Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ash Wednesday - Hope of the Nation

Ash Wednesday is coming up (6 February 2008; also Waitangi Day in Aotearoa New Zealand). The beginning of Lent. An opportunity for Anglican and Catholic churches to combine for a service. When we burn last year's Palm Sunday crosses in order to make the ash to mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross, we signal that Lent is a season of denial (take up your cross, deny self, and follow Jesus). But perhaps alongside 'denial' we should always place the word 'discipleship', so Lent is a season of denial and discipleship. Some things are given up for the sake of the greater good of our spiritual maturity and for the sake of a purer devotion to Jesus; but other things are learned and taken up for the same reason.

Denial and discipleship goes against the grain of a consumer, let your feelings hang out culture. But could they be vital to the future wellbeing of our world? One of the features of this summer has been a spate of violence - murders, beatings, shootings - to say nothing of vandalism and arson. Our politicians are trying to get on top of it with new educational initiatives. That will help. But so would denial and discipleship. Denying, for instance, my right to be consumed with anger or my sense that I am justified when angry in delivering a beating. Discipleship is me recognising someone greater than me whom I resolve to follow: the centre of my universe is not me any longer.

Relative to all church attendance probably only a few Christians will make it to an Ash Wednesday service. Proportionate to the whole population there will scarcely be anyone in church on Wednesday evening. Yet in the service in which ashes are imposed lies the secret to the transformation of our society. For when we deny self for the sake of Christ and determine to be his disciples then we enter not just one way of being human but a new way which is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (2)

An often misunderstood feature of the cycle of gospel readings through the Christmas season is that the story of the appearing of the Magi or Wise Men from the East (Matthew 2:1-12) should be reserved for Epiphany (6th January or, if you like, the Twelfth Day of Christmas) and not be part of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day readings.* Waiting until Epiphany to read this gospel passage fits well with the sense that, unlike the shepherds of Luke 2:1-14 who appear at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth, the Wise Men arrive after the birth.

In Matthew's Gospel there is the curious feature that its strongly Jewish flavour is punctuated by Gentile references. In Matthew 1:1-17 there are references to four Gentile women; and at the end of Matthew's Gospel, the Jewish Jesus charges his Jewish disciples with a commission to go to 'all peoples' (Good news Bible). In the story of Jesus' birth, Gentile philosophers turn up, out of the blue!

What, then, might we say when we preach at Epiphany? Here are some ideas for themes.

- the worldwide scope of the gospel
- the revealed character of the gospel
- worshipping Jesus as the appropriate response to his birth
- Jesus, the light of the world
- the true understanding of who Jesus is

This year (2008) I am taking as my theme, 'Christ in the world' and I want to talk about what it means to be a Christian living in the world. In my view far too many sermons effectively only address the subject of 'what Christians should believe' or 'how I can be a better Christian in church.' But each of us lives in 'the world': we work, play, converse and interact with people apart from the church. How, as Christians, are we to engage with the world? What is the world searching for which might be found in the way we reveal Christ through our words and actions? (A variation on this idea is this, 'what is "the star" which leads people today towards Christ?' ... in working with this question I want to reflect a little on three kiwi phenomena at this time of the year: popularity of music festivals, holidays at the beach, and rampant materialism ... each reflects something deeply spiritual).

What are your thoughts as you shape your sermon for Epiphany?

*I realise the lectionary gets a little complicated as it wrestles with parcelling up the gospel readings through the Christmas-Epiphany period. For Sunday 30th December (i.e. the First Sunday after Christmas) the reading was Matthew 2:13-end, that is, the conclusion to the story of the visit of the Wise Men!