Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Violence of Christmas

There’s a lot of violence in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11.11–15).  Jesus talks about how the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, since the time of John the Baptiser…and now, he says (with John in prison) the violent take it by force.

I wonder if you’ve ever contemplated how much violence surrounds the Christmas story.  I’d like to take a few moments to ponder that with you.  But first of all, it might be helpful to define what the word ‘violence’ means.  It is essentially the forcing of one person’s will on another, by the threat or actual use of physical coercion.  It can also mean the forcing of the will of a group of people on another group of people, by physical means.  Terrorism is an obvious type of violence.  Blowing people up, to force your view of the world onto them, is about the most violent thing you can do.  As is military conquest of one nation over another.  But there are other forms of violence too – verbal violence, emotional violence, even intellectual violence – which means the forcing of a particular idea onto others.

Ultimately, violence is about the use of power.  Violence is the way that power relationships go wrong.  When one person (or one group of people) use violence to impose their power onto another, we can usually judge – pretty clearly – that the power-relationship has gone sour.

So what did I mean, just now, when I said that violence surrounds the Christmas story?

Well, first, there is the violence of the state of occupation into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire was in control – through violent military conquest.  Their powerful control of the land of Israel was so complete, their threat of violence was so great, that Joseph of Nazareth had no choice but to force his heavily pregnant wife onto the back of donkey, to trek for many days across barren lands, and to have her baby in a barn.  I’m sure that there were countless times along that road that Mary cried out “Why couldn’t we just stay in Nazareth?!”  But the political violence of Rome drove them in another direction altogether.  Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Then, there is the awful violence of King Herod.  Fearful of losing his power as vassal King over Judea, he plots and schemes to find out where the new ‘King of the Jews’ will be born.  He attempts to manipulate the visiting wise men into being his spies – and when that scheme fails, he slaughters all the male babies in Bethlehem.  Joseph and Mary are forced to flee for their lives into Eqypt to escape the rampant violence of Herod’s henchmen. Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

Those are the obvious examples – but there is other, more subtle, violence too.  Take the Shepherds for example.  Now when I say the word ‘shepherds’, I imagine that most of us have a lovely pastoral picture in our heads.  We imagine a bunch of hearty old men with tea-towels on their heads.  We hear the west-country tones of countless Nativity plays.  “Ohh – let’s go to Bethlehem to see this thing which ‘as come to paaaass!”.  

But this is to miss one of the central themes of the Nativity story. 

Why Shepherds?  Why are Shepherds the group of people specially selected by God to be told the news of the arrival of Jesus.  God could have sent his Angels out to knock on the doors of the ordinary people of Bethlehem -  “bang bang bang!  Wake up – and go down the street to the barn!”.  The Angels could have sung glory in the highest heaven in the local taverns, or over the palace or temple in Jerusalem.  But they didn’t.  

God chose the Shepherds precisely because they were outcasts of their society.  They lived on the edge of towns – they weren’t citizens like everyone else.  They were rough and ready, and they probably stank from all those sheep, their overnight bonfires, and a lack of running water.  Worse still, they didn’t obey all the religious laws – not least the law about not working on the Sabbath…because sheep still need looking after, even on a Sabbath.  So, in religious terms, they were considered unclean and unholy.  Society in general had done violence to them, by essentially excluding them.  They were shut out.  They were deemed ‘unclean’ – which is a kind of religious violence done to them.

You see? Violence surrounds the Christmas story.

So what is God’s response to this violence?  How does he seek to intervene in the violence that humanity does to itself – or in ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as the old Book of Common Prayer has it? 

If I was God, I think I would have been very tempted to use my almighty power to just sort them out!  But I am not God.  God knows that the answer to violence is not more violence.  No.  God’s answer to the violence of human beings is to send his Son into the world in the most fragile, dependent, UN-powerful form possible…a new born baby.  And not just a baby – completely dependent on his parents for everything – but a baby born in the most humble of circumstances imaginable.  Not a palace.  Not even a house.  A barn.  A stable.  An animal’s food trough.

The answer to violence is not more violence.  To quote the great Mahatma Ghandi – “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.  The answer to violence in the world today is not more violence – it should be bridge-building, understanding, mutual respect and tolerance.  The answer to the violence of terrorism all across the world is not more violence in return – it should be the seeking of understanding, and the addressing of the kinds of basic injustice which drives terrorists to do terrible things.  Education, social justice, the fair and equitable sharing of the wealth of our planet – these are the things that will overcome the violence.  If only we would give them a chance.

The babe of Bethlehem teaches us by his gentle presence in the midst of the violence of his time that there is another way.  And for that simple, profound lesson, we should surely say with all the angels of Heaven, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth!”.   Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Advent 2 - Prepare the Way of the Lord

 Readings: Isaiah 11.1–10 & Matthew 3.1–12

Today – and indeed next week too, the Lectionary invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser.  We call him that, these days, because the word ‘Baptist’ has become linked to a particular theological viewpoint.  At the grave risk of slightly offending our Welsh Baptist viewers on the InterWeb, today’s ‘Baptists’ believe that adult baptism is the only legitimate kind.  Most Anglicans disagree….but there isn’t time to go into that now!

So let’s focus down on John the Baptiser – the man.  Matthew, probably based on Mark is convinced that John is the messenger of the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah.  He starts his account, saying “John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.  

It’s worth pausing for a moment to contemplate that word, ‘repent’.  Most of you have heard me talk about it before, but it’s always worth revisiting, I find.  I know that, for me, the word conjures up images of crazed street preachers – pointing at a crowd of drunks and crying ‘repent ye sinners!’.  That image implies that the preacher thinks he’s superior to the crowd.  It has a note of condemnation about it.  But, it’s worth considering the original Greek word – which is metanoia.  It means ‘turn around’.  A call for repentance, then, is less about condemnation, and more like an invitation.  ‘Metanoia’ invites us to stop heading in one direction, and choose to take a new path.  It invites us to stop following the world’s promises about what will fill us, save us, and give our lives meaning.  It invites us to turn instead to the straight and narrow way of the Lord.

John is the last of the Hebrew prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways.  Picture the scene:  Imagine a rather dirty fellow, with mad scruffy hair, dressed in camel-skins, and covered in bee-stings. He’s probably got blobs of honey stuck to his shirt, and he’s munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d try to get him some serious mental health support!  

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, attracted people out into the desert from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)

According to Matthew’s account, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7).  He warned them against the complacency of their religion: saying “Just because you are Abraham’s children, don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)

There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why, after Jesus appeared, didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah – as we’ll hear next week.

I think that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would be like.  John’s Messiah would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day.  See what he says about Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3:  “...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).  

John’s expectations of the Messiah are rooted in the language and concepts of Hebrew Bible.  In some ways, he was a bit like that street preacher I imagine jabbing his finger at a crowd of drunks.  And, uncomfortably, Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like.  And he was Jesus’ cousin!  

I wonder how many of us sometimes do that?  How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is?  How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs?  

How many Conservative-voters assume God is a Tory?  How many people on the left blithely assume Jesus was a socialist?   How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them?  It’s painfully ironic to observe Vladimir Putin cosying up to the Russian church for approval of his evil plans.  He must think that God is like him.  But, the truth is, we all have a tendency to make God in our own image.  We often imagine God to be a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves – rather than seeking the truth of God in whose image we are made.

John’s language is the language of criticism and warning.  “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!”   John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing.  “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”.  It’s a promise of life, but tinged with the threat of death.

Jesus’ language, on the other hand, is of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  He speaks of journeys, and the Narrow Way of faith.  John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer.  Jesus offers life, hope and an exciting journey.

Mind you, Jesus is not immune from the apocalyptic tradition.  Certainly, he also gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. (Mt 12.34).  But, on balance, Jesus’ tone is rather different to John’s.  Instead of calling us out to a desert of repentance, he invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal.  John offers locusts and wild honey.  Jesus offers bread, wine, and a banquet in heaven.  He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community.  He includes women – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.  

Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks.  Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, community-life and growth into beings with the capacity to be like gods.  He calls it the Narrow Way, and the Kingdom.   Jesus calls us to turn away from making up our own ideas about how things should be.  He calls us instead to tune-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe.  The baptism of John saves us from wrath.  The baptism of Jesus invites us on journey of growth and faith.

In this season of Advent, we are invited to take stock of our own journey, and the extent to which we have fully ‘turned around’.  Have we utterly forsaken the false promises of the world, and progressed a little further along the straight and narrow Way of the Lord.  If the answer is ‘yes’, we can give thanks to God, and renew our commitment today.  

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘well, perhaps not quite yet’ – then we are invited, today, to make a new commitment.  A commitment to forsake the false promises of politicians, of consumerism, of selfish-ambition.  And a commitment to the straight and narrow way of love, generosity, self-sacrifice and deep, deep meaning. 

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight”. Amen.