In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).
These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.
We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.
This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.
We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!
Luke 1presents a compelling narrative about two women and two unborn babies. It is a remarkable way to start a story. Four individuals who, in various ways, are at the margins of society – an old barren woman, a teenage girl barely out of childhood, a six-month old foetus and a newly-fertilised egg. This is hardly a group of individuals that one would think would change the course of global history!
Yet, it is this very group that God chooses to initiate God’s major intervention in human history. It points to a pattern that we see in much of God’s work among humans – radical inclusion. God seeks to draw unexpected people into the centre of God’s working, people who society might often think of as ‘less than’ or ‘other’. Often, it is not the powerful, influential, reputable, wealthy, intelligent or educated that God places in key roles. Rather, God often chooses the outcast, the downtrodden, the humble, those who recognise their limitations and those who feel they have little to offer.
In this sermon, I tease out some of the remarkable insights we gain into Elizabeth and Mary, and the unborn John and Jesus, that Luke presents to us in the opening chapter of his Gospel narrative. I show the many ways in which we see God’s grace working itself out in profound and striking ways among this unlikely group of individuals.
From this, we get the message that there is no-one with whom God does not want to work. Every person – every single individual – has a part to play in God’s great work to redeem the cosmos. There are no exceptions. No matter how insignificant or inadequate or unavailable you may perceive yourself to be, God has a place for you, a role for you. We have to trust that this is indeed true. We have to relinquish ourselves to participate. As Mary so gracefully says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).
Conversely, we have to accept that God chooses to work with people we may feel God should not be working with. We (humans) tend to be far less tolerant and gracious than God! It is important for us not to become an obstacle to others who seek to play their part in God’s work. Even when we feel they are not right for or up to the task. Who are we to interfere with God’s judgment on who is worthy of participating in God’s work?
God’s radical inclusion is presented to us in Luke’s gospel as a cornerstone of God’s means of working. Through Luke, we see marginalised people, particularly women, being brought into the centre of Jesus’ ministry and God’s mission. We as individual Christians, and as a collective Church, should be emulating this approach.
This message was preached on a special day: the first service I led as an ordained Anglican priest in the Diocese of Pretoria, South Africa. There’s a picture of me below, flanked by The Rev’d Marti Slater (Assistant Priest) and The Rev’d Siphiwo Bam (Rector of our parish) after the service.
In this message, I share a little of my journey of being called into ministry, which goes back about 30 years since I first heard the call (and began avoiding it) and 14 years since I accepted the call and began journeying towards ordination. There is a long story, the details of which I don’t go into in this message. Suffice it to say that it has not been easy and that I and many others are delighted that this day has finally arrived.
In the process of this journey, particularly in the past year or so, and especially during this past week of preparation for yesterday’s ordination (Saturday 15 December), I have come to understand that God has been working to increasingly align my life – the whole of my life, both interior and public, both in church and in the ‘secular’ workspace – with God’s will and desire. Alignment has become the word I use to express my experience of this journey towards ordination.
Looking at the Advent reading for today, from Luke 3:7-18, we see John the Baptist calling people to prepare for the coming Messiah, to make their hearts and their society ready to receive him. He says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (vs 8a), which I interpret as a call to alignment. Repentance is an internal and spiritual act, between oneself and God. Producing fruit, on the other hand, is a public and social act, between oneself and the world.
After exhorting his congregation to repentance, people ask him, “What should we do then?” and John gives three responses that point to a message of social justice – about treating people fairly, honestly, kindly and with integrity. His message of repentance is, in many ways, a social message. But then he goes on to warn people that one greater than he will come, who baptizes not with water but with Spirit and fire. This message is a religious and spiritual one.
John is not presenting a muddled message. Rather, he is calling for an alignment between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. He is anticipating Paul’s disclosure of the mystery of God’s will, viz. “He [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
Ultimately, there is no distinction between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. All are within the sphere of God’s interest and mission. All need to align with God. As we journey towards alignment, we help to make straight paths for the Lord, rather than crooked ones. We help to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that rough ways become smooth. Then all people will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4-6).
Here is a definition of Christian alignment that I have been working on. Alignment is:
The will of God the Father,
Enacted by God the Son,
Empowered by God the Holy Spirit,
Illuminating our hearts and minds,
Expressed through our values in action, and
Transforming the world.
The video below is a song written and performed by Gregory Porter called Take me to the Alley. I have been listening to this song over the past week, and during retreat it was ever in my mind. I find the words profound and the style of the song very moving. I think it is an Advent hymn.
It all starts with love. In the beginning… what? In the beginning… God. But not a solitary God. No! A plural God, a triune God, a God in relationship with Godself. The three-in-one God.
We know little of God-as-God, because most everything we know of God is God-in-relationship-to-creation. Theologians refer to this God as the ‘economic trinity‘ – the active God engaging with the world that God had created. Just as who we are inside (our identify, our sense of self) is not equivalent to the person people encounter us to be at work or church, God’s actual self (which theologians call the ‘immanent trinity‘) is not equivalent to God as humanity encounters God.
So, what do we know about God as God, the immanent trinity? Not much! All we really know is that God was always three. Yet also one. God the Spirit and God the Word were already present with God the Parent “in the beginning”.
And while we know there have always been three persons (perhaps there are more than three, but God has revealed to us, so far, just three), these three persons are one being, one essence. I argue that LOVE is the most fundamental essential to the being of God. Relationship between the Parent, Word and Spirit that is so powerful, so intimate, so in tune with each other, so embracing, that the three are in fact one (what theologians call ‘perichoresis’).
Love. Love is the heart of God.
Those of you who are familiar with my work will hopefully recognise that this is the centre of my theology. It is, in theological terms, my ‘hermeneutic key’, that is, it is the key statement of faith by which I make meaning of everything else in my faith – my experience of God, of others and of myself, my reading of the Scriptures, my reflections on my thinking or reason, and my adoption (or rejection) of tradition. It is the cornerstone. Read chapter 3 of my book for a bit more on this, and if you’re inspired, read the whole book – Being God’s Beloved – online or buy the book.
Based on this, I suggest two small practical ways that we can give expression to this great example of love, ways that we can become the image of God by behaving like God:
Being kind to those we meet in the course of our day, by smiling, greeting, showing interest to and asking after the strangers we pass during our daily lives. By seeing these people through the eyes of Christ – seeing them as Christ sees them.
Loving the work that we do (whether that is paid employment, volunteer work or house work), by investing energy and effort in our work, treating this work as something that God has entrusted to us, as he entrusted the Garden of Eden to Adam, to tend and care for.
If love is the heart of the triune God, and if we are created in God’s image, then we are most like God when we express love in all that we do.
Mark 10:17-31 presents us with the story of the (rich, young) man who came to Jesus asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Jesus’ response conveys to us the impossibility of faith. Jesus’ expectations of this man are so high, that the man goes away crestfallen. And Jesus’ engagement with his disciples after that serves only to make faith yet more impossible. No wonder the disciples asked each other, “Who then can be saved?”
The lectionary does nothing to soften Jesus’ hard words. Indeed, the other readings reinforce them yet further:
Hebrews 4:12-13 says that the Word of God reveals everything about us to God – everything is uncovered, everything is laid bare. There is no place to hide, no place for modesty.
Psalm 22 opens with the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, which Jesus spoke on the cross. They remind us of the profound and utter devotion of Jesus towards God and his willingness to give up everything for us.
Job 23 presents a man who has lost everything and who wants to encounter God, to challenge God, to confront God. But God is not to be found. Having lost everything, but still seeking faith, Job experiences God as unreachable.
Together these readings paint a picture of faith as utterly unattainable. It can leave us feeling perplexed and hopeless.
But, there are three lines in Mark 10 that provide us with some hope. In this sermon, I unpack each of these and show what they mean and how they provide a counterbalance to the impossibly high standards for faith that Jesus sets for us:
Mark 10:15 “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Mark 10:27 “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
This juxtaposition of the impossible demands of faith that God makes of us, with the loving permissiveness and generosity of Jesus, suggests that while we should strive for faith and to be true disciples of Christ, we can and should also relax into his grace, not fretting and not losing hope.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.
Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”
We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.
Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.
Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.
Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.