Messages of Hope

Month: December 2015

Hot Cross Buns at Christmas!?

Published / by Andrew

Remember that in the Christmas story, Luke is “writing theology in narrative form…” (Bill Loader)

Gospel: Luke 2:1-21 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

On Saturday December 19, as I was buying mince pies at Baker’s Delight, the woman next to me asked if they had any hot cross buns. “Not until after Christmas!” said the baker’s daughter. I’m glad someone is keeping to the old standards.

It’s another Christmas without my Dad. Mum is living in a nursing home. The younger child lives in his own place now, so I can’t even outsource the family Christmas letter to him, which is what a colleague has done for his family letter this year. On the other hand, he is taking over his Aunt’s tradition of the Christmas trifle!

Church has been its usual mixture of inspiration and ordered chaos. We had to use a fire extinguisher to put out the barbecue at Carols on the Court last night. At least it was a bearable night, almost cool after four days above 40 degrees centigrade. At morning service, here at Pilgrim, the ceiling fans in the church hall kept blowing out the tapers as we tried to light the Advent candles; the church was still too warm for comfort. The liturgist left her glasses home, and I was so tired I forgot the closing hymn, and began the Benediction straight after Communion.

Like everyone else, I bring a mixture of pain and frustration, and hilarity and hope home for Christmas.

I was tidying up some coding on my web site during the week, whilst wondering how to preach into a season which holds so much hope and hurt together, when I found a note attached to an old Christmas sermon: “the only sermon where I have been a) heckled, b) had people walk out and, c) been physically intimidated after church!” I dared to bring politics into a sermon near Christmas by suggesting that Jesus was a refugee, and that we would have locked him up in a detention centre— it was true fifteen years ago and, to our shame, is still true.

That sermon, and the response, clarifies some of my ambivalence about Christmas. Christmasshould be about family. Jesus is born in the midst of family. The story is almost certainly more correctly translated not as “there was no room in the inn,” but as “the guest room was already full.” (See below)  Mary and Joseph were having to share that part of the family compound where the animals spend the night when the gates are shut— a bit like how the cousins may have to camp on the veranda at Christmas time.

So the son of God is born into family in the ancestral home. God made flesh is truly one of us; he is part of a family. He comes into a family riding out the demands of empire for higher taxation, and living with all the other stresses of life. Even here, new life begins and, even in poverty, childbirth carries a hope for a future.

But Christmas, as Luke tells it, looks far beyond family. It looks outward. Yes, with its commercialism the retail industry has hijacked Christmas, but a family centred Christmas can be a hijacking of its own, which is too inward looking. Perhaps we could say that Christmas is part of God’s promise for the freeing of family to be what it should be, rather than being a yearly denial of, and a defence from, the injustice of the world; much less an endurance test in tolerating the family outliers, or testing the resilience of our credit cards.

Luke begins the story by naming the Roman Emperor Augustus who “was hailed as son of God, as bringer of peace, as saviour, as a good news person.” (Bill Loader) And Luke then says, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”(Luke 2:10-11)  Not only does he hijack the titles of Emperor Augustus’, but he ramps up the political implications of the story with his repetitive mention of David and his birthplace. David was the great King of Israel and a symbol of Jewish nationalist hopes. Luke deliberately mentions “the child” five times, and says he is a sign from God. The Romans may not have noticed this, but Jewish people would.

13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:13-16)

In short, Jesus is Saviour and Lord, not Caesar. Caesar is just another king.

The gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple:

Luke’s story starts, not in Caesar’s palace screaming with military trumpets, but in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies, that quiet, dark, Jewish place at the symbolic center of the Jerusalem Temple (and thus the center of the entire universe). It starts, not with the Governor of Syria, but with an old priest who is married to an old woman of the priestly tribe of Aaron, an old priest who encounters an angel while carrying out his part in bringing the world into balance by performing Temple service. From the start of Luke’s story, one thing is clear: it may be a Roman world, but it is a Jewish universe, no matter what Caesar Augustus thinks.  (Richard Swanson)

Jesus is Saviour and Lord because he is part of the establishment of that Jewish universe, and of that bringing the world into balance, as an actuality for all people, not just the Roman elite, or the Jewish nation. Luke takes good care in The Acts of the Apostles to show the gospel transcending all social and national boundaries.  We see the beginnings of this transcendence as the birth of Jesus is announced, first of all, to the socially outcast: to the shepherds.

Marc Kolden’s article The Birth of Jesus never saved anyone, summarises the place of Christmas in all this.

The New Testament does not think salvation or the new birth occurs through Jesus’ actual historical birth or through any sort of birth of Christ in us. The birth of Jesus as such is not redemptive. Redemption for the New Testament writers as well as for the early church involved principally Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our rebirth is not a participation in Christ’s birth but in his death and resurrection. [And for]… the evangelist Luke, the salvific focus is not only not on Jesus’ birth, but it is not even primarily on Jesus’ death and resurrection. … the Advent texts are not primarily pointing believers to Christmas. [The ultimate focus is upon] … the biblical hope for the coming of the kingdom of God, the destruction of the powers of sin, death, and evil, and the future manifestation of God to all flesh… [which is] God’s final fulfillment.

Christmas which looks only inward and flees the world, and primarily becomes a focus on the family, is an orphaned and malnourished celebration. The family which looks outward, and lives to co-create the kingdom of God, celebrates the hope of God’s final fulfilment at Christmas, and in the awkward giving of socks and dealing with difficult in-laws, may yet find something new is born.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Richard Swanson says, “… although the NRSV translates the place where there was no room (kataluma) as “inn” in 2:7, we should read the word differently. In Luke 22:11 the NRSV translates the same word as the “guest room” where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. We should read both of these rooms as guest rooms…” (Richard Swanson.  cf John Petty’s translation of the text.)

Impossible stories and white wine in the sun…

Published / by Andrew

Next week, on Christmas Day, we can tell sweet stories of babies in a manger with the animals gathered around, and go home to wade into tinsel and presents for the children. With any luck we are blessed with a family like Tim Minchin and his baby daughter, and will be “drinking white wine in the sun.”

Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
Whenever you come
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We’ll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes…

But this week’s reading is an impossible story. We are told the birth of this child will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. Indeed the text implies this has, in some sense, already happened! A moment’s clear thinking dismisses that idea as a fantasy.

Especially since the sign of this vision— let’s grant that it is a poetry speaking of what could be— the sign of this vision is an impossible birth. We know the vision is trustworthy and of God, according to the author, because the man whose life will bring the vision to be was born to a virgin mother.

We know that virgin births do not happen. Two parents are a biological necessity for Homo sapiens. We also know that having the gods involved in a human birth is a widespread motif in ancient literature; it didn’t ever happen, it’s just a way of saying the person is special in some way. So let’s drop the superstition, and go back to white wine in the sun, while it is still cold, and enjoy the love of family or whoever is dear to us while we may. Next week after the Boxing Day test, we can go back to the grind and make the best of the reality in which we find ourselves.

Soldiering on like this does not work for me. This is not because I can’t face the reality; it’s because the “soldier on and make the best of it” approach to life sells us so short. The deep love of which Tim Minchin sings cries out to me of a depth of being which can do better than soldiering on, and can rise above realpolitik. He and I recognise something transcendent with in us. We are beings whose fulfilment will only come in a world where the powerful have been brought down from their thrones, and the lowly have been lifted up, and where the hungry are filled with good things, as the old song we call Magnificat promises.  (Luke 1:51-53) The radically just world of this poetry is the future his daughter, and mine, deserve. It is who we could be.

When we plumb the depths of our love, and when we have a sense of the transcendence which means we are more than mere animals or “meat machines,” then stories of human births with the gods involved make more sense. They speak of the experience of something transcendent coming to birth in us. They are a poetry struggling to comprehend, at the same time as they celebrate it, the wonder of our consciousness and our love. They sing our amazement that we are more than selfish genes in a power struggle to reproduce.

But why does the church hold on to all the archaic language and poetry? Wouldn’t it be better to update things, and stop talking about the virgin birth? Wouldn’t that be simpler? Let’s take in on the chin: sometimes “the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy.” Any church that cannot “translate” the words of the hymns into current and coherent jargon and make sense of them, really does have dodgy lyrics, as Minchin says. Some of yesterday’s lyrics belong there, and we ought to have grown beyond them.

But some of the other lyrics remain necessary. The language of virgin birth, and the impossible poetry of the Magnificat, are beacons to bring us home for Christmas. They call us to aim high in our humanity, to remember always the transcendence which we sense within ourselves. They steer us away from naïve hopes of quick political reforms, or from being cheaply satisfied with poor compromise. They are, in a sense, designed to make sure we fail when we seek to live by them! They prevent our love becoming complacent. They are vision, always saying to us that we can be more than what we have been.

Andrew Prior

The spirit of the ethical cosmos

Published / by Andrew

One way to talk about God is to say that “we are contained in an ethical cosmos. Choices have consequences.” The cosmos is not a machine for us to manipulate; we are a part of it, inside it, and subject to it. If we deny the parameters of our reality, it will cost us.

Christianity understands that the parameters of our human reality include justice. At its best, justice reflects the words of Jesus that we love our neighbours as ourselves. Other great prophets also proclaim that insight. To love my neighbour as myself is to confess that I have no right to material riches which are not also accessible to you. If you are poor, it is my duty to help you. As John the Baptist says in this week’s reading, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (see Luke 3:7-18)

This helping the poor is not occasional charity. Nor is it trickle down assistance. It means to actively assist you to live in the same material well-being and security in which I live, and to change societal structures to enable that. Neighbour (in the New Testament) means all people, not just Australians. So if the planet cannot bear all people living with my level of material well-being and security, then it is my god given calling to live with less. This cosmic parameter of justice is an underlying issue of the Paris Climate talks. It demands fundamental changes in the way the species lives and conceives of justice. It is why Marilynne Robinson can say about our choices that they

are not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, choices we make as individuals, though in the degree that we are all open to the suasions of fear and hatred, or of greed and oppression, we are guilty of the evils that follow from them. Then the recoil of divine justice is the effect of the very contempt for divine justice that implicates humankind in its own suffering.

Along with the call for repentance in the reading this week, we hear John the Baptist promising, perhaps even warning, that Jesus will baptise people not with water, but with holy spirit and fire. This baptism is intimately connected with John’s baptism, but almost incomprehensible for us westerners, who have forgotten what spirit is.

The Holy Spirit signifies the live reality of God which is beyond our definition; that wind (wind and spirit are the same word in the Greek text of the New Testament) which “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3) But we westerners are spiritually illiterate. All cultures recognise the ineffable aspects of Spirit, into which we materially grounded humans can enter only a little. But we, almost alone, have built our culture upon an increasing denial of spiritual reality over the past several hundred years. It has worked to the extent that our narrowing of the parameters of what we call “real” to the realm of the gross physical has born much material fruit. We have become brilliant engineers. We have sold ourselves to a narrative that promises fulfilment through material consumption. And we have become enslaved to it.

We have also realised it does not work. Not only are we destroying the planetary ecosystems. We are beset by deep longings for spiritual significance, emptiness which often makes us ill, and which all the material goods in the world seem unable to heal. Like Thoreau’s “mass of men” we “live lives of quiet desperation,” and “unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” (Walden Chapter 1) We have begun to understand the injustices of his gendered language, but the desperation is unchanged, and even deeper.

We live with two seeming impossibilities:
that we can give up significant material and political privilege so that all may live— those who think this is easy betray how little they have tried it, and how little they understand the embedded injustice of international systems,
and that we might meaningfully engage with the spiritual reality for which we long, but which our culture denies, and sometimes even derides with the claim that we are only meat machines.

Christianity understands that John’s baptism of repentance— the imperative of justice— is a gateway to rediscovering Jesus’ baptism of spirit. Repentance of our material and political privilege allows us to discern again the underlying spiritual reality of the world. That is; material and political privilege always tends to blind us to spiritual reality. It replaces God. It becomes an idol. Indeed, as we say in the church newsletter this week, “The root of our spiritual illiteracy is a deep desire to control and secure the world for ourselves, without reliance upon God.” The newsletter continues

When we give away what we have, so that we only have God, we are threatened with the loss of that security and independence which we have created.  Radical justice and compassion make us vulnerable, because in such a life, all we have is God. And are finally able to learn to listen.

There is something here far beyond a kind of mechanical karma where living badly leads to bad results, and living well rewards us. We use the word grace.

Even a small repentance graces us with an unwarranted return in our re-discernment of spirit. Insignificant generosities, compared to the huge injustices of the world, begin to gift us with new understanding and fulfilment in life which is quite out of proportion with our giving. The question is whether we will be satisfied with this experience, or whether we will seek out being baptised by it.

Baptism signifies being renewed. It has the connotation of being immersed, plunged deep below the surface. It is not satisfied with small changes but seeks total renewal. I wrote above of John warning of Jesus’ baptism. This is how Baptist minister Nathan Nettleton paraphrases John’s words:

When he gets started, it won’t be just water that he’ll be immersing you in. He’ll baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire … He’ll release an uncontrollable fire into the dry bushland of your lives, completely incinerating the rubbish and germinating the good seeds that lie in wait for that day.” (Luke 3:15-17 paraphrased by Rev. Nathan Nettleton)

We long for spiritual reality, something that moves and convinces us, and fills the emptiness. It only comes as a kind of wildfire. We never own it. It works on us. Do we want to meet spirit, or would we rather the faux spirituality of the gym and the day-spa and self-help books? Or good wine and fine cooking with excellent music? Taking John and Jesus seriously takes us far beyond these, and we do not decide the direction of the taking.

Andrew Prior

Religious but not political?

Published / by Andrew

In the second term of Barak Obama, when Putin was in power, and Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada, and Turnbull became Prime Minister of Australia, while Weatherill worked quietly in Adelaide, 2during the time Francis was Pope, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah deep in the Flinders. 3He walked the beaches, and the lawns of Elder Park, proclaiming a message of reawakening, seeking to reclaim and revive the soul of the nation,
and to learn again the great ideals of our beginnings.4

‘He was a voice crying out in the wilderness—
a fulfilment of ancient prophecies of a return from exile:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ‘

There was no division of religion and politics at the time of the Gospel text Christians read this week. The great political players and the priests in whose places I have inserted names from today, understood that Luke was setting the authority of God far above their own. The emperors of Rome claimed the name Lord for themselves; Luke contradicted them. Luke was preaching an overthrow of the political system. The dictators who have jailed the religious in our own time have understood this. Francis’ name is placed at a point of ambiguity— was he part of the political-religious status quo, or might the word of God still come to him? (Luke will make it clear, later in the gospel, that the high priests were Roman collaborators.)

To say that religion should have no place in politics is to say that religion is wrong about the nature of God. It is to say that God does not care about politics— the ordering of human society— and what it does to people. Or even to say that God does not exist anyway, so why should God be involved in politics. Christianity, contra such statements, considers the idea that God is not concerned with the ordering of the world to be a heresy.

Of course, most politicians would not say any of this— not publicly, anyway. They want to maximise their vote. So they step around religion, even publicly affirming it if it suits the audience of the day, but seek to disarm it by redefining it as “spiritual.” It does not work like that. The Christians who vote enthusiastically for such politicians are simply not being true to their own religion.

The reading for this week is Luke 3:1-6, taken from the larger story of Luke 3:1-20. You can read more on this text at Andrew’s site here, or other commentary at The Text This Week. Scroll down to the heading “Lectionary Reflections, Discussions & Weblogs.”

Andrew is hosting three studies around the Advent gospel readings during December. We will explore what it means to read the Bible as a “mixed medium of parable and history,” and ask how we can get beyond a dry right/wrong reading of the texts and let them question us. Any other questions are acceptable, too! The location will be here at Pilgrim. Dates and times are Tuesday 8 December, 12-2pm (Bring your lunchbox!) and Tuesday 15 and 22 December, 2-4pm. The sessions will be relaxed enough that only being able to get to one or two of them should still be useful.