Saturday, 31 December 2011

Epiphany: "Look to a Star Rising"

by Peter Lockhart

To celebrate the birth of Jesus in the way that we do contradicts at some innate level the core of what the story is about and how it is told in the scriptures.

Jesus is born into a violent world, the son of an unmarried Jewish couple, who became refugees fleeing a brutal persecution. He grew up as part of an occupied nation and oppressed community proclaiming peace, declaring God’s reign and bringing healing to the lives of many. And, as we know, he died betrayed by his own people to foreign rulers.

All of these factors point directly at the confrontation that occurs between God’s will and way for humanity and the way we actually live. The world Jesus was born into was a pretty messed up place and if we can look beyond the limited yet fragile security of our own little ecosystems we know that it is still pretty messed up.

As we herald in a new year we know Europe has descended into economic chaos and stands on the brink of total catastrophe; environmental issues largely caused by over consumption are destroying ecosystems everywhere and some argue threaten our very planet; natural disasters continue to unfold; shifts in political power and influence in various countries are raising all kinds of other security concerns. It is far easier to simply look to our own lives and concerns and hope we win the cricket than consider such matters.

As Christians we can only celebrate Jesus birth in the way that we do in Australia if we keep Jesus a cute child in the manger and fail to take him seriously from that point on. The moment we move beyond the pasteurized and homogenized nativities that have kept Jesus “mostly harmless” we find ourselves confronted by a deeper and more disturbing story of God present with us in the world.

The story which Matthew tells of a group of magi, or wise men, travelling from the East to see Jesus, is a story which should lead us away from the security blanket of our own blinkered and naive self-assuredness, into the reality of the problems within the creation and ultimately into the arms of the gracious God who has come to us in Jesus.

Matthew tells his tale of the magi against the backdrop of, for us, a difficult to swallow astrological event and the neurosis of a King installed by the Romans, Herod the Great.

As modern minded people the notion of a star rising at the birth of anyone important appears to be completely ludicrous. However, for the people for whom Matthew was writing his story the idea of a star was an essential sign of divine activity and prophesied greatness.

I wonder whether our reticence to accept the whole star thing is the idea that we are sold in the Western World, that we can be anything we want to be. In ancient times people had a much stronger sense that people were born with a place and destiny in the world, a notion that many of us would want to reject. Our education system encourages the belief that we can be anything we want to be – so our destiny is in our own hands. This mythology of our modern age refutes notions of natal stars heralding greatness because we have bought the lie any of us can be great – we just have to work hard enough to get there.

So here is our first and foremost confrontation as modern readers of this story. Do we believe that there are limitations on individuals to make their own destiny? Or is each of us in control of who we are and where we are going in our lives? If we believe the latter we then have no place for the baby that the wise men are going to see and the God we believe he is.

It is this very confrontation with who is in control which is also at issue for Herod the Great. Herod came to power around the year 47 B.C. He was an inspiring leader during his mid twenties suppressing rebellion, collecting taxes for Rome and proving himself an able commander to the point at which Caesar Augustus recognised his rule on behalf of Rome.

Herod’s kingship was particularly prosperous in the years between 25 and 12 B.C. after which time he was beset by a range of domestic problems particularly caused by issues concerning who his successor would be. Herod the Great had 10 wives and those with whom he had children vied for the right of their child to be his successor.

Without going into too much detail there was particular competition between the son of his first wife Doris, Antipater, and Herod’s favoured sons through his fourth with Malthace, who was incidentally a Samaritan, Alexander and Aristobulus. These favoured sons were hated by Herod’s sister Salome because she wanted her son to follow Herod. Thrown into this mix was the son of his third wife Mariamne the second, Philip. So mixed up was this situation, that over the years leading up to his death Herod wrote 6 wills to designate his successor.

This convoluted contest for power, which could provide more seditious behaviour and plotline for Days of our Lives, was all coming to a head when Herod encountered the magi bearing news of a child who they said was born as the king of the Jews.

Herod by now was quite ill and believed that he had his succession plans in place, or at least almost in place and then, all of a sudden, magi from the East travelling to see the birth a new king! By this stage Herod is not defending his own reign but his successors into which he had put so much planning.

Matthew tells us that Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem alongside him. Herod’s own rise to power and been pock marked with violence and intrigue and his own son Antipater, eager for the throne, had tried to poison him. Herod had good reason to have fears as did the people of Jerusalem. Instability in leadership led to wars.

Even without Jesus appearance on the scene things were in a state of flux. Power relationships with Rome based in the personal relationship between Emperor Augustus and Herod the Great were at stake. Herod’s sons and their mothers jockeying for position and power was unsettling. The known world was a troubled place despite the control Herod had sought to stamp on his little patch.

It is at this moment in history that God becomes human and magi come seeking a king. It is the confrontation between the powers of this world, and those who seek to make their own destiny, and the God who made all things.

The question of who is in control is being asked and asked in a most palpable way. Herod’s plan to control the situation is brutal and devastating – he kills all the male children less than 2 years of age in the area that the new king was supposed to be born. Joseph and Mary become refugees as they flee to Egypt and carry with them the vulnerability of God with us, Jesus.

Now the machinations of the Herodian dynasty may seem far removed from our 21st century world but the question of who is in control is not.

Looking into 2012 a new power emerges in North Korean replacing the almost mythical figure of Kim Jong Il. The European economic crisis continues to loom large and the distinct possibility of the collapses of nations in over their heads threatens political stability. In China new leadership will be established in the strongest economy in the world. Refugees continue to bleed out of oppression into other countries. Afghanistan remains unsettled. The Middle East continues to exude instability. World leaders shy away from questions of climate change. Children still starve to death.

The flight of Joseph and Mary carries with them the hope of the world, not just Herod’s world but ours. It is a hope which believes that God reaches out to supersede our fears and suspicions and to draw us home into relationship with each other and with God. It is a hope that says that the jockeying for power and the dispossession of the helpless is not the last word. It is a hope that looks into the face of death and says no.

Keeping Jesus a cute baby in the manger does not give honour to the turbulent world into which he was born or the children killed by Herod. Sentimentalising the story of Jesus birth discredits the cross.

As we begin 2012 the question which lies before each of us who is in control? And, where will I place my energy? As for myself I look to a star rising, heralding hope and new life; a star which flies in the face of contemporary logic and control; a star whose news is not reported in the Courier Mail or the Australian. A star which heralds the birth long ago of God with us and is told again and again in the lives of people who follow Jesus faithfully looking for the coming of a new kingdom, worshipping God, and eating and drinking bread and wine as food for their journey through exile home to God.

Photo: Creative Commons Robin_24

Friday, 23 December 2011

Critiquing Christmas!

Peter Lockhart

I can clearly remember my very first sermon on the theme of Christmas beginning with the words “Bah humbug!” In many ways the season really has become the “silly” season. Greed and gluttony have been easy targets over the years as I have sought to lead people into a deeper contemplation of the meaning of Jesus birth – the incarnation.

This year as I reflected on this well worn path of critiquing Christmas, a path shared by many a nominal Christian and agnostic as well, I was struck by the danger of suggesting another approach to celebrating Christmas as if it too would be free from misunderstandings and idolatrous behaviour.

There are various movements around like the Advent conspiracy and Reclaim Christmas for which I have much sympathy. Movements which ask us to stop and reflect about how we are celebrating Christmas and whether there might be another way, a better way. I have no doubt there is but let’s not get confused about what we are doing when we shift the focus.

The mystery and promise of the incarnation is that God’s presence in the world has cosmic implications. God gives new life; God makes way for a new creation. It is this that we celebrate – God acting in human history to alter the possibilities of who we are in relationship with God and each other.

Altering our celebrations will not necessarily wind up making us any holier or changing the world into all that it has been made by God to be. Yet maybe altering what we do can express more clearly our faith and belief in God who come among us in Jesus and gives hope to the entire world.

May God bless you in your celebrations of the birth of Jesus and may you have a sense of Christ’s presence which gives us hope and can guide us day by day to live more closely to the one who made us and all things.

Peace be with you

Rev Peter

Friday, 16 December 2011

Led By Hope

Terry Stanyer

‘Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.’ - Archimedes
There is little doubt that Advent is about looking forward to the Birth of Jesus and the fulfilment of a long-held hope that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David. It is also about being prepared for Christ’s coming again the Second Advent.
The thrust of today’s scriptures is about surprise and then joy for both Elizabeth and Mary. They are also about a reality that we cannot do everything. It is God’s will which is done. The plan of Salvation has had many steps to this point. Samuel tells that there will be a Temple, but it is not David’s task to build it. That will be something which Solomon will undertake. By extension, then, each of us will have a task which is ours and ours alone.
While we are thinking about Advent and Christmas we also have an eye on the Second Advent. While the preparations may take us to Christmas, the greater preparation is to welcome Christ on his return.
This thought is a challenge to the Church to sustain its mission. The birth of Jesus and his exemplary life and his death and resurrection is world-changing. To take forward Archimedes thought - Those of us who stand with Christ have been given a lever to move the world. It is the Gospel of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. It is a Gospel which surprises too. We have a vision for the future as bright as the Star which is drawing the wise men to Bethlehem and as alive as the Angel Chorus.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Annunciation: How can this be?

by Peter Lockhart

Over 60 years after Jesus birth a doctor and follower of Jesus known as Luke wrote down a story which portrayed an intimate scene between Mary and an angel called Gabriel. No one else was present and no one else wrote the story down in the same way. In fact the only other version we have of the birth narrative of Jesus is found in Matthew’s gospel and it is quite a bit different.

To quote from Luke himself concerning this particular situation it would be easy to be “much perplexed by his words”. Or maybe we might want to ask with Mary “How can this be?”

The kind of conundrum which is presented to us in this classic Biblical story known as the annunciation is a conundrum which leads me into speaking about something which is foundational in my faith – how I read the Bible.

It is quite fanciful to think that Luke’s fly on the wall account of this miraculous event has any real sense of absolute historical truth about it. Even if there was a tradition handed on, a story about what had occurred, the idea that it would have remained accurate and intact for 60 years in naive at best.

So what do we do with this story? How do we understand it? Does it have any real authority for us?

My answer is, “Of course.”

The notion that we only read the Biblical text as some kind of accurate and literal account of events has only really been around for about 100 years or so. Narrow literalist readings of the scripture seem to be reaction by many in the church to the liberal theology of the nineteenth century. A theology which, for example, had no real trouble accepting Charles Darwin’s theories expressed in his ground breaking book “The Origins of Species”.

But, just as there are problems with literalist readings of the scriptures which seek to enshrine the words of the text in a way which I believe is idolatrous, so too I have great difficulty with those who would disregard the text because it does not make scientific and historic sense to them.

Many of the so called liberal theologians would say that there is no evidence for what the scripture is saying or that it is inconsistent, and more than that the church has indoctrinated us to have naive beliefs about the scriptures.

To both literalist and liberal I would want to say Luke was not writing history and nor was he writing science – Luke was writing theology.

The purpose of Luke’s story is not to make a claim about the encounter between the angel and Mary which may or may not have actually happened in the way that he described. Nor is it to provide a scientific explanation concerning the notion of a virginal conception.

Luke’s task is theology: to explain who God is and how this God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God. This is where the authority of the scriptures lie and it is how they should be read.

To do theology, to think about who God is and who we are before this God, is to stand on the precipice of a vast mystery. It is as if we are looking into the far reaches of the ever expanding universe seeing the glimmer of billions of stars yet not comprehending what is really out there.

As Luke fashions his story of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary what he is seeking to do is to convey some basic theological truths as had been revealed to him, truths which may have some historical grounding in an encounter which Mary may have described to others.

Not surprisingly one of the key truths that Luke explores, not just in this story but throughout his gospel, is the incomprehension and incredulity of people when they encounter the divine. To push the miracle of this story a little further I would argue that what is occurring here is a theophany, which literally means an appearance of God.

When Mary encounters the divine she is perplexed, she ponders his words, she even doubts by asking “How can this be?” My sense of Mary’s response “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” is not of humble faithfulness that we can extol in any way but a simple acceptance of what she has come to realise is fait accompli.

This is part of Mary’s story and it is part of our story too. In the years I have spent at Clayfield and Hamilton many of you have shared with me your encounters with the divine: visions, feelings, angelic appearances, dreams, words of wisdom and insights. These are intimate stories of witness, which we seem so often reticent to share in our scientific and ordered world, and they have been a gift to me. I would continue to encourage you to take the confidence to share these intimate moments of your faith, your divine and miraculous encounters, with each other far more freely and so I believe to be surprised at just how common they are.

I find it fascinating that Mary moves from a place of questioning, into obedient response and then when she visits Elizabeth into praise and thanksgiving to God.

It was in the sharing of her story that Luke depicts Mary as praising God openly. A praise possibly born out of the joy of knowing that her story had been heard and her witness had meaning for Elizabeth, but not only for Elizabeth but the millions of Christians who have treasured Luke’s narrative since that time.

Luke is telling us that even Mary who bore Jesus in her womb found it difficult to comprehend and accept what God might be doing and that the reality is that any encounter with God can lead us into confusion and questioning, “How can this be?”

This leads me into making a comment on another of Luke’s key theological points in this passage – the incarnation.

I remember a few years back making the comment in a sermon on this same passage that Luke’s point is not to get us to believe that Mary was a virgin but that Jesus was God’s Son. When I made this statement I was leaving room for those who might struggle with the science of a virginal conception and other historical anomalies which lie around this story. The question I asked at the time was it more believable that May was a virgin or Jesus was God’s Son. At worst Luke is telling a stock standard story for his era to get his point across – if Jesus is to accepted as divine including the story of a virginal birth was really nothing new.

I would say however after years of contemplation on the issue I have come to the conclusion that the idea that Mary was a virgin is not such a difficult leap after all and in fact has theological significance in itself.

What Luke conveys to us is that God chose in God’s own mysterious way to reach into Mary and create within her a new life. Psalm 139 describes the mystery of our embryonic life with these wonderful words: “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.

When God knit Jesus’ life together in Mary’s womb he did so in a new way. In the womb of this woman Mary, who was a child of Adam and Eve, God did something new in the creation. This is the miracle of the incarnation, the eternal Word of God being made flesh.

For so many Christians the cross is the focal point of our faith and rightly so. Great theologians such as Martin Luther and Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann have pointed us to the cross to understand God. Yet the cross is given its meaning so profoundly because of who it is we believe is hanging there in Jesus – God incarnate.

This is why Luke’s story is so important because he describes for us a theological truth which has us standing with mouths agape just as Mary did, “How can this be? How can God become a human being?”

You see the incarnation stands us something which is completely unique about our faith. The story of a God who as John puts it pitches his tent among us.

It is his presence in the world that alters the reality of all existence. This means that for me Christianity is never about telling you how to live or what you need to do to get into heaven or what kind of morals you should have. These may be side effects of the good news but the heart of our faith, its essence, is about what God is up to in Jesus.

It would be far simpler for me over the years to have taken the well worn route of preaching moral truths telling you how to behave or what to do but this to me would lack the truth of our faith and of eternal life, which is described be Jesus in John “as knowing him and the Father who sent him”.

As I approach the end of 8 years of ministry in this place it is my prayer, and my hope, that you have not found anything of value in knowing me beyond that you have come to know God more deeply, for this is the task for which I believe I was sent. To point away from myself and at God incarnate who is Jesus, and him crucified and risen for the life of the world.

To return to where I began, Luke’s purpose was theology. The story of the annunciation is our story – the story of our confusion and disbelief when God appears. Yet it is also the story of God’s faithfulness and immeasurable love revealed in the Good news, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

Is it any wonder that when Mary began to really comprehend this she extolled God before Elizabeth saying,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Who really counts?

A sermon on Luke 2:1-7 (Prepared for 96.5 Family FM)
By Peter Lockhart

In my experience one of the things that seems to be common amongst the people I meet is that they want their lives to mean something, to have a purpose. More than that many want to be remembered, they want to carve their niche on this world. People want to know that their life matters that it counts for something.

It’s interesting this idea that we want to make our lives count especially given that earlier this year we had a census in Australia in which we were all counted. For me this census was made far more impersonal than previous ones and made me think I counted even less because like many things these days I did it online.

I wonder how you felt being counted by the Australian government, did it make you feel like your life really mattered any more or less. Did you feel like your life counted for something?

Realistically the bureaucrats and powers that be of our day really can’t make our lives count anymore simply by counting us and nor could they in times past.

The opening words of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel tell us that a seemingly insignificant couple from Nazareth were about to be swept up in the bureaucracy of their age.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

The registration spoken of in this passage was of course a census, a census being conducted by the ruling power of Rome under its first Emperor, Augustus.

Now mentioning Emperor Augustus may not mean much to us but to Luke’s community this would have been really big. Luke wrote his gospel just over 30 years after Jesus’ death, which means it would have been nearly 50 years since Augustus’ death.

During his life Emperor Augustus had been understood to be the son of a god, in as much as his adopted father Julius Caesar was hailed as a god after his death. Whilst after his own death Emperor Augustus was also declared to be divine by the Roman Senate.

So, it was this god-like figure of Emperor Augustus who called the census. In doing so he had set Joseph and Mary travelling the road to Bethlehem and to a not insignificant event: the birth of their first son.

Now as I was thinking about Mary and Joseph and the census the question kept coming back to me, “what really makes a person count?” Mary and Joseph had gone off to be counted by the Romans. In terms of their lives did it make them count anymore as people to be counted by the Romans?

If their experience of a census was anything like ours simply an inconvenience then I would expect the answer would have been no. The contrast between the story of this seemingly insignificant couple and the story of the Roman Empire under possibly its most significant Emperor Augustus is immense. But what is interesting is that it is the story of Mary and Joseph that really should cause us to pause to consider what it is that makes a person count.

Does being counted by a government, Roman or Australian, really make you count any more in the big scheme of things? The answer is obviously no but as I suggested at the beginning we all like to be ‘counted’.

We would rather be counted in than counted out. But what does this mean? And how do we work out who is counted in and who is counted out? We all have our ways of thinking about this that we apply all the time. We count some people in and we count some people out. Every time we do this we draw a line around the community we are part of and in doing so try to make sure that we are counted in. In building our human communities we usually build them by excluding others as much as by including others.

But if we go back to Mary and Joseph and the story of the birth of Jesus the whole Christmas story revolves around not that the Romans, under Augustus reign, counted Mary and Joseph but that in God’s eyes Mary and Joseph, and might I say all people of all times and place, count because God loves us.

We know we count precisely because Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Why? Because Jesus not Augustus is God among us and the historical backdrop that the Bible gives to us helps us to know and understand that Jesus was a real person at a real time in history.

The story of Jesus birth let all humanity and the whole creation into the good news that we count so much to God that Jesus, who is God’s Son, comes to be one of us so that we might have peace with God and live our lives knowing that we count.

In this one small child God shows to us that we all count.
In this one small child God counts us in rather than counts us out.
In this one small child a new future for all of us, and the whole creation, is born.

This is what really counts at Christmas time, remembering that no matter whom we are, regardless of whether the bureaucrats have counted us, regardless of what others might say, regardless even of whether we’ve been naughty or nice; God wants to count us in. God wants to include you and me in a life that matters and Jesus presence in the world points to a hope that we can all share in – we do count, we do matter to God, the one who made us.

This has implications for how we live: living with the knowledge that not only does my life count but so does everybody else’ life. This leads us to include others rather than exclude them, knowing despite any differences or faults or foibles we might with each other have we all matter to God.

I must admit that I find it somewhat ironic that our Christmas celebrations are filled with counting things other than this good news of how much we count to God.

For example, if you were to reflect on the past week I wonder how much counting you have done:

Counting the days left until Christmas;
Counting the hours in a day;
Counting the dollars in your wallet or purse;
Or more likely counting the dollars on the rising credit card bill;
Counting the Christmas cards that you have received;
And, counting people in as you send them a card in return or maybe counting people out because they did not send you a card this year.

And the counting won’t stop:

Counting the number of presents that you receive;
Counting the number of prawns or serves of turkey that you have eaten;
Counting how many drinks you have had;
Counting the calories that you have consumed;

And, so the counting goes on.

But this morning, in this moment, gathered together as we are, listening again to the story of Jesus’ birth we remember that what really counts at Christmas time is that this story of Jesus’ birth lets us know how much we count to God – that in this one small child Mary, Joseph, and all of us – and maybe even Augustus and Quirnius - count far more than any of us can fully comprehend.

The God who can count the very hairs on our heads took the time to visit with us on earth, to live among us and share in our life. And more than that by sharing in our life and our death as human beings Jesus carries us through from death into new life where we can know and celebrate forever just how much we really count to God.

So as we hear that good news again this Christmas let us celebrate that you and I really matter, that we count to God because once long ago for a woman named Mary:

the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Where is the joy?

May the Words of my mouth
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight, O Lord
Our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today on the third Sunday of Advent the readings encourage us to contemplate the theme of joy.

In Isaiah 61:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”

In Psalm 126:

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy”

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing”

This theme of joy is etched into our Christian existence; it is a response to God’s grace and goodness, it is part of the Christian DNA. So strong is this theme of joy that the word for joy is found over 300 times in the New Testament.

Christians are meant to be people filled with joy.

But what does joy sound like, what does joy look like, what does it feel like?

Is joy found in the pursuit of happiness?

Is joy found in the ownership of goods?

Is joy found in status and wealth?

Or even in a bar of chocolate?

If one were to examine the Western culture in which we live one might think that the answer to these things is yes. In fact much of our advertising encourages us to think that if we consume a particular product we will be happier.

A recent campaign by Cadbury chocolate called ‘share the joy’ included the slogan “A glass and half full of joy”, whilst more recently the current Coca-Cola advertising carries the catch phrase “Open Happiness”.

Ultimately, a great deal of our advertising does the same – it suggests that by owning or consuming a particular product we will be more fulfilled and that we will be imbued with joy or happiness or contentment.

Of course most of us see through the advertising and know that products do not necessarily produce the joy in life that we seek. In fact it seems that our very opulent lifestyle is failing to fulfil us let alone bring us joy.

Despite the indications of how high a standard of living we as Australians enjoy, how wealthy we are on a world scale, we continue to speak of ourselves as Aussie battlers and wear that badge with a sense of pride. And there are clear indicators as Australians that we are not a very happy people.

Statistics indicate that at any given time one in six Australian men is suffering from depression and that women are twice as likely as men to suffer depression after puberty.

Now whilst mental illness is a complex issue this is a disturbing statistic in such a wealthy culture. This statistic is made more concerning but the figures of suicide rates in Australia. More than one in five deaths which occur in 15-24 year old men occurs through suicide.

Timothy Radcliffe, the former head of the world Dominican order, noted in his devotional book “Seven last Words” that in his travels around the world it was in the wealthiest countries that he found that people seemed to be the most worried. It appears that we are afflicted by our anxiety despite our wealth or maybe even because of it!

We have not found joy! This seems somewhat paradoxical given our Western culture has its roots in Christendom. If joy is meant to be etched into our Christian existence where have we gone wrong? Where is the joy?

As I examined the passages set down for today apart from the theme of joy another theme came through, a theme which anchors that joy of which I am speaking and for which I think we long.

Listen for the theme in Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me


I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

He goes on,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Do you hear it? Do you get it? Isaiah’s confidence, his task, his joy was there because he believed and trusted that God had acted, was acting and that God would act again in human history.

So too in the Psalm

“the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

And again in Paul’s letter the strength of hope expressed in a trust in God’s faithfulness:

“The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

People of faith through history have found their joy in knowing and believing in a God who acts.

The God who we are told sent John into the world to prepare the way for Jesus coming into the world.

I wonder whether as a culture we have become so reliant on our own abilities, so disconnected from the struggle to survive, so individualistic in our pursuit of happiness that we have lost focus on the heart of our faith – the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness of God expressed to the whole creation in his willingness to share our human existence in Jesus and to point a way forward into the hope, peace and joy of life with God.

To recover our joy as Christians means that maybe we should stop pursuing happiness as it is being sold to us and rather pursue God: to pursue God, knowing that the joy that we find in relationship with him has led Christians through the millennia to face hardship and peril with a sense of joy and peace. The joy of the Christian life is a joy which can and does transcend personal hardships.

When the Psalmist fills mouths with laughter it is done so in the face of adversity.

So the first step may be to stop trying to pursue joy and happiness and rather focus again on God.

But more than this, the reading from Isaiah should also bring to mind that Jesus chose these words from Isaiah to preach the good news to his home town of Galilee.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Jesus declared that the year of the Lord’s favour had come in him and truly if we understand this it should be a source of joy for us.

The year of the Lord’s favour, the year of Jubilee, was meant to occur every 50 years. When the year of Jubilee came it “was a time of social renewal when all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and every dispossessed family returned to their ancestral lands that may have been sold or lost over the decades. (Leviticus 25) People may lose their land, their freedom, their stake in civil society for many reasons—whether by natural calamity, parental mismanagement, oppressive government, or moral failure—it does not matter. A new generation gets a stake in life. All is graciously restored in the year of Jubilee.” (

If we place our confidence, our faith, our trust in God and if we listen for Jesus words our joy comes from a shared hope in renewed community, in renewed relationship with God and with each other. It is about shared joy not simply individual happiness. Our joy runs deep as we live with hope that all will share in the joy of life lived in God’s creation.

I think sometimes the difficulty for we who have so much is to find joy in God and not our possessions and luxury. To be grateful for what we have and not constantly seek after more, but this is such a counter cultural idea. Yet not only this but to take seriously the concept of the year of the Lord’s favour in which we hear a vision to bring good news to the oppressed and to forgive debts and to bind up the broken hearted and to comfort those who mourn. It is meant to be an eternal year of Jubilee.

Personally I find that the struggle that I have with joy at times is that it is difficult to be joyful about how good my life is when so many are suffering in the world. Yet part of this conundrum is that not to be thankful for the things that I have and the opportunities would somehow seem ungrateful.

I believe Jesus presence in the world releases me and all of us from this conundrum and invites us to live celebrating joyfully the salvation we have found in him whilst at the same time caring so that others may know and experience salvation: life and life in all its fullness. To put it another way to be joyful in our thanksgiving but also to care until all people can share in the joy.

To rejoice in the Lord always means being set from our anxieties about the future and trusting in the God who acts and so to share his concerns for others. I don’t think we can respond to a command to be joyful rather having encountered God and heard that we can place our trust in him we can be liberated from our anxieties and so rejoice.

For me this is about getting things in the right order. Seek after God and we will find joy.

The Christian story has a theme of rejoicing a tone of celebration. This joy comes from the hope we have in Christ and the peace that we have been given in our relationship with God. It is a joy that causes us to take stock of our lives in this community of creation and as we do so to share in Christ’s ministry as his disciples in the world.

The facade of joy that surrounds us is a sales pitch that has no depth. As we edge closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus let us be surprised by the joy of our relationship with God and share that joy with others, especially those in the world who need it most as we say with Isaiah:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”