Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9
This passage is truly prophetic. It doesn't predict the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. It doesn't say that his mother would be a virgin when he was born, nor that he would eventually be rejected, crucified and raised from death. But it's prophetic in the true sense of that word. All true prophecy contains profound insights into the nature of God and into our relationship with God. And this passage is truly prophetic for, without recognising exactly how it might happen, the writer - the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition - understands that God will chose, out of a mixture of love and pity, to save the human race from its distress, and that he will do this not by sending a messenger or an angel to tell us how to change things for the better but by his own personal presence among us. Was the prophet thinking of incarnation, of God becoming a human baby lying in a manger? Probably not. That would have been beyond his wildest imagining. But he had sensed that God cannot save us from a distance, by remote control, but only by getting involved, by being in the midst of us.

Hebrews 2.10-18
Here the writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains the concept of incarnation in a few clear and concise phrases, crystallising - in a way that the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition could only grope towards - the full profundity of what it means for God to be present to save his people.

It means that God becomes our brother and shares the human condition with us, which also means suffering and dying, and being tested by all manner of trials and troubles, but continuing nonetheless to trust that all will be well in spite of these things. Just as the prophet had understood that God could only save us by being present with us, so the writer of Hebrews recognises that God had 'to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect so that he might' come to our help.

It's like the age old question, 'What would you do if you saw someone drowning?' From a purely selfish perspective, the safest thing to do would be to pretend that we hadn't seen the drowning person in the water. However, if that wasn't an option, the sensible thing might be to shout instructions to them from the bank, or to throw them a lifeline. And if that didn't work, the only options left would be either to stand helplessly and watch them die or to get into the water with them - like the fire fighter who begged for permission to be lowered into the freezing RiverHumber to save a drowning woman. The rope securing him to the shore nearly broke during the rescue, justifying his senior officer's doubts that it was a safe thing to do, but the fireman managed to bring the woman to the shore.

That is the kind of thing which Jesus did for us - except that, from a Health and Safety perspective, his mission was a tragic disaster. He actually had to go through death in order to pioneer the way to salvation. He saved us from slavery to the power and fear of death by dying himself and being raised by God, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest who accompanies us through suffering and death, to ensure that we need not be afraid any more.

Matthew 2.13-23
This story helps Matthew to explain how Jesus could be born in Bethlehem and yet raised in Nazareth, fulfilling two prophecies at the same time. It also means that, althoughJesus was disparagingly called 'the Galilean' by his enemies, Matthew can argue that his Galilean accent and provincial manners disguise a royal lineage that even the dastardly King Herod had recognised and tried to cut short.

Like Moses, who serves as an archetype for Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus and his family are exiled in Egypt. But, unlike Moses,Jesus is eventually able to return to the Promised Land, with fateful consequences both for himself and for the whole human race.

Finally, the story is anchored in real life, with all its tragedy and senseless wrongdoing. Sometimes people think that the Christmas story has fairytale elements to it. If that's true, then it's a Brothers Grimm fairytale, with moments of darkness and danger, not a sugary and saccharine tale for tiny tots.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Real Glory of Christmas

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1.18-25

Isaiah's prophecy seems harsh. Ahaz loyally refuses to ask God for a sign. He says that he doesn't want to put the Lord to the test - a sentiment later echoed by none other than Jesus himself! But it would appear that, on this occasion at least, it's the wrong answer to give! The Prophet tells him that he should have asked for a sign, after all, and now he will be given one whether he likes it or not.

What's going on here? Perhaps Isaiah realizes that the real reason why Ahaz didn't ask for a sign is that he already suspects it will be inauspicious. Is this the royal equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing 'La, la, la!' to drown out the sound of bad news?

If so, the King is showing remarkable faithlessness because, in fact, the sign is not going to be the bad news he dreads. Instead, the sign is going to be full of hope. And what could be more hopeful than new life? Within two years - in other words, in the time that it takes for a woman to carry a child through pregnancy, wean him and begin to teach him the difference between right and wrong - the two enemy nations which are currently threatening Judah will have been turned into a desert. This is a true sign that God is taking care of the nation of Judah, and that is why the child shall be named 'Immanuel'.

There is, however, a scorpion's sting in the tail. The conclusion of the prophecy, which is not part of our reading this week, warns that Assyria - the great power which will soon destroy Judah's enemies - will bring upon Judah an even greater day of reckoning. It seems that Ahaz may not have been so stupid after all in choosing not to ask for a sign. He had actually asked Assyria to come to his rescue. In the short term that will seem like a smart move. But in the longer term Ahaz will learn that it would have been wiser if he had shown real trust in the Lord.

And what about the way that Matthew recycles the prophecy to explain the story of the virgin birth of Jesus? One problem with this borrowing of Isaiah's prophecy about Immanuel is that the mother who was expecting a baby was not actually a virgin, but just an ordinary young woman - possibly the wife of Isaiah or of Ahaz himself. The other problem is that Isaiah was not looking far into the future. He was simply explaining how something was going to happen very soon that would change the local situation out of all recognition.

Matthew, by comparison, is using the prophecy to show how the birth of a baby can have a far greater impact even than Isaiah imagined. God with us in Jesus will transform the entire course of human history. Now that really is a miracle! And that's why Matthew feels able to link the story of Jesus with the prophecy in another way. It's clear that there was already a tradition circulating that Mary had a virgin birth. What could be more fitting, thinks Matthew, for a baby who is destined to become God with us for all time?

Paul agrees with Matthew that the Good News of Jesus was promised beforehand by the Old Testament prophets, but there they diverge because Paul does not know the tradition of the virgin birth. Whereas Matthew describes how Jesus became a descendant of David by adoption, when Joseph married the already pregnant Mary, Paul tells us instead that Jesus was a physical descendant of David. For Paul, this means that Jesus is Son of God only in a spiritual sense, because the spirit of holiness dwelt within him, and not because he was conceived through the Holy Spirit's intervention.

It is one of the great conundrums of the New Testament that these two conflicting traditions co-exist side by side. Both traditions remind us of important aspects of the Jesus story. Jesus' descent from David is a reminder that he is the Christ, or Messiah, God's anointed or chosen leader - an aspect of the Gospel which is missing from the Isaiah prophecy. But the story of God With Us in a tiny baby adds another dimension to the messiahship of Jesus. He is not only someone sent by God to save us, he is also God come amongst us to share our human experience. And although they may have started from different historical traditions about Jesus, Matthew and Paul are agreed that both these aspects of the story are vital to the Good News they have to proclaim.

Bishop David Jenkins, the former theology professor who loved to shock journalists with his unexpected statements about the Christian faith, said this about the Christmas story: "Christmas confronts us with a baby as the glory of God. The real wonder did not, and does not, lie with angels and shepherds or a guiding star from the East. All these are derived wonders. They only point to the true wonder. They symbolise the faith and reflect the glory.

"The real glory, the lasting glory and the undeniable glory is the baby, who grew up as Jesus of Nazareth to be 'crucified, dead and buried'. But this was the beginning rather than the end: for the God, who he named with particular passion, raised Jesus up. So Jesus was known to be Christ the Lord, the power of God's kingdom, the means of judgement and the promise of God's future. Thus when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ we are confronted with a baby as the glory of God."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A New Kind of Judgement

Matthew 11:2-11
James 5.7—10
The newspapers have been full in the last week of the amazing story of John Darwin, the canoeist who returned from the dead after going missing in the North Sea more than five years ago. At first it seemed like a miracle, but now his wife has admitted that – at least for most of the time – his disappearance had become a scam. People are still speculating about his motives but newspaper reports suggest that it had to do with escaping debts.

From his prison cell, John the Baptist began to hear similar stories about amazing events – blind people receiving their sight, lame people walking, the deaf hearing, even the dead being raised to life. Only this was no scam. John's disciples were able to report what they had actually seen and heard. Isaiah's prophecy seemed to be coming true before their very eyes.

But were people pleased about it? Jesus clearly implies that they were not! 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,' he says, as if anyone ought to take offence at such wonderful things. But, of course, human nature being what it is, people always look for the flaw in the story, the thing that doesn't add up, the discrepancies and dubious details.

People wanted to find something wrong with the ministry of Jesus, some reason to doubt him. The same instinct was the undoing of John and Anne Darwin. Cynical newspaper reporters soon tracked down a photograph of the two of them taken together a year ago, when Mr Darwin was still supposed to be dead or missing.

And people had the same cynicism about John the Baptist before he was imprisoned, when he first appeared in the wilderness calling for repentance. The crowds who flocked to see him were motivated by curiosity as much as by faith and expectancy. Indeed, Jesus wonders what some of them were expecting to find.

Did they expect to find a reed shaken by the wind? If so, that could mean they were expecting a prophet who would proclaim the latest fashionable ideas, bending with the prevailing wind, or it could be a reference to the way that the wind whistles through reed beds creating an eerie and arresting sound, but a sound which nonetheless has no real substance.

Did some go expecting to find a celebrity dressed in soft robes? If so, they were surely looking in the wrong place. For the implication of Jesus' questions is that the only kind of person you are likely to find living and preaching in the wilderness is a genuine prophet – someone with a lot of strong convictions, an uncompromising message and a pretty Spartan dress code. And Jesus confirms that he believes John is a very special person.

So why are the least of those who live under God's new dispensation greater than John? Because John was still looking for the wrong thing, a new era of fiery judgement and harsh separation between the good and the bad, whereas Jesus knows that God is offering a different kind of judgement, a judgement tempered with mercy, patience and unfailing love.

The writer of the Letter of James has the same concept in mind when he pictures the patience of the farmer who treats the whole crop as precious and hopes that the early and late rains will help it to mature.

The Desert That Becomes a Garden

Isaiah 35:1-10
This passage mixes beautiful images of peace and regeneration with more disturbing themes about the nature of God's justice.

Years ago our family was toiling through an Alpine meadow in the hot sunshine when one of our children turned to us and asked, rather crossly, 'Why are you making us go through this barren wilderness?' It was an incredible thing to say because only someone walking with their head down could have failed to notice that, on both sides of the path – as far as the eye could see – there were literally millions of flowers of every colour and shade. If this was a wilderness, it was a wilderness which was rejoicing and blossoming like the one pictured by the Prophet.

In the prophet's vision, not only shall the wilderness blossom abundantly but the burning sand shall become like a pool, and the thirsty ground shall gush with springs of water. And this will be no empty mirage. The sparse desert grass will mutate into water-loving beds of reeds and rushes.

And there will be a special road through this flowering desert, a busy highway where no lions, jackals or ravenous beasts dare lie in wait for the lonely traveller. Joy and gladness will replace sorrow and sighing.

So far so good. But there is a jarring note in the prophecy. For the God who will come to strengthen the feeble and make the lame leap like a deer will also come with vengeance and terrible recompense. Some people will be saved, but others will be cut down. And the broad highway which leads to safety through the desert will be a holy way. Although it will be so straight and easy to follow that no one will need a map or satellite navigation to negotiate it, the unclean will not be allowed to travel on it at all. Only the redeemed shall walk there.

If this were a description of heaven, or of the Kingdom of God, there would be nothing wrong with this picture. But it isn't. It's meant to be a picture of our world, but it's a picture in which some people find peace and prosperity while others are excluded. It's the sort of picture of righteousness and justice which inspired the people who built a huge fence between Israel and Palestine, so that they could keep the suicide bombers, but also many ordinary Palestinians, on the outside.

And, of course, it's not a Christian image, for Jesus made it very clear that – at least for the time being – God is determined not to choose between the good and the bad. One day there will indeed come a time for judgement but, until then, the struggle goes on to persuade everyone to choose the right way. Being holy doesn't mean shutting some people out because they are considered unclean, it means welcoming everybody in and trying to convince them to be made holy too.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Wicked Wolf and The Lamb

Matthew 3.1—12
John the Baptist, too, has been reading the prophecy of Isaiah and – like the Prophet – he expects the Messiah to wreak powerful vengeance on wrong doers. He pictures God's special agent and new ruler arriving on Earth with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready – in the days before combine harvesters or threshing machines – to begin the laborious task of separating the nourishing wheat from the inedible chaff. The chaff, he observes ominously, will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Hundreds of years before, Isaiah had warned that God would be compelled to chop down the decaying nation of Israel so that righteous new growth could spring from its roots. Once again, warns John, the axe is at the root of the tree. And this time the Jewish nation may not be so fortunate, for God may cause those new shoots of righteousness and spiritual vigour to grow up among Gentile peoples instead of giving Israel another chance.

Once again, too, snakes feature in the story. This time they are not friends or foes as such, just inevitable bit-part players in this End Time drama – vipers fleeing the wrath to come, eager to learn new tricks and give up their poisonous ways to save themselves. John is taken aback. He had obviously intended his message to appeal only to the common people, not to Pharisees and Sadducees. But who is he to judge?

Recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded Radio 4 listeners that God, as we see Him in Jesus, is remarkably unfussy and inclusive. Far from flaying about him with a winnowing fork, in a desperate bid to cleanse the Earth with fire, he welcomes sinners and eats with them, gladly calling himself their friend. The wolf shall indeed live with the lamb, but that is because the Lamb of God is willing even to welcome the wicked wolf – if the wolf will mend its ways.

Living Together in Harmony

Romans 15:4-13
Paul here seizes on just one verse from Isaiah's memorable prophecy in order to prove that Jesus was given a special mission to take God's saving message to Gentile people as well as to members of the Jewish race. He was having a hard task in convincing some Jewish Christians that he was right about this, and Isaiah's words, 'The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples', seemed to lend powerful support to his argument.

Of course, then as now, some Christians probably said that Isaiah had been talking about the people, or the kings, of Israel and Judah, not about Jesus. Paul will have none of it. He asserts that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, to give us hope and encouragement on our own faith pilgrimage. This doesn't mean that the prophecies of Isaiah and others didn't have a different meaning at the time, only that they have a special meaning for Christians too, and that meaning is just as valid.

The special meaning of the passage for Paul is that people of different races are meant to live in harmony, just as the wild and domestic animals are supposed to dwell in peace together.

Looking Backwards and Forwards

Isaiah 11:1-10
Once, years ago, a neighbour and his son helped me cut down a large sycamore tree which was too close to the manse. Actually, they did all the cutting and I just shouted, 'Timber'. The neighbour, who had been a forestry worker in his youth, painted the stump with tar to try and kill it. But his efforts were in vain. In no time at all vigorous new shoots grew from the stump and it took me all of my time to keep them in check. In a year they could easily grow six or seven feet tall and almost too thick to prune without lopping tools.

Of course, this method of harvesting quick growing wood has been known by human beings for thousands of years. The technical terms for cutting down an old tree in order to encourage new and vigorous growth which can be easily harvested is 'coppicing'.

In their attempts to explain why God had allowed his chosen nation to be enslaved, the Bible writers seized on this image of coppicing. Israel, they believed, had become morally and spiritually bankrupt, a spent force. By cutting the nation back to its roots God had allowed new and vigorous energy to spring forth.

It's not clear whether the Prophet had a single individual in mind when he wrote about the new shoot springing from the stump of King David's father Jesse. He may have been thinking of a new line of kings, or of a reinvigorated nation which, collectively, would judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity. But Christians have seen this prophecy as an uncannily accurate description of the manner in which Jesus will rule the nations.

Nonetheless, some Christians may wonder whether parts of the description don't quite fit when we apply them to Jesus. What would it mean for Jesus to strike the earth with the rod of his mouth? Will he really kill the wicked with the breath of his lips? This would hark back to an image of the kind of God who rides on the storm, wreaking hurricane-force vengeance on wrong doers. Old Testament writers sometimes described God like this, and the Prophet is certainly suggesting in this passage that the rod of Jesse will act on God's behalf and with God's power, but can we still describe God in the same way when we know that he was crucified for sinners?

Finally, what are we to make of the very different and very striking images of the over-turning of the natural order so that peace and harmony break out even between ferocious wild animals and domestic cattle, goats and little children? The reference to a little child leading lions, leopards, kids and calves like a good shepherd guiding his flock is another startling example of the way this passage often seems to look forward to Jesus? Isn't he the little child, lying in the manger in Bethlehem, who was at the same time Lord of all creation?

However, the Prophet is just as likely to have been looking back to the very beginning of the created order when the misinformation peddled by a talking snake was responsible for unleashing human-focused knowledge into the world, with sometimes disastrous results. The Prophet is not against the spread of knowledge, but what is needed if the world is to be transformed into a peaceful place is not more human learning but more knowledge of God, otherwise our technology – no matter how promising it might seem – will only help us to destroy ourselves and our planet. In the kind of God-centred world which the Prophet imagines, the snake will no longer be cursed because of its tempting advice to go our own way. Instead, it will become a symbol of al things new, a friend even to toddlers.