Category Archives: Christmas

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

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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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Human as Jesus

Reading
Luke 2.41–52

 

…our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
 — Charles Wesley, ‘Let earth and heaven combine’

______________________

It’s quite normal these days for people not to believe in God. For example, I met a man at a party in Chile when we were visiting our daughter a few years ago. He asked me what I did, so I told him I was a pastor. He said, ‘So you believe in God? I am an atheist.’ I sized the situation up as quickly as I could and suggested we have a chat over a bottle of wine. (We were in Chile, after all!)

My new friend readily agreed. 

We had a good conversation (he spoke English quite well, which was good as my Spanish was pretty ordinary back then). 

Predictably, neither of us convinced the other. But honestly, I wasn’t trying to convince him; I was just trying to build bridges. And share a bottle of good Chilean wine.

He was surprised that I thought that God could save people who weren’t Christians. That God could save even atheists. He asked me if I taught that, and I said that I did.

Whatever teaching he had received about God, it seems that it was of a God who is remote and implacable. A God who sees your sins and takes note of each and every one. A God who balances the books at the end of your life by throwing you into hell.

He had rejected that God. I told him that I have too. In fact, I also didn’t believe in the God that he didn’t believe in. I joined him in his unbelief in that God.

The God I do believe in is not remote; I believe in Immanuel, God with us. I believe in the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. A God who took risks to win our hearts. 

A human God, who needs his mother Mary to feed him with her milk and to change his nappy. A human God who passed through the vulnerable years of childhood, and who was once twelve. 

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The Third with them

Readings
Micah 5.2–5a
Luke 1.39–55

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Advent sermon, http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/

Jesus was born to be a marginal person. He was conceived by Mary when she was unwed .… Thus, while the birth of Jesus to Mary was divinely justified, it was nevertheless socially condemned. Jesus, as well as his parents, was marginalised from the time of his conception. — Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 79

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This is one of the very few passages of scripture in which only women appear. It may be the only one in the New Testament; the only other one in all scripture that I can think of is the story of Ruth, where Ruth, her mother-in-law Naomi and sister-in-law Orpah are heading out of Moab towards Bethlehem. Orpah, of course, returns to Moab but Ruth goes on with Naomi.

But today, we have Elizabeth and Mary. As I said, alone. No man in sight. And really, men are given scarce credit for this scenario. 

You know, if Luke chapter 1 were a film, Mary would be the star and Elizabeth her co-star. Her husband Zechariah would be a supporting actor and poor Joseph would be an extra. With his name in very small print.

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Christmas is the beginning…

Readings
Galatians 4.4–7
Luke 2.22–40

 

Simeon’s Passion prophecy becomes quite specific…the contradiction against the Son is also directed against the mother and it cuts her to the heart. For her, the Cross of radical contradiction becomes the sword that pierces her soul. From Mary we can learn that what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one’s own. — Pope Benedict XVI

In 2015, my wife Karen and I went to Chile to visit our daughter E1 and her partner, P. They live in a little town about an hour’s drive out of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

After we booked our flights, E1 announced that she was pregnant. She’d be about halfway through her pregnancy by the time we arrived. So that added an extra dimension to our journey.

A few days after we arrived, we went into Santiago to meet P’s family. P stopped the car on a side street, a mixture of houses and small office buildings. E1 told us that they had some business there and invited us to come up to the first-floor office they were going to.

It didn’t take us long to realise that we were in a radiologist’s place, and that E1 was having an ultrasound. Fair enough, I thought—she’s killing two birds with one stone, fitting the family get-together and the ultrasound into the same visit. We’d wait.

When it came time for E1 to go in, she waved us to come in too. It was a total surprise. When we saw this little human inside our daughter, K and I just fell in love with her. Oh yes, and we learnt that day that E1 was having a girl. Her name would be E2.

That was over two years ago now, and now E2 is our Chilean–Australian granddaughter. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is growing up bilingual. She is learning Spanish and English words for things. In time, her brain will sort it all out and she’ll be fluent in both languages.

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Jesus was a refugee (1 January, 2017; Christmas 1A)

Readings
Hebrews 2.10–18
Matthew 2.13–23

65.3 million.

That’s the number of people who were forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict in 2015.

21.3 million.

That’s the number of refugees there were in 2015.

10 million.

Is the number of stateless people in 2015, people without access to healthcare, education, employment, and with no freedom of movement.

These are 2015 numbers; I suppose we don’t have accurate numbers for 2016 yet. They’re awfully big numbers to grasp. They boggle my imagination, and they may boggle yours too. Let’s try a smaller number.

3.

We can do three.

That’s the number of refugees in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees.

They’d barely be reported on today, of course. Just another Middle-Eastern family caught in the tsunami waves of lost souls, thrown up by dictator upon brutal dictator. We’d blink and they’d be gone.

It wasn’t reported on then, either. There is no mention of the Slaughter of the Innocents outside of Matthew’s Gospel. Bethlehem has only been really well known since Jesus was born there. There are around 25000 people there now, but there were less than a thousand in the time of Jesus. ‘Royal David’s city’ was just a village then.

People did remember that great king David was born there, but you can only trade on your past glories for so long. David had been dead for a thousand years. The royal line was gone, crumbled into dust. It was supposed to last for ever. Where were David’s descendants now? Any that were still around were nobodies, like Joseph.

The dream of David’s line was dead among most people. There were those who kept fanning the flames of hope for a Messiah, but most had moved on.

And now we have three refugees. Joseph was descended from David. So what? The royal blood in his veins didn’t prevent him from being on the move, looking for a safe haven for his family.

He found it in the land of Israel’s ancient enemy. Egypt.

There are two ways we can go from here to really appreciate this story. Let’s briefly do both.

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Be relevant to Christmas (25 December, 2016)

Reading
Luke 2.1–20

Recently, someone said we should make Christmas relevant to us. Actually, someone says that kind of thing every single year.

I think ’relevance’ is about having upbeat carols or an updated Nativity story, Jesus being born in a backpackers hostel or a social security office, that kind of thing. It has its place, but if we want to ‘make Christmas relevant’, we must do something else first..

We first must do the opposite and do it thoroughly. We need to make ourselves relevant to Christmas. I want us to look at our being relevant to Christmas today.

There are around 25000 people living in Bethlehem today, but at the time of Jesus’ birth there were less than 1000. It was just a village.

Yet most of those people missed what was going on. Only a few noticed that something was afoot. What was it about them?

Mary is at the centre here. When she was invited to cooperate with God’s purposes, she said

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

In other words, Mary said Yes! Her eyes were open; she knew that her Child would turn the world—and her own life—upside down.

And there’s Joseph. Unlike a lot of movies, the guy is not the main character here. We don’t know much about him. Joseph plays second fiddle. What a good man he must have been! How Jesus must have looked up to him.

And the shepherds. How many groups of shepherds may there have been out there that night? These shepherds’ eyes were open, open enough to see angels bringing good news. These shepherds were willing to get involved. They went in search of the child. And they found him.

We need to make ourselves relevant to Christmas, rather than try to make Christmas relevant to us.

I found some help from a bloke called Isaac. St Isaac the Syrian to be exact. St Isaac lived in the 7th century, about 1400 years ago. Listen to how he says we should live in the light of Christmas:

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One –
Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One –
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy –
Let us not [take] revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will –
Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace –
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Are we relevant to Christmas? Are our eyes and hearts and ears open to what God is doing? Are we living in response to the grace and favour that God has poured out upon us?

Don’t worry about Christmas, it’s plenty relevant. But as we gather today around the Christmas table, we would do well to open ourselves to God. Then, we may become relevant to Christmas.

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