A New (Old) Way…

It is very easy for us to look at life through the lens we have from our own experience, education, status, occupation, family background, ethnicity, politics, religion… Life and ideals become focussed through these lenses until there seems to be a certain clarity and certainty about the way the world is. Of course our views are also manipulated through media, stories, music, movies, advertising and the particular culture that arises from these things.

This view of the world can be broad (wide angled lens) or narrow and focussed on one particular facet of our lives (telephoto lens). They are all part of one picture but the close-in focus narrows our world view onto particular facets of life – how we perceive other people and respond to them; what we think of the earth; whether there is a God in the sky (or in the world…) and how that God relates to us and others; what is important for us and our families…

Our world view holds these and other things together as a whole and helps us to make sense of the world in which we live. It provides meaning and interpretation of events, people, economics, politics, religion and faith and helps us answer questions that challenge us. Neatly contained within our world view is a whole set of rules or truths that we rest everything on and build up our picture of life and the world around. If we grew up with the firm understanding that there are differences between people of different skin colour, for example, that will form part of our world view so that we may never have the need to ask questions about racial justice, slavery, immigration policies and so on. If our experience has only been a well-off existence where everything we have needed and wanted has been available easily that will influence how we see the world. We may expect that everyone has this potential but hasn’t worked hard enough or hasn’t done enough to justify a good share of wealth. Conversely, if we have lived amidst the poor and struggling people of society that will influence how we experience life and understand justice and other issues. Despite working hard we may still be poor and this will lead us to ask different questions. If we have experienced belonging, acceptance and gracious love through family, friends and other groups, we will more likely expect to be generous and welcoming towards others and inclusive of people into our groups and organisations.

In essence our world views, although a little fluid at the edges, form a solid core of belief, expectation and understanding of our world. They determine how we respond to the world in which we live and how we answer questions – indeed which questions we even ask. Our world view conditions us about how to live and respond in our lives.

This is all good whilst our lives can comfortably exist within this construct and our world view answers particular questions or issues that confront us. It is good whilst we are not exposed to situations that challenge the essential tenets of our world view. It is good until we are confronted with the reality that perhaps our hopes, expectations, beliefs and actions are not always in the best interests of other people or the Earth itself. What happens when we experience something that takes us out of the confines of our experience, expectation, belief – our world view? What happens when we encounter something that challenges the very core of our essential belief system? What happens when our neatly ordered world is challenged? What happens when we encounter someone whom we have stereotyped and placed neatly into a box with a label and they step out of the box by doing something that confounds us? What happens when we have believed that young people of different ethnic backgrounds with tattoos, or dreadlocks or strange clothing and bad speech, people we’ve defined as ‘bad or dangerous’ do something lovely and gracious to us? What happens when we encounter asylum seekers, for example, who are lovely people, grateful for an opportunity to experience freedom, education and peace in their lives and effusively thank us, despite being locked away in detention centres? What happens when Muslims or Hindus or people of another religious or cultural background move in next door and we find that despite our expectations they are lovely human beings very much like us? How does our world view cope? What do we do?

When we are presented with an alternative to that which we have believed, embraced and held dearly it can be a very confusing and confronting experience. It can result in anger, resistance and rejection or it can open us to a new reality, a larger world-view and a new way.

I remember an experience at a youth camp many years ago. Our rather conservative, naïve youth group were exposed to a speaker who told us stories of injustice in the world. These stories came gradually closer to home and the implications more personal. She undergirded these stories with Biblical stories and references that grounded them in God’s justice. These were passages that we had not really read or understood in this way before, preferring to read them through our narrow world view. All of us were challenged and uncomfortable. Some became very angry and began to reject what the speaker was saying, looking for all manner of Biblical counter references to refute her teaching. Others of us felt a little exposed because our theological world-view had not been broad enough to encompass what was a deeper truth about our world. Some of us would have been pleased to leave the camp and forget this speaker’s words but she had done sufficient to shatter parts of our world-view and going back was not possible. Others did shut it out and ignored her,  happy to live by pretending their world-view was true and right.

I remember that experience as opening me to something deeper, something I knew in my heart and from experiences of my life, my family… I needed a broader theology to help me make sense of this and live it and reconstruct me world-view.

This week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 3:13-17) is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptiser. John is a strange character who appears out of the desert around the Jordan River near Jerusalem. He has a vision of something new under God, a reformation movement of Jewish faith. He calls for repentance and baptism as a sign of change in the direction of life. He calls people to get on board. His invitation is to get on board something new and to walk in a different way. It is a very radical invitation because it invites people to stand for something different in the world, something that opposes the way of the dominant society, both politically and religiously and walk in a new (old) way of God. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much until we recognise that John stands in the Roman Empire and calls for a change in direction that opposes so much of Roman Imperial theology, politics and culture. In a real sense he is asking the people to reject the Emperor and follow God! More than that he is saying that even the worship and religious life in Jerusalem has become skewed and messed up and so this new (old) way is a return to the true way of God in the world. This way is to grasp the radical justice of God and to be people who are generous, gracious and compassionate towards one another. It involves a change in our heart (and world view) to hold God and God’s way as central to everything.

In the midst of the Roman Empire, John is calling people to get on board with God’s way, a radical departure from Rome or even Jerusalem. The crowds surge forward because John speaks to their hearts and minds, and challenges them to take up that which lies within – in their yearning, their dreams and hopes. He appeals to what they feel in their inner being. He appeals to the yearning and hope within them and the questions that have lain dormant, disallowed within their faith or political system. He challenges their world view and opens them to new possibilities, a new way. Jesus, watching on submits himself to this new way of God in the world. He affirms that this is the way of God and joins the movement. Jesus takes this very movement beyond where John left it, proclaiming a new reality of love and justice in the way of God.

Jesus takes it up to the world order at the very highest level – the Roman Empire and confronts the injustice, violence and isolation it creates. He proclaims that there is another way and though the powers that be will laugh and reject them, God will be with them and the movement will grow. This movement drew in the most unlikely people to challenge the powers of the world. These were people whose experience of life clashed with the world-view thrust upon them and they had no option but to accept the status quo. Jesus rejected this passive acceptance of what was wrong in the world and led a movement of the Spirit to embrace God’s vision of a world reconciled, healed and restored. It is of a world where all have enough and no-one too much; where we live peacefully with one another and our diversity enriches our lives. This is a world of justice, hope, love and life – for all!

This week Susan and I and various members of the congregation have visited the National Christian Youth Convention (NCYC), which is a biennial convention for young people (16-25) organised through the Uniting Church. It attracts people from across Australia and the Pacific. This year 1000 people have gathered in North Parramatta for a festival of music, teaching, community, multi-culturalism, worship and celebration. There have been Bible studies on broad themes and in diverse styles, varied worship experiences, seminars on themes of faith, justice, peace, ecology… They have largely lived together in communities on-site and in various church halls around about the area. They have sung, laughed, prayed, studied, worship and danced and eaten together.

We have been involved in helping to prepare and cook some of the food for lunch and dinner. We have been able to experience something of the wonderful atmosphere and the sense of fun and challenge presented at NCYC. It has been wonderful to see so many adults and young people give so much of themselves in serving this event to make it a significant experience for those who have come along.

I was invited to play with the OneHeart worship band and contribute to a horn section (including Josh and another trumpeter). I was pleased to join in and be part of the worship. It occurred to me as I witnessed 200 or more people, young and older, worship, sing, dance and pray that this is a radical act. This was only one such worship experience that the 1000-strong gathering engaged in through NCYC.

In our world there are very many possibilities to give our lives and hearts to – many things to worship. Everyone worships something in that we give ourselves to it and trust it in some way. For some there is an ideology or philosophy; for others it is economics and the market, or political ideology; for others music or culture, sport, work, accumulation of material things. For some there is the worship of self or the obsession with appearances, clothing, lifestyle and so on. All of us submit to a world view and give ourselves to a belief system. The default one is that which is found in the dominant culture in which we live with its agenda and priorities.

These young people sang songs about the faithfulness of God and their desire to stand with God and follow Jesus through their lives. They were consciously giving themselves to a particular way in the world. This is a way that we are told is becoming less popular and less meaningful to our society. This is a way that many have rejected and others not heard of. This is a way that will lead them to walk against the societal priorities as they follow Jesus on the road. It is a path that will not necessarily be easy nor popular but one that they have recognised as life-giving.

Like Jesus before John the Baptiser, they have given themselves to a new (old) way in the world that is grounded in the justice and love of God. It is a non-violent way in a violent world. It is a way that challenges the dominant culture and rejects unjust policies of governments or violent responses to conflict and difference. It is a way that seeks to see the very best potential in each person as one created in God’s image. It is a way that accepts and includes all people, regardless of who they are or what they do. It believes that God in our midst can transform all of us into the people we were created to be.

These young people are standing up and saying that they will follow God’s way in Jesus rather than the other options of the status quo in our world. Their world-view has been broadened and they have experienced a diversity of people with a diversity of backgrounds and they have understood God’s deep and profound love for all people.

What about you? Will you take up the offer of John and Jesus and join in?

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By geoffstevenson

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