Named and Presented (Sunday After Christmas Year B)

The sermon I preached at Kingscote on Sunday 28th December 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

I will rejoice greatly because I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD. Isaiah 61:10 doesn’t muck about much; the prophet is straight in there to make his point. The commentaries on this verse suggest that even though it is Isaiah who is doing the writing these words actually spiring from the mouth of Zion, the embodiment of God’s people in the form of one woman declaring her praise for the wonderful rescue she has seen at the LORD’s hands. She who has remained faithful to God has been rewarded with the full blessing of God’s faithfulness to her: clothed with salvation there is a sense in which she is wrapped in the loving embrace of belonging; she is encompassed by God’s goodness regardless of the damage and dirt she knows lies underneath her fresh white dress. The just actions of the LORD are praiseworthy and Zion sings praises at the top of her voice, praising and praising and Isaiah commends her for it. Indeed this passage bubbles over with praise, it is exuberant and lush with imagery and excitement. There is a new name for Zion in Isaiah 62:3, a name which represents God’s personal pledge to change the status of the people, a name which itself declares God’s praise. As Paul said to the Galatians, no longer will we be known as slaves because now God calls us beloved children.

Many of you know that I lived in the UK for a time and that while I was there I worked as a teacher in an Education Support Centre. It was following my work in ESC that I moved to work as a Prison Officer because gaol was safer. I’ve told you that too. Anyway one of the schools to which I did outreach, so working with boys in danger of exclusion form school because of their behaviour, had a Headmaster whose name was Andrew Wellbeloved. Isn’t that a great name to have? He sounds like some rotund and jolly character from a novel by Dickens don’t you think? “Mr Wellbeloved.” I would be proud to have a name like that. Andrew Wellbeloved obviously had ancestors who were held in high regard by their neighbours to have been given such a surname as that. I’m not sure how many school principals would be awarded such a name by their students in this day and age, and certainly I’d have my doubts about what the sorts of boys I worked with might call their headmaster. (Actually I have no doubts at all, I know exactly what my boys would have called their teachers and “Wellbeloved” does not make the top ten!) Anyway, according to both Isaiah and Paul, God has given us each this new name; so regardless of whom you are now, or what your current name is, God thinks of you as Mr or Miss/Mrs Wellbeloved because you are well beloved by God.

Like Mr Wellbeloved’s name, the name of God carries a message in itself. It is not just a label; it is a description of the label’s owner. My names are Damien Paul, which in turn mean “the one who tames”, and “small”. Tann does not mean “light brown” or “worked leather” as you might have thought; it’s a German place name and may well mean “pine” as in “Tannenbaum”. Our family coat of arms features three pinecones, three rampant pinecones. Now I’m not sure how “the small tamer from the pine forest” is an accurate description of me, but it does have meaning on some level. In fact if you ask my mum she will tell you that I was named after two saints, St Damien who worked with lepers and St Paul the Evangelist. Of course my surname comes from my dad, and his dad before him, and so forth back up the generations of our family pine tree. I have a heritage, a mission, and a place of belonging.

Psalm 8 tells us that the name of God is majestic; it carries a message in itself. Emmanuel, God-with-Us is the name we sing of Jesus. Jesus as a name, Yeshua in Hebrew and so what Jesus would actually have heard when he was summoned, means “God’s salvation” or “God saves.” It’s the same name as Joshua, the one who lead God’s people out of the wilderness and across the Jordan in to the Promised Land. God was made known to the Hebrews by the name YHWH, “I AM” or “I WILL BE”. Our God is the God Who Is; no other god is like our God so nothing more needs to be said.

Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia, (people were actually Celts), that when Jesus came he did so at the right time. The baby who is God-with-Us and God’s Salvation came for the Jews and also for the Gentiles, so those of us who acknowledge Christ as saviour now belong to God. Paul understood the entry of the Christ into the world as a turning point in history: Jesus was born like any other boy of his day, from a human womb and into the human world of Jewish culture and religion, yet in the course of his life he brought about a change in the state of humankind, from slaves of circumstance to the children of God. Because of Jesus humankind would no longer be trapped in the endless cycle of suffering, pain, defeat, and disappointment, but we should be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world as Eugene Petersen of “The Message” puts it. Galatians 4:7 makes this point in first person singular tense, this is a message to each of us individually that you and I are a son or daughter of God. The evidence of this is that we are allowed to address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well beloved fathers today. As with God’s own name, the new name God gives us is majestic as we each have the new name “child of God” and we no longer have the old name “slave of circumstance”.

In the stories of Luke 2 we read that Jesus was all things special and at the same time nothing special. The one born to be King, Saviour and Lord went home after church and just grew up like any other kid. This is just like Psalm 8 where mere humankind is seen as only a little lower than God. Jesus was a mere human and like all other Jewish boys he was taken to the temple by his father to be circumcised and named formally by the priest on duty.  The ritual sacrifices offered to redeem him as a first-born son, and to purify his mother from her uncleanness at having given birth were also offered. Yes, even the birthing of the Messiah, God-made-Boy, was ritually defiling for the woman who was delivered of him. This is just one mother and child, tender and mild, among many thousands like them.

Yet within the context of this one ordinary family the truth is revealed that the God of Abraham is the God of all people; men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, old and young.   Simeon and Anna are a man and a woman. Simeon waits for God in the Court of the Gentiles where anyone can come and be close to the house of God; Anna is one stage further in to the temple complex in the Court of the Women which was a place for Jews only. Mary offered birds rather than a lamb for her sacrifice of purity, demonstrating that their family was poor. The message of Jesus’ birth, and the meaning of his name, is that God’s salvation is for all nations; the Word-made-Flesh, The Word of God is that other nations are not the enemies of God to be destroyed, but fellow children of God to be included.

These events involving Simeon and Anna take place as Mary and Joseph are entering the temple so are probably before Jesus and Mary were formally blessed. Simeon and Anna were not priests but as worshippers of God serving God in the temple they were ready when God chose to act and unveil more of God’s unique revelation. Simeon recognised that Jesus is the saviour of all people, and in his hymn of praise he says that he sees God’s salvation completed in the child he holds in his arms. Jesus will bring truth to light and he will effect discernment in the community. Simeon tells Mary that when Jesus is an adult this work of discernment and his prophetic naming of sin and injustice will see him opposed and rejected.  Be warned young mother, your son is indeed the Messiah of God but his story will be painful for you.

Anna is an Asherite; her ancestry is the tribe of Asher which we tend to think of as a bit of an also-ran tribe. After all, the Asherites were not the Judahites, the royal line of King David and of Jesus’ father Joseph. The Asherites are not the Benjaminites, the tribe of King Saul and of St Paul. The Asherites are not the Levites, the priestly tribe of Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and potentially Jesus’ mother Mary. Yet where the Levitical priest Zechariah had lived in the hope that God’s time for liberation had come, (have a look at Luke 1:68-79 for his hymn of praise at the birth of John), Anna the Asherite also-ran sees in Jesus the hope of liberation for Jerusalem. Again we see the story of no-one special, Anna is not special compared to Zechariah or Paul, but she receives the same message from God that the priest and the Pharisee received, the message of God’s present day action for liberation and release.

So what is the message? No matter who you think you are, and no matter from where you have come, God wants to tell you about the hope found in accepting the love and future that God has for you, you as an individual. The message of today, this ordinary Sunday between Christmas Day and New Years Day is that no day is ordinary for God and no person is ordinary to God.

For those who have never heard the message, the message is that you are loved, you are noticed, you are special, and you are wanted. You may well go home this morning to an ordinary life and an ordinary job, but so did Jesus after he was dedicated at the temple. Baby Jesus was not forgotten, God had a plan for him and God has a plan for you. So listen up to the ordinary people around you, they might just have amazing words of life and inspiration if you’re willing to hear it from them.

And for those of you who have the message, and yet think yourselves ordinary because you are not a Levite or a King, well join the work of Anna the Asherite and speak about what you know. After all Christian sisters and brothers, we have a gospel to proclaim.

Jesus Emmanuel. God saves and God is with us.


Christmas Day (Year B)

This was the first time I preached on Christmas Day.  25th December 2014 at Parndana Uniting Church.

Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

We aren’t entirely sure who actually wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but whoever he or she was the point is clearly made in this introduction: Jesus is the actual embodiment of the nature and character of God. When we speak about God coming to earth in the form of a baby in a manger this is the person we are talking about. Baby Jesus was not an angel, or another prophet; baby Jesus was God-in-skin who would grow up to be the man who saved the world from sin and would then return to Heaven and sit on the throne enveloped within the glory of God.

That is some child!

I read to you earlier from the work of the prophet Isaiah, a man who lived about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. During the time of Isaiah danger was looming for the Jewish people, in fact the situation was pretty similar during the time of the writing of the letter to the Hebrews about 60 years after the birth of Jesus, so the Jews in danger of annihilation seems to have been a common theme in ancient history. In both situations there was indeed about to be a disaster and history records that on both occasions the massive temple complex in Jerusalem was totally destroyed and many Jews were massacred. The survivors were then taken off as slaves and hostages in the time of Isaiah, or just banned from Judea and driven out of the country to be dispersed throughout the known world in the case of the writer of Hebrews. In any case for both of our authors the near future was looking pretty grim, so both of them take the time to describe a God who is close by and who fully knows what is about to happen, even if it does seem like God is actually going to stand back and let it all happen.

Isaiah specifically writes about a new leader for a new era. When trouble comes, and it will, God will raise up a leader from among the people and they will see deliverance in all of its forms. Not just the Biblical deliverance of sin, and the restoration of righteousness that we Christians like to talk about, but also the return of the king and the turning back of the tides of oppression and fear. Like a nation of Arnies the Jews are confident to say “we’ll be back”. The actual places Isaiah talks about, Zebulun and Naphtali are in Galilee, which is at the top of Israel. Since the superpower nations of Isaiah’s day were in the north then it was obvious that Zebulun and Naphtali were on the front line. But look at what God promises them, those first tribes crushed will be the first tribes to see the new dawn. God is not like D-Day where the last place conquered is the first place liberated until eventually the enemies are driven back into their own lands, no with God the liberation begins in the enemy’s own land and progresses southward, following the trail of destruction with a superhighway of restoration. That is so cool it is almost arrogant.

But it gets worse when we consider the titles offered for this new king. Wonderful-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Prince-of-Peace, Everlasting-Father. These are great words for Christians to use about Jesus, and of course we do use them about Jesus, but these words are very similar if not the same as the titles given to a Pharaoh at his coronation. So listen up Assyria, and you too Egypt, for good measure. Israel is getting a king who will start the liberation of the Jews from inside Assyrian territory, and this king will be so much greater than anything you pyramid-heads can put together.

Ways to pick a fight with the neighbours: check.

That’s not what you might have expected to hear as the introduction to a Christmas Day sermon. After all, I’m already onto page two (out of nine) and I haven’t even mentioned the manger yet.

But this is indeed the story of Christmas, because the God who has such gutsy prophets is the God who came to earth as a baby. A baby in a manger in fact. (Manger!) This baby who we boast of as greater than the greatest pharaoh and more powerful than the emperor and commander-in-chief of the greatest ever superpower, is the one laying in a food trough in a barn out the back of a small, basic guesthouse, in an out of the way town, in a forgotten corner of the realm of a Caesar so great he is given the title “Augustus”. This baby will be forced in to hiding very soon, and become a refugee in a foreign country because of the madness of the local puppet king, but that’s the story in a few weeks’ time: you’ll need to come back on January 4th to hear about that.

The Christmas story I read to you from the Gospel of John is again not the one we often hear. Where are the shepherds, where are the Magi, where indeed is the manger? We know that John was one of Jesus’ closest friends, so he wasn’t actually there at the time of Jesus birth; he actually hadn’t been born yet himself. But because he is a prophet, like Isaiah, John wants to write about God’s perspective on the events of human life, not just the history itself. For John the birth of Jesus is not about shepherds watching flocks or wise men dishing boxes. For John, like Isaiah, the story is about light piercing the deepest and darkest of darknesses.

We have also read from Paul this morning, specifically the letter he wrote to his student Titus. Paul wrote around the same time that the writer to the Hebrews did, after the death of Jesus but before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul’s Christmas message is that the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind, a healing through which women and men are empowered to turn away from harmful activities and longings and live lives of moderation and transparency. Paul tells Titus that he and the Christians in the church Titus is pastor of will be happily fulfilled in hope when the splendour of the great God and saviour Jesus appears. Now since Paul is writing about 60 years after the birth of the baby in the manger this suggests that Jesus is coming again and that that our hope, ours and Titus’, will be vindicated and filled up then.  If we join that with the message of Hebrews that calls Jesus the radiance of God’s glory and the stamp of God’s very being, the one who actively sustains the universe by continuously speaking it into existence; we have a lot to look forward to.

The Christian message of Christmas is not that God came as a baby in a stable and was visited by livestock, rouseabouts and astrologers. That is where the story began but the message goes well beyond that. The God who vindicated the Israelites in the time of Isaiah is the God who was protecting the Jewish people from the time of Abraham. The God of Isaiah is also the God of Paul and the Hebrews, who kept the Jewish people going right through the centuries of invasion, murder and holocaust, and right until today. This is the God who came to earth to live as a human being in the form of Jesus. The message of Jesus is that God has saved humankind because God is merciful, not because humankind deserves saving. We know that humankind can live with hope because the evidence for a bright future is right in front of us because we have seen how much God loves us and wants us to live well.

The Christmas message of Christians is seen in how well our lives reflect that message. Does hope work? What difference can be seen on Christmas Day between the Christians and the others?

We have a message which is more than an infant on straw, it is the dawning of a new and greater age where God lives among the people for no other reason than to love us and enjoy our company. That is the greatest of good tidings to you, to you and your kin.