Search This Blog

Thursday 28 November 2013

Advent. It sure isn't Christmas!

Advent is the first season of the Church’s year. It encompasses the four Sundays prior to sundown on Christmas Eve, when the shorter Christmas-Epiphany period begins.  The word ‘Advent’ literally means coming, which also reveals the main theological theme of the season:  that time in which the Church looks, with great anticipation, for the coming of Jesus into the world. 'Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' is the oft-repeated prayer.

The ‘coming’ we reflect on in Advent is not, in fact, primarily that first coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem, but the second coming of Christ at the end of the ages, when God will put right everything that is wrong, and the poor and faithful will finally inherit new heavens and a new earth.  The Scriptures read during this period talk of the hope of all God’s people for peace and justice in the world.  They speak also of a messiah who will inaugurate this age by taking up the ancient throne of David.  Startling cosmic images are used to speak of what things will be like when the messiah arrives: wolves lying down with lambs and children playing safely over the nests of snakes (Isaiah 11.1-10) are just two examples. 

Of course, the flip side of such hope is a very real sense that the messianic age has not yet arrived.  We do not hope for things that are already ours!  This indicates a fundamental difference between Advent and the Christmas season which follows.  Christ has come a first time, certainly, and it is the special function of the Christmas-Ephipany period to reflect this fact and tell that story.  Yet the Christ who came two thousand years ago has still not arrived in all his glorious fullness.  We know this because the universe does not yet experience the wholeness of his promised peace.  It is dominated, rather, by sin, suffering and despair.  These realities are frankly acknowledged during Advent, and worshippers are encouraged to repent of the part they play in making and keeping the world in its deplorable state.  Thus Advent, like its twin season of Lent, invites Christians to consider the ways in which Christ has actually been rendered absent or irrelevant in both their own lives and that of the world. Advent, then, encourages worshippers to place their hope and trust in Christ who, when he arrives in his divine glory at the end of the age, will put all such faults away for ever. 

To help Christians reflect on what the coming of Jesus might mean for us today, the Church makes use of a number of interesting symbols.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree is named from Isaiah 11.1: "A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots."  It is a symbol of the faith and family of God from which Jesus came. Jesus is like a new branch springing from an old family and faith.  We use the Jesse Tree to think about the importance of our forbears in teaching us to place our faith and hope in Christ.

In Australia, the Jesse Tree is often a eucalypt.  Eucalypts are regenerated by fire; they have to be destroyed in order to be born anew.  The biblical Branch is a sign of newness in the midst of destruction or discouragement.  The idea of the new Branch from an old stump became a way to talk about the expected messiah (e.g., Jer 23.5) who would save Israel from all its troubles. The presence of the Jesse Tree in churches during Advent reminds worshippers that Jesus came to suffer the full consequences of our all-too-human sin and despair, but then to rise again as a sign of hope for all who would follow him.

Christians long for the full reign of the messiah, and the kingdom of Peace that he will bring. So, while we celebrate the birth of the Branch, the new shoot from the stump of Jesse, we anticipate with hope the Second Advent, and await the completion of the promise.

Wreath and Candles

At the front of many churches you will notice, during Advent, the presence of a circular wreath of green, with four candles about it.  The wreath is a circle of evergreen branches that reminds us of God’s love.  Like a circle, God’s love has no beginning or end.  Like an evergreen tree, it is forever alive and growing.  God’s love never fails.

The Advent candles are variously purple, white, and pink.  Purple is the colour of kings, but it is also the colour of bruises.  It reminds us that while Jesus may indeed be the royal Son of God, in fact he came to share our humanity, to suffer and die that a new kind of humanity might be born from his suffering.  Purple is also the colour of Lent, the season in which we remember Christ’s journey to the cross and resurrection.  It is used during Advent to remind us that God’s love is not insipid or sentimental, but costly and real.

A pink candle may be lit on the third or fourth Sunday of Advent as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was her special obedience to bear the Christ child who would live and die and be raised for us all. The pink candle might also stand for Gaudete ('Rejoice') Sunday, something of a joyous break in the otherwise penitential tone of Advent.

The white candle that stands at the centre of the wreath is known as the ‘Christ’ candle.  It is lit on Christmas Eve to signify Christ’s arrival in our midst. It parallels and represents the lighting of the Paschal candle at the Vigil of Easter, a new light for a new world.

Nativity Scene

The traditional name for Christmas is the ‘Feast of the Nativity’.  The word “Nativity” literally means to “become native” or to be born into a particular community and place.  For Christians, the Feast of the Nativity celebrates the very human birth of the unique Son of God to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth.

During Advent, churches often anticipate the nativity of Christ by introducing parts of the traditional nativity ‘scene’ during the final two Sundays of Advent.  Around the (still-empty) manger where the saviour was laid are placed his parents, a stable, animals and shepherds, as well as stars and angels.  This scene can become a symbol of cosmic anticipation as the church, together with the whole creation, await the messiah’s arrival.

The ‘O’ Antiphons

A key component of the gathering rites during Advent worship are a series of responsive invocations known as the ‘O’ Antiphons.  Each antiphon contains an invocation of Jesus, using one of his biblical titles: O Wisdom, O Lord etc., ending with O Emmanuel, meaning ‘God with us’. Each contains a tiny prayer for God's people, and the petition that Christ will come very soon.  The ‘O’ Antiphons are very old, going back to the Vesper Prayers for Advent offered by the faithful in the eighth century Roman rite.

The antiphons represent a tiny theology textbook on who Christ is. O Wisdom reminds us that Christ is the Logos, the Word of God, through whom all things are created. O Adonai calls upon the Lord who spoke from the Burning Bush, telling Moses to lead his people to freedom. O Root of Jesse speaks of Christ born of the line of David; God, born into a human family. O Key of David refers to Christ who has the power to open all the prisons we may find ourselves in, and to lock away all things that hinder us in our journey to God. O Rising Dawn is the promise that even in our darkest times, Christ, the Light of the World, will shine forth. O King of the Nations looks forward to Christ's reign of justice and peace. O Emmanuel brings us to Bethlehem, to that moment in history when Christ became a human being.  

The church uses the Antiphons throughout Advent, either as a spoken litany or by singing the well-known 9th century hymn “Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. 


In our consumer-dominated Western culture, the reflective experience of Advent is very often lost, even in the church. We are all so very keen to get what we want, and to get it now.  We want to celebrate Christmas as early as possible, especially that kind of Christmas which is all about the exchange of gifts and the telling of sentimental stories about middle-class values.  Advent, on the other hand, creates a space in which we are invited to reflect on the experience of not yet having what we desire or, more profoundly still, of relinquishing our own sense of what is desirable in favour of what the coming Christ might desire for us.  Advent is an invitation to stop doing all the things that make our lives miserable – including consuming, being busy and stressed! – and to listen, instead, for the coming Word who alone can give us the power to become children of God.  In my experience, one can only do that by refusing to participate in the Australian summer festival that is called ‘Christmas’, the Christmas that begins in November and has almost nothing to do with Christ.

I wish you all a holy Advent.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Coca-Cola and Christ

Texts:  Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 1.68-79; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Today is the festival of Christ the King.  It is the last Sunday, and the last word, of the Christian year.  It serves to remind us that, in the end, God will be sovereign over all things. The English mystic, Julian of Norwich, captured the essence of that affirmation when she said, 'all will be well and all things shall be well'.  Now . . .  if you pause to reflect for a moment, you'll realise how laughably audacious that message appears to be.  In the middle of economic meltdown, wars and rumours of wars, in the middle of horrific poverty and environmental crisis . . . 'all shall be well and all things shall be well'?

Please, tell me if I'm wrong, but I would have thought that it was not God who was directing the fate of the world, but multi-national corporations like Coca-cola.  And I'm being absolutely serious here.  The Coca-cola Company is amongst the most powerful forces in the world today.  It owns and controls more subsidiary food and drink companies than any other.  It employs more people and has a greater cash-flow than many governments.  But what is more significant is the power Coca-cola has over people's hearts and minds.  You see, Coke was the first to create not just a product, but a need.  None of us actually need Coca-cola.  It's a sugary soft-drink with almost no nutritional value at all.  But if you go into the poorest village of India and ask people what you can do for them on a hot day, they are more than likely to ask for a Coke.  Before Coke came along, industries would create products to fulfil the needs of already-existing markets.  But with Coke, something quite new came into being.  Through the power of advertising, Coke actually began to produce the markets themselves.  To create needs that weren't there before.  The need for a sugary cola drink.  A tailor-made product to fulfil a tailor-made need.

Coca-cola's advertising is very, very effective.  It is omniscient.  It is everywhere.  If you're a young person these days, it's almost impossible to feel like you're having a good time unless you have a coke in hand.  Coke is the symbol of youthfulness and vitality.  It's also the symbol of western freedom.  I can do anything I want.  I can be anything that I want.  The Coca-cola market-researchers are very, very clever.  In the last few years they have even tried to tap into the renewed interest in things spiritual.  They present Coke as the pathway into other worlds, the elixir of the gods which can keep you forever young and deliver you from the boredom and tedium of everyday life.  With Coke, life can be an adventure with mystery and intrigue.

The Coca-cola company has used its power very subtly.  But the effects are devastating.  The people of Mexico City are very poor.  They have difficulty finding the money to buy enough food to maintain a good standard of health.  Yet they drink more Coca-cola than the whole of Australia put together.  Why?  Because they have been brainwashed by advertising.  I might be hungry, but if I'm drinking Coke, things can't be too bad.  Note, also, that the Coke company has a rather appalling record when it comes to labour policy.  Most of its operations these days are in the two-thirds world.  Impoverished workers are paid pittance to produce the sugary stuff.  They are hired and fired at will, with little or no compensation or redundancy measures in place.  Workers will therefore do pretty much anything for the company in order to keep their jobs.  Consider, too, that the Coke Company  is a large contributor to the environmental crisis that we now find ourselves in.  Huge tracts of rainforest have been removed, in some of the world's poorest countries, to make way for sugar plantations which supply the Coke juggernaut.  Clearing the forests has led to climate change, an extreme shortage of both land and firewood for subsistence farmers, water shortages, and the kind of landslides that regularly occur in places where land-clearing has become extreme.

Add to all that the capacity of Coca-cola to silence its western critics.  Not by the crude means you can get away with in the two-thirds world.  But by throwing around the sponsorship dollar.  An example.  The United Methodist Church in the United States, a church whose rhetoric for social justice is very impressive, tends not to say anything about Coca-cola because Coke contributes a very large sum of money to the running of one of its principal seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.  Now, if the church can be so easily pacified, governments even more so.

In a world run by companies like Coca-cola, where is the sovereignty of God.  How can all things be well, when the world is so obviously coming to grief?  Well, the very same questions were being asked on a hill outside Jerusalem, a little over 2000 years ago.  There, on a Roman cross, hung the man many had hoped would turn things around for the Jewish people.  He had been hailed as the Messiah, the chosen one of God, who would rescue the people from domination and poverty at the hands of the Roman invaders.  But now that particular dream lay in tatters.  There he hung, between earth and heaven, bleeding from the nails in his hands and the scourge of the whip.  Where was God at this moment?  Where was the power of God?  Why didn't God come down from heaven and nuke all those whom had put Jesus up there?  Why didn't God take back the world from the powers of darkness by mounting a counter-invasion?  Why didn't God make things right?

The words of Jesus on the cross give some clues as to why God didn't, and why God doesn't, do such things.  When the soldiers nail him there, Jesus says 'Father, forgive them.  They don't know what they're doing'.   God, you see, is not in the habit of forcing people to do what they are not inclined to do.  God is the maker of that most treasured of human qualities - freedom.  The capacity to do good, or to do evil.  The capacity to love or to hate.  The capacity to create good things, or to destroy.  The trouble with freedom is that all things can very easily come to grief.  And they did for Jesus.  When God created human freedom, God knew that God himself would eventually be caught up in what human beings do.  That God would eventually be nailed to a cross.  But he did it anyway.  And he did it out of love.  Out of love, God is willing to submit to our freedom.  Out of love, God is willing to forgive, and to suffer the consequences of our foolishness.  Out of love, God is crucified with the poor of India, and the disappeared of Pinochet's Chile, and the murdered priests of El Salvador.  And, out of love, God is willing to forgive them all.

You see, the power of God to be sovereign in the world is very different to that of Coca-cola or any of the other multinational powerbrokers.  And it is different to the power currently being wielded by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania over other councils of the church.  God's reign of peace will come, not as a result of forceful or manipulative practices, but by the subtle and pervasive power of love.  The power of passive resistance.  The power of martyrdom and of prayer.  Christ himself is the trail-blazer in this regard.  He loved the poor.  He healed the sick.  He was a veritable presence of God for the little ones of his time.  And when he was crucified, he did not remain that way.  Somehow he rose to new life.  Not life as it had been, life in the shadow of death.  But life in all its fullness.  Life lived in the peace and communion of God.  The rumour of God, then, has never been put down.  It remains the strongest power in the world.  It whispers in the ears of political leaders.  It challenges the bullying practices of companies like Coca-cola and the Uniting Church.  It beckons to us each time we come to the place of dread, when we realise that life according to the vision of the advertisers is not all its cracked up to be.  One day, we believe, the rumour will cease to be a rumour.  That which has whispered in our hearts will be proclaimed from the rooftops.  Everyone will know that Jesus is the king.  And his glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.

This homily was recently adapted from a sermon first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in 1998.

Sunday 10 November 2013

God of the living

Haggai 2.1-9; Luke 20.27-38 

When the word of the Lord came to Haggai, the leading families of Judah were in serious disrepair.  Their forebears had witnessed the total destruction of their beloved city, Jerusalem, with the Temple of Yahweh as its centrepiece.  They and their children had been clamped  in chains, and then carted off to exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem had fallen, they believed, not primarily because a greedy emperor wanted their lands, but because God had abandoned them.  The people who now returned to the ruined city had grown up on a steady diet of preaching that condemned their fathers and grandfathers for their sins.  It was their failure to rule for the sake of the poorest and most vulnerable in the land, to live according to the covenant established with Moses and the great King David, that the prophets railed against most.  God had abandoned their families to destruction, so the prophets said, in exactly the same way as they, themselves, had abandoned their covenant duties toward the vulnerable and the poor.

So here the survivors live and worked, a new generation of Jewish aristocrats, earnestly seeking to make new lives.  Released from exile, they had returned to Judah to rebuild their inheritance.  The stately houses had all been repaired, the walls and the public buildings of the city also.  Economic life had begun to return, albeit slowly. Yet—and here’s a great puzzle—the great temple to Yahweh, jewel in Jerusalem’s crown, had not yet been restored.  Not one bit.  It remains, at the opening of the book of Haggai, a pile of rubble on the ground.  But why?  Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have expected the returned exiles to start work on the temple immediately, as a sign of their gratefulness to God for arranging their return!   But perhaps this assumption fails to take account of how deeply traumatising the exile has actually been?  Perhaps it fails to perceive a serious and ongoing spiritual malaise in the hearts of the people.

I put it to you that the pile of rubble at the heart of the city can indeed tell us something about the heart of its people at the time.  Although the people had indeed returned to Jerusalem, it does not necessarily follow that every single one of them was able to attribute that change in fortune to the forgiveness or care of God.  The return had been a struggle, afterall.  Having arrived, the seeding money from the Emperor Darius had been quickly spent on essential capital works to defend the city against its enemies.   But with the walls built, it had proven difficult to grow food and build up acceptable levels of trade and economic life.  No matter how hard the people worked, they could not, it seemed, reach a point of satisfaction in what they had achieved.   I quote from Haggai chapter 1: 
Consider how you have fared, declares the Lord.  You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no-one is warm; and you that earn wages do so to fill bags with holes.
It seems that many of the people had become hard and pragmatic during their Babylonian exile.  Perhaps they had taken God’s abandonment, so eloquently versified by the prophets, as an unalterable given.   Perhaps a great many of them had decided (deep in their hearts if not as a matter for public declaration), to now make futures for themselves that did not look for God’s blessing in any way whatsoever.  Perhaps they believed that God was permanently absent or disapproving, so that the fortune of one’s family was now something one had to build on one’s own.  If that were true then, of course, there was little point in rebuilding the temple!  Why pour scarce family money and resources into worshipping a God who may not even care anymore?  Surely, if God could not be counted upon, one simply needed to get on with the hard work of securing a future for one’s family in spite of God?  Of course, few would have uttered such things publicly in Jerusalem.  Yet one suspects that this is what most of the people believed.  And their action, or inaction, regarding the public honouring of God tends to betray that fact.

Now, this practical atheism of the post-exilic Jewish leaders, has a familiar ring to it I reckon.  Like the returned exiles, most Australians say that they believe in some kind of higher power they are content to call God.  Like the returned exiles, most of our fellow Australians believe that we are here to make life as prosperous as possible for our children.  To that end, we defend our country against its enemies, and we work as hard as the returned exiles did.  But we are like the returned exiles in another way also.  We are practical atheists.  While most of us declare that God may well exist, we also believe that God’s existence or non-existence is actually rather irrelevant to the way we live our lives.  Deep in our hearts we suspect that God doesn’t actually care for us very much.  Afterall, if God cared for us, if God considered us worthy of his care, wouldn’t our lives be more satisfying than they are?  Wouldn’t they be less painful and disappointing?

So, we are not so very different, contemporary Australians and post-exilic Jews.  Who would have thought?  Because of our practical atheism, neither of us are particularly inclined to provide, out of our hard-earned resources, for any public honouring or worship of God.  We are all very aware, are we not, that most of our friends and family visit  the church for particular occasions, but they do not belong to the church in the sense of submitting their own fortunes to the will and way of God in Christ.
The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Haggai is therefore as much a word for us as it was for his contemporaries.  Allow me quote: 
Is this a time for you to live in your panelled houses, while my house lies in ruins? . . . Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord Build my house, for I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.  My spirit abides among you; do not fear.  The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, say the Lord of hosts: and in this place I will give peace. 
This prophecy addresses the pragmatism of practical atheists in two ways.  First, to our deep-down grief and resignation in the face of God’s absence or abandonment the prophecy speaks a word of gentle comfort.  “I have not abandoned you,” says the Lord.  “I felt betrayed and hurt and angry at your sin, but that does not mean that I have abandoned you altogether.  See, I am with you now.  My spirit is nearby, even as I have been nearby in the history of your people.”  The word of comfort in Scripture is usually associated with an encouragement to remember, to remember the ways in which God’s love and care have become tangibly real in days gone by.  “Remember what you learned from your parents,” says the Lord.  “When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, I rescued them and brought them into a land of their own.  When you were taken in exile, I forgave your sins and brought you back to the land of your inheritance.”  And for we who came to birth in latter days, God says, “Remember, most of all, the way I myself came to be with you in human form, to receive in my own body the full consequence of human evil; but also to show you the way of love that leads to peace.  Remember Christ hanging on a cross.  This is my loving solidarity with you in the tragic logic of your inhumanity toward one another. But remember, also, Christ risen from the grave into the bosom of God’s peace.  This is the future you may share, also, if you cling to Christ absolutely, if you allow his way to become your way.”  The word of prophecy comes first, therefore, to resist the story of abandonment with a story of God’s loving presence.

But there is a second element to the prophecy.  We noted earlier the grumbling of the returned exiles that no matter how hard they worked to secure the prosperity of their families, they were never entirely satisfied.  No matter how much they grew, produced or procured, the prosperity they sought somehow eluded them.  This is how it is, I think, with all who believe they can built a prosperous future apart from the gift and blessing of God.  Without God, you see, we are all at sea when it comes to knowing what to build.  For we do not, apart from God, understand what genuine prosperity might look and feel like.  How many people believe that keeping up with the economic fortunes of the Joneses or the Chiangs or the Rajahs will bring prosperity and peace?  How many people believe that if we work hard all our lives, we might eventually experience peace and prosperity in some kind of leisured retirement?  The prophecy of Haggai, by way of contrast, understands that prosperity has very little to do with economic security, but everything to do with Shalom, that is, with our willingness to be at peace with everything that God would give us.  Shalom is not something that we may earn by our hard work.  It is something to be received as a gift from God.  If we believe we must produce it by our energy and effort, then it shall allude us forever.  If, on the other hand, we are able to see that all the world—earth, air, fire and water—is a gift from God, then we shall perhaps be content to simply share in the common wealth of that gift with our fellow human beings.  God’s way to prosperity is, in fact, the opposite of that which is pursued by most of us.  It is to share our food and our homes with the hungry and to honour God with our praise and thanksgiving.

When a people abandons its worship of God, when the symbols of public worship (a temple or a church, for example) are allowed to fall into ruin while the symbols of private wealth (houses, cars and lots of gadgets) grow ever more glamorous, then we are in serious trouble as a culture.  For when we scramble to procure our own security, our own salvation, we finally lose the very quality that makes us human:  our capacity to be thrilled by all the wonder of the God’s gift, our capacity, in short, to be really alive and awake as human beings.  For the resurrection of Christ is not the final procurement of an economically secure future for ourselves or our offspring, as the Saducees suggested in their question to Jesus in the gospel story.  No.  The resurrection of Christ is neither a buying nor a selling, but a simple enjoyment with our brothers and sisters (of every age and tribe) of all that teaming life that God would give us, if only we could put aside our hankerings, and simply receive what is offered with thankfulness.  May God grant that it may be so, even for this Uniting Church.