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11th December 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
8 December 2016

Readings

Isaiah 35:1-10

In this section the return of the exiles is expressed in terms of the transformation of the wilderness and the transformation of the environment which coincides, or perhaps is linked, with a transformation in humanity. 

People transform their environment and are transformed by their environment.

Maurice Andrew remembers that his grandparents had the text ‘streams in the desert’ on their bedroom wall and he goes on to say that they lived by the Waikato River and he doubts if he could ever have imagined what a desert was like. 

He thinks they had the text on the wall because everyone realises, whatever their circumstances, there are times when transformation is needed and that even people in their own country may still need to return to their land and find their way back to where they belong. [1]

Matthew 11: 2-11

This section of Matthew’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist’s disciples coming to ask if Jesus is ‘the one.’  According to Professor Elaine Wainwright Jesus’ reply turned attention away from titles like Christ or Messiah and back to what had been seen and heard.  Jesus, she says is a doer of deeds rather than a bearer of titles’[2]

Warren Carter notes that John’s question underlines the means of recognising Jesus (or Christ) and he also concludes that Jesus recognises John’s role in preparing the way for Jesus but also redefines greatness as service rather than domination.[3]

Bill Loader notes the contrast between John’s vision of a Messiah and the way Jesus lived out his messianic calling.  Loader then suggests that Jesus’ answer could possibly just have been telling John’s disciples to stun him with the stories of Jesus’ fantastic miracles.  However he suggests that it is more likely the answer reflects the prophetic visions which remain the inspiration for the tradition today: ‘Tell John about change and transformation in people’s lives. That is what we are here for and that is what excites us’.[4]

Sermon

It is not hard to see our world as a hopeless and frightening wilderness.  My mother grew up in England during the First World War and married my father and lived through the depression and the Second World War in Wellington.  I was born eight years after they were married and my mother told me they were apprehensive about bringing children into the world they had experienced to that point.  I would imagine that their Jewish friends were even more apprehensive and mum told me a lovely story about a couple trying to choose very English names for their son.  Their first choice was John Edward Williams until mum suggested that his initials on his school bag might raise suspicion.

I was born just before America dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War but that gave very little security and I grew up shielded by the nuclear umbrella and the fear of complete annihilation.  I can still remember being at primary school and feeling apprehensive over the Suez Crisis while all the adults seemed to believe that the greatest threat to civilisation was Rock and Roll.

Later in life my brother in law trained solders who went to Vietnam and never returned.  With a young family his sense of adventure was dulled and he was very pleased that the army needed senor RSMs in Waiouru rather than in the jungles of South East Asia.

We now have an interesting, and to some worrying, president elect in the United States.  In New Zealand we have just had another series of deadly and landscape changing earthquakes that stretched from the upper South Island all the way to Wellington.  Furthermore the Beehive itself has been shaken by a political quake and we should get a new Prime Minister tomorrow.

One of the disturbing features of that seismic shift is that a number of young people who have been questioned on their preference for a new prime minister.  Many seemed to think parliament is a waste of time and all we need is a good leader.  They demonstrated their indifference to our democratic process by suggesting Richie McCaw for prime minister. 

Valerie Adams responded on Facebook by offering herself. She points out that she is much more glamorous and has a policy of insuring all children have the opportunity to be involved in sport.  Throwing the shot would of course be compulsory. 

Obviously, it takes more than being able to launch cannon balls into space to be a prime minister.  A prime minister also has to be able to play golf in Hawaii with the American president.. 

But Adams light hearted and joyful response to what is really a serious issue highlights the truth that all crises pass and the future will once again call our frightening and gloomy deserts into bloom.  

Isaiah’s wilderness coming into bloom is metaphorical but I can’t think of a better way of illustrating that metaphor than pictures I saw at a lecture by Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson.  He showed magnificent images of the desert in Namibia.  One image is still etched on my brain.  A picture of a dirt road winding over undulating ground.  The road was simply two parallel wheel tracks but between them was a strip of brightly coloured wild flowers. 

From the strip in the middle of the road the image invited the viewer to look either side of the road at the overwhelming saturation of colour as wild flowers spread as far as the eye could see.  The whole desert was joyfully rejoicing with the blossoms of recreation.  

As Isaiah wrote ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1,2)

Interestingly Patterson has a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, New York.  His master's thesis was titled ‘Still Photography as A Medium Of Religious Expression.’

What better medium to express the hope that moves beyond the arid dryness of fear and disaster to Isaiah’s waters that break forth in the desert. 

Isaiah’s imagery gives the ongoing promise of future renewal that overcomes our worst fears with joy. 

At the time John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus he would not have had much hope for his life.  Mark’s gospel tell us that Jesus began his ministry after John was arrested.  Parole had not been invented in the first century so arrest usually meant execution. Not a joyful outlook for John therefore.  So we could imagine that John would want some assurance that at least his mission would live on in Jesus’ mission.

As we looked at this incident last week we could see that from John’s perspective the signs were not good.  Jesus had not been sorting the wheat from the chaff, there was no sign of unquenchable fire and there was no axe at the foot of unfruitful trees.  In fact the scribes and the Pharisees, that John called a brood of vipers, were now giving Jesus a hard time.  Jesus’ answer was not to claim some special messianic title.  There was not a caucus vote among John’s disciples or even Jesus’ disciples.  Certainly there was no mention of Jesus in Herod’s New Year’s honours list and John was already on a completely different list.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples was to tell them to go and tell John what they had seen and heard.  We quoted it last week and it is worth quoting again.

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4)

How would we feel if that was what a retiring prime minister said?  It would certainly give us joy, more joy than saying ‘I felt I had nothing more to give’.

Jesus of course gave his whole life and we judge that life by what the Gospel writers tell us they saw and heard.  Looking at the dating of the Gospels it is probably more about what they heard than what they actually saw.   But we have the privilege of looking back in history and seeing and hearing what impact Jesus’ life has had on the world we now live in.

In spite of all the scary things that have happened and still happen the transformation the church has brought into being must call us all to sing, ‘Joy to the world!’

The ongoing impact of Jesus on human history is indeed a life-giving stream in the desert of human history.  

However as the church we need to take note of Professor Elaine Wainwright’s comment in her commentary on Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus’ reply certainly identifies Jesus as Christ or messiah but it also challenges the church to identify itself as ‘Christ filled’ by what it does rather than what it says it believes. [5]

That is a very similar statement to Robin Meyers call to follow Jesus rather than worship Jesus.  Elaine Wainwright and Robin Meyers, a Catholic and a protestant, both call the church to take note of Jesus’ example in today’s reading.  Our aim as a church and as church members, members of St Albans Uniting, must be to be judged by what the church does rather than its statement of faith and theological position.  The programme that Matthew’s Jesus outlines in Jesus’ rely to John is certainly challenging but it is also the vision for an outward facing church.  A vision of being Christ in the community with no strings attached.

Furthermore as we continue on our Advent journey and briefly skim though the activities that Christian World Service carry out on our behalf we get a glimpse of the vast scope the world provides for the followers of Christ.  By giving to Christian world Service we can follow Jesus by being part of the trickle hope and joy in a hostile world.  

There is plenty of scope in our world to give sight to the blind, help the lame to walk, cleanse the lepers along with those with aids, polio. cystic fibrosis and a whole host of nasties Jesus didn’t even know about.  We have the technology to allow the deaf to hear and when we have purchased and installed a defibrillator we might even raise the dead from time to time.  But as a church and individuals we can certainly bring good news to the poor.

Jesus was poor. The disciples were poor yet they began a movement that was like a stream in the desert that slowly trickled out into human history.  They were not the leaders of their day, they didn’t play golf with the powerful or even build special golf courses for the excessively wealthy.  Jesus and his apostles who took his message to the world just trickled out into history and bloomed in history’s desert. 

Each in our own way we have the Christ inspired potential to bloom in our world.  Our world may well be a scary world of earthquakes and political uncertainty. 

Looking back at my world there has certainly been struggles and uncertainty, times when my world seemed devoid of hope and filled with the fear of uncertainty.  But the worst never happened, and all the signs are it never will.  As we live as Christ to others we quite unexpectedly discover that we are indeed streams in the desert.  Our lives blossom as we unthinkingly became part of a river of empowering and joyful relationships. 

Following Jesus and being Christ to others blossoms into transformed lives that bring joy to us and joy to our world.     



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 418.

[2] Elaine M Wainwright Shall We Look For Another? A Feminist Reading of the Matthean Jesus (New York: Orbis Books, 1998),p.69.

[3] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),pp250-253.

[5] Elaine M Wainwright Shall We Look For Another? A Feminist Reading of the Matthean Jesus (New York: Orbis Books, 1998),p.69.

 

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