Archive for December, 2019

Two Visions of Hope

Posted: December 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 11: 2-11

Two Visions of Hope

Here we are at Advent 3…  We are really getting into serious Christmas stuff now. It is almost here. It is hoped for and sure to come. It will arrive and it is ‘Almost’. John the ‘dipper’ or the Baptizer is featured yet again. Despite our nearness to Christmas festivity expectations, realized today’s theme seems to be still about Hope. It might be in particular; where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling?

Yet again on the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ does it? But again, we are invited to explore this just a little more. We might start again with John. Who was John the Baptizer? Well; Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s – very early 30s. He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so, living in the desert wilderness. He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause. Some might say ‘obsessed’. Others have even hinted ‘jealous’. Of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus. So contemporary or pre-runner?

Storytellers and poets on the other hand, give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture. Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus: “John wore a garment made of camel-hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts with wild honey.”

Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was: “…a map of a man…  Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175).

Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings – the latter by Pro Hart – has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say: “That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God… “A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride, ‘God, it’s good to be a father! Yes!  It’s great to have a son!’  (Hart & Habel 1990:18).

So, contemporary of Jesus or prophet, and introducer of Jesus?

Well, we might hear Rabbi David Blumenthal, here. In an article published in Cross Currents Magazine e/edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.  Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (David Blumenthal, 2010). 

So! If he is right there, is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!). Their efforts seemed to be designed to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Were they contemporary’s or competitive individuals? As we said last week, from all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’ – the so-called insider. This suggests that while similar, John’s preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style. Jesus’ style was based in the premis that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider. The unchosen perhaps.

Here we have two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that are still around today so we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew
has John asking the question of Jesus:  Who the heck are you – really?

Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm. We remember here that just like today not everyone believed the same, be it about God or Messiah, or who Jesus was.

One way, Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… And remember there is a subtle yet fundamental issue here in looking back It was less about looking back at an historical factual history and more a looking back at the stories as metaphor of immense value in discovering who one was today. So in remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful here: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways.”  (P&F Web site, 2007) It’s not about repeating history or the stories of the past and more about making them real for today, the now.

These telling and hopeful words from John Cobb: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate ‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, then, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.

Maybe this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about! As Charles Taylor the Quebec-an Philosopher says; the idea of separating politics, religion and nature is a new phenomenon of modernity. In Jesus time that idea did not exist so advent is not just a religious story, it is political and economic at the same time.

So, returning to out advent we have to say that it is good to light Advent candles each year. It, is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols. But there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent as well. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! And a longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, to become concrete – real – in our lives.

This restlessness may be captured in a bloke called John the Baptizer, or ‘dipper’. He comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. And the people – read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’. Look out. You are heading toward a dead end. Be afraid because it/s coming. And their political situation was such they needed a word of hope. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line as consolidation and amalgamation was becoming the only sensible way forward. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But this, is not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? And rightly so perhaps. But it is the political context of the first Christmas story, and while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, or approaches to generate hope both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.

In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.

Strangely isn’t it that what we don’t often hear in the church is that ‘there is no sin’. In fact most of us are familiar with church have heard a lot about sin. And more so those of us who are members of the conservative church.

When we think hard about this, we have to consider that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, Who at the time was at First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007)

It is good to light Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year.
But remember, there is also a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Be aware of the assumptions within one’s own world, one’s own culture, within one’s own belief. Be alert so as to see the complexities, the influences and the alternatives. Be open to the new, the surprising, the challenging and the different. With these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become more likely and certain, can become real, in our lives. Live life with a confidence in the minds ability to be aware, live the alertness that comes from asking the hard questions and explore the adventure of human life that is promise beyond probability and within the possible. This is an Advent born out of two visions of hope. Amen.

Notes:
Hart, P. & N. Habel. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House, 1990.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

Who We Are To Be

Posted: December 3, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:1-12

Who We Are To Be…

Last week, when the season of Advent commenced in our Lectionary readings I suggested, that we were starting with a problem in that the set readings had little or nothing to do with Advent or the coming season called Christmas. Well! We could say the same for todays readings also. This time we start with the tradition that for some time we Christians have understood today’s stories from Isaiah and Matthew, as prophecies of Jesus. But… the question is; is this really the case?

Process theologian John Cobb, says: ‘Not really’. When he suggests: “Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah in the way Isaiah expected….  For Isaiah the main point was about kingly succession… And whatever Jesus’ ancestry was, he was not what Isaiah expected.  He did not engage in royal judgement, administering justice to the poor.  Neither did he kill the wicked.”  (John Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

But, does this mean Christians have been wrong in seeing the Isaiah passage as an anticipation of Jesus? Well! Again, John Cobb continues: He says “In part, of course, they have erred.  But it is not wrong to view Jesus as a partial fulfilment of, the hopes that Isaiah expressed.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

So, the best, or maybe the more honest things we can do or say, is: we can affirm that we can see in Jesus some of what Isaiah hoped for, and we can assert that Jesus was also different from what Isaiah considered ideal.

So here we are now…. into the Second Sunday in Advent. And Matthew, jumping 30 years or so in time in a matter of only a couple of short story chapters, introduces John the Baptizer, the so-called final prophet of Jesus’ coming, and places him center stage for a moment. In John the Baptizer then, what have we got? Well referring back to what I have said of John earlier we see that in John’s preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear in the disobedient – the insider. Whereas, in Jesus’ preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘common ones’ – the outsider.

Here we have two very different visions by which to re-imagine a nation. A judgement to inspire fear. And an invitation to inspire hope. I am sure this sounds very familiar to those who have been following my recent sermons and their link to my and others recent experience. I would say that both this congregation and I have been recipients of the former vision. But let’s be clear here. Both visions have been used in the past (and the not-so past), by Christians. I would also suggest or perhaps even claim that only one of those visions has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world. Only the one which does not bombard people with issues of personal morality and sanctions called ‘sin’, has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world.

Having said all that I want to tell a parallel story that gives another context for the very same challenge of fear or hope.

Ukraine was in the middle of an election. And, trouble was erupting out on the streets, as the result was being disputed. Not unlike the Hong Kong situation perhaps but different political motivation. The regular evening TV news was on air, coming from the government, controlled TV station.

A presenter was reading the script. Another was ‘signing’ so the deaf could also ‘hear’ the news. But the news was what those in power wanted to say, rather than it being an account of what was actually happening. There was no mention of the protests or challenges to the validity of the voting system, being mentioned. In a moment of madness, some say, the signer stopped translating the set script. And instead, started to give her account of all the other events that were also happening.

She said she knew she would be sacked because of her actions, but felt she could no longer put up with the government’s lies and propaganda.

Immediately following the broadcast all the members of the news room came to her, not only to support her actions, but also to join the struggle against the government and it’s lies.

Stopping there we have to ask what has this story to do with advent? Why tell this story as an ‘advent’ story? Well! Because it sought to re-imagine new possibilities for the country. And it began when the deaf – the outsiders – when they were given the opportunity and the respect to ‘overhear’ what was going on! Likewise, today, we could suggest, Matthew is inviting his small Jewish community to ‘overhear’ some things, through the ‘signage’ called John the Baptizer.

Developing along-side of and often in conflict with developing Jewish communities,
it can’t have been easy for this small community. All groups were trying to form or reshape
their own identities and allegiances among the people. As I and others have suggested before the social, political and economic environment is one of disparate groups seeking identity, and place in a diverse and often intolerant society. Empire is making itself felt at all levels of society and the religious are feeling threatened and entering survival modes.

Remembering that Matthew is a storyteller, he lets the community ‘overhear’ John talking,
hoping they might see and hear themselves in these conversations. In the hearing, they (and we) might sense something new and different is afoot. As one of Shirley Erena Murray’s hymns suggest: “Now the star of Christmas shines into our day. This points a new direction: change is on the way -there’s another landscape to be traveled through, there’s a new-born spirit broadening our view” (Shirley Erena Murray/hos)

I want to play a song now and I would like you to hear the challenges being alluded to in the words and what might lie behind them. The song is perhaps a very personalized question but it rises out of something that is being lost, something that at a deeper level needs to be questioned.

Video

I hope you were able to make the connections out of the song but in returning to the lectionary we still have a problem, especially the purpose or theology behind the shaping of it. And I want to suggest that it is with the underlying purpose which is based on presenting a mythical ‘Christ of faith’ – often called the “Easter barrier” – which has overpowered the ‘historical Jesus’. I have often suggested that we need to stay with the pre-Easter Jesus as opposed to the post Easter Jesus. The perhaps greater challenge is to see the post-Easter Jesus as one who has been distorted by a culture of political, economic and social distortion. This is not a new claim in that it has been around for hundreds of years and it lies beneath much of traditional theology today. And for some of us that’s a shame.  A crying shame. Because what we are often left with is a mere shell called the God/man Jesus.

Personally, I support those scholars who call for a demotion of Jesus. Nor because I don’t think he challenges us with the divine, but because a fully-fleshed demoted Jesus “becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement… Along with Bob Funk I can say that “He is no longer… its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ascending, dying/rising lord of the pagan mystery cults, but one of substance with us all.”  (Funk 1996:306)

So, this Advent journey I invite you to go beyond the Lectionary parameters and consider a few things…

  1. Consider the need for a fresh awareness of your creative capacity. For inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings.
  2. Consider the option of becoming a person infected or inspired by hope rather than fear for it is ‘creativity God’ who acts in us.  And God in other people, who receive our actions.
  3. Thirdly, consider what sort of God or Jesus might be more God-like. A God or Jesus who is the essence of a society unafraid to be vulnerable, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek and to lead others into a new and impossible future. Is it a God who reminds us to watch out or one that invites us to be awake?

Finally, maybe we might consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful present-ness of the sacred in the ordinary in the every-day in the outsider in the new. Let us enjoy and be blessed by our Advent journey this year. Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HaprerCollins, 1996.
(HoS) Hope is Our Song. New hymns and songs from Aotearoa New Zealand. Palmerston North. New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, 2009.

rexae74@gmail.com