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Sunday, 31 July 2011

Wrestling with God

Texts:  Genesis 32.22-31; Psalm 17. 1-7, 15; Romans 9.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21

In 1885 the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet in which he describes the tribulations of a long battle with depression and despair.  I won’t read the poem to you, because its rhythm is difficult and its imagery particularly dense.  In short, I doubt it would make any sense to you at a first hearing!  But I would like to dwell, for a moment, on a rather disturbing connection Hopkins makes between two realities which are seldom mentioned in the same sentence, namely, Despair . . .  and God.  If I understand him rightly, Hopkins says that his year-long wrestle with despair might also be read as a wrestling with God . . .   In tones which moves me more than I can say, Hopkins speaks of a God who comes by night to call him into question – to question the calibre of his devotion to God, even after many years of spiritual discipline.  Despair, he says, is like a tempest which comes to blow the chaff from the grain of his soul.  As such, he says, even despair appears to be God’s instrument, the servant of a God who wrestles with all that is not totally his own.  A Love who will tolerate no rival.

There’s a terrible irony here, is there not?  If Hopkins were not so intent upon the love of God – striving to love with all his heart, soul and strength – then this particular kind of sorrow would perhaps pass him by!  People who have no plans to live under God’s rule are unlikely to become despondent about their lack of spiritual progress!  Such people may be troubled by many things, but I’ll wager that the state of their relationship with God is not one of them!   No, it’s the person who genuinely longs for God who is most likely to know that particular kind of sorrow which is the realization that your devotion is not yet complete.  It is the sorrow of knowing that you are a sinner.  Not because popular piety decrees that you are.  But because you really are, and you know you are, deep down where it hurts, in the heart of what we call ‘the Truth’.

Jacob knew this on the night before he met his brother Esau.  In the cycle of stories we know as the book of Genesis, God’s messenger had already appeared to Jacob in dreams aplenty, promising that his descendants would dwell in the land of his father Isaac forever, and that this company would prosper and become a great blessing for all the peoples under heaven.  But on this night, that promise seemed like vain fantasy because, on the morrow, Jacob and all his family would meet up with Esau, from whom Jacob has swindled the birthright and blessing of a first-born son.  Esau the wild man, who loved to hunt;  Esau the leader of four-hundred warriors;  Esau the one who had once threatened to kill his brother, so that Jacob was forced to flee in order to preserve his life.  The promise and presence of God was wonderfully real to Jacob.  Yet, on this night, the fear of Esau was even more present.  On this night, Jacob’s faith in God wavered precariously.  After sending his family over the river before him, Jacob returns to his camp to spend the night alone.  But he is not left alone.  As he crosses the creek at Jabbok, a man accosts him in the dark, and wrestles with him, we are told, until daybreak. 

There are many ways to read this strange story.  There are many ways to name the man without a name.  If we were to read in a Freudian way, we might see the man who comes to Jacob as the externalization of his own fear about all that is likely to occur the next morning, the embodiment of his tendency towards despair before the face of what is feared.  Through the long night of decision, Jacob wrestles with the urgent desire to flee from the face of his brother Esau.  The part of him which would flee is very strong, but the part of him which longs to be rejoined to his brother is strong also.  And so the wrestling goes on through the night, with neither side prevailing until, close to dawn, the fear finally leaves him  – and he is blessed with the courage to go and meet with Esau. 

Some theologians reject such readings out of hand because they distrust, as a matter of principle, any tendency towards what is called the ‘psychologization’ of biblical narrative.  I am not one of them.  As a theologian who believes, utterly, that God has taken human reality to his very bosom in Christ, I do not consider myself free to dismiss the mysterious machinations of human imagination and spirit as somehow beyond the ambit of divine activity.  I feel bound, rather (and this precisely as a believer in the Christ by whom God knits the atoms together), to declare that every psychological crisis within the human heart and soul hides, at its heart, a profoundly spiritual encounter and confrontation with God that functions as the very heart and soul of what it means to be a human being.  That is to say, with Louis-Marie Chauvet, that every theological reality necessarily has a body, that every anthropological analysis is not entirely itself until it is also theological.

What that means for the story at hand is this:  that within and through this recognisably human confrontation of Jacob with his fear and despair one must also look for an encounter with the living God.  And that is indeed what the story suggests, does it not?  Is not the traumatic visitation of Jacob’s fear at the dead of night also the means by which God comes close to ask his disturbing questions:  “Do you really love me?  Do you really trust me?  Do you really believe in what I have promised?”  Finally, after a long struggle, Jacob’s answer is ‘yes’.  But not before he feels the full power of the temptation to despair absolutely.  Not before he is wounded for life.  Not before he loses his name, and his very self with it.  And so Jacob emerges from his night of prayer chastened and humbled, and made new in the waters of the river in which the struggle took place.  ‘I will name this place’ Peniel’, he says, ‘because here I have seen the face of God and lived’. 

The Jewish sages knew that seeing God’s face was dangerous.  Their God was not as sickly and sentimental and harmless as many modern forms of devotion would have us believe.  ‘It is a terrible thing’, wrote Paul, ‘to fall into the hands of the living God’.  When Jacob saw God’s face, he died indeed.  And the wound he bore for the rest of his life reminded him of that death.  But, in the mercy of God, he was raised to life from the waters of his drowning.  He received a new name, Israel, which functions in the story as a symbol of his new identity:  ‘one who has wrestled with humanity and divinity, yet perseveres’.  In the power and hope of this new identity, Jacob is finally empowered to face his brother Esau, not with his usual cocktail of bravado, bluff and deceit, but with humility.  It is by this newfound humility, given him in the struggle before Peniel—literally “The face of God”— that he finally prevails.

So, the bible tells us that fear and panic, even despair, can be the messengers of God, the means by which we are led to choose for God once more.  Indeed, the Jewish and Christian traditions say that Satan, also, is the servant of the Lord.  But we should be careful to distinguish the servant from the Master.  The servant is not the Master, though the Master’s purposes may be fulfilled through the servant’s action.  That is why Hopkins, in his poem on the dark night of tribulation, begins by declaring that he shall never give in to despair absolutely.  The messenger of God these feelings may prove to be at times, the means by which God wrestles with those remaining vestiges of ego and sin, certainly.  But God they are not.  And that is important to know.  Giving in to despair, you see, is like setting up a false god.  It is believing that the God of Abraham and of Jesus is a liar who will not come through on what is promised.   When we are tempted to despair, we are tempted to bow down and do obeisance to a very dark god indeed, a god who would have us destroy ourselves absolutely, never to rise again.  That is why Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish contemporary of Hopkins, even suggested that sin is another name for despair.

As for me, I am one of those who has been visited, from time to time, by the dark angels of the Lord, those messengers which ask the questions:  ‘Do you really trust me?  Is there really any point to your devotion?’ At such times, by the grace of God, I am reminded of Jesus, who persevered in faith against odds far bigger than mine.  I am reminded of one who, when his friend John the Baptist was murdered, withdrew to a quiet place to wrestle with his own fears and anxieties and find his faith once more, one who continued to preach and to heal, even when the political and religious establishment decided to go after him.  I remember the cup of his suffering.  I remember the plea to his disciples:  ‘Stay with me.  Watch and pray’.  I remember his arrest, torture and crucifixion, and his cry upon the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  I remember the way his disciples scattered in every direction, and denied that they knew him.  But, most importantly, I remember this.  That Jesus rose to God, that God vindicated his cause, and owned his life as a defining parable concerning the way that God lives and moves in the world.  And so, in the story of Jesus I see how even the most monstrous of evils can become the instrument by which God offers healing and wholeness, not only to me, but to everyone . . .      And I am encouraged to have faith in God.  Yes, and even to imitate the Psalmist in seeking the face in which I know I will find my death.  For in dying to myself, to my fears and worries and ambitions, I believe I will become what Christ became.  And that is what I want most of all.  As Hopkins says in another poem:

                                               In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                                                  Is immortal diamond.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Pearl of Great Price

Texts:  Genesis 29. 15-28; Romans 8. 26-39; Matthew 13. 31-33, 44-52

In the book of Genesis we read of a man named Jacob, who looked upon the daughter of Laban, his uncle, and loved her.  In return for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Jacob agreed to work for Laban seven years - great price by any standard, particularly when one remembers that in the ancient near-East, it was usually the bride’s father, not the groom, who paid out the money.  Daughters were considered expensive liabilities to have around the household too long, so the sooner they could be married off, the better, and the bride-price was considered a worthwhile investment towards achieving that end.  Nor was the youngest of daughters ever, and I mean EVER, married off before the older – as Jacob discovers when he wakes up from his marriage stupor and discovers Leah, not Rachel, lying beside him.  So we are left with the overwhelming impression that Jacob loved Rachel more than anything else in the world.  His love, it seems, made him a little mad, mad enough to put aside his rights as an eligible bachelor and his reputation as a man of considerable rank in the community.  Mad enough to put aside his self-respect and work like a slave for 14 years in order to finally secure the one whom he treasured so very dearly.

When Matthew recounts Jesus’ parables of the treasure and the pearl, I am sure he has exactly that quality of devotion in mind.  For Jesus speaks of people who, like Jacob, stumble upon a treasure that so captivates their devotion that they are willing to forsake everything they have in order to obtain it.  One is a peasant, working as a farm-hand in somebody else’s field.  He is very poor, one who works for another because he has very little property of his own.  But one day, as he works the plough, clunk!  He finds a treasure.  We are not directly told what the treasure is.  But we are told that the treasure is so valuable that the man daren’t move it.  Instead, he hides the treasure in a deeper hole and goes off to sell everything he has in order to buy the entire field.  Clearly the treasure is worth far more than everything he owns!  The second parable is similar.  It tells of a merchant in search of fine pearls.  One day he comes across a pearl which absolutely captures his imagination with its beauty.  So great is its value that the merchant is prepared to sell everything else he owns, a very considerable estate, in order to buy that one pearl.  So here is that madness again, the madness that is able to drive a person to renounce all that they are and all the many things they possess in order to obtain the one thing that has claimed their heart.  The psychiatrist, I am sure, would call the madness an ‘obsessive-compulsive’ disorder and warn us that the condition is quite irrational and very dangerous!

But these are stories about God.  Like the treasure and the pearl, and like Rachel in the Genesis story, God is one who takes our hearts captive in a moment of irreducible wonder.  Suddenly we become aware that God is all in all, that God is the heart that beats behind every heart, that God is the still-point at the centre of a turning universe.  And we realise, perhaps for the first time, that nothing but God actually matters.  So much so, that we are compelled to consider all else we possess, or all else that we long for, as mere rubbish beside the incomparable vision before us in that moment of recognition.  In his great work which is, in many ways, a simple commentary upon these parables, Soren Kierkegaard notes that it is the desire for one thing, and one thing only, that is able to purify our lives and our hearts.  The advertisers are out to sell us many things, to make us desire and long for everything under heaven.  Our society would like us to be good citizens which, these days, means being a good consumer of all the pretty things that we don’t really need.  But the beatific vision of the pearl or the treasure compels us to turn aside from all that and desire the one thing that is of more value than all the wonders of the worlds put together.  God.

Make no mistake.  The love of God is a kind of madness.  It can make you obsessive, it can make you sick - at least that is how many others will come to view what you may become or what you may choose to do as a disciple of Christ.  I have a deep admiration for the monastic orders of the church in this regard. For the monastics are people who have taken the word of the gospel quite literally.  They leave everything behind— family, possessions, status, career—in order to devote themselves to the praise of God and the service of other human beings.  And there, in the secret life of prayer, these men and woman also seek to lose even their very selves, that they may know the surpassing beauty of knowing God.  I believe, with Martin Luther, that there can be a monasticism for ‘ordinary’, workaday, people like you and I, a genuine following of Christ in the midst of the secular world, if you like.

The secular monk is simply a disciple, one who has learned from Jesus that their land, their possessions, their skills, their talents, everything they have and everything they are, is for God.  Imagine what freedom could be ours if we really believed that!  That terrible anxiety we all experience with regard to our possessions and property would no longer be there.  We would be free to praise God for what we have, and to share it willingly and joyfully with whoever is in need.  And we would no longer hoard our gifts and talents as though they were ours alone.  We would no longer hide our lights under bushels.  We would offer them to everyone out of love, and for the praise of God.   But most of all, we would no longer be afraid to talk about God with one another.  The anxieties we all have, in contemporary Australia, about being branded religious fanatics or irrational obsessives would evaporate because, in the joy of a genuine relationship with God, we would be happy to take the yoke of Christ, to become his ‘fool’ for the sake of love and of the gospel.

Are you catching the vision?  Can you climb the mountain and see the promised land?  How blessed is the one who sees visions and dreams dreams!  How blessed are they that glimpse the pearl of great price and treasure the vision in their hearts!  For that vision is like a beacon of hope when troubles and persecutions come, as they inevitably do.  When Paul wrote about the things that try to separate the disciple from the love of Christ, he was speaking from personal experience.  Paul was one of the many thousands of mystics and prophets and saints who knew the gritty, dirty, reality of discipleship—hardship, distress, persecution and famine for the sake of the gospel.  Yet for Paul, as for many other saints, the vision that sustained him was the sign of the cross, the sign that God withheld nothing of himself from us, but had reached out to us in God’s own fit of madness, to love with the gift of his very own son.  For people who know this deeply, who have meditated upon that sign in the dark light of prayer, the ‘trials’ of faith become a participation in God’s own suffering love.  And so they are counted as a privilege, tangible signs that Christ is present and active in the world as love.  In this perspective all things, all things—even those things that seem to tear the world apart—may be seen to work for good.  And, for that reason, even the greatest darknesses can be embraced with a deep sense of thankfulness.

So . . .  I have a question for you all this day.  What vision dominates your horizon?  Is it the vision of financial security?  Or perhaps the vision of an easy retirement, basking in the reflected glory of your children’s achievements?  Or perhaps the dream of professional success, and the admiration and respect of your peers?  Or . . .  is it the vision of God— that pearl, that treasure of great price?  How willing are you to renounce all that, for our contemporary world, makes for commonsense and security and good management in order to obtain it?  How mad are you willing to become for the sake of Christ and of his gospel?  Only you know the answer to these questions.  You and God.  Remember that God is always at the heart of you, calling and whispering, calling . . .  and whispering.  How will you respond when you hear that gentle voice today?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

What God hopes for

Texts:  Genesis 28.10-19a; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

Today I want to talk to you about HOPE.  Not the hopes of humans beings, or even of Christians in particular, but the hopes of God.  God’s own hopes are expressed rather well by the apostle Paul, I think:

. . . the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in HOPE that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God . . .  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

 According to Paul, God made the kind of world we have – a world filled with futility and decay – in the hope that the creation itself might one day transcend all of that and embrace what he calls ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ - by which he means that we might all come to share in the joy of God’s life and being in the way that Jesus did.  For Paul, you see, Jesus was the first of many children, a human being who submitted himself absolutely to the sadness and despair of the world in order to show that there was a way through to something far better, namely a joyful reconciliation with our creator.  In that sense, Jesus is our trail-blazer.  God hopes that all of us will embrace the choices Jesus embraced, so trusting his vision and his Father’s care, that we might also come to share in his inheritance as the divine Son of God.  God hopes that we might all become divine children like Jesus or, to put it another way, God made us grubs in the hope that we might one day become sick of looking at the ground, and so cleave to Christ as he passes from death to life, that we should become butterflies instead.

 But note this, friends, that hoping for something is not the same as seeing it happen.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  We hope for things precisely because those things are not entirely present to our experience right now.  And so hope is always accompanied by a kind of affliction, the affliction of longing for something that has not entirely arrived.  Hope then, can be rather tortuous.  The contrast between where we are and where we would like to be can be so painful that we cry out with frustration, longing, and anger.  Some see Christians who are not content with the present reality as pessimists, ‘glass half empty’ people.  But nothing could be further from the truth because, it is only those who have a clear vision and hope for that which has not yet arrived who have a legitimate basis for critiquing what already is, the ‘status quo’ if you like.  Of course, the contrast between hope and reality is very difficult to bear sometimes.  There is a constant temptation for God’s people to abandon their engagement with hope in order to escape the pain of that contrast.  But Paul says that it is not only ourselves but the whole creation which cries out in the pains of labour, longing for the freedom of the children of God to be revealed.  In another place he talks of being in the pangs of labour that Christ might be born in the hearts of his people.  And so I have come to see that all who suffer because of their commitment to hope bear in their body the scars of the Christ who has gone before us, the Christ who endured the cross in order to bear witness to his vision of a world renewed in love, peace, and justice for all.  Thus, it is only those with hope for a new world who really care about the world as it already is.

 In that connection, consider this other implication of Christ’s suffering: that it is not only ourselves who hope but do not see, it is not only we human beings who cry out with longing for a reality not yet present.  First and foremost it is God.  For Christ is God incarnate.  In Christ, God longs more deeply than any of us.  Thus, it is the longing of God, revealed in Christ Jesus, that actually provides the foundation and impetus of human hope.  In the context of this longing, the cross of Christ is not simply a dying for the sins of the world.  It is also the sign of God’s willingness to be immersed in the futility of things as they now are.  It is the sign that God is with us in longing for a better world.  It is the sign of God’s passionate love for all who suffer because the world is not yet what it may be.  It is the sign of Immanuel: God with us, in our present, for the sake of a promised future that will renew the world in peace, love and justice.

To all who are chosen by God to share in this longing, the dream of Jacob becomes a treasured source of inspiration.  For here is one of the most radiant fruits of faithful prayer: a vision in which ordinary things are transformed into extraordinary things.  Where places apparently empty of God become places where the angels ascend and descend in a never-ending dance; where stones and grass and sky become the courts of divine presence; where wind and water become the whispering of God’s promise.  I remember praying in the bush once, in a place now called Fortescue Bay in South-east Tasmania.  At the time I was particularly conscious that the Aboriginal traditions which had once inhabited that part of Tasmania were no longer alive.  Colonisation had all but wiped them out, so that there are now very few of us who can recall their significance.  But while I prayed, while I lamented the fact, the bush seemed to come alive with Indigenous presence.  I could hear the crackle of campfires, and the songs of children, and the splash of women diving for abalone.  It was like a message from God which said, ‘the Spirit of life has not finished hoping for these dead people and their traditions: there will yet be a resurrection in which all that has been lost will be recovered’.  In the dream of Jacob, and in many other dreams, God encounters all who are lost and lamenting, and offers them the chance to find themselves anew by becoming emissaries of blessing for all the world – carriers, like the seed of Jacob, Israel, of promise and of hope not only for themselves, but for all people.

 Friends, in a world such as ours, it is easy to lose hope.  It is easy to numb ourselves against the scandals of poverty, injustice and greed, and pretend that there is nothing we can do.  But hear this.  When we lose hope, God does not.  God continues in hope for a creation renewed in the power of the resurrection.  God continues to hope that we may share that longing, and be transformed ourselves, as Christ was transformed.  God, you see, is extremely patient in hope.  Matthew’s parable of the weeds and the tares tells us that God persists in the belief that no matter how many evils may grow in the world, or in the souls of women and men, that these evils will never have the power to finally overrun all that is good and true and beautiful.  In the end it is God, and not evil, that will prevail.

 This is God’s hope.  And it is the hope that God calls Christians to cling to and embody in all that they do and say and think.  It is the hope which God gives to us anew this day, as we share together in worship.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Yoke of Christ

Texts:  Genesis 24.34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Song of Songs 2.8-13; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

Today I want to talk about what it means to wear the yoke of Christ.  In a saying unique to Matthew's gospel, Jesus says:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light'.

What kind of yoke is Jesus talking about here?  You'll be relieved to know that it has very little to do with having egg on your face or, indeed, with becoming the butt of someone's awful humour!  But it has everything to do with the sheer discipline and hard work of labouring for Christ in the workshop of the world.  Those of you who've spent some time on a farm will know that a yoke is the piece of sculpted wood which goes around the neck of a bullock when it is harnessed to a plough.  Sometimes the piece of wood is designed to harness two or even three bullocks abreast.  Here the yoke becomes a means of joining the beasts to each other as much as to their work.  By becoming harnessed so, the bullocks learn a discipline essential to their task.  The discipline of working with each other and with their task-master - walking at the same pace and pulling with the same effort, so that the plough cuts its furrow with maximum effect, efficiency, and balance.

That Matthew should use an image of servitude to describe the life of following Jesus might surprise some of you.  Afterall, most of us have been taught that the Christian life is about throwing off our chains and walking in freedom.  Well, that is most certainly true.  But here Matthew is telling us that the freedom we aspire to in Christ will only come to us through a form of radical submission to Christ's will and way.  In one of the many paradoxes of the gospel, we are told that the way by which we might lay our burdens down is to take up the yoke of Christ and submit to his tutelage.   Which goes, of course, to the heart of discipleship.  To be a disciple is to submit oneself to the disciplines of the master we have chosen to follow.  It is to take that master's yoke upon oneself and learn how to plough the fields of the world according to the master's peculiar vision.

We see something of the joy and the cost of discipleship in the rather lovely story of Rebecca in Genesis.  Here is a women who lives under the protection and patronage of her father and brother in the land of Ur.  Life is secure, it is predictable, it is safe.  But one day a chap turns up from a far and distant land, and paints an entirely new scenario for her.  Why not come with him to that other land and to a different life?  Why not come and be the wife of a wealthy stranger named Isaac, a man whom Rebecca has never met?  Why not leave who she is right now, and welcome a radical change in role, identity and purpose?  Now I don't know about you.  But I think I'd be very, very wary.  But when Rebecca is asked if she wants to go, she says 'YES!'.   Somehow she is able to see the promise of that life far away.  Somehow she is able to find the courage to leave the safe and familiar behind and embrace the promise of what will be. 

For the earliest disciples, Jesus was like that stranger who came from a distant land saying 'follow me'.  In hearing that call and that challenge, each of them weighed up the cost against the promise, the tangible against the intangible, the known against the unknown.  Some took a risk.  They took up the yoke of Christ, which is also his cross.  They chose to follow him no matter where he led, and very often against the dictates of either reason or moral duty.  Others chose to stay with the yokes they were already wearing.  Like familial and civic duty, and keeping your head down lest the occupying force, the Roman, cut it off.  At least, that's how an ancient middle-eastern writer named Matthew saw it.  But now to the really difficult questions.  How might we few, gathered this morning in this shrine of Christ, really take up the yoke of Christ in our own lives and living?  But perhaps there is a more pressing question to be answered first.  Is there any real sense in taking the yoke of Christ seriously in this age of Ebay, atheism and new-age spirituality?

I believe there is a great deal of sense in doing so, because people have become so very burdened in this brave new world we've created!   The Ebay generation is burdened by the belief that we can somehow buy and consume our way to peace and happiness.  The tragedy here is that the world of modern consumerism offers nothing more than the eternal return of the same in the tired old story-lines of soap operas and pop music.  The more you buy, watch or consume, the less you get of anything genuinely new that is able to liberate us from our slavery to the same old thing. The new atheism, on the other hand, is burdened by the belief that we can somehow reason our way to peace and happiness.  Ironically, what the ‘new’ atheists are pedalling, is the rather ‘old’ story that got us into the economic and environmental mess we find ourselves in today, so so-called Enlightenment’s story about human beings pulling themselves out of the mire through disinterested reason and scientific enquiry.  The tragedy, here, is two-fold.  First, the Enlightenment story has never really comes to terms with the fact of human sin, what the apostle describes as knowing what is good and helpful and true, but failing to actually do it.  In this, paradoxically, psychoanalysis is certainly the Apostle’s ally!  Second, the Enlightenment story has never been comfortable with what might be called ‘the irrational’, that tendency of life itself to occasionally contradict everything we think we know, to surprise and lift us out of the quagmires in which we bury ourselves by our reason, that tendency which we Christians call the arrival of grace as from some place other that our very circumscribed understandings of reality. Which is where you’d think the dominant new-age spiritualities of our time might have something helpful to offer, with their promises of liberation through that which is not at all reasonable, through an embrace of all that is wild and untameable in the human spirit.  The tragedy here is that new age spiritualities are as weighed-down as consumerism and atheism with a glorious story about the capacity of human beings to break their own chains.  Instead of looking to what we might buy or consume, or to the light of human reason, contemporary spiritualities look to the deepest self for inspiration, that which is called, variously, ‘the god within’, the ‘best self’ or even the ‘collective unconscious’.  Whatever the language, whether Jungian or pagan in origin, the belief is the same: that we can somehow liberate ourselves, that the human spirit is unquenchable, and that it is able to rise above its sins and misdemeanours in order to make the world anew.  From a Christian point of view, from the point of view of the Apostle Paul, we cannot.  And I submit to you that the real history of human civilisation bears witness to this.  Whatever our aspirations, even if they are informed by that other story told by Jews or Christians, we fail to meet them.  Over and over and over again.  That is the true burden of our human condition.

‘Who can rescue us from these bodies of despair?’ asks the Apostle?  Only Jesus Christ.  Only the one who comes to us extra nos, as the Latin theologians styled it, from the ‘outside’ to share with us the free gift of God’s acceptance, love and transforming Spirit. For the gospel-writer, for Matthew, the gift-nature of salvation is expressed in the language of revelation: 

I praise you, Father, Lord of all creation, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father for this is your good pleasure (Matt 11.25-26)

Here, on the lips of Jesus, Matthew locates an origin for our liberation which comes from somewhere other than ourselves - our imagination, our reason, even our buying power.  It is the light not of our reason, but of revelation, the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  For Jesus goes on to say,

All things have been given to me by my Father.  No-one knows that Son except the Father; and no-one knows that Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (11.27).

The point here is that, like little children who are able to simply trust in what their parents give them and tell them, God gives the gift of salvation to all who are able to receive what is revealed in simple faith.  To put aside all they think they know and simply embrace what is given.  What is given, then, is a capacity to re-know and re-shape the world according to what is revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is the putting off of the old yoke of servitude to the way things are normally known and done in favour of the new ‘yoke’, a yoke that is not our own but that of Christ.   In one of the very many paradoxical moves of the gospel story, Matthew promises that all who come to Jesus will find that his own particular yoke is ‘easy’, and his burden ‘light’.  The word 'easy' should not, of course, be taken to mean that life with Jesus will be all beer and skittles.  It certainly is not!  Following Jesus is so deeply counter-cultural that his followers are very often persecuted and maligned for their lack of assent to the status quo.  The claim is, rather, that in following Jesus each person will find a way through life which 'fits' and addresses their most genuine needs and longings.  Not the needs and longings which are created by the ascendant powers of the society in which we live.  But the more fundamental needs and longings which everyone has . . .  for a home, a love, and a truth.   The yoke of Christ disciplines our hearts to acknowledge these longings, and to seek their fulfilment through a relationship with God.

Allow me to close with a three simple observations about taking the yoke of Christ for today.  First, I believe Jesus is calling us to faith, faith in what God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is the faith of the bible, of the ecumenical creeds and of all Christian thinking that springs from these fonts.  Faith is a simple acceptance of these things, a leap into the unknown by which we might then, paradoxically, re-understand everything we thought we understood but did not.  Faith is not - please understand! - without thought, reason or imagination.  It is, rather, a thought and imagination that allows itself to be disciplined by the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, so that the entire world of what we know and imagine can be re-thought, re-imagined and re-reasoned in its light.

Second, I believe Jesus is calling us to prayer and to a deeper communion with God.  Prayer is the well from which we draw the essential water to sustain our journey in faith.  So let me ask this of all of you.  Do you pray?  Do you know what prayer is?  Do you know how to pray?  If the answer to any of these questions is no, then I would urge you to seek counsel and direction from a person you respect in the faith.  Because prayer is at the centre.  Without prayer, there is no life with God.

And finally, I believe Jesus is calling us to live with integrity and justice in our relationships with other people and with all life on our planet.  That includes our families and love ones, certainly.  But it also includes the more complex relationships we have with people far and wide, across the whole expanse of this web of life we call the earth.  If we are genuine in our desire to take the yoke of Jesus, then it matters whom we support and don't support in our spending patterns and in our choices as consumers.  It matters that we say or don't say things when the world is taken over by pokie machines or homophobia or whatever.  It matters that we do or don't do things in the face of poverty and violence and corruption.

The yoke of Christ calls us to discipline and to a life of dedicated labour after the way of Jesus.  But it is also the promise of blessing, rest and healing in gentle communion with God.  This stole that I wear as a minister is a symbol of the yoke of Christ which I am vowed to carry all my days.  But each baptised Christian has made a pledge no less demanding and no less rewarding.  I encourage all of you to explore that pledge anew this day.