SERMON TEXT - Holy Family, The Family of Jesus
In some Christian Traditions, the Sunday after Christmas is given the theme of The Holy Family, a reference to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
What is it that makes this particular family holy one might ask?
Probably the first answer that some might give is that this family is holy, because of the birth and the presence of the holy Child, the Christ Child, Jesus, the Son of God.
But I think most of us would surely be aware that it takes more than one person to make a family holy. It takes loving and caring and committed relationships to make a family worthy of the name family, let alone worthy of the adjective holy.
Perhaps the holiness of the first Christmas family is in part, the result of Joseph's willingness to break Jewish Law and to marry the women he loves despite the fact that in the eyes of others, she would have been considered defiled having got pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps the holiness of this family also has something to do with Mary’s openess and willingness to play her part as the mother of the Christ-child and to not run away from the great task before her?
The image of that first Christmas Family, remaining committed to each other, despite the odds that were against them, sharing a stable as their first family home, has been an important image in Christian cultures as a reminder of what family life could be and hopefully should be. That first Christmas Family, the Holy Family if one wishes to use that term, has been a kind of archetype that has communicated a message to us of the true potential of every family that has ever been in this world. All families have the potential for holiness, as places of love, tenderness, nurture and mutual care. Families have the potential of being places where divine love can be encountered and shared.
But sadly, as recent news stories have reminded us, not all families live up to this potential. Families are not by default places of love, care and mutual support. Sometimes, families can be places of terrible abuse, neglect, toxic manipulation and even violence. It has been a tragic reminder to hear some teachers and social workers say that the potential closing of schools in further lockdowns would do enormous damage to those children for whom school is a welcome relief and break from a toxic and abusive home environment.
For me, home was always better and emotionally safer than being at school, even though I had quite a positive school experience. It is tragic to think that for some children, it is school that provides the safety and the emotional support that is lacking at home.
And so, the so-called ‘Holy Family’ of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is a religious reminder that should hopefully inspire each of us to make our own families places of holiness, where the love, nurture, goodness and care of God can be known.
But unfortunately, there are some for whom their own families will never be places of the kind of love, care and support they might hope for. Families cannot be made holy just by the efforts of one person, it requires a commitment from all members of a family.
The story of Jesus in the Gospels reveals that family for Jesus was never a closed concept. In fact, closed insulated families are ultimately not healthy places either. If Mark’s Gospel is anything to go by, Jesus lived with an open concept of family, a concept of family that was meant to be open and ready to include and embrace others. We see this when Mary and some of Jesus brothers and sisters come to take charge of Jesus. They think he has gone a little off the rails and a little over-board with his religious commitment and so they come to bring him back home to try and keep him under control. And in response, Jesus asks the question: Who is my brother and sister and mother? And in reply to his own question he continues: Those who do the will of my Father in heaven are my brothers, sisters and mothers.
And in a way, that is part of the good news of the message of Jesus, that we are all invited to become part of a much larger family, the family of Christ, where hopefully, those who have not experienced the goodness and support of their own families of origin, can find something of the love and support they have failed to receive at home amongst those who consider themselves part of the family of Christ.
And so may it be, that each of us, in even those most ordinary of settings and even in fleeting encounters, may be for others in this world the love, kindness, care and support which they should have received at home, but for various reasons, beyond their own control, never received. And in doing so may we become part of God’s wider holy family.
In the name of Christ. Amen.
Children's Story and Song
Christmas Day Sermon - The Prince of Peace
In the past week I saw a video that Wendy thinks she has seen shared previously. It is a school or Sunday School nativity play and it must be near the end, because they are all gathered around the manger, a heart-warming and peaceful scene as one would expect in a re-enactment of the Biblical story, that is until one little girl can’t contain herself any longer. Perhaps it was boredom? Maybe jealousy? O maybe just child-like exuberance… in an unscripted moment, she reaches into the manger and takes out the baby Jesus. At first she holds him proudly and rocks him from side to side, tapping into her mothering instincts, and then as she grows a little more excited, she begins to wave him about.
At that moment, Mary, who has clearly begun to look a little bewildered and perhaps a little concerned about what is happening stands up to save the baby Jesus and the nativity play. At first she does so gently and firmly taking the baby Jesus from the other little girl, who I suspect was meant to be an angel. But rather than getting the Nativity play back on track, Mary ends up getting into a bit of a tug-of-war and a wrestling match with the other little girl who has made the decision that she is not ready to give the baby Jesus up.
When it begins to look like things are getting serious, the video ends with some of the parents rushing up on stage to intervene.
Peace on earth and mercy mild! Maybe one might conclude, the Christmas story doesn’t always work.
But one occasion when the Christmas story did work has always moved me. It is the story of the 1914 Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers when for a few precious hours, fighting on the Western Front came to a halt. Instead of exchanging gunfire, British and German soldiers traded gifts of tobacco, and goodwill, all in the middle of No Man’s Land
Private Thomas Nash, of the East Lancashire Regiment is recorded to have wrote: “We shook hands and fraternised, exchanging Christmas greetings, cigarettes, cigars etc, several of the Germans exchanging their watches for our jackknives.”
One of the most moving stories to have come out of that day is that soldiers from both sides engaged in a football match. I was surprised to read this week that there is some doubt whether this part of the story is accurate or not. One report suggests that on that Christmas Day a further truce was proposed for New Years Day with a proposed football match to take place, but that it did not in fact happen.
Whether or not there was a football match on that Christmas Day of 1914 what had unfolded on that day was something quite remarkable. For a few hours on that Christmas Day, the story of war and conflict was dropped in the minds of those who had been fighting on that small section of the Western Front. And in it’s place, the story of Christmas, the story of One Born to bring peace on earth eclipsed the hearts and minds of those soldiers causing soldiers who had been firing at each other just a few hours before, to exchange Christmas greetings.
May it be so for us as well. May it be that in our lives too, even if for just a few moments, the stories that live and swirl around in our heads and that define our lives in ways that bring brokeness, anxiety and division, could be eclipsed by another story, the story of the coming of One who would be called the Prince of Peace. And in the dawning of that story within our hearts and minds, may our hearts become a few more places in this world where where the Light and Love of God can get in and shine through. Amen.
Advent 3 - People's expectations begin to Rise: John the Baptist's Levelling Up Agenda (Luke 3:10-18)
Advent 3 - People's expectations begin to Rise: John the Baptist's Levelling Up Agenda.
Luke 3: 10-18 & Philippians 4:4-7
Last week we read from Luke 3:1-6 about John the forerunner, preparing the Way for the One who was to come.
His message was a baptism of repentance, a washing and a cleansing of the people’s inner life… The King is coming, was his message, mend not your roads, but your hearts.
It is interesting, that in England, there is a lot of political talk about levelling up: the encouragement for the government to make strategic decisions to make sure that no part of the country gets left behind, and the wealth and development be spread more equitably across England to avoid a continuing slide whereby one part of England, the South East around London grows ever more wealthy and the rest of the country grows ever poorer.
It has long been a problem in South Africa where I come from, but in fact it is a global problem. Just this week in the Daily Mail I think it was, I saw an article that says that global inequality is currently at its greatest.
The message of John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel also carries strong overtones of a levelling up agenda. We saw it last week in the quote from Isaiah; every valley shall be filled, mountains and hills brought low, crooked ways made straight and the salvation of God will be seen.
Now last week we interpreted these things primarily from the standpoint of our inner lives.
There are valleys within us that need to be filled. There are mountains within that need to be brought low. There are also crooked paths within that need to be straightened. And this is a legitimate interpretation of a passage like this. If there is no change within the human heart, then change in the world will never come.
Wendy and I were listening to a BBC Radio 4 lecture on the dangers of Artificial Intelligence in the context of war and conflict. And the point that was being made is that this is not just science fiction stuff. This is not just future technology that our children and grandchildren are going to need to confront and address. It already exists today and some of these AI weapons can be easily bought on the internet.
After listening to the program and the discussion on how new international conventions need to be urgently signed to have common international agreement on the use of such weapons, (in the same way that happened with the existence of chemical weapons), the thought struck me is that what this world desperately needs is a new revolution of the spirit. We need a pandemic of inner transformation to sweep across the world where people’s hearts and changed and transformed into more altruistic modes of being. Old ways of thinking need to be transcended. There needs to be a global metanoia, a global change of heart and mind, a global change in the way people think to be more spirit driven, more driven by altruism and selflessness, and less driven by selfishness, self-protection and an ever increasing greed for more and more and better and better stuff.
The revolution or metanoia, or change and transformation of the human heart and mind is perhaps more urgent today than it has ever been for the sake of the future of world peace and our common future together.
And so, interpreting John’s message from an inner perspective is vital. Change does indeed come from within.
But the question we may equally ask, is what does change look like on the outside once a change takes place from within?
John has some very clear ideas, that sound very much like an outward levelling up… and indeed in some instances, a levelling down.
We read in Luke’s Gospel that the people came to be baptised, and then began to ask John about those outward questions. Inner change is only true and real when it begins to bear fruit on the outside. And so they begin to ask John, what must we do.
In other words, what does this life of repentance or metanoia look like in practical terms. John is very direct:
His first answer: “If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the one who has none, and the one who has something to eat, must do the same”
This is about sharing and redistributing wealth to make sure that none are in need. The spiritual life is not truly spiritual if it does not consider the well-being and needs of others.
I grew up reading Peanuts comics. We had Peanuts comics around the house that went back to my Dad’s teenage. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy were like extended family members in our house. One of the Peanuts comics has always stood out. Brian Zopf describes it very well on an internet post. He writes:
“In the 1st frame Snoopy stands shivering next to his doghouse in the snow. In the second frame Charlie Brown and Linus come by, all bundled in their warm winter clothes, scarves, hats and gloves. Upon seeing Snoopy freezing, Linus leans down to pat his head and says: “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” To which Charlie responds: “Yes. Be of good cheer.” They walk on together and the final frame shows Snoopy, still freezing, outside in the cold.
The message is quiet, but clear--powerful, and convicting. The tragedy wasn't their lack of compassion, but their lack of action. They didn't do anything. Well-wishers are one thing; but actions speak louder than words.”
When the people ask John the Baptist, his message is clear, powerful and convicting, that people’s compassion should be expressed in clear outward acts of care:
“If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the one who has none, and the one who has something to eat, must do the same”.
One of the things that Christians have been encouraged to do for centuries during the season of Advent and Christmas is to give generously towards the poor and those who are struggling.
The figure of Father Christmas was originally modelled on St Nicholas, who had a reputation for generosity and kindness expressed towards the poor and the needy.
It is interesting that after the Reformation, devotion to St Nicholas disappeared in all the Protestant countries of Europe except Holland, where his legend persisted as ‘Sinterklaas’ (a Dutch pronunciation of the name St. Nicholas). From Holland, Sinterklaas was exported to the new colonies in America where he became Santa Claus and who we know today as Father Christmas. And so the very origin of Father Christmas was not the giving of gifts to family members and those who will give gifts back to us in return, but the giving of gifts of love and care for the poor and the needy, those unable to return the favour.
Even Mark Twain’s English Classic “A Christmas Carol” which centres on the inner transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, is a reminder of the message of John the Baptist that in preparing for the coming of Christ, and for us, preparing for the celebration of Christmas, we too are encouraged to act in ways that contribute to the long term levelling up of the world and society.
“If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the one who has none, and the one who has something to eat, must do the same”.
But John’s message does not stop there:
When the Tax Collectors who were baptised asked John what they should do his reply was equally direct: “Take no more than what you are required”. This is a message of restraining the bottomless pit of greed.
When some soldiers asked him in their turn “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them “No intimidation! No Extortion! Be content with your pay!”
A message again of curbing the never ending cycles of greed and finding contentment in what one already has.
And that take us to our Philippians passage: In it, Paul reminds the Philippian Christians of the peace that passes understanding. A reminder that the birth of Jesus at Christmas in a stable and laid in a humble manger, points us to a contentment and a peace that comes from a deeper source. And it is in being baptised, or immersed into that peace of God that passes all understanding, that we can be released from our fears and which enables us to trust more deeply in God’s provision and so enables us to be generous towards others and especially towards those who are struggling.
Luke 3:15 says that a feeling of expectancy had grown among the people. As we follow John’s advice, as we express generosity to those who are struggling this Christmas, which includes people in our own communities, may a feeling of expectancy grow within us this Christmas, the expectancy of God moving in new ways within us and amongst us. Amen.
Prepare the Way - Second Sunday of Advent
Today is the second Sunday of Advent as we continue our Advent journey towards Christmas.
In the Revised Common Lectionary, the second Sunday is normally devoted to John the Baptist who is described as the fore-runner who comes to prepare the way for Jesus, the Christ. In reflecting on the ministry of John, so Christians are invited to reflect on how John invites us to prepare ourselves not just for Christmas Day, but how we may prepare our hearts for an ever greater fullness of Christ's love to be born and revealed within us.
In our passage from Philipians today, the Apostle Paul writes of God’s love being brought to completion within us. He writes: “I am quite certain of this, that the One who began this good work in you will bring it to completion when the Day of Christ Jesus comes.”
He goes on to say: “My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more so that you will always recognize what is best.”
And so today, as we reflect on the Ministry of John the Baptist, may that be our prayer too, that Christ’s love within us may increase more and more, that one day the One who began this good work within us, may bring it to completion.
Turning to Luke 3 there is a lot packed into these few verses, but the first observation is that John is described as ministering in the wilderness in the countryside around the Jordan.
The wilderness and the Jordan both have symbolic value for us as we reflect on these verses.
In the Old Testament, according the sacred story of Israel, after the Israelites had been rescued from the land of slavery in Egypt, before they entered the promised land, they wandered around for 40 years in the desert. This was however not an aimless wandering, it was with a purpose. The wilderness was according to the sacred story of Israel a kind of a school, the wilderness school one could call it, in which the people of Israel were being prepared by God for life in the Promised Land. When life is too comfortable you will learn nothing. But when life has some element of challenge to it, then there is real opportunity to learn and grow. And so while the 40 years of wandering in the desert may at times have seemed like aimless wandering, according to their own sacred story, the wilderness was a school of learning the ways of God. It was a school of learning to trust in the Higher Wisdom and Higher Power of the Divine.
And so, as John the Baptist ministered to the people in the wilderness around the Jordan, he was symbolically inviting them back into the wilderness school of God’s love, inviting them once again to learn God’s ways, inviting them symbolically to prepare themselves for some kind of a new entry into God’s Promised Land of goodness and love.
And that is perhaps the importance of the symbolism of the Jordan. In the book of Joshua, when Joshua finally leads the people of Israel into the promised land, he does so by leading them across the Jordan river. And according to the story, in language that seems more legendary than historical, like in the story of the escape from Egypt, as the priests approached the Jordan with the ark of the covenant, the waters banked up on one side allowing the people to cross over into the Land of God’s Promise.
John, in Baptising people in the area around the Jordan is preparing the hearts and minds of the people of Israel once again for some kind of an entry into a new Promised Land, an inner promised land of the Heart..
The second observation I would like to make is that John preaches a baptism of repentance. The word Baptism can mean either immersion or a washing. John is inviting the people into a new washing and cleansing of their inner lives, so that they might prepare themselves for immersion into a whole new kind of life that God will make known to them in the One who is to come. And as part of this baptism, cleansing and immersion into a new kind of life, John calls them to repentance.
Now most often, repentance is interpretted as feeling sorry for something one has done. But the original Greek word metanoia can have a variety of shades of meaning. One of those meanings is simply to change your mind and by implication to change your thinking.
Brian Stoffregan asks the question “What is it about our thinking that needs changing?” “Simply stated,” he says, “...It is the idea that we can do it by ourselves. We are pretty good people. We aren't as bad as those sinners over there. And, if we find we are coming up short in some part of our lives, all we need to do is to reflect on our misdeeds and simply make the decision to stop doing the bad things and start doing good things. But the problem with this type of repentance according to Brian Stoffregan is that the mind still thinks, "I can do it by myself." The ego is still in charge. It hasn't been changed. It hasn’t learned to open itself to a Greater Deeper Wisdom and a Higher Power.
Brian Stoffregan suggests that this was the reason that Jesus had so much trouble with the scribes and Pharisees, because they believed they were doing pretty well by themselves. They felt on the whole that they were living good, moral, obedient lives and as a result were not aware of the depth of their true spiritual need.
Brian Stoffregan writes that the 12-Step programs begin with the first step, which is an acknowledgment that I can't do it by myself: "We admitted we were powerless over _______ -- that our lives had become unmanageable." He writes that in working as a part-time chaplain at an alcoholic hospital, it was clear that the more seriously they took this first step, the more likely the clients were to follow through the program and find the needed help in the other steps. They knew that couldn’t do it by themselves. They knew they need to rely on a Higher Power. They knew they needed the care and support of the AA community. If they continued to think that they had some power over their drinking, recovery and sobriety were very unlikely.
As we read further on in the Gospel of Luke, we discover that unlike the crowds who, knowing their deep inner need, came to be baptised, the Scribes and Pharisees chose not to. They were not willing to humble themselves in this way, not willing to admit their spiritual need to be immersed in a Higher Wisdom or to rely on a Higher Power. Apparently, they were doing ok on their own. It was everyone else who was the real problem according to them.
Lastly, the passage quotes from the book of Isaiah 40:3-5
A voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight the paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads made straight, the rough ways smooth, and the people will see God’s salvation.
In the same vein as last weeks sermon, when the kings courier announced to the people of an area that the king would be passing through or visiting an area, they would get themselves busy preparing for the Kings coming. Repairing roads and bridges to make the road for the king as smooth as possible.
This is the imagery that we find in the passage quoted from Isaiah. The Lord is coming, says the prophet Isaiah, prepare the way for him.
And that is how John the Baptist understood his own ministry. John sees himself as a courier of the King, announcing the coming of God in his chosen Messiah and thus encouraging them to prepare the way. As William Barclay says, the message of John is “The king Is coming! Mend, not your roads, but your lives”.
Every valley shall be filled – what are the valley’s that you have passed through that you would need God’s help to fill today? To fill with his healing presence and his comforting love.
Every mountain brought low – What mountain does it feel like you are facing at the moment? What if by God’s strength and inspiration you were to discover that it is not insurmountable?
The crooked roads made straight – What crooked roads might you have been walking on in recent times. What might it feel like, if confessing those things to God, you could feel like your life could return to the straight and narrow? Would that come as a relief to you?
The rough ways made smooth – Life is never easy and straightforward. We all go through rough times. And yet the experience of many is that when we reply on that greater and higher wisdom of Divine, that greater and higher wisdom of God, even the rough times we go through can begin to feel a little smoother.
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