OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

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Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.

OT Lectionary – Christmas – Is 9:2-7

Christmas

Is 9:2-7

The Lectionary provides for several different sets of readings for Christmas midnight and morning: I’ve chosen Is 9 because it comes up so regularly and will, I bet, be the OT of choice for many people. The interesting thing about this well-know passage is the mix of tenses. The people have seen a great light; you have shattered the yoke; a child is born, a son is given; but then in the middle of the passage the boots and clothes will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. And then the coming Messiah will reign, and God’s zeal will accomplish all this.

 

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We’ve seen before the two (at least) stage fulfilment of OT prophesy: nowhere is it more clearly exhibited than here. And herein lies the eternal dilemma of Christmas: how can we preach and sing about peace on earth and goodwill when the world is clearly in such a mess. And how can the Messiah who came and went 2000 years ago have any relevance to us as we still live in great darkness. Anthropologists tell us that many cultures have some kind of a winter festival to help people through the cold and dark until spring begins to approach, and we know that the Christian church took over its Christmas celebrations from the pagan Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”). So is that all there is to it? Is Christmas simply about a chance to let our hair down a bit during the long evenings until we can back to the beach in the summer?

Christians believe that the gospel is a gospel of something that has happened, something which is happening, and something which will happen. In Jesus’ birth a light has dawned, and one day he will be recognised as the Mighty God and the Prince of Peace. But in the meantime a lot of stuff is still only destined to happen. The fact that so many places in our world – Syria, Sudan – are still in deep darkness isn’t a failure of the Christian message, according to Isaiah. It hasn’t taken God by surprise that the world is in a mess and humans choose warfare and oppression over goodness and mercy. It’s just work in progress. Our calling always has been to worship Jesus as God and then to get stuck into his world, working with him against oppression until that which is destined actually happens.

 

Now, for those missing Steve’s Random Icebreaker:

‘Two sausages, both alike in dignity.’ Discuss.

 

I’ve got a new job.

What is it?

I’m working in a clock factory, but it’s only a front for a banknote forging business.

How’s it going?

Well, the hours are good, but the money’s rubbish.