Don’t let the Devil Steal Your Identity as God’s Beloved Son or Daughter

Jesus is God’s Beloved Son

We heard last week how God, at Jesus baptism, confirmed what people have been realizing up to now in Luke’s Gospel. The voice of God from heaven declared that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  In the families of the ancient world an adult son was the father’s representative and the father and the son would work together to accomplish the family goals. So here we have Jesus about to start his work as the representative of his Father. But how was he to understand and accomplish the family goals?

Right after his baptism, we heard, the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert where he spent time sorting out what that meant, how he was to fulfil this role. As I’ve heard Nigel put it, it’s equivalent to the pre ordination retreat priests do today. After this, Jesus was ready to go into Galilee and proclaim that the words of Isaiah about the Messiah have been fulfilled. We’ll be hearing about this in the weeks to come.

Temptations call Jesus’ Identity into Question

Using the language of his day, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, presents Jesus’ deliberations as being tempted by the devil. These temptations go to the heart of who Jesus is.  Two of them start by calling into question Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son with the words “if you are the Son of God” followed by a challenge to prove this identity with some miraculous display (stones into bread or a dramatic angelic rescue from death). The other temptation (all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me) invites Jesus to ignore God’s role in his life and work and be seen as the sole ruler.

Jesus in the Wilderness

Three temptations – Self-indulgence / bread, self-aggrandizement / power and self-serving religious identity / safety. What they all have in common is that they display Jesus’ identity in self-serving ways that would undermine his identity as the Son who relies on the good gifts of the Father.

Identity Theft

David Lose, a Lutheran preacher and writer summarized it this way, as identity theft taking away Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son.

“It really doesn’t have to be bread, power, or safety. Temptations, I mean. In today’s reading the devil tries to seduce Jesus with the promise of bread when he’s hungry, the glory and power of all the world’s leaders, and the promise of rescue paired with the suggestion that God is not sufficient to keep Jesus safe. And all Jesus has to do in return is worship Satan.  Bread, power, and safety. But it just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security. On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity. Which is why I think this passage is really about identity theft. And not simply the devil’s failed attempt to steal Jesus’ identity but all the attempts to rob us of ours.”

Our identity – Beloved Children of God

You are God’s Beloved Son or Daughter

Last week’s reading from Isaiah gave us a lovely picture of who we are and whose we are “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. We belong to God and God loves each one of us. calling us by name. We, too, are God’s beloved sons and daughters, children of God.  Paul confirms this: Romans 6:14 “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God”; and Gal 3:26 “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith”.   This is our identity, sons and daughters of God, and like Jesus, we face temptations that seek to rob us of that identity.

A few that come to my mind right away are these, but I expect you can think pf more:

Advertising and Consumerism

Advertisements make a promise less about the quality of a product and more about an imagined lifestyle that owning the product can somehow provide.

Advertisement for Soap

By owning this kind of car, or using this kind of wineglass, advertisers suggest, we will discover our identity and move closer to having a meaningful life. Thehe new  Volvo XC60 – Moments advertising video shows a mother driving her child around in a Volvo as the child, initially shy, develops confidence. Another car advertisement, an Audi Ad proclaims “Bravery it’s what defines us”. Soap ads show pictures of beautiful women with perfect skin – but stop short of claiming that’s what the soap will do for you.

Advertisement for Beer

Sometimes it’s explicit, usually it’s implied. Owning this brand of car will make you a more confident  or braver person; using this soap makes you more beautiful.  Look how much fun you’ll have if you serve this food or beverage. You get the idea.  Want to be happy, brave, confident or whatever – there’s a product out there whose advertising implies it can give you this. Who needs God?

Greed

Tired of being poor, counting pennies? Look what you could win on the lottery! Need some excitement – well, play the slots, or live tables; you don’t need to fly down to Vega, although you can. It’s legal, but is it right? There are lots of get rich schemes here, in addition to the gaming tables – just ask a shady investment dealer! You could get rich – or become very poor. But they don’t tell you that. Come on, get rich off other poor suckers. Forget all this Love your neighbour stuff.

Self-indulgence

On Friday, when I went to Fortinos to buy (healthy) fruit, I was tempted and bought a big container of Chocolate Chip cookies! Self-indulgent, yes, but relatively harmless. Self indulgence could be deciding to watch TV instead of calling or visiting a lonely person, just because we don’t feel like it – or many other things

Self indulgence at the expense of the environment

It can also be about putting ourselves before the needs of the environment and our fellow creatures.  Do we buy eggs laid by hens that are kept in tiny cages? Or eat chickens that never get to see the light of day? And what about consuming more than our fair share of the world’s resources?

A recent Globe and Mail article said: “while dairy and meat products provided just 18 per cent of calories consumed by humans, their production monopolizes 83 per cent of global farmland and is responsible for 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases generated by agriculture. The loss of forest cover to farmland is one of the main causes of species loss and global warming.”

We are encouraged to think about greenhouse gas usage, but do we consider the impact of our diets on God’s creatures and creation? What are we doing to our world, and what will it be like for our children and grandchildren? I’m not proposing full vegetarianism, just more thoughtful consumption and we’ll see where it leads us.  God loves all creation, and as God’s children, we should too

Finding our identity.

So, where do we find our identity? Are we driven by consumer culture, get rich quick schemes, self-indulgence or other temptations? Is our identity rooted in being God’s beloved son or daughter, or it is rooted in our self-love? “If you are the son of God …”- the devil tried to undermine Jesus’ confidence in both God and himself. He seeks, that is, to erode Jesus’ confidence that God is enough, and that Jesus is worthy of God’s love. But Jesus knows that God is enough and he, Jesus, has enough. But he also knows that he is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.  And so are we.

“Turn these Stones into Bread”

Isn’t this what most of our temptations are about.  Our insufficiencies and insecurities   A new outfit will give me confidence. With a new carpet my home will be perfect and admired. If I had more money, I’d be happy and popular. I can do without God to fulfil my needs;  I can do it myself. I can turn the stones of my insufficiency into the bread of whatever I need without God. The temptations may be very different on the surface, but at a deeper level they all boil down to this: they seek to move our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that seems to promises a more secure identity.

In the wilderness

The Wilderness is a place of Testing

Jesus, according to the story, wandered in the wilderness for 40 days, two biblical expressions meaning a place of testing and a very long time.  Like Jesus, there are times we find ourselves in the wilderness, in a place of testing, where we feel lost; where we try to sort out in our own minds and hearts where God is for us, what it means to be a child of God, what our egos think we can do for ourselves. Sometimes, God feels very distant and insufficient for our needs.  Can God be trusted? Our deep spiritual work rarely happens in abbreviated, linear bursts; temptation is not once and done. Jesus rejects the tempter here, but he has other moments of doubt, particularly at Gethsemane and the cross.

What is going on in the wilderness? On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, the temptation to define ourselves apart from God

Here is something for each of us to do. Take with us this question, and think about it and answer it on the weeks to come: What tempts me to find my sufficiency and security in something other than in God? And then reclaim your identity as Gods beloved son or daughter.

Go forth knowing you are  a beloved child of God

Jesus went into the wilderness with God’s blessing in his ears: “You are my beloved son (daughter). He came out knowing how to serve God and God’s kingdom on Earth.   So God bless you, beloved Children of God, as we all journey in the wilderness.      Amen

 

To be made holy is to be sacrificed — just as to be sacrificed is to be made holy

Scripture: Luke 3: 1-22

Today we return to Luke’s account of the origins and life of Jesus. Personally, I have appreciated this season’s sequential readings through Luke’s Gospel more than, I think, I ever have before. They have allowed me to focus on the care that Luke when he built up the story. To tell the truth, last week’s Epiphany detour into Matthew’s Gospel was an intrusion for me. It interrupted Luke, while it failed to include Matthew’s poignant tale of the Holy Family’s time as refugees in Egypt. That will have to wait till next year, when we will read from Matthew.

How Luke edited Mark’s version of Mark’s version of today’s Scripture

Most scholars believe that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a template for his own narrative about the life and teachings of Jesus.  Typically, Luke added some details to add colour to Mark’s narrative. Thus, Luke tells us that the events took place in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign. He amplifies John’s call to repentance (You brood of vipers, etc), as also does Matthew. Luke also gives much more detail about what repentance meant for the people John preached to. Tax collectors must not rake in more money than the amount of the taxes. Soldiers must not use threats and false accusations to extort money in the form of bribes.

The big difference between Luke and Mark is that Mark showed no interest in Jesus’ origins or early life. Mark’s Jesus ‘strides onto the stage’ after the proclamation of his coming by John the Baptist.

Immediately next comes his baptism and the words of the heavenly voice, “You are my beloved Son.” This makes Mark’s Gospel consistent with many early Christians’ belief that Jesus was an ordinary man whom God ‘adopted’ at his baptism.  Then he returned to ordinary human status on the Cross when he despairingly cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Luke stressed from the outset of his narrative that Jesus was the Messiah

You cannot possibly take the message that God only ‘adopted’ Jesus when you read Luke’s Gospel. There were heavenly interventions in the births of Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. Luke identified both of them as descendants of King David. A whole series of people recognized Jesus as Messiah – the shepherds, the Temple Jews Simeon and Anna, and Jesus himself when he was twelve years old. Now, finally, God’s own voice authenticated his mission. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

All these events testify to the holiness of Jesus. That is why I want to take what seems like a detour to talk about sacrifice. “Sacrifice?” you say. “Surely that’s about what happened at the Crucifixion?” Bear with me …

To sacrifice means to make holy

The word ‘sacrifice’ came into the English language in the 13th century from the Latin word sacrificium.  That word combines the elements sacri- (from ‘sacer’ meaning holy) with -fic- (from the verb ‘facere’, to make or do). Sacrifice therefore means ‘to make holy’. It does not necessarily have anything to do with killing.

However, killing is the context of the animal sacrifices that  the ancient world’s temples carried out.  Both Jewish and pagan priests made ordinary animals holy by saying prayers as they killed them. That made the meat holy, and acceptable for the priest to offer it to the temple god. Grace before meals is the same concept. We give thanks for the animals and plants that we sacrificed – in the sense of killing – to nourish our bodies. By blessing the food, we make it holy.

In a similar way to what happened in ancient temples, we make a sacrificial offering of the bread and wine at Communion. We say special prayers to sacrifice (make holy) ordinary bread and wine. Therefore we must then treat the consecrated bread and wine with respect. We do not throw any leftovers in the garbage or down the drain. But notice: ordinary bread and wine are not innately holy. Nor were the animals in the sacrifices of ancient temples. We make them holy by our actions.

Sacrifice does not have to imply death

Nevertheless, the word sacrifice has become inextricably bound up with death, especially the deaths of soldiers killed in wartime. Prior to WW I, soldiers merely ‘died’ in battle. The soldiers who died fighting for or against Napoleon were just indentured pawns who had to fight for their king or emperor. There were no war memorials. In the 20th century, the soldier’s role changed. World Wars I and II gave those who perished a noble status; they sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. Therefore the pointless deaths of Canadian soldiers at the Somme became sacrifices. In that sense they did not just die; they became holy. The soldier fought for a worthy cause such as the German Fatherland, La France, or the British Empire; later, to save the world from Nazism or Communism.

Traditional Christian terminology views Christ’s death on the Cross as a sacrifice in the greater cause of defeating human sin – the theology of atonement. That idea does not come from the Gospels. It originates in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “All have sinned …. they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. This deliberate sacrifice for a greater good has the same meaning as in chess, when one player deliberately loses a piece in order to advance the game. As in, “White sacrificed his queen, which led to Black’s checkmate in three moves.”

Praise and worship are sacrificial offerings

But I want to return to less negative uses of the word sacrifice. In some of our Eucharistic prayers we offer ourselves as ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ [BCP and BAS Prayer 3]. That means that we make ourselves holy because we offer praise and thanksgiving to God. It has nothing to do with death. BAS Prayer 1 makes this abundantly clear: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us … that all who eat and drink at this table may be … a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

Those words take us back directly to the Baptism of Jesus. The voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God attested to Jesus’ holiness, just as Gabriel, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna had done previously. All of them had made Jesus holy — a living sacrifice.

Our work as Christians makes us holy — that is, a sacrifice

I have belaboured this point for two reasons. First, I want to dispel the negative perception of many Christians about the word sacrifice. As I have stated, it does not have to imply death. It simply means “to make holy.’ Second, I would like everyone here to see themselves in the same way that God saw Jesus at his baptism – holy; a living sacrifice.

Jesus’ mission of preaching and teaching was possible because God had affirmed him as holy – a living sacrifice. That is why we will reaffirm our own baptismal covenant this morning. It is not so that we can re-enact what happened two thousand years ago at the River Jordan. It is instead to reconfirm that we are God’s people living and working in our ordinary, secular world. Call it evangelism; call it mission. Those are just fancy words for doing our best to be the face of Christ to the people we meet. Our baptismal covenant tells us how to do it. Continue to gather together as a parish. Respect other people, no matter who they are. Care for God’s Creation. Then each of us will be a living sacrifice – people made holy.

Gifts of Epiphany, old and new, tangible and intangible

Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12

Today we take time away from Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, as told by Matthew.  Today, the Church remembers the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Epiphany is special to me because it is the anniversary of the date when Bishop Ralph ordained me as priest.  The ordination ceremony took place at St James’ Fergus, where I was curate.  It was incredibly exciting for the parish.  I was their first curate ever, and it was also their first ordination ceremony ever.

What does ‘Epiphany’ mean?

‘Epiphany’ comes from a Greek word that means an appearance, especially the making apparent (manifestation) of a god. In Christian tradition, the Magi were the first Gentiles – the first people outside the Jewish family – to recognize the divinity of the baby Jesus. You might say that in bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were guests at Jesus’ baby shower. But it wasn’t really like that at all.

How many wise men were there and how did they travel?

Let’s think about the old carol, We Three Kings, and Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men.  Matthew does not say that there were three wise men, only that they brought three gifts. We just assume that they brought one gift each.  Now “everyone knows”, from Christmas cards and Christmas pageants as long back as they can remember, that the wise men arrived on camels.  But the Gospel story doesn’t actually tell us how the wise men got to Bethlehem.

Does this mean that we should tear up all the Christmas cards that we receive that show three kings on camels? I don’t think so. These additions are just part of the charming way that we have embroidered the story to make it more alive to us.  We learnt the story as children from the tableaux of Christmas pageants rather than from the exact words of Scripture.  Christmas pageants cheerfully mix together the shepherds and angels of Luke’s Christmas story with Matthew’s Magi. The new story is our present-day mythology.  Mythology invites us to look at the meaning of the stories in the Bible rather than focus only on the superficial details.

All this should alert us to the fact that the visit of the Magi may not have happened precisely as Matthew wrote it, either. Matthew wrote his Gospel about 80 years after Jesus was born.  People had told and retold the story by word of mouth before it reached Matthew.  They had almost certainly embellished and elaborated it by the time that Matthew heard it.

The message of the Christmas season

The Scriptures we have read over the Christmas season all convey the same message — people who discovered that they were in the presence of the holy. The shepherds on Christmas Eve; Simeon and Jesus’ parents last week; today the Magi.  We do not know whether the Magi arrived right after Jesus’ birth. Matthew says only that, “they saw the child with Mary his mother. And they knelt down and paid him homage. …” In other words, it could have happened after the Holy Family returned home to Nazareth from their meeting with Simeon in the Temple

We don’t know exactly who were these people call the Magi.  Maybe they were astrologers.   The important thing to know is that they were people seeking God. And that is what they found.

The Magi were of high status, yet they came to offer gifts to a mere baby, born to a poor peasant teenager. They brought expensive gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The hymn We Three Kings reminds us that the gifts were symbolic – gold for power and wealth; incense for holiness; myrrh predicting Jesus’ death. Yet when they looked into the eyes of that tiny baby, they saw the Christ – that is, divinity – looking back.  That was the gift that they received in exchange.

When is a gift not really a gift?

It seems to me that the word ‘gift’ implies no requirement nor expectation for reciprocity.  That’s not the way that many of us exchange gifts at Christmas.  If I buy a gift for Uncle Albert, I may feel upset if he does not give me a gift, too.  There was a good article on that subject in Saturday’s Globe & Mail (January 5).   Drug company ‘reps’ often give small gifts to doctors.  Ostensibly these gifts have little value — pens, coffee, sandwiches.  But the drug companies know that human beings have a powerful urge to reciprocate.  Doctors, being human, are more likely to prescribe the drugs made by the company that gave them such ‘treats’ than similar products made by competitors.

Christ invites us to be the modern Magi

Because we should not get hung up on the details of the Epiphany story, we ask ourselves what the story means to us today, here in Milton at the beginning of a new year 2019. The Magi came from the East with their gifts for exactly the same reason that we have all come to church this morning. All of you here today are the Magi of the year 2019, for you have come to pay your own homage to the Christ-child.  But more than that, who are the Magi in our lives and what gifts do they bring us? Conversely, who are the people to whom we are the Magi, and what gifts are we carrying for them?

Messages of hope

Like the New Year, the stories of Christmas and Epiphany express hope.  That is why the New Year is often depicted like a newborn child.  It is a symbol of a new year as a new start.  As Christians, we believe that the birth of Jesus was a fresh start in the relationship between God and humanity. People make New Year resolutions in that same spirit – the hope that 2019 will better than 2018. I’ll resolve to lose weight, I’ll be nicer to my in-laws, I’ll come to church more regularly, or whatever. Therefore New Year resolutions are a bit like gardening or farming.  When we plant our flowers, vegetables, or crops each spring, it expresses our hope and expectation that this will be the perfect summer.  There will be just the right amount of rain and just the right warm temperatures.

O. Henry’s story The visit of the Magi

Today I want to repeat something I recounted several years ago at Epiphany.  It is O. Henry’s charming story of love  The visit of the Magi.  I first encountered it as read by the late Alan Maitland in his role as Fireside Al on the CBC program As it Happens.

Jim and Della were a poor young couple who had no money to buy each other Christmas presents. Jim’s most treasured possession was his gold watch, and Della’s was her long brown tresses. Jim longed to buy Della a set of tortoiseshell combs for her beautiful hair.  Della longed to buy Jim a gold strap for his cherished watch. In the story, Jim sold his watch to buy Della the tortoiseshell combs. Della sold her hair to buy Jim the gold strap for his watch. But when they exchanged their gifts on Christmas morning, Jim had no watch to hang on the strap, and Della had no long hair through which to run the combs.

The last paragraph of O. Henry’s story

“The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they, are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” So may we at St. George’s be Magi in this place!

At age twelve, Jesus foresees his Messiah-ship. Do these events mirror what will happen at his trial before Pilate?

Scripture: Luke 2: 41-51

In today’s Scriptures we move ahead from Christmas to later events. I decided not to talk about the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, because we read it last year. Instead I want to discuss what happened when Jesus was twelve years old. At that time, he and his parents went to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

There is a joke that asks why Mary and Joseph took Jesus with them. The answer – they couldn’t get a baby-sitter. The joke seems reasonable from the perspective of 21st century parents.  By law, Canadian parents cannot leave twelve year olds at home alone. But in the context of the 1st century, the answer is nonsensical. At twelve years old, Jesus was on the cusp of adulthood.  That was why they took him with them because he was almost a man, not because they couldn’t leave him behind.

While they were in Jerusalem, the Temple scribes gave Jesus and his fellow twelve-year-olds instruction in the Law of Moses. That was to prepare them for their ceremonial entry into adulthood – today’s Bar Mitzvah – at age thirteen. But Jesus amazed everyone. He already knew the Law in detail.

We can’t easily imagine the ancient world’s mid-set

Today, the average Canadian lives for eighty years.  It was closer to forty in Jesus’ day.  If you waited till your thirties to marry and start a family, you had missed the boat! People died in childhood or because of illness and accidents.  Adulthood had to begin much earlier in life. There was no concept of adolescence.  Alexander the Great lived the same number of years as Jesus (33). He became king at the age of twenty. Ten years later he had the greatest empire in the ancient world.

Jesus told his parents, “I was in my father’s house.”  Jesus knew his future role in life by the age of thirteen.  I found my vocation as a chemist at a similar age, even though I’m not Jesus or Alexander the Great.   I was fourteen when I took my first high school chemistry course.  The subject interested me so much that I finished reading the textbook in two weeks.

‘Helicopter parents’ didn’t exist when Jesus was a boy. Joseph and Mary didn’t worry that Jesus was not with them when they started home from Jerusalem. He was almost an adult, after all.

Able-bodied Jews had to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover

The pilgrims from around Nazareth would have travelled to Jerusalem together. Joseph and Mary assumed that Jesus was with other people in the group. They didn’t realize that he was missing for a whole day. Then they began to worry because they couldn’t find him.  They went back to Jerusalem to look for him.  After three days they found him.  He was sitting with the teachers in the Temple.

The story is a very human one. By now, Mary and Joseph were frantic. When they found Jesus, their first reaction was to tear a strip off him. “What do you mean, staying behind like this? Your father and I were worried stiff!” And the almost teenager Jesus replied equally in character, “What are you all worked up about? Surely you realize that I was here, learning in my Father’s house!” I guess that parents were a just as much of a pain in teenagers’ necks two thousand years ago as they are today.

I have to make a side comment here because I especially noted what Mary said. “Your father and I have been worried about you.” Miraculous birth or no miraculous birth, Joseph was definitely Jesus’ father from Mary’s point of view. In the same way, I am very touched and affirmed because Robin calls Michelle and me “my parents”. I am not Robin’s biological father because Robin’s father Ralph died when he was eight.

Luke reveals that the young Jesus already knew his future role in life

At St. George’s, we have read Luke’s Gospel story since the beginning of Advent.  An angel told Zechariah about the birth of his son John the Baptist. Mary learned from the angel Gabriel that her child would be the Son of God.  Angels told some shepherds about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. That made the shepherds the first outsiders to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In today’s other Scripture, the devout Jew Simeon in the Temple also realized who Jesus was. He called Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.”

Now we read that Jesus told his parents, “I must be in my Father’s house.” In those words, Jesus acknowledged his divine vocation. Yet again, Luke stresses Jesus’ divine character.

Puzzling details in Luke’s account of Jesus in the Temple

Is this just a plain story with a surface meaning, or is there symbolic stuff underneath, like a parable?  At age twelve, before Jesus started his ministry, he amazed the scribes were amazed because he understood the Law so well. Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus said to them.

At the very end of his life, when his earthly ministry was over, Jesus also went to Jerusalem for Passover. Like the Temple scribes who were “amazed” at the knowledge of twelve year old Jesus, so Pilate will be amazed at the way that Jesus answers or does not answer his questions. Twelve year old Jesus was lost for three days.  That is the same time as between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

I wonder whether this is part of Luke’s use of “book-ends” in his narrative. Luke’s Gospel (alone of the four) begins and ends with events in Jerusalem.  But I do not know whether i was Luke’s intention to mirror the journeys to Jerusalem at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life.  In my reading this week, I did not find any insight about what other authors have written on this subject. So I will leave this as something that I cannot resolve. That’s too bad if you think that I  have all the answers.

Luke’s wonderful Christmas story: angels, shepherds, thin places, and bed sheets

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38 and 2: 1-20

At our family service this afternoon, I began by asking the children some questions (they had just watched a video of the Gospel story). What happened on the first Christmas Eve – Jesus was born. Where did it happen? – In Bethlehem. Where did Mary put the baby to sleep? – In a manger. Why did she have to use a manger? – There was no room at the inn. Who came to see the baby? – Shepherds. How do you know all this? – It’s in the Bible.

Luke’s greatest hits

Tonight, we have heard what I think of as the two highlights of the Christmas story. The angel Gabriel announced the birth to Mary, the future mother of Jesus. Then the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, which I just described. It’s really only half true to say that we know this from the Bible. Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke describes these events. Apart from the visit of the Magi, or Three KIngs, as described by Matthew, the whole of our familiar Christmas story comes from Luke.

There is actually much more to Luke’s story than the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus. Luke gives a much more elaborate account. We hardly ever read most of it, even in church. For me, the Annunciation and the birth, rather like CD albums, “Favourite operatic arias” or “The Tragically Hip, their greatest hits”. Think of them as “Best of Luke.” So I would like to take a few moments to fill in more of what Luke tells us about Jesus’ origins and early life.  You can read it all in Luke Chapter 1 through 3: 22.

Zechariah, Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Mary

The story begins with a Temple priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth have not had any children and are getting on in years. While carrying out his priestly duties, Zechariah gets a visit from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son. They are to name him John. Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel, and as a punishment he loses the power of speech until John’s birth. John will grow up to be John the Baptist. Next, Gabriel visits Mary as we read tonight. Mary, newly pregnant, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, now five months along. Therefore we realize that John and Jesus are related, and that they are almost the same age.

After Elizabeth has her baby, the relatives want to call him Zechariah after his father. However, the parents insist on calling him John, as the angel had told them. Zechariah then gives a speech that connects John (and therefore his cousin Jesus) with both the patriarch Abraham and the great King David. The speech also predicts John’s ministry of baptism thirty years in the future.

Now we come to the birth narrative. Mary has the baby and lays him in the manger. The angels sing ‘Peace on Earth’. The visiting shepherds, just ordinary people, are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ.

From the Birth to the Baptism in the River Jordan

Luke tells two more stories about the young Jesus. As an infant, his parents take him to the Temple.  There they meet a devout old man named Simeon. Simeon understands who Jesus really is, because he says that now he has seen the Messiah, he can die in peace. Later, when Jesus is twelve years old, his parents visit the Temple again. Jesus stays behind and seems to have got lost. When his parents go back to find him, he says that he had to be about his Father’s business. In other words, he himself now recognizes his divine ministry.

Finally, when Jesus is thirty years old, John baptizes people in the River Jordan. John proclaims that someone else, much greater than himself will be coming. John baptizes Jesus; his divine mission is authenticated by God because the heavenly voice says, “You are my son, with whom I am very pleased.” Thus Luke not only predicts who Jesus will be, but the following people then affirm his identity. The shepherds, ordinary people; Simeon, the devout Jew; Jesus himself; and finally the pronouncement by the heavenly voice.

The shepherds visit the infant Jesus

Let’s now go back to the ‘main business’ of this evening – the birth of Jesus and what happened next. Luke tells the story this way. Some shepherds are out in the hills because they need to defend their sheep from predators. It’s desert country, so I imagine that the night is cold and clear. Suddenly, they see an unearthly light, and an angel speaks. “Don’t be afraid. I have wonderful news. Tonight, the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem, the city of King David. You will find him there, lying in a manger. He will be wrapped in swaddling cloths.” Then the song of the multitude of angels erupts, “Peace on earth.” The shepherds rush off to Bethlehem. Everything is just as they have been told. They return to the hills, praising God, so I presume that they must have told everyone they met what they had seen.

Did it really happen that way?

Did it all happen exactly as Luke told it? We do not know and cannot know. But Luke made very clear to us that heaven and earth were in very close proximity that night. Was it real or did Luke use a metaphor, when he said that the shepherds heard an angel telling them where to go, and heaven rejoicing with the song of the angels, “Peace on earth”?

There is a Celtic expression for places and times that seem to be unusually holy. They are called ‘thin’ places and times, because the earthly and the heavenly realms seem to be in close proximity. Luke has explained that this particular moment was so thin that heaven and earth must have touched each other.

Angels, thin places, and bedsheets

In an article a couple of months back, Michael Burslem, who is a parishioner at St. George’s Guelph, likened the heavenly and earthly realms to two sheets. He wasn’t writing specifically about Christmas Eve, but I liked his metaphor.

I – and this is me thinking – can see this metaphor as being like a pair of bed sheets. Much of the time the sheets are all rumpled, because we human beings mess up God’s plans for the world. But when the bed is newly made, the sheets lie flat together, so close that they actually contact each other. That’s the way the heavenly top sheet and the earthly bottom sheet were on that first Christmas Eve. Heaven and earth touched each other. Say it how you will – sheets in contact, thin places, or heaven breaking into our world so that the shepherds could hear the angels singing. It doesn’t matter. They are all inadequate attempts to say what happened.

Just keep wondering

So let me finish tonight the way that I have finished on many other Christmas Eves. Luke’s story is wonderful, meaning it fills us with wonder. So set aside your logical way of thinking. It won’t work tonight. Just walk to Bethlehem in your imagination and in your heart. Peek inside the stable. It’s very dark. But if you let your eyes adjust, you will be able to see the baby lying in the manger, next to his parents. Creep closer, quietly. You don’t want to frighten him. Look into his eyes. He can’t yet focus on you. But if you hold your gaze and wait, you will see the face of God looking back at you. A blessed and holy Christmas to you all!

Christmas with St. John’s Gospel: no manger scene, no angels, no shepherds

Scripture: John 1: 1-14

Christmas Eve traditionally features Luke’s account of Mary giving birth to a baby in a stable behind an inn in Bethlehem.  Heaven and Earth came into intimate proximity when angels announced the miraculous birth to a group of shepherds .  The shepherds rushed to see the miracle for themselves.  They were the first outsiders to acknowledge the Messiah’s birth.

The logos, or Word, was with God from before time began

John wrote his Gospel more than 20 years after Luke.  Luke perceived that Christ came into the world at a unique time and place.  In contrast, John understood that Christ, the logos, had been in the universe since the beginning of eternity.  John emphasized this point by opening his Gospel with the exact same words, “In the beginning …”, that open the Bible in the Book of Genesis.  

Here is how John expressed this idea.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things were made by him, and nothing was made except by him.”  John saw the Christ figure as not just a mortal being.  He was and is one and the same as God.  John’s Gospel continues with a dualistic comparison, the first of many in his Gospel.  The logos was the Light of the World.  The logos represents the opposite of darkness.  Darkness will never overcome that Light.​​

Who is Jesus for you? for me?

We all have different ideas about the portrayal of Jesus that seems most real to us.   I align myself most closely with Mark’s very human and down-to-earth description of Jesus.  But this morning John reminds me once again not to forget Jesus’ divinity.   That is exactly what Christian teaching tells us.  It isn’t either-or; it’s both-and.   Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  ​​

We don’t know whether John ever read Luke’s Gospel.  If he did, he might have thought of it as just a silly story about angels and shepherds.  “That story’s all right for children,” I can almost hear him saying, “but I have grown-up ideas for grown ups.”

We can see this dichotomy in the well-known carol, O come, all ye faithful

Our version of O come, all ye faithful is a translation of a 5th century Latin hymn.  Verse 1 calls us to Bethlehem.  But immediately, verse 2 switches into what I’ll call divine mode, “God of God, light of light …” The 5th century author then slipped back into Luke’s story.  “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.  Very God, begotten, not created …” The next two verses continue Luke’s story, with “Sing choirs of angels …” and “See how the shepherds …”  Luckily, St. John wasn’t around to read or sing the hymn.  I think that he would have been appalled at this mish-mash, standing with his hymn book open but refusing to sing! ​​

Longfellow’s hymn I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this Christmas hymn in 1863.  It was during the American Civil War.  ​​There was no peace on earth, and no good will between enemies. Longfellow found it hard to celebrate the birth of the Messiah at such a terrible time.  In verse 2, he was sad that peace on earth was absent.

... in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, ​”For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

The year 2018 has not been very successful in the peace and goodwill department, either.  In North America hate seems to be strong.  Politicians refuse to compromise.  Some do not accept what journalists report, disparaging it as ‘fake news’.   But when we look abroad our problems pale into insignificance.  The war in Yemen grinds on.  Children die of starvation and hospitals get bombed. Millions of Syrians have had to flee from their homeland.  Many of them will never return home.  South Sudan, which was created only in 2011, has never had a functioning government.  

Today’s problems are not unique

If we look back 100 years to 1918, the agonies of WW I were finally over. While grieving families mourned their pointless losses, the first wave of the Spanish flu pandemic brought death to millions around the world.  ​

Amid war and death, Longfellow saw a ray of light pierce the darkness of his time.   He experienced hope in the sound of the bells.  God was not dead.  

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;​The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” ​​

We have not always used Christ’s name for good

Today, we celebrate the birth of the one whom we call the Prince of Peace. But we now realize that many problems and injustices have been wrought in Christ’s name.  This has happened in our own time as well as in earlier generations.   Christians have often discriminated unjustly against people of other religions.  European colonizers frequently treated people of other races with contempt. 

But today, when we celebrate the Light coming into the world,  let’s not focus only on pessimism.  Canadians are getting better at recognizing injustice and discrimination.  Positive things did happen in 2018.  The world even saw 192 countries agree on how to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change. Let’s also consider the positive and lasting effect that Christian values have had on our heritage.  Christ’s life stands as a template for acceptance, tolerance, and generosity.  Jesus showed compassion towards the unloved.  He touched and healed lepers.  He met and ate with sinners and prostitutes.  His life and teaching form the moral foundation of the liberal ideas that we embrace today – social programs like universal health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance; increasing acceptance of diversity of all kinds.  ​​

Why did God become incarnate that first Christmas?

A century or so after the Gospels were written, Clement of Alexandria is reputed to have said, “God became human, that we might become divine.”  At its best, the Christian story is one of ordinary human beings doing their best to emulate what Clement said.  But we don’t always get it right.  Steps forward are often followed by steps backwards.  

Yet the Gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ is that we ordinary people are called to do what we can to bring God’s kingdom (God’s righteous rule) closer.  Most of us cannot influence matters on the world stage, but every day we have opportunities to show the face of Christ to the people we meet – here, in our families and in our communities in southwestern Ontario.  That is how we can bring to reality, The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.

​​Clement of Alexandria said,  “God became human, that we might become divine.”  May this recognition be as true for us this Christmas-tide at St. George’s as it was for those shepherds two thousand years ago.  This assumes, of course, that your Incarnate Christ is earthly enough for you to believe in them!

 

Miraculous births, then and now

Scripture:  Matthew 1: 18-25

We are just two days away from celebrating the birth of the Christ-child.  Today we take a break from following Luke’s account of the origin, birth, and early life of Jesus.

Matthew is the only other Gospel that mentions how Jesus came into this world, but his account is very brief.   Matthew tells us that Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit while she was engaged to Joseph but not yet married. Joseph wanted to call off the marriage, but an angel convinced him not to in a dream.  Joseph did not have marital relations with Mary till after the birth of her son, whom she named Jesus.  Matthew does not say anything about a journey to Bethlehem, or Mary giving birth in a stable.  He does not tell us about shepherds who were the first people to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

Nana and Lulu, the first gene-edited babies

While we wait for the birth of Jesus tomorrow evening, I want to think about  two other babies whose births were somewhat miraculous. Almost a month ago, a Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, startled and shocked the scientific world.  He announced the birth of twin gene-edited girls, named Nana and Lulu.

Gene-editing is a very new technology.  Scientists only developed it in 2012.  It uses a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 (usually pronounced ‘crisper’).  CRISPR lets scientists ‘edit’ sequences of DNA, the genetic code of life.  ‘Edit’ means ‘cut-and-paste’, like you do with a word-processor.  CRISPR makes it easy (at least for molecular biologists!) to swap out a piece of the genetic code of an organism and replace it with something different.

Many laboratories round the world use CRISPR technology experimentally. But so far there has been a ban on using it to change the genetic code of unborn people.  Too little is known about possible side effects.  Most scientists also think that Dr. He’s experiment was unethical because the edited genes will be passed on to Nana’s and Lulu’s children.

What other scientists think about what Dr. He did

Dr. He claims that he altered the DNA of a fetus from a couple with an HIV-positive father. The idea was to protect the babies from contracting HIV-AIDS later in life.   Nana got two copies of the edited gene. She would be expected to have complete protection against HIV later in life. Lulu, by contrast, got only one copy of the edited gene. She may still be susceptible to HIV.

The announcement scandalized the scientific world.  Here is one comment. “[The work is a] premature, inexplicable, and possibly reckless intervention that may threaten the development of future applications of genome editing.” But in the hyper-competitive world of modern science, Dr. He may have decided that it was better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

In the future, genome editing may allow scientists to eradicate genetic conditions like Huntington’s disease or Downs Syndrome.  A person who was facing certain death in their 40’s from Huntington’s disease would likely find it a blessing to be able to have children who would never face that fate.  But that does not justify what Dr. He did.

Besides the eradication of genetically inherited diseases, gene editing might also be used less ethically. It could be used to create of “designer babies” by ‘tweaking’ their DNA to promote characteristics desired by parents – intelligence, for example.

What do non-scientists think about gene-editing?

A 2016 survey by the US Pew Center found that just about half thought it that was morally acceptable to eradicate genetic diseases.  But religious people voted nearly 3:1 against.  They argued that we should not ‘play God.’ That opinion was particularly strong among traditional Christians.  They asserted that God created human beings in [his] own image, and that life begins at conception.

‘Playing God’

The argument about ‘playing God’ comes up with almost every new technology. Yet opinions often change as the new technologies become more familiar.  These days most people, including most Christians, do not oppose techniques such as blood transfusions, organ donations, and in vitro fertilization.

The argument about playing God goes right back to the earliest writings in the Judeo-Christian canon.  God threw the mythical first humans out of Paradise because they ate the fruit of the tree of good and evil. As written in Genesis 3: 22, God said, “See, the man has become like one of us [gods] knowing good and evil …” The same argument appears in the story of the Tower of Babel.  With just one language, humanity might accrue god-like powers. So (Genesis 11: 6-8) the Lord said, “They are one people and one language … Now nothing they propose to do will be impossible … Let us go down and confuse their language … and scatter them …”

How to think about the ‘Fall of Adam’ in Genesis Chapter 3

God created humanity intelligent and curious. It was inevitable that human beings would eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Otherwise we would be puppets.  God would hold the strings of what we could and couldn’t do. Knowledge of the difference between good and evil is the basis of our free will.  It allows us to choose between moral and immoral decisions. It is part of who we are. The idea that sin is the ‘stain of Adam’ which passes down the generations is a Western Christian construct.  It damages and degrades people by making them feel irredeemably sinful and unworthy.  Judaism and Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity understand the Fall differently.

Looking ahead

Now that the ‘red line’ has been crossed, it is inevitable that scientists will use CRISPR or related technologies to edit DNA. Some variants such as eradication of disease may become widely accepted.  But it will first be necessary to check to avoid undesirable side effects. Designer babies may prove to be less acceptable.  Maybe they will be condemned as GMOs or called Franken-babies.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus the Christ. We believe as Christians that his birth changed the world. Last month, we learned about a very different kind of miraculous birth.  The births of Nana and Lulu also have the potential to change the world.  Let us pray that this new fruit of the knowledge tree of good and evil will be used wisely.

What the birth of John the Baptist means for understanding Advent

 


Scripture: Luke 1: 39-80

Last week, we read about the angel Gabriel’s prediction of Jesus’ miraculous birth. As we continue to unroll Luke’s account of Jesus’ origin and young life, we learn that Mary, now pregnant, went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who lived in ‘the hill country’. That detail reminds me about what happened to young girls who, in the euphemism of my youth, ‘got into trouble’. Their families sent them away to distant relatives to avoid scandal at home.

Today’s Gospel focusses on the birth of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist who, we learn, was just five months older than Jesus.  John’s parents’ relatives and neighbours expected that he would be called Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth knew, even though Zechariah was unable to speak, that she was to name the baby John. 

Zechariah names the baby John

Elizabeth’s busybody neighbours and relatives challenged her.  When she held her ground, they gave Zechariah a writing tablet to write down the baby’s name. He wrote, “His name is John.” That settled the matter. It also fulfilled the ‘time’ that the angel Gabriel had predicted, and so Zechariah regained the ability to speak.

Today’s Gospel ends with Zechariah proclaiming the hymn that we call the ‘Benedictus’ [Blessed be the God of Israel …]. It connects John (and therefore his cousin Jesus) with both the patriarch Abraham and the great King David. The phrase, “he has looked favourably on his people” underlines why the child was called John; the name John means ‘God has looked favourably’. The Benedictus also looks forward to John’s ministry in the wilderness: ‘you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by forgiveness of their sins’.

Comparing Luke’s story with the lectionary’s Advent Gospel readings

These details show that Luke wrote a very sophisticated account of the births of John and Jesus – as well as a great piece of storytelling.  That prompted me to compare this year’s lectionary Gospel readings for Advent with our sequential reading of Luke’s story. The reading for Advent 1 tells that everyone needs to keep awake for the coming of the Son of Man. Last week and this, the lectionary would have us reading about John preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. Finally, only two days before Christmas, the lectionary for Advent 4 offers the Annunciation, which we read last week.

All this made me think about what must be in the minds of the lectionary compilers when they select the readings. By this, I mean, what do they imagine Advent to be? The word Advent means ‘coming’. I ask myself, “Who is coming? What are we waiting for?” Clearly, there are different views about this. At the risk of trying to force my theology down your throats, I am very clear about this in my own mind. Each Advent, I am waiting for the coming of the Christ-child at Christmas. But clearly, other people understand Advent very differently.

John did not predict Jesus’ birth

To read about John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness during Advent implies that John was predicting Jesus’ birth. That does not make sense, because John was only five months old when Jesus was born. We know that because the newly pregnant Mary visited Elizabeth in the sixth month of her pregnancy. John the Baptist may have been ‘great’ – as the Benedictus says – but he couldn’t have been in utero at the same time as he was preaching in the wilderness. Instead, John predicted Jesus’ coming ministry, but that happened thirty years later.

Advent is not about the Second Coming of Christ

Readings about the coming of the Son of Man refer to the final judgement of the nations at end of time. In Christian theology that would have to mean the Second Coming of Jesus. That this does not make sense to me in the context of the ‘Jesus story’. Why would we look forward to the Second Coming before we have celebrated the first one?

Also, the Second Coming presumes a judgemental God – the one that, personally, I do not believe in. When Jesus told his disciples to pray to ‘Our Father’, I imagine him thinking of an idealized earthly parent, not the fatherhood of “Wait till your father gets home. He’ll deal with you then.”

Parenthetically, the final judgement speaks to a very Protestant group of theologies in which we are all inextricably bound by Original Sin. Extreme Protestant versions of this theology include the idea of predestination. This is that God’s elect (selected or chosen ones) are those who will receive salvation when they die. So-called ‘conditional election’ means that God selected from before time began those that he believes will have faith in Christ when they get to live on Earth. Whether they actually receive salvation depends on how they spend their earthly lives. Unconditional election means that God chooses the elect irrespective of their earthly behaviour. The ‘worst’ form is ‘double predestination’ in which God not only chooses the elect ahead of time, but also decrees who will be damned.

Advent looks forward to an incarnational theology for Christmas

Let me return to my own Advent theology. Incarnation is the context in which the Christmas story makes the most sense to me. The word ‘incarnation’ means ‘made flesh’. As I said last week, the idea that God became flesh in the form of the Christ-child is a metaphor for saying that there is a divine spark within each of us. I reflect that the humanity of the Christ-child is how that metaphor plays out for we ordinary, earthly beings. Like us, God brought Jesus into this world in the usual messy way. Like Jesus, we are part of God’s good Creation.

This is a completely different view of the world from the idea that we were born into sin. That view separates us completely from the Christ-child, who was perfect. Inescapable sinfulness says to me (at least) that I have been set up to fail, however hard I try to lead a good life. My understanding of a compassionate and loving God is that I was born as part of God’s good Creation, even if I can’t measure up to the standards of the Christ-child.

Having been created good rather than sinful makes us truly responsible for our actions.

The fourth century Welsh monk Pelagius, who also did not believe that we are all tainted by original sin, said that when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby, we see the face of Christ looking back. But that theology is in many ways harder, because now we must use our free will to try to live up to the ideal of that newly-minted state. We have all metaphorically eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We know the difference between right and wrong, so we cannot claim innocence. Neither can we make the excuse, “The devil made me do it.”

Pelagius said that when we look into the face of a newborn baby, we see the face of God looking back. Let us pray the opposite, and hope that this Christmas, when we look into the face of the Christ-child, he will recognize the faces looking back at him as parts of God’s good Creation.

An angel announces the conception of Jesus to Mary: what does it mean for us today?

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38

Luke presents us with a wonderful account of the origins of Jesus, the Messiah (Jesus, the Christ, to use the Greek term). Last week, the story seemed to begin at a tangent; the priest Zechariah had a vision while he worked in the Temple. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a longed-for son in their old age. This son John would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Like the great Hebrew prophet Samuel, he would not consume strong drink, and would lead many people back to God.

Today, another visit; another birth foretold. Gabriel meets a young girl named Mary. As with Zechariah, he foretells a birth. But Mary’s son Jesus would be even greater than Elizabeth’s son John. He would actually be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus would trace his lineage back to David, the greatest king of Israel.

What’s in a name?

The ancient world believed that a person’s name described their character. The name John means “God has shown favour” or “Graced by God”. When Elizabeth conceived John, God had shown her favour. Jesus (from the Hebrew name Yeshua) means “One who saves or rescues”.  This name holds within it the Christian concept of salvation.

Don’t worry: everything will be OK

Gabriel first told both Zechariah and Mary not to be afraid. We have probably all said something similar at one time or another. Someone – a friend, a hospital patient, a parishioner – is in distress. We try to comfort them by saying something like, “Don’t worry” or “I’m sure things will turn out OK” even if we really are not sure about the outcome. Maybe we say it as much to comfort ourselves as the person to whom we say it. Was Gabriel really certain that everything would go OK? I guess we have to believe it, because he was an angel sent by God!!

Understandably, Mary was less than enthusiastic with Gabriel’s prophesy. People married young back then, so she was almost certainly only a teenager. She risked death by stoning for being pregnant but unmarried. But Gabriel talked her into accepting – I guess you don’t have much choice if it’s an angel who tells you what will happen!

Gabriel also told Mary that her relative (cousin?) Elizabeth was five months pregnant.  Luke thus tells us about the link between John and Baptist and Jesus even before they were born. They will meet up again (of course) at the denouement of this story. That’s when John predicts Jesus’ coming ministry and God affirms his divinity in the words, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

A mixture of Christian and pagan symbols

Before we get there, we must wait through Advent – the season of ‘coming’ – for the birth of the Christ-child. Although we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th, no-one really knows the actual date. Probably Christianity took over the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia which occurred at the winter solstice. The idea of waiting in the darkness for the Light of Christ to enter the world, fits in with waiting for the sun to ‘return’ after the shortest day of the year. Christmas trees and wreaths, holly and mistletoe were also originally pagan symbols. They represent the green of life contrasting the dead of winter, just as the Christian Cross is the symbol for both Jesus’ death and the return of life through the Resurrection.

Darkness wasn’t always just symbolic

The pagan symbols that we have incorporated into our Christmas celebrations add a dimension that goes back long before Europe became converted to Christianity. They remind us about the meaning of darkness.  Our modern conveniences of electric lights let us forget how these long winter nights must have seemed to our ancestors. Winter nights were truly dark. In the words of the Third Collect of Evening Prayer, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night …” It is not so many years ago that people did not venture out at night for fear of trolls, hobgoblins and werewolves. .

Darkness amid the celebrations

But let’s not imagine that darkness doesn’t exist, just because we have electric lights in our homes. Also, let’s not forget about spiritual darkness, just because there are happy-clappy Christmas specials on TV, and synthetic good cheer in the malls. Christmas can be a desperately lonely and sad time for many people. People whose families live far away. People suffering from sickness or other types of loss. Those for whom this will be the first Christmas since a member of the family died – for my brother in law David, for example, this will be the first Christmas without my sister Mandy. The wife of my friend Geoff died on Christmas Day two years ago. These events bring the mismatch of the Advent/Christmas season into sharp focus.

Advent: out of synch with the secular Christmas season

For church-goers, there is also a mismatch between how we think about this season and how the secular world sees it. In the world of malls, TV ads, and parties, Christmas begins right after Hallowe’en. I sometimes feel like saying, “It’s not Christmas, it’s Advent,” and getting put out because the Christmas music on the radio suddenly disappears at midnight on December 25, like Cinderella’s coach turning into a pumpkin. Because the commercial world has to prepare for Valentine’s Day!

But let’s be realistic. We are part of the culture around us. I doubt that many Anglicans refuse party invitations in early December because it isn’t Christmas yet. And I’ll bet that the average person in church today already has Christmas decorations and lights up! Michelle is trying to tell the story “properly” this year. Our creche set has only the ox, ass and manger in the stable so far. The other figures are still wrapped up in their tissue paper.

Holidays are holy days

Here’s something else we can grumble about. Why do people call this the holiday season instead of Christmas – that is, once we’ve got over the fact that it should really be called Advent? Why do politically correct people invite us to holiday parties and not Christmas parties? Don’t worry; don’t get in a snit. The word “holiday” is simply a contraction of Holy Day. So cheer up when strangers wish us happy Holy Days. And what about those gifts? Just an expression of crass commercialism, right? Not really. Even the Christ-child was offered gifts when the Magi came to visit. Isn’t it pleasurable to find a gift that a friend or family member might enjoy, and to pick it out specially for them?

So let’s do two opposite things this Advent season. Let’s wait expectantly and quietly with Mary, as we wait for the birth of her son later this month. But let’s remember that the earthly Jesus lived in this world, not outside of it. He partied with outcasts and sinners. Maybe they wished him Happy Holy Days at Passover other festivals. So let’s enjoy the company of friends and relatives and celebrate with them, even if it’s ‘only’ Advent. They may not always be here with us to enjoy their company.

Incarnation means that every day is Christmas

Although we wait for the Light of Christ to return on Christmas Eve, in a real sense, the Light is already here. Christmas isn’t just a one-time event from two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem. The real message of Christmas is Incarnation – God took human form in the person of Jesus. The good news (Gospel) is that Christmas comes any day and every day, because we carry a spark of the divine in us. That spark is what the Angel Gabriel had detected in the young woman Mary, whose story we heard this morning

Zechariah is visited by the Angel Gabriel

The Story Starts with the Prophets

Icon of the Prophet Micah

Luke opens his narrative of the Life of Jesus, not with Jesus himself, but with the story of the birth of his cousin John. Over the next 4 weeks, we will follow that story to its climax with the birth of Jesus. But today, we focus on Zechariah. But Zechariah isn’t the start of the story, either.  As we heard in our readings today, the prophets had been prophesying that God will send a new leader. Micah, for example, writing 800 years earlier has talked about a new ruler to bring prosperity (feed his flock) and security. Jeremiah, writing at the time of the the Babylonian exile 600 years earlier, prophesied that God would build a new Jerusalem where all life would be peaceful and perfect. Zechariah knew all these prophecies, but surely never dreamt that he and his family would be part of God’s plan to redeem Israel. As  priest, Zechariah knew all the messianic prophecies and looked forward to the day God would remove the yoke of foreign rulers from his chosen people.

Who was Zechariah?

Burning Incense

All we know about Zechariah is what we read in Luke’s first chapter and what we can extrapolate from that.  We know that he was a priest, a hereditary function in Biblical Israel. At any given time there were about 20,000 priests in Israel. Every direct male descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother, was a priest, and only them.

In Genesis (49:7) God appointed the descendants of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob / Israel, as the priestly tribe.  Unlike the other tribes, they received no land inheritance.  When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God told Moses that Aaron and his descendants would be the priests. Other descendants of Levi, the Levites, would also serve but in a lesser capacity. Hence we have “the Priests and the Levites” that we read about in the Gospels.

Zechariah and Elizabeth – A righteous yet Barren Couple

Apart from Zechariah being a priest, we know that he and his wife Elizabeth had no children.   She was past child bearing age. This was a real tragedy for them. Back then, childlessness was grounds for divorce. Of course people blamed the woman  for being barren. It was shameful for the woman who had no children – remember that this was an honour / shame society.

Not having children was partly a financial problem – no one to look after you when you got too old to work. It was also seen, like sickness,  as a punishment for sin.  Rabbinic teachings listed 7 reasons why a man was excommunicated from God – starting with a man who wasn’t married or who was married but had no children. Luke makes a point of telling us that this couple was not sinful “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

What did Priests do in the Temple?

In the film clip we saw. Zechariah’s “family” of priests was serving in the temple. Details about the priesthood are mainly found in the Torah: who could serve, what they did and how to do it. King David had organized the descendants of Aaron into 24 families – Zechariah belonged to the Family of Abijar. All priests served for Passover and Yom Kippur, and the 24 families took turns of a week at a time to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, so each family had 2 weeks a year.

Each family had nearly 1,000 priests and there were many jobs fort them to do in the temple.  The jobs were assigned by drawing lots. The priests slaughtered and roasted the sacrificial animals, spattered the blood on the corners of the altar, dispensed the meat, and so on. They cleared out the ashes, looked after the candles, cared for sacred vessels and robes.

A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

During the week when  Zechariah’s family line were serving at “the temple of the Lord”,  Zechariah was chosen by lot to perform the evening incense offering. This was the most solemn and holy of the tasks, and each priest would only perform it once in his lifetime. After that, his name was removed from the lottery for that task.  But many never got the chance. Every priest dreamed about this –the highlight of the priest’s career.  When Zechariah’s name came up. he would enter the Holy place in white robes and no sandals.  Two other priests would enter with him. They would leave when they had made everything ready.

The Priests Court in Herod’s Temple

The Holy Place, within the Priest’s Court, was the second most holy part of the temple. (The most sacred part was the Holy of Holies. Once a year,  on the Day of Atonement the High priest entered alone to pray for forgiveness for the nation’s sins).

In the Holy Place, the Golden Altar of Incense stood before the veil separating the Altar from the Holy of Holies. (This veil, we are told, was ripped apart when Jesus died.)  While Zechariah was in there, the laymen waited in the Court of Israel and the other priests in the Court of the Priests. They prayed in deep silence while yet another priest sacrificed the evening lamb at the great Altar of Burnt Offering.  When he’d finished the sacrifice, he gave a signal to Zechariah, that he had completed this part of the ceremony .  Then Zachariah would throw the incense on the fire of the Golden Altar, and watch its fragrant smoke rise with the prayers he offered for the people.

The Angel Gabriel’s Message

It was while Zechariah was alone at the Altar that God spoke to him through the Angel Gabriel. “Your prayers are answered,” he said.  Which prayers? Well, those for a son – but that was also the start of the salvation story for Israel and the world.

As I thought about this story, I thought about how God speaks to us today.  He spoke to Zechariah, and later to Mary in the familiar story of the annunciation, through the Angel Gabriel. Angels appear more than 20 times in the NT as messengers from God, this being the first chronologically. The word in Hebrew and Greek for angel means “messenger”. As I was researching videos for our Advent and Christmas services, I found angels portrayed in many different forms.  Unlike earlier art, the most common ones were the wind or a light, maybe a swirling light.

God’s Speaks in Culturally Acceptable Ways

Messages from God come in many forms

Like Zechariah, we are more likely to recognize a messenger from God if we live prayerful lives. God’s messengers may be our friends, or people we meet; our dreams or what we read and see in various media. For me, the messages often come in books.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt an urge to buy  a book which sits on my shelf. Then, one day, I’m pondering some issue  and I remember that book and find in it the answer, or the path that leads me to resolution. There are also messages through social media.

Separating God’s Messages from the “Noise

So many messages bombard us daily.like Zechariah, we need to ask “How do I know that this is so?” Again, we can take a lesson from this story. Keep silence to ponder, wait for God to fulfil his word. But also remember  we don’t just sit back and wait for God to fix everything. We work towards making our prayers happen.  Zechariah shared his news with Elizabeth, but otherwise they seem to have been reticent to broadcast what had happened. I am sure Zechariah did his part to make their prayers come true, and in due time, John was born. We’ll hear the continuation of this story over the next few weeks.