Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Bonfire of the Tyrannies. A Sermon for Christmas Day.

The Bonfire of the Tyrannies.   A Sermon for Christmas Day. Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 25 December, 2022.


Readings for this day:  Isaiah 62:6-12, Ps 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:1-20




5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:5-6)

These words from Isaiah, from our Christmas Eve readings, have been much on my mind these last few days.   The image of God overthrowing oppression, of a child being more powerful than terrible armies, speaks to us as much now as it would have done when it was first written.    

When the prophet Isaiah first wrote these words, the “tramping warriors” would have been the soldiers of Assyria, one of the most ruthless and militaristic powers of the ancient world, whose armies had almost overrun Israel.   

Today the “tramping boots of the warriors” could refer to Putin’s thugs in the Ukraine, or to the Iranian regime’s police in the streets of Tehran, beating and shooting courageous young women and their brothers who just want to be free.   The tramping boots of the warriors are the junta’s soldiers in the streets of Myanmar, they are Boko Haram who haunt villages in Africa, they are the narco gangs who kill innocents in the towns of Mexico.

Isaiah promised us a saviour who will deliver us from the men of violence.   Through the weeks of Advent we have heard this promise.   We have heard the promise of the one who will show us “the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God”, have been told that he will “come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you” (Isa 35:4).

We remember Mary’s song, when she learned that the one she would carry would show “strength with his arm” and pull down “the mighty from their thrones” (Lk 1: 51-52).  So we look for this one who will come to topple tyrants and rout their tramping warriors, and we find him this day.   We find him an infant, a manger, the poor child of nobody parents.  As N.T. Wright has said, no appearance of God could be further from what we imagine.  No transcendence, no power and majesty, just human helplessness and the dependence of an infant.

What good is such frailty in a harsh world?  Will our deliverance come from a child such as this?   Indeed, the “tramping boots of the warriors” are never far from the Nativity story.  In Matthew’s gospel they are sent by Herod to find and kill the one sought by the Magi.  The Holy Family flee Bethlehem just steps ahead of a massacre.

For such thoughts, the opening words of St. John’s gospel are required.  St. John says of Jesus “What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn 1:3-5).   Here I think is the great hope of Christmas, that Jesus is the light that comes into the world to lead us to the good at the same time as it exposes the darkness for what it is.

That same star which shines kindly on the travelling Magi is the very light that exposes the deeds of Herod’s soldiers.    And here I think is one great hope of the Christian faith, that the good always shows most clearly and most attractively in the greatest darkness.   Every tyrant’s reign ends in shame and ruin.   The mass graves will be dug up, secrets are exposed, prisoners are freed, the war criminals will be brought to justice, truth and reconciliation and God’s justice will prevail.   Such are the hopes that we bring to the child in the manger.

I owe these thoughts to the poet Malcolm Guite and his poem, “The Refugee”.  

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

Herod and Putin will come before the same child born in Bethlehem.  For the child will be their judge, and he will set his people free, free to dance one day around the bonfires of all tyrannies.  “The boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Such, dear saints, is the paradox of Christmas, that only a child such as this can set us free and save us.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Kneeling With The Oxen: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto,  Christmas Eve, 2022.   Texts:  Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20




Earlier tonight, at our 5pm liturgy, we gave ourselves permission to make gentle fools of ourselves in our “pop up Nativity pageant”.   It was the usual collection of characters that most of us recall from our childhoods - shepherds and angels, animals and magi.   It doesn’t matter if you have to mash Luke’s and Matthew’s nativity stories to put all these characters together, because a good nativity play isn’t about biblical accuracy.   A good nativity play, as I said at 5pm, is about recovering our sense of childhood wonder at a world in which God dwells among us.


Earlier tonight, we played the old familiar roles.   Yours truly made an ass of himself, just because the donkey costume we have is so much fun, but I also insisted that we have an ox.  Why an ox?   Because this year I went down a bit of a rabbit hole as far as oxen and nativity stories are concerned, because in every nativity story worth its salt, and in every decent Christmas creche, you have to have an ox and an ass.  


They’re in all the great carols, like “What Child Is This”, and there’s an ox and an ass in every good Christmas creche, like the beautiful one that was recently donated to All Saints.   However, if you look at the two nativity stories in Matthew (Mt 1.18 - 2.15) and Luke (Lk 2.1-20), there is no mention of ox, nor of a donkey, and for that matter, no sheep or camels!   And yet, the ox and ass are part of our Christmas tradition.  Why is that?


The very first nativity play was probably staged by St. Francis of Assisi in the year 1223 in Italy.  Francis’ biographer St. Bonaventure writes that “Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed”.  Francis thus began a tradition that many rural churches continue to this day, of bringing live animals inside the church on Christmas Eve, which all the misadventures that can befall.   But Francis was probably following a well-established custom in Christian art.



You can find images of the ox and ass kneeling beside the manger from as far back as the year 400 AD.    There are many legends and stories that grew around these figures, that the donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem, that the ox was intended by Joseph to be his payment of Caesar’s tax.   Perhaps the most charming of these stories is that the ox and the donkey who showed their love to the baby Jesus by keeping him warm with their breath. 




No doubt St. Francis in his nativity scene was drawing on this idea of the animals bringing their simple love and devotion to Jesus, and thus inspiring the same love and devotion in those there that night.  Scholars today call this “affective piety”, the idea that our faith could be highly emotional, focused on the humanity and vulnerability of Jesus, from his infancy to his agonies on the cross.  The simple devotion of the animals at the manger made its way into all sorts of Victorian songs, like “The Friendly Beasts” or, as it is sometimes known, “The Animal Carol”.


Let us fast forward now to England, in the year 1915, where the world is in its second year of a terrible war.   The poet Thomas Hardy was probably thinking on the country Christmases of his youth when he wrote this poem, The Oxen.


The Oxen


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.


We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.


So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,


“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.


The poem can seem to be merely a wistful longing of an old man for this lost innocence of a child at Christmas, but this year Hardy’s poem has spoken to me and I pray that it might speak to you as well.   Why shouldn’t the oxen kneel before the one who created the world?    Is that one detail any more wonderful than any of the other cherished details of the nativity story?   Is this not the reason why you braved winter’s blast to com here tonight, for precisely this sort of magic and wonder?


Yes, I know that we may carry layers of sophistication and experience that might bar the door to magic and wonder.   We might think that magic and wonder are childish things that we should put away as we get older and wiser.   We might think that oxen kneeling in love and awe are part of a primitive worldview, one  incompatible with our post-Enlightenment, rationalist explanations of reality.   Or, if we have been strongly formed by the Protestant tradition, we might dismiss medieval legends as simple stories not found in scripture and not justified by Reformed theology.


Tonight, dear saints, I ask you to set your sophistication aside.   Give yourself permission to enter into the magic and wonder of this night and of its story.   For tonight only, if tonight is all that you can manage, believe that a virgin conceived and gave birth to a Mighty Counsellor, the Prince of Peace.  Believe that angels from the realms of glory have come to summon shepherds and give us good news.  Believe that camels glide across the dark desert under a shining star, bearing kings from distant lands.    Believe that the humble animals bow down in devotion to the child who was present when heaven and earth were made.  Scholars may call it affective piety, but tonight, let us be content to feel childlike wonder and adoration.


For really, nothing about tonight is too great or too magical to not be unbelievable.  For the greatest thing of all about this story is the one who stirs in that manger.  Writing sometime around the year 400, St. John Chrysostom said this:


Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side – a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels.

To Him, then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path; to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

Dear saints, tonight nothing is too wondrous, nothing is too magical.   Scepticism and doubt can wait for another time, as God gives us grace to deal with them.   Tonight, it is enough to go and join the oxen.  Let us kneel with them at the manger and together let us adore the child who has come to save us. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Trusting the One Who Is To Come: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

I’ve had a few weeks off while my clergy colleagues preached Advent 1 and 2.   Good to back.  MP+


Trusting The One Who Is To Come: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.  Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 11 December, 2022.   Readings (Yr A) for this Sunday:  Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 18 (Luke 1:47-55), James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11.




“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”


Today I want to talk about what our expectations are of Jesus, and how they may not match with what Jesus offers and with what Jesus asks of us.


Last Sunday we heard ”The voice of one crying in the wilderness”, the voice that Isaiah said would come to tell us to make ready for the coming of the Lord.    That was the voice of John the Baptist, a voice that was loud and proud, the voice of someone confident in his vocation, certain of the one far, far greater than he.


This Sunday we again hear John’s voice, but how different this voice is!   It’s a voice carried from prison by John’s friends, a voice that we can more likely relate to, a voice that’s uncertain, a voice in which hope seems just slightly tinged with by doubt.    “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  (Mt 11.3).


If you’re puzzled why John has gone from the wilderness last Sunday to prison this Sunday, it’s because we’ve fast forwarded some years in the story.    Jesus is well into his travels and ministry, but meanwhile John has been arrested for criticizing King Herod, who had unlawfully married his half niece.    As  Matthew tells us later on, John will never leave prison, and will soon be executed (Mt 14:1-12).


Prison in the ancient world was a terrible place.   Prisoners were entirely dependent on their friends and families for food and care, which is why Jesus himself says that one of the duties of his followers is to visit those in prison (Mt 25.36).  John must have had visits from his own disciples and followers, times during which they must have debated who Jesus was and whether he had brought the kind of salvation that they had hoped for.


Like many of his generation, John must have expected that the Messiah going to be another King David who would free his people, a champion who would cast down tyrants like Herod and Pilate.  John himself had stood on the banks of the Jordan promising such a Messiah, one who was coming with fire and with an axe.   But as Jesus’ ministry played out, it became apparent that the Messiah was a teacher and a healer.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” asks John from prison?    As John languished in some dank, dark cell, probably knowing that his death is near, he was really asking, what sort of salvation does Jesus offer us?  Is the teaching and healing of Jesus enough, or is there more, some political program or revolutionary agenda?   And, if Jesus isn’t sufficient for our needs, who else can save us?   In asking these questions, John could not know that he was founding a long tradition of Christians who have used their endless hours in prison to ask these questions.  Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail that one has little to do when "he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” King’s letter from prison is written with a strong spirit of impatience that changes to race laws weren’t happening fast enough. 


In 1943, the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was arrested for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the  Nazi party.    While a committed Christian, Bonhoeffer had come to believe that violence was necessary to save Germany.  He spent the last two years of his life in prison, during which time he wrote books on ethics and discipleship, maintained his many friendships by letter, and encouraged his fellow prisoners right up to the day of his execution.   


While Bonhoeffer never thought that Christians should turn their backs on the world and think only of heaven, as time went on and his position became increasingly hopeless, he had ample time to think about his absolute dependence on Jesus.    In one of his letters from prison, he wrote that “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other - things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.” 


It’s human nature to be impatient for change, but sometimes patience is forced on us.    Thus, I love this quote because I think it accurately captures both our current posture of waiting in Advent, and it also describes our total need for the one we wait for. 


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” I think that Bonhoeffer might have said, in response to John’s question, there is no other.  The one who can save us is the one who has done miracles, and is the one who returned from death.   There is no other greater than he.  As Bonhoeffer wrote near the end of his life, “All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask for him, is to be found in Jesus Christ”. 


What does Jesus say in response to John’s question.   I think it’s fascinating how Jesus doesn’t answer “Yes, of course I’m the one”, and nor does he get angry with John for doubting him.    He merely says, in effect, if you look at what I’m doing, then you’ll see who I am.   See the lame who walk now, see the blind who have their sight, see the lepers who now have clean skin, see the dead who are raised to life.  


John had certainly heard of these miracles and healings while in prison, which is why he sent his disciples to Jesus, and we know about them in part because Matthew describes them in his chapters 8 to 10.  To John, and to us, Jesus seems to be saying, this is the work I was sent to do, this is what the kingdom of God looks like.  What Jesus doesn’t do is offer his works to John as a categorical proof that he is the one sent by God.    Instead, he says something quite interesting.  In what almost sounds like it should be part of the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence in me” (Mt 11.6).  What does this mean?


Now we know that not everyone at the time believed in Jesus.  We know this because he was crucified, of course, but we also know that even some of those of saw him after his resurrection weren’t convinced.  At the very end of his gospel, just before Jesus is raised into heaven, with the wounds still fresh on his hands and feet, Matthew says, When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Mt 28.17).  


Taking offence at Jesus could just mean simple disbelief that any one man could have done these things.  More and more people  today don’t believe in Jesus.  Even if I could point to some  exra-biblical, contemporary historical source that documented all of these miracles, I am sure people would deny it, in the same way that some people deny the moon landings, or deny that vaccines work.    It’s human nature to disbelieve and doubt.  I get that, but I think there’s more to it.  I think a more likely reason why so many take offence at Jesus is because he just asks too much of us.


Recall that last Sunday we heard John in the wilderness say to the crowds “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 3.1).  These are exactly the same words that Jesus says at the very start of his ministry, right after he returns from being tempted in the desert.   Repent meaning that your current life isn’t pleasing to God.  Repent meaning turn about, change your ways, give your heart and will to God.     These are far harder things to do than to believe in some ancient miracles.  


The American preacher Timothy Keller rightly says that people don’t want to believe in a Jesus who tells them that they need to change their lives, because that’s insulting to them to say that they’re not good enough for them.   But they also don’t want to believe in a Jesus of unlimited grace, because they don’t like to see people worse than them forgiven, and also because  they’re suspicious that there’s a catch, that a God so generous might demand something of them down the road.   Better not to believe at all, or maybe just believe on our terms, better to judge ourselves and say we’re basically ok..  


“Blessed are those who take no offence in me”.   What would this blessing look like? How would we ask for it?  I think it would start with repentance, with a desire to put our lives and hearts and thoughts under the authority of Jesus.   This blessing would then flow from an absolute trust in Jesus, an admission that we are dependent on Jesus to unlock the doors that confine us.    This dependence would not just be spiritual, private, and apolitical.   I mean, if you listened to the song of Mary, which we heard in lieu of our psalm today, you’ll know that God is not apolitical.  The Magnificat is all about thrones and powers crashing down as the poor and hungry are lifted up. 


So if we want to believe in Jesus and if we want to put ourselves under his authority and his Magnificat agenda, then we need the courage to stand with him and say no to those forces of greed and hatred and injustice that would want to be our gods. To depend on Jesus is to say to the world that Jesus is all in all.  To depend on Jesus is to say that we uphold the dignity of the poor and the outcast because Jesus loves them.  To depend on Jesus is say that we try to love the unlovable because Jesus loved them, that we try to forgive as Jesus did.  To depend on Jesus is even to say that we try not to fear death because Jesus rose from the dead as he will raise us on the last day.


This sort of faith and dependence doesn’t come easily.    We can’t just throw a switch and say that it is well with our soul.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis just days before the war ended, within days of being liberated by the allied armies.   One witness of his death marvelled at his grace and serenity. A prisoner who survived, and who knew him in his last days, said that Bonhoeffer was closer to God than any other man that he had ever known.   And yet Bonhoeffer was a confident intellectual, a prominent clergyman, a mover and shaker from an aristocratic family.  He had his own pride and self-reliance to overcome.  It took years of prayer, meditation, and hardship for him to arrive at the trust and serenity of his final days.


“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  This is a fair question to ask in times of sickness and sorrow, when we are tired and impatient and feel trapped by life.   But we won’t know the answer to this question if we don’t turn our hearts and lives to Jesus.   This giving of ourselves takes time.  It’s found in prayer and service, it’s found in being honest with God about our needs and even our spiritual poverty.   We find Jesus in the slow healing of our hearts, and we find Jesus in the knowledge that we and our neighbour are loved and lovable.   We find Jesus when we open our doors to the neighbourhood, as we will this coming Wednesday, with all the work that entails.


So yes, my friends, the babe born in Bethlehem is the one we wait for.    There is no other to rely on.    There is no saviour of our own making.   The one we wait for is Jesus, the one who has healed and will heal, the one who has risen and who open our prison door and who will raise us.     Jesus, who comes with all the love of God in his heart, enough love to change our lives and our world.   He is the one who we wait for this Advent, with longing and joy.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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