Monthly Archives: December 2015

27 December – Thanksgiving – A New Year’s resolution

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Christmas 1

Colossians 3:12-17
Psalm 148
Luke 2:41-52

And so we come almost to the end of another year!!

Of course, the passage from one year to the next is largely artificial, but we’re sufficiently formed by our culture’s counting of time to see something significant indicated in the fact that the planet has circled the sun one more time. Part of what is signified by that progress is the felt need to reflect on the year which has gone by, and that which is to come. The year which is past has been filled with joys and happiness, and frustration and sadness. The year which comes will bring opportunities and challenges known, and unknown: things about which we’re greatly anxious and things we eagerly anticipate. Nothing which has happened, and much of what awaits us, can’t be changed. All we can really do is determine how we’ll deal with those memories, and face the forthcoming opportunities and challenges.

It is in the meeting our recent past with various possible futures that the time-honoured tradition of “New Year’s Resolutions” comes into its own. We resolve at this point in time to be different in the coming year (or, much more rarely, to remain the same). We all know how it works, and we know how many New Year’s resolutions have come crashing down by the end of January: more exercise, less chocolate, more generous, earlier nights, less clutter, more time with the kids, less alcohol, taking a trip, keeping a diary, learning a language, paying off the credit card… The intention is the very best, and the motivation might even be reasonably high, but for many of us neither the intention nor the motivation create enough momentum to carry us more than a month or two. In all of this there is the desire to become different from what we have been. And it is this at which we so often fail.

In our reading from Colossians this morning, an imperative towards being different is also heard: clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…

This is not the kind of thing you write to a group of people who’ve already got it down pat. Here Paul writes to a group of people on the way and in need of encouragement and exhortation to live in peace together: clothe yourselves with love … And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. But these are not resolutions, in the sense that those to whom Paul writes are sitting around wondering how they might improve themselves and their ability to cope with the challenges of the coming year. They are rather directions or imperatives which come from outside those who hear them.

And this “outsideness” reflects the reason the changes in behaviour are called for. Whereas our own resolutions reflect what has not yet happened but we would like to see happen, Paul calls for a change on account of what has happened and which requires a response. We promise ourselves that we’ll drink less or exercise more because we see a feast of the one and a famine of the other to be bad news for our well-being. We promise ourselves that we’ll take a couple of short courses in the coming year because it will expand our horizons by introducing us to new people or ideas.

But Paul calls for change out of a different motivation. We are to forgive, for example, because this is how God has dealt with us. What operates here is not that desire for self-improvement which drives us in our resolutions but a response to an improvement in us God has already made in his forgiveness. The starting point is not what we desire to become but what God has made of us.

Paul, then, calls us not to be good, but to be godly. The two may sound similar, and perhaps even look similar when acted out, but goodness begins with us, whereas godliness comes to us.

And so three times we hear in our passage today: be thankful, sing to God with gratitude, give[ing] thanks to God the Father. This thanksgiving reflects what has been given, but is not just another task added to the task of living peaceably, as if being thankful were another thing we must resolve to do. Thanksgiving is, in fact, the meaning of our work towards peaceful relations. A spoken thanksgiving is just the counterpart to that enacted thanksgiving which is our effort to be godly – to be “as” God – towards those around us. The word of thanksgiving for love and forgiveness becomes our true word to God when we’ve been working on love and forgiveness towards those around us who need it.

Our reading this morning concludes with the exhortation to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus”. This is to see our lives not as what we might make of them, but as what God has made of them and will continue to make of them. Of course, we remain active agents, resolving to do this or that thing. But that action is to be in the light of the humanity which shines forth from the manger in Bethlehem, and which is offered to us: a humanity which dwells in the heart of God, the place where – by the will and work of God – it belongs.

So, as we look ahead to the year which is about to open up before us, let us pursue not only our own imagination as to what we might be like in it, but God’s re-imagining of us in his forgiving and peace-making work in Jesus.

Let us, then, resolve to live in thanksgiving for the peace God has made between him and us, and live and work with each other in the hope that that peace will come to stand ever more richly between us, his human creatures, as God intends.

By the grace of God may this be so. Amen.

25 December – Christmas: Beginning at the end

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Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
John 1:1-14

Something akin to “Bah Humbug” is muttered a fair bit around our house each year as Christmas draws near, and it is not by the person to whom I am married, nor by the little people who live with us and for whom Christmas is the probably most marvellous thing they can think of.

These utterances begin in connection with the complication of normal life which begins to develop from the beginning of December and continues for most of the rest of the month – you know the kind of thing I’m talking about!

But more than such complications, old Scrooge’s avatar is provoked by the developing struggle to say something about Christmas which won’t already have been said every week in the lead up to the day and which moves us past obvious remarks about the reason for the season. This is the struggle to find a way through the great tangle of associations we have with Christmas, in order to make some sense of the stories at the source of the whole Christmas project.

For it is hard to get “inside” Christmas, helpfully. It’s not just that it’s been corrupted into a dozen lesser things. It’s more the strangeness of the whole story, its lack of clear meaning.

To illustrate the point: most of you have probably seen the type of sign some churches set up out the front, which usually proclaim a short message intended to make people think as they drive by. The cringe factor of these things is generally pretty high. One from a few years ago which has stuck in my mind ran something like, “Newsflash: kid born in shed saves world”. What it had going for it is that if you know anything about the Christmas story then you’ll appreciate the humour. Yet, like most public Christian reflection upon Christmas, what it has going against it is that very few are likely to be stirred by it. As a bald statement – as an assertion about who we are and what matters – either you already agree with it or you don’t, and that’s about as far it will move us.

We live in a time when each of us effectively has to make Christmas our own, as best we can. One result of this situation is that, year after year, Christians lament the diminishing foothold Christ seems to have on Christmas. Year after year the church tries to inject some understanding of the “true” meaning of Christmas into the midst of the annual rush. This is perhaps most of all to be expected in the Christmas sermon!

But the problem is that there is really no “true meaning” of Christmas which can be spoken in that way. Perhaps the most difficult thing to hear and to communicate is why the story matters. “Kid born in shed saves world” is clear enough as a sentence, but what it means or the difference it makes is far from clear for most people, and the same must also be said of stories about angels, shepherds, surprised virgins and sceptical fiancés. The stories of Christmas rarely deliver gripping meaning to first-time hearers, and often enough not to 100th-time hearers, either.

If we think about it for a moment, this should not surprise us. For the stories of Christmas, and certainly the opening verses of the Gospel of John (which we have heard this morning) – though they come at the beginning of the stories about Jesus – are in fact the writers’ conclusions about Jesus and not their starting points. This is the strangeness of the Christmas story: it starts somewhere other than its apparent beginning.

In reading something like John’s gospel we naturally begin with the passage we have heard this morning – the first verses of his gospel. Yet those few words are, in a sense, actually the last thing he added to his account of Jesus’ ministry. (This is not an historical observation, but a theological one. Even if, when John first sat down at his desk to write his gospel, the first thing he wrote was the first 18 verses of chapter 1, they would still represent the conclusion to which he had come and which motivated him to write in the first place). The gospel writers do not simply begin their accounts with what has been “revealed” to them as the first thing which happened. Where they begin results from their having thought backwards from their own prior encounter with Jesus-as-the-Christ, and his impact on them. The experience with which they begin is that of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And each writer, in his own peculiar way, relates the significance of that death and resurrection by choosing which stories from the life of Jesus will be told, where the emphases will lie, and perhaps even what will need to be invented in the story in order to communicate clearly the significance of the end and new beginning which is found in Jesus.

John had come to understand that Jesus had revealed to him the very heart of God. As such, Jesus must have had the closest possible relationship to that Heart, so close that Jesus must always have had this relationship. And so John declares with confidence of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is not a mere assertion. John is promising: the Jesus you are going to meet in the story I will tell you can bring you to the heart of all things, and to your own heart.

We newcomers to the Christian faith – including its less thoughtful critics – quite naturally begin at the start of the Gospels and read to the end. But, to say it again: the beginnings of the Gospels are in fact their conclusions. Knowing who they believed Jesus to be, John and the others effectively wrote their accounts of his life backwards. As much as John declares to us that “In the beginning was the Word…” he also asks us: how could it have been otherwise, given who I have come to see Jesus to be?

While we may have to take the Christmas stories up as a place to begin, they can only be tentatively received as the beginning. In fact we must, in the end, come to be able to write our own “Christmas” stories, our own conclusions in faith. This doesn’t mean that we need to “Australianise” the stories, replacing the biblical characters with swagmen, surf life-savers, and joeys. That’s good fun, but it doesn’t help. And writing our own Christmas stories doesn’t mean that we should try to pull together our strongest desires and greatest needs in order to create a job description for a prospective god. That’s what we already do most of the time, and so far it hasn’t helped us very much.

To write our own Christmas stories, in a way comparable to what the gospel writers did, would be to begin with a thought, an experience: that in Jesus we meet the one who really matters. In particular, it would be to begin with the thought that the most important thing in the world is this particular person dead on a cross, and then to measure against that other things we previously thought important, or unimportant. It is this re-shuffling of what it is important which gives us our familiar Christmas stories and readings: kings ought not to be born in stables or greeted first by shepherds or forced to flee in fear of those who are supposed to welcome them.

We can know the Christmas stories and yet be completely untouched by them simply because they are still someone else’s story, someone else’s conclusions and not yet our own. In the absence of the background story, we might even dare to make one up, which accounts for the kind of silliness we read in “Christmas” opinion pieces in our newspapers around this time of year. This is the “tragedy” of Christmas as we know it – both in the church and outside of it: mistaking someone else’s conclusions for our beginning.

But should Jesus grab hold of us and we begin with him properly, then we’ll be in a position to write our own Christmas stories, our own stories of his beginning. These stories would speak about the origins of Jesus as the “must have been” which makes sense of what he has become for us. And this would be, more significantly, to re-write our own stories, for it will take what is most familiar to us, and most important to us, and throw it into a new light.

We desperately need such illuminating stories, both in the church and outside of it: new and enlivening ways of viewing ourselves.

Of course, we can’t contrive a meaning of Christmas for ourselves; we can’t convert ourselves. But neither do we have to. We are not required to fill ourselves with wonder at Christmas time, but simply to wonder: to wonder whether in fact there might something in all of this which we’ve missed, even after all these years, or because of them. We might marvel that these stories continue to wrestle with us as we wrestle with them and, if the blessing be given, we might begin to discover in our own entanglement with Jesus just where he begins with us, and what sort of story we would tell of his beginning, from our experience of the new end he has given us.

“Kid born in shed saves world” – “in the beginning was the Word” – this is where the Gospel writers end up, and they throw out an invitation to us to discover whether we can come to agree with them, though we might say it very differently. The conclusions of those who have gone before us are the invitation to us to follow them on a similar journey.

This Christmas, may all who hear that invitation respond, wondering; and may God in his grace bless them with wonder.


Mark the Evangelist Update – December 17 2015


the latest MtE news update:

  1. Our service this Sunday Dec 20th will be a service of Advent-themed readings and carols, featuring most of our cantors as soloists and an impromptu choir!
  2. The previously announced congregational meeting on our MtE Futures Project (property and resources assessment) planned for this Sunday will now no longer take place as there is not sufficient new information to warrant convening a meeting. The next scheduled meeting on the Project is March 21, although Church Council may convene another meeting in February if sufficient information comes to hand to justify it.
  3. Act for Peace’s Christmas Bowl appeal is now underway; more information here.
  4. Some might be interested in a couple of Advent Taize events in Melbourne in the next week or so.
  5. The most recent Synod e-Newsletter (Dec 11) is here.
  6. Our Christmas service times are here.
  7. Super-advanced notice for next year:

a. Our Lenten Studies begin Feb 17; more info is available here.

b. Congregational picnic after worship Sunday March 6


Called to Holiness: Lenten Studies 2016

Our ecumenical Lenten studies for 2016 wiCalled to Holiness 1ll consider a recent publication coming out of the Australian Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue, Called to Holiness in Australia.

The document is available here, or copies can be collected from the church after worship closer to the commencement of the study series. You are invited to have read the relevant chapter prior to each session of the study group.

At least two groups will meet for the studies:

Wednesday nights (in conjunction with St Mary’s Anglican Church), February 17-March 9, 7.00pm at St Mary’s Anglican Church, 428 Queensberry St, North Melbourne. This will be proceeded by a light soup and bread meal from 6.30pm. [Note Change of times!]

Friday mornings (in conjunction with Habitat Uniting Church), February 19-March 11, 10.30am at Habitat Uniting Church, 2 Minona St, Hawthorn.

There will also be a Lenten retreat at Habitat on Friday March 18

Please let Craig know if you are interested in one of these study groups, preferably via our registration form; if you’re keen and can’t make one of these, let me know and we might be able to convene another in those weeks. (Contact: Craig Thompson, minister at Mark the Evangelist).

If you would like us to keep you informed about other reading groups like this one, add your email address to our Reading Groups list in the box below. This list is only used to send emails about our reading groups and you can unsubscribe at any time.

These discussion groups are organised by the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist(Uniting Church, North Melbourne), in conjunction with Habitat Uniting Church, Canterbury and Hawthorn and St Mary’s Anglican Church, North Melbourne.

13 December – Becoming one of God

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Advent 3

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18

With John the Baptist we have the return of the prophet. John’s preaching is striking in its focus on the coming judgement. We hear of the “the wrath to come”, that “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”, and that “what doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” We hear of one who is yet to come, who also carries a “winnowing fork” to clear the threshing floor and toss the chaff into unquenchable fire” – not quite gentle Jesus, meek and mild! John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. “Get ready” is his message. The nervous “brood of vipers” who’ve come out to hear him are left to ask, “What then should we do?” The response is profoundly social and ethical: share, be fair, do not abuse your power.

Finally, we hear that, “with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” This is strange good news: the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train! The only good we might find in this is that we’ve been warned to back on out of the tunnel, if indeed it is possible to outrun God.

With his preaching of his social ethic, John stands directly in line with the prophets of old. Yet, in the midst of all that, almost hidden and easily skipped over, we hear a contrast which John draws between himself and Jesus (who is to follow him): “I baptise with water; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit [and fire].” Preaching the pouring out of God’s Spirit is also in line with the preaching of the prophets (cf. Joel 2.2). And it is, in fact, here that we are met with the good news John proclaims: not the calls for repentance and the exhortations, but that one is coming who will pour out the Spirit.

Yet, in the midst of the approaching doom in John’s preaching the proclaimed coming of the Spirit scarcely draws our attention. This partly because we’re distracted by the fire and smoke of the apocalypse, but also because it is not quite clear what talk about the outpouring of the Spirit refers to or will bring about.

There is something very appealing, direct and tangible about the ethic John preaches: share, be fair, do not abuse your power. We understand this, and we understand it without reference to any spirituality or outpoured Spirit.

Here we are on the edge of the familiar reduction of Christian faith to ethics. If I criticise that reduction here, it is not to diminish the importance of the kind of behaviour John calls for. But the fact is that we don’t need any a particular spirituality to understand him; the sense of justice in what John preaches has a social and political universality about it, even if it is not applied. To shift the force of Christian confession to ethics is largely to render the specific character of Christian faith redundant.

We really have only ourselves to thank – or to blame – for this. And, perhaps surprisingly, the seeds for the problem are in the way we try to be Christian in our talk about God. Central to Christian-speak is the relationship, “Jesus and God”. This is usually considered without much reference to the Holy Spirit, although we do know to toss the Spirit in somewhere for completeness.

The problem here is that God as an idea is already spirit, so that “Jesus and God” is already “Jesus and the Spirit” The result of this is that we end up talking about Jesus’ relationship to “Spirit” in a general sense. We can than quickly make the move to conclude that Jesus had a relationship to (the) Spirit, and we can too; Jesus is the one who shows us how. Christmas becomes the advent of the great spiritual teacher. (Those who read Marcus Borg’s book with the discussion groups earlier in the year will recall that this is the approach that he takes).

But, scripturally, it’s a bit odd to speak of Jesus having a “relationship” to the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus relates to the Spirit in the same kind of way as we relate to our breathing. If there is no breathing, there is no us; but we don’t “relate” to our breathing. In the same way: no Spirit, no Jesus; yet Jesus does not so much relate to the Spirit as live by it. Luke sees this from the very beginning, and so Mary hears: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you…”, and she will conceive. Taking the lead from Mark’s gospel, Luke marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism, making him what Jesus is called to be. (Even more clearly in Mark is it implied that the good thing in the approach of Jesus is that he baptises with the Spirit). And, again and again, we hear in Luke (and Acts) that it is “filled with the Spirit” that Jesus (or the church) does this or that remarkable thing.

It is the Spirit who “makes” the Son the Son of the Father; in the same way, it is the Spirit which makes the Son Jesus, one of us. Yet this is not the good news John proclaims. He announces that Jesus gives the Spirit. This opens the door to an odd thought. If, by the Spirit, the Son is made “one of us” then, by the gift of the Spirit Jesus then delivers to us, we become “one of God”.

The grammar is clumsy but the point is important. It might seem neater to declare that God becomes one with us and so we one with God; but this doesn’t take us as far as our being one “of” God. When God’s gift of the Spirit is given, the Body of Christ is founded – in the first instance the body of Jesus himself. “Christ’s body” first takes form as Jesus of Nazareth, completely human and completely the presence of God through Jesus’ presence in the Spirit. But the body of Christ is subsequently that communal Body which is created when Jesus sends this same Spirit upon his followers. The baptism of the Spirit is the gift of God which makes of this human reality here and now, the Body of Christ – humanity in the same mould as Jesus himself. The effect of the Spirit is the creation of a human community in which the relationship the Son enjoys with the Father is known among and between human beings, and between us and God. For Jesus to be incarnate is not for God to become different, but for the world to become different. We are demonstrated – revealed, we might even say “apocalypsed” – to be destined to be drawn into God’s own life even as we are made more human.

That Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit is the good news in John’s preaching because this makes possible our knowing ourselves destined to become more than we yet are – indeed to become our true selves. Such perfection in us is only ever momentary, for the Spirit never becomes our possession; the wind blows where it will, and so also the Spirit. Indeed, we should say that true humanity is a very rare event. For the most part the church is, like everyone else, far from perfect. It is distinct from the world only in that it acts out a drama which points forward to a coming fulfilment of God’s promise. This action takes place in the liturgy of our worship and in those kinds of ethical actions which John throws before us – to share, to be fair, not to abuse. The gift of the Spirit is God’s answer to God’s own call to take up that kind of work. We are to answer John call to live for others with the same enthusiasm as we await the gift of God’s Spirit.

While it might seem totally out of season for the church today to be crying out “Come, holy Spirit” this is the word for Advent, for the Christ who came is what we shall be because he gives us this Spirit, that we might be transformed to bear his likeness, his humanity.

In this way do God’s people, in the words of Isaiah, draw up water from the springs of salvation (Isaiah 12.3), leaping up to life in all its fullness.

Advent Taize events in Melbourne

Taize CBD Advent Prayer


Where: Wesley Uniting Church, 48 Lonsdale St, Melbourne

When: Monday 21st December

Time: Music practice from 6pm, service commences at 6.30pm; Supper will follow 🙂

RSVP on Facebook!!


Join us for an evening of prayer and reflection during this busy Christmas period!


There is also another Taize advent prayer happening in Box Hill for those who are local:

Advent Taizé Liturgy on Thursday 17th December, 8.00 pm @
St Peter’s Anglican Church 1038 Whitehorse Rd, Box Hill.


Volunteers needed!

Keen to help out with the Taize prayers? We are looking for enthusiastic helpers to help with music (instruments and singing!), welcome, set up and pack up and prayer organisation. If you’re keen to be involved, send us an email!


Keen to visit Taize?

A group from Monbulk will be visiting the Taize community in January 2016.

They will be flying from Melbourne to Paris on January 1st, spending some time in Paris, staying at the Catholic hostel, Adveniat, and then proceeding to the Taize community around the 9th January to spend about 9 days.

Anyone who would like to join them is welcome. Please contact Libby Fensham: 0439 756 655


Looking forward to seeing you all at the CBD Taize Advent prayer!



Check out our Facebook group:

Taizé in Melbourne, Australia


The Christmas Bowl 2015

Each year Mark the Evangelist encourages its members and others to contribute to the Christmas Bowl, an annual appeal run by Act for Peace which raises funds for various national and international relief projects.

For an introduction to the focus of the appeal this year, click on the video below. The Christmas Bowl’s own home page is here. To contribute to the appeal, go directly to the appeal’s donation page.

Introduction to the Christmas Bowl Appeal 2015

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