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Sunday 30 December 2012

The Making of a Prophet

Texts:  1 Samuel 2. 18-20, 26; Colossians 3. 12-17; Luke 2. 41-52

Today’s lectionary readings encourage us to reflect on the process by which God raises a prophetic voice in the world.  In reading the stories about Jesus early life in Luke, we find that Luke knows very little about the concrete historical circumstances in which the infant Jesus became a boy and then a man.  That is why New Testament historians call this period ‘the hidden years’.  Instead of writing a history of Jesus’ boyhood, we find that Luke presents a deeply theological reflection upon the way in which the bearer of God’s message is made or formed.  With a deft hand, he explores the environment and influences which create a prophet – one who can both hear God’s voice and become a vessel by which that voice becomes audible for a particular place and time in the world.  And we find that Luke is profoundly influenced in this endeavour by the portrait of another great prophet: Samuel, the first prophet of Israel’s nationhood.

Luke’s account of Jesus birth and boyhood is closely modeled on that of Samuel.  Like Samuel, Jesus is conceived by the direct intervention of God.  Like Samuel, Jesus is specifically set aside from the beginning for a life of divine service.  The song of Mary in chapter 2 of Luke, which celebrates the coming of a liberator for God’s people, is closely modeled upon the song of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in chapter 2 of 1 Samuel.   And today’s story of Jesus in the temple also follows many of the leads which Luke found in the story of Samuel.  As with Samuel’s parents, Mary and Joseph visit the temple each year for the Passover festival.  As with Samuel, Jesus seeks out the instruction of those who know God’s law, in the precincts of the temple.  As with Samuel, the young Jesus is described as one who increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favour.

What is Luke trying to tell us about Jesus, by entwining his life so tightly with that of Samuel?  Well, to put things very simply, Luke wants us to know that Jesus will be a great prophet in Israel, just like Samuel.  And he wants to show us how great prophets are made.  I’d like now to spend a little time exploring that theme. 

According to Luke, great prophets are both born and made.  On the one hand, it is clear that both Samuel and Jesus are destined before their birth for particular purposes known only to God.  But exalted destinies and plans do not a prophet make.  They must also be trained, placed in environments where they will learn how to fulfill that destiny.  Skills need to be acquired, skills for interpreting both the wide world and human nature. Passions need to be discovered and nurtured.  Ethical and spiritual disciplines need to be practiced and perfected.  But most of all, that native spiritual sensibility, that gene for listening to God, needs to be exercised and honed to a high degree of sensitivity.  A prophet with a destiny but no discipline is no prophet at all.

Luke emphasizes that both Samuel and Jesus were training in the religious lore of Israel.  He places both in the temple at crucial stages in their adolescent development, listening there to the wisdom of the elders and exploring the ways of God with obvious dexterity and depth.  By learning the stories of the faith, they found out who they were, and what their destiny was to be.  By attending to the teaching of their elders, they learned a particular way of seeing the world, a way which cut through the nonsense with which most people fill their lives, seeing instead into the very heart of things, where God dwells.  To my mind, the one thing that distinguishes prophets and mystics from everyone else, even the most devoted of religious practitioners, is their capacity to see and to hear what very few others can see and hear.  Luke tells us that Jesus could pick up an ordinary mustard seed and see there a profound lesson about the designs of God for the small and unassuming.  So it goes with the prophet.  He or she has a native spiritual intelligence, but that gift needs to be nurtured and honed within the discipline of a religious tradition, and within a community of dedicated religious teachers, before it can ever come to fruition.

Now here’s what I reckon all this means for us this morning.  There are people talking these days about the demise of Christianity, the demise of the church, the demise of all things to do with God.  And there is no doubt in my mind that our culture is becoming increasingly secular, increasingly unconscious about the things of God.  But that does not mean that we are all headed for a godless future, where the gains of Christian civilization are lost forever, and our kids are condemned to ever-deepening crises about the meaning of their lives.  For I believe that God always raises up prophets – still small voices in the wilderness, spiritual intelligences who continue to listen for God, and continue to speak the very words of God for a hungry and thirsty generation.  When Samuel came along, we are told that Israel was in disarray, that the nation was like a sheep without a shepherd.  When Jesus came along, the Jewish people were occupied by a foreign power, and were bewildered and confused about matters of spirituality and ethics.  In both cases, God sent a prophet, a person with special passions, to lift the vision of the people towards God once more.

And God continues to send prophets.  In the fourth century, when Christianity was becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire, God sent St Anthony and St Pachomius to call his people back to the simple gospel of poverty, prayer, and dependence on God.  In the fourteenth century, when the church had become rich and powerful, God sent St Francis and St Dominic, to remind us that Christ was a poor traveler who healed and taught the simple lessons of the gospel.  In the twentieth century, God sent Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day to challenge the dominance of economics as a theory which legitimizes the permanent impoverishment of whole classes of people.  And Martin Luther King, and Bishops Romero and Belo, who stood with their suffering people against the might of evil armies of murderers.  And Thomas Merton, who lived and wrote in solitude, to remind a busy world that noise and rush and accumulation are killing us all.

And so here we are on the brink of a new century and a new millennium.  Even now, somewhere in the world, God is choosing, and training, and nurturing prophets, people who will remind us of the most significant fact of our world, a fact most of us so easily forget.  The fact of God.  And the prophet might be from your small town.  It might even be you.

This sermon was delivered at the Longford Uniting Church, Tasmania, on the first Sunday after Christmas in 1999.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Christmas: creating a body of resistance

Texts:  Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14

The stories and readings of Christmas will have little power or consequence unless we understand that the events they describe take place within a particular kind of political reality – worlds dominated by an imperial super-power, a military emperor who can make ordinary people do and say whatever he wants them to do or say.  When Isaiah was preaching in Jerusalem at the end of the 8th century BCE, that power was the king of Assyria, whose empire stretched from India to Egypt.  The darkness of his harsh and oppressive rule extended even into the daily lives of the people of Israel, whose labour and produce was heavily taxed to enrich the emperor and support his expansionist policies.  In this environment, the power of the local Jewish King was so insignificant that there was really little option for him except to become a local supporter of the Emperor’s will.  To defy the Emperor would have left Judah open to attack by one of its small neighbours, some other petty king with powerful ambitions.  In this environment, “security” and “safety” was guaranteed only by sucking up to the biggest power on earth, the Emperor of Assyria.  Yet the situation of the ordinary people could hardly have been described as “safe” or “secure”.  The Jewish people suffered terribly because there was little practical sense in which they could claim to be free.  They belonged to the Emperor of Assyria.  The economic and social privileges granted them under the covenant with Yahweh their God were severely curtailed, because the Emperor now claimed to own their bodies, their houses, and all they produced.  There was precious little of their lives or their livelihoods that the Emperor could not claim as his own.  In the words of Isaiah, they were a people who walked in a very great darkness.  They were an oppressed people ruled by the soldiers of a foreign power.

The situation was not all that different when Jesus was born over 700 years later.  The global power had changed, certainly.  It was now the Romans who ruled the roost.  Yet the lives of the Jewish people were much the same.  Their political leaders, whether kings or councils, spent most of their time sucking up to the Romans and doing their bidding.  That was the way to survive.  What that meant for the ordinary folk, the folk who actually produced the food and built the roads and the houses and whatever else, was misery.  For again, whoever they were or whatever they produced ultimately belonged not to themselves, but to the Emperor of Rome.  So that while most people could feed themselves, if they worked hard, and while some people could even become quite wealthy if they worked very hard to supply the Romans with what they wanted most, everyone (whether rich or poor) belonged not to themselves or even to God, but to the Emperor.  If the Emperor demanded something of you, through the agency of a governor or even a local solider, you had no right to resist.  If you valued your life, or the lives of your loved ones, you did as you were told.  That is what Luke is trying to tell us with his tale about an Imperial command that the whole world should be registered.  He is telling us that in the world in which Jesus was born, you did as the Great Power told you.  To resist was to die.

Lest we think all of this is ancient history, and that we have somehow transcended such oppression, let me invoke the name of General Augusto Pinochet - until the late 1990s the President of Chile.  Chile is a very small country in the grand scheme of things.  But Pinochet did in his time what the great power in our modern world - the United States - wanted him to do.  He promoted the policies of contemporary neo-liberalism.  He forced his people to give away any privileges they might enjoy under international human rights or labour agreements in order to turn the country into a quarry to fuel the engine of Western consumerism.  He killed and tortured anyone who resisted his policies, and he did so with secret police trained by the American intelligence services – principally the CIA.   And all the time he pretended to be a good Catholic.  When he was finally excommunicated from the church by the bishops of Chile, he threw some of them into prison, where they joined many other Christians, lay and ordained, who had dared to challenge the power of the state.  In the end, Pinochet fell from power because Christians finally found their voices once more, and started to articulate a different vision for Chile.  Against the story told by Pinochet - in which every person was required to sacrifice themselves, their families, and their livelihoods for the economic glory and prosperity of the nation - the church posited a counter-story in which the bodies of the people belonged to a God of love who would never force them to do anything against their will, who nevertheless called them to a different kind of prosperity, the prosperity and security that comes when people love one another, and share whatever they have so that the rich may never be too rich and the poor may never be too poor.

So what the promised coming of a Messiah meant for Isaiah’s Judah and Joseph and Mary’s Jerusalem is exactly the same as it means for us in our contemporary world.  It means that God does not surrender the bodies of his people to the oppression and slavery of whatever global power is wanting to have its way with us.  It means that just as God took our human flesh to himself in Jesus so that our bodies were no longer simply ours but God’s as well, God continues to take a body to Godself in the church, a social body which God makes for Godself in the conversions wrought through baptism and Eucharist.  It means that God stands with us and for us against the powers of this world, not in Spirit alone, but also in the body and in bodily practices that make for peace, justice and the integrity of creation.   For in Jesus the yoke of the oppressor’s power is broken.  In Jesus we see a body broken up, tortured, and finally killed by the power of an evil state. Yet.  When the powers appear to have his body absolutely within their control - enclosed within the silent tomb of death - at precisely that moment, Jesus breaks free in the power of the resurrection to show that not even coercion and death is finally strong enough to defeat the power of love.  For the truth revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is this: that the power of our political overlords is ever only the power we grant them through our fear and our failure to believe that we can be what God has called us to be.  If a child born amongst the poorest can one day threaten the power of Empire – not because he is smart or strong, but because he believes absolutely in liberating word of God that stirs within him – then the church, too, can become a community of resistance that threatens the power of Obama, Putin and Abbot to enslave us all in the neo-liberal lies of our time.

I pray that we, who take the name of Christ to ourselves tonight, may give our bodies not to the state, out of some kind of fear that we shall miss out on the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ life it promises, but to God and to God’s mission of love, that the world may find its liberation through the revolutionary giving of Jesus.  For in the end, it is only the gift of God, ever given again by his people, that shall save our world from its lies and self-deceptions.  It is precisely that radical sharing and giving, that politics of love, which we remember and perform in the Eucharist, which we shall now prepare to eat together.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to all God has favoured with his care.

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's, Mt Waverley, on Christmas Eve 2006. Another version was subsequently published in Cross Purposes: a forum for theological dialogue 26 (2011):8-10.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Rejoice! Advent Hope and Humour

Texts:  Zephaniah 3.14-20; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18

Like most all of the lections we read during Advent, the Scriptures for today describe two kinds of reality.  First they describe the world as it is now, a world dominated by the rich, the unscrupulous and the powerful at the expense of the poor, the principled and the vulnerable.  Then they imagine or look forward to a day in which the tables are turned, a day when the poor, the vulnerable and the faithful will rejoice in God’s salvation, while their enemies are done away with forever.  In the Luke reading, for example, John the Baptist announces God’s supreme displeasure at the behaviour of the Jewish elites who governed Judea in the first half of the 1st century.  These royal and priestly classes had chosen to collaborate with the invading Romans in order to preserve their status and wealth, even though this meant turning a blind eye to the way in which the invaders exploited and robbed the ordinary folk of their very livelihoods.  John castigates them for their poisonous hypocrisy.  Like the prophet Zephaniah before him, John warns that a “day of the Lord” is at hand, a cataclysmic day in which all their faithless and self-serving ways would be exposed, while the faithful ones, those who suffer because of the sins of these elites, would be vindicated forever.  I quote:
I baptise you with water; but one is coming after me . . .  who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Get the gist?  The day of the Lord is like a deluge of fire.  The faithful ones are like wheat, preserved from the fire and taken to God’s own heart.  But the deceitful ones, who only want to protect themselves, are like the worthless chaff that is thrown into the fire and burned.  The outcome of that purgatorial cleansing is beautifully described in the song of praise we heard from the final part of the book of Zephaniah.  There the prophet imagines a world in which the remnant of God’s people, the lame and outcast ones who survive the punishment of their oppressors, are gathered to God in such a way that their experience of misery and shame is transformed utterly.  The song imagines a future where the people of God will praise God for ever, rejoicing in his love and mercy for all time to come. 

It’s a wonderful vision.  So wonderful that I sometimes feel that it is all too good to be true!  Of course, I have no difficultly with the part of the story that describes the evil and self-serving corruption of the elites.  Who could deny it?  At this time of year our political leaders come out with platitudes about peace on earth and the importance of defending human rights and democratic freedoms. At the same time, in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, soldiers and intelligence officers from the West are bribing, torturing, and killing local people in order to preserve and promote our economic interests – 100s of billions of dollars worth of economic interests.  Both at home and abroad, political prisoners are being denied their rights to legal representation and a fair trial, while the folk who flee these conflicts and come to our shores are being detained for up to four years while their cases are being examined.  Meanwhile, few governments in the history of post-colonial Australia has done more to erode the rights and hopes of Aboriginal people than the current government, with its suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory and other places.  Hypocrisy like this, naked hypocrisy, makes me feel sick to the stomach.  I feel angry, I feel powerless, and eventually I succumb to what some are calling “hope-fatigue.”  Bono said it all in his memorable song from 2001: 

Jesus won’t you take the time
to throw this drowning man a line
   “Peace on earth.”
I hear it every Christmastime
but hope and history just won’t rhyme,
so what’s it worth,
   this “peace on earth”?

The fact that Advent coincides with Australia’s summer festival doesn’t help the situation, for me.  As a child summer was the time when all our family friends went to the beach for a holiday.  In summer, we knew that we were poor and that neither our church nor our community really gave two hoots.  I still feel that.  It still hurts.  The feeling is compounded by all the rampant consumption that dominates our cultural landscape at this time of year.  Because of what I experienced as a child, I find it difficult to see anything in all of this consumption apart from a complete indifference to the suffering of other people.  In sub-Saharan Africa there are kids starving because they don’t have enough to eat.  In Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Columbia, kids are being sold into sex-slavery so that the rest of their families will be able to stay alive.  Even here in Australia, there are thousands and thousands of families who find it difficult to put a roof over their heads or pay the grocery bill.  Yet, each summer, middle-class Australians escape to their second or third homes at the beach and indulge in an exchange of goods which is surplus, entirely surplus, to anything they might possibility need.  Again, I feel sick to the stomach.  I feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the injustice.  In the middle of all of this nausea I simply find it difficult to believe that a day of salvation is at hand.  Very difficult.

Now, part of my anxiety about all of this is clearly emotional and psychological.  It is tied up with my experience of the world, and the narratives I create to account for that experience.  But part of the anxiety is also theological, and has more to do with a puzzle which the bible itself sets up, and puts into play.  Let me try and spell it out for you.  Here, this world:  evil, corrupt, rich getting richer, poor getting more miserable.  There, world to come:  peace, joy, no more bad guys, vindication for all who suffered at their hands.   Very great distance from here to there.  How is the distance crossed?  How do we get from here to there?  On this particular point, the “how” bit, the bible doesn’t seem to be very clear, almost as though it doesn’t actually know how.  On my worst and most cynical days, this does not inspire confidence!

Of course, the theologians have tried to fill in the gaps in the biblical witness.  Theologians like to do that.  The evangelicals say that Jesus will return with a whole army of heaven and whip the nasty people’s arses.  Then he’ll wave his kingly sceptre and the world will return to an Eden-like state in which we’ll all love each other the way that God loves us.  But this theory raises more questions than it solves.  Amongst other things, one must ask why Jesus would behave so very differently on his second visit than he did on his first.  The first time around he didn’t force anyone to do anything.  He invited, he loved, he cajoled and argued forcefully, he exampled a different way to be.  But he didn’t compel anyone to do anything.  That would have been to override the freedom we have as human being, a freedom apparently so prized by God that he allows us to use that freedom to do evil.  Wouldn’t a powerful army of arse-kickers kind’ve undermine that whole God-is-love image, God as the supreme protector of our right to choose?

“Damn right,” say the liberal theologians, “let’s attend more closely to the story as it’s actually told.”  That God became a child, one of us.  He was born in our midst, full of grace and truth.  He went about the place healing, driving out our demons, and teaching us how to love one another.  But then the rich elites got hold of him.  They tortured him and nailed him to a cross.  Sure, there was a resurrection, but it’s all rather mysterious.  Now you see him, now you don’t.  He lives on in the world as a kind of memory or spirit of the good.  Perhaps this suggests that God is like our deepest and best self?  God changes the world only when we decide to change the world.  God prompts and pricks our conscience, but refuses to do anything other than what we choose to do for ourselves: giving our second coat to someone who needs it, to pick a relevant Scriptural example.  But again, I’m really not sure that this theory solves anything much.  It makes a mockery, for instance, of all those bible passages which insist that it is not we, ourselves, who make the world’s salvation, but God alone.  By grace, the action of God, are we saved through faith, and this is the gift of God, not of human works, lest anyone should boast (Eph 2.8,9).  If the liberal theory were correct, then I would personally consider the whole hope-of-salvation thing to be no more than a cruel joke visited upon us by a God who raises our hopes and expectations, but never intends to meet them with anything real.

Well.  What’s to be done with all of this?  What am I to do with the anxiety of my lived experience?  What am I to do with the theological conundrum?  When in doubt, I have often considered it wise to take a break from all the anxiety and tell a story.  A story takes you out of yourself, and here’s a good one I came across a few years ago.

The time has come for St. Peter's annual three-week vacation, and Jesus volunteers to fill in for him at the Pearly Gates. "It's no big deal," Peter explains.  "Sit at the registration desk, and ask each person a little about his or her life.  Then send them on to housekeeping to pick up their wings."

On the third day, Jesus looks up to see a bewildered old man standing in front of him. 

"I'm a simple carpenter," says the man.   "And once I had a son.  He was born in a very special way, and was unlike anyone else in this world.  He went through a great transformation even though he had holes in his hands and feet.  He was taken from me a long time ago, but his spirit lives on forever.  All over the world people tell his story."

By this time, Jesus is standing with his arms outstretched.  There are tears in his eyes, and he embraces the old man.

"Father," he cries out, "It's been so long!"

The old man squints, stares for a moment, and says, "Pinocchio?"

This story is not an ordinary story.  It is a joke.  A joke distinguishes itself from a story as such by introducing an unexpected element into what would otherwise be all very familiar.  In this story, we expected that the old man would squint and say “Jesus?”  We were set up for that by everything that went before—the religious setting, the details about the old man’s son.  But the story transcended its own boundaries and became a joke by taking us by surprise, by shocking us with the arrival of something entirely unforeseen.  Parables are like that as well.  They subvert the rules of the game.  And the greatest parable of all is Jesus.

You see, John’s hearers expected that their messiah would come along to whip the Romans with superior military strength.  They were wrong.  And our own expectations, all these years later, are probably just as misguided.  Whether we are evangelicals who expect that Christ will change things one day by the might of his superior power, or whether we are liberals who expect that Christ is so much one of us that he is only able to help those who help themselves, we are probably all mistaken.  For the story of Christ is still in motion, and we are not privy to the punch-line.  In another part of Luke’s gospel, we are told only that we cannot know what is to happen, or how.  For the punch-line is God’s.  As Jesus shocked the Greeks with his human weakness, and scandalised the Jews by his failure and cross, so this fool from God will appear a second time.  And while we moderns may pretend to have followed the story so far, the joke, the punch-line, will surely leave us all so gob-smacked that the only response available to us will be to be astonished, to laugh, to rejoice. 

For that is what we humans do when we are genuinely surprised.  We absorb the shock, we adjust our imagination, and then we laugh!  Like Sarai at the announcement of her old-age pregnancy with Isaac.  Like the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near with the Christ-child.  That is why Paul counsels the Philippians to cease their worrying and rejoice.  Stop trying to master it all with your brain, stop trying to second-guess God, he says.  Instead, surrender your concerns into God’s hands.  Relax into that surprising peace which surpasses all understanding.  The peace that is absurd.  The strange peace that we have cannot have manufactured for ourselves, because it defies every effort at human reasoning.

On my better days I see that Advent hope is a choice.  It’s about believing in the possibility of surprise.  It’s about believing that our tragic and repetitive history has an unforeseen and unpredictable punch-line which will fly in the face of everything that either the evidence or our secular reason might cause us to expect.  And that’s the hope I encourage from you as well.  The hope of a Mary of Nazareth who, in that ancient time of Advent waiting, become a bearer of the impossible to a tired and un-surprisable world.  Rejoice, people of God!  For while the night may be filled with tears, joy shall indeed come with the morning.  How, I have no idea.  But I believe it shall come.

Monday 10 December 2012


Texts:  Malachi 3. 1-4; Philippians 1. 3-11; Luke 3. 1-6

In this second week of Advent, we turn our gaze to the career of John the Baptist, one of the more intriguing figures in the gospel, one whom Luke describes as the forerunner of Christ, the one who announces his coming.  But who, exactly, was John the Baptist?  Where did he come from, and why did he end up preaching in the desert region east of Jerusalem?  You would be aware that I grew up a Baptist.  My family attended a Baptist church.  And so when I first started hearing the stories of John the Baptist, I assumed he was named that way because he was the first Baptist Christian, the one who started our denomination.  Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized my mistake.  I soon learned that John was called ‘the Baptist’ because he baptised his converts in the Jordan river, washing away their sins in a dramatic sign of repentance.  I also discovered that John was a very fiery preacher, one who didn’t mince his words in calling people to abandon their lax attitudes to religion.  John believed that the kingdom of God was coming very soon, and that people ought to repent of their wrongdoing in order to be ready for that day. 

When I was growing up, John the Baptist came to represent for me something like the ideal revivalist preacher, a person who was ultimately concerned with the state of each individual soul, and wanted to save that soul from the fires of hell.  Of course, the way we read the Scriptures is invariably influenced by the kind of church we are part of, and the kind of spirituality which is valued there.  My church was essentially revivalist.  It had inherited its theology and its spirituality, its way of believing and practicing the faith, from the frontier evangelists of 18th century America.  These were preachers who believed that Christianity was about saving souls from hell, and that the way to save souls from hell was to get them to repent of their drinking, swearing and fornicating and believe in Jesus, who would forgive them of all their sins and set them on the path to clean living and churchgoing.  It was only very much later, at university, that I began to see that John the Baptist was probably not THAT kind of revivalist preacher, that John’s understanding of salvation and saving souls was perhaps a little more nuanced.

To show you what I mean, I’d like to return to our text in Luke’s gospel, chapter 3.  There you find that Luke is very careful to give us a context for the appearing of the Baptist in the desert.  And it is important to note both what he tells us and what he does not tell us.  He tells us nothing about the private lives of those coming to hear his preaching.  We hear nothing about the private sins that would have been high on the agenda of 18th century revivalist preachers:  booze, fornication and bad language. What Luke does tell us about, however, is politics and social ethics.  He tells us about who is in power at the time, and who their political allies happen to be.  Because, for Luke, the Baptist is a preacher whose primary concern is not the private sins of individuals but the public sins of a people and a nation.  This means that the Baptist is much more like Martin Luther King Jr. than Billy Graham, if you get my drift.  He gets himself mixed up with politics.

You see, at the time when the Baptist appeared things were not at all well in Israel.  Judea and Galilee were small vassal states within the great empire of Rome.  Tiberias was the emperor, and each province of his empire was overseen by a local governor or procurator.  The procurator of Judea was Pontius Pilate, and he was garrisoned at the aptly named Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast.  Pilate was a cruel man who routinely and summarily put people to death.  He was not noted for looking too deeply into the facts of a case, preferring to make an example of pretty much any Jew who seemed to him to represent a rebellious spirit.  And the procurator’s power was absolute within his territory.  He could order a massacre, and none of the locals could do anything about it, least of all the Jewish kings or high priests, all of whom were only tolerated by Rome’s good grace.  The kings of trans-Jordan and Galilee, the Herods, had absolutely no power apart from Rome.  Though Jewish, and descended from the aristocratic leaders of the past, the Herods were puppets for Rome, collaborators in the repression of the Jewish population at large.  Even the high priests at the temple in Jerusalem, traditionally the key advisors to kings and wielders of political power in their own right, were largely compromised in this highly charged setting.  In order to preserve the legitimacy of their temple worship, the priests were also forced to play Rome’s game, to participate in repressing any person or movement which sought to question Rome’s authority in any way.

So when the Baptist appears in the desert to preach, we find that his preaching has a resolutely political edge. ‘In the wilderness’, we are told, ‘the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, and he went into the whole region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.  And what kinds of sins did John have in his sights?  We find out as we read further in our text.  John is interested not in fornication or drinking, but in questions of social justice.  Under the economic conditions encouraged by Rome, some were growing rich but most were extremely poor.  The rich ones were usually collaborating with Rome in some way.  And so John commands those who have more to share what they have with those who have little, even down to clothes and food.  He commands the tax collectors to take no more than Rome asks them too, to stop ripping people off to line their own pockets.  So too with the soldiers who served in Roman garrisons.  ‘Stop using your power to extort money from people’ he tells them, ‘or you will be in big trouble when the kingdom of God arrives’.

The ‘kingdom of God’ featured very highly in John’s preaching, and Luke sees John as the forerunner, the messenger who announces that the kingdom of God will arrive very soon.  He quotes Isaiah chapter 40 to make his point:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain shall be levelled.
The crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

When that sermon was first preached in Babylon, during the exile of the Jews in the 6th century BCE, the prophet imagined a great highway being built from Babylon to Jerusalem, with the Lord returning to his holy city in a fiery chariot to save his people.  But in the hands of Luke, the sermon takes on a more specific meaning.  For Luke, the kingdom of God preached by John is going to level out the scandalous inequalities in Jewish society.  The tall mountains, those who have grown rich on oppression and collaboration, will be knocked down.  And those who dwell in the valleys of death’s shadow will be raised to the sunlight once more.  For Luke, and apparently for John himself, the coming kingdom of God is a kingdom of which will bring both despair and salvation.  Despair for the rulers and collaborators, but salvation for all who are victims and trust in the Lord.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because I believe that the kingdom of God began to arrive in the person of Jesus Christ, whom John announced.  In him we see the compassion of God for the poor and the victims.  In him we see God’s judgement on the rich and the oppressors.  In Christ we see a God who sides with the victims against the overwhelming power of their enemies, and promises that their reign of terror will come to an end.  Can you see how relevant that message is for our own world, a world which is ravaged by greed, and the misuse of power?  Ours is a world in which people are tortured and killed for questioning their governments or senior business operators, a world in which the poor become even more poor day by day, because they must service their interest repayments before they can build their schools and hospitals.  If this Advent season means anything at all, it means that there is hope for these people. There is HOPE.   Because Christ has come in the flesh, because Christ became a victim himself, and because Christ rose from death to overcome the worst that people could do to him, there IS hope for all who struggle under the yoke of our inhumanity towards one another.

This gives us, perhaps, quite another spin on Christmas from the one many of us were raised on.  The Christmas of the revivalist preachers was about the salvation of the individual from their individual vices.  But I’m here to point out that God’s plans are much bigger than that.  They include the salvation of all who suffer for political and social reasons as well.  And I’m proud to be part of a church which continues to preach in that tradition, the tradition of political preaching which found its patron saint in John the Baptist.

This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent in 2000 at Devonport Uniting Church.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Birth Pangs

1 Samuel 1.4-20; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

This morning as we gather to worship, Israel and Palestine are again firing missiles at each other.  So far 40 Palestinians have been killed, including children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis have lost their lives also.  Overnight several of the buildings that house the Palestinian government have been destroyed and Israel appears to be readying itself for a ground invasion.  The Arab League has called for an end to hostilities, as has the West.  But neither government is so far showing any intention to do so.

The gospel text for today, tragically enough, also speaks about the destruction of a seat of government by a foreign invader.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem where they have been visiting the temple built by Herod.  It is a massive building, dominating the city’s skyline as well as its social, religious and political life. Being a ‘temple’, it is the centre of Israel’s religious cult, the place where the sacrifices are carried out day after day, year after year, to atone for the sins of the people.  It is the centre of Judea’s religious teaching also, the theological school where scholars read the Law and the Prophets and interpreted its meaning for the community at large.  Importantly for us, this morning, the temple is also the seat of government, the headquarters for the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council which no king of governor could afford to ignore.  From here the temple bureaucracy, the civil service if you will, sought to apply the political, social and administrative policies of the Council in such a way that stability was maintained in the midst of a potentially explosive international situation.  For Judea, like Galilee, is at this time an occupied land, a colony of the Roman Empire.  It is a powder keg waiting to go off.

The prophecy we read here from Jesus’ lips, that the temple would be destroyed, not one stone remaining upon another, should therefore be read as nothing other than the most dangerous talk imaginable.  In the religious and political context that was early first-century Jerusalem, such talk could be easily taken as evidence of both blasphemy and sedition.  Blasphemy, because in a society in which the will of the ruling Council and the will of God were understood as pretty much the same thing, prophecies against the temple could be interpreted as prophecies against God.  Sedition, because the Sanhedrin ultimately served its Roman overlords even as it sought to preserve some measure of national and cultural independence in doing so.  Words against the temple could therefore be interpreted by the Romans as words against themselves, an act of treason from a would-be usurper of political power. 

Subsequent events in Mark’s story bear this out. Within a few days, Jesus is brought for trial before both the Sanhedrin and the Romans, and his prophecy about the destruction of temple plays a prominent part in both hearings. He is condemned as a blasphemer by the Council and a traitor by the Romans.  He is tortured and crucified and, well you know the rest of the story.  Given the largely bad outcomes for both Jesus and his disciples, one is prompted to ask why Jesus chose to say what he said, and in the hearing of the public? Why did he not, at least, keep his views to himself and save himself and his friends a lot of grief?

Mark’s answer is this: that Jesus was indeed a prophet from God, and as a prophet from God he was called and constrained to speak the truth about the ruling powers no matter the consequences.  As a prophet, he had no choice.  This is what prophets do.  From Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘blasphemy’ is not speech against God, but speech for God.  For the Sanhedrin and gone too far in its appeasement of the Romans.  Sure, it has managed to preserve the sacrificial cult of the temple, but in doing so it had rendered the more weighty matters of Jewish faith null and void, matters of ethics, of justice, and the love of one’s neighbour.  This gap between the Torah studied in the temple precincts and what was actually happening on the ground for the vast majority of the Jewish people was, for Mark, the presenting reason for Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish authorities.   Similarly, from Mark’s point of view, Jesus ‘sedition’ is entirely justified.  For Mark and his community, there could only be one ‘Lord,’ one Emperor, and that was God.  Jesus, as God’s son and mouthpiece, therefore has a legitimate authority to condemn what the Romans did to the Jews, and to do so in the name of a ‘justice’ that the Romans knew nothing about, a justice based in vulnerable, covenant love rather than in naked power.

That Mark is the pastor of a community that has in fact lived through the destruction of the temple, and the whole of Jerusalem with it, is not insignificant.  He knows that the prophecy of Jesus has come true, that the temple is no more and that his own community is now a refugee community, running as fast as it can from the vengeance of the Romans.  In this place, the place of a refugee community that has lost both its temple and its prophet, Mark writes what he writes.  And in his writing we can find some wisdom even for ourselves, as we endure a time filled with wars and earthquakes and rumours of wars.

What Mark has Jesus say of times like this is that they are ‘birth-pangs’.  Birth pangs.  Some might read what is happening in the middle-east as the end of world, full-stop.  And I am very sure that for many who are sitting in the middle of it all, that is how it must seem.  Think of the Palestinians huddled in their houses in Gaza, the most densely populated strip of earth in the world, being bombarded from above.  It can’t be very pleasant to have members of your family killed as they venture out to find food or to visit a neighbour.  In such circumstances, when the power to the north – a new Roman empire to all intents and purposes – seems to want to destroy your entire country, the end of the world must surely feel as though it is indeed at hand!

What Mark says, however, out of the experience of Jesus and of his own refugee community, is that the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The pains associated with wars and earthquakes – surely a metaphor for the shaking of our many certainties – are temporary pains that, like the pangs of childbirth, while severe and almost unendurable as they come upon us – do eventually pass and give way to something like peace and even joy.  I remember well the birth of my own children.  In the process of labour I watched on helplessly as my wife’s body was shaken by the most extraordinary waves of pain I had ever witnessed and, for the birth of our first child, these paroxysms went on for 16 hours or so.  I found it hard to comprehend how any human being could possibly endure more.  But when my daughter was finally born, all those hours of painful upheaval seemed to disappear into forgetfulness.  As the child was placed in my wife’s arms, all I could see was joy. 

The story of Hannah and Samuel is instructive in this sense.  Here we have a woman for whom life holds little joy because she is barren and cannot give birth to a son.  Even though her husband loves her regardless – which would have been quite a rare thing in patriarchal world of the ancient ear-East – she must endure the mocking of her fertile sister-wife and the disapproval of her family and friends.  For in that world, a barren woman was seen as a complete failure, a failure at her basic function in life, to provide heirs for the family and for the tribe, to guarantee its survival and its prosperity by doing so.  Because she cannot, Hannah is deeply depressed and, for her, it seems that the world is indeed at an end.

What she does about this, we are told, is not to rush off to IVF as we moderns do, but to visit the Lord’s shrine in Shiloh and pray for God’s mercy. She prays for a son and when she is indeed granted her wish, promises to give him into the Lord’s service for the rest of his life.  When Samuel is born, Hannah is filled with joy and sings a song about the love of God for all who are lowly and downtrodden, which becomes the basis, in time, for the revolutionary literature we know as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary at the birth of Jesus.  The point of this story, and the literature of revolution it spawns, is simply this: that in the economy and plan of God, even the end of the world is not the end of the world.  The end of the world, in which we lose homes and children and livelihoods, in which we may lose even our sanity and our very lives, is the onset of birth-pangs.  Such birth-pangs herald a new birth, the birth of a new world, a world no longer ruled by greed and oppression and poverty, where the strong destroy the weak for fun, but by the love who is God.

This is the faith of Christians and the source of our hope even when things look very bad indeed.  Our hope is in the one who was raised even from death by the power of this love who is God.  Our faith is built upon this firm foundation so that even when we grieve, we do not grieve as others grieve who have no hope. We grieve as people who feel the pain of our many losses, but who believe in a new birth, a new world, where what has been lost will be returned to us a hundredfold. Such is the grace of the one who has been raised.  I have a friend who lives in Bethlehem, Daoud.  He is a Palestinian Christian and a pastor to his persecuted community. The small Christian community in that part of the world is persecuted by the Israeli’s because it is Palestinian, and persecuted by many of its fellow Palestinians because it is not Muslim.  Daoud and Jihan Nassar do not have to imagine their way into Mark’s gospel and the horrors of a city destroyed like most Westerners do.  It is not a great feat of imagination to place themselves in the shoes of a persecuted community seeking refuge from violence.  Daoud and Johan live this experience every day of their lives. And yet when that community gathers each Sunday to listen to the world of God and share the eucharist, Daoud encourages the people to see their sufferings not as the end of the world, but as the birth-pangs of a new world that is yet to be born.

In this light, the writer to the Hebrews encourages Christians everywhere to never give up the habit of meeting together for encouragement and mutual support.  For each of us live in the time of the not-yet. The events of last night in Palestine and Israel make this very clear.  We are not yet at peace, we do not yet love one another, and we do not yet welcome each other as God has welcomed us.  In the time of the not-yet, we are encouraged to meet together as we meet together today, and to encourage one another with these stories of faith, the stories which are able to reframe the meaning of our most painful experiences as birth-pangs, the birth-pangs of the coming kingdom.

This homily was preached at St Columba's, Balwyn, on the morning of Nov 18, 2012.

Sunday 11 November 2012

God's Revolution

Psalm 127; Hebrews 9. 24-28; Mark 12. 38-44
In the Four Quartets T.S. Eliot wrote this:
. . .   In order to arrive there,
to arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
        You need to go by a way in which there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
        You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
        You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
        You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

There is a revolution from God, an impossible turning in which the very worst that may visit us in life is able to reconfigure itself as the very best.  It is a revolution that resists explanation or representation.  It happens in our experience.  We know that it happens, and we can recognise it when it happens to others.  But we struggle to understand or tell it, to name its dark contours even for ourselves.  To my mind, the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus is our best telling of this revolution.  “Best” because here the story unfolds from our lips and imaginations, from the lips and imagination of the church, and yet it does not come from us.  We hear it, first of all, from God.  What we confess with our lips and know in our hearts begins not with our own hearts, but with an event that happens in the heart of God. 

The gospel story of the widow who gave all she had, all she had to live on, is a version of that telling.  Although we have it here, in Mark, as a story about discipleship - an allegory and paradigm example for us of what a disciple of Jesus would do - its context in the larger gospel story suggests something else.  Since Jesus himself is about to be arrested, and everything taken from him through the humiliation of torture and crucifixion, and since Mark casts this great loss as a willing loss, a sacrifice or gift on the part of Jesus and his Father for the life of the world, so this simple act of a widow’s offering is not primarily about what disciples do, but what God does.  In the larger story about Christ’s offering, God’s gift, the woman’s willingness to part with everything that she has to live on prepares the reader to hear the story of the passion: that she is like the God who loses everything, but willingly, in the encounter with human evil. 

Consider, if you will, what has happened in the story so far.   In chapter 1 we read that Jesus had come to inaugurate a kingdom, the kingdom of God.   In chapters 2 through 7 we read stories about the signs of that kingdom’s arrival:  the preaching of good news, healings, exorcisms, and (not least) the shattering of human traditions about what is right and what is wrong.  In chapters 8 & 10, Jesus tells his disciples that salvation comes only for the one who is willing to die, to be baptised into death, to become the slave of all.  Also in chapter 10, in what I take to be the key utterance of the gospel, Jesus declares that salvation, while impossible for human beings, is indeed possible for God.  Can you see where Mark is leading us with that story-line?  To suffering and to crucifixion, as a direct and necessary consequence of God’s encounter with human beings.   But also to the revolution revealed there, that strange turning in which death becomes life, poverty becomes riches, and the loss of self the key to a newly made identity that God gives freely.  So what Mark is trying to tell us in this stark story about a widow who gives away even the little she has, is nothing other than what he is telling us in the gospel as a whole.  That one can never be saved from life’s cruelties unless one is willing to confess and acknowledge one’s own involvement in the system that perpetuates those cruelties, giving oneself over, instead, to a different logic, the logic of God which is called by the beautiful name of grace.

What I mean is this.  For Mark – and, indeed, for the Letter to the Hebrews before him – there are two powers or logics in the world:  the power of religion or karma, and the power of the gospel or of grace.  In Mark’s world, as in ours, it was the power of karma that appeared to reign supreme.  Karma is the power of necessity, you know, the compulsion we feel to ‘get ahead’ by paying our dues, working hard, and keeping our patrons happy.  Of course, we would not feel such compulsion unless we believed in karma ourselves, if we did not want to get ahead, if we were not already invested in the very system that enslaves us because we believe it will reward us.  Yet this is where most of us are.  Compelled, entranced, invested.  Yet, the karmic system can only ever lead us to despair, for it condemns us to reap only what we sow.  It is like capitalism, which delivers to us only what we produce ourselves – images of the real, but not the real itself.  The real eludes us, for we are not God.  We cannot create even ourselves, let alone what we need for happiness or peace!  This widow of Israel, for example, was probably caught in a double-bind, a circle of despair with no exit.  Like all good Jews, she longed to be part of the people of the redeemed, those who were acceptable to God because they obeyed the priestly law.  Yet, she wanted to survive as well, to live.  When her male patrons died or put her aside, she had to turn to activities condemned by the law in order to feed herself and her children – to prostitution or stealing or slavery in the houses of idolators.  The only way to achieve both ends, to stay alive and ritually clean at the same time, was to accept a form of moral blackmail, to pay the priestly caste a large portion of her ill-gotten earnings in return for their acceptance and protection.  Unfortunately, her willingness to do so almost certainly kept her in a state of perpetual want and need.  It also perpetuated and repeated the very system that oppressed her, so that nothing was able to change.  She reaped what she sowed, her poverty and need creating nothing but more poverty and more need.

Thank God there is another power in the world, the power of grace!  Grace, as I have been preaching for some time now, is the opposite of karma or religion or myth.  It is like the blessing of children of which the Psalmist speaks.  Children cannot be produced by the machinations of our human longings, needs or planning.  They are not a reward for our labour or a right to be possessed.  Children come, as many of you know very well, as a sheer gift from God, without reason or foretelling.  Children are therefore signs to us of grace, that condition of blessedness and peace which comes not from ourselves but from somewhere other, from God.  Grace is that which comes to question, to interrupt, to displace and even destroy the cycle of despair which is karma.  With the gift of grace, we reap what we have not sown, and live in the power of that which we have not produced or made for ourselves.  In grace we experience the love of God shown in Christ’s self-sacrifice.  In Christ, God is totally for us, even to the point of so identifying with us in our karmic cycle of despair that he suffered the full consequence of what that cycle produces:  nothingness, and only nothingness.

Of course, having given itself over to nothingness and to death, grace is not exhausted.  It rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its own destruction, and proceeds to infect the karmic system like a virus which cannot be quashed.  In the gospel story, this power or property is called resurrection.  It is the perseverance of love in the face of death and despair, the never-depleted surplus of possibility over necessity.  In Mark’s world, the widows of Israel were forever caught in a web of karmic despair.  In trying to escape its demands they succeeded only in fulfilling its demands.  Not so, we are told, with the widow who gave her all, all she had to live on.  In the context of the gospel as a whole, we must understand this act evangelically, that is, as a picture or metaphor of salvation.  As for Christ himself, and for all who follow his way of the cross, it is only by finally allowing the karmic system to have what it seeks – our very lives – that we shall find ourselves free of its determinations.  For while she, and we who are Christ’s, indeed give our lives daily to the system we inhabit, that system need not possess us thereby.  For we are Christ’s, and our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God, as the apostle says.  Therefore we are being freed from the desire to get ahead, to succeed in terms determined by the law of karma.  We are people who know a love which is stronger even than death, and the gift of a life and future we have not produced.  Therefore we choose, over and over again, in all the minutiae of life, to serve our neighbour without thought of cost or ego.  For the price is already paid.  What can karma take from us that Christ cannot return a hundredfold?

The movie known as Matrix: Revolutions, can be read as the third volume in a three-fold re-telling of the gospel as I have proclaimed it todayIn that story, it is at the precise moment when the new Son of Man, Neo Anderson, gives himself over to the power of karmic inevitability, that the revolution begins.  As he lies crucified upon the power of the machines, absorbed, it seems, into the power of the same old thing, a miracle begins to happen.  What was absorbed begins to absorb.  What was dead now begins to infect the whole system with life.  What had been given away now returns more powerfully to inhabit all the world, bringing light and life and peace where once there was only darkness, death and enmity.  So it can be for us.  Jesus promises that if we will face our deepest fear – the loss of our very souls – and if we will trust in his love, then we shall live, even though we die.  “In my end is my beginning,” wrote T.S.  Eliot.  Let us give thanks that it is so.

Friday 2 November 2012

The gift of death

Texts:  Isaiah 25.6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44

Because I could not stop for Death,
he kindly stopped for me.

There is something arresting about these lines from Emily Dickinson.  When read out loud, they send a shock-wave through one’s body because their subject is . . . death.  Death, that shadow, that reality which so many of us would rather avoid thinking about.  Death, that end to all our powers, that blind assassin of achievements, whether they be evil or good, lies or truth.  Death, that destroyer of suburban dreams, that terrifying democrat who respects neither our station in life nor the tapestries of intimacy we weave therein.  Death is indeed one whose piercing gaze we would rather not countenance.  The truth is that few of us have any time for death.  We are busy.  We would rather not stop.  And yet . . .  isn’t it strange that Dickinson speaks of death’s ‘kindness’ in choosing to stop for her?  How could death ever be regarded as kind?

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking of that paradigm example of modernity called medicine, and its unfortunate practise of keeping a person breathing when they’d rather slip away, that brand of so-called ‘care’ which insists on keeping our bodies alive, when, at the same time, our deepest spirit longs for nothing else but quiet, peace, and an end to the pain.  Many of you will have stared this experience in the face.  And many of you will have recoiled in horror, and prayed earnestly that God would grant the kindness of death, a death which comes, quietly, to liberate a loved one from the coils of despairing mortality.  In circumstances such as these, death can indeed be seen as a kindness.  But this morning I would like to push us beyond circumstances such as these, and explore a far more difficult proposition. Might there be a sense in which death as such, any death and every death, might actually be regarded as a gift from God?

Death as a gift.  The idea just seems so contradictory, especially if you’ve been raised, like me, in the Christian church!  Because so much of our theology seems to regard death as the enemy.  And with good cause.  I think of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of Eden.  For many years I imagined that human beings were created immortal by God, and that death came into the world as a form of punishment for our pride, our believing that we could be like God.  Emphasis on the word punishment.  And that is certainly one way to read the story . . .  if you want to ignore the following details.  That Adam and Eve were not created immortal, and that their expulsion from the garden of Eden is effected so that they will never eat of the ‘tree of life’ and become immortal.  In the actual Genesis story, as opposed to the imagined one, the expulsion from the garden is not a punishment, but a measure to ensure that the plan for human beings continues according to God’s intention.  And that intention explicitly includes mortality.  Death.

But what of that other famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15, where the apostle Paul speaks of death as the ‘last great enemy’ that God will overcome?  Indeed, how can we Christians not see death as the enemy, if we believe that God wills that our ‘mortal bodies put on immortality’, that our fleshly bodies become ‘spiritual bodies’, as Paul says?  Today’s reading from Isaiah would seem to echo that sentiment as well.  There the prophet describes death as the ‘shroud’, the ‘sheet of sorrow’ that covers the people, and promises that God will ‘swallow up death forever’.  And again, in Revelation, the writer imagines a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ in which death, along with sorrow and pain, have been done away with forever.  Surely, then, death is not part of the plan of God.  Surely it can only be seen as an enemy to be done away with: the last enemy; the last, and greatest, evil.

Again, it is possible to read the story that way if you are happy to do away with the more subtle character of the narratives in question.  It is important to notice, in Paul for example, that while death will ultimately be done away with, in the meantime it performs a crucially important function. For Paul, death is the indispensable means by which we put aside our own will to make room for the will of Christ.  By our baptism we are buried with Christ in death, so that we may be raised to a life no longer controlled by the desires of our own egos, but by Christ.  Now this is very important.  Here the ordinary, ‘common-sense’, understanding of death is subjected to a radical deconstruction, a veritable transfiguration.  No longer is death simply death, the cessation of consciousness, of life, of biological functioning. No, death is also a radical decentring of personality, an act of the will by which, paradoxically, desire and personal ambition are done away with so that the desires and ambitions of God might take up residence in that very same personality.  Here death is indispensible to what John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’, the profoundly disturbing loss of all that one thinks or knows or feels in order to make room for that which is unthought, unknown, and unfelt . . .  for God, who is all that we are not.

If all that is difficult to take in, then listen again to the story of the death and raising of Lazarus.  Except, this time, listen not so much for the events of the story, but for the theological images  evoked by Lazarus’ death.  Can you hear Jesus say that, by Lazarus’ death, the glory of God will arrive? . . .   Can you hear him say that, with this death, there is an end to knowing and a beginning to believing? . . .   Can you hear Thomas say ‘Let us go with Jesus, that we may die with him also’?  . . .   This whole story imagines death, not just as the cessation of life, but as the occasion of salvation.  By the death of Lazarus, all concerned engage the reality of their own deaths as well.  In weeping, they experience the death of their ‘seeing’, which, for the Greeks, was a cipher for knowledge.  According to John, God cannot be known in the same way as we know other things.  Indeed, it is only when we are prepared to lose our capacity to ‘know’ that we may see God’s glory.  Only when we die to ourselves, may we rise to God, and find our true selves.

Death, then, is a gift in this sense.  By coming to the end of our powers, we make room in our lives for the power of God.  By coming to the end of our knowing, we make room in our minds for the knowing of God.  By coming to the end of our desire, we make room in our hearts for the desire of God.  By coming to the end of our capacity for peace, we make room in our hearts for the peace of God.  If the coming of God in any of these ways is a good thing, then death may be seen as a gift.  Indeed, one might even say that death is God’s gift of grace for all who would be released into the radically new way of being alive which we call being ‘in Christ’.  And while I believe that my actual and final death will also be my passage to God, I also believe that in meditating upon the fact of my death right now, while I’m alive, I might be persuaded to die a little now, and so become more fully alive than I have ever been before.

Thomas Merton once prayed with these words.  I’d like to make them my own today, in honour of the saints who have lived and died before us, and who model for us the way to salvation:

My hope is in what the eye has never seen.  Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards.  My hope is in what human hearts can never feel.  Therefore let me not trust in the feelings of my heart.  My hope is in what human hands have never touched.  Do not let me trust what I can grasp between my fingers.  Death will loosen my grasp and my vain hope will be gone.[1]

[1] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, New York, Noonday Press, 1958, p.39