Baptism of the Lord-shorter (A) 2017

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Baptism of the Lord (A) January 5 (VST) & 8, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matt.3:13-17

HERE IS MY SERVANT

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

My chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

He will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the streets;

A bruised reed he will not break,

And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

. . . He will not grow faint or be crushed

Until he has established justice in the earth;

And the coastlands wait for his teaching . . .

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If Jesus was without sin, why did he insist on receiving John’s baptism of repentance? If Jesus’ life reflected perfect union with God, why would he need to take up John’s call to ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand?’ Was it not his very coming that signaled the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth? These are questions that puzzled even John. “Surely,” he asked Jesus, “surely I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus’ response seems only to deepen the mystery: “let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

But Matthew, in his telling of the story, does something audacious to help point us in the right direction. As Jesus comes up from the water, Matthew puts Isaiah’s words in the mouth of God: “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Doing so, Matthew indicates that the story of Jesus’ baptism is not a self-contained story. In order to understand Jesus’ baptism, we must go further back, back to the hope and expectation of the prophet.

The words Matthew has God quote from Isaiah introduce the first of what have come to be known as Isaiah’s four ‘servant songs,’ songs celebrating, in words of both tenderness and determination, that God will bring justice to the earth, not by sending a fierce warrior or powerful politician, but by the suffering of his servant – one whose voice will hardly be heard amidst the tumult of the world, one who “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” It has been an ongoing question who Isaiah thought this ‘servant’ was or would be. Did Isaiah mean Israel itself is God’s suffering servant, or do his songs point toward some future Messianic figure? In its immediate context, the likelihood is that the song refers to Israel. Israel’s suffering, says Isaiah, is central to her faithful ‘witness’ of God’s presence in the midst of the nations. Israel’s suffering is inseparable from her Covenant faithfulness, and therefore must be regarded as a sign of her ‘righteousness’ – that is, her right-relationship, with God. It is through this right-relationship (and so through the suffering that inevitably accompanies it), that Israel fulfills her purpose and Covenant destiny as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” chosen by God to be a blessing to all races and peoples.

But there is a twist to this story. In fact, more than one. For although everything ends according to Isaiah’s prophetic word, nothing ends according to his own expectations. In good prophetic tradition, John arrives on the scene to announce that something is awry. Israel has turned away from Covenant faithfulness; her life therefore no longer expresses servanthood, she is no longer serving the purpose for which God called her into being, to be the witness of God’s presence in and for the world. So John calls the nation to repent, and as a sign of her repentance, as a sign of her desire to return to right-relationship with God, and also as a means of grace by which God prepares her to receive the restoration of right-relationship again, John calls Israel to be baptised. John, we must be clear, was not calling individuals per se, but, through her citizens, he was calling Israel as a nation to repent and be baptized.

At this moment, as we know, Jesus steps into the picture, asking John to baptise him in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus does not act on his own behalf. Rather, he repents on behalf of the whole of Israel. Jesus in offering himself to be baptised, assumes the form of a servant. Doing so, he assumes upon himself Israel’s failure to be Israel, and by this very act he “fulfills all righteousness,” that is to say, he re-establishes Israel’s right-relationship with God. In a crucial sense, then, by his baptism, by this act of servanthood, Jesus fulfills the destiny of Israel as proclaimed by Isaiah: becoming a servant of God in Love for God’s people, he re-establishes right-relationship, Covenant-relationship, with YHWH. Now the purpose and salvation of Israel is accomplished in and through him. Not that Jesus thereby makes Israel expendable, but in him Israel is freed again to be what it is: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Where Isaiah’s words pointed to Israel, God’s servant-nation, God sent an individual man to be the one in whom the nation received the fulfillment of its purpose and its salvation. That is the first twist to the story. But there is a second. Just as we have seen that the meaning of Jesus’ baptism does not begin with his baptism, neither does it end with it. For we who are baptised in Christ’s name are given to be the new Israel – that is, to witness in our corporate life the presence of God in and for the world, every nation, every people. The second ‘twist’ to this story, and the awful wonder, is this: that in the end, Isaiah’s song refers once again not just to an individual, but to a people, a people united by bonds not of flesh, but by the Spirit of Christ –which is to say, ‘the Church.’ Isaiah’s servant song, in other words, points to us. That blows me away. The words of God, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God intends, fulfilling but outstripping the intention of the prophet, to apply to us.

If Christ in his baptism bore Israel’s failure of right-relationship in his body, so we through our baptisms are given to be the body of Christ. Baptism is always an act of servanthood. To be baptized is to die to our dreams of self-determination, and to know our life, our future, belongs to God. It is this truth, which is in fact the Good News that Jesus holds out to us ever again, of which we are called to witness in the world – even if we have to suffer for it, because it puts us at odds with the self-insistence of the world. Ultimately, this is the meaning of servanthood – to pray, “not my will, but thy will be done.” May we be given the strength and the humility to pray this in truth, not only with our lips, but in our life together.

AMEN.

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Baptism of the Lord (A) 2017

“by Fr. Tavis O’Brian”

Baptism of the Lord (A) January 5 (VST) & 8, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9

Matt.3:13-17

HERE IS MY SERVANT

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

My chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

He will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the streets;

A bruised reed he will not break,

And a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

. . . He will not grow faint or be crushed

Until he has established justice in the earth;

And the coastlands wait for his teaching . . .

This coming Sunday, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Why does Jesus insist on receiving baptism? That is a question that puzzled even John. “Surely,” he asks Jesus, “surely I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus’ response seems only to deepen the mystery: “let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

So central an episode in the life of Jesus – and at its centre a mystery where we expect clarity, epiphany! But Matthew, in his rendition of the story, proceeds to do something audacious and wonderful. As Jesus comes up from the water, he hears God’s affirmation: “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The words Matthew puts in the outh of God is a conflation of two texts: Psalm 2, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” and the opening words of Isaiah 42: “Here is my servant, my chosen, my delight.” Doing so, Matthew indicates that the story of Jesus’ baptism is not a self-contained story. It points backwards to Isaiah, and backwards again to the Psalmist’s song.

But it is a rather paradoxical conflation! The words from Isaiah introduce the first of what have come to be known as Isaiah’s four ‘servant songs.’ These songs celebrate, in words combining both tenderness and determination, that God’s desire for justice on the earth will be accomplished, not by a fierce warrior, not by a powerful politician, but by a suffering servant – by one whose voice can hardly be heard amidst the tumult of the world, who “will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” So Matthew yokes together this song celebrating the suffering of God’s servant together with Psalmist’s song celebrating the coronation of a King: “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill . . . you are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Matthew’s intention is clear. Jesus’ baptism is an act of suffering humility which inaugurates God’s Kingdom on earth. It is by humbling himself, it is by submitting to an act of repentance for a failure of relationship not his own, it by that taking the form of a slave, that God anoints him King, and Son, and ‘Delight of my soul.’ The whole earth is given into his hand, yet his rule appears as weakness, since it is by suffering at the hands of the world, not by conquering the world, that his kingdom is established.

So that is one lesson we learn from the words that Matthew puts into the mouth of God. But there is more. One of the ongoing questions regarding Isaiah’s ‘servant songs’ concerns who Isaiah thought this ‘servant’ was or would be. Do his songs refer to the nation of Israel itself, or do they refer to some future Messianic figure? In its immediate context, the likelihood is that the song refers to Israel, whose suffering Isaiah interprets here as central to her faithful ‘witness’ of God’s presence in the midst of the nations: Israel as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Israel’s suffering is inseparable from her Covenant faithfulness, and is a sign of her ‘righteousness’ or right-relationship with God. It is through this right-relationship (and so through the suffering that inevitably accompanies it), that God will establish justice on the earth. In this way, as the righteous and suffering servant, Israel lives into her Covenant destiny, chosen by God to be a blessing to all races and nations.

But there is a twist to this story. In fact, more than one. For although everything ends according to Isaiah’s prophetic word, nothing ends according to his own expectations. In good prophetic tradition, John arrives on the scene to announce that something is awry. Israel has turned away from Covenant faithfulness; her life therefore does no longer expresses the purpose for which God called Israel into being, as witness of God’s presence in and for the world. So John calls the nation to repent, and as a sign of her repentance, as a sign of her desire to return to right-relationship with God, and as a means of grace by which God prepares the nation to receive the restoration of right-relationship again, John calls for baptism. John, we must be clear, was not calling individuals baptism but, through her citizens, he was calling Israel as a nation to repent and be baptized.

At this moment, as we know, Jesus steps into the picture desiring to be baptized so as “to fulfill all righteousness.” He does not act on his own behalf. He is not repenting of personal sin. Rather, he repents on behalf of the whole of Israel. Jesus “fulfills all righteousness,” re-establishes Israel’s right-relationship with God, as he, assuming the form of a slave, takes ‘the failure of Israel to be Israel’ – upon himself. In a crucial sense, then, by his baptism, by this act of servanthood, Jesus fulfills the destiny of Israel, as proclaimed by the prophet: becoming a servant of God in Love for God’s people, he re-establishes right-relationship, Covenant-relationship, with YHWH. Now the purpose and salvation of Israel is accomplished in and through him. Not that Jesus thereby makes Israel expendable, but in him Israel is freed again to be what it is: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Where Isaiah’s words most probably pointed to Israel, the servant-nation, God sent an individual man in whom the nation received the fulfillment of its purpose and its salvation. But just as we have seen that the story of Jesus’ baptism does not begin with his baptism, neither does it end with it. For we who are baptised in his name are purposed, as was Israel, to be in our corporate life an epiphany of the presence of God in and for the world, every nation, every people. The second ‘twist’ to this story, and the awful wonder, is this: that in the end, Isaiah’s song refers again to a people, a people held by bonds not of flesh, but by the Spirit of Christ – that is to say, ‘the Church.’ Isaiah’s servant song points to us. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

If Christ in his baptism bore Israel’s failure of right-relationship in his body, so we through ours are made the body of Christ. Baptism is always an act of servanthood. To be baptized is to die to our dreams of self-determination, and to know our life, our future belongs to God. And this is the meaning of suffering – to receive ourselves from another. And this is the meaning of servanthood – when we pray, “not my will, but thy will be done.” It is the delight of God when we do this; and it is our delight to know the delight of God.

AMEN.

Baptism of Our Lord (A) 2011

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Baptism of Our Lord January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matt 3:13-17

COSMIC DESTINY

The first four verses of today’s Scripture from the prophet Isaiah make up one of four texts known as the ‘servant songs.’ As I read that song in the context of our celebration of Christ’s baptism, I knew I wanted to try again to say something to you this morning, but am unsure how to say it. Those of you who are familiar with my preaching know that I am often struggling to articulate a vision which I believe is right before us, in whose reality we have our being, and yet for which we have lost the language to express even to ourselves; a vision for which we have lost the eyes to see, the ears to hear. Yet the very “intimations of deprival” (Grant) that move me are enough for me to know that our salvation, the salvation not only of the human race, but of the whole earth, depends upon our finding ways to see anew, to listen anew, to wait for a new word to come to us (Is. 42:9). We need to learn to listen for the word of grace which will make us alive again to the destiny that is ours in God.

Those of you who have become familiar with my preaching have heard me speak about this forgetfulness, loss of speech, loss of sight. For example, you have heard me speak about our confusion regarding our sense of justice, a confusion which we experience as we lose the language to speak about what we as human beings are ‘fitted for’ – since that is precisely what ‘justice’ means, our ‘being fitted’ for a cosmic destiny: the purpose we are destined for in the life of God. Collectively, the more we come to think of ourselves as “free agents in an indifferent universe” (Grant), the more we lose the language of our ‘fitness’ to any Logos, any way, any Love, any presence larger than ourselves, encompassing us, including us, sustaining us, calling us into that larger destiny.

It is embarrassing for us even to use words like “cosmic destiny.” But what else is it, when we have known God to move toward us? What else is it when Jesus Christ calls us to follow him? What else is it, when the Holy Spirit pours himself into us, awakening us, moving us not only toward our neighbour, but toward the stranger, the enemy, the non-human world of animals and plants and trees of all kinds; what else is it when the Spirit moves us out in wonder at our kinship with every living thing and at the mystery and goodness of being? What else is it, when we are lead to respond to the world with wonder and thanksgiving, with the desire to kneel before the Creator for these movements of God within us, God calling us into that destiny of creative Love which is our human vocation and calling, that which we are ‘fitted’ for, we who are made in the image and likeness of God.

Hear the words of Isaiah; listen as the prophet reveals God musing over the destiny of his people Israel, a people he has chosen, not for their own glory, but to be servants of all, the ‘light that lightens the Gentiles,” the torch-bearers of the cosmic destiny of all humanity:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.

I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations . . .

He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth . . .

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out,

Who spread out the earth and what comes from it . . .

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness . . .

I have given you as . . . a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,

To bring out from prison those who sit in darkness . . .

‘I have given you,’ says God – I have sent you out as a sacrifice of love. That is your destiny as my chosen people, whose calling is to witness before all the peoples of the earth the common destiny of humankind. It is through Israel that God first called humanity to its destiny – which is to say, to our truest selves, perfect freedom, abundant life. And that vocation upon which God set Israel culminates in Christ Jesus, a son of Israel, son of God – and culminates particularly in the anointing Christ receives by John’s baptism in the river Jordan – a baptism of water and repentance, a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of power.

From the moment of his baptism, Jesus takes up his vocation in earnest. This is the moment at which, spiritually, he turns toward Jerusalem and that ultimate act of sacrificial love which was and is not only the fullest possible revelation of our human destiny, what God has “fit” us for, but by that ultimate act of love, Christ actually accomplishes the destiny of humanity for us. “It is accomplished.” Now in Christ we are restored to our image and likeness of God; in Christ able to live as co-workers with God in the work of freeing all things together, towards their being in God – which is to say, co-workers with God in the work of love.

When we love in the grace of Christ, even though our actions may be invisible to the world, they are nevertheless as large as God – that is, of infinite purpose. They are in fact not so much our works, but God’s work – or ‘ours’ only insofar as it is Christ’s love which moves us.

But we have been losing the language by which to speak of this destiny which makes us one with God together with all of creation; our language has been reduced to make sense only of individual goods, private desires, ‘justice’ as unlimited access to self-defined fulfillment. Satan works upon us to blind us to our cosmic vocation and infinite purpose, narrowing our eyesight, until we, who have power enough now to blow up the earth many times over, nevertheless see ourselves as accidents – small, insignificant, our struggles like the struggling of an ant on the surface of the ocean.

When the creator of the heavens and of the earth anointed Israel as the servant of light; when the heavens opened upon Jesus and the Spirit of God came upon him, when the voice from nowhere and everywhere spoke, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” God confirmed and gave us to our common human destiny, ‘fitted’ to be lovers, co-workers in creative self-giving with the end of uniting all creatures in the cosmos of grace.

It is the language of that grace after all that we have grown deaf to, and that we are forgetting how to speak. It is the language of that grace which flickers like a shadow in the darkness of our deprival and confusion; yet it is with the word of grace that our hope, and the hope of all creation lies; it has become imperative now, before it is too late, that we learn to listen for that word to speak in us again, to slow ourselves, to add our protest to whatever degrades us or the earth, to wait.

Christmas Midnight Mass 2016 ( 2)

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Christmas Midnight Mass December 24, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

SEEING IS BELIEVING”

Welcome, everyone, welcome: especially visitors, and those who do not find themselves in Church on a regular basis. You are welcome here; we are glad that you have come to celebrate this special and holy night with us. Tonight’s open collection will go to support the Barnabas Housing Fund. The interest generated by this fund is used annually in support of local social housing initiatives. We thank you for giving in support of this necessary cause in our city.

“Why does this story, the Christmas story, never wear out?” Although the night was cold, in our imagination the manger scene is enveloped in inexplicable warmth – not just the warmth given by the ox and donkey – somehow the very essence of human warmth: the mother and her child, Joseph quietly attending to them. And although the night is dark, in our imagination, the manger is bathed in light – a light that cannot be explained by the small lantern glowing feebly in the corner; a soft light coming from every direction at once so that there are no shadows. In our collective imagination, we decorate this scene with every kind of longing that clings to the word ‘home’ – our longing for peace and intimacy, for a place where we are accepted and loved as we are. In our heart’s eye, even the stars stand still over the manger – as a sign that we are not, after all, strangers in a vast and cold universe, but expected, welcome, that there is a place ready and set out for us at the table of life.

“Why does this story never wear out?” We know it’s only a story. We like to hear it every year. But the good feeling it stirs in us doesn’t last long. When the bickering over the presents begins, and the turkey doesn’t get in the oven on time, and Uncle John and Aunt Julie arrive an hour early with their three boys, and though we are (undoubtedly) glad to see them, there seems suddenly little hope for peace – forget about ‘on earth,’ even in our own home! Then, in our stress and our busy-ness, the declaration of the Angels, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” is easily forgotten.

And then – on a more ominous note – when we become conscious of the turmoil and uncertainty around the world; when we feel that chaos and violence are drawing up even to our very borders; when the future seems so uncertain and the world we are creating for ourselves no longer seems to hold out the light of promise – then in our anxiety and helplessness, the declaration of the Angels, “Do not be afraid! For see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” is easily forgotten, set aside as a childhood faerie tale.

After all, it is only a story. And although we enjoy it, although we like to enter into the spirit of the season, we too often tend to think of the Christmas story as a kind of pageant put on for sake of the children. We adults are all too aware that life can never be like the manger scene: all peace and motherly love, doe-eyed animals and breathless stars. So it is easy to think that the invitation of the angels does not apply to real life: “to you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” We find it difficult to hear the Angels’ invitation for what it is: an invitation to draw near to God. God has drawn near to us – nearer than we can possibly imagine – and we are thereby invited to draw close to Him.

It is difficult for us to hear this invitation mostly because even when we long for it to be true, we are no longer certain how the words make any adult sense. It is hard today for us to understand the word ‘God,’ let alone ‘Saviour.’ How can we be expected to accept the Christmas story, with the dream of loving acceptance that accrues to it? Well, I suggest we put those dreams aside, just for a moment. Some of all that may be returned to us, in the end – that dream of acceptance and loving intimacy – but when we start there we are often lead into a misunderstanding. We must remember that the Christmas story does not end where the Christmas Pageant ends, with the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts. Rather, the story ends with an execution on a Cross. We adults need to be reminded that we cannot understand the Angels’ declaration, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, Peace,” if we do not take that ending into account – that ‘real-world’ ending involving betrayal, the self-interest of the religious elite, and power-politics. Even more importantly, we cannot understand the Angels’ invitation to gather around the Christ Child if we do not take into account that even that ending of this story is not the final end of the story. The final ending is Christ’s resurrection and with it God’s promise that neither the Cross nor any of the forces of death in the world – betrayal, cynicism, greed, sin – are, in the final ending, what is really real. What is really real is the love of God, which has been made known to us in Christ Jesus.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” In the shepherds’ day, the Israelites thought they knew what the word ‘Saviour’ meant. They were waiting for a leader to rise up, free them from Roman rule – and “Make Israel Great again.” Was this hope on the Shepherds’ minds when they went to Bethlehem? But what did they find there? Not a politician, not a military general, but a baby, born in the most unpromising of circumstances. And what did those Shepherds take away? Certainly not ‘knowledge’ of how the story was going to end, or even what ‘salvation’ would turn out to mean – but they returned singing a song of hope and thanksgiving, knowing only this: that God was with them in ways they could not know.

When you look at your life – when you see that not everything is as you hoped it might be – what does hope look like for you? When you listen to the news, and you are made aware of how precarious a place the world has become – what does hope look like for the world?

We are invited, tonight, to go down to Bethlehem, to draw close to the child in the manger. We are invited to understand what we cannot understand: that salvation is not how we imagine it; that hope will come to us as a Christmas gift, one we didn’t ask for, were not expecting, but is exactly what we need. We are invited to hold faith that God is where least expected: His power in fragility, His light in the darkness, His eternal life where only endings seem possible.

Tonight, the angels are inviting us to gather around the Christ child; to see in our hearts what cannot be seen with our eyes: that the life of the world has come to us. Let us welcome him, then, my brothers and sisters; and let us give thanks to God.

AMEN

Christmas Midnight Mass 2016

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Christmas Midnight Mass December 24, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

SEEING IS BELIEVING”

Welcome, all, especially visitors, and those who do not find themselves in Church on a regular basis. You are welcome here; we are glad that you have come to be with us on this blessed time.

It is hard not to be moved by the Christmas story. Although the night was cold, in our imagination the manger scene is enveloped in inexplicable warmth – a warmth deeper than can be explained by the presence of the ox and donkey – somehow the very essence of human warmth: the mother and her child, Joseph quietly attending to them, the warmth of tender human love. And although the night is dark, in our imagination, the manger is bathed in beautiful light – a light that cannot be explained by the small lantern glowing feebly in the corner; a light that comes from every direction at once, so there are no shadows. In our collective imagination, we have decorated this scene, perhaps more than any other, with every kind of longing that clings to the word ‘home’ – our longing for peace and quietude, for a place where we are accepted and loved as we are, a place of rest and kindness and intimacy. In our heart’s eye, even the stars come to a standstill over the manger – a sign that we are not strangers in a vast and cold universe, but expected, welcome, that there is a place ready and set out for us at the table.

It is hard not to be moved by this scene. But then, we know it is only a story. The good feeling it stirs up lasts perhaps until Christmas morning. But when the bickering over the presents begins, and we didn’t get the turkey in the oven on time, and the rest of the family start to arrive and, though we are (undoubtedly) glad to see them, there seems suddenly very little hope for peace – forget about ‘on earth,’ even in our own home! And so the declaration of the Angels, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” is easily pushed away.

Anyway, it is only a story – a story most of us probably regard as being primarily for the children, even if we don’t quite put it this way. Christmas itself most of us probably tend to enjoy mostly through the eyes of childhood – the tree and the stockings, Santa and the reindeer, setting up the crèche scene on the mantel – we enjoy it, we like to enter the spirit of the season if we can, but can’t help but see this effort as for the children mostly, and as a kind of holiday from real life.

After all, life is not like the manger scene: it is not all peace and motherly warmth, doe-eyed animals and breathless stars. It is so easy to push away the invitation of the angels: “to you is born this day . . . a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angels too are for the children. I don’t know. Perhaps it is because we have decorated the Christmas story with so much human warmth and so much human light and so much human longing regarding our human relationships – that it has become easy for us to dismiss it. We no longer hear the Angels’ declaration for what it really is: an invitation to draw near to God.

The whole Christmas story of course comes down to this: God’s invitation to “all people” to come to Him – to draw near to Him who has first drawn near to us. But it is very difficult for us to understand this, to imagine what this invitation might mean. The shepherds in the story respond to the invitation by leaving their sheep, descending from the hills into the valley where they enter the town, seek out the stable, and draw close around he manger where the baby lies. What did they see there? We know the story: “they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.” But what had they seen? Only a baby after all, swaddled in rags in a cold and dimly-lit barn.

The Shepherds, then, respond to the invitation – and as they do, they are given eyes to see something that is not there – or at least, not directly there – to be seen. The shepherds respond with praise and thanksgiving as they are given to see with eyes of faith. The promised Saviour has at long last come! Yes, but of course the shepherds are only part of the children’s story. They are sort of like children themselves. Certainly they represent a less sophisticated and more trusting age.

How strange a thing! A baby is born and its birth is announced as good news of great joy – not only for the mother and the father, not only for those family and friends who would naturally be touched by the birth of a child to someone close to them – but this birth is announced as good news of great joy for all people.

The shepherds though, they did not respond this way. They first of all went to see what this promise might be about. They descended from the hills into the valley, came to the town, and sought the manger, and drew close to the child. What did they hope to see? It was, after all, only a baby, “asleep on the hay.” But they saw more than they saw – for rather than being just a little bit disappointed: such heavenly fanfare to tell us about what is after all a common thing – they erupt into carols that echo the Angels’ song, “glorifying and praising God.” So what did they see?

Yes, but the shepherds are only part of this children’s story, and anyway they are sort of like children themselves. They represent a less sophisticated age; and don’t even live in a house.

It is possible for us to imagine all kinds of ‘saviours.’ We often think of people such as Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, as a kind of ‘saviour.’ Certainly his work has saved countless thousands of lives. Or Martin Luther King Jr., or Ghandi, we also imagine as ‘saviours’ for their work brought the promise of freedom for so many. But we call these people ‘saviours’ only latterly, as we look back on the results of their work. But Angels announced that the Christ is ‘saviour’ from the day of his birth. He is ‘saviour,’ not because of what he will do, but because of what he is – although it is also true that what he is cannot be separated from what he will do. And yet, what do the Angels invite the Shepherds to see? Only a new-born child. What is there, yet to see? How

Advent 3

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Advent 3 December 11, 2016

Matt. 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-10

PROPHETS OF THE ADVENT

John the Baptist lies in prison. He sends messengers to Jesus asking, “Are you the one to come?” As prophet of the Advent, John reminds Israel of the Covenant Promise God has made and announces that the time of the fulfillment of those promises has arrived. If Israel is to be what God has intended, a nation chosen to live in the world as a blessing and sacramental sign of God’s presence amongst all the nations, it must turn again to the life of Covenant relationship. His call for the nation to undergo a baptism of repentance is to be a sign of its readiness for the restoration of the Kingdom under the chosen one of God.

But John’s baptismal ministry is interrupted. He is thrown in prison because the authorities fear his talk of the coming of the Messiah might be stirring up sedition against the status quo – namely, the Roman dictatorship and King Herod’s complicity with it. While in prison, John sends messengers asking if he has, after all, been right to identify Jesus with the Messiah. Is this a failure of faith on John’s part? I am not sure that it is a failure, but it does give us a glimpse into John’s humanity. He is shut in prison. His life hangs on the whim of a puppet despot. And he seeks assurance that the purpose he served in life, and will soon serve in death, was not in vain. “Are you, Jesus of Nazareth, are you the one who is to come?” Jesus: by all appearances only a man of flesh and blood. Jesus, the carpenter’s son: he indeed does strange and wonderful things – but how to understand what these things mean? Jesus, who in so many ways does NOT fit the bill of the Messiah destined to make Israel again a great nation among the nations. “Are you,” John asks, “are you really that one?”

Jesus uses this moment, this moment when John, asking a very human question reveals a very human need, as a teaching point for the surrounding crowd. “When you went out to see him, what did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” he challenges them. You went because of John’s reputation as a prophet. But what did you expect to see? What spectacle were you looking for? “A reed shaken by the wind,” perhaps? A charismatic madman on the street corner with the doomsday placards? One whose word you could then dismiss because he appears so comically in type, with his unwashed beard and penitential attire?

Or were you disappointed, because you expected one in ‘soft robes,’ a man of power, a person of significance and position, a man capable of raising money and armies as a convincing harbinger of the new reign of freedom and influence for Israel? Finding as you did only John – only a man, poor, dirty, and without authority – was that why you did not feel the urgency of his word apply to you? But what did you go out to see? What did you expect? What did you imagine a prophet to be?

John was a prophet of the Advent: an ordinary man called out of the world in order to serve the world by his prophetic witness. Jesus teaches the crowd that the true wonder is not in the appearance of the extraordinary, but that God uses the ordinary for His extraordinary purpose. “Truly I tell you . . . no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” I don’t know who exactly are “the least in the kingdom of heaven,” but I do hear a challenge in those words, a challenge to the crowd surrounding Jesus, a challenge to us. I hear Jesus saying that even in our very ordinary humanness, with our sin and our anxieties, with our compromises, shortsightedness and self-centredness, we are all called to be, as John was, prophets of the Advent of the Christ.

Strange and bewildering as it may seem, we are the Body of Christ. This is a staggering thing to try to fathom! By the very fact that we are gathered here, God has called us out of the world for a purpose: to serve the world as a sign and sacrament of God’s love for his whole creation. We are to be prophets of Christ’s presence, and prophets of Christ’s coming. Our life together – how we act, how we speak, the priorities we set – is to be as a witness to the world that we do not serve the powers of this world, but serve the Prince of Peace.

This witness, this common life displaying our dedication to a new regime, a world received by grace, and at whose center is an act of Thanksgiving, is our prophetic call as the Body of Christ. To be prophets of His Advent means, first of all, that we are called to remember that we are God’s people. To make this act of remembrance together is why we gather to celebrate Holy Communion: “do this in remembrance of me.” Second of all, to be prophets of the Advent of the Christ means that by our witness, by the way we live our life together, we are given to hold up a kind of mirror to the dominant culture around us. By our worship of God, our acts both of repentance and thanksgiving, by the way we demonstrate love for neighbour and stranger, by the way we use our money, by the way we make decisions, by the way seek the good of others before ourselves – we are to be a sign of the reign of love in the midst of the individualistic, materialistic, destructive and frankly nihilistic society around us. Thirdly, to be prophets of the Advent means that we are sent to live in the world not to judge the world but to be a living sign of hope. God sends his prophet to announce that the coming destruction is both inevitable and not inevitable. If we return to him, if we just open ourselves to receive His grace, then he has Promised a new future – a future we cannot, in our current situation, even ask for or imagine.

As prophets of the Advent of the Christ, we are to be, together, the Body of Christ: called out by God to be a sign, sacrament, and witness of Christ’s presence and of his coming. God calls us to this purpose not despite the fact that we are human but because we, like John, are ‘only’ human – fallen, made of dust. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Just an ordinary human being that God has blessed with extra-ordinary work. It is a high calling to which we are called. May our hearts overflow with awe and thanksgiving, humility, generosity and kindness, knowing that Christ is coming and is always already here.

Amen.

Reign of Christ ( C ) 2016

“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”

Reign of Christ (& Baptism of Lucy Giesbrecht) November 20, 2016

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23-33-43

THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE

How wonderful, in view of all the political uncertainty and upset we are experiencing right now, that today we gather to be reminded of and to celebrate the Reign of Christ. In the words of 20th Century theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, today we are reminded in joyful thanksgiving of “the breaking forth of the light of (Christ’s) absolute superiority over every power which is not love; (for) . . . Christ has come as the one who realizes (by his Cross) God’s decision of absolute love for the world.”

How wonderful that, as we celebrate the Reign of Christ, we also celebrate with Jared and Stephanie and their families the baptism of their daughter, Lucy. Jared is a much-missed friend of this parish, living with his family now in Fort St John. We are glad, Jared, that you and Stephanie are here and that we have the honour of baptizing Lucy into the life and Body of Christ . . .

The portion of The Letter to the Colossians which we read this morning makes some remarkable claims about Jesus. It says that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation.” It proclaims that every kind of power, “whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities,” was created “in” and “through” and “for” him, and that he has authority over all. In other words, Jesus made visible the invisible Father precisely in his dealings with the powers of this world – state, economic, legal powers, spiritual powers of every kind – at whose mercy we seem so overwhelmingly to be.

From the beginning, the Church has proclaimed that the ‘place’ where Jesus did this, where Jesus made especially visible the invisible God, was on the Cross. If Jesus had gone straight from life to eternal life, you could conclude that God overcame one power by another power. But this not what happened. Rather, Jesus “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil.2:8). And it was in that act of “humbling himself” that Jesus gave us to see the paradoxical majesty and power of God. After all, if God sought to overcome power by power, what would have been won through such an arms race? Jesus came to give witness to another way, not the way of power against power, not the way of power desiring power for the sake of power, but the way of power spending itself, emptying itself, for the sake of the powerless. Jesus came so that we might see that this ‘other way’ is the way of God.

The Letter to the Colossians proclaims that all the powers that govern our world were created for this way of self-emptying love. But just as Adam and Eve fell as they sought for themselves what they took to be the power of God, so (we know only too well) the “rulers” and “powers” of the world no longer serve the purpose for which they were created. In the economy of the world, weakness means death and power is life; but in the economy of God, power for its own sake is death, while weakness for love’s sake gives life.

Understand: the death which Christ died, the death which we all have to face, is not merely the end of biological life. Death signifies something altogether more fearful: the end of God’s Logos, the end of God’s purpose, the end of all meaningfulness or reason in or for our being. The wonderful thing, though, the thing we celebrate and proclaim today, is that Jesus became for us “the image of the invisible God” as he defeated the powers which sought to kill him – defeated them not by killing them, not by overcoming power with power, but by disarming their power. By bowing his head to the will to power, Jesus witnessed the faith that God has in his world. Jesus died at the hands of the world for the sake of the world: to make visible God’s own faith, God’s own hope, that even the powers of the world will see, repent, and become what they are intended to be: loving servants of those who have no power.

The powers of the world seduce us into believing that the future of the world lies in the hands of power. They seduce us into thinking that if we do not play by the rules of power, then we are ‘unworldly,’ naïve, and putting our life at risk. The powers tell us: ‘religion’ is about heaven and saving your soul – that we ought to leave the world to those who know about worldly things. But this, my friends, is a lie. We do not have to believe it because we have seen, in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, the invisible way of God. We know that the pursuit of power by works of power leads in the end to the death of all that is good and meaningful. But we can challenge power in the childlikeness of faith because we also know that even if those powers overwhelm us, death is not the end – not the end of love, not the end of God’s Logos; not the end of life.

Today we rejoice as we witness new life in the baptism of Lucy Jane Giesbrecht. We rejoice as we welcome Lucy into the Body of Christ, the Church. Here is a wonderful mystery: just as Jesus is the ‘image of the Father,’ the Church is sent to be the image of the Son. Of course, the Church, seduced by power, has failed and will fail to be this. Nevertheless, this is what Jesus commissions his Church to be. So let us take a moment to contemplate that mystery, contemplate the hope that it is our task to make visible. Let us take a moment to contemplate the faith and especially the love that it is our task to make visible as the Body of Christ. Yes, we fail. But the miracle is that by the grace of the Holy Spirit we also succeed. And it is in light of this apostolic commission that we welcome Lucy – who by her baptism, together with the whole Church, is ordained by God to make Christ visible; to make God’s endless love for the world visible in the world.

Are we prepared for this? Are we prepared, with Lucy and Stephanie and Jared, to commit ourselves to be the Church? Are we prepared to love the world so much that we willingly face the world’s derision? The world accuses us of being foolish, unworldly, naïve. If you do not meet power with power, the “dominions” and “rulers” tell us, you shall surely die. But we don’t have to listen to this lie. We do not have to allow fear to reign. Because Christ reigns over all things, even death, death has no power over us. In Christ, we are free.

AMEN