Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

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??

Who are you??

December 16, 2017

Advent 3 – 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who cannot and will not be contained on constrained by our limited understanding. Amen.

 

Renae [1] and I have had an interesting week. I have been introducing her to people whom I visit. Among other things we discovered that not everyone is clear about the role of a curate or a Deacon. For example, one person asked Renae if she was going to be ordained, and another, despite our protestations to the contrary, continued to believe that Renae was my daughter. At one point this person commented how much Renae looked like me; at which point I realised that it was foolish to argue any longer!

Two of today’s readings are about identity – the identity of the prophetic voice in Isaiah and the identity of John the Witness. In relation to John the Witness, those who came to ask who he was, already had made up some guesses as to who he was. If those whom Rosemary and I visited were not troubled by dementia, a conversation between Rosemary and someone who knows a little about her might go like this:

Your maiden name is Solomon. That’s an unusual name, are you related to Peter Solomon? (No, I’m not.)

Solomon is a Jewish sounding name – do you have a Jewish ancestry? (No not at all!)

I guess that if you are a Deacon that you are expecting to become a priest. (Comment)

(If we already know some details about Renae – that she is a woman, a wife and a mother, that she has a Bachelor degrees in Arts and Theology, we might use our preconceptions and stereotypes about these roles and qualifications to fill out our picture of her. In the end, we might have a reasonable amount of information, but we wouldn’t really know her at all.)

It is all too easy to make mistakes or to draw conclusions about a person’s identity on the basis of very little information. Most of us are guilty of drawing conclusions about someone based on first impressions and most of us at some time, uses stereotypes to categorise someone because it saves time and makes life easier than trying to process a lot of information.

The conversation between the priests and Levites and John bears some similarities to that which I have just had with Renae in that it tries to fill out some very limited details by asking simplistic, stereotypical questions. That John is baptizing people in the river Jordan has become known in Jerusalem. In order to maintain their relationship with the Roman occupiers, the Jewish authorities have some responsibility for keeping the peace. They are keen to know whether John poses a threat to the stability of the region or whether his popularity threatens to unsettle their place and their status among the Jews. In short they want to know if John was simply calling the people to repentance or whether he was using his charisma to de-stabilise Temple worship and the priesthood. Was he stirring up the people to call for change or was he simply urging them to repent and to deepen their relationship with God. The former was dangerous but the latter was harmless.

The authorities didn’t go out to the Jordan themselves; they delegated the task to priests and Levites. John’s interrogators are stumped, they want him to fit into a preexisting category: the anointed one, Elijah or a prophet. John is none of these, but because his interrogators can only see the world through one lens, they ask the same question three times: “Who are you? What then? and Who are you?”

John does not fit into any of their boxes. His responses are all negative. He is not the anointed one, he is not Elijah and he is not the prophet. John knows that in and of himself he is nothing; his role is simply to point the way to someone else. He points to Jesus, to the light, to the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for another. In the end we only learn what John is not, however his responses have reassured his questioners, they return to Jerusalem confident that he is not going to form a revolutionary movement that will upset the delicate balance of power.

John’s gospel is not interested in John the Baptist. The author of John is more interested in John who bears Witness to Jesus. John the Baptist is the wild man of the Synoptic gospels who preaches repentance, addresses the crowds as vipers and warns that Jesus will come with a winnowing fork in his hand and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Witness is a peaceable, mild-mannered holy man whose spirituality draws people to him and leads them to seek baptism, John the Witness points forward to Jesus. He does not draw attention to himself.

The readings during Advent challenge us to pay attention – to the presence of God in and around us, in people and in creation and in the unexpected surprises in our day. Paying attention demands that we take time to focus, to notice details that would usually escape us and to celebrate God in our lives.

This week we are challenged to pay more attention to people whom we know or whom we think we know. Who are they really? What are their hopes and dreams? We are encouraged to ask ourselves: Do we allow the people around us to really be themselves or do we expect them to conform to our preconceived ideas? Have we boxed them in, restricted them to particular roles or fitted them into pre-existing stereotypes that are limiting and confusing? John didn’t fit the categories into which the priests and Levites tried to place him but so long as he didn’t cause trouble they were content to let him be.

There are no images or types that are able to contain Jesus the Christ. We must be careful to pay attention and try to adjust focus so that when Jesus is right in front of us we will not make the mistake of thinking that he is something or someone else.

This Advent, pay attention, keep awake, be alert. Allow God to stretch and challenge your way of thinking about God. Open yourself to new and different possibilities and experiences of the divine, because only then will you be ready when God in Jesus catches you by surprise.

 

[1] Renae was ordained as a Deacon two weeks ago and has begun working with us as a Curate.

Are you ready or will you be caught by surprise?

December 2, 2017

Advent 1 – 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is always present and always coming to us. Amen.

 

Loud noise (cymbals, child crying). Bach’s Toccata

That got your attention didn’t it?

I love Advent. I love the sense of anticipation, the build up towards the coming of Jesus, the assurance of God’s love and the time to reflect on whether or not my relationship with God is such that I would know Jesus when he comes again. That said I always experience a sense of disquiet as we come to the end of the church year and the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of eager expectation, we might find ourselves experiencing a sense of dread and trepidation. Like me, you may have noticed that for the last few weeks we have been bombarded by Matthew’s parables of the end times. There was the parable of the foolish maidens whose lack of preparedness saw them locked out of the banquet, the parable of the servant who hid the money with which he was entrusted and who, as a result was cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and finally the parable of the sheep and the goats which concluded with the sheep being admitted to eternal life whereas the goats were sent to eternal punishment.

If that wasn’t enough, prior to that Matthew had warned his readers (and therefore us) about the suffering that would precede the end of the age and the need for watchfulness so that we would not be caught out when the Son of Man returned unexpectedly. We are constantly warned to be alert, awake and prepared so that the coming of Jesus will not catch us by surprise (1 Thess 5) and we are expected to live in such a way that we will be counted among the sheep and not the goats.

In today’s readings, Isaiah expresses a longing that God will rend the heavens and come down so violently that the mountains would quake at God’s presence. He begs God not to be exceedingly angry and not to remember our iniquity forever. Mark, quoting Zephaniah, tells us that at the coming of the Son of Man, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. When you add to these warnings and dire predictions the descriptions of the end found in Jeremiah and Joel and worst of all in Revelation, it is a wonder that we do not spend our days cowering in terror, desperately hoping that Jesus will not return anytime soon.

Such predictions of cosmic realignment, destruction, judgement and punishment are so vivid and dramatic that they have the potential to strike terror into our heart and to cause us to live in such a constant state of anxiety that we would never do or achieve anything. This in itself creates a problem because the parable of the talents warns us that being so fearful that we do nothing is not the solution. So where do we go from here? It seems that we cannot afford to be complacent or relaxed, but neither can we afford to live in a state of heightened anticipation or anxiety.

I wonder if the colorful and terrifying pictures of the end are designed not so much to cause us apprehension, but are intended to gain our attention, to keep us on our toes and to get us to focus on what is important. Through the writers of scripture God is trying to shake us out of our complacency, encourage us to think about the way we live and to ask ourselves whether we are really prepared for the experience of engaging with God face-to-face. Stars falling out of heaven and fire-breathing armies (Joel) are much more likely to penetrate our awareness and capture our imagination than God’s simply turning up unannounced.

The irony is, that despite the posturing and the ominous threats, despite the lurid and violent images that were associated with God’s coming, God defied all expectation and entered the world silently, anonymously and unobtrusively. Instead of wreaking utter destruction, God made Godself totally vulnerable and came among us as a new-born child. Instead of our finding ourselves at the mercy of God, we discovered that God had placed Godself entirely at our mercy. Instead of wreaking vengeance and destroying humanity, God placed Godself in a situation in which humanity could destroy God.

The contradiction between our expectations and the actual event of God’s coming among us gives us cause for thought, challenges us to pay more attention and encourages us to be more ready and more alert so that we are better equipped to notice and to recognise God’s presence in the world.

This Advent, take some time to look around you, to notice God in unexpected places, in surprising events and unusual people. In the next few weeks, try to be more aware of the world around you so that you are able to recognise God in God’s creation. Above all be alert, keep awake and be expectant so that God’s coming will not catch you unawares, but however subtle, however unusual God’s coming may be, it will not be beyond your capacity to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who is really a child of Abraham?

December 3, 2016

Advent 2 – 2016

Matthew 3:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God in whose image we are made and whose image we are called to project to the world. Amen.

Recently I read a novel entitled A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. In broad terms the plot concerns a family and their family home, the complex family dynamics and how those dynamics shift as the parents age. The Whitshank family had a proud history – albeit only two generations old. Junior Whitshank bought the local construction company and re-named it Whitshank Construction. His son, Red, took over the company and it was expected that Red’s son Stem would take it over in his turn. Stem was not actually Red’s son. Red had three children of his own – two daughters and a son Denny. Stem, whose real name was Douglas, was actually the son of Lonesome O’Brien. Lonesome had the reputation of being the best tiler in town and he worked for Whitshank Construction. No one knew what had happened to Stem’s mother. When asked, Lonesome simply said that she had gone traveling.

Lonesome often took Douglas to work with him when a babysitter was not available. One day, when Stem was only two years old, Lonesome was raced into hospital from work. Red asked his wife Abby to come and pick up the child. Two days later Lonesome was dead and try as they might Red and Abby were unable to locate any next of kin for the child. Abby was adamant that Stem was not going into care and despite Red’s reservations and protestations Stem joined the Whitshank family. It was often remarked that Stem was more of a Whitshank than his brother Denny. Whereas Denny was easily bored, obstinate, thoughtless and unsettled, Stem was good, kind, sweet-tempered and easy-going like Red. Whereas Denny showed no interest in and no aptitude for the construction business, Stem loved working with wood and with people. Over time he became more and more like his adoptive father – even his walk was the same.

So what is it that makes a family? Is it blood or is it common interests? Is it the fact that people live together or are there other criteria? Today, families come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – extended families, nuclear families, single parent families, blended families, families in which there are two mothers or two fathers and families made possible through surrogacy or sperm donation. Families are both relational – that is there have genetic ties – and constructed – that is they bound together by ties that are as strong as family even though the individuals are not related to each other at all.

In today’s gospel John the Baptist challenges what it means to be in God’s family. He proclaims: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Up until this point in time, being a member of God’s family was simply a matter of birth, of being able to claim Abraham as a forebear. To be sure, being a son or daughter of Abraham came with some responsibilities, but essentially it was understood that God was the God of the Israelites and that as such their status as God’s children was inviolable.

John challenges this assumption and the complacency that came with it. Being a part of God’s family is not something that can be taken for granted. As the prophets before him, John bears witness to the fact that there is much more to being a child of Abraham than an accident of birth. From Deuteronomy through to Malachi, the Israelites have been reminded of what God expects from his family. In particular God expects that those who belong to God will share God’s concern for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Members of God’s family are expected “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God” (6:8).

The relationship between God and the Israelites is conditional on their holding and conforming to God’s values. God through Jeremiah says: “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.” (7:5,6). Being in God’s family means being and behaving like God.

In the world the Old Testament and of John the Baptist there was no social welfare and at least ninety percent of people lived just above the poverty level. Those without any means of support – the widow, the orphan, the disabled and the alien were utterly dependent on the good will of others for survival. The Old Testament made it abundantly clear that it was the responsibility of all the children of Abraham to share with God a care for the vulnerable and for the outsider. By extension, if those were the criteria for being children of Abraham, then anyone who behaved in such a way could be considered a part of God’s family.

This is one of the points that John is making here. He is warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that they cannot simply rely on their lineage, nor can they assume that it is sufficient to make a cynical or superficial show of responding to God’s message. What they need is a complete change of heart. Unless they demonstrate in their lives that they share God’s sense of justice, God’s passion for the poor and the outcast, the alienated and the rejected, they cannot claim to be children of Abraham.

Being part of God’s family is not something that we can or should take for granted, it is both a blessing and a demand, a gift and a responsibility, it requires a response on our part not just passive acceptance. Being a child of Abraham demands an engagement with the world and a passion for justice and equity.

Sometimes even the best of us need a John the Baptist in our lives to shame us, to call us to account, and to remind us of who we really are and to whose family we really belong.

Looking backwards and forwards on Advent 1

November 26, 2016

Advent 1 – 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

 In the name of God who was and is and is to come, who has loved, does love and will love. Amen.

If you have ever had a medical procedure you will know that you will usually receive a list of instructions telling you what you must do to prepare. Some blood tests require you to fast before hand and others do not. A visit to an obstetrician will often require you to produce a urine sample. An appointment for a breast screen will come with instructions as to what to wear and the insistence that on that day you do not use talcum powder. A booking for surgery will come with pages of instructions – don’t drink alcohol, do not eat or drink for a specified period, do not bring valuables to the hospital with you but do bring your method of payment. And as for having a colonoscopy – let’s not even go there! (Those of us who have had the experience know what is involved and those of you yet to have the pleasure, will find out soon enough.)

The point is that there are many things in our life that require careful and thoughtful preparation – travel, meals, study, buying a house, getting married and so on. While some of these need more attention than others, they are all relatively easy in the sense that the guidelines are clear, others have done it before us and by and large we know what is expected or where to go for information or advice.

Preparing for eternity is a very different proposition from preparing for surgery, travel or a job interview. For a start, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like or to give us specific instructions as to exactly how to get in. No one, that is, except Jesus and he did not give a straight forward, easy to follow list of directions or instructions. Instead he left his followers to make sense of his teachings and to put them together in ways that made sense to them.

Preparing for eternity or for the return of Jesus, is the most important thing that we will ever do with our lives, but it is easy to put it off because it seems so remote, so far into the future that we imagine that we have plenty of time to put our lives in order. Alternatively, it is possible to become complacent, to believe that we have already done all that is necessary to enter into eternal life.

I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort into our preparation for eternity as we do for other aspects of our lives. Do we have a check list that we refer back to see how ready we are? Are we really clear as to what is required? Have we put some effort and research into the subject or do we think we already know all that there is to know?

Many of us were brought up with a Christian faith that taught us to be good, that entrance into heaven required sticking within some prescribed guidelines – most notably the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we have learned that Jesus does not want simple obedience to a set of rules. In life, he consistently chose those who did not conform to the societal view of what does or does not constitute “goodness”, he criticized those who placed weight on outward appearances, and he constantly revised the commandments in such a way as to make it clear that it was a person’s attitude to and relationship with God that was the key to eternal life. In other words, Jesus shifted the goal posts and cast us adrift from the safety of clear rules and codes of behavior and left us to find our own direction.

Jesus knew that it was possible to do the “right thing” but to do it for the wrong reasons. He exposed the hypocrisy and shallowness of those whose outward show of goodness hid a lack of love and compassion, a self-centredness and self-congratulatory attitude that blinded them to their own weakness and frailty. Jesus sought out those who knew their own sinfulness and who relied on God’s love rather than their own efforts.

If Jesus were to offer advice for living or guidelines for attaining eternity, he would probably encourage us to seek self-awareness rather than self-righteousness, to recognise our imperfection rather than aim for perfection and to understand that we are no better than the next person rather than striving to outdo them with our “goodness”.

In the final analysis, Jesus’ incarnation demonstrated that our salvation does not depend on anything that we do for ourselves, but on what God does for us. Salvation is entirely related to God’s love for us – love that entered into our existence, challenged our concepts of right and wrong, of power and weakness, of judgment and acceptance, love that endured the worst that we can throw at it, and which loves us still. Love, that on the cross overcame evil and death so that nothing might stand between ourselves and life eternal.

On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are urged to both look backward to Jesus’ coming in love and forward to Jesus’ coming in judgement, to place our lives in the balance and to see how we measure up.

Are we living in such a way that demonstrates our awareness of God’s love and our inability to deserve that love? Have we thrown ourselves completely on God’s mercy or are we still holding something back – in other words do we completely and utterly trust in God’s unconditional love or does some part of us still believe that we have to do something to deserve it?

Christmas is a celebration of God’s incomprehensible yet unmistakable love for us. Advent is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether or not we trust that love and whether that love has translated into love for ourselves and love for others.

Perhaps, after all, we are better not to prepare, but instead to ensure that we fully accept all that God in Jesus has done for us, such that Jesus’ return will be time of rejoicing and not a time of fearfulness and that we will be truly ready to rest in God’s love for eternity.

 

 

Lovers or Vipers?

December 12, 2015

Advent 3 – 2015

Luke 3:7-18

Marian Free

In the name of God who draws us into a relationship that is honest, mature and above all, life-giving.  Amen.

Relationships – with family, with friends and with lovers -can be complicated. They require a delicate balance between giving each other enough space and taking each other for granted. Healthy relationships rely on mutual trust and respect, a recognition of difference and a willingness to encourage each other to grow. All relationships require a certain amount of effort, of consideration, of good communication.

Perhaps the most difficult relationship to manage effectively is that of marriage. Marriage is the relationship in which we place the highest expectations, in which two people are thrown together for the greatest period of time and in which we can be confronted with extraordinary stresses and strains. Those who enter into matrimony do so with great anticipation. They are so full of love that they believe that nothing will weaken the bonds between them. In most cases each partner is sufficiently confident in their affection to promise that their commitment to each other will weather all kinds of changes in circumstance including sickness and health, wealth and poverty. Sadly, for a great many people, this does not prove to be true.  Statistics tell us that in 2014 alone, 46,498 divorces were granted in Australia and in America almost 50% of marriages end in divorce.

There are many reasons why relationships do not last. Surprisingly, according to Dr Mark Dombeck, a primary cause of marriage break-up is familiarity. He suggests that over time passion diminishes and at the same time couples become more used to each other. If this continues without some attempt to address the issue, couples can find themselves drifting apart and taking each other for granted. Situations such as this can lead to resentment or to one or both partners being tempted by the attentions of others and falling into an affair. Longevity in marriage cannot simply be taken for granted.

At the other extreme are partnerships in which one or the other is unable to truly believe that they are loved. They simply cannot take the love of the other as a given and as a result either smother their partner with attention or demand evidence that they are loved and valued. Unfortunately, nothing can satisfy their need and their unrelenting attention or their constant need for reassurance may wear away the patience of their partner who may seek solace in being with someone who is more secure and less demanding.

What is required of a good relationship is holding the tension between being over-confident and lacking in confidence such that there is mutual trust and a mutual commitment to keep the relationship alive.

When we think about relationships – what makes them strong and what causes them to break apart – it is not often that our relationship with God is included in the mix. This is unfortunate, because the Bible in its entirety deals with our relationship with God. The Old Testament in particular describes God’s reaching out to us and God’s desire for a relationship that is honest and whole, mature and responsible, loving and confident.  At the same time, the Old Testament describes God’s frustration and anger that humanity consistently goes its own way either taking God and God’s gifts for granted, or its failure to trust in God’s love and believe that God will be true to God’s promises.

Into this mix comes John the Baptist urging God’s people to rethink and renew their relationship with God, to stop taking God for granted and to stop selfishly going their own way.

As Steve Godfrey says: “John must have missed the Seeker Sensitive Message”.[1] Instead of commending those who have come out to listen to him and be baptised, he attacks them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

What John is really saying is that the restoration of relationship requires more than just outward show. John can see what we cannot – that those who have come to him, still think that being a child of Abraham is all that it takes to win salvation. They are reliant on their heritage and do not understand that their relationship with God requires some effort, some commitment on their part. For John, it is not enough that the crowds have come to the wilderness seeking baptism. They must intend to change their lives. They must demonstrate their love for and gratitude towards God, they must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” they must stop taking God and their relationship with God for granted.

At the same time John, is anxious not to frighten the crowds. He cautions that a healthy relationship must maintain the balance between doing enough and doing either too little or too much. When asked: “What shall we do?” his response is measured. He suggests that there is no need to go over the top, no need for them to be so lacking in confidence that they feel a need to earn God’s love. They don’t need to work themselves into a frenzy or to worry themselves sick about doing enough to please God. Maintaining a healthy relationship he suggests is a simple as not taking advantage of others, not practicing extortion or blackmail and not holding on to more than one needs but being content with what one has.

John the Baptist reminds us that our relationship with God cannot be taken for granted, it requires openness and honesty, trust and respect, and above all a constant re-examination to see whether on the one hand we are doing all that we can to keep the passion alive and to avoid the over-familiarity that would allow us to take God (and God’s love) for granted and on the other hand that we ensure that remain sufficiently confident in God’s love for us that we do not fall into the error of failing to trust God and that we are able to resist the temptation to over-compensate by doing those things that we mistakenly believe will make God love us.

Our relationship with God is the most important relationship that we have and yet for many of us, it is the one into which we put the least effort. Perhaps this Advent is the time to reconsider how much we take God for granted and to ask ourselves would John the Baptist include us among the brood of vipers?

[1] churchintheworld.com “Brood of Vipers”

Anticipation and Trepidation – the two faces of Advent

December 5, 2015

Advent 2 – 2015

Malachi 3:1-4, Song of Zechariah, Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 3:1-6

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. Amen.

Advent is an extraordinary time of year. From both a secular and a religious point of view it is a time of both anticipation and trepidation.

In the secular sense, we are all filled with anticipation in relation to the gathering of family and friends, the giving and receiving of presents and the sharing of good food and drink. Yet such happy expectations are often marred by trepidation – so much can and often does go wrong. Christmas is a time when family disagreements come to light or are accentuated -tensions arise with regard to where and with whom the celebrations should be held and there is always the anxiety that you will have spent a lot of money on what turns out to be the wrong gift.

From a religious point of view there is a sense of anticipation as we look forward to celebrating once again the extraordinary event of God becoming one of us. We relive Advents and Christmases past, experience a sense of nostalgia as we remember Advent traditions (calendars and candles, community carols) and we anticipate the joy of joining with fellow believers at Christmas celebrations in our parishes. In the Anglican tradition our liturgy marks the season with the colour purple, an absence of flowers and the lighting of candles on the Advent wreath – one, then two, then three .. as Christmas draws closer. It is as if we hold our breath expectantly waiting for the birth of Jesus.

However, the sense of excitement is balanced by a feeling of trepidation. Advent has a double meaning, we wait to relive the past, but we also wait for the return of Jesus. We remember and anticipate the Christ child with a sense of wonder and awe, but at the same time we look forward to Christ’s coming in glory – an event that brings with it a sense of trepidation and even fear. There are a number of reasons for this anxiety that can border on terror not least of which are the number of texts that suggest that Jesus’/God’s coming will be accompanied by unnatural events, terrifying signs and the working out of God’s judgement.  It is impossible to predict the timing of Jesus’ return – “it will come like a thief in the night”(Mk 13:35) and we are led to believe that we should be “be pure and blameless” (1 Thess 1:10).

Jesus’ return will be an awesome occasion and we will have to account for our lives, but that does not mean that we should live in abject terror. On the contrary, as our readings today remind us Jesus’ return is not so fearsome that we should live our lives in a state of constant anxiety. Malachi tells us that we “will delight” in God’s messenger (3;1). Paul is confident that the Thessalonians will be ready (1:6). Zechariah (recalling Isaiah) speaks of “a dawn from on high breaking upon us”. Even John the Baptist who has some harsh words to say is confident (again quoting Isaiah) that “all flesh will see the salvation of God (3:6).

Anticipation and trepidation fill Advent (the pre-Christmas season) in equal measure, yet it is easy to focus on one and not the other. For some people the tensions of Christmas are so stressful that there is no joy in the preparation (or even in the celebration) of Christmas. Others are so caught up in the festivities that they have no time to consider the impact of their behaviour on others.

For some Christians, especially those for whom Jesus’ coming again has been used to enforce obedience and subjugation to a particular party line are so terrified that they cannot imagine Jesus’ return as being anything other than a terrifying event. All the joy and wonder have been lost. Others, focusing on God’s generosity and open-heartedness, have a tendency to become complacent, to forget that we owe God everything and that our lives should demonstrate our gratitude and reflect God’s presence in us.

Our church year begins with Advent that sets the tone for our whole Christian journey. The themes and tensions of Advent help us to find a healthy balance between holding God in awe and fear and knowing ourselves completely and unconditionally loved. Keeping the tension between always being alert and ready and yet resting comfortably in the knowledge of being so utterly accepted and treasured. The sense of trepidation which Advent brings keeps us on our toes, forbids us becoming too relaxed, too comfortable, too complacent, stops us from taking God and God’s love for us for granted. At the same time the season of Advent reminds us that God’s love transcends all our missteps, our failures and deliberate faults and comes to us over and over again in the form of a vulnerable infant, reminding us that there is nothing to fear and everything to hope.

You better watch out

November 28, 2015

Advent 1 – 2015

Jeremiah 33.14-16, Ps 25.1-10,  1 Thessalonians 3.9-13,  Luke 21.25-38

Marian Free

 

May we who live between Jesus’ coming and Jesus’ coming again, live with expectation and hope, joy and anticipation, trusting in God’s promises to us. Amen.

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

He’s making a list,

and checking it twice;

gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

 

He sees when you are sleeping,

he knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been good or bad –

so be good for goodness sake.

 

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

On reflection it seems to me that this popular ditty completely misrepresents not only Santa, but the spirit of the Christmas season. When and how did a figure that symbolizes promise become symbolic of threat? The sentiment expressed is reminiscent of that of a stern, judgmental God who is constantly toting up a balance sheet in order to measure how we are performing against some standard that we can never reach. It brings to mind a story of a boy of six who, in January, was moving in the home of a foster family. The family were shocked and dismayed to learn that this child had never received a visit from Santa had – he had never been deemed good enough[1]. Santa had been used as a big stick not to bring joy to the child, but as a means of punishing him for real or imagined sins.  His mother’s love (represented by Santa) had to be earned.

The balance between responsibility and gift, gift and responsibility is not always an easy one to manage. Unconditional love does not mean that bad or irresponsible behaviour is overlooked but discipline does involve constantly finding fault. Parents and others have to find ways to deal with the tension – allowing the other to make mistakes, but sometimes calling them to account, ensuring that the other knows that although love will never be withdrawn there will sometimes be consequences for behaving in ways that are hurtful, dangerous or thoughtless.

Many of us are not good at living with the tension. We prefer clear guidelines that tell us that if we do action ‘a’ consequence ‘b’ will result.  That way we can measure our behaviour and that of others and we can inflict punishment on those who do not comply and be filled with self loathing when we don’t come up to a supposed standard.  Even people of faith are not good at living with the tension of a God who loves, but who also hopes that we will respond to that love.  When some people read the scriptures, they see only a harsh, judgement God and as a consequence live in a state of almost constant anxiety.

It is reasonably easy to understand how this comes about. The books of the prophets are filled with colourful descriptions of what God might do to an unfaithful Israel and today’s gospel provides a terrifying description of what we might expect to happen when the Son of Man returns. All this builds a convincing picture of a God who might be making a list and checking it twice.

The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to recognise, as today’s readings illustrate, that our scriptures are filled with tensions, contradictions and paradox. Promise and threat are recurring themes – God’s promise to be faithful, and the threat that things will go badly when we ourselves are not faithful. Our task is to hold the two in a healthy tension – to constantly allow the promise to soften and even override the threat.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to a people in exile who may well feel that God has abandoned them as a result of their rebelliousness. Jeremiah urges the people not to despair and to trust not only that God is still with them, but that God will restore them. Today’s reading speaks to God’s promise to David – that there will always be someone to sit on the throne. God will raise up a righteous branch for them. Psalm 25 gently holds threat and promise together. It expresses a belief that if we throw our lot in with God, instead of standing on our own, our lives will be much richer and we will be more content. There is a hint of threat – this is how we must behave or else. Yet the overall tone is positive: “Be mindful of your steadfast love O Lord”. The Psalmist believes that if someone’s heart is in the right place then God will overlook transgressions.

A similar delicate balance is found in the passage from 1 Thessalonians. Paul’s joy that the community have remained faithful despite persecution, is balance by a perceived need to be blameless. Then there is Luke’s version of Mark’s “little apocalypse” – the description of the end. “People will faint from fear and foreboding.” “Be alert so that you may have strength to escape these things.” Yet, even here, though heaven and earth is shaken to its core, the readers of the gospel are urged: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke is writing to a community that is more settled than that of Mark, more resigned to Jesus’ coming being relegated to a distant future. Luke is anxious to combat backsliding, complacency or a relaxed attitude that would make the community unprepared for the coming of the Son of Man.

What can be the purpose of this apparently mixed message of both promise and threat? Are our texts just messing with us? Is God the sort of masochist who enjoys keeping us in a constant state of uncertainty as to God’s relationship with us? Neither is true[2]. I believe that the tensions and contradictions play a very important role in our faith journey, that we both need to hold God in awe and to believe in God’s unconditional love for us.

Without a certain fear of God, we might well become complacent, believing that our relationship with God requires no effort on our part. Without a certain fear we might act in ways that damage and destroy our relationship with God and discover that not only are our lives impoverished as a result, but that our behaviour causes harm to ourselves and to others. At the same time, if we allow that fear to overwhelm us, if our lives are determined by terror and a belief that God is trying to catch us out in some misdemeanour, we will forget how to truly live and will be guilty of failing to accept God’s gift of unceasing love.

Promise and threat – two great themes that run through the Advent season – the promise of Jesus’ coming again, the threat of consequences if we are not ready.

The themes of Advent inform the way we live out our faith – with absolute confidence in God’s love for us and a determination to live in such a way to deserve that love.

[1] I’m pleased to report that the foster family were so distressed by the situation that they organized with their local Rotary Club for “Santa” to make a special trip to their home just for that boy.
[2] At this point we could have a long academic discussion about the writers of the texts, the difference between the priestly writer and the scribal writer of the OT and so on, but there are times when we should look at the text simply as we have inherited and see what it says to us when it stands alone.

 

Domesticating God

November 29, 2014

Advent 1 – 2014

Mark 13:24-37 (Isaiah 64:1-9)

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose power exceeds anything that we can know or comprehend. Amen.

This week I was half way through a wedding rehearsal when there was the most eerie sound – a sound like the intake of breath that ended with what I can only describe as a rather loud popping noise. Moments before I had seen black clouds to the south and so I knew without further investigation that what I had heard was the decrease in pressure before the clouds unleashed a torrent of hail. Even though I knew what to expect, the experience was terrifying. All along the southern side of the church hail smashed into our beautiful stained-glass windows – shattering the glass and sending shards flying from one side of the church to the other. The force and impact of the hail was extraordinary and all that I could think about was finding a place in which we could wait out the storm in safety.

Hardly had the storm begun than it was over – leaving a swathe of destruction throughout Brisbane. Windows were shattered, roofs blown from houses, trees uprooted, cars crushed, power lines brought down, roads and even stations flooded.

Experienced up close, nature is absolutely formidable and totally uncontrollable. In the face of such ferocity human ingenuity is completely ineffectual. No amount of technological advance can withstand the force of nature at its worst. The best that we can do in the face of such power is to hope that we will survive and, having survived, pick up the pieces and start again.

Natural events – earthquakes, storms, tsunamis – all expose the insignificance and vulnerability of humanity in comparison with the vastness and potency of creation as a whole. Earthquakes, floods and tsuamis can destroy entire cities and change the topography of the land. Floods and mudslides can carry all before them. Nature is as violent and unpredictable as it is benign and life sustaining. Despite our best efforts, it cannot be manipulated or bent to our will.

If creation is beyond our reach to control, how much less is the God behind creation within our grasp to manage or direct?

The prophet Isaiah knew this and could only imagine that if God were to visit the earth it could only be in a dramatic and world-shattering way, that the God who created the universe and all that is in it was more powerful and more terrifying than anything that the natural world could throw at us. God’s coming would tear the heavens apart and God’s presence would do nothing less than change the face of the earth – the mountains themselves would quake, the valleys be raised and the mountains laid low, there would be no need for sun and moon, for God would provide perpetual light.

The gospels took up this theme and developed it even further. As the gospel writers saw it, the coming of God would completely transform creation – the sun would be darkened, nor would the moon give its light, the stars would fall and even the powers of heaven will be shaken at the coming of the Son of Man.

Despite these breath-taking and frightening images, I suspect that most of us are rather blasé about the Second Coming of Jesus. If we think about it at all, we associate it with our death or else we have rather romantic images of Jesus’ arriving peacefully on a cloud and gathering us to himself. Centuries of Christianity have led to a certain complacency, a tendency to domesticate God, a belief that all is right between ourselves and God and an assumption that we can know and understand God and God’s purpose for us and for the world.

The readings today put the lie to that kind of thinking. We are reminded that God is magnificent and awesome – beyond our ability to understand, let alone control. We are forced to consider that in the scale of things and in comparison to the universe as a whole we are of less significance and are less powerful than a speck of dust. If nature cannot be contained by our best efforts, how much less are we able to control God.

Advent begins, as the church year ends, with dramatic and vivid descriptions of God’s coming among us. The intention is not to make us cower in terror, but to fill us with awe at the nature and power of God, to remind us of who we are before God, to prick our inflated egos and to expose our arrogance and self-reliance.

Whether God’s coming is as quiet and unobtrusive as a birth in a far off land, or as dramatic and earth shattering as the re-arrangement of the universe, it will not to be caught unprepared. It does us good to be reminded that God is always just beyond our grasp because familiarity can lead to complacency and lead us to believe that we are in control when nothing could be further from the truth.

An angel made me do it

December 21, 2013

Advent 4 – 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

 There is a wonderful line in the mini-series of “Pride and Prejudice” when the overly religious and moralistic Mary states – in response to Lydia’s elopement: “As difficult as this situation is, it is a useful reminder to us that a woman’s virtue, once lost, is irretrievable.”  She reflects a common view. Her cousin, Mr Collins has already commented something to the effect that the situation would not have been as bad had Lydia been dead. All the blame, all the responsibility for her loss of virtue fall on her. Mr Wickham, the man who has persuaded Lydia to run away with him, will have a reputation of not being a “respectable man”, but it is Lydia and her family that will bear the censure and the social isolation that will result from her reckless behaviour. No one will want to socialise with the family after this and the four other sisters will now be tainted by association. As Elizabeth says: “She is ruined, and her family must share in her shame and disgrace.” Sexual indiscretion on the part of the woman seems to have been seen as something that was contagious. It was considered to be so morally wrong that no one would want to be seen to be condoning it by maintaining a friendship with the family.

These sorts of attitudes regarding chastity make Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy quite extraordinary. In many cultures even today, a woman who shames her family or her husband can be cast out of that society or even worse, put to death. A respectable man would want nothing to do with her and would certainly not want to raise someone else’s child as if he or she were his own.

So far as we can tell, in the first century, as in some places today, young people were engaged at a very young age. They didn’t necessarily live together and were not actually married until they were older. This seems to have been the case with Mary and Joseph. When Mary fell pregnant she and Joseph were not married and not living together. You can imagine his shock and disappointment when he discovered that Mary had become pregnant to someone else. In the normal course of events he could have caused a commotion. Mary’s pregnancy would have been a source of great humiliation, shame and embarrassment to him. In normal circumstances, he would want nothing more to do with her, he would not want to be associated with someone who was not chaste and he almost certainly would not want to raise someone else’s child – especially in a culture in which a son was required to carry on the family name.

Mary’s parents have let him down. They have not kept their side of the bargain that would have been to ensure Mary’s chastity – any commitments they made with regard to the betrothal have been broken. Now that Mary is pregnant, she is “spoiled goods”. Joseph is within his rights to ask for compensation and not to marry her.

However, he resolves not to make a fuss, to demand recompense or to make an example of Mary. Instead he decides “to dismiss her quietly” and to release her and her parents from any arrangement they have made. Perhaps, as tradition has it, Joseph is an old man who with the wisdom of age understands why a young woman might choose someone else or perhaps he just likes to keep to himself and does not want to draw attention to the situation. Whatever the reason, Joseph presumably thinks that this episode in his life has been dealt with and put behind him. Not so – God, in the form of an angel intervenes with an outrageously unbelievable story. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Assuming the account to have some truth in it, Joseph is asked to make a huge turn around. He has to reverse his decision, he has to come to terms with marrying Mary, he has to accept and raise a child that is not his own, he has to confront the fact that his neighbours may view him with contempt and that his only explanation for behaviour which will make no sense at all to those around him – will be: “An angel made me do it”.

Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time, so can only guess at the scenario and wonder how much license the author of Matthew has taken with the story. It is possible, as Matthew suggests, that Joseph was held in such esteem in the community that his behaviour would have been seen as further evidence of his goodness and generosity. He is protecting a young woman from life-long isolation and shame. All the same, we cannot underestimate what a huge decision this would be for Joseph and risks he was taking in marrying a woman who was already pregnant. His own moral codes would be called into question and his social standing compromised as a result.

It is possible that the culture of the time was more open to God speaking to people in dreams or to angels appearing apparently out of nowhere with messages that turn a person’s life upside down. Even so, few, I imagine would believe that God was asking Joseph to do something that was so socially unacceptable. In effect, Joseph would have had to convince his family and friends to accept that God was asking him to do something that would compromise his (and God’s) moral standards and to behave in a way that was contrary to the principles and values that his community held in common. Joseph had to be absolutely convinced that he message that he had dreamt did indeed come from God, absolutely sure that the risks he was taking were worth the end result and that going against his own moral code was, in this instance, the right thing to do.

Some people make the mistake of confusing Christianity with morality. Being a Christian, they believe, has to do with being good (as opposed to being in union with God). This allows them to make moral judgments and to censure those who do not live up to their particular set of standards. The reality, as we know, is much more complex. When we strip away the sentimentality from our Christmas stories we find a different point of view. Beneath the romantic story of angels and dreams and of Mary and Joseph and the baby, we discover that God is not bound by our ideas of right and wrong or by our set of moral principles. The central characters of the Christmas story are a woman who has become pregnant out-of-wedlock and a man who is prepared to risk his own character and to ignore the accepted morality of first century Palestine. Each, in their different ways, respond to an angel who asks them to behave in ways contrary to the social mores of their time and to act in ways that will expose them to derision and disdain. Yet their relationship with God is such that they are able to place their trust completely in God, to put their own hesitations behind them and to take risks that make them vulnerable to censure and to social exclusion to ensure that God’s purpose can become a reality.

The example of Mary and Joseph is not an excuse for us to ignore moral values or cultural norms, but it is a reminder to us that we should build our relationship with God such that not only do we know and do what is right and proper, but that we also know when we are called to step beyond cultural boundaries and social constraints so that God’s presence might be known in the world.


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