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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Advent 3, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 11, 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Imagine for just a moment that the person nearest to you is a complete stranger; you have never met them before. And though you try to strike up a greeting, try to exchange the peace there is not much response. Imagine that this stranger is looking more than a little perplexed. Somehow they seem to know that South Sydney has a habit of being a home, a haven for all sorts of people: you are made to feel welcome – and yet this stranger is still far from comfortable. They are not joining in. They are perplexed.

Imagine that this person, this stranger comes from another place, another culture, another time. Imagine that your visitor this morning has come from a time long before the Christian faith had become the religion of the empire; imagine they came from a time when the church was no more than a relatively small sect confined to a certain number of towns and cities, and subject to times of intermittent hostility from the surrounding neighbourhood.

Imagine now that you have found a way of communicating with this stranger, this traveller through time. It quickly becomes clear that she is puzzled by these Advent candles, the talk of Christmas, the prospect of a manger scene and the carols which, she says she’s heard in the supermarkets nearby. Imagine she has no idea of what Christmas is – and yet she and those closest to her worship the God of Jesus Christ Sunday by Sunday just like you do.

The fact of the matter is that Christmas was not one of the primary festivals of the early church. The focus of the Christian year was Easter, not Christmas. This season of the year, this Christmas was still being described in the year 386 as being “newfangled” – it had only been celebrated in Antioch, one of the great cities of the time, during the last ten years or so. And so let’s not deceive ourselves: our stranger reminds us - it was not Christmas as we know it.

The one we observe –complete with manger scenes and all those carols and candlelit services – has its origins in the life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi. We have to go right back to 1223. Up until then people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass (a worship service) at church, where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people. His biographer, Bonaventure tells the story:

It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecoo to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The people of the town were summoned, they ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.

The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.

Imagine now you are the stranger; imagine you are out of time, out of place, out of your comfort zone. Imagine that you have fallen in with this company on the hillside above Grecio; you arrive on the this scene with all your questions – you are so twenty-first century – you to know more about this and more about that; you fall into the company of those about you who cannot understand your questions – nor your talk of the Christmas rush, the need to buy presents, the allure of Myers’ giftorium complete with personalised socks, the special bonus points available at David Jones, the difficulty of finding a car park, where you’re going for your holidays etc. etc. etc.

The highly pressurized world we inhabit at this time of year is so different from that first crib scene back in 1223, from the emergence of this new fangled festival back in 386, from the gospel in whose company we will travel through to Advent 2017.

Our reading this morning comes from the gospel of Matthew. On the first Sunday of Advent we took leave of Luke with his bias to the poor, with his inclusion of more women than any other gospel, with his inclusion of other cultures. We have taken leave of Luke with those parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son; now we face the Christian new year with the invitation to live it out in dialogue with Matthew with his sermon on the mount and his passion for wisdom, righteousness and justice.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been meeting with the high school kids at Leigh Memorial Church in Parramatta. We set out to get a feel for this gospel through simple enough exercises. You might like to try one or two of them in making ready for Christmas this year. The first task was to consider how you would produce a nativity drama: what would you include? how would it be staged? Who would play what role? And, then once the table groups had decided upon how they would go about things – and, in a manner of speaking, commemorate the drama designed by St Francis all those years ago for the people of Grecio – then we looked at what we have actually received from Matthew’s gospel.

There was no Zechariah in the Temple; there was no Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist; there were no visits from the angel Gabriel – Matthew had made him redundant; there was no one-on-one between Mary and the angel; she did not visit her cousin Elizabeth; she did not burst into song – the Magnificat – my soul does magnify the Lord; there was no census; there was no journey on the back of a donkey to Bethlehem; there was no inn, no manger; there were no shepherds out in the fields tending their flock and then being interrupted by a heavenly chorus.

All of a sudden I was feeling like the Christmas Grinch – the ultimate spoil sport – so what was there? Imagine your Christmas Day service beginning instead with a lot of begetting – in other words, a genealogy and the biblical equivalent of the television show, “Who do you think you are?” . Imagine then that this DNA test of the prophetic spirit is followed with the character who wins the best supporting actor award. Mary is hardly spoken of in Matthew’s infancy narrative; she does not speak for herself; she will give birth, of course, to the infant Jesus but here, in this gospel, it is Joseph who stars with a series of dreams: an “angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream” and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife; under instructions from the angel he will name the baby Jesus; there is more attention in this birth story to the names – first of all to Jesus, which we are told means “he will save his people from their sins” and Emmanuel, which we are told means, “God is with us”.

That’s it, it seems, for Christmas Day, so says Matthew – except, except for a further story – that of the three wise men – except that we are not actually told how many they are: there are three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) but how many wise men from the east we do not know. And this story which is so often collapsed into the tale of the shepherds at the manger doesn’t quite happen like that. It is sometime after the wise men, following their star, appear on the scene. They enquire of Herod as to the whereabouts of this child and are told the prophets had spoken of Bethlehem. The wise men find Mary and the child not in a stable but in a house.

And then again the dreaming starts: the wise men are warned in a dream to return home by another route; this birth narrative then turns violent – it becomes a far cry from child play as Herod has murdered the innocent boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2: when was the last time you saw that scene acted out in a Christmas pageant? and, once more, Joseph has a dream warning him of what it is about to happen and takes his family to Egypt where they will stay until Herod dies, and in a dream, Joseph is advised that he might return to the “land of Israel” where they will make their home in Nazareth. The infant Jesus in this story told by Matthew only appears in order to be born, be given a name and become a refugee, living for how long and in what kind of conditions we do not know, in the land of Egypt.

These high school kids were surprised by this account. It did not tally with what they knew about Christmas. They could see how the infant Jesus being a refugee, an infant fleeing persecution and imminent death, could speak to our present moment in time. But some things needed to be teased out a bit more.

Imagine you are a traveller in time; imagine that you find yourself in the community for which the gospel of Matthew was written. Imagine that you have prepared yourself for this act of living advent-urously. You’ve brushed up on your Greek and you can get by in Aramaic. You’ve left behind your bank cards, your smart phone, your pin numbers – they don’t work here. You find yourself inside a Christian community which was seemingly more Jewish than Gentile. You watch the faces of those around you as the gospel begins – and you see the occasional not of the head or hear a grunt of agreement as the story unfolds. There are things here in this tale which resonate, which stand out for these others, but not so obviously for you.

That genealogy assumes significance, for example. Now you know something they don’t know. You know that in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus the genealogy comes at the end of the story; it comes after the 12 year old Jesus has been to the Temple; it comes after Jesus has been baptized by John; it comes just before Jesus is tempted in the wilderness; and you know that in Luke it goes back to Adam, the earthling, the first human and thus embraces the whole of humanity.

All that may be so, but here, in this community for which Matthew was written, all that makes you an outsider, a stranger. Here the genealogy begins with Abraham, not with Adam, but with Abraham, the father of Israel; it is broken up into three divisions of 14 – from Abraham to David to the deportation to Babylon to the birth of the messiah. What you don’t know so easily is how the important the number 7 is to these people: it carries within itself the gift of creation (the seven days) and the promise of the Sabbath (the 7th day, the 7th year, the year of jubilee) – and now the Messiah is born at the end of 6 lots of 7 generations.

There is more going on in this genealogy than you realise; and the woman beside you smiles at the inclusion of 4 women in the line up – Tamar, Ruth, the wife of Uriah and Mary. There is a bit of controversy around each one of these women – and women are not usually included in a genealogy of this time – but somehow it is these women who keep the line of descent true and on the right track.

Looking around the gathering you notice again the nod of the heads when the name of Joseph is mentioned; and you think you see a flicker of smiles around the room and maybe you hear a stifled laugh when all this business of dreaming appears. Someone whispers to you and you make the connection: you make the connection back to another Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel –the Joseph of the Amazing Tech Coat of Many Colours story: this is the Joseph who was left for dead by his jealous brothers, who was carried off into slavery into Egypt, but who the developed a gift for interpreting dreams and being the means by which he saved his people, his father and brothers and their families from a time of famine.

There is dreaming; there is Egypt – and then there is the coming out of Egypt, and now your new found friends in the community of Jewish Christians make connection with Moses: the way ahead is prepared for Jesus being tempted for 40 days (rather than 40 years) in the wilderness; for his sermon on the mount and Moses going up Mt Sinai and receiving the ten commandments.

This is a Christmas story not quite like what you are used to. It is not the easiest of ones to convert into a Christmas spectacular, a Sunday School pageant, a shopfront display, carols in the Domain. There are references here and there to prophecies being fulfilled and attention being given to the meaning of names – and the one which we will privilege now is Emmanuel. “O come, O come Emmanuel”. Here, in Matthew, it is strategically placed. Samuel Wells is the Dean of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, London. One of his most recent books is called A Nazareth Manifesto. It begins with a sermon he delivered on Christmas Eve some years back. The sermon begins with three scenes and the question as to what they have in common.

The first describes the relationship between you and the most difficult member of your family. You have no idea what to get that person for Christmas; in the end you settle for something you know that he / she doesn’t really want and, deep inside you feel that you’ve failed again to do something that might overcome the chasm between the two of you. The second scene has to do with family or friends coming from out of town for Christmas; you want everything to be perfect so you fall into frenzy of activity before they arrive as well as after. As they make ready to leave it dawns on you that you’ve never really talked with one another while they were here.   And the third scene – you feel that there is something lacking in the cosy self-contained Christmas spent with family and friends; you’re mindful of those who are struggling and lonely and so gather together presents for children of prisoners or turn all your Christmas gifts into vouchers which represent your support of a house, or a cow, or two buffaloes for people who need the resources more than you do.

What Wells is seeking to show is the difference between a couple of prepositions: for and with. The stories concerned are all about seeking to do something for the other; they are generous, admirable, warm-hearted gestures but they don’t go to the heart of the problem of overcoming misunderstanding, resentment, alienation, isolation. The comparison is with the word “with”. Such a small word. And yet Wells suggests that here we have stumbled across the most important word in the Bible: with. God with us: it describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purpose and destiny for us. God wishes to be with us. Matthew alone privileges this little word. His birth narrative names the baby Emmanuel – God with us; the gospel closes with the risen Jesus declaring, “Lo, I am with you to the close of the age”. I am with you; God is with us. And in between we have the life, death and rising of Jesus – from cradle to cross – and all of that is designed to show how God is with us in Christ Jesus.

Our reading this morning has the disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking: are you the one who is to come or should we look for another? That question, that hedging your bets, can take all manner of modern forms. This Christmas we can take leave of manger scenes, hillside heavenly choruses, and stay true to Matthew and sing with depth of feeling and meaning, “O come, o come Emmanuel” – God with us come what may in this post-truth, trumped up, complicated world.

© Clive Pearson.

Homily by Rev. Dr. Clive Pearson