Benediction Online

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Enough Talking About it

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

One of the wonderful things about Christmas is putting out the crèche.   I love all the little figures which replay the stories we have heard all our lives. These stories of the stable, of shepherds and angels and wise men come from just two of the four gospels. It was customary in the first century to develop great myths about the birth of emperors and other important leaders. Matthew and Luke both follow the custom and give us extensive birth narratives to emphasize how important Jesus is.

But Mark and John, the earliest and the latest gospels, don’t bother. This morning we heard from John’s gospel. It tells us that there was a man sent from God whose name was John. His job was to testify to the light. He was a witness. This was a legal term – rather like a notary today – someone who certifies that a person is who they say they are. So John was sent from God to declare that Jesus really was the light coming into the world.

There are other people in this story who were also sent – the Jewish leaders sent priests and Levites. They were sent to check John’s identity and credentials.  There was no-one to testify to him. He had to be his own testifier and he responded to them in words that they would know only too well from their scriptures “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" But they had been sent by the Pharisees who needed to know exactly what was right and what was wrong and so they demanded to know with what authority John was baptizing. After all, a voice in the wilderness is not a baptizer.

But in trying to pin him down, the Jewish leaders were missing the opportunity to find the reign of God.
It’s a little like being invited to a reception at a very fancy hotel with a doorman and instead of going in and enjoying the party you stop outside to ask the doorman a lot of questions about himself and why he’s a doorman and what the reception is about. If you stand on the street asking questions you’re never going to enjoy the banquet. We often sing verse 8 of Psalm 34 “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – if you go to a banquet and spend all evening interrogating the doorman, or if you go in but have a whole load of questions for the chef about the ingredients and the recipes and where the food was sourced, you may end up knowing all about it but never eating any. What use is that?

Food is to be eaten. The reign of God is to be lived.

At the time of Jesus, baptism was an initiation into the religious life just as it is for us. Proselytes to Judaism had to be circumcised, baptized and make a sacrifice. Baptism cleansed the proselyte from the impurity of idolatry, and restored him to the purity of a new-born man. Unlike Christian baptism, you could be baptized again and again. In fact baptism was considered a part of holy living and was frequently repeated by those wanting to live a sacred life. John the Baptizer may have been a member of the Essene sect. The first century scholar Josephus said that his instructor Banus, who was an Essene, ritually "bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day" as did all the Essenes.

In the Acts of the Apostles when the apostle Paul was travelling in Ephesus he found Christians who had been baptized in the baptism of John for repentance but not baptized in the name of Jesus so he went ahead and baptized them. Paul’s understanding of baptism in the name of Jesus is that it is baptism into the new life in Christ, and that in the waters of baptism we enter into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, effectively being joined to him. This is a once and for all thing – we don’t have to be baptized again and again.

Meanwhile, back at the River Jordan…For the Jews baptism could take place in any cold water bath but baptism in the waters of the Jordan was very special. It was thought to restore the unclean man to the original state of a new-born "little child."[1] That reminds me of Jesus words “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt18:3)

John’s preaching and baptism for repentance were preparing people for the coming of the Christ and the declaration of the reign of God. It was like a great community drama. A communal purification so that Jesus’ ministry could begin and he could speak to a people who had become like little children, ready for his words and his demonstration of God-in-human.

The first reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah are the words that Jesus used to announce the beginning of his ministry. Luke tells us that Jesus went to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.
“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. And he opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Then he sat down, as was the custom, to teach and began by saying "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

So this, we could say, is Jesus’ mission statement, “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

As his followers, it is also our mission statement.

This is the reign of God. This is practical stuff. For a poor person good news is that there’s the money to pay the rent; good news is that you won’t get evicted; good news is being able to pay the utility bill; good news is getting a job or a raise.

So these readings today combine mysticism and mission. We have John calling for us to become pure and open to God like little children – not just individually – but as a community – and we have Jesus’ mission statement proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. It is a call for the healing of the nation.

We live in a nation which is in great need of healing, in a world which is in great need of healing. We are aware perhaps more than ever before of the incipient racism which creates a society in which more black than white people are incarcerated and black people are treated more roughly by police than white. We see the horrors of civil war in many nations and the use of religion as ideology to support violence. Closer to home we see house prices forcing people onto the streets and jobs paying so little that having a job doesn’t guarantee being able to pay rent.

Holistic spirituality transforms our souls and enlivens our spirits but also expands our level of awareness and compassion. As we grow in the knowledge of the reign of God we come to see that we are all kin – that the well-being of others and ourselves is one dynamic reality.  We are called to repent of our individualism; of the idea that it’s all about us. Yes we need to repent and make a change in our lives so that we can be reconciled with God. Yes we want to be one with the Spirit, but that is not something that comes as an individualistic high – it comes along with the knowing that we are all deeply interconnected. In the intricate web of relatedness we cannot distinguish between the authentic wellbeing of ourselves and others.
This is the reign of God – where the two great commandments– to love God with all of ourselves and to love our neighbor as if she or he were ourselves - are fully lived. No we do not wait until we love ourselves before we love others because there is no separation. These two go hand in hand.

We can spend a lot of time debating the reign of God – is it like this or is it like that? We can come up with all kinds of issues about how we do things religiously or spiritually. Like the Pharisees we can try to make sure that everything is religious correct or politically correct before we commit ourselves. But that isn’t the reign of God.

“Taste and see that God is good.” In order to taste you have to commit yourself, even just a teensy weensy bit to the food. Those of us who have been baptized have made a commitment not just to tasting but to eating. And we have made a commitment to engage in the mission of Christ “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Yet I am pretty sure that most of us have some reservations about jumping in. We have some reservations about the reign of God, because it means giving up our self-centeredness. And no-one wants to do that. It takes a great leap of faith to commit ourselves to follow Jesus. It’s not just getting a cold bath in the river. It’s living a life of self-sacrifice just as he did. But in the amazing paradox which is the reign of God, because we are all connected that self-sacrifice turns round and becomes the greatest blessing. As we are able to give up our attachment to it all being about us, and increasingly make it all about Christ our lives of compassion become lives of deep fulfillment. Because that is how we were made to live.

We were made to be set on fire by the Spirit, to be anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to set the oppressed free; and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

There’s an old joke that upon arriving at the pearly gates a pilgrim soul was puzzled to see two signs, one which pointed to “Heaven” and one which pointed to “Discussions about Heaven”. St Peter explained that that was for the Unitarians who love to talk about everything.

The urgency of Advent is that the time to indulge in discussions about the reign of God is over. It is time for us to pluck up our courage and jump with both feet into the River Jordan, and renew our commitment to living the gospel. To renew our commitment to the compassionate life. To renew our commitment to holistic spirituality.



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