SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALof St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(December 20th) 2015
Micah 5:2-5aPsalm 80:1-7
Every narrator since before Homer created his or her tale to take their audience to a particular perspective or experience. Whether the writer’s task be “mere” entertainment or a much deeper level of instruction, they seek to take us into a new perspective on what Douglas Adams called “life, the universe, and everything.” The gospel authors were no exception. They took thirty or forty years’ worth of remarkable, credible oral story telling about the man Jesus, dared to name him Lord, and dared to tell of his conquest of all darkness and suffering and even death despite his much publicised execution by Roman overlords. They dared to tell of a powerlessness that conquers even the most brutal and manipulative powers. They dared to turn reason upside-down.
Luke’s telling of the Jesus-story was based on his two or three decades of life-transforming encounter with the risen Christ. That Christ had been made known to him by the persuasive presence of the Spirit in evangelism and worship and fellowship and scriptural exploration. At the heart of that experience was the belief that against all appearances God the Creator had turned existence upside-down in Jesus. No longer was the brutal Caesar Lord, but the crucified outsider criminal was Lord. No longer were the proud and together and slick and polished the mighty, but the broken and the hesitant and the Not Very Clever. No longer were the dwellers in crystal palaces powerful, but the dwellers in culverts and bus shelters. No longer were the clever creative aesthetes the conduits of divine goodness, but the bumbling stumblers were.
In this reversal Luke interpreted the whole of Jewish history as a history of expectation, a history of the hope that despite suffering and despair, despite Daesh and a myriad myriad shootings and road traumas and human catastrophes social and personal, despite all appearances, God’s “yes,” God’s promise first whispered to Abraham, would one day be fulfilled, and indeed was fulfilled in Jesus of the manger.
We know next to nothing about Luke, but he was not thick. He knew that Caesar still packed a mighty punch, that poverty was unromantic, that death either by natural causes or at the hands of a brutal state was fiercely unattractive for both the dying and for those who love them. But Luke’s years of worship and fellowship, practising the presence of God by building on his first life-changing encounter with Jesus, his years of breaking open the Hebrew scriptures and finding his Saviour writ large there, these had persuaded him over and again that it was not the silliness of belief in the resurrected Christ but the silliness of the failure to see beyond suffering and death that represented truncation of the human heart and soul. And so he either put into Mary’s mouth, or more likely recorded a poetic vision that had originated with Mary the mother of Jesus, the mystical Mother of God, the words through which the Christ-life must be lived: “my soul doth magnify the Lord … despite everything logical.”
This means though that as Christians we are not called to see the rational and coherent and strategic and sequential, but to see the vast and incomprehensible upside-down blessing of God, the inextinguishable blaze of Christ-light in which human experience of sensibleness and coherence and strategically planned-for and sequentially ordered existence is made inconsequential. He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts. We are called not to see things as they are to us, but as they are to the eternal perspective of God. This is impossible, but aided by the Spirit of the Resurrection we can withstand God-given glances of the eternities.
Centuries ago the great saint John Chrysostom wrote to Christians who were experiencing persecution and death in a brutal reprisal initiated by the Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius had begun by stripping away the privileges of the city Antioch in which those Christians lived, removing therefore the comfortable protections they had relied on. History is slowly repeating itself.
For social chit chat today is increasingly toxic in its assessment of Christianity and its practitioners. Groundswells of murmuring and economic realities coalesce to indicate that one day even western or global north Christians will not enjoy the cosy infrastructural privilege that has been our Linus blanket for centuries. As this happens we might learn from Chrysostom’s sage warning: the honour of a city, Chrysostom warned, is not the favour of the emperor, or the large and beautiful buildings, but the piety of those who worship the God of Jesus Christ.
The beauty and security, the Linus blanket of a church or a cathedral or a diocesan infrastructure will crumble, but it is the prayers of the people, the journeying of the people in the way in which and to which we are baptised: these are the church and the cathedral and the diocese and the collected authenticity of the City of God.
To that we must witness by our mad-crazy actions. Are we a people who welcome and embrace the odd and dysfunctional or the just plain different? I speak not only of our big picture response to the world’s growing migration of refugees, but the far more difficult small picture response of our attitude to a noisy child or an unshowered street person or a person with prison tats in the pew next to us. Do we embrace or do we exclude? I know my first reaction, and I suspect I am not alone in needing to confess my reliance on comfort zones that do not represent the topsy-turvy Magnificat values of Jesus the Christ. Do we embrace and include those who are not from our socio-economic, chronological, ethnic or cultural milieu, or do we subtly (not least by our expectations of high literacy) exclude the lowly and the other, as we sing or read our Magnificat?
Advent is a time of preparation. Sometimes the temptation is even to make preparation distant and abstract, if aesthetically pleasing. Remembering the sage words of R.A.K. Mason’s “On the Swag” at least as much as those of Jesus the already-come and still-coming Christ, or indeed of Mary his mother, we need to ask once more whether our hearts are really prepared to encounter Jesus, to “bring him in, ” to “let the wine be spiced in the old cove’s night-cap.” Can we pause to meet him in the upside-down, topsy-turvy world he simultaneously inhabits and promises, or are we prisoners of our own paradigms of comfort and propriety, orderliness and niceness?
May God help us to be ready for the coming, upside-down Christ of the Magnificat.
The peace of the coming Christ be always with you.