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The wedding at Cana

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 2:  John 2 1-11 – The Wedding at Cana

Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and bless what you have given us.

Leaning there were six stone water jars…each holding 20 or 30 gallons. There’s a lot of food and drink that gets consumed in John’s gospel … an awful lot. So I thought it a good idea to say grace first.

In a former life, I used to teach English to people who’d come to live in Australia. One of my favourite times then was teaching groups of tram drivers and conductors in a tram depot in Melbourne. In one class, I had a student called Joe who’d come from Italy. In class conversations, it appeared that Joe seemed to spend most of his available energy on bottling home-grown vegetables, making tomato sauce and, of course, ensuring a plentiful supply of strong red wine. At our end-of-course party, Joe brought several flagons of his amazingly strong, rugged wine for everyone to enjoy. In fact he brought so much, I was worried he might run himself a bit short.

I asked him if he would, but he smiled comfortably: “Peda, I make-about-a tirdy gallon evera year; iss anuffa,” said Joe, with the serene confidence of a man fully prepared for any emergency life might bring. I think of Joe when I hear the story of the wedding at Cana and the hundred-and-thirty odd gallons of wine (500 litres).

A lot of church history … and a lot of the history of religions generally … tells us stories of people who’ve tried to get the food and drink thing under control so they can be free to concentrate on “higher” things … spiritual things.

But John’s gospel says that separating the spiritual from the physical is not an option. John is much more concerned than the other three gospels with physical things; things you can touch, taste, see, smell or feel. It’s John’s gospel which starts by telling us that God who was the Word became a physical being in order to share our material existence with us: the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us1:14.

God enjoys us so much – God is so fascinated by the things that make up our lives – that nothing short of being one of us could adequately express that delight and fascination. The Church celebrates the fact that a risen, ascended, physical, human body is forever a part of the Trinity we worship as our God; God is interested in bodies, and as today’s Gospel reminds us, God likes food, drink and parties.

But in today’s story, this fascination with joining in the fun doesn’t seem to grab Jesus immediately. His Mother tells him that the wine has run out, and like any sensible Mediterranean guest, he asks what that has to do with them. He also adds, “My hour has not yet come. It hardly sounds like his mother’s message was warmly welcomed. Yet undeterred, she turned to the servants and said they should do whatever Jesus told them to do.

We might be excused for feeling baffled here, but Johannine scholars Sherri Brown and Frank Moloney highlight the example of the Mother of Jesus here as a disciple par excellence. Just like John the Baptist had shown in the previous chapter, she showed true discipleship. In John’s Gospel, this means trusting entirely in Jesus, pointing people’s eyes towards him and teaching us to listen to him. The Mother of Jesus uttered a prayer; she was met with the discouraging deflection that we can so often feel as God’s silence, and yet she trusts whatever he will do, and insists that others should also trust. She teaches us that prayers are heard.

Our next puzzle is this initial, seeming reluctance of Jesus to act – was he worried whether this wedding feast should be the place to launch his public ministry? That would be understandable – once the course was set, there was no turning back. But there may also be a very human, kindly element to his hesitation too. Around the Mediterranean, a person’s honour is their most valuable possession. If Jesus were publicly to fix the wine shortage, his host would lose face. Maybe Jesus was thinking of a way to fix the wine supply, and preserve his host’s honour at the same time, so the wedding banquet could go on in uninterrupted joy.

In any case, that’s precisely what he manages to do. Jesus meets two needs; the one his mother brought to him there’s not enough wine, and also the fact that his host’s honour is at stake. The way he meets these two needs is ingenious. He has the servants do everything; they fill the great water jars, they draw the new wine and they take it to the master of ceremonies. And, I’d guess on that day, they also begin their discipleship to this kind, thoughtful man. The MC and the guests think the host provided this wine. Two needs are beautifully met, more wine is provided, and the honour of the host is preserved. And for us, Christ’s Glory is revealed.

Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and bless what you have given us. There’s a link between this traditional table grace and the story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. When we sit down to eat and we say this grace, we’re saying that Jesus is at once a guest at our table, but that at the same time, he’s the one who provides what we have on the table; just as Jesus was an invited guest at the wedding, but at the same time, provided that huge quantity of wine for the feast.

Jesus is a guest at each meal; at our dinner table and at the wedding feast. But at the same time, he’s the one who provides what is served up to him and to everyone else.

We take all this a few steps further in our gathering today … and this is where that other comment of Jesus to his mother needs to be mentioned … My hour has not yet come …. When Jesus talks about his ‘hour having come’ in John’s gospel, he’s talking about his crucifixion (Jn 12.23–13.1). Soon, we’ll be declaring together that we are the body of Christ – that by our gathering, we somehow constitute Christ in this place. Then in our prayer over the gifts, we affirm that everything we give to Jesus has come from him in the first place. And finally, as we rehearse the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper …this is my body, given for you…this is my blood poured out for you … we declare that the bread and wine on our altar are somehow Christ in this place. This extraordinary chain of symbols gives us the Eucharist, where, as a friend of mine once put it, Jesus is both the host and main course. Amen

The baptism of our Lord

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

The baptism of our Lord:   Isa 43 1-7 Ps 29 Acts 8 14-17 Lk 3 15-22

Imagine we were going to write a handbook for a Messiah. “Purpose Statement: You have three years to transform the world from its present trajectory down the drain and set us on course for a new and eternal hope for life in all its fulness.” How would you suggest this person begin the task? Current wisdom advises you start with a bang: fireworks and fanfare, a huge display of power and importance, maybe a military parade, some feel-good presentations of our art and culture – put our civilization’s depth and greatness on show; that’ll get the message out there!

But no; today we see Jesus join the masses – people who almost certainly didn’t feel good about themselves; who knew their faults but didn’t know what to do about them; who greeted any illness with the fear that it might be their last; who experienced life as broken and painful; who felt cut off from God – like lots of us, really. Jesus was born one of us, and didn’t stop there.

This is why he went to John to be baptised; to join with the crowds of people who went down from Jerusalem and Judea to cross the Jordan River and receive John’s baptism of repentance; a baptism which enabled them to turn back to life within the relationship God meant to have with them.

There’s a pattern in the Gospels of Jesus leaving the land in solidarity with outsiders. The first time is soon after his birth when he has to go to Egypt as a refugee. The next time is the event we honour today; his baptism. And then during the years of his ministry we read of him travelling to the other side of Lake Galilee, and going north into Lebanon. Each time, we find him together with outsiders.

Of all people, Jesus didn’t need a baptism of repentance. Ever since the early Church Fathers and Mothers, we’ve puzzled over Jesus receiving John’s baptism. In their reflections on this paradox of the perfect penitent, our forebears came up with important wisdom that’s always worth looking at again. Let’s journey with these early Christians as our guides. Cf Ancient Xtian Commentary on Scripture NT 1a; IVP 2001,  pp. 49ff

One anonymous Church Father or Mother wrote that in receiving John’s baptism, Jesus endorsed John’s teaching and practice. John knew God’s people do need to leave behind the parts of our lives that separate us from God and turn back to God. The way we’re given to do this is to imitate Jesus and receive baptism. We’ve been privileged to witness the astonishing power of this here with our Persian families who’ve risked their lives to receive baptism. And those among us who’ve received baptism as adults or confirmation can also attest to its transformative power.

St Jerome saw three reasons for Jesus receiving John’s baptism. “First, because he was born a mortal, that he might fulfil all justice and humility of the law. (Jesus is born and lives his solidarity with us and by grace offers us a salvation we cannot earn.) Second, that by his baptism, he might confirm John’s baptism. And third, that by sanctifying the waters of the Jordan through the descent of the dove, he might show the Holy Spirit’s advent in the baptism of believers.” P.51 citing CCL 77:18-19 (This means our life is transformed from our baptism; a life limited by our biology becomes a life empowered for eternity by the breath of God – new, eternal life which doesn’t have to wait until we die before it starts  See Tom Wright Surprised by Hope SPCK 2007  p.168)  

The Assyrian Bishop, Theodore of Mopsuestia wrote that in receiving baptism, Jesus “identified himself with that part of society outside the law of grace, in which we also take part. The Lord became … like a common person from among the people.” MKGK 101 in ACCS p.51 Bishop Theodore sees Jesus joins the queue with people just like us who head down to the river looking for a new start and guidance for the way ahead. You can really trust someone who’ll do that with you.

Bishop Cromatius of Constance wrote that “the Lord did not want to be baptised for his own sake but for ours…” CCL 9a: 244-45 in ACCS p.51. This sounds very like the reason for Jesus’s crucifixion. We know that Jesus died for us so that we might be ransomed from the power of evil. Bp Cromatius realised that Jesus received baptism for this too. His baptism was in direct continuity with his self-sacrifice on the Cross.

Abp John Chrysostom of Constantinople saw it similarly to Bishop Cromatius. Chrysostom wrote that Jesus meant, “I have come to do away with the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the law. So I must first therefore fulfil it, and having delivered you from its condemnation, bring it to an end. … This is the very purpose of my assuming flesh and coming to you.” Matthew, Homily 12.1 PG 57.203 in ACCS p.52-3.  So Chrysostom is also linking Jesus’s baptism with his birth and his crucifixion.

What are we to make of all this – the Baptism of our Lord?

I think we can answer that by expanding on that last teaching of Abp Chrysostom – the linking of Jesus’s birth, baptism and crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t go to John for Baptism because he needed it. He didn’t receive John’s baptism to re-connect himself with God. Jesus received John’s baptism to re-connect us with God. His receiving baptism transforms the baptism we receive. It’s the same reason he came among us, born as the child of Bethlehem we welcomed at Christmas. Jesus was born so that any born on Earth might know we are all God’s children too. His being born transforms all births. It’s the same reason he lived the servant-life of gracious, beautiful, healing love that he did. Jesus lived that life so we might have a model before us of the freedom there is in choosing a life of self-offering and love. His choice to live a mortal life has transformed all life.

We need to be baptised; we need to know we are God’s children; we need to know the joyful freedom of a life of loving service. It’s all there before us in the life of Jesus, and it’s also there in his death. We see him on the Cross; Jesus again in our place. And we see him taking on himself the pain of everything that separates us from God; cruelty, deceit, fear, pride, injustice, selfish rage, greed, death. And we see these divisive powers all destroy themselves in their attempt to destroy him. As we rise with him from the waters of baptism, we remember that he rises again from death, and we will too. We know too that because of the grace, humility and love of Jesus, nothing can ever separate us from the Love of God. Amen

The inclusivity of Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany:  Isa 60 1-6 Ps 72 1-7 10-14 Eph 3.1-12 Mt 2.1-12

I visited my Mum’s parish in Melbourne last Sunday and I was particularly struck by the welcome on their pew-sheet. All baptized Christians, regardless of their denomination, church affiliation or irregular or non-attendance, are welcomed, invited, and encouraged to receive Communion with us or to come forward for a blessing. One of the most important things God calls us to do is to welcome visitors of all kinds to participate as completely as they can in the Church community.

So I remember being shocked once when at a Requiem Eucharist I announced a welcome to participate for communicant members of all denominations, and afterwards, someone told me they felt I’d excluded them. They weren’t communicants anywhere else, so they saidt I was explicitly excluding them.

It’s hard when a welcome is heard as a keep-out notice. There are several questions this raises – do we have conditions of entry; conditions of participation; should we? A useful test is to ask the old WWJD question – What would Jesus do?

This is particularly the question to ask at the feast of the Epiphany; the day when the baby Jesus hosted outsiders – foreign astrologers whose practice is frowned on by many parts of the Church and by Judaism. Epiphany is a good time to consider the extent of Christ’s welcome. Epiphany celebrates the day when representatives of the known world were called and received into the presence of the God of Israel – welcomed. Who was welcomed to Bethlehem? Was there anyone Jesus would have left out? Let’s think carefully about everyone who was actually welcomed at Bethlehem. Who did Jesus have there to celebrate his birth?

First, there are his parents. We know Joseph and Mary aren’t married yet. If you don’t think Matthew’s trying to make a point of this, look back a chapter at his record of Jesus’s family tree. You find four other women named there who were illegal or unclean according to the Hebrew Scriptures (Tamar – incest, Rahab – prostitution, Ruth – forbidden inter-racial marriage and Bathsheba – adultery).

So if what we are seeing in our Holy Family is the first ever Christian gathering, this bids fair for a very broad-minded Church indeed. But it doesn’t stop there. Luke’s gospel that we heard at Christmas tells us that Mary and Joseph have to use a manger, an animal-feed trough, as a bed for Jesus. The earliest Church began in a cave at the back of the house; the place where the animals lived. The story gives us a donkey, cattle and sheep as Jesus’s fellow tenants; doubtless accompanied by their attendant insects and parasites. So the Church is more universal still.

Then there are shepherds; again in Luke’s account. Shepherds in the Middle East are still mostly children – kids aged between 5 and 11. So the earliest congregation included little children too. And of course they’d have brought their sheep and goats with them. I wonder if Mary and Joseph had trouble keeping the sheep from nibbling at the straw that Jesus was lying on. The goats would have eaten the swaddling clothes as well, given half a chance. And who could ever forget the smell of a billy goat? So there’s the inaugural service of the blessing of the animals.

Then there’s the star and its attendant Magi. A Magus is a magician; Deut. 18 declares such a person abhorrent. So abhorrent people are there, and Matthew placidly records their coming. How much more broad minded do you want to get!?

Finally, there are angels in their thousands. I think we can safely say they enjoy universal approval. But what a gathering! Parents of dubious status from an even more questionable pedigree; the animal, vegetable, insect, mineral and heavenly kingdoms all represented; and strange foreigners who seek a king – and risk the baby’s life by telling Herod about him! That’s as broad-minded a church as you could imagine, isn’t it. And the infant Jesus is there in the middle of it all; God, unflappably gracious, apparently unfussed by the wild diversity of angels, people and creatures all gathered under one rocky roof. And they were all invited, or else co-opted as hosts. This was no accident.

So WWJD? Is what we’ve imagined so far about God’s welcome – about Jesus’s inclusivity – consistent with Scripture? The psalm today reminds us of God’s special concern for the poor, the needy, the helpless, the oppressed and the violated. The reading from Isaiah joyfully proclaims the gathering in of a scattered family, all guided by the brightness of God’s light. And the epistle is a prayer for God’s wisdom to be revealed throughout Earth, and indeed beyond it.

That’s quite all-inclusive. And Matthew points us in two further directions – one at the beginning and the other at the end of his gospel. Matthew begins his gospel with Jesus’s genealogy. He begins that genealogy with Abraham. The most important moment in Abraham’s story is when God promises that through him, all families of Earth will be blessed; not only believers; not just all humans; all families. The tableau we finally have before us in the crib today shows us this blessing fulfilled.

We find the other direction Matthew points us in right at the end of the gospel. Jesus commits his followers to work to fulfil God’s desire – Go…and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

The tableau before us at Epiphany is a call to us to recognise what God truly desires – universal blessing; grace; peace – a call to recognise God’s desire for all to be gathered in the divine presence, and having recognised God’s desire, to choose to work for it with Jesus.

Epiphany calls us to that mission; to invite the world into the presence of Jesus – all families of Earth. He’s hardly intimidating.

Epiphany also challenges us to ask how wide we can open our stable door; how wide we can open our hearts. Epiphany challenges us to open our hearts wider still – to risk what we can’t yet cope with. And it also challenges us to go outside; go to the other and trust that Jesus goes with us; goes with us to whatever family of Earth he leads us.                                                                                                   Amen

Jesus’ vision of radical inclusion

Rev’d Dr Phillip Tolliday

Mk 3:21-31, 7:10-12, Lk 8-40-56, Jn 19:25-27, 1&2 Timothy

Standing here I am catapulted back to Christ Church, Hamilton in Victoria. It’s the First Sunday after Christmas, 1987 and, as a newly ordained Deacon it’s my responsibility to preach my first sermon. The parish is observing the day as the Feast of the Holy Family. Nervous? You bet! My training rector, himself trained in Zimbabwe is sitting in his stall, head cocked attentively, and wondering ‘Let’s see what they teach these young things in Theological College these days!’

As I launch out into the deep—and as things turn out, it is pretty deep water that I’m negotiating—I slowly gain more confidence and then, before I know it, the sermon’s over. Said too much, inexperienced preachers always do: a surfeit of information, a deficit of reflection. Service over and disrobing in the vestry, my training rector says to me the words I can still hear today. ‘Well, you’ve just destroyed much of what I’d believed about the Christian notion of family.’ That’s not good. It’s not really what you want to hear from your boss on your first week. I remember saying something like, ‘Well, perhaps it might be best if you preach at the 10am because I don’t think I can fix it between now and then.’ Only to be told, ‘Fix it? Who said anything about fixing it? Ach, man, it was great.’ Actually I’m not sure it was great – but I am sure that Warrick (for that was his name) was both great and gracious with his callow assistant curate.

Looking at the Christmas Creche it’s easy to imagine that the Holy Family is rather like a first century transplant of the modern nuclear family—despite the fact that the latter is somewhat more fissured and permeable than it was when I first considered this theme thirty years ago. But it’s a curious fact that for Christianity the familial is, right from the time Jesus’s youth, subjected to a measure of critical scrutiny that can make some of us a bit uncomfortable. Alright, so it can make some of us feel very uncomfortable.

Family can touch us in places that we sometimes don’t want to go and many of us can resonate with those well-known sentiments that open the novel Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ So, how did things stand with Jesus and his family?

Let’s begin with the gospel and with Luke’s story of the journey to Jerusalem. On the return journey to their village Mary and Joseph presume that Jesus is with the group of travellers. Unhappily they are wrong. It takes nothing less than a return journey to Jerusalem and three whole days of searching before they find him: sitting in the Temple. For years we had this encounter softened for us by the delightful cadences of Elizabethan English. ‘And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.’ That’s code for ‘And just what is the meaning of THIS!!’

Is Jesus contrite? Is he Apologetic? Not a bit of it. Instead, he asks them a question, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ That’s not really the response that Joseph wants to hear! Of course Luke tells the story not to show Jesus as an adolescent brat, but to illustrate that even at that early age, he was both precocious and conscious of his identity and destiny: Luke is preoccupied with destiny. And Luke makes sure that he rounds out the story on a positive note: ‘Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.’ These simple lines form the basis of the idealization of the Holy Family as a nuclear unit.

And yet, this idealized picture will not stand closer scrutiny from the gospels themselves. Jesus’ family life was spent in a peasant village surrounded by relatives and neighbours, with very little privacy and strong social pressure toward conformity. The gospel records indicate that he did not conform, and paid the price: rejection and misunderstanding by his extended family.

The earliest narrative of the encounter of the adult Jesus with his family comes from Mk. 3:21 and it is not a happy one. Mark states briefly that in the midst of Jesus’ enormous popularity with the crowds, his relatives or those from his home village came to fulfill their familial responsibility by taking hold of him because they thought he was out of his mind. His bizarre behavior—at least as they interpreted it—was shaming their village and they had to do something about it. A little later in Mark’s narrative (3:31) his mother and his brothers tried again. They sent word to him through the crowd that they were outside (in contrast to the crowd who are presumably on the inside sitting around him). Some in the crowd said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.’

Family loyalty and hospitality would have suggested an immediate response from him: receiving the family was an expected priority. But instead of this, Jesus replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Thus he effectively ignores them and says to those who are inside and around him, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

It’s not without significance that the precursor to this story in Mark, Chapter 3 is Jesus’s appointment of the twelve apostles whose ‘insider’ status is contrasted sharply with that of his blood relatives, to the detriment of the latter. Indeed so much so that at this point in the narrative the family of Jesus exit the stage and are never seen again, in spite of the fact that they are known to others later in the story.

In the gospel traditions it is interesting that there are no positive sayings about the goodness of the family that were preserved or attributed to Jesus. Instead, Jesus is portrayed as being sensitive to and taking an interest in the families of others, but at best seems to stand aloof from his own. While Jesus is portrayed as appreciative of religious requirements regarding the family (Mk. 7:10-12 about honoring one’s parents), and sensitive to the needs of and longing for family life in an environment harsh toward the marginalized (Lk. 8:40-56 the healing of the centurion’s daughter), his attitude toward his own family was hardly one characterized by enthusiasm: something we see from today’s gospel and also from the section in Mark Chapter three. A primary and conspicuous exception to this is one portrayal of his death (Jn. 19:25-27 where Jesus commits his mother into the care of the beloved disciple).

It has been suggested that the vision of the earliest Christians, if not of Jesus himself, was to play down the importance of blood relationships in favour of those based upon spirit. Spirit and belief rather than blood would henceforth become the mark of radical inclusion. Those, who to use the words of the Markan Jesus, ‘do the will of God’ would become ‘my brother and sister and mother.’ So, did this radical vision of inclusion actually work?

Well, it sort of worked. It’s true that in Jesus’ disavowal of the family, that the seeds of a new version of family were made possible, but the ideal proved itself impossible of achievement and there was great resistance against it. Consider for example, the Pastoral Letters of 1 and 2 Timothy, to say nothing of the Household Codes from Colossians 3, Ephesians 5 and the First Letter of Peter.  These are the sections in which the respective obligations of wives to husbands and children to parents are spelled out. Indeed it is these latter that are sometimes appealed to by advocates of the ‘family values’ lobby. But as you see, the picture, as always, is more complex and nuanced than one simple or simplistic view.

But the vision did work inasmuch as it called differing people together into one place and for a common purpose. People of differing ages, social status, ethnicity, background, abilities and so much more were and continue to be drawn together throughout time and place. Look around you; look at the person next to you, and ask yourself: would I have met you, perhaps have come to know you, even formed a deep friendship with you, had it not been for the fact that we have been drawn together into one place—this place—for a common purpose. And if your answer to that question is: ‘Well, it’s unlikely,’ then I think we can say that Jesus’ vision of radical inclusion is still quietly alive. That the call is insistent (as the Collect expresses it) is something with which we can readily agree. That it is more insistent than ties of family or blood is something on which the various voices of the New Testament never reaches consensus and therefore it is something through the midst of which each of us must trace his or her own path.





Christmas Day

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas Day 2018

Christmas is astounding. It celebrates the wildest, most astonishing event. One day, the God of the universe was born as a tiny, helpless baby; a real one; vulnerable to all the hazards of a dangerous world. Why? Why did God need to come, and why come as a tiny, helpless baby?

Scripture tells us that God did need to come – for the sake of this world. That’s a big statement, and it raises a few questions. What did God need to do for this world? Did God get it done? And then there’s that other question; the big one.

I think all of us will remember a time when we’ve asked the “big question”: If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen? That’s the “big question”. People have always asked it, ever since we were told that God loves us. If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen? That suffering might be caused by war; natural disaster; disease; abuse of vulnerable people – we can all remember why we’ve asked that question. It’s because someone good has been badly hurt, or died; maybe someone we love, or some innocent victim of a disaster or an atrocity in the news; maybe even us. What sort of a God lets that happen?

We’re not the first to ask the big question. The Hebrew people had plenty of reasons to ask it. Years of slavery, countless wars, famines, colonization, exile. They asked the big question, and all through Advent, we’ve been focussed on the answer they received. It was a promise that they heard again and again; God would raise up someone extraordinary who would set things right. The prophets used many vivid and mysterious images to speak of him. Isaiah said this special leader would be born to the Hebrew people; born a descendant of King David, a prince. He’d have the authority and the power, finally, to bring lasting peace; peace which he would uphold with justice and righteousness. Isa 9 This morning, Isaiah told us this would involve a rock-solid military defence. And our Psalmist told us the same.

God would raise up someone extraordinary who would set things right; the anointed one – the Messiah. The Hebrews had huge expectations of this Messiah. They waited for this Prince of Peace to be born; they waited and waited. They waited so long that they started to ask another question; “How long!” Hab 1.2 They had huge expectations. But I don’t think they ever imagined who would eventually come.

Jesus was greater than the prophets ever expected. And yet he didn’t come in power as some invincible tribal warrior. He came in the most scandalous, defenceless way imaginable. Just before he was born, his unmarried parents had to beg for fifth-rate lodgings 100 km from home. Jesus’s first bed was an animal’s feed trough. Who were the first visitors to come and witness his arrival? Scruffy strangers, shepherds, apparently turned up in the middle of the night. And soon after, this family would be on the road again as refugees. One day, the God of the universe was born as a tiny, helpless baby; vulnerable to all the hazards of a dangerous world.

Why in the world must any family endure such humiliation? If this baby is God’s answer to the “big question”, then that question needs to go under the microscope. If there is a loving God of the universe, why is suffering allowed to happen? This question has a built in assumption; we expect that a loving God should prevent tragedies. Is this true? And if it is, how should a loving God do this?

Should a loving God stop all wars; turn all weapons into farming tools? Would that fix relations between nations? Well, no. Should a loving God fuse the world’s tectonic plates together; stop all storms; get rid of mosquitoes? Would that make Earth a suffering-free zone? Well, no. Should a loving God abolish all disease and injury; even our mortality? Well, no. Should a loving God put a force-field round all vulnerable people; make every bully behave? Would all that stop us suffering? No; that wouldn’t address the human heart.  …  So what’s a loving God to do?

God did something beyond all expectation. One day, the God of the universe was born a tiny, helpless baby; vulnerable to all the hazards of this dangerous world.

Isaiah calls Jesus Emmanuel – God with us. He was born one of the colonised, bullied people – so the first peoples of this and every land have God with them. Jesus was born one of the people who’d have to depend on the kindness of others just to survive – so asylum-seekers / refugees have God with them. Jesus was born among animals and insects in a stable – so non-human life has God with them too. Shepherds were the ancient world’s equivalent of street people. So they have God with them. Jesus grew up to love and care for any people he met who were sick in mind or body, or hungry. So they have God with them. Jesus was arrested, tried and executed by the state. So prisoners and those on death row have God with them. All these outsiders can be told with confidence that Jesus is their Emmanuel – God with them. And the rest of us? God was born, a living, mortal organism on planet Earth. So every creature, the air we breathe and the land we walk on, we all have God with us. In every place, Jesus revealed God; he was – and always is – God with us.

And the question of suffering? It isn’t forgotten. At the end of his ministry, Jesus would take it all to the Cross – he’d willingly have all wrong and all evil crucified in his own body, and he’d take it to the grave where it belongs. And on the third day after his death, when he rose, alive again from the grave, all the suffering of the world – even death itself – lay defeated at his feet.

Yes, we still experience suffering. We’re still not at the end times. But the Good News is that while suffering has an end, we do not. Just as Jesus came to be with us in our suffering, he promises that when we die, he will come and take us to be with him. Jn 14 And we are also promised that after the last days, in a renewed heaven and earth, God will again make a home with us and wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Rev 21

One day, the God of the universe was born a tiny, helpless baby; vulnerable to all the hazards of a dangerous world. He came to give meaning to our life, to rescue us all, good and bad, and to let us know we have God with us in every moment, in every place, and we always will.                     Amen

Christmas Eve

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christmas Midnight 2018

If we attend carefully to the story of the first Christmas, we notice that the ancient story is like ours. It’s also a story of people whose lives are shaped by events and people in distant places. And like modern writers who want to tell people about the effect of these events, the Bible story focuses in on one family. How did world events affect this family? Just like world events affect ours, it seems.

Joseph is a man who works with his hands in Nazareth. He originally came from Bethlehem. He had to travel home to be counted in a census ordered by some character thousands of kilometres away. Joseph lived a hundred kilometres from home because the economics of the empire forced subject people to move around.

Mary’s an expecting mother; and unmarried at that! Any plans for a wedding go out the window with all that moving around. Her unborn baby is put in danger because its mother has to endure an exhausting journey on foot or jiggling on the back of a donkey. And then the child has to be born in emergency digs. Where’s God in this?

Amazingly enough, here on Earth! One of the names of that baby is Emmanuel. It literally means God is with us. It’s the baby who tells us where God is; right there at the heart of all the anxiety and fear and inconvenience. God is with us doesn’t mean an airy fairy spirit wafting around. God is with us doesn’t mean some old white bearded bloke in the sky, or someone like the emperor in Rome or the movers and shakers in Canberra or Washington or Beijing today. God is with us is the baby; completely vulnerable to the caprices of them all. Emmanuel really does mean God is with normal people; means it in the sense that God is one of us.

The other day, I was talking with a young friend who feels ready to give up his faith. He can’t see God getting involved in anything or caring about anything. Being this time of year, we talked about Christmas and the miracle of God coming to us in the baby Jesus. But my friend said yes that’s all very well, but God’s not doing that sort of thing now.

Strangely enough, I’d heard a story two days earlier which convinced me that God was doing precisely that right now. It was a story told by a young woman who’d just returned from serving with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.

This programme arranges for individuals from various countries to accompany people in Palestine and Israel as they navigate their daily routines, often under duress. These ‘Ecumenical Accompaniers’ (EAs) try to offer a protective presence to vulnerable communities by monitoring and reporting human rights abuses. They join Israeli and Palestinian partners to work in non-violent ways for peace.

Some of the hotspots they monitor are the checkpoints where day-labourers from the West Bank and Gaza who work in Israel have to cross the separation wall each day. The main checkpoints are now called terminals where huge numbers of people are processed every day. The one between Bethlehem and Jerusalem sees about 8,000 people a day pass through a series of steel tunnels, turnstiles and holding pens as they are ‘processed’ before going to work.

The young woman who told this story had just come back to Australia. A week earlier, she’d been monitoring the Bethlehem checkpoint. People start arriving there at about 2.00 or 2.30am because you can never tell how long it will take to be processed. The steel tunnels you have to queue up in are jammed with people but once you get through a turnstile into the first holding pen, it’s even worse. The closely packed crowd surges dangerously. People get seriously squashed.

Among the crowd on this particular morning, there was a mother with a tiny baby – possibly only weeks old. This was very unusual; it’s not a place for such vulnerable people. To protect her baby from being crushed by the motion of the crowd, the mother was holding it above her head. But almost no-one was being let through the exit-turnstile into the next tunnel. So as time wore on, the mother’s arms visibly shook more and more with the effort of holding her baby up out of danger.

A man near the exit saw this and called out to her. He motioned that he’d take the baby into the next holding area and wait for her. She really had no choice. She relinquished her screaming child, and hand over hand, it was passed from one person to the next until this man held it safely – but it was still distressed. He soon took it through the next turnstile into a less crowded tunnel, and then waited until the mother finally got through. The delay may well have cost him his job.

You remember the conversation with my young friend about Christmas, and his sadness that God doesn’t do things like sending a child to transform evil any more? The young Ecumenical Accompanier woman’s story told me that God still does exactly that – and in Bethlehem again, of all places.

The child and the mother were the same frighteningly vulnerable people – the dangers they faced still came from living under occupation. The trust she had to place in the kindness of complete strangers was just as precarious. And the goodness that transformed those miserably oppressed people into a community of care and compassion sprang from the same source. The child was in that moment the Christ-child again, enabling down-trodden people to embody God’s care.

In Mary and Joseph’s story, God is revealed through a child ready to be born; then through the love, the nurture and care of that poor, harassed couple and the support of a local, pop-up community. That’s how we discover Emmanuel for ourselves too. It might seem rude of me, but my prayer for each one of us tonight is that we’ll all discover we are pregnant with this possibility; each one of us.

It’s the lifetime pilgrimage of every Christian to discover the Christ child growing within each of us, and within each other; to sense that child growing among us; to give birth to the child in amongst all the chaos of our life’s journey, and to raise our child with love and nurture, and with the support of the community of faith. It’s our privilege to receive that child as God’s gift to us, and in some amazing way, to come to realise that God also receives us as a gift; you and me – Emmanuel.  Amen

God works most powerfully in our weaknesses, not our strengths

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 4 C: Mic 5 2-5a Magnificat, Lk 1 46-55, Heb 10 5-10, Lk 1 39-45

The message that’s come to me time and time again this Advent is that God works most powerfully in our weaknesses, not our strengths. I guess we’ve all heard that before, but we never really seem to believe it. It’s hardly encouraged, even in Christian communities. In just such communities, so often I hear people being told to focus on their strengths if they really wanted to succeed – and I doubt that I’m the only one hearing this. Yet it’s a core teaching of the Church that God chooses to work through our weaknesses, not our strengths.

And it’s actually true. Particularly in ministry, I find the great moments come when I get out of God’s way – when I put aside the notion that my gifts or my insights are the best measure of what God wants to get done – and simply open up to God’s leading. Trust; just let go. Let go, and watch God get on with it.

In the context of parish life, for me it means that I try to avoid being controlling or managerial, because I think that squashes spontaneity and confines the parish’s ministry within the horizons of my vision. Instead, I want to encourage a culture of openness to God’s values where we risk God’s leading. So we study Scripture together to find out how God works. That helps us become people who recognise and respond to God’s promptings; promptings that might come to any of us – not just those with designated positions.

The Scriptures show us that God works through weakness and not strength. A central symbol of our faith is our crucified Saviour. We see this God-is-most-present-in-our-weakness theme most obviously in the story of Jesus’s life – even from before his birth. And that’s what we see in today’s readings.

Today we met two first-time mums-to-be: Mary and Elizabeth. I have a friend, Katrina, who is a counsellor to new mums. With her neo-natal counselling hat on, Katrina tells me that such women aren’t necessarily all that realistic about how they’re going to manage life with a new baby. Often the point at which these mums first ring her for some good counsel is a day or two after they’ve returned home from hospital – once they’ve tried to be super-woman; resume normal life and care for their baby – and after two sleepless nights, things aren’t quite going to plan.

If God were in the life-coaching business, I’m pretty sure consideration would have been given to choosing experienced mums for today’s two babies, John and Jesus. There’d have been a worldwide search for mums with a proven track-record of raising MENSA-type gifted and talented children; supermums fit to raise tomorrow’s little leaders. But that’s not how God operates. Elizabeth and Mary had no prior experience of raising their own children. Mary, utterly irresponsibly, rushed off on a four-day journey to be with Elizabeth. I look at them, I think about the God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing again, and I get it. In Mary, God picked a woman who knew she couldn’t go it alone; she looked for connection with someone else; she found strength by being with someone else in the same boat.

So lesson one for today: this God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing reveals its true meaning when we’re in community. Lone-ranger spirituality is an oxymoron; our full humanity is only found in relationship; in community. The quality of our life is not measured in our personal accomplishments, but rather in our belonging.

That’s a message it’s almost impossible for people in our developed-world societies to hear – at least until someone close dies or goes away.  We live in a society that tells us home and family are just a launching pad from which we rocket off into a stellar career, armed with all the competitive edges we need to carve out status for ourselves.

That’s exactly the wrong focus. The real goal of being human is actually found in family – like here – among the people who know our weaknesses best. Mary set off to face her predicament together with someone who’d know it from the inside.

So Mary went to Elizabeth’s home.  And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, her baby leapt in her womb.  Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

Mary responded by saying, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’  They were clear it was God who’d done something wonderful; not them.  God had done something wonderful in looking ‘with favour on the lowliness of this servant.’ God chose to work this wonder through these ordinary, very vulnerable women.

But while it’s an honour for Mary to be chosen as the mother of the Lord, it’s not going to be easy. (Barclay, 8) ‘That very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart … God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy, but for a great task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it’. The woman who’ll cradle her newborn in a feeding trough will also see that child of hers die on a cross.

And that’s the other lesson about this God’s-strength-in-our-weakness thing. Letting go and letting God might sound easy, but it’s not. Accepting God’s calling doesn’t stop the death of our loved ones; it doesn’t give us the power to stop a world system where the strong seem to crush the weak; where the tongues of the proud and mighty prate as though the Earth is theirs, and for a time it seems they are right. And harder still, because we’ve responded to God and taken to heart God’s way of vulnerability to these evils, it hurts us more than it would if we’d just ignored God, kept our heads down and plugged away in our part of the rat-race.

But the Gospel also opens us to the Advent hope – the expectation that Jesus, who swallowed up the power of this evil once and for all in his death – that the same Jesus, who rose from the dead, will return and bring forth in us the resurrection life he has nurtured and cherished in our hearts – bring it forth throughout Earth – and our hearts will leap for joy too on the day of his coming.

So we approach the close of the Advent season in the knowledge that we are waiting; we are keeping watch; we are staying awake, so we are always careful to be ready to meet him on the day of his coming.

And today’s lesson from Mary and Elizabeth and God is that none of us is too old, too young, too weak, too silly, too untalented or too inexperienced to be called by God to change Earth. When God calls us, we simply need to be ready to say yes. Then we’ll have used this Advent season well.   Amen

The Sunday of the Baptist

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

The Sunday of the Baptist  Advent 3C:  Luke 3.7-18

You offspring of vipers! Imagine being greeted by your preacher like that. People sometimes tell me about very rough street preachers they’ve come across in Rundle Mall; preachers who berate passers-by and hold up placards telling how hot it is in hell; preachers who openly attack the lifestyles and life choices of particular groups in our community and pronounce harsh words of judgement on them – preachers who would think of themselves as prophetic voices. People complain to me about them because as a representative of the church, to an extent, I’m held accountable for what these preachers have to say.

But prophets in the Bible preached moral standards more to people inside their faith community. And they told their people to look after others; insiders and outsiders. Eg Mal 3.5. Ez 47.22-23 So if I were listening for Biblical prophecy from a street preacher, I’d expect them to champion the sad, needy and lonely people in the crowd – like refugees and outcasts. Such people should be hearing that in the community of Christ, they should expect to find belonging and care; that in the community of Christ they should find people who support them in their need. Why? Because that’s what God is like, and God’s people try to live in God’s image; to live guided by the example Jesus has given us.

But a preacher speaks differently here in church than on the street, because here, the preacher is speaking to insiders; encouraging us, as a community, to keep on being the people who embody God’s love and acceptance and welcome and care to the sad, the needy, the poor, the outsider. And if we forget we’re that sort of community and drift off, the preacher has to remind us to turn back; to repent. Again and again, this is the message from the scriptures set for Advent. The lesson of today’s Gospel is that everyone can start exactly where they are and turn to live a more God-centred life. God meets us where we are, begins to transform us, and leads us into a fuller life. Today this message of repentance – of a new start in life – gets fleshed out in very direct language. We just heard John the Baptist preach this repentance in three ways.

He began by warning of potential judgement and he called us insiders to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. (7-9) John’s preaching assumed that the people who came down to hear him were insiders; believers. John says our faith must shape what we do with our lives; it must result in our lives bearing fruit so we can nourish and strengthen the lives of people around us – both insiders and outsiders.

The second aspect of John’s preaching concerned the ethics of power and responsibility. He told influential Jewish people they should live justly; not misuse their power for their own enrichment or to put others down. (10-14) He specifically addressed tax collectors and soldiers, so we can imagine the sort of people he’d speak to today; people who can influence the stability and security of needy people’s lives. So John was speaking to people like us.

Finally, John told them who it is that we must turn to face: Jesus, the one who is to come, and who will baptise us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.(15-18) Can we wonder for a moment what it would feel like to turn to face Jesus?

It was people of good will who came out to receive John’s baptism. They were insiders, and they were filled with expectation. But was their expectation relevant to John’s message? John had called them into the wilderness. That made them remember that Moses had once led God’s people into the wilderness and God had rescued them from their Egyptian slavemasters. So were they wondering if it would be like that with John? Would God use John to free them from the Romans? For an answer, John meets them with those shocking words. You offspring of vipers! They came to John with the wrong questions – the wrong expectations.

Like many a good teacher, John is very tough from the word go. These people might think of themselves as the children of Moses and Abraham, but John interrupts their thought patterns to tell them that they’re actually living like descendants of the serpent; the tempter of the Genesis 3 story—You offspring of vipers!

That temptation story – and we’ll hear some of it in this afternoon’s lessons and carols service – was all about presuming on God’s grace; the idea that we’re God’s people, so whatever comes from God is simply ours for the taking.

John believes the people coming down to see him are like that – Have you heard? There’s a new religious sensation down at the river; let’s go down and cash in on it; it’s an attitude of entitlement which John attacks head on.

John’s style of preaching is very difficult for us to hear. He got right in your face – literally. Nowadays, if people come to us to ask for baptism, we smile and speak gently to them. But maybe John is a bit more realistic than we are. He warns that God requires honest repentance, transformed lives and fruitfulness.

We’ve got all that in our baptismal services too, and our candidates for baptism and their sponsors say they’ll fulfil those requirements in the context of the church community. But so often, we seldom see them again. So do I fail to make sure they understand the seriousness of what they’re promising? Should I try out John’s preaching style on my next baptismal family; You offspring of vipers!? I doubt it’d work. But that’s speculation. Is there a solid lesson for us in today’s Gospel?

Yes. There is a definite message today. We’re God’s community – not our own; God’s. And God calls us to keep on bearing fruit; yielding grain for those who need it. God knows we can – believes in us. And we can; like we do for Mary Mag’s, St Luke’s Mission and St John’s Youth Services. And it’s always a team effort; none of us is exempt. We have to grow and multiply our missions because the needs are growing and multiplying. We have to turn to God and honestly face both the needs and our abundance, and decide together to respond. There is no other option.

The Advent message also reminds us that every one of those needy bears the image and likeness of our God: we meet Jesus, child of God, in each of these whom we serve. We must be ready for him, today and at any time, with fruit, grain and water to share, for we never want to see him arrive here to find a barren tree or an empty plate or cup. We could never leave any child in such need, could we.   Amen

John the Baptist: the voice crying out in the wilderness

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent 2 C:  Mal 3 1-14 Song Zech Phil 1 1-11 Lk 3 1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert – in the wilderness. The word of God didn’t come to John in a religious school; nor in a Synagogue or the Temple – the word of God came to John the Baptist in the desert. Desert places are often where God comes to us.

A desert can be a place of intense, forbidding silence. Most of us are not desert dwellers. When we imagine being in a desert, we think of a place where you have to focus on sheer survival – as though it’s basically a hostile place – where the focus can’t be on our spirituality but on physical endurance. Yet the Scriptures are full of wonderful stories of God meeting people in the wilderness; God coming to lonely people in dry places. It’s actually quite central to being Australian as well. I have a book called Heart Gone Walkabout where the preface is a brief quotation from an Aranda elder who says, When things get too much I go walkabout. Bush helps me work it out. I come back when it feels right.

The Church down the centuries has also discovered that desert and wilderness are spiritually significant places, and also metaphors for times in our life where we feel alienated and vulnerable – caught in a spiritual vacuum where the breath of hope and purpose fail us. That happens to us as individuals, and as communities.

Much of the Church in Australia and other rich countries is experiencing this desert experience collectively. Where we aren’t being actively mistrusted, resented or ridiculed, we feel invisible to most people. We’re worried about survival – talking about strategies. We don’t notice God’s at work; that in much of the majority world, the Church is growing explosively. Many people in India, Iran, China, Russia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa experience life as a hostile spiritual desert. The Holy Spirit is touching these people in huge numbers and calling them to new life as followers of Jesus. The CSI Bishop of Madras regularly conducts baptisms involving more than five thousand people.

We need to embrace our wilderness. We rich Christians should be praying that as the illusion of materialist self-sufficiency is exposed for the spiritual desert that it is, the millions of people lost in this cruel wilderness are going to be surprised by God coming to save us – led to Christ by the Spirit who opens eyes and hearts. God comes unexpectedly in the desert; in the silence; in our waiting – at our lowest ebb.

We see this in the story behind the canticle we said as our Psalm today, Zechariah’s song. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have children and they were getting on in years. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that they would have a son whom he should name John, but Zechariah doubted this. So Gabriel said, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in that time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. Lk 1.20 The canticle which we said together was the song which burst from Zechariah’s lips moments after he had mutely affirmed God’s wish that his son should be called John; the John we have come to know as the Baptist. Zechariah sings to his eight-day-old son, … you child shall be called the prophet of the Most High: for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

Just as his father’s prophetic song sprang from silence and waiting, the prophetic ministry of John would also erupt from the silence of the desert. The word of God came to John in the wilderness, and his mission became clear. Next week, we’ll get a very strong dose of John’s teaching – which, like that of Malachi who we heard today, focussed on loyalty to God, personal ethics and justice for the vulnerable.

John deliberately called people into the desert; into the wilderness. We heard in today’s gospel that John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was Isaiah’s voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

To reach the place where John is traditionally remembered to have baptised people – including Jesus – you go down the road from Jerusalem as if you’re headed to Jericho. You descend to the lowest place on Earth. You’re in an incredibly arid desert where it almost never rains. The soil under your feet is a dust finer than talc. You don’t take the turnoff to Jericho. You head straight on several more kilometres to the Jordan River, not far from the place where it flows into the Dead Sea.

John’s gospel tells us that John the Baptist called people to the other side of the Jordan River receive his baptism. So these people from Jerusalem and Judea had to cross an international boundary – leave the country. They had to leave the promised land of their birthright. They had literally, physically to turn their backs on God’s promises and leave them behind. This is enormously powerful symbolism.

Across the river, still facing east, they’d meet John and unburden themselves of the things in their lives which separated them from a living relationship with God. John would have had strong words to say to them about the way they’d lived their life. Then he’d physically repent them; he’d turn them to face again the land of the promise. And in the living water of the river, he would drown all the burdens they’d confessed and lead them as spiritual new-borns back into the land of the promise. Washed and renewed, they were given a new life; a new beginning.

This is a strong picture for Advent. It says that we can be in an utter spiritual wilderness, and God will come to us bringing new life. It says we can take the lowest, most destructive parts of our lives to God, and God will transform them into new life. It says that the terrifying silence and hostile dryness of the desert is a place of God’s coming to us – you could almost say it’s a necessary precondition of God’s coming.

Like the people who went to John the Baptist, we need first to acknowledge our burdens and our failings, and bring them to God. For the space and time to do that, we need the stillness of the desert. We need the desert to mock our absurd culture of instant gratification and deadlines and frightened escapist busyness; we need the desert to draw all that to a halt and force us to stop and wait, and finally in our waiting, to see the One who is coming to save us. When things get too much I go walkabout. Bush helps me work it out. I come back when it feels right. Amen

Advent a time to listen, hear, prepare and respond

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent Sunday: Jer 33 14-16, Ps 25 1-10, 1 Th 3 9-13, Lk 21 25-38

I was listening to Big Ideas on the radio last week and heard a conversation between the wonderful cartoonist-philosopher Michael Leunig and Peter Catt, the Dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. Michael talked about the way today’s pace of life alienates us from each other. He said, When people hurtle along, the soul gets very frightened and our anxiety levels go up … and when the anxiety goes up the anger goes up and there’s no time to listen.

Then in his inimitable way as Australia’s unofficial spiritual director, Michael offered us an antidote that he’d accidentally happened on last year. He’d said he’d missed a train, and instead of worrying about it, he thought to himself, Hang on a moment, I can sit on the station in peace and wait for the next one. And now it works. I’m always trying to miss trains these days because I sit there and there is peace. And peace in this modern world is not a given.

Have you ever thought of simply sitting and waiting as a cure for the social ills of our time? Michael’s insight has made me think again about Advent, this season of waiting that we’ve entered today; waiting and preparing.

Advent has its roots in the experience of the very earliest Christians. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, they waited and prepared for Jesus’s second coming. They believed he would come again in their own lifetime, and at his coming again, all the ills of the world would be cured. They remembered prophecies like the one we heard from Jeremiah today; The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.

But can you imagine the crisis when the people of the earliest church began to see fellow Christians dying? Where was he? What about the promise? The days are surely coming when I will fulfil the promise.

The first Sunday of Advent is the day when we remember that promise. But for us, the watching has not been mere decades as it was for those early Christians; it’s been two millennia. We in the later Church have responded to the delay in Christ’s return by redirecting our focus. Rather than looking for the healing to come at the end of all time, we’ve come to focus on our own personal end; our death. Of course, there are groups that do get obsessed with the end of time, but generally the Church hasn’t gone down that path, but rather a more individual one. And realising our own end could come at any moment, we’ve commended living our lives better – living in a way that honours God’s gift of our life. But that can also lead us to live as though there’s no tomorrow; it can also engulf us in a ridiculous pace of life.

So Michael Leunig’s idea of deliberately missing a train in order to find some peace and tranquillity isn’t such a bad idea. But we live in a world where most people don’t have the leisure to miss the train and hang around. Life is a daily struggle either for material survival or in many places even personal safety. That’s been brought home to us again by the catastrophic fire events in Queensland and California; and by those schoolchildren who went on strike to protest our parliament’s inaction on climate change. For them, the future obviously feels very precarious. They’ve reminded us that like the members of the early Church, we are also waiting in a threatening present, and hoping for rescue from a terrifying future.

So do we roll up our sleeves and get busy, or do we sit and wait for God to do something? The answer lies somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that God is already doing something. The stories that we so often hear – of unexpected help and care being offered to people suffering any form of catastrophe – are signs that God’s gifts of compassion, grace and kindness are already active in the world. Why can I say this? St Teresa of Avila explains: Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which he is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which he is to bless us now.

Paradoxically, Teresa’s wisdom is a call both to action, and at the same time, to waiting and silence. She was a contemplative – free to listen to God and to think.

We’re not. We live in an age of instantaneous communication; communication on a relentless, industrial scale. We can be swiftly overwhelmed and paralysed by the number of calamities that call on our compassion. Yet in order to discern our own mission – the way Christ wants us to be his hands and feet and eyes – we also need space and silence to listen to him. God has provided enough compassion in the world for every need to be met. So what need is our particular compassion called to meet? We need time to listen, to hear; then time to prepare, to get ready to respond.

Advent is that time, and we must protect it. Otherwise for us, as for so many, Advent will be crammed with school / uni / work holiday busyness, end of year deadlines and windups, and the lunatic demands of consumer culture. We need time to listen to God; we need time to prepare so we continue to be Christ’s hands, feet and eyes; so that we are not repeatedly ambushed by immediate and insistent calls which can gut us of the compassion and resources needed for the next time. Drowning people will do that to others – any of us would in their situation too.

Silence and listening for God; these are two rare commodities in the type of world we live in today. And so in addition to Advent, it’s actually significant that we choose to gather here regularly to wait on God and deliberately incorporate silence into our lives – or at least a lack of interruption.

My bad habit has been to turn an unexpected time of silence and waiting into an opportunity to do jobs that I haven’t been able to get to yet. I mustn’t do that. I must wait on the stillness. Michael Leunig is right. So when an appointment is cancelled or I miss a train, I should receive that unexpected time as a gift for listening and stillness and peace.

But what’s the point of this stillness, waiting, listening, peace, preparation? Wouldn’t you be better off finishing this job now so you’re free for the next?

No; that’s like running on a treadmill where something else controls the speed and the slope.

This stillness and listening as silence mean we’re stepping aside to let God get on with things – in us, certainly. Human hands, feet, minds and eyes will still be God’s instruments. But the vision, the power, the scope and the blessing will be from God. Things will change; life will flourish – you and I will run again, but with wild new breath.

This evening’s concert is a fund-raiser for St John’s Youth Services. Their amazing work has broken through the noise which once shrouded young homeless people in anonymity. Through the silence preserved in this place, Christ gave birth to St John’s Youth Services; a carefully-considered gift of his care for the homeless, the outcast and the lonely.

So what might God be planning to call us to as we wait this Advent? What might our renewed silence, listening and waiting prepare us for?                      Amen