1st Sunday in Lent [by Rev. Ken Gray]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Gen 2:15-17,3:1-7
Gen 2:7-9,3:1-7
Psalm
32
2nd Reading
Rom 5:12-19
both
Gospel
Matt 4:1-11
both
by The Very Rev. Ken Gray, Kamloops BC Canada

SECTION ONE: NOTES ON THE READINGS

GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7

It is good to begin in the garden, or is it? The garden is that place where the necessities of life for all creatures including humans are nurtured, cultivated and enjoyed. It is a place of tremendous physicality; humans live and die depending on natural processes and access to agricultural bounty. We all must eat to both thrive and survive, or else we die. And we all die in due course and others take our place in the community of earth and in the company of friend and stranger alike. What we discover here is the role of limits, of what we take from the earth and how we take it and use it. Both the man and the woman take from a forbidden place, and suffer the consequences – a loss of innocence, a complication to an otherwise idyllic life. The serpent can be understood as an ultimate (climate) sceptic, a rebel voice constantly refusing the authority of a Creator God who simply says, “live within your means.” Strident voices are sometimes prophetic; at other times they are simply disobedient and wrong. And the consequences, for both persons and creation are tragic.

PSALM 32

While the psalmist reflects on past sins and transgressions in an introspective way, he “groans” and feels the heavy hand of the Lord on him, our text broadens in speaking of natural disasters including both heat and drought: “Moisture was dried up in the heat of summer,” and flooding: “When the great waters overflow.” Within the experiences of nature many of us face calamity, and in our present time ask real questions of real events: How can floods ravage Zimbabwe and Mozambique, while fires continue to ravage the Australian continent and Southern Pacific Ocean waters rise extraordinarily. Let us not be “like horse or mule, which have no understanding.” Let us do our homework and discern how we continue to abuse the world God has given us for careful stewardship. Let us live according to the wisdom God shares with us, not only in scripture, but also in the science which continues to clarify the danger of ignoring sustainable limits.

ROMANS 5:12-19

If the Genesis text describes the consequences of bad decisions, Paul in his Epistle to the Romans has us move beyond sin and its consequences to the gift of God’s Grace. Paul’s message is indeed Good News, that all are welcome to receive God’s gift, Gentile and Jew alike. The truth is that those who receive the gift of righteousness will exercise dominion in life, a phrase which may recall dominion over creation (Gen 1:26), both which describe a responsible way of living, in Christ, which suggests amongst other responsibilities, sustainable ecological living. We have a choice, to live to and for ourselves, or with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to refuse to receive grace superficially or cheaply: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.”

MATTHEW 4:1-11

It is hard to imagine a better place to begin our Lenten journey together than in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke follow a common source (Q) elaborating on Mark’s terse description. The wilderness is a Spirit-directed place of encounter, where a particular God-human conversation is possible. The wilderness is an extra-ordinary life place, where survival requires special dedication, preparation and resilience. One becomes especially aware of our relationship with and dependence upon creation and our relationship with it when food and water are in short supply if not totally absent. We are physical beings, yet our relationship is with God, and God within creation. Richard Rohr cites St. Bonaventure “As a human being Christ has something in common with all creatures. With the stones he shares existence, with plants he shares life, with animals he shares sensation, and with the angels he shares intelligence.”

SECTION TWO: SERMON OUTLINE

First, consider various wilderness settings relevant to your congregants.

In my home country of Canada these might include the Great Bear Rainforest on the British Columbia Coast

https://greatbearrainforest.gov.bc.ca/

or Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland

https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/nl/grosmorne

What makes these areas special and appealing? What must visitors know prior to visiting these places? And how might we encounter and respond to danger and threat?

Consider how the Spirit guides Jesus, and us, into various wilderness settings as a matter of living a spiritual/ecological life

How might the traditional Lenten disciplines connect with your own wilderness experiences.

  • self-examination, penitence, prayer,
  • fasting, and almsgiving,
  • reading and meditating on the word of God

In a wilderness context, how might the lifestyle question lead to a better appreciation of the creation itself and our part in it? Are there things we should stop doing? And things we should commence doing? Be as specific as possible.

  • If we have surplus funds, how are these invested?
  • How do we access and use power for daily living?
  • Do we know where our food/bread comes from and why?
  • Add your own observations and challenges. (Water; forests; land)

Write your own poetic/psalmic response to today’s gospel incorporating the idea of limits if appropriate.

Read Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things in conclusion

https://onbeing.org/poetry/the-peace-of-wild-things/

SECTION THREE:  POSSIBLE ACTIONS

This Lent the Anglican Communion Environmental network encourages everyone to fast for the Earth, for our common home and for our brothers and sisters impacted by climate change. At the start of Lent, we invite you to make a pledge, to reduce your use of plastic, to change your eating habits, and to reduce your use of energy and fuel. This are actions we take in solidarity with our ‘kin’ impacted by climate change.

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=creation%20matters&epa=SEARCH_BOX

For an indigenous perspective on land visit: Sacred Teachings: Wisdom of the Land. This podcast (a web audio program) initiative is a joint project between Indigenous Ministries and Anglican Church of Canada Video. Stream all episodes of the series on Vimeo and other platforms. New episodes will be released every Monday for a period of 8 weeks.

https://vimeo.com/389017480?utm_source=Anglican+Church+of+Canada&utm_campaign=6066bbf88a-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_02_04_09_43&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6285aca377-6066bbf88a-243903345

Lambeth Conference: Letters for creation. Do you know someone under the age of 30 who might have something to say to Anglican Bishops from around the world about creation and climate care? The GREEN Anglicans network is seeking submissions from young Anglicans about their hopes and worries for the future of creation, with a selection of the messages to be included in an exhibition or shown at Lambeth Conference. Send along to greenanglicans@gmail.com by May 2.

A new Canadian Bishop makes Climate Change Response key to his ministry

Right Reverend Dr. Robert Todd Townshend is hoping to bring an environmental focus and action on climate change to Anglican churches across its Southwestern Ontario diocese. After the ordination, Townshend reflected on the global climate change crisis and how faith can serve as a call to action, he said.“The environmental movement has revived the biblical idea of us as stewards of the Earth, which is in every major religion because God is the creator,” Townshend said. “I consider it an emergency,” he said of climate change. “If we call something a crisis for too long it is not considered urgent, but this is the most urgent thing.”

https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/townshend-sees-faith-as-call-to-action-on-climate-change?fbclid=IwAR2WqmuFd-9v8UiCI4P-7mpeb2hM7S5YuG-zvddOGmjbujfDz17UDU-sc3M

by The Very Rev. Ken Gray, Kamloops BC, Canada

Transfiguration Sunday [by Rev. Dr. Bullitt-Jonas]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Ex 24:12-18
Lev 19:1-2,17-18
Psalm
2
2nd Reading

2 Pet 1:16-21
1 Cor 3:16-23

Gospel
Matt 17:1-9
Matt 5:38-48
by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ)

Transfiguration and a radiant Earth

We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones for today, the last and climactic Sunday of the Epiphany season. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to experience the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is called up to Mount Sinai, “into the mountain of God” (Ex. 12:13), so that God can speak to him and establish the covenant between God and God’s people. The glory of God settles on the mountain like a cloud and it can barely be described – it is an awesome, elemental presence, something like a “devouring fire” (Ex. 24:17). Later in the Book of Exodus we read that as Moses prays on the mountain-top, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), the skin of his face begins to shine (Ex. 34:29).  As Moses contemplates the glory of God, he becomes radiant with that glory.

Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew is likewise set on a mountain.  Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray.  In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “[Jesus] was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2).  To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est).  Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe.  What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”[1] so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed.  A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes.  The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and the three disciples can see it.

What just happened?  The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye.  The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it.  In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.[2] Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through the body, and the body of Creation.  For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit.  When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them.  We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality.  The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight.  That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Matthew uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and a “bright cloud” that “overshadowed” them.  Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love.

We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of a river as it rushes downstream knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole Creation.  Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it.  Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but also, to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light.  To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes.

So as we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

I think this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of Creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God.  For let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory.  It’s as if a veil were placed over our minds, just as Moses eventually placed a veil over his face to cover the glory that was shining out (Ex. 34:33).  When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory.  We dismiss the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama.  Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated and assaulted without a second thought.  We experience ourselves and other human beings as basically separate from the rest of Creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights.

By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with increasing concern that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits.  It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight.  For we are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things are held together (Col. 1:17) and whose presence fills the whole Creation (Eph. 4:10).

So when we see God’s Creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, what they are calling a “biological annihilation”[3]– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action.  For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the glory of God’s Creation and to protect it from further harm.

When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that we as individuals can do.  Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more.  Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet.  Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, we can buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home.  If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels; if we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.

Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change.  The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that in order to avoid a catastrophic level of climate change, we must rapidly transform every aspect of our society and economy.  To do that, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.

So, thank God for the leadership of young people, starting with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who walked out of school back in August 2018 to demand climate action, and whose steadfast, unyielding call that leaders address the climate emergency has galvanized the world community and inspired millions of people across more than 150 countries to take to the streets on behalf of what our Prayer Book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home.”  Thank God for the Sunrise Movement, which is mobilizing young people – and older supporters, like me – to fight for a just and habitable future.  Thank God for all the individuals and communities of faith and for all the movements worldwide that are rising up to say: Enough!  We will not stand by and let this beautiful world and its human and other-than-human communities be destroyed!  Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive!

Today we stand on the mountain top, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Right now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love.  On Wednesday we will follow him down the mountain and into the 40 days of Lent, that precious season that invites us to re-orient our lives to the love of God.  Day by day we intend to watch for the light and listen to the love, until the day comes when we “see Jesus in every aspect of existence”[4] and perceive at last that even the ashes of Lent – even the dust itself – is shining.

by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Massachusetts


[1] William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 115.

[2] Johnston, “Arise,” 115.

[3] Tatiana Schlossberg, “Era of ‘Biological Annihilation’ Is Underway, Scientists Warn,” New York Times, July 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/11/climate/mass-extinction-animal-species.html

[4] “The paths we travel on our sacred journey will lead us to the awareness that the whole point of our lives is the healing of the heart’s eye through which we are able to see Jesus in every aspect of our existence.” (St. Augustine)

6th Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Sir 15:15-21
both
Psalm
119:1-8
2nd Reading
1 Cor 3:1-9
1 Cor 2:6-10
Gospel
Matt 5:21-37
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

DIVISION IN THE CHURCH – FOLLOWING PAUL OR APOLLOS

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 New International Version (NIV)
3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Why has the church often been so slow to take action on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable? Climate change is striking hardest against the very people the Bible tells us to care for and love, it is amplifying hunger and poverty.

One of the reasons is that the very issue has become so partisan. There are two “sides”, some follow Apollos and some follow Paul.

Across the world, but particularly in the USA, Brazil and Australia, Christians are very divided over climate change. Some believe that faith and science are in conflict – not only evolution v creation, but now the science of climate change is debated. Others believe that we are in the ‘end times’ and it has been foretold that the Earth will burn up. Others believe that ‘this world is not my home’ and it is more important to focus on the afterlife and our spiritual life. And still others believe that to talk about the sacredness of Creation is bordering on paganism.

Katherine Hayhoe, a Christian climatologist says she is accused often by people with Bible verses in their social media profile who accuse her of spreading Satan’s lies. Others ask why she even tries to communicate with “those people”. Some follow ‘Apollos’, some follow “Paul’. She shares some insights into how to connect with those who are on the ‘other side’ when it comes to climate change.

“I’m not a glutton for punishment and I don’t thrive on conflict. So why do I keep talking about climate change to people who are disengaged or doubtful? Because I believe that evangelicals who take the Bible seriously already care about climate change (although they might not realize it). Climate change will strike hard against the very people we’re told to care for and love, amplifying hunger and poverty, and increasing risks of resource scarcity that can exacerbate political instability, and even create or worsen refugee crises.

Then there’s pollution, biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, species extinction: climate change makes all those worse, too. In fact, if we truly believe we’ve been given responsibility for every living thing on this planet (including each other) as it says in Genesis 1, then it isn’t only a matter of caring about climate change: We should be at the front of the line demanding action.

But if caring about climate change is such a profoundly Christian value, then why do surveys in the United States consistently show white evangelicals and white Catholics at the bottom of those Americans concerned about the changing climate?

It turns out, it’s not where we go to church (or don’t) that determines our opinion on climate. It’s not even our religious affiliation. Hispanic Catholics are significantly more likely than other Catholics to say the earth is getting warmer, according to a 2015 survey, and they have the same pope. It’s because of the alliance between conservative theology and conservative politics that has been deliberately engineered and fostered over decades of increasingly divisive politics on issues of race, abortion and now climate change, to the point where the best predictor of whether we agree with the science is simply where we fall on the political spectrum.

An important and successful part of that framing has been to cast climate change as an alternate religion. This is sometimes subtle, as the church sign that reads, “On Judgment Day, you’ll meet Father God not Mother Earth.” And if you are a Christian, you know what to do when a false prophet comes along preaching a religion that worships the created rather than the Creator: Reject it!

So this framing plays right into the narrative that scientists are a godless bunch who have teamed up with liberals (and perhaps the Antichrist, according to some comments I’ve received) to rule the world and overthrow religion, an agenda that any right-minded believer will oppose until his or her dying breath.

And that’s why my favorite question is the one I often hear from fellow Christians: “Do you believe in climate change?”

One of the first times I remember being asked this it was by a visitor to the evangelical church I attend here in Texas, who was surprised (and possibly a little horrified) to learn that the pastor’s wife was a climate scientist.

“No, I don’t!” I cheerfully replied.

A puzzled silence ensued. Wary of calling out the pastor’s wife, the man haltingly asked, “But aren’t you … didn’t you just say you study climate science?”

“That’s right,” I said with an encouraging nod.

“So how can you not believe in it?!” he asked, perplexed.
And with that question, he opened the door to an incredibly constructive conversation about science, faith and truth. As I always do now when someone asks this, I explained that climate change is not a belief system. We know that the earth’s climate is changing thanks to observations, facts and data about God’s creation that we can see with our eyes and test with the sound minds that God has given us. And still more fundamentally, I went on to explain why it matters: because real people are being affected today; and we believe that God’s love has been poured in our hearts to share with our brothers and sisters here and around the world who are suffering.

After hundreds, even thousands, of such conversations, I’ve grown to understand how much of this opposition to the idea that the climate is changing, that humans are responsible, that the impacts are serious and that the time to act is now, comes from fear: fear of loss of our way of life, fear of being told that our habits are bad for society, fear of changes that will leave us worse off, fear of siding with those who have no respect for our values and beliefs.

Connecting our identity to action is key, and that’s exactly why I don’t typically begin with science when starting conversations about climate change with those who disagree. Rather, I begin by talking about what we share most. For some, this could be the well-being of our community; for others, our children; and for fellow Christians, it’s often our faith.

By beginning with what we share and then connecting the dots between that value and a changing climate, it becomes clear how caring about this planet and every living thing on it is not somehow antithetical to who we are as Christians, but rather central to it. Being concerned about climate change is a genuine expression of our faith, bringing our attitudes and actions more closely into line with who we already are and what we most want to be.”

(Dr Katharine Hayhoe: “Im a climate scientist who believes in God – hear me out”, New York Times, Oct 31st, 2019)

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa

5th Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 58:1-12
both
Psalm
112:1-10
2nd Reading
1 Cor 2:1-16
both
Gospel
Matt 5:13-20
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

DON’T READ ISAIAH 58 WHILE WATCHING THE NEWS

Isaiah asks too many questions. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bond of injustice … to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” These questions are rhetorical – because the answers are so obvious that God doesn’t give an answer.

You really don’t want to read this passage while listening to a BBC podcast telling us that climate change has brought parts of Zambia to the brink of famine, that they is wrestling with a devastating drought caused by a dramatic shift in weather patterns. You don’t want to read isaiah 58 and hear that in Zambia more than 2 million people are now in need of food aid, following two years of poor rains and failed harvests.

You don’t want to read Isaiah 58 and watch the pictures of the bushfires in Australia and hear of the 3000 families who lost their homes and the millions of animals who have lost their habitat. You may not even see the news that that devastating floods are affecting the areas destroyed by Hurricane Idai last year in Mozambique.. You may not hear that over 10,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, many of them are people who lost their homes last year and are now homeless for a second time.

Because if you read these verses you would understand that those impacted by climate change are our ‘kin’. In the family of God there is no nation – there is no call to make our nation great at the expense of others. We are called to care with compassion for the whole family of this Earth, our common home.

It is just too hard, isn’t it? The bad news is too much, too constant and too overwhelming

Isaiah knew that it was hard. He was writing to the people who returned from Babylon and found a ruined city and a destroyed temple. This message is not for a private devotion but for people who have gathered to rebuild the ruined city and the destroyed temple. This is a message for our churches, for our Dioceses and for our Communion.

We act like those returning exiles – “at least’ they said, we will worship and fast”. Let us send our ‘thoughts and prayers” to those affected.

But God calls for a deeper understanding of fasting. “Is not this the fast that I choose?” God asks. We know how we should answer God’s list of questions and we often end up feeling only guilt. I haven’t done enough to share my bread with the hungry. I haven’t invited the homeless poor into my house. We suffer from compassion fatigue and decide to stop watching the news.

God’s questions are addressed to a community of faith. Our answers should also be not only personal but communal. We can do much more together than alone and what we do together must involve both assistance and advocacy. It takes advocacy to “loose the bonds of injustice” .

So, let us organise a fundraiser to send funds to a Diocese for a vehicle to get urgent aid to those who have lost their harvest, but let us also put pressure on our political leaders to make a difference to climate change policies. Let us send money for trees to be planted in Zambia to heal the denuded soil, and let us also encourage our faith community to take their money out of fossil fuels

Our brothers and sisters in Zambia and Mozambique and Australia are not strangers. They are our kin.

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa

4th Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Mic 6:1-8
Zeph 2:3,3:12-13
Psalm
15
2nd Reading
1 Cor 1:18-31
both
Gospel
Matt 5:1-12
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

A THEOLOGY OF ADAPTATION

Reflection on Micah 6: 1-8

Last year the north of Mozambique was battered by Cyclone Idai. An inland sea was formed and people lost homes and crops. Months later people have rebuilt temporary houses and this week flooding struck again. Some of the same people have lost two homes within months.

In 2005 the Anglican Communion was involved in a big campaign called “make poverty history” but Climate Change is making poverty inevitable for hundreds of thousands of people.

As the globe warms, scenes of devastation-flooding, drought and sea level rise will become more and frequent. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in a warming world? We need a theology of adaptation, that enables us to live as followers of the way of Jesus in a seemingly hopeless place. Into this context the voice of the prophet Micah booms forth with a call to action.

Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

What is the context for this well loved verse? It comes in the midst of a damning tirade from Yahweh against his people, particularly the leaders, set against the back-drop of a court scene, in which the created order form the jury: ‘Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. Hear, O mountains, Yahweh’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth’ (6:1).

Nature is part of the jury which is judging the people of God. Yahweh is calling his people back to repentance and to a life lived according to ‘his ways’ (4:2) and how does he want that to happen? Not through sacrifices and religious worship, but through a life that acts justly, and loves mercy, and walks humbly with him (6:8).

As the challenges become greater and greater, we are being called to examine who we are as Church, which our priorities for mission and ministry, where do we prioritise our budgets? Are we still focussing the bulk of our time, energy and human resources on maintaining the  institution of the church, or are we committing our lives to acts of justice? Just as nations are having to adapt to climate change, so must the Church.

Without justice, water does not flow downhill, it flows towards the rich. Without justice, rubbish and pollution flow towards the poor.

God is on the side of the poor. He has to be.

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 9:1-4
8:23-9:3
Psalm
27:1,4-9
2nd Reading
1 Cor 1:10-18
both
Gospel
Matt 4:12-23
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

WHEN IT SEEMS THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Isaiah 9 :1-4

The people of Israel were in a desperate state. Israel had lost the beloved lands  of Zebulun and Naphtali and the other northern territories . At the same time the south was threatened by the mighty Assyrians and the very existence of the Israelites as a people was under threat. At the same time their king, Ahaz was a weak , willing to compromise and do what ever it took to stay in power.  Most of Isaiah’s prophetic calling was to challenge the policies of Ahaz. The future looked dark, both sin and physical disaster seemed to be abounding.

Their fate  resonates with the world situation,  we are losing the battle against climate change and environmental degradation – the fires in the Amazon and Australia, melting ice in Alaska. The future looks bleak, and yet we keep on voting in politicians who are under the influence of the fossil fuel companies and seem to be compromising the fate of the planet for short term political gain.

The preceding chapter – 8- ends with a bleak warning

20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness”

Have we reached this situation? Where is the hope, from where will the light come?

Darkness symbolises both sin and the consequences of sin. We have failed to be good stewards of God’s creation, we have embraced consumerism and greed, we have not heard the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.

Into this bleak picture comes the voice of hope – the metaphor of darkness turns into the metaphor of light.

V1 “there will be no gloom for those who were in distress” . This passage tells of God’s grace and a new historical beginning.

The darkness and dishonour of the former times will give way to  the light and glory of the times to come. Hope is coming for those who are in anguish.

The light is beginning to dawn for those who live in darkness. 2020 will be a turn around year, already coal sales across the planet have dropped significantly, the young people are rising. Faith leaders are rising up.

The hungry will rejoice as people rejoice at a harvest and the yoke that burdens the oppressed will be lifted.

As Dr Martin Luther King said
“The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 49:1-7
both
Psalm
40:1-11
2nd Reading
1 Cor 1:1-9
both
Gospel
John 1:29-42
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

A TIME FOR PROPHETIC ACTION

Isaiah 49 : 1-7

“I have labored in vain;I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”

2019 was a very difficult time for climate activists.  Vast areas of the Amazon burnt – we felt like the lungs of the earth were burning out of control. And we ended the year and began the new one with devastating bushfires in Australia and news that so many lives and homes have been lost and as many as a billion creatures lost their lives. Some of Australia’s iconic animals such as the koala have been pushed the brink of extinction.

And still the politicians want to deny that climate change exists. The Climate change gathering of COP25 in Madrid was a damp squib.

What hope is there for 2020?

This passage gives great encouragement, affirming where we must place our hope.

God formed you in the womb to be his servant (v5). We base our environmental work on the fact that God created this Earth, God loves this planet and we are following him. Across the globe servants of God are rising up  – planting trees, inventing energy saving devices, saving water, challenging politicians, divesting their funds from fossil fuels. We are part of a great movement inspired by our love for the Creator and Creation.

Salvation will come to the ends of the Earth (v6). God loves this Earth so much that he sent his son. The most beloved verse of John 3:16 actually says in the Greek “God so loved the cosmos that he sent his son”

And the passage ends with a call of hope, that even kings and princes  – and politicians too – will hear the voice of the prophet. (v7)

There is a prophecy attributed to the Hopi Nation which says:

“when the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again”

2019 was painful, in 2020 let us rise up with prophetic words and actions and make the earth green again ,  A prophet is someone who proclaims the will of God. The will of God we know is a restored and renewed earth. So let us be of good courage, and take up our task as servants of God – reaching the good news to the whole of creation . Mark 16:15

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa

1st Sunday after the Epiphany [by Rev Dr Rachel Mash]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 42:1-9
both
Psalm
29
2nd Reading
Acts 10:34-43
both
Gospel
Matt 3:13-17
both
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator, Anglican Church of Southern Africa

THE WATERS OF LIFE

COLLECT

Lord God
In water you reveal to us the attributes of your Spirit
Deepen in us a deep respect for your waters of life
That we may more fully drink the gift of your life giving Spirit
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen

A Call to Persevere

Following three years of devastating drought, Cape Town was threatened with having its taps turned off “Day Zero”.  What lessons can we learn from Scripture when faced by similar challenges?

Matthew 3: 13-17     The waters of baptism

Jesus was baptised in the Jordan river – what does it mean for us that we entered the family of God through water? We have become separated off from the sacredness of water – it comes to us from a tap or in a bottle. In the Old Testament the Old Covenant placed great emphasis on ceremonial cleanliness. Priests and other worshippers had to follow certain washing rituals in order to communicate with God (Exodus 30:18-21). Jesus, as he often did, was freed from narrow restrictions.  He chose to go out into nature – to a river with all its movement and mud – to be baptised. He was cleansed by the water but also made the water sacred by his presence. What does it mean that we have taken the waters of baptism back into the church building and changing them from a roaring torrent into a few splashes of water from the tap?

Do we know where the water that we use in that tap comes from? From which river or dam does it come? And how polluted is that river with plastic or toxins? What does it mean that our river Jordan is polluted?

GATHERING

God, whose Spirit moved over the deep at its creation,
and whose Son Jesus entered the waters of baptism and hallowed them forever:
We thank you for the gift of water—the waters on the
surface of the earth, the waters beneath the ground, the water in
our atmosphere, and the water in our bodies—and for all that
dwells in the waters. Make us mindful of the care of all the
planet’s waters, that they may richly sustain life for us and for
those who will come after us; through Jesus Christ, who is the
source of living water. Amen.[i]

OR

Loving Creator,

you care for the land by sending rain;
you make it fertile and fruitful.
What a rich harvest you provide!
All your creation sings for joy.

When we take care of the land,
sowing the seed and reaping the harvest,
All your creation sings for joy.

When we keep streams and rivers clean,
when we respect the purity of lakes and seas,
All your creation sings for joy.

When we recognise that we are one family,
brothers and sisters together,
with responsibility for the land and the waters,
All your creation sings for joy
for you bless us abundantly all our days.[ii]

Confession and thanksgiving for Holy baptism

In our baptism God calls us to be Christ-like:
Let us recognise ourselves just as we are
Fallen yet re-made in his image
and let us pray for his renewing and healing Spirit
A time of silent reflection

Your spirit in baptism bring freedom
but so often our lives are weighed down by burdens we carry within us
Forgive us Lord we pray

Your Spirit in baptism brings courage
but so often our lives are ill at ease
so full of fear for what the day may bring us
Forgive us Lord we pray

Your Spirit in baptism brings wisdom
but we find it so hard to recognise your gentle whisper speaking to us
Forgive us Lord we pray

May we know the power
that breaks these chains
that bind our hearts and souls
and grace to live the life you give
Renew us Lord we pray

 

Water from the font is sprinkled on the people as a reminder of our baptism

Almighty God
who in Jesus Christ has given us
a kingdom that cannot be destroyed
forgive you your sins
open your eyes to God’s truth
strengthen you to do God’s will and
give you the joy of his kingdom
through Jesus Christ our Lord Amen[iii]

PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD
Affirmation of Faith

We believe that God creates all things,
renews all things and celebrates all things.
We believe Earth is a sanctuary,
a sacred planet filled with God’s presence,
a home for us to share with our kin.
We believe that God became flesh and blood
became a piece of Earth,
a human being called Jesus Christ,
who lived and breathed and spoke among us,
suffered and died on a cross
for all human beings and for all creation.
We believe that the risen Jesus
is the Christ at the core of creation,
reconciling all things to God,
renewing all creation and filling the cosmos.
We believe the Holy Spirit renews life in creation
groans in empathy with a suffering creation
and waits with us for the rebirth of creation.
We believe that with Christ we will rise
and with Christ we will celebrate a new creation.[iv]

RESPONDING TO GOD’S WORD

Jesus Christ teach us to empathise with Earth.
Make our spirits sensitive to the cries of creation,
cries for justice from the hills and the trees.
Jesus Christ make our faith sensitive to the groans of the Spirit,
groans from the deserts, the wetlands, the rivers.
Jesus Christ make our souls sensitive to the songs of our kin,
songs of celebration from the sea, the land and the air.
Christ teach us to care. Amen.[v]

CELEBRATING AT GOD’S TABLE
Prayer over the gifts

God of living water, welling up to eternal life,
Send your Spirit upon these gifts
That they may bring sustenance and renewal to all who receive them:
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord
Amen[vi]

THE SENDING OUT OF GOD’S PEOPLE
Pilgrimage Blessing

As you go into the wilderness of the land and of your heart—

May you experience the ever-flowing grace of God’s presence!
May you be immersed so fully in God’s love that you learn to let go and swim!
May you engage deeply and radically with the natural world, as steward, co-creator, and friend!
May you drink anew from the divine source, the stream of living water!
And may you be transformed, may the stagnant waters of your spirit begin to flow,
and may all which is dead in you rise again!
God is here. The river awaits. [vii]

CREATIVE IDEAS

This week we remember that water is sacred, we also reflect on the lack of water justice in our society.

The altar can be decorated with bowls of water.

During the procession children can enter holding symbols of rivers and lakes, reeds, wet rocks, and pictures of frogs and whales and other sea and river creatures.

The Sunday School can lead the procession out of Church as a sign that they were the most recently baptised.

 

As the deer longs – Bob Hurd.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxKFtiPfxTM

Mercy as endless as the seas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vcps8EQUOt4

Prayer song  “All who are thirsty and all who are weak https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrUEfAXum5Q

by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, South Africa


[i] Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, Liturgical Materials Honoring God in Creation

and Various Rites and Prayers for Animals, (TEC)

[ii] Per Harling, from Gloria Deo, Prayers & Hymns

for the 12th Assembly of the Conference of European

[iii] Diocese of oxford Clergy Conference

[iv] Season of Creation  River Sunday Liturgy https://seasonofcreation.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/liturgy-river-sunday-1.pdf

[v] Season of Creation Liturgy for River Sunday https://seasonofcreation.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/liturgy-river-sunday-1.pdf

[vi] Diocese of Oxford Clergy Conference 2018

[vii]  The River of Life Pilgrimage: Conneticut River Pilgrimage 2017

2nd Sunday of Christmas [by Rev. Dr. Bullitt-Jonas]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Jer 31:7-14
Sir 24:1-16
Psalm
84
2nd Reading
Eph 1:3-6,15-19
both
Gospel
Matt 2:1-12
John 1:1-18
by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Missioner for Creation Care (Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ)

Journeying with the wise men

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4

When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.

Four parts of the story stand out to me.

First, of course, is the star, that mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place, something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.

Let’s pause to note that even though every painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod, the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight; it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside to follow where it leads.

Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.

For most of us, most of the time, following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in 4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”

The star is the first thing that catches my attention in this story.  The second is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem, straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being “spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of “saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two who live in Bethlehem.

Following the star evidently means being willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost.  If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into Jerusalem.

And let’s notice, too, that King Herod trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess. As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow Christ.

So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).

This is the third part of the story: the encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child, and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.

Do we know what that’s like? Of course we do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance, our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did, like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.

Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

So, as we set out together into a new year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather than packing them away somewhere in a box.

Like them, we can attune ourselves to the guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.

Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Like them, we can make our way to Christ, and kneel in gratitude.

And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”

by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Massachusetts

1st Sunday of Christmas [by Ian Souter]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 63:7-9
Sir 3:2-17
Psalm
148
2nd Reading
Hebr 2:10-18
Col 3:12-21
Gospel
Matt 2:13-23
both
by Ian Souter, Methodist minister, Bath (England)

Don’t you hate it when at the end of a holiday someone says, ‘Ah well it’s back to work tomorrow’?   You don’t want to be reminded that the sun and surf are going to be replaced by the desk and drudgery.  Blow reality let’s just enjoy the moment.   And the designers of the lectionary are just like that.  To people still celebrating the soft-lit Christmas story, to those working through the turkey and trying to master the latest gadget, they ask us to turn our eyes onto a story from Matthew of despotic brutality, with grieving mothers, and a refugee family.  Why can’t they leave us to enjoy Christmas?

But they are doing no more than highlighting the contrasts that are a feature of this Christmas season – togetherness and deep loneliness, family and tensions, consumerism and poverty, birth and death all sitting alongside each other.   And even the planet experiences this – we celebrate the coming of the Saviour of the world [1] and plastic waste soars by 30% over the Christmas season.  The story from Matthew that we often call the slaughter of the innocents reminds us of the less dramatic but daily suffering of an innocent creation both from the intentional actions of some leaders and from the unintended actions of ordinary people.

And on either side of the story of the innocents is the story of refugees and of a parent afraid for his child – echoes again of the reality we face of migrants from rising seas and drying water sources and of western parents suffering from climate anxiety.

The reality of our world is held up to us in the Gospel story.  The quote from Jeremiah speaks of a grief that cannot be comforted and there are times when we look at the way creation is being mistreated and feel a depth of grief that is deep if not as deep as that felt by the parents in Bethlehem.  This is our story.  Yet although we see that story we continue to celebrate the glory of Christmas.  Is this indifference on our part or have we seen a reason to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? [2]

The clue is there in all our readings for today.

Isaiah was no stranger to a people who were struggling; these last chapters of Isaiah are a strange mix of exultant hope and disappointed dreams.  They reflect a people who see the promises of God but seem still to be cut off from him.  Into the dark place of his people God speaks through the prophet.  And he reminds them of the Exodus story and how God was with them.  He shows them a God of amazing compassion, so compassionate that Isaiah can say of him “in all their distress he too was distressed.” Isaiah reminds them that God is deeply united with his people – he is there; he is feeling their distress; if anything he feels their distress more deeply than them because he knows the full reality and sees the lost potential.

The first step in moving from a numbing anxiety and fear about the direction our wonderful world is travelling to that place where we can live with hope and move into God-directed action is to know that God is deeply involved in his world.  He feels for his creation more deeply than we do; he is present in the struggle to turn round our mess.   At Christmas we celebrate name of God earlier in Isaiah – a name that is not just a Christmas name but a name that communicates God’s eternal nature – Emmanuel.  He is eternally God with us and we need to hold on to that– we need to know that with his presence nothing is wholly lost but change can come.

Yet there is nothing worse when you have broken your leg than someone standing across the room and saying ‘I feel your pain’.  ‘NO you don’t.’  The God who feels so deeply the pain of his creation and sees our fears and anxieties is not across the room he is totally involved.  The writer of Hebrews sums it up – “since God’s children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”  He is not across the room he is involved in our lives – that is what incarnation means.   God in Christ enters into this human existence.

But as with so much of our reading of scripture we have failed to see the breadth of this idea – we have centred God’s love on one fragment of creation that walks around on two legs and is not as wise as the ‘homo sapiens’ tag implies.  But we are part of the wider creation and the moment God becomes human in Christ, he also becomes one with all creation.

Charles Wesley trying to describe the incarnation writes [3]:

    • He laid his glory by,
      He wrapped him in our clay;
      Unmarked by human eye
      The latent Godhead lay;
      Infant of days he here became
      And bore the mild Immanuel’s name.

The reality that Wesley communicates is that Christ becomes one with the clay – the earth from which God created us and so becomes one not just with humanity but with all creation.

God in Christ enters into his creation and truly feels its pains and sufferings.  Yet Hebrews reminds us that this act of becoming human was in order to liberate us from slavery, sin, fear and death.  In entering into creation in Jesus God comes to liberate far more than just this short-lived human race.  Paul says that Jesus came to reconcile all things to God. [4]

Just as we see the birth of Christ being the first step in giving us humans a rich hope, so it points to hope for the created universe which waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed. [5]   It is a hope based on God’s intimate involvement in his creation.

So, as we see the creation struggling under human impact, there remains hope;  hope that God himself is at work to transform the world; hope that humanity can be transformed to change its ways and care for what God has so lovingly made; and hope that in the power of the creator Spirit God’s people can catch his vision and work to restore what has been spoiled.

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel can seem to be totally gloomy and awful but there remains in the midst of that story God with us, who can transform it all.  There seemed no reason for song in Bethlehem; there seems to be few reasons for song in a creation being degraded but the presence of God-with-us means that we are able to join the worship of Psalm 148 where wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, young men and maidens (on the school strikes) old men (called Attenborough) and children (for whose future we long) sing praises to God.

As we enter 2020 may our worship of this redeeming God give us hope and may a hope-filled people transform the earth.

by Ian Souter, Bath (GB)

Footnotes:

[1]  God so loved the cosmos that he sent his Son is what John wrote.
[2]  Psalm 137.4
[3]   Hymn – Let earth and heaven combine   Singing the Faith 208
[4]   Colossians 1.20
[5]   Romans 8.19

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