Monthly Archives: December 2018

30 December – Born of a woman, born under the law

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Christmas 1

Galatians 4:4-7
Psalm 8
Luke 2:41-52

Our Galatians reading this morning has been carefully cut by the lectionary to turn it into something which makes it look like a “Christmas” text. And so we hear Christmassy things for the last Sunday of the Christmas season: “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman”.

Yet St Paul has no interest in Christmas as we know it. What he is interested in is Jesus’ relationship to us. And this ought to matter to us as well because unless there is something intrinsic connecting us to Jesus of Nazareth then there is no point in the church honouring him in the way that it does, commending him to the wider world, or celebrating Christmas.

Although Santa is now presenting as a serious rival, the dominant image of Christmas remains that of the baby. We like babies. We once were babies! Christmas reminds us that, as we once were helpless, and innocent, so also was Jesus, and so the sentimental song “When a child is born” has been added to the collection of what is likely to be featured at a Carols by Candlelight or be piped into the background to set the mood in supermarkets. As Jesus was once a tiny bundle of possibilities, and the focus of great hope for his parents, so were we and our babies. When Paul says of Jesus “born of a woman”, we can hear him saying that Jesus was as we are: he was one of us.

Paul goes further, however, in his statement of what Jesus shares with us. Not only is Jesus said to be “born of a woman”; he is also “born under the law”. Here Paul moves beyond basic biology and baby-induced sentimentality to stir us up a bit about our understandings of ourselves. “Born under the law” adds a dimension to human being which is less certain for many of us. It’s not that Jesus’ being born under the law makes him less human; it is rather that we mightn’t be so sure that being “under the law” is a necessary part of the description a human being.

‘Law’ here is not merely the divine instruction but what it becomes in our hands, and what other wisdoms and ways of being also become. To be “under the law” in Paul’s sense is not yet to be free; it is to be bound by something which limits us and not yet to have received the freedom still held in trust for us.

Yet while we know that we all begin ‘born of a woman’, for many in and out of the church it is scarcely believable that being ‘under the law’ in this way is also part of what it means to be human. Is not the freedom of the individual central to our modern self-understanding? And so Paul’s further suggestion that we are “slaves” – and that we move from being slaves to being children of God on account of Jesus redeeming us from being under the law – also doesn’t really fit our perception of ourselves. 

But by reading more broadly around the short section we have heard from Galatians today, we can bring Paul to bear on our own thinking about how we are constituted. The verses which follow on from what we’ve already heard are not so Christmassy, but matter at least as much:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods [that is, ‘enslaved by law’]. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly powers [literally: ‘elemental spirits’ (NRSV)]?

Paul’s particular issue with the Galatians is that they had found a peculiar freedom in Jesus – a kind of human maturity – which they were now giving up.

This freedom involves a shift from living under law: from knowing the rules, being subject to them and abiding by them (or not!), to living out of grace. Paul describes this shift in a little twist which passes almost without notice: “now…that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” The twist is very important.

For us the question is usually about who knows God, or does not know God – who knows the rules, who has measured where God fits in and how we fit into God. This manifests itself at this time of the year with concern in churches and in newspaper opinion pieces about such things as the “true meaning of Christmas” and who does or doesn’t know it and so does or doesn’t know God (or doesn’t need to know God). This is ‘under the law’ existence – human being as argy-bargy. But for Paul the critical point is God knowing us, or not knowing us.

God knows you, Paul declares; God has your measure, and this before you imagined that you measured and knew God. God knows those of us “born under the law”, enslaved to influences and powers even before we know ourselves as such. In this, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The good news of the gospel is that God know us in this way, and yet loves us. On Christmas Day we sang of Jesus, ‘lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. This is scarcely acceptable language today for a couple of reasons but that line sums up Paul’s point here, with the emphasis falling on ‘womb’ (Paul doesn’t seem to know or be interested in the story of the virginal conception). In the carol and in our reading today, ‘womb’ is a metonym – one aspect of our common humanity which stands for everything which we have in common: our biology and our broken, ‘under the law’ existence. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus – True God of true God, light of light eternal – is born at all into our human messiness.

What all humankind has in common is not merely our biology but lives lived imperfectly under the law, and so lives enslaved, under the curse of death through sin. For Paul, then, Jesus-born-of-woman has in common with all humankind that he too came to stand under the curse of sin – “born under the law”.

There is, of course, a danger here that the whole sin-thing can be over-emphasised, as it has been too often in the church’s history. The bad news here – that we might be enslaved in this way – is not the starting point but a kind of end point: it is because a light has already shone for us that we are able to look “back”, as it were, and see clearly now how things were before the light was there, how law enslaved us, how we misuse it to try to save ourselves, how we were unfree.

The good news is that this light shines and reveals not to condemn but to liberate. God has already loved us in our very worst moments, and even in what we think are our very best moments but in which we are sometimes the most tragically deluded. Being Christian is a matter of learning to know ourselves as God knows us – less than we ought to be but loved nonetheless. It is only when we know ourselves so loved that we can know that “freedom of the children of God” which begins with being set free. It is only those who have been set free in this way who can become forces for liberation themselves.

The freedom of the children of God is that they know that God knew them before they knew God, that God’s knowledge of them created no barrier to loving them, and that this means they need not be trapped by their own poor assessments or grand assessments of themselves.

Instead, they may move into the future open to all possibilities, great and small, confident in God’s naming them and owning them as his children.

May this freedom reign in the hearts of minds of all God’s people this Christmas season, and always!

25 December – Extraordinary Ordinary

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Christmas Day

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Luke 2:8-20

The shepherds say to one another: ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing.’ As their journey was a response news of an extraordinary thing, so also is our gathering here this morning.

And yet, if we give it more than a moment’s thought, it is less clear than we might assume just how the birth of Jesus is extraordinary, for the extraordinary is elusive.

We encounter many extraordinary things in the world: the 10 year old musical prodigy, the resolution of the latest smart phone camera, Brexit, the terrorist’s bomb, 5 prime ministers in eight years (not necessarily in increasing order of extraordinariness!).

Yet, what we call extraordinary is typically something indeed out of the ordinary but on its way to being forgotten or to becoming ordinary. There are two things typical of such occurrences.

First, the extraordinary is typically distracting. Violence, political upheaval, talent and beauty cause us to turn aside from what normally commands our attention.

The second thing about the extraordinary is that it is typically fleeting. Either it recedes into the past – becoming a mere memory – or, perhaps more commonly, it remains with us and becomes the new ordinary. Terrorism is extraordinary, until we grow used to walking around the concrete blocks intended to keep weaponised trucks away from crowds. So also for the decay of political stability, the presence of the precocious talent or the ever-improving capacity of modern gadgets. If there is anything new under the sun, it is not new for long.

These two characteristics might permit us to speak, then, of an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ – the extraordinary as it ordinarily works.

It’s a bit of a mind-bend to try to think the ordinary extraordinary but the point here is that if this is how it works – if the glory always fades – then we do better not to speak of Christmas as something ‘extraordinary.’ Or, at least, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’, are less impressive characterisations of Christmas than we might imagine.

The heaviness and difficulties which seem to overlay our cultural experience of Christmas arise from the attempt to hold onto the fleeting extraordinary, to drag it from its receding past, and to retain it by locking it as an ever-returning calendar event. Thus we make the extraordinary into the ordinary, and empty it of anything which could make a difference.

What, then, breaks through the ordinary? The answer is twofold: first, nothing breaks through the ordinary and, second, God does. This is not to say that God and nothing are the same; it is to say that the ordinary is what God finally aims at. God does not break through the ordinary but rather embraces it.

We are generally not very impressed by the normal, although this is scarcely new. When Luke wants to give substance to the birth in Bethlehem he does not just say what has happened; he has a lead angel with a heaven-wide backing choir make the point to the shepherds. This is impressive – extraordinary – but what then do the shepherds expect to see when they get to the stable?

I found myself recalling during the week the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Some of you have probably not seen this film for the sake of piety, though others of you would likely say that it was for piety’s sake that you have seen it (even numerous times!).

But for information, or as a reminder: the film begins with a night sky, across which travels the Star of Bethlehem. On the horizon we see the Magi (the three kings ‘of orient are’), whom we follow through the streets of Bethlehem to a stable where they find and kneel to worship a child in a manger and present their gifts to the child’s mother. (In all this the film mixes up the biblical story but the whole thing is Christmas-card correct). They then take their leave but very soon return and snatch back the gifts, for they have seen down the street another stable – but now one glowing with heavenly light – and they realise that they’ve visited the wrong place.

We get the joke because we’ve seen the Christmas cards and the icons and the stained glass windows and the sentimental life-of-Jesus films with their halos and attending cherubs and angel-choir soundtracks. But the thing is – if the story is true – the wise men should not been able to tell the baby Brian and the baby Jesus apart. Certainly Brian’s mother could scarcely be accused of being ‘full of grace’ but Mary is not the measure of Jesus in that way, either.

And so the shepherds, to whom the news of the birth of a saviour is extraordinarily delivered, trot off to see what any one of us sees in response to news of a birth – a baby. There is no heavenly light and no halo. Whatever a first century Palestinian nappy looked like, there were likely a couple of them waiting for service and we can rest assured that there is little truth in the suggestion that ‘the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made’. It is just… so… ordinary.

And this ordinariness is perhaps the way we need to recast the representations of Christmas as ‘extraordinary’. Halos and miracles make little impression in a sceptical and cynical age like ours. Ours is a blockbuster culture, which is to say that we have tamed the extraordinary. A choir of angels would still impress us, but we would finally turn it into a screen saver or a ring tone, and then hang out for the even more spectacular sequel.

And yet our hunger for the extraordinary, and our capacity to consume it in this way, leads us further and further from ourselves and the potential fullness of the lives given us to live. For we – most of us – are not extraordinary: our lives are not movie scripts, our decisions do not shift the course of history, our highest achievements will scarcely leave a mark. Our fascination with the extraordinary is an escape from who we are.

Yet this is the un-extraordinary normal into which Jesus is born, the ordinary he takes on. It is this normality which causes such great offence when he begins to wax larger in the religious awareness of those around him. ‘Who is this? Where did he get this from? Is he not one of the local boys?’ More profoundly, the question here is, How can the things of God be so ordinary?

If our usual experience is with an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ which eventually recedes or becomes a new ordinary, in Jesus we see the reverse: an extraordinary ordinary.

Jesus’ achievement is just to be a first century Palestinian Jew, an achievement which begins with his being a first century Palestinian Jewish baby. This is the ‘ordinary’.

The ‘extraordinary’ is that he does this ordinariness in such a way that God intersects via that very humanity. The ordinariness of Jesus is not something which leads him away from God, but the way in which he meets God and God meets him.

The glory of God in the story of Christmas is not in the distracting angels or halos. The glory of God is the living human being at its centre, an ‘ordinary’ which will be extraordinarily done.

his extraordinary ordinary is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

The gift is a human life in which the limitations of a particular space, time, culture, language, gender and social status become not mere limitations but the outer form of one person’s freedom to be a child of God.

The invitation is to take this extraordinary life ordinary as our own, to have in ourselves the mind of Jesus: to be free of the need to gild the lily which each one of us is, free of the need to grasp after a glory which seems brighter than us.

For what we are is enough to be magnificent, if we receive it from God not as a burden to be overcome but as a gift to be unwrapped and lived.

Every ordinary baby is a promise of great things: the promise of Godly things in human things – the promise of the glory of God. What is extraordinary about the baby in the manger is that the promise which every ordinary baby is is actually kept in his case: here is a human being fully alive, and so the very glory of God.

This is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

Let us, then, with the shepherds, ‘go and see the thing which has taken place,’ receive it as our own and, by the grace of God, begin to become it.


December 26 – Stephen, martyr

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Stephen, martyr

 Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr. His story is to be found in Acts chapters six and seven. We first come across him when there is a dispute among the disciples between the Hellenist or Greek speaking disciples and the Palestinian or Hebrew speaking disciples. The Hellenists complain that the Hellenist widows are not being looked after. The twelve apostles call a meeting and seven believers, who are men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and who all appear to be Hellenistic believers, are set apart to care for these widows. Stephen is the first named of these men. We are told that he was someone who was filled with grace and power, who did great wonders and signs among the people.


It would appear that Stephen was also an evangelist, one who spoke with others about who Jesus was and how he had fulfilled the prophecies in the Scriptures. Stephen and Philip, who is also an evangelist, are able to talk to the Hellenistic Jews in a way the Palestinian believers are not able to, because they share the same background.

Some men from the Synagogue of the Freed Slaves, who were also Hellenistic Jews like Stephen, began to question him. They were unable to defeat his arguments, so they arranged for some men to say that they had heard him blaspheme against Moses and God. They then stirred up the people and the religious leaders who brought him before the High Council. It is not clear if all of the council were present or only some.

The accusations were that he spoke against the Temple and the Law. Stephen was accused of saying that Jesus had claimed he would destroy the Temple and would throw out the Laws of Moses.

Stephen rather than giving a defence against the charges gives a defence of Christianity by retelling the story of how the people came into the land God gave them and how they had turned away from God. Stephen starts with Abraham in Mesopotamia thereby impressing on them that God’s presence is not confined to the Temple or the land.

He tells them that they have killed the one God sent, the one who was to come. At this point they cannot hold themselves back and they rush him, take him from the city and stone him to death. As this is happening Stephen tells them that he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God. In this he is claiming Jesus, who they had tried and had put to death, had been the Messiah. Stephen dies asking God to forgive them.

Saul (Paul) was there and held the coats. Paul and others then start to persecute the believers who are scattered. Jesus words before he ascended that they were to take the Good News to the ends of the earth, is now to be fulfilled. If there hadn’t been a Stephen, the Gospel might have been lost or have stayed as a Jewish sect. Through Stephan’s martyrdom the whole world came to hear of the Messiah.

Peter Welsh

December 31 – Josephine Butler

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Josephine Butler, renewer of society

Josephine Butler was born on 13 April 1828 in Northumberland. Her father John Grey was a strong advocate of social reform and a campaigner against the slave trade. His cousin was Earl Grey, British prime minister between 1830 and 1834.

John Grey’s family were members of the Church of England, and strong supporters of the anti-slavery campaign.  The Grey children learned early about the horrors of slavery and Josephine’s first feminist instincts were aroused by the terrible stories of female slaves made pregnant by their masters and then forced to give up their babies.  The girls were educated at home by their mother, and Josephine had only a few years of formal schooling.  Despite that, as an adult she was a prolific writer of books and pamphlets, and became a competent speaker of both French and Italian.

The Grey siblings remained close throughout their lives, even when marriage took two of the sisters to live abroad.  Their political and Christian commitments inspired them to become involved in a number of philanthropic campaigns, but Josephine was the most dedicated and the most persistent.  Her faith was also an overwhelming motivation for all she did – at 17 she had an experience of conversion which led her to prioritise daily prayer and bible study throughout her life.

Josephine married George Butler in 1852. He was an academic with similar political views to her own. Together they had four children but in 1863, their six-year old daughter died. In an attempt to cope with her grief, Butler threw herself into charity work, particularly related to the rights of women. Amongst the issues on which she campaigned was child prostitution. She was part of a group which forced parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16.

In 1869, Butler began her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. These had been introduced in the 1860s in an attempt to reduce venereal disease in the armed forces. Police were permitted to arrest women living in seaports and military towns who they believed were prostitutes and force them to be examined for venereal disease. Butler toured the country making speeches condemning the acts. Many people were shocked that a woman would speak in public about sexual matters. But in 1883 the acts were suspended and repealed three years later.

Butler also took a great interest in women’s education. She pressured the authorities at Cambridge University into providing further education courses for women, which eventually led to the foundation of the all-women college at Newnham. She was appointed president to the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women in 1867.

Butler’s writing – promoting social reform for women as well as education and equality – was widely distributed. Her most famous publication ‘Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade’ was written in 1896.

Butler died on 30 December 1906.

Peter Gador-Whyte

16 December – What we wait for

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Advent 3

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

‘Are you the one who is to come…?’

This question, at this part of the story, is very familiar to most of us – a familiarity like what we experience when we hear ‘What light through yonder window breaks…’ or ‘Frankly, my dear…’ or, more recently, ‘Ah’ll be bach’. These lines have a set place, and we wait for their beauty or poignancy or humour. So also the story of Jesus begins with the forerunner John and with the question – Are you the one who is to come?

Yet, while we know that the longing of the people is an integral part of the story of Jesus, their expectation is not ours and it cannot be. We are in a very different cultural place than they, not least because our culture is built on the assumption that the one to whom John refers has already come. Whatever we could expect now must be quite different from what John’s congregations expected because we are at a different stage of the story.

But apart from our being at that different stage, there is another sense in which we are different in terms of what we could possibility expect. In particular, and despite our Christian heritage (some would say, because of it), ours is an increasingly ‘pagan’ experience of the world. That is, our worldview has become an enclosed one. While we recognise that things change with time – that new(-ish) things appear – this experience is informed by our sense that change in the world is evolutionary. Internal conditions of environment and need work together to reshape and – if we are lucky – to improve us. Life in the world, then, is helical in character – like a corkscrew through time; if are lucky, we are always moving ‘up’ the helix. It is in this way that we are ‘pagan’ – everything which could happen is understood to be internal to the system and, in this sense, has already happened. The only ultimate end we can imagine today is the deep entropic cold which comes from the unwinding of a wound-up universe, of which our own more imminent deaths are the sacrament: whatever lesser ends we might reach for in the interim, the true end is not Goal or Purpose; it is Cessation, Nothingness.

This is very different from the outlook of John and his congregation, who saw history as moving to a climax, a determining moment. With the imminent arrival of ‘the one who is to come’, history comes to its end – its ultimate goal – however that end might be visualised (the book of Revelation being one such visualisation!).

Now the question is, Did they have it better than we? There was a messianic expectation into which John preached and out of which Jesus was interpreted, but is it necessary for the story? Is the expectation of that type of temporal ending necessary to hearing and believing the gospel?

This matters because we cannot re-enter into their anticipation, as much this or that religious sect manages to delude itself in this way for a what. We cannot hope again in this way, because that kind of hope is culturally excluded. They asked, ‘When will the world end?’; we ask, ‘What will make the world bearable?’

Yet these two questions are less different than they might first appear.

The earnest longing for the end of the world in John’s time and our earnest desire that the endless world be bearable meet in the scriptural testimony that the world is not God. Our goal, our purpose, our end is that we be creatures, and not God (mindful that the Genesis myth sees the primal human failure as the desire to be like God [Genesis 3]).

The confusion of God and the world – and our sense that this is wrong – is what makes John’s ethical teaching as striking and appealing now as it was then, despite our very different thoughts about the nature of history. The extra tunic given to one who has none declares that poverty is not a god to be respected; poverty is not ‘proper’ world. When the powerful act not against the weak but for them, they declare that power is not a god to be honoured. Generosity declares that greed is not a god to which we sacrifice the needy. There must necessarily be an economy but it is not a god, despite the sacrifices we make to it. There must necessarily be clans, tribes and nations but they are not gods, despite the sacrifices we make for them. Our children are not gods…and on it goes.

Everything we touch in the world, and everything which happens between us when touch each other, has for us the potential in that contact to be rendered either divine or mundane. When it comes to the things of the world, only the mundane is good, despite how miserable the word ‘mundane’ is for us these days. The world and everything in it is, properly, only world, ‘merely’ secular.

What ails the human heart in every time and place is its tendency to worship or fear some worldly thing as if it were divine: our money, our relationships, our kings, our power, our ambitions, our death. If we cannot any more expect that the world will end in the coming of a messiah, it is not because we are less naïve or more scientific, or even because the Messiah is said already to have come. It is because we feel that what is wrong with the world is too much a part of us to be properly treated. A thousand qualifications might deal with the inconvenience of a single God, but they are not enough to free us from fearing and worshipping the multitude of worldly things we turn into divine things. This is the Christian theological meaning of the every new book of regulations which issues from a Royal Commission or church enquiry: the gods being more tightly bound, morality merely evolving.

This dismal assessment is the same as that of John’s desert congregations: we cannot liberate ourselves. And John’s response to them is what we need also to hear now: it is only when God comes that the world finds its true end, its goal and purpose. This is why Christian worship properly begins with the prayer, Come, Lord. Again, it is only when God comes that the world finds its true end, its goal, its purpose. For God comes not to sweep away but to uncover – this is what you really are, this is how it all fits together: in me.

This is both a painful revelation and a creative one.

John declares, ‘The one who is coming baptises with fire’. Fire purifies by burning away all that is not solid and elemental, and there is much about us which must go in this way.

And John declares, ‘The one who is coming baptises with the Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit which puts things in their right relation to each other, which makes God God and us the creatures we are created to be.

What makes the world bearable is when we hear that all which can happen is not a mere – and often terrifying – extension of what has already happened, and that our even increasingly sophisticated methods of restraining the gods will not bring our liberation.

What we await is the clear declaration, and the initial signs, that there comes the fiery gift of God’s Spirit, which testifies to and makes real the Word which is the way, truth and the life for which God created us.

We wait in the words of the prayer, Come, Lord – the prayer of the church in every time – and we wait in actions which contradict the pantheon of powers which keep us in thrall and by which we keep others in thrall.

Let us, then, commit ourselves again to that prayer and to such works of love, that the glory of the coming of the Lord might be something to which all eyes are lifted.


MtE Update – December 13 2018

  1. We will have another of our hymn-learning sessions after morning tea this Sunday December 16.
  2. Details of Christmas services at MtE are here.
  3. Hotham Mission has launched its Christmas appeal; you can donate online here (you indicate that it’s for the Christmas appeal on the second page…) or via the envelopes available in the church.
  4. For those interested in doing some preparation to hearing the readings for this coming Sunday December 16, see the commentary links here.

Other things potentially of interest 

  1. An iconography event in January

Old News

  1. The former President of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs will speak on  Religion and Human Rights in Australia, a free public lecture co-hosted by the University Chaplaincy and Religions for Peace on 5 Feb (Tue) at 5:30–8pm. The lecture will be held at Carrillo Gantner Theatre, B-02 (basement), Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne, 761 Swanston St, Parkville. (FLYER with booking details)

9 December – God’s crooked way

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Advent 2

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Luke 3:1-6

‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

And what was that word? In fact, today’s reading cuts out before we hear from the Baptist himself (next week!) but his preaching is characterised with a few lines borrowed from Isaiah: first,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.

And then,

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

What we might miss here is that these two parts are in different verbal ‘moods’: ‘Prepare’ is in the imperative (‘Do this’) but ‘every valley shall be filled’ is in the indicative (what is or will be happening). This matters because Isaiah is not saying that God’s approach is dependent upon our preparing the way. The valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills shall be made low. Whatever efforts we might make in this regard, only God can guarantee that it happens: God will prepare the way for God.

This is the kind of thing theological types – your preacher included – are likely consider to be a lovely little twist in the text. Yet, having shifted our hearing of Isaiah from an actionable imperative (which would at least keep us busy) to a promised indicative (which we might only need to wait for), we then have to deal with a troubling fact. For we have to say that, on the face of it, there is no way in which this filling, levelling, straightening or smoothing can be said actually to have taken place. Even if we allow what we must – that Isaiah speaks here metaphorically and not about Grand Canyons or Rocky Mountains high – there is little in the way of Jesus which is smooth and straight – metaphorically or otherwise. After an enthusiastic initial reception he quickly meets with opposition, and we know very well where he ends: precisely not a levelling or a smoothing but a raising up on what is crooked and rough, and a laying-down in a valley as deep as the grave of a God.

And so we are shifted suddenly to the thought that Isaiah’s valley, mountain, crookedness and roughness are metaphors of the cross of Jesus. It is the cross with which God must deal in his approach to us – even before Jesus’ cross has even appeared on the horizon. It is this which God guarantees will be overcome.

How can this be?

On a simpler metaphorical hearing of Isaiah, the valleys and mountains and challenging paths represent obstacles in us to be put aside so that God might draw near (or, slightly better, that God might put aside in order to draw near). Yet this is to imply that the human being is not one but two things – an inner self which is accessible apart from an outer self with its better and worse commitments and enthralments, its history of things done and suffered – all that might have been different, and better.

But God knows us better than this. The valleys and the mountains and the crookedness and roughness which get between us and God have not been swept away in any simple sense because they are us. They are not between God and the true us; they are not obstacles around which we could navigate (or God has to navigate) in order that the real God can meet face to face with our real selves.

These things are us: we are what we do. What the Gentile does to the Jew (and vice-versa!), what the free does to the slave, the male to the female; what the border patrol does to the asylum seeker, the coloniser does to indigenes, the rich to the poor; what the faithful do to their God – these are not ‘the devil made me do it’ moments, as if I and my actions were two separate realities. This is us and the powers to which we are subject bound in a symbiosis of such intimacy that the life and death of the one would the life and death of the other. To lay the mountain low and straighten the crooked way – in the simple metaphorical sense of setting aside the obstacles between us and God – this would be to end us, for there would be no ‘us’ left.

And so the obstacles stay in place and become manifest in the cross. The cross, then, is not an accident – something which just ‘happened’ to happen when God came. It is unavoidable without being either intended or desired or needed by God for salvation’s sake. The cross is God staying his hand, allowing the depth of the valleys and the height of the mountains to continue because they are what make us us.

And now we come to the sense in which Isaiah speaks the gospel of God’s way in the world. The valleys and mountains and byways are shown in fact not to be obstacles to God’s passage but simply features in a landscape in which God chooses to dwell. The salvation which ‘all flesh’ will see (Isaiah) is that we are saved as we are, here and now, valleys and mountains and crooked and rough ways that we are.

We hear more from John next week about what that salvation looks like, what life with such a crooked God looks like. But for now two final things, first a liturgical illustration of the point and, second, a poetic summation.

All we have been thinking this morning is why each week we take a sign of death as a sign of life – nourishment in bread and wine said to be body broken and blood poured out. It is ghastly imagery but we persist with it because the valleys and the mountains are not wiped away, the cross is not removed or forgotten. For these are part of us. The only question is whether such things divide us from God. The sacrament uses these things as signs of the gospel to say that they do not separate us, that they are no barrier. This is the way in which the valleys and mountains between us and God are overcome – they become signs of the power of God. And so this is what we mean when we declare that the kingdom and the power and the glory are of this God: nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ the Son.

And finally, the poetic summation: as I reflected on Isaiah’s word in our reading this morning, the word ‘crooked’ reminded me of a poem which, I realised, slightly modified would serve well to summarise what I’ve been trying to say about the God who deals somewhat crookedly with us, reckoning as righteous what clearly is not, calling straight and smooth what clearly is not. For those of you who would like to check the poem without my changes, the original poet is Mother Goose.

There was a crooked God, who walked a crooked mile,
Who found a crooked people and spent a crooked while;
They found a crooked staff and the crooked God unfurled
The crooked way a crooked God would save a crooked world.

MtE Update – December 7 2018

  1. Hotham Mission has launched its Christmas appeal; you can donate online here (you indicate that it’s for the Christmas appeal on the second page…) or via the envelopes available in the church.
  2. We will have another of our hymn-learning sessions after morning tea on Sunday December 16.
  3. The most recent Presbytery eNews (December 4) is here.
  4. The most recent Synod eNews (December 6) is here.
  5. For those interested in doing some preparation to hearing the readings for this coming Sunday December 9, see the commentary links here.

Other things potentially of interest 

The former President of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs will speak on  Religion and Human Rights in Australia, a free public lecture co-hosted by the University Chaplaincy and Religions for Peace on 5 Feb (Tue) at 5:30–8pm. The lecture will be held at Carrillo Gantner Theatre, B-02 (basement), Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne, 761 Swanston St, Parkville. (FLYER with booking details)

December 9 – Karl Barth

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Karl Barth, Christian thinker

Born on 10 May 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, Karl Barth grew up in the Swiss Reformed Church (in which his father was a pastor and a professor of New Testament).  He was ordained in 1908 — but on entering the pulpit of his church in Safenwil, he was overwhelmed by a sense that his seminary training had failed to prepare him for what he realised was the most important work of a pastor – proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in his community.

Responding to this failure of 19th century liberal theology, Barth plunged anew into the study of the Scriptures, producing in 1919 his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (with a revised edition in 1922).  In this study he identified that the divine revelation and salvation that come through Jesus Christ, Son of God, are entirely acts of God and that this dependence on God alone is the primary element of Christian faith. He developed this insight further in his most extensive work, Church Dogmatics.  For Barth, Jesus Christ is the “fountain of light by which the other two [persons of the Trinity] are lit.” (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline)

Barth was one of the Christian theologians who became deeply concerned about the policies promulgated in the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s.  He was a significant contributor to the wording of the Barmen Declaration, which opposed the development of a “German Christian” church. This Declaration asserts (among other things) that the church belongs solely to Christ, and neither the Scripture nor the church’s work may be controlled by any human organisation.

The Faith of the Church (one of the early documents of the Joint Commission on Church Union, before the Basis of Union) referred to the Barmen Declaration and contained a major quotation from Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  Though the Basis of Union itself does not refer directly to Karl Barth, there is no doubt that his way of describing Christian discipleship undergirds the foundation of the Uniting Church’s life.

It appears that Karl Barth always opened and closed his sermons with prayer.  As this prayer shows, he was convinced that it was only by God’s generous gift that people are able to enter into the life of faith.

O Sovereign God,

grant that we may know you truly

and praise you fully

in the midst of your blessings to us,

that your word may be proclaimed aright

and heard aright

in this place and everywhere that your people call upon you.

May your light enlighten us,

your peace be upon us. Amen

(Karl Barth, Prayer)


Graham Vawser

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