Yeah-yeah! (Yeah-nah)

This is the text of the message I prepared for proclamation at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Sunday of Annunciation.  It was a combined, ecumenical service with the Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Uniting Churches of Kaniva gathered.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:5-10; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 10:4-10

I am blessed to be able to address you all today.  By “all” I mean a gathering of Christians beyond my regular congregation; and by “today” I really mean tomorrow.  (Except that none of you would have come tomorrow, so today will have to do.)  What’s so special about tomorrow you might ask?  Well if you don’t know, find an Anglican or a Roman Catholic and let that person tell you.  (And if that person doesn’t know, tell me and then I’ll dob them in to Fr Nagi.)  Tomorrow, in those flavours of Christianity who pay attention to such things, is the Feast of the Annunciation; the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God.  So, for those of you from Protestant traditions, for whom this is not a central event, have a think about it; it’s nine months tomorrow until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th as the date of Jesus’ conception, yeah?  Yeah.

Well if you did know that, well done, but do you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we “good Christians all rejoice” back in December.

So tomorrow is potentially the two thousand and twenty third anniversary of the annunciation, and possibly the one thousand nine hundred and eighty-ninth anniversary of the real “Good Friday”.  It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter: it’s a good opportunity to be reminded that Jesus really was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried.  We may not all say the creed, but we all acknowledge the truth of Christ Jesus who is The Word Incarnate.

But what’s the point?  Well other than showing that “I is well ecumenical” and that even as a Uniting Church minister in a Church of Christ house I am on the ball with the varied flavours of Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics in my town at large and congregation this morning, (and in my personal history as a worshipping Christian in this country and the United Kingdom), I believe that annunciation is actually worth celebrating just for what it commemorates.

So what does it commemorate?  Well it commemorates God choosing someone ordinary and anonymous for the most amazing act in all of global history.  Jesus is God the Son: on earth he lived as the Son of God and the Son of Man; exalted today in Heaven he reigns with the Father and the Spirit as Christ the Lord, King and Messiah.  But Mary?  Nah, Mary was just Miriam the teenager from Nazareth.  God did not choose Mary because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

And if God chose Mary, God can choose you.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Is it?  Well I’ve just told you it isn’t, so “no” is the answer I’m looking for here.

Take a look at Ahaz, whom God also chose.  We find part of his story in today’s set text from the Hebrew tradition, specifically Isaiah 7:10-14.  So as far as choosing proof-texts for annunciation goes this is a good one because we read where God previews the name and character of Jesus’ birth in the days of pre-exilic Judah: a young woman will give birth to a son who shall be named Immanuel, a name which means God with us.  But remember that Isaiah who spoke this word didn’t think he was addressing a peasant family in Galilee seven hundred and thirty years later; he is speaking to the king of his day in the culture of his day.  That Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse as proof to Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb is God’s own is appropriate, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the point that Isaiah was making is very important and must not be overlooked in our rush toward Christmas.

The story around Ahaz, king of Judah, direct descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:9), is that Jerusalem is in peril from military attack and siege.  As king Ahaz has a few options, one is to form an alliance with Assyria which is the local superpower, and thereby come under its protection (in brackets “protraction racket”).  Another option is to seek to maintain Judah’s national independence and integrity by trusting in Jehovah and the promises made to Abraham and David of an eternal home from the Judahites and an eternal throne for the Davidic family.  Jehovah personally intervenes in the decision making process, speaking through the court prophet Isaiah, to say “I am God and here’s a tangible event to show that I’m with you, or even I AM (YHWH) is with you”, and then the baby thing.  That girl, yes that one, will have a child, which will be a boy, who shall be named “God is with us” because…well…I AM God and I am with you.  Isn’t that great?  A personal message from God to a leader in distress, with real evidence.  And just look at how this son of David, a son of Abraham, responds to this declaration of God’s faithfulness.  “Ahm, yeah-nah.” It probably sounds more epic in Hebrew, but essentially Isaiah 7:12 reads “yeah-nah”.

Yeah-nah.  Yeah-nah?  I mean, what the actual is “yeah-nah”?  God says “ask me for anything you wish as evidence that I am with you” and Ahaz says…well you know what Ahaz says.  The point is not the piety of Ahaz, “do not put the Lord to the test” is in Deuteronomy and is also one of the things Jesus says to the accuser during his temptations, so it sounds good.  But it’s not good.  No, it’s not good because Ahaz isn’t really saying what Jesus said.  Jesus said “I don’t need miracles to trust God, I trust God because God is trustworthy”: Jesus is no Gideon, no fleece required.  What Ahaz is actually saying is, “no, I’ve already made up  my mind to choose the Assyrian option, the alliance where the Holy Nation of God becomes a vassal to the evil empire, and I don’t want God to interfere.”  I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do it my way, shut up and go away Jehovah.

Is that a statement of faith?  Is that a statement of submission and piety?  Yeah-nah.

And so we get back to Miriam the Galilean teen.  She was nobody special, but God chose her.  Ahaz was somebody special, and God chose him.  But Miriam did not become special because God chose her, just as Ahaz did not become special when God chose him.  Ahaz was already special, Miriam was still a peasant.  Miriam became special, became “The Blessed Virgin” and all that we read her say about herself in the Magnificat, and all that Elizabeth says about her, and all that the jumping Baptist in-utero pronounced, and all that the angel said to her and Joseph about her, when she said “yes” as we read in Luke 1:38.  (And effectively Ahaz lost his specialness when he said “yeah-nah” and walked away from God’s anointing.)

Today’s psalm, which is echoed in today’s reading from the Christian tradition, is about obedience to the call of God.  In Psalm 40:6-10, and quoted by the apostle on behalf of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, we read how God is more impressed, indeed most impressed by attention to the Word which leads to obedience.  Ritual and the trappings of religion are not in themselves bad things, God does desire them and God ordained them as the means of grace for Jews.  Do not misread the scripture here, the call to worship is good.  But when God speaks to you and singles you out for a ministry, then your calling and your responsibility are to that beyond the duty to go to church.  The other girls of Nazareth were not damned for not being the mother of Jesus: by continuing to do what obedient Jewish daughters do, and by continuing to worship God within their households their obedience and worship were accounted to them as righteousness.  But Mary had a unique call, and her faith-filled response to God above worship and her relationship with her husband and family was accounted to her righteousness.  And look at what she did, having heard from the angel and accepting God’s invitation, the first thing she does is praise God and the second thing she does is nick off to Judea to be midwife for her cousin.  Mary the beloved of God, highly favoured and blessed amongst women is no less a good Jewish girl for her calling, she is all of that and more.

So, liturgically minded or not, user of ocker phrases or not, how do you respond to God’s call to you today?  Whether your response is “yeah-righto Jesus, I’ll give it a burl” or “be thou to me as thou wouldst desirest it sovereign Lord”, I pray that you would respond with delight, joy, excitement, obedience, humility, and love.

Today is the day to say yes.  Say yes today, so that when the Annunciation is made tomorrow you can tell the messenger of the Lord “I said yes yesterday, and it’s yes today as well”.

Amen.

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Adventures in Peace (Advent 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva Shared Ministry at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 23rd December 2018.

Psalm 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-45; Luke 46-55

Week four of Advent as we heard in the lighting of the fourth candle this morning is associated with peace; and what we know from the Bible is that peace is often hard to come by.

In the brief reference to the town of the Saviour’s birth as recorded by Micah, which was our set reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning, Micah is prophesying in the context of war.  He says that the one who will come from Beit Lechem, the birthplace of David and a small town whose name means “House of Bread”, is not the saviour from sin and darkness so much as he is the one who will lift the siege on Jerusalem.  In Psalm 80:1-7 which was one of our set psalms we get a similar idea: the people are in distress and they cry out to God in the words of Asaph pleading that God will hear them and deliver them from the consequences of previous military defeats.  Indeed Psalm 80 might be the plea of asylum seekers, of survivors from the Assyrian conquest of Samaria which was capital of the northern kingdom of Israel who have escaped and are seeking shelter in the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital at Jerusalem.  A destroyed people ask the God of Hosts, the lord of Heaven’s army in Psalm 80:4How long will your nostrils smoke? which I just love as language.  In Psalm 80:7 it is this same God of hosts who is petitioned for restoration, salvation, and the smile of blessing.  When my little sister was actually little she would often say when our mum was angry and scowling “I don’t like that face mummy, where’s your happy face?”  I think Asaph is saying the same thing, in Hebrew and with greater reverence for sure, but the idea is there: please be nice to us Great-Father-who-is-a-General, stop steaming and please love us and cuddle us again, because we are hurt and we are sad and we are sorry.  Please daddy, our tears are making us sick.  Bring us back says Psalm 80:7 in The Good News Bible, show us your mercy and we shall be saved.

Our Christian tradition readings from Luke 1:39-45 and then Luke 1:46-55, (the lectionary separates them), speak of Mary’s visit to her elderly yet pregnant cousin and Mary’s song in response to the work of God in her womb as well as that of Elisabeth.  Perhaps God has heard the choking tears of Elisabeth in the way that Asaph pleaded for Israel; certainly God has heard Elisabeth as God heard Hannah.  God has also heard Elisabeth as God heard Rachel, desperate for a child for the husband who loves her dearly; and God heard Elisabeth as God heard Leah who even after seven children, six of them sons, still felt unloved by her husband who only had eyes for her barren yet pretty little sister.  So many daughters, each desperate beyond tears for her father to look upon her with favour and grace and reverse her shame and embarrassment.  So many sons, each desperate beyond aching bones and torn muscles for his father to look upon him with favour and grace and release him from war and siege.  The adult children of God need peace; the plea of the people of God is for that shalom that passes all understanding but which also comes with physical release.

When the two passages from Luke 1 are read together there is a contrast between them; the story of Elisabeth is a story whereas the song of Mary is a song.  “Well, derr!!” you might say, and fair enough.  But when I point out that the gospel so far has all been story and that what we read is narrative prose from Luke 1:1-45 but suddenly we switch to poetry in Luke 1:46 maybe you understand what I am saying.  What am I saying?  I am saying that the story of the salvific work of God is interrupted by the song of thanks and praise from the salved one, and I think that’s remarkable.  Having pleaded with God for so long for deliverance, for saving, for soothing, don’t forget to offer praise and adoration when the saviour-deliverer shows up. Mary’s song sums up in an act of worship all that Luke has already described in narrative, including what God has done for Zechariah and Elisabeth.  And Elisabeth joins in not with singing but with response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting into proclamation and prophesy of her own.  Think about it, if Mary has heard Gabriel’s message and then shot straight off to Elisabeth’s house she may not have been showing a bump.  Elisabeth us pregnant and her younger kinswoman has come to help around the house, Elisabeth is not expecting the virgin teenager to be pregnant and Mary does not look pregnant when she arrives.  But as soon as Mary does arrive it’s all “Blessed are you amongst women”,  and “my baby leapt with joy”.  Cool huh?  Well I think it is.

But it gets even cooler, seriously it does.  Because not only is Mary’s song a praise summary of Luke’s prose summary of Luke 1:1-45, Mary’s song is a praise summary of Micah 5 and Psalm 80 and so much of Hebrew history besides.  In all that we Jews were, be we wandering Arameans, enslaved Hebrews, imperial Israelites, Judahites and Samarians, or colonised Judeans and Galileans, at all points in our history from Adam and Abraham until today have asked from God God has answered it today.  Show us your mercy that we might be saved cries Asaph in Psalm 80:3,7, God has looked with favour on the misery of his servant…he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy declares Mary in Luke 1:48,54.  I mean, just look at Luke 1:50-55 (Damien: read and extemporise).  God has done it all, now, in the coming of the promised one, and everything will change and nothing will ever be as it was.  Woot!

The story of Advent is that The Son of Man revealed in Jesus of Nazareth did not come to Earth as conqueror; he neither arrived nor departed as Commander of The Angel Armies, The Lord of Hosts, as God is acclaimed in the psalms.  Unlike the Pax Romama or Pax Augustana, the peace brought about by Augustus who established the imperial form of the Roman Empire by wiping out all of his enemies the peace of God never depends upon military defeat.  The Christian gospel, beginning with the stories of Advent, is the story of Emmanuel’s ministry of proclamation of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus brought and preached and told the story of God by inhabiting the good news that the peace which comes from Heaven, the ministry of The Prince of Peace, the glorious Advent message is the peace which only God can bring.  The peace of God is a peace that not even the political assassination of the Messiah or the decimation of Jerusalem itself can overcome.

The story of the fourth Sunday in Advent is that Caesar Augustus and his peace-through-victory fell far short in comparison to God’s promised peace-through-justice, the peace of Christ delivered in a newborn child.   As we have heard in recent weeks military victory has never brought peace to the world; it has only ever brought a lull in fighting before the fighting escalates.  The end of “The War to End All Wars” which we celebrated as a centenary a few weeks ago was nothing of the sort: the fact that what was known at the time as “The Great War” became known within twenty years as “World War One” is evidence of that.  From 2018 looking back to 1918 we know there was a World War Two, and many wars besides between 1918 and today.  Some of those wars are ongoing as we sit here today.  The message of Augustus Imperator, “the all-conquering one”, is seen in his primary title: Octavian was more than just emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth; he was continually acclaimed as victor and the embodiment of victory.  As nephew of Julius Caesar, who it was claimed was a direct descendent of Venus, Octavian carried the title divi filius, and his title Augustus became a proper noun (like “Christ” did), suggesting that Octavian is “the god who is to be worshipped”.  It seems that as emperor Octavian could only claim the title of God Incarnate and Son of God because he was the great conqueror first.  Our Emmanuel, our Son of Man who is God The Son, did no conquering and never intended to. In a world where even today the superpowers posture and threaten, and it is assumed that Australia need never be afraid of Jimmy Foreign because America is our friend and China is our customer, the message remains.  Since the empire of Rome our European cultures have understood that there was no other way to achieve peace than by winning wars, but in Christ who is the Prince of Peace we are offered a radical alternative.  We can trust God, and leave our struggles with God, because God loves us and has favoured us because of God’s love for us and our loving response to God.

Emmanuel means God with us, and if we believe that God truly is with us, then whoever can be against us is no one we need to worry about.  So peace, which we are reminded of by today’s fourth candle, is not difficult to come by at all, we just need to remember to think differently about who God is, and what the baby in the manger came to say.

Shalom: Amen.

Advantageous How? (Advent 2C)

This is the text I prepared for the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th December 2018, the second Sunday in Advent in year C.  It was also a communion Sunday.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Last week in my introduction to the Church’s season of Advent I spoke about it as a time when the Church remembers the arrival of the Messiah on earth as the baby of Beit Lechem, and our preparations for when he returns at the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth.   Today our reading from the Hebrew traditions come in the words of the prophet Malachi who lived during the Persian Empire days of Jerusalem’s history, so somewhere between 500 and 350 BC.  Malachi told the Judahites that a messenger was coming who would herald the Lord’s return to the city; in fact Malachi’s own name means “my messenger” and he certainly did act as a prophet and a messenger of God, but it is clear that he was not writing about himself.

Malachi wrote that when the Lord comes he will bring refining fire for purification and righteousness so that the people will be pleasing to God as they once were.  Under colonisation the Judeans had become cynical, complaining that God had left them under foreign rule to live in a ruined version of the Promised Land.  God’s response was that the people were disobedient, expecting God to make things good while they sat around whinging and disregarding God’s will and word of correction.  God’s word to them was that when God will come in response to their complaint not only will the temple and the city be physically and gloriously restored, but God’s lordship over the people will be too, and that will require them changing their attitudes and behaviours and being made pure.  Hebrew tradition connects the soon-to-be-coming messenger with Elijah who would return (since Elijah was already dead at this point) to herald the return of the Lord of Glory to Jerusalem.  Christian tradition connects this messenger with John the Baptiser, who spoke into a similar cultural and economic situation for Judea four centuries later than Malachi.  Malachi and each John hear the people’s complaints and say to them in God’s inspiration “you want God to come and save you, but you aren’t yet ready for what God brings”.  Malachi warns the people in an oracle and John goes a step further as he begins to denounce the self-satisfied and baptise the repentant.

In the days following the birth of God’s new messenger, the first Jewish prophet in four centuries (who broke that long period of darkness and silence), John’s father Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son.  Zechariah says that the child will be the witness to the coming of the Davidic king, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory as the nation of God.  In Luke 1:76-79 we hear how John will prepare the people for the Messiah, telling them what the messianic mission will be so that when the Lord comes they will be ready to respond, and the dawn will come to end the long night of God’s silence.  When the saviour comes he will fulfil the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73) and liberate the people from their enemies and show mercy to Judea so that they could worship God without restriction (Luke 1:71-72).  This is what the audience around Malachi might have wanted to hear if worship was as high on their list of desired freedoms as self-governance was.  The news is exciting for Zechariah because he knows that God’s deliverance is at hand; it will come in his son’s lifetime because John himself is the herald.  Zechariah quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in his praise, and Isaiah 9:1 in his identification of whom it is that God will send: it is the Wise Counsellor and Mighty God whom is the Everlasting One.  John’s proclamation of who is coming in Luke 3:4-6 is also a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Adonai, the Lord Godself is the one who is coming, and is coming for all humanity, in the lifespan of baby John.  How exciting!

I like how Luke’s narrative, his telling the story of Elisabeth’s pregnancy and then of Mary’s is interrupted by this song of fatherly worship.  This can be a reminder to us not to get carried away with the events of the day, even God’s marvels, but to stop and adore and worship and praise: we are reminded to “Selah” as the psalmists say, to pause and consider.  Zechariah in his song is pointing to repentance; but not only to the forgiveness of sins through the coming of the Lord but also the need for the world to stop, rethink, and change direction in the light of this latest news.  The Lord who is coming has come to restore justice to Israel and to bring light to the whole world, not just the Jews.  The Lord who is coming is coming for everyone, that’s a new idea for many people.

In Luke 3:1-6 we read how the Spirit fell on John when John was already in the wilderness.  The message of God was the one prophesied by Zechariah, that John must proclaim that the Lord is coming and the whole world needs to prepare.  I like the detail that Luke includes in Luke 3:1-2, setting the ministry of John in a specific time and place, and with a specific theme: John is in outback Judea in 29AD and proclaiming repentance for purification through baptism.  This is just as Malachi 3:4 suggested, but it also makes a stark contrast between what is occurring around the emperor, procurator, and client kings in their various capital cities, and where God is at work which is actually in the wilderness.  The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Exodus: this God works in the wild places which are the places between other places.  God chooses to be active in the places others rush through (or past) on the highway to other places, so the places where God’s people live are often places where other people stop only for a toilet break and a photo of the brick line across the road demarcating a barrier which God’s people in God’s wisdom don’t consider significant.  John in preparation to declare his message, which is the preparation of the way of the Lord, is already in the place where the Lord will be.  What is also significant is the number of authority figures listed: Judea is under the authority of empire, province, and local warlord forms of control, this is not a free country and the Judeans are not a free people.  Who John is speaking to in the wilderness, who John is calling to repentance are people who are living directly under heavy burdens of governance and colonisation but who are also marginalised and ignored.  These people are of no consequence to the big-hats in Rome or Jerusalem or Caesarea, except when it comes to taxation and conscription, at which time they are very much in the crosshairs.

The wilderness is outside polite and formal society, so it is a place of disorder and chaos.  The wilderness is a place you only pass through if you have to, and you do so as quickly as possible.  To make an unnecessary journey through the wilderness is weird: to go there deliberately, and to stay there, is madness and maybe even demonic.  Yet look at what God does in Luke 3:5-6, the chaotic and demonic will be ordered and rescued by God: no place, and the residents of no place, will be left behind by God because all will be made whole and all will be saved.  This is great news for the poor, but confusing news for the merchants and the ruling classes who don’t believe they need saving and believe they don’t need saving.  The elites are told that God is coming, which is great news.  The prophecies of John and Zechariah point to God doing what has been promised, the salvation promised by God through Malachi and all the Hebrew prophets is at hand, God is about to deliver the good news into a world where there is so much bad news. However, God is arriving way outside and God’s ministry is beginning with the weird mobs that live out the back of beyond.

There is so much more going on in John’s proclamation than God delivering the Jews from the Romans, Zechariah and John each acknowledge this; but I wonder if even John thought that a coup would indeed be part of the messianic mission.  Later in the story of John we find him sending his disciples to Jesus to question him about whether he really is the messiah, and whether he is the only messiah.  Perhaps we want to ask the same question sometimes.

We do not live beneath an obvious empire as did Malachi and John, there are no Persians or Romans here, and if the British remain well we actually are them.  But I think we do still live with a misguided idea of what the Lord’s coming will mean for The Wimmera and The Tatiara: after all with no empire and no slavery, with relatively fair taxation and no degrading or onerous religious demands what do we need liberating from?  Why do we need a saviour when we have already been saved through the cross?  Perhaps, with pun intended, we need to ask why in Advent it would be advantageous for us that the Lord come back at all.

Selah, pause and consider.  Amen.

Love Re-Advented

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B.  It was Sunday 24th December 2017

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

The story that Christianity tells about Advent and Christmas is about many things, but one of the main things is newness.  God did a new thing when “Word became Flesh”, God in all God’s God-ness came into the world as a male human baby.  But that new thing was not without precedent, since God was honouring a promise and God was faithful to the world in the way that God had always been, and how God has always been since the ascension of Jesus.  So, there’s another thing about Advent, God’s new thing is about God’s long-term faithfulness.

The story found in today’s Psalm is a reminder that God has loved humankind in very practical ways through the ministry work of Israel, and God has remained faithful to all the promises of the covenant.  The prophets through the ages from Samuel who anointed David, Nathan who advised David, and the prophets who spoke to later kings, all proclaimed God’s faithfulness and God’s desire that the people remain faithful, (Psalm 89:3-4).  God who is consistent, who we declare to be the same yesterday, today and forever, is also constantly changing, working with each new king in the best way for that king and his situation.  So, by the time of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who re-wrote an earlier song of Israel’s king to suit his circumstance as a hope-filled exile, Ethan can find much for which to praise God.  Even though the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience has caused their downfall as a nation, Ethan can declare that God is no less worthy of praise because God is still faithful, (Psalm 89:1-2).

Looking back on Ethan’s song today; and as Christians we are looking back through the life of Jesus, we see that in the baby in the manger is the fulfilment of God’s promises.  In Jesus the Israelites were given a king directly descended from David and the royal family, (Psalm 89:19-20).  Israel was given a man who would lead them in worship, and a man who would point them towards a new and complete revelation of God as a faithful and loving father: something they had always known but had also tended to forget, (Psalm 89:26, 28).  The exiled Israelites believed that they had been forgotten; they were confused and felt abandoned and betrayed in Babylon and Persia.  But God had remembered the people even if they had forgotten that God was faithful.  And four hundred years after the last prophet spoke, and when the Judeans and Samaritans were living under Roman occupation and were feeling forgotten again, God spoke through a baby’s cry.  Jesus as the son of Joseph of Bethlehem was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David, and God’s promise to the Israel through David.

God’s new thing is only a new way of keeping God’s age-long promises.

Jesus is a child of the impossible, and one of many in the history of Israel.  The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus is seen as miraculous, and so it should be, since it is impossible for any virgin animal to give birth to male offspring.   (Even if Mary had somehow fertilised one of her own ova, which is theoretically possible but very improbably, the baby would have been XX and a clone of the mother.)  But I think it is more significant to Luke that in Mary we see the messiah born to a young and fresh mother rather than an old and barren one.  Any woman could have been the mother of Jesus, and any birth might have been miraculous: but God chose twelve-year-old Mary.  In his telling of the story of Jesus Luke immediately sets Mary beside Elisabeth, the post-menopausal mother of John the Baptiser.  John’s conception is no less a miracle than Jesus’, even when you consider that Zechariah was involved in a way that Joseph was not.  But by doing it this way, and having the messiah born of a girl, Jesus is presented as the bringer of a new covenant.  John, born of an old-and-barren woman is presented as the last in the line of the old covenant.  Both conceptions are miracles of God since both covenants testify to God.  Mary is a new Hannah, and Elisabeth a new Sarah.

Luke goes further in his presentation of the new-born king, and this is something often missed in the retelling of the Christian stories of Christmas.  In fact, the gospel accounts are inflammatory, and each one challenges the legends of the day.  Are you aware of how much the Christmas stories in the three gospels in which they appear blatantly contradict and mock the stories told about the origins of Caesar Augustus?  The legendary conception of Octavian, as he was known before he became Emperor, also took place under the shadow of infanticide: in Octavian’s case the senate was fearful of the foretold, newborn king.  (Matthew speaks of a jealous Herod.)  Octavian was considered to have been of divine origin since he was the son of Apollo through the human mother Atia.   The way in which God overshadowed Mary is both like and unlike the Roman and Greek stories, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but the human girl Mary, unlike Leda and Atia among other heroines, was not seduced and raped by her god.  Mary was not harmed, and whilst she did become pregnant she remained a virgin after conception.  Jesus, unlike Octavian, was conceived in love and peace, not violence and fear; Mary is a willing recipient of the angel’s grace and God’s activity.  The actual son of the chief god, (and Jews would say the only true God), who was born from a human woman, and born to bring divinely-attested peace to the world, is too close to the Empire’s propaganda to be allowed to exist.  Of course, this all comes later, the written down stories of Jesus’ birth do not come for another seventy years or so, but you can see how the story of Jesus is a threat to the story of Augustus and every Caesar who followed.  The actual presence of the God of the Jews, on earth as a man, just adds to this.

In Genesis 1:26 we read that humankind was made in the image and likeness of God, and St Augustine wrote in the fifth Christian century that humankind was made by God to be recipients of love.  If Jesus’ conception and birth is supernatural then it is only because it is very natural: it is in God’s nature that things take place like this.  We can call it miraculous, we can, but really, it’s just doing what God does the way God does it.  Baby Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, much like baby everyone else was.  This is ordinary divinity: it’s manger faith.

And so, with all this talk of the miraculous I am lead to ponder two things.  Maybe these things haven’t occurred to you, maybe you’ll not think much of them after I’ve said them anyway and think them irrelevant, but for now let me plant a couple of seeds of manger faith.

Number One.  Back in the day there wasn’t the understanding of human biology that we have now; specifically, there was no understanding of the ovum.  There was also no understanding of the sperm, which are too small to see, but there was some understanding that the man put something in the woman during sexual activity and that thing made babies.  So, I ask you this: did the Holy Spirit fertilise one of Mary’s ova with a holy spermatozoon, or did God plant an entire zygote, a fertilised ovum in Mary?  Luke can’t tell us because he didn’t have that understanding of conception: God certainly did the man’s part in making the baby, but in a world which didn’t understand the woman’s contribution, other than as incubator, what happened?  Did Jesus come from Mary’s egg?

Number Two, and why number one matters.  Who, if anyone, did Jesus look like?  Even if we allow for Mary’s biological contribution, and that her ovum was used by God, did Jesus look like his mum?  And allowing that everyone knew in Bethlehem, as I’m sure they’d know just as easily in Morwell, that Mary was pregnant before Joseph had had his manly way with her, did Jesus look like Joseph?  Was there room for doubt that the baby asleep in Mary’s arms belonged also to the man in whose arms Mary rested?  Was Mary’s boychild the image and likeness of his father, both upper-case F and lower-case f father?  You can all see today, because he is here, that I look like my dad: did Jesus look like his?  Since my dad was more involved in my conception than Joseph was in Jesus’ conception that would be another act of manger faith.

I have no doubt that whoever Jesus looked like, he was the image of his father.  Fathers, plural, as I am the image of mine, both.  The faithfulness of God to the promise made to David, which came about by same means that God sealed God’s promise to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth allows for God to be faithful to Mary that her son looked like her husband, and shame was averted.  The Christian story of Christmas is that even when God is doing mighty and divine stuff, like saving the world by sending the messiah into the world via the virgin fiancée of a direct descendent of King David, in Bethlehem, God can still be personal enough to make sure that there was at least a stable and that the baby looked like his daddy.  Our faithful God is more than dependable, our God is considerate and kind.

The message of Christmas, this year at least, is that each of us who was born to be loved by God, created in the image and likeness of our Father in Heaven should be faithful, considerate, and kind too.  The best way to share God at Christmas is to act like God at Christmas.

Amen.

Adventageous

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Yallourn Parish meeting at Yallourn North Uniting Church on Sunday 17th December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent in Year B.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46b-55

Last week when I spoke about God’s word spoken through Isaiah to the exiled Judahite and Israelite nations I said that that passage, found in the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40, was an inauguration text.  I said that God had set aside a new prophet for a new message, and we were coming in at the very beginning of that story.  Today’s reading from Isaiah 61 serves the same purpose in scripture and history.  Today we heard how God was again speaking to a people in distress, and the message of God was hope.  Last week we heard of comfort and assurance, this week we hear of activity and remembrance.  You are not forgotten by me, says God, now go and gather the lost whom you have forgotten.

“The spirit is upon me because God has set me apart to do the work of God” says the prophet.  Unlike last week’s initiation where overheard God speaking to the angels, and the angels speaking to the prophet with a “tell them this” message, today’s reading began with the prophet himself speaking as if he has already received the message.  That’s fine, and you’ve probably seen that already, it’s no big deal that we miss out on Heaven’s conversation today.  But what sets this inauguration apart is that this prophet claims to have the Spirit upon him.  Usually prophets were not anointed, but in a way this prophet claims to have been.  Anointing was for priests and kings, ordination and coronation involved oil, but prophets usually announced themselves simply by beginning to speak.  We heard last week how John the Baptiser seems to appear out of nowhere, the same was true, pretty much, of the Israelite and Judahite prophets back in the day, with no activity of the temple or the palace.  In other words, the Spirit’s presence was conferred by Godself as the evidence of God’s appointment.  That doesn’t mean that the rituals of coronation or ordination are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, we do still need kings and priests, but the work of a prophet is something different.  Prophets belong to God in a special way, they do not owe tenure to any parliament or synod.

This may sound inspiring, and it should do, but it is also heavy with meaning.  Quite simply if you do not have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God which cannot be earned or acquired through study or seniority, then you are not equipped for the work of God.  I believe that this is true for all Christians and Jews, not just those called to the unique office of prophet.  I do not claim to be a prophet in the way that John the Baptiser or Isaiah were, but I hope that you recognise that what I say is said because of the Spirit of God working through me as a preacher and in me as a Christian.  Without the Spirit you cannot do the work of God.  You can do public speaking, you might even be able to preach a decent Bible study.  You can do pastoral visiting and listen attentively to the sick and lonely.  And those are good things.  But without the insight of the Spirit those jobs will always lack something, they will be incomplete as ministries.

And, of course, the reverse is true.  If you have been equipped by the Spirit to do the work of God, but you do not do the work, then what use is the Spirit to you?  Maybe some people are not doing the work of God because the Spirit is not with them, and that is the evidence that the Spirit is absent from their lives.  I don’t care if you don’t speak in tongues, there are other signs of God’s individual presence.  But if you don’t do anything as a disciple, then I wonder about your relationship with the saviour.

No Spirit of God, no work of God.  Without the Spirit we can do nothing.  But no work of God, no Spirit of God?  If your faith is not seen in action aligned to the mission of God, then what evidence does the world and the church have that you are with God at all?

So, as a pastor-teacher here, and someone you have chosen in the short-term at least to fill a leadership role, what am I looking for?  How do I know that you are each and all a Christian?

When I was a primary school teacher I used to write two names on the whiteboard at the beginning of each lesson, and these were our learning friends.  One was W.A.L.T., and the other was W.I.L.F.  “WALT” told us “we are learning to”, and “WILF” told us “what I’m looking for”.  For example: We Are Learning To…use adjectives.  What I’m Looking For…is good describing words. It was very clear to the pupils, be they grade two or grade seven, what the lesson was about.  Just so, I want to be clear for you today.  As the one acting in the role of your “Minister”, W (am) ILF?

Isaiah, and Jesus who quotes him later and at the outset of his own ministry, offers that God’s work is good news to the oppressed, bandaging for the broken, liberty to the captive, release for the imprisoned, declaration of God’s favour to the abandoned, and comfort for the mourning.  That sounds like a pretty clear “WILF” on God’s behalf, so let’s go with that, and make that our “WALT”.  In Isaiah 61:8 God’s own voice declares repair and restoration of that which was destroyed and thought lost forever.  God through Isaiah promises restoration of what was stolen, full restoration with the right of inheritance.  Isaiah has great cause to rejoice in God who has called him and equipped him with resource and blessing and joy.  Isaiah among the Israelites has been restored and healed, perhaps he has been among the first to have been so and now he is telling his story to encourage those awaiting the Spirit’s arrival in their lives.  The blessing of God is natural and once the channels are unblocked what should flow naturally, God’s favour, will flow in abundance.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, 24 we read Do not quench the spirit.  Do not despise the words of the prophets…. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this. As I hope you’ve already picked up, but now I’m going to say it blatantly, the work of the Spirit is to make us more like Jesus.  Jesus was the one who was most guided by the Spirit, so if we are guided by the Spirit and attentive to God’s “WILF” and “WALT” then we’ll be more like him.  Through all Jewish history the prophets were the custodians of the nation’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the people lead the nation away from these great thoughts, the work of the prophet was to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  As Christians we don’t have a nation in the way that the Jews do, we have a Kingdom which is made evident in the work of the Church.  The Spirit moves on some people to speak out, and the Spirit moves on all people to respond, to draw the Church back to the hopes, desires, and dreams of God and the Christians who have gone before us.

Turning briefly to the Christmas story I want to suggest that the evidence that Mary the Virgin and John the Baptiser were doing God’s work was that the Spirit was with them, even though the work they were doing was new.  In Christian tradition God had not spoken to the Israelites through a prophetic man for over four hundred years, until suddenly John appeared in the wilderness quoting Isaiah amongst the other prophets, yet denying the charge of being a new Elijah.  He didn’t fit the preconceived idea, and his style was four hundred years out of date, but the Spirit was all over him so whatever he was doing and saying it must have been God.  And think of Mary, God had never sent a messiah before, so Mary’s pregnancy was unique; it still is.  Yet hear her song of “tell out my soul” and look at the life of the boy-became-a-man born from her womb.  Do you see the Spirit of God upon her, upon Jesus, in this new thing?  Then it is God, and “WALT…do something new”.

How do we know that God is speaking through the voices of the people on the margins of our tradition, our society?  How do we know that this message is true if it comes without precedent?  We look for the Spirit.

Again, in Mary the Spirit was seen in her celebration and her song of worship and delight filled praise; so much so that her very presence caused the prophet John to leap in praise in utero.  In John the Spirit was seen in this leap, a second trimester foetus who prophesies to the coming Christ.

In John the Spirit was seen again in his proclamation of the message of God in accordance with the Jewish tradition.  The great test of any prophet is found not so much in what he says but in whether what he says will happen does happen.  That Jesus came and was seen to be all that John had foretold and more is evidence that John was a man sent by God.

I have no doubt that the Spirit is with this congregation, by which I mean the whole Yallourn Parish.  God is with and on and in each of you people here this morning, and those who are sometimes here but not today.  And with the mob at Morwell listening to Cathy Halliwell this morning.  And with Cathie.  I know these things because I have seen the Spirit at work amongst you in your care for each other and for the care-needing people of your towns.  I do not believe that we are in danger of losing the Spirit or of disappointing God, but I hasten to add that we can never take our ministry for granted.  We are engaging in a work which is a privilege, and if we lapse then that privilege will be taken from us and given to someone else.  Let’s not allow that.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, to do God’s good works.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.