Monthly Archives: December 2019

Weeping with Rachel

Reading
Matthew 2.13–23

 

Jesus has come to save God’s people, but if this passage is to be taken seriously, that salvation will occur in the midst of the struggle between good and evil in the world, not in the creation of a utopia that does not match our experience of reality. — O Wesley Allen, Matthew (Fortress Commentary)

Hope takes root as the ability to express compassion for others develops. It blossoms when people grow in their capacity to take concrete steps to make things different. And where real hope lives, there is also a constant invitation to broader and deeper meaning. As we learn to talk about our own suffering and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater suffering of others. Because hope emerges from processing grief and suffering in community, it draws its practitioners to consider matters from a much wider field of vision. As we grow in our ability to imagine a different world, hope emerges among us. It all begins by talking about it. — Daniel Schultz, ‘Living by the Word’, Christian Century, 18 December 2019

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We know how Matthew’s Christmas story continues, once Jesus is born: in time the magi come, wise ones from the east. They come to honour the new king whose birth was foretold by a new star. 

These magi may be wise in the ways of stars and other heavenly bodies, but politically they are naive. They assume the new king is in the palace of Herod. Ok, fair enough; but they don’t see that Herod is playing them, trying to find out where this new king is so that he can kill him. 

The magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod on the way home, and so we come to today’s story: the horrific slaughter of all children two years old or less in Bethlehem. 

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember we spoke of Matthew’s theme. Let me repeat what I said then: 

Jesus had fulfilled the story of the Old Testament. Jesus was the promised Messiah, greater than Moses or Elijah, he was the son of David who is greater yet than David. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel, in fact he fills it to overflowing. Matthew’s aim wasn’t to inform his readers about history; his aim was to convince us.

Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. So, Jesus fulfils Isaiah 60, which in part says:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.…

They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.   Isaiah 60.3, 6b

Matthew ransacked our Old Testament to find ways to show how Jesus fulfils the scriptures. So it is to the light of Jesus the nations come to; they bring him gold and frankincense. 

Matthew adds something to the mix: myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used in burials, and it foreshadows the death Jesus would die. 

And there’s death aplenty in the story now. When he has told the tragic story of Bethlehem’s tiny children, Matthew tells us:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah [31.15]:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’

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Emmanuel, God with us

Screen Shot 2019-12-22 at 2.46.44 pm

Readings
Isaiah 7.10–16
Matthew 1.18–25

Word of Love,
  enter our hearts
  as you entered the virgin’s womb.
  Come, Lord Jesus!

Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th St

———————

I’ve been trying to preach from Isaiah during Advent, and I’m going to at least start in Isaiah today. We’ve come to a well-known verse: it’s Isaiah 7.14.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

What’s does that mean? What was Isaiah talking about? Let’s see, shall we? Isaiah was addressing Ahaz, the king of Judah. Ahaz was facing a difficult situation.  

Back then, about 800 BC, the country we know as Israel was divided in two. The northern part was called Israel; the southern part was Judah. Judah was under military threat from Israel and also from Syria, which is where Syria is today. Israel and Syria wanted a three-nation alliance to fight off an invasion from an invasion from Assyria, which is where Iraq is now. 

The city of Jerusalem was in Judah, and that’s where Isaiah and Ahaz were. Isaiah’s prophetic word was for King Ahaz to trust God, rather than form any kind of military alliance. 

That’s enough history. Ahaz was in a pickle, Isaiah was counselling him to trust in God. And Isaiah says, 

Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

It can be anything in all creation! Ask away, Ahaz! 

But Ahaz replies, 

I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 

What an interesting answer! It’s pious (‘I will not put the Lord to the test’). It also neatly avoids having anything to do with God.

Ahaz must have been to diplomacy school. 

Isaiah isn’t satisfied though. So, he says,

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.  

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Strengthen the weak hands…

Reading
Isaiah 35.1–10

 

To spend time in Advent in the company of the prophets is to open ourselves up to the great and costly truth that the world is God’s and can be lived in peaceably and joyfully only by people who know who they are and whose they are. In that sense, we are all called to be prophets, in that we point to the bigger narrative of which we are a part; we point towards the action of God in Jesus Christ, and prepare ourselves to live in the world that God has made. — Jane Williams, The Art of Advent, Day 8

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In some Advent traditions, today is Gaudete Sunday, Joyful Sunday. It comes from an old tradition of Advent as a time of repentance leading up to the celebration of Christmas. At one time, Advent was a time to think on the ‘Four Last Things’: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. For some, Advent is still a time of fasting, like Lent. 

So the Third Sunday of Advent became a little break from the focus on the Four Last Things, a time to focus on joy. One sign of that can be a pink candle, though ours is still purple. (One thing I’ve decided: God is less concerned with the colours we use that almost anything else. The colours are for our benefit, not for God’s.) 

Giving you this potted history helps to understand why the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent direct us to joy. Isaiah 35 begins,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

I wish that were the case right now in Australia. Instead, the land burns and is laid waste, and the powers that be do anything except address the issue. Perhaps true joy, deep joy, comes once hardship is faced and lives changed so that we can feel a worthwhile, lasting joy—along with peace and hope and love, the Advent themes that we are more familiar with. 

Perhaps there’s no joy until we face the pain of our land, which goes beyond those unprecedented fires. This pain includes the frontier wars that decimated the first peoples, who today are still not recognised as they should be. This pain is a result of greed, which means that water is not allocated properly. 

Pain runs deep in our country, and it will not be patched over. Until the roots of its pain are addressed, we shall not know true joy. 

Advent is about looking for Jesus as he comes to us; does he come to us in painful times? Is he ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ through those times? 

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Swords into ploughshares

Readings
Isaiah 2.1–5
Matthew 24.36–44

 

Our nature is goodness. Yes, we do much that is bad, but our essential nature is good. If it were not, then we would not be shocked and dismayed when we harm one another. When someone does something ghastly, it makes the news because it is the exception to the rule. We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable. Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world. — Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving

———————-

Isaiah the prophet wrote this: 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2.4

Well, Isaiah, someone might say—if you’re going to dream, dream big. 

Let’s look at this verse a bit more. It doesn’t only tell us about whatever dreams Isaiah may have had: it tells us of God. 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples…

Nations have gone to war with other nations for centuries. Often—far too often—they claim that God is on their side. They pray for God to make them victorious, and to grind their enemies into the dust. 

Yet in Isaiah’s vision, when God judges between the nations, it is for peace. Not for victory for some or defeat for others. God is the God of peace. When God arbitrates, when God is the umpire, God decides for peace. No one wins, no one loses. Instead,

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks…

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