SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION (2nd February) 2014
Readings: Malachi 3.1-5Psalm 24
There is a temptation that Christians have fallen into from time to time, which is the temptation to see every scriptural reference to anything hot and burny as being a reference to some sort of place of eternal torment. Apart from the deep inconsistencies between this view and a view of the all-conquering, perfectly and eternally patient redeeming love of God, bigger than death, bigger than dysfunctionality, bigger than embittered human wills and disfigured human myopia, there are an awful lot of times in which a biblical cigar is, as Freud somewhat surprisingly put it, just a cigar. (Actually scholarship suggests that Freud never said that, and that the saying emerged over a decade after his death, but while that may have some implication for biblical scholars it need not get in the way of an attempt at a sermon!).
Links between the messenger of Malachi and John the Baptist, and between Malachi’s prophesy and the circumcision of Jesus, and event a few weeks earlier in Jesus' life, and which we are primarily talking about but prudishly avoiding in the gospel reading, are tenuous at best if we want a linkage of intention: Malachi did not foresee the events of Jesus visit to the Temple. That is not the way our forebears in faith thought. But there is something about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus that divides like a winnower’s fork, and it is worth exploring that motif. The early Christian thinkers quickly saw that the person and work of Jesus Christ forced a crisis of decision. Sometimes we too narrowly formularize that decision, but I fear sometimes too we have left it so dismally undefined that a decision about Jesus becomes little more than a decision about apple pie or brands of underwear. We make a mistake if we think this is a decision about an eternal hell and its avoidance. We make a mistake if we think this is a decision about no more than a nice moral guide.
The remarkable and anonymous author of the book we call Hebrews makes clear that the person and work of Jesus Christ forces decision. Do we have no more than a dead white (or at least light brown) male here? Do we have no more than a moral teacher? I would suggest that if that is the case then well yes, Jesus, Budhha, Mohammed, Karl Marx, Te Kooti, Joseph Smith, Leonard P. Howell and L. Ron Hubbard and my pet budgie are, yes, pretty much much of a muchness. But I am not convinced that this is where the experience of the Risen Christ took our formative Christian forebears. I think the experience of the risen Christ was, and in our lives still can be, so powerful and life changing that Jesus was immeasurably more significant than my budgie or L. Ron Hubbard or Haile Selassie or all those who may or may not inspire us and who I may or may not have mentioned.
But – and despite massive incentive to believe otherwise – these thinkers and pray-ers of the first century were identifying Jesus of Nazareth as one who divided history (our calendars later somewhat powerfully yet somewhat lamely reflected that). More than that, they were seeing Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus of the Universe, and were seeing Jesus of the Universe as one who in the incarnate experience of Jesus of Nazareth had no less than stepped out of the annals of cosmology and into the banality and suffering of being human. In this man of Nazareth, and even down to the rites that were performed on his genitals as a Jew, the Incarnate Word and Command of God had become human vulnerability, justice-action, suffering-transcendence – as well as a pretty good moral teacher.
Many years ago, when I was far more involved in youth culture than I now am, I learned a stunning hymn-song composed by Old Testament theologian Norman Habel and set to music by Robin Mann. I remembered it far too late for inclusion in our liturgy today, and we would have to learn the very simple tune anyway, but maybe we can revisit it in future years. In this beautiful simplicity of Anna’s Song, Habel challenges us to become Anna the prophetess, to “lift this child to the sun, raise this child to the sky”. To this point it would not be blasphemous to say we have a motif akin to that of the Lion King, where the Christ figure Simba is lifted to the sun in offering and to see his kingdoms. But Habel takes the incarnation down from there, too: Lay this child on the ground, one with us, one with earth; Let God know in his Son, human clay, human birth. The incarnation takes God firmly into the grot and dross of your life and mine.
This in itself was divisive in the ancient world, where such a notion was unthinkable. In our world, where gods are playthings, it is more imaginable: you may remember the Joan Osborne song “What if God were One of Us”. The early Christians’ answer was that, since the Incarnation God has been one of us, and by the Spirit effectively still is, except that God is breathing resurrection-hope or eternity-hope even into the deepest large-scale atrocities of Syria or Ukraine. God is breathing resurrection-hope or eternity-hope even into the micro-calamities of your life and mine. The child of Habel’s song is laid in the shade, sent down the road, and eventually lifted into the mysterious Beyond-Words of God’s eternal dance. The “one of us” of Osborne’s song just blunders along in loneliness until the pope phones her. The One of us of Anna’s Song and indeed of Simeon’s and Anna’s prophesies enters into your life and mine and there breathes resurrection hope. But to believe that is to be divided from the world of the Osborne pop song and of narrow rationalism by a winnowing fork and to experience the piercing of the soul by Christlight.
The old man and woman of the Temple, Simeon and Anna, was each transformed because they saw in the child Jesus the transformation of injustice into justice, death into life, darkness into light and all the so much more that the stories of Jesus go on to tell us. We see through a glass darkly, but if we let our lives be touched we can and will experience what the author of Hebrews and his milieu experienced, the transformation of our lives by one who knows what we know, goes through what we go through, and there breathes Easter hope.
Having experienced that – and we must ask for it over and again as we indeed do in liturgy – then we must offer ourselves to be agents of transformation and agents of hope and agents of evangelism in God’s world, so that others, too, can experience the eternal-life-giving touch of Jesus. We must with the help of God’s drawn-near Spirit live in such a way, and must reach out in such a way, and must welcome in such a way, that others, too, can experience the eternal-life-giving touch of Jesus. So may God help us to do.