going to the altar for the Eucharist or to the font for healing – here they are times of encouraging embraces and smiles. And as for the sharing of the peace after our prayers each Sunday, you can say goodbye to traditional English restraint! It’s a sheer delight.

So today is a time for me to take the opportunity to encourage this gifting of the parish. We need to wonder together how we might develop our ministries and our outreach further; particularly our care of people’s physical well-being – our care of people’s ways of experiencing God in the world through the senses. In this time of bushfire emergency and climate emergency, the need is very immediate and urgent.

With John’s Gospel as our guide, we see there’s a crossover between physical care and spiritual care, where we must quite often minister in the symbolic realm. That too is part of our brief if we are people who emulate the discipleship of St John. So let me remind you of some opportunities, guided by moments in John’s gospel where Jesus mixes the sensate and the symbolic in both pastoral care and proclamation. Let’s go through all five senses.

We’ll start with touch. The Holy Spirit touches Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (1.32) and Thomas is invited to touch him at the end (20.27). Both touches proclaim who Jesus is, and both lead to discipleship. And Jesus touched people too; think of him washing his disciples’ feet!? Can a ministry of touch bring people into contact with Jesus here? Certainly healing ministry, but what else? Let’s think…

And sight: there’s so much about this in John’s gospel and as we’ve already seen in the letters of John. See life; never see death (8.51); the spiritual blindness of those who won’t see (8.39). Then in our gospel reading today, the beloved disciple sees Jesus not there and believes!

We think of John as the symbolic gospel, and there’s certainly rich, endless symbolism. Yet it’s through the sense of physical sight that belief often comes. St John’s Adelaide is visually striking; but we need to sit down together and think about how this effect might help people to become disciples of Christ. …

What about hearing? The extraordinary Prologue to the Gospel stretches our senses deep into symbolic territory; how might the Word have a voice? We think a word can’t sound unless it comes from a voice. But here, is the voice secondary? People hear the Word speak; they meet the Word, Jesus, and immediately follow him. In chapter 10.5, sheep follow the good Shepherd because they know his voice; they run away from the voice of a false shepherd. What might all this be saying to us? …

The sense of taste is given a wonderful workout in this gospel, from the first miracle, the wedding at Cana, through the feeding of 5000 to Jesus calling himself the bread of heaven. And then there’s the confronting fact of Jesus feeding Judas in the upper room (13.26f). This all speaks deeply into the table fellowship which we share each week together. We’re always sent out from the table to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. And we know this means ‘care for the needy, support the weak, feed the hungry’. The heavy baskets full of groceries that go out from this parish each week are a sign that we have heard this call. Is it something that we are called to develop further? …

And finally, the sense of smell – particularly poignant with the recent reminder of the smoke haze. Once again, John’s gospel is not backward in coming forward. The two most prominent occasions are the threatened stench of Lazarus’s tomb and the overwhelming fragrance of the perfume that Mary of Bethany poured on Jesus’s feet. Is there something beyond our incense and flowers that we’re called to?

We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life. What do we do about this witness: what’s the next step for us?  Amen

Once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas:

Once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us – a newborn child. I know we’ve heard the story; we know what happened – Mary and Joseph and the baby and the shepherds and the angels. But the heart of the story is this; once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us – a newborn child.

This is a miracle too huge to comprehend. Like most people, I can only come at it through the story. But even stories are hard if we can’t hear them like a child does.

Our adult concerns mix things up. There he was; the God of all, lying in a manger. The most important person in the world! And we start thinking about things like hygiene or security or privacy or protocol. If he was such a VIP, who was looking after all those things? But the story ignores our adult concerns. Angels invite in a bunch of grubby gate-crashers. There are no special precautions taken – not even considering how young the mother is. No, she’d just had to endure a long journey on foot, or on donkey-back. And she’d had to give birth amongst farm animals.

Once upon a time, the God of the universe came among us as the first-born child of an unmarried teenager, and God took no special precautions for a safe arrival.

Why? Well, it seems that God just wanted to be with us on our terms; you can’t really be with people if you set yourself apart. That would have made Jesus something like a tourist in an air-conditioned bus who never gets out; just waves at us through tinted windows as the bus roars on to the next attraction.

But God didn’t just want to look at us; God wanted to be with us – Emmanuel – to be one of us. So, once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us – a newborn child.

If a great ruler needed shelter and hospitality from us and asked for it, didn’t order us to give it – that’d make us equals, wouldn’t it; that ruler and us – on the same level as each other.

That’s what God has done for us; the God of the universe came among us as a newborn child, needing shelter, needing food, and not too much later, even needing to flee persecution as a refugee. By coming in that way, God changed us somehow; called us to care for God – to become like God is – givers of love and care. God’s need; God’s vulnerability; God’s helplessness – they call something from us which can heal the world far more wonderfully than power can.

Power is another of those adult concerns we plague ourselves with. With all the problems in the world Jesus was born into, why didn’t he come as a super-hero, stop wars, end social injustice, wipe away the evils of prejudice, dishonesty, greed, poverty, illness and environmental destruction? Wouldn’t that have been better?

I don’t think it would. It’s hard to argue why, but essentially, it’s best demonstrated in the story of the life of Jesus. Once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us – a newborn child. God is born, grows up, and lives for many years a life that is ordinary like ours; works, eats and sleeps. God takes the time needed to win our trust. God starts doing this in the baby we greet today; Jesus.

You can trust a baby. We can deal with someone who’s just like we are; we know where they’ve come from. We don’t feel threatened; we don’t think they’ll ask too much of us, or think too little of us. This is what God did for us; God took the time and the shape needed to win our trust. And because of that, when Jesus grew up and started telling us about the Kingdom of God, we could understand what that meant in a totally new way, because Jesus spoke in a language that emerged from human experience – think of his parables; Jesus spoke our language.

When he healed and forgave people, Jesus scandalised those in power – and also many of us who prefer to see justice ‘really’ done. But slowly, gently, he taught us God’s way of healing, accepting, life-giving justice, peace and mercy. And we accept it from him because we know him; we can trust him. We can see the depth of his commitment to us.

In this baby, we can see how God works. Jesus comes gently to open up channels of communication with us that don’t threaten us. In Jesus, God models love and commitment and understanding and acceptance and everything else we need to become fully human – everything we need to live lives filled with emotional and spiritual security.

The Christ Child has done this – called us to summon up the real resources of our humanity; simply to be there for each other in the same way as we would with a baby – with our compassion, our care, and our readiness to nurture.

God transforms humanity in Jesus; the baby of Bethlehem. In Jesus, God is seen to learn what it is to be one of us so that trust and understanding can be complete. So we’ll let him touch us and we’ll listen when he tells us that there’s a world beyond our minds, our pride and fear and guilt. It is called the Kingdom of God.

So when once upon a time, the God of the universe came among us as a child, needing shelter, needing food, and soon, even needing to flee persecution as a refugee, God changed us all. God our shepherd somehow lifted us from dwelling on our battles and our fears and weaknesses, and made us like shepherds too. God called up our capacity for transforming love from deep within us all.

When I, when you meet this Child, God begins a slow, intricate process of calling from our most profound depths the greatest gifts and the truest strengths our humanity can give birth to. God calls up our true selves, made like this child we worship, in the image and likeness of God. And that’s something no superhero can do.

Once upon a time, the God of the universe became one of us – a newborn child. Glory to God in the highest.

God bless all of you and yours this Christmas.        Amen.

Hope, Trust and Love

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas Eve:  Luke 2 1-14

Welcome home: it’s lovely to see you! We have serious things to consider together.

Somewhere in the world’s many camps and refuges for displaced persons, babies will be born tonight. Turkey, Bangladesh, Somalia, Bethlehem, Mount Barker, take your pick. As the labour-pains intensify, the baby’s mother wills them to stop: ‘Not now; not yet! This is not the world I wanted for you!’ Everyone around her may be filled with the same dismay, they too may be telling God, ‘No, not now; not yet!’ But as those matter-of-fact midwives are so apt to tell us, ‘Whatever happens my dear, that baby is going to be born.’

It’s all too true; whatever the conditions on the outside, babies are born. They’re not going to stop for anyone or anything. It’s as if they’re telling us:

‘Here I come, ready or not. And if you don’t think you have that world outside ready for me, you should have! So let me place that order once more. When I get out, I need one promising future, one safe environment, lots of good food and a loving family and community. Got all that?! Now you’ve got fifteen minutes to get it organised, because here I come!’

We know many babies won’t get any of those good things. We could despair at it all; tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about it. But the birth of Jesus, a child of displaced parents in a country under occupation tells us to think differently. Christmas demands a change of perspective from us. Christmas demands that we see the birth of any child as a defiant word from God – a defiant assertion of hope even where we can see nothing to hope for; a defiant assertion of God’s trust in humanity, even where we think people have betrayed every value; a defiant assertion of love, even where we think love probably can’t change anything.

A new life is a word of hope that God speaks to the world; a word of trust that God speaks to the world. And a baby is patently a person that God loves.

Nothing’s changed. We might feel like giving up, but God won’t. As long as the sun shines and the rain falls on everyone alike, God will give babies to be born to us regardless of our circumstances. We might focus on the tragedy of a birth in a refugee camp; of a complex birth where the treatment is beyond the parents’ means. We might ask God why this is allowed to happen. But I believe the only answer we’ll get to that question is silence; the most eloquent answer of all.

God isn’t going to waste time answering a question like that, because God is busy with the baby as it’s born. People often ask where God is when all the catastrophes and suffering of the world are happening. Tonight’s birth of a child; this child of displaced parents in Bethlehem is God’s answer. This baby’s birth tells us that God is right in the thick of the world’s catastrophes and suffering; God is there, crying out with all the defiant, self-righteousness of a baby who deserves to be loved and comforted; who deserves to be born in the safety of their own community.

This baby born in Bethlehem tells us that God will never listen to our time-wasting questions. God is too busy enduring the injustice, and incredibly, trusting us; trusting us to step up to the mark straight away and care for the vulnerable and the weak. God is so determined that we will come good that God becomes one of us; God becomes that vulnerable, weak baby Jesus – and every other new life like him, and trusts us to offer care and hope! So in a world where so many millions are born into such circumstances, we can hear, in this account of Jesus’s birth, a story which changes our perspective on all of them; a story which brings a word of hope in a cry for justice. Where is God? Tonight, God has met us, born as a human child.

If God is, indeed, born in the infant Jesus, his birth is a defiant word which confronts things that we seem to accept as inevitable for ourselves and many of our fellow creatures. His birth confronts the fact that we live in a world plagued with poverty and hunger, oppression and warfare, genocide and environmental destruction.

This baby – and through him every baby – is God’s word of truth to us that such evils are not inevitable. They can be confronted – and not with fearful caution, but with the reckless kind of hope that sends a baby to be born into a land under military occupation. God is not a pragmatist. God’s silence only echoes our own.

We must confront the evils and injustices of our world because that child’s birthright was to receive the love of God through the nurture of others; not to suffer and die at the whim of some distant political power. Every child, every animal or bird or reptile that is born, every plant that sprouts is a word from God which says what should be. We were each born as a sign of hope and truth. Our calling is to realise this through the respect and love we share with all created things.

We have shared this hope, this truth and this love tonight. The golden flame of the Christ Candle at the centre of the Advent Wreath – at the centre of our waiting – its warmth spread among us at our gathering; spread among us as a sign of hope which defies despair; spread among us as the torch of trust which God has cherished for each of us as babies, and still cherishes for us now.

Tonight, we have shared this hope, this trust and this love through the symbol of candlelight, through song, and through listening for God’s voice. Tonight when we go out, we do so with the purpose of living out this hope, this trust and this love.

This baby is God’s defiant assertion that hope will spring up where we expect to see none; this baby is God’s assertion that trust will live even where deception protects injustice; and this baby incontrovertibly speaks God’s love to each of us – incontrovertibly demands that we love each other – because since that birth, we’ve known for sure that every atom of our being – and of every created being – is charged with the divine love of the God who became one of us. That’s where God is; God is with us – Emmanuel. That’s what we gather to celebrate tonight.

Amen

God is with us – always to the end of the age

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 4A:  Isa 7.10-16, Mt 1.18-25

When Benjamin Disraeli was once asked if he’d read a particular book, apparently he replied, ‘When I want to read a book, I write one.’ May 1868, Fraser’s Magazine, 670, Longmans, Green, and Co., London

I think that was Disraeli’s way of saying something my parents used to say with some exasperation after I’d done something like helping with the washing – putting my new purple hockey socks into a hot wash together with the white tablecloth. After the initial shock, they’d sigh, shake their heads sadly, and say, ‘When you want a job done properly, do it yourself.’

It sounded as though God felt like this in our first reading. King Ahaz of Judea is shivering in his boots about the prospect of a joint invasion by Israel and Syria. God asks him, ‘Anything I can do?’ Ahaz is moodily silent. God says, ‘Come on, name it, I’ll do it.’ But Ahaz says, ‘Oh no, God. I couldn’t put you to any trouble.’ God sighs and says, ‘Okay, look, I’ll come and sort things out myself. Keep your eyes peeled for someone called Immanuel. When you see him, you’ll know it’s me.’

In today’s Gospel, we see some of the final preparations for that arrival. And the amazing thing is that God still chooses to rely on us humans – never mind that the stakes are terrifyingly high.

Early on, Matthew gives us the translation of Isaiah’s prophecy; 1.23 the child will be called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Suddenly I remember that the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel says it again. The resurrected Jesus tells his friends, Remember, I am with you always—to the end of the age. God is with us in Jesus: this is the frame on Matthew stretched his canvas. His portrait of Jesus is stretched on a frame where top and bottom, and all the way down, the scaffold is this: in Jesus, God is with us. But how? It’s different for each of us.

For the young girl Mary, God with us saw her body stretched and transformed, not to mention seeing her life turned inside out.

But it was something she accepted. In Luke,1.38 last week, we read together that Mary chose to accept God’s call to become the mother of Jesus. It was Mary’s first act of discipleship to Jesus, and it also made Mary his first disciple.

The implications of her choice for us are immense. Immanuel – God with us first dwelt in Mary. She carried the Christ to us. And in a way, we say that Mary has carried us too. We call ourselves the body of Christ 1 Cor 12.27. So each of us can be his face to the world. It just takes a yes, as our mentor Mary has shown us.

She carried Jesus to the place where, on Tuesday night, we’ll celebrate our beginning with her – Bethlehem. But today, we still wait for the one who dwells in Mary to come and dwell among us. Mary’s model of discipleship is one that we must own for ourselves. She chose to receive him. Advent has been our time to prepare to receive him too; to receive discipleship as our vocation. Because he’s coming to us as surely as ever he did to Mary.

What about Joseph. Today, in the struggles of Jesus’ second disciple, Joseph, we see that receiving discipleship can mean a change of perspective on our entire life. If Joseph had been what the Scribes and Pharisees called righteous, he’d have had Mary publicly stoned to death. He didn’t do that. And he wouldn’t have Mary publicly disgraced either. His righteousness is initially described as turning his back on Mary – ‘he planned to dismiss her quietly’. But as it happens, that sort of righteousness wasn’t enough for God. So God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream to help him learn a righteousness of a totally different order.

Joseph was called to choose compassion for the vulnerable young woman, and to accept a life for himself that he could never have imagined before. He was to share in her public shame. God called him away from a righteousness of legalism to a righteousness of faith – to relying on God’s judgement – which is actually mercy – rather than society’s callous verdict on how upstanding he was.

So, like Sarah and Abraham before them, Mary and Joseph were given a child that they could only choose to receive through a choice for God above all other priorities. And that child would be Emmanuel; God with us.

For Mary and Joseph, God with us demanded compassion for the vulnerable at the most personal level; Mary for the baby she would bear, and Joseph, for the young woman that the law said he should have executed. God with us demanded risky kindness and mercy – God with us demanded that they be prepared to face public disgrace together in order to live that risky kindness out.

You could see this as God butting in on Mary and Joseph’s lives for God’s own purposes. But it actually happened for reasons of grace, and it did happen with their consent. God called them to a partnership which blessed them, and which has been a blessing to all our forebears, to us, and which will bless all who come after us.

What strikes me in this story, though, is that God takes risks too – God relies on us. (When I want to read a good book…) We don’t have an invulnerable, snooty, aloof God; we have a risk-taking, vulnerable, sleeves-rolled-up team-worker of a God.

And that has to shape our response to God – imitation; discipleship. God’s purposes are mercy and compassion for the powerless; so they must be our motivation too. God’s way is to take risks; that’s something we prepare for at this Advent time too.

There are things God calls all of us to do, and they involve compassion and risk. Try working for God’s compassionate justice in any organization and you’ll see what danger you find yourself in. Try caring for someone who’s oppressed, for an environment that is being pillaged and ruined; try working for a future that is worth leaving to tomorrow’s children, and you will find yourself at once in trouble and in paradise. This is the paradox of discipleship, which has both a new-born hope, and a dreadful crucifixion at its heart.

Are we prepared? In all of these endeavours, in the paradox and the unreasonable demands, we need to remember the frame that Matthew’s Gospel is stretched on this frame – God is with us á â ß à. Are we prepared to allow this message to stretch us too? Are we prepared to share it with the poor, the vulnerable, with God’s suffering creatures?

When I want a good picture, I paint it myself.

Actually, our own picture is something that God wants to paint together with us – and then stretch it on that frame ­  God is with us – always  to the end of the age.

Are we prepared to paint this picture with God?   What do we say?

Amen

Jesus said, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see’.

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 3 A:  Mt 11 2-11

Jesus said, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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.

What is there not to like? And yet John seemed worried that Jesus might not really be ‘the one who is to come’.

John the Baptist had been put in prison by Herod Antipas – son of Herod the Great who we meet at Christmas. Today’s Herod was a puppet ruler who longed to be king. John was in prison because he’d told off Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. John was never one for political correctness; we saw that in last week’s gospel reading. But then no Hebrew prophet ever was. Even so, what John said to Herod was more risky than average, even for a prophet. You don’t publicly correct a man who thinks he should be a king and expect to get away with it.

So when we meet John in his prison cell, realistically speaking, there are two things you can be sure will be on his mind. Firstly, that his death was likely very soon, and secondly, great concern about what may become of his message after he’s killed.

In a traditional prison, food and drink is provided by friends and family when they visit. That’s how it was in John’s time, and it still is in prisons and hospitals around the majority world today. John’s friends, his family and his disciples, would have brought him what he needed. And when they did, they’d also have brought him news of the mission. Much of that news would have concerned the ministry of Jesus, whom John had proclaimed to be the ‘coming one’ – ie, the Messiah.

John had proclaimed that the promised Messiah would come with a bang. Last week, we heard John’s powerful metaphor: the axe was lying at the root of unfruitful trees ready to cut them down so they could be cast into the fire – such would be the judgement handed down by the coming one.

And if that weren’t enough, when ‘the one who is to come’ arrives,

Mt 3.12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

This certainly didn’t seem to tally with the news about Jesus that his disciples and friends would have brought to John in prison. Languishing in his cell, John would have been told of the ministry of ‘Jesus the Messiah’ – the one he baptised and declared to be ‘the coming one’. But there was no word of the final judgement.

Naturally, John is worried, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus: 3Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

4 Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

John had expected a fiery judgement. He believed God had sent him to proclaim that judgement; to call people to repent and to prepare for the coming Kingdom. Yet from the message Jesus sent him, it sounded as if the Kingdom had already arrived – but without the judgement; without the apocalypse. And that left John confused. How can the blessings and rewards be doled out before it’s been established who deserves them? How can the sequence of justice and just rewards suddenly get subverted like that?!

This sort of confusion pinpoints a tension that runs through the Scriptures – particularly the Gospels – between what is happening now, and what will happen in eternity. This often gets called the tension between the already and the not yet. It’s a tension which has implications for our own theologies, and it surfaces at difficult times and places for each of us – at funerals, in hospitals, in places when we witness terrible injustice or undeserved suffering – times and places when our perspective is forcibly changed, and peace won’t come any more.

I sometimes feel that tension at funerals. People are there who feel cheated, afraid, remorseful, bewildered – they want some peace. Maybe peace will come if they can feel sure that the person who died is at peace. But the Scriptures maintain the tension; for every passage that teaches that the person who died is with God now, there’s another to say they’re just resting, and waiting for the general resurrection and the great judgement on the last day? I remember a funeral where the preacher threw his hands in the air at one point and said, “We don’t know where our friend is right now.” He was right to say this.

The scriptures witness to at least these two scenarios. Has the Kingdom arrived yet? Is there to be a final judgement? Living with the tension of those two possibilities is part of the paradox of the life of faith. For many people, this tension is a real agony. That’s what I imagine it was like for John. We never get to hear how he received Jesus’ reply: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

I don’t think he’d have found it an easy message to receive. He’d put his life on the line particularly in the service of calling people back to ethical lifestyles. Wasn’t he languishing in prison for these principles?! And yet here were people being healed and blessed willy-nilly, with no apparent hint that they’d amended their lives first. There was no assurance for him that these people deserved the blessings Jesus was showering on them. Where was the justice in that? Where was the judgement?

Why was Jesus bringing in the Kingdom of wholeness and healing – the not yet – without first clearing up the already – the burning issues of ethics and social justice. This is a perfectly reasonable question. And today, as we have the opportunity to spend time asking it with John, and through him, asking it together with the hundreds of millions of people in today’s world who can’t even begin to hope, and who won’t be able to until they have seen some justice done.

John’s question is a real, legitimate question of faith. The main lesson I draw from this passage is that although Jesus’ answer challenged John to look beyond his question, he didn’t rebuke him for asking it. Those words, And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me could be seen as a very mild caution, but then Jesus praised John as the greatest person born of women.

We should be reassured by this; that it’s no sin to cry out to God for justice. It may sound strange that I feel moved to say something so obvious. But many people I meet feel that it’s a sin to complain to God about anything. They’ve been duped into thinking it’s a sign of faithlessness on their part to ask God the WHY questions. Often that cruel falsehood has become a prison to them.

John the Baptist can encourage us to send messages to God from such prisons when we find ourselves locked in them. It’s okay to question God. The worst that can happen is a return message telling us of the certainty of God’s compassion:

3.…“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

In the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus, judgement and healing are brought into dialogue in a new and illuminating way. In this dialogue, both judgement and healing are revealed to be ways to peace with God both in the now and in the not yet.

I wonder if that addresses any of our questions, or if we haven’t asked them yet. Amen

The four last things, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell

Rev’d Dr John Beiers

Advent 2:

In the readings for today we have John the Baptiser in the gospel of Matthew saying to a gathered crowd, “Wake up to yourselves, you people. Examine yourselves honestly. The time is coming when you will stand before God and have to account for all the wrong things you have deliberately done. You will not be able to fake it, for God sees into the heart. Get ready, and be honestly sorry for dishonest actions. Be honestly sorry.”

The Letter to the church in Rome tells the Christians there, that the teaching of the Apostles shows the way to go to get right with God, and the first reading from Isaiah speaks of one yet to be born, who will initiate a life and kingdom of peace and safety from danger. So the readings make a complete journey from the recognition of one’s own guilt to the recognition of our gracious God.

If you pray Morning and Evening prayer each day, you might be tempted to think, from the psalms and appointed readings, that all is doom and gloom. That the prophets and Jesus are concerned only about our sinfulness, our unworthiness, and the reality of hell. It is not that way at all. Our Lord wants all the human race to be with Him in heaven, to take the possible separation seriously, and especially the seriousness of sin. Hell and heaven are real, but in the end it is our choice as to where we will spend eternity.

So I am going to speak today about the Four Last Things, Death Judgment, Heaven and Hell, because if we know what Jesus teaches, there is no worry, but just re-assurance. These are the traditional themes of sermons on the Four Sundays in advent.

Death

Death is the separation of the soul from the body. We speak of death as “passing away”, for in death the soul leaves the body like a tenant quitting a house that is no longer needed. After death the body turns to dust in the grave, or ashes in the crematorium, awaiting the resurrection on the last day. When we die, we slough off this perishable body, which is already decaying in many ways. God is gracious, in that He gives us warning that we are not immortal on this earth. Our skin grows thin, our blood pressure usually rises, our hair falls out, our beauty fades. These are the signs indicating that wise persons need to assess their relationship with our heavenly Father. We will have to answer for the way we have lived. Jesus says that whatever kindnesses and love we have done to another human being, we have actually done to Him, the King of heaven.

Thus the body is left behind, and the soul passes from this life into Paradise. Jesus on the cross said that the penitent thief beside Him would be with Him in Paradise (Lk 23:42,43) The matter of an unquiet soul, not resting in peace, in the subject of another teaching. The souls of all the departed go to Paradise, awaiting judgment.

Judgement

It appears from Scripture that there are two judgments. The First or particular is when we die. In paradise we experience a taste of what lies ahead. If we are destined for heaven, then we taste the closer presence of God, closer than we have ever known on earth. Those not destined for heaven experience something far different and frightening. We have recorded examples from those who have been clinically dead for a minute or two, or even longer. They either see a place so beautiful that they do not wish to come back to earth or they experience such darkness that they are totally afraid and change their ways when they are revived. It seems that no-one sees nothing at all.

The Last Judgment

The second judgment is the Last or General Judgment, which occurs when the earth comes to an end. All the departed come before the judgment seat of God. It is a day of rejoicing for those who love Jesus, and a day of doom for those who have rejected Him. Jesus looks at the lives of those who have rejected Him, to see whether there is any reason why they may be spared the consequences of the bad path they have chosen, so that His mercy may bring them to join Christians already in eternal life. We are told very clearly that if we have chosen Christ in this world then we are not condemned. Condemnation is really Jesus saying, very sorrowfully, “If that is your wish, to remain apart from Me, then I respect it.” Personally, I have had the shivers when speaking to someone who said, “No, I don’t believe that rubbish about hell; I’ll take my chances when I die.” A man like that believes he is so irresistible to God, that God could not possibly deny him admission to heaven.

Be Not Afraid

But, on the positive side, there are ample passages in the New Testament, showing that Jesus came into the world so that ALL people – men, women and children – might understand God’s love, and be able to respond, for it is God’s desire that no-one should perish, unless they deliberately choose to.

Matthew 2:22 “His name is Jesus, and He shall save His people from their sins”

Matthew 6:30 The story of the lilies of the field. We are of more value than lilies, and our Heavenly Father knows our needs and will meet them.

Matthew 7:7 About earthly fathers knowing needs of their children. How much more will our Heavenly Father provide for us.

Romans 8:1 “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.

Luke 6:37 Judge not, and you shall not be judged; Do not condemn and you shall not be condemned; Forgive and you shall be forgiven.

John 3:18 “Whoever believes in me (Jesus) is not condemned; but he that does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he that hears my word and believes in Him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death to life.

Romans 10:12 ff “For there is now no distinction between Jew and Greek (and we might add, between culture and race); the same Lord is Lord of all, and bestows his riches upon all who call upon Him. For everyone who calk on the Name of the Lord will be saved.”

In other words, if you confess yourself a Christian, you are justified before God at the Last Judgment, and do not come under condemnation. And that is that!

Summary:

The accompanying diagram illustrates what we know about death and judgment. Earth is the sphere at the bottom, separated from the spiritual world by the dotted line of death. All souls, both good and bad, go to Paradise for the First Judgment, where they remain in his place of waiting until the end of the world. When the earth disappears, ah souls go before the throne of God for the Last Judgment, where they are either justified and proceed to heaven, or condemned and go to hell.

2 ADVENT

 

 

 What is Hell Like?

Hell is certainly not a lake of burning sulphur, for this is a material thing, and not having material bodies, the damned would not feel anything. Jesus uses these similes to describe the indescribable. The unending pain He speaks of is not physical pain, but spiritual pain. When we go our own ways, we forfeit our true destination, which is to be in the presence of God. Heaven is God’s creation, and He wants all of humanity to come eventually to that place. Hell is the state and condition of those who reject Him and His plan for good for them. We do not know what or where hell is. Some suggest that it is existence without the comfort of God; others say it is the hopelessness of existence without God, and the pain which that brings. I just do not know. Heaven and hell are not places, but conditions of the soul.

What I do know is that it is such a terrible place that the Son of God gave His life so that we might have forgiveness of sins and go to heaven.

Who Will go to Hell?

I quote from “The Catholic Religion”, A Manual of Instruction for Members of the Anglican Communion, written by Father Vernon Staley…“Hell is the place and penal condition ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41). Hell was never intended for man, and he can only arrive there through a wilful, deliberate and continued rejection of God and goodness. St. Bernard has beautifully written, What does God hate or punish but self-will? Let self-will cease, and hell will not exist.” We may hold it for a certainty that no one will be doomed to such a destiny, except those of whom our most merciful Saviour must say “They have both seen and hated both me and my Father”, (John15:24) and in this attitude of soul have died and remain. Hell is the condition of those who are wilfully and finally unrepentant.

Who Will End up in Hell?

Who then, are those who are going to hell? In the words of Faber, “I have no profession of faith to make about the lost, except that God is infinitely merciful every soul, and that no one has ever been, or ever can be, lost by surprise or trapped in his ignorance; and, as to those who may be lost, I confidently believe that our heavenly Father threw His arms around each created soul, and looked it full in the face with bright eyes of love, in the darkness of its mortal life, and that of its own deliberate will that soul would not have Him.

…But all who depart this life in a right relationship with God, that is, loving  both Him and Jesus, however imperfectly, will find heaven opened and the Father’s eyes of love welcoming him. And because YOU here present love Jesus, however imperfectly, you will not be condemned, but welcomed with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of Your Lord” And heaven? What can I say? Its all you ever hoped for.

 

How are we preparing to meet the Christ Child?

Rev’d Elizabeth McWhae

Advent 1: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

INTRODUCTION:

Today we begin another Christian year in the Church. The season of Advent. This is a season of preparation for Christmas, just as Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. Christmas and Easter are probably the 2 most significant festivals of our faith, so it is a good idea to prepare ourselves in case we lose our focus. Because I think it would be fair to say that in this country we have mostly lost the Christian focus of Christmas. The baby has been thrown out and replaced with Santa, the Christmas Pageant and a rampant consumerism and over- indulgence that even the Apostle Paul at his most strident would find hard to comprehend. And instead of preparing and being reflective and contemplative we are rushing here and there to end of year functions, Christmas lunches and dinners. So, let us stop for a few minutes and look at the readings we are presented with today.

POINT 1:

I will briefly look at Isaiah’s vision of God and Paul’s vision of Jesus, but it is Matthew’s vision of Jesus that really has me intrigued.

Of course Isaiah lived many centuries before the time of Jesus, but he was familiar with the idea of a coming Messiah. He had a vision of God, or the Lord,  that centered around Jerusalem. It was a communal vision and it was global or worldwide. All the people would come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of God. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares…..nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah’s vision is of a peacemaking God. Ironically this was not the experience of the people of God who fought endlessly with their neighbours and even amongst themselves. Never the less Isaiah’s vision was their aim. This vision of God was communal, global, and political.

POINT 2:

By the time we get to Paul, his vision of God is Jesus-centered. It is very focussed upon the individual rather than communal. And his interest is in how Christians behave. He exhorts the community of faith to love. He reminds them to wake from their sleep. He uses imagery of light and darkness and asks them to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. He also reminds followers of Jesus that salvation is closer to them than when they first believed. This may be a veiled reference to Paul’s belief that he would see the return of Christ in his lifetime. So he is reminding believers to be prepared to meet Jesus again.

POINT 3:

Now we come to our Gospel reading from Matthew, and what a reading it is. Instead of gentle Jesus meek and mild, here Jesus according to Matthew, has gone apocalyptic. In order to understand these verses we need to understand what apocalyptic writing is. In the New Testament the most obvious example of this is the Book of Revelation, but also this section of Matthew’s gospel. Apocalyptic writing describes imminent disaster and total or universal destruction. It is an unveiling of catastrophic events in history. In Jewish and

Christian writings, it usually speaks to communities that are experiencing persecution and upheaval. In this section of Matthew’s gospel the apocalyptic events referred to are the days of Noah, the 2 people in the field and the 2 woman grinding meal. In all 3 cases, some people where prepared and some where not. Matthew has linked these apocalyptic images, which are not intended to be taken literally, to the second coming of Jesus. His intention is clear. Are you prepared and watchful or are you missing the signs of Jesus return?

So we jump from preparing ourselves for the birth of the baby in the manger at Bethlehem straight through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus to the second coming of Jesus, the Parousia. What a way to start Advent.

What are we to make of these readings. How do they prepare us for the birth of Jesus? Isaiah reminds us that God wants to teach us his ways so that we may practice justice and put away warmongering. Isaiah also reminds us that faith is worked out in a community that walks in the light or the illumination of the Lord.

Paul, on the other hand is concerned with the individuals relationship with Jesus and how that works out in their behaviour. He encourages Christians to love and to walk in the light.

Lastly, Matthew’s Jesus uses apocalyptic imagery to herald the second coming of Jesus. He urges believers to read the signs and be prepared and watchful for that day, at the same time saying that only the Father knows when this cataclysmic event will occur.

CONCLUSION:

 I wonder what thoughts, words or images these Advent 1 readings evoke for you? How as a community of faith and a diocese are we preparing to meet the Christ child? Where is our manger? How are we as individuals preparing ourselves to put on Christ? And how watchful and prepared are we to meet Christ at the final curtain? That’s not something many of us think about, I suspect, despite being part of the biblical faith tradition? Welcome to the journey of Advent. Prepare yourselves for an adventure of cosmic relevance to a world that is in dire need of spiritual awakening.