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The Morning Papers

Australian Suburbia

Week of Sunday December 9 - Advent 2
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6 

I began the morning’s reading in the newspapers.

Dedicated journalists are trying to swing public opinion, and wake us up. Global warming is in the headlines again, this morning. Last week it was the thawing of permafrost. And today; no Mayan prophecy, this: “The world is on track to see "an unrecognisable planet" that is between 4 and 6 degrees hotter by the end of this century, according to new data on greenhouse gas emissions.” And “The new forecast does not include recent revelations about the effects of thawing permafrost, which is starting to release large amounts of methane from the Arctic. “

This does not surprise me. As a biologist it is obvious what is happening. The Limits to Growth, and similar books, made the big picture clear 40 years ago. The only issue, if we did not change our attitudes to treating the global eco system with contempt, was the matter of timing. It is clear we are steadily, even rapidly, approaching the moment when the global eco-system can no longer buffer our abuse, and  when the relative stability—of everything about our planet—which we take for granted, will be lost.

Meanwhile, the Australian Parliament has been in an uproar over what the Prime Minister may have done twenty years ago, no real evidence yet produced, while the main attack dogs have their own less than glorious  pasts. That proverbial visitor from Mars, reading the papers, would think the future of the whole world depended on the outcome.

Nero is fiddling while the world gets hotter.

Then I switched my morning reading to the Gospel for the Week.  

I find for this week, the same reading in Luke as three years ago. It feels like a tired story, nothing new, and I can’t help wondering if in fiddling with this text, I will not also be avoiding the significant issues of our future.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight. 
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth; 
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

A part of me cries out

None of this happened!  The world just went on the same! Yes, there was a Jesus. And there was an early church, a Paul, a Luke...—so  what?

A little voice says, “But all that the church has done and achieved...?”

And my Cynic snorts

Yes!
Constantine: who took over the gospel for his own imperial purpose. 
Christendom:  always a toxic mix of piety and politics, whether it be Henry 8th and Thomas More, or Oliver Cromwell, or Pius X11.

How often has the “Christen” bit of Christendom merely been pious paint over the surface of the normal, ugly politics of life?

And the poor people, and the little people struggle along. Australia was the ‘working man’s paradise’ at the beginning of the twentieth century.  And it’s true that we have universal health care. And we have an electoral and voting system which is not corrupted like that of the USA, that self proclaimed repository of things democratic, and yet we are still a mess.

Our attitude towards refugees is poisonous and shameful; we are an international byword for lack of compassion.  We expect those without paying jobs to live on an unsustainable pittance. Even in our best efforts of care for our children, we have been asleep at the wheel. Abuse has been rife.

We are addicted to comfort and decadence; Australia will be so very angry when global warming really begins to bite. We have seen nothing like the rage and civil uproar that will come when the fear of the future can no longer be buried under the Christmas wrapping.

And we are in one of the richest, and safest, and most free countries in the world.

At the end of my rant, all the promise of the faith seems empty, yet they want me to begin preaching the Lectionary cycle for another year!

Granted, I have had a fierce cold for over a week, spending more time in bed than out, so my emotional chart is all over the place. My cynicism is in full swing, and I’m grumpy.

But the question remains. Someone asked of my sermon draft last week, “Do you really believe this?” We could ask the same of the whole faith. Does any of this religious stuff make any difference? It has indelibly shaped our culture, but is it true?

Luke thinks it is. He places the events very firmly in what we might call the "real," rather than the "mythological." This is not a “once upon a time” story.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas... (3:1-2)

His choice of words is also more than a literary artifice aimed at highlighting the “historical.” He does not say “During the ’67 drought,” as we would in Australia, or “Just past the Cathedral Hotel.” He says “ during the reign of Tiberius.” Luke is claiming social and political relevance. He is competing for significance with the powers of the day. He is saying, “What I will describe to you are the events of real significance. Rome and its vassals are a sideshow to the real Event of the Time.”

The really significant event at this time was that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The really significant event was part of the old, old story we sometimes struggle to find relevant. The name “son of Zechariah” invites us to look back at Zechariah, both in his father Zechariah, and probably, the Old Testament book. That book starts with the same format with Luke introduces John. It is about the restoration of Israel.

Luke reinforces his claims about John:

As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah...

A GraderThis is not the voice of some stray prophet crying out in the wilderness. This is a fulfilment of Isaiah. Read Isaiah to understand this sign of the times, he tells us.

 Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight. 
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth; 
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The quotation is from Isaiah 40, that startling interpretation of the actions of the Persian emperor Cyrus in enabling the return of the Exiles from Babylon.

Luke is telling us his story is equally important and significant. Indeed, I suspect he may be saying the real significance of Deutero-Isaiah is to be seen in the events Luke is describing! The return of the Exiles is only a taste of the real event.

Those of us following the Lectionary have jumped into Luke at Chapter 3, after beginning at Chapter 21 last week. We should read the first two chapters of Luke to see that what I have just outlined is the pattern of all of Luke so far.

In those two long first chapters he has constantly placed Jesus’ story as fulfilment of all Israel’s longings, and as competitor and superior to the claims of Rome as the ruler of the world. Indeed, the Emperor of the whole word, Tiberius, is used to bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem.  Like Cyrus, who was also Emperor of his whole world, Tiberius is a servant in God’s wider purpose, although those who knew Isaiah could not fail to notice that Tiberius is never called an anointed one of God! (Is 45:1)

There is a most significant verse immediately before the Isaiah quotation: (3:3) John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...”

It signifies that all which follows is dependent on this baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Notice the difference from Mark: in Mark, the Isaiah prophecy is given and then John’s baptism for repentance is mentioned. (Mark 1:2-4)

But in Luke, long before John appears preaching and baptising, we already know that Jesus is to be God’s salvation (2:30). Through him God will bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. (1:52-3)

In fact, so sure is Luke of this that he announces it in the past tense. In Jesus this has already been achieved:

 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

Despite all this, John’s baptism of repentance is still highlighted in Luke. The story this week is constructed so that it is centred around repentance (3:7-10) with clear practical examples of how this may all work. He clearly expects repentance to have practical out workings: 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. (1:8)

The words “In the region around the Jordan” are a clear calling of Israel back to its roots, which are about following the way of God. It is through the baptism of the Jordan that they enter the Promised Land. He is reminding us of the exhortations to the people as they entered the land.

Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills.... (Deut 8:6)

In his repacking and reemphasis of Mark’s story, Luke is saying John’s call to repentance is fundamental. Without this repentance, the story of Jesus remains a story. Even Jesus is baptised in the baptism of John.

Luke takes Mark’s John the Baptist and changes him from Herald— for in Luke we already know who Jesus is— to foundation. Repent. Return to your roots.

This might be first message from Luke for this year. Repent. Return to your roots. Or your discipleship will only be fiddling.

And now, over coffee, I skip through FaceBook, where I find Steve Taylor has a pregnant image at sustain:if:able kiwi

The Gospel of Luke begins with barrenness. An older couple. Faithful yet childless. It is like so much of the Church in the West today, older, faithful. Yet so often barren, with no living memory of church birth, no experience of participating in the life flow that is new communities.

The result is a wondering about one’s future, a quiet misgiving about the family line, the next generation of young people.

Yep, know about that! Some of our resistance to the new congregation in our building is more than just protecting our own turf. We fear the New which may come. The Spirit’s work, His Fresh Expression, as Steve puts it, is disquieting.

It is in this barrenness we glimpse the Spirit’s work. A promise of a fresh expression.

Luke 1:15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children.”

Interesting that last phrase. The hearts of parents need softening. So often this is the way with fresh expressions. Parents simply don’t understand. Congregations need convincing. Of course the present will shape our future. Church is reduced to historic ways, discipleship to a rigid patterning. Steve Taylor.  Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial

That’s right. Let’s go on the way we are. It’s safe and clear. There’s no need to reinspect the fundamentals, to wonder if there is a new repentance needed. And if we shunt every stirring of the Spirit into safe piety, then Luke will have no answers, and will become irrelevant.

And I feed the cats wondering about our barreness and resistance to change.

Finally, I make it to the email, where I find a comment has been placed on my web site.

Rohan is responding to the questions about belief and endpoints in our human existence.

Even if we can't imagine or (harder-still, perhaps) find consensus on an endpoint, in the midst of the perpetual crisis of living we can still reach for the highest humanity possible, seek the deepest expression of what it means to be created in the image of God, and find in Jesus and thence in ourselves what it means to be truly human.

This is where our only hope lies, I think. Somewhere on this site, I have written something like this...

 ... even if God does not exist, the hopes and aspirations we have are worth living for. They are glorious. Even if God does not exist, we should struggle to bring the world to be what it would be like if the best of Gods did exist, and if justice really did occur, and it was so thorough going a justice that even the wolf would even live with the lamb. (Isa 11)

If we do not do this, then democracy, as someone has said, is simply two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for tea. If we do not do this we are not only accepting that Life is a sad thing indeed, simply animal, but that it can be no more than this.  And our highest cultural expressions, and the great symphonies, are simply the rumbling stomachs of the well fed lion who is currently king of the heap. Where there is no justice, the animal reigns.

Luke fundamentally agrees. He sets the kingdom of God against the animal kingdoms of the world. He calls us to more. He will teach us this year, the “highest humanity possible” and “what it means to be truly human.”

And for the mornings when the papers seem all doom, and it seems that Jesus is far from the realities of daily life, he calls us back to the fundamentals.

Repent. Return to your roots.

He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 

Clouds

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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