Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas Mourning... Christmas Morning (Matthew 2:13-18)

It’s probably not what we want to hear on Christmas Morning, that last section of Matthew’s narrative about Jesus birth, that ends with Christmas mourning, the inconsolable cry of the mother’s of Bethlehem weeping for their dead children as Herod has them butchered because he is scared of the child the magi had told him of. Compared with Herod’s other brutal massacres the death of a relatively small number of small children in a small rural town does not even rate a mention in the history books. But you get a sense of its devastation on the women of the town.

At Christmas we are more used to the joy-filled carols; that reflect the rich and wonderful songs in Luke’s gospel: Mary’s song at finding out that what she has been told of being pregnant by the Holy Spirit is true; what we call the Magnificat. Zechariah’s anthem, deep in the tradition of the psalm’s speaking of God’s long looked for salvation, as he celebrates the birth of his son, John, who we know as John the Baptist. The angel choir proclaiming ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’. I think of that as the greatest production number ever, vast armies of angels, singing to a very select audience, but not the rich insiders who can afford to watch for their entertainment, rather the poor outsiders for whom it is good news of their inclusion…But Matthew’s Christmas music is wailing and lament, funeral dirge and the blues.

Matthew paints us a picture of Christmas which has more in common with the warn torn regions of our world today; full of violence, with the death of innocents, the wail of the bereft, the desperate plight of refugees, the powerful enforcing their will at gun point,  than it does with the idyllic and romanticised nativity display we are used to on hallmark cards.

Now I don’t want to come across all ‘grinch-ey’ like I’m trying to steal your Christmas joy, I’m not… I’m not being all Ebenezer Scrooge and wanting to impose a ‘bah-humbug’ to dampen our festivities…Far from it… You see…the gritty, brutal, reality of Matthew’s narrative and its Christmas mourning, highlights the wonder and joy and beauty of Christmas morning… Because the Christ Child, Jesus, is real hope, come in a real person, in the midst of real life. That’s really…good news…

Amid the bleakness of what’s going on, there is this reoccurring formula, that Matthew uses, telling us that things were done in order to fulfil the scriptures. The place of Jesus birth, his having to flee to Egypt, even the wailing of the women in Bethlehem. Herod may seem to have all the power in this story and be able to impose his will, but even in the face of that God’s plans and purposes are in actual fact not thwarted.  That gives us hope even in the darkness, God is at work.

While it does not sooth the anguish of those Bethlehem mothers, Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah 31:15, comes from the darkest point in Israel’s history, and uses the image of Racheal, Isaac’s son who died giving birth to Benjamin and who was buried near Ramah, crying as the exiles are taken away to Babylon. It is as if this is the end of the story for her off spring. But the verses that follow that speak of an end to mourning because God will bring them back. On a larger scale there is hope and good news in this Christmas grieving, because in the Christmas dawn God is bringing his salvation for Israel, just as he had done in the exile. 

NT Wright says “This is how Israel’s redeemer will appear, this is how God would set about liberating his people and bringing justice to the world.” The hope is even in the face of the darkest of our inhumanity God is working out his plans and purposes, to bring change, to bring new life.  In Christ to bring his kingdom and his reign. There is here a shadow of the cross, at Christ’s birth, even the cross and death itself will not thwart God’s plan and purpose, Christ’s death becomes the way in which you and are forgiven and welcomed back into the Kingdom of God… it is the way in which through Christ being raised to life again that we are able to know new and abundant life.

More than that Christmas morning is good news for Christmas mourning, because of the abiding presence of God with us … We are told in Matthew chapter 1 that Jesus, is the fulfilment, there is that formula again, of the prophecy in Isaiah, that a virgin will give birth and the child will be called Immanuel… which means God with us…  and in Matthew God steps into our world with all its difficulty and strife, it’s pain and its anguish… AS NT Wright puts it…

‘No Point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery,

 no point having an easy life when the world suffers violence and injustice.

If he is to be Immanuel, God with us,

he must be with us where the pain is.”

God comes, and God identifies with the poor and the lowly, the refugee, those who fear violent oppression. God is with us in the realities of life…

Jesus last recorded words in Matthew’s Gospel are “I am with you to the end of the age”, an assurance because of Jesus birth, life, death and his resurrection of God’s continuing Immanuel, God’s abiding presence with us, by the Holy Spirit. The hope of God with us, in the midst of ordinary life, when there are good and joyful times, but also in the midst of our pain and our sorrow, our suffering and struggles. On a personal level and in a world which is still plagued by people like Herod. That presence of God even in the darkest of times is what gives us hope.

Maybe this Christmas morning you have some Christmas mourning… Christmas for many can be sorrow tinged… it maybe part of that year of firsts after the death of a loved one, you may have Christmas mourning because of the spectre of health issues, financial difficulties, relationships breaking down, uncertainty, and the Christmas hope is that in Christ, God is with us…. God is for us…

There is one other source of hope and good news from this final part of Matthew’s Christmas story. Jesus identification with the difficulty of the world, the powerless and the refugee actually invites us to follow him, Matt Woodley says “ For Matthew the Christmas story is a dangerous tale. And once we agree to join with Jesus we embark on a dangerous path. It forces us to side with Jesus and his little ones, rather than Herod with all his pomp and brutality.” We become the carriers of the hope and love and new life of Christmas morning into the sorrow filled and dark places, with Christ and in Christ.

I simply want to finish with the wonderful metaphor from the prologue to John’s gospel.  Where in the midst of a cosmic creation size explanation of Jesus origins, John says that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not put it out. The light has come in Christ, Christmas dawns in the midst of sorrow and suffering, the light remains with us, it draws us back into relationship with God and shows us the way to live, and the light shines out from us with the hope of a Christ dawning in the midst of a world that is in the darkness of pain and mourning.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Which Kingdom?: The Magi and Herod (Matthew 2:1-12)

This Advent season we’ve been working our way through the Christmas narrative in Matthew’s gospel… and to tell you the truth it feels rather strange… empty even… have you noticed,  there is no mention of Caesar Augustus and his census for taxation… there is no ‘no room at the inn’… no stable… no manger… no shepherds no angel choirs… in fact the nativity scene is… well…its missing.

Matthew, as a first century Jew, had started by telling Jesus genealogy, his whakapapa, showing us that he is the messiah, the son of David and the son of Abraham. He’d told the story of Joseph wrestling with divorcing Mary, whom he was betrothed to, because she was found to be pregnant… and receiving assurance in a dream that he should go ahead with the marriage because this was God’s doing. This baby was new creation by the Holy Spirit. Then all the things that we equate with Christmas get glossed over in the gap between “but he did not consummate the marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”  at the end of chapter 1 which as we saw last week was a sign of Joseph’s faith in andfaithfulness to God, … And then “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” which we started our reading with this morning… and there is anything up to a two-year gap between those two sentences.

Luke of course gives us all the details about the birth of Christ that we are used to. He tells us the story from Mary’s perspective, he tells us Mary’s story, rich with eye witness detail and things that Mary treasured in her heart. Each of the gospels comes to look at Jesus from a different perspective, and together they provide us with a rich full picture.

 For Matthew, how the world reacts to Jesus the messiah, is his focus… into the story comes figures we equate with Christmas… the magi from the east… lead by the star…without which we just wouldn’t know what to do with the top of our Christmas trees... they come to Jesus living in a house with his parents now in Bethlehem, maybe to get away from the innuendo and finger pointing in their home town of Nazareth, which Luke told us they went back to after presenting Jesus at the temple.   I love the way Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn puts it in his song “the cry of a tiny babe “…

“Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything

The other major character in Matthews narrative is Herod, who Cockburn calls a paranoid dictator who when he hears there’s a child born king of the Jews sends death squads to kill every male child under two. While we focus on the gifts the magi bought to Jesus Matthew’s focus is on which king of the Jews will we choose… which kingdom, the kingdom of God or the realms of humanity.

Lets look at the magi,

Speaking of Kings, it wasn’t until about the fourth century that the magi were seen to be kings, and there have been a whole lot of traditions and trappings that have grown up around them… names and number. Matthew simply calls them Magi from the east. Magi was a term which originated in Persia and spoke of people who would have been, scientists, diplomats and well magicians or sorcerers. Not in a “You’re a Wizard Harry”, kind of way that we might think today, rather they were the religious people in their pagan society.  They would have been employed to know what was going on, they would look to signs and maybe influence the god’s, at a price.

After the exile, there would have been many Jewish populations in the Persian empire. In fact in the end of the book of Esther we hear that a great number of people in Susa the capital of Persia, became Jews. So the Jewish religion and its expectation of a messianic king, would have been widely known. The magi would have looked to the sky to let them know what is going on in the world. We are not used to that connection, we may see it in the way in which people might read a horoscope. There is speculation about what the sign they saw was. Some wonder about a comet, others suggest that we have recorded in many different cultures that Saturn and Jupiter were close together in 7bc and would have appeared brightly in the sky. Jupiter was the royal planet, and Saturn was associated with the Jews. Whatever it was it sent these astrologers on a quest to find and to worship the one born king of the Jews. This by the way is not a quick jaunt down the motorway, it is  a journey that would have taken them months to undergo. One top gear Christmas special has the intrepid trio of  Clarkson, May and Hammond undertaking the journey in cars, and it was quite an epic. In Ezra 7:9 we have Ezra’s journey from Babylon described as taking four months.  This is an epic journey they undertake.

For Matthew the Magi tells us a lot about Jesus the messiah, that his kingship will not only be for the Jews but it has significance for the whole world. The Magi would have heard of the hope for a king who would bring peace and justice to all the nations, and while not fully understanding Jesus as the son of God, they come seeking that. When they talk of worship it would not be the divine son of God, but to worship Israel’s God for the provision of this messiah; a just and righteous king.

Matthew’s gospel is book ended by gentiles acknowledging Jesus as the king of the jews. Here we have the Magi, in bright light, then at the crucifixion, we find the soldiers mockingly hailing Jesus as the king of the Jews, it is the title nailed above his head on the cross, and in darkness, a roman soldier’s, profound confession “surely this is the son of God’. Matthew the first century Jew, speaking to predominantly Jewish Christians, shows that the story is open to all people everywhere.

You could say here right at the start it’s kind of like we step into the story. These astrologers represent us. They tell us that Jesus the messiah is our hope, our prince of peace, our saviour… God’s just reign in our lives and our time and place as well. In Christ we are welcomed in…

Matt Woodley says the magi represent us as well as they are on that universal search’ they are seekers for truth “it is” he says, “what everyone would undertake if they were not stuck in the everydayness of their own lives”. Their search for the one born king of the Jews, shows how God leads people like you and I to come to the truth in Christ. In a way that they as pagan astrologers would understand God shows them a sign. What we call General revelation: God speaking through creation, through the elements of our culture that are open to new possibility. it gets them started, looking for the one born king of the Jews. Then they can only find Jesus as they encounter God’s special revelation; the word of God, the scriptures, as the high priests in Jerusalem, tell them through Herod where the messiah will be born. In this you get the sense that it is the Holy Spirit that leads them and guides them to the Christ Child. They are seekers, they come to Christ, like us they come by the leading of the Holy Spirit in God’s general and special revelation, as they are open to it speaking.

The amazing thing is that here in these men from the east, we see the hope of the gospel. These Gentiles and for the Jewish people even worse than that people who were involved in pagan religion recognise the signs and come searching for the one born king of the Jews to worship. There is deep irony in that in Matthew’s narrative because the religious people in Jerusalem, the high priests who you would expect were the ones waiting and longing and hoping for the messiah the most, miss it. Their focus is on another king of the Jews, Matthew tells us that Herod is disturbed by the news of the child, and all of Jerusalem with him. They are concerned how Herod will react. That leads us to the other king in this story. 
Lets look at Herod.  

Herod has no royal lineage, no claim to the throne. Herod was from Idumea in South Judea, his family were Edomites who had converted to Judaism. Matthew’s telling of Jesus whakapapa as the son of David and son of Abraham puts him in immediate contrast with Herod the usurper.  He becomes King with the backing of Rome, as he was able to keep order. He reigned for about forty years, and died in 4bc. He was seen by many as a successful king, in fact he was called Herod the great, building a dynasty from almost nothing. He was also known for his great building projects building fortresses to defend Judea from the east, and specifically for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.  In this he represents you could say a successful monarch, or at least a successful puppet politician under the rule of Rome in an unruly part of the world. He kept the peace… but at a price.  Herod was also known to be quite paranoid and ruthless. He had one of his wives killed, imprisoned many family members and even paid for two of his sons to be assassinated. The words pig and son sound similar in Greek, and Caesar Augustus famously summed Herod up with the Pun ‘that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son”. We guess which one got treated better. It is his son Herod Agrippa who is the king in the time of Jesus death.

When Herod hears of the one born king of the Jew’s he is totally aware of the ramifications that this is the messiah, the long-awaited hope of Israel, with all that that means. He is the one who asks the high priests where the messiah will be born. He is desperate to hold onto his power, and while lying about wanting to worship the child, he secretly plots to have the child killed. Mark Woodley says that Herod represents the opposite human nature to the magi, he is desperate to avoid God and he devalues other people.  His focus is on the worldly power and its accompanying wealth.

We see here the clash of two kingdoms. One where the outward signs of religion are built up and used, the other that will look at change of the heart. One that seeks to hold onto power and life despite the cost to others, the other who will give up power and life for the sake of others despite the cost. One that focuses on itself and the other which welcomes and invites those outside to come in. One that enforces Peace with the threat and use of force, one that offers peace through the gracious offer of peace in forgiveness and reconciliation and right relationship. ,  One that holds onto power by might and violence depending on the backing of a world power, the other that comes as a little child and identifies with the poor and the lowly, trusting  totally in God’s provision.

This part of Matthew could be called the tale of the two kings… The magi from the east find themselves caught with the dilemma of which King will they choose. They come humbling searching for the one born king of the Jews, they are invited to trust the words of the one who was appointed  “king of the Jews.”

We know the story, that light guides them to the place, again we see that it is God moving by his holy Spirit. They come and they find Jesus and his mother and they worship him, they acknowledge that this is the one born king of the Jews… they give him their gifts. In this they are examples and witnesses to us. Which king will we choose, which kingdom will we choose. I know it’s a cliché but wise people still seek Jesus today… How will we respond to Jesus, born king of the Jews. Jesus the one who will save his people, Jesus Immanuel God with us. We too are called to worship and lay down our gifts before him.

Maybe I’m reading to much in to it but the other thing that happens is that warned by an angel in a dream, we are told that the magi, go home by a different way. I can’t help but feel that is a great description of what it means to acknowledge the one born king of the Jews, Jesus the messiah. Jesus as a man will talk of going on the narrow way the path less travelled. A new and living way…  Jesus again as a man will tell people that he is the way the truth and the life, to come to Christ is to be willing to walk as a follower of his, to go home by a different path. Which king? Which Kingdom? which path home? This Christmas…

Monday, December 17, 2018

Joseph's story: A Joy filled Christmas declaration in the midst of a stress filled crisis-messy situation. (Matthew 1:18-25)

I often think we have got used to coming to the Christmas story, the story of Jesus birth, through the high art of a well crafter nativity set, or by Christmas lights reflected in the glint and sparkle of tinsel or through the lens of a Hallmark greeting card. We have this picture of an idyllic, if not rather exotic and even romanticised version of the Christmas story. I’m not saying that’s bad or wrong I’m just stating a fact… Maybe it is hard for us to access an event that happened 2000 years ago a whole world away, without the wrapping of all those trapping and traditions.

One of things that it does is distance us from the amazing truth that in Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the real God, became a real human being and stepped into our real world with all its messiness and difficulties, wonders and celebrations, troubles and triumphs, with a real hope of real liberation and transformation.

The thing that really grabs me about Matthew’s narrative of How Jesus the messiah came to be born is that its very real and gritty. Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective and with the songs and angel choirs it kind of has the feel of being like a musical. There is a deeply political element to it as the Kingdom of God clashes with the realms of this world, and we are going to look at that next week. But Matthew as a first century Jewish man tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. While it still has the angelic visitation and joyous pronouncement of a miracle birth, Joseph finds himself in a great moral dilemma, and that joy filled Christmas declaration comes in the middle of a stress filled crisis-messy situation. It’s real joy and real hope in life’s reality.

Matthew had started the story with Jesus genealogy, hiswhakapapa, showing that  Jesus was the son of David, in the royal line, and a son of Abraham. The genealogy links Jesus into two millennia of human history and two millennia of God’s activity. There are famous people, obscure people, that we’ve never heard of except in this list, there were the great heroes of the faith, like the people in our family tree that we’d be happy to point others to, and bad and evil people, the kind of people we just don’t admit to being connected to. It also links Jesus to the hope that Israel had in the promises of God, of a just king in David’s line, that would bring peace to Jerusalem and Israel, and the promise of God that God would bless all nations through Abraham. Matthew tells us Jesus is that messiah, that anointed one. Matthew finished his genealogy mysteriously by saying Joseph was the husband of Mary, who was the mother of Jesus… now the story unfolds…

Joseph is betrothed to Mary. In Jewish society there were two stages of getting married, a period of betrothal, think engagement on steroids, where the marriage had been arranged between the family of the bride and groom. They were considered husband and wife, but did not live together, in fact they were not supposed to be left unsupervised together. During this period a dowry and bride price would be arranged and paid. Then there would be the wedding the marriage was consummated, and they would go and live together as man and wife. During that betrothal period if the man had any reason to want to break off the marriage it was considered a divorce and the women would be seen as a divorced woman, with all the stigma that entailed, she would forfeit her dowry and bride price. If the man died she would be considered a widow.

We are told that Mary was found to be pregnant, From Luke’s account we know that Mary had gone off to be with her relative Elizabeth but now as she has come back it obvious, she is pregnant. Joseph is a righteous man and according to Jewish law he must divorce his wife for adultery. Joseph does not want to do that but he wants to do the right thing. If he does not do it opens them both up to being ostracised by their community, maybe even separation from Jewish religious life, they would be considered sinners.  However, if he divorces her publicly it opens Mary up to public ridicule and even death as an adulterer. But as well as wanting to do things right according to the Law, Joseph is a man of compassion and love. In the very short description we have in Matthew’s gospel you get the sense that this is a real struggle for him. He decides that the best thing to do it to divorce her quietly. Again the Jewish custom was all a man needed to do was give a women a divorce notice in front of witnesses. Josephs plans were just to do in front of a couple of trusted witnesses. It’s still a mess but this seems best.  

Into this crisis-messy situation comes the Christmas proclamation. Maybe after sleepless night’s once joseph has made his decision he falls into an exhausted slumber, but he has a dream and an angel of the Lord, a messenger, appears and brings God’s word.  Joseph is acknowledged as a son of David, not just an acknowledgement of his royal lineage but his faithfulness and compassion. Like with most such encounters the angels first words are don’t be afraid. That was the angels first words to Mary in Luke’s gospel, but here its not to calm him about the angel turning up, rather that he is not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife.

Joseph is then told the amazing truth of this child’s origin, that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Something that it would be hard for a first century Jewish man to accept as it is for our myth soaked and science sceptical twenty first century minds. This is God’s doing, God’s plan. We might find ourselves like Mary and joseph wondering if this is possible, and Joseph does not receive the affirmation that Luke records Mary getting ‘that with God all things are possible’. But his scripture trained mind would look back at all that God had done in the past. He would look back to the fact that the Holy Spirit was there in the beginning as part of God’s creation activity and realise that without understanding it, that the creator God is able to bring about a new creation.

The uniqueness of this child is then revealed in two names. One Joseph is told to give Mary’s son and the other in a scripture from Isaiah which we are told this child is a fulfilment of.

 Well before the benefits of ultrasound, Joseph is told that Mary’s baby will be a boy and he is to name him Jesus. Jesus, or yeshua, Joshua… was a common name in first century Israel. It was used by Jewish parents as a way of expressing their hope that God would send a deliverer for his people, a saviour, who would save them from their enemies and re-establish Israel as an independent nation. The name means “God saves”. Joseph is told that that is indeed what this Jesus will do, but not from their physical enemies, but from their own sins. Not a military saviour, but a spiritual one, who would bring them back to God with forgiveness, reconciliation, wholeness… shalom and peace.

Then whether it is the angel still speaking, or Matthew as the narrator, we the readers are told that this is to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet. Matthew’s gospel was written predominantly for a Jewish audience and his goal is to show them that Jesus is the messiah in fulfilment of the scriptures. In John’s gospel after Jesus resurrection we have the account of two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus encountering the risen Jesus, something they did not expect, and as they walked having Jesus life and death explained to them  from Moses all the way through the prophets, this is the walk that Matthew invites us to also take in his gospel.

Here we have a word from Isaiah, in the time of king Ahaz, where Jerusalem is threatened with conquest, Isaiah tells the king that God will delver his people, and the sign that will be given is a child will be born to a young maiden, and will be named Immanuel… which means God with us…  Now the Jewish word used could mean simply a young women or a virgin, but the Greek word used in Matthew is specifically a women of sexually mature age who is a virgin. The word of Isaiah had come to have this hope filled future expectation, pointing to the messiah. The name of the Child Immanuel speaks of God being with us. As John’s gospel will poetically state God’s word became flesh and pitched his tent in our neighbourhood… The promise of the Old testament of God dwelling with his people.

In these two names we are invited to see Jesus not only as a son of David and a son of Abraham, but also as the unique Son of God, which is how Mark introduces Jesus in his gospel. Here in the narrative of the birth of Jesus the messiah we are told the Good news that God has stepped into history to save his people from their sins, and has stepped into history to dwell with his people. To enable us to come into a new relationship with God, and to have a new way to live, the way of peace and love. You and I can be set free from all we have done wrong in the past and know God’s abiding presence in our lives.  Matthews’s gospel is book ended by that promise of God’s presence with us in Jesus, here  in the name Immanuel, and Jesus last words and “Lo I am with you till the end of the age”. It is the Holy Spirit, who had been at work in creation and in Jesus conception that makes that new life and new creation possible in us, as Christ dwells within us by his spirit.

This is the Christmas Joy, that in the coming of this child in the middle of crisis messy sorrow, there is new life, freedom from the things that would hold us captive, and the growth of a new creation in our lives and our world. It is the Christmas Joy that can come in to the messiness of our own lives, with hope and love and forgiveness and transformation through the abiding presence of God, as we come to know Jesus the messiah, born of Mary.

Joseph never seems to take centre stage in our nativity scenes however he stands as a model and a witness to us of how to respond to this joyous Christmas declaration, this good news of Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us that Joseph woke up, and I really like the way Christian musician, Keith Green talks of becoming a follower of Jesus in one of his best Know songs he says “ It’s  Like waking up from the longest dream, that seemed so real when your love broke through, I lost in a fantasy until your love broke through”. The joyous news of Christmas is the coming of God’s son Jesus into the world and how that can bring transformation and new life in to our lives, as we wake up to the reality of who Jesus is.  

Then Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took Mary as his wife. Again I love  a line from Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn’s  Christmas song “in the cry of a tiny babe” where  he says “  Joseph came to Mary with his hat in his hand, he says “forgive me I thought you’d been with some other man, she says “what if I had been but I wasn’t anyway and guess what I felt the baby kick today.” It was a tough thing to do not just talk about it but to do it… you can imagine all the gossip and speculation about the whole situation that he would endure, he didn’t Consummate the marriage until after the baby was born, can I just say that Catholics believe that Mary stayed a virgin, but there is no biblical evidence for it, in fact the gospel’s talk of Jesus brothers,  Joseph did what he was commanded and   gave the child  the name Jesus. In this Joseph is an example for of faith. he hears God's word and obeys it... 

At the end of his sermon on the mount, Jesus grown to be a man, would use the example of two builders to talk of how people were to express their faith in him. Maybe that was with the thought of Joseph the carpenter, a just and compassionate man of faith, in the back of his mind. The builder who built their house on a solid foundation was the person who heard Jesus words and put it into action. We are used to coming to the Christmas story with all the wrapping of trappings and tradition and that can distance us from the joyous message, but Joseph invites us to come with faith in this Christmas proclamation, faith in the God who saves and is with us… and allow that to bring real joy and real hope into our real lives.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Jesus Whakapapa (Genealogy): The Story of Hope (Matthew 1:1-17, Isaiah 11:1-9)

There are some books that just have you hooked from the first sentence. They grab your attention, prick your curiosity, stimulate your imagination and you just have to read them, you can’t put them down. It is the magic of those four wonderful words “once upon a time’… You’d think that the gospel the greatest story ever told might start like that… but as NT Wright says  “The average modern person who thinks maybe I’ll read the New Testament is puzzled…puzzled to find on the very first page, a long list of names he or she has probably never heard of”…  and probably has trouble pronouncing…

Even if you are more familiar with the scriptures you may be tempted to simply skip this part, like the introduction and recap at the start of an episode of a Netflix TV series. But if we do that, we miss what is at the very heart of Matthew’s gospel: Jesus Christ. You see for Matthew, a first century Jewish Christian writing to predominantly first century Jews this is more than a simple introduction and recap.  It would have them riveted from the first word, it is like a fanfare, a dramatic drum roll or the urgent voice of the town crier. We might get a glimpse of this in New Zealand from the way in which for Maori and Pacifica peoples your whakapapa tells people your identity, who you are and where you fit.  For Matthew the introduction is of the central person of Jewish history, Jesus the long-awaited messiah, or anointed one, the son of David and the son of Abraham, and the recap retells two millennia of God’s gracious promises and God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Jesus whakapapa is the story of hope.

Let’s quickly go through the format of the passage we are looking at…

The passage starts with an introduction, then Jesus whakapapa is presented in three stages, from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, from the exile to joseph, and Jesus being born of Mary, then it finishes with a conclusion about the number of generations in each section in verse 17.

It has some interesting characteristics…

 It is a Jewish genealogy; it starts back with Abraham and works its way forwards. Luke also gives us Jesus genealogy, in Luke 4 , but he presents it in a Greco-Roman style, starting with Jesus and working backwards. In keeping with his introduction Matthew’s purpose is to show that Jesus is the messiah, he is the heir of God’s promises to David and to Abraham, a promise that has been kept even through a time when it seemed that the promise was never going to be fulfilled, the exile. Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam, and it reflects Luke’s gospel presenting Jesus as God’s saviour for all humanity. Each of the gospels presents us Jesus from a different perspective not in conflict with each other but contributing to a full and rich understand of Jesus his life and ministry.

Matthew’s genealogy differs in places from Luke’s, and while some have pointed to this as an inconsistency, Luke as a Greek focuses more on Jesus physical genealogy whereas for Matthew the royal heritage and whose heir Jesus is, is more significant and central. They are the ones who are heirs to the promises. An example from seventh form history would be James vi of Scotland becoming James 1 of England as the heir to  Elizabeth 1 but not her son…  

Matthew misses out some names, and very neatly fits it into three series of fourteen generations, this could be to make it easy to remember; Jews were able to recite their whakapapa and so memory aids would be helpful. But also in his conclusion by adding up the generations as he does Matthew points to Jesus birth as fitting in with Biblical prophecy’s in Jeremiah and Daniel that pointed to the coming of the Messiah. The time is right says Matthew  and here is Jesus the messiah. Matthew more than any of the other gospels shows us Jesus life and ministry in terms of its fulfilment of the Old Testament.

When Matthew’s original readers would have read through the genealogies one of the things that would have stood out for them was the fact that women were mentioned. Even Luke who as a Greek is more open to telling women’s stories does not do this. You may expect in a Jewish document to have maybe a great woman such as Sarah, Abraham’s wife mentioned and honoured. But here the women who are mentioned are not those you’d normally mention.

What does this introduction and whakapapa tells us?

The first thing Matthew’s introduction tells us is that Jesus story is not something totally new, rather it is the fulfilment of a story that has already been told. The introduction here could be for the genealogy or for the whole gospel. the whole gospel is the creation story the origin story of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Either way it says that Jesus story has its origins in the Old Testament, in God’s activity in history, but it is also a new story the hope of a new creation.  

For the Jews the messiah was a person who was the fulfilment of a promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16.   That an heir of David would sit on the throne forever. We saw that expectation in our old testament reading from Isaiah 11 today… A root of Jesse would be on the throne and it would be a time of lasting peace for Israel. A righteous and good King who would usher in the reign of God, the Kingdom of God, Matthew says to his readers right off the bat I’ve found this Guy.

But more than that Matthew is aware that God’s purposes and plans are for the world  in calling him the son of Abraham, Matthew is focusing back to the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 1... that not only would God give Abraham descendants and land and bless him, but that he would make him a blessing to all nations. Matthew is telling us from the start that not only is Jesus the messiah and a blessing for the Jews but God’s saviour and king for all people. Isaiah 11 finishes with a line that you may remember from last months series on Habakkuk… The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as he waters cover the sea. One of the things the Women in Jesus whakapapa do is point to this possibility, as except for Mary they are all gentiles. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah the Hittite, or Bethsheba. Even in Jesus whakapapa God’s inclusion of the gentiles into his people is foreshadowed.

Jesus genealogy shows us that God has been working through history to bring his sovereign plans and purposes to fruition. From Abraham on downwards. It also shows us God’s grace, that all the way through these two millennia God had kept his promise by his grace. Jesus whakapapa is a very human family tree. It includes the good kings and the bad kings. People who kept their faith in God and people who did not…famous people and those who are obscure. It contains stories of pain and suffering and injustice. Again this is highlighted by the stories of the women mentioned. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s oldest son, Er, who we are told in genesis 38, god killed because he was so evil. Tamar had no children, so was supposed to be given a child to carry on Er’s name by his younger brother, who refused, she was promised by Judah that when the youngest son grew up she would be have a child with him.  Now this all seems rather messy and barbaric to us. But remember for a women who was a widow without a child, she had no means of support, she had no status in her society. When she was denied her right and treated unjustly by Judah, she pretended to be a prostitute and slept with Judah and had twin sons.. It was through her son Perez that the royal lineage was to come. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, who when the spies were sent by Moses to check out the land looked after them and helped them escape.  Ruth we know was a widow whose dedication to her mother in law Naomi lead to her marrying Boaz and a Moabite becomes David’s great grand-mother.  Bethsheba of course is a tale of both wrongdoing by David and the pain of a dead child. But Matthew says these people too are in Jesus whakapapa.

The women can also be seen as people of faith in times when Israel struggled to have faith. Tamar sought justice when she was mistreated, Rahab showed faith when the spies doubted God, Ruth showed covenant faithfulness to Naomi, in the time of upheaval during the judges. 

This is one of the things that I love and which gives us hope from the genealogy, God has worked his purposes out through normal people just like us. Mark Woodly puts it like this 

 “behind each name on Matthew’s carefully selected list we find human stories riddled with sordid scandals and glorious and honourable details. Behind the mess and unpredictability of the human story God is weaving another story of harmony and redemption.”

God’s sovereignty and God’s grace are at work, meeting in Jesus Christ, and the amazing thing is that in Christ you and I are grafted into this family tree and we fit right in, being fantastic made and  faithful, with our foibles and faults, fallenness and frailty,  our high achievements our past hurts and hurdles, our odd ball-ness or our straight down the line-ness, our humanity and our hope of new creation in Christ. And like with this whakapapa Jesus has stepped into the story and it changes. It becomes a story of hope.

Matthews’ telling of Jesus genealogy finishes, not by saying who Jesus father is, but rather focusing on his mother. Joseph we are told is the husband of Mary, and Mary is the mother of Jesus who is called the messiah. If Matthew’s readers hadn’t been captivated by Jesus whakapapa now, this would have caught their attention. While we, with Luke’s Gospel giving us Mary’s account and two thousand years of Christian faith and teaching, know what is to come, Matthew is signalling to us that something different is happening here. He is preparing his readers to struggle along with Joseph over the fact that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit. When the Jewish readers hear the next part of the story that Mary being betrothed to Joseph is found to be pregnant, they might switch off, they would be shocked and suspicious of how this Jesus could be the Messiah. They like us will struggle with the wonderful news of the virgin birth of Jesus. Jesus birth not only being the fulfilment of the promises to David and to Abraham, but also that in Jesus God has stepped into human history.

One of the things the women in the whakapapa do is prepare us for this. As women of faith and women who have carried on God’s purpose and plans in difficult situations they stand with Mary. God had used these situations and these women for his purpose and plans and now he is going to do something even more unusual.

Well it may not be as captivating a start as “once upon a time”. But this introduction and genealogy points us to who Jesus is, that what is happening is a continuation a fulfilment of God’s promises and God’s sovereign moving in history and a fulfilment of God’s grace and peace. To Matthew’s Jewish reader and to us it tells us the long awaited messiah is coming… It introduces us to Jesus in a way that we know where he fits in and leaves us with great anticipation to see how this messiahship will work out… and  just a little  tinge of mystery, that just maybe who this Jesus is isn’t going to fit into all the expectations Matthew’s Jewish readers and we may have…Not that we will be disappointed… rather it will be a story of hope… more than we ever hoped for.  Hopefully… it draws us to read further to be captivated by the story of Jesus the messiah the son of David and the son of Abraham, to be captivated by him.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Monday, November 26, 2018

The true source of Joy and Strength in the face of life's storms (Habakkuk 3:1-19, Phillipians 4:12-13)

I couldn’t help but think of this scene from the film of JRR Tolkien’s the Lord of the rings: the two towers’ when I read the first part of the psalm that Habakkuk finishes his oracle with. It’s a very kiwi thing to do to by the way to finish with a waiata isn’t it. Habakkuk paints God as the creator warrior coming to the rescue of his people at the last minute. The sun in the clip bursting over the horizon reflecting Habakkuk’s words in verse four “his splendour was like the sunrise, rays flashing from his hand where his power is hidden.” The creator using creation itself to fight on behalf of his people.

Like most of us there is the hope that God would come riding in to our difficult and dark situations and issues, our life storms  NOW and somehow instantaneously resolve them and whisk us away. Our folk law is full of that sort of longing and hope… the school bus sliding off the bridge only to be carried to safety by a superhuman hero. The settlers out of ammunition and about to be over run and suddenly the cavalry turns up. The villain’s figure on the trigger, and then bang, he’s shot and falls to the ground as the battered hero steps into the scene.  Maybe I watch too many movies. But I wonder if we and Habakkuk don’t have that kind of expectation and hope in the back of our minds. Save me now God, do the miraculous, and god can and does but we like Habakkuk can look back at what God has done before and say like you did then….or hear someone’s faith inspiring testimony of God’s intervention…’like you did for them… 

Yet by the end of his Psalm and book Habakkuk has come to a different place, a different and deeper faith, even if all the simple blessings of the land, it’s provision and prosperity is taken away Habakkuk says I will find my joy in you. Even though the way forward feels like a treacherous mountain path, I trust you to guide me through as sure footed as a deer, or mountain goat, I find my strength in you. Habakkuk had been told that the righteous will live by faith and here we see him starting on that journey. It is the faith and trust that Paul says is the secret to contentment in our reading from Philippians… “whether I have a lot or absolutely nothing, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. “ It is the abiding presence and faithful character of God… that is the source of our joy and strength and hope. It is the same faith we are called to have as we face the storms of life, as we face injustice and violence, when what is happening in the world just does not make sense and we wonder where is God...

Habakkuk’s journey has been from  How Long O God to I will hold on to you O God. He had raised a complaint about the injustice and wrongdoing, violence anddestruction, conflict and strife in Judah. God had answered, by pointing him tothe rise of the Babylonian empire. This was going to be the instrument that God was going to use to discipline Judah. God was going to keep his covenant promise and remove his people from the land. Habakkuk had again complained, how could God use such a violent and arrogant people, was this greater evil going to win out in the end. He was prepared to wrestle with God, to get insight and understanding. The storms and questions and complaints did not turn him away from God but rather drew him to go deeper to wait on God. God again replies andgives Habakkuk an answer in a public royal decree, a funeral dirge for those conquered by Babylon to sing, not for themselves but for Babylon. The seeds of Babylon’s own destruction were present in their own arrogance and violence. God’s alternative vision, god’s purposes and plans  was for the world to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the water cover the seas. God’s call for his people was that the righteous would live by faith.

In the reading we had this morning Habakkuk responds to this revelation in prayer and in song. We’ve got the words for the song but we don’t have the tune. Its called a shigionoth, there is only one other Psalm which has a similar designation, and scholars aren’t sure what it means. Sort of has the idea of being a song with different musical elements, all pulled together, a changing of tunes. Which kind of fits in with Habakkuk’s wrestling with what God has told him and coming to a place of trust.

It’s a psalm not unlike many of the songs we use in church, that has a refrain and three stanza’s or verses and finally what you would call a bridge that musically and thematically takes the psalm in a different direction.

Verse 2 is the refrain and contains the heart of Habakkuk’s prayer Lord I have heard of you fame, I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord, repeat them in our day, in wrath remember mercy’. Habakkuk remembers all the times God has acted on behalf of his people in the past, all the stories from the exodus, wilderness wanderings the conquest and Israel’s history, where God has both disciplined Israel for disobeying the covenant and also where he has heard their cry and saved and restored them, and he is praying that God would do the same in his time.

The three stanzas, which are indicated by the word ‘selah’. Reflect on what God has done in the past. The first stanza focuses on the idea of theophany, of God showing up and all the ways in which creation reacts to that. The appearance at Sinai with earthquake and fire and cloud. When Judah is faced with an enemy who laughs at fortified cities, Habakkuk speaks of the creator God whom before even the mountains, so solid and symbols of permanence quake and melt. The second stanza focuses on the times when God has used creation to fight on Israel’s behalf. Now God has shown up it changes from talking about God to talking to God. It focuses on God’s saving actions, The parting of the red sea and the river Jordon, the sun standing still in Joshua 10 as they battled the Amorites. Plagues going before him may look back to Egypt and the exodus but also when the Assyrians under Sennacherib come against Jerusalem only to have their army succumb to a plague in 2 kings 18. The third stanza carries on a similar vein, it sees all God had done was not because God was angry with creation but was defeating the various kings who had stood against Israel. God’s saving activity…

Our hope and our trust comes from ‘hearing those stories as well… of seeing God moving on behalf of his people. We have the same stories as Habakkuk did in the scriptures, we can look past Habakkuk and see how the remnant came back from exile and rebuilt the temple and waited for the messiah. We can see Jesus Christ, his life, his death and his resurrection, saving us from sin and death, ushering in the kingdom of God.  We have the New Testament in which we can see God moving in his people and the story church history as well. In that we can see God’s constant faithfulness to his people… which gives us hope as we face our storms, in our times and our places. It encourages us to be able to pray lord show your mercy today as you have in the past.

Habakkuk’s storms were military conquest so it was right that his reflection on God was as the creator warrior striding out across the field of history  on behalf of his people, but we could equally look at God’s provision when we are faced with financial storms, Gods healing when we are faced with health storms, How the people of God have faced persecution and the Gospel has grown in its midst, how there have been times when the church has been in threat of dying out, only to once again be revived and reinvigorated, or God’s lifelong care and commitment to people of faith  and Christ’s victory over death, as we face our own mortality.

Then in verse 16 we have a change of tune, Habakkuk’s prayer changes to a prayer of trust in God. The change comes with a repetition of the phrase ‘I have heard’ The first three stanza’s refer to the stories of the past, God’s action in the past, but now Habakkuk addresses the fact that God has spoken today to the situation Habakkuk finds himself in. His hope not only comes from looking at the past, but looking up to God, and listening to God speaking in the present. His word is that Judah will be taken into exile by Babylon and God’s people are going to have to live by faith, as they await God’s saving action in history. The Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem, the people will be taken into exile, but even that does not mean that God is not going to show mercy and act on behalf of his people… 

Habakkuk now hears what God is saying now today. That is why its important when we face life’s storms to be looking up and pressing in and waiting on God, because he does and will speak into our situations. Our hope is based on God’s past activity in history, it gives us assurance that God is for and with his people, but we need to look to God to show us how that connects with us today.

Habakkuk lets God know that he is trembling and afraid, it is going to be hard to wait and live by faith, but he knows that is the way forward. We get one of the most beautiful and powerful prayers of trust and hope.

Even if it’s all taken away, the blessing of the land and its provision, fig trees, the vine, live stock food and shelter says Habakkuk, yet I will find my joy in you O God. Even though its going to be a rocky difficult path ahead I trust you to help me navigate it, like a deer on the heights. You give me strength.

Walter Brueggemann says in the psalms he sees three different types of psalm, Psalms of orientation, the happy clappys where everything is as it should be, the people can rejoice in God’s blessing shown in the provision of nature. He also sees Psalms of disorientation where faced with storms the psalmist wrestles with what’s going on and does not seem to be able to find the way up, and then psalms of reorientation, where the psalmist has come to that place of rest and hope, realising that in the storms and through the storms the key thing is the abiding presence of God.

NCEA exams have dominated our family time over the past few weeks. Isaac’s been sitting them and Kris as a math teacher has been encouraging her students to remember good exam technique. When it comes to maths one of those keys is to show the workings, so the examiner can see that you understand the process and Habakkuk helps us by showing his workings. Moving from disorientation to reorientation… You get a sense of his understanding of God being on the side of his people, that is how it is supposed to work, but in this situation that is going to be shown in a different way. You can feel the emotional and intellectual turmoil he was worked through, and finally coming to that place of realising that the righteous will live by faith, and the God who is for and with his people can be trusted to work it out in his time, in God’s way. The source of Joy and hope and strength is in God’s abiding presence with his people.

We started with a bit of JRR Tolkien and I want to finish with a bit of his friend CS Lewis. Lewis’s book the Screwtape letters is a wonderfully creative book about Christian discipleship. It’s written as a series of letters between a demon, wormwood and his superior Screwtape... Wormwood’s charge has become a Christian and he writes to his boss to ask how he should handle it. How he should work at destroying the man’s faith. He tries persecution and suffering and in that the removal of any sense of God’s presence and the response he gets from his boss is this…

 “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Habakkuk sends his song of hope off to the director of music, and it is intended to be our song as well… sung in the face of our storms… sung as we wrestle with those storms and as we come to that place of trust and joy in the abiding presence of God. we don’t know the tune but I’m going to invite you to say that final part of the bridge as the prayer to close this sermon… 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Faith is the way to go in the face of a whole lot of woe (Habakkuk 2:2-20, Romans 1:16-17)

It was cliff hanger.

Last week weleft Habakkuk the prophet, standing on the ramparts, looking out from city wall, like a sentry on guard. Over the horizon the imminent invasion of the Babylonian empire, their vast unstoppable like a desert wind. Picking everything up before it and sweeping it away.

Habakkuk had cried out to God about the injustice and wrongdoing, violence and destruction, conflict and strife in Judah, in the face of which the courts seemed paralysed, or worse were perverted to support the cause of the unjust. “How long, God, will you let this go on, when will you act.”

God’s answer was to point Habakkuk to the meteoric rise of the Babylonian empire, the rising world super power, in the seventh century BC. The answer was that God was going to use the Babylonians to discipline Judah, and take them into exile.

Habakkuk accepts that for a righteous God injustice means judgement, but he again complains, how could a righteous God use such a violent and arrogant people, like the Babylonians. Is this greater evil really going to triumph?

That’s where we had left Habakkuk… on the rampart… Taking watch, but his eyes were not scanning the horizon for the enemy’s advance, rather he looked to God for God’s answer and God’s action. That is the cliff hanger…

In the reading we had today, God answers Habakkuk’s complaint. God tells Habakkuk to write down a lament, a funeral dirge, in our culture it maybe something we equate with the bagpipes or a kuia’s cry at a tangi. This one is a series of five woes. But in this lament is the seedbed of hope. God says to Habakkuk… ‘the righteous will live by his faithfulness’ trusting in God who keep his promises… Faith is the way to go in the face of a whole lot of woe.

Now the Babylonians would have been used to hearing laments as they broke into cities and violently subdued and abused its peoples. The book of Lamentations in the bible is a collection of laments about the fall of Jerusalem. What makes the lament in Habakkuk so different is that it is a lament for the Babylonian empire. It’s a lament for the captive people to sing, in verse five we read that it is a taunt, full of ridicule and scron. It is biting political satire. It’s powerfully subversive, and turns Babylon’s victims into hopeful survivors. 

The passage starts with the Lord replying to Habakkuk. What had been a personal dialogue Habakkuk is told to make public. He is being given a revelation that will come to pass at the appointed time. Habakkuk is told to write it on tablets, so it can be taken by a herald to all the peoples under Babylon’s heel. Writing on tablets was the Babylonian way of communicating their decrees and royal commands, but right off the bat we see that Israel’s God is letting people know who is sovereign and in charge of history. It is his decree that will come to pass in his timing.

God then liken the Babylonian emperor to a drunk. Puffed up and full of themselves. Maybe you’ve been accosted some time by someone who had had a little to much to drink and it emboldens them, they get a bit aggressive…in fact Babylon is likened to an alcoholic who is addicted to power and military conquest and just can’t seem to get enough. Bu they are not in control and we all know that will lead to their downfall.

But says God in contrast to that My righteous ones, will live by my faithfulness. The righteous will live by faith.  A humble trusting in God ,trust that God’s is faithful to his promises. It is the same way that Paul says we should live In Romans 1:17, not puffed up and dependant on our keeping of the law or our own righteousness but by faith in Jesus Christ. That his life and death on the cross has paid the price for all we have done wrong and made it possible for us to be forgiven and be bought back into relationship with God as our loving Father and his resurrection has given us new life as citizens of God’s Kingdom.  That forms the basis of our lives and how we live that faith out  faithully.

The funeral dirge contains a series of five woes…

The first woe is economic, that the Babylonians in fact all empires or institutions who acquire wealth unjustly by force or threat may feel they are building their wealth but what is really happening is that they are building debt. Eventually the creditors, those ripped off who have had it stripped away from them will wake up and there will be a reckoning. “fair Go” on a grand scale. Economic oppression breeds rebellion and revolt, hardship and financial suffering brings down governments.

The second woe is to those who would build their houses by injustice and blood shed. A house here could mean a fortress in which they feel safe or a dynasty, but if that is what you build with well even the stones with which you build will cry out against you. More than just graffiti appearing on the walls…  Violence and bloodshed can never be the basis for a just and lasting country. Those injustices will always come back till they are addressed properly.

The third woe, is that Babylon had tried to build their city and empire on conquest and bloodshed, they had a vision of violent conquest of the whole world, to impose their will with military strength and might. But in the end human plans come to nothing, they are like something that you would tear down and throw on the fire, the constant waring will simply wear the nation out. Which seems so relevant in a week where we marked the end of the first world war, where it seemed to be a race of who would run out of resources and exhaust their of men for the meat grinder of trench warfare first.

But here right in the middle of this dirge, at its heart which is often the case of Jewish poetry we are presented with God’s alternative vision for the earth. The central and important thing is at the centre of the poem. Here is the seedbed of hope beginning to sprout. The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Glory of God as the waters cover the seas. Gods plans and purposes are at work amidst the rise and fall of empire, the swirl and blur of human political philosophy’s and policies. Below the wind swept storms on the surface of time is a deeper current, God’s plans and purposes in God’s timing. This is where the current of time is ultimately heading. Habakkuk’s contemporary picks up the same imagery in Isaiah 11:9 at the end of a vision of a peace filled Jerusalem with the coming of the messianic king, the root of Jesse. Ultimately God’s answer to the woes of human injustice is the establishment of his kingdom. Not a kingdom by political or military might, but through its kings gracious sacrifice. A kingdom you and are citizens of as we  come to put our faith and hope in Jesus Christ, that we are called to be ambassadors of in how we live out our faith. In generosity in the face of greed, loving enemies in the face of conflict and strife, seeking peace and justice in the face of conflict and injustice. Proclaiming the gospel in the face of the destructive chains of sin and death, that hold people captive. It’s subversive and counter culture but it’s God’s alternative vision for this world.

The fourth woe picks up Babylon’s wine culture again, it’s drinking culture which lead it to not only conquer their people but to force them to join in their drunken debauchery. Stripping them of their dignity, dehumanising them.  There is a sense here of sexual abuse as well. But the woe is that God is about to turn the tables and instead of them doing this to others as a way of asserting their total dominance, they themselves will be shamed. God would pour out his wrath on them. It’s interesting that in Daniel 5 we have an account of the end of the Babylonians in a druken party where they had shown their total arrogance by bringing out the temple implements from Jerusalem to use as common drinking cups, a finger writes on the wall that they have been weighted and found wanting and that night Cyrus 2nd emperor of Persia over takes the city.

But this woe also goes on to talk of the Babylonians bringing destruction to nature, stripping bear Lebanon of the cedar trees to build their city, and the wholesale slaughter of animals. Denuding the land of life, in shameful grab for indulgence. God loves and cares about creation and this passage speaks to our western civilization as well where our consumption and wealth and comfort has been at the expense of both other people and creation around us. We see the truth of God’s words as we look and discover that we too may just become exposed and shamed by that excess. It is why creation care is part of the Presbyterian churches five faces of mission. The whole earth, the whole of creation is to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD.

The last woe concerns where Babylon puts its hope. It talks of the futility in building and worshipping idols. Worshipping the things we have made. The woe focuses on words of human activity, carved, made, covered to whom we say “wake up!” but they do not speak they do not wake up. While it is hard for us in the twenty first century to think of worshipping an idol which we have made, to worship means to base our life around upon. Do we base them on material things, status and career, family, there is a tendency to think that technology can save us...

While we started this passage with a cliff hanger. Habakkuk waiting looking out and waiting for God. It does not finish as a cliff hanger, we are left in no doubt to the way forward and where the real power and real sovereignty is. We are left with a concrete bridge across what will be seventy years of turmoil and sorrow for the people of Judah. The LORD is in his Holy Temple; let all the earth be silent before him”. Unlike the idols God is real, even though the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Babylonians, God is still in his temple on his throne in the heavens, seated above the storm as it says in Psalm 29… The phenetic behaviour of the idol worshippers to create a God who will speak is in juxaposition with the call for the earth to be silent as God has already spoken. God’s plans and purposes are still being worked out.

We started with a cliff hanger we finish with a concrete hope. The power of Babylon is exposed and seen for what it is. The seed for its destruction are already sown in its foundation of injustice and violence and while it prospers now like all such empires and institutions it too will fall. All who are puffed up and drunk on their own power significance, need to take note. Because Habakkuk’s faith in a sovereign and righteous and just God are sure and right.

While we have not yet come to Habakkuk’s response… we are not left with a cliff hanger, because we know that the righteous will live by faith. Not dependant on our own resources our own power our own strength but trusting only in God and God’s faithfulness. Trust that it it Christ’s work on the cross not our labour that puts us right with God. But the fact that God gives the oppressed people, his righteous this funeral dirge to sing, shows us that living by faith is not simple passive acceptance, rather it is a call to resistance and a subversive lifestyle of living out that faith. Speaking truth to power, proclaiming the gospel when it just seems so out of kilter with the world today. Living it out; generosity not greed, love not hate, a commitment to  real love not just the hollow resignation of tolerance… This week I was really challenged by one of Jesus truly radical disciples, for whom living by faith meant raising an army in the face of the injustice and pain and want, both spiritual and physical, of the industrial revolution in Europe.

An army like no other whose weapons were love and prayer, joyful music and care… general William Booth of the Salvation Army…

 “while women weep as they do now, I’ll fight

While little children go hungry as they do now I’ll fight

While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, I’ll fight

While there is a poor little girl upon the street, I’ll fight

While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight

I’ll fight to the very end”…

Faith is the way to go in the face of a whole lot of woe is both subversive and revolutionary and our hope is God's alternative vision...
"That the whole earth would be filled with the knowledge of the Glory of the LORD.”