Welcome for the Desperate…

I read a story this week – it was a story I really didn’t want to deal with but there it was before me and I read it. It wasn’t easy and it haunted me somewhat but that’s the nature of stories – sometimes they lift and inspire, sometimes they express a deep truth and sometimes they confront and haunt you.

It was the story of a family. This family was simple, relatively poor and vulnerable. They were living in a small town in the Middle East amidst the turbulence of geo-political rivalries, conflict, economic injustice and the ravages or power abuse. Things seemed to be relatively peaceful in their small, insignificant village away from the forces of persecution. The parents and their child lived and went about life in their simple way without harming anyone.

Suddenly the persecution began. Soldiers and armies came through the region and had their way with the people. No-one was safe – even children. In fact one of the means of control was to remove the sons of families. It’s common enough – perhaps these will be the future resistance fighters and therefore they are killed before there is trouble. The powers that be in their world seemed crazy and controlled murderous regimes that didn’t flinch at murder of innocents.

The father was afraid – for himself and more-so for his family, his young wife and infant son. He didn’t know where to go or what to do. He had no resources, no money and no clear options for safety. One night as panic seized and he prayed to his God, he felt that they needed to go – NOW! They packed what they could carry, looked around their home one last time and then set out. There was no car for them to drive – no transport but the legs they were born with. They walked and walked. There were periods of hiding from soldiers and they slept in the hills and along the road that headed south.

They walked and walked and were no longer sure of time. Others were escaping as well but no-one knew whom to trust. They walked onwards to who knew where – somewhere they could be safe. It was hazardous and the dangers confronted them daily – hot sun, rocky hill passes, desert regions with little water, little access to food – dangers all the way.

Finally they arrived somewhere where there was habitation. Was it safe? Could they stop here, live here? Where were they?

They were so tired, distressed and desperate that anywhere was fine as long as there weren’t soldiers looking for them. They would risk staying here as they had no energy to carry on. So they stopped and found shelter, along with others escaping the violence and persecution. The locals seemed friendly and though language were different they learned to communicate and gradually learned enough language to get along.

There wasn’t much work but the father did what he could to get food on the table. Gradually things settled down and they lived there some years. They never really knew it as home but it was where they lived and had been welcomed in their desperate time of need. After some years the powers in their old country changed and so did the politics and believing it to be safe again they yearned to return home and find their family. After more prayer and pondering the father packed everything up and once again they made their way back to their homeland, this time to a village in the north with their extended family. It was different but it was home.

I can’t really describe what this family and others like them experienced. I can’t describe the fear and desperation. I can’t describe the hardships and poverty, the dangers of the journey or arriving in a strange land with nothing! I can’t imagine the life they lived in a strange land, nor the relief they felt at being accepted. I can only read between the lines and wonder…

You can read this story, along with many other such stories, in the Bible. It happens to be one of our readings this Sunday – Matthew 2:13-23. It tells of Jesus’ family seeking refuge in a foreign land because of persecution. It tells of their flight to Egypt and return when the evil King dies. There aren’t too many details but you might try to imagine what it was like. You might like to imagine what it might have been like if the evil powers had gotten to this family and killed the oldest male – we may never have heard this story and we would not be celebrating Christmas because it was the infant Jesus who was being hunted and his family were refugees.

This haunting story reflects the stories of so many through the Old Testament history of the Jewish people. It reflects the stories of so many people throughout the world throughout history. It reflects the experiences, the hopes and the fears of so many people.

We don’t understand it because we have relative peace and we aren’t persecuted or threatened by authorities. We aren’t chased through the streets by soldiers or under surveillance by authorities. We aren’t threatened or imprisoned and our family members aren’t taken from their beds and made to disappear. We don’t know the absolute desperation of these people and yet through our successive governments we have judged them harshly, detained them, treated them as criminals and sent them away to strange places. We have believed them to be illegal and a threat to our freedom. There are so many bizarre notions about refugees and the radio shock jocks have a field day abusing them and delivering up all manner of warped, untrue stories about desperate, vulnerable people.

The Holy Family were welcomed in Egypt, given a place to live in safety and raise their son (perhaps a growing family by then?). They weren’t locked away or treated as criminals.

As we approach a new year we might pray for those in our world who are refugees (~15.5 million), asylum seekers (~1 million) and displaced persons (~30 million). These are homeless people anf those escaping torture, persecution and the threat of death from regimes and authorities we don’t comprehend.

We could help change the heart of Australia who does a little bit, but of late has been strangely violent towards these desperate people – locking them away, withholding rights… We rate a very long way down the scale of nations receiving these vulnerable people. It isn’t like Australia to kick someone when their down. May the God of peace, grace and love who holds us all in generous and just love reach out through us to bring peace and hope to others.

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By geoffstevenson

Some Deeper Thoughts on Christmas

Our struggling between ‘2 worlds’ parallels the reality of the world behind the first Christmas. The context behind that story was of 2 kingdoms, 2 Realms that came into competition with each other. Both offered the world as they knew it hope for peace and well-being. Both were proclaimed as the last great Kingdom that history was awaiting, a kingdom of power and might. The clash between these competing powers was akin to the clashing of tectonic plates deep in the Earth that generates powerful earthquakes. It is akin to the clashing of deep and powerful emotions within us as we experience the highs and lows of life lived.

Before we can begin to understand the Christmas Stories and unearth their deeper meaning, for the original hearers and ourselves, we need to understand something of the context in which they were written.  To ignore this context to Matthew and Luke’s stories is bit like trying to understand a discussion of Nelson Mandella without knowing anything about the apartheid politics in which he lived, worked and wrestled. It is like speaking of Martin Luther King jr without first understanding the civil rights movement and racism in America.  It is to seek to understand Ghandi but ignoring the British Imperial/Colonial system imposed upon India. The historical, spiritual, economic and political context of Jesus birth, life, teaching and death was the Roman Empire of the 1st Century.  Without understanding this powerful, military, political and economic reality we will not truly understand Jesus, his life, teaching, death or birth stories.  The clash between the Reign of God/Kingdom of God and the Empire/Kingdom of Rome is at the forefront of Jesus’s life and teaching but it is often silent in the church’s interpretation and proclamation.

If we do not know our history, we will not understand the deeper meaning and profound truth within the Christmas (and other Jesus) stories.  The first of these Kingdoms was the Roman Empire, the most powerful dominion in the history of their world. The Emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth was Octavian who came to be called Augustus – ‘The One who is God’ or ‘The One who is to be worshipped’. Caesar Augustus was probably the greatest of the Emperors of Rome and brought peace to the warring factions through his military might and skill. He promised peace to the Empire through victory – military might, power and violence.

Over and against this power was the hoped-for Kingdom of God, a Reign promised and increasingly filling the consciousness and hopes of the Jewish people who struggled under the strictures of Empire. The prophets and Jewish Messianic figures in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth proclaimed God’s Reign and the rhetoric and theology evolved in contrast to Roman Imperial theology.

If we are not cognisant of the fact the Caesar Augustus, the Emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth, was known throughout the Empire as ‘Lord’, ‘Son of God’, ‘Bringer of Peace’ or ‘Saviour of the World’ we will not fully understand the deep truth of how and why these titles were used of Jesus.  When these titles appear in Luke’s Gospel in the birth narrative, what were they saying to those who heard Luke’s words?  Mostly we hear these in the vacuum of history as praise and confession devoid of political invective but these references to Jesus were in stunning and direct opposition to Caesar, the most powerful person in their world! The angels in Luke 2:11-14 announce to the shepherds that today has been born a Saviour who is Messiah, the Lord and that there will be peace on earth through him.  These words challenge the very heart of Caesar’s own self-proclamation.  They challenge and subvert the most powerful empire – Rome.  Christians are proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar, is the very expression of God, that God in Jesus not Caesar brings true peace and salvation to the world.  The way of Caesar and the way of Jesus are contradictory – the former is through violence and brutality; the latter is non-violent peace and grounded in love, justice and equality for all.

The Roman Empire wove together 4 strands of power – political, military, economic and ideological power.  Rome held these forms of power together as the immovable, unassailable power of the world centred on the Middle East, Europe and Asia.  The Empire controlled people’s lives through the employment of military power and might.  Force and violence were the ways to ‘peace’ for Rome.  Using the power of force and violence, Rome followed with economic power (control of labour and production) and political power (control of organisation and institution).  Ideological power was the control of meaning and interpretation and this is where the early church fought Rome.  The early church had little or no political, military or economic power but it did have its own ideology in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Therefore, in response to Roman Imperial Theology that held Caesar as god and divine, they responded with an anti-Roman ideology built on God’s Reign – Jesus is Lord! (Not Caesar!).

In the Gospel stories of Matthew and Luke we have stories of Jesus’ birth and each is different, offering a different perspective on this clash between the powers. Both accounts are either laughable, far-fetched dreams of the insignificant of the world or high treason against Rome! In a world where Augustus was worshipped as Lord, his exploits were proclaimed throughout the Empire – on statues, in temples and on coins, his image and descriptors rang out – no one could ignore it! So when the Christians, a small insignificant sect of Jewish faith, proclaimed Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Saviour, Peace-bearer and ultimately God, they proclaimed that God reigned and brought peace through justice for all people. It was in stark contrast to the violence and military might of Rome.

So this is Christmas, says the song, a subversive celebration of God’s Reign of peace through justice and love. The ways of Rome abide through the violent powers of the world. We can choose the way we will live and follow. This is Christmas!

By geoffstevenson

Christmas!

This Sunday in our Church we will hand out candles to those who have lost someone close to them through this year. As I thought of this, I remembered the several people who are no longer with us, people who died this year and in years gone by. These memories are mixed, with both wonder and joy at the good memories of lives shared. They are also tinged with sadness and grief as these people are missed. For many others the struggle of life never dims and Christmas seems an unreality that never delivers that which is promised.

I held these thoughts together with the fun, joyous and wonderful moments. We played some carols and music at the Hills Special School sharing with families for whom life is that much more difficult. It was a fun night, as was playing music at a house in Northmead where a couple put up thousands of lights for the community to enjoy. The neighbours pitch in and organise BBQ’s, food and drink to raise funds for a local charity – what a fun night! The lights are amazing and everyone is happy. In Parramatta Mall last night a group of us from various Uniting Churches played and sang carols for those walking by – another great evening.

There are parties and gift-giving, a sense of relief and release as the working year ends and holidays beckon. Funny movies and bright music fills the air.

These two dimensions of life seem to collide as people wrestle to hold the conflicting emotions together. It is almost like there are two worlds struggling to co-exist and we are forced to into one or the other. For some there is the back and forth movement between joy and pain – the reality of life in the world we know. It is perhaps in this very paradox that we find the mystery and wonder of Christmas is most alive.

We are about to conclude the season called Advent – it is roughly the 4 weeks leading into Christmas and is a time of reflection and preparation to celebrate Christmas. The season invites us to find space to ponder and listen to life and the world within and around us. We are encouraged to read the signs of the times and to locate God’s presence in the midst of human life, with all of the joy and struggle. I really like this time but find it difficult because everything around me is revving up and pulling me into the place of stressful rush and anxiety. Much of the world around wants to party, party, party and consume copious amounts of alcohol whilst I want to go deep. I confess that I am often somewhat strange – or so my family tells me. I want to rest in something that lifts my spirit and makes me want to sing with a deep felt (rather than alcohol-induced) joy. I want to recognise the presence of and welcome in, the Spirit of God in the midst of human life and I need space to do that. I need to sit quietly in the garden, or wander in the bush, or sit on the beach or read a poem or hear some music or enjoy a quiet and intimate meal with friends and family… I read a book, a good story, or watch a movie that confronts, challenges or inspires and I move into another place and feel Christmas is very close indeed.

Christmas, for me, is not a day or a month. It isn’t something I try to grab a hold of as it rushes by each year in December, wondering where it got to and how I missed it through January. Christmas is a place where I travel, a space in life where I have to stop and let go, to simplify and take a breath. It is a place that quietens my spirit and renews it as I find God who holds all things in grace and love. It is a place of peace and rest where my weariness and worrying can be handed over and shared within this gracious love that surrounds and comes close to me.

Christmas is like a beautiful song, a soaring melody, that captures me and takes me on a journey into its deep and beautiful world where God sings and my soul bursts with joy and wonder. Christmas is a moment when the world turns upside down and the normal values are reversed – where the little ones are lifted up and the big ones coaxed back down so that all can experience life and wonder, joy and hope. It turns asylum seekers (‘illegals’) into brothers and sisters. It turns the outcast and marginalised into friends and valued people who can share the centre. The rich share with poor and everyone expresses something peaceful, hopeful and compassionate to others.

Christmas has a ‘magic’ that makes us want to look, to find and realise something different, something enduring and wonderful in our lives. Too often it slips by and we miss what we were looking for – a glimpse, a moment of wonder is all we have but these lie within, a hope for next year. The colours, lights and decorations brighten the world and promise much but, alone, deliver little. The songs point us in various directions but ultimately towards a small town near Jerusalem. Bethlehem, an insignificant town bears a child whose story causes us to marvel. He turns everything upside down and we like that – sometimes, when it doesn’t affect us too much. Simple parents, simple birth, simple surroundings – we forget how counter-cultural and wonderful this little story is. Wise ones from afar, people of different ethnicity come to worship, as do the marginalised shepherds. There is no pomp and ceremony but in this little birth the angels sing and the world lights up each year. We give gifts and love and celebrate with food and drink amongst friends and family. We stress and do too much but this seems to be part of Christmas as well

With my Christmas, this year, I would like to honour God and rest in God’s presence – not just on Christmas Day but each day. I would like to take the values of Jesus – peace, simplicity, community, generosity, sharing food, hope, love, joy… and hold them at the centre of Christmas and life. That’s what I need from this wonderful season and I suspect it is what most of us need and yearn for. I encourage you to take space amidst the busy, fun and stressful times; be aware of God’s presence with you. Rest, breathe and know peace and joy.

Christmas comes to us in the midst of the joy and pain. When we want to groan and scream and wonder ‘WHY?’ it is precisely there that we encounter God. This is the essential reality we hold to in Christmas – ‘God with us!’ When the pain is deep and we wonder where God is we might look and listen more deeply and experience God in the midst of our pain – that, after all, is what incarnation is really about. God with us in flesh and life and sharing our experience of life.

By geoffstevenson

Christmas Poem – 2013

I awoke with a start, as I sometimes do, early this December morn.

The darkness betrayed what the clock revealed – it was only half past two.

I wrestled a bit before thoughts flooded in of everything left to do…
These gave way to questions large, problems the world confronts:
I thought of the poor I seen on the screen, the struggle to barely survive;
The stories of people stranded alone as they fled the lands of their home –
persecution and threats of pain and death,

they were traumatised, lost and confused.

Locked away as they were behind fence and bars,
prisoners for seeking peace.

I thought of the Earth and the stories I’d read
of struggle under human weight; of species dying, climate changing…

Of course there was the struggle of friends that I knew
grief, illness and the hard side of life…

In the dark of the night, the darkness seemed deep embracing human life
I wondered, again, where God was in this

What Christmas might really mean?

In the dark of the night I got out of bed, went out for water to drink.
As I looked out the window the darkness was deep

it mirrored the feeling within.

I stared out for a moment, feeling the weight of despair
sink deeply into my chest.

Suddenly, in the dark of the night a flickering light burst forth!
Then there were more, flickering all around

White and bright on a soundless night

They screamed out a hope that must surely be
of a darkness filled with light.

All the world in that moment seemed hopeful again
and breath filled my being at last.

The weight of the darkness seemed to melt away
in a moment of sacred awe, where God filled the night
revealed in the flickering bright of a neighbours Christmas lights.

 

I went back to bed and thought for a bit of the world of long, long ago.
Where powers so strong gripped the world in their might

and the Emperor worshipped as God,
offered peace through victory, violent, military might
and kept the world in fear.

It was into this world, where small ones struggled to live
a baby boy was born.

To simple folks in a simple place but filled with such wonderful hope
the night skies filled with heavenly song of peace to all from God.

And outcast shepherds in lonely fields heard this mysterious news

They ran to the place and found a babe in holy wonder veiled
with singing and dance they laughed and sang
as joy filled their simple hearts.

In the powerful world where the strong survive to dominate all the rest
a story burst into life from the lowest place,
of God in the lowly now blessed.

This story subverts the order we know, the logic of the world
where the poor and lowly are now lifted up
and the big ones brought back down;

where there is hope for the world through the justice of God
that brings peace, hope and joy – to ALL!

This is the Christmas beyond the lights and the tinsel brightly displayed;
it is the Christmas of God, born into the world, embracing human life.

God comes in flesh to hold our despair and nurture us into love,
a community, together embracing a way
where all have enough to live.

Where the powerful use that power to love, to care for the weak and poor,
where justice and peace prevail and the Earth
is protected and nurtured for all.

Christmas enters our hearts and our lives when we open ourselves in hope;
when we embrace a way that Jesus trod, choosing a way of love;
when peace and justice inform what we do and we reach out to others
as sisters and brothers, together the children of God.

 

 

May God’s peace, joy, hope and subversive love be with you, transform you and guide you through this season
and into the New Year.

Geoff, Susan, Katelyn and Josh.

By geoffstevenson

Subversion in the Christmas Story

This year I’ve found myself inserting the word ‘subversive’ into Christmas Blessings – ‘I hope your Christmas is peaceful, holy and subversive. I get a few interesting looks when I insert this into the various Christmas talks I have had to give. People don’t seem to see Christmas and subversive activity as going together.  I have to confess I rather enjoy this disturbing image of a subversive element introduced into the world – especially through Christmas. I really am drawn to a subversive Christmas – something earth-shattering and world transforming. I suppose I’m growing tired of the same old, same old. Each day the news is the same – violence in the streets and across the globe; arguing about the realities of  climate change but never addressing the critical issues; more people seeking asylum, more boats but now hidden from our view; the economy going up, down and all around (where it ends nobody knows!)… And, the politicians argue with each other blaming the other side for the mess and problems. I’m tired of all this, of hearing about the problems and the world trying harder to manipulate them, solve them, avoid them and ignore them. I’m tired of hearing about world poverty, not because I despise or am fed up with it but because it exists and doesn’t have to – if the wealthy parts of the world had the will it could be abolished! I’m tired of the lies and misinformation and all the ways various leaders and experts twist things around because it all seems too hard or too uncomfortable to do anything.

I’m ready for a little bit of subversion – that’s what give me some energy, a bit of laughter as I think about the possibilities. I’ve heard all the arguments of well-meaning people who warn that we can’t do this, that or the other because it will upset the economy or cause us all to lose some of our lifestyle comforts. These notions are full of nonsense. If I really thought the people of the wonderful west are happier because we have every luxury we never needed and more, maybe I’d agree. Since there is a pandemic of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, a plethora of addictions and so on, I comfortable in believing we are no happier because we have everything. If, perhaps, there were more smiles on people’s faces and a sense of peace in their being, I might believe such things but there isn’t.
There is stress and complaining – I even refer to myself as a ‘grumpy old man’ (after the comedy of that name) – and we all feel overwhelmed by the world around. Perhaps some subversive activity!!??

Haven’t you sometimes wondered what it would be like to upset the ways of the world – the rich, powerful and those who lord it over us and control us in some way? Have you ever dreamed of upsetting the apple cart and creating chaos, a mess? Have you ever had that deliciously delightful thought creep into your mind of doing something mischievous – nothing that would really hurt someone and cause damage and injury? If the thought has crept in, what have you done with it? Have you let it grow and form and explored its ramifications before you drop it as crazy? It’s funny, isn’t it, we laugh at all of that stuff in movies and on TV. Candid Camera … could be hilarious, uncomfortably hilarious but would we ever consider anything like that – for good or otherwise.

I saw a video of a group of people who disguised a room of a friend involved in an alcohol fuelled accident as a hospital room. They brought in pretend doctors and nurses and convinced him that he’d been in a coma for 10 years as a result of his excessive drinking. It was to try to shock him into changing. It was funny but it was also interesting – do something ‘way out there’ to try to change a little bit of the world.

Perhaps you’re wondering where all of this is going (or coming from)? Well it’s from that subversive book, the Bible. The more I read it, the more I think we need to radicalise our lives and get with Jesus in turning things upside down. He didn’t sit still wondering what might be, what could be. He got it on and took it to those who lorded it over the poor, marginalised and ordinary people. He told them what was what and they didn’t like it. Political leaders didn’t like hearing that there was another Realm that was bigger, better and truer than theirs. They didn’t like hearing they were unjust and wrong. Religious leaders didn’t like hearing that they had God’s message upside down and that God wanted hearts that are compassionate and just not minds that knew all the rules, laws and words.

Jesus took it to everyone who tried to turn the world their way, to control things in their own strength and for their own ends. Jesus upset religion, politics, economics and the ways of the world, cultures of greed, power and violence. He really was a subversive and they had him put down to stop the nonsense, so everything could go back to normal. It didn’t stop though, because resurrection interrupted the order of things and he lived on in the people who followed him.

When the powers of the world realised they wouldn’t stop this thing, they embraced it and tamed it. Various people along the way caught the Jesus bug and got it on – they subverted the world until the powers intervened but still they kept on. Whenever we stop and read the stories, the Jesus bug will get to us, the Spirit of God intrudes and cause mischief through us – subversion!

This week’s reading is a truly beautiful song of a young, poor woman (a nobody!) in a very patriarchal society. She sings of God’s blessing and how God has chosen the weak and powerless in which to be revealed. God has chosen the lowly to be raised up and bring hope and transformation. God lifts up the little ones and brings down the powerful! What a great image and promise – does it mean I won’t have to have Rupert Murdoch controlling what I hear and see through his media empire? Does it mean that I will find the way of God amongst the little ones rather than in the places of power, information, wealth…? In the beautiful little vignettes amongst Luke’s story of Jesus there are wonderful ‘little people’ who rise up with wisdom, hope, joy and life. They subvert the world order and give importance to things and people that dominant cultures ignore or abuse. This is a world where everyone will have a place and we will work together for everyone’s well-being. A great vision of God’s love and peace!

By geoffstevenson

A Vision For A New World…

This week I had one of those moments where I felt caught between 2 worlds, caught in between two realities that feel contradictory. It occurred in the local public school whilst the Scripture teachers (of which I’m one) were leading the Christmas Assembly. It is an occasion where we tell the Christmas story, sing a couple of songs, show a video and participate in a drama about Christmas to help the children (and staff) think about Christmas and its deeper meaning.

I was waiting for my small role at the side of the stage near an outside door. I stood at the door looking out into the world around – trees, houses, sky… In the background, inside the hall, the meaning of the story was being shared through DVD and a song sung. I listened and as I heard the words, the range of concerns I had been thinking about through the week rushed through my mind. I thought about the discussion group on Tuesday evening where we talked about the earth and the current environmental crisis against the background of the Biblical witness to care for the earth and its creatures. We spoke about how the greed and materialism of some parts of the world is depriving billions of people a chance to live without poverty and how the changing climate is affecting the poorest people most of all. We saw a video that reflected the beauty, wonder and also the fragility of the earth. We thought about God’s place in the midst of this creation.

I recalled a DVD a group of us watched called ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,’ a documentary that shows the deep struggles and desperate situations of those seeking asylum from dangerous situations in their homelands. The documentary followed these people through Indonesia, living in detention centres and community housing as they await the news of asylum, of being allowed to make a new home in a country that will welcome them. The wait is endless with no guarantees of freedom. The video documents the story of the refugee. What pushes people to leave home? What do they leave behind? What do they fear? Why did they choose this path? And what does it take to turn someone into a ‘boat person’?  I learned about Temporary Protection Visas and the way we prevent people from bringing their families to Australia and the severe limitations upon them.

Other thoughts were how the poor of the world are living desperate lives and that the cost of releasing them from poverty is about the amount that people in the US spend on ice cream in one year. The 10’s of billions it would cost to release people from poverty is a fraction of the amount that the coalition of the willing spend on warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq (the homes of many refugees).

As I listened to a lovely re-telling of the combined Christmas stories found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and the simple meaning of love, grace and peace, I thought of these other people. I also thought of the many I know who are experiencing the harsh, dark side of life at the moment. Earlier in the week we held a service for those who want to remember those no longer with us, whether their death was recent or long in the past. It was a beautiful quiet time of reflection to remember those who have been part of our lives but will not be there at Christmas. There were tears and sadness and joy and love as we remembered, lit candles to symbolise our prayers and wrote names of those we have loved and miss. There are other people who are struggling with health, disability, mental illness and the many problems of life.

All of these issues are potent realities in our world and in the lives of people. As I listened to the story of God’s gracious love for the world, I wondered how many of the people that passed through my mind experience this as a reality in their lives. I wondered how this message, this story, is translated through human love into action that makes a difference in people’s lives. How is the love of God, that Christmas proclaims, realised in human life? How is the transformative (and subversive) message of Christmas lived and experienced in the world around us?

The words are beautiful, lovely and we delight in the songs, carols and stories but how will they translate into the reality of God’s Reign amongst us, a Reign that brings peace, hope and life to the world? How does the story of Christmas speak into the lives of refugees? How does it speak into the life of politicians who hold these lives in their hands? How does this story speak into the lives of the poorest people who hunger and suffer extreme poverty? How does this story speak into the environmental crisis, changing climate and faltering environmental systems?

Where is Christmas in all of this? How does our message, with its hope of peace and life to all, resonate and make a difference in our world? This week our Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) speaks of John the Baptist. He comes to announce the way of God and prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. He rails against the people who come out looking for the latest fad or wanting to join in because it seemed a nice thing to do. He calls them all manner of names, including hypocrites and snakes and demands that anyone who listens to his message and wants to be part of the deal must turn their lives around and walk the walk. These are tough words and ones that I confess I generally seek to apply elsewhere. It’s easy to blame the politicians and certainly there is much to lay at their feet, but we are the ones who elect them. Do we make efforts to hold them to higher expectations of decency, justice, compassion and morality? Do we prefer lower prices on everything so that we support corporations who rip profits and life out of the poorest farmers of the world? In other words, the story is easy to tell and hear but how much more difficult it is to live!!??

John the Baptist comes to us each year inviting us to change and to be the change we want to see in the world. The vision of God is ever before us but do we want to wrestle with it and try to live it out, even imperfectly or is it too hard? Does the story of God challenge and inspire us to live differently, to walk the walk and engage in acts of justice, peace, love and hope that change the world? Does the invitation of John to join in God’s program entice us and inspire us?

As I write this, news of the death of Nelson Mandella is announced. Mandella has been a light in the world for justice, compassion, truth and community. His life and work have reflected this story of God’s promise through Christmas.

By geoffstevenson

Peace, Well-being and Life!

Dr Jacob Chamberlain was a missionary in India in the 19th century. He was a medical doctor who founded 2 hospitals and conducted several dispensaries in Madanapalle in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh (SE India). Chamberlain was also a theologian and did much to serve the church of South India through translation and literature, teaching and church leadership.

One day he was preaching about Jesus and the story of liberation and peace at the heart of Christian faith. He was near the Ganges River when a man came to bathe in the river for healing. This man journeyed wearily from a great distance on his knees and elbows. He came to wash away his continual search for life. He dragged himself to the edge of the river and made a prayer to Ganga. Then he crept into the water. A moment later he emerged. There was no elation, only despair as he lay prostrate on the bank. Nothing had changed. But as he lay there he could hear Chamberlain speaking about Jesus. Chamberlain said that the man got up on his knees and clapped his hands and said out load, ‘That is what I want! That is what I want!’

This Sunday is the beginning of Advent, 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas. It is a time of reflection and preparation for celebrating Christmas. It is a time of breathing deeply of God’s Spirit and being renewed in our vision, our hope and experiencing the peace and joy that God abundantly offers. This first Sunday is focussed around peace.

In the story above we encounter one of the deep and profoundly significant hopes and yearnings of our world. It speaks of the inner peace, peace of the spirit that God offers. This personal peace surpasses the experiences of life around us and sustains us through good and harsh moments. This peace is not some syrupy sweet saccharine peace but peace at the depth of our being, a peace only found in God. Such peace does not come through material excess, incessant busy-ness, chronic partying or in the diverse forms of distraction available to us. This peace comes through stopping and resting in the quiet place of God. It is about quiet reflection and a personal openness to God in our inmost being – allowing God in to create a peaceful space within our being – whatever is going on around us!

I have no idea of the full situation of this man who went to the river, only a sense of his hope and despair. Something in the words of Jesus and his pointing to God’s Reign or peace, hope, justice and love available to each person and the world obviously touched the man deeply.

Peace, of course, is not only spiritual and emotional but that is one dimension of peace for which most in our society yearn. Peace in our spirits; peace in our inmost being!

The man’s life sounded difficult as he crawled to the river and immersed himself for forgiveness and life. I wonder what other peace it was the man yearned? I wonder what peace he needed in his body and physical world – money, food, shelter…? I wonder what peace the man yearned for in his community, for justice and equality for himself or those around.

Peace is a deep need in our world. We all yearn for peace in some (or several) aspects of our lives. We yearn for personal and spiritual peace and this may be emotional or existential as well. We yearn for peace in our bodies where there is illness, pain, disability, ageing or some incapacity. We yearn for peace around us, in our society and world. Various groups long for peace and liberation from the oppression and struggle they face. Aboriginal people caught between the cultures and lost in a world they cannot negotiate yearn for liberation and peace. Asylum seekers and refugees caught in political manoeuvring and trapped in a nowhere land of detention without hope of release yearn for freedom and life, for peace. Those caught in the cycles of poverty that deny life and hope, yearn for food, clothing, shelter, clean water, education and health care. This is peace.

The earth itself yearns for peace as it struggles under the weight of human occupation, striving and greed. There is an environmental crisis engulfing us, though there are plenty who would deny this and believe the earth’s resources are unending or for our personal use and gain, rather than for the well-being of all people – past, present and future. The earth yearns for peace and hope.

The Hebrew word shalom has this sense of deep peace and well-being, along with justice, harmony, unity and health. It is about being alive and filled with the true joy of living. Implicit in this is the sense of being set free from guilt and shame, poor self-worth and feelings of personal failure and defeat. There is the sense of being connected to other people and living together in our diversity with respect and the enrichment that comes from such difference. It is about justice and the absence of war, fighting and divisive, destructive conflict.

We yearn for shalom in our lives. Can you remember or imagine taking a deep breath and feeling free of the expectations, the despair, the anxieties, the deep needs, the loneliness, the sadness, the huger, the pain, the fighting and so on, of life? Do you feel a sense that you would like to let go of these feelings and live hopefully and abundantly alongside other people?

This is the dream of God and the promise that comes to us at Christmas. It is what the reign of God is ultimately about and it is for all people. Of course it doesn’t magically fall upon us, gift wrapped and ready to go. We are invited, urged and challenged to work for this peace in our world. It is not a solo effort but one we do in the power of God’s Spirit and in God’s love and grace. We do it with others who are willing to work together for the common good and well-being of the world.

Jim Wallis (US progressive evangelical) says that there are two great hungers in our world today – the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social justice. They go together and are the way to peace and shalom.  The hunger for spirituality is the hunger for peace within, peace with God who holds all in grace and love. The hunger for social justice is the hunger for the well-being of all people; the opportunity for all people to live hopefully, joyfully and in peace. This is the dream and love of God for all!

This week’s reading from Isaiah 2:1-5 invites us to come before God and believe that swords and weapons can be turned into instruments of peace and hope.

By geoffstevenson