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Tuesday 27 December 2011

Why do we need a Saviour?

Luke 2.8-20

In Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus, an Angel drops by the fields around Bethlehem with a rather startling news-break for the Shepherds who worked there.  “Do not be afraid,” says the Angel, “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 Christ, the Lord.”  Now, it’s a marvellous scene isn’t it, a scene recreated a thousand times over every Christmas.  Shepherds, angels, bright lights, heavenly choirs, wise men from the east . . .  hang on, there aren’t any wise men in Luke’s story! . . .  but anyway.  It is clear that most of us like the story.  We must do, because we keep telling it at a thousands “carols by candlelight” events all over the country.

What I reckon we’ve lost in all this retelling, however, is what the story actually means. What did Luke mean, for example, when he has the angel say:  “To you is born a Saviour”.  What’s a Saviour, and why would you want one?  A friend of mine at Uni asked a question exactly like that a few years ago.  We were having a discussion about why one might become a Christian, a follower of Christ.  I testified that for the writers of the New Testament, one became a Christian out of a deep-down conviction that life without Christ was no life at all, that it was, rather, a half-life in which one was afraid of everything and driven by that fear to a futile assertion of one’s own existence against the void of nothingness that we know, deep down, is wide open and beckoning beneath us all.  Turning to Christ, I said, is like turning to a life-saver when you are drowning:  Christ does for us, and in us, what we cannot do for ourselves: Live!  Live as God intended us to live: free of fear, free to breathe in God’s air and God’s love, free to give ourselves away.  “Right,” says my friend.  “But I’m quite happy as I am.  Why would I need a saviour?”

Now I reckon that’s a line you’ll get everywhere you turn today.  “A saviour is born.  So what?  Why would I need a Saviour?”  Many of us live in Saviour-free zones, these days, I think.  Especially if we are middle-class.  For middle-class people are raised by their apparently successful parents to believe that the successful life is the self-made life. “It’s up to you,” they tell us, “if you don’t make a go of life it will be nobody’s fault but your own.  So study hard, and work hard; save your cash and be careful with it and the good life will be yours.”  A few years ago another friend of mine, a psychologist, gave me a book with the curious title:  If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!  The book was a clear message from him to me, in the psycho-babble that characterizes our time:  “You don’t need a Saviour; saviours are bad; they encourage dependency.  It’s only when you kill off your personal saviours that you’ll finally give yourself a chance at the good life.”

Now, I reckon there’s a little bit of truth in that, but not a great deal of truth.  I don’t doubt that all of us responsible for our own lives.  That is a deeply Jewish and Christian notion.  Neither do I doubt that many of us avoid accepting such responsibility by shifting the blame for our misfortunes to others.  Again, in Jewish and Christian thought, such blame-shifting is seen as a very big problem.  But to then conclude that each of us, alone, are capable of both imagining the good life and then making it come to pass, is nothing less than sheer fantasy.  The paradox of the “Kill the Buddha” book, and all the other self-help therapies on the New-Age shelf at your local bookstore, is that the writer is himself posing as a Saviour, that is, as someone who can help his readers in a way that they, alone, and left to their own devices, cannot.

To my way of thinking, Jesus is a Saviour precisely because he provides us with the spiritual vision and strength do that which we cannot, I repeat, cannot do for ourselves.  Now the very person who, at Uni, told me that she didn’t need a Saviour was, I think, bound up in all kinds of chains.  She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see they were there.  But they were there nevertheless.  O yes, they were there.  There were the chains of the beauty-myth.  You know, “In order to exist, to be worthy to exist, I must look slim, trim and terrific.”  There were the chains of the nuclear-family myth:  “I must have a man and some kids in order to be worthwhile in life, to fight against the fear that I shall cease to be”.  And there were the chains of the status myth:  “I must have a big house and successful professional career in order to be really worthwhile, to register my value in the eyes of my friends.”  I could go on, but I won’t.

What I want to say is this: that Jesus is not only a Saviour, he is THE Saviour.  That is, he can do for us what nobody else, not even our therapist or the Buddha, is able to do:  to release us from the fear that lies beneath every other fear and every other anxiety that there is:  the fear of death.  You see Jesus arrived in a time and place that, in many ways, was plagued by the same fears and sins as our own.  People believed that they had been put on the earth to assure the future of their families.  They worked hard to leave their children in a better condition, money and status-wise, than their own parents had left them.  The fear that this might not be so drove them to compete with everyone else, with other families, for an ever-larger slice of the limited resources bequeathed in creation.  Underneath it all, of course, was the fear that we may cease to be.  People feared that if their families fell into poverty and ruin, they might well die out.  Not even the memory of a name would be left as a witness to having ever existed.  Such fears run deep in all of us, any anthropologist will tell you that.  They dominate our own lives as much as they dominated the lives of our ancient forebears.

What Jesus said to the people of his own time and place, and would also say to us today, is this:  that there is no need to fear death.  Death is not something that troubles God.  Trust in God and he will give you life even if you die.  Now listen carefully, lest you get the impression that Jesus was interested only in physical, biological death.  He was not, and I am not.  Jesus spoke, rather of the many deaths we must face as a part of life, the deaths which tell us, in fact, that life can never entirely be something of our own making or genius.  The slow dying of our young, fit bodies.  The diseases that limit what we can do to one degree or another.  The loss of a job.  The loss of a friend.  Disappointment in love or career.  The fact that our children may not care to do what we think they ought to do.  Not being able to have children.  Or whatever.  According to Jesus, all these things are a sign in the world that we are not the masters of our own destinies, that we cannot accomplish the good life out of our own resources, nor can we even imagine what it might be like.  Jesus saves us by helping us to see that life comes when we are able to both accept and embrace the fact of death.  We are not immortal souls, no matter what the many new age sages might say.  We are mortal.  We will die.

But the good news is this.  If we can die to our desire to make a way for ourselves in the world, if we can let go of our need to keep up appearances and wear the socially-determined badges of status and success, if we can trust not in these human artefacts of success and happiness  but in God, then God will grant us life, life in all its fullness.  Let me quote to you from a passage later in Luke, a passage which goes to the heart of how Jesus would save us:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (that is, their socially-constructed desires) and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For the one who wants to preserve his life will lose it, and the one who wants to lose his life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world but lose their very selves in the process?
Christ, you see, lived a life designed to please no-one else but God his Father.  He knew that God loved him, and that was enough.  Because of that single fact, he was then able to give away the mad rush to get ahead in the world.  The assurance of God’s love freed him.  Instead, Jesus spent his time and energy in works of prayer and compassion.  Freed from the concern to please everyone else, he was able to please his Father God, to live as though people mattered - not competing against them (as in a market economy), but giving himself to them, as a gift without need of return.  In the cross and the resurrection of Christ, we therefore see both the paradoxical logic and the message of his life writ large:  “It you will die with me, you will also live with me.  If you will let go, God will give you all things.”

At Christmastime the Christ is born to us, a Saviour.   Let me gently suggest that despite all appearances to the contrary, and despite the so-called wisdom of the self-help gurus, we might all need a Saviour after all!

Saturday 17 December 2011

The annunciation of the Lord

Texts:  Luke 1.26-38

Today we recall, with joy and thanksgiving, the announcement of our salvation to Mary through the Angel Gabriel.  The themes associated with the story of Mary and the Angel are exceptionally instructive for modern faith.  The story is rich, you see, with images of promise and perseverance in the midst of struggle and difficulty.  It encourages Christians to look for the birth of God’s salvation not in the past alone, but also within the disillusionment and uncertainty which characterizes so much of our present reality.  

According to Luke, the birth of Jesus was announced in the midst of exceptionally trying circumstances. Socially and politically, first century Palestine was a very miserable place.  There was a distinct pecking order that permeated the whole society, ranging from the Roman aristocracy, at the top, right through to landless women and children, at the bottom.  Your prospects for health, wealth and happiness were almost entirely determined by which rung of the social ladder you happened to occupy.  If you were born a Sadducee, that class of religious aristocrats who controlled Israel’s temple, you could count on a pretty cushy life.  But if you were born a landless peasant, there was very little chance of advancement.  Most likely you would die in your twenties of malnutrition and overwork.

The kind of social mobility we have become accustomed to in our society was almost impossible for a first-century Judaean or Galilean.  Quite apart from economic considerations, people were kept securely in their place by a complex system of social mores and religious rules.  Perhaps the most important reason why the poor could never ascend the social hierarchy was because the strategies by which they survived were labelled sinful by the temple aristocracy.  Labouring on the Sabbath, thieving, working in prostitution, begging – all these were necessary for landless peasants to put bread on the table.  But they were also the things which kept a very large part of the population from participating as equals in the religious life of Israel.  If you were poor, you had to break the Jewish law to survive: and the only law which counted was the version promulgated by the temple-based aristocracy.  So the boundary between God’s beloved and the god-forsaken was a very clear one in first-century Palestine.  God’s beloved were the one’s with a good social background.  The god-forsaken were those who struggled to survive!

As a consequence of these political realities, Mary’s own personal circumstances would have been less-than-marvellous also.  As a single Jewish girl of the merchant or lower classes, she would have been extremely vulnerable in this society. Vulnerable to grinding poverty, certainly, but vulnerable, also, to the well-documented sexual violence of the local military garrison, based at Sepphoris.  Historically speaking, it is possible that Mary’s community saw her pregnancy as the result of a violent rape by Roman soldiers. Unfortunately, in this society any such pregnancy would rebound not on the perpetrator but the victim.  A woman promised in marriage who became pregnant before that marriage would invariably be rejected by her betrothed.  At that time, women were more like property than people.  In marriage, the bride’s father payed another man, the prospective husband, to take over the ownership of his daughter.  Only undamaged, undefiled goods were fit for transfer.  Mary, as a pregnant woman, was damaged goods.  And her unborn child would have been regarded in similarly commercial terms.  Here was another mouth to feed.  Under Jewish law Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, would have been quite justified in refusing to go through with the marriage.  In that case, Mary would have become both an economic and religious refugee.  With no man to take care of her, she would have been forced into either begging or prostitution to survive. She was a religious failure already, pregnant to a man other than her promised husband.

Now here’s the real miracle in the Annunciation story, to my mind:  the intense presence and perseverance of Mary’s faith in God’s love throughout circumstances and events which can only be described as horrific.  On the face of things, Mary has every reason to doubt that God cared about either herself or her people.  An ordinary reading of things would have to conclude, would it not, that God had entirely and completely abandoned the situation?  Yet Mary had an extraordinary capacity, apparently, to detect and discern the presence and action of God where others would see only chaos.  And Luke has preserved that capacity for us in the wonderful exchange which opens with Mary’s question ‘But how can this be?’ and closes with the Angel’s promise that ‘nothing is impossible with God’.

In her prayerful consideration of the distressing circumstances in which she finds herself, Mary discerns that what men had purposed for evil, God had purposed for good.  Even though the fearful circumstances in which she finds herself seem utterly hopeless, what begins to form in her is a faith in God’s ‘impossible’ promise of a liberator for her people:
Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.
Here is liberation for the poor and the oppressed of Palestine.  Here is mercy and peace for all who call upon the name of the Lord.  Like the child born to Isaiah in the midst of Judah’s sorrow, the one whose name is Immanuel, ‘God with us’, Mary discerns that her own child will be a sign of hope for all who suffer under the yoke of rich men.  ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Aramaic, means ‘the Lord liberator’.  And Luke goes on to tell us of this liberator.  He tells of a man who challenges the religious status quo of Judean society, who proclaims that the poor and the ‘god-forsaken’ are not poor and not God-forsaken.  ‘Blessed are you poor’, he says, ‘for yours is the kingdom of God’ (6.20).  Within this simple message, the poorest and weakest find a God of love, who has come to them in their hour of need. 

These themes reverberate through the Magnificat, the song of praise which Mary sings upon hearing the Angel’s message:

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever

Mary’s faith and Mary’s prayerful discernment have much to teach us right now.  We face an increasingly dark time here in this ‘lucky country’.  We live in a nation which is increasingly run by the rich and powerful, for the benefit of the rich and powerful.  As a nation we are creating more wealth than ever before, but that wealth is being distributed most unfairly.  In modern day Australia, we who are well-off, gain easy access to the best levels of healthcare, childcare, education and housing.  We also enjoy a rich cultural life.  But if you’re numbered amongst the poor or under-employed, a population which is rapidly growing, it’s a very different story.  You wait in long cues at clinics and hospitals, your kids go to under-resourced schools and childcare centres, and your housing costs escalate in a Landlord’s market.

If that isn’t depressing enough, I remind you that we are part of a church which is in big trouble as well.  The Australian church in general, and the Uniting Church in particular, are in rapid decline.  More and more people are interested in spirituality, usually of a neo-pagan variety, but less and less interested in being part of a church community.  As Australians and as Christians, we face an uncertain and difficult future.  

A bit like the future which Mary must have faced, really.  Can we, like her, turn to God in prayer?  Can we turn aside from the fear and anxiety which threatens to overwhelm us, and discern the promised liberation for our own time?  When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he groaned with the pangs of childbirth, longing for Christ to be formed in them (Gal 4.19).  Christ waits to be born in our experience as well.  Again this morning, in the midst of this Advent time, I invite you to turn: to turn from the busyness of life, from the flurry of activity with which we cover our panic.  And I encourage all of you to make a beginning in the labour which is prayer, and whose issue is faith in the seemingly impossible. In baptism, the waters have already been broken.  I assure all of you, that the pain of labour will quickly be forgotten when the glorious Christ is indeed reborn in our midst.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The Year of Jubilee

Texts: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

For Christians the new year begins not on January 1, but on the first Sunday of this season we call ‘Advent’, the season of waiting for Christ the Saviour to come amongst us.  So welcome to the new year, everybody!  ‘Happy new year’ to you all!  One of the most important themes of Advent is a longing amongst God’s people for what the book of Isaiah calls the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ (61.2), a year of jubilee, the meaning of which I’d like to explore with you this morning.

 In the book of Leviticus, in chapter 25, you can read about the Jewish Year of Jubilee: 

. . .  you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family (25.10)

The Jubilee Year was an extraordinary way of making sure that that bottom line in society was not individual wealth but social justice.  The idea was that all in the land of Israel had a share in Israel, not by right, but by divine gift.  And that share in Israel belonged to your family forever.  So that even were you to fall on hard times, or to become foolish in the management of that share, you could never lose it forever.  In the fiftieth year, the year of jubilee, your share could be redeemed.  Those whose land has been sold could claim it back.  All forced to sell themselves into slavery for the sake of survival could be released from their bonds. Those in prison because they could not pay their debts would be released.  The jubilee year was good news for everyone, but especially for those who could most use some good news – the simple, the destitute, the wounded and vulnerable.

The idea of a jubilee continued to exert a powerful influence in Israel, especially in the imaginations of the prophets.  When the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, one prophet drew heavily upon the jubilee themes to imagine how Israel could be re-made and re-built from the ruins of its disobedience.  He speaks of a year of grace, a year of the Lord’s favour, when all the oppressed and imprisoned are given their liberty, and when all who mourn for their many losses are finally comforted.  He speaks of a God who will renew Israel’s share in the divine covenant, even though it is was by Israel’s disregard for that covenant that the inheritance was lost in the first place.  For this prophet, the jubilee year came to stand for a moment of unparalleled grace in which the slate was wiped clean and the world could be made new.

 To my mind, the most wonderful thing about the jubilee year is what its name suggests:  jubilation!  The jubilation of knowing that the chains of the past have been removed and you can start again!  The joy of waking to a new world, full of new possibilities!  Joy is what we experience when our debts have been cancelled and our sins forgiven.  That is why Paul is able to write to the Thessalonians saying ‘Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances’.  If you believe in the jubilee, then you believe in the capacity of God to make things different.  To change things.  To bring liberty to the oppressed and the oil of gladness to all who mourn.  So, no matter what your circumstances, if you believe in the God of jubilee, you can give thanks because things will be different.  In the perspective of faith, the year of the Lord’s favour is always at hand. And that is what we celebrate, and express our hope for, in this advent season.

In the coming of Christ, we Christians believe that God has drawn near to us to announce a year of jubilee more comprehensive than any other.  In Christ, our sins are forgiven, our debts cancelled, and our divine inheritance, once lost, is redeemed.  The seasons of advent and Christmas are the church’s jubilee festival in which we celebrate and proclaim the grace of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.  And through this celebration we can encourage the world to take more seriously the themes of jubilee at the level of social and economic policy.  It is due largely to the work of committed Christians that the ‘Jubilee 2000’ campaign was so stunningly successful, resulting in the cancellation of the most crippling debts of the poorest nations of earth, giving them the chance to start again.  Christians have also been vocal in the movement to return stolen Aboriginal land to its traditional owners.

I long for the day when Australians take the themes of Jubilee seriously as well.  When we acknowledge - openly, and without reservation -  that the land on which we walk and the air which we breathe belongs to God, and is ours not by right but by gift.  I long for the day when we can share the bounty of this land more equally than we do, where all may enjoy an inalienable share in our common wealth.  And I look forward to a day when the poor, and the victims of abuse, and the exploited and wronged peoples of our land will have their day of justice.  For the day of jubilee will bring joy to all who mourn, and peace to all for whom peace is just a dream.  Those who have sown in tears will reap with shouts of joy, and those who go out weeping shall return with jubilation and with singing.   Hasten on, day of jubilee.  And may the jubilee King, the Christ of God, come into his kingdom soon.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Claiming God's Faithfulness

Texts:  Isaiah 64. 1-9; Psalm 80. 1-7, 17-19; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13. 24-37

I hope there are some Monty Python fans amongst you this morning, because I want to begin by recalling a scene from one of their funniest movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Perhaps you will remember it.  King Arthur and his brave companions have just been done over by an incredibly well-educated peasant on one of the King’s estates, and are feeling a little despondent about being part of the aristocracy.  Arthur decides to seek divine guidance.  Afterall, there’s not a great deal for a king to do if even the peasants won’t obey you!  But before his prayer has progressed very far at all, Arthur is suddenly interrupted by a trap-door which opens in one of the clouds above, and a rather grumpy-looking God appears.  Immediately the whole company falls to its knees in eager-to-please obeisance and fear.  But God tells them to stop grovelling. “Oh please”, he says, “stop all that silly grovelling.  ‘Forgive me’ this, and ‘I’m sorry for’ that.  It really gets on my nerves”.  “Sorry, Lord” says Arthur.  “Don’t say sorry!”, says God, rather angrily, “I’m sick of people being sorry.  All those grovelling Psalms really are very boring !”  And after God calms down a bit, they finally receive their mission to seek the holy grail.

Now, like a lot of good comedy, Pythonesque comedy is strong on hyperbole.  That is, overdoing things in order to make a rather modest point.  And whether they knew they were engaging in theological reflection or not, the Python managed to make a rather spot-on theological point in this particular sketch.  And that is that many Christians are far too concerned about being sorry about their sins.  You might be surprised that I say that.  Afterall, we said a rather stark confessional prayer this morning, and clearly I do see a confessional moment as quite essential to our worship of God, whether that be at Sunday service or elsewhere.  We are sinners.  We really do need to acknowledge our guilt before our Maker.  Nevertheless, I also believe that there is a very real danger in becoming too much concerned with confession.  For if we are forever thinking about our sins, we might even become inclined to invent sins to be sorry about—to blame ourselves, and no-body else, for all that seems to go wrong in life.  This kind of attitude seems particularly prevalent amongst Protestants who, consciously or unconsciously, are followers of Luther or Calvin.  Both these venerable gentleman had, on occasion, a rather morbid approach to the sinfulness of human beings.  But I shan’t go into that now.

Instead, I will simply point out that the things that go wrong in life are not always our fault.  Sometimes they are someone else’s fault.  Sometimes they are no-one’s fault.  And sometimes, sometimes, the things that go wrong in life may well be God’s doing.  That is most certainly the view of the prophet in our reading from Isaiah.  In speaking with God about the sins which led to Judah’s captivity in Babylon, the prophet says this:

                            You were angry, and we sinned;
                            because you hid yourself, we transgressed.

Earlier in this same prayer, in chapter 63 verse 17, the prophet says something similar:

                            Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from our ways
                            and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?

What an alarming suggestion!  We are used to thinking, are we not, that God gets angry because we sin, that God hides Godself from us because we have departed from the terms of the covenant?  Yet here the prophet claims that the opposite may be the case sometimes as well:  that we sin because we experience God’s anger, and it feels cruel and unfair.  Sometimes, he suggests, we fall into a gutter of despair and sin because we find that God has disappeared, and is no longer there to support us, which leaves us with a sense of having been abandoned.  What are we to make of these claims?  How do we make sense of them?  Can we really hold God responsible for some of the chaos in our lives?  Could we dare?  Is God really one who sends calamity without regard to justice? 

Well, I shall not be answering that question in full this morning.  There is no time.  But I would ask you to notice that whatever God may be up to “objectively”, as it were, the particular passages we are examining this morning show absolutely no interest, no interest whatsoever, in  justifying the ways of God to human beings.   What the passages are interested to do, however, is acknowledge and validate the legitimacy of that experience we have been examining i.e.  that sense one occasionally gets that God has abandoned us for no reason that we can readily identify.  Now, of course, when everything appears to be collapsing and life has fallen into a great big pit from which there appears to be very little chance of escape, we are right to search ourselves for character flaws, or sins.  We are also right to search our families, our culture, or even the world economic order for the effects of sin, for patterns of repression or evil intent.  But after all that can be known is known, after all the truth-telling and repenting has been done, it may still be the case that the sky is falling in and it is simply impossible to see any decent reason why.  In that moment, we can only really see ourselves as powerless before forces which seem indifferent to our very real, very present, and very personal pain.  At such moments the words of the psalmist come easily to our lips:  “How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers?  You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.” (80.4).  Indeed, at times like this, our prayers seem to bounce off a God who, far from being indifferent, actually seems to have it in for us!

When life is like that, what are we to do?  Well, this is not a time for confession.  Confession is something we do when we can actually identify and acknowledge what we have done wrong ourselves, or in acquiescence with someone else’s wrongdoing.  Having searched ourselves long and hard, having confessed whatever there is to confess already, there’s no point in going on to invent sins that aren’t actually there.  Inventing sins for ourselves has another name.  Masochism.  And Christians are not called to masochism, which is a form of fantasy and reality-denial.  Rather, we are called to lament what has happened to us, and claim the promise of God’s salvation.  Which is precisely what the prophet does in the passage we are reading.

The kind of language we are investigating is called LAMENT.  Lament is what you do when disaster has come and you’ve confessed until your mouth is dry.  You’ve confessed and repented of everything you can find, but the disaster just keeps on coming.  The best example of lament in the bible is the aptly named Book of Lamentations, which reflects on the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants.  But the two Old Testament passages set for today are good examples as well.  Here the writers tell God that life is pretty much in the gutter, and that God had better do something about it.  Lament is what you do when there’s nothing else you can do.  As a key part of their lamentations, our psalmist and our prophet both point out that God actually has an obligation to do something for them, to rescue them. And they base that claim on two things that they know about God already:  (1) God is a compassionate creator;  (2) God has made a covenant with them, in which salvation is promised to all who abandon their sin and cling to God.  I want to spend a few moments looking at each of these in turn, because I think they give us some important clues for how we might do our own lamenting. 

When the bottom falls out of life, I first encourage you to call on God as the Compassionate Creator.   The prophet says:

                            Look down from heaven and see,
                            from your holy and glorious habitation.
                            Where are your zeal and your might?
                            The yearning of your heart and your compassion?  (Is 63. 15)

                            Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
                we are the clay, and you are the potter;
                            we are all the work of your hand.
                            Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
                            and do not remember iniquity forever.
                            Now consider, we are all your people.

Here God is imaged as a father who is also a potter.  The point is clear.  God did not create us with indifference, but with compassion, love, and father-like affection.  Therefore we may count on God to eventually let go of his anger and relent.  We are his own beloved people, the extraordinary products of his own tender imagination.  No matter what we may do, God will not destroy, absolutely, what God has made.

When the tidal wave hits, I would also encourage you to call on God as the senior signatory to a rather special covenant.  The Psalmist says this:

                            You brought a vine out of Egypt;
                            you drove out the nations and planted it.
                            You cleared the ground for it;
                            it took deep root and filled the land.
                            The mountains were covered with its shade,
                            the mighty cedars with its branches;
                            it sends out its branches to the sea,
                            and its shoots to the river.
                            Why then have you broken down its walls,
                            so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? . . .
                            Turn again, O God of hosts,
                            look from heaven and see.
                            Have regard for this vine,
                            the stock that your right hand planted . . .
                            Restore us, O Lord, God of hosts;
                            let your face shine, that we may be saved.

This allegory of a vine is the story of Israel in miniature.  It speaks of the history of the relationship between God and Israel.  How God created the Hebrew nation in Egypt, and rescued it from slavery.  How God cleared a land for the people to live in.  How they prospered and bore much fruit because of God’s guidance and care.  And yet now, with Jerusalem destroyed and the land in ruins, the fruitful nation has become plunder for others.  In telling this story, the Psalmist emphasises the role of God in the relationship.  God is the primary actor, the protagonist who makes things happen.  That’s how it was with ancient, middle-eastern, covenants.  One party, the stronger party, takes the initiative to grace the other with its protection and care.  All the weaker party is asked for in return is trust and loyalty.  And in the case of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, even if Israel withdrew its loyalty for a time, the terms of the covenant could be reactivated with a genuine renewal of Israel’s faith.  Here the Psalmist is arguing that Israel has indeed renewed its trust so that, under the terms of the covenant, God should now jolly-well offer his care and protection once more.  And immediately.

As Christians we are members of a ‘new’ covenant that nevertheless owes a great deal to the ‘old’ covenant between Israel and Yahweh.  In Jesus, we are privileged to have witnessed just how seriously God takes his side of the bargain made with Israel.  Through the life and death of Christ, God has shown us clearly and unambiguously that disloyalty need be no impediment.  In Christ, all is forgiven.  This is so not only for the Hebrew people, but for all who are called into the community of God created by Jesus.  As the book of 1 Corinthians tells us, ‘He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1. 8, 9).  On that basis, when the bombs fall on you from the sky and the ground opens up beneath you, you have every right to call on God and demand what is yours: Salvation!  Not just the salvation of your soul, but the salvation of your body and your planet as well.  This is God’s promise and God’s gift to all who are joined to Christ.  So don’t be backward in coming forward.  If life is giving you a hard time, if GOD is giving you a hard time, and you’ve run out of honest confessions, then call on God to honour the promises God has made.  Pour out your lament, and don’t hold back.  Ask for what is yours as a child of God: your salvation, your healing, the liberation of the world from its bondage to decay.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with pleading for what is already yours in the gift of God.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30

Here are some thoughts about a parable of Jesus by which many are puzzled and even bewildered, the parable of the 'talents'.  I will begin with some observations about the historical and theological background of the parable, and then make one or two suggestions about what the parable is trying to communicate.

Let us begin by being quite clear about what a parable is, and why Jesus told parables.  According to the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, a parable is a story which seeks to question and subvert the very fabric of reality as it is commonly understood by its hearers.  To everyone who smugly assumes that they know what is real and understand how life really works, the parable says: “Is life really like that?  Are you sure?  What if you are wrong?  How would you change your life if you were wrong?”  This explains why parables are often rather difficult to understand.   Parables only begin to make sense when the hearers are prepared to entertain the possibility that reality may not work as it seems to work.  Clearly, that is a very difficult thing for many of us to do.  Most of us would prefer to assume that we are right about the world, that there are some objective truths out there that we all have in common, that the meaning of life comes down to a certain amount of common-sense.    To people who think like that, parables are rather troubling, for if we take them seriously, they have the potential to shake the very foundations on which we have built our lives.

Jesus, it seems, was particularly fond of the parabolic form of story-telling.  He was not the first to use parables, nor was he the last.  But it is generally agreed that he remains the master of the genre.  In reading the gospels, it is clear that Jesus used parables for a particular reason:  he wanted to show his contemporaries that the world they experienced every day was not the most real world, and that many of the values they lived by were not, in the end, of much lasting consequence.  For Jesus believed that a yet more real reality was arriving in the world, a reality he called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  All the parables Jesus told are about the kingdom of heaven, and about the way in which its arrival will not only change things, but turn almost everything his hearers assumed as common-sense upside-down.  The parable we are focussing on this morning, the parable of the ‘talents’, is no exception.

Right from the very beginning of the story it is clear that we are not dealing with reality as it would have been commonly understood by the Jewish people of Jesus’ contemporaries.  For no master with any sense would leave such incredibly large amounts of money in the care of his slaves, no matter how well they had served him.  Do you understand how much a ‘talent’ was in the Roman money?  Most recent scholarship agrees that a talent was the equivalent of fifteen year’s wages for the average farm-labourer.  In today’s Australian money, that would be about $405 000.  So when the master leaves five talents to one of his slaves, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, we are clearly talking about a master who is certainly NOT like any master known to first century Jews!  NO master would trust a mere slave with such massive amounts of cash.  ANY such master would be widely regarded as either mad or morally impaired. 

A second indication that we are dealing, here, not with reality as it was commonly understood, but with some kind of alternative reality, is the behaviour of the first two slaves upon receiving the cash.  Without any precise permission or instruction from their Master whatsoever, they immediately take the money out into the market place and invest it.  They pour the money into ventures that, precisely because they have the potential to create more wealth, are also incredibly risky.  Now, in the normal scheme of things, any first century Jew would have been deeply shocked at the very prospect.  There would first be the question as to why a slave might take such risks.  For, under Roman law, a slave could in no way expect that they, themselves, would be enriched by such speculations.  Slaves had no rights whatsoever.  They received no wages and had no personal control over their futures.  If a master became displeased with them, whether the reason be fair or unfair, they could be sold or even executed without any recourse whatsoever.  So what could possibly motivate a slave to take such enormous, and potentially catastrophic, risks with his master’s money—especially when the master had given no such instruction to that effect?  The answer is “nothing at all”!  In Roman-occupied Judea such a thing would never happen.  Never.  The more common-sense thing would be to act as the third slave does.  Out of a well-founded fear for his life, any sensible slave would simply hide the money away in a very safe place so that there could be no risk of loss.

And there is yet a third indication that we are dealing here with a very uncommon vision of reality.  When the master returns he does exactly the opposite of what any decent, sensible master ought to have done.  For while the first two slaves might have used their skills to make the master more wealthy, that wealth could in no way be seen as justification for the incredible risks taken in generating that wealth.  According to the values of Jesus’ hearers, a ‘good’ master should have received the cash, put it in the bank, but then punished the two slaves for their incredible irresponsibility.  But that is not what our parabolic master does.  No, just the opposite, and to a positively outrageous extent!  Not only does he reward the slaves with his thanks, but he also invites them to share in their master’s joy—which is a first-century way of saying ‘you are now shareholders and co-owners of my estate’!  Contrast that with way the third slave is treated, the common-sensical one who behaved most responsibly.  Even the money he safely preserved is removed from him and he is summarily thrown out into the street to become the very refuse of his society. 

So you see, this is a story that would have been deeply confronting for Jesus’ first hearers.  To them, it would have made no sense—no common sense—whatsoever.  So why did Jesus tell the story?  Well, as becomes clear from the context in which the parables occurs in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tell the parable because he wants his hearers to know that there is a revolution on its way called ‘the kingdom of heaven’.  He wants them to know that when that kingdom arrives on the earth, things are going to be very different, so they had better get ready for that kingdom’s arrival by beginning to live and behave as though the kingdom was already here.  Allow me to summarise what I believe the central message of the parable was for Matthew’s first audience.

Matthew used the parable to tell his hearers what God was like.  ‘The God of Jesus Christ is not like the God that most of you believe in’, said Matthew to his people.  ‘God is not a tyrant who wants to keep us enslaved, maintaining watchful control over everything we do.  Neither is God a landlord who exploits our labour in order to enrich himself alone.  No, God is infinitely generous.  All that we have, God has given us, whether skills, talents, personal resources or money.  All are given as genuine gifts, that is, they are given to us to use as we wish.  And while God would clearly like us to invest our gifts wisely—that is, according to the strange wisdom of the kingdom of God in which wisdom is often mistaken for foolishness—God is not a puppet-master who would run the whole show from behind the scenes.  No, with every free gift, we are also given genuine responsibility.  We are free to use our gifts either for good or for ill.  In this God has made himself rather vulnerable.  He has invested in us, and what we do with God’s investment really matters.  If we use what we are given for good, we and God will share together in the joy that we have created together.  If, on the other hand, we use God’s investment only for ill—only for keeping ourselves ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ in the world (as the world would understand safety and security)—it is not only ourselves and our neighbours, but also God who suffers the consequences of our lack in both imagination and generosity.  For God invests in us out of a spirit of very risky generosity.  If we hide that investment in the ground, if we do not re-invest what we are given according to that same spirit of generosity, then the whole world is impoverished.  Not only we ourselves, but also our neighbours, and God himself.’

All parables have a 'sting' in their tale. So let's be clear that the sting in the tail of this parable has both an ancient and a modern iteration.  The ancient iteration, as I've already made clear, is the idea that a wealthy landowner would share his profitable investments with slaves.  The other side of this particular coin is the idea that a slave might be justly punished for NOT taking unauthorized risks with his or her master's money.  Either suggestion would have been most offensive to a first century audience. One should note, however, that the parable is not actually concerned with money, first of all, but with faithfulness in the kingdom of heaven.  In the context of the gospel of Matthew, the servants who make risky investments and share in their master's plenty are like those who are called to be salt and light, whose righteousness 'far exceeds' that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5.13-16, 20). They are also like those who store up 'treasures in heaven' (6.19-21), who are 'shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves' (10.16).  The good they invest is like the gospel itself which, when sown in good soil, produces a crop 'yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown' (13.23) or like the mustard seed, which 'though the smallest of all seeds, grows to become the largest of garden plants' (13.31).  Again, the goods these servant invest are like the five loaves and the two fishes that Jesus multiplies to feed several thousand people (14.18-21) or like the expensive jar of perfume which is poured out liberally to anoint Jesus for burial (26.6-13) but which is multiplied a hundredfold in the resurrection.  The common theological theme here, as I noted above, is that grace multiplies itself, like the money left to the servants, who then share in the 'joy' of their master.

The servant who hid his money in the ground, however, is like the Scribes and Pharisees who are not interested in grace and its multiplication, but only in an uncreative and deeply conservative keeping of what they have already received in tradition (9.16, 17; 12.1-14 ) and, because of their lack of creatively iterative faith, are 'thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (8.12; cf 13.50 and 22.13).  The point here is that the servant who buries what he is given in the ground clearly represents, for Matthew, those of Jesus' hearers who fail to produce fruit for the kingdom, especially the religious authorities who seek to cast aside the invitation at every turn (21.43-46).

Turning, then, to the ways in which the parable might sting a modern audience, I would risk the following.  Many moderns have reduced the meaning of the love of God to a form of middle-class niceness that asks, for example, 'How could God be so cruel as to punish an uncreative servant who conservatively preserves what he is given in the ground?'  In fact, however, the the punishment of the uncreative servant is consistent with the punishments envisaged throughout Matthew's gospel for those who receive God's grace but do nothing gracious (read 'excessive or risky') with it.  Grace is like the manna given Israel in the desert: if you bury it in the ground or try to hold on to it for a rainy day, it will go rotten, it will cease to be grace (Ex 16). If grace is not received as grace, as that which must constantly be given again, reinvested in other lives, then those who receive completely misunderstand the God who gives it.  They mistake God, as the uncreative servant does, for someone who is a bullying magistrate who wants us to follow the mere letter of the 'law', very often in the politically correct form it is received in our own particular culture and society.  Here the kingdom of heaven, and its radical values, are functionally replaced with the conservative mores and norms of middle-class society.  But God is a God of generosity and freedom, who gives us the gift of life that it may be ever more given in the spirit of generosity in which it was originally given.  Those who bury this gift in the ground clearly punish themselves as well as others - they cut off the ever-multiplying potential of the life God has given. But the freedom in which the gift was given also guarantees that their choice to hoard rather than risk will be honoured by God.  They shall indeed be cast, as they cast themselves, 'out into the darkness' where the hoarders go to hide their lights under a bushell.  In this sense, if one actually believes in the word of Scripture (rather than standing over it in the guise of a middle-class judge) one must also conclude that such a one who 'does not have, even what he has shall be taken from him'.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Renewing the covenant of baptism

Texts: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13

In a few moments, in the Lord’s Supper, we shall do as Joshua and the people of Israel did in our reading.  We shall renew the covenant God has already made with us, a covenant that expresses both God’s love and faithfulness toward us, and our own desire to live God’s way in the world.  The word covenant means, of course, a firm agreement to honour, not a contract so much, as a relationship.  While contracts can be easily broken by one party or the other, a covenant is not so easily put aside, for it is founded not on convenience, but on love.  It is a bond between parties who want to stick together through thick and thin.  For the people of Israel, the Lord’s covenant had been forged with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then, when they were slaves in Egypt, with Moses.  The terms of the covenant were simple.  God loved his people and wanted to give them a land and a way of life that would be the envy of the whole world.  In return, God asked for the loyalty and obedience of the people, for without this, they could never hope to develop the habits, customs and ethics that defined the good life that God wanted to give them.  If God was jealous of their hankerings after other loyalties, therefore, it was not because he was a power-freak.  It was because he was God, and knew what would make his people genuinely blessed.

For Christians, the covenant we are called to renew from time to time was first forged in baptism.  In baptism we accept God’s offer of grace and a way of life that is modelled on that of Christ, and promise to live this way for the rest of our lives.  Again, the emphasis here is not on the strict terms of a contract, but on the centrality of the relationship baptism signifies.  In baptism we are made one with Christ in his life, death and resurrection.  In him we enter into a relationship with God which is more like that of a marriage than anything else.  And, as you well know, a relationship like that can survive many mistakes and betrayals so long as the desire to be in relationship is stronger than the shame of failure.  God is faithful.  In the Spirit he gives us the power to be faithful as well, so long as our desire to do so remains.

So why is it important to renew the covenant with Christ, as we do each time that we share the Lord’s supper?  Having exchanged vows once, why should it be done again and again and again?  In the case of confirmation, that is perhaps obvious.  Many of you were baptised as children and were not capable of making the promises yourselves. Confirmation became the church’s rather sloppy way of redressing that imbalance so that you, yourselves, can affirm the promises that make such a baptism complete.  In the early church, of course, there was no such divide between God’s promises and our own.  Confirmation happened immediately following baptism, and had nothing to do with vow-making.  It was a prayer for those who had taken their vows that very day, asking that the Spirit help them to keep those vows.  That is why, in most contemporary churches, we are shying away from the language of confirmation and speaking, instead, of various ceremonies in which baptism (as an already-entire covenant) is re-affirmed.  These ceremonies range from personal re-affirmations to the congregational re-affirmations of the Easter Vigil or the Wesleyan-styled covenant service from which we shall borrow a prayer today. 

In the case of the Lord’s Supper, the covenant is reaffirmed by a re/petition of the relationship forged in baptism.  Here God invites us, anew, to receive his grace in the form of bread and wine, a tangible offering of his very self which recalls the equally real and tangible self-giving of Christ in his life, death and resurrection.  In the Eucharist we then accept this offering, not as the pagans would do through some kind of payment in kind, blood or grain or whatever, but through a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  The ‘great prayer of thanksgiving’ that the church has said over the bread and the wine since the beginning, repeats the story of God’s dealing with us in order to emphasise that it is not our own works or efforts that make the covenant possible, but God’s infinitely patient capacity for mercy and forgiveness.  In the great prayer we are reminded, each time it is said, that we cannot buy God’s favour through some kind of moral performance, but are given this favour as a gift, even before our particular histories begin to unfold.  Our taking of the bread and the wine should therefore we seen as the concrete manner by which the people of God take to themselves, again, the mercy in which we are born, live, move, and have our being.  It is our acceptance of that mercy, our trust in its power to heal and reconcile and transform.  It is to take that mercy into ourselves in the hope that we shall be transfigured, metamorphosed into people who can be as merciful to others and God has been for us.

But there is a final, very powerful, reason for re-affirming the vows of our baptism in such a regular ritual, and it is alluded to in the passages we read from Thessalonians and from Matthew this morning.  In these accounts of the return of Christ to inaugurate God’s new kingdom of justice and peace, there is a simple encouragement to always be ready.  Be ready, they say, keep those supplies of lamp-oil in reserve, for you know not the day or the hour when the bridegroom shall return.  Ceremonies like the Lord’s Supper function as constant reminder that the vows of baptism are not magical.  They are promises that call for ever-new discernment, reflection and action within the particular circumstances of our lives on very particular days.  In the new Testament, of course, oil functions as a key symbol of the Holy Spirit and of spiritual aliveness.  The call to be ready is therefore a call to stay, always, within the region of the baptismal covenant, where you were anointed with oil as a sign that God had poured out his holy Spirit upon you.  ‘Stay awake and alert to everything spiritual’, says the parable, ‘always be alert to the stirrings of the Spirit within you.’  Rituals such as the Supper are therefore, at their very heart, a wake-up call for everyone who has fallen asleep in their marriage with God.  They call us from our seats in an acknowledgement that the covenant is only as real and effective as we allow it to be, right here and right now, in the midst of our lives.  May God give us courage, even today, to be awake and ready for what God would ask of us.

Sunday 30 October 2011

The White-Robed Martyrs

Texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12

On this All Saints Day, I should like to turn to the Book of Revelation, which purports to be a vision given to a fellow named John, who happened to be in prison for the sake of Christ on the Greek island of Patmos.  The vision he is given takes place largely in heaven, and concerns things which ‘must soon take place’.  An angel instructs him to write down what he sees and make the contents available to each of seven churches in the region of Asia Minor

The Revelation to John is a fascinating read on many different levels.  First, it is written almost entirely in a poetic-symbolic language which scholars call ‘apocalyptic’.  Apocalyptic means, literally, an unveiling of the truth, which is kind’ve ironic, because most readers find the symbols of Revelation quite mysterious and impenetrable.  The book becomes much more readable if you happen to have (a) a vivid imagination of the kind that is able to appreciate fantasy or science-fiction novels; and (b) a fair-to-middling appreciation of Jewish literature and theology.  If you have neither, then I’m afraid you will continue to struggle!  The book is also fascinating because of the insight it gives into the self-understanding of Christians who are being persecuted for their faith.  Most scholars date the book as having been written sometime in the final decade of the 1st century, when the early persecution of Christians by the Roman state was just beginning to become more pronounced.  In many ways, the Book of Revelation was written to assure a persecuted community of Christians that God remains faithful to his people, and to encourage that community to also remain faithful to God, even in the face of strong opposition.  Not surprisingly, the Book of Revelation became a firm favourite of various persecuted churches down through history, while it has been hardly read at all by churches that felt or feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ with their political environment.

Armenian martyrs 1916
What I should like to do on this All Saints Day is ask a particular question of the Book of Revelation, and see what answers it might yield:  who are the saints and what is their vocation? For the sake of time I shall have to be mercilessly brief and to the point.  The answers I give may therefore succeed only in raising yet more questions in your minds and hearts, which I shall not be able to address right now.  If this is the case, then please do feel free to chase me afterwards.  As you are probably aware, I thrive on being chased about such things!

So, ‘Who are the saints, and what is their vocation or purpose in life?’  Well, according to the passage we read a moment a go, the saints are a great crowd of ordinary Christian people who are marked by the following characteristics:

  1. they are drawn from every language, tribe and ethnicity
  2. they stand before the throne of God and of Christ, ‘the Lamb’, praising God day and night
  3. they wear robes of white, and hold palm branches in their hands
  4. they are people who have survived something called ‘the great ordeal’
  5. their robes have been, rather strangely, washed white in the blood of the Lamb
  6. they are sheltered and protected from pain and evil by God
  7. the Lamb, again rather strangely, is their shepherd; he leads them toward something called the ‘springs of the water of life’.
 What does all this mean?  Well, it’s not that difficult to work out if you bother to read the rest of the book.  The saints are those who trust Jesus Christ with their lives, absolutely—so absolutely that they are willing to choose even death over the prospect of serving authorities that would usurp Christ’s rule, especially the authority of the state.  This become clear once you begin unpacking some of those mysterious apocalyptic symbols.  The ‘great ordeal’, for example, is an extended time of persecution in which Christians are tempted to abandon their faith for the sake of more cosy relations with a morally questionable state.  In Revelation, the Roman state is called ‘the Great Babylon’ and its emperor ‘the Beast’.  The beast’s demand that every citizen worship the beast and do everything that it says is an apocalyptic way of talking about the tendency of the state to undermine the absolute rule of Christ in the lives of his followers.  There can be no doubt that the early Christians would have had a much easier time if they had chosen to put their beliefs aside at certain points, in order to obey the law of the land.  But the Book of Revelation will allow no such compromise.  The saints are those who will NOT compromise.  The saints are those who a therefore willing to choose persecution, prison, and even death, over capitulation to the state and its values.

Some of you may be asking, ‘What was so wrong with the Roman state?  In what ways did it threaten Christian beliefs and values?’  The answer is at once stark and subtle.  Starkly, the Roman emperor demanded the absolute allegiance (even the worship) of his citizens.  He demanded that every citizen of the empire bow before his image, as the embodiment of absolute authority in heaven and on earth.  What this actually meant in daily life was much more subtle.  Worshipping the empire meant accepting and enacting its ethics.  It meant accepting that slaves, women and children were the property of men, and could therefore be treated or mis-treated according to men’s whims and fancies.  It meant accepting that those who were richer than yourself deserved your fawning obeisance, while those poorer than yourself were to be regarded as a resource to be exploited.  It meant accepting the superiority of Roman blood, such that the Roman state had a right to invade, subjugate and enslave the peoples of other lands and nations.  It meant accepting your fate in life, and never questioning your station or fortune. 

You can now see, I am sure, why Christians got themselves into trouble with the Romans.  The early Christians preached a classless society, a society in which it one’s social and ethnic markers were of no relevance whatsoever.  In Christ, they believed, all the social distinctions which make men and women somehow ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than one another, has been done away with.  In baptism, they believed, the human person was immersed in Christ’s death and resurrection, putting to death their social and economic significance in favour of a new identity which came as a pure gift from God.  That is why the Book of Revelation imagines the saints in robes of white:  white is the colour of baptism; white is removing of every colour, all that one may or may not have achieved in life, in order to accept the pure gift of God’s acceptance and love.  It is also why Revelation insists that not even the threat of death should dissuade the Christian from their baptismal vow to obey only Christ.  For if, in baptism, the Christian had already died to the authority of the world, why would being killed, physically, make any difference at all?  If, in the end, it was only God’s acceptance that ultimately mattered, what could the evils of state-sanctioned torture possibly steal away? 

In the end, the Book of Revelation does not see even the threat of violence and death as a power that is able to overcome the power of God.  For its vision of the saints is one in which their refuge in God’s care has been won for them by the violent death of their own Lord at the hands of the Roman state.  Note well.  The blood that makes them clean is not the blood of their own martyrdom, but that of their Lord Jesus, the one imaged as a slaughtered lamb.  The saints persevere not because there is anything special or heroic about them, but simply because they place their faith and trust in Christ, who alone has overcome sin, evil, and death.  They believe that he can carry them in his wake, as it were, all the way to the banqueting room of heaven.

Let me conclude with a few remarks about the relevance of this vision of the saints for our own time, our own sainthood, if you like. 

Since the upheavals of the Reformation, the Western church has settled into a fairly cosy relationship with the state.  In our own time, most of us have grown up assuming that the aims of our state authorities and the aims of the church were more or less compatible.  We therefore assumed that there was nothing particularly odd about being a good citizen as well as a good Christian.  I suspect it is time, however, to wake up from these assumptions, for everywhere in the Western world, the state is departing from even the thin veneer of Christianity.  In Germany there is no longer any doubt about this, of course, because there the state went on a mid-twentieth-century rampage, which left the church in tatters because it believed, even well into the second world war, that Hitler was a Christian—even when he was hanging Swastikas in the churches and putting its more errant clergy in prison.  In allied countries, however, many of us still believe that the state is more or less Christian, if only because some of our political leaders claim to be churchgoers.

I put it to you, however, that the time of multi-lateral co-operation between church and state is coming to an end in the West.  When the Australian state refuses to engage seriously with Aboriginal people over the tragic consequences of our colonisation; when it fails to care for people living in poverty; when it locks people away for years at a time without there being any kind of trial; when it proposes legislation in which anyone who expresses opposition to state policy may be imprisoned without charge or even shot dead; when it refuses to honour its obligations to asylums seekers under international law; then the alliance between church and state has well and truly come to an end.  In the present circumstances, it may well be time for the Western churches to take out the Book of Revelation, to dust it off, and to begin a serious study.  For here is a book that may teach us a great deal about how to be a saint when the state is showing every sign of becoming a dangerous beast.  I recommend its vision of sainthood to you this morning.  Not as a curious historic relic, but at a model for our own life and times.