I had a strange experience a couple of mornings ago. I was standing in my garden, in the early dawn, when suddenly I saw the face of Jesus looking back at me, from the grass. Just his head...as though someone had buried Jesus up to his neck on my lawn. It was quite a shock, I can tell you - until I realised that what I was actually looking at was the remnants of a football which my dog has systematically chewed pieces off, leaving just some bits of white leather hanging on! In the right light, it looked just like the face of a bearded man, looking right at me.
My first thought was 'E-bay'! I could make a fortune. There have been faces of Jesus on pieces of toast, or in the core of a tomato that have gone for thousands! The face of Jesus on a Vicar's football...that would be worth something! But then, it set me wondering. For a start, no-one actually knows what Jesus looked like. There are no portraits of him by anyone who knew him. We have a picture of him in our minds - long hair, beard, nice smile and so on. But actually, the chances are that he would have had short hair. And probably a typically Jewish nose! So on reflection, I decided that pedaling dubious images of a probably incorrect version of Jesus wouldn't be very appropriate. So I booted the ball back up the garden!
I wonder whether you have ever tried to imagine the face of God. It's impossible of course. But I think it is possible to imagine God's expression, at least. I imagine God looking, frankly, disappointed. I imagine him looking at the mess our world is in, and being rather miffed, to say the least. He must look at the wealthy bankers getting richer, while the foodbanks of Portsmouth struggle to keep up with the demand from the homeless and poor. He must weep over the battles in Syria and all around the middle east. He must be distraught at the shootings in Newtown, Cincinnati just over a week ago.
As well as imagining God's expression, I wonder if we could try putting ourselves in God's shoes for a moment. Given a world which is systematically ignoring your call to love God and love your neighbour, what would you do about it? If you were God?
Perhaps you would be tempted to jolly-well sort it all out. Perhaps you would appear on a thunder cloud, and start laying down the law with an iron fist, coupled with the threat of thunder bolts and lighting (very very frightenly! Galileo, Galileo...). Perhaps you would use your almighty, omnipotent power to force people to be kind to one another. Perhaps you would reach into human hearts with divine love, and tweak each human soul so that it henceforth only does good things, right things, holy things?
But, if you did that...you might find that you have a new problem. Instead of a human race which chooses of its own free will to love you and worship you, you would have created a race of puppets. You would have reduced the beautiful thing that a human being is - filled with possibilities for ingenuity, music, science, art and creativity into something not much better than a toy. Adam and Eve would be reduced to Ken and Barbie. And any love or worship they offered you or one another would be a poor thing indeed. A mere shadow, a fabrication.
So, what do you do? How do you persuade human-kind that there is another way? How do you speak a Word to them that they will hear, and to which they can respond with all their hearts? Here's what you do...
You send them your Son - a human being who is so filled with God that he can say with integrity "I and the Father are one". You send them a Word clothed in flesh. You show them what a human life can be like if it overflows with God. You send them a Word which reveals the full glory of God by living the kind of life that God calls all his creation to live.
You send them...a baby. You send humanity the most fragile form of humanity that you can conceive, so that humankind might finally wake up to the idea that the glory of God is not shown in acquiring wealth, or fighting wars, or living in hate - but the glory of God is shown in the weakest kind of human being possible...a baby, in a stable; son of a poor unmarried woman in a backwater of the mighty Roman empire.
If you could stand in God's shoes tonight, perhaps you too would send humankind a Divine Word clothed in flesh. For tonight, God comes to us as a human, to show us what it really means for us to be human. By a life of selfless giving, total sacrifice, total love and compassion, Jesus shows us the heart, and the face, of God.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Luke 3.1-6 and Malachi 3.1-4
We are entering the book of Luke in this liturgical year. Luke will be our companion for much for the next 12 months. It is through Luke that we will primarily focus on the story of Jesus. Today, we are near the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke – and it’s clear that Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.
Over Christmas, we will hear again those famous words “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (or taxed). This took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria”. Luke then goes on to tell us all about the birth of Jesus, as he had received it – focusing on the arrival of the shepherds, those lowest of the low, at the manger. Interestingly, Luke says nothing at all about the arrival of the Wise Men from the East – that is left to Matthew to fill in.
But today, in chapter three, the action has gone fast-forward. Roughly 30 years have passed, and Luke puts another time stamp on his story. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachnonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”.
The people of Luke’s time didn’t have the same easy system of dates that we had. Events were marked by who was in charge at the time. So, if we were to say something similar, we might say something like “In the 18th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Harold Wilson, when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary and Michael Ramsay was Archbishop of Canterbury, the world of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.
Those of us who are old enough to remember Billy Graham’s mission to England are given a sense of the sort of time lapse between the preaching of John the Baptiser and when Luke then wrote about it. The point is not so much the detailed date, but rather: “Pay attention! Listen up! I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory, A herald came with an urgent message from God”.
And what was that message? John quotes Isaiah’s vision of the earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful. Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.
The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means: God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire. In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.
Luke saw in Jesus a glimpse of the sheer purity that is the benchmark for all humans created in God’s image. That holiness is what God made us to share. God challenges us to be what we were created to be. And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.
Advent tells us that we can expect God to probe all aspects of our lives and to clean us up; that the way we live now, individually and as a church and nation, will come under God’s righteous judgement, when he answers our prayers for succour and deliverance.
God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin. Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean up. He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day. John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’. If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they? Corrupt politicians, radio stations who drive people to suicide, greedy bankers. The bankers are perhaps the most obvious target aren’t they? In the last three years, despite the ‘bankers bonus scandals’, incomes among the top bankers in our country have risen by around 25% - while the real incomes of ordinary people have been dropping through inflation.
But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the leaders of nations alone. They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our money too. Do we, for example, spend more on Christmas cards and gifts for our friends and families than we spend on the poor and needy? If so, perhaps we need to ask how that relates to banker’s bonuses. Are we just giving more bonuses to people who already have so much?
It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen. But we can give to others at the same time, not least through buying fairly traded, environmentally friendly, or hand-made presents.
Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top? Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us. If, for example, you have not yet given to this year’s campaign by Churches Homeless Action, there’s a large bucket in the Narthex, ready to receive your gift!
Getting the balance right over these things is a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent. There are so many more ways that Advent should speak to us – and that the message of John and Malachi can speak to us. What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually, and in prayer, for the coming of the king? How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight? How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness…one shovelful at a time….one person at a time.
Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative. “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when David Cameron is prime minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and Rowan Williams is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: Hark! A herald voice is calling: “Christ is nigh” it seems to say. Cast away the dreams of darkness, O ye children of the day!”
I am indebted to Canon Rosalind Brown, whose thoughts on these passages (in the Church Times on 7 Dec 2012) form the substantial basis of this sermon