Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Just before Christmas, one of my friends posted a clip on Facebook of Peter Rollins speaking which I`m going to put on in a moment - Rollins is a 44 year old writer, philosopher and theologian from Northern Ireland. Just ignore the German subtitles underneath. (Show clip)
So why am I showing this today? For two reasons - Mainly because it provides the context for our bible readings today. Isaiah was indeed one of the prophets calling for God to come out of the heavens, to be here among the suffering and the oppressed. Earlier in the Isaiah scrolls this longing has been given the naming of Immanuel meaning `God-with-us`. (And this same verse from Isaiah 7 is picked up at the beginning of Matthew`s gospel `a young woman will conceive and give birth to a son and will name him Immanuel`.)
But what we need to understand in all this is that the prophets were writing in an era when kings and priests had locked the sacred away, with concepts such as the Royal or Priestly Cults where the king or priests were seen as intermediaries between mankind and the divine. They saw their responsibility more in terms of sustaining the balance of the universe by maintaining divine order through ritual and temple sacrifice rather than with social concerns.
By Jesus` time, with Roman oppression and economic hardships, these concepts were on shaky ground yet messianic expectations were running high that God would send someone to intervene and restore Israel to its former glory. And you can see the same dynamics today in America. John the Baptist was very much part of that messianic expectation encouraging people to prepare the way for a new era by symbolically cleansing themselves of sin. But he did so subversively, bypassing the priests and their exclusive rituals, to bring a sense of the sacred out of the temple and making baptism freely available to all.
Some have suggested that Jesus was originally a disciple or follower of John the Baptist. And yet something happened during his own baptism which set him off on a very different course of action. He obviously had a remarkable `Aha!` experience of seeing himself as God`s beloved. The heavens open - it`s as if Jesus` world is cracked open. And he has a life-changing experience of the inbreaking of God which leaves him realising that the God pattern permeating the universe is love not judgement. God is already with us in intimate relationship. You are my beloved - you are my delight. Nothing that ever happens, nothing you will ever do, can change that!
And he went on to call himself `the Son of Man` - `the Human One` because he knew if that divine-human beloved connection was true for himself then it was true for all humankind - that if you and I and everyone else are God`s much loved child, then we are to live our lives out of that new understanding of being brothers and sisters. And Jesus`s followers came to realise that he did indeed herald a new era but not in a kingly messianic way because his was the God-with-us servant way of Isaiah.
As Rev. Dr Keith Rowe once put it -
`God is not a magician controlling the universe. Nor is God a judge punishing us when things go wrong. Life can be harsh and cruel at times. What we do need to do is to still our questions, fears and anxieties long enough to be able listen to God`s voice above the chaos and storms of daily living, naming us - `Beloved, beloved, beloved` . . . Can you hear that voice? . . .`
If you`re anything like me when the traumas and tragedies and grief overwhelm, the last thing you want to be is in a still space. Being busy keeps it all at bay! Stops us thinking - stops us cracking. Well maybe! In the past week I`ve already rearranged my lounge room and second bedroom. I`ve always maintained I`m a tough nut. But the forty days between the death of my husband and our dear friend, both of whom shared the same birthday, and at the same time coming to terms with the moving east of my granddaughter and family, has produced a few cracks. I now know what the word heart-broken feels like. Yet I`ve encountered so many kindnesses from strangers and friends alike that it`s left me thinking about that beautiful pattern that is the sacred potential within people regardless of race or religion. Sadly I know it can get warped but it`s there, regardless.
Another friend had placed this poem by John O`Donohue on Facebook for me and it also spoke to me of God-with-us.
BETROTHED TO THE UNKNOWN
We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.
Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
That fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.
So at the end of this day, we give thanks
For being betrothed to the unknown
And for the secret work
Through which the mind of the day
And wisdom of the soul become one.
By John O`Donohue - (Excerpt from the Blessing, `The Inner History of a Day`)
And that sense of `secret work` brings me to the second reason for showing that clip. We are in the throes of a new era dawning - most of us here have expressed concern for where we are heading, and also probably thought at one time or another, `Where will Christianity be in 50 years` time?` Perhaps we get a glimpse in Rollins and his interaction with a younger generation. Seeing the young folks engaged as they were in the questions which followed gave me a sense of hope for the future. He propounds (and I quote from Wikipedia) a religionless `understanding of faith as a type of life in which one is able to celebrate doubt, ambiguity and complexity while deepening care and concern for the world. He argues that the event which gave rise to the Christian tradition cannot itself be reduced to a tradition, but is rather a way of challenging traditions.`
And `In order to explore and promote these themes Rollins has founded a number of experimental communities such as IKON. These groups describe themselves as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing and [they] engage in the performance of what they call `transformance art` and the creation of `suspended space` attempting to attract people with different political perspectives and opposing views concerning the existence of God and the nature of the world.`
Sadly church attendances are declining - something different does indeed need to happen. To young minds engaging with such a different world and cosmological view and instant information, our Bible is becoming increasingly difficult to understand, unless you choose to take it as literal truth. Providing `open space` opportunities to interpret and dialogue is one way of finding the patterns of meaning and purpose within contemporary life. And blogs like our Karen puts out are also much needed counterpoints to the literalist stance.
I suspect that circumstances are leading the next generation to having to make a commitment to social justice for their own health and wellbeing. Indeed I would substitute the word `Christianity` for `Christmas` which as Rollins sums up `is a call to `enlist in a cause` where we care for our neighbour, we look out for our stranger, we embrace the flesh and blood of the people around us: those who are mourning, those who are persecuted, those who are suffering, those who have no voice. The message of Christmas is that church steeples should not be pointing to the heavens as if the sacred is living in some sky castle but they should be bent towards the earth. We shall find the sacred in the depth and density of life as we give ourselves to the work of love` (Peter Rollins) It should also be the message of Christianity.
So my friends, as we move into this New Year, may you, may I find the sacred in the depth and density of life as we give ourselves to the work of love, indeed.