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Monday, December 24, 2012

THE REAL MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS

Micah 5: 2-5a
Luke 1: 39-55

Of all the times and seasons in the Christian year, Christmas is the one with the broadest appeal. It’s celebrated in one way or another by most people in the western hemisphere, Christian and non-Christian alike. Jesus may not always be a visible part of these festivities, but elements of his teaching can be seen in the unlikeliest places: in the most secular of Christmas greetings, in the most pagan of Christmas songs, in the most schmaltzy of Christmas movies. Peace, goodwill, forgiveness, reconciliation and fresh beginnings are central to the meaning of Christmas both inside and outside the Church.

Of course, Christmas is above all a time to remember and give thanks for Jesus’ birth, but there’s more to it than just remembrance. Christmas, like Jesus himself, is a gift from God to everyone willing to receive it, and even those who don’t know him yet can sense its magic. In “A Christmas Carol” by the great Christian author Charles Dickens, this life-changing magic is seen in the coming together of the past, present and future. And a similar pattern is seen in this mornings reading from two major prophets.

A prophet is someone through whom God has chosen to reveal his thoughts and intentions. Because God is a the God of justice, the prophets’ task has often been to speak out angrily against oppression and greed, and to warn their society of the consequences if they don’t change their ways. But because God is loving and merciful, he’s just as often inspired them to deliver promises of forgiveness and salvation. Warnings and promises: that is prophecy in a nutshell. Our readings today give us a glimpse into the world of two major prophets:

The first is Micah, the source of our OT lesson. Micah’s warnings of impending catastrophe were fulfilled in the 6th century BC when the Jews were carried off to captivity in Babylon. But the later chapters of the book contain a promise that after the catastrophe God will do something new and exciting. And with uncanny accuracy, nearly 500 years before the birth of Jesus, the writer says this:  ”You, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
though you are small… out of you will come…one who will be ruler over Israel. He will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord… His greatness
 will reach to the ends of the earth.”

Micah was unmistakeably a great prophet, but the identity of the second is less obvious. Mary, the God-bearer, the virgin mother of Christ, is so holy to most Christians that they don’t usually think of her as a prophet in her own right. But Luke reveals Mary as a major prophet. And the most direct affirmation of this comes in the words he attributes to her when her cousin Elizabeth recognises who it is that she is carrying in her womb. These words, known as the Magnificat, are so powerful, so prophetic, that they’re used daily throughout the Church. And precisely because repetition can dull the vibrant meaning of the words, we'll think about them now.

My soul magnifies the Lord, declares Mary, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. These words of praise set the tone for the whole passage, but notice particularly how she calls God her saviour, showing a supernatural awareness – even before her Son’s birth - of what God is doing.

She continues: For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. In other words, God has used her precisely because of her lack of power and status. This immediately connects her to the OT prophets and their emphasis on God’s love for the powerless. And when Mary goes on, From henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed, she’s not being vain or proud. Knowing what she knows about her role in God’s rescue plan, she can’t help but know how she’ll be seen by future generations. And she gives all the glory to God. All generations shall call me blessed, she says, but she’s quick to add, for he that is mighty has done great things to me, and holy is his name.

So far, Mary’s words have focused on what God is doing with her, rather than on the bigger picture. But Mary is about to get very radical, very political: His mercy, she says, is on them who fear him from generation to generation. At first sight this is just a reminder of God’s merciful nature, but there’s a stern prophetic undercurrent. What about those who don’t fear him, who don’t submit to his will? Like the Roman overlords. Like the tax-collectors and moneylenders—those who are too ruthless and arrogant to change their ways? Already there’s a hint of the emphasis the OT prophets placed on judgment.

And that’s only a beginning, for Mary continues: He has showed strength with his arm – in other words he’s shown that he’s willing and able to act in power, to intervene in human affairs – and he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. In short, those who are too arrogant to listen to God are driven out by him – the image suggests that they’re scattered like refugees before an invading army.

And as Mary goes on, her words gather still more strength: He has put down the mighty from their seats, she declares. In other words even rulers - like the Romans and King Herod and the powerful Temple authorities – are subject to the king of kings, and if they abuse their authority they’re deposed.

Finally, as the other side of the same coin, and in a dazzling preview of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Mary announces that God has exalted the humble and weak. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

What are we to make of this in our present situations? I started by talking about the power of Christmas to transform lives by bringing past, present and future together. We’ve now reflected on the words of two major prophets, and we’ve see how the coming of Christ is the source of that transforming power. All the mistakes of the past, and all possible futures, are contained in that moment when God broke in to human history. Even the world beyond the church is touched by the power of that moment, and senses the opportunity to make a fresh start.

Many people, including perhaps people reading or listening to these words, live their lives enslaved by the past and/or the future. 

Some are consumed by remorse for things they’ve done; some by the pain of what’s been done to them. In Jesus, God offers power over the past: to repent and feel clean, to forgive others and be healed.

Many live their lives enslaved by the future: plagued by fears or insecurities,  threatened, bullied, deprived of their rights. In Christ, God offers power over the future: a glimpse of the glorious victory in which we will share, and the confidence to trust him in all things.

If my words have struck a chord with you, this Christmas could be a time of healing and release. I know that any one of our leaders would be honoured to spend time in prayer with you, bringing your concerns to Jesus, so that this Christmas you may experience the joy and peace that he brought into the world at his birth.

In the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

JESUS IS KING OF KINGS - a reflection for Advent



Did you know that the world is secretly ruled by aliens disguised as the British royal family? That’s one popular internet conspiracy theory. Another claims that the world is governed by a shadowy group known as the Illuminati.

Crazy, of course, but just heavily distorted reflections of an important truth. Because the Bible also claims that the world has a hidden ruler, someone with extraordinary powers who demands the allegiance of everyone on the planet. Matthew’s Gospel tells a beautiful story to illustrate this truth:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.

Who would these men have been?
Not three kings, but astrologer-priests from Persia – highly informed politicians who knew something was happening in royal circles that would turn the world upside down.

Where would they have expected to find royalty?
They went to King Herod's palace in Jerusalem asking,
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.

How would you expect Herod to react?
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

Why should Herod fear?
Herod was one of the most and feared tyrants in history, but he was only a puppet. He had been put on the throne by the Romans overlords and could have been removed just as quickly. Thus he was deeply insecure, and when he sent his minions to find out more, they found an ancient prophecy:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

What does this prophecy tell us about the kind of ruler King Jesus will be?
He will rule in the way a shepherd rules his flock, i.e. firmly but gently, defending, feeding, healing, searching out the lost, even laying down his life for them.

What's the relevance of this for today?
It's rare if ever that we see a national government living up to this ideal. So often we see our governments pursuing policies that are alien to the teaching of Jesus, and it can be hard to know how to react as Christians.

So how do we decide whom to obey?
It can be particularly difficult for Evangelicals and members of established churches like the Church of England. 
    The traditional Catholic teaching was that one's first obedience is to the Church. But the Protestant Reformers relied on the German states to protect them from the wrath of the Vatican, and, drawing on St. Paul's writings about civil obedience, they rejected the right of the Church to exercise authority over civil governments. 
    In northern Europe in particular, obedience to the government came to seen as a religious duty. In fact without this tradition Hitler could never have convinced most German people that he was doing God's work.

So how can we find a balance? 
There is an illuminating scene in "The Hiding Place", the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom (set in Nazi-occupied Holland) where she and her family have an argument with the local pastor. He washes his hands of them because they are sheltering Jewish refugees, and tells them that their Christian duty is to obey the Government even if they disagree with its laws. Corrie's father disagrees. His counter-argument is that we must obey the government, but only as long as it does not go against the higher law of God.

If we follow this approach, we will (a) accept that governments are put in place by God, (b) reserve the right to resist a law that fundamentally goes against our Christian conscience, and (c) if we break the law, be willing to accept the penalty. To quote the words attributed to one of the early church fathers, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." 


A final thought...
Bad government is a global epidemic right now, but there’s reason for hope. The Bible makes clear that Jesus rules not just as king, but as king of kings, as ruler over all other rulers. His gentle rule as a shepherd is the standard by which they will be judged, and in Advent we look forward to a time when every knee will bow at his name.


Heavenly Father, we ask you to make Jesus very real to the people in our community this Christmas. In the face of the oppression we  see around the world, keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the King of Kings who rules like a shepherd gently tending his flock. Helps us to be good citizens, but give us the courage to stand up against injustice in Jesus' name even when it is costly to do so…  Amen.