Monthly Archives: December 2013

What do you let yourself see? (Christmas 1A, 29 December 2013)

Readings
Hebrews 2.10–18
Matthew 2.13–23

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Traditional societies are usually ordered with some kind of clan chief, or lord, or king at the apex of things. You might imagine all the king has to do is raise an eyebrow or snap his fingers, and slaves would feed him cherries and fill up his wine glass.

But you know, the king was often in a very insecure position. Frequently, there were others who thought they could do a better job. Since there were no elections, and a king had to die to be replaced, it wasn’t unusual for there to be plotting and scheming behind the scenes. A lot of plotting and scheming! (Sounds like the Australian political scene…)

King Herod the Great wasn’t in a safe position. He wasn’t popular, not by a long shot. He’d been given the throne by the Romans, not the Jews, and he’d had to fight for it. He had half a dozen fortresses in which to hide away if he need to; three were in Jerusalem, Caesarea and Masada, all places some of us went to earlier in the year. He killed anyone he suspected of plotting against him, including his wife Mariamne and a son. When he knew he was about to die, he ordered that political prisoners should be executed so that there would be grief and mourning once he was dead.

This is the political background of the first Christmas. It is central to Matthew’s version of the story of the Nativity, which is really quite different from Luke’s; only Matthew talks about the wise men, Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the Innocents, and the Holy Family going down to Egypt. Matthew is doing this to tell us something very important in his story: firstly, that Jesus is greater than Moses; and secondly, that he is the Son of God, the true fulfilment of everything an Israelite was meant to be.

Let’s look at that in more detail another time. For today, I just want to point out that in Matthew’s story Jesus is a refugee, an asylum seeker, an illegal immigrant. His family had to escape persecution, and they found a refuge in Egypt of all places.  Continue reading

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Silent night? Noisy night? (Christmas Eve 2013)

Readings
Isaiah 9.2–7
Luke 2.1–20

We saw a video at the start of tonight’s service called ‘Noisy night’. We’ve just seen a video called ‘Silent night’. (Both are from proost.co.uk). 

Well, you might say, make up your mind, Paul! Was it a silent night or a noisy night?

Well, which was it?

We want it to have been a silent night, with beautiful Mary gazing down at her child and the stars twinkling from the heavens. We want it to have been a magical night, full of people with shiny halos and angels and shiny-faced shepherds. We want it to be literally true that ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’.

And then a voice inside us says Don’t be daft, why on earth should it have been a silent night?

Why indeed? What would people have seen? A weary couple, travelling when the young mum was heavily pregnant? No wonder she had the baby right there and then!

What would people have seen? Scruffy shepherds? When shepherds came into town, you kept a fight hold of your wallet. You couldn’t trust them.

What, these shepherds said they’d seen angels? More likely they’d been on the turps.

That night, the ordinary person saw very little to tell them God was at work in any special way.

It was an ordinary night, with ordinary sounds, including the sounds of a baby’s cry. (But perhaps it did have some extraordinary smells coming from the shepherds.)

Yet some people were aware that great things were happening. Mary and Joseph had received this child from God. The shepherds couldn’t get the angelic vision out of their minds.

To most people, that was an ordinary night—but it was a night in which God was speaking.

And when God speaks, you can feel the silence.

Is tonight a silent night or a noisy night? An ordinary night or a special night?

Tonight is an ordinary night, it’s a Tuesday, yesterday was a Monday. But for those with ears to hear the silence through
the noise of commercial pressures to spend,
anxieties about Christmas lunch,
or about will-he/won’t-she-like-my-present

for those with ears to hear the silence—however fleetingly, through the noise—the silence carries the voice of God.

What can we do? Let’s sing Silent Night. And let’s listen.

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Conceiving dreams (Advent 4A, 22 December 2013)

Readings
Isaiah 7.10–16
Matthew 1.18–25

When we read Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, it’s really very different from the only other story we have, the one in the Gospel According to Luke. Normally we happily mash them up, with Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s wise men jockeying for position around the manger.

But it’s important to read Matthew and Luke separately, so we can see what they’re trying to tell us. We need to hear what they are saying that no one else is.

Well, it’s Matthew’s turn today. His Joseph and Mary are ordinary people who already live in Bethlehem, by then a small place but one with a great history.

But extraordinary things happen to them. They are swept up into the purposes of God, and their lives are forever changed.

In Luke, Mary is the central character; but here in Matthew, it’s Joseph. God gets through to Joseph in his dreams.

They say we all dream at night, but I hardly ever remember my dreams. Sometimes I come out of sleep with a dream in my mind but it evaporates away as I wake up.

But all the same, I have been helped enormously through my dreams. How do I know that?

I know it because I often go to bed with a concern or a problem on my mind, and I wake up with the problem solved. Or I realise it doesn’t matter. Either way, my mind has worked on things while I’ve been unaware of it. I suppose it’s what people mean when they say ‘Sleep on it’.

Dreams come from the deeper parts of us, the parts we’re not normally aware of. Even our true dreams for the future, our dreams for a better future, come from deep within.

Joseph identified where his dreams came from—from God, who was within the very heart of his being.

Dreams were very important to Matthew. And I want to venture a guess that L’s dreams are very important to her too. Dreams of serving God in Asia, dreams of connecting with people whose life experiences are very different to hers, dreams of being the presence of Jesus himself where he may not be known.

It’s important to test our dreams, to discern if they are from God or not. If our dreams are from God, we need to follow them.

L, we are excited to be here as you are commissioned for work with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. But there’s one more thing for us to glean from Matthew today.

Joseph dreamt, Mary conceived. This is how the Spirit works today: those who dream God’s dreams also conceive. They conceive just what Mary did!—they conceive Jesus within them. Lisa, your dream has allowed Jesus to grow within your being. He is taking shape within you, as he takes shape within everyone who dreams the dreams God gives. And that’s the most exciting thing of all.

Friends, we’re just about at the end of Advent; the true goal of Advent is for Jesus to be conceived within us, for him to grow and take shape within us—and for each one of us to be shaped into his likeness.

It is good, very good, to bring Advent to its completion by commissioning L, by being reminded that God has dreams for us that will form Christ within us, now and into eternity. Amen.

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From doubting to waiting — Advent 3A (15 December 2013)

Readings
Isaiah 35.1–10
Matthew 11.2–1

 

Poor John the Baptist. He’s been on an amazing ride for a few years, baptising crowds of people by the Jordan River and witnessing a religious revival. It gave him the confidence to confront King Herod about his adultery—and got him thrown into jail.

One of the highlights of John’s mission was seeing Jesus of Nazareth come into his own. It seemed that Jesus may be the one they had come to hope for, the deliverer, the Messiah, the coming one. But now he was in jail.

There, he has time. Lots of time. Time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Time to wonder if he is on the right track or not.

It must be hard to stay confident when you’re imprisoned, your future uncertain, and there’s nothing much happening on the outside.

John wants to hear that things are happening on the outside. He has begun to doubt what he had proclaimed, which was:

the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Continue reading

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Repentance—a way of life (Advent 2A, 8 December 2013)

Readings
Isaiah 11.1–10
Matthew 3.1–12

 

 

Some of you—ok, maybe only one of you—may not have heard this story before.

Charlie V decided the church needed a new coat of paint, so being an expert with a big heart he decided do it for the cost of the paint. Charlie wanted to save money for the church, so he thinned the paint down. It started to rain when Charlie was halfway through, so he had to find some cover. After the rain stopped, he looked out. He was horrified to see the paint had run in a long series of soggy streaks. While he was still staring aghast at the wall, a voice rang out from heaven: ‘Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!’

And that’s almost what Matthew’s John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel Reading. He says

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

What do we do when we repent? Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: Repenting isn’t necessarily about guilt and being sorry. When we ‘repent’ we change our way of thinking, we turn around and walk in a new direction. That may mean turning from something that is wrong. But not always. When I’m shopping in Coles, I sometimes realised that I’ve turned into the wrong aisle. So I rethink what I’m doing, and I turn around. That’s repenting too. We all repent all the time.

And what is this kingdom of heaven? It’s what Jesus asks us to pray for:

Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.

Matthew has already give us a glimpse of it. Continue reading

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Amish Vampires in Space

I have been using this blog for sermons almost exclusively for some time, though I used to do more with it. I seem to have gravitated to Facebook. On fb, I posted a review of a very strange novel called Amish Vampires in Space. I didn’t know whether to read it at first; perhaps I was unwise, as it’s a few hours of my life spent to no useful purpose other than to be a warning to others. Here’s the review:

I’ve just finished reading Amish Vampires in Space on kindle. When I (so to speak) turned the last page, I saw the words ‘THERE’S MORE WHERE THIS CAME FROM’. I shall heed this warning.

The ‘more’ refers to the output of a publishing house specialising in Christian sci-fi and fantasy. Who knew? I have also learnt of a further genre: ‘Boots and Buggies’, Christian romance in an Amish setting. Again, who knew…

This novel (and it was novel to me!) is a mashup of all these, with some mild horror thrown in—though not enough to scare the horses, who became vampires too.

It seems to be reasonably accurate in its portrayal of Amish ways, one thing to be thankful for. Though I doubt real futuristic Amish would really get into spaceships flown by ‘Englishers’. Of course, being an example of American Christian fiction, there is a non-Amish ‘normal’ Christian character. ‘Normal’ in this context meaning a US-style evangelical. Of course.

The story behind the book is more interesting, involving a joke title that was taken on for real, but the sassiness of the title doesn’t follow through in the story. Neither does the promise of the cover, which looks like a demented Ellen Degeneres in Amish clothes, dripping with blood. A fascinating premise that sadly goes nowhere in particular.

But if characters having a conversation about grace vs works while running down the length of a spaceship which is infested with vampires interests you, then go ahead. Read. Or not.

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