The 2015 Cartophiles walk program is available here 2015 Walk Program.
Genesis 1:9-13 | Mark 1:14-20
Let the waters under the sky be gathered together in one place, and let the dry earth appear.
Last week, as we explored the second day of the creation story, we saw the separation of the waters of chaos into two – the waters above, the sky, the heavens, and the waters below. Our attention today focuses on the waters below. For the process of making a space for the world to exist is not yet done; below the dome of the heavens is simply the waters below, where chaos still reigns.
And God gathers those waters together in one place. As if having separated the waters vertically on day two, now God separates them horizontally, pushing them back to allow the dry earth to appear. For a people suspicious of, afraid of, the sea, it is a compelling image; on the first day God provided light, driving back the darkness; on the second and third God constrains the waters, making a safe place, dry land, appear. This, as an image of God’s power recurs numerous times in the psalms, and perhaps most obviously in the book of Job, which report God as saying:
who shut in the sea with doors … and prescribed bounds for it,… and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”
So God separated land from sea, and God saw that it was good.
I don’t know if you noticed that – last week, on the second day of the creation story, God didn’t say that it was good. This week, on the third day, as if to make up for it, God says it twice.
It’s almost as if the first half of day three, God is merely completing the work of day two – separating the waters – and it isn’t until the separation is complete that it can be declared to be good. And let’s face it, we’ve all had days like that – where you get to lunch and realise you just finished yesterday’s work. Actually, that’s probably on a good day. But I digress.
Having created the dry land, the story cannot wait to move on; can’t wait another day. As if the mere existence of the land demands the next step, demands that that land become fertile; for without a pause, the land bring forth vegetation, plants, and trees.
And those plants, and those trees, the writer takes the trouble to tell us, are plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit with seed in. At first glance that might seems to be making a point of the human utility of these plants – plants bearing seed and trees bearing fruit, after all, are fairly basic necessities of the agrarian society in which this story was written. But the focus of the writer seems not to be so much the value of these things for food (that will come in the sixth day), but in the repetition of the word “seeds”; plants bearing seeds, trees bearing fruit with seeds in.
And of course the point of seeds is that they make more plants, which in turn make more seeds. Having created a space for life, God’s first act of creation in the story is to make plants which have themselves the power to recreate. Here we have the first hint at one of the most incredible truths of the creation story: that God, the creator, imbues creation with the power to create. It’s often said that when God creates humanity in the image of God, the story identifies us as co-creators alongside God; gifted with the power, the instinct, the ability to create.
But in truth, long before humanity comes onto the scene – billions of years before – creation is created creative. Of course, it’s a different sort of creativity from that of God, or that of humanity; the simple ability to reproduce its own kind; but it paints an image of a God who is willing to give space to creation – for God does not need to create each leaf and flower, does not to teach each seed how to grow; instead God has gifted the power to grow and reproduce to creation.
The poet W. Tyson Thomson wrote “God painted the stream, each rock and leaf; then painted the cloud, though it’s life is brief, all the colours so rich and pure, as only God can paint, of this I am sure”
And that’s a lovely image – but how much more amazing is it to suggest that God does not paint the leaf, but gives to the seed the capacity to grow the plant and create the leaf. And putting my scientific hat on – painting the leaf is nothing compared to building chloroplast and filling them with chlorophyll; adding stoma which open to allow gas exchange and close to preserve water; creating xylem and phloem to transport nutrients to and from the leaf.
And all that; all that complexity; is there in the seed. Not waiting for God to painstakingly fashion each leaf; God gifts the plant the agency, the capacity, to make leaves for itself.
The image of God as parent comes to mind; that a parent does not do everything that they want a child to do; instead the parent’s fundamental role is to empower the child – to gift them with the ability, the knowledge, the wisdom and the freedom to act for them themselves.
The God who paints each leaf is the God who keeps control.
The God of the scriptures is the God who gifts creation with freedom, and in doing so, as an act of generous love, chooses to be limited. Here, in day three, it’s just God allowing something else – seeds – to share in the work of creation. But it is a theme that will grow throughout the creation story, but more, will grow in the calling of a nation, and most dramatically, grow in the self emptying of God in the incarnation, and the rejection of God in the crucifixion.
Our God is not the God of absolute control; for absolute control is the place of the tyrant, the anathema of love, which always seeks to set the beloved free. Our God is the one who chose to allow that which is not-God to be; to allow it to be creative; and ultimately, to allow it – us – to grow up, to take responsibility for our own acts of creation, and with it, to make meaningful mistakes.
Which brings us back to Job – for God said to the sea “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”. But by human skill and technological advances; in particular in the massive exploitation of our fossil fuel reserves and the dramatic effect that this is having on the global climate, we are breaking those constraints. 2014 was the hottest year on record; 13 of the 15 hottest years have happened since 2000; and the trend is clearly upwards. As a direct result the ocean levels are rising, at perhaps 3mm per year, and the sea is moving past it’s historic limits. Our freedom is driving the sea back onto the land; and the people of Tuvalu, and Bangladesh, and the Maldives, and Pakistan, and Miami, and New Orleans, and Sydney will all feel the consequences of our choices.
For one thing about a God who is a parent and not a tyrant is that we, God’s children, have meaningful responsibility, and the ability to make a difference, for better and for worse; on those around us, by the way we treat them; on those further away, by the way we act – or fail to act – for justice; and even on creation.
It would be simpler to believe in a God who took all control and all responsibility, and asked us just to worship and acknowledge God’s rule. But the Christian faith calls us instead into partnership with the creator God who endowed creation with the power to create and, at least for us, the freedom to choose what to do with it.
That’s harder. But probably more fun.
Christmas 2014 was another great time for our friends at The Dish. Christmas gifts from many sources (both organisations and individuals) were handed out at most of the gatherings during December – with schools preparing over the months before. A Year 8 student from a Wahroonga family offered to put together the hampers for Friday’s session on Boxing Day.
As part of his Duke of Edinburgh Service of the Bronze Division he spent one day gathering items from our store of gifts, allocating items for each recipient, others specially wrapped by members of the North Sydney Inner Wheel. Individual cards for each person were written and included in their pack. A photo of our friends receiving their gifts shows their appreciation! Canned food, gathered from Bendigo Bank’s Turramurra branch were included in these packs, as well as hygiene bags including necessities.
Festive food of turkey, ham and plum pudding with custard and ice cream topped their Christmas meal.
The Dish has now been operating for eleven years and the numbers that come for a meal have increased. Over ten persons have been housed by Housing New South Wales this year within and without the Hornsby area, following two “Meet and Greet” sessions for morning tea/lunch held in Hornsby and Brooklyn Parks respectively. Some of the folk of those areas have learnt of the presence of The Dish here in Hornsby and are now regular visitors for a meal.
We are indebted to many, many people for their support in keeping this community project running.
The new Hornsby Women’s Shelter is looking for volunteers who are able to help out in various practical ways.
At the moment they are looking for people willing to assist with mowing the lawns. If you think this is something you could do, contact the secretary, Dorothy Babb, by email – firstname.lastname@example.org – or talk to Chris.
The latest copy of the journal, featuring all our Christmas activities, is now available for download in full colour. Paper copies will be available soon!
Genesis 1:6-8 | John 1:43-51
So there came a point, about half-way through this week, when I was cursing myself for the whim – or, as I now think of it, momentary lapse of reason – that led me to pick the six days of creation as a series of six themes for the period between epiphany and lent.
And in particular, for the second day. I mean, most of the days have a pretty clear theme – light, land, animals, people – but day two? In day two what gets created?
A dome in the midst of the waters, separating the waters below from the waters above.
It even seems as if the writer of Genesis feels that day two is a bit of a let down – it’s the only day that lacks the refrain “And God looked… and God saw that it was good”. Did you notice? On day two, we don’t even have that. Even God seems a bit “yeah, whatever” about this dome.
And then the other things about day two – I actually can’t get my head around what it’s meant to look like. I mean, in the beginning the spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters, but now a dome is created to separate waters below from above. It makes, to me, about as much sense as having “days” of creation, when day and night don’t even get created until day three….
But of course, such objections are to totally miss the nature of the writing. This is not a naturalistic, mechanistic description of some historical process; this is a theological, poetic telling of the nature of creation.
And it does reflect an ancient understanding of cosmology. For the ancient Hebrew people, in common with the majority of the people of their age, the world was covered by a giant dome that supported the skies, and upon which the stars, sun and moon moved. And to understand that beyond the dome was water was just common sense – why else was the sky blue, and where else did the rain come from? To the ancient mind, Spike Milligan would have been speaking the obvious:
There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they’re ever so small
That’s why rain is thin
Now you’ll remember, from last week, that the Hebrew attitude to the waters – the chaos – was basically pretty negative. And that persists in a deep fear and distrust of the sea – in the language of Genesis “the waters below” (ever wondered why in the book of Revelation we read And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea?). But to an agrarian society, as our farmers know all too well, rain was, at least in most cases, a blessing, a good, a gift from God.
So the dome, the firmament, creates a distinction between the chaotic, dangerous, untrustworthy waters “beneath”, and the waters above, sent, at God’s command, to water the earth and bring it to life.
And of course, there is the metaphorical language of up and down which runs through not just the scriptures but pretty much any spirituality; whether Jacob’s ladder, or “who has ascended to God’s throne”, or “she’s buying a stairway to heaven”.
Not that the people of the Old Testament scriptures believed that God actually resided “up there”, but that there is a deep, consistent, almost instinctive sense that up, the skies, the heavens, is good, and down, the depths, is bad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ‘heavens’ and ‘sky’ here are basically the same word – in English, in Hebrew, and in many other languages.
It’s as if the first day took the undifferentiated grey of chaos and produced the distinction of darkness and light; and the second day produces a different distinction; a vertical one – up, to the heavens, and down, to the depths, to hades, into death.
And here’s the thing that is really created on day two: a gap.
What God creates by separating the waters below from the waters above is a space between the two.
A space which is not the waters of chaos, but is also not the heavens above. A place which is not meaningless void and nothingness, but is also not God. No dry land yet – that’s next week – but the possibility of something else. Something created; something with order and meaning and purpose; but something that is not the creator.
Something which is not the water of chaos, but is also not God.
There is a sense in which this is actually the key mysery – the central philosophical miracle of creation: that God who was everything could create space for something that was not God.
Now we don’t believe that the sky is heaven, that below the earth is the water of chaos and above it a dome holding back the waters above.
When the book of Job has God saying “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?” we read those words as literally as Spike Milligan’s poem.
And so we read the second day of the creation story, the creation of the sky to hold back the waters above, and we move on.
But in fact it makes a profound statement about our place in creation – that we – and by we, I mean the whole of the created order – are between.
We are not the meaningless flow of matter and energy, the souless movement of fields and particles in unfathomably complex patterns. Such a view of creation, for all the complexity that emerges, remains no more than the waters of chaos; thrown for a moment into recognisable shapes, but no more meaningful that the dragon’s head you see in the clouds or the white horses in the ocean foam. This is the creed of the hard-core athiest; it is not our faith.
And at the same time, we are not God. We are not mini-Gods, divine, infinite, eternal, unlimited creatures held back only by our own perception. We are not Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This is the creed of the gnostics, and of sentimental spirituality; it is not our faith.
We are between.
We are created; limited; made of the natural stuff of the universe; and we are cast in the image of God; shaped by the word of God; baptised by the Holy Spirit of God into lives of meaning and purpose and order.
There is a Hasidic saying that each of us should carry around two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One piece of paper says “I am but dust and ashes”: I read this when I’m feeling proud and self-important. But when I’m feeling worthless or ashamed, I read the other piece of paper, which says: “For me the world was created.”
For these are both true; and neither. We are between. That’s why day two of creation matters – it gives us a place to be between. And perhaps it’s why God does not say it is good. For it is not unambiguously so. The space between is not a place of good, it is a space that creates the possibility of both good and evil.
That is where we live.
Just a quick reminder that we’ll be having congregational meetings for an update on the progress of talks with WPS and Knox on February 15th and March 1st. Of course, you should feel free to talk with Kit any time!
Genesis 1:1-5 | Mark 1:4-11
Genesis chapter one has been one of the unfortunate victims of the perceived conflict between science and faith that has generated so much vehemence and so little insight over the past decades. With vocal parts of the Christian church insisting on the literal interpretation of these verses, and even going as far as to declare that entertaining any other reading is directly furthering the work of Satan (and yes, I have been accused of that, more than once, over my years as a non-literalist Christian), those who find they are more able to accommodate both the insights of science and the wisdom of the Biblical narrative have often found it simpler to avoid the conflict by avoiding the text.
Which is unfortunate for at least three reasons: it yields the floor to those who would argue vigorously for a literal reading, and in doing so advances the popular impression of Christianity as irrationally anti-science; it implicitly accepts the worst aspect of the debate, by suggesting that we must choose between reading the text literally or not at all; and, perhaps worst of all, it deprives us of insights into the Hebrew understanding of God which enable us to better understand everything that comes after.
So in the six weeks that we have before shrove Tuesday leads us into Lent, we’re going to take the six days of the creation story, and see what we find in them.
And so we begin with the very opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”.
It’s fairly common, when the Biblical creation story is described, to speak of God as having created everything ex nihilo, out of nothing, in a foreecho of modern cosmology: before the big bang, there was nothing, not even time in which nothing might have existed; and then God spoke, and there was light, the universe of time and space came into being.
But the language of the Hebrew poet seems to tell a slightly different story; in the beginning, when God began to create, the earth – as formless void – and the deep – the waters that covered the earth – were already there: and a wind from God, a spirit from God, swept over the face of the waters.
As if the formless void, the water, the chaos, was there as raw materials for the Spirit of God to work upon.
Jewish cosmology hated chaos; saw it as the unambiguous enemy of the work of a God of order and structure. They had, of course, no idea of the modern concept of entropy, but they had a pretty strong sense of it none the less – that the natural state of the cosmos is chaos; that without the intervention of the creative word of God there is no order; and even after the act of creation bringing order to the heavens and the earth, without a sustaining power creation inevitably descends back into chaos. Anyone who doubts that chaos is the natural direction of creation need only look at my study to be immediately convinced.
So the story of creation starts, not with nothing, but with darkness, formless void, the waters of the deep. And the Spirit of God swept over the waters. I’m sure it won’t have escaped your notice that these two ideas – water and spirit – are a thematic pair throughout the scriptures. In today’s gospel reading, of course – John says “I baptise with water, but he will baptise with the spirit”. Or in the conversation with Nicodemus “you must be born of water and the spirit”. Or even right back in the exodus, when “a wind from God” (wind, spirit, same word) drives back the waters of the red sea so that the people can flee from Egypt.
And all of those stories make a different sense when you read them in the light of the creation story: where water is the natural stuff of creation; alone, no more than a raw material out of which something meaningful can only be created by the spirit of God.
And so we reflect on John the baptist: preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism, of course, was an echo of the rites of purification undertaken by the priests before they could enter the Temple; it had also, by the time of Jesus, begum to be used as a rite for those who were converting to Judaism – after a seven day period of fasting and reflection and repentance, the new believer would be baptised into the Jewish faith. But John takes this rite of repentance and purification, and throws it open to all who seek forgiveness, all who truly repent.
But in none of these rituals could the baptism with water actually achieve the thing that it symbolised. Josephus wrote, of John and the practice of baptism in Jesus’ day: “The washing would be acceptable to God, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”
For the water can do no more than water does; the natural material of the physical world could do no more than bring a physical cleanliness to the physical body.
And so John declared the limitation of his own ministry: “I baptise with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
As if to say: “all I have to offer is that which can be brought about by humanity, by the natural, by the raw materials of creation. Water can clean the body, but something else is needed. The waters that were there even before God spoke in creation need to be shaped, formed, transformed, by the creative power of the Holy Spirit of God. I baptise you with water – for you are human, a part of creation, made of the same stuff as rest of us; but the transformation that you are looking for, the fruit of repentance, the life worth living that God has created for you: that needs more.”
Life needs both the natural – the water – and the supernatural, the spiritual, the spirit of God. No one will enter the kingdom of God unless born of water and the spirit. Born of nature and of God. Neither one is enough. And so we see Jesus getting baptised – in water and by the descending spirit of God. It’s almost the story of the incarnation – or creation – written again; the declaration that the water, the stuff of creation, the physical, is good and important and necessary; but that it only takes shape, form, meaning, when the spirit of God moves over the waters and God says “let there be light”
We in the Church are often water. We strive to do all the things that can be naturally done. We do our good works, we offer our love and support to those around us, we fight for justice and work for peace, and we try, desperately, to live lives that reflect those same things. We recognise our failures, we repent and receive God’s forgiveness and try again. And all of those things are like water, like the baptism of John.
And sometime we are spirit – we pray, we meditate, we seek deeper understanding of the will and way of God, we draw near to God in word and song a silence and seek a meeting of our spirit with the spirit of God. We learn the meanings of our sacred story and reflect upon them in our stillness and our busyness. All the things of the spirit.
But we only find our true shape, our true meaning, our true power, when the two baptisms are joined; when the wind of God moves over the water of our works; when the spirit of God breathes life into our desperate longing for reconciliation, peace, justice; when the baptism of fire brings the light of day into the darkness of night that covers the world in the absence of God.
Meaning, I guess, that this new year each of us might helpfully reflect: where in my life do I live like the water, operating in the way of the natural world; and how might the baptism of the Holy Spirit touch those aspects of life?
And where do I live like Spirit, connected with God but not with the world; and how might I bring the water of creation into the spirit of God in my life?
For when the spirit of God moved over the water; when the physical stuff of creation was empowered by the spiritual creativity of God, God spoke, and there was light, and the light was good.
Maintaining our tradition, the last walk for the year for the Cartophiles Bushwalking Club was the iconic Spit Bridge to Manly walk, following the Manly Scenic Walkway. This beautiful and varied 9km track is consistently rated as one of Australia’s top ten walks.
The weather was overcast but mild, almost perfect for a strenuous walk. Luckily, we weren’t feeling too strenuous. Ten Cartophiles met at Ellery’s Punt Reserve for the walk: Tige, Glenn, David, Janet, Paul, Annie, James, Tim, Sue and Kit.
The walk was, as always, beautiful. It starts at the north end of the Spit Bridge and follows the waters edge to Clontarf Reserve and beach before ascending steadily to the aboriginal rock carvings at Grotto Point. From there it climbs to the top of Dobroyd
Head, with great views over Port Jackson, The Heads and Manly, before dropping steeply down rocky steps to Reef and Forty Baskets beaches. It then follows the water around North Harbour and past Fairlight to Manly wharf.
Our time was spiced by two adventures. Firstly, we met two runners coming the other way who had found a set of car keys. Sue exchanged mobile phone numbers with Nick (!) and proceeded to ask every group we passed if they had lost some keys. One fretful-looking man said yes, and after a series of phone calls with Nick to establish a rendezvous (!) the man hugged Sue and hurried off with his two daughters.
Editor’s note: Careful readers may have identified a hint of jealous suspicion in the phrasing of the last paragraph. The writer has been carefully counselled with a broom handle and wishes to make it clear that any implication of impropriety is entirely accidental.
The second adventure was a bit more dramatic. As we crossed Forty Baskets Beach we noticed one of the boats at its mooring was down at the stern. While making light hearted comments about it we realised that is was getting even lower in the water! We rang 000 to let the police know that there was a boat sinking at its moorings. It took some time to establish with the operator that we were at
Forty Baskets Breach, not Number 40, Baskets Beach Rd, and by the time we left all that was visible above the waves was the blue tarpaulin canopy. We hope they were able to refloat her before New Years Eve.
Other than these tiny adventures we had no medical frights, no injuries, no annoying insects and very little need for long rest stops. We weren’t rained on, we suffered no heat stroke, no one was sunburnt, no items were lost and no equipment damaged. It was, in fact, a nearly perfect outing.
Of course, we didn’t walk hard. We had a short break while we ordered coffee at Clontarf Reserve, then a casual stroll up the beach. Although we were disappointed to find that Mr Whippy was missing from the car park at Dobroyd Head we did finish by walking up The Corso to our traditional debrief at the Hotel Steyne. It was a great end to another successful year for the Cartophiles, and we look forward to an even better 2015.
L-R Sue, Annie, James, Tim, some people at the back we don’t know, Paul, Janet, Glenn, David (standing) and Tige peeking around the corner
Our tenth day walk for 2014 was much tougher than we anticipated, when eight Cartophiles (Tim, Andrew, Paul, Annie, James, David, Sue & Kit) did the coastal circuit in the southern section of Wyrrabalong National Park, south of Tuggerah Lake on the Central Coast .
Wyrrabalong National Park conserves the last patch of coastal rainforest on the Central Coast. The walk runs through this long, thin strip of forest before returning via the boulder-strewn shoreline and beaches.
We met at the Bateau Bay Beach picnic area and lookout, which proved a slightly less obvious rendezvous than expected. During the wait to all goather some of us went on a coffee run, which added further delay. It was a late start!
The first part of the walk follows a flat, easy path before climbing the hill to Crackneck Lookout. On the way is passes a bench seat with plaques commemorating Luke Hankey, a 24 year old surfer who was found murdered in the car park of Bateau Bay Hotel in 2007. The lookout had some nice views out to sea, but more fascinating was the hangliding launch spot beside the lookout. Why anyone would throw themselves of that cliff willingly was a puzzle to most of us.
Something about the bush after the lookout brought out our inner child, with most of us climbing a tree. From there we walked up to the top of
Cromarty Hill before beginning the steep descent to Forresters Beach. Here we met a family with their pet yellow tailed black cockatoo, the first such pet any of us had seen. After the significant photo opportunity we finished the walk down to the beach, where we had lunch.
During lunch the informal Forresters Beach dog club came running past us, to the delight of the dog lovers in our group. We were careful where we stepped after lunch.
The next part of the walk was rock-hopping along the shoreline and was tough going. It was a game of balance, endurance and daring, all the while exposed to the sea. The rocks were carved into wonderful sculptures by the wind and waves … the curious thing was the frequent old, rusted car engine block.
Finally we reached the last beach and split up to go to the car park. Half the group went up the concrete access ramp from the southern end of the beach, the remainder went up the steps from the northern end. That produced another short comedy session when we met at the top missing Paul!
Yes, there’s a public toilet along the way.
We finished with a detailed debriefing session at the Bateau Bay Hotel.
The Cartophiles’ ninth day walk of 2014 was to the dramatic sandstone cliffs, rugged bushland and varied natural habitats of the Dharug National Park, just north of the Hawkesbury river. We had last been there in June for the overnight walks along the Old Great North Road.
This time we tackled the misnamed 11km walking track, which is actually 8.2km long. National Parks says, “… it is an exhilarating challenge for adventure seekers.”
Seven Cartophiles (Paul, James, Annie, David, Mary and Kit) met at the historic Wisemans Ferry Inn before crossing the river and heading to the start point at the lovely Mill Creek picnic area. The first part of the walk meandered alongside a lovely little creek, rising and falling in short steep sections. The sound of the bubbling creek and the bird calls were delightful, and the vegetation was lush. Soon the track climbed very steeply to the top of the ridge, where the vegetation changed to open, dry
forest interspersed with cliffs and boulder sections that were draped in wildflowers. From there it followed the ridge through a few steep gullies, with hard descents and ascents that had all of us blowing. The overcast briefly turned to drizzle on this section, but it was very short lived. The trees thinned out and there were some nice views, so we stopped for lunch on a rock ledge.
From there the track zigzagged downhill to the moist valley again before crossing a wooden bridge and climbing back to the Mill Creek Picnic area. At the picnic area we were pleasantly surprised to see a lyrebird walking around feeding.
This surprisingly good walk has an extraordinary range of habitats in a very short time, mainly due to the steep climbs. We will have to seek out other hidden gems like this for next year.
After the walk we piled back into our cars for the trip back to a relaxed debrief around an outdoor table at the Wisemans Ferry Inn. Life is good.
Jeremiah 31:10-14 | John 1:1-14
And so we begin a new year, and say farewell to 2014. And I guess most of us, over the past few days, have spent at least a little time wondering about what the year ahead will hold for us. We might have made resolutions for the new year – we might already have broken them
For some, of course, 2015 will see radical change. Before the year is out Oscar will have changed out of all recognition – from a baby to a toddler. But the one inevitable prediction for all of us is that 2015 will see things change – just like every year before has done. And the other inevitable prediction is that things will not turn out the way we expect as we look ahead.
So what is it that our faith, and the story of Christmas, has to say as we look forward into the unknown of a new year? I guess it would be summed up in the single word: hope.
No act of God at any point in history gives us more reason to hope in any age or any human condition than the Incarnation. In the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world of sin and sorrow to break the grip of evil and to save us – to save us from ourselves and all the forces, social, political, economic, psychological, that deface the image of God in us. On one night God entered our world as an infant.
But just as Oscar will not remain a baby for long, nor did Jesus. We focus at Christmas on the child in the manger, but this child was more than he appeared to be. In adulthood it became increasingly obvious that he was more than just a man. He looked like us. He grew up like any other child of his time, but he had a reason for being here that not only required him to be human, but more. In him we got a permanent glimpse of God, and in him we came to know more about God than has ever been known, before or since. In this man Jesus, we saw, and see, the face of God.
It would come as no surprise to the religious community of Jesus’ time that God was showing up in some manner to influence people and events. The Jewish people lived in a story which was inhabited by – almost haunted by – the presence of God. Throughout their history, God had been actively involved in the nitty-gritty details of their individual and community life. God spoke to Abraham, came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and sent word through the Prophets to the leaders and people of Israel. In the ups and downs of his mercurial life, Israel’s favourite King, David, had a life-long divine dialogue.
The Jews in Jesus’ time were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up as he did – a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably into their tradition, but God in human form did not. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other man was to them beyond strange.
Which, I just note in passing, since all of the early leaders in the Christian Church were Jewish, makes this declaration: that in Christ the word, the creative reality of God, had become flesh and dwelt among us, so astoundingly unlikely; any attempt to play down the Biblical description of the divinity of Jesus as an invention or interpretation of the early Church flounders on this – it is literally the last thing a Jew would expect, imagine, or invent.
Of course, one striking thing about John’s description of the birth of Christ is that it contains none of the scene that we are so familiar with: no shepherds, no magi, no manger, no angels. John, writing at least a generation after the events of that first Christmas, perhaps has no interest in those things; or perhaps more likely, the stories were so well known that he did not need to write them again.
Instead he writes the commentary, the theology, the poetry, to share the revolutionary announcement that God has come into the world; that God has become like us in Christ so that we can become like God. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see.
And this gives us a whole new way of reading the whole of our scriptures. From the strange, pre-scientific creation story, to the tangled lives of the patriarchs, the blood-thirsty stories of the establishment, rise and fall of the nation of Israel, the weird pronouncements of the prophets, we see the story of a people who are gradually learning what the God who has called them is like, what the God who has called them wants them to be like.
And if we are honest as we read, we have to admit that the image of God portrayed in much of the Old Testament scriptures – and some of the New – is not one that we are comfortable with. Perhaps we try to ignore the bits of the Bible where God is portrayed as commanding genocide, or condoning rape or slavery, or treating women and children as property. Maybe we skip those bits, and get selective in our reading.
William Barclay tells the story of a young girl who had a more creative response to the less attractive parts of the Bible; when she was confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament she offered her interpretation: “Those things happened before God became a Christian.”
John’s gospel offers us a slightly different answer: God did not become like Jesus; God always was like Jesus. But we didn’t realize it until Jesus came.
Until Jesus came, the world was understood through the images of God that were available to the people of his time: the limited, local tribal Gods of the ancient world; the capricious Gods of the popular Greek and Roman pantheons; the aloof Gods of the philosophers; Gods who might be bribed or begged or persuaded or bargained onto your side, but whose support was always contingent.
But then Jesus enters the story; and with him a whole new insight, a new revelation, into what God is like.
God is like Jesus.
And that changes everything. Because that means that whether we read the Old Testament or the daily paper, we read with a whole new image and understanding of God. Of a God who is not distant and aloof, but present with us; a God who is not the abstract author, but a character in the plot; a God who is not driven by any need other than the desire to love creation and to be loved by it.
Which is why I suggest that the single word that the gospel story brings to 2015 is hope.
For if God is like Jesus, we need not be afraid.