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Friday, 3 April 2020

no more plastic tombs*


* Some may recall a book published in the 1970s, entitled No More Plastic Jesus


SERMON PREACHED IN AN UPPER ROOM
TO A COMPUTER AND TO AN INTERNET
PALM/PASSION SUNDAY (April 5th) 2020


READINGS:

(1) (the Liturgy of the Palms)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

(2) (the Liturgy of the Passion)

Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Psalm 31: 9-16
Philippians 2: 5-11
Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66

Back in the day, when I was still “hands on” in faith communities, I wouldn’t preach on this day of the year. Apart from anything else the long reading of the passion had far more dramatic impact than I could ever summon in a sermon or homily – and the silence after would speak far more than any additional words. I have since the late 1980s, when I had charge of my first parish, used the (I believe unsurpassed) British Lent, Holy Week and Easter rites. This resource, based on the ancient rites of fourth century Jerusalem, provides the liturgy of the eight holiest days of the Christian Year. It’s been a few years now since I left full-time parish ministry but in any case, we are all locked down and away from the rites of the church this year, so times have changed.* I don’t recommend attempting to do the whole Lent, Holy Week and Easter rites in lockdown. Let us do it this t-year in other ways. But let us feel the pain.

So a sermon, on-line, in printed form only, it shall be. By the Wind of God may these words be a word for you.
*But may I just add that I have no truck for those perpetrators of idiocy who believe that churches should disregard lock-down orders. These orders, in this context, are not persecutions of Christians and our faith, but preservation of human life. Last time I checked God was quite keen on nurturing and preserving human lives.


~

Reading the Passion year by year is a powerful faith experience. In my tradition it is read twice: once on this Passion/Palm Sunday, and once, five days later, on Good Friday. I have tended, for various reasons, to have the Sunday reading read in several voices, and the Friday recitation in one voice.
So let us imagine for a moment we have heard masterful, brilliant actors deliver the Passion according to St Matthew. Voices like those of David Tennant, Hugh Jackman, Emma Watson, the best voices of world drama, have delivered Matthew’s crescendo-ing tale, closing with the resounding words “they went with the guard and made the tomb secure.”
And that’s it.
For now, that is. Of course, most of us know the story, and our memories allow us to take a sneak peak at Easter Day. Some frightened but loyal women turn up, and the storyline changes.
But let’s stay with a sealed tomb. Becsuse it hurts. If we were reading in the Year of Mark we might hear an additional sentence, for Mark is a master of the hint: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” In the Year of Luke we might end “all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things,” or perhaps tiptoe a little further: “they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” John’s, too, though we use him in different ways in liturgy. He ends “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
In any of these cases we are left with a resounding silence. We are left with a hushed world, in the biblical authors’ hands. Hushed, like the streets of today's surreal Covid-19 world. Hushed, surreal. 
But more so.
In literary terminology there is a thing called a radical caesura. It is often a break in an established rhythm, an expected closure that never happens. 
De dum de dum de dum de dum … 
De dum de. 
In great literature this is often achieved … most famously, perhaps, by James Joyce, who ends his Finnegans Wake in the middle of a sentence with a non-conclusive word … riverrun, which just happens to be the word that began the book. In music imperfect and interrupted cadences achieve the same effect - Mahler and Pink Floyd, Wikipedia tell me, have used this technique to effect. No doubt Krzysztof Penderecki, who died this week, did so as well, though ironically his magnificent St Luke’s Passion utilizes thwarted tonal expectations throughout, then closes with a majestic completed cadence. Perhaps that is an uncharacteristic but a fitting “amen” to his creative life and, in God’s hands, all life.
But that’s the point. The gospel writers, liturgical writers, many creative artists across genres use techniques of thwarted expectation to give us glimpses into the heart and the purpose of God. Elsewhere I am writing of St Paul’s remarkable skills with language, by which he catapults his audiences into deeper encounters with the meaning and purpose of God. The gospel writers do the same. As, let us imagine, Hugh Jackman solemnly intones “they went with the guard and made the tomb secure” a light begins to flicker. Was a secure tomb able to contain Christlight?
But let us leave the tomb and its door for a minute. It is tightly shut. Matthew wants us to get that, so let’s not fast forward. 
No peaking. No spoilers.
Let us stay instead with the death of hope. Not an ersatz death, but death. Real death. Death like the deaths of those countless souls dying, separated from loved ones because draconian regulations now forbid basically all human contact while victims are dying of coronavirus. Death mind you like a myriad other forms of death: death like those died in the hell-holes of war. Death like those died in concentration camps. Death like those died in the Black Death. Death like the early waves of HIV-Aids. Not romantic “turn your eyes upon Jesus and beam a beatific smile death” but death like the tormented death: those of NZ's obscenely high suicide and domestic violence rates. Real death. Your death, my death, either of which may or may not be peaceful.
The habit of Christian communities to deny the realities of existence and non-existence are an obscenity. For some time now I have predicted a different death: the death of the church. Not a romantic, easy death, but a struggling for breath death. Perhaps Covid-19 is another struggling last breath in that process. For those of us who happen to love the church and its comforts this is deeply distressing. 
Death always is.
Other deaths, too. The strangling struggling for breath death of our planet earth, Papatuanuku, Gaia, call her what we will. She will outlive us, but not in the form we have known her. The death of her species – countless species, and while some are dying in the natural cycles, others are dying because we have accelerated death. The loneliness of the last white rhino or the last Hector's dolphin is a hideous state to imagine.
Death of hope. That’s where Matthew and the other gospel writers leave us at the end of the Passion.
Except they don’t. But in this week of hellish death, as we engage with the absence of rites and patterns and hopes and normalities that we have loved, let us engage with that death. For it is only when we enter it that we find the first breaking of light’s reddening dawn.






Saturday, 28 March 2020

God, amidst dry bones and viruses?


SERMON PREACHED IN AN UPPER ROOM
TO A COMPUTER AND AN INTERNET
LENT 5 (March 29th) 2020


READINGS:

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45


These are strange times. Apocalyptic even … not in the sense that “the end is nigh”, but in the sense that has been the sense of every apocalypse, that “an end is here,” that so much that we took for granted is no longer, and that, nevertheless, as a people of God we seek to find divine footprints to navigate our way through. So I share these thoughts as a sermon, as I always have on my sermon blog, not necessarily knowing who you are or where, how you are, even, but hoping and praying that there may be here a case of  le mot juste or even un mot approximatif for you on this day in this changing world.

Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of lifeless desiccation has inspired artists and poets through hundreds of centuries. The vision can – and should – be writ large, speaking to society’s desiccations. The vision can – and should – be writ small, speaking to the desiccations of our own lives. Can we be agents of new life?
For three years at least we have seen the world reeling as it encounters the Orwellian US leadership that calls truth lies and lies truth – perfect truth no less. There is a sense in which we have received what we deserve. Western society, in particular but not exclusively, has deified greed, deified capital, pushed golden towers to the sky and mocked ancient fables about a tower of Babel that an invisible god destroyed in an ancient tale. Trump’s careless focus on reopening economic markets against epidemiological advice demonstrates the degree to which Mammon can usurp the place of good sense, let alone the place of God. The Western world has the leader it deserves, and may yet pay more dearly even than it is today.
There remain of course many who celebrate Donald Trump as a chosen servant of God. Perhaps they are right – but not in the way they think they are. They are right, because we have what we deserve: disregard for planet earth, disregard for the wretched of the earth, admiration for corporate greed, adoration of the dollar as the measure of meaning,  sclerosis of compassion towards those who fall by the wayside. We, not as individuals (though we all participate in corporate sin), but we as western humanity have received what we sought. We have a valley and the bones therein are desiccated.
Of course many of us know this story. God comes a long, puffs a bit of gas into the bones, and all is well again. It’s a cosy story of hope. Except if we read it with an eye on its happy ending then we read it as cheats. We have not recognized how dry these bones are. We pay lip service to the greatness of the God but also to the deadness of death. In these apocalyptic times we are reminded that death is a vast and cruel pronouncement on the vulnerability of humankind. Tales especially from Spain of the many elderly who are dying inaccessible to their loved ones, many only be foreshadowment of the harsh road ahead.
Christians have too often wallowed in a sense – indeed variations of a sense, that we are an entitled people. The various forms of Christianity have their own demons. Anglican Christianity, at its worst, has relied on status and privilege to inoculate itself against reality. Pentecostal Christianity has emphasized the spectacular and sensational, and focused on individual happy times with God. Many forms of Christianity have confused civic, human kingdoms with the Reign of God: “I vow to thee, my country.” We all have our shibboleths, false gods that replicate as if they too were viruses, blinding us to the simple demands of the gospel. Love God with heart, mind, strength. Love generously, recklessly, expansively. Judge not, that you be not …
History has had many apocalypses. This may not be the last, and certainly is not the first. Wars, plagues, natural disasters; they are brutal in their lack of discrimination. They have inspired greatness, and we are seeing it again today: medical and first response coal face workers, trying to bring hope to the dying, and healing to those not dying. The likes of Dr Fauci in the USA, trying to breathe sanity into Trump’s Orwellian world. The likes of our own Prime Minister, striving to bring both discipline and comfort in the surrealistic chaos of our every day. The anonymous sparkers of light: fetching groceries for the housebound, creating music across interwebs, checking on the well-being of friends and strangers. The image of God in humanity is not dead. The stirring breath that revivified Ezekiel’s dry valley still stirs. The onus is on us is to aid and abet that stirring: how can we be bearers of Christlight, as Richard Gillard expresses it in his Servant Song, how can we hold our hand out in the nighttime of human fear?
The answer for those of us who name Jesus as Lord begins and ends with prayer. Not prayer that we and ours should be saved from this apocalypse, though we might be, but, as Jesus put it, that we may have strength to withstand the time of trial. Jesus does not operate as a magician, airily waving away the harsh realities that surround us. Simon Magus, in Acts 8, reminds us that attitudes that exploit human vulnerability by offering false hope are utterly evil, utterly anti-Christ. Far too many are committed in the name of the God of the Cross. One US pastor who airily claimed that coronavirus was a Democrat lie designed to bring down God’s chosen servant Trump has paid with his life. In his arrogance he may have spread the virus that killed him to many other vulnerable human beings. Such is not the Way of the Cross.
To play games with the gospel in this way is to use the Lord’s name in vain. The God of Jesus Christ challenges us, and by God’s Spirit assists us, to cooperate with common sense, to cooperate with agencies that offer hope and healing, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world around us.
Amidst the shock we are seeing – and as this pandemic hits the camps of the world’s most vulnerable it will, if I can put it this way, exhibit even more exponential horror than it has already – we are seeing good news, seeing remarkable acts of hope and compassion. We as bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ are challenged to be amongst the perpetrators of hope as best we can with the gifts God gives. Beginning and ending in prayer we are called to offer ourselves and our gifts in any way that shines Christlight. Above all we are called to pray, like the psalmist, engaging in that strangest of all Christian (and other faith) disciplines. We are called to make our lives available as the answer to our prayers, though our prayer will often be all that we have. We are called to surrender the false gods and shibboleths that have often been the trademark of Christian existence.
For as we genuinely join others in throwing our lives back in the service of goodness, and as Christians, in the service of the Good News that transcends evil and suffering, we may yet be the revivified bones of Ezekiel’s stark valley.
May God be with us and through us, Emmanuel, in this valley of dry bones.



Saturday, 7 March 2020

I was a snot of a kid ... but


SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’ GLADSTONE
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (1st March) 2020


READINGS:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11


I don’t want to dwell heavily on this day on the interrelationships between sin, torah, death, those myriad deep concepts that underscore the readings. Most of us are familiar with the concepts – Paul would argue and does elsewhere that all humanity is basically saturated with the concepts of wrong and right that dwell at the heart of human sin. While some forms of psychology, and some forms of theology, too, want to dismiss the language of sin, most of us get the concept that we humans are not as good as we ought to be, that the human race is deeply flawed, that planet earth and its inhabitants, humans and other species are living an increasingly precarious and damaged existence. We only have to turn on our various forms of news feed, or lean in the bar in a pub, and very soon we will hear the latest examples of flawed human behaviour and its impact on human neighbours and indeed all animate and even inanimate ingredients of the earth.

So let’s put that safely away in the parking space. I’m not going to spill my guts over my flaws, or make public confession – though acknowledging and addressing them in an appropriate sphere is an important part of growing into a deeper humanity and, as servants of Christ, a greater likeness of him in whose footstep we plant our stumbled shuffles.

My sins aren’t particularly spectacular anyway. The times I have succumbed to temptation, sinning in weakness, ignorance or my own deliberate fault, these are all a bit passé, really, and it’s possible you have a  few of your own. Let me instead tell a couple of stories from a little bit long ago – examples of temptation, perhaps – with which we might relate, and in which we might find the footsteps of our Lord.

So, yes, a long time ago. These are both stories from my experience, but I don’t think for a moment I’m the hero in the narrative. Far from it. But let’s see how we go.

Some of you may know Whanganui, and know that one finger of the town spreads a little way up the Whanganui River – my awa! – to an almost disconnected suburb called Aramoho. In the winter it can be a damp, foggy place, in the summer a rather mosquito-blighted place, but not without some beauty. There is still, about forty years later, a motor camp / Holiday Park in Aramoho, and that’s where our simple tale takes place.

I might add that as a boarder at an elite private school I was always mortally embarrassed that my mother, by the time of this story a widow and sole parent, stayed in such a place. All my friends had parents who stayed in flash motels or the grand hotels (one indeed called the Grand Hotel)  that were the backbone of accommodation in a town that spent a lot of time accommodating the families of young males with over-developed senses of entitlement. I was mortified. Mortified, too, that my solo mother was a widow, was driving a Vauxhall Viva, and staying in a … well, if asked where she was staying I would cough something about “friends out of town” and change the subject.

I was a snot of a kid. I was also a rabid atheist. And one night as my mother backed the Viva out of the car park she collected one of the power outlets, on a pole, that were the electrical feeds for parked caravans. Minimal damage if any, to the car – which I wished to hell anyway as I hated it for being embarrassing – but the power stand was decidedly ex. Decidedly horizontal. And the night was dark and damp, for it was winter, and no one was around.

And said mother wrestled out loud with her conscience. No one was there, no one had seen it, all was quiet.  She was, I knew, a pious Christian. That was embarrassing, too. And slowly conscience won. Ugh. She took herself off to the motor camp office, confessed her embarrassing sin, and returned, grinning. The proprietor had run the place for years, lost power plug poles to errant drivers weekly, and had never before had someone ’fess up.

For a moment I wasn’t embarrassed. For a moment I was proud. I was of course a horrible son so I didn’t tell her that, but I was. Only for a moment of course, before I slumped back into a stormy teenage stupor. But it was a moment and I have never forgotten it.

Years later I was at a student party in a Palmerston North flat. My motorbike was parked in at the time I had to slip out. I glared at the snazzy looking Ford Escort that was in my way – then realised that I had just enough room to squeeze the bike between the house and the car. Or would have done, if I had had a drink or many. The bike leaned to far, I lost control, fought it, regained it, but heard the clutch lever scrape the side of the car. The night was dark, the party was raging, no-one had seen.

And so I wrestled, by then incidentally a convert to Christianity, with my conscience. No one knew. The owner would see the scratch in the dark, wouldn’t know how it happened. I moved the bike the rest of the way down the drive, went to start it, and paused. Could I really go without ’fessing up? Slowly I decided, and slunk back to find the owner. I ’fessed up. He came out with a torch but never found a scratch. As it happened the time the expedition took was long enough for me to realize I shouldn’t be riding anyway, and I stayed the night.

In both cases a tiny microcosmic form of Temptation was battled. By – and I would argue at least in my case only by the grace of God – conscience won, and wrongs were righted, situations resolved. Neither would make the news of the world. But each represented our everyday battle. Lead us not into temptation.

I haven’t always lived up to those lessons. But pray God you and I are slowly being moulded to the place where the voice of truth and justice is far louder in each of our souls than the place of deceit or injustice. May God strengthen us through the Spirit of the Christ who resisted temptation to be bearers of integrity in our every wrestle.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Thursday, 16 January 2020

first return to the airwaves



An experiment


Link to my first broadcast on OAR-FM, Dunedin Community Radio. My first pre-recorded, scripted broadcast since ABC days, and my first air-waves tickle since COW-FM days in Casino.

Good fun ... another one goes to air this Sunday (19th January), and I shall link to it on this blog as soon as it's available after broadcast..

Friday, 10 January 2020

on grotty rivers

SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, DUNEDIN
BAPTISM of CHRIST (January 12th) 2020


READINGS:
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17


You may have heard Philip Yancey’s story of a prostitute who sought help from a community worker. I was once accused of “swearing in church” because I mentioned a prostitute in a sermon. As well as noting that the scriptures frequently refer to the world’s oldest profession, it is worth noting that the alleged murder of a sex worker in Christchurch less than a fortnight reminds us  that women – and some men – of the streets are amongst the most vulnerable citizens in our society. The vulnerable are precisely the people amongst whom Jesus called us to proclaim God’s redeeming love.
Which is why Yancey told the story.[1] The woman approached a community worker, seeking help to feed her drug habit. She did so despite the atrocities she was perpetrating not only on herself but on her two-year-old daughter. Details need not detain us: the issue is that, when asked if she had considered seeking help from a church the woman was horrified: “Church? Why would I go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d make me feel worse.” Yancey contrasts the woman’s fear of the judgement she would receive with the story of the Christ who hangs out with prostitutes, and (from another hated wing of first century society), tax collectors.
Paradoxically the reprimand I received from the parishioner – a reprimand formally sent in a complaint to my then bishop (long ago and far away!) – served to reinforce the sad message that the fears of the dejected woman of the streets was spot on the mark. We, the Body of Christ, are far from conspicuous for our manaakitanga, our welcome, our hospitality. Not that we are utterly devoid of compassion. But it is not the hallmark of the Christian community in the view of our wider community.
When Jesus came to his kinsman John, he joined the apparent swathes who were seeking, as John put it, “forgiveness of sins.” Craig Keener notes, “Jesus relinquishes his rightful honor [in order to] to embrace others’ shame.”[2] In the verse before our passage Matthew has made clear that John’s baptism was secondary to that which the younger man would bring. Jesus himself baptised no-one, and the church interpreted its own baptismal mission as fulfilling John’s expectations that Jesus would bring a greater baptism of fire and Spirit. But what was a nice, and traditionally seen-to-be sinless bloke like Jesus doing in a place like a baptismal scene?
In short, he was hanging out with sinners. There was nothing “ersatz,” nothing substitute about the incarnation. Jesus dived into the whole experience of being human. Jesus – and I will make no secret of my very conservative and traditional view of the incarnation and subsequent events – dived into the very deepest troughs of human experience. Jesus dived into the life experience of a woman working the streets or a general ordering missile strikes or a nonchalant passer-by ignoring the plight of his or her neighbour. Jesus dived deep into the void of a British poet whose blog I read this week, a young transgender poet and scholar who stumbled into faith despite the clergy he encountered at a local church, clergy who publicly announced their opposition to moves to ensure LBGTQI were welcome in church.[3] Jesus dived deep into the experience of you or me and so much more.
In ancient iconography the waters from which Jesus emerged were full of symbols of the human pain he left behind. In a modern icon I have seen, the Jordan from which Jesus emerges is full of syringes and guns and condoms and dumped cars and other flotsam and jetsam of our being struggling humans.
We the bearers of Christ are called to walk in those still-wet footprints of our Lord. We are called to bear and proclaim the one who will not, in Isaiah’s prophesy, break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. We are called to be the skipping ones, showing by our lives the possibilities of joy (but of justice, too), possibilities of hope even as oceans warm and forests burn. We are called to be bearers of the one who God called “The One in whom I am well pleased.” We are called to be his hands and feet and ears and he emerges from waters of grot into green pastures of hope.
How we do that, of course, is a complex question. Can I sing? Then sing in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I feed the hungry? Then serve food in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can administer? I certainly can’t, but if I could then administer  in the spirit-enflamed hope that a life might be touched. Can I cook and sew, make flowers grow, read and teach and listen and help a person across the street, can I build houses like Jimmy Carter or fight fires or talk to strangers from different socio-economic and racial cultures?
Can I find ways to say “glory” in today’s world? Can I say that, as Hopkins put it, “the whole world is charged with the glory of God,” when it seems instead that the whole world is deadened by terminal idiocies and selfishnesses and futurelessness? Can I be a walking advertisement for the one whose voice splits the terebinth trees (and makes last Monday’s winds become as if no more than a gentle zephyr or summer breeze), yet who cares for the sparrow that falls? Can I be the hands and feet of the one who dares tread the waters of baptism even when his holiness does not belong there?
The answer is “no.” Or it is unless I open myself up to the nudging of the God who in Christ enters into the waters of human grot. The answer is no, too, unless I set aside my intellectual doubts and let myself be exposed to the possibilities of faith.
Can God be baptised? Intellect mocks, of course, but intellect does not have the final word.  Do I dare have faith that this same Christ of the gospel-stories, of baptisms and parables and healings and so much more, is one who “camest from above”?  Do I dare trust that as such he, and we with him, enter into the inexplicable and inextinguishable light of the first Easter? 
If we do we might already be bearers of light, not darkness, of invitation not rejection. Our prayer must be that we can be hope, be light, be glory-bringers when the woman of Yancey’s recollection, who had been taught to fear the judgement of Christians, crosses our path too. For we too have in Christ crossed the Jordan and left the grot behind. 



[1] See Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 11.
[2] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 121. 

Friday, 3 January 2020

breathe on me, hope-bringer


SERMON PREACHED AT St LUKE'S, OAMARU
EPIPHANY (January 5th) 2020


READINGS:

Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12

It may be hard for us to imagine the circumstances faced by the Hebrew people when Isaiah – possibly the third prophet to use the name – spoke of radiance and glory and light descending on his people. He spoke of his people experiencing a fate different to the surrounding peoples. He spoke of his peoples becoming a beacon to surrounding, stumbling peoples. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The early Christians soon saw this to have been fulfilled in the coming of the Christ, the whole kit and caboodle of the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. They came, subversively, to call Jesus “Lord,” in a land where only Caesar should be called Lord. This was dangerous.
It’s hard for us to understand how dangerous this was. By the time the New Testament texts were being written it was increasingly perilous to name Jesus as Lord. Caesar was Lord. The Christians dared to speak of a Lord when only Caesar was Lord; they dared to speak of his birth and subsequent miraculous life-events as moments thwarting the machinations of Herod. And Herod was the chosen extension of Caesar’s might, doing Caesar’s divine will.
In the same way it had been dangerous, in the time of our last of the Isaiahs, to speak of hope, at least as a faith-based option. Years ago Tina Turner sang, lustily, “What’s love got to do with it?” It was a dark if up-tempo song that some of us will remember. She didn’t write it, but it was so fitted to the bitter darkness of her abused life that it became the title of a biographical film about her. She dared to sing of love when she had known abuse (the abuse she sang about in that other song of hers, “Private Dancer.” It’s worth googling. It’s chilling. It’s a study in daring).
The Isaiahs dared to speak of hope – what’s hope got to do with it? – when hope for various reasons seemed to be irrelevant. They were not popular.
Part of the reason the Isaiahs call to hope was unpopular was because of their specific, challenging, active understanding of hope. While our passages today tend at first sight to reflect a “passive,” “stand and receive” image of hope, the overall flavour of the prophets’ vision was active.
In our Isaiah passage there is much memorable imagery of standing and receiving; “they come to you …your sons shall come … your daughters shall be carried … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you …” But the passage, in literary terms is governed by a different type of verb, an active verb. “Arise! Shine!” I have vivid memories from my boarding school days of the bells that rang to awaken us from slumber. I have fonder memories from other contexts when a kinder voice would interrupt my dreams with the very words of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine!” Both the school bell and the half-remembered childhood voices were calls to action. Slumber time is over. Action time is here.
The prophets and the New Testament writers alike were daring to dream a reality different to that which they saw around them. The followers of Jesus were not seeing the corrupt empire of the Caesars crumbling or defeated. Not in political or military terms. But they dared to act as if they were. They could not even see Jesus anymore, and most, perhaps all who heard Matthew’s story, never had. They experienced his presence powerfully, though, and because they experienced his presence in fellowship and in bread and wine, and in the journeying together through the Hebrew Scriptures, they knew their reality was stronger than the realities they saw around them. In believing they were empowered by Jesus’ unseen presence.
They were either mad or inspired, of course. And the word “inspired” means “breathed on” or perhaps more accurately, “breathed into.” “Breathe on me breath of God,” we used to sing; Edwin Hatch’s hymn makes it clear that he, too, meant “breathe into.” Breathe into me by your wind, your “pneuma” or Spirit. Breathe into me the awareness of a reality greater than that which I see around me. Inspire me to live by that reality instead of by the gloom that infiltrates, swamps even, my news feeds every day.
In the 1997 Robert Begnini film Life is Beautiful, an Italian Jewish father saves his son’s life, though not his own. He does so by inventing a game in which the son is challenged to believe in a different reality. It is a reality in which life is indeed beautiful, unlike the harsh reality of their real life in a concentration camp. The details are unimportant. The Jewish heritage of hope though is critical. Dare we believe in a cosmos where there is a God who will make our hearts “thrill and rejoice,” or in which “our sons shall come from far away, our daughters shall be carried” to us? Dare we believe in a cosmos when all who we have loved and sometimes lost are with us once again, and the new heavens and new earth shine with the radiant glory of God, and darkness and corruption is overthrown?
All of this imagery can be no more than an empty fairy tale, though, if we remain, to return to the language of grammar, passive. If we sit cosily in our safe and happy spaces believing God will soon enough beam us up, and therefore care nothing for a corrupt and crumbling world around us, then we are not only, in Paul’s world, “more to be pitied” but more to be despised than all people. The God-child to whom the wise men paid obeisance was no passive but an active word and voice of God, pricking the conscience of a nation-people.
I happen to be reading Nelson Mandela’s potent 1990s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. As he recalls his decades on Robben Island it is very clear that he steered himself and others through the hellish years not by passive acceptance of the evil status quo but by active means. He dared, like the father and child in Life is Beautiful, dared, like the prophets Isaiah, dared like the psalmist, dared like the gospel-writer Matthew, to dream of and strive for a different reality. He dared to dream of and enact a reality in which the light does shine, in which wise leaders do find and proclaim Jesus, in which justice (for all the downtrodden and victimised peoples and species) does roll down like thunder, and in which human beings to learn to love and live, seeing the image of God in one another.
These traditional readings of Epiphany are readings of comfort, readings of mystery, readings of challenge. They dare us not to despair, dare us not to limit the possibilities of God to the mere realities we see around us. They challenge us to lift our vision to a greater God and a greater reality, and to proclaim that God by action (and if necessary by words), to proclaim God in the world God that calls us to live in. The biblical writings are, (unless we tame them to nothingness), daring and subversive. They declare a lordship different to that commonly proclaimed by the Caesars of any age. They challenge us to be active, not passive, to hope not despair, and then like the wise leaders, to go on into the world having been changed a little, having been prepared and on- or in-breathed by God’s Spirit  to work to re-engender that same change in those we encounter. By being breathed on bu God's dangerous Spirit we too may bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord who is so much greater than Herod or even Caesar.