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Wednesday 25 December 2013

Christmas: the gift of peace

Texts:  Isaiah 62.6-12; Psalm 97; Luke 2.1-20

A moment ago we heard the story of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, and how the angels sang ‘glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours’.  But what is this peace that the angels sing about?  And what has it to do with the birth of this particular child?

Is the peace of the angel’s song the ‘peace’ promised by superpowers like China or the United States, the peace you get if you are big enough and strong enough to cower everyone else into submission?  Is the peace of the angel’s song the peace promised by a good many infamous leaders in this past century, that specifically fascist kind of peace which says ‘Don’t be afraid.  I know best, trust me.  I’m taking away your freedoms in order to protect you from our enemies?’  I doubt it very much.  The child born in Bethlehem grew up to say things like ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ And ‘If your enemy strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other as well.’  And as to who one might trust with one’s life or liberty, he said: ‘Do not call anyone on earth teacher.  The Christ is your only teacher.  Put your faith in God alone.’

Well then.  Is the peace of the angel’s song like the ‘peace of mind’ you apparently get if your house and contents, your car, your health, your mortgage, and even your life are fully and comprehensively insured against disaster?  I suspect not.  The child born in Bethlehem was not, apparently, insured in this way.   Indeed, his whole life might be described as totally un-insurable!  First he becomes a religious nutter, then he neglects his responsibility to contribute to the family’s economic fortunes, then he goes all anti-globalisation, preaching against the powers that be.  Finally he is executed by the Roman State as a dangerous criminal.  As far as I am aware, neither he nor his family received any compensation for any of it.  And I doubt that a modern insurance company would have paid them out either.

So then, perhaps the peace of the angel’s song is more like that ‘inner peace’ promised by the ‘new’ spiritualities and therapies?  You know, the calm you are supposed to feel by getting away to a deserted beach or mountainside, where the factions and fractions of our tumultuous world cannot intrude?  Or that ‘peace’ you are supposed to receive, in Buddhism, when you rid yourself of every desire?  I doubt it very much.  Now don’t get me wrong.  The child born in Bethlehem was very often alone in prayer or meditation.  But when he was, it seems that the tumult of his world went with him, so that he wrestled inwardly with a deep sense of care and responsibility for the lost and broken all around him.  He wrestled also with his own desire, praying earnestly that he might be delivered from the temptation to seek the safe and easy way through life.  But that should not be taken to mean that he was a good Buddhist.  For instead of doing away with desire altogether, as the Buddha taught, Jesus immersed himself in the desire of another, that one he called his ‘Father’, the God of Israel.  His whole life, it seems, was filled with the strongest kind of longing, a groaning and a pining towards a world in which the poor were no longer poor and the rich no longer rich.

Well then, is the peace of the angel’s song finally a certain kind of political peace, a democratic tolerance of all our many differences?  You could certainly get that impression if your only exposure to Christianity was the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ celebrations that have colonised the countryside in the past couple of weeks.  You know their message well, I’m sure: ‘We’re all different, we have different aims in life.  Some of us are less well off than others.  But let’s not bicker.  Live and let live.  Let’s just get on with each other.’  Is this the peace promised by the angels?  Again, I doubt it very much.  When the child of Bethlehem was grown, he got himself into all sorts of trouble because he was certainly not very tolerant.  He was intolerant towards poverty.  He was intolerant towards the indifference of the rich and the powerful towards their suffering neighbours.  He was intolerant towards the racism of his fellow-Jews towards non-Jews.  He was intolerant of the way his society relegated women and children to the bottom of the food-chain.  But deeply imbedded in all these intolerances was the intolerance that motivated them all:  his refusal to accept that human beings can find a real and genuine peace apart from a relationship with God.

For it is this peace—the peace that God gives to all who acknowledge, deep down in their hearts, that there is no peace apart from the loving favour of God—that the angels announced at the birth of Christ.  The peace given by Christ is also the peace given by God.  It is not a peace that can be generated by either prayer or politics, insofar as these attempt to create something out of the raw material of the human heart.  For the whole of human history bears witness against us.  We cannot make a peace that lasts.  Even now, we are at war, and many of these wars are being waged against phantoms of our own devising, demons hidden in our own souls that have been projected onto the faces of others so that we will never have to acknowledge our own failings. 

And for all our fantastic progress in science and research, for all our privileged economic fortunes, can we really claim to be reconciled, to be at peace with our neighbours and ourselves?  I doubt it very much.  There is considerable research now to show that the more prosperous we become the more possessive, and then we become 'unhappy', in proportionate measure.  I have spoken about these things often in this church.  I shall not go on with all that again this morning, except to say this:  that peace, a peace that lasts, seems to elude us.  And Christians are not immune from his experience.  Insofar as we have been seduced by modernity, Christians are at least at troubled as everyone else.

The peace that Christ gives cannot be given by the world or anything in the world.  It cannot be generated by either prayer or politics.  The peace that Christ gives is, as Titus would have it, a gracious gift: the gift of a deep and profound communion with God that transforms every dimension of one’s life, whether in body, soul or community.  The peace of Christ is something that, as the apostle Paul wrote, transcends our understanding.  The peace of Christ is not, therefore, something you can make a project of.  It is not a feeling you can induce by thinking happy or positive thoughts.  It is a state that comes upon you slowly, wheedling its way through your defences, making its way into your heart like a transfusion of life-giving blood from another’s body.  It is a gift.  It is pure communion.  It is a deep down sense and conviction that because God is for us, nothing can prevail against us:  not other people, not our own misguided desire, not the present, nor the future, not anything in all creation.  It is a peace that comes to us as we look and listen for God’s word of favour in the story and event of Jesus, who is called the Christ.

May the peace of Christ wheedle its way into your heart and your community today.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, on the Feast of the Nativity in 2007.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Signs of revolution

Isaiah 35.1-10; Luke 1.47-55; Matthew 11.2-11

For Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist has a special place amongst the prophets of Yahweh.  He is the one who goes before the Christ of Israel, to announce his coming and prepare the way.  Yet even John, when he is imprisoned by King Herod for criticizing his regime, is capable of doubt about Jesus’ true identity.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question:  ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?’  The answer John receives from Jesus recalls the prophecy of Isaiah that we read just now, a prophecy that imagines how things might change when God’s salvation has arrived in the world.   Let me quote:
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are fearful of heart, 
“Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God! . . .”
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert wastes.
         (Is 35.5-6)
Hear, then, the parallels in Jesus’ answer to John in Matthew’s gospel: 
Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
We may conclude, then, that for both Isaiah and Matthew the advent of the messiah is attended by graphic and visible signs.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the outcasts are brought into the community once more, and the poor hear good news.

It is important that we understand these signs in their theological as well as their literal sense.  There can be no doubt that Jesus was a faith healer.  He did cure specific medical ailments, and he did raise the dead to life.  Even the most sceptical historians have found it difficult to explain away the sheer abundance of the evidence on this point.  Still, if we are Christians, we must understand that the healings are not just healings, and the raisings are not just raisings.  They are not, in other words, to be understood simply as facts amongst other facts; they are not to be read simply as history.  For the miracles of Jesus have a theological meaning as well.  Theologically, they are to be read as advance announcements or signs of a religious, social, and political revolution, a revolution initiated by God in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, but not yet completed in its fullness.

I talk of revolution because the coming of Jesus has changed, indeed transformed, far more than the medical fortunes of those individuals he happened to meet in Galilee more than two thousand years ago.  The coming of Jesus has changed everything, from the way we imagine God, to the way we value our fellow human beings, to the way we construct our law and government.  We Westerners so easily forget how deeply our values and our whole way of life have been influenced by Christ and the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  We forget that the discourse of human rights is grounded in the narratives of Christ’s hospitality towards the excluded and marginalised members of this own society.  We forget that feminism found its genesis in the way that Christ formed relationships with women.  We forget that the greatest books and poems of the Western tradition may be read as conversations with the Bible.  We forget that liberation movements, from the abolition of slavery in the Americas to the more recent revolutions in South America and South Africa, have looked to Jesus for inspiration and encouragement.  We forget that many of the modern medical miracles we take for granted are grounded in the research of Christian doctors working in missionary situations.  If there were time, we could talk, also, about the theological origins of the Rule of Law, the Welfare State, the University, the School and the Hospital.  In these, and in a thousand other ways, the coming of Jesus has changed the world.  In these, and a thousand other ways, the love of God in Christ has so changed our humanity that we have been enabled to change the world after Christ’s example.  In so many ways, Christ’s people have been salt and light for a dark and sterile world.

Let us not be content with all of this, however.  For Christ’s revolution is far from complete.  The messianic kingdom has clearly not yet arrived in its fullness.  If you don’t believe me, just look around this country we’re making.  Instead of helping the poor, we lock them up – whether the poor be asylum seekers, the mentally ill, or Aboriginal people.  For these are the people who overwhelmingly populate our detention centres and prisons, each of them all but crushed under the weight of grief, abuse or criminal neglect. I could speak of other national tragedies this morning—like the massive cuts the government has made to foreign aid programmes, or the steady rise in rural and suburban poverty, or the epidemic of depression and anxiety that is sweeping through our young people.  But I shall not.  Instead I would simply remind you that Advent faith is not only about remembering the way in which Christ came to us the first time around.  It is about looking for the signs of that arrival in our own place and time.  Most of all, it is about making ourselves available to God as the church, the body of Christ, so that Christ’s revolution might again become present to the world through the faithful deeds of love and care we offer to our neighbours in response to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ. 

I know that many of us care for others deeply.  We work as volunteers with the sick, the disabled, the despairing and the voiceless.  Or we work with the poor and the helpless in our paid employment.  Many of us are generous with our surplus money and goods, living simply so that others may simply live.  But others of us are like so many other Australians.  We look only to feather our own nests, and those of our families.  If that is so, then Christ would confront us this morning with the call to revolution.  “Be converted,” he would say, “be really converted!  Let my Spirit into your cold heart so that the seeds of love may be sown.”  For that is what God’s revolution is essentially about:  love.  God’s love for a lost and broken world; the touchability of that love in the life, suffering and death of Christ; and the power of love to change things, one small corner of the world at a time, through the power of Christ’s resurrection.  If Christ is raised, you see, then the powers of evil and decay we named this morning shall not have the last word.  The last word will be love.  This I believe, and for this I pray daily.  So God help all of us to look for the signs of Christ’s coming, and to become such signs ourselves.

This homily was first preached at St Luke's Uniting Church, Mount Waverley, in December 2004.