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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.