John Donne, ‘Nativity’ (1610)

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

The Message of Christmas (a sermon for Christmas Day)

No storyteller ever tells their story from a position of complete neutrality. We all have our point of view, and we can’t help letting it influence the way we tell our stories. The things we include, the things we leave out, the way we describe the people in the story – none of those decisions are made in a vacuum. That’s why we’re wary about convicting someone of a crime on the basis of only one witness. We know that each witness stands in a particular place in relation to the incident they’re reporting; there will always be important parts of the action that they didn’t see. So we prefer a balanced testimony, combining the reports of three or four different witnesses.

Early on in the history of the Church there was a movement to do away with the four gospel witnesses we have in the New Testament. Some Christians felt it was confusing to have these different accounts, and it would be better to work on producing a harmonized version of the story of Jesus. But the Church as a whole decided this was a bad idea; our picture of Jesus is enriched, not diminished, by the different viewpoints of the four gospel writers. And so we have four gospels, not one. Sometimes this leaves us in a situation of tension, as it’s not always easy to reconcile their stories. But the Church as a whole decided that it was worth it; better to have a fuller picture of Jesus, with some apparent inconsistencies, than to leave out the individual emphases of the four gospel writers.

We can see this in the stories of the birth of Jesus. Three of the gospels – Luke, Matthew, and John – include what we might call a ‘nativity story’, although John’s is very different from the other two. Each of these three writers has a particular angle on the story of Jesus – an aspect of his character and ministry that they’re trying to underline – and we can see it in the way they tell the story of his birth.

Luke is always on the side of the underdog. He loves marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, women and children. And he loves the fact that Jesus was born into an ordinary family in first century Galilee, even though his adopted father Joseph was a descendant of the royal house of David.

So in Luke’s story of Jesus, when Mary receives the angel’s message that she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sees this as evidence of God’s bias toward the poor and needy. She says, ‘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…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:46-48a, 51-53).

Later on in Luke’s nativity story he underlines that this was not a family in circumstances of wealth and power; they were pawns in the hands of the Roman Empire, forced to leave home at a very bad time, when Mary was about to give birth to her firstborn child. When they finally reached Joseph’s ancestral family home – Bethlehem – the rooms were all full, and they had to bunk with the animals. The new baby didn’t even have a proper crib; his mom had to lay him in a feeding trough. And his first visitors were rough shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem; it was those shepherds – not the people in power and authority – that God had chosen to receive the first royal birth announcement.

Don’t misunderstand me: Luke knew as well as we do that God loves everyone on earth – high and low, rich and poor, holy and unholy – and treats each person with care and respect. But he especially wanted the poor and the underdogs to know that even if no one else was rooting for them, God was rooting for them. And this may be a help to us today. Maybe some of us here today feel that we’re just pawns in the hands of politicians or multinational corporations. Maybe we’ve experienced economic hardships because of decisions made in boardrooms or luxurious palaces a long way away from us. Maybe we’ve been told, explicitly or implicitly, that God couldn’t possibly have time for anyone like us.

If that’s our situation, Luke wants us to know that the angels’ message is ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2:10). No one is left out. The baby in the manger will grow up to be the good shepherd who is willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and go searching for the one lost sheep. Jesus is the Saviour of all.

That’s how Luke tells the story.

Matthew has a different interest. Matthew wants everyone to know that Jesus is the true Messiah, the king God promised to set his people free. So in his story of the birth of Jesus he tells how the angel came to Joseph – the descendant of King David – to tell him that the baby in Mary’s womb would be the royal child promised in the book of Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

When we get to chapter two of Matthew’s story, almost the whole chapter is set up as a conflict between the evil king of Judea, Herod the Great, and the baby Jesus, God’s true Messiah. Wise men come from the east looking for ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ (2:2). Naturally they assume he will have been born in the royal palace, so they go to Jerusalem and ask for him there. Herod is alarmed, and he tries to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby. But God protects Jesus, and after the wise men visit him, they go home by another route, without telling Herod how to find him. Herod then flies into a rage and orders the execution of every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s wiped out this young Messiah. But by the time Herod’s soldiers get to Bethlehem, Jesus has already left; his family escape as refugees to Egypt for a few years until after Herod’s death.

The good news Matthew wants to proclaim to us is clear: It might seem as if all power and authority on earth has been given to kings and tyrants and magnates and tycoons, but that is not the case. In reality, God has already anointed Jesus as his Messiah, his chosen King. At the moment not everyone acknowledges his authority, and this may lead to some horrific situations, like the murder of innocent children in Bethlehem – or Aleppo. But in reality, as Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The day will come when he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Everyone will have to give account to him.

But Matthew doesn’t want us to wait for that day. He wants us to commit ourselves now to following Jesus as our King. He wants his followers to go out to all people and invite them to become disciples of the true Messiah. So his picture of Jesus helps to fill out the picture Luke gives us. The baby in the manger is not only the Saviour of the world; he’s also the world’s true King.

When we turn to the Gospel of John we get a completely different sort of nativity story. And in fact, most people probably don’t think of it as a nativity story. John doesn’t actually tell the story of the birth of Jesus in narrative fashion, but that shouldn’t surprise us; there are some other pretty important narratives he doesn’t include either, like the story of the institution of Holy Communion during the Last Supper. John chooses his stories carefully, and gives us long extended meditations on them. He’s not trying to supplant the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; in fact, I would argue that he assumes we’ve already read them. But he’s trying to help us explore the deeper meanings of the story of Jesus, and to him, the deepest and most important meaning of all is this: in Jesus, God has visited the world he loves. The Jesus who John portrays for us is not just an outstanding human being or a great rabbi or even an anointed Messiah. No; in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

So in our gospel reading for this morning, John 1:1-18, John starts off by describing this mysterious character he calls ‘the Word’. Actually the word John uses in Greek is ‘the Logos’, which in Greek philosophy was the rational, logical governing principle behind all of creation. But John’s ‘Logos’ is not just an abstract philosophical idea; the Logos is a person, a person in relation to God and also somehow sharing the nature of God. Don’t worry if you can’t grasp this; this is God we’re talking about, so it’s not surprising that there are some things about God we can’t understand!

So John starts by telling us ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). He tells us that all things came into being through the Word – and if we know our Old Testament we’re immediately reminded of Genesis chapter one, where we’re told over and over again that God spoke a word of command and a new part of creation came into being. The Word was the light of the world, John says; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

But then, a bit further on in the passage, comes what John sees as the real miracle of Christmas. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). We use the Latin word ‘incarnation’ to describe this great miracle: the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth God came among us to live as one of us. He made himself small and vulnerable, shared the ups and downs of human life, and dedicated himself to doing the will of his Father in heaven.

And what’s the purpose of this incarnation? John tells us in the last verse of today’s gospel reading: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).

Human beings who believe in God have always wondered what God is like. Maybe we look around at the vastness of the universe and are intimidated by the power and majesty of a being who could do all this! Maybe we notice that God has given us a conscience that has high standards for us and for others, and we fear a God who we think must look on our failures with anger and judgement. Or maybe we have struggled in vain for so long to make contact with God, and we’ve come to the conclusion that God really doesn’t have time for people like us.

But John tells us that Jesus has made God known; we often refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’, but it’s actually Jesus who is ‘the Word of God’ par excellence. Our epistle for today agrees:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

I think this is one of the main things John is trying to communicate by the language of ‘light’ that he so often uses. We sometimes use this as a figure of speech, don’t we? ‘Can you shed any light on that subject?’ we ask. One of our most famous Christmas readings begins with the words ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), but Jesus’ reply to this is to say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus gives us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; as we follow him, we walk in that light, knowing God for who he is, knowing God’s will for us as it is revealed to us in Jesus. Without him we would truly be ‘in the dark’ about our Creator, but because of him, we can have confidence in the God of grace and love that Jesus revealed to us.

So this is what we celebrate this Christmas:

With Luke, we celebrate a God who reaches out to the poor, the underdog, the marginalized. God isn’t dazzled by human power and majesty; he’s not impressed by wealth and prestige. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “God must like ordinary people; he made so many of them!” Luke’s vision of Christmas is truly ‘good news for all people’. Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world; no one is left out.

With Matthew, we celebrate the news that Jesus is the true Messiah, the one who God has appointed as Lord of all. The last word won’t go to the Herods and Neros and Pontius Pilates of history; they may seem to have all the power right now, but the day will come when they also will have to bow before the one ‘born king of the Jews’, as the wise men put it – and not of the Jews only, but of all people, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. And we the people of Jesus respond to this by joyfully giving him our allegiance. He is truly a King we can believe in!

And with John, we celebrate the amazing truth that in Jesus, God has become one of us. This is not a God-forsaken world; it is a God-visited world! And if God cared enough about this tiny little planet – one of millions he has created – to make himself small and vulnerable and walk around on its surface, then his love for us must truly be incredible. He is not far away from us; the story of Jesus shows that he is ‘Emmanuel’: God is with us.

A couple of days before Christmas a friend of mine posted on Facebook that there are two kinds of people at Christmas time: those who think of what they are going to receive, and those who think about what they are going to give. I suggested to him that there might be a third kind: those who think about what they have been given, and are thankful for it. That’s us, brothers and sisters! In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul says ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Tomorrow we can think of what that good news is calling us to do – how it might be calling us to change our lives – but not today. Today is a day to stay in this place of deep gratitude for the amazing gift that God has given us – truly the greatest gift that we could ever imagine. And it is truly a gift: not something we have to earn or deserve, but something that comes to us free of charge, not because we are lovable but because it is the deepest nature of God to love. All we are asked to do today is to receive that love, and to say “Thank you”.

The Good Infection (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie ‘Love Actually’; I have to say it’s one of my favourite Christmas movies. I’m particularly fond of the scene where one of the characters, played by Emma Thompson, discovers that her daughter is going to play the ‘second lobster’ in her school nativity play. She looks at the little girl with a quizzical frown and says, “There was more than one lobster at the stable when Jesus was born?” Apparently so!

Well, there’s a moose and bear in our nativity set down under the pulpit here, but I think most of us know they’re imaginative additions to the story of the birth of Jesus! The actual outline of the story – as told in slightly different ways in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – is very familiar to us, although this hasn’t stopped us making some additions of our own over the years. The little drummer boy, for instance, and the winter snow, and the little donkey, and ‘little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, and the evil innkeeper who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant and about to give birth, but can’t find it in his heart to squeeze her in anywhere except the cold stable out the back.

Sorry – Luke and Matthew know nothing of drummer boys and snow and donkey and a baby that doesn’t cry, and the evil innkeeper isn’t mentioned anywhere in their stories. Actually, the inn may not be either. Some of the more recent Bible versions translate ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’, and many scholars agree with this. What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (after all, his family was from there), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib.

But the bare outline of the story still captures our imagination. An angel appears to Mary and tells her she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s anointed king who would be the Saviour of his people. She and her fiancée Joseph live in Nazareth, which is a problem because the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, the ancestral town of old King David. But the Roman emperor obligingly decides that there’s going to be a census and everyone has to go back to their ancestral town to be registered. So Joseph and Mary have to travel back to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family comes from, and there, squeezed into the room the animals use, Mary gives birth to her baby boy and uses a feeding trough for his bed. Later on he’s visited by shepherds who tell the surprised couple that they’ve had a vision of some angels who told them this baby will be ‘the Messiah, the Lord’ who will bring great joy to all his people. The wise men come much later, perhaps as long as two years later, which is why the Church celebrates their coming on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.

But what does the story mean?

Very early on in Christian history, Christians were already using highly exalted language to talk about Jesus. For example, in a letter written about twenty-five years after the events of the first Easter weekend, St. Paul takes language that the Old Testament used for God himself, and applies it to Jesus:

‘…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11).

But the most powerful statements come at the beginning of John’s Gospel. John takes a term used in Greek philosophy – the Logos, the Word – the rational governing principle behind the world – and applies it to Jesus. In language that defies logic – and why wouldn’t it? It’s God we’re talking about! – he says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But then a few verses later he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

Christians call this ‘the incarnation’ – the idea that at a certain point in the history of this planet, our Creator came to us in a unique way, taking flesh and blood as Jesus of Nazareth. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, came to live among us as one of us. Jesus was not just a human being; he was not even just a great religious leader or a man sent from God. He was God, God the Son, and his life and death and resurrection were the central events in the history of our planet.

Not surprisingly, some people find this hard to believe. How could it possibly be true that a carpenter’s son from an obscure province in the ancient Roman empire would be God? How likely is that? What sense does it make? Surely this is just ancient Christian imagination run riot? How can rational people believe it?

Well, let’s look at it from another point of view; let me tell you about the Gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes. Any ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ fans here? Not many people know that Calvin is named after a sixteenth century Christian theologian, and Hobbes is named after a seventeenth century philosopher, so it’s not surprising that the two of them have some interesting discussions from time to time!

So let’s imagine Calvin and Hobbes having a conversation about whether in fact there is such a character as the Great Cartoonist? Calvin might say, “Yes, there is a Great Cartoonist; he created this cartoon strip, but he lives outside of it, in a great big world that we can’t even imagine, and he’s in control of everything in this strip”. Hobbes might stroke his tiger whiskers and reply, “There’s no evidence of that. As far as we can tell, there’s absolutely no proof that anything exists outside this cartoon strip. This is all there is”.

Now imagine Bill Watterson, the creator of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, observing this conversation and asking himself, “How am I going to convince them that I’m here?” Shouting at them from outside the cartoon strip doesn’t seem to work! Eventually he decides that the best thing to do is to draw himself into the cartoon strip as one of the characters. So that’s what he does; he draws himself walking up to Calvin and Hobbes and saying, “Hi guys, I’m Bill; I’m the Great Cartoonist”. Calvin immediately falls down on his knees and says “Oh Great Cartoonist, I always knew you were there! Please rescue me from Moe and the monsters under my bed!” But Hobbes strokes his whiskers sceptically and asks, “How do we know you’re not just one of the characters in the cartoon strip like the rest of us? What’s your evidence?”

This sounds a lot like some more verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Talking about Jesus, John says,

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’ (John 1:10-12).

In other words, Jesus came into the world, but not everyone accepted that he was anyone special. Not everyone believed in him; some, in fact, rejected him. This continues today: some ignore Jesus, some reject him, some put their faith in him and follow him.

Some might ask, “But why would God do this? If this amazing story is actually true – if God has become a human being in Jesus – what was he trying to achieve?”

Two things. First, he was giving us the truest possible picture of what he himself is like. Human beings have always wondered about this.

There’s an old story of a little girl in a Sunday School class who was drawing a picture. When her teacher asked her what she was drawing, she said, “God”. The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like!” She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And the Christian claim is that when Jesus was ‘done’ – when his life and death and resurrection were complete – we humans had been given the best possible picture of God, as God himself had shared our life as one of us. We no longer need to wonder what God is like: he’s like Jesus. Like Father, like Son!

The second thing he was doing was rescuing us from the infection of sin and evil. In his book ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis uses the illustration of a ‘good infection’. Human strength and ingenuity is not up to the task of rescuing us from the evil that appears to be running rampant in the world. We need the life of God himself to do that. And that’s what Christmas is all about. When the baby was born in Bethlehem, the life of God himself came into this broken world as a good infection to fight against the power of evil and sin. Jesus spread the infection wherever he went; when men and women put their trust in him and began to follow him, they discovered a new power within themselves, a power that made it possible for them to be more than they thought they were and do more than they thought they could do. Even today, Jesus is still passing this good infection on, as people come to trust him and follow him as his disciples.

‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’ (John 1:12). That’s how the good infection is passed on. As we receive Jesus – as we make him welcome day by day in the centre of our lives, on the throne of our hearts – that divine life is strengthened in us. So let me close by encouraging everyone here to make him welcome. Perhaps a prayer from one of our well known Christmas hymns would be a good way to do that:

‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin and enter in; be born in me today’.

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last or First?

trump-tweet-dec-22Reading Donald Trump’s tweet about nukes yesterday (‘until the world comes to its senses about nukes, we need lots more of them!’) reminded me of an old story about a Puritan and a Quaker in eighteenth century colonial America (I’m telling the story from memory, and I may not get all the wording right).

The two were arguing about ‘pacifism’ (the Quaker rejected all violence as incompatible with following Jesus, while the Puritan did not). Eventually the Puritan said to the Quaker, “Well, if all men were as you are, I would believe as you do too”.

To which the Quaker replied, “Then the difference between you and me is that you want to be the last good man on earth, and I want to be the first”.

God is With Us (a sermon on Matthew 1:23)

When I lived in the high Arctic I took regular skidoo trips out onto the barrens in search of caribou and muskox. Whoever called those lands ‘the barrens’ wasn’t joking. The tallest vegetation in the area where I lived is a stunted willow bush that grows to no more than about a foot high, and it’s not very common, either. It’s true that in the brief Arctic summer the tundra bursts out into colour as dozens of different wild flowers bloom briefly. But in the dead of winter the wind howls over hundreds of miles of bare rock and snow. Sometimes the blizzards reduce visibility to near zero, and the most sensible thing you can do if you get caught in one of them is to make camp and wait for it to pass – which can sometimes take a couple of days. And even when the wind is calm and the sky is clear, all you can see for miles is white – snow-covered ground, with rock breaking through here and there. Personally I found it breathtakingly beautiful, but I could understand why many would refer to it as a ‘God-forsaken country’.

To many people, the world in general feels like a God-forsaken country too, and it’s easy to understand why. As I was writing this sermon we got news of the fall of Aleppo, and I thought again of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in that city as pawns in a bitter civil war. Maybe you find yourself asking “Where was God for them?” We think of the millions who don’t have enough to live on and who die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases. We think of the depth of hatred that leads people to kill other people just because they happen to be of a different race or religion. We think of the enormous greed that keeps some countries of the world in unimaginable wealth and others in desperate poverty. I know I think of things like this day by day as I say my prayers, and I find myself asking the same question: ‘Where are you, God?’

Many of us know what God-forsakenness feels like in our own lives as well. Most of us have gone through difficulties of one sort or another. For some of us they were relational difficulties – family problems, the breakdown of a marriage, perhaps even abuse of one kind or another. Some of us have lost much-loved spouses or partners. Some of us have struggled with addictions or debilitating illnesses. Some of us have had financial difficulties. Many of us have been desperately lonely; many of us have known the sense of failure and have wondered what to do about it. And I’m sure we’ve all had times when we’ve longed for God to somehow make himself known to us – perhaps we’ve even cried out for him to do so – but we just can’t seem to be able to break through to him in any meaningful way. And maybe we’ve asked, as Jesus asked on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

How would we want God to address those issues? The Old Testament prophet Isaiah prayed that God would answer in a dramatic way:

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ (Isaiah 64:1-2).

This is the Arnold Schwarzenegger view of a God who suddenly appears before all the evildoers of the world in power and majesty and says to them, ‘Go ahead – make my day!’ A lot of people think they’d like to see God act in that kind of way – appearing in majesty, wiping out the evildoers, solving the problems of humanity in an instant, and so on. It’s a tempting vision.

But the God we read about in the Christmas story chooses a different way of acting. This God doesn’t want to ‘shock and awe’ the world. Rather, he wants to woo the world gently and patiently, calling people back to him, inviting them to turn away from their foolish ways and embrace his love and his kingdom. And so, when God comes among us, he chooses not to lead a mighty army or become the head of a powerful nation. Instead, he chooses an ordinary couple in an obscure province on the edge of the Roman empire. He sends his angel to this couple to give them the news that their child – who will be in one sense just an ordinary human baby – will in fact also be far more than that. And so in Matthew’s gospel we read that the angel says to Joseph:

‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).

And Matthew adds,

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us’ (Matthew 1:22-23)

‘God is with us’! So the world isn’t a Godforsaken place after all – rather, it’s a God-visited place!

If this is true – if the child in the manger isn’t just an ordinary human baby, but is also in some sense God come to live among us – what does it mean? Well, it means that God is like Jesus. It means that if we want a picture of what God is like, the life of Jesus is the best place to look.

When we look at the life of Jesus, then, what do we learn there about God? We learn that God loves us unconditionally – accepting us just as we are, with all our weaknesses and faults – and yet always inviting us to move on and become more than what we are, with his help. We learn that God takes no notice of differences of wealth and class and gender and social status and race, but treats all people as special, made in God’s image and precious to him. We learn that God wants us to love him with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves; he cares a lot more about that sort of thing than about getting religious rituals exactly right. We learn that God reaches out to the poor and needy and calls other people to do the same. And we learn that God chooses not to destroy his enemies, but forgives them and loves them instead.

Do you think you could love a God like that? I know I could!

We also learn that God knows what our human life is like, because he has experienced it firsthand. He knows what it’s like to be driven from your home by death squads and to have to live as a refugee in a foreign country. He knows what it’s like to lose a parent at an early age. He knows what it’s like to have to make your living by the strength of your hands and the sweat of your brow. He knows what it’s like to live in an occupied nation. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and even abandoned by your family and your friends. He knows what it’s like to be the victim of an unjust trial and to be executed for a crime you didn’t commit. Yes, he even knows what it’s like to die.

This is not a God who is far away from us. This is ‘God with us’, ‘Emmanuel’, God who has become one of us and lived our human life.

And he doesn’t want to be far away from any of us, even today. He wants to be very close to each of us – in our hearts and homes and our minds and our actions. And so he waits for us to welcome him in. He doesn’t batter the door down; he knocks, and waits for our answer.

What kind of answer is he looking for? Perhaps a prayer something like this:

‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin, and enter in – be born in me today’.

I encourage you to pray a prayer like that today, from your heart, so that you too may learn to experience ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’ – for yourself.

Travelling Hopefully and Arriving Joyfully (a sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10)

Robert Louis Stevenson once made the statement ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Think about it for a moment; do you agree with this statement?

When I first heard these words they seemed so good, so true, so spiritual! We’ve all heard of people who mortgage their health and their family life in order to make big bucks and prepare for a rich retirement, only to die of a heart attack six months after they retire. How much better it would have been if they had learned to slow down, enjoy the journey and concentrate on travelling hopefully rather than arriving!

But when I gave it some more thought I realised that Stevenson’s statement was nonsense. You can only ‘travel hopefully’ if you believe that arriving will be better than travelling! When I was working as a consultant for parishes in the Diocese of Athabasca I made long trips to various congregations to lead weekend workshops. I often came home on Sunday afternoons on lonely, icy roads, and I can tell you that the only reason I was able to ‘travel hopefully’ was that I knew there was a warm, loving welcome waiting for me at home!

What has this question got to do with Advent and with our scriptures for today? Well, one of the main themes of Advent is ‘hope’; it’s about looking ahead to the end of the journey, to the time when humanity will arrive at the kingdom of God. It’s about gaining strength from that hope to sustain us on our journey. And we see the same theme in our Old Testament reading today, in which Isaiah foretells a time when the Jewish exiles will journey through the desert back to their homeland.

God’s people had been taken from their own land into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness to God and disobedience to his will for them. This is a theme which runs through the whole of scripture, all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden: the effect of our sin and rebellion is to shut us out from our true spiritual home with God. But now God is assuring the exiles that he is going to bring them home. They are going to cross the desert, and to their surprise they will find it blossoming with growth and life. They will find healing for their sicknesses and protection from wild animals along the way. When they arrive in Jerusalem, or Zion, they will sing and rejoice, and they will never experience sorrow again.

Parts of Isaiah’s prophecy were fulfilled in the 6th century B.C. when some of the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. But the return did not fulfil all of their hopes. There was still injustice and oppression in the land, and the people still experienced sickness and death. Moving their geographical location had not cured their spiritual exile; there was still a spiritual journey they had to make. And you and I have to make it as well.

So – in our spiritual journey, is it better to travel hopefully than to arrive? Let me answer that with two complimentary statements.

Firstly, the reason we can travel hopefully is because we know arriving will be better! In the book The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Adrian admits to a priest that he’s afraid to die and he really doesn’t find the biblical pictures of heaven all that appealing; he’s afraid he’s going to be disappointed when he gets there. The priest asks him “What are you interested in – really?” He replies “Cricket”. The priest says “So, then, for you God has to make heaven as exciting as scoring a century against Australia”. He then suggests to Adrian’s wife that if Adrian collapses and is about to die, she should dress him in his cricket gear to prepare him for the journey!

Isaiah 35 contains some wonderful poetic imagery about our arrival in the kingdom of God. One image used is freedom. Verse 10 talks about ‘the ransomed of the Lord’ returning and arriving in Zion. A person who has been ‘ransomed’ or ‘redeemed’ has been set free by the paying of a price. We think about all the things that enslave us in this present life: sickness, death, poverty, greed, oppression and violence and, underlying it all, our own sinfulness and self-centredness. Imagine the joy of being set free from all that by God! That’s part of arriving in God’s kingdom.

A second image Isaiah uses is fruitfulness. When we lived in the high Arctic there was about a six-week window in the summer when the tundra burst into colour with wildflowers. A similar thing happens in much of the middle east in the spring, when the winter rains transform the dry land into a fruitful place. For most of the year there isn’t enough rainfall for anything more than grazing sheep, but for this brief period of time the land bursts into life. And Isaiah uses this image in verses 1-2:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Again, we can meditate on this image of fruitfulness and think of how very rarely in life our hopes and dreams come to their full fruition. Imagine what life will be like when all our hopes and dreams are fulfilled! That’s what it will be like when we arrive in the Kingdom of God.

The other image or word that’s used in this passage to describe our arrival is joy. We’re told in verse 2 that the desert will ‘rejoice with joy’, and at the end of the passage we’re told that when the Lord’s redeemed people arrive at their destination ‘they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ (v.10). In the Bible joy is usually connected with God’s action; God has done great things for us, and we are glad! Even in this life we experience some of this joy; how much greater will it be when God has set us free from everything that binds us and has brought us to the place where all our hopes and dreams are fulfilled.

So you see, the reason we can travel hopefully is because we know that arriving will be far, far better than what we are experiencing right now. But the other thing we need to say about this is that because we know that arriving will be better, we can actually enjoy the journey more!

When God’s Old Testament people began their return from exile in Babylon they faced a daunting trip; between them and their destination were four hundred miles of desert. Many decided not to attempt the journey, and those who did make the attempt must have been afraid. In today’s reading Isaiah tries to encourage them with poetic images of how the desert around the travellers will bloom into life. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad’, he says, ‘the desert shall rejoice and blossom’ (v.1). He foretells that their injuries will be healed along the way: ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’ (vv.5-6). He also talks about how the weak will be strengthened and how they will be protected from wild animals along the way. Apparently the journey was going to be a lot better than they had feared!

We New Testament pilgrims are on a spiritual journey from our exile in sin to our home in the kingdom of God. This journey began with the life and ministry of Jesus – in fact, in today’s Gospel reading Jesus refers to Isaiah’s prediction of ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear’ (Matthew 11:5). The journey continues today, and it will not be completed until the day when our Advent hope is fulfilled and Jesus ‘comes again in glory to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, we pilgrims will arrive at our eternal home forever – or rather, our eternal home will have arrived for us!

The image of a journey through the desert warns us to expect difficulties on the way. The Kingdom hasn’t arrived in its fulness yet, so we still experience evil, sickness, injustice, oppression and all the results of human sin in the world. We know better than to expect heaven on earth as things are at present (even though politicians of all stripes continue to promise it to us!); if we do expect it, we’re certainly going to be disappointed.

And yet in the midst of the difficulties there are also signs of hope. There are wonderful stories of God’s power bringing healing to people in both the physical and spiritual senses. But most important of all, there is the awareness we have of God’s presence with us on our journey. Isaiah says of the travellers ‘They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God’ (35:1). God promises to accompany us all through our journey.

In fact, it’s only the presence of God with us that makes it possible for us to make this journey in the first place. Without him, we would be too fearful. Isaiah says ‘Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…He will come and save you”’ (Isaiah 35:4). In the Bible, an exhortation not to fear is almost always coupled with an assurance of God’s presence. It’s as if I hum the first bar of ‘O Canada!’ and immediately you can finish the tune. Thus the biblical people hear God saying ‘Don’t be afraid’ and instinctively they understand that he is promising to be with them on the way, to protect them and help them.

Some years ago I was attending a course at Regent College in Vancouver; while I was there, God helped me to begin to confront some of the fears that have dogged me throughout my own spiritual journey. I realised that I have been afraid to ‘Let go and let God’. I’ve always been comfortable in ministry situations such as preaching and teaching, where I can do what I’m good at. I’ve always been afraid of things like praying for the sick, in which God’s answers are outside of my control. It was a difficult thing for me to realise the enormous impact these fears have had on my Christian life.

But God is gracious, and there were many words of encouragement coming through as the week went by. One of the most important ones, for me, was a little song that our worship leader taught us, and that we sang almost every day. The words go like this:

Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger;
my love is stronger than your fears.
Don’t be afraid; my love is stronger,
and I have promised, promised to be always near.

It was funny how that was exactly the message I needed to hear, and we ended up singing it almost every day! You’d almost suspect the thing had been planned, wouldn’t you? We can travel hopefully, even when we are afraid, because God himself is with us, and his love is stronger than all our fears.

There’s one more thing I need to say about ‘travelling hopefully’. What is this road that we’re travelling on? Strange though it may sound, the road is Jesus himself; he said “I am the Way” (John 14:6). An early church writer prayed to Jesus like this: ‘You are not only our destination; you are also the road to get there’. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus have made this road for us. His life and his teaching give us the pattern to follow. Faith and discipleship – trusting him and putting his words into practice – are the way in which we stay on this road.

And staying on the road is important. There will always be enticing little detours! A hymn sometimes sing reminds us of this:

O let me feel thee near me –
the world is ever near.
I see the sights that dazzle,
the tempting sounds I hear’.

There will always be voices telling us that life would be much more fun if we disobeyed the teaching of Jesus and chose our own path instead. We need to remember that if we stray from the road we’re going to find ourselves out in a trackless desert. It’s much safer to trust Jesus and stay on the road.

So I believe that Robert Louis Stevenson was dead wrong; it’s not ‘better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Arriving will be far, far better than anything that we experience in life as we now know it; that’s why we pray daily ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. But that doesn’t mean that the travelling is not good either. Because we know that our destination is so much better, we can enjoy the journey too, and especially the presence of Jesus with us. We still go through sufferings and imperfections, but we know that they aren’t going to last forever. One day our Advent hope will be fulfilled as we experience for ourselves those words of Isaiah:

‘And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away’ (Isaiah 11:10).

The Peaceable Kingdom (a sermon on Isaiah 11:1-9)

Link to Isaiah 11:1-9

Our Old Testament reading today is one of the best-loved passages in all of holy Scripture; it was celebrated in a well-known painting by the 19th century American Quaker artist Edward Hicks, which he called ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’. In the foreground of Hick’s painting, you can see the literal figures from our passage from Isaiah today: the lion and the ox, the child playing beside the nest of the snake, and so on. But if you look in the background you see another scene: American aboriginal people standing together with white settlers, not fighting each other, but making a peace treaty. Hicks obviously saw the scene in the background as part of the theme of the biblical prophecy in the foreground.

This painting was originally inspired by a peace treaty made by William Penn with the Lenni Lenape tribe on June 23rd 1683, in the land that became known as Pennsylvania. Unlike others who made those kinds of treaties in American history, Penn did not intend to drive the native people off their land; he had a vision for aboriginal people and white settlers living in peace together. Many would have seen them as natural enemies, but to Penn that was no excuse, because the gospel was about the reconciliation of natural enemies.

Edward Hicks obviously agreed. To him, our passage from Isaiah today was not about some time far off in the future when the stomachs of lions are somehow supernaturally changed so that they can eat grass. No: the lions and calves, the wolves and bears, the snakes and the children, stand for natural enemies, and in the peaceable kingdom those natural enemies are reconciled and stand together. To Hicks, Penn’s peace treaty with the Lenni Lenape was a modern fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and a sign of the hope that the gospel brings for reconciliation and peace.

And Isaiah does see it very much as a gospel hope. In this passage Isaiah is not celebrating some general spirit of peace and reconciliation. No; verses 6-9 come after verses 1-5, in which Isaiah celebrates the arrival of an ideal king; it is this king who will bring about the peace that verses 6-9 celebrate. Later on in Israel’s history this king came to be known as ‘the Messiah’, which means ‘the anointed one’. Prophets and kings in ancient Israel were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit being poured out on them to equip them for their work, and so to call someone ‘the anointed one’ was to call them ‘God’s Spirit-filled King’. The Greek word ‘Christ’ means the same thing; it’s a translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’. So when we call Jesus ‘Christ’ we’re not giving him a name, but a title: ‘Jesus the King’ – or, more completely, ‘Jesus, God’s Spirit-filled King’.

However, Christians who read this passage carefully will find that not all of it fits in easily with the New Testament picture of Jesus. Certainly Jesus stood in the tradition of his Jewish ancestors in faith, but he didn’t adopt everything that they said uncritically. In fact, he radically re-interpreted the ancient faith of Israel, emphasizing parts of it and setting aside other parts. This is especially clear in a passage like this one. Let’s take a closer look at what it says about the coming king, and let’s also think about how Jesus chose to interpret this vision.

The first verse tells us that this king will come from the royal family of David, the ‘King Arthur’ of ancient Israel. Careful Bible readers will know that David was far from perfect, but later generations still looked back on his reign as the ideal time, the golden age of God’s people, when Israel was safe from its enemies and was ruled by a king who judged justly. Isaiah 11 appears to have been written at a time when the royal family of David had been cut down like a felled tree. It seemed that there was no more hope for it, but Isaiah obviously thought that appearances can be deceptive. Just as you sometimes see a new shoot growing up from an old stump, so there will be a new branch of David’s royal family; a new king who will rule wisely and bring peace and security to his people.

What will this new king be like? Isaiah describes his character in terms of the gifts that the spirit of God would give him. The spirit will ‘rest’ on him – that is to say, taking up permanent residence in him, not just visiting him occasionally. The spirit will give him wisdom and understanding – the ability to discern the right thing to do in all the daily challenges of ruling God’s people. The spirit will give him ‘counsel and might’ – words that were often used in the Bible in a political and military context.

The spirit will also give him ‘knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. ‘Knowledge’ in this context means ‘knowing God’; the king will know God and fear him – in fact, verse 3 goes on to say ‘His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord’. How a person can delight in being afraid of God is a mystery to many people today, but in fact it’s not particularly difficult to figure out. Politicians fear all kinds of people: they fear the electorate, they fear their political competitors, they fear journalists, and they fear foreign enemies. Sometimes those fears cause them to cut ethical corners, to take bribes, to conceal the truth, to act ruthlessly toward their political opponents. But a person who ‘delights in the fear of the Lord’ is not going to do that, because they always remember that everything that they do is done in the sight of God, and therefore they will always act with honesty and integrity. And that’s good news for people who are looking for a king they can believe in.

The passage goes on to talk about the things that the coming king will actually do. In Isaiah’s day one of the king’s jobs was to hear grievances and to give judgements, and the people were longing for a king who wouldn’t judge by outward appearances: ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear’ (v.3b) – in other words, he’ll go below the surface, he’ll make sure he has all the facts, so that his final decision is the right one. And he won’t favour the powerful, he won’t take bribes, he won’t give preference to the old boys’ club and the aristocracy that he grew up with; rather, ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (v.4a). In other words, he will protect the meek, the ones who have no one else to speak on their behalf, the ones who get trodden down over and over again. And above all, he will be known for his godly character, for his own personal integrity: ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins’ (v.5).

But there’s a surprise here, in the second half of verse 4: ‘He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. We might have expected this king to use the rod in his hand, not the rod in his mouth; we might have expected that he would kill the wicked with the sword of justice, not the breath of his mouth.

This verse starts to hint at the way Jesus reinterpreted these Messianic prophecies, because of course he just didn’t fulfil them in the way most people expected. He didn’t drive out the Roman armies and punish the corrupt Jewish leaders, and he didn’t set up a justice system to protect the poor by using the power of the righteous state. He was never seen with a sword in his hand, coercing people to do what he wanted. The only weapon he had was the weapon of his word; he spoke the truth in love, and his words were so compelling that people caught his vision of the kingdom and decided to join the movement he had started. His way of establishing justice and mercy wasn’t to impose it by force from above, but to change the hearts of men and women and bring them together into a community which would learn the ways of justice and mercy freely, not under compulsion, but out of love for God and love for their neighbour. That community is you and me.

And that’s why it’s so important to ‘live into the kingdom’ – because there is a way of using these old prophecies that’s actually a cop-out. You hear it sometimes when people say, “There’s no point in trying to stop wars; Jesus said there will be wars and rumours of wars until the end of time, so we’d better just get our weapons out and fight on”. Never mind that Jesus told his followers to be peacemakers; this way of reading prophecy basically says, ‘The world is a mess and it will remain a mess until Jesus comes again. There’s no point in trying to make it better; the world is a sinking ship and the only thing we can do is try to get as many people into the lifeboat of the church as possible’. People who think this way relegate these ancient prophecies to the future: this is about the return of Christ, they say, and it’s no good trying to live this way now. That’s just not the way the world is at the moment.

But that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus told his followers to be like salt and light – influencing the society around them, spreading the light of the gospel, preserving the world from going from bad to worse just like salt was used in the ancient world to preserve food.  Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God has come near’, and he called people to ‘repent’ – to turn away from the values of the kingdom of darkness and to live by the values of God’s kingdom. These prophecies weren’t just meant to predict the future; they were meant to change the future.

So what would it look like if we took the characteristics of the Messiah, as listed in this passage, and tried our best to make them characteristics of the church? What if the church was a community in which no one judged you by outward appearances, but instead focussed on the heart? What if the church was a place where the rich and powerful didn’t always have the upper hand, but the poor and meek were valued and protected as equal citizens of the kingdom of heaven? What if the church was known as a community of righteousness, faithfulness, and integrity?

And what about the wolf lying down with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the kid? As we’ve seen, the prophet is looking forward to a day when natural enemies will be forever reconciled. He’s not talking about some mythical time in the future when God will change the digestive systems of bears and lions. He’s talking about the Assyrian empire turning away from the brutality that causes it to devour smaller and weaker nations around it. Or the Third Reich – or any of the other empires that have come and gone in human history, leaving a trail of blood behind them.

How will this happen? Through the power of God, yes – but there’s a part for us to play as well, as the people of God. Jesus called on his followers to turn away from vengeance and violence, to love their enemies and forgive those who persecuted them, and to work for peace and reconciliation. It has to be admitted that there is a nasty streak of vengeance in many of these Old Testament texts – the sense that ‘Assyria and Babylon have made us suffer, but the day is going to come when God sets things right, and then they’ll get what’s coming to them’. It’s easy for us to sit in judgement on people who feel like that, of course; most of us have never seen our cities burned to the ground and whole populations murdered by the marauding armies of the enemy. Perhaps if we had, we’d be a lot more enthusiastic about those psalms that call on God to break the teeth of the wicked and give them what they deserve.

Nonetheless, Jesus chose to set that attitude aside, and he called on his followers to learn the way of forgiveness and love. He saw very clearly that violence always leads to more violence, that vengeance always leads to more vengeance, and that if you want peace, the only way is for someone, somewhere, to take the risk of being the first person to refuse to strike back. Jesus was always crossing boundaries, loving people he wasn’t supposed to love, and turning enemies into friends by treating them as human beings made in the image of God.

So as we think about applying this passage to our own lives, perhaps we should ask how God is calling each of us to work for reconciliation in the world today. What is the boundary that God is inviting me to cross? Is it with someone I’ve been at odds with, someone with whom I have a history of conflict and misunderstanding? Is it with a group of people I’ve stereotyped – Muslims, aboriginal people, fundamentalists, gays and lesbians? Is it with another Christian group, people whose interpretations of the Bible I disagree with, people I may even have vilified in the past? Let’s ask God to guide us on this, and then let’s ask him to show us what would be the first step in crossing that barrier, so that Isaiah’s prophecy may help to shape a new world within our sphere of influence, a world in which natural enemies are reconciled at the foot of the cross of Christ.

Ferdinand Hérold: Symphony #2

I heard this piece for the first time at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton on Wednesday night, in a program of French composers who were completely unknown to me. This was the last piece on the program and I found it very enjoyable, especially the last movement which reminds me at times of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

The program notes from Wednesday night give the following info about Hérold:

Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833)… From a long line of musicians, Hérold’s father had been a pupil of C.P.E. Bach, and Ferdinand had studied with Méhul. After winning the Prix de Rome in 1812, Hérold studied music in Italy, and his operatic compositional career really got started when Boieldieu asked the young composer to write part of a privately commissioned opera – beginning a steady stream of both operas and ballet scores by Hérold. He wrote only two symphonies, and Symphony No. 2 was written as part of his requirement for winning the Prix de Rome – laureates were expected to write such works to demonstrate their progress as composers. In fact, both symphonies were written during his time in Italy, the second in 1815. (notes by D.T. Baker)