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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Turning the World Upside-Down

Our readings today are both very familiar ones. The passage from Micah, reminding us that nothing we can do can take away our sin, but that God has told us
“what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah of Moresheth, incidentally,was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds!” Israel, back then, was a theocracy, rather like present-day Iran. Religious leaders held an enormous amount of political power, but they were not elected, and nor were the kings. So you had an unelected power-base who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. But “What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

And then that incredibly familiar, perhaps over-familiar passage from Matthew, which we call the “Beatitudes” – the blessings with which Matthew opens the collection of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, and so on.

So what are we to make of all this? Why do the lectionary compilers think that the Sermon on the Mount is so important that it deserves several weeks’ study?

I think, don’t you, that it’s because we don’t hear the words any more. We don’t hear how they would have struck the first listeners. We don’t notice them – they are part of our culture, part of the stuff we have “always” known about Christianity.

I’ve been looking at a few modern paraphrases of this passage, to see if they can make it feel more relevant. I particularly like this one, from a church in Australia:
“Those who depend entirely on God for their welfare
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“Those who are stricken with grief
    have got it made,
        because they will receive the ultimate comfort.

“Those who allow others to have first claim on everything
    have got it made,
        because the whole world will be given to them.

“Those who hunger and thirst to see the world put right
    have got it made,
        because they will be richly satisfied.

“Those who readily treat others better than they deserve
    have got it made,
        because they will be treated with extravagant mercy.

“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
    have got it made,
        because they will see God.

“Those who forge peace and reconciliation in places of hostility
    have got it made,
        because they will be known as God’s own children.

“Those who are attacked and abused for sticking to what is right
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“When people turn on you
    and do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false allegations about you
    and drag your name through the mud,
        all because of your association with me,
    you have really got it made!
Kick up your heels and party,
    because heaven is coming
        and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams!
You are in great company,
    because they were just as vicious
        to God’s faithful messengers in the past.”
©2002 Nathan Nettleton

The thing is, back in the day, people thought – as we are inclined to think today – that when all is going well, when we have plenty, or at least enough, when life is smooth and there aren’t any humps in the road, then, they thought back then, and we think today, that God is blessing us. And, of course, that is true.

But it’s just when things are going well, when life is smooth and we are happy that we are inclined to forget God. Oh, we may go on going to church and so on, but we aren’t necessarily living a holy life. God is basically part of the background, not front and centre.

And so God asks, in the words of the prophet Micah,
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!”

And the people, irritated – after all, who needs God when life is going smoothly? The people respond, “Well, okay, what do you want? Doves? Sheep? Rivers of olive oil? Herds of oxen? Our firstborn child?”

And God responds, “Don’t be silly;
You already know what’s wanted:
To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God!”

“To do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God!”

God is saying pretty much the same thing here as in the Beatitudes, isn’t He? We are blessed – God blesses us – when we hunger and thirst after righteousness. We are blessed – God blesses us – when we are merciful, kind, treat others better than they deserve. And so on.

It’s interesting, I always think, that if you read Luke’s version of the sermon, he doesn’t say “Poor in spirit”, he just says “Blessed are you poor”:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.”

And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

I don’t suppose that Jesus means that it is wrong to be happy, or to have sufficient for our needs, or whatever; it’s not about misery now in order to rejoice in heaven. After all, he is on record as saying that he has come that we might have life and have it abundantly! And given his own track record of providing several hundred gallons of wine at the fag-end of a wedding, and enough food from a small boy’s packed lunch to have twelve basketfuls of leftovers, he can scarcely want us to live in poverty and want!

But – people do. Refugees. Victims of war. Victims of famine. People who are homeless for whatever reason, often due to mental illness, but not always. And while one other person is in want, then we should not be content. You read awful things on the Internet about churches – mostly in the USA, it has to be said, but not invariably – where people are not welcomed because they are different, perhaps their sexuality is different, or their skin colour. And, of course, we in the UK have a very poor track record on that last one. No, we should not be content.

As St John reminds us, if we don’t love our brother, who we have seen, how can we love God, who we haven’t? If we exclude people for any reason, we are not doing God’s will – and it is those who we exclude who receive God’s blessing. If we say horrible things about people, we are not doing God’s will – and it is the ones we are horrible about who receive God’s blessing.

For Jesus’ followers, what he was saying was revolutionary. He couldn’t mean that, could he? He couldn’t really mean that God wasn’t blessing the rich and the powerful? It was the “little people”, not the influential ones, who mattered most?

But the Bible has always said that! “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It wasn’t unique. Over and over again the prophets, perhaps especially Micah, but not only him, inveigh against those who use false measures, those who rob the poor, those who get rich at the expense of others. Over and over again we are taught that other people matter just as much as we do, if not more so.

And over and over again we forget. Over and over again we start to think that because God loves me, and I’m like this, the people who God loves are all going to be like this. We forget that God loves everybody. Even Donald Trump! Even members of ISIS.

But seriously, that’s why we need to be reminded of these passages every so often. God does actually mean it! “You are blessed” “You are happy” “You’ve got it made!” However we may translate it, it’s true that God smiles on those who this world considers of little importance. And we, who have been blessed so very richly with the material things of life, we need to keep an eye on ourselves lest we become complacent, and lest we forget God. Amen.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

His own people did not receive him

You might be wondering why I have chosen to have two Gospel readings today, and no readings from other parts of the Bible. The thing is, the ­lectionary isn’t at all clear which to use, and gives both. So I thought, well, why not have both, for a change? They both, I believe, have things to say to us today.

From John chapter 1, and verse 11:
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”.

I believe, incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing,
or it may have been a paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in Philippians 2.
Not that it matters, of course, not at this distance;
it is the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God,
the Light of the World,
who was rejected by his own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in Him.
Which is basically the whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?

Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.

John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus –
only Matthew does that.
But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story,
however strange a part. Next week is the feast of the Epiphany, when you will be thinking a little more about the coming of the Wise Men, but this week, we have the second half of the story, the What Happened Next. And it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's.
Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt.
No mention of mangers or inns here –
and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable!
As far as I can tell, when he talks about the “inn”, he means the guest room that many, if not most, houses had on the roof, and where Mary probably expected to go to be confined, but if this was full of relations come to town for the census, she had to give birth in the kitchen. The manger would have separated the animal part of the house from the human part – people lived together with their animals in those days for warmth, as much as anything else. And we don’t know what time of year it was, but probably not in the depths of winter, because the sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields then. So if the animals were in the fields, the manger would be empty, and make a very convenient cot for a tiny baby!

But none of that matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a human being:
the Word became Flesh and lived among us, as our passage says:
“The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.
We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son.”
That is what matters.
The details are just details, and are not important.

So we are told that the wise men came from the East – as far as we know, there weren’t necessarily three of them, and they weren’t kings, either. But they came from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, and when they found out that He was to have been born in Bethlehem, off they trotted – it’s only a few miles – and found Joseph the Carpenter’s house easily enough. But when they had seen for themselves – quite possibly, by now, a toddler staggering around and falling over and being shy.... they went home by a different way and avoided Jerusalem.

And Joseph and Mary and the child had to flee, too, in the middle of the night. Some people say the massacre may never have happened as there are no external sources referencing it – but then, would there have been? I mean, how many boys under the age of two were there likely to have been in a village that size? They reckon Bethlehem held about 1000 people of all ages, so probably only a handful of boys under the age of two – and, sadly, probably no more children than are killed every day in Syria. Absolutely awful for the parents, but not global newsworthy, even back then.

But the Holy Family are out of it, and have fled to Egypt. I’ve never been there, but my mother went and sent me a picture of the Pyramids with the comment that they would have been old when Jesus saw them as a boy! I wonder whether he remembered that in later life?

We aren’t told how long the family had to stay away, but with Joseph’s skills, he would have had no trouble making a living for the family. “Carpenter” isn’t quite an accurate translation of the word “Technion” - it’s the word we get “Technician” from. Basically, if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it – from designing them to building them to making the furniture for them.... so no shortage of skilled work. And it’s probable that, because they were, as far as we know, the only refugees at that time, they were able to take a proper house in a village somewhere, rather than have to live knee-deep in mud in a makeshift camp. But all the same – a stranger, in a strange land. Joseph was glad, I suspect, to pack up and go home again when he heard that Herod had died. But even then he couldn’t go home, not back to his old home in Bethlehem, but up to Nazareth, in Galilee – really provincial and in the sticks if you were the sort of person who’d always lived near Jerusalem. But it was safe, and the neighbours were Jewish, so you felt far more at home there... and it was a lovely place to bring up a growing family.

But we know that, once he was grown, it was a different story. Once again, “his own people did not receive him”, and he could do no miracles in his home town when, home on a visit, he preached in the synagogue and appalled the locals by saying “This Scripture has come true in your hearing!”

And we know, too, that later on “ his own people did not receive him” when the people who became his first followers were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the collaborators, even the Gentiles, the non-Jews. But we also know that “Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

God himself is our Father!

How true that is!
And isn't God great?!
The magi came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant,
and we are invited to do the same.
But we don’t just worship him as a baby –
it’s not about going smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug,
and saying “Oh how clever” when he picks up a toy, or staggers a few steps unassisted.

No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that.
It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the Risen Lord.
We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday,
although that, too,
but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come,
he could not come again.
And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.

Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, I think, although that too –
it's also about allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts,
about renewing our relationship with him.

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem,
but we also worship Jesus all year round,
remembering not only his birth,
but his teachings,
his ministry,
the Passion,
the Resurrection,
the Ascension
and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”–
what was that song:
“I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” –
it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity,
but about God with us:
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us.
He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....

Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was,
and probably taught to follow his father’s trade.
After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry,
and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple.
I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once.
A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us:
a God who chose to live an ordinary life,
who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee;
who knows what it is to work for his living.
Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised.
Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.

“Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one.
But it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby.
It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.