What, never thirst again? (A sermon on John 4:4-42)

Earth’s fountains fair but mock our souls,
Like desert phantoms lure,
And they that drink, the fainter grow,
The keener thirst endure.

You’re not likely to recognise the hymn from which these words are taken – words that cleverly highlight the enigma that no matter how much we drink, the human thirst for water is never ultimately satiated. You may well recognise though the passage from the Bible that inspired these words – namely, our Gospel reading form John chapter four, where Jesus speaks of the living water which, should you drink of it, you will never thirst again!

The hymn is entitled, “What, never thirst again?” and was written about a century ago by Mary Agnew Stephens and I know it well as it was a favourite of my dad’s, and he used to sing it to me when I was little. I remember the chorus:

What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again;
What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again,
For he that drinketh, Jesus said,
Shall never, never thirst again.

According to my dad, it was one of those hymns where you’d get one side of the church singing one line – “What, never thirst again?” – and the other half replying with “No, never thirst again!”.

I did toy with the idea of doing that together with the congregation, after downloading the tune to back us up, but the only rendition of the tune I could find on YouTube had the song being sung in Thai (with English subtitles). I’m sure Mary Agnew Stephens would be chuffed to know that her hymn is being sung in Thai but I confess that I lost my enthusiasm, in terms of how that would translate into our context (so to speak).

These are, at any rate, well-known words and images that we encounter in John, chapter four – the metaphor of living water for the sprit of God – and as with the well-remembered words and images of John three, which spoke of wind and new birth, these words and images come to us as part of a dialogue between two people – Jesus, on the one hand, and this time a Samaritan woman on the other.

I think it’s worth starting our probe into this Gospel reading by stepping back and looking at the big picture, and to how these two encounters in John, given to us in chapters three and four, respectively, appear alongside each other. They are markedly similar in many ways and starkly contrasting in others. In both cases Jesus enters into deep theological dialogue with the person He is talking to, and in both cases His partners in dialogue are similarly confused by what He is saying. At the same time though, these two people couldn’t really be any more different!

In John chapter three, we met Nicodemus – a wealthy and educated man, and a loved and respected spiritual leader of his people. In John chapter four, we meet a woman who is not a Jew, and so was not respected at all by most Jewish people, and who was also not respected by her own people – the Samaritan people. Whereas Nicodemus was rich, educated, powerful, loved and respected, this woman is none of those things – neither wealthy nor educated nor powerful nor respected. She is an isolated figure – a powerless and vulnerable nobody.

It’s interesting that we never learn her name. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Perhaps very few people knew her name. Perhaps she didn’t want people to know her name. Either way, we know quite a bit about her, and we learn quite a lot about her simply by the fact that she turned up at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day:

“It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.” (John 4:6b-7a)

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, Rudyard Kipling famously said, referring to those who would brave the heat of the day in 19th century India. Much the same could be said of those who would brave the heat of the day in first century Samaria. You wouldn’t be out there unless you had good reason to be out there at that time, meaning that this woman had good reason to be avoiding her peers, and the reason for this becomes clear in the conversation she has with Jesus:

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”” (John 4:16-18)

Obviously, there was a lot more to this woman’s story, but this is enough to help us understand why this woman was being shunned by her community. She had had five relationship breakdowns, and nobody respects somebody who has had five relationship breakdowns.

Nothing has really changed in that regard, I think. I find it hard enough to retain people’s respect after having had two relationship breakdowns. Perhaps I should find it encouraging to be reminded that there are persons out there who are greater failures than me. Perhaps, in as much as I hate having other people look down on me, at least I can look down on her!

Of course, we don’t know what caused all her relationship breakdowns, and neither do we know anything about the relationship she was in when she met Jesus, but over the years there has been plenty of speculation.

The assumption made by most commentators is that she was a sex-worker of some sort. Perhaps she’d had multiple children to multiple men, each of whom eventually tired of her sex-addicted, money-grabbing lifestyle, and, rather than have her stoned, simply divorced her and moved on. That’s the most unsympathetic interpretation.

At the other end, some speculate that perhaps she couldn’t have children, and so perhaps her partner’s tired of her for that reason. If she were infertile of course, that wouldn’t mean she was not to blame. Surely, you must have done something pretty bad to be cursed by God with infertility!

Of course, we don’t have to assume that all the woman’s husbands divorced her. It’s quite possible that some of them died. Perhaps they all died? That in itself would make her look pretty suspicious, of course, but you’ll remember that story the Sadducees told Jesus about the woman who was married to seven brothers, one after the other, and they all died on her (Matthew 28). Perhaps that story was based on a true-life example. Perhaps it was inspired by this woman?

What is really interesting here, I think, is what Jesus Himself tells us about the details of this woman’s failed relationships. The answer, of course, is ‘absolutely nothing!’.

We who have followed Jesus have used our imaginations to fill in all the blanks, but it seems to me quite significant to me that Jesus Himself offers no comment on the woman’s failed relationships whatsoever.

Jesus pushes the woman to tell him about her marital status – “I have no husband”  (John 4:17) – presumably because He wants to let her know that He is already fully aware of her domestic circumstances and that He does not judge her.

Jesus does not say to her, “Go, and sin no more”. He does not say to her, “Your sins are forgiven”. Jesus doesn’t say anything about this woman’s sinfulness, on the one hand, or about her victimhood, on the other. He affirms her for telling the truth, but he makes no comment on the specifics of her personal history whatsoever!

We don’t find that nearly so easy! We want to judge the woman, just as her first century peers wanted to judge her. Perhaps that’s the natural human thing to do, though it seems to me to be a tendency that especially afflicts religious communities. When things go wrong, we search for someone to blame. We can’t feel at peace with God or with ourselves until we have a straightforward explanation as to why the bad thing happen to apparently good people. Someone must be at fault?

Yes, of course I’m allowing my personal pain to affect how I experience this story but, having been through two relationship breakdowns, I now find myself looking back with wonder and admiration at the community who nurtured me through my first relationship breakdown – that elderly group of women and men (but mainly women) who only every seemed to have one question for me – “how can we help”.

That was thirty years ago. Having come back to the same low point a second time, the far more common question this time around has been, “who do we blame?”

As one friend said to me one the day my separation was announced, “you now have no credibility”. I suspect that’s exactly what they said to the woman too. The key difference, I suspect, was that she had no one to support her – no one, at least, until she met Jesus!

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again”, Jesus says to the woman, “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15)

Jesus doesn’t judge the woman. He offers her life!

It’s hard to be sure how much else of what Jesus said that day was properly heard. As with the Nicodemus dialogue in John’s previous chapter, there is a play on words in the original text, and while Jesus is speaking about ‘living water’, the woman thinks He is talking about ‘flowing water’ (which is the same word in the original language), as in contrast to the still water of the well.

It’s hard to know how much else the woman took away from that meeting, but note that this is the longest recorded dialogue that Jesus has with anyone in any of the four Gospels, and that Jesus clearly took this woman seriously as a partner in theological dialogue, and this despite her being a Samaritan, being uneducated, being a woman, and being a woman who was looked down upon by her community.

I don’t know how many others here have read Foucault’s, “Discipline and Punish”. I read it back in my University days and have never forgotten it, or at least I’ve never forgotten what I remember as the central premise – namely, that our ‘correctional institutions’ don’t really exist for the sake of correcting anybody but exist rather so that people in regular society have another group they can look down upon.

I’m sure more erudite scholars of Foucault will tell me that’s a very partial reading of the great man’s work on the subject. That’s what I remember, and it’s an understanding that has been reinforced in me over the years that I’ve visited prisons around this country. We know the statistics – that the recidivism rate (the rate of those who return to prison, term after term) is ridiculously high. These places don’t seem to be designed to help their clients. Even so, Foucault is the only one I remember being bold enough to suggest the prison system’s real function.

The village idiot was another vital member of the community who once played that role – giving everybody else in the community someone they could feel superior to. It’s part of the way human communities operate. We have a pecking order. Celebrities are at the top of the order and pedophiles on the bottom. Even in prison, pedophiles have their own ‘protection wing’ so that they aren’t killed by the other prisoners, as the regular prison population needs people they can look down on too.

This is the way human societies work. We evaluate, we judge, we respect and we disrespect. We admire and elevate some people and we denigrate and lynch others, and being the fickle people that we are, we can switch in an instant – shouting hosannas to someone one day and crucifying them the next. That wasn’t only Jesus’ experience. Look what’s happening to Julian Assange at the moment.

This is the way human societies work. It’s not the way Jesus works. In no instance in the New Testament do we see Jesus looking down on anyone on the underside of the community. On the contrary, he doesn’t look down. He gets down. He gets down with those at the bottom, and offers them the living water that wells up to eternal life!

Let me finish as I started, with the words of Mary Agnew Stephens:

Oh, blessed stream of pure delight!
Oh, balm for every pain!
To thee I haste, for Jesus said,
I’ll never thirst again.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 15th of March, 2020.

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For God so loved the world (A sermon on John 3:1-17)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

We are in the second week of Lent – that period of somber reflection and self-examination – and it seems like and odd time at which to encounter this most positive and affirming of texts – “for God so loved the world …”

I don’t remember at time at which I didn’t know this verse. I suspect many of you who were likewise nurtured in the Christian faith from infancy would say the same thing. For those of us brought up in the Evangelical tradition, this verse has always been a sort of talisman – a one-line summary of our faith, the essence of the Gospel.

I remember as a young Christian, this verse was something you were expected to quote all the time as a kind of shibboleth through which you showed your adherence to the one true faith. We would wear T-shirts and wristbands, displaying this text, and sometimes not even the text but just the textual reference – John 3:16 – a message that would only make sense to the others who likewise branded themselves as being part of the same evangelical Christian tradition – a badge of spiritual tribal identity.

And yet, of course, this verse is not given to us as an isolated aphorism. It comes to us as a part of a conversation between two men – our Lord Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus, and the more I read this verse in the context of the greater dialogue between the two men, the less bravado I feel as a religious person.

I do believe that what we have in this account from John, chapter three, is an account of what was a real conversation between two historical people. I know that some academics see these dialogues in John’s Gospel merely as literary creations designed to outline the theology of the early church, with no necessary connection to any historical events or persons. I don’t take that view.

Nicodemus – introduced to us in John chapter three as a Pharisee and as a member of the Jewish ruling council – turns up at two other points in John’s account of the life of Jesus. In chapter seven, we see him defending Jesus against other Pharisees who would condemn Jesus without first hearing what he had to say (John 7:51). After the crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus appears again, this time working alongside Joseph of Arimathea to see that Jesus is given a proper Jewish burial (John 19:39).

We can speculate as to when the details of this first meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus became public. The description of the meeting suggests that no one apart from Jesus and Nicodemus was present, so the story must have been passed on to the Apostles either by Jesus Himself or, more likely I suspect, by Nicodemus.

While we don’t have any historical records of Nicodemus outside of John’s Gospel, I think it entirely likely that the man who helped bury Jesus came into contact with the Apostle John – the only disciple who was there at the cross of Jesus, and the man I assume to be behind the gospel that bears his name. Indeed, I suspect that John and Nicodemus may have met on numerous occasions where Nicodemus told John how Jesus spoke to him on that first night about new birth and about the wind.

It’s interesting, when you think about the way the New Testament came to us – these stories about Jesus that we find in John’s Gospel probably weren’t written down until a generation after they had taken place. They started out as stories that were verbally told and retold, passed on from one follower of Jesus to another, and, no doubt, retold as dramatic performances in some cases to much larger groups.

It’s interesting when we look at the final written form of these stories that we’ve received – I think we get a sense of what was most crucially remembered in these accounts as they were passed on. The exact words used by Jesus and the precise details of the context were often remembered a little differently, but what people remembered best were the stories and images. Isn’t that what we best remember?

We remember the story about the lost sheep, about the prodigal son, about the good Samaritan, and even the story about the mustard seed that becomes the greatest of all weeds. We remember the imagery of wind and spirit and new birth.

I imagine an initial meeting between John and Nicodemus, with Nicodemus talking excitedly while sharing a flask of good wine at a local inn:

“It was very confusing. I guess I thought I had it all worked out. After all, I’ve been studying the Torah since I was a child and I did very well in all my theology exams, and my religious community had appointed me a member of their ruling council. In terms of having it all worked out, I thought ‘if not now, when?’, and yet Jesus told me that I had to begin all over again, or did He literally mean that I had to be born again, or was he saying that I had to be born ‘from above’ (of God), or did He mean something altogether different? I was very confused by that first conversation, and Jesus didn’t seem to be particularly committed to clearing up my confusion.”

I imagine that meeting was confusing, as the written text in John’s gospel is itself confusing. When Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again’, the Greek word (‘anothen’) is the same as the word meaning ‘from above’, and so it’s not clear whether Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs to be ‘born again’, or ‘born from above’, or simply that he had to ‘begin again’, or that he had to ‘begin again from a different starting point (ie. from above)’, or some combination of the above.

Nicodemus’ response – “How can someone be born when they are old? … Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4) – is an attempt to strike out one of these alternatives, but Jesus’ response – “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit… The wind blows wherever it pleases.” (John 3:6-8) – doesn’t really do a lot to clarify exactly what He was talking about.

It’s worth taking a step back and thinking about these images of wind and birth. We don’t want to let our imaginations run wild and attach all sorts of inappropriate meanings to these images, but what exactly was Jesus trying to convey here?

I have never given birth (obviously) but I have been present at four births as the designated support person, and I can tell you that what I’ve been left with from each of those experiences was, most fundamentally, the level of trauma involved!

Giving birth is a painful and bloody and protracted experience. Is that a part of what Jesus is wanting to convey here? If it is, it stands in sharp contrast to the way the exhortation ‘you must be born again’ is regularly used by evangelists.

Again, if I go back to my university days, it was generally accepted that in order to be ‘born again’ all you had to do was to say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ or some similarly well-worded form of confession and faith, after which the person leading you to faith would declare, “there you go! You’ve been born again!”

It was a pretty straightforward process – quick and painless, and no blood at all. Is that really how it works, or is spiritual renewal a slow and agonizing process during which we repeatedly feel like we are dying, and where we scream and pray that the pain will just stop, and we try to get relief but nothing really helps. My experience of the spiritual life is that it is a lot like that a lot of the time. Even so, I have a feeling that the force of the birth metaphor, as intended by Jesus, had less to do with the pain of the birth process as with the loss of control.

Again, this is not something I can pretend to have experienced myself, but it is something I have learnt from those I have supported through the birthing process – that it’s a journey you just have to go along with, as you can’t just decide to just get off when it gets uncomfortable.

I think this, at any rate, is where the imagery of birth and the image of the wind come together. The point of the wind metaphor is clear, I think – “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8). You have no control over the wind – that’s the point – just as we have no control over where the birthing journey takes us, just as we have no control over what God is doing in the world.

That’s a disturbing thought, I think – disturbing for Nicodemus, no doubt, and disturbing for us too. Nicodemus is a great man of religion, and we are people of religion too, and some of us are seasoned religious people, and what’s the point of being religious if it doesn’t give you some control over God?!

OK, we might not put it that way but isn’t a great deal of religion about taking control? We want Jesus to teach us how to pray because we want our prayers to be effective. We want to be like Elijah, who when he prays for rain, it rains (1 Kings 18) and when he prays that it will stop raining, it stops raining (James 5;17), and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty good about seeing all the rain of late, as that’s exactly what we were praying for, even if we weren’t praying for quite as much as we actually got.

We want control. We want control over our health. We want our children to be safe. Every morning I begin my day by praying for protection for my children. I suspect that countless other people of religion around the world do exactly the same thing, and don’t we all do it because we believe our prayers are making a difference? I do.

We want our prayers to be effective. We want our lives to make a difference. Whether I’m a full-time ordained cleric or whether I see my main spiritual contribution as being through my faithful devotion to my ailing mother, we all want our lives to make a difference and we believe, don’t we, that God works with us in that process, and that the Spirit of God isn’t just blowing about like the wind such that we have no control whatsoever over what God is up to?

Maybe the answer here is not simple, and maybe there is a difference between believing you can control God and believing that your prayers will be heard by God.

Going back to my university days, I remember one friend whose spiritual wisdom has stuck with me over the years. This friend had gone on a visit to Latin American over one holiday period and told me he saw there the extremes of both pre-Tridentine Catholicism, on the one hand, and Evangelical fundamentalism on the other, and he came to the conclusion that the real distinction between these and other faith groups was not the obvious tribal divisions – protestant, Catholic, charismatic, evangelical, etc. – but the distinction between those who believed in salvation by grace and those who believed in salvation by magic.

Believing in salvation by magic, to his reckoning, meant simply that your religion gave you the power to force the hand of God – to control God. At the Catholic end, he said, that seemed to involve participation in specific rituals. At the protestant evangelical end, it was all about holding on to the right doctrinal beliefs.

In its simplest form, for Evangelicals, this just means that so long as you believe exactly the right stuff, God has to let you into Heaven when you die, and that was pretty much the religion I was brought up on. I still remember the preacher from a well-known Sydney Anglican church asking us in his sermon, “When you get to Heaven and they ask you why they should let you in, what will you say?” The right answer, of course, was that “Jesus died for my sins”.

That is the right answer, but I remember at the time thinking that I should write it down so that I would be ready with the answer for when my time came, because if I gave that answer, God had no choice but to let me in, and that is salvation by magic.

If the thought that the movement of the Spirit of God is as uncontrollable as the wind is disturbing, there is a positive flip-side to it too – namely, that while we might not be able to control the wind, we can’t mistake it when it’s blowing.

Jesus says, “we testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11), and we can do that because the movement of the Spirit of God, while it is mysterious, is also obvious.

This is my testimony – that over the last thirty years in Dulwich Hill I have seen the Spirit of God move with power! I’ve seen multiples lives turned upside-down. I’ve seen addicts cured of their addiction. I’ve seen people who we were sure were going to die who have been healed. I’ve seen people who have felt marginalized and unloved discover the joys of community. I’ve seen homeless people find homes and hungry people find food – both literally and figurately. I’ve seen frail and elderly women from our church community share living-giving wisdom with young girls who didn’t know where their lives were going. I’ve seen the Spirit of God move through young people and old people, through gay people as well as straight people, through women as well as men, and through Muslims as well as Christians.

No – none of this has been under my control. It’s been like watching the wind blow. But just because you can’t control the movement of the wind, doesn’t mean you can’t engage with it when it is blowing.

“For God so loved the world …” – that’s mysterious too, and I don’t pretend to understand exactly how the salvation of the world all works itself out. What I do understand is that I don’t understand much, and what I do understand I don’t control. Even so, God understands, God’s Spirit is all-powerful, and God so loved the world.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 8th of March, 2020.

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Don’t Crucify the Messenger – Father Dave speaks in support of Julian Assange

Don’t Crucify the Messenger! – that’s my simple plea today.

I know a lot of people have said they find my friend, Luke Cornish’s, image of Julian being crucified offensive, as it makes him out to be a Christ figure.

They miss the point. The Roman Empire crucified a lot of people apart from Jesus. They crucified thousands of people. Indeed, they crucified anyone who dared to question their ultimate authority, and long before the cross was ever adopted as a symbol of faith it was a symbol of Imperial Power.

After the failed revolt of the slaves, led by Spartacus, in 73 BC, the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 slaves and put their tortured bodies on public display over a two-hundred kilometer stretch of the Via Apia. That was the Empire’s way of reminding everybody, ‘We are all-powerful and you are nothing. We have the power of life and death – the power to imprison and kill! Who are we to question us?’

Empires change as the centuries go by, but the lust for power and the arrogance and the assumption of impunity remains the same. Who are you to question us? How dare you call us to account? What is your truth when we have power?

Today’s empire is doing its best to turn our brother, Julian Assange, himself into a symbol of their power. Like the crosses that lined the Via Apia, they hold him up for the world to see, as a warning to anyone who would question their authority. ‘Dare to call the empire to account and this will happen to you too!’

And yet, around 2,000 years ago, the cross was adopted as a symbol of faith by one small group of people who came to believe that imperial violence did not have the final word. Some people, they believed, just couldn’t be crucified. Some voices just could not be silenced. When the light of truth is truly shining, the darkness just cannot ever ultimately put it out!

Forgive me if I’m starting to sound a bit religious (it’s an occupational hazard) but this really is a battle of light and darkness. Julian is being crucified because he spoke the truth – because he exposed crimes – terrible crimes of violence and murder, and it’s the persons responsible for those crimes who should be being dragged before the courts to give an account of themselves.

Don’t crucify the messenger – that’s my plea. Don’t bother, because you cannot silence the message, and don’t do it, because we, the Australian people, want that this fellow son of our sunburnt country, Australia’s son, our brother, Julian Assange, to come home.

Address given in Martin Place, February 24, 2020

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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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