Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sermon for December 26th: Matthew 2:13-23

Is God Working His Purpose Out?

Well, that was a nice Christmas, wasn’t it? For a few brief moments we enjoyed the magic – the story of a child born far from home, laid in a manger by his mother, visited by shepherds and wise men who were guided to his cradle by angels and the light of a star. This is the part of the story that all the carols sing about. But then we come back to hard reality with a bump. Right after the story of the visit of the wise men comes today’s gospel reading. The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back and tell Herod where to find the child, so they took off home by another route. When Herod heard of this, he was outraged, and he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Jerusalem under the age of two, just to make sure he had wiped out the potential threat to his throne.

This, by the way, was entirely in character with what we know of Herod the Great from history. He was a fanatically insecure ruler who had his wife, his mother, and several of his sons murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. At his death he had several of the leading citizens of Jerusalem rounded up and murdered, because, he said, he knew no one would mourn for him, and he was not going to die without tears being shed. This is exactly the sort of man to be frantically worried by news that a royal pretender had been born in Bethlehem, the ancestral home town of the family of King David, and he would certainly be ruthless enough to wipe out the children in the manner described in this story.

This is a difficult story for Christians, and I suspect that there won’t be very many sermons on it today. The theological point that Matthew is trying to make throughout this passage is that God is working his purpose out in the midst of a world that is dead set against him and his plans. Jesus is not born in an idyllic time in human history; he is born in a time when ordinary life is cheap and when great rulers carry out their plans with no regard for how they will effect the lives of ordinary people. In Luke’s story of the nativity, Jesus arrives in Bethlehem as a result of one such event, the decision by the Roman emperor to order a census which would require everyone to travel back to their ancestral towns. There is no thought of how this will disrupt trade and cause chaos in the lives of ordinary people; the powers that be decide that this is what is going to happen, and you have to obey. And yet Luke sees God at work here; Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, but as a result of this census they returned to Bethlehem so that the old prophecies about the birth of the Messiah would be fulfilled. God is working his purpose out.

Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t seem to have known this story. He seems to have thought that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s home town, and that they made the move to Nazareth after their return from Egypt. But Matthew too wants to show us how God was working his purpose out, and he does this by connecting the story of Jesus to the old prophecies.

In Matthew’s gospel we’ve already seen several examples of old prophecies being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. In today’s passage three more prophecies are mentioned. First, Hosea 11:1 talks about Israel as God’s son and says ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’, referring to God bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and into their own promised land. For Matthew, Jesus relives in his own life the story of Israel. Israel went to Egypt and back, and so does Jesus. Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and Jesus comes through the water of baptism. Both Israel and Jesus are tested and tempted in the desert, and so on. So Matthew sees this as a legitimate application of Hosea’s prophecy to Jesus.

Verse 18, about Rachel weeping for her children, is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was one of the great mothers in the time of the patriarchs, and Jeremiah wrote symbolically about her weeping as, hundreds of years later, her descendants were taken into exile in Babylon. Matthew sees that the misery inflicted by a foreign army at the time of the exile has come again to Israel through the cruel actions of Herod, and so the prophecy is fulfilled in the story of the slaughter of the innocents.

Verse 23 is more mysterious; no Old Testament prophecy that we know of says ‘He will be called a Nazorean’. However, Isaiah 11:1 might have been in Matthew’s mind; it mentions a coming ruler, a ‘branch’ from the family of David, and the Hebrew word for branch is ‘nezer’, which sounds a little like the name ‘Nazareth’. Matthew may be making a pun here, but a pun with a serious purpose: Jesus is the ‘branch’, the ruler God has sent for his people.

The point in all of these prophecies is that God is working his purpose out. Jesus is born into a world much like ours – a world where human beings rebel against God and sin against each other. And we’re not talking about little personal sins like overindulging in Christmas turkey or cheating on your expense account. Those sins do have consequences, of course, as your EKG reading or the frown on your boss’ face will testify! But in the world we live in, some people’s sins have horrific consequences. Children are captured and turned into child soldiers or sold as sex slaves. People are killed because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – because their house happened to be near the place the bomb was targeting, for instance, or they happened to live in the path of the invading army, or they were walking the street when the gunfire erupted between two rival gangs.

These outrages happen all the time, and it does not seem to be God’s normal practice to rescue people from them. God’s usual policy seems to be to let the world experience the consequences of sin, while all the time calling on us to repent and to learn a new way of living, the way of love and peace and justice. But he will not impose this way on us; his ‘prime directive’, as Star Trek would put it, is to respect our freedom of choice.

And yet, in all of this, God is working his purpose out; this is the testimony of the whole Bible. So in the book of Genesis an earlier Joseph is a bratty kid who exploits his position as his father’s favourite and exasperates his brothers, to the point that they sell him as a slave into Egypt and tell his father that he’s been killed by a wild animal. Joseph goes through years of suffering and hardship in Egypt, and God does not rescue him from them. Eventually, through a long and complicated series of events, he becomes a sort of Prime Minister of Egypt, and he turns out to be in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to help his father and his brothers when they come down to Egypt to escape from a famine in their own country. God is working his purpose out.

This theme is repeated in many places in the Bible. We naturally love best the stories about how God sends miraculous deliverance to his people, but they are relatively few. In most cases, God does not rescue his people from the consequences of human evil. And yet he is always quietly at work, turning evil events around and bringing good out of them, so that his plan of salvation goes forward.

Sometimes, though, it seems hard for us to see how this is happening, especially when it’s the innocent bystanders who suffer the consequences of human evil. Imagine what it would be like, years later, if you had been one of the mothers of the children of Bethlehem, and you had happened to hear this story from the gospel of Matthew read for the first time. Let’s imagine Susanna and Joachim, a young couple in their early twenties, with their firstborn son, little Davey, named after old King David because they lived in David’s home town. Imagine little Davey at eighteen months old, having recently learned to walk, getting into everything, beginning to learn to talk; he’s a healthy, happy child and they’re a happy family.

And then one night the king’s soldiers surround the town of Bethlehem, and at first light they come into the town. They order all parents with small children into the town square, search the houses to make sure that they haven’t missed anyone, and then without a word they kill every boy under the age of two. “Just following orders”, they say. It’s a cruel world, and that sort of thing happens all the time.

Susanna and Joachim, of course, are devastated; for months and years they go through periods of numbness, anger, and bitterness, before gradually coming to a place of acceptance. Maybe friends and neighbours try to give them easy theological answers about ‘God calling him home’ and ‘God always calls the best’, but Susanna and Joachim just can’t buy this. Instead, they find new meaning in the words of their prayer book, the psalms – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – ‘break the teeth of the wicked, O God’ – and yet they still turn to God somehow; there’s nowhere else to turn.

It’s taken years, but they’ve come to a place of peace about all this. They’ve had other children, but they still remember little Davy and pray that God will raise him from the dead on the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Later on they hear the story of Jesus and become Christians; they experience the gift of the Holy Spirit and find some comfort in the sense of God’s presence in their lives in Christian worship and fellowship. Until one day when a newly written document is read out loud in the worship of their church, a book about the life of Jesus, written by a man called Matthew. Joachim and Susanna are old now, in their eighties, with great-grandchildren, and yet a chill falls on their hearts when they hear of how God warned the family of Jesus in a dream, and he was able to escape from Bethlehem. And now all the old questions resurface, and they wonder whether they love Jesus so much after all. If God could protect him, why not their little Davy?

I would love to be able to give you an easy answer to this question this morning, but there is no such easy answer. What I will point out, though, is that, poignant as this question is, it is just one example of an even bigger dilemma. For every blind person Jesus healed, there were hundreds more in Israel that he did not heal. For every son of a widow he raised from the dead, there were thousands more widows whose only sons had also died.

As Philip Yancey has pointed out, for thinking Christians, answered prayers are sometimes more problematic than unanswered ones. If God answers the prayer of one person in trouble, what about the others? No doubt a Christian who had been booked to fly on one of the 9/11 airliners, and had been prevented from flying at the last minute, would thank God for rescuing him. But if he told that story publicly, relatives of those who had died would ask themselves angrily ‘How come God didn’t rescue my son or daughter too?’ And in wartime family members of soldiers always pray that God would protect their loved ones in battle, but how does God choose which of those prayers he will answer and which he will ignore?

Of course the real answer involves the abolition of war altogether; that’s the only way to be fully just about these things. A world where there is no more sin, no more selfishness, no more lust for power, no more evil, is the only sort of world where the prayers of everyone can be answered. And Jesus has assured us that one day we will live in that sort of a world. In fact, he’s told us to pray for it to come soon: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. But of course we need to be careful about how we pray that prayer. We live in the richest part of the world and enjoy a far greater percentage of the world’s wealth than justice would allow. How would God answer our prayer without asking us to live with less so that others could simply live? That’s the dilemma God faces, you see, every answered prayer has consequences somewhere else. So what’s the good news in this passage? Should we stop praying altogether?

Not at all. Jesus encourages us to pray and to bring our requests to God. Not only that, but we just can’t help ourselves, can we? If you are a person of faith, and you have people you love, you can no more stop praying for them than you can stop breathing. I have four children and a grandson who I love more than I could even have imagined before he was born. Don’t tell me I can’t pray for them!

But as we pray, we realize that in the present imperfect state of the world, a perfect outcome for everyone is not going to happen. Evil is still present, sickness still exists, and human beings sin against each other with horrible consequences. God weeps for this, like Rachel weeping for her children. And he is not far removed from it. He came and lived among us as one of us. He had to run to escape from Herod’s death squads. He lived as a refugee in Egypt, a displaced person, probably an illegal immigrant. Later on he was misunderstood by his family and even his closest friends. He was betrayed and given over to the power of the state and the empire, and they tortured him and nailed him to a cross. This is what it meant for him to be ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’.

And yet, through it all, in a way we can’t usually see or understand, God is working his purpose out. The death of Jesus, the vilest deed human beings have ever committed, turned out to be the way of reconciliation between God and human beings. Over and over again, in the history of Christianity, the sufferings of God’s people have somehow led to great advances for the kingdom of God. And the day will come, Jesus assures us, when those who have committed evil deeds will be held accountable for them – although, if I want God to have mercy on me for my sins, I might want to be careful about demanding too loudly that he punish the evil deeds of others.

The story of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a tough one for us to understand, but the Bible doesn’t whitewash these tough issues. Ultimately, this story leads us to pray ever more fervently for the coming of God’s kingdom. And meanwhile, in this gospel reading, Matthew encourages us to believe that in the midst of all the evil in the world God is working his purpose out, and that the day will come when every hurt is healed and every tear wiped away. And in the end, that is our Christian hope.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Day

What Sort of God Would Do a Crazy Thing Like This?

In the original movie ‘Shadowlands’, there’s a fictional conversation between C.S. Lewis and another university professor about the meaning of Christmas. Lewis says, “It’s all about magic, Christopher: God becomes a man”. The other professor replies, “Then God must be bonkers! Who would choose to become voluntarily human? Much better to stay safely divine!”

As a Christian, I have to admit that I often think they both had good points! On Lewis’ side, we have to face the fact that this is what the Christian story claims – that in the birth of Jesus, God has become a human being. A popular song of a few years ago says:

If God had a face, what would it look like?

And would you want to see it right,

if seeing meant that you would have to believe

in things like heaven,

and in Jesus, and the saints, and all of the prophets?

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us?

Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?

I’ve often thought that we should add this song to the Christmas carol books. This is exactly what the Christmas story is all about; it’s God becoming one of us, God sharing our human life, God experiencing all the things that we experience. The technical word for it in Christian theology is ‘incarnation’ – God taking on himself our human flesh.

But we also have to face the point of view of the other professor in the movie. Has God taken leave of his senses? If God is the almighty creator of the universe, what would possess him to allow himself to be born as a helpless baby, to put himself in a position of complete dependence on human parents, to make himself vulnerable to all the pain and suffering of life on earth? What on earth would be the point of it? What sort of God decides to do something like that? Let me suggest a few things that this Christmas story tells us about what sort of God would do this.

First, the sort of God who would do this would be a God who believed in the power of love and not the power of force. There are a lot of people in the Christmas story who believe in the power of force. There’s the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. The story tells us that ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own home towns to be registered’ (Luke 2:1, 3). Imagine having that kind of power! Caesar sits on his throne in Rome and sends out an order that all the millions of people in his empire are to be registered – presumably for tax purposes. Immediately thousands of public officials and soldiers leap to do his bidding! That’s the sort of power that can get things done! Or think of King Herod – he hears that a rival king has been born in Bethlehem, and immediately sends a death squad to kill all male children under the age of two years old. That’s decisive action! No one would dare to question the authority of a man who could give an order like that!

And yet today, two thousand years later, the only reason we remember Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great is because of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem during their reign. Despite all their power and influence, they died like anyone else, and they left the world much as they found it.

In contrast to them, Jesus did not have the authority to order a million people to interrupt their lives for an income tax registration, and he killed no one during the thirty-three years of his life. He spent his life teaching the truth and reaching out in love to everyone he met. He didn’t concentrate on the powerful and the rich in an attempt to influence the movers and shakers of society; rather, he hung out with lepers and tax collectors, blue-collar workers and prostitutes, and everywhere he went he brought transformation into people’s lives. Jesus touched them, and they had the sense that they had been touched by God. It wasn’t the power of force; it was the power of love – God’s love. He modelled it for us in the way he lived his life, and even when human beings rejected him, he did not strike back, but allowed them to kill him by nailing him to a cross. In that act, he was saying to us, “You may be able to kill me, but you can never kill my love for you”.

Christmas tells us about a God who believes in the power of love, not the power of force. Second, the kind of God Christmas tells us about is a God who thinks you make a difference by coming close, not by standing far away and yelling instructions.

There’s an old episode of MASH where Father Mulcahey and Radar find themselves in the situation of having to perform a tracheotomy on a man in a combat zone. Neither of them are doctors, of course; the only thing they can do is call the real doctors at the MASH unit and ask them to guide them through the operation. Of course, it’s an awful thing for both the doctors who are giving the instructions and for the people who are trying to follow them! Long distance instructions might work sometimes, but you know there’s something lacking there.

Religious history is full of stories of gods who give their wisdom at long distance – gods who aren’t crazy enough to get close to this dangerous human race, but stay safely divine, far away in heaven, and send their messengers to give us their words of advice. But the Christian story is not that sort of story. In the prologue to his Gospel, St. John calls Jesus ‘The Word’; he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory (John 1:14) – or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it, ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’ (‘The Message’). This God is not a general who barks orders at his soldiers by radio from a safe headquarters miles away from the front lines; rather, he’s a general who comes right to the front lines and knows what it’s like to wade through the mud in the trenches: ‘What if God was one of us?’ Well, he was!

And the thing is this: by coming close to us in this way, by living as one of us, he showed us two things. He showed us what God is like, and he showed us what a real human life is meant to be like.

Jesus shows us what God is like. This is what the writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews means when he says:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

‘The exact imprint of God’s very being’. In other words, Jesus is the very best picture of God that we humans have ever seen. John V. Taylor expressed it well when he said, ‘In God there is no un-Christ-likeness at all’. When Jesus had lived his life of love for God and others, when he had gone all the way to the cross to show us the true extent of God’s love for us, then we humans finally had a true portrait of what God is like. God is like Jesus.

But Jesus not only shows us what God is like; he also shows us what human life is meant to be like. We have a common saying: ‘I’m only human’; usually we use it as an excuse for the times we mess up, the times we fall short of what we know we should be. It’s as if we’re claiming that being human is an excuse for being bad! And, of course, you and I have never seen a human being who wasn’t flawed in some way.

But Jesus came and lived the sort of life that God dreamed for us humans when he created us in the first place. He told us that the two great commandments – the ones everything else depends on – are that we love God with all our heart, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And then he lived that out in his daily life. To learn to follow him is to learn to be truly human, the way God intended human life to be lived. It’s not about who has the most toys, or who is the most popular, or who can force the most people to do what they want. It’s about right relationships - with God, and with our neighbours. Get that wrong, and we’ve missed the whole point. Get it right, and we’ve grasped the reason we were created in the first place.

But there’s another aspect to this as well. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted and to suffer as a human being, so he can sympathise with us in our suffering and our weakness. Again, the writer to the Hebrews says:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

So no – God was not out of his mind when he decided to become one of us. There was method in God’s madness. God is love, through and through, and everything that he did was consistent with that love. He came in love, not in force. He came close to us, to show us the way and to give us the help we needed, rather than standing at a safe distance and barking orders at us.

The song ‘What if God was one of us?’ also has this question: ‘If God had a name, what would it be?’ The Christmas story tells us that when God came to us in his Son, he chose a name for himself: ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, which means ‘God saves’ or ‘God to the rescue’. This name tells us so much about the character of God. The old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is completely wrong; the Bible tells us that God helps those who can’t help themselves! That’s why he came: to save us from sin and evil and death and to lead us into freedom and joy and goodness and love.

What sort of God would do such a thing? Surely the simple answer is, a God who loves us more than we can begin to imagine. The Christmas story assures us of that love. Let’s thank God today for the great love he showed by coming among us as one of us, and let’s trust and follow him day by day and so enjoy that love forever.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Eve: Luke 2:10-14

Good News of Great Joy

Picture this: I’m trying to make arrangements for two friends of mine, who don’t know each other, to meet up at a coffee shop in a small town somewhere in Alberta. I’m talking to one of them on the phone, and he asks me the all-important question: “How will I recognise this person I’m supposed to meet?” “That’s easy!” I reply. “Just go to Tim Horton’s and he’ll be there waiting to meet you. You’ll be able to pick him out immediately; he’ll be the one wearing a ball cap and driving a truck!”

All joking aside, have you ever noticed what a strange sign the angel gives to the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story? The shepherds are standing on a hillside hiding their eyes from the extraordinary light streaming from this angel; in fact, when he first appeared they were so terrified that he had to reassure them not to be afraid. He tells them that the Saviour, the King of Israel, the Lord, has been born in the ancestral town of their ancient King David. No doubt the question on their minds is “How will we recognise him?” And so the angel gives them a sign: “You’ll find him wrapped up in baby clothes and lying in a feeding trough”.

What an extraordinarily ordinary sign! Apart from the little detail about the feeding trough, it might have applied to a dozen newborn babies that night in Bethlehem. Surely when the shepherds heard the news that the Messiah had been born, they were expecting a more impressive sign than this! Surely they were expecting the angel to say, “You’ll be able to recognise him because his family will be in the grandest room of the Bethlehem Hilton. A squad of temple guards will be keeping watch at the door, and you’ll need to give them a password to get in. When you get into the room you’ll notice immediately the splendid gifts sent by King Herod and the Emperor Augustus. Nothing you can give him will compare with that, and by the way, we seem to have gotten our wires crossed here – we weren’t meant to make this announcement to you at all, because you’re just ordinary shepherds!”

But of course that’s not how the story goes. There are extraordinary people in it, but they live and work in ordinary circumstances – or, to put it another way, the ordinary people in the story find themselves caught up in a series of extraordinary circumstances. Joseph is a descendant of King David, but there’s been no king from the royal line of David in Israel for centuries, and in fact Joseph earns his living as a journeyman carpenter in Nazareth, far away from Judea where David was born. But the powers-that-be decide that they need to update the taxation records for the area, and suddenly, at a very inconvenient time, Joseph and Mary find that they have to make the trip to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family.

Luke doesn’t give us all the details that have passed into legend through Christmas carols and Sunday School plays. We don’t have the little donkey on which Mary made the trip. We don’t have the desperate search for a place to stay when they arrive in Bethlehem and find all the inns full. We don’t have the innkeeper as a villainous character who sees a pregnant woman on the verge of giving birth and consigns her to the stable out the back. We don’t have the ox and ass before him bowing, or the little drummer boy waking him up just when his Mom has managed to get him to sleep, and we certainly have no hint at all that ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’!

In fact, we might not even have the inn! One of the latest Bible translations, the TNIV, translates ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. I did a bit of research on this and discovered that a lot of Bible scholars have been saying for years that the Greek word kataluma should be translated ‘guest room’. This changes things a bit in the story, doesn’t it? What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (after all, his family was from there), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib. This would also explain why, in Matthew’s version of the story, when the wise men arrived they found Joseph and Mary and the baby living in a house in Bethlehem.

So Luke doesn’t give us many of the traditional details; he tells the story very simply, with the bare minimum of detail. I quote from the TNIV:

‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them’ (vv.6-7).

It’s the angel, though, who interprets the story and tells us its true significance. He tells us four things about the story: it’s about good news; it’s about God’s plan to rescue the human race; it’s about the identity of our true King; and it’s a message of peace.

First, it’s a message of good news. The Christian message isn’t always seen as being a message of good news, is it? I expect that if I asked you to sum up the Christian message for me, many of you might answer by saying “Love thy neighbour” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar. Not that there’s anything wrong with loving your neighbour or doing to others as you would have them do to you; far from it! It’s just that these things aren’t good news, are they? They’re good advice – and there’s a lot of difference between ‘good news’ and ‘good advice’.

The angel says to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (v.10). Jews who knew the scriptures would immediately think of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet announces the good news that God is going to set his people free from captivity in a foreign land. Romans, on the other hand, used the word for the announcement of the birth of an heir to the throne: ‘Good news! A son has been born to Caesar Augustus!’ So when the shepherds hear the angel talking about good news, they immediately connect it with God’s activity: God’s about to work to set his people free, and he’s going to do it through the birth of a son and an heir.

It’s a message of good news, and secondly, it’s a message about God rescuing his people. The angel says, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour’ (v.11). That word ‘Saviour’ is almost always used in the Old Testament in a military sense – God ‘saves’ his people from their enemies. It’s the same idea we get in Zechariah’s song in Luke chapter one, where he talks about God’s promise ‘that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us’ (v.71). Later on in the song, though, Zechariah mentions a different sort of salvation; he says that his own son John the Baptist will go before the Lord to prepare his way, ‘to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins’ (v.77).

My friend Rob Heath has written a song in which the first line is ‘Our greatest battles we fight alone’. The greatest enemies we struggle with are internal – the sins and habits that chain us and stop us from being the people God wants us to be. Scripture teaches us that we can’t save ourselves from these enemies. Rather, Jesus came to bring us forgiveness, and to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we could be saved from our sins and transformed, gradually, day by day, into the sort of people who can change the world. That’s how God is rescuing his people and saving the world – one heart at a time.

It’s a message of good news, and it’s a message about God rescuing his people. Thirdly, it’s a message about the identity of our true King. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). Lovely words that we’ve sung every year in Christmas carols – ‘To you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign’. But in Luke’s time, ‘Them’s fightin’ words’! The Greek words for ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’ are soter and kyrios, and in the time of Jesus they were two of the official titles of the Roman emperor, who had absolute power to save or condemn, and who was the supreme lord of the known world. Don’t tell me Christianity is not political!

Today when we think of the most powerful people in the world, we think of politicians like the President of the United States – or we think of the CEOs of multinational corporations. It’s hard for us to believe that a child born in the little town of Bethlehem might in fact be more powerful. But today, the main reason we remember rulers like Herod and Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate is because of their association with Jesus. Absolute tyrants will not have the last word; the last word will go to Jesus, the true Saviour and Lord, our true King.

It’s a message of good news, a message about God rescuing his people, and a message about the identity of our true King. Finally, it’s a message about peace. In verse 14 we read that the angel choir sang this song: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours’.

Religious people are often accused of being the cause of some of the most vicious wars in history. Some years ago – long before 9/11 – I was planning a funeral and was consulting with the family members. Somehow this topic came up, and one of the men started talking about suicide bombers. “Their religion tells them that if they blow themselves up to kill unbelievers they’re going straight to paradise”, he said; “If we could just get rid of religion, the world would be a much more peaceful place”. That’s what John Lennon believed, of course: ‘Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too’.

I have a slight reservation about that argument, given the fact that two of the most vicious warmongers and mass murderers of the twentieth century – Stalin, and Pol Pot – were atheists. However, we can’t deny that there’s a dark streak in a lot of religions; in a lot of people, absolute conviction seems to morph easily into an absolute desire to wipe out those who disagree with them.

The only thing I can say is that this was not Jesus’ plan. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who hated them. When Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to defend him with the sword, Jesus rebuked him, and later on at his trial he said to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews’ (John 18:36). Notice that he didn’t say, ‘My kingdom is not in this world’ – of course it’s in this world! No – he said it wasn’t from this world – in other words, it wasn’t a worldly sort of kingdom, built on greed and military power and violence. Rather, it’s a kingdom of justice and peace. That’s what Jesus had in mind when he got the whole thing going.

So the angel announces the good news that God has acted in Jesus to rescue his people from evil, sin, and death. Jesus is the true King of the universe, and his rule is not about violence and oppression but justice and peace.

Where does this all start? In the room where the animals sleep, in Joseph’s relatives’ house in Bethlehem. Not in Herod’s palace, not in the court of Caesar Augustus. Probably not in 24 Sussex Drive or the White House, but in your house and my house, as we welcome Jesus in, as we recognise him as Lord, and as we quietly ask his help to be his true followers. Not very dramatic, is it? It’s as quiet and undramatic as a baby being born in a small Judean town and being laid to sleep in a manger. But think of all that has come of that seemingly insignificant birth! And then imagine the things that can come in our lives and our world, if we allow Jesus to be born in us today, and if we commit ourselves to living as his followers in our daily lives.

And that’s the plan, you see! That’s how God is changing the world through Jesus – one heart at a time. May it be so, in your life and my life, today and every day. Amen.

Silent Night project

This Advent Canadian Anglicans across the country and beyond recorded themselves singing Silent Night and sent the videos into Church House. Here's the compilation. you can catch St. Margaret's briefly at about 3.38!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sermon for December 19th: Matthew 1:18-25

Why the Christmas Story is Good News

Two weeks ago at our church we had a Christmas concert, in which we saw the familiar Christmas story dramatized once again. We saw the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the news of her pregnancy; we saw Joseph and Mary asking for space to stay at an inn and eventually being directed to a stable. We saw the shepherds startled by the visit of the angels and then coming to pay their respects to the newborn king. We saw the three wise men on their way to give their gifts to the one born to be King of the Jews. We’ve seen or heard this story so many times, and it has all the comfort of familiarity. It’s a beautiful story.

However, in the New Testament it isn’t just described as a beautiful story. Rather, it appears in two books called ‘Gospels’, and the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’. So why is the Christmas story ‘good news’? Why does the fact that a Galilean carpenter and his wife had a baby far away from home two millennia ago have anything to do with me today? Matthew gives us some hints about that in one of our readings for today, Matthew 1:18-25.

First, he wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God is with us.

It’s pretty tough to be all alone, especially in difficult or dangerous circumstances. When I lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories I had two friends with whom I often went out on hunting trips. One of them, Angasuk, was a really good friend of mine, but his big shortcoming as a hunting companion is that when we were travelling together on skidoos he never looked back. This presented a problem, as I usually followed behind him, and if I had a problem with my skidoo or my load I could easily find myself alone for an hour before he realised that I wasn’t following him any more! But my other friend, Abel, had this great virtue: he always looked back! Consequently I felt safe travelling with him.

In your life, do you ever get the sense that ‘I’m all alone, and this is too big for me to handle’? Perhaps it’s a crisis in your family, or a personal habit you’re trying to get free from. Circumstances far beyond your control are impacting your life.

In Old Testament times, God’s people were familiar with this feeling. Their country was on a main travel route, and invading armies went through all the time. They often felt as if God had abandoned them. But in the writings of the prophets, God promised his people a special sign of his presence with them. He was going to deliver his people through the Messiah, a descendant of King David; through him God would be ‘with’ his people as never before. In our Gospel reading Matthew quotes from Isaiah chapter 7, the promise that God will send a child who will be called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. Matthew, and all the New Testament writers, saw the coming of Jesus as the fulfilment of that prophecy.

History includes many stories of people who experienced the presence of God in times of deep darkness in their lives. One of my favourites is the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a little Dutch spinster lady, a devout Christian, and during World War Two she and her family were actively involved in hiding Jewish refugees and getting them away from the Nazis. Eventually the family were caught and arrested, and they were sent away to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck, and you can well imagine the terrible sufferings they endured there: the lack of food and clothing, the awful cold in winter, the long hours of backbreaking labour and the brutal discipline.

Betsy was determined to serve the Lord in the camp and she started a Bible study group at night in their cell block. She and Corrie often wondered why the guards never interfered with the group; in fact, they never seemed to come near that particular block at all. One day they discovered that it was because of the fleas that infested that cell block; the guards were afraid of them and so they stayed away. Corrie had often complained about the fleas, and said she would never learn to thank God for them, but when they heard this story Betsy looked at her sister and said, “See? Even the fleas!”

Eventually Betsy died because of the sufferings and brutal treatment at the camp. When she was dying, she gave her sister a commission. She said to Corrie, “You must go all over the world and tell everyone that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

The Good News Matthew wants us to know is that we’re not alone; God is with us, even in the very darkest places. Sometimes our struggles may seem too much for us, but Matthew wants us to know that God has come to live among us in Jesus and has experienced the trials and tribulations of our humanity firsthand. He is not far removed from our human struggle; he knows it intimately. Jesus, as someone once said, is ‘God with a human face’.

Secondly, Matthew wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God will save us.

In the Old Testament the word ‘save’ is almost always used in a military sense; the usual implication of ‘save’ is ‘saved from our enemies’. We can see, then, how startling is Matthew’s reinterpretation of this in this Gospel where he tells us that the angel said ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). The word ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, is based on a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘God saves’, or ‘God to the rescue’. Matthew is teaching us that, of all the enemies that we face, our sins are the most powerful. They cut us off from God, preventing us from receiving God’s help and spoiling God’s plan for our lives. And we know their power over us: just ask an alcoholic who is trying to quit, or someone trying to break another negative habit.

But you are not alone in this struggle with evil. This baby who Matthew is telling us about will grow up to give his life on the Cross for the sins of the whole world, thus reconciling us to God forever. He will rise again victorious over evil, and he will send his Spirit into the hearts of his followers. Slowly, sometimes barely perceptibly from day to day, his power can set us free.

All around the world today millions of A.A. members bear testimony to this fact. Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program based on faith in God as the Higher Power who is able to deliver people from their addictions. It receives no government support, employs no professional counselors, and does no advertising, but it is one of the most successful methods in history for the treatment of alcoholism. The testimony of A.A. is that God is indeed able to save people from things that are too big for them to handle.

So we could sum up the message of this Gospel in two words: ‘presence’ and ‘power’. God is present with us in Jesus and will never be far from us again. God’s power comes to us through Jesus, leading us out of slavery to negative behaviour patterns and into a new way of living. God’s invitation comes to you and me: do you want to experience this for yourself? If you do, all you need to do is ask God. Any words will do – God knows what’s on our hearts – but at this time of year perhaps these words are appropriate:

O Holy Child of Bethelehem, descend to us we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today…

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sermon for December 12th (3rd Sunday of Advent): Matthew 1:1-17

The Jesus Family Tree

In the last few years I’ve become quite interested in tracing my family tree back through the generations and finding out what I can about my ancestors. I wouldn’t say I’m a really committed genealogist; I work at it for a while, and then I leave it for months on end, until I get interested in it again. My Dad’s oldest brother, on the other hand, is a really committed genealogist; he’s been working on it for over ten years and he’s traced our Chesterton family tree back to about 1670. I’ve been working on my Mum’s side of the family – specifically, my Mum’s mother’s side – and I’ve been able to trace the family line back to about 1811, to a small hamlet just outside Lutterworth, about eleven miles south of Leicester where I was born. I’ve also been able to discover from census records some details about the kind of life my ancestors lived and the way they made a living. But some of the records are quite cryptic and leave a lot to the imagination, and there are still a lot of gaps in my knowledge that I’d love to fill one day.

In many societies tracing one’s family line is seen as enormously important. In traditional societies, family histories and family trees are a vital part of who you are. In these traditional societies, producing your family tree or telling your family history is like producing your ID or showing your resumĂ©.

Why am I telling you this? Because this morning I want to speak for a few minutes about a passage in the Bible that I’ve never preached on before, and one that certainly doesn’t appear in any Anglican Sunday lectionary. In fact, I’ll be very surprised if any of you have ever heard a sermon on this passage in your lives. I’m referring to the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. To us today it seems a very strange thing to begin a story with a genealogy like this, but in the first century Jewish world where the gospel of Matthew was written it wasn’t a strange thing at all. Any first-century Jew would be very interested in this genealogy and in the names that appear on it. Many of them were famous names in Jewish history, and some of them were infamous, and some of them would have seemed rather unlikely candidates to be listed in the genealogy of the Messiah. So turn with me, if you will, to Matthew 1:1-17:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Why does Matthew begin his gospel with this genealogy? Well, we get a clue from the opening words of verse 1: ‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. Matthew is telling us right from the very beginning what he thinks of Jesus: he’s the long-awaited Messiah, the King who God has sent to set his people free. As the Messiah, he’s the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of God’s people down through the centuries. He’s the fulfillment of the old prophecies about the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace. And all the promises that God made to his people down through the centuries find their fulfilment in Jesus.

Let’s be clear: if we understand this genealogy literally, we’ll miss the point Matthew is trying to make. He says that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile in Babylon to the Messiah. But we know that this is not literally true, because his list doesn’t match up with the lists of kings we find in the Old Testament; in at least one instance Matthew has left out several generations. His Jewish readers would have known this and noticed it, because they knew their scriptures very well, and the genealogies were especially important to them.

So it’s obvious that it’s not the literal details of the genealogy that Matthew wants to emphasise. Rather, in organizing the genealogy in this way Matthew is drawing our attention to the three names of Abraham, David, and Jesus. And he’s especially emphasizing David. In the Hebrew language every letter stands for a number as well, and if you add up the letters of the name of David in Hebrew they come to fourteen. David was the first great king of Israel, and as the people looked to God to send them a Messiah, a king to set them free, it was David they looked back on as a model. Remember, Matthew wants to emphasise that Jesus is ‘The Messiah, the Son of David’. That’s why he uses the number fourteen in this way.

Abraham and David were the recipients of great promises from God. When God called Abraham to leave his homeland in what is now Iraq, about eighteen hundred years before Christ, he said to him: “Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

So God called Abraham to be the ancestor of his people Israel, and the focus for that people was always meant to be an outward focus: to bless all the nations. True, God called his people to be different from the nations around them: to turn away from idols and worship only one true God, and to live lives of holiness because God was holy. But the intention was never meant to be the building of a fence inside which Israel could say, “Isn’t it good that we’re God’s people and all those Gentiles are not?” No; God called his people to be a light to the nations and to lead them also to the worship and service of the one true God, and in later years the prophets of Israel re-emphasised that call. And this is going to be fulfilled in Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus will spend his ministry teaching his disciples to follow him, and then at the end he will send them out to all nations to make them his disciples. So the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through his descendants is fulfilled in Jesus.

David also received great promises. He lived probably about 1100 B.C., and, as I said, he was the first great king of Israel. At the beginning of his reign as king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, God spoke a word of promise to him about the future of his dynasty; we can read it in 2 Samuel chapter 7. Here’s the important bit for our purposes today; God said, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever: (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16).

Now it was true that the dynasty of David lasted for a very long time, but it didn’t last forever. Between four and five hundred years after the death of David, the nation of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, and all the leaders and educated people were taken away into exile in Babylon. That was the last time a descendant of David ruled over God’s people. After the return from exile the leaders and kings were not from the Davidic dynasty; in fact, Herod the Great, the king who tried to have Jesus killed when he was a baby, was only half-Jewish, and couldn’t even trace his ancestry back to David, let alone to Abraham.

So what happened to God’s promise to David? Matthew’s contention is that it is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is ‘great David’s greater Son’, as the hymn says; he is a descendant of David, but he is also the Son of God, and he lives forever as God’s anointed king. And he sets his people free, not by leading an army against their enemies, but by defeating our greatest enemies, sin and death, through his cross and resurrection. And so all the promises of God are fulfilled in him.

So Matthew has constructed this genealogy to emphasise the names of Abraham and David and teach us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises God made to them. But that’s not the only thing Matthew is emphasizing. If he’s teaching us about the glorious promises of God, he’s also emphasising that God made those promises to flawed and sinful human beings. And Jewish people who knew their scriptures would know this right away.

In this genealogy we have Abraham, a man who pretended his wife was his sister to save his own hide, and offered to marry her to another man – not just once, but twice. We have his grandson Jacob, who went through his life cheating his own family and anyone else he met along the way. We have Tamar, a woman who seduced her father in law by pretending to be a prostitute so that he would have sex with her in the place of her dead husband and give her the children she wanted. One of those children, Perez, appears in this list as an ancestor of Jesus. We have Rahab, a prostitute who lived in Jericho at the time when Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land. He sent spies to spy out the city of Jericho; Rahab helped them, and in return her life was spared. Apparently she married into the people of Israel, and her name appears as an ancestor of both David and Jesus.

We have Ruth the Moabite foreigner; she married an expatriate Israelite in her own homeland, but after he died she went to Israel with her mother in law. She married a man called Boaz and became the grandfather of King David. And David himself was tragically flawed; not only was he a terrible father, but he lusted after Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah, and then had Uriah killed so that he could take his wife. And there’s Bathsheba in the list, the mother of King Solomon.

One thing that would have stood out like a sore thumb to the people of Matthew’s day was the inclusion of these women in the genealogy; that was not the usual practice in those days. Why is Matthew breaking Jewish custom in this way? Well, he’s about to tell us the story of how Mary became pregnant before she was married, not through her fiancĂ©e Joseph, but through the Holy Spirit. But of course by the time Matthew wrote his gospel there were all sorts of unsavoury rumours about Jesus’ true parentage, spread by people who couldn’t buy this idea of a miraculous conception and wanted to discredit the claim that Jesus was a true Messiah. So Matthew intentionally points back to these earlier women in the list. Look, he says – in the ancestry of King David we have incest, prostitution, and a despised foreigner, and David himself had a son out of wedlock. None of that invalidates what God did for his people through David, does it?

And that’s the good news this genealogy brings us. We human beings are a tragically flawed bunch. Even our heroes – people like Abraham and David – have feet of clay. We all have our personal demons that we struggle with, but if we were to think that this somehow disqualifies us from the promises of God, we’d be quite wrong. Flawed and sinful human beings are precisely the ones God calls to be his people, the ones he makes his promises to.

And it’s precisely because of our flaws and failures that the Son of God comes to live among us. God sent his Son to us because we need a Saviour, a deliverer, one who would come among us in all of our struggle and imperfection and lead us out of darkness into the light. Jesus is that Saviour. Charles Wesley wrote about him in these words:

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.

God has answered that prayer; that’s the good news Matthew wants us to know. God has sent the long-expected Jesus, and in him all the promises of God are fulfilled. All who look to him in faith can be set free from their fears and sins. So let us put our trust in him, and find in him the freedom that God has promised.