Archive for December, 2022

Hope, really? Is that what you call it?

Perhaps in preparation for this sermon one might remember what John O;Donohue wrote when he said that “Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” This is not about sameness, assimilation or unification of thought. It is rather about that which is always more than the sum of its parts, more than, an awareness of the alternative and a willingness to walk into it.

Much of the gospel story this Fourth Sunday in Advent centres on Matthew’s rather sketchy outline surrounding the birth of Jesus. And there is a significant difference between Matthew’s version – which we heard today, and Luke’s version – which we traditionally hear around this time of the year, and that there is a fair degree of difference. The reality is that they are very different.  And despite attempts to the contrary by both the church and the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ events, they can’t be harmonized into one grand, neat story. In artistic terms, Luke’s picture is full of bright primary colours. A cheerful story. A buoyant, hopeful, joyous story. Matthew’s picture, on the other hand, is a picture using a darker palette. The colours are more sombre, darker hues. A more gothic like story – disturbing, disquieting. Having said that it is perhaps almost better to say that Matthew’s story does not actually narrate the birth of Jesus at all. It is implied.

Meanwhile, in the church or amongst the various so called followers of the Jesus Way there was and still is much theological ink and energy wasted on the debate surrounding the matter of virgin birth or virgin conception. It is also possible to believe that, despite what many English translations of the Bible say: Matthew did not believe in a virgin birth. Neither did Paul. But Luke probably did.

Here we have it, our absolutes, our belief system, our so-called truth, our faith, our Christianity all challenged by our own understanding of scripture and its place. And like the early Christians we too handle this in various ways between total fundamentalist denial of the thought and a liberal silence in the face of its own deconstructive prowess. Some efforts become canonized and others persecuted in the interests of a singular point of view. Even among the most adventurous scholars we hear the call for understanding, of our minds, and an acknowledgement that too often they shelter us from the realities we might uncover.

WE note also that the Hebrew text of Isaiah which Matthew quotes clearly has nothing to do with virginity. At most it means only that a young woman, who is now a virgin, will become pregnant. No ‘miracle’ is intended. What has fueled the more recent debate goes back some 70 years or so. When in the 1950s the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible properly translated the Isaiah words with ‘young woman’, “some people were so upset that they sponsored public burnings of the version.  The official Catholic translation, the New American Bible, uses ‘virgin’ in (Isaiah) because bishops overruled the Catholic scholars and demanded that it be mistranslated.”  (Miller 2003:95)

So where in the midst of all this, is our hope?  The ground of this Advent season?  And how can we be empowered to live fully, to love wastefully, and dare be all we can possibly be, as the late Bishop Jack Spong urged us?

The hard truth is that we do not anticipate that Jesus will come, or come again, in any literal sense.
Our hope is shaped by a ‘progressive theological’ understanding of incarnation: Our God or whatever we name as God acts in the world in and through our actions. As we are open to this God’s working within us, Jesus Way becomes authentic human embodiment. As we seek to serve our God, we are never alone.  As the old tale reminds us we experience again and again, Emmanuel, our God-is-with-us. So during these closing days of Advent and in the rapidly approaching season of Christmas, we can anticipate God’s renewing and transforming present-ness, now, even as we remember God’s focused ‘coming’ or embodiment in Jesus in the past. And this hope we expound is less about the supernatural or the other than natural and more about an alternative view of presence that is not outside of nor over or under but rather embodied within. A sort of certain hope that awaits our expression. A hope we can encourage others to also recognise ‘in the sacred’ where they are.

This also suggests that our hope is directed to the unfolding of the sacred, the working out of the Spirit and that the primary evangelical task is the participation in this sacred enterprise unconditionally is the call. This Advent and this Christmas, maybe we can manifest or embody that hope in all the nooks and crannies of our various communities. Amen.

Bibliography:Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad, 1993.

Look Again! In, Through and Beyond The Crumbling

Once again we encounter the so-called John the Dipper and despite our general Advent and Christmas festivity expectations, today’s theme seems to be suggest that there is more to this Christmas story about: Something about where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling. That somewhere in, through and beyond is more to know. On the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ as the perhaps ultimate time for hope and rejoicing.  Who was John the Dipper – or Baptiser as tradition refers to him? 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. Does evangelism come as a family trait? Well! 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).

Meanwhile, Rabbi David Blumenthal, in an article published in Cross Currents (eZine edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  (Where did we go wrong eh?) 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).

There is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!), and their efforts seemed to be designed

to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Interesting inference given that the character of Norther Galileans is a noisy rebel like character. 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. While similar, his preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style,

that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was1 an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider.

Two very different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that still influence us today, in our search for hope. 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. Or at least later interpretations of what being a Messiah means.

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 for a hopeful view. 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… So, remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful: “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) This is interesting in that it raises the question that reinterpretation is required to define what hope is, It is always subject to the period or time it is sought.

But then these telling and hopeful words: “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’, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation. In fact the change or alternative view Jesus argues for is a challenge to the social, political, and economic assumptions of empire thinking and practice. Like Rex Hunt of whom much of this sermon’s thinking is based I too think this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about!

Look again! There is an alternative!

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 and a challenging about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! There is change happening, there is an alternative to your assumptions a workable authentic hope is through and beyond the presenting cultures and assumptions. And the longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, is not wishful thinking, a yet to be obtained peace, an idealistic joy and a love yet to seek, but rather they are to become concrete – and real – in our lives, now.

This restlessness is captured in a bloke called John the Dipper when 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’. For their political situation was such they needed a word of hope.

We remember here that 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. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. As I write the NZ government is about to face the inquisition of its handling of the covid response. And it seems it is driven by opposing thoughts about economic decisions and statistical argument and resulting outcomes.

The reality was that life was and can be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. Not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? But that’s the social political and economic context of the first Christmas story. Will the commission’s review take that into account. What was the loss of hope? Where was it? And while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, 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, (another interesting debate) 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. (Similar to J D Caputo who suggests it is us who make God exist whereas if ones hope is beyond ‘things’ and a form of ‘materialism’ God insists).

As one of Rex Hunt’s colleagues in the USA said of this text some years ago: You don’t often hear in church: ‘there is no sin’. And he goes on to suggest that; “Most of us familiar with [traditional] church have heard a lot about sin.  I think 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, 2007)

So, perhaps when we light our Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year there is also a need for a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Look again! Look in, through and beyond the presenting gloom so that with these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent

– hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become real, in our lives. Amen.


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.