Here is my sermon I preached on Sunday, just before the New Year and New Decade. New challenges for us all!
The reading used was –
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
I had a sermon prepared for today, I thought quite a good one, and then I went to the movies on Friday night. I came home and wrote this one instead.
The movie was called Jo Jo Rabbit, a satire on Germany during world war two, told through the eyes of a 10 year old German boy, who wanted to be a Nazi. It was uncomfortable in parts, because it uses humour to show the complete ridiculousness of the war, of Hitler, of the propaganda about the Jews, and the horror of brainwashing young minds in order to control a population. Us and them is the name of the game, but in the end no one wins, least of all the average person.
The movie ends up being an extremely powerful statement about how history can repeat itself or not, how the influence of those around us can change how we see and understand things, and how the sacrifices of some allow others to live. Jo Jo Rabbit, the main character has a mother who is working for the resistance, and is hiding a Jewish girl, while Jo Jo is in the Nazi youth. He comes to understand through meeting the girl that things are not quite as they seem, and power corrupts. In the end, and I don’t want to spoil it, it is a tale of hope.
Today is almost New Year’s Eve, a time when we are beginning to think about 2020. Christmas is over, both the secular festival and the celebration of Jesus birth. It is a time when real reflection can occur. What is this new day, this new way of living Jesus is announcing. It is time to focus on the repercussions of his birth and life, not just its joy, for us and the world.
To do this it seems that stories help, stories that give us a sense, of where we have been, what is the current reality, and what is the future. I saw Nev the other day and he gave me a draft of his ultimate sermon. Now he has written a number of penultimate sermons but this is the first time that it may be his last. He gave it to me to read, which I took as an honour.
It is vintage Nev, and in the end he summarises the Christian faith in a way I think he has been talking about for some time. I don’t think he will mind me referring to it as it fits beautifully in a sermon given close to the new year.
It’s about past present and future, being one reality, based on a quote he loves from Albert Einstein. While Einstein was talking about physics, Nev applies it to the Christian faith. The distinction between them is just an illusion for Nev, for we are influenced by the past, live in the present and are being pulled or pushed into the future by a God who is leading us forward in hope.
In the movie, past, present and future are to be found. The past, the history of the German people, the history of the Jewish people, the remnants of the previous world war have all conspired to produce a hidden animosity, which is preyed apon and exaggerated until it becomes deadly. Jews with horns, Jew’s who conspire with the devil is the food that JoJo feeds on.
Then the reality of the current time hits. He befriends the hidden girl and his views become changed. He sees the sacrifice of his mother and others to protect them both. People who give their lives so that others may live. He finds out that the reality sometimes doesn’t match the rhetoric. And then there is the future, as Jo Jo survives the war, with a new vision of what it is to be a human being, influenced by all that has gone before. Hope rises from the ashes of the death and destruction.
A very powerful movie. As some movies are.
Today we have a very powerful scripture reading. Matthew is the only gospel to recount this story, and we hear the awful slaughter of the innocents as a sudden pause in our Christmas reverie. The writer of Matthew uses the story of Moses and other Old Testament prophesises to place Jesus within the history of Israel, the past, but also to show what the future may be like to people who question the system and those with power. What challenging it really means. We hear the cries of Rachel as the cries of the mothers in Jesus time. The current reality for those living then. But as the reading ends, we have Jesus and his family return to Nazareth, to begin the life we know, the life from which our hope in God arises.
Again Past, present and future, in one reading. A very powerful reading.
So today we have a scripture reading and a secular film, I love that, the sacred and the secular bringing a hidden truth to us.
So what to do with it. Well I would like us to examine our own lives, and that by focussing on our past, present and future, our faith and God’s call may become more real.
So let’s begin with the past, and for us as individuals it has a lot to do with our memories, full of joys, experiences and sometimes regrets. And it’s the regrets that are the most harmful.
The past holds many ghosts that can ultimately influence the rest of our lives if we are not careful. Regret for things done and not done, said and unsaid, and pride which prevents us accepting our faults, can break a spirit and destroy the love for ourselves and for others that makes us whole. This is why forgiveness is so central to the gospel and to Jesus ministry. Because without forgiveness the past keeps repeating itself until the flicker of renewal is diminished.
It has taken me a while to realise the link between the God we worship, who sometimes can feel a bit distant and the forgiveness we feel as part of the human race. For me God is the creative spirit that drives all of life, found within all of life, and in acts of forgiveness this spirit is truly reflected. Forgiveness for us, for others, and for communities is the essence of God. Forgiveness allows healing, it allows for a new start, it allows people to suddenly belong on the same team, to see each other as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. It allows relationships to develop and redevelop and the oppressive burden of guilt to flow away. We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality, we do it for ourselves. Quite often the only person to benefit from the forgiveness is the person doing the forgiving.
There is no greater sign of the creator God than the renewal that comes from forgiveness.
So as we approach the coming new year, it is essential for us all to allow Gods spirit to reach into our hearts, and through forgiveness, into our actions. Think of something we have held onto that we regret and yet keep revisiting, or something someone else had done which we find difficult to let go of. Let us close our eyes and see that event or action as a distinct entity, place it in a box and push it to one side. And when we leave church today, let us leave the box behind. Just one thing, because from small things, great things grow.
What about the present. The here and now. We, as followers of Jesus also have to focus on what we can and must do today to affect the lives of others, to better the lives of others.
The Christmas stories we have heard this past week confirm what we know of this Jesus, the man, the human one. He came for the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Those are the ones who could see the light. Jesus’ life focussed on seeking justice and equity and compassion for all. Love was and is the key. He was not greeted by kings or the religious elite for they held the power. And when you threaten the people with power, there are consequences and they are bad. We heard it in the reading from Matthew and I saw it in the film I mentioned.
So the story of Jesus as a light that shines the love of God into the world for everyone, but particularly the poor and marginalised, continues long after Christmas.
And it’s challenging!
Yet even in our time people have taken up the challenge.
Like those who work for social justice and the rights of those poor and disposed and homeless in our society, people like my friend Dr Lisa Wood who spoke at our December forum last week, those calling for action on climate change here and around the world, including ordinary firefighters and children, and who sacrifice much to do it. Like our man Nev, who has been a peace activist, and agitator his whole life and still is at 90. Like the countless others who dance or have danced to a different tune in our world.
Yet I can already hear you saying, I can’t be those people, I can’t be Lisa, or Nev, I can’t be Jesus. Because I often say it to myself. But the reality is, you and I can make a difference. We can make choices about how we live in our time and place. And make a difference.
And we can start small, because from small things big things grow.
So I would like you to close your eyes again, think of something that you may be able to do or help with, or volunteer for in the new year, that will reflect your faith in God’s ever present love for all. It may be something you are already doing but that you will re commit to. Something that is attainable, that you will be able to sustain and maybe develop over time. Something that is done for others. But I also want you to see yourself explain why, for if we can’t explain why we respond to the gospel of love with love, then the message may not get through.
And finally the future. I believe our future could be one of cynicism and despair without a connection to God, the God of the universe and of you and me.
I think one of the great gifts of Christianity is that it gives hope. Not the pie in the sky when we die type of hope, but earthy and concrete. If we truly believe that God’s creative love is working in the world, everywhere, then we will live and act with hope. Particularly in a world as it exists today, with so much pain and grief. God is the one seen, heard, and experienced in the human Jesus, who calls us to a higher, deeper level and a different reality. It is God who will have the last say, as we and our world are reconciled to the creative spirt found in all of life.
Yet Jesus rarely spoke of an end time when all things would magically turn around, when the evil would be punished and the good rewarded. He spoke often, however, of living God’s kingdom into being, of being challenged by his message and letting the kingdom break into our world and our society. For we are called to enter the process with God. Christmas celebrates not just the birth of a baby, but the ongoing influence of Jesus life and teachings long after the 1stcentury. By us.
The question is, do we really believe this, for our actions will speak as to whether we live with hope or succumb to the widely held belief that nothing will change, so let’s do nothing. For to live with Christ is to live as though the ultimate victory of life and love has already been won.
As Dorothy McRae McMahan writes,
“This involves living “as if something is already in place. You live with justice, even if justice is not yet brought in. You claim the ground for it by the way you live, but you do not see yourself as a single agent for change, just one who demonstrates a change that will one day be visible and in place for all people. It gives us a sense that we are participating in a great and long term effort to make real something that was always meant to be and always will be”.
So as the new year approaches it is our call to live hopefully, trying to respond to the needs around us, while at the same time remembering that the divine presence is never limited by our human capacities for evil. God is present in the world, in each one of one, always has been and always will be. It is us who go missing.
So I would like you to close your eyes one final time and make a commitment to make time for God in the new year, for the inward journey, for without that hope will dry up amidst the miseries and frustrations of life. A place of quiet so that we may listen to the whisper of God, a place for silence so into that space the spirit may touch us. A place where Jesus worlds and teaching become real. What it may mean is dropping something that we would like to do but can’t, a challenge I know. But these are choices we make.
Both in the scripture reading and in the movie, past, present and future coalesce into one kaleidoscope of meaning.
When we apply these principles to ourselves, we see and know a faith in which no one is beyond forgiveness, including us, a faith that urges and cajoles us to act with love and compassion and to do so trusting that no matter how terrible and awful the situation seems, there is always hope that Gods spirit will have the final say, that the creative love of God will endure. That from a burnt out forest a flower will blossom. From the darkness a light will appear.
As Nev says,
“Faith enables us to see it, love puts us on the road and hope keeps us there. Jo Jo Rabbit represented a future for the German people, Jesus represents a future for us and the world.
This is the message to take into 2020.
I wish you all a very happy new year
While I received a beautiful Christmas gift in the form of the speech by Ester Sadiki who you just heard, I often feel caught between two worlds at Christmas time. The secular world with its tinsel, and gifts and family and the religious world, which wants to proclaim Christmas as a holy and sacred time.
Yet now with so much pain and anguish happening around us, both here in our own community but also in the eastern states where fires are destroying lives and homes, how do we make sense and find joy in the moment, whichever group we are in.
What to say and what to do?
Well, while Christmas was not celebrated fully until the 18thcentury and for early Christians only from the 4thcentury, after adopting a pagan festival called, Sol Invictus, I feel at this moment we all need Christmas, secular and sacred. Or more correctly what the birth stories of Jesus of Nazareth bring to us.
For they transmit some very deep and universal truths, not just for those who lived 2000 years ago, but for us today. They say so much about how we are to live in the world and with each other, and about God if we sit still long enough to listen. And so much about a man who brings this God alive to us, even in the 21stcentury.
But we need to really understand the stories and not take them at face value, for they are not meant to be literal. I want to suggest that these stories are so much more than a set of facts, which we regurgitate every year and then forget. Or worse still discount as being unbelievable.
I have spent many a Christmas day sermon talking about the birth stories of Jesus, how they only appear in 2 of the 4 gospels, how they reflect in miniature the world Jesus lived in, how they were written a long time after his death and how they have different accounts, representing both the time they were written and who they were written for.
They are not history, but rather the birth stories are myths, beautiful and powerful,
As Keith Rowe says, myths are the mirrors in which we see what we might become. They represent a way of human knowing that can be placed alongside scientific knowledge as two complementary pathways into life’s truth. They don’t have to be literally true to be true!
They give us insights we don’t see until we really see!
While both gospel accounts are full of earthly things, and some mystical things who is the child at the centre? The Gospel of Matthew describes him as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is at the centre of the story, the character extraordinaire. A revelation to us about where God is to be found and who God is
This is the essence of the stories. A universal message.
For even in our cynical, secular world, it seems to echo a strange and beautiful and evocative call. Where is God? Tell us about your God.
As Keith Rowe suggests,
“There are no facts upon which we can say for certain that God is with us or that God even is, but over the centuries those who have taken the stories of the birth of Jesus and the life of Jesus into their hearts and imaginations have been changed. And maybe they have glimpsed this God”.
Not a God in the sky, not a God who intervenes in human affairs every now and again, but a presence hidden in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world, as Frederick Buechner would say. A presence found in all of life, from the smallest molecule of the universe to the complicated but beautiful creatures we have become. A presence found in Jesus.
The reading today from the Gospel of John speaks of this. We hear what the early Christians heard. Jesus has come into the world to reveal God’s light and life.
So the birth stories are not really about a baby at all but about a man, called Jesus and about his life in God and in the world.
They are about finding God in a human Jesus, who lived and died in 1stcentury Judea, but who more than anyone since has shown a new way to live with one another. A way of love, grounded in the earthy world that he knew and in the indwelling spirit of God that guided him. A kingdom of love, compassion, forgiveness and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender and age. Where everyone was to be included and no one went without. A kingdom of justice.
The stories of the poor shepherds who were the first to hear of the birth, of a defenceless baby, of parents who were refugees, of a smelly stable, and animals and women and foreigners and angels reflect Jesus’s life and teachings in miniature. An inclusive life. One that so challenged the authorities of the day, the Roman Empire, but also some of the religious leaders that he was ultimately killed. Instead of power and violence and injustice and exclusion, hallmarks particularly of the Empire, we get a Jesus who was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. It is a message that resonates with the lives of all human beings everywhere, not just those in the 1stcentury.
So what do we do with Christmas in 2019? What do we do with the message the birth stories represent. That Jesus represents.
The Church and the world are at a crossroads today. We are at a Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one. Because as we have seen this past year, we have dictators who rule with power and fear, we have governments who protect the rich at the expense of the poor, we have huge wealth hoarded by a few, and we have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. We have religion being used to kill and enslave people, rather than making them free. We have earths creation in crisis, burning uncontrollably, And we have people seeking protection from the horrors of war or this terror being locked up in prisons Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope?
I believe our hope lies in the message of Jesus. And the God we meet in him. Not some otherworldly God confined to the outer reaches of our reality but the life force that surges through all living things, that drives us to be better than we are, more loving, more compassionate and more forgiving. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference to everyone. And by doing so, living the way of Jesus in the world.
People I have seen this week, this month, this year. Who battle fires, while their own homes burn, who care for the homeless and those without food and shelter, who care for the sick and dying in our hospitals, who donate money and time for others, even those they haven’t met, and those who try to change the status quo by advocating, protesting and generally being annoying to our politicians. Let’s continue to pester them!
But even small acts of kindness and compassion make a difference, and I have experienced these as well this week. From the person who offered me a drink, a beer first, but after I declined a glass of cold water, and a seat on their balcony when our car broke down in their driveway, to the mechanic who opened up the garage when on holidays so that we could get our car home to Perth, these acts of kindness made a difference to us.
Whether people are from a church or not, whether sacred or secular, today our hope lies in the transformation possible in the everyday moments of life by ordinary people. Moments that reveal God as ever present. Our hope is about commitment, not wishful thinking or false promises.
As Martin Luther King has said, “hope comes in many forms, mostly not supernatural. Rather in the shape of people, people helping people. God is found in the midst of this action, not separate from it.”
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus.
So today let us not push Christmas aside but celebrate the Christmas season, all of us, with renewed vigour, giving ourselves space to be warmed by the light and love of God. For God is still here, working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere, in our precarious and complicated world.
The only gift required is ourselves.