Jesus said that one day there would be a great feast, hosted by God himself. Everyone would be invited, but not everyone would come. And Jesus set about modelling that feast, where all were invited. He ate and drank – sometimes as host, sometimes as guest – with such commitment that his enemies called him a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of those who were excluded from God’s true table (Matthew 11:19).
And so the Church, following Jesus’ example, decided that they would set aside feast days throughout the year, and that they would invite people to the table, to give a foretaste of the Great Feast Day to come, and to model heaven breaking-in to earth in the present. And while they gave people a taster, to help them to decide to go to the Great Feast, they would also use these feasts as opportunities to tell the story of what God had done in Jesus – tying each feast to a particular event or person in that story.
But somewhere along the line, some Reformers (who had had the Bible translated into their own language so they could read it, but obviously hadn’t read Matthew 11:19 - or any of the Gospel accounts that led people to make the accusation of ‘glutton and drunkard’) decided that feasts were a conceit. Believing in God was a Very Serious Business. What people needed was sermons. And, of course, all the preachers – who loved the sound of their own voice – thought this was a genius idea: why had no-one come up with it sooner? Send word to the kitchen – the feast is cancelled!
I reckon we need to reclaim our feasts, as part of what it means to live a missional life, or life shaped by mission. Probably because I am an introvert, I don’t especially enjoy social events with more people present than I can fit around my table (which is to say, about twelve). But, introvert though I am, I am not a loner: I can appreciate solitude, as indeed I can appreciate festival crowds, but best of all is company around the table.
Christmas lasts twelve days. Yesterday was the feast of Stephen, the first person to be killed because of his belief that Jesus (whose coming into the world we celebrated the day before) was the Messiah, the One sent by God to rescue his people. Today is the feast of John the Evangelist, who saw God’s glory revealed in Jesus, and wrote about it in (the Gospel) According to John, three shorter letters, and the Revelation. Tomorrow is the festival of the Holy Innocents, recalling before God the infant boys of Bethlehem who lost their lives because God’s salvation was so threatening to those who have a vested interest in oppression and control over other people’s lives. January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany, recalling the Magi who recognised Jesus’ birth with gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.
May your kitchen and your table be blessed this Christmas, and throughout the year ahead.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
And me? And you?
Will we change our minds about this story we once thought so familiar?
Will we settle for retelling its previous pages,
or will we turn around
and step into the Christmas story
as it continues to be written,
until Christ comes again?
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The kingdom of heaven comes close to the Magi, and by repenting – by changing their mind – they step into the present presence of God’s future.
The Magi go on a journey, a journey that takes them some two years of planning and execution, that leads them a long way from where they began (and back again, by a different route). They are led by a star, almost to Bethlehem. Before they can arrive, they must go on the slightest of detours, to prophetically declare to Herod and his people that his days as king are numbered...Then, having found the child and his mother, they are led away by an angel on a wider detour – one that would have had to take them a long way out of their way - to avoid the murderous king. Stars and angels: sat nav, first-century style.
But God knows the way through the wilderness: for Joseph, Mary and Jesus, fleeing south through the Negev as political refugees, to the Jewish Diaspora community in Egypt; for the Magi, avoiding any road on which they might be seen, their movement reported. This moment, this moment when a caravan of dignitaries exits stage left under cover of darkness, buying time for escape, is a moment that God can step into in order to bring light into the world.
The Magi repent, and step forward into the unknown with God.
[Today’s Antiphon is O Emmanuel]
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The kingdom of heaven comes close to the shepherds, and by repenting – by changing their mind – they step into the present presence of God’s future.
Shepherds not only lived on the margins of society, out on the hills on the edge of towns; they were considered to represent the margins of society. They were marginalised by society. They were mistrusted, misrepresented. Like youth in our society today, they were considered to be up to no good, lazy, antisocial. You certainly wouldn’t believe a word that they said – especially if their excuse for being in town when they were supposed to be with their flock was that an angel had appeared to them with news of great joy...
But God knows what it is to be marginalised by his people. And, as Mary sung, God “...has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53). This moment, this moment when the marginalised are invited as guests-of-honour into the very centre, is a moment that God can step into in order to bring light into the world.
The shepherds repent, and step forward into the unknown with God.
[Today’s Antiphon is O Rex Gentium]
Monday, December 21, 2009
The kingdom of heaven comes close to Joseph, and by repenting – by changing his mind – he steps into the present presence of God’s future.
Joseph is told that the girl pledged to marry him is pregnant, and he is not the father. How does he feel? Cheated by her family? Betrayed by her? He has the right to complain, to bring the matter into the light, to demand compensation for a broken pledge, perhaps to demand that Mary is stoned to death. Even if he does not make that demand, the matter might be taken out of his hands.
Joseph is a righteous man, and he makes a righteous decision: not to demand his rights, but to walk away quietly, to carry the consequence of someone else’s actions. Though God has other plans, this is not a bad decision but a good one – one that vindicates God’s decision (if God’s decisions need vindicating) to choose this man to raise His Son.
But God knows Joseph’s character more intimately than Joseph does. This moment, this moment when he can choose to take Mary and her baby on as his own, is a moment that God can step into in order to bring light into the world.
Joseph repents, and steps forward into the unknown with God.
[Today’s Antiphon is O Oriens]
Sunday, December 20, 2009
The kingdom of heaven comes close to Mary, and by repenting – by changing her mind – she steps into the present presence of God’s future.
The angel says, “You will be with child”...and Mary asks, “How can this be?” She is a virgin. And we need to understand that term to mean not only someone who has not yet had sexual intercourse (in this sense, a virgin can become pregnant, simply by having sex) but to mean a girl who has not yet ovulated (that is, for whom pregnancy is a biological impossibility, even if she had had sex).
Mary knows that she cannot have a baby, because her body is not yet ready to have a baby. That is why she is still ‘pledged to be’ married: an arrangement has been made between two families, and the wedding will take place once she has become a woman, once her periods begin.
But God knows Mary’s body more intimately than Mary does. This moment, this moment when her ovaries release their very first egg, is a moment that God can step into in order to bring light into the world.
Mary repents, and steps forward into the unknown with God.
[Today’s Antiphon is O Clavis David]
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Eventually John extends the invitation to repent to someone who knows that John is right, but cannot accept: it would cost Herod the tetrach far too much. Ultimately, that refusal to pay the price will cause John to lose his life (Matthew 14:3-12).
And in prison, John hears what Jesus is doing, and wonders: is this who we were to expect after all? (Matthew 11:1-19) Who Jesus was, and what he was doing, didn’t match even John’s expectations.
And Jesus’ response is to call John to repent, to change his mind: these things, impossible for man but possible through God, are exactly the ‘kairos’ moments – the opportunities to repent, to turn around and step into the present presence of God’s future – that show heaven is come near. One day, all the blind shall see, the lame walk, the unclean will be made clean, the deaf shall hear, the dead shall be raised, and the poor shall experience God’s goodness. And even now we get to share in the signs that point to that Day.
And Jesus said that John, who was about to lose his head, stood head-and-shoulders above all those born of women (John said that Jesus would surpass him, for he needed to become less and Jesus become more – John 3:30 – but at this point in the story, John is still greater, according to Jesus – Matthew 11:11). And yet, he continued, whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.
That is, the secret of greatness is becoming smaller and smaller, until you disappear. That at the vanishing-point of our ego, God’s power flows through us with least resistance. No-one had become smaller than John – but, because of John’s example, they would. John’s repentance had opened a breach between earth and heaven, through which heaven poured into earth like water through a breached dam – and those forceful enough to keep going against the flow of everyone else have experienced the present presence of God’s future bursting in, ever since...
[Today’s Antiphon is O Radix Jesse]
Friday, December 18, 2009
Today’s Antiphon reminds us what God’s people have rediscovered in every generation. Abraham learnt it. Moses learnt it. David learnt it. Elijah learnt it. Mary learnt it. Cousin John learnt it. Jesus learnt it. Paul learnt it. Countless generations have learnt it ever since.
If you hope to find God, you will find him, at last, in the wilderness.
And, therefore, if you have lost all hope of finding God, he is closer to you than you know. Right there. But behind you. Turn around, and you will find that though you did not know it, you are standing on holy ground.
Today’s Antiphon is O Adonai
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Today marks a turning-point - an opportunity to repent and by so doing step into the present presence of God’s future - on the path through Advent.
Today marks the start of the final leg of the Advent journey. Down the centuries, in these last days counting down to Christmas, the Church has declared our Advent hope, praying ancient prayers (known as Antiphons*) inviting God into our lives, expressing our longing to step into his kingdom rule.
The first Antiphon invokes God as Wisdom from above, calling to mind Isaiah’s promise that Jesus would be known as Wonderful Counsellor (Isaiah chapter 9).
I have not walked the path that leads through today before. At times, the path seems to vanish beneath my feet, to fall into nothingness, sheer, un-scale-able. At other moments, I get a glimpse of my destination, before the rocks hide it again: moments of hope sustaining me in the midst of a hard climb. I need one who knows the path, who knows its every twist and turn, to lead me, to walk one step ahead of me, to tell me when to change direction. I need a wise guide, an expert in the art of repentance. Today, he meets me on the path.
Today’s Antiphon is O Sapientia
*The Antiphons found their way into the Christmas Carol ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ - although some hymn books do not include all the verses, and therefore miss out some of the story the Antiphons tell about God.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Heaven – the realm of God’s kingdom rule – is closer to earth than we think. It is right there, seeping in. Repentance is the means by which heaven crosses the thin, permeable membrane of space and time: the means by which foretastes of the future – God’s ultimate future – break-into the present. Because God’s kingdom is right there...but it is heading in a different direction, towards another horizon, another conclusion; and so we need to turn round to see the world from the perspective of God’s kingdom.
There are times – moments, events; the Greek word for such time is ‘kairos’ – that interrupt and suspend ordinary time – seconds, minutes, hours, days; the Greek word for such time is ‘chronos’. These moments can be positive or negative, large or small. They can last for half a heartbeat (a passing stranger makes you smile), or for months (grief after significant loss). The world carries on about its business around us, but we find ourselves stuck in a moment...and in that moment, the world of ‘chronos’ time and space can take one of two paths.
These times are opportunities to repent and see God’s kingdom break-in. Salvation, healing, forgiveness, joy, peace – things that will define all experience of life beyond the Great Day of Jesus’ return, break-into the present, as signposts pointing to that future Day.
Or we can take a deep breath and carry on along the same trajectory we were travelling in, and miss out on partnering in God’s rule. God’s future will continue to break-in, but at another moment, delayed, perhaps through someone else.
And though this may seem counter-intuitive, God gives us the big ‘kairos’ moments – the ones even one so blind as me cannot miss – in order to train us to see the small ‘kairos’ opportunities, and step into God’s future. Because our days are as filled with ‘kairos’ moments as they are with the air we breathe; and the small moments are more significant than the big ones.
I was in the city centre, Christmas shopping, and I walked past a Big Issue vendor. And I chose not to stop – not that I wouldn’t buy a copy, but I’d do it later, once I’d actually got some shopping done. And God, speaking through my conscience, said, “Turn around!” But I kept going, arguing with the voice in my head: later, not now. The further away I got, the harder it was to turn around, and in fact I never did. I carried on with my agenda, and bought a copy from another vendor later. And we spoke, and I know he was blessed, but I also know that God wanted to break in through me earlier in the day, and, by my own choice, I missed out on being part of what he wanted to do.
The moment was small, and easy to dismiss. What will it take (and do I really want to resist God that far)?
Lord Jesus, whose days were one moment of repentance after another, so that you remained always in the Father’s will, teach me to live such a life. Amen.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The other day I was having a conversation with some people who were wanting to see more of God’s power made manifest in their lives. And I was suggesting that as God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), we will see more of God’s power at work as we hold out our weaknesses before him, for him to use. Our natural instinct is to hide our weaknesses, because we are ashamed of them; or, if we are too honest or too desperate to do that, to ask God to remove them. But the apostle Paul came to realise that instead we ought to boast in our weaknesses: to openly acknowledge that it is when we reach the end of our resources that God steps in...
As part of that conversation, I thought I would link back to two previous posts, on the story of Gideon. They are:
Becoming |1| Submit To God
Becoming |2| Resist The Devil
As part of that conversation, I thought I would link back to two previous posts, on the story of Gideon. They are:
Becoming |1| Submit To God
Becoming |2| Resist The Devil
So repentance has its root in the very heart of God, who changed direction: picking his way carefully down the sheer face of the heavens, down Jacob’s angel-ladder; down, into the inconceivable vulnerability of a human beginning, into Mary’s womb.
Therefore repentance is the appropriate response of the people of God: of those who recognise God-with-us, and who are given the right to become children of God as a result. For repentance still carries the forgiveness of sins out into the world.
While everyone else is clawing their way up the ladder, seeking to make a name for themselves that will be heard in all the earth and even the heavens – a name that will be remembered forever - we are called to follow the path down. To empty ourselves. To become smaller. Less powerful. Less important. No, still smaller than that...
To down-size. To achieve nothing in the eyes of the world. Not even our fifteen minutes of fame. To leave behind whatever we already have.
And, just as John recognised Jesus while the two cousins were still in their mothers’ wombs, the smaller we become, the deeper the glimpse we are given into the mysterious ways of the God who is reconciling all things to himself.
Monday, December 14, 2009
To ‘repent’ means to turn around, to make a change of direction.
We’ve narrowed that massively, so that we tend to understand repentance as turning from something wrong – as turning from a sinful way of living (i.e. living in broken relationship with God and neighbour) to a righteous way of living (i.e. living in right relationship with God and neighbour). And so we see undergoing John’s baptism of repentance as a person indicating their intention to turn from sin to righteousness.
Repentance certainly may include turning from something wrong, but it is far bigger than that. Sometimes a change of direction is needed, not to return to the right path but in order to continue on the right path. Sometimes repentance is not reactive but proactive: not that we have sinned and need to repent, but that we need to repent in order not to sin. Sometimes repentance is not from but for...
John did not preach a baptism of repentance from sin, in order to receive forgiveness; but a baptism of repentance for – or, which leads to – the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism proclaims a repentance that results in the forgiveness of sins - but whose repentance?
The start of Jesus’ ministry is marked by his being baptised by John. Jesus was without sin. If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance from sin, Jesus could not have received it: he had committed no sin he needed to repent from. But John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins:
Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth stands before him indicating his intention to make a change of direction;
to put carpentry behind him and follow a new path – first into the wilderness, from where his path would ultimately lead to Jerusalem and a cross;
to his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which result in a new forgiveness of sins...
in a new path to forgiveness, not through the annual ritual sacrifice made by the High Priest, but once-and-for-all.
The initiative lies always with God. For Christmas celebrates the greatest repentance of all: the one who is God from God, begotten not created, with God from the beginning, laid all aside and descended the path from heaven to earth to become a human being and live among us (John 1:1-18 ; Philippians 2:5-11).
As we seek to follow Jesus along the Way, there will be times (perhaps many times) when he asks us to change direction – to move to a new location, to take up a new responsibility – not because where we are and what we are doing is wrong, but because we have reached a turn in the path before us. We turn, for him, for others – an act of repentance that keeps us in step with the Spirit of Jesus – because he first turned, for us.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” —
“a voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I’ve been in the Judean wilderness, rising up from the Jordan River and the Dead Sea; the wall of the deepest rift valley on earth, where John lived and went about his ministry.
I’ve seen the wilderness, through which God’s ancient people expected him to come one day, on his way to Jerusalem, with my own eyes. And I know that if you wanted to make a way through the wilderness, a straight path is no use to you.
A straight path will get you nowhere. You need a path that zigs and zags, as it seeks to climb rock so sheer that only the wild mountain ibex can pick their way up and down. A path that turns back on its self, painfully slowly, in order to gain ground...
In other words, the prophet cries out, what is really needed is not simply a better path, but a seismic shift in topography. Depths raised-up, heights brought low: the landscape unrecognisable as what was there before. The old paths no longer going anywhere at all...
John says we need to get ready. To repent – to change the direction we are moving in. To recognise that we are at a point in the path where we can go no further in this direction; and - with God’s grace - must find another.
But more than that, John says something is about to happen that will change everything forever. To respond to the call to make a straight path in the desert of our lives is to recognise that the one who will travel on it will, in his passing, transform the desert itself from the place of life in its most marginal experience to the place of life in all its fullness.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Sunday, December 06, 2009
Saturday, December 05, 2009
If you have children, go out and buy a bag of chocolate coins for each child. Get your children to leave out a shoe when they go to bed tonight, and place the bag of coins there to be found in the morning...because the morning brings with it the Feast of St Nicholas.
Nikolaos was bishop of Myra (modern-day Turkey) in the C4th. He was suspected to be behind a wide spate of anonymous acts of kindness, in particular leaving bags of gold coins in shoes left by the door. It would appear that his motivation was redeeming the poor from the consequences of poverty – a practical expression of the loving action of God in coming into our world to redeem us from the consequences of our slavery to the satan, or accuser: sin, and death.
Nikolaos became patron saint of sailors and merchants, and was carried by Dutch traders to Amsterdam, where he became Sinterklaas; and from there on to New Amsterdam (later, New York), where he became Santa Claus; and to England, where he became Father Christmas.
In response to God’s redemptive gift to us – the coming of Jesus – Nikolaos started a tradition of redemptive gift-giving. Over the years, this has been covered by layers of giving gifts for other reasons. But that redemptive quality has been rediscovered, through a range of fair-trade gifts, and gifts that go to someone other than the recipient – see Oxfam unwrapped, Traidcraft, and Present Aid for ideas.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Who am I, when
everything that makes me who I am
is stripped away,
and I am laid bare before
the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
Who am I, when
who I am is not known round here?
Who am I, when
those I love are taken from me?
Who am I, when
all I have worked to build is washed away?
Who am I, when
I AM is:
Only and Beloved Son, sacrificed?
The one who brings God and man together in one,
and overcomes the gulf between them?
This is not an abstract question
for us, who live in the land of darkness...
Thursday, December 03, 2009
More than fourteen years after meeting Jacob in his dream, God comes to him again in the night. Though God has blessed him, Jacob is a broken man – caught between the uncle he has tricked, in order to amass wealth, and the brother he tricked out of his birthright so many years earlier. Here is a man caught between a rock and a hard place.
And God comes to Jacob again and repeats his offer: “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.”
They wrestle, physically and metaphorically, all night [note 1]. God, laying aside his supernatural might to wrestle with a man; and that man holding on for dear life and refusing to let go. Jacob gets to see God face-to-face, and live. And finally, as the dawn breaks, the covenant is renewed.
Jacob gets a new name (a divine name): Israel. No longer ‘the deceiver’ but now ‘he struggles with God and man, and overcomes.’
And God? Jacob asks, “Tell me your name!” But God replies, “Why do you ask my name?” You already know: I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and now – at last – of Jacob. The God of Israel. I am the God who exchanges identity with my people. I am the Great Father. I am the Only and Beloved Son, who will be sacrificed. I am the one who struggles with God and man, and has overcome: the one who brings God and man together in one, and overcomes the gulf between them...
note 1: read Genesis 32.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
God will introduce himself to later generations as “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Jacob – Isaac’s son, Abraham’s grandson – is the third Patriarch.
God comes to Jacob and says, “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.” Jacob’s life was a mess. His name – his identity – meant trickster or cheat, and that defined his life. He cheated his brother out of his birthright, and ran for his life. And the trickster would himself be tricked: he voluntarily worked for his uncle Laban for seven years up front in return for Laban’s younger daughter as a wife...only to be given the older daughter, and forced to work another seven years (though not up front this time) for the right to marry the woman he loved. Laban said, you can marry my daughter but in exchange I’ll get fourteen years of labour out of you, and get you to take my other daughter off my hands into the bargain. The trickster met his match – and responds in the only way he knows, by tricking his uncle, by getting his own back. And trickery upon trickery resulted in an ugly family situation, which would have consequences for the next generation...
God comes to Jacob twice. The first time, Jacob has just run away from home. Exhausted, he lies down to sleep on the open ground - on the very ground where his grandfather Abraham had taken his father Isaac to sacrifice him. But Jacob did not know it. And as he slept, God appeared to him in a dream, standing both at the top and at the bottom of a stair reaching from earth to heaven [note 1], on which angels where ascending and descending. There God renews his offer of covenant – an exchange of lives. Jacob is amazed, and afraid: without knowing, he has stumbled on the place where heaven and earth connect, the house of God. And he declares that if God shows himself to be true to his promises, then Jacob will enter into covenant with him, and make this place outwardly, visibly, God’s house [note 2].
He stands at the open gate of heaven, and does not go in. This is not the end of his story, but it is a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, God will not let it go: generations later, Jesus will declare that the place where the stair between heaven and earth touches ground is not at any fixed geographic point, but in him [note 3]. In Jesus as he went about on earth, and, by extension, in the heart of everyone who will accept his offer:
“If you will give me your life, I will give you my life.”
note 1: The text, Genesis 28, is ambiguous as to whether God is stood at the top or the bottom of the stair, in a way that leads us to understand it as being both at the same time. God in heaven, and God on earth. The Great Father, and the Only and Beloved Son.
note 2: Generations later, Solomon’s temple would be built here. After it was destroyed and the people taken into exile, Zerubbabel would return and build the second temple on the same spot. And, in turn, Herod the Great would build the magnificent third temple – the temple of Jesus’ day – at the house of God, the gate of heaven.
note 3: see John 1:43-51.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Back to those Patriarchs...
So God comes to Abram and says, “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.” And Abram, now Abraham, has a son, the beginning of the fulfilment that he would become Father of Nations.
But then God says to Abraham, “Take Isaac, your only son, your son whom you love, and go to a certain place I will show you, and sacrifice him to me.”
In other words, God says, “In the light of who I have shown myself to be and what I have done for you in the past, will you trust me for the future? Will you trust me to come good on my promise – trust me enough that you put me before my promises; enough that you will hold on to my promise even when all the evidence points to the death of that hope, because you know who I am?” [note 1]
Isaac is the second Patriarch. God comes to him and says, “If you give me your life, I will give you my life.” God brings Isaac ‘back from death’ and to the identity of Great Father God has taken on in covenant with Abraham, in covenant with Isaac God now adds to himself the identity of Only and Beloved Son, who will be sacrificed [note 2] as the pivotal point in God’s fulfilment of his promise to Abraham.
As we wait with anticipation for the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that one day he will return, God comes to us this Advent with the same invitation: “If you will give me your life, I will give you my life.”
Note 1: See Genesis 22 and Hebrews 11:17-19.
Note 2: Generations later, King David bought the land where Abraham was sent to sacrifice Isaac. David’s son Solomon built the (first) temple there. And on that patch of earth, in the shadow of the (third) temple built on the site, Jesus would die on a cross, be laid in a borrowed tomb, and three days later be raised again.