3rd Feb 2019 Epiphany 4C – Sermon – Continuing the work of Christmas

“The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman

find the lost,
heal the broken,
feed the hungry…

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[i]

 

Gosh, is it only six weeks since Christmas. It already feels like a life time ago. Hopefully this beautiful little poem draws together the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry. And in deed they were a life time apart. The reason for celebrating Christmas only really makes sense we begin to appreciate Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Christmas is the moment of Incarnation, but it is a moment that progressively saturates the whole of human existence. Well, that is, if we let it. Our Gospel reading today reminds us that actually humanity tends to resist embracing the incarnation and all its implications. To help us appreciate the Gospel let’s also sample the other readings.

Jeremiah and the Psalmist have a sense of God being with them from their youth or even from birth.

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Jer 1:5

On you have I leaned since my birth:

you are he that brought me out of my mother’s womb, and my praise is of you continually.

Psalm 71:6

 

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;

Jeremiah 1:5

I hope and pray that we all have deep in our hearts the knowledge that God was knitting us together in the womb. I guess for some people the sad or painful memories of childhood make that hard to believe. For those people I pray that our Lenten study focusing on Forgiveness will bring us all to the faith in God’s presence even throughout a difficult childhood.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks of learning as a child but then having to put away childish thoughts. Perhaps he was referring to growing up in the strong restrictive tradition of the Pharisees. It was only in truly encountering Christ that Paul discovered his childhood teaching to be myopic in vision. It was not that God was absent, but he was brought in a social group who effectively put blinkers on their children. The blinkers meant they couldn’t see the breadth, depth and height of the love and grace of God. Paul’s conversions demolished his childhood blinkers.

As Luke tells the Gospel of Jesus we see the same feeling in Jesus as Jeremiah and the Psalmist. When Jesus was “only a boy” (Jer 1:6) we saw him in his “Father’s house” (Lk 2:40) As I said, my prayer for all of us is that we too feel God has been, is, and will always be present in our lives.

Let’s go back to Jeremiah. The prophet has the role to tear down (Jer 1:10) that which gets in the way of grace and only then to build up that which encourages grace. Jesus also tears down the notion that God is owned by the people of Israel.  He tells stories of the foreigners healed/saved by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. (Luke 4:25-27)

The psalmist seems keen to shelter in the sanctuary of the temple. Perhaps he seeks shelter because he has dared to speak the prophetic voice challenging the people of his time. Certainly, Jeremiah like most of the prophets suffers for his commitment to tell the word of God. Jesus mysteriously walks away from the people of Nazareth who would have thrown him of the cliff. The sanctuary of God presence is with him even there on the precipice above Nazareth just as the psalmist and Jeremiah had experienced.

The psalmist, Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul all experience rejection for their prophetic word. I guess anyone who speaks what they see as the word of God effectively tearing down the unjust structures of society need to expect rejection.  May be that was Jesus’ expectation in Nazareth. He gave them a pre-emptive strike, God’s healing and salvation will go to foreigners before you are open to it. May be the congregation in Nazareth had been hoping to hear Jesus speak liberation for the oppressed Israelis who were oppressed by Rome. But Jesus blows their expectation out of the water by asserting that God’s grace will often go first to their enemies just as it had in the days of Elijah and Elisha. Later in the gospel we will read of Jesus offering to go to the Roman centurion’s house to cure his daughter. He would also speak of the “Good” Samaritan. The people of Nazareth were quick to realise that Jesus would tear down their notion of the Messiah and of limits of the grace of God. God’s loving heart is big enough for the whole of the created order, even our enemies.

So now let’s come forward to the 21st Century. Last week we sat here in the Church of the Resurrection sitting, not on the hard-stone seats of the synagogue in Nazareth but on the hard-wooden seats here. Never-the-less we heard Jesus reading from Isaiah and saying, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

So, the question for us is: Do we embrace the Good News of the Kingdom as Jesus announced last week, with yes, yes, yes? Or do we reject Jesus and try to throw him off a cliff? Of course, we say, Yes to Jesus. We say no to rejecting him. But, is ignoring Jesus a third option that we slip into because we really don’t want our lives to change.

Jesus doesn’t merely want us to say yes, he wants us:

to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

The trouble is there is real risk and deep change involved in getting on with the work of Christmas. If we find the lost, we are called to bring them home and make room for them and feed them. As the Good Samaritan knew, generous hospitality can be costly. After a period of time, those who were lost will feel at home and safe, those who were hungry will feel full and healthy, those who were broken will feel well; and then their contribution to the wider community will be one of blessing.

Do we even dare to think about releasing the prisoner? We could start with by bringing people with Mental Illness out to be cared for properly. If we could work to get rid of the taboos around mental illness and provide good care 30% of our prison inmates would never end up in jail.

The next large group to work with would be the indigenous population in prison. I guess the terrifying cost might be that we have to change our constitution to recognise indigenous Australians. Real recognition brings with it a level of empowerment that has the potential to transform whole communities. Even then the transformation may take four or five decades. The “Gap” will not be closed until we start to see Indigenous Prime Ministers and Governors at State and Federal level. I hope that will happen in my life time.

Refugee Children on Nauru

Another significant group we need to be working to release from prison are those incarcerated in our detention centres. For more than five years our detention centres have been prisons for people who have not committed any crimes. Our fear seems to be that we will have hordes of people in boats making dangerous crossings to seek asylum. But it would be ten times cheaper to double the UNHCR budget in Asia so that processing their can be done quickly and efficiently. I guess there are a considerable number here who regard this all as leftist nonsense. The Jews tells us if they have ten Jews looking at one sentence in scripture they have at least 11 points of view.  They teach us to wrestle with the Scriptures and even with God, until we come closer to a consensus of what we are called to do.

Whatever we conclude I know we are all called, not merely to say yes to Jesus, but to be about the work of Christmas. We will know we are well on the way when we see people immersed in the peace of Christ with music in their hearts.

 

 

 

 

[i] “The Work of Christmas,” p 23, from The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations, Howard Thurman.

 

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