Monday, January 16, 2012

Homily for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

If I had to pick one single verse, if it ever came to that, when for some bizarre reason, that each of us were only allowed one single verse of scripture, or when we pass through this stage of our physical lives, we have to account for ourselves with a single verse, this final line of the first chapter of John would be mine.

You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

I must admit I prefer the older translation of this:

 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

It has a certain sense of the power and presence of Jesus addressing Nathanael. 

I can still see, hear and feel the time I first heard it.

I read through the rest of gospel, eagerly waiting for this moment, when I would read about these angels and Jesus.
Chapter after chapter, they failed to appear.
I felt a bit ripped off.
I thought maybe the bible I had was missing a few pages.
They didn’t show up.
 This wasn’t too good for me as a new Christian, as here was a promise made by Jesus, but it wasn’t fulfilled.
I took some comfort by the promise at the end of John’s gospel that there many other things that Jesus did in his earthly life that weren’t recorded, and figured that this event was just one of them.

But that didn’t make sense.
How could something so marvellous as angels ascending and descending upon Jesus be “just another event” that could be left out?

I was confounded. I read as much as I can find on this passage, but found no general consensus on what it meant.
I prayed and meditated on the passage.  
What does Jesus mean?
What are these angels that will be seen?
Why is it they will be ascending then descending on upon him, the Son of Man?

One of the keys to this passage lies within the book of Genesis.
 In the same way that the writer John started his Gospel with a deliberate echo of the beginnings of Genesis, “In the beginning….’
Here he ends this section of Jesus ministry with another echo from Genesis, this time from the story of Jacob at Bethel, from chapter 28:

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.
Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven;
and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

So we have Jacob falling asleep and dreaming. In his dream he sees a ladder that reaches from the very soil to the very heights of heaven. He sees angels ascending and descending upon this ladder.

In his dream, God speaks and makes a covenant with Jacob. Jacob awakes from his sleep and says:

"Surely the LORD is in this place. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

So where Jacob recognises that the place he is in is Holy, and he goes on to anoint an altar to the Lord there, Jesus is using a phrase that has been used to express God’s presence, but this time it is not a place, it is a person, it is he, the Son of man.

Jacob recognises that where he is the very gate to heaven.
Jesus is saying that He himself is the same: he is the gate to heaven; he is the presence of God on earth.
Where with Jacob, the angels ascend and descend on a ladder, Jesus says they ascend and descend upon him.

So what John is doing at the beginning of his Gospel is setting the whole story of the incarnation, the idea of God in flesh, with the beginning of creation.
At the end of this section which deals with beginnings of Jesus’ earthly ministry, mainly his baptism by John and the calling of the first disciples.
He ends this section with a concept that really announces the arrival of God’s presence on earth.
 If you were in any doubt after the first section of this chapter, this last line really underlines the idea. Jesus is God incarnate.

This is all fine and well, but it still doesn’t explain where this happens, where these angels will ascend and descend on Jesus.

Now, angels are best understood as messengers of God.
They are not God, they are not man, they are a completely unique thing.
They are divine, but they are not God. They are messengers of God.
The Archangel Gabriel informed Mary of her role in incarnation. He was a messenger of God.

The angels Jesus speaks of are the same.
What they represent is a continual conversation between the father and the son. 
A continual conversation between the heavenly and earthly realms.
They are the gateway from earth to heaven, and they are the gateway from heaven to earth.
 It is a two way conversation. It is a two way conversation that centres on Jesus.
This passage not only underlines the incarnation, it also tells us what it means to us.

 And it is here that we need to read carefully. Jesus has been talking to Nathanael.

“You, (meaning Nathanael,) will see greater things than these”. 
But then it changes.

You, plural, You will see.
This plural you is important.
 It could be the other disciples around at the time, and Jesus is addressing the whole group.

I sense that it is more than this.

You, all of you, all who read this, all you who hear of Jesus, all you who recognise the Jesus as the Son of God, whenever, wherever, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

John is letting us know that as we read this gospel, what we are witnessing is this event.
Throughout the whole of the gospel, everything Jesus does and says is this event.
The event is in fact the very person of Jesus, the son of God.

 It isn’t a single event, it is a continuous thing, it is an eternal thing. God incarnate in the form of Jesus, and his continual presence as given to us by the Holy Spirit. All we have to do is look.

The promise to Nathanael is a promise to us.

By our lives lived together with Christ, we, and all who have ever believed, will see, do see, and  have seen, the angels of god ascending and descending upon the son of man, Jesus Christ, the son Of God, God incarnate.

This promise is for anyone who wants to see.
And as Nathanael was invited by Phillip, we too are invited, by the simple words: “Come and see.”

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Homily for Epiphany

“we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

The story of these magi is most likely the most popular Christian story that there is. This is a story that people, and most especially, people that aren’t church goers, really relate to. Three wise men on camels carrying gifts. For many, this is the symbol of Christmas.

Driving around Singleton this last fortnight to look at all the houses decorated with Christmas lights, I noticed that the three wise men and the star would only be second to father Christmas and Reindeer. Why these magi? Why not the shepherds? Why not the angels? Why not the infant Jesus?

 I think it is because of their very mysteriousness, but also it is the undeniable and intrinsic truth of their story.

The first we hear of them, they have arrived in Jerusalem, asking anyone who would listen:

"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?"

I imagine that many of those they asked had no idea what they were talking about. They hadn’t heard anything about a birth that was so special. But then the magi state how they know this information:

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

Someone must have heard this and thought it important that King Herod knew about these foreigners wandering around hunting for the new born king of the Jews.

Herod is worried. He knows this is not good news for his rule. A divine ruler, the Messiah is going usurp any authority he has. He sees his days numbered.

He calls the chief priests and scribes to find out where this child is to be born. He needs the answer to the magi’s initial question:
"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?"

He asks the scribes and priests. They know their scriptures well. From prophecies in the books of 2nd Samuel and the prophet Micah, they can name the town of Bethlehem as the place.

What we can see here is God’s revelation to two groups of people in two different ways.

The Magi were Gentiles, non Jews. Gentiles were deprived of the scriptures, and so they were not given an explicit revelation as the Jews were. It was through nature that God revealed himself to the gentiles.

The magi receive their revelation through the stars. Their gazing and interpretation of the movement of the stars showed them something significant was happening Israel. They interpret the movement as being a birth star. So significant is the star and its movement, they deduce that it must be represent a King. They didn’t have the scriptures to work this out. It was their astrological gifts that showed them.

Yet, it was an imperfect revelation. It tells them of the birth, but not exactly where.

That secret is locked up in the scriptures.

Those who have the key to the scriptures, the scribes and high priests are unaware that anything is happening. They can read plainly what the prophets have said. They know the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Now they have a group of magi arriving, who have followed a star for probably two years, arrive and tell them they know the King of the Jews has been born. 

Both groups have a piece of the puzzle.

Yet only one group thinks it is worthwhile. The religious and political leaders do nothing. They don’t follow the Magi to worship the new born king. In fact the king, the chief priests, and the scribes conspire against the messiah. They play no part active part in Jesus birth story. They just sit there. They know where the Christ is to be born, but they don’t sense what is actually happening, or ask the magi anything about what they know. They fail by being passive.

The other group, who represent the Gentiles, the magi, see a sign and journeys far to respond to the hint of Gods action in history.

When I look at this manger, when I see the infant Jesus lying there, I wonder what group I am in. I wonder what group our church is in. I wonder what group the whole worldwide church is in.

We are not the magi. The magi represent the journey from the first inklings of something to recognition, to homage. That is what they are. Once that journey has taken place, something else occurs. They become members of the Body of Christ.

The infant body in the manger grew up, lived, taught and healed, was crucified, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. But we are now the body of Christ. We say this every week. We are the mystical body of Christ, the same way that the baby in the manger was the body of Christ.

So we are neither group, we are the body of Christ.

I think the sad truth is that we the church sometimes forget that we are the body. We in many ways have become like the scribes and high priests and political rulers.

The magi are still around, they see signs of God in their lives, they interpret things they hear and see as God working in their lives. They may come to church to pay homage to the infant, they come to be a part of the body of Christ, yet when they arrive and tell of what they have seen and experienced, instead of meeting the body of Christ, they meet a bunch of scribes and high priests who either ignore them, or tell them that they know nothing.

These magi know nothing of the scriptures, yet they know there is something going on. They see our buildings and know there is something beyond everyday experience inside. They come to find Christ, but they don’t really know anything about him.

I see a time when these magi will come to our church and tell us things about Christ that we don’t understand. They will have found Him working in their lives, yet won’t know anything of scripture. They will come with voices and visions that will look and sound peculiar to us. They will tell us things that we may not want to hear.

When this happens we can’t be like the scribes and high priests and ignore them. We need to listen. We need to help them with our knowledge of the scripture and journey with them as they journey to us.

What they are searching for is the body of Christ. They instinctively know they want to be a part of it. They enter our churches and become confused or depressed because they know what it is supposed be like, yet what they encounter is nothing like it. There are glimpses of Christ for them, but it is hidden away, like the scriptures were hidden from the Magi in the gospel.

I believe that the situation the church finds itself in today is like holding one half of the puzzle.

We have the scripture, the sacraments and the traditions. We hold them as members of the body. Yet, they have become hidden from magi of today. It is those magi who have the other half of the puzzle.

We will find the other part of the puzzle when we listen to their stories of how God revealed himself to them. It will be in our listening to their stories of their spirituality that we will see how God is working in places outside of our traditions. By us sharing our stories with them, they will see how God is working within the church, within the body of Christ. To be able to reveal Christ to the magi, we need to be able to see where he is already being revealed. We can show the magi where Christ is in their lives.

This is why I think the magi from Matthew's gospel are so popular in the wider world. People who aren’t church goers somehow see themselves within the image of the magi, making their journey towards Christ. Like the Magi, they journey long distances, knowing something of God, yet not knowing exactly where He is. It is when the star that they are following stops above our church that we need to be the body of Christ and not act like the scribes and high priests. Instead of being passive and dismissive, we need to journey alongside them and lead them to the manger, to the body of Christ.