Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Jesus – truly one with us

December 29, 2018

Christmas 1 – 2018

Luke 2: 41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God whose human existence was real and gritty, not superficial and sanitized. Amen.

Prior to the 1960’s there were no such things as shopping malls in Queensland. All the department stores were in the central city so, when it came to Christmas shopping, it was to the city that my mother took us so that we could spend our pocket money on gifts for each other. On one such occasion – I think I was about five years old – I became separated from my mother. I have no recollection of being anxious or frightened. What I do remember, is that when my mother found me, I was safely ensconced on a trestle table that was being used by a group of women to sell Christmas craft. Then, as now, society in general took it upon itself to take responsibility for children in such situations. The primary goal being to care for the child and to reunite the child with his or her parents as expeditiously as possible..

There are societies, those of the New Guinea highlands and our own indigenous culture for example, in which children are the responsibility of all the members of the community. Mothers can let their children roam free confident that everyone will see it as their responsibility to keep the children safe. The sort of ownership and personal responsibility that we feel for our children would be unknown. I’ve been told of an Australian family who, having come to Townsville from Darwin for a funeral, arrived home without one of their children. Instead of being mortified that a child had been left behind, or angry that the child had stayed behind, this family was utterly confident that the child was safe, would be well-looked after and would rejoin them at the next opportunity. (Thankfully, The Department of Children’s Services understood that this was a cultural practice and took no action against the family whose child was reunited with them as soon as it was feasible.)

It is against this sort of background that we have to read the account of Jesus in the Temple. Mary and Joseph were not careless parents who had failed to check on their child’s whereabouts when they left Jerusalem. No doubt they had travelled from Nazareth with a group of friends and relations to attend the feast. When it was time to return home, they would have simply trusted Jesus to have joined the group when everyone was ready to leave – after all he was nearly a man. They would have assumed that he was with cousins or friends whose parents would have treated him as one of their own. In this context there was no need for them to look for their son until the evening when, presumably, he would have joined his immediate family for dinner. Only then did they begin to worry.

Luke, at least in the beginning of the Jesus’ story, does not allow us to forget that this is an account of a real human situation. Jesus belongs to a real family that has the same hopes and dreams, the same flaws, the same irritations and the same anxieties. It is intriguing that across the four gospels we have only one story of Jesus’ childhood and it is the story of a rebellious teenager, or at the very least, of a young man testing his limits – letting his parents know that he is now an adult who can make his own decisions and that he has a vocation to fulfill in which they have no part. His stinging response to Mary’s anxious reproach is to wonder why his parents did not expect him to be in h

‘his Father’s house’. It is the sort of exchange that might occur in any modern household with teenage children.

Later accounts of Jesus’ birth like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas could not cope with such a messy, earthy, ordinary human start to Jesus’ life. For example, in some accounts, just prior to Jesus’ birth, time stands still, midwives appear apparently out of nowhere, the cave is unnaturally lit – by both the child and by Mary’s face. Mary experiences no birth pangs and the child is born completely clean. The birth does not affect Mary’s virginity and the hand of the skeptical midwife withers. In the History of Joseph the Carpenter, the family are taken into the home of a brigand. There, Jesus is bathed and his bath water bubbles up into a foam. The brigand’s wife keeps the foam and uses it to heal the sick and the dying. As a result the family become rich. In these later accounts not only is Jesus’ birth attended with miracles, the escape to Egypt is facilitated by the miracle of a spider’s web and the young Jesus performs miracles and even strikes dead a child who offends him! These later writers could not bear to think that the child Jesus was any less powerful, capable or wise than the adult Jesus.

The absence of somewhere to stay, the insalubrious surroundings of a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the teenager stretching his wings in the Temple are all reminders that we should not isolate Jesus from his very human beginnings or elevate him to the position of a superhuman being. Luke’s Gospel could not spell it out more clearly – Jesus is fully human, fully immersed in the messiness of human existence, susceptible to the same desires as any other human being and subject to some of the same fears. Luke brings Jesus down to earth, reminds us that in Jesus God fully immersed godself in the mundaneness of human existence and that despite being God, Jesus was not insulated from the reality of being one of us.

Jesus/God knows what it is to be one of us and shows us that it is possible for us, mere human beings, to become as he is. We just have to believe that this frail human body with all it’s complexities and this weak, indecisive mind is capable of great and extraordinary things. One of the messages of Christmas is that Jesus became one of us so that we could become one with him. Let us celebrate our human existence and try to live it to it’s full, divine potential.

Sleeping through Christmas

December 24, 2018

Christmas-2018

Luke 2:1-20

Marian Free

May the child in the manger open our eyes to see God’s presence in unexpected places and in unlikely people. Amen

Our Christmas cards and our imaginations give us a romanticized view of shepherds in first century Palestine. This view is enhanced by images of God as shepherd, and of David as the shepherd king. The reality was in fact quite different. In the time of Jesus shepherds were social outcasts, classed together with ass drivers, tanners, sailors, butchers and camel drivers. Theirs was an occupation for which there was no respect. They had no land of their own and their work kept them away from home at night which meant that they were unable to protect the honour of their wives and daughters (if indeed they could afford to have a family). What is more, because they grazed their flocks on land that did not belong to them they were considered to be thieves. In fact many of them were thieves. They were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy – dishonored and despised – certainly not the sort of people you would welcome into your home or seek to associate with. Yet it was to the shepherds that God revealed the birth of Jesus, it was the shepherds who were the first to respond and to see Jesus and it was the shepherds who were the first to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Extraordinary as all that is, it is consistent with Luke’s view of the world that God would chose a woman of no social status or wealth to bear God’s son, that the son of God would be born in a stable and that God would reveal Godself to a disreputable group of shepherds with no social standing whatsoever. What is even more extraordinary and inexplicable is that, despite the cacophony of a multitude, an army of the heavenly host and the glory of the Lord that attended them, no one else saw or heard anything.

The townsfolk of Bethlehem might be excused for not noticing Jesus’ slipping into their midst, but how could they have been blind and deaf to a sky illuminated by the heavenly host singing praises to God? It almost defies belief. In this instance, God’s presence is not subtle or discrete, but bland at and obvious. Even so the presence of God goes unnoticed by all except a bunch of disreputable shepherds, who not only notice but who act on what they have seen and heard. What is more, having seen for themselves that the what the angel had told them was true, they spread the word and caused amazement to all who heard them.

Christmas is layered with sentimentality – the hay in the stable is clean, the shepherds are respectable, Jesus is worshipped. Beneath the sentiment however, we find rejection, apathy, blindness and even outright hostility (if we add Matthew’s version of events).

Only the angels greet Jesus with the appropriate fanfare and even then no one notices. The great irony of the gospel is that God is fully present among humankind and only a few people (and then not the ‘religious people’) even recognize that God is there.

It is easy for us to fall asleep, to allow ourselves to be complacent– satisfied with our relationship with God, confident that we know right from wrong and certain that we would know Jesus when he returns. The problem is this – if we fail to pay attention, if we stop noticing what is going on around us, if we begin to take God and God’s presence for granted we will find that we, like our first century brothers and sisters are blind and deaf to what is really happening around us. We will miss God’s presence in the unusual, the underestimated and even in the disreputable. We will fail to see God in the manger and God in the cross,

Let us not be like those who, not only through Jesus’ birth, but who failed to be stirred to wakefulness by a whole choir of angels.

Longing to love

December 24, 2016

Midnight Mass – 2016

Marian Free

 In the name of God who longs to be in relationship with us and who willingly forsake power, glory and dominion to try to make that clear. Amen.

During the week I happened upon a movie titled: “Anywhere but here.” It tells the story of how two grown sons cope with the fact that their father is dying. The sons have been brought up in the Jewish faith, but have not been able to embrace its practices and beliefs. One son, Aidan, still has a connection with the synagogue because his father will pay his grandchildren’s school fees if they attend a Jewish school. As with many families there are unresolved issues and tensions that make the grieving process more complicated. At one point Aidan is compelled to go the synagogue and speak to a Rabbi. Aidan is confused because events in his life are leading him to the conclusion that God is trying to tell him something, but he doesn’t believe in God. Thankfully, the young Rabbi is wise. He asks Aidan if he ever feels “a spiritual presence”. Aidan replies that when he is showing his children the stars and trying to explain that the universe goes on forever and ever, that yes, he does get a sense of the spiritual.

The Rabbi responds: “Then think of that spirit leading and guiding you.” The Rabbi knows that Aidan has rejected the traditional ways of thinking about God and he is wise enough not to impose those ideas on him. Instead he asks Aidan to name how he knows and experiences God and runs with that.

Rejecting the God of one’s youth and yet having a yearning to connect with something deeper than the material is not unique to a person who has grown up in the Jewish faith. One of the problems that the church faces today is that there are many people who have walked away from the faith and yet have a sense of something other. There are many long to make contact with their spirituality but their search is blocked by language, dogma or ideas that offend or that no longer work or make sense to them.

If truth be told most of the ideas of God that people reject are ideas that we too reject, but it is possible for some to hear only one thing and a selective reading of the bible (by a preacher or by the reader) can give the impression of an angry, demanding, interventionist God, a selective God who expects conformity at least and obedience at best. It is relatively easy for to abandon this false idea of God, especially if that idea of God has been used to manipulate and control or to appear be remote from human affairs and indifferent to suffering and pain.

Christmas exposes that God for who and what it is – a false God based on a misunderstanding of both the Old Testament and the New.

At Christmas we are confronted, year after year with the God who is not strong or powerful, but who enters the world as a baby – vulnerable, helpless and utterly dependent. When God could not get through to us, when we had turned away from God or turned God into something that God is not, when we lost sight that God’s primary desire is to be in relationship with us, God in Christ came to us. God came among us not with lighting and thunder, waving a sword to condemn and destroy, but as a new-born child a child whom God hoped would demonstrate once and for all God’s love for all humankind – the good, the bad, the engaged and the indifferent, the kind and the unkind. That first Christmas God became powerless and impotent so that we would at last understand the depth and passion of God’s love and that we would see for ourselves God’s complete and total engagement with humanity and God’s participation in both our sorrows and our joys.

This is why we are here this and every Christmas. Our presence is not simply a result of habit or sentimentality. We are here, because we know that the child in the manger is God, that God chooses not to be remote, but to be an integral part of all that this life has to offer. The child in the manger and the man on the cross expose God for who and what God really is – an expression of the deepest love, the utmost compassion and the greatest longing to be in relationship, to be one with all creation.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Bridging the gap

December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

John 1:1-14 – a reflection

Marian Free

In the name of God who will stop at nothing to ensure that we reach our full potential. Amen.

“In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Have you ever noticed that John’s gospel denies us the Nativity. Not for John the angels, the shepherds or the Magi. John does not mention Mary or Joseph or Bethlehem. Those looking for familiar images or for the Christmas card stories will find none of that sentimentality here. The author of John takes us back to the very beginning – to creation. Whereas Matthew and Luke use genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage – Matthew to Abraham, Luke all the way back to God. John makes it very clear that Jesus existed before anything else. According to John, Jesus is much more than Luke’s “Son of God”. Before time began – the Word, Jesus, co-existed with God, in fact was God.

Luke and Matthew try to engage us with stories of Jesus’ human beginnings, John is much more interested in connecting us with the mystery of Jesus’ being both God and human. John tells us that in Jesus, God takes on human flesh and becomes fully engaged in human existence. John not only takes us back to the very beginning, but he also grounds us in the present. In the fourth Gospel we come face-to-face with the confronting reality(?) of a God who is fully human and a human who is fully God. Instead of contemplating a baby, we are forced to consider the deeper realities of our faith, to ask ourselves what does it mean? How can Jesus be both fully human and fully divine? Why would God abandon the heavenly realms for the messy, dirty, risky experience of earthly existence?

God enters our existence to bridge the gap, to heal the divide between human and divine, to show once and for all that all creation – including the human species – is infused with the presence of God, and to demonstrate that God is intimately engaged with God’s creation. The Word made flesh is not a dispassionate, detached deity who is uninterested in human affairs, but in the person of Jesus, has fully identified with the human condition – assuring us that nothing is outside of God’s concern, that our daily lives are not so dull that God is not interested in them. The Word made flesh is proof positive that unlike us, God does not make a distinction between the holy and the mundane, the extraordinary and the ordinary. When God in Jesus took on human form, God in effect declared that all creation bears the image of God.

When we revisit the baby, we discover that the child in the cradle is just as confronting and challenging as the Word made flesh. There, vulnerable and dependent lies God himself – totally (and at great risk) entering into the human condition. This is what we discover once more at Christmas time. God’s love for the world was so great that God could not stand aloof, but had to become one with God’s creation, so that creation could achieve its true purpose – to become one with God.

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.

Equal measures of anticipation and trepidation

November 30, 2013

Advent 1, 2013

 Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:9-14, Matthew 24:36-44 

Marian Free

 In the name of God who both comforts and disturbs, who has come among us and who will come again. Amen.

During the week I conducted a limited survey to see what sort of event or activity made different people both excited and terrified at the same time. Sally thought it would be getting ready for a parachute jump, Jon said that it was his impending ordination. Michael said that for him it would be preparing for a band performance. A Facebook friend expressed both joy and fear at the prospect of moving house.

I’m sure that it is the same for all of us. When we do something new or adventurous, we are filled both with excitement and trepidation. We have a sense of anticipation that the adventure or experience will expand our horizons or bring a sense of achievement, or that the new skill, new home will enrich our lives in some way. That said, no matter how many precautions we have taken, no matter how prepared we are for the event, there is always a sense of stepping into the unknown. We cannot know the outcome until we step out in faith and because we cannot know the end result, there is always the fear that whatever it is may not work out as we had hoped, that we are not up to the task, or that something unexpected will crop up and undermine all our expectations.

There are a number of occasions that make us both nervous and excited, and which have us filled with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. I would contend that Advent is (or should be) such a time.

If we are honest, most of us at this time of year are busy getting ready for Christmas. That means that we are buying presents, thinking about menus, organizing the family get together and hanging decorations. We know that it is Advent because the church is using the colour purple, we have an Advent Wreath and the Pew Bulletin tells us what Season it is.  Sometimes, that is the extent of our Advent preparation. We are filled with anticipation because Christmas is coming, we will see our families, exchange gifts and enjoy the Christmas services. It is a wonderful time of year, filled with expectation for the future and memories of the past. Advent fades into the background, not least because in the world around us, preparation for Christmas began months ago.

Of course, we know that Christmas is really about Jesus, about God’s coming among us over two thousands years ago. At best, we are filled with a sense of wonder that God could choose to be so fully part of human experience that despite all our shortcomings God would send Jesus to save us.

However, as our readings remind (or even warn) us, Advent is much more than a warm, fuzzy expectation about Christmas. The Season of Advent has the dual purpose of preparing us to welcome once more the child of God among us and also of reminding us of our need to be ready for Jesus’ coming again. It is the former that fills us with anticipation and joy and the latter which fills us with a certain amount of trepidation and even dread. While we should be as excited to greet the returning Jesus as we are to celebrate the infant Jesus, we tend to be at least a little anxious about the thought of Jesus’ coming again, an anxiety fueled not a little by the New Testament descriptions of such an event.

In today’s readings the emotions of hope and fear are equally balanced. The Old Testament reading and the Psalm look forward in anticipation to that time when God shall come, but the New Testament readings sound a note of warning and suggest that Jesus’ return will not be so benign. Isaiah chapter 2 and Psalm 122 envisage a wonderful time when all people shall turn to God and there will be peace among the nations. However, Paul’s words from the letter of Romans teach us to temper our expectation with caution. He writes: “You know what time it is” and urges his readers to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light”. “Salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”  It is because our salvation is near that it is essential that Jesus not find us in reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy. NOW (not next week) is the time to put our lives in order, to be confident that, should Jesus come tomorrow, we would be ready and happy to greet him.

It is the words of today’s Gospel however, that are the most ominous. We are reminded that we do not know when Jesus will come. There will be no warning. Jesus’ coming will be unexpected and many will be caught unprepared. We are told that will be getting on with our everyday lives when suddenly, without notice, Jesus will be here among us. Just as the thief catches a householder unprepared, so too Jesus will come upon us when we least expect him.

The message is this: “keep awake!” – expect Jesus’ return at any moment. Ensure that there is nothing in our lives that we would want to hide from his view. Be aware that at any moment Jesus could come upon us unawares. If there was a cause to be anxious about Jesus’ return, this would be it – that Jesus would come and we would not be ready – that there would be some aspect of our lives that would not stand up to closer inspection.

The Season of Advent provides us with a time to examine our lives; to open ourselves to God’s scrutiny, to ask ourselves whether – if Jesus were to come upon us now – there be anything we would wish that we had put right beforehand.

“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” There is no reason for fear – the coming of Christ among us is a cause for rejoicing – the earth will be renewed, God’s reign will be firmly established. Jesus’ coming again will herald the dawn of a new day when pain and suffering will cease and there will be harmony between the nations. Jesus will come again as he did before – to save and not condemn. Our task is to lead lives worthy of Jesus’ love for and trust in us.  Confident in that love we will welcome his return with the same joy and enthusiasm with which we rejoice in his birth.

The vulnerability of God

December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gave up all power and authority to create and then to re-create us. Amen.

I often think that the infant in the cradle, “wrapped in cloths”, distracts us from the reality of the situation. We are drawn to the baby as we are drawn to all babies and our hearts are filled with love and a longing to wrap our arms around the child. In the depictions of the Nativity, we see a loving family, comfortably gathered and surrounded by the shepherds and wise men who come to worship.

What we don’t always see is the raw, naked vulnerability of the child – the child who is God and who at this point in time is completely powerless to control his destiny and who is utterly dependent on those around him – on Mary and Joseph, on Herod and the political circumstances of the  country which he finds himself.

Thinking of God as a defenceless child can be startling and a little confusing. It goes against our expectations and forces us to see God from an entirely different perspective. A vulnerable, powerless God does not conform to our concept of a God who is omnipotent and all-powerful, who directs and determines, who judges and condemns. To think of God as a helpless baby challenges everything we might have thought about God. And yet, from the inception of Christianity this is one of the images of God – a God without power, a God unable to intervene and God unable to force God’s will on anyone.

In fact, from the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian faith, the image of God is of a God who instead of keeping all authority to himself, chooses to give that power to humankind. In the Garden of Eden, God the creator gave humanity the freedom to choose. God who could have determined the future of humankind, ceded that power to human beings who used that power to choose to compete with, rather than serve God.

When it all went horribly wrong God chose, not to force humankind to change, but to trust humankind to change themselves. In order to do that, God put himself in our hands and risked everything in the hope that we would rise to the occasion, in the hope that our response to the infant Jesus and to the man, would serve to bring salvation to the world.

God still depends on us to get it right, trusts us to return the world to the idyllic state of the garden. God is still powerless unless we co-operate. The vulnerable God in the cradle depends on the people around him for his survival. The powerless God depends on us to change the world.

The powerlessness of God is demonstrated in the vulnerable and suffering of our own time. Until we accept the vulnerability of the baby, the helplessness of the child in the manger, we will not recognise our responsibility to be those who empower God’s saving work in the world. We will not change the situation of

–       the children of Syria and throughout the Middle East who are dependent on warring parties sitting down at the negotiating table and committing to a lasting peace.

–       the children of Niger, the Sudan and countless other nations who are dependent on our goodwill for food,

–       the millions of children who are victims of the AIDS epidemic who are dependent on education programmes and access to health care,

–       the children working in sweat factories and mines, who are forced into slavery and prostitution who are dependent on enough international advocacy will to set them free,

–       the children of Sandy Hook whose lives along with the 20,000 other young people killed by guns in the US are totally dependent on the will of a nation to give up a love affair with guns.

Until we are willing to change our lives, until we are willing to give us some of our comforts, until we are determined to engage our political leaders and to confront world leaders, until we in our turn become vulnerable and dependent on each other, God remains powerless to intervene in world affairs. Because God is dependent on us, God can only do what we are prepared to do in God’s name.

Next time you look in the manger, see beyond the comforting image of a well-fed, well clothed, well-loved baby and see in that child’s eyes, the eyes of God doing the only thing God knows how to do to change the world around – to give himself utterly and completely to us, hoping against hope that we will give ourselves to God and to each other.

 

 

Let us pray

Holy God,

give us grace and courage to acknowledge our contribution to the suffering in the world. Help us to become vulnerable as you became vulnerable that we may be part of the solution and not of the problem.

Powerless God,

make us aware of your presence in and around us. Help us to have the grace to open ourselves to you, that your presence may be made known through us.

Living God,

be with all who live life in the shadow of poverty and despair,

especially those in our own community whose needs often are overlooked

as we look further afield in our desire to ease the suffering of others.

Give hope to the lost and support to the powerless and make us sensitive and responsive to needs and concerns of those around us.

 

Healing God,

in Jesus, you shared the pain of the sick, you knew what it was to face death. Be with all who at this time are in need of comfort and healing. Encourage and strengthen those who are ill and recovering from surgery, support those who are dying and be with all whose task is to bring about healing.

 

Dying and rising God,

as you shared our existence, may we strive to share yours, that at our end we may             join you and all the saints for eternity.

Shepherding God’s people

April 28, 2012

Easter 4 2012 (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Benjamin Glennie
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to serve and to shepherd God’s people and the world beyond the church. Amen.

The history of the church in the colonies must be full of stories of heroism, vision, steadfastness and good humour. Clergy from a vastly different climate and landscape faced isolation and indifference, they had to travel vast distances in a largely unpopulated and sometimes unforgiving country and minister in situations that were quite different from the English Parish Church. A pioneering priest in this Diocese, Benjamin Glennie faced all these challenges with courage, determination and humour. I imagine that many of you are familiar with the Glennie School in Toowoomba, but I wonder how many of you know much of this tenacious man whose anniversary of death falls on April 30 and whose 200th anniversary of birth falls this year.

Benjamin Glennie was born in 1812, in Dulwich in Surrey, England, the twelfth son of William Glennie a school principal. On leaving school, Glennie spent time as a tutor in Europe before, at thirty, entering Christ’s College Cambridge. By this time three of his brothers had migrated to New South Wales – one a landowner, another a doctor and the third a farmer who was later ordained. Glennie himself came to Australia in 1848 with the first bishop of Newcastle, Dr William Tyrrell. Bishop Tyrrell brought with him several young men who were to be ordained and he took advantage of the long voyage to prepare them for ordination.

After their arrival in Newcastle, the only priest in the settlement of Moreton Bay drowned. As a result, Glennie was urgently ordained and sent to replace him. This was only three months after he had arrived in Australia and before he had had any experience in the ordained ministry. When he arrived in Brisbane he was taken to Newstead House to stay with the Governor. The very next day he conducted morning and evening services. Almost immediately, at the Governor’s insistence, he bought a black horse “Jim Crow” which was to be his companion for the next 20 years.

Glennie must have been shocked by his new home. Moreton Bay only opened to free settlers in 1842. It was isolated from the rest of the colony and sparsely populated. There was no church building so services were held in a converted carpenter’s shop on North Quay. This prompted Glennie to begin a fund for the building of what became St John’s.

Like his predecessor, Glennie was the only priest to minister the whole of Moreton Bay which included Ipswich and the Downs. He held services at St John’s church and also established day and Sunday schools in Brisbane. He visited Ipswich once a month and toured the Downs. Glennie was ordained a priest in 1849 and from 1850-1860 (another priest being available) he was made responsible for all of the Downs meaning that he had the oversight of all Anglicans west of Toowoomba! It must have been a daunting task. Each year Glennie (who did not have a strong constitution) covered a distance of nearly 5,000 kilometres and as he did so he established congregations and bought property suitable for the building of churches or schools.

Glennie disliked riding, but in that era, it was the only means of transport available to enable him get around his vast Archdeaconry. At the same time, there were few roads and those that existed often reduced to tracks through the scrub. This meant that, even if the church could afford one, a gig would have been of little use. It is reported that on many occasions, Glennie could be seen walking from place to place with the laden horse walking along beside him. Riding was not his only trial. In the days before telephones – let alone the internet – communication was slow or non existent. On one occasion Glennie wrote in his diary – “Drayton very wet, no one came to church: The Swamp very wet and no one came to church.” Another time he wrote: “Wet day, no person came to church and I did not go to Toowoomba.”

Among the other hardships were locusts, flies, intolerable heat, fleas and the vast distances with no homestead in which to seek shelter for the night. At times he was forced to sleep in a shepherd’s hut which he records was: “a place miserable in the extreme. The natural earth formed the floor and was quite wet.” Loneliness was another problem and he writes that he was “sadly isolated from my brethren of the clergy”.

A testimony to his drive and hard work are the four churches which he built in the four major centres: Drayton, Warwick ,Toowoomba and Dalby – named for the evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John respectively . A considerable amount of the funds for these projects came from Glennie himself. That he used money from his own pocket is revealed in a letter written to the Bishop after St Luke’s was built. “ St Luke’s building paid for, but in debt to me of 20 pounds.”

That said, he did not release the congregations of their obligation to support him. At one time, when the Parish of Warwick were behind in paying his stipend, his curate wrote: ” he had an extraordinary suit of clothes – blue frock coat, high collar and sleeves rubbed at the elbows, a pair of short grey trousers which displayed a good deal of white sock and an old cabbage tree hat. Whenever his stipend was in arrears he donned this suit and continued to wear it until the reason for doing so no longer existed.”

One of Glennie’s passions was education – not only for boys but also for girls and to this end whenever he built a church it was expected that during the week it would be used as a school. Glennie also established the “Schools Endowment Fund” to which again he contributed from his own funds, some of which came from the sale of fruit and vegetables grown in Rectory gardens. In 1882 Glennie transferred to the Diocese the sum of £1627 and in 1900 the Synod voted that schools for girls and boys be established in his memory. (By that time the Toowoomba Preparatory School had been founded, so only a school for girls was needed.)

In 1863 Glennie was appointed as the Archdeacon of the Downs. Glennie’s last appointment was to the Parish of Toowong where he built his fifth and final church. He is buried in the Toowong Cemetery and his grave can be visited there.

In 1919, a writer in the Toowoomba Chronicle said of him “The little children ran to welcome with outstretched hands and eager joy in their faces, for to them he truly was the Good Shepherd. ” On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it is fitting that we remember Benjamin Glennie and give thanks to God for his passion for the Gospel, his dedication to the Church and his love for the people. May we, remembering the stature of those whose shoulders we stand on, continue to support and build the church, preach the Gospel and show God’s love to all.


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