Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas: just the beginning...

Peter Lockhart
Sermon 30 December

Each year there is a sense of momentum that builds through November and December hurtling people towards Christmas Day. People rush around buying presents, attending parties, seeing lights, going to carols services, travelling to see family, writing letters and so on - all aimed at the celebration on Christmas Day.

After this storm of preparation and activity come Boxing Day things shift into a different gear. Whilst the Boxing Day sales begin many small businesses remain shut. There is a slowing down as reams of people trundle off for their annual summer holiday. A sense of relief is in the air we managed to get past Christmas again, it’s all over.

But is it? Is it over or is it just beginning?

Christmas celebrates the incarnation that God became human and traditionally the Christmas celebration goes for 12 days. 12 days to celebrate and contemplate that God became one of us. Christmas is not an ending it is a beginning.

So here we are with our sense of relief in church again after surviving another Christmas but still within the 12 days contemplating its meaning. This slowing down of the world around us should provide us with some time for introspection about what our response will be to the good news.

This week our lectionary provides for us a glimpse of Jesus in temple growing up. Now there is much that can be said about this story and its themes in relationship to the incarnation but this morning I want to give just a very brief comment on the child Jesus who causes so much anxiety for his parents.

The focus of this story is on the relationship Jesus has with God and priority that he gives to it even as child. Jesus presence in the world changes the world and the notion that it took his parents three days to find him has overtones of a future event in which Jesus will disappear from sight for three days as he descends into death. The centering on God in this story is matched by the somewhat enigmatic statement, which implies much but says so little, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

The incarnation is about the reconciliation of God with the creation and as we celebrate the incarnation through these days of Christmas and are invited to contemplate how we might respond to what God has done for each one of us by sharing in our earthly life.

This year the Church Council has chosen to encourage us with the theme “Living the Faith”, which is a call to deepen our discipleship and how we participate in the life of the church and world as God’s people.

Looking back into the scriptures we hear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians an encouragement for the people to clothe themselves in Christ. I have always found this an interesting concept having made holy by what Christ has already done for us as recipients of grace and followers of his teachings we are now invited to live a life which reflects the grace we can see lived out in Jesus own life so that others might also know and experience the good news of God’s love.

Writing to the Colossians Paul suggests that there are five garments that the community seeking to live the faith should clothe them in: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness & patience.

Now all of these words are words which have a certain appeal to them, words which we might think we can embrace, but when we look more deeply into Christ’s life each of these words comes with its own set of challenges to us.

It is not difficult for any of us to show compassion to someone we know or to someone we think deserves compassion. But Jesus shows compassion to those who live at the edges of the community. To people who are outsiders, ostracised, not even Jews.

We have a tendency to think of some of those whom Jesus reached out to as holding some special characteristic which deserved Jesus attention and compassion. But to think in this way shifts us away from knowing a gracious God who reaches out unconditionally to thinking of a God who only chooses those who deserve what they get.

To live with Jesus compassion, drives us beyond helping those who we think deserve help into groups whom we might find difficult to accept, to love, to understand. Jesus breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries to help others. If we are living the faith what will this mean for us?

Just as with compassion the notion of kindness is easy as long as we are being kind to those whom we know will reciprocate with similar kindness. But how do we show kindness to those who might want to disregard or dismiss us in an offhand manner. I must confess that for myself if the kindness that I offer someone is not being returned I will resent the person to whom I am trying to be kind and may even cease showing kindness.

Humility is also a complex matter. In a little book of quotes I have a great quote from Golda Meier who was involved with founding Israel and was its fourth Prime Minister. “Don’t be humble you’re not that great.” It seems ironic that o be truly humble takes a great person and I would say I could probably count on one hand the people I have met whom I think show true humility. Humility which is not riddled with hubris, but is truly places others before themselves.

I have always found the concept of being meek as a Christian another difficult one. Too often being meek is somehow misconstrued into becoming a doormat for others, and often it is tinged with a sense of a martyr complex. Jesus may be meek on occasion showing a quiet and gentle approach like when he invites the children to come close but if meekness is also about submission Jesus submission serves God’s purposes – it is not a meekness with no point. He submits to God’s will.

And finally we get to patience. If you are a task oriented person like me patience is not an easy virtue. Waiting for others to fall into line with the timeline that I have set for myself or into the vision that I have is not easy. Showing patience as we wait in line at the shops. Showing patience as we wait for the next opportunity. Patience as we wait for God’s faithfulness. Overloaded timetables in our modern city with it bustle and hurry make for impatient people. How do we breathe deeply of the patience of God – willing to wait in silence?

If we are to live the faith we are to cloth ourselves with these things compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience not simply when it is convenient and not when it feels good to do so but when we are challenged and called to exhibit these attributes as a witness to these characteristics of Jesus. And in the end it will not be we who judge whether we do these things well rather it will be those whom we encounter and judge us by our words and actions, which we pray will be a witness to them.

It is of little surprise that Paul goes on to add a sixth vital ingredient to the Christian community at Colossae – forgiveness.

Knowing the imperfection of the human predicament Paul grounds the attempts of the people to clothe themselves in Christ in being a people who know and understand forgiveness.

We know that we will fail in being dressed in these garments – we will hurt each other and we will expect more in return for our actions than we might receive.

The difficult and dirty business of forgiveness and reconciliation is so quickly passed over in our prayers of confession. The focus of these prayers though should not be a self flagellation and guilt burdening exercise but a reminder that forgiveness is about but us those we have wronged being freed from the brokenness our sin creates. True forgiveness takes hard work in our hearts and minds so that it can be translated into living differently and recovering the garments of Christ we have strewn on the floor like so much dirty washing.

All of these other attributes that we are to clothe ourselves in our ultimately held together by love, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. This not any other love but the love which God offers in the coming of Christ into the world. The coming of Christ which opens up the peace of God for us to share in – the shalom around which our lives revolve!

Paul goes on to add to this formula of Christian living 3 ways of deepening the relationship we have with God so that we might actually live this way, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love.

These are all grounded in the act of gathering for worship. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

If we are to understand how to live our faith entering into a rich relationship with the guiding thoughts of the scripture, being open to new learning and admonishment as well as praising God will deepen that relationship that has been made available for us with God and each other.

In 2 days we begin a new year. The days after Christmas give us the chance to think about what resolutions we will hold in the year ahead – how will we live the faith? Now is not the end but the beginning of the work. Today you have received a card with the different words used today for you to take away and think about and pray upon.

As we gratefully receive the incarnation and the gifts it brings to us let us now consider how we will live in response to the gifts of mercy and grace.

Monday, 24 December 2012

From birth comes hope.

A Christmas sermon on John 1 by Peter Lockhart

I have a friend who was expecting a child to born 2 days ago, she was with us here last night and as far as I know from the Facebook posts she is still waiting. It has been exciting to anticipate with her and her other Facebook friends the imminent, but delayed birth. The sense of hope and love which has gathered around her is one reflection of our humanity.

A few weeks back I was talking with some friends about Christmas and expressed my feelings that the birth of a child, especially when we can make a choice over having children, is a declaration of hope: a hope that the world has something to offer that child; a hope that that the child will grow and be happy and enjoy a good life.

Given the world that we have lived in for the past century, which has included 2 World Wars, a Cold War, global poverty, natural disasters and Climate Change thinking of the birth of a child as an expression of hope is even more poignant.

During the week I was privileged to read a part of President Barak Obama’s speech (here) in response to the tragic shooting in America. Let me share a part of what he said with you:

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves, our child, is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice, and every parent knows there’s nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet we also know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us, that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.

They will suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments, and we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear. And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.

It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbours, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.
I believe President Obama has made some very insightful comments in this speech but I think one of the most interesting is his reflection that “we... know that with that child’s very first step and each step after that, they are separating from us.”

Here President Obama I believe taps into a fundamental truth of human community which sits in tension with the way God actually made us to live. Whilst we should grow into people who are able to be self-reliant and resilient, this growth is not meant to be a growth which separates us from one another, or to the independence which breeds the individualism rampant in our Western way of life but rather we are to grow into communion with one another as people, as God’s people.

I use the word communion here deliberately because if we trace it back to the Greek word koinonia it implies a life lived in one another’s lives, a life lived reflecting the inner life of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. President Obama I believe reflects this fundamental truth as he says, “we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.” This is essentially what is said every time we have a baptism.

The sad reality, though, as we know that there is a gap between our human experiences of this life together, to which God calls and that we are even aware of and how we live. Whether we experience the subtle tension of people we do not agree with or whether we experience the deep brokenness and suffering which afflicts so many, and often due to the way in which the powers and systems that we have place operate.

It is this dissonance of our imperfect lives which leads not into communion but independence which reflects not simply a movement away from God but from also each other.

God’s response to this situation is celebrated today.

Just as he birth of any child is a sign of hope in a broken world, so too the birth of Jesus is a sign of hope for the entire world.

The passage that I recited from John’s gospel has long been my favourite of the Christmas readings. John gets to the point “the Word became flesh”: the eternal “Word”, whom we know as Jesus. He breaks into our reality even though all things came into being him through but did not know him, and even though his own people did not accept him.

We know that the rejection of Jesus leads to the cross, ultimately a sign of the failure of humanity to love God and love one another. But the hope that we see and know and feel in Jesus birth and life and death is amplified by the resurrection in which God says your rejection of me does not count as the last word

In the birth of Jesus is the hope of the world because from his death God brings new life. Hope which transcends our personal hopes and fears in life and gives confidence to see the birth of each child as an affirmation that God is, the god lives, and the life in all fullness can be ours because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

I pray that you may know the depth of hope that comes from the birth of this child who stands as our corrective and as reminder that God’s love is bigger than our inability to live perfectly loving one another.

May God bless you all this Christmas.

(Photo Creative Commons by "Kudaker")

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rejoice: A Baptism!

by Peter Lockhart

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

On this day as we gather for A’s baptism it is not difficult for any of us to have a sense that rejoicing, praying and giving thanks to God is an appropriate response to celebrating this day. The birth of any child can elicit such a response from parents, grandparents, family friends. It is more often than not a time of deep joy and gratitude. We can have sense of God’s goodness and the wonder of life.

Of course such spiritual moments of knowing God’s presence are not restricted to the birth and baptism of a child. People find experiences of God in many places on a mountaintop, in a concert, in the early morning on a surfboard, in the gathering of loved family and friends, and dare I even suggest here in a place like this, a church, sharing with other Christians in bread and wine. Moments when we find our hearts are lifted at the joy of the experience life in all its mystery and wonder.

Yet, whilst it may be easy on this day to rejoice in this particular setting, if we go back to the time when the apostle Paul wrote his letter the time and the experience of the people within that time were quite different.

The letter was written around 30 years after Jesus death and resurrection, to what was probably quite a small group of Philippians, who had become followers of Jesus. Among their number were both Jews and gentiles who lived under the rule of the Roman Empire.

It is more than likely this early community of followers of Jesus found themselves at the margins of the society. They were probably being harassed and ostracized because of their decision to follow Jesus. This tension came from both Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities.

In Paul’s letter to them I have sense that he is encouraging them to make room in the lives for who God was and what God had done. He was encouraging them with the themes that the church has subsequently chosen as the advent themes: hope, peace, joy and love. To hope in Christ’s return! To know that God is a God of peace who makes people holy! To love each other as God had loved them! And, to rejoice in the Lord always!

Doing these things, making room for God, was a task which would take energy and effort and so Paul’s letter is a letter of encouragement to the Philippians.

Now I’m going to use this image of making room as a rather clunky segue into R. and T. lives. T. and R. have recently been literally making rooms in their lives. They have been doing refurbishments and extensions in their home.

I have only listened briefly to their experience of ‘making room’, or at least changing them, but have picked as I have heard many time from people who have worked on improving their property, and as we have experience as a congregation recently, that it takes a lot of effort to make changes.

There is a physical commitment to move things round and help. It takes time; time to meet contractors and builders, time to do aspects of the work yourself. It can be a drain on your emotions but in the end it can be uplifting. It involves our spirits as we lean on our and our inner reserves to make decisions about what is right. And it impacts our bank balance as we play with numbers and finances to get the job done. The experience of making the effort to physically make rooms can in itself change our lives and more so becomes a lesson for us in other changes we face.

Earlier this year T. and R. were confronted with making room for A. within their lives as a family; no longer simply a couple now you are a family. And no doubt in this, making room for A. there have physical, chronological, spiritual, financial and emotional impacts for you. Your lives have been significantly altered and will continue to be from now on.

In making room for A. in your life you have stepped, consciously or not, in faith. What life has in store for you now as a family cannot be fully know or seen. The consequences of your decision to make room for A. will unfold in the years ahead on a journey that simply will go on throughout your whole life.

That journey may contain a whole raft of experiences and emotions. It’s great to have your parents here today and no doubt if we were to ask about the journey they have been on with you since you were A’s age we would hear stories of joy and laughter, but also maybe of times of frustration and sorrow and pain. Maybe we would also hear about how different the world is now to what it was when you were infants.

We cannot clearly see what the future will bring any of us but we hope that there will be times of great joy but also understand there may be difficult times of great difficulty sorrow.

In the midst of our experiences of life as Christians we believe that God makes room for us in God’s life. As we gather today celebrating A’s baptism connects us with a story bigger than our personal experiences of life.

God makes room for us not simply because we believe God made this world in which we live but in the gift of the incarnation when God becomes one of us. In less than two weeks time we celebrate and remember that Jesus was born. He is called in the biblical “God with us”. Jesus is God sharing in our human lives.

But it is more than that because as God shares in our lives God to make room within God’s life so that we might share in that. And I would suggest to you, to follow my theme, that God makes a supreme effort to o this, make room for us.

It is the hope that we find that God has made room for us and we too can share in God’s life that we celebrate today for A. but also with each other. In midst of everything that we hear and see and feel through our earthly existence the incarnation invites us to see beyond the present reality and find hope in this message – that we too have a share in God’s eternal and divine existence.

This is a vital message for us to hear on this day. In the midst of a rapidly changing world in which, despite this moment of joy, there is so much suffering and hardship and change occurring in celebrating A.’s baptism we look to God with hope.

When we see the bigger picture of what is occurring across the globe and in peoples’ lives everywhere. We know as celebrate this day 100s of children will have died from preventable causes; there is war and tension destroying the lives of millions; millions of refugees, fleeing horrific circumstances, have found themselves incarcerated in camps or detention centres as illegal immigrants, families in Connecticut are mourning yet another American gunman tragedy; the climate is warming, species are dying out; the way we communicate with one another is in flux.

We can blithely ignore all of these things occurring on our world, protected within the blessings of our own lives, or we can admit openly the concerns it raises for us and for our children and how we will raise them as followers of Christ and bearers of hope in this world.

A.’s baptism is an invitation to see that whatever life holds there is a promise of hope and peace and joy and love given to us by God that we can share in and experience now. It is also a reminder to look forward to a time yet to come in which the sufferings of this present age will pass.

And for all of us it is also an invitation to be an active part of that community of faith, the church, which helps to remember these things and God’s presence in our lives each and every day and to act on them as people who are caretakers of the good news of God’s love.

The good news is that God has gone to the effort of making room for us and for we who have any idea of what it means to make room for something in our lives we turn in grateful thanks and praise again to God and rejoice this day.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Photo: Judy Lockhart

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Induction of Rev Dr Rob Brennan

Guest blog by Rev David Baker

Induction of Rev. Dr. Robert Brennan, Graceville UCA Advent 2012

Reflections on Ephesians 2:1-21; Exodus 33:12-17; John 15: 9-17

Life in the west is becoming more and more disturbing to me; I could characterise it thus: an addiction to consumption and an obsession with individualism is leading us to a place where this passage from Ephesians could describe us; “following the desires of the flesh and the senses, we are by nature children of wrath – one only has to read the comments after articles posted on the ABC’s “The Drum”, or electronic commentary on The Australian’s website; to hear of the latest furore in the Twitter sphere; there’s no doubt we are children of wrath, and that our new media are providing venues for that wrath to be expressed. Note this is not the wrath the original writer was in all likelihood referring to; but is wrath just the same.

Surely the times call for the demonstration of a “new humanity;” a humanity of reconciliation: The vision of Ephesians is that this new humanity is the Christian community; the church; this new humanity, this venue of peace and reconciliation, is tangibly real within the structures of the wider community; the revelation of the NT is that God believes the church is God’s best strategy. And God’s not joking!

I’ve often asked myself, when I’ve had to go and find a mediator to help a Christian community work on its own reconciliation, “Why isn’t the world coming to the church, saying “We’re fighting; can you help?”” Why isn’t the church known as a fellowship of reconciliation? Rather than some of the things for which we are known.

(The UCA is working on this; we entered into covenant with the first peoples of this land many years ago; we covenanted to walk together to build peace and be reconciled, one to the other; we are agents of peace through the work of Uniting World – working in some very difficult places, like on the Island of Ambon in Indonesia; standing up for the first peoples of the land of Papua; we are deeply committed to the wellbeing of people in Queensland)

However, I still question, “Has the “course of this world” influenced the life of Christian communities so much that the nature of our life is virtually indistinct from any other human community?

How is this Christian community, here, or the ones we come from, structured so that it is a holy temple; how is it built together spiritually; so that it is known as a place where God dwells; a place where God feels at home; relaxed and comfortable? What does holy look like?

I ask you these questions because I believe they are the questions of the Christian community; not how do we attract young people? Not how do we pay for the upkeep of the temporal fabric of the community?

If we want to know what “Holy” is like, we go to gospels and see what Jesus is like, by the way; we don’t go to our imagination, or some expression of our ego or our guilt – depending on how we feel about ourselves.

Have a look at what the gospels say Jesus is like: Full of life and laughter and passion; filled with joy and compassion; cranky at things worth being cranky at; always hoping; always believing; always loving; never deceived.

How are you – individually and corporately - being built into this sort of temple? How are you reflecting this sort of holy? How are you helping one another be this kind of holy? How is your life as a community – your worship, your learning together, your working together – helping you be this kind of holy?

If it sounds intimidating and impossible; it should; Moses was confronted with the impossibility of the task that God gave him, so he asked God for what he needed; God is a giving God; ready to give more than we imagine; we have been made alive by God’s grace, according to Ephesians. Moses discovered God’s faithfulness; God’s readiness to give of Godself in the call he was given. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” This burden shall not be yours alone.

If our communities are to find their true vocation, it will only be in this radical dependence – this demand that in taking up the call, we should be shown the ways of God. It’s ok to push God to be faithful; it’s ok to say, without your leading we cannot go.

Jesus clearly lays the way of the new community before his disciples; he leaves no back up plan, not “alternative story.” The truth of his life shall be left with this motley crew, and the commands; “as the father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” and “love one another as I have loved you” ; do it, don’t sing about it, don’t liturgize it; don’t write tomes about it; do it.

“Love unexpressed is not love at all”;

The Father loved Jesus by asking great things of him, not by making his life more comfortable.

To build Christian community requires tenacity; it will require forgiveness; it will require humility; it requires faith; a commitment to bear fruit.

You are now to embark on a new phase in the life of this community, as Robert comes amongst you; the presbytery’s prayer is that you hear the call to build the sort of community described in Ephesians; and that in hearing that call, you look to God for the means to do it. Amen.

(Photo Leonard John Matthews)

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Make straight the way for the Lord

Peter Lockhart

There are times at which the text of the scripture modulates its tone between history and prophecy, between narrative and divination.

The references in today’s text from the book of Luke is one of those occasions in which we find reference to historical players which help us situate the timing of the events around Jesus’ life.

Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brother Philip, Lysanias and the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas. The political and religious situation for the Jewish people was tense. They were essentially a conquered people with some of their own rulers and leaders making the best of the bad situation by pandering to the Romans.

According to the Roman historian Tacitus Emperor Tiberius, the second Emperor of the Roman Empire, was cruel and unjust. It was a time of turmoil.

It is into this setting that the words of prophecy from John are spoken as he called people to be baptised and repent.

John himself is claimed to be the fulfilment of another prophet Isaiah, who declared, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John’s words were speaking into a community in which the valleys, the hills and the mountains were clearly associated with the turmoil created for the Jewish community by the Roman rule.

It should always be remembered that the pax Romana, or peace of Rome, was peace which was dictated to people through force and the use of the sword.

The idea that the very landscape in which the people were living, the valleys and the hills, needed to change to prepare the way for God indicates the tumultuous transformation that was necessary. It was challenge to what was commonly accepted and what was commonly practiced. There was something wrong with the way of the world.

Making straight the pathway was about correcting the crooked thinking that was present in people’s minds and telling the difficult truths about what was occurring.

Yes the prophecy was about hope and was about transformation and from the obscurity of the desert John’s lone voice challenged the Empire, the authorities, and the temple system. Turn back to God; look for hope beyond the rugged terrain of your existence, there is something more, something better on the way.

Now there is no doubt that the historical characters in the reading give us a sense of its historical placement and importance in confronting the issues of the time almost 2000 years ago but words of prophecy are not contained within a moment of history, rather they transcend the moment in which they are spoken.

To borrow from idea of Bruce Prewer, who locates the story in our present, we could just as well hear the beginning of the passage read in this way.

In the time of the minority Labor government led by Julia Gilliard, when Can-do Campbell Newman was Premier of Queensland with a landslide victory and Graham Quirk was Mayor of Brisbane. Andrew Dutney was the President if the Uniting Assembly and Kaye Ronalds the Moderator of the Synod “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

The scriptures are not simply an historical text. They are indeed a window into our present reality and the promise of the future. From the margins of life we hear:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

If the valleys and mountains in the time of the rule of Emperor Tiberius were reflective of the oppressive Roman rule and the threats of that age I wonder what it might be that we can hear today about our landscape and how it needs to be straight.

Let me share 3 stories from my week in which we might hear the voice of the prophet calling us to repent and make straight the paths of the Lord.

On Wednesday I was with a gathering of ministers from our Presbytery and we heard from Aunty Jean Philips, a tireless worker among the indigenous community, who shared some of her current experiences and hopes for her people.

I was humbled on Thursday when Aunty Jean personally called me to ask after my family and to continue to share her stories of pain and hope. I heard a story of a young aboriginal woman in Brisbane who recently handed her child to another person on the train platform and then stepped in front of the oncoming train. I heard the story of an indigenous man who had been in and out of prison for 29 years who died recently and there was no one apart from jean to gather the money for a funeral.

I heard about the hope of the Grasstree gathering of young indigenous leaders in Melbourne and the people who were stepping up to work with and among the indigenous community.

As Australians what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?

On Wednesday when we were with the ministers we were reminded that we came by boat to this land and the question hung in the air about how our government is treating Asylum seekers.

This week I read an article on the ABC website by the President of our Assembly, Andrew Dutney, who reflected on the current approach to Asylum seekers in a post entitled “The fear of others has corrupted the Australian soul.”

I want to read the beginning of Andrews article to you:

“Amnesty International has confirmed that conditions for asylum seekers that Australia has sent to Nauru are wretched. There is poor sanitation, inadequate accommodation, overcrowding, and the mental and physical health of detainees is deteriorating. Uncertainty and loss of hope breaks the hearts and spirits of people who have fled unimaginable circumstances in search of safety.

This kind of treatment is soul destroying. Not only does it crush the souls of detainees. It points to a sickness in the soul of the Australian nation.

Jesus said, "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).”

Again I ask, “As Australians, what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?”

You may have noticed that in my preaching and speaking I often comment about my concern for God’s creation and the Climate Change which is occurring around us. For me one of the driving questions was recently addressed by another article in a online magazine. Peter Hess writes:

“In the face of global warming, a question confronting any parent is, “How can I best prepare my children to cope with the enormous changes happening in the world around them?”

Over the next decades the world will be an exponentially different place to what it is today. It is more than likely wars will be fought over water and fossil fuels and possibly even food. The oceans may already have raised enough to cause the need for migration out of some coastal areas. Many species will become extinct. The number and movement of refugees across the world will increase.

The fragility of God’s creation is overburdened and threatened by our human activity. What hope can we teach our children about their future in this world?

As people of faith, we are convinced, as Psalm 24 puts it, that "the earth is the Lord's and all it holds" (Ps 24:1). The valleys and mountains which are to be brought low seem high.

Again I ask, “As Australians, what might it mean for us to declare that hope that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, not just some?”

John’s words of prophecy are words which contain a vision of a difficult and monumental change in the landscape. Each one of us knows how difficult it can be to change any one of our behaviours, to turn in a new direction.

John’s baptism for the repentance of sin was about taking that first step in a different direction in the hope and belief that God’s peace and God’s love will break into our existence making straight, bringing low mountains and hills, helping us to see, know and experience the coming salvation of our God.

We live in a world which is as filled with as much turmoil as the time in which John wandered in the wilderness inviting people to repent. Just as much now as then we look with hope to God to bring transformation in our live personal and as a common humanity. The coming of Jesus and the promise that he will come again helps us to see beyond our current experiences and be transformed by the hope and peace and love of our God. Amen.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Mile in our Shoes: John 1.

Rev Peter Lockhart
(A Sermon prepared for 96.5 Family FM)

There are essentially two different versions of how Jesus was born in the Bible. The one found in the gospel of Matthew tells us a story entailing Joseph’s dream and wise men following a star. Matthew also tells about the massacre of infants and the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus into Egypt. On the other hand Luke’s story is about visitations: the angel visits Mary; Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth; Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem; angels visit shepherds and the shepherds visit the Christ child.

It is from these two stories that we get most of the images on our Christmas cards and in the Christmas story books and the nativity plays. Many of which confuse the stories with one another overlapping the different elements and sentimentalising them.

Whilst these stories about Jesus birth are important my favourite reading for Christmas day is neither of these. Rather, I am always drawn to the beginning of John’s gospel which taps into the very first story found in the Bible, the story of creation. In fact in most English translations of the Bible the first words of the book of Genesis and of the Gospel according to John are exactly the same “In the beginning...”

So, let listen to the words of John 1:1-14 as they reveal to us the essence of Christmas:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him
not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him
was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God,
whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light,
but he came to testify to the light.
The true light,
which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born,
not of blood or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

The wonderful imagery of this passage lets us into the wondrous secret that the man Jesus was and is also the eternal Word of God. The Word of God which was spoken at time of creation, through who all things came into being.

The word that the church has used to describe this amazing choice of God to become human through the centuries is ‘incarnation’.

For me when I use this word rather simply say that Jesus was born I feel somewhat confronted by the amazing mystery which unfolded in this event, the Word became flesh! Incarnation!

In Matthew’s version of the events the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that the child to be born will be called “God with us”. Whilst, in Luke’s telling of the story when the angel appears to Mary she is told that the child she will carry will be holy and will be called the Son of God.

This claim that Jesus is God among us is what I believe is completely unique about Christianity.

In my study of history and of world religions I can find claims of virgin births, demigods and even reincarnation and resurrection. The uniqueness of the Christian faith revolves around this claim: the Word became flesh and lived amongst us.

When we begin to unpack the implications of this it really is quite astounding.

You may have heard the expression, ‘you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them’. There are a few variations of this saying but I suspect most of us would believe that this is a pretty true kind of sentiment, especially if we have faced difficulties in our lives – the death of a loved one, fleeing from our home country, living with a disability, enduring a painful chronic illness, living as a dispossessed people and the list goes on.

Most of us would agree that to have any concept of what our lives are like means engaging closely with them.

This is exactly what the mystery of the incarnation is about: the Word became flesh. God comes to a walk a mile in our shoes in the person Jesus.

Yes Jesus may not have shared the specific experiences that you or I will live through but we certainly know that he experienced the whole spectrum of human existence joy, love, loss, grief, rejection, torture and even a sense of being abandoned by God in the moments before his death.

What the mystery of the incarnation does for me is remind me that God does not stand aloof, separated from our existence by time and space, and God’s downright divinity, no God chooses to show how much God loves what God created in the beginning by sharing our existence.

God walked a mile in your shoes and mine so when we turn to God and cry out in joy or in sorrow, in hope or in despair, in gratitude or in grief we know the one who is listening understands what it means to be human.

One of the most significant things about the incarnation is that it is God’s answer to our misapprehensions about love. I suspect a large portion of our personal pain and problems as human beings stems from the concern that ate not loved. We don’t believe we are loved by God and we don’t believe that we are loved by others.

In the book 1 John we read that ‘God is love’ and so Jesus is God’s love in the world. God seeking to transform how we understand and feel about ourselves – we are loved, you are loved and I am loved. In fact God loves everything that God has made.

There is an old carol which captures this true Spirit of Christmas in its words:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all of us,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

In 1 John it goes on to say that we love because God first loved us. Christmas and the Christmas Spirit is about celebrating this love of God in which we find God giving us himself to share our life. God loves us and the world that God made so much that God becomes part of it.

When we understand this story, the story of the incarnation, the things we do for one another at Christmas should move us beyond our own needs and wants and into loving others just as we have been loved. It means trying to understand what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes and reach out just as God has reached out to us.

It is my hope and prayer that this Christmas beyond the pressure for gifts and cards and celebrations that sometimes weigh us down that you will encounter something of the joy and mystery of the Word become flesh: that you will encounter God’s love come down to you this Christmas and that you will know that God is with you, now as then.

May God bless you all and may you have a happy and holy Christmas.