The challenge of the Canaanite woman

Usually, if I publish a sermon on here, I publish it verbatim. This sermon was a bit long, so I’ve cut out some of context setting from the opening section. It was also written for my very social-justice orientated congregation in Highbury – but I’ve added some things that I’d want to say to a wider audience…

Matthew 15: 21-28

Christ Church Highbury, August 20th 2017

The person who confronts Jesus has two important characteristics: she was a woman and she was a Canaanite. On two counts – her gender and her ethnicity –  this woman is unlikely to be listened to by those in religious or political positions of power. Including, it seems at the start of this encounter, Jesus and his disciples. When she cries out to Jesus to heal her daughter, verse 23 tells us that:

“Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’”

How does this response sit with you? Is this a rather inconvenient moment in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ ministry? Where is Christ’s empathy?

There is an explanation for his reaction contained in his reply that: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’

***

When we read the New Testament as a whole, the message that the gospel is for both Jew and Gentile shines through. We take Paul’s words to the Galatians as a vision to live by: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But a reading of Acts or Galatians also reveals the division that was caused in the Early Church by disagreements about what ethnicity meant in the context of being a Christian.  The fact that the Early Church was able to unite over this division should be inspirational for us.

In this encounter, Jesus realises that he is not embodying the fullness of who he is as the Messiah. Yes, he has been sent to the lost sheep of Israel, but there is also enough of his glory for even just the scraps to be given to those outside Israel. In this Canaanite woman, Jesus recognises more faith in who he is and who his Father is, than many in Israel have managed to muster!

A key message throughout Matthew’s gospel is one of Gentile inclusion. Time and again he reinforces the fact that Jesus came for all, regardless of their race. Just four chapters prior to this morning’s reading, Matthew has recorded Jesus’ rebuking of those who had not recognised him.

In chapter 11, verse 22, the cities of Tyre & Sidon are mentioned specifically. Jesus says to the crowd before him:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” [Matt 11:21-22]

And it is here, in the region of Tyre and Sidon that a miracle is performed for a Gentile who had recognised Christ as her Messiah.

***

In confronting Jesus, this woman seems to have a huge amount of confidence! Standing in front of an acclaimed teacher, who has ignored her and then told her that she is irrelevant because of her race, she throws his words back in his face.

In fact, she adopts an attitude that was something of a tradition among poor, desperate women in this culture. Being persistent in an attempt to gain justice from a corrupt judge or similar authority figure is a trait seen elsewhere in contemporary accounts. Luke’s gospel includes an account in chapter 18 of Jesus telling the parable of a widow who finally receives justice from a judge because of her persistence.

The Canaanite woman’s response uses language that is strong as the reply she’s just had from Jesus. Can you imagine how you might have felt having come to someone desperate for help and been referred to as a dog? Yet she throws the analogy back at him brilliantly: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’

‘Yes it is, Lord,’ she said. ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’

It is a phenomenal example of the power of faith. Having been ignored, I’m sure many of us would respond by simply walking away and avoiding a confrontation, but not this woman. And in turn, this interaction not only saves her daughter, but has an irrevocable impact upon Jesus’ ministry.

***

I knew a few weeks ago that I would be preaching on this passage today and was looking forward to it because it’s an encounter that I find deeply powerful. But over the last week it has increased in resonance. While doing some research online, I found an article in Political Theology Today published on Monday, in which today’s lectionary gospel reading was considered in light of current events in America.

It highlighted the importance of ‘Jesus’ conversion to justice’ – how he had realised the need to be open to the call his Father had given him – and called upon society to consider their own approach to justice. One sentence that particularly struck me was:

“Jesus models the reality of failure—that we often fail to think beyond the limited categories of our culture—but also the possibility of redemption through the reinstitution of justice.”

In the US, this is a call to recognise the events in Charlottesville and the response of the President for what they are: fascism; white supremacism; and evidence that institutional racism still exists. You may be aware that 81% of Americans who identify as “evangelical” voted for Trump. This article, along with many, many other leading Christian voices in the US and beyond, calls for those Christians specifically to recognise the President for who he is. To change an opinion and act on it – as Christ did in this encounter. To embody the message of the New Testament that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, but all are one…

Changing your mind in public view requires humility. It can be a deeply difficult thing to do and requires courage. I have been very impressed with those Republicans who, in response to recent events, have come out and criticised their President for failing to properly condemn the violence and actions of those who seek to promote racist ideology. But one notable absence has been the majority of members of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. Does a group of evangelical Christians really not have the strength and wisdom to speak the Gospel truth into this political mire?? It is no longer about who was the better candidate in last year’s election; it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans; it is about what is good and just in society.

The Canaanite woman challenged Christ and forced him to reconsider – which he did in full view of his disciples and those around him. Can these American Christian leaders have the courage to do the same? Could the people in churches across the US who voted for and have vocally supported the President do likewise?

And what about here in the UK? We may not have had white supremacist demonstrations on our doorstep, but just weeks ago there was an act of hatred and aggression on our Muslim friends and neighbours in Finsbury Park. Evidence suggests that since the referendum last year, acts of racial violence have dramatically increased in our society. Are we making sure that we speak out against such words and actions? Are we calling upon our church and political leaders to do the same?

***

There is also inspiration to be drawn from the actions of the Canaanite woman who stood up and demanded action. Who had faith and wisdom with which to speak to her Messiah.

Do we have the strength, courage and wisdom to know when to stand up for justice?

For me, one of the most powerful images to emerge from the violence and protests in Virginia was a photo of a line of clergy, robed and arm-in-arm leading a peaceful protest:

One of these protestors, the black woman with the red stole, is someone I heard speak on racial injustice in the US last autumn while I was visiting New York. Lisa Sharon Harper is someone who has dedicated her life to taking peaceful action against social injustice. She’s been arrested many times and has found herself in deeply difficult situations, but she carries on, firmly believing that this is what God has called her to do.

As I listened to her share her stories in a church hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place in suburban London, but was actually just off 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, I veered from “ok, I could do that…” to “my goodness! I’m not sure I could do that!!” The session was about the foundations of institutional racism in the US (I had several moments of feeling uncomfortable as a Brit as – of course – a lot of it was our fault originally) and what we, as Christians, could do to become more aware of, and take more action regarding racial justice. It’s how I discovered the brilliant Harvard Implicit Association Test – which I highly recommend as a way to become more aware of your own bias. During the evening, Lisa told the story of a 21 day fast she’d participated in to push for immigration reforms. She spoke of times when she had been arrested and was scared. It was both inspiring and extremely challenging.

Thinking about last weekend, if I had been in Virginia, would I have joined them? It just so happened that last weekend, one of my closest friends was in VA (although not in Charlottesville) staying with some good friends who I’ve visited twice in the last year. I have a lot of love for Virginia! And I like to think that I would have joined these clergy, even though it put them at risk of physical harm; arrest; and subsequent retribution as the photo travelled around the world. I grew up going to demos and protests, and since ordination I’ve been even more aware of the power of the dog collar in demonstrating that Christians can and do stand alongside those fighting for justice – whether that’s been at peace vigils; rallies against hate; or the memorial to murdered MP Jo Cox.

***

That’s not to say that we’re all called to be in those spaces. But we are called to use our voices to speak the words that Christ would speak. To bring light into dark places.

Many of the people who fight for justice in our society are not people of faith – so one challenge for you could be explaining the deeper motivation behind what you do. Whether that’s why you volunteer at the night shelter; or are involved in rehousing refugees; or are part of a political party; or give money to particular causes.

Or, a challenge for you could be to spend time in prayer and to ask God to show you where your words and actions are needed. This doesn’t need to be a grand gesture or big stand – it could be as simple as engaging in conversation with someone who has very different views to you and listening to them. Or bringing people together around the dinner table to unite in their difference by eating together.

I strongly believe that as followers of Christ we are called to be modern-day prophets. Not in the sense of predicting the future or having dreams and visions, but in our behaviour and our words. Of taking the risk of potentially being a lone voice calling in the desert, speaking out against injustice. Of showing that there is a different way. So I pray that the Holy Spirit would fill us afresh to perform God’s work in our world.

The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Luke 24:13-35 The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Christ Church Highbury, April 30th 2017

This reading is, I believe, a resurrection appearance in which it is easy to place ourselves within the story. The two travellers towards Emmaus are dejected, disappointed and hopeless. You can imagine the catch in their voice as they conclude their story of all that has happened in Jerusalem over the last few days: “…but they did not see Jesus.”

In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus has not yet appeared to his disciples at this point. The travellers on the road may be leaning towards one of the more logical explanations for the empty tomb – that someone has stolen Jesus’ body – perhaps to make the disciples’ grief all the more painful. The body of their beloved teacher isn’t even being given the respect that it deserved.

I feel like we can probably all empathise with Cleopas and his companion. Most of us will have experienced deep grief and hopelessness at points in our lives. Situations where promises seem to have been broken. Where things have not gone to plan. When a loved one has left us. Where all hope feels lost.

The pair are responding in a very human way. As they walk, they talk and discuss with each other. I can imagine them weighing up different scenarios. Pondering what meaning they might have. Perhaps they went over things they had learned from Jesus, trying to find an answer.

It feels like a human response to me, because this is exactly what I do when I’m faced with a similar situation. I walk. I think. I ponder. I talk to friends or family. When things haven’t being going to plan in my life, or when difficult events have occurred, I pound the streets. I take my anger out on my feet. I let the tears flow. It’s immensely cathartic, and an attempt to make sense of all that is going on within and around me.

***

Of course, we, the readers, are in on the secret. We know the identity of the stranger who comes alongside them, but their eyes remain closed to Jesus’ presence.

In just a few verses, the two disciples move from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of elation. At the moment when Jesus breaks bread, he is revealed to them and they realise that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, right in front of them. It is an amazing moment of joy!

In 1944, Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ in one of his letters. It’s a word he used to describe ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. It’s the opposite of a catastrophe, changing everything irrevocably for the better. In one sense, he was describing a literary device – a moment in a novel when the unexpected happens and your perception of events changes completely.

My favourite fictional example of what Tolkien was describing takes place in the work of one of his closest friends. In The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe – when Aslan defeats death. Many of you will be familiar with this scene, but to put this passage into context, Susan and Lucy have just spent a night watching the White Witch and her allies tying Aslan to a stone table, before killing him. As dawn breaks, something happens…

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

 “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children… “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

 “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

I vividly remember the first time I heard this story – I was 6 or 7, on holiday in Llandudno. My parents were strong believers in the importance of reading to my sister and I, and on this occasion, I was suffering from an ear infection and my mum read to me while I cuddled under a blanket on the sofa. I’ve heard the book far more times than I’ve read it for myself – we had a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette tape read by the Shakespearian actor Michael Horden, and it’s his voice I hear in my head as I read that quote. But, in common with most children of the 1980s, what I visualise in my head is the BBC adaptation of the book.

Every time – and I mean every time – I read or hear this part of the story I get goosebumps. Even as I sat in Starbucks working on this sermon, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

Of course, we’re well aware of the deliberate parallel between Aslan and Jesus. This scene is intentionally evoking the resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think I had much idea of that the first time I heard it.

This word ‘eucatastrophe’ that Tolkien coined can be applied to other books or films. The dénouement of the Harry Potter series. The moment of escape in The Shawshank Redemption. There is a eucatastrophic moment in Tolkien’s most famous work – LOTR – but I can’t speak of its impact because, and this may be shocking, I’ve never read the books or watched the films! [No one in my family has. We’re not stubborn, we’re just not huge fans of fantasy that has no foot in our reality.]

But it isn’t just a literary device that one of our greatest writers established. Tolkien considered the resurrection to be “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest fairy story”. He wrote that: ‘it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.’

By no means is this the same as “happily ever after”. These moments cannot be experienced without also experiencing the sorrow that precedes them. We cannot fully rejoice in the resurrection without going through the despair of the crucifixion.

***

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples journeyed from the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of his revelation of himself in the breaking of bread.

They knew Jesus’ teaching, and the prophecies made about the Messiah. As verse 21 reports, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But their sorrow clouds their ability to have faith in all they had learnt. It’s as though their hope has been buried in the tomb alongside Christ.

Jesus – although they still don’t know who he is – chastises them, saying: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” As he outlines the ways in which prophecy has been fulfilled, they realise later that their hearts were being warmed. Once he has revealed his identity, they say to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

Just as we can relate to their sorrow as they set out on their journey, we can also relate to their disbelief. Jesus’ explanation consisted of teaching what they had heard before, but their grief prevented them from fully believing until the moment when bread is broken.

Our journey of faith is one that follows in the footsteps of these disciples. We can draw confidence from this resurrection appearance because it is a witness to who Jesus was, is and shall be: the Messiah.

That moment when Jesus breaks bread and they are able to see who he is? That is the moment of purest joy, pushing aside all the sorrow and confusion of the preceding days!

We need to share in that joy of the resurrection. To emulate Cleopas and his companion who returned at once to Jerusalem to share the joy with the other disciples, telling all who they met on their journey of the amazing event that had occurred.

Many of us will have moments where the joy of the resurrection has shone in our lives in a similar manner to this moment of revelation for the two disciples. A moment when our hearts have overflowed with the elation of the truth that Christ is risen.

I have a taste of this every time I’ve begun our Easter Sunday services with the words: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” Simply proclaiming that truth fills me with immense joy – especially having journeyed through the grief of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Or every time I get to say the Eucharistic Prayer and once again share the story of who Jesus is and why we remember him in bread and wine.

Then there’s my own testimony of how the risen Christ has been at work in my own life. Of the difference that this glorious news has made – which I often get to share with others when they ask how I came to be ordained.

So the question I want to leave you with is twofold:

  • What is the moment that fills you with joy at the truth that is the resurrection?
  • Who can you run and tell about it?

What we measure controls us

Luke 19:1-9, Christ Church Highbury 12th March 2017

(Third in the Lent series based on Archbishop Justin Welby’s ‘Dethroning Mammon’)

 

“What we measure controls us” suggests Justin Welby. And when you think about it, he’s got a point. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you measure…your bank balance; your mortgage repayments; your weight; your academic grades; your success at work… If we’re not careful, these are things that can take over our lives in unhelpful ways.

Instead, the Archbishop argues that our dethroning of mammon’s place in our society “requires a leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.”

We cannot ever hope to measure the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the rest of God’s creation, but this love should mean more to us than any of the things that we invest considerable time and effort into measuring.

What difference can it make to our lives when we re-assess what we measure and how we measure it?

Measuring Zacchaeus:

Luke doesn’t tell us just how short Zacchaeus is, just that he needed to climb a tree in order to get a proper look at Jesus. We don’t know his height in feet & inches, and to be honest, in similar scenarios most of us would probably need to be up high in order to view an important person in the midst of a crowd.

Zacchaeus’ height is just one of several aspects of this reading that could be measured. We hear that he’s wealthy, that he’s a sinner, that he gives away half of his possessions, and that he will pay back four times what he may have cheated people. We also know that there is disapproval amongst the onlookers, who mutter their objections to Jesus’ interactions with the tax-collector.

None of these things affect the way in which Jesus interacts with him. There is no mention of Jesus spotting him, taking a measurement of just how sinful Zacchaeus was, and then choosing to spend time with him. Nor are we told that Jesus measures his wealth and duplicity, in order to tell him how much to give back – it’s suggested that this is done out of Zacchaeus’ own free will.

What Jesus gives Zacchaeus is also un-measurable. He receives salvation – and there is no scale of redemption, you are either saved or you’re not! He is also included in the ancient promise of Abraham. As a Jew, Zacchaeus should have already been an inheritor of this, but his sin would have excluded him in the eye of the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ words demonstrate that again, there are no degrees of being a Son of Abraham – it is all or nothing!

But Zacchaeus and the crowd have been measuring the things that control them, even if they haven’t realised it. Zacchaeus clearly feels a level of guilt for what he has done in his life thus far – his collusion with the Roman authorities, collecting tax from his own people who are living under an oppressive regime, and cheating in order to gain personal wealth.

The crowd are measuring Zacchaeus and Jesus by the standards their society and culture have given them. The tax collector hasn’t met the standards that their religious laws expected – working with gentiles and stealing. Jesus is associating with a known law breaker, and seemingly isn’t chastising him for his actions. Both have fallen short according to their tools of measurement.

Measurement:

The Archbishop is, in this chapter of his book, making the point that what we can measure, particularly in terms of wealth, we can control. The problem is, that we seem to disproportionally value those things that we can measure.

The crowd could measure others according to their religious and social standards.

Zacchaeus could measure the amount of money he made from his job and lies.

We can measure our bank accounts, our debts, and the objects we own.

As with last week’s theme, ‘what we see we value’, it comes back to sight. Jesus wants those around him – and us – to see the world as he does. Zacchaeus has two reasons for climbing the tree: he wants to see, but at the same time, not to be seen. He doesn’t want Jesus to see him for who he is, but in fact Jesus sees beyond that and sees who he truly is: redeemed and a Son of Abraham.

Measurement is tricky. We’re not very good at measuring what actually matters. Take the church for example, one of the main forms of measurement that the Church of England has is church attendance. Every October, each church denomination in the UK submits their data for the month and these numbers form the official statistics regarding the state of the church. Inevitably, in recent years these stats have inspired headlines proclaiming the death of the church. Average weekly attendance is in decline. Electoral rolls are getting smaller. The money churches receive in offerings and donations decreases in line with these numbers. What we’re measuring is not telling a cheerful story.

And on the one hand, that’s ok. These statistics prompt – or should prompt – churches to do something about it! It’s why the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged over 15 years ago – an attempt to find new ways of being church that might encourage those who have never been part of a church to join in. It’s also behind the Renewal & Reform process that the Church of England is currently exploring – a programme of change, development and creativity to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

But at the same time, these statistics don’t tell the full story…

As some of you will be aware, I work part-time at Christ Church and the rest of my time is spent working on various research projects. Prior to starting theological college, I worked in the research department of the Methodist Church, working on their statistics and hunting for stories to go alongside the numbers. Now, one of my regular pieces of work is helping organisations – including churches – measure their impact. Specifically, in terms of making new followers of Christ, discipling them, and their impact upon their local community. It’s about finding out what’s happening beyond the numbers – and not letting the numbers control what happens in or to these communities.

One of the places that’s doing a lot of work on this is Leicester Diocese. A few years ago, they looked at their stats and decided to come up with a strategy that would help them grow as a church. So they sold off some property that they no longer needed and put the money into a ‘Growth Fund’ which projects and churches can apply to for grants. The team that I’m part of then does a workshop with successful grant recipients, helping them establish how they will measure the impact their project has over its funding period and beyond.

The point of the exercise is to help them measure what matters to them. That won’t necessarily be the same as another project – the church employing a children’s worker will have different criteria to a pioneer appointed to a brand new housing estate – but the measurements all fall within the diocese’s broad vision of: making new followers of Christ, increasing discipleship & building relationships with the wider community.

The measurements will end up being a combination of numbers and stories, but the hope is that together they will provide as full a picture of impact as possible. And, that it will give the projects, churches and diocese the tools to see where things are working and where things may need to change. Rather than having a set of measures imposed upon them, these teams work together to ensure that they’re not being controlled by unreasonable expectations.

In Leicester, we’re created measurements that help demonstrate the impact that the Jesus’ love and the Kingdom of God on earth is having – sounds dramatic, but that’s the motivation behind their actions, just as it is in our own community here in Highbury. One project I worked with recently is going to count the number of smiles its team receives as they get to know a new housing area, as a way of measuring their engagement and relationship building! It’s a little different to simply counting people in seats on a Sunday morning…

Our parish accounts are another form of measurement, but is another great example of not letting what we measure control us. If a parish was controlled by this measure, they would spend all their time saving money – not spending it. Perhaps they might have the philosophy of saving money for a rainy day – perhaps just in case the roof falls in and it quite literally is a rainy day in church! Instead, as you’ll see later, we have a pretty healthy attitude to how we spend the money that we’re fortunate to have. We keep an eye on our spending, not just to check we’re not spending too much, but to check that we’re spending our funds in line with our missional priorities. It doesn’t control us, but helps guide us to fulfilling the vision that we believe God has for this church and the community of Highbury.

Conclusion:

On the one hand, Justin Welby is encouraging us to move beyond the measurables of 21st century life, into the unmeasurable goodness of God’s Kingdom. To let the love we receive from Christ be enough to free us from the control of our earthly belongings.

But I think there is also a value to reassessing what it is we measure. Once free of society’s expected measurements – the bank balance or salary – we are able to measure what God is doing through us.

Zacchaeus, once free of his sin and his ill-gotten gains, is able to follow Christ fully. We don’t hear what he does next, but one could assume that he becomes a follower of The Way and proclaims the Good News beyond Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of measuring his height, his wealth or his sin, we could now try to measure the impact that this short passage of Scripture, this single encounter between Jesus and a tax collector, has had in the intervening two millennia. How many thousands or millions of people have come to Christ through the story of the saved sinner? How many people’s faith has increased as they’ve heard this tale and realised just how far Jesus’ love stretches? But such is the vast-ness of God’s love in Jesus Christ that we can’t possibly hope to put a number on that impact! We just see the results of it all around us and throughout the church’s history.

And how will Jesus use you?

God’s Revelation in Christ

 John 1:29-42

Christ Church Highbury, 15.1.17

 Those of you who were with us last Sunday may recall that the theme of the service was Jesus’ baptism, as is customary in the church calendar the week after Epiphany. Today’s Gospel reading features the same event, but from the perspective of John the Baptist. It is the pivotal moment in John’s understanding of who Jesus is, setting the stage for the calling of the first disciples.

Earlier in this chapter, John has testified about the coming Messiah – but does not identify who this is. Even under examination by the Jewish authorities, all he is able to say is: “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

In fact, John’s message was not a unique one. Over the years – four hundred or so since the last texts we have from the prophets of the Old Testament – plenty of different voices had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. This had resulted in Jewish society having a whole host of different expectations about who this Messiah would be. Some of these expectations arose from the prophecies we’re familiar with – like the passage we’ve heard from Isaiah & the readings at our annual carol service – but others evolved out of human expectations and ideas.

The Pharisees who came to examine John as he baptised in Bethany knew these prophecies inside out, but when John declared them as being fulfilled by the one who was to come after him, they ignored him. John is described by one commentary as “a lamp, both shining on Christ and exposing the ignorance of the opponents”.

It’s his role as a lamp shining on Christ that I want to explore this morning…

John’s declarations:

Our comparatively short Gospel reading contains four major statements concerning the revelation of God in Jesus. Two of these are made by John the Baptist.

The first of these appears both in verse 29 and 36: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” I’m sure if I was to ask you for descriptions of who Christ is, it wouldn’t take long before someone mentioned “Lamb of God”, but this is actually the first instance of its usage in Scripture. It’s not part of the Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, but is a reference to the theme of redemption and harks back to the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover.

John repeats this statement the very next day, when in the company of his own disciples. He sees Jesus and again declares: “Look, the Lamb of God!”

Presumably, there were people with John the first time he made this statement – he wasn’t talking to himself – but in this second instance, his declaration has a hugely significant impact upon his own disciples. They leave John and follow Jesus, immediately convinced that the Messiah has been revealed to them.

In fact, it’s likely that they were with John the day before and the revelation they have received is also the result of the other things he had declared about Jesus. Most importantly, in John’s re-telling of Jesus’ baptism, he told of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus which had led him to tell all that Jesus was indeed ‘God’s chosen one’.

John’s description of Jesus’ baptism is the first instance of an ongoing theme in the Gospel of John – that of the Holy Spirit coming from God the Father to point towards his Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit had revealed to John just who Jesus was, and in turn John was sharing this revelation with all who would listen. (And those who would not!)

We know that, at the very least, two of John’s disciples have heard and believed. When they start to follow Jesus, the disciples address him as “Rabbi”. They knew that he was a teacher, and someone who they needed to follow even more than the prophet with whom they had already been learning from. But by now they had learnt the most important lesson that John the Baptist could teach them: that this was Christ the Messiah and that they needed to follow him.

Not even a day goes by before Jesus’ first disciples are so sure of who he is that they declare him to be the Messiah to others. In verse 41 we hear how Andrew declares to his brother that “We have found the Messiah.” We don’t know if they’ve seen anything in Jesus’ behaviour during the few hours they’ve been with him that proved this to them, but they knew enough that this was big news that they needed to share.

The significance of revelation, not action:

An interesting aspect of the account in John’s Gospel is how little of Jesus’ ministry has taken place at the point at which he calls his first disciples. In the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – by the time we read of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus has already demonstrated his identity in a number of ways.

For example, in Luke chapter 4, the disciples receive their calling immediately following one of Jesus’ teaching sessions at Galilee. In the preceding chapter, had already declared himself to be a fulfilment of prophecy in his home-town; driven out Spirits; healed multiple people; and declared the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But in John’s Gospel, it is revelation through encountering Christ that is the pivotal moment.

John the Baptist receives the revelation of who Jesus is when he baptises him.

Andrew – and the disciple whose name we don’t learn at this point – have Jesus revealed to them through John’s declared revelation, and their own encounter with him.

Simon Peter hears the good news from his brother and then has an encounter with Christ that reveals the role he will have alongside him.

It’s important for us to understand and appreciate the significance of the revelation of Christ through encountering him, because God’s revelation in Christ takes place in the same way today.

Those of us who have been Christians for much of our lives, who know Scripture – particularly the Gospels – well. We have the enormous benefit of hindsight. We know the Old Testament prophecies and how Jesus came to fulfil them. We know the accounts of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated who he was – the miracles; the casting out of demons; the healings; his teaching – but even with all that knowledge, we are lacking a full revelation of Christ in our lives.

Full revelation only takes place when we encounter Christ ourselves.

That might begin with receiving an account of Christ’s revelation from someone else. Just as John shared his revelation with his disciples, so there have been people on our spiritual journeys who have shared their own encounters with Jesus with others.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis is just one example of this. Although he grew up in what he later described as a ‘bland’ Christian childhood, by the time he was a student, he was an idealist atheist.

In his autobiographical book “Surprised by Joy”, Lewis describes a number of ‘dangerous encounters’ he had with Christians at a time when he was determined to protect his atheism. Two of the people involved in these encounters were the writers GK Chesterton and JR Tolkein – but it’s the latter who Lewis would cite as ‘delivering the fatal blow’.

A conversation with Tolkein that went on until 3am was what resulted in Lewis’ ‘capitulation’ to a relationship with Christ. He wrote in his autobiography:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen [Maudlyn], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” 

Through his Christian friends, and their sharing of their own encounters with Christ, Lewis was finally brought to a place in which he could encounter Jesus himself. In turn, as you’re all probably aware, Lewis then became one of the greatest apologists of the Christian faith in the mid-20th century.

God only knows – literally only God knows – just how many people came to have their own encounters with Christ through Lewis’ sharing of the revelation he had come to know.

What next?

I imagine that amongst the congregation this morning, people are at a range of places on the journey to encountering Christ.

Quite a few of you, I suspect, are some time beyond your first encounter with Christ. And for you, I have two challenges: firstly, ask God for further revelation. God continues to speak to his people and reveals more of his triune self – through our prayer lives, our reading, our worship and our relationships with others. Secondly: ask God to show you who you could share your experiences of encountering Christ with. Who could you have conversations with that might impact their own journey towards encountering Jesus?

Perhaps some people here are wrestling, just as CS Lewis did. My prayer for you is that God would bring people alongside you who can share their own encounters with you – just as Tolkein and Chesterton did. May God open your heart to recognise who Jesus is, and where he is at work in your life and the world.

There may be some people here who are weary. Who encountered Christ at some point along the way, but it seems a long time ago and the excitement feels like it’s worn off. For you, I pray that you would be inspired by John the Baptist’s excitement at realising that the Messiah was in front of him. Perhaps ask God for more – more of his Holy Spirit to point to the actions of Christ in your own life; more enthusiasm in sharing who Christ is; and an understanding of all that Christ has in store for your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.

*****

Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.

*****

Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]