Tag Archives: expectations

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Telling Christmas (Christmas III)

How do you tell the Christmas story? In the New Testament Luke tells the story as we know it best – angels visit John the Baptist’s father, and then Mary; there is a journey to Bethlehem, a stable, and the shepherds’ visit.  Matthew takes Joseph’s perspective, and tells us of the mysterious wise men.  Mark starts his gospel later, as the adult Jesus bursts on the scene set by John’s baptisms.

John? – John is more reflective.  (John 1:1-14)  He tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (v5)  But the English translations cannot quite get the word – “overcome” can also be “understood”.  (Check out the different translations!).

The darkness was pretty obvious.  The world in which the baby was born was violent, unjust, hard for many people in many ways.  You could say the same today – I don’t need to point out the problems of our world (political, ecological, military, medical . . ) or invite you to detail the problems and threats in your own life at the moment.  Of course the darkness doesn’t understand the light.  Those who need to win at all costs cannot understand love and service; those who don’t care if their lifestyle ruins a world for others will never want justice, let alone to share equally in God’s plans.

The point John wants to make – the Christmas point – is that the darkness has not put out the light.  It shines on.  Despite the plotting of Herod to murder all rivals, despite the indifference of the innkeeper and his favoured guests to the needs of a young, but poor, mother, the baby is born and shines.

That’s our celebration.  Not that everything is wonderful – there is still plenty of darkness – but that the light shines in it.  Where the light shines, the darkness is dispersed.  Each person chooses.  Either you welcome the light, following Jesus even when it is difficult, reflecting light into new corners; or you block the light, and leave others in your shadow.

But you can’t stop the light shining!  That’s good news.

Not what I expected! (Advent 3a)

I find it easy to sympathise with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).  Not only is he in prison, but the man he identified as the coming Messiah doesn’t seem to be baptising with fire as predicted.  Doubt sets in, probably made worse by John’s situation, and inability to go and ask questions himself.

Still, he does the next best thing – he sends someone else.  The question is direct, “Are you the one?”  Doubt and uncertainty are difficult to handle, but Christians are always allowed to ask questions – and it is better to do something to resolve doubt than let it fester.  (What is not allowed is encouraging the “you can’t be sure of anything” state of mind.)  So John sends to ask a question.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer.  Instead of “yes” or “no” he tells the messengers to report what they heard and saw.  Jesus is not making claims for himself, but pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy – something John would understand.  Jesus may not have fitted John’s expectations – or ours – but he fits into the prophecies and predictions of the Old Testament, making us think again about the things we might not have expected, and might not like.

Jesus then talks about John as a prophet – and the one Malachi had foretold.  He is honoured, but we are left with the amazing thought that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  Why?  Perhaps because John still has to wait for a saviour, while those of us who follow Jesus as our Lord are already included in the kingdom.  We are honoured by the comparison, but also challenged.

Expectations (Bible Sunday)

When Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-24), he announced the fulfillment of prophecy going back centuries, the opportunity for his hearers to be involved in the turning point of history, the moment God’s plans were put into action.

And they didn’t want to know.

They should have been ready.  The scriptures they read week by week, and discussed, had all the clues.  The Messiah was expected, the Servant was known from Isaiah – this was nothing new.  But the lack of expectation meant that Jesus could not be heard.  It was as if God was not welcome in synagogue.  What happened there had to conform, to affirm the social order and its leaders.  If Jesus wanted anything to change, Who Did He Think He Was!?  (a rhetorical question – a correct answer would have saved them).

It is not difficult to see how it could happen.  Social pressures can make us blind to what God is saying and doing.  But will I go to worship with an expectation of meeting God, of hearing – perhaps what I don’t want, or expect, to hear?  Will my congregation be ready to hear, pray, pick up the clues from scripture?  Will it matter enough to override other plans, assumptions, and the weariness of another week?

Jesus went to worship, but the congregation could not hear God.  It is the worst thing that can ever happen to a congregation.