Archive for the ‘Luke’s gospel’ Category

Wake up – before it is too late

December 15, 2018

Advent 3 – 2018

John 3:7-18

Marian Free

You snakes, you brood of vipers! What are you doing here? Is this your insurance policy against death? Do you presume that coming to church will save you from the wrath that is to come, that your baptism alone makes you right with God? Not so! Faith does not consist of outward observance, sticking to the rules or belonging to the church. Your whole lives need to be turned around. You must turn your back on the world and worldly things and give yourselves entirely to God. God is not taken in by externals. God knows the state of your hearts. God can discern the godly from the ungodly.  You must do all that you can to be counted among the godly for God is surely coming and God will know whether you are sincere or whether your faith is purely superficial. Repent and believe in the gospel!

I imagine that you are pleased that I don’t begin every Eucharist by attacking your sincerity, your faith or your behaviour. You will be equally pleased to know that I believe that you are here because you want to acknowledge your dependence on God, express your gratitude for all that God has given you and, in the company of those who share your faith, worship God and deepen your understanding of and your relationship with God. In truth I do not question your authenticity, nor would I dare to cast aspersions on your behaviour.

John the Baptiser had no such qualms. He was very happy to attack the crowds who came to him seeking to be baptised. It didn’t concern him that those who came to him were not the religious leaders but ordinary people, including soldiers and tax-collectors most of whom would have travelled a considerable distance, across sometimes difficult terrain, to seek baptism from this wild man on the banks of the Jordan. How could he question their intentions? The only reason that anyone would have come all this way into the wilderness would be to repent and to seek John’s baptism for forgiveness.

Yet, instead of welcoming the crowds, John attacks them. He challenges their sincerity and suggests that they have come to him out of a sense of self-preservation rather than from a genuine sense of remorse and a desire to change.

But the crowds are sincere. They do not stamp away in high dudgeon, offended by John’s insinuations. Instead they hold their ground and engage John in conversation: “What should we do?” ask the crowds. “What should we do?” ask the tax-collectors. “What should we do?” ask the soldiers. Their desire to turn their lives around is real, John’s rudeness and insolence will not deter them. Because they stay, because they seek to know more, John is forced to accept that their desire to repent is authentic. Their questions demonstrate that the crowds (including the tax-collectors and soldiers) understand that intention must be accompanied by action and that repentance is meaningless unless it is lived out in changed behaviour. “What should we do?” they ask.

And how does John respond? He tells the crowds: “Don’t do just enough – do more than enough.” To the soldiers and the tax-collectors he says: “Don’t use your position to take advantage of others or to treat them badly. Don’t behave in the ways that others expect you to behave – surprise them by refusing to act according to the norm.” To everyone he says: “Don’t conform to the world around you, conform instead to the values and demands of the kingdom. Demonstrate in your lives that you belong to another world, that you belong first and foremost to God.”

It is easy to relegate the story of John the Baptist to history, to believe that his words, his attack on insincerity and hypocrisy belongs to his time and place – to the ingenuous, to the hypocrites and to the unbelievers of the first century. But to make that assumption would be a mistake. John speaks to the crowds, to those who have sought him out. John is addressing people who, like you and I, are trying to do the right thing and to live out their lives faithfully and true. John’s assault on the crowds is like a test. It is intended to shock them into thinking about their lives and to examine their motives. Do they mean what they are doing or is their presence at the river only for outward show? Are they there because they really intend to change or are they there for the circus that is John’s strange appearance and behaviour?

In our age his words challenge us to ask ourselves similar questions. Does our outward behaviour truly represent the state of our hearts? Do we do things for show or because we really mean them? Do we do just enough or do we go over and above to serve God and serve our neighbour?

“You brood of vipers!” the voice of John the Baptist is a wakeup call for us all. In the time before Jesus comes again, John insists: “Don’t take God for granted. Don’t imagine that just because you keep the Ten Commandments and go to church that your place in the kingdom is guaranteed. Don’t allow yourself to think that just because God has set you apart that God can’t and won’t choose others. Examine yourselves and ask whether or not you need to turn your life around.”

Advent is a wakeup call. It is reminder that we cannot afford to be complacent and that we cannot make assumptions about what God will and will not do. It is an invitation to rethink our relationship with God and to ask ourselves whether or not it is in the best shape possible.

Wake up! Repent! Advent is here! Jesus is coming! Are you ready??

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Speaking truth to power

December 8, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

In the name of God who is not separate from, but fully engaged with world. Amen.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, ardent sports fans argued that politics and sport had nothing to do with each other – a point of view that failed to see that politics ensured that the majority population of that nation were excluded from representing their country. Similarly, we are often told that the church should not be involved with politics – that is the church should refrain from commenting on or critiquing government policies even when they disadvantage the poor and the vulnerable. The argument is usually raised when the the church speaks uncomfortable truths to power. I’m not a sociologist or a social historian but my superficial, uneducated observation suggests that, in recent times, the waters have become very muddied and confused on this score . If I were to put a finger on the reasons I would suggest that the wider public are disappointed with and disaffected by politics as it is currently playing out. I offer two examples. With regard to the question of refugees we have, on liberal side of the equation, those who feel strongly about off-shore detention and who, when the church takes action, as for example with the Sanctuary movement, are all too willing to support the church’s stand and challenge government policy in this area. With regard to gay marriage the government seems anxious to try to appease the more conservative members of the community and branches of the church by trying to enshrine in law the freedom to not employ gay teachers. In other words on some issues the community supports the church’s interference in politics and on the others the government appears to accept the interference of the church.

In reality it is impossible to separate church and politics. For one thing we live in a society which, while increasingly secular (and even anti-religion), has been formed and shaped by the Judea-Christian tradition. For another, the church has a clear imperative to speak out against injustice and corruption. It is equally foolish to believe that the church itself has not been shaped and influenced by the community – social and political – in which it finds itself. For example, it was Christian women who led the struggle for the vote and later it was a changing attitude to the role of women that led to the church admitting women to the ordained ministry. Rubbing shoulders as we do, living side-by-side means that (at least for the present) the state influences the church and the church influences the state.

The impact of the political situation on the emerging faith was not lost on the author of Luke’s gospel. From the very beginning of the gospel Luke provides us with the the political and religious context in which the Christian faith emerged. He tells us that the story is set in the time of King Herod and he makes sure that we are aware of the Jewish pedigree of Elizabeth and Zechariah – both members of priestly families going back even to Aaron. The reader, (in particular Theophilis), is to infer that this is a story set in the heart of Judaism and in the shadow of the empire. As we begin the story proper the situation is spelled out even more clearly. Luke tells us that it is the “fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Lk 3:1).

Apparently Luke does not believe that the story of Jesus cannot be told in isolation. It has to be understood against the political and religious currents of the time. Luke’s lengthy introduction to the story of John not only alerts the reader to the fact John and Jesus are “players on the world stage” but also creates an air of foreboding. The Emperor was known to be cruel and unpredictable – a person so insecure in his position that he destroyed anyone me whom he deemed to be a threat. Tiberius was also the Emperor who had exiled the Jews from Rome in 19CE. Pilate, Tiberius’ representative in Judea, also had a reputation for cruelty and oppression. Herod, as we know, was the ruler who would order John’s beheading. While Philip and Antipas were more benign figures, the effect of the long list of rulers is to show how thoroughly Judea is under the power of Rome. Finally, the high priest, though a representative of the faith, was himself was a Roman appointment – answerable to the Empire.

It is in this hostile political environment that the lives of John and Jesus will be played out. Vulnerable leaders with a tenuous grasp of power will do all within their means to stifle and destroy any hint of opposition and John and Jesus will forfeit their lives by refusing to conform. Speaking the truth to power will cost them both their lives.

We who follow in Jesus’ footsteps must not abrogate our responsibility to promote the values of the kingdom, to take the side of the poor and the oppressed and to question laws that are unjust and we must acknowledge that our freedom to worship and to live lives consistent with our faith may be challenged and even curtailed by unsympathetic powers.

Centuries ago Luke recognized that it was impossible for people of faith to exist in isolation. We are affected by and must recognize and work within the constraints and protections of our political, social and religious context.

The end is nigh

December 1, 2018

Advent 1 – 2018

Luke 21:25-38

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love for us knows no bounds. Amen.

Many years ago, long before I was ordained, I met Leanne. Leanne was about 20 years older than I, worshipped at the same church and was a member of the Bible Study group. Sadly, Leanne suffered from depression. Despite treatment and medication, she could never shake the feeling that she was worthless and unlovable. One day Leanne told us the following story. On one particular day Leanne’s mother was coming to visit. Leanne was excited, but she knew that her mother had exacting standards. She spent the whole day ensuring that the house was spotless and baking delicious things for her mother to eat. The hour arrived and knowing that everything was ready, Leanne ran out to greet her mother. Imagine how deflated she felt when, instead of reciprocating her excitement and joy, her mother simply said: “What on earth are you doing outside with your apron on?”

No wonder Leanne struggled to believe that she had value. Throughout her life she had been made to feel that she had failed to meet her mother’s expectations. This left her feeling that no matter how hard she tried she was never going to be good enough. When I heard the story, I wanted to hold Leanne for as long as it took for all that negativity to be erased. I imagined the child, the growing girl, the young woman and the now middle-aged person before me, always trying and never succeeding, to be the person whom her mother expected her to be. No wonder she suffered from depression. No wonder Leanne struggled to believe in herself. All her life she had been held in the balance and found wanting.

For some Christians, this is how it is with God. They have been brought up to believe that God is watching and judging everything that they do; that God is somewhere with a set of scales measuring them against an impossibly high ideal. Sadly, a great number of people who claim to be Christians cannot believe that they are lovable, and they certainly cannot believe either that God is love or that God loves them. 

I know that on another occasion I told you the story of a beautiful, gentle man who, in his eighties, could not sleep at night because he was so afraid of dying. He was sure that something he had done in the distant past meant that God had withdrawn God’s approval and love. When he was a child, his well-meaning grandmother had drummed in to him the eternal consequences of bad behaviour. As he drew nearer to his death, he was certain that whatever it was that he had done in the distant past would send him to the fires of hell.   

Can you imagine going through your whole life not knowing how much God loved you? Can you imagine living in terror of God, believing that it was God’s desire and intention to destroy you if you failed to meet God’s expectations? Can you imagine spending a life-time trying to achieve some unrealistic standard of perfection in order to be loved, or to avoid being punished? I can’t. I can’t think why you would bring a child into the world in order to berate and belittle that child. And I can’t conceive of God the creator bringing humankind into being simply to satisfy some egotistical need to dominate or to be feared.

Ideas about an all-powerful, all-demanding God do not emerge from a vacuum. They are developed from imagery of the end-time such as that in today’s gospel, especially verse 34: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly”. And in 1 Thessalonians 3:13: “May you be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is all too easy, for those who are so inclined, to build a picture in which God is relentlessly demanding, unyielding and unforgiving. To do that, one also has to ignore the texts in which God is endlessly compassionate, accommodating and forbearing. One has to close one’s mind to the story of creation in which God declares humankind to be “very good”. Above all, one has to forget that in Jesus God gave Godself completely and unreservedly to and for those who had done nothing to deserve such a gift and who continue to be undeserving.

Not that I would suggest for one moment that we ignore or gloss over the vivid descriptions of Jesus’ return, or of the time of judgement. Those of us who know ourselves to be secure in God’s love must be warned from time to time that we should not take that love for granted. Those of us who have long since stopped expecting Jesus’ return need to be reminded that God will come and at a time when God is least expected. Those of us who have fallen into a cosy, comfortable relationship with God have to be pulled up short so that we do not forget that the Creator of the Universe is all-powerful, almighty and awe-inspiring. 

Today’s readings are not necessarily meant to stun us into shocked terror or to keep us in a state of heightened alertness and anxiety. But they do serve a purpose. They prevent us from falling into error, they stop us from having a narrow view of the God of the universe and they challenge us to respond with gratitude to God’s overwhelming goodness and love.

This Advent let the promise of Jesus’ return pierce the numbness and the complacency born out of centuries of Jesus’ non-appearance. 

Let it increase the anticipation, the confidence that Jesus’ coming willshatter the peace, explode the norms and reveal the world for what it really is.

Let Jesus’ coming shake us out of our comfort zones and remind us that God is so much more than our limited minds will ever be able to imagine.

God, the God who loves us so much more than we can ever desire or deserve, is an awesome, terrifying God in whose presence we will fall to our knees in holy fear. 

God willcome. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security, but make sure that we are ready for an event that might just disturb the whole cosmos and at the very least will shake us to our core.

What matters is that Christ has risen!

April 14, 2018

Easter 3 – 2018

Luke 24:36b-48

Marian Free

[1]

                           Four not one

In the name of God who, through Jesus, raises us to newness of life and empowers us with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Semester I am teaching a subject entitled the Synoptic Gospels. The course entails looking at the first three gospels to try to discern what each author is saying and why they chose to order their material in a particular way. We ask: what was it about the author’s own experience and the needs of his community that led him (we are fairly surely that the gospels were written by men) to construct the story of Jesus in the way that they did. The question of four gospels is one that has led skeptics to deny the validity of the gospels and pious believers to come up with a variety of different explanations for the differences. An explanation that I was given as a teenager was that if four different people witnessed something (a traffic accident for example) they would all report the story somewhat differently. Each eyewitness would have observed the scene from a different point of view and would have come to their own decisions as to what happened.

In reality it is unlikely that any of the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.[2]We believe that the earliest gospel to be written was the gospel of Mark and that it dates to the late 60’s or early 70’s. Matthew and Luke were probably written in the next decade. Until then the early believers had been happy to use the Old Testament as their scriptures and to rely on oral tradition (and maybe the letters of Paul) as their source for the teachings of Jesus. (In fact there were some like Papias who believed that the oral tradition was more trustworthy than anything that could be written down because it was “first –hand”).

At around the time Mark’s gospel was written there were a number of differing forces that led to a desire to capture the stories of Jesus in a more permanent way. The Christian movement was becoming more and more dislocated from its roots with the destruction of the Temple and the spread of the faith into a Gentile environment. The death of the first generation of believers gave an added urgency to the task of capturing Jesus’ story. It was felt that a record should be made while there was still some connection to Palestine and before the memories became more than second-hand.

For the first forty years after Jesus’ death years, the stories of his life and teaching circulated orally. They would have been told differently by different story-tellers and have been given different emphases depending on the context in which they were told. (It is remarkable that we have only 4 gospels and not 400!)

It is not surprising then that we have several different accounts of the resurrection. Mark’s gospel (as we saw on Easter Day) leaves us up in the air telling us only that the women saw Jesus but were too afraid to tell anyone. According to Matthew the women see Jesus at the tomb and are sent to remind the disciples to return to Galilee where Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Luke has a number of resurrection stories that allow the author (through Jesus) to use scripture to explain Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Despite these differences there are a number of consistencies. In all three gospels women go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week and find it empty. In all three instances a messenger speaks to the women and tells them that Jesus has risen. The messengers also give the women a mission. They are to remind the disciples either to go to Galilee or to remind them of what Jesus said when they were in Galilee. In all three gospels Mary Magdalene is one of the women who was at the tomb on that morning. In other words, at dawn on the first day of the week, two or three women one of whom was Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. A heavenly messenger informed them of Jesus’ resurrection and tasked them with taking a message to the men. As a consequence of their experience and possibly of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples Jesus’ followers were convinced that he was alive – so convinced that they began to spread the message far and wide until a small movement begun in an insignificant part of the empire, spread throughout the entire world.

As an academic I am fascinated by the differences between the gospels, It excites me to try discover the motivations of the authors, the needs of the communities, the cultural setting of the first century, the distinct emphasises of each gospel, the particular message that the author is trying to get across and the unique picture of Jesus that they are trying to paint. In the end though, none of that matters. Whether there is one account of the resurrection or several. I’m not particularly concerned to know whether Jesus entered locked rooms, ate broiled fish or walked to Emmaus. What is important to me is that on that first day of the week, something happened that convinced not only the women who saw, but the men whom they told, that Jesus was not dead but alive and that as a result their lives were so dramatically changed that within two decades a movement had formed around the risen Christ and had spread beyond the bounds of Palestine to as far as Rome. What matters to me is that two thousand years later women and men are still convinced that Jesus has risen and they know their lives to be enriched, empowered and transformed as a result of that knowledge.

We don’t need to explain the differences or similarities in the stories told by the gospel writers, nor to we have to justify to others the fact that there is not one, but that there are four accounts Jesus’ life and teaching. We all have our own resurrection stories to tell. Let’s tell our story with such passion and conviction that what happened on that first day of the week will continue to inform and transform the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

[1]This cartoon was sent to me via email, so unfortunately I can’t acknowledge the source.

[2]Only about 25% of the population lived beyond their mid-twenties.

Subversive and counter-cultural (politically correct)

December 30, 2017

Christmas 1 – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not discriminate, but who values each one of us just as we are. Amen.

What is sometimes disparagingly called “political correctness” has the ability to put some people’s teeth on edge. Yet if read or watch historical dramas like Jane Austin or The Duchess we are be reminded of the powerlessness of women and children in past eras. Or if we watch crime shows or read detective novels we can see how vulnerable and dependent the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled are and how much they depend on the goodness (or lack thereof) of others. Such reminders help us to understand that what some people refer to disparagingly as political correctness is in fact an attempt to build a more equitable and compassionate society that values the contribution and value of all its members not simply those who meet some predetermined standard. Today most of us would recoil in horror to hear someone called a “black” or a “spastic” or a “mongoloid”. Such terms are dehumanizing and discriminatory and they deny the individuality and personality of those so labeled. A majority of people today recognise that all people deserve to be regarded with dignity and respect regardless of their level of ability, their occupation, their race or religion. Unfortunately societal norms can be so ingrained and so unconscious that they can be hard to identify let alone alter. At times societal pressure and even legislation has to be brought to bear to bring about lasting change in values and attitudes.

I mentioned last week that Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth in completely different ways. We can look in vain for the magi in Luke and will have no success if we search for the shepherds in Matthew. No only is the content of the story different in the two gospels, but the way in which the authors relate the story is quite different. A characteristic of Luke is his use of doublets and his juxtaposition of male and female characters. For example, the parable of the lost sheep is placed side by side with the parable of the lost coin – two stories of the lost, in the first the kingdom of God is likened to a shepherd and in the second to a woman.

Both of these techniques are evident from the very beginning of the gospel. Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth is paralleled with that of John the Baptist. The announcement to Zechariah is paralleled with the announcement to Mary and Mary’s hymn matches the hymn of Zechariah. The two stories contrast in ways that make the parallels more obvious. Elizabeth is old and barren whereas Mary is young and presumably at her most fertile. Zechariah receives the news from the angel with skepticism whereas Mary accepts that God can do what God intends. Zechariah and Elizabeth are from priestly families whereas Mary (and Joseph) appear to be of more humble origins.

In today’s gospel another couple are juxtaposed – Simeon and Anna. Both are old, both have prophetic gifts and both respond to the presence of Jesus by making a public pronouncement regarding his identity and his role. From the beginning, Luke is happy to give to women the same authority and prophetic role as men. Mary, not Joseph is the significant character in Jesus’ life, Elizabeth recognises Mary as the mother of her Lord, and Anna proclaims to all who will listen that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel.

Luke makes it clear that women, as well as men play a significant part in the Jesus’ story. Without labouring the point, Luke also makes it clear that Jesus’ family have no obvious status or wealth but exist on the economic margins of society. Zechariah is a priest; Joseph (we discover later) is a carpenter. Jesus is born in a stable and his first visitors are not exotic men from the east, but shepherds who have no position in society and little income to speak of. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the Temple, instead of offering a sheep as stipulated by Leviticus, they offer two turtle-doves (a concession made for those who are poor).

Through his juxtaposition of men and women, priest and layperson and through his positioning of Jesus among the poor, Luke makes it clear from the very beginning that the gospel is for everyone – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, the pillars of society and those on the fringes. As such the third gospel is perhaps the most inclusive of all the gospels as well as the most subversive and counter-cultural.

In Luke’s gospel the poor are privileged and the rich are castigated, women play an important role and Jesus himself is situated among the poor, their story is his story. Using today’s terminology, Luke could be accused of being politically correct – of giving dignity and honour in equal measure to all members of society in defiance of the societal norms of his time.

Luke’s record of Jesus’ origins are a reminder that we are called not to fit in with the world around us, but to critique it – to stand apart from the crowd by working for justice, trying to create a society that is welcoming and inclusive of difference and by showing compassion and understanding towards the vulnerable in our midst and to those who are on the fringes of our society. The gospel challenges us to expose and not to protect the elite and the powerful, to confront exploitation and abuse, and to challenge the miss-use of power and the oppression of the weak.

In other words, in his account of Jesus’ birth and infancy, Luke challenges us to put ourselves in God’s place and to see the world from the point of view of one who came not as a powerful warrior, a harsh judge or a despotic ruler, but as a helpless, vulnerable infant who could be put to sleep in a manger and held in the arms of Simeon and who identified with the poor and the helpless, stood with women and children, welcomed the marginalised and the outcast and who brought hope to the hopeless.

What is God asking you to do?

December 23, 2017

Advent 4 – 2017 

Luke 1:28-38

Marian Free

 In the name of God for whom nothing is impossible. Amen.

 If you read the beginnings of the four gospels, you will notice some substantial differences. For example, Mark launches straight into an account of Jesus’ ministry: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Mark is not interested in where Jesus has come from, but only in what he has done and what it means for those who believe. The gospel attributed to John is cosmic in breadth and poetic in expression. Jesus is identified as the Word who coexisted with God from the beginning of time and who, in fact, is God. The author of John’s gospel is not interested in Jesus’ earthly birth and childhood, only in his divine origin.

If we want to discover anything about Jesus’ human history, we have to rely on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately they are not reliable sources. Their accounts of Jesus’ birth have at least as many differences as they have similarities. Luke has much more detail than Matthew making his account nearly twice as long. Even the style is different. Luke’s is rather like an overture to an opera, two of the main characters burst into song. Matthew’s account is more sedate and includes to fewer details.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph, not Mary plays the central role. It is to Joseph that the angel appears and it is Joseph who is informed that the child is to be called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins). Joseph makes no protest and asks no questions, but simply does as the angel has commanded. There is no census, no crowded city and no manger. We are simply informed that Joseph formally married Mary and that he didn’t consummate the marriage until after the birth of the infant. We are to assume from this that Joseph and Mary were already in Bethlehem. (Jesus only goes to Nazareth because after Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt they learn that it will not be safe to return to Bethlehem.)

Joseph plays only a supporting role in Luke’s version of events. In fact, we are half way through the story before Joseph appears and then he is only mentioned as the means by which Mary gets from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary takes centre stage here. The angel (named) appears to Mary (in person, not in a dream) and tells her that she is favoured in God’s sight. Mary is informed that she will bear a son who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Unlike Joseph who simply accepts the angles word and responds immediately, Mary reasons with the angel (reasoned is a better translation than “pondered”), and she challenges him: “How can this be?” It is only when the angel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible with God that Mary acquiesces to God’s plan.

After Jesus’ birth, the gospel writers again present two quite different scenarios. According to Matthew the magi come from the east following a star and bringing exotic gifts. From the way in which Matthew tells the story, we can infer that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s hometown. And from Herod’s over reaction we can guess that by then Jesus was about two years old. In place of the magi Luke records the appearance of the angels to the shepherds who visit the newly born Jesus in the stable.

Both Matthew and Luke are determined to show that Jesus didn’t simply emerge from nowhere. They make it clear that from his birth Jesus was set apart as God’s anointed. Not surprisingly, the way in which the gospel writers tell the story reflects their different interests and different audiences. Matthew wants to make it clear to his readers that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises. He also wants to demonstrate that the new community of faith is the true Israel. Those who believe in Jesus cannot be considered a breakaway sect because they exist in continuity with all that has gone before. In Matthew’s account, Joseph has dreams as does his namesake in Genesis, Mary’s pregnancy and the gifts brought by the magi fulfill events predicted by Isaiah and Bethlehem is the place where according the Old Testament, the King of Jews, God’s anointed one was to be born.

Whereas Matthew is writing for an audience that is primarily Jewish, Luke is writing to a largely Gentile readership. Luke’s audience knows that they are not Israel – new or otherwise. They are more interested in the power of the God revealed in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. This God, Luke tells them, can achieve the impossible and can create something out of nothing. Other characteristics of the Lukan author are evident in his account of Jesus’ birth – his interest in contextualizing the story against the events of the time, and his concern with the poor. It is important for Luke to ground Jesus in the history of the time, so (even though he gets both the date and the ruler wrong, Luke connects the birth of Jesus with the census ordered by Quirinius in 6CE). Mary’s hymn affirms that the “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”. It is uneducated shepherds with no resources who are the first to worship the infant Jesus.

All of this is interesting and we could spend much more time examining the differences between all four gospels and exploring the reasons why they emphasise different aspects of the beginning of Jesus’ story. But these are not quaint stories written so that we can exercise our brain. They are stories of faith and as such they continue to speak to and challenge us today.

Joseph and Mary are ordinary people going about their ordinary business when an angel bursts into their lives and demands that they trust God and that they join God in a grand and costly adventure. The response of Mary and Joseph force us to consider:

Is our relationship with God deep enough and intimate enough that we are able to recognise the voice of God when God speaks to us?

And if we do hear:

Is our trust in God strong enough and confident enough that we are able to believe that God will empower us with the courage and skills we need when God asks us to do the seemingly impossible?

And if we do trust:

Is our faith robust enough and important enough to us that we are comfortable with the idea of taking risks and not worrying what others might say about us?

In their different ways, Mary and Joseph answered God’s call to bring Jesus to birth. Are we paying attention, are we aware of God’s presence and if so, are we ready and willing to respond to God’s call?

Second-guessing God

April 29, 2017

Easter 3 – 2017

Luke 24:13-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who alone knows all things. Amen.

Too often, we make up our minds about people and situations without having all the facts at our disposal. For example, many of us (myself included) feel that we are in a position to make statements about the present political situation in the United States and elsewhere, about the war in Syria or about the housing crisis in Australia. Using information that we glean from news sources, radio or TV programmes or from our own experience, we confidently utter what we believe to be truths even though we do not necessarily know the complexities of the situation. Truth be told we would probably find it difficult to engage in social conversation if we hadn’t formed some sort of opinion on these issues. With any luck our conversation partner might add some further information that helps us to rethink our position or to engage in some proper research around the issue so that we are properly informed.

We do the same with people don’t we? Sometimes we form an opinion on the basis of only half the story. When someone behaves in a way that we don’t expect or that doesn’t meet with our approval, we can be quick to form a judgement about him or her. On closer acquaintance with the person we may learn something about their background and history that not only explains their behaviour, but that also challenges our first impression and forces us to rethink our opinion.

Cleopas and his companion (his wife? have made up their minds about the recent events in Jerusalem. They are returning home from the festival of the Passover – despondent and confused. So much has happened over the past few days and, try as they might they cannot make sense of it. Based on their preconceptions, they had come to believe that they knew who Jesus was and what he might mean for Israel. Although (unusually) we have the name of one of the pair, we know very little about them. Apparently they, with thousands of others, have been in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Given that they know the disciples, it is possible that they themselves were already members of Jesus’ circle. At the very least they had been drawn into the excitement and anticipation that attended Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They had been caught up in the things that he had said and done over the past few days. Along with many in the crowds they had believed that Jesus was “the one who was going to redeem Israel”. But all their hopes and expectations were dashed when, on the eve of the Passover, Jesus was put to death in the most horrible and unexpected way.

Now they do not know what to think. They are ill equipped to interpret Jesus’ violent and shameful death. Even though there are reports that Jesus has risen they are returning home as planned assuming that the story has ended – that Jesus was not “the one”. Their life, they believe will go back to the way it always was and they will continue to wait for a Redeemer.

Cleopas and his companion leave Jerusalem and begin walking the seven miles to their home. As they walk they revisit the events of the last few days, trying to make sense of what had happened. How could something that began so well end so badly? How could it be that something that appeared to be so certain came to nothing – worse than nothing? What could it possibly mean? Where was God in all of this?

The pair is so caught up in their own thoughts that they don’t pay attention when someone catches up and begins to walk with them. They certainly don’t recognise the person as Jesus. The stranger recognises their grief and draws them out. Using the scriptures he explains that the events of the past few days make perfect sense in the context of Moses and the prophets. More than that the idea of a suffering Messiah is perfectly consistent with God’s purpose and will.

It is not clear whether or not the two are comforted or reassured by Jesus’ words, but he has said enough that they seem anxious to continue the conversation when night falls and Jesus makes as if to walk on further. When they are at table and Jesus breaks the bread they finally see that it is the risen Jesus who has joined them. At last all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once they have seen for themselves that Jesus really has risen from the dead, everything else becomes clear, the words of scripture begin to make sense. Jesus’ death was not the end that they had thought it was! They had drawn the wrong conclusion – everything had happened just as it was supposed to. God had acted in history as Moses and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Redeemer of Israel! Even though it is now evening, Cleopas and his wife leave for Jerusalem at once so that they can share the good news with the remainder of the disciples.

Having all the information enables us to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to put events into perspective and to make intelligent judgments about current affairs as well as about the people we encounter.

When things trouble us, when the world does not make sense, it is important not to jump to conclusions, not to believe we can work things out for ourselves and most importantly, not to second-guess God. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to find meaning in events that at first didn’t make sense. Sometimes we will be given or will find information that fills in the details that were missing and that helps us to put the pieces of the puzzle together. At other times we will simply have to keep going with our lives, believing that Jesus will draw beside us as a source of strength and meaning.

Only God has the whole picture. Hard as it is, there are times when we will have to put all our trust in God, believing that God will pull us through and that at some point – in the near or distant future – we will at least come to understand the rich tapestry of joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph that makes up our lives.

 

Standing with our feet in two worlds

February 4, 2017

Candlemas – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

Candlemas

         Candlemas

Loving God, light in our darkness; give us the courage to allow your light to reveal the darkness in our lives. Amen.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – an event in Jesus’ life that is recorded only by Luke. As early as the fourth century, the Church Fathers considered that this was an event of such significance that it needed its own feast day. At that time, the Presentation was marked on the fourteenth of February – 40 days after the feast of the Nativity on the 6th of January. Four hundred years later, sometime after the celebration of Christmas had been moved back to December 25, the feast of the Presentation was moved to February 2 where it remains to this day.

It appears that around that time, in the 700s, influences from the pagan festival of Imbolc began to creep in to the Christian celebration. Imbolc is the word for ewe’s milk in old Irish. In Northern Europe Imbolc marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In a world in which winters were dark and bleak, the lengthening of days and the first signs of spring growth were a cause for celebration. They were proof yet again that the darkness had not triumphed over light and that the earth would once again bring forth life and growth. It was a time of promise and possibility. White candles were lit as a symbol of purifying fire and of the rays of the sun.

Imbolc took place at the same time as the feast of the Presentation – on February 1st or 2nd. It appears that the church absorbed the practice of lighting candles into its own practice. The liturgy incorporated a procession of candles followed by a blessing of the candles for use that year hence the alternate name for the feast – Candlemas.

Just as Imbolc marked a mid-point in the astronomic calendar, in the Christian practice, Candlemas signified a movement away from the wonder and joy of Christmas and Epiphany and a movement closer to the sobriety of Lent and thus to the shadow of the cross. The changing seasons and longer days encouraged spring cleaning and the preparation of the ground for sowing and in the church Candlemass signified a movement away from festivity and feasting towards self-reflection and fasting.

Today’s gospel clearly depicts the tensions of being caught between celebration and solemnity, joy and apprehension, between Christmas and Good Friday. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, Simeon’s gratitude and relief was matched by Anna’s exuberance and excitement as they both responded in their own ways to the encounter with their long-awaited Saviour. The joy of the meeting was tempered by Simeon’s warning and sense of foreboding as he says to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon might have identified Jesus as the one who was promised as “light to the gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel” but at the same time he cautioned that God’s promised salvation is not without cost.

Light, you see, is a mixed blessing. Light is threatening and benign, welcome and unwelcome. Light lifts the burden of darkness and enables us to see clearly. It allows us to walk without stumbling, but it has the potential to expose the dark corners and secret places of our lives – the cobwebs and dust that have built up over a long winter of neglect, the self-deception and arrogance that have been allowed to hide in the shadows, the inner thoughts that we would prefer to keep to ourselves.

When Simeon announced that Jesus was “the light to the Gentiles” he was fully aware that not everyone would welcome his presence among them. There would be many who would prefer to remain in the shadows rather than have their shallowness exposed and their self-deception revealed. He predicted that they would resent, resist and even oppose Jesus whose very presence would show them up for the charlatans that they were. The light of Jesus’ goodness and love would be greeted with delight by those who, like Simeon have looked forward to a time when God’s presence will be more fully known and who would feel the warmth and glow of that presence in Jesus. That same love and goodness, would serve to reveal the complacency, self-satisfaction and blindness of those who thought that neither the world nor themselves needed changing and who experienced the light as a scorching flame and a glaring beam that must be extinguished so that their lives could remain the same and their falsehoods unchallenged.

For those who recognise that the world lies in darkness, light is a welcome relief, but that same light is perceived dangerous and threatening by those who recognise that the light will shake and shatter their place in the world.

Today, as we celebrate Candlemas and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we stand as it were with our feet in both worlds – between Jesus’ birth and the cross, between joy and sorrow, between the darkness and the light. As we follow the church calendar from Epiphany to Lent, we have time to consider whether we will allow our darkness to be exposed to the light or whether, content with the way things are and unwilling to accept that different could be better, we will turn our backs on the promise of change and renewal and consign ourselves to the shadows.

In vulnerably lies our salvation

November 19, 2016

The Reign of Christ – 2016

Luke 23:33-43

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose contradictions keep us always guessing. Amen.

Periander had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner[1].

According to Wikipedia this tale, which dates from at least the 4th century BCE is the origin of what we know as the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the desire to cut down anyone whom we believe to have “risen above their station”. That same site quotes Peter Harcher from the Sydney Morning Herald who defines the Australian version of the syndrome in the following way, “(Australian) citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others… But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision. It has a name—The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood…It isn’t success that offends Australians. It’s the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs[2].”

Sociologists like Max Weber believe that believe that in some groups, especially those that are disadvantaged socially or economically, there is only a “limited amount of prestige to go around”. As a result those who gain a degree of power or influence are resented for absorbing more than their fair share, which in turn restricts the ability of others to gain attention and authority[3]. In Australia, it seems that another person’s success offends our sense of egalitarianism. If someone is more successful than his or her peers, it is (in the minds of their peers) a sign that they think more highly of themselves than they should. They have broken the bonds of solidarity that provide strength and dignity to those on the lower rungs of the social scale and have set themselves apart to the chagrin of their peers.

Those left behind seek to humiliate if not destroy those who by good fortune or hard work have improved their place in the world. They try to bring that person down to their own level, to prove that they are just as human and flawed as the next person.

Should that person experience a reversal in fortune or a fall from grace, his or her peers will crow with delight, gather like vultures to pick over the bones, boast with delight that they knew that no good could come from someone overreaching themselves. They think to themselves how wise they were to have predicted the inevitable outcome of another’s ambition and pride. They express no sympathy for the plight of the fallen, just gleeful spite and self-congratulation.

If we understand this characteristic of human nature (the desire to cut others down to size), we will not surprised that this is how a majority of people react to Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. After all Jesus, in the minds of many, is just some peasant upstart from the far-flung region of Galilee who despite being a nobody has been causing mayhem in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Egged on by the leaders (whose apparent power derives from Rome), those present at the cross deride and mock Jesus, pointing out his powerlessness and the contrast between his present situations and that to which he might have aspired. What right does he have to set himself above others? What makes him different from the rest of the poor peasants who make up 99% of the population? Why should he receive the adulation and support of the crowds? What gives him the right to challenge the leaders and to critique Temple worship? Those who have no power – the soldiers, the crowd and even one of Jesus’ co-condemned – ridicule Jesus and demand that he demonstrate the power that he claimed to have. They want him to prove himself. If he is better than them, if he is able to perform miracles, if he is closer to God than they are then now is the time to prove it.

Three times the challenge rings out: “If he is the Christ let him save himself.” “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself.” “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Three times Jesus is challenged to “save”. Save! Save! Save! they cry in mockery, knowing that the cross holds Jesus tight.

What we can see and the crowds cannot, is that the cross is unable to hold Jesus. The leaders, the soldiers, the man condemned to death have completely misunderstood the way in which Jesus will save (will bring about salvation). He will not “save himself from the cross, but his submission to the cross will bring about the salvation of the whole world. What the leaders and the soldiers and the condemned man have failed to understand is that it is precisely Jesus’ willingness to be powerless and vulnerable, his readiness to submit himself completely to God and his total obedience to and reliance on God that will lead not only to his own “rescue” from death, but also to the salvation of the whole of humankind.

As is often the case in the gospels, it is the most unlikely figure who can see the truth. A condemned man, who within two days will have died the most horrific of deaths, recognises Jesus’ paradoxical kingship. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, knowing the authority that he does have, promises “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

Crucifixion does not look like salvation, death does not look like life, vulnerability does not look like control but Jesus’ knew and the thief discerned, that it is only when we give up our independence and sense of control, only when we place ourselves completely and utterly in God’s hands that we can and will be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The concept originates from accounts in HerodotusThe Histories (Book 5, 92f), Aristotle‘s Politics (1284a), and Livy‘s History of Rome, Book I. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[2] op cit

[3] op cit

Telling it how it is

November 12, 2016

Pentecost 26 – 2016

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

 In the name of God who gives us courage to carry on when all hope seems lost and the future is out of our hands. Amen.

 

“We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils!” so wrote John Raws from Pozieres on the fourth of August 1916[1].

That same day the Australians joined the attack at Fromelles. It was a disaster. Five and a half thousand young Australian men died – the greatest loss of soldiers in a single day during the war. Fighting continued on the Somme through the autumn mud and a bitterly cold winter. Australian casualties continued to mount, and the men’s health deteriorated in the conditions.

In November that same year, Hugh Anderson wrote home to his mother in New South Wales from Fromelles: “The Big Push has a 12 mile front and a depth of 6 miles and a curved front,” he wrote. “It has cost us half a million casualties at least and goodness knows how much money and animals. This is in six months. The German line is bent but not broken, at this rate to blow the Germans back to the Rhine, Britain will be broken for money and men. How it will end is very hard to say. I give him two years more at least. That’s my opinion from what I’ve seen and read.”[2]

This year marks 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. Between the 1st of July 1916 and the 18th of November, the Allied forces took on the Germans along the Somme River. The battle front was 30 kilometres long, the Germans well entrenched and when it was over the British and Dominion forces had lost an astounding 430,000 young men and the French 200,000 soldiers. In three and a half months the troops had advanced only 12 kilometers.

Three years later on the 11th of November, the Armistice of Compiegne went into effect. At the time, what we now know as the First World War was called the Great War – the war to end all wars. One hundred years later, we have witnessed a second world war and Australian troops have been involved in countless other engagements in countries too many to name.

Despite lessons from the past, the world has barely changed since 1916. Humanity, it seems, is destined to live with conflict and war, rioting and revolutions, oppression and injustice – not just in the last 100 years, but from the beginning of time. Not only must we contend with our inability to live together peaceably, we are also subject to the instability of the planet, the earth’s uncontrollable weather systems and the constant threat of illness or disease. For many people life is a daily struggle simply to survive and most of us at some time or another face some sort of adversity as a consequence of belonging to the human race on planet Earth.

It is important then to recognise that the words of today’s gospel are not prophetic in the sense that Jesus is predicting what might happen in a far distant future. Nor is he providing a check-list of signs that will precede the end. He is speaking of the world as it is – a world that is flawed, erratic and often dangerous. Jesus is describing the world as the disciples will experience it. His words are prophetic only in as much as he is describing the difficulties and dangers that the disciples in every age can expect to encounter. His words are prophetic only in as much as every generation has lived through wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues. At the same time, his words are not prophetic in the sense that though these events have occurred over and over again in the last 2000 years, they have not presaged the end.

In fact Jesus makes it clear that we are not to look for signs or to come to any conclusions as to the timing of the end. He cautions about being led astray by those who think that they know better than God when the end will come.

Rather than foretelling the future, Jesus is telling the disciples what they can expect in the present. Their lives might have changed as a result of their coming to faith, but the world will remain much the same. The only significant change in the disciples’ external environment is the risk that they will be misunderstood, that their faith in Jesus’ message may expose them to ridicule, misunderstanding, isolation and even arrest and imprisonment. He does not want them to be unprepared for a future that will be uncertain and ultimately unpredictable.

Behind the warning Jesus offers assurance and encouragement. “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” No matter how hard it gets, no matter what external or internal threats present themselves, Jesus assures that God will not abandon us. No matter what adversities we face, God will give us the courage and strength to endure. If we are able to trust in God’s steadfastness, if we maintain our faith to the end – no matter what life throws at us – God will keep faith with us. If our relationship with God through Jesus remains unbroken, we are assured that that relationship will defy even death and that in the present and for eternity we will be alive together with God.

Jesus doesn’t promise that life with him will be without challenges or will isolate and protect us from suffering, but he does assure us over and over again that life with him will give us the ability to endure. Let us thank God that, relatively speaking our lives are not subject to the desperation of poverty, displacement, disease faced by millions. Let us trust God that whatever life throws at us, we will find the courage to endure and face the future with confidence in God’s love for us and the certainty that we are destined for life eternal.

[1] Lieutenant John Raws, 23rd Battalion, 4 August 1916

[2] http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/stories/stories_war=W1_id=99.html


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