For some Christmas is a time of sadness as well as of celebration. If that is you, or someone you know, then you are warmly welcomed to join us for our “Blue Christmas” service on Sunday December 14th at 7pm. Blue Christmas is a small, reflective service for those who find it hard to join in some of the celebrations of Christmas.
Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46
The thing about the parable of the sheep and the goats is that there is so much in it, so many way of approaching it, so many little observations that might change the whole way you read it, that it’s very hard to know where to start; or, for that matter, where to go, and where to end.
Perhaps the best place to start, therefore, is at the beginning. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. It’s an apocalyptic vision, more in tune with the book of Revelation, or of Daniel in the Old Testament, than with most of the writings of scripture. And that’s a difficulty for us to start with – for apocalyptic literature really isn’t part of the canon of the English language. It’s writing by and of and for the oppressed; rich in imagery of violence and judgement, giving hope to those who find little to hope for in the current world. For Matthew’s audience – Jewish Christians, persecuted by their own people as blasphemers and by the Roman authorities as revolutionaries – visions of judgement were a reassurance that they would be vindicated, in the end.
There is a great exegetical danger here: when words written by and for the powerless, those at the bottom of the ladder, are read by the powerful. So let’s not lose sight of that as we read.
Because I think there are two big theological difficulties that most Christians have with this parable. The first lies in the tension between the heart of this story – in which the basis of judgement, of salvation or damnation (which, incidentally, is the second problem), seems to be entirely determined by actions. The sheep and the goats are divided on the basis of what they did and didn’t do.
But how does that sit alongside the profound statement at the core of the Christian faith that we are saved not by what we do, but by the grace of God; that for those who live in Christ there is nothing that can separate them from the love of God?
And I’ve heard some fairly unsatisfactory readings of this parable in my day. I’ve been told that the sheep and goats are divided on the basis of faith in Christ – and then that Jesus sees only the good in the sheep (for they are the forgiven ones) and only the bad in the goats (for they are not).
But you’d have to wonder why, if that was the meaning of the story, that kind of crucial point was left out. Why the story was told without the least hint that the judgement actually had nothing to do with the feeding of the hungry, the visiting of the sick and the prisoners, the welcoming of the stranger, the clothing of the naked; all the things that actually seems to be whole point of the story.
But perhaps there is a clue at another way of reading in the next words: All the people of all the nations will be gathered before him.
All the people of all the nations. I’m guessing that when you hear those words, you hear “everyone”. Everyone, no matter where they are from. That seems the clear meaning of the words.
But it is not what a first century Jew would have heard in them. It’s not what one steeped in the Old Testament scriptures would have heard. For to them “the nations” was not everyone; it was “everyone else”. The world was divided into Israel and “the nations”. It’s not the whole world gathered here – it’s them, not us.
This isn’t about the judgement of God’s people. This is about the judgement of everyone else. And for the early Christian Church, it was easily and obviously translated in the judgement of those who were not followers of Christ.
And when you hear it like that, not only is the problem of judgement by works against salvation by grace through faith set aside, but the rest of the story takes a slightly different shape as well.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… the consistent message of Jesus through the gospels about the Kingdom is that it is a present reality – or perhaps, an almost-present almost-reality; at hand; ready to be entered into; forcefully advancing. But here, almost uniquely, it is portrayed as something for the end times, for the final judgement. Why? Because these words are directed towards those who never encountered the kingdom, or never entered into it. The nations, not the people of God. But here, at the end, they are invited into a kingdom that has been prepared for them.
The people of God, the people of Jesus Christ, the people of the kingdom; preparing it, making it a reality, so that in the final analysis those of the nations – the rest – who can enter.
And their response: when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? – that too makes a different kind of sense. For we – I hope – would not ask that question. We, who are steeped in the gospel, for whom the idea that service to others – especially service to those most in need – is service to God – would not need to ask that question. We’ve already heard this story, after all; we know the punchline.
But those outside, the nations, they haven’t heard this story, they need to ask.
But they, the outsiders, the ones who never lived as part of God’s kingdom, they are invited into the kingdom in the final judgement (at least, some of them). And why? What is it that makes the sheep, sheep?
Basically, it seems to me, the judgement is that they will fit. That they have lived the kingdom without ever knowing that that is what they are doing.
In the last of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, The Last Battle, a servant of Tash, the enemy of Aslan’s people, is surprised to find himself in Aslan’s country. Aslan, the Christ figure in the books, explains it:
I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
The sheep are the ones who have lived the kingdom. They are the ones who have met the physical needs of those most disadvantaged – for in the kingdom of God, all have what they need to live and flourish; who have offered welcome and hospitality to the stranger – for in the kingdom of God, all are welcomed and included; and who have offered comfort to the sick, and even to those in prison (and I note in passing, that there is no condition placed here on why they are in prison – for in the kingdom of God even those who have done great wrong are not left to face the consequences alone).
And those who are condemned are not condemned for evil actions that they have done (and, for that matter, there is no suggestion that the sheep have done no wrong, just that they have done right) – their sins are those of omission. They have simply not lived lives that would find a fit in the kingdom of God.
And if this is a description of the kingdom, then even though we may not be the target of the judgement described (for it is in the grace of God that we trust), it would be worth asking ourselves how we would fair, whether we are sheep or goats.
To which, of course, the answer is “no”. We are not sheep or goats. All of us are geep (and yes, that really is a word, a hybrid of goats and sheep, that has fairly frequently been bred – gotta love Wikipedia).
Which is why, in the end, I believe that Jesus’ teaching on judgement is a blessing, not a threat. For the reality of God’s judgement is not that we need fear destruction – for there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God – but that there will, finally, be an end to all those things in ourselves that we would love to change, all those besetting sins, all those moments of jealousy or greed or dishonesty that we are ashamed of but return to, like a dog to its vomit, those destructive attitudes and patterns of life that we find ourselves drawn back to like magnets; all in us that is goat; all that is wrong, twisted, broken, will be put aside, so that we can live, finally, as complete citizens of the kingdom of Christ the King.
Matthew 25:1-13 | Psalm 78:1-7
Here’s a story that we all know well; and for once, a story that makes perfect sense. Wise and foolish bridesmaids; the wise, prepared for all eventualities; the foolish, not thinking ahead.
And as a result of their foolish failiure to prepare, they end up excluded, left out of the wedding banquet.
We even get told the punchline, the moral of the story in the final words of our reading: “keep awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour”. Sound advice, especially in a context where the early Church expected Jesus to return at any moment. Stay focussed. Stay active. Don’t slack off. Stay awake.
It all makes perfect sense… except where it doesn’t. Look again at that final admonition “stay awake”. But falling asleep wasn’t the mistake. Or rather, if it was, it was a mistake made by all ten of the bridesmaids. They all became drowsy, they all fell asleep. If “stay awake” was the point, then all ten of them failed the test.
So we’re told that the point of the story is that we should keep awake – and it’s worth noting that translators differ on whether the words at the end of the reading: ‘keep awake, therefore’ are Matthew quoting Jesus, or Matthew adding his own punchline to Jesus’ story – the Greek doesn’t distinguish, doesn’t tell us where the quotation finishes – but the story itself doesn’t seem to support that moral. Was the failing of the foolish bridesmaids falling asleep, or lack of preparation?
And once you start to pull the threads, the parable starts to come apart in other ways as well. Something else starts to nag at me as I reread it.
Those wise bridesmaids…
Hear the story again:
Ten young girls, waiting to play their role at the wedding of a friend. All of them fall apart, because the bridegroom is late. When they wake up, half of them, unprepared, suddenly realise that they need more oil for their lamps. But that’s ok, because the other half have come prepared, with flasks of oil for their lamps. Surely they can spare a little for their forgetful friends?
But no, their attitude is harsh – it’s your stupid fault you forgot the oil. Go and get yourself so more! We can’t possibly help you out. We aren’t willing to take the risk that our oil might run out.
Is this really the attitude, the behaviour, that Jesus is praising? This mean smugness on the part of the well prepared, at the expense of those now in need?
Is this really the image of the kingdom of God? That those who have made the right decisions, have been prepared (even though they too fell asleep), will refuse to lend a hand to help the foolish?
There is a worldly wisdom displayed here – a practical wisdom, making sure that you are ok, that you are able to play your part in the celebrations. But is it the wisdom of the Kingdom of God?
There is something disturbing here – praise being given to those who act wisely but selfishly, those who send away a friend in need, rather than sharing what they have, through their foresight, available.
And when something doesn’t seem to quite fit, when something about a parable jars with you, or disturbs you; I’m fairly sure that’s when the parable starts to work. When it pushes you to ask more questions, to set aside the obvious, and wonder about other readings. For I’m certain that this is a major part of the reason Jesus used parables, told stories, rather than simply providing us with rules: that there is always more than meets the eye.
And that got me thinking – what mistake did the foolish bridesmaids actually make? Of course, they were unprepared – the obvious point of the parable. And they compounded their error by falling asleep – Matthew’s punchline – for had they stayed awake, they may have realised their problem sooner, and fixed it in time.
But what about when they awoke, and realised that they were in trouble, and that the others would not help them?
I wonder if the biggest mistake they made was, at that point, to leave, to try to buy more oil.
On one level, of course, it was the thing to do. They had made a mistake in their lack of foresight, and compounded it by falling asleep; their friends refused to help them out, so they set out to solve the problem. They go to get more oil, to fix the mess they’ve made, to make things right.
And doing so, they missed out on the wedding banquet.
Suppose, instead, they had stayed – with their lamps dark – to greet the bridegroom. Would he have told them they were no longer welcome, simply because they had made a mistake? If this is a parable of the kingdom of God, surely not.
Or would the bridegroom have laughed at their foolishness, and told them to set the useless lamps aside and come in to join him at the feast?
So perhaps the foolishness of those five was not so much in their lack of preparation – for which of us has never been unprepared; nor their falling asleep – who amongst us is always alert, always ready, always living such that if Jesus came back we would be 100% happy about how went spent our last day, our last week.
Perhaps their final foolishness, the thing that really caused their grief, was a lack of trust in the generosity of the bridegroom. For they has this sense that if they were to go to the banquet, they needed to get everything right. They had made mistakes, so they had to fix them. They couldn’t possibly show up unprepared, with the evidence of their foolishness obvious for all to see.
To meet the bridegroom they felt they had to have it all together, all sorted, all under control. Anything they had done wrong, they needed to make right – before he came for them.
It’s an attitude I’m sure we all recognise in ourselves: where I have failed, I must fix, where I have been foolish, I must compensate. And it stems from a true and good root – the desire to take responsibility for our failures, and to take concrete steps to put them right.
But it becomes the greatest of all foolishness when we conclude that until we have fixed things up, we are not welcome at God’s table, in God’s kingdom, at God’s banquet.
We join together today at another banquet of the kingdom, the celebration of holy communion. And there is no need to have everything sorted, everything fixed. If your lamp is out of oil, don’t rush off. Stay, lamp or no lamp – for here, by the grace of God, all are welcome.
Following on from our education theme yesterday… our very own Jane Kennedy (member of the Growing Place congregation) has a real passion for the power of education to break the cycle of poverty in the developing world. Not only is it a lot her job with UnitingWorld, but she also has her own charity, “A Girl and Her World”, which supports fifty girls in rural Fiji through school.
Each year Jane commits to raising $5000 to pay for the coming year of school for these girls… so you are invited to a night of fun and food on December 6th in support of this great cause. More information and online booking here.
Alternatively, you could support these girls through an online donation, and get a small gift – a book, handmade bag, or ‘legendary Christmas cake’ in thanks.
Matthew 23:1-12 | 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
You’ve probably gathered by now, as we’ve read through Matthew’s gospel over the course of the year, that Jesus wasn’t the biggest of the Jewish religious authorities of his day. But just in case there was any doubt left in anyone’s mind, today’s reading ought to put an end to it. A more scathing critique would be hard to find.
But his target – at least today – wasn’t everyone. He doesn’t mention the priests, for example, or the Sadducees. Both those groups get their share of criticism elsewhere. But today his words were reserved for the scribes and the Pharisees – those, in other words, who were responsible for teaching the people.
For of course in an era before universal schooling, education, for the vast majority of people, consisted of what you learnt from your parents, and from what you were taught in the synagogue, by the Pharisees, or, if you showed particular flair, in the Temple, by the scribes.
These were the people who had responsibility, in particular, for teaching the law of Moses to the people, to make the words of the scriptures relevant to the lives of the people living, as they, did, under Roman rule: they sat in Moses’ seat, as Jesus described it, doing Moses’ job, interpreting the law of God to the people of God.
And it’s certainly worth noting that Jesus started by giving great respect to that position, that role; they sit in Moses’ seat, so do what they teach and follow it. It’s not the content of their teaching – the Old Testament laws – that Jesus had a problem with. It wasn’t that the syllabus had become dated and in need of another national review; the problem wasn’t the law, it was the teachers.
And for them, Jesus has harsh words. Three hard criticisms for them to hear – and for us to reflect upon.
Firstly: do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.
It’s hard to imagine a more cutting thing to say about anyone, most of all about someone who sets themselves up as a teacher. And worse still; of teachers of the law of God – this is not telling a tennis coach that he has a sloppy backhand, or pointing out to a maths teacher that she can’t add up – this is telling the moral and spiritual teachers that they don’t live the way they know they ought, and tell others they ought.
Hard to imagine anything harsher, I said? Unfortunately for those on the receiving end of these words it just gets worse. For their hypocrisy is a problem for themselves; Jesus second condemnation is that they go out of their way to make things hard for others. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, and they make no effort to carry them themselves.
The contrast, of course, is with the words that Jesus spoke of himself – “come to me, you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest – for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. The accusation is that the Pharisees and the scribes make being God’s people harder than it ought to be. That they layer law upon law, regulation upon regulation, interpretation on interpretation, building the burden of obedience until it is too hard to carry, and offering no helping hand, no shoulder to share the load.
Loving and serving and following God was never intended to be a burden. Hard, yes. But not burdensome. Hard to do, but rewarding; the sort of hard work that we all know, when you reach the end of the day ready for a glass of wine with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done something worthwhile, not the burden of hard work wrapped in the additional burden of a sense of futility.
And having criticised the teachers for their moral failing and their making things unnecessarily hard and unrewarding for others, Jesus goes in for the kill.
“They love to have the place of honour at banquets… to be greeted with respect… to be called Rabbi… They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long”
You’re not in it for God, for your own spiritual health.
You’re not in it for others, to help them to walk in the ways that the Lord has called them to.
You’re in it for the honour; the respect; the title; the clothes.
And so Jesus comes to his conclusion; his instructions now not for the Pharisees but for his followers: do not be called Rabbi, do not be called Father, do not be called Instructor.
But notice – and I didn’t notice this, until I came to write this sermon – it doesn’t say “you are not to be a rabbi, you are not to be an instructor, you are not to be a teacher”.
This isn’t Jesus saying “don’t be a teacher”. It’s Jesus saying “don’t seek the honour, the respect, the title that goes with that role.”
For when it comes to the things of God none of us has any claim to title; for we all have one teacher, we all share the same status – that of student.
But I don’t believe for a moment that this means that none of us are to be teachers – in fact, its exactly the opposite. For if we are all students, then we are all teachers.
Just as it is true in the modern classroom – that students learn from one another, as well as from the teacher; and indeed, teachers learn from their students as much as they teach – so it is true of us. It is because we all share the same teacher that we are able to teach and learn from one another.
And so our gospel reading ends, not with a command to never dare teach one another, but with a description of the attitude that actually enables one to be a great teacher: “the greatest among you will be your servant”.
A description that is beautifully illustrated in our epistle – hear the contrast between these words and Jesus’ description of the Pharisees:
we lived lives consistent with the message
we worked day and night so we would not be a burden to you while we proclaimed the gospel
we are thankful that you received the message not from us, but from God
It’s as if this letter was written in direct response to Jesus’ words: in our faith, our Church, we will not make the same mistakes that Jesus accused the teachers of the law of.
Every one of us is a teacher; some times we teach explicitly, deliberately; we teach our children, our grandchildren, our students. And we teach each other – we share our experiences, our insights, our wisdom, sometimes realising that that is what we are doing, but probably more often without knowing that others are watching, listening, learning.
So these words challenge us, as teachers, with the same three tests that the Pharisees failed:
Do we live lives which are consistent with our message? If we speak of forgiveness, do we forgive? If we speak for care of the environment, do we switch off the lights? If we campaign for social justice, do we live in ways that set others free?
And do we place burdens on others? Do we make it easier or harder for others to be part of our community of faith? Do we expect people who would worship with us to be like us, pressure them to take on all the trappings of our faith as well as the heart of the faith?
And do we, in the end, recognise that it is God who teaches, and that it is therefore ok if others come to a different conclusion to us; that we are not seeking to make others into images of ourselves, but helping them to grow into the image of God in which they are created?
We are all teachers. Let’s be good ones.
Berowra Uniting Church are having an evening of Gingerbread House making – Saturday December 6th, 5pm – 7pm, $35 per house. Looks like a lot of fun… more info on their website
On Saturday 22nd November, we will be hosting the KCEA prayer breakfast. Come along and hear about and support this important work in Ku-ring-gai creative arts hight school!
To mark the start of advent, we’ll be holding our second annual Christmas Lunch on Sunday 30th November, after morning tea. Put the date in your diary, and watch this space for more information…