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Saturday, 1 December 2012

Combatting amnesia



SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NT)
Sunday, December 2nd, 2012 (FIRST SUNDAY of ADVENT)

Readings:      Jeremiah 33.14-16
                      Psalm 25.1-10
                      1 Thessalonians 3.9-13
                      Luke 21.25-38

Some nine or ten times in Luke’s gospel telling we find reference to signs. Bluntly there are in Luke’s scheme two types of sign: good signs and bad signs. Luke is not one for befuddling complexities: good signs come from God, bad signs are the speculative fantasies of human beings. At a time when the idiot fringes of the media are morbidly obsessed with the hitherto ignored Mayan Calendar, disregarding the explanations of Mayan observers, playing with the entertainment-hungry imagination of a bored public and counting down to yet another end of the world we stand reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. There will always be those who are gullible, believing that the ennui of life might be alleviated by some new celebrity scandal or the end of the world.

Jesus sets a different challenge. His challenge to those who would follow him is to read the times as the times that are embraced by God. When early on Easter morning we light the paschal calendar and the priest intones a prayer declaring all time to be God’s time, declaring that God is the Alpha and Omega in whom all time is embraced, we are entering deep into the world of Luke’s understanding. Jesus, as Luke tells the story, is uninterested in idle speculation – whether by those who purport to be his followers or those who are uninterested in the Way of Jesus Christ.

Luke – or indeed Jesus in his dinner discourse – uses a kind of creative or constructive nostalgia in order to generate a narrative of hope for the future. A people who forget their past, a people with amnesia, are a people who are losing their soul. At a time of persecution, such as that into which the western Church is probably currently sliding, the temptation is to be overladen with images of our failings. Because ­some church workers, clergy included, have betrayed the gospel with atrocities, predominately sexual and predatory, we are tempted to a form of amnesia that tells us that all bearers of the image or name of Christ are at worst predatory or at best dysfunctional human beings. This is only a shadow form of the suffering that has been undergone by Indigenous peoples in Australia and throughout the colonial world. Indigenous peoples have often experienced the absolute and systematic dismantling of their corporate story in the name of modernization and even, sometimes, evangelization. This is only a shadow form, too, of the suffering that has been experienced by many of our forebears in faith, and indeed is still being experienced by our sisters and brothers in Christ in some parts of the world today. Nevertheless it is a wakeup call for us all in the cosy West, and things will not get easier.

Jesus reminds those who gather with him at table of the story of God’s hand on the chosen people. Luke deliberately calls to mind these words, depicting the events of this meal not as a time of tension and betrayal – he does not even mention the presence of Judas at the table – but as a focussed attempt by Jesus to remind his guests at table of God’s firm hand on their remarkable history of saving exodus and continued survival against all odds.

Luke depicts the events in this way precisely because the Christian community was, by the time he was recording these events, experiencing alienation and persecution. He wanted them to know clearly that they were now a people held in the hand of the saving redeeming, history-transforming God, that no matter what might befall them as individuals, that the redeeming hand of God was greater. As Luke builds his crescendo towards the events of Holy Week and Easter he wants us to know, if I may be anachronistic for a moment, the truth of Luther’s famous words, variously translated, but here rendered

… take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

Faith in the resurrected Christ, it has to be emphasized, is not about the avoidance of our own suffering and death. We may suffer, and we will die – we will not even ‘pass away’ as our modern fluffy parlance prefers. We will die. There is (if I may digress momentarily) an irony that we now live in a world wherein we can put any four lettered word we like on the bumper of our car, but the verb ‘to die’ is verboten.

Luke’s Jesus – and therefore I suggest both the historical Luke and the historical Jesus – demands that his audience stands head held high no matter what befalls them. No one claims this is easy. The early Christians’ belief in the presence of the risen Christ in their lives and in their corporate life as community transformed contexts that could have been contexts of deepest despair into times of faith celebration and almost brutal optimism. I believe – and I don’t want to experience this – that this is a charism (a gift) that can and will come to believers in time of persecution, that it is, or rather it is, rather than some of the fluffy stuff we emphasize in times of comfort, that this is a gift of the Spirit to persevere against all odds, even when death appears to have the final word in my life or yours.  The God who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and led them home again out of Babylon, will lead the new people of God safely out of the persecutions they are facing from the Roman overlords, from those who have destroyed the Temple, from those who are seeking to alienate the Christian community and ensure it has no lifelines. God will have, Jesus is subtly telling his guests, the final say, and the final say is not the ‘no’ of persecution but the ‘yes’ of easter and of the ‘new heavens and new earth’.

The audience of Jesus had to know the narratives to experience the encouragement. At the time of this discourse of Jesus they had yet to experience the remarkable resurrection event, but by the time Luke was telling the Jesus story the Christ-community were well-experienced in that presence of the Spirit that assured them of the resurrection presence of Christ. This is the narrative that encouraged the earliest Christians to face their own mortality with disdain. And this confidence comes only from the constant awareness and rehearsal of the presence of the risen, resurrected Christ in the midst of the Jesus community. It is to that narrative of hope against all hope that the risen Lord invites his people in every age and every circumstance.
TLBWY
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