Judgement and Grace (A sermon on Matthew 5:21-37)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. ‘but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29)

Yes, we’ve reached the pointy end of the Sermon on the Mount, and in many ways it’s hard to believe that this is the same sermon that began with such an effusive outpouring of blessings:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers

We started on such a positive note with Jesus, and then the blessings seem to give way to curses or sorts, and it gets worse – particularly if you’ve been divorced:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

What do you do with that? Well, we know what the church has historically done with that. It has reviled and excluded divorced people – forcing them out of the church or, at the very least, treating them like second class citizens. I shouldn’t say ‘them’, or course. They treat people like me as second-class Christians. Mene, mene, tekel and upharsin – we have been weighed in the balance and found lacking.

Of course, it all depends on which side of the ledger you stand. If you’re one of the many church-goers who have a perfect marriage (or seem to), this is one of those pieces of Scripture which gives you a bit of a platform from which you can look down on the great unwashed, and the beauty of it is that it’s very clear on which side of the ledger you stand in this instance. Are you divorced or not? If so, fail. If not, well done!

I remember hearing someone say how his grandmother’s marriage had been “saved by her death”. My grandparents had hated each other for years, he said, and she was always talking about leaving him, but she never did. At the funeral everyone spoke about how the two had stuck it out through thick and thin and stayed in their for the long term – a virtual archetype of marital fidelity, whereas if she had got up the guts to leave their marriage would have been considered an epic fail! That’s how our society still works in many instances. I just didn’t think it was how Jesus worked.

Mind you, when it comes to the warnings about lust and the associated sin of anger, I’m starting to feel a lot more smug myself about which side of that ledger I’m on.

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27)

Yes. There are a lot of people out there like that – consumed by lust and the associated sins of the flesh! I don’t include myself anymore in that sorry league of the great unwashed, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m 58 (tomorrow). I’m old!

For those who have read Plato’s Republic, you may well remember that it begins with Socrates on his way to the temple, talking about the benefits of old age – the chief of which is that you find yourself increasingly released from the temptations of the flesh!

Oh … I remember when I was all of 18 years of age and the pastor of one of the churches I was attending then sat me down to counsel me over what was blocking the spiritual gifts from properly emerging in me (the gift of tongues in particular). He looked at me with searing eyes and asked me whether I struggled with the temptation to lust, and he even questioned me about the ‘m’ word (masturbation).

I wish I could go back now and look straight back at him with the confidence of someone who is his moral equal! Actually, I’m glad I can’t go back, because before he died, he confessed to a series of crimes of sexual abuse against children. I was never one of his victims, but perhaps I should feel morally superior to him now?

And it’s the same of course with anger.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

I’ve been working my way through a rather lengthy book of late by Professor Angela Duckworth, entitled “Grit”, in which the author tries to assess the contribution personal ‘grittiness’ makes to long term success. ‘Grit’ is a very American term, of course. We might prefer ‘determination’ or ‘stubbornness’, but you get the idea. At any rate, one of the studies she discusses tries to assess whether people get more gritty as they got older, and there is apparently no evidence that they do. What the evidence does suggest though is that as we get older, we get calmer.

So … yes, despite the fact that I almost got into a fist fight with a group I found in the old rectory this week who were there without permission, I do find that I am getting calmer as I get older (on most days, anyway) and I suspect most of us do.

It seems to be a very divisive passage – this piece from the sermon on the mount. There seems to be a stark division being drawn between the over-sexed and the under-sexed, between those who are rowdy and violent and those who are calm and serene, between the pillars of marital fidelity and the wreckages of family breakdown, between the righteous and the unrighteous. If you are old and calm and serene, the Church of Jesus Christ is waiting for you! If, on the other hand, you are young and over-sexed and full of passion, give it a few years. We aren’t going anywhere. Is that the message from today’s Gospel reading? I don’t think so.

As I say, how you feel about these teachings from Jesus will depend very much on which side of the ledger you see yourself on, but I want to suggest to you that maybe, just maybe, the whole point of some of these teachings is that nobody is on the right side of the ledger.

“You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not murder … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. … And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21,22)

Does that sort of exhortation from Jesus really allow us to point the finger at someone else? As I heard one commentator say, “I keep really well to that commandment until I get in the car and drive to work” … “Fool!”

Perhaps part of the point Jesus is making here is that everyone is guilty. We’re not all guilty of murder, literally, but we may well have been angry enough at some point in our lives to have murdered someone. Perhaps the real difference between the person who murders and the person who is murderously angry is just opportunity?

And likewise, when it comes to lust. If you think you’re morally superior to other people because you’ve never committed adultery, have you ever really wanted to? Have you thought about it? Has it taken place in your heart plenty of times? Is the only difference between you and those adulterers who you despise opportunity?

I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t saying that being angry and lustful is a bad thing. Anger and lust can be horribly destructive human emotions, but they are emotions that, at one time or another, we all experience. Maybe it’s time we recognised that we are really in no way morally superior to those for whom anger and lust become their undoing. Maybe, but for the Grace of God, there go we all!

Maybe it’s time we stopped feeling superior to the lustful and the rambunctious just because we’re old. Maybe it’s time I stopped looking down on that pastor who was a pedophile? Maybe it’s time we realised that no one is righteous – no, not one!

And what about the prohibition against divorce? That seems clear, isn’t it?

It’s curious, I think, when you read through today’s Gospel in Matthew chapter five as a whole, there are lots of disturbing lines in it:

  • “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (vs. 22)
  • If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (vs.29)
  •  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (vs.30)

I don’t think at any point in the last 2000 years has the church ever taken any of these statements from Jesus literally. For some reason though, the snippet about divorce and remarriage has repeatedly been taken completely literally as an eternal command from Jesus, forbidding divorce under any circumstances and forbidding those who are divorced from ever re-partnering. That is not the Lord Jesus I know.

I don’t think you have to be too brilliant a scholar to work out what’s going on here:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’, but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Yes, it seems that a law that was originally designed to help people make a transition in cases of marital breakdown had become a tool of oppression used by men (specifically) to retire partners who no longer suited them for the sake of an upgrade. Jesus is simply calling a spade a spade – saying that adultery is adultery, regardless of whether you can produce a certificate to legitimate it.

I don’t think I need to say more on that, but what I believe we really need to see is the broad way in which Jesus, who ‘did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ (Matthew 5:17), reinterprets these ancient laws of God to make them relevant to the people He is dealing with. His goal, I believe, is not to divide people into the righteous and the unrighteous, any more than it is to penalize those who fail in their marriages. The goal, I would suggest is simply to clear the path for love.

If you’ve read the Gospel stories, you know that there were really only two groups of people that Jesus ever took issue with, and it wasn’t the weak and the sinful. It was – the very rich and the very religious. His problem here is with the very religious, and the way the law of God can be used and abused to block the path to love. When it comes to how we are to treat the weak and the sinful, Jesus’ command is clear:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 16th of February, 2020.

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You are the salt of the earth (A sermon on Matthew 5:13-20)

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (14) “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. (15) No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. (16) In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Yes, we are still in the Sermon on the Mount –the sermon that Jesus has been best known for throughout history – and we are still at the popular end of that sermon.

When I was a young Christian, still in my teens, I had a poster on my wall that featured the text of this sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes, of course, and including this section about us being the ‘salt of the earth’ and a ‘city built on a hill’.

These are empowering words! In John’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), but here He says, “You are the light of the world!”. You can’t ask for a more encouraging statement than that or a more empowering passage than this one, at least until you get to the second half of the passage.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (18) For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
(19) Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (20) For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-20)

It is good, I think, that we follow a lectionary that tells us what sections of Scripture we need to read each week. If it was left up to me, I think I would have ended today’s reading with the bit about salt and light. I’d deal with this second half of the passage next week, at which point I’d organise somebody else to preach on it.

What is going on here? Jesus, the keeper of every letter of the Law, is not the Jesus I am familiar with. Indeed, this sounds a lot more like the Jesus my Islamic friends believe in – Jesus, the custodian of the law of God – than the Jesus I see depicted elsewhere in the Gospels and in the writings of Saint Paul. What exactly is Jesus saying here, and why contrast this with these affirmations about salt and light?

I’m sure you remember Cicero’s first rule of public speaking – “render your audience benevolent”. In other words, always begin your address by getting your audience onside, which we generally do by beginning with a joke.

I obviously didn’t begin with the joke today, largely because I’m trusting that my audience is already benevolent, and because I figure that if you’re not benevolent by now, the joke isn’t going to make a lot of difference anyway.

Is that what Jesus was doing here with all the ‘salt of the earth/light of the world’ talk? Was He trying to get everybody smiling before He laid the law on them, for certainly, these concluding words of Jesus are harsh, and they are confusing!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)

It’s not immediately obvious what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling’ the law and prophets, but the part that really confuses me is how those who break the commandments and teach others to break them get off more lightly than the Scribes and Pharisees who, from my understanding, did their best to keep all of them!

Are you keeping up with me here? Jesus says: “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19). Ok. That’s pretty bad – being called ‘the least’ in the Kingdom of Heaven – but at least you’re still a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

What do you call the guy who graduates at the bottom of his year in medical school? You call him ‘doctor’, don’t you? He wasn’t the greatest in his class, but he still made it through, just like those who break the commandments and teach others to do so. They may be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but they are still there! Conversely, the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, from what we read in the rest of the New Testament, did everything they could to hold fast to even the most trivial of the commandments, they get an epic fail and are not there at all!

Maybe this is an indication that we shouldn’t be squeezing everything Jesus says in this passage too literally, and maybe I’m doing the text a disservice too by suggesting that there’s an enormous contrast between the sweetness and light of Jesus’ opening words and the dour and forbidding warnings parceled out at the end?

After all, those words of encouragement, “you are the salt of the earth” have a flip-side to them – namely, “that if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but being thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13b). Is ‘you are the salt of the earth’ meant to be an encouragement or a warning?

And besides that, who is Jesus really addressing anyway when He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a)? I know we all immediately assume He’s talking to us, but we know full well really that He was talking first and foremost to whoever that group of people were who happened to be sitting around him that day back in first century Palestine, and the truth is that we don’t have a clue who those people were. We know a few of them by name (the disciples) but the vast majority of the people Jesus addressed these words to are complete unknowns!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” (Matthew 5:17)

I think that’s the best starting point through which we can unlock the ambiguities of this passage. It provides a context for everything Jesus says that follows.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets”. It’s not a question that comes out of nowhere, is it? It’s a response to what people were saying or thinking about Jesus.

Why would anybody think that Jesus had come to abolish the law and prophets? Well … you don’t have to read very far through the New Testament to come up with lots of good reasons for thinking that this might have been exactly what Jesus was doing. Indeed, any of us who have read the Gospels know full well that Jesus was under constant attack from the very same scribes and Pharisees that He mentions in this passage for His alleged repeated failure to live in accordance with the Torah!

Jesus was particularly notorious for His apparent repeated failure to keep the fourth commandment – “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy”

On the Sabbath Day, you will remember, you are not supposed to do any work (neither you nor your man-servant nor your maid-servant nor your ox nor your ass) but Jesus seemed to be quite happy to work as hard on the Sabbath as He did every other day of the week, and when pushed on the subject would say things like, “well, my Father in Heaven is working, so I’m working too!”(John 5:17), which is hardly a response that I think Moses would have been comfortable with.

And it wasn’t only the Sabbath laws that Jesus was accused of violating. He seemed to pay scant attention to the whole range of ceremonial rules about who you should have contact with and how you should wash and what you should eat and drink.  Jesus had the reputation, you may remember, for being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19) – hardly an example of religious scrupulosity!

So whatever Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to fulfil the law”, He evidently didn’t mean what we normally mean when we talk about ‘fulfilling the law’ – namely, that we intend to keep it. Jesus was going to do something with ‘the Law’. He wasn’t going to dismiss it, but neither was He simply going to go around repeating it verbatim either, despite what He says about preserving every letter. 

If we go by the teachings that follow in this same Sermon on the Mount, ‘fulfilling’ the law seems to involve reinterpreting it to a degree. Even if we stick to this passage though, I think we get a clue as to what Jesus was up to in his ‘fulfilling of the law’ through the warning He gives at the end: “Unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 5:20)

That seems intimidating at first, for the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were models of religiously piety and scrupulosity when it came to law-keeping! Keeping to the letter of the law was their thing, so if ‘righteousness’ and law-keeping are synonymous, we are all in trouble. But what if they’re not the same thing.

“I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of my entire income.” (Luke 18:12)

That’s the Pharisee speaking, as depicted by Jesus in Luke chapter eighteen. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to fasting. He keeps to the letter of the law when it comes to tithing. Indeed, when it comes to keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees and their mates, the scribes, were exemplary.  They stayed away from all the ‘Thou shalt nots’ and they constructed their entire lives around the ‘Thou shalts’.  Nobody was more ethical or religious or morally upright than they were. It appears though that, for Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the story of a Scribe and a Levite who saw the prone body of a man on the road, and they passed by on the other side, presumably (at least in part) because they wanted to remain righteous by not touching something unclean, such as a dead body. For Jesus, this was not what ‘righteousness’ was about.

When we think of the lepers who came to Jesus (Matthew 8, Mark 1) or of the poor woman who couldn’t stop bleeding (Luke 8), they came to Jesus and they touched Jesus and Jesus touched them. No righteous Scribe or Pharisee would do that since it would make him unclean. For Jesus, that was not what righteousness was about.

Jesus had a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard, as the friend of tax-collectors and sinners! (Mathew 11:19). Evidently, keeping to the letter of the law and keeping yourself uncontaminated was not what Jesus thought righteousness was about.  

So, what is it about? “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” That’s what it’s about! It’s about making a difference!

And Jesus is talking to us. Yes, He is obviously addressing the crowd sitting around him and, no, we have no idea who most of those people were because they were nobodies, but I think that’s the whole point. The people Jesus was speaking to who were light and salt – they could have been anybody.

Jesus wasn’t addressing the group about to be awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize – ‘you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world’. That would make sense, yes, but no, He was addressing a crowd of nobodies – a crowd of ordinary people like you and me who Jesus knew had the capacity to make a difference.

I was greatly encouraged this week when I heard this week that our brother, Julian Assange, was finally released from solitary confinement in Belmarsh Prison and allowed to mix with the regular prison population. I, along with a number of influential people have been campaigning for mercy for him for some time now. What was amazing though was that, according to what I’ve read, it was Julian’s fellow inmates at Belmarsh Prison whose petitions for mercy influenced the governor! There’s something very Biblical about that, I think. We are all capable of being salt and light.

We can be salt. We can shine. We’ve been shining our little light here in Dulwich Hill for a lot of years now. In the last week I’ve had the privilege of having a number of people in the community come up to me who hear my term as Parish Priest is coming to an end. They say, “but what about the way you’ve changed this place?”

Not only me, and not only us, but this community over the last 150 years – we’ve built schools and established community centres, helped the blind to see and the lame walk, and we’ve been good news to the poor of this village.

Of course, we know that things change, and we know that salt can fail at spicing things up, just as lights do grow dim. Even so, salt never really stops being salty, and even if the light is hidden for a while, it never goes out, and there’s no reason to think we won’t continue to shine on for another 150 years here yet.

You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13, 14, 16)

First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 9th of February 2020.

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Jesus, the Lamb (A sermon on John 1:29)

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

I am trusting that we are past the worst of the fires now. I am no expert, of course, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, but I’m trusting that the prayers of this nation have been heard and that rain is going to continue to fall and that we are somehow going to be able to recover, though I’m not at all sure how that’s possible.

Apart from the terrible loss of those who were killed and the 3,000 homes that were destroyed, there have apparently been 17.9 million acres of land burnt out and over a billion animals killed, and God-knows-how-many insects, all since the fires started last September. Can we really expect things to just go back to normal now?

Each of us has been dealing with this crisis in our own way, relative to our own specific circumstances. Many of us had to abandon holidays but were thankfully able to safely return home. In the case of one member of our community, she and her son weren’t able to properly evacuate their holiday destination in time, but had to stand waist-deep in the ocean, along with most of the rest of the town and their animals, while they watched all the homes along the coastline burn!

Certainly the most impacting news footage I’ve seen was that taken on Kangaroo Island by a crew of firefighters who were attempting to escape from the blaze in their firetruck. The video feed is both frightening and inspiring – frightening because the raging fires seem more like a depiction of hell than anything earthly, but inspiring too by virtue of the cool and collected way the team handle themselves under pressure. They listen to instructions on the radio, quietly put up their fire curtains along the inside of their vehicle when the blaze hits them directly, and efficiently navigate their way out of the firestorm (thanks be to God).

While the link may not seem immediately obvious, that scene of firefighters trying to escape the blaze reminded me very much of what’s going on in Gaza at the moment.

They’re not surrounded by fire in Gaza, of course, but by a fence that seals the population off from the outside world and, since 1991, all food and all other materials going in and out of Gaza are monitored and restricted by the Israeli army (IDF).

In 2006, Dov Weisglass, then a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, said that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” Having said that, this is the year – 2020 –in which experts at the United Nations (UN) predicted that Gaza would become unliveable.

The population of Gaza is over two million, more than 50% of whom are children (18 and under). According to the UN, ninety-seven percent of Gaza’s water is now undrinkable, meaning that only 40% of Gaza’s children are consuming water that is fit for human consumption. Even disregarding the food shortages, the massive unemployment, and all the other myriad problems that beset these people, the water situation alone means that this year Gaza is under a real threat of Genocide. Like those caught in the fires, the people of Gaza are looking for a way to escape.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

That’s our text today from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, and you may well ask what that text has to do with escaping from bushfires or escaping from Gaza. The answer, surprisingly perhaps, is quite a lot!

We are in the season of Epiphany, of course, and, as the word implies, Epiphany is all about discovering unexpected things – unexpected things, in this case, about who Jesus was and who Jesus is.

On the actual day of the Epiphany we remembered the coming of the magi – those strange Iranian astrologers who came to see Jesus as a child because they had ‘seen his star in the east’. Their question to Herod, you may remember, was “where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2) This was their epiphany – their unexpected discovery – that the Jews had a new king – Jesus!

On the first Sunday after Epiphany – last Sunday – we were given a second unexpected revelation about the identity of Jesus. As Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, a voice was heard from Heaven, saying, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). This was the second Epiphany (so to speak). Jesus is the ‘Son of God’.

Today, on the second Sunday after Epiphany, we have a third revelation about Jesus, this time from John the Baptist. Jesus, John tells us, is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

If you’ve been a member of the church for any length of time, you should be familiar with each of these epiphanies as we use these titles with regards to Jesus every week in worship. We refer to Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ every time we say the creed, and we sing of Jesus as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ every time we celebrate the Eucharist. None of this is to say, of course, that we understand what we are talking or singing about, but these are familiar epiphanies nonetheless!

I want to take a moment today to unpack these epiphanies a little, such that if someone were to ask you what the Bible means when it says that ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ or the ‘Lamb of God’ or the ‘King of the Jews’, you might be able to offer them a reasonably coherent answer.

That is not to say that you don’t already have a coherent answer, nor is it to suggest that your current answer may not be more coherent than the one I’m about to offer you. Even so, I am convicted that, for the most part, our popular understanding of what these terms mean doesn’t have a lot to do with what the Gospel-writers originally understood by these terms.

Let’s start with the most familiar title – ‘Son of God’. It’s a title that refers to the kingship of Jesus.

“I have installed My King on Zion, upon My holy mountain.” I will proclaim the decree spoken to me by the LORD: “You are my Son; today I have become Your Father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:6-8)

To say that Jesus is the ‘son of God’ is to say that He is the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people. This is not to say that Jesus doesn’t also metaphysically and ontologically share in the divine essence in some way, which the Gospel-writer, John, clearly believed He did. ‘Son of God’ just doesn’t mean that in and of itself.

‘Son of God’ was what you called the king. In other words, the first epiphany, given to the Magi, and the second epiphany, given by the voice from Heaven, are actually the same epiphany. Jesus is the king of the Jews, the king of Israel – the leader of God’s people.

I think when we understand this it helps us make sense of a whole lot of the New Testament.

I think we often wrongly depict the struggle Jesus has in the Gospel stories as one being between Jesus’ agenda for the spiritual salvation of the world and political agenda of His contemporaries in first century Palestine which was for liberation from the Roman occupation. I think this depiction is only half right.

Yes, the main thing on the mind of Jesus’ contemporaries was liberation from the Roman occupation. Of course it was!

If you were able to talk to the average Jew in first century Palestine and ask them what was really bothering them, it’s unlikely that many would have responded by talking about their need to confess and deal with their sins, any more than if you walked around Gaza today and asked people there what was most bothering them, any more than if you asked someone on a property in the bush with fire closing in on all sides … Actually, maybe in that case you would find someone ready to confess their sins and ask for mercy on their immortal soul, but if they thought God was going to send someone who would lead them out of the fire to safety …

This is the person the Jews were waiting for in first century Judea – someone who would lead them out of the fire that was the Roman occupation – most probably a more brutal military occupation than anything we see today.

We Christians have taken on the cross as a symbol of our faith, and this for understandable reasons, but for most first century Jews, the cross was a symbol of Imperial control over their lives.

People were always crucified in very public places where they died slowly and excruciatingly. It was Rome’s way of reminding you that they were all powerful and that you were nothing. After the slave revolt lead by Spartacus, which took place about seventy-three years before Jesus was born, the Roman army crucified more than 6,000 slaves and lined the Appian Way for 130 miles with their bodies. This is what happens to those who raise their hands against Rome.

If you were a first century Jew, you’d been brought up on stories about the good old days when your people were independent and lived under the rule of great and godly kings, like the legendary David – not pathetic despots like Herod, who wasn’t a real king anyway as he was really just the servant of the emperor.

Those were the days when you were able to worship your God in the way your God expected you to, without interference from any pagan overlords, who had their soldiers on every street corner and who taxed you on every shekel you made and who imprisoned your uncle and crucified two of your cousins…

You were brought up on stories of the good old days, and you were also brought up on stories about how God was going to send another David – another great king who bring this foreign occupation to an end and lead his people to a better tomorrow.

Of course Jesus contemporaries saw in Him their long-awaited king who would bring an end to the Roman occupation. The mistake we make is in thinking that the Gospel writers didn’t also see this in Jesus, for in fact, the first Epiphany we are given about Jesus is that he is the King of the Jews – the King of Israel – which is then confirmed by the voice from Heaven – ‘this is my beloved Son’. The mistake we make, I’d suggest, is in seeing this third epiphany – that Jesus is ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ – as being less political than the first two.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

I know that sounds very ‘spiritual’ compared to the other two titles but, according to Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, talking about ‘forgiveness of sin’ in first century Judea was just another way of referring to the end of the Roman occupation.

That might sound counter-intuitive, but not when you realise that the whole thrust of the Jewish Bible, which ends with God’s people under foreign occupation, is that they were suffering because they had sinned and were under God’s judgement.

The Roman occupation, like the occupation of the Greeks that preceded it, like the occupation of the Medes and Persians, like the occupation of the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem and deported her inhabitants almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus – they were all a part of the same punishment for the people’s sin,

When the people had suffered sufficiently for their sins, the hope was that their punishment would end and that independence would be restored. Another David – indeed, an even greater King than David – would take charge and rule God’s people. This is the great Old Testament hope, and John the Baptist says it’s going to be brought about by Jesus – the lamb of God who will take away their sin.

If you’re thinking that the image of the lamb is taken from the sacrificial system, as outlined in the book of Leviticus, it’s not. The sacrifice that takes away sin, according to the Torah, is always a bull and not a lamb. There’s also a goat that the people prayed over and transferred their sins onto, after which the beast was shewed away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16) but no lamb.

The image of the lamb is taken from the Exodus – from the Passover. The lamb was sacrificed just before God’s people, who were slaves in Egypt, began their journey to freedom, and the blood of the lamb protected their children from the angel of death.

Forgive me. Epiphany is a difficult time of year, for these revelations about the true identify of Jesus may be difficult for us to connect with. Most of us don’t have much to do with lambs, and we probably don’t see the Exodus from Egypt as our story.

In the US tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and if you are an African American, you might well see the story of the exodus – of God’s people coming out of slavery into freedom – as being your story too.

If you’re living in Gaza at the moment, the story of God’s people emerging from a land of death and oppression and into freedom might resonate deeply with you too.

I think for most of us Australians though, the image of the firefighters being led out of the death zone on Kangaroo Island and into safety might be as close as we can get to John’s intended meaning.

Forgive me if you haven’t seen that footage, but a big part of the power of that scene for me is that there is a truck that is going ahead of the one that is doing the filming, and the eyes of the driver a constantly looking to that truck for guidance, and there’s constant, calming commentary coming over the radio all the time too, telling them that they’re doing great, and I assume that’s coming from the truck ahead as well.

This is Jesus as He is manifested to us today – as a Moses-like figure who is moving ahead of us through the dangerous waters and leading us out of chaos and slavery and pain and into freedom – the Passover lamb of God who frees us from our past and give us hope for a better tomorrow. Glory to His name!

First Preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 19th of January 2020.

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Epiphany 2020 (Matthew 2:1-12)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

It’s the feast of the Epiphany once again, which means we’re in that post-Christmas no-man’s land period where all the partying is over but the decorations are still up and where we’re wondering whether it’s still safe to eat some of that leftover food.

The crowds of carolers who filled the rectory lawn have all gone home and the triple-figure attendance we enjoyed on Christmas Day seems like a distant dream. Now it’s just the serious Christians left – just us and the baby Jesus … OUR baby Jesus.

And since it’s the feast of the Epiphany, it’s also time to do what I do every year at this time in honour of those ancient astrologers who followed the star to Bethlehem – namely, I consult my horoscope (courtesy of www.astrology.com):

“With Mars in Sagittarius at the beginning of the year, you’ve got big plans – and won’t want to waste any time getting started. But you may be overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources you have. …

After all, Aquarius, you’re not just out to make a quick buck – your work serves a higher purpose and answers to a higher authority. And with Jupiter and Pluto aligning three times this year, intangible rewards are just as important, if not more, than material ones. Fortunes may rise and fall this year, but as long as you know your work is serving the greater good, you’re happy to ride out the ups and downs. The sextiles between Jupiter in Capricorn and Neptune in Pisces assist you in aligning your career path with your deepest humanitarian values.

Still, there may be some conflicts of interest when planets in Cancer, your house of work, oppose Jupiter, Pluto, and Saturn in Capricorn. Your eagerness to serve feels at odds with your low-key ambition for money, status, or power. But Aquarius, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve more in your career – as long as you’re honest about your true objectives. When put in the service of the greater good, ambition can be a powerful thing!

Stick with it, and your disciplined efforts should pay off in December, …”

DECEMBER! That’s twelve months away (almost). I don’t want to wait twelve months before I see any results for my efforts. That’s a rather disturbing thought, and surely overly pessimistic, or am I being “overly optimistic about what’s actually doable with the time and resources [I] have.”

Why December anyway? Oh, read on …

“Your disciplined efforts should pay off in December when Saturn and Jupiter move into your sign and make their Great Conjunction on the twenty-first.”

The 21st of December! That really is almost twelve months away! That’s next Christmas, and we haven’t taken down the decorations from this Christmas!

Perhaps I need to consult another horoscope? I’m sure I can find something more encouraging out there than this, or perhaps I should just read last year’s horoscope again, which I’m sure promised lots of good things, even if not many of them turned out to be true. Or perhaps I should just follow the advice of the prophets of old and have nothing to do with these astrological star-gazing pagans!

“Those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons predict what shall befall you. Behold, they are like stubble,” says the Lord (according to Isaiah the prophet). “The fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame.” (Isaiah 47:13‑14)

Likewise, Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of these peoples are false.” (10:2‑3)

Well … that was the Old Testament, I hear you say, and the people of God had evidently lightened up a lot by the time Jesus was born as they welcomed those astrologers from the East! Well … maybe, but these people are referred to as ‘magi’ by the Gospel writer, Matthew, and there are only two other references to ‘magi’ in the New Testament, and neither of them is encouraging.

Both turn up in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first magi is Elymas, known as  ‘Elymas, the false prophet’ (in Acts 13) and the second is Simon Magus (in Acts 8) – the magician who offers money to the Apostles in order to buy the powers of the Holy Spirit. Both these men receive rather short shrift from the Apostles!

Of course, I’m not suggesting that these two rogues who turn up in the Book of Acts were necessarily on the same track, spiritually, as the magi who appear at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Even so, they are all ‘magi’ in the original Greek text – the word from which we get our English word, ‘magician’.

To say that these men were magicians doesn’t tell us a lot, but it does tell us some things, and this is probably a good point at which to try to extract what information the Gospel-writer does give us about these characters from the myths and legends that have grown up around them over the course of Christian history.

Firstly, They are magicians. They are not kings. We happily sing “We three kings from orient are”, but maybe that’s because “we three magicians from orient are” doesn’t fit the metre of the song so well, or maybe it’s because the three kings myth has a long history to it, most likely going back to the pious imagination of the early church who saw in these men the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 72:11 – “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him”

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your imagination a bit when it comes to some of these more bizarre Biblical stories, and yet I’m conscious that some of those imaginings stray fairly radically from the Gospel account.

The Gospel never tells us how many magi there were that visited Jesus. We tend to assume that there were three because three gifts are mentioned, but over the years these three were even given names – Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – and if you look at a lot of the traditional artistic depictions of these men, you’ll see that they are often taken to represent three distinct racial groups.

Balthazar is normally depicted as black. Melchior has a more swarthy, Arabic, complexion, and Gaspar is regularly depicted as being oriental. When they are depicted as worshipping the new-born king, Jesus is invariably depicted as white, such that you have all the other races bowing down before the white guy – a depiction that few of us would see as being consistent with Gospel values.

As I say, we have to be careful where the pious imagination takes us. Even so, I don’t think it’s stretching the imagination too far to suggest that Matthew sees these men (and they almost certainly were men) as Zoroastrian court officials from Persia (modern-day Iran).

It’s worth pausing and reflecting on that for a moment – at a time when the American President seems intent on provoking a war with the descendants of these magi. The Persians of old were renowned for a number of things, including proficiency in the mathematics, the sciences, and in warfare. They had plenty of wise men and plenty of great warriors, and no ancient king with any sense would have rushed into war with Persia. Modern-day kings might best be well advised to show similar caution.

In terms of their religion, Zoroastrianism is still around today in the Islamic Republic of Iran and is still embraced by the government as an acceptable form of religion.

Zoroastrianism goes back to the prophet Zoroaster, who himself was believed to have been born of a 15- year-old Persian virgin. Like Jesus too, he started ministry at age of 30 after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”

Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrians were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior. This suggests that these magi came to Jesus, not only because they saw unusual signs in the sky, but also on the basis of Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. If this is indeed the story St Matthew is telling, Matthew clearly believed that other Scriptures outside of the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Israel’s Messiah.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that St Matthew had a more universalist view of religion, such that he saw all religions as being different paths leading to the same great truth. On the contrary, Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the most intent on connecting Jesus to the religion of ancient Israel, and in the Torah and the prophets, the religions of the astrologers were always seen as false alternatives to the one true faith – as bad religion, and even as idolatry!

You may remember the battle that Moses and Aaron had with the magi of Pharaoh as recorded in the book of Exodus, chapter seven (verses 10 to 12). Both Moses and Aaron and the magi of Pharaoh display their proficiency in turning their staffs into snakes, you may remember, but the magic of Moses and Aaron is more powerful than that of the magi in that case. Their snakes eat those of the Pharaoh’s magi!

If we shoot forward to the book of Daniel, Daniel and his three friends (shake your bed, make your bed, and in to bed you go) – they themselves were magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.

They show themselves to be wiser than the other magi. Daniel can interpret dreams when the others can’t, and in many and various ways Daniel and his three friends demonstrate time and time again their superiority over their professional peers, and there is a very simple reason for this: Daniel and his friends are servants of the one true God and the rest of the magi are not!

This pretty much sums it up, I believe, when it comes to the greater Biblical view of magi. They are not respected members of an alternative religious group, worthy of serious consideration for their contribution to the broader religious landscape. Their spirituality is not affirmed as an authentic expression of godly intuition.  From a traditional Biblical point of view, the magi are members of a pagan religion that is incompatible with the worship of the one true God!

They do not seek for God in the right way. Their predictions are not to be relied upon or even listened to. The magi are not in any way members of the historic people of God, and yet … when we look around the Nativity scene … there they are, standing alongside us – the magi – and when we ask them how they got here, they tell us that they saw it in the stars!

‘Who invited you here?’ That’s the obvious question, and yet we know the obvious answer too, and we know too that while, in the great divide between us and them, these people are most archetypally them, nonetheless, they have as much right to lay claim the baby Jesus as their own as we do.

I don’t know how many of you had the privilege of being part of our Christmas Carols on the old rectory lawn a couple of weeks ago. There were about a hundred of us there, and the highlight for me was most definitely the arrival of my friend, Sheikh Shoiab Naqvi, who has graced us with his presence for a series of Christmases now.

I’m sure some people thought Shoiab was a part of the nativity presentation as he came in his formal Sheikh’s robes and he looked like a wise man from the East, which, in fact, he is – a wise man from Pakistan, to be more precise.

Shoiab showered us with Christmas presents from his community, the Muhammadi Welfare Association of Kemp’s Creek, as he always does. Their generosity is frankly embarrassing, but it did give us a number of extra hamper-style gifts that we were able to distribute amongst the residents of our local boarding house.

And why were Shoiab and the other members of his community here that night? Were they just there to show us respect as a different religious group on one of our holy days? No! They came to honour Jesus in accordance with their tradition, and so Shoiab read out some appropriate words about Jesus from the Qur’an – honoring Jesus as he understood Him from within the Shia Muslim tradition. And I don’t think you could have had a more Epiphanic event if you tried (if that’s a word).

It is a hard truth to come to terms with, but what Epiphany proclaims to us this year as it does every year is that our baby Jesus is also their baby Jesus, and by ‘them’ I mean all of them – all peoples of all nations, regardless of gender, race or religion. Our baby Jesus is their baby Jesus. Our savior is their savior. Our God is there God. Everyone is invited. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is valued.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 5th of January 2020.

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The murder of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-23)

 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18)

Words from our Gospel reading today (from Matthew) that echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) that echo the words of mothers (and fathers) of every generation who lose their children due to political violence.

As Herodotus wrote in the fight century before Christ, “in peace, children bury their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to bury their children.”  It should not happen. It violates the order of nature, and yet it happens still.

Many of you know that I came back from Syria this year with a complete set of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) fatigues – the pants, the hat and the flak jacket – and that I wear my SAA gear regularly when I’m not required to be in my clerical uniform (minus the flak jacket when we’re in the middle of summer).  When people ask why I wear clothes so closely associated with death, I tell them the story that the person who gave me the uniform told me about what the people of Douma had told him.

Douma is a suburb of Damascus, about 10 km northeast of the city centre, and best known for being the site of an alleged gas attack in April of last year. This particular story though had nothing to do with gas attacks but was about the day these people in Douma had looked out their windows and saw the black utes of Jabhat Al-Nusra driving down their streets.

We have seen those vehicles ourselves in news footage – the black utes with the machine guns mounted on the back. Jabhat Al-Nusra is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, and I think they changed their name again recently so that they can keep enjoying support from the West. They are, at any rate, the key rebel group still operating in Idlib, where the Syrian Arab Army, backed by the Russians, is currently finally closing in with a view to ending the war.

In this story I was told, the people of Douma see the black utes and they immediately go inside their homes and lock their doors and get out their guns. From what I was told, they got out their guns, not to shoot it out with the rebels, who they knew they had no chance of defeating, but to use on their own families, to save them from capture. They knew what these people did to children, and even to babies. They would prefer to see their family make a quick and dignified exit from this world than endure what these people would inflict on them.

Then they look out of their windows again and see the colours of the Syrian Arab Army. Now they know their kids will be going to school the next day, instead of to the graveyard. This is the Syrian army that I know – an army of dads and mums, brothers and sisters, defending their own families. I’m not suggesting they are all saints, but I believe that at the core of that army are ordinary people just trying to defend their homes, and that’s why I wear their colours with pride.

It shouldn’t happen – innocent children being under threat – and yet this has always been a part of the cycle of our history. Children burying their parents is hard enough, but God save us from that time of trial where parents bury their children.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18)

The Gospel writer’s focus, of course, is on the murder of the boys of Bethlehem:

“When Herod saw that he’d been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16)

I know some scholars suggest that this slaughter never really happened. They say that because there are no independent historical records of any such slaughter in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. My thought is ‘why would there be any records kept?’ What newspaper would have thought it wise to publish that story?

I’m not only suggesting that the great powers back then probably controlled the public narrative, though that’s bound to be the case. Why would anyone have bothered to record this? Things like that happened all the time, just as they do today in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and most of these terrible events go unreported.

Bethlehem was a small town too. The number of children killed probably would have been dozens rather than hundreds. Who would have cared? Of course, the parents and the people of Bethlehem would have cared, but I imagine Herod’s advisors would have seen this as a shrewd move – a proactive action aimed at stemming potential rebellion before it started.

If word was getting around that a new king was being nurtured in Bethlehem, the long-term consequences for upheaval within the empire might have been enormous. Better to snuff out the fire before it gets going.

We are talking of ‘Herod, the Great’ here, of course, and not the relatively impotent Herod we meet later in the Gospels at the trial of Jesus, and one of the reasons this Herod was so ‘great’ was because he acted like this all the time.

Long before turning his bloodthirsty eyes on the children of Bethlehem, he murdered most of his own children, conniving with his son Antipater to have two of his other sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, falsely accused and executed.  Then, later, towards the end of his life, he had Antipater executed as well.

His bloodlust didn’t stop with his own children either.  He also had his wife, Mariamne, executed, along with most of her family (her brother, mother and grandfather), and this chiefly for the crime of being popular.

Herod, like all those who cling to power, was constantly watching his back, constantly fearing that one of those close to him was about to wrench the throne from him, and so he butchered all those who were closest to him, along with anyone else who got in his way, and so it comes as no surprise to find that the report of a king being born in Bethlehem draws a swift and merciless response. 

Jesus escapes the genocidal purge, of course, courtesy of another dream given to Joseph, and there’s a fair degree of dramatic irony in the way the story unfolds here.

Joseph has a dream that leads him to flee to Egypt, and if you know your Old Testament history, you know that his namesake –Joseph, son of Jacob (best remembered for his technicolour dreamcoat) – also had a dream that eventually led him to Egypt. Egypt became a place of refuge for the original Joseph and his family, just as it did for the later Joseph and Mary and their baby.

Eventually, of course, Egypt became a place of enslavement for Joseph and his people, and they made an exodus and settled in their own land. Now, ironically, the oppression is coming from their own people, and so the family returns to Egypt.

I guess that’s another reason why some scholars believe this slaughter never happened – because the whole story seems too neat and symmetrical.

Joseph has to go down to Egypt just as his forefather Joseph went down to Egypt, and if you remember the final act of violence from Pharaoh that led to the exodus, it was Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the baby boys descended from Joseph. This time it is Herod who attempts to kill all the baby boys, and just as Moses escaped that genocide, so Jesus will escape Herod’s genocide and then come up out of Egypt.

Does that all seem a little too neat and lovely? Personally, I don’t think so. Indeed, I think if I were going to construct a story about Jesus in parallel with the story of Moses, why not have all baby boys of Bethlehem saved, just as all the first-born Israelite children were saved at the original Passover?

There are so many ways in which this could be made a nicer and happier story, for the truth is that this story is not nice or happy, which raises the obvious question – why is this story being told now, while the Christmas tree is still up and our homes are still covered in tinsel and we haven’t even finished opening all of the presents?

This isn’t a Christmas story at all, is it? It’s a story of murder and misery – of Rachel weeping and parents burying their children. What has that got to do with Christmas?

In truth, the Christmas story can be told of lot of different ways, and there are some competing narratives in the mix. I know we like our peaceful nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph looking serene and the gentle animals looking on respectfully, and the little Lord Jesus (‘no crying he makes’) at the centre.

You think of that image and you can hear the dulcet tones of ‘Away in a Manger’ playing in the background, and it brings back memories of happy times with family, and of times when we felt loved and secure. I don’t think that was the Gospel-writer’s intention when he related that scene. I think the whole point Luke was making when he passed on the story of Jesus, the stable, the manger and the shepherds, was that the story of God’s coming into our world in Jesus is a story that does not begin well.

I don’t know how we managed to romanticise the whole ‘no room at the inn’ part of the story. It seems to me almost incomprehensible that nobody had a bed for a woman about to give birth, and most especially in a Middle Eastern culture.

Yes, you hear of Palestinian women today giving birth at the roadside because they’ve been held up at a checkpoint by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but that is rightly considered scandalous when it happens, and, of course, it reflects the animosity between the IDF and the Palestinian people. In this case, it’s not the Roman occupiers of Bethlehem who are denying Mary a bed. It’s her own people!

I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to know that hospitality is one of the most cherished values in their culture. I remember once visiting the home of two martyrs in Damascus. The two sons in this family had both been soldiers and both been killed, and the mother and father invited our group into their small home where photos of their deceased sons were on display everywhere.

They were poor people and there were about ten of us. The immediate problem they had was that they needed to provide refreshments for all of us and they just weren’t equipped to do so. They were desperately brewing coffee and trying to give something to each of us, but they only had four cups, and so we had to take turns sharing from these cups lest we dishonour these people by refusing their hospitality.

Hospitality is everything in that culture, which is, again, why some scholars question the historical accuracy of the traditional nativity scene. For how could anyone in that culture deny a woman about to give birth a proper bed?

Personally, I believe that the reason Mary was denied a bed, and the reason why Herod was able to get away with murdering all the baby boys in Bethlehem, came down to the same thing. I suspect that people had become hardened by so many years of the Roman occupation of Judea that many of them had lost their humanity!

There’s only so long you can put up with living in constant tension and fear. Ultimately, it destroys your soul. You have to do something. You fight back, or you join the occupying forces and become complicit, or you get high and escape the pain in that way, or perhaps you just try to focus in on yourself and your family and keep your head down and mind your own business, and if pregnant women can’t find a bed for the night, or if somebody else had their son killed because they got on the wrong side of the king, how is that my problem?

“He came to his own people and his own people received him not”, says the Gospel-writer, John (John 1:11). That wasn’t because they were particularly bad people. They were just exhausted by generations of violent military oppression.

“Joy to the Word. The Lord has come!” That’s our hymn of joyous celebration that marks this special season. God has come into our world in a special way in this baby but, according to the Gospels, this amazing journey doesn’t begin well. It begins with inhospitality, pain and murder. Is this really something we should be celebrating?

The simple answer to that question, I think, is ‘yes’, because we are not celebrating the darkness. We are celebrating the light shining in the darkness. Yes, the darkness surrounding the Christmas message may tarnish the sheen of the Christmas baubles and, yes, we might have assumed that when God came into the world in Jesus that things would get immediately better, but that’s the Santa Claus version of Christmas.

As I say, there are a number of ways of telling the Christmas story and not all of them gel neatly with each other. The story of the plush red elf, flying around the world, distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with, has never fitted in comfortably with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman unable to find somewhere to give birth, and that’s because the Santa narrative is for kids – kids who have been blessedly shielded from some of the harsher realities of life. The Gospel stories were written for the rest of us.

The Gospel Christmas narrative is for the people of Douma in Syria. It’s for the people of Iraq and Libya and Bethlehem, and for it’s for us too – perhaps especially for those of us who have become hard and cynical through years of struggle and failure and addiction and relationship breakdown. The Gospel Christmas story is a story of God coming into our world – into our world, the real world – immersed, as it is, in broken dreams, violence and pain. It’s a story of a God who doesn’t just give us a nice present and then fly off again for another twelve months, but of a God who sticks in here with us, endures all the violence with us, and ultimately leads us through to a new tomorrow.

“Rachel is weeping for her children.” (Matthew 2:18) That is indeed a part of the Christmas story, but it’s not the end of the story. The story ends in the new Jerusalem, where “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 29th of December, 2019.

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Christmas 2019 (John 1:1-14)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

I don’t know if any else here is a fan of Melbourne-based journalist, Caitlin Johnstone,. I’m a big fan. I’ve never met here in person though I have had the privilege of appearing alongside her in podcasts supporting Julian Assange.

She’s a cutting-edge journalist and activist, in my opinion, though you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of her. As far as I know, her work appears in no mainline publications, and she’s one of those persons who constantly runs the risk of being de-indexed by Google and having her Facebook and Twitter accounts closed down because she says things that are unpopular, so unless you’ve favorited caitlinjohnstone.com, it’s possible you’ll never find her!

Ms Johnstone describes herself as ‘a rogue journalist, operating from the edge of the narrative matrix’, and indeed, discussion of ‘the narrative matrix’ is one of her most persistent themes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, the ‘narrative matrix’ is that interconnected web of stories through which we make sense of our lives and of our world. Of course, I’m sure that many of us have convinced ourselves that we understand life through the strength of our own observations and rationality. Not likely! We make sense of life through stories.

I had the privilege of watching the final installment in the Skywalker Star Wars series last week, and I don’t know if you watched the way that epic adventure was promoted in the trailers but it was telling – “the saga ends”, the trailer says, “but the story lives forever”!

Powerful words, and there is a powerful truth in that too. Some of you may not know that when George Lucas wrote the original Star Wars narrative, he very deliberately drew on the work of Professor Joseph Campbell and his study of ancient myth.

Campbell wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, which I found a difficult read, but at the heart of it was his concept of ‘the hero’s journey’, which he believed was the story at the heart of every great myth and religious epic.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Princeton University Press, 1949. p. 23).

‘The hero’s journey’ is an archetypal narrative through which we interpret our own lives and history, and there’s no doubt that one of the key reasons why Star Wars has been so popular is because it follows exactly the storyline of this ancient archetypal myth, which is also why George Lucas invited Professor Campbell to Skywalker Ranch to see Star Wars previewed before it was ever released to the public.

Mind you, when Caitlin Johnstone talks about the ‘narrative matrix’, she’s not normally referring to these epic myths through which we interpret our history, but rather the narratives that are fed to us by the media and by politicians that are designed to help us interpret what is going on around us at the moment.

You can’t start a war without a good story.

I don’t feel that I’ve been alive all that long, but I’ve already lived through a whole series of wars, and each of them had their own narrative.

  • There were stories of Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators that fueled the first invasion of Iraq.
  • Tales of weapons of mass destruction, of course, fueled the second.
  • There were stories of wholesale rape and murder by the troops of Muammar Gaddafi that necessitated the destruction of Libya.
  • More recently it’s been the narratives surrounding the so-called dictator of Syria – Bashar Al Asaad – and his gas attacks on his own people.

I was talking to a friend in Syria the other evening who was telling me about the hardships they are experiencing there. The winter is settling in and there’s no diesel available for people to heat their homes, and you can’t go anywhere to get away from the cold because you can’t get fuel for your car.

This is all because of the sanctions placed upon Syria by countries like ours – sanctions that prevent people getting fuel, building materials and medicines.  Why are those sanctions in place? Well … it all makes sense if you buy into the narrative matrix presented by so many in the media. If you buy into that story, you’ll believe the sanctions are actually the way we help Syria!

Of course, for every narrative there is a counter-narrative, and when it comes to Syria or Palestine or Julian Assange, there are people like Caitlin Johnstone who are outstanding spokespersons for the counter-narrative.

Of course, the question we want answered is ‘which narrative is true?’, and the cynical answer to that is that it doesn’t matter much, as the future will be determined by which narrative we believe rather than by the one which is true.

This is true on a personal level too, I think. We have our own stories through which we make sense of our lives, and which stories we buy into very much determine the people we become.

Do you see yourself as being on your own hero’s journey? Are you venturing into the unknown, battling with mystical forces, and believing that you are eventually going to prove victorious, and do something that will bring real benefits to the rest of humanity?

I must confess that my hero’s journey feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy of late. I wonder if my story has become one of ‘the rise and fall of Father Dave’, with me currently on the downhill trajectory.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m being melodramatic, but we all have our own stories – our own way of weaving together where we have been and where we are going – and some events in our lives throw our story into confusion.

Is my story (and your story) a hero’s journey or a Shakespearean tragedy? Perhaps, again, the real issue is not which option is true but which is believed, for it’s the story that is believed that will shape who we become.

You’ll have to forgive me if all this reflection on the narrative matrix comes across as far too ponderous and philosophical for the holiday season, but this is Christmas, and Christmas – whatever else it is – is a time for telling stories.

The Christmas season is a story-telling season and there are actually lots of stories in the Christmas narrative matrix, and some of them are competing narratives.

The story of the plush red elf flying around the world distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with is a story that doesn’t gel easily with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman, looking for somewhere to give birth, and yet these are only two of a myriad of stories that become part of the greater Christmas matrix – a mixture that includes so many colourful characters; from shepherds and their sheep, to kings in their palaces and angels in the sky, to wise men from the East, and Santa and his elves from the West, and with the little drummer-boy in there somewhere too.

There is narrative and counter-narrative mixed into this matrix too. Are all the stories true? Perhaps the more important question, again, is rather which story we choose to buy into.

I chose for our Christmas reading today the opening verses of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

It might seem like an odd choice as it’s a passage that contains no reference at all to any of the characters we normally associate with Christmas. Jesus is referred to, yes, though not by name, and there is no mention at all of Mary and Joseph, let alone the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, or any of the other figures in the Nativity scene. What happened to our Christmas story? Well … from the perspective of John, the Gospel writer, this is in fact the same story, though it’s part of a different narrative!

Like it or not, the Christmas story is one that has shaped our history as a nation, and one that is deeply embedded in our culture. Love it or hate it, we can’t escape the Christmas narrative. Even so, there are lots of different ways of telling this story, and perhaps the real issue is less which story is the most historically accurate, and more so which story we choose to embrace.

The Gospel-writer, John, sees the same things we all see. He sees Mary and Joseph looking for somewhere safe for Mary to give birth. He sees the gritty details of the inn and the manger, and no doubt he knows of the shepherds and the sheep too, but John sees something of cosmic significance going on in all this grit too. He sees God reaching out in love to a world in distress.

“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” (John 1:14).

Could this be true? Could it be that in the baby Jesus we see God reaching out to us in love – offering us forgiveness, hope, and a new beginning? Of course, there’s no way of proving this to be true, and, at any rate, the greater issue is more whether we have the courage to believe it, for this is one of those stories that, if we believe it, will determine the persons we become.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, 2019.

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We know neither the day nor the hour! (Matthew 24:36-44)

 “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, (39) and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. (41) Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (42) Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:38-42)

And so we christen our ecclesiastical new year!  

Yes, it is the first day of the Christian year – the first Sunday in Advent – which for me means that it’s the official beginning of the Christmas Season. It’s also the first day of summer (commiserations to those tuning in from the Northern hemisphere) and the first day of the last month of the year, which I think means it’s officially the 29th anniversary of my arrival at this church – the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill – my first service here being on the first Sunday in December in 1990.

One other key thing this means for me is that next week I’ll celebrate the 30th birthday of my dear eldest daughter. Veronica took her first steps in the driveway of the rectory here and would afterwards often stand beside me at the communion table on a Sunday until her legs gave out, at which point I’d have to juggle holding her with one arm while consecrating bread and wine with the other. This also means that next week will be the 30th anniversary of my priesting. Yes, as I’ve often pointed out, I became a father twice in the same week.

Indeed, it does feel like an auspicious day to me, and it feels like an auspicious time for the parish too, as we head into unchartered waters, calling on God to lead us forward into a future that, for all of us, I think, is far from perspicuous.

So we christen this auspicious Sunday – the first in Advent, the first of Christmas, the first of December, the first day of Summer, with this awful reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, about those who are taken and those who are left behind!

Now, my apologies if there’s someone out there thinking ‘but that’s my favourite passage in the New Testament!’ I doubt if there’s anybody in Dulwich Hill thinking that, but there may be someone turning in from the other side of the globe who holds this passage close to their heart. If that’s you, let me confess that the reason I find this passage so painful is because I can’t read it without thinking of the way it’s been interpreted and used by certain elements within the church – most obviously in the works of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the ‘Left Behind’ series.

In case you’re not familiar with their work, ‘Left Behind’ ended up as a series of 16 best-selling works of Christian fiction, all based on the scene depicted in this passage! They are books describing the end of the world, or at least, the beginning of the end, which is the ‘rapture’, where all the faithful believers suddenly disappear from the earth as they are snapped up into Heaven, leaving behind all the unbelievers and those who thought they were believers but who didn’t fit the definition of believers as understood by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

if you haven’t read these books, congratulations, but be aware that more than 80 million copies have been sold and that seven of the books in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list!

The books have also spawned four movies, none of which I’ve seen, though I did consider watching the last movie as part of my sermon preparation, particularly as it had Nicholas Cage in the lead role, so I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. I figured that, at least, until I read the review by Variety magazine, which suggested that the special affects must have been inspired by ‘Sharknado’ and which concluded with:

“The film hits theatres this weekend, but as for when believers can expect to see the tenets of their faith reflected with any sort of sophistication or intelligence in a mainstream genre film, we still know neither the day nor the hour.” (Variety 2014)

I did watch the trailer to the Nicholas Cage version, where you get various glimpses of the day when ‘the rapture’ happens, and some are taken and others are left.

A plane is hurtling through the sky and suddenly the pilot and co-pilot disappear, leaving the members of the crew who were left behind to figure out how to land! Likewise, numerous cars, speeding along the freeway, suddenly lose their drivers, resulting in terrible and spectacular accidents! In the maternity wing at the hospital, all the babies suddenly disappear, which is a nice touch of course, though the overall depiction of the day of rapture is indeed one of Sharknado-style calamity and carnage (though I didn’t actually notice any sharks falling from the sky).

Is this what the end of the world will look like? I really have no idea, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not what is being depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, which is indeed a scene of calamity and destruction but where Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins seem to have got everything back to front.

You’ll forgive me if this doesn’t make the scene any more palatable, but I think it’s worth clearing up the technical point that those who suffer in the scene depicted in Matthew 24 are not those who are left behind but those who are taken.

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man … they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away … Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (Matthew 24:37,39, 40-41)

If the parallel is really supposed to be with the coming of the great flood where people were suddenly and unexpectedly ‘swept away’, it’s pretty obvious that when the waters strike, the person who is in trouble is not the person who is left behind but the one who is taken. That may be a small point but it’s a good indication that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins may have profoundly misunderstood Jesus.

In truth, I don’t think it’s just that they’ve got it back to front in terms of who is being judged and who isn’t being judged. I think the whole depiction of this scene as one of judgement, where the true believers are being rooted out from amongst the unbelievers, is seriously problematic. Indeed, it seems to me that the most painful part of the scene that Jesus is depicting is the apparent randomness of the way calamity hits some people and by-passes others, which is exactly how wars work.

It really all reminds me of my first visit to Syria in 2013, when the war was at its worst. We visited a hospital in Damascus where we heard people tell their stories.

One man told of how he was on his way to work and a mortar shell handed near him and blew off his leg! Others near him were killed and others somehow unharmed. Some, it seems, were taken and others were left for reasons hard to explain!

An even more horrible example was a woman we were taking to who was working in her hairdressing salon when a mortar shell came in through her shop window! She survived the blast but the woman whose hair she was working on did not. Again, some were taken and others were left. ‘Thank God I gave my baby to the shopkeeper next door just before it happened’, the woman said to us.

We had our own brush with a mortar shell in our 2014 visit to Damascus. Two shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. They made an enormously loud explosion that shook our room, where I was having a shower at the time. Beyond being shaken though, most of us were unaffected, but two were taken – two dear souls who were members of the hotel staff who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were taken, the rest of us, happily, were left behind.

I think this is the kind of scene Jesus is depicting – that terrible scene that is so familiar in war and in natural disaster where waters strike or bombs fall and some are taken and others are left, and if often seems so horribly random.

Saint Augustine reflected on the fall of Rome in the same way – noting that the believers fared no better than their unbelieving neighbours when the city was sacked. Wherever the axe fell, there people died.

Is this the sort of scene Jesus is depicting in these verses in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew? I think it is. Could Jesus in fact have been prophesying about the fall of Rome, or the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, which was similarly terrible, or the siege of Damascus in 2013, or all of the above?

Well … I’m not exactly sure, but what I am sure about is that this prophecy is supposed to be good news. It might not sound like good news, but I believe Jesus intended these words as good news and I think we see that when you look at His words in their broader context.

This prophecy from Jesus comes as part of a dialogue He’s having with His disciples that takes place outside the temple in Jerusalem. It begins with the disciples marveling at the majesty of the temple building itself, which prompts Jesus to give them the sobering message that the building was not going to last. Indeed, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2)

In that statement, and in everything that follows in that scene outside the temple, two great assumptions were being addressed. The first was that the great gifts of God, like the temple, will last forever. As for the second assumption, we need to keep in mind that this dialogue between Jesus and His disciples takes place directly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where He has been welcomed as Israel’s king. If the first assumption is that the good things of God will last forever, the second assumption Jesus addresses is that now He is here, the bad things are going to get a whole lot better.

This should be obvious to any seasoned reader of the New Testament. We know what people expected of Jesus. We know they were expecting him to lead a political coupe of some sort and wrest the government back from the Romans. We know that on the other side of that coupe they saw a return to the good old days of peace and prosperity where God’s own people could live in God’s own land under God’s good rule. And we know that they were wrong. We just find it harder to recognise when we keep making the same mistake ourselves.

Maybe we don’t say it as bluntly as Jesus first disciples did, but we tend to assume the same thing – that once Jesus is in the house, everything is bound to get a whole lot better. The marriage problems will go away, the kids will be better behaved, and hopefully that bald-spot I’ve been noticing lately will disappear as well!

Isn’t that how religion is supposed to work? As you get closer to God, you gain not only greater inner peace, but you find yourself being blessed abundantly in multiple ways. And isn’t that what we should expect of Jesus, the son of God. If He is now reigning as king, shouldn’t we expect everything to get a whole lot better and easier?

I don’t know why it doesn’t work that way, but what I do know is that Jesus spent a lot of His time trying to get through to us that while things will get a whole lot better one day, it’s not going to happen right away. Indeed, between now and the coming of the Kingdom of God – where every tear will be wiped away and where the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea – between now and then there is still a lot of pain we are going to have to live through.

That was the key theme of Jesus’ teaching outside the temple that day. ‘Don’t believe it when people appear, saying ‘I’m the Messiah. Everything will be fine. These people are lying to you! Things are going to be fine one day, but not yet.

As I say, today is the anniversary of my start in this parish. Today I begin my 30th year in ministry here, and what’s interesting is that, despite the fact that this passage from Matthew 24 comes around every three years in the lectionary, I’ve managed to duck and avoid it on the previous nine occasions I was confronted with it.

I’ve told you why I didn’t want to deal with it – because I’ve never bought into the ‘left behind’ theology that depicts Jesus as grabbing all the true believers and plucking them up from the earth to leave the rest of the world to rot. I don’t buy into that and in my earlier years I could never see anything else in this passage worth spending my energy on. Now, thirty years on, I see a lot more here.

I see Jesus reminding us of the inevitability of conflict. I hear His sobering reminder that even the greatest gifts of God – marriage and family, beautiful temples and wonderful churches – don’t last forever. I hear Jesus’ sobering words and I also hear the Good News alongside that – that when these terrible things happen and when things are at their worst, this is actually a sure sign that God is about to act!

This too I know to be true after thirty years in ministry – that when things are at their darkest and when we are tempted to lose all hope, ‘look up!’ God is at the gates! Love, joy, health and peace are on their way. God has not forgotten us. What we are experiencing is simply the darkness that precedes the dawn. Never lose hope, for the Son of man will come at the very hour you least expect! (Matthew 24:44)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 1st, 2019.

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It’s all about Family! (Matthew 1:18-25)

 “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)

There you have it – our Christmas story! If that seems like an abbreviated form of the story, it’s not. It’s just Matthew’s version. If you’re wondering what happened to the shepherds and the angels and the manger and the inn, all that is in Luke’s version of the Christmas story, but Matthew’s version is relatively terse –no trip to Bethlehem, no ‘no room at the inn’, no stable, no manger, no animals, no shepherds, and no little drummer-boy (who actually doesn’t turn up in any of the Gospels).

Was Matthew trying to conserve space by keeping the story short and simple? I don’t think that’s it, as Matthew precedes his nativity narrative with one of the most lengthy and turgid passages in the entire New Testament – namely, his genealogical history of Jesus that takes up the first seventeen verses of his Gospel.

We never read that part of the Gospel in church and there’s a good reason for that. It’s just too boring. I’ll give you a two-verse snippet:

“Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram”
(Matthew 1:2-3)

OK. I’m stopping there and, as I say, that’s two verses. The genealogy as a whole stretches on for seventeen! It’s not because Matthew was trying to be succinct that he left out all the elements of those Christmas narrative that we hold closest to our hearts. It was because his version of the story had a different emphasis. For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is all about family!

It’s all about family! That sounds like an appropriate Christmas theme, doesn’t it? That’s what most of us think about when we think of Christmas – getting together with family – and that’s also why there’s such a high suicide rate at Christmas time, because a lot of us don’t want to be reminded of what’s happened to our families.

I can understand why so many of us feel humiliated and alone at Christmas time. Many of us started out with hopes of building a family that would be worthy of its own nativity scene. For some of us, that family simply never came. For others of us, it came and went. Even for those of us who still have families that are holding together, we known full well that so many parts of that working machine are dysfunctional, such that the cogs are barely turning over. We have skeletons in the closet. We have members of the family that we try to keep from the public. We have whole chapters in our family history that we really wish could be erased. We really don’t look too good alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus … or do we?

As I say, I’m not going to read out the full genealogy of Jesus as outlined by Matthew in the first chapter of his Gospel. Even so, it’s a list that is worthy of careful scrutiny, particularly when it comes to some of the women who are listed.

Matthew’s genealogy is very clearly a history of Jesus’ male lineage. Luke has a genealogy too, and it focuses on Mary, but Matthew’s version is entirely male-centric. Even so, four women are mentioned –Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – and each of these four were highly controversial figures. Perhaps ‘controversial’ is not the best word. Perhaps ‘tragic’ or ‘notorious’ would be better in some cases.

The story of Tamar is in Genesis 38. She pretends to be a prostitute and has sex with her father-in-law, who then tries to have her burnt alive! It’s a sordid story where Tamar is repeatedly abandoned by all the men in her life, though she does go on to become the mother of Perez, the father of Hezron, the father of Ram …

Rahab was the sole survivor of battle of Jericho, as recorded in the book of Joshua, chapter two. She was spared by the Israelite army because she sheltered their spies – the army who slaughtered every other man, woman, child and animal ln Jericho.

Whether you can ever truly survive an experience like that is, of course, open to question. Either way, Rahab was not thereafter known as ‘Rahab the survivor’ or ‘Rahab the protector’ but was always referred to with reference to the profession she had in Jericho before its fall – namely, as ‘Rahab the prostitute’.

That would not have been an identity that could have been easily erased. People would not forget. Even so, Rahab did go on to become the mother of Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, who went on to become king!

My point, or rather Matthew’s point, is simply that there were some skeletons in the closet of Jesus’ family too. Indeed, it would have been quite a colourful Christmas gathering if they had somehow all managed to come together.

“Oh, Tamar! Good to meet you at long last. I’ve heard so much about you! And Rahab … you look great! Uh … sorry, I don’t mean that in any inappropriate way!”

It’s not just the women, of course, though Ruth, the Moabitess, is mentioned (a woman from the wrong land and wrong religion), as is Bathsheba, King David’s wife who went on to become the mother of King Solomon.

I mention Bathsheba here by name but, interestingly, Matthew does not. Matthew, chapter one, verse six, refers to her only as the woman who “had been Uriah’s wife”.

We know the story. King David got Bathsheba pregnant while she was still married to Uriah, the Hittite. Whether she was complicit in that or whether she was raped is hard to know, but David’s attempt to cover up the pregnancy and his subsequent murder of Uriah is well known.

Matthew is making a point. The birth of King Solomon was surrounded with pain and controversy, as is the birth of Jesus – and that is where all this is leading, of course.

The story of Jesus does not begin well, and if you look back at the family of Jesus, it is full of problems. Perhaps Jesus’ family is a lot more like ours than we first thought!

When I was a young man – not even twenty years old – I started doing voluntary work with what was then the ‘Sydney City Mission’ at a place called ‘Swanton Lodge’ in Surry Hills. It was a shelter for alcoholic men and women that was largely not rehabilitation orientated. In other words, most of the people there were never going to get better and many didn’t want to get better.

I used to organise my youth group to go and sing Christmas carols there at this time of year, and we used to get into some interesting conversations with the residents. One chat I had with one elderly man has always stayed with me. Being young and idealistic, I tried to talk to him about the possibility of rehabilitation – getting off the grog. He told me that he wasn’t interested and when I asked him why he said, “because this is the only way I can get back at my family”.

That’s how families work – a lot of families. Maybe that’s not your family exactly but we all have our issues, our skeletons, our failures. Jesus’ family was no exception.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus begins in controversy. Mary is found to be pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The two of them were engaged at that time, which made it all quite serious.

If Joseph had followed in the line of his forefathers, we might have expected violence to follow! After all, Joseph was the descendent of Judah, the father-in-law of Tamar, who tried to have her burnt alive when she became pregnant out of wedlock, even though it was his child! Certainly, according to the Deuteronomic code, Joseph was within his rights to have Mary dragged into the public square and stoned to death!

We are told though that Joseph was a good man, and so he decided to separate from Mary quietly (Matthew 1:19), which is interesting in itself for it suggests that being a good person means that sometimes you have to disregard God’s law.

Is this a turning point in the family history – a movement from violence and legalism towards love and mercy? Not really. There are plenty of examples of love and mercy in the genealogical history of Jesus’ forebears too. There was plenty of good mixed in with the bad. Even so, Joseph’s merciful attitude is a reminder that none of us needs to be controlled by our history.

And it’s pure speculation, of course, but is it possible that this example set by Joseph had a formative influence on Jesus Himself? Jesus, as an adult, would go on to teach people that mercy is greater than sacrifice (eg. Matthew 12:7) and that they needed to focus on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44)

We don’t want to underplay the extent to which the character of Jesus was formed by His Heavenly Father. Even so, it seems to me quite plausible that God might use some of the wisdom of Jesus’ earthly father to help establish Jesus on the right path.

We know very little of Joseph from this point in the story onwards. Mary, Jesus’ mother, goes on to play a significant role throughout His earthly life, while Joseph apparently disappears from the scene quite early on. Even so, while his contribution was short-lived, it may nonetheless have been formative.

This is our Christmas story. It’s a story about a mother and a father and a baby. It’s also a story about family and about history. Our Christmas story is also a story about shepherds and sheep and the baby in the manger, but not today! Today our story stops short of those details and focuses just on family.

Today we remember the family of Jesus – not just His immediate nuclear family, but the greater family line to which Jesus was connected – and the key point is that it is all highly dysfunctional.

It was a family with a history of violence, deceit, misery and failure. It was also, of course, a family with a history of godliness, love and hope. It was a family where the good, the bad and the ugly were all mixed in together. In other words, it was a family much like ours. The good news, and indeed the great news, is that out of the chaos of this archetypally dysfunctional family line, salvation comes!

God is not going to be limited by our history. God is not going to allow the future to be a simple repeat of the past. The salvation of the world is coming, and it is coming through the line of David, through the line of Tamar, through the line of Ruth, of Rahab and Bathsheba. Emerging from that dark tunnel where there has been so much pain and suffering and all the collateral damage that is the fallout of human frailty, love and joy and peace are on their way! Merry Christmas!

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 22nd, 2019.

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The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Reframe! (Matthew 3:1-12)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

The Yuletide season is well and truly upon us!

I suspect that it is slightly different for each of us – the trigger that brings us to that realisation that indeed there are only sixteen shopping days left before the furious shredding of gift-wrap begins – but I no longer pay much attention to the department stores, where they generally start putting the Christmas paraphernalia up as they take the Halloween material down (and sometimes with a fair degree of overlap).

I no longer recognise the Christmas season by the arrival of cards, which are becoming increasingly rare in their physical form, but which seem to circulate in virtual form all year round.

For me it’s not the decorations nor the cards that herald the advent of the Christmas season, but rather the arrival of this uniquely unhygienic Yuletide figure – John the Baptizer – who, courtesy of our lectionary, pushes his way to the front of the Christmas stage each year at about this time, announcing the coming of the Christ.

John is wonderfully out of place in the nativity scene, with his rugged appearance, his no-nonsense style, and his wonderful disregard for what everybody else thought of him, and so I thought that since this may be my last John-the-Baptist-Christmas sermon in this parish, I might as well wheel out my traditional John-the-Baptist-Christmas-Greetings-card for the occasion.

I couldn’t find the original version, which was in black and white and featured a more dour image of the Baptist. I’ve reproduced instead the more colourful version, which was the second incarnation of this card, featuring a relatively jovial looking Baptist on the front, where he appears to be both waving to his supporters as well as baptizing.

“Christmas Greetings in the words of John the Baptist”, it says on the card’s front, and on the inside, we are treated to John’s very specific form of Christmas cheer:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. … Merry Christmas

I can’t remember the first year I produced one of these cards, but it was definitely more than twenty years ago. What I do remember is when I stopped producing them, after one of our dear elderly parishioners said to me one year, “I know just the person to give this card to”, which sort of suggested she’d missed the point.

That’s not how Christmas cards are supposed to work, of course, but the truth is that it’s hard to know where to put John the Baptizer in the nativity scene. If the message of Christmas is ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’, it’s pretty obvious that this is not John’s message, and so it’s hard to know what to do with him.

As I say, this is not the first time I’ve preached on his very unique Yuletide figure, though in my previous treatments of John, I’ve tended to do little more than reflect on the discontinuity between his sober and angry persona and the other characters in the nativity scene – the meek and mild Mary, for instance, the gentle baby Jesus, and, of course, the plush, red elf who always hovers in the background.  I thought this year it would be worth spending some time focusing on what John was so angry about, and it occurred to me that this is not particularly obvious.

People tend to summarise John’s preaching down to one word – ‘repent’ – and if you did have to pick one word to sum up John, that would indeed be it. Even so, I don’t think it’s immediately obvious what the word ‘repent’ means, or, at least, what John meant by the word.

We tend to think of repentance as being the equivalent of ‘saying sorry’, and that is more-or-less what the word means in English, which frankly makes it a poor translation of the Greek word ‘metanoia’.

‘Metanoia’ is a combination of two Greek words – ‘meta’, meaning ‘after’, and ‘noia’, meaning ‘thought’. To have a metanoia is therefore to have an ‘after-thought’ or, more accurately, to have a ‘rethink’.

John the Baptist called on people to rethink things. Perhaps we could even use the term that I’ve heard so often in modern therapeutic literature – to ‘reframe’.  This was indeed the message of the Baptist, I believe – that people needed to reframe their world so that they could rethink themselves and their future!

For those who have no idea what ‘reframing’ is, forgive me if I give an example from a movie that you may have never seen, but for some reason it’s the example that always comes to mind for me.

The movie is Apollo 13, which came out in 1995 and starred Tom Hanks. If you haven’t seen it or you don’t remember it, that’s OK. I remember very little of it.

You’ll be forgiven too if you don’t remember the original Apollo 13 mission of 1970. Those of us who lived to see Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 will remember that, but Apollo 13 was far less memorable, as it was a mission that was aborted due to a mechanical failure in the lunar module.

“Houston, we have a problem” – that was the byline for the movie, as everything starts to go wrong with this spacecraft as it hurtles towards the moon and viewers like myself (who had forgotten what happened in the actual Apollo 13 mission) were left thinking that there was no way these three astronauts were going to survive.

Now … the scene that really stuck with me, and the one I want to relay to you, was of the Houston control room in panic mode, where everything seemed to be going wrong  but where everybody was working frantically to try to hold things together. The guy in command was losing hope, and he says something like “this is our worst nightmare” but his 2IC says to him, “sir, this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”

That’s reframing. It’s looking at your situation from a different angle and giving it a rethink. From one angle it looks like a complete catastrophe. From another, it’s the challenge your team spent their working lives preparing for!

I’ve pushed myself through this reframing process a number of times when we have problems in the church.

I start to feel overwhelmed and think “this is going to destroy us” and then I reframe and say to myself, “this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”

I can’t tell you how many times, on a personal level, the process of reframing has been critical to me. When I’ve felt overwhelmed by the chaos – and I’m sure we’ve all been there, whether it be due to grief, to false accusations, to betrayals or misunderstandings or relationship breakdowns – the temptation is always just to give up and sign yourself into the psych unit (or whatever happy place you can escape to)

The life-giving alternative is to reframe, and to view each element in the chaos as simply another challenge that can be overcome! This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe we get better at it as we get older, probably because we simply get more practice at it.

I see Saint Paul doing a lot of reframing in his writings. There was a man who was constantly being physically abused by his opponents as well as verbally slandered, and yet instead of taking these things to heart and allowing them to destroy him, he reframes each of them as elements in his participation in the sufferings of Christ.

Likewise, with Paul’s notorious ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) – whether it was a physical ailment that he couldn’t get rid of or a struggle with his sexuality or something else that he just couldn’t really deal with – instead of interpreting this as a sign of his ultimate hopelessness, Paul sees this as his Lord’s challenge to help make him completely reliant on God’s grace!

Now with the Baptist, it’s not individual experience that John is trying to reframe. John’s role is to prepare the way for the one who is to come – God’s Messiah – and what he needs is for us to reframe our world and our lives in the light of that future – Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2)

I think the key to understanding how John wanted people to reframe, and the key to understanding why he was so angry, is to recognise that John’s vision of the future that God had planned was radically different from that of most of his contemporaries.

What were John’s contemporaries hoping for and praying for? What are most Palestinians today hoping for and praying for? The answer to both questions is the same. They look for an end to the Occupation. In John’s case it was the Roman occupation, and in the case of contemporary Palestine, it’s the Israeli occupation, but in both cases its quite straightforward.

You couldn’t go around the West Bank or Gaza today and speak about hope for the future without promising an end to the Israeli Occupation. That’s not to say that Palestinians believe that ending the occupation will solve all their problems. It is to say that they know their problems cannot be solved without ending the Occupation

It was exactly the same in first century Palestine. The Roman occupation was not their only problem, and yet they all knew that their problems would not all be solved without ending the Occupation. Whatever future John was prophesying about, a return to national sovereignty would be assumed to be at the heart of his vision.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

What does that tell us about John’s view of the future? It tells us that John didn’t foresee a simple takeover where the Jewish army defeated the Roman army and then the Jewish leaders took over from the Roman leaders, leaving all their religious and secular leadership structures in place. No! John say a great shake-up taking place in the established order of his people as their leaders were corrupt.

“Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay.”” (Luke 3:14)

Now that certainly wasn’t what they were expecting. I suspect that the soldiers expected John to tell them to sharpen their swords for the service of a new master – the Messiah – who would lead them to throw off their overlords, the Romans! Instead, John tells them not to abuse their power and to be content with their wages!

There’s a reframing going on here. John is urging people to reframe their vision of the future. No doubt, it’s a vision of national sovereignty – of God’s own people living in God’s own land under God’s own rule – but it’s also a vision of a community where people don’t abuse their power and where leaders truly serve the common good.

Walter Brueggeman and John McNight wrote a fantastic book, entitled “An Other Kingdom” where they systematically go through the different dimensions of the Kingdom that both John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of, and of the ways in which this Kingdom requires us to reframe the way we look at our world – embracing mystery over certainty, seeing abundance in the place of scarcity, valuing the common good over individual rights, upholding public sharing over private ownership and building a community on the basis of cooperation rather than competition.

I watched a movie about Julian Assange in our church hall last night, along with about 50 other people. I find it encouraging to see how many people have changed their attitude towards Julian in recent months, and I think that’s because people are reframing the way they see him. Now that all talk about rape allegations has evaporated, and now that it’s clear that he was right in saying that it was really the Americans who were after him, people are seeing him in a new light.

Julian is himself, of course, one who (like the Baptizer) calls on people to reframe their way of looking at the world. In the movie we watched last night, Julian urged us to view ourselves as being at war with the great governments and global companies who are trying to rob us of our privacy and our rights to free thought and speech. For many of us, seeing things that way would require a process of truly radical reframing!

Rethink/Reframe/Repent – if there’s one thing that comes through to us clearly from the witness of John the Baptist, it’s that this is a cold and wet and painful experience! It hardly seems very Christmassy, yet perhaps it’s the only way to reach the real gifts at the back of the tree! Do we have strength enough to be honest with ourselves, and the wisdom to be able to cut through the propaganda and embrace the truth? This is a big ask for any individual human being. Our hope must be that by the Grace of God, we’ll have the wherewithal to do it together.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 8th, 2019.

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