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John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:

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‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.

‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

Let us pray:

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

The light to lighten all nations: ‘an obstacle in its original place’

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the 145th Anniversary of the Foundation of St Philip’s Church Cowes, Phillip Island, 1 February 2015, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

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On Monday, 25 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘Cowes Church Hall Dedicated – Vicar mixed the Concrete – Fate of the Archbishop’s doorstep’ (The Argus, Monday 25 February 1935, p. 3). Completed to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary-year of your church, your church hall was a labour of love: volunteers dug the foundations, your then vicar, the Revd William McAully Robertson, drew the plans and mixed the concrete, and the seventh Dean of Melbourne and Archbishop, Frederick Waldegrave Head, laid the doorstep, as the works commenced.

It was the Archbishop’s doorstep that proved to be both ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21.42) and a ‘stumbling block to many’ (1 Corinthians 1.23) – quite literally: as the Hall was dedicated, the vicar confessed that the stone the Archbishop had laid as an entrance stone now supported the kitchen sink: ‘it had proved to be an obstacle in its original place’, the vicar explained.

Our lessons today (Malachi 3:1-4,Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40) remind us that our faith is not always a bright ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people’, but that it sometimes can be a stumbling block, can be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, as our Gospel reading puts it (Luke 2.32, 34). They encourage us to place our hope in the One who was rejected by many, Jesus Christ, and to become ambassadors of that hope. And they give us the example of two faithful people, Simeon and Anna, as signs of that longing, and proclamation.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, Simeon prays holding the infant Jesus in his arms, we heard in our Gospel reading (Luke 2.19). Simeon has become old while waiting for the promised Saviour. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the certain knowledge that the Saviour has come among his people. Simeon, we read in our Gospel reading, was looking forward to ‘the consolation of Israel’ Luke 2.25). The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the coming of the Messiah, picking up the prophet Isaiah’s rallying cry to the exiled people of God in Babylon: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had spent a lifetime longing for that promised hope. Now at last salvation is at hand, not only for his own people, but for all nations who seek to share in the hope of the Messiah. Now, at last, he can go home to God, can ‘depart in peace’.

If I have suggested an image of Simeon as a fully contented man with a message that brings nothing but comfort then, I am afraid, I have only described one side of the man. For Simeon knew well about how faith, like your erstwhile Church Hall doorstep, can be a stumbling block; how its challenging message may give offence, can feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’. His prophetic words, addressed to Mary and Joseph, then, temper his own consolation and desire to depart in peace, with a distinctive shadow of darkness.

Where the prophets foretold how God would set free his people by an act of power—a physical act of liberation—Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel: not so much a sunlit highway for the Lord, prepared by his faithful messenger, but rather more a valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a Via Dolorosa, a way of suffering and a crown of thorns. The doom of Israel is foretold in this Infant, born to be a crucified King. While Simeon speaks of light and glory, he also points to ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentation’.

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’, Simeon proclaims as he blessed Mary and Joseph (Luke 2.34). The first stumbling block for Simeon’s contemporaries surely is that the ‘many’ in Israel are both the chosen people as well as the ‘nations’, the gentiles, whom the child in the prophet’s arms will call to the radiant light of God’s goodness. If the prophet’s words that infant’s life is inextricably tied up with the fate of nations and people are unsettling, feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’, then his blessing for the child’s mother is even less comforting: the lance, thrust into her Son’s lifeless side on Calvary, will be as if a sword would pierce her soul, too.

Simeon’s prophecy is mirrored in our reading from the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2.14-18). There the promised Messiah, whom we today see presented to the Lord as an infant, is shown to be the last High Priest of Israel who, will sacrifice himself for our sake: ‘so that through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-5). The destiny of Mary’s child’s, today’s epistle reading makes clear, is to be the final offering to be sacrificed in the Temple, the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ as well as to be the last, the ‘merciful and faithful, high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17).

Jesus’ offering in the temple—both as an infant in Simeon’s arms, and as the last High Priest of Israel on the cross—initiates a new relationship with God, today’s festival makes clear. The stumbling blocks of Simeon’s prophecy lie not only in naming the child in his arms as the promised Messiah, but by proclaiming, in the sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple, that here was the final High Priest who would do away with sacrifices for sin forever, the One who would open the Temple to all nations in order to be ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ (Luke 2.32); words that surely would have been offensive to any believing Temple worshipper, would have been an ‘obstacle in its original place’.

In the midst of the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the Lord, Simeon prophecies that the Temple’s very purpose will come to an end: the child himself will be the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ our epistle speaks about (Hebrews 2.17). And indeed, the epistle to the Hebrew reminds us later that, at the moment the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two, at the moment at which Jesus dies on the cross, the relationship between God and his people had been fundamentally redefined.

Here, then, is not only a firstborn infant come to be dedicated to God, but a rightful High Priest who takes his place in the Temple; a self-understanding that Jesus himself shares from the beginning when he tells his worried parents a few verses after this morning’s Gospel reading, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49). The prophecy that the child presented by Simeon was a High Priest would have been startling enough. The fact that, in the midst of the Temple, he is proclaimed Messiah to the gentiles, who will provide his own sacrifice in his own body on a cross, and that by offering himself will do away with the need for sin offerings, with the need for a Temple altogether, is what makes Simeon’s prophecy so offensive, such a stumbling block to the faithful.

All is changed as the infant is presented in the Temple. The very reason for faith is radically redefined by Simeon’s prophecy: that here is the One who will, by his own offering of himself on the darkest of all days, Good Friday, put an end to the darkness of sin and the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death altogether. That here is the One, who by his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, will in his own risen body show forth the light of new hope, of sins forgiven and lives restored—the light of eternal life—to all those who trust the words of Simeon, that the infant in his arms is indeed, ‘your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2.30-32).

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As we give thanks for 145 years of faithful witness in this place, I invite you to hear again the words of Simeon’s song and discern through them God’s radical work of transformation among his people throughout the ages: a work that turns our preconceptions upside down; a work that transforms people and communities; a work that seeks to shed forth the radiant light of resurrection into the dark places of our world where people long for assurance and hope.

As we give thanks for the past, I pray that may God richly bless you in your future ministry: may your future show forth the same unity of spirit and action that led to the creation of your church and hall—where priest and people created together the place and shape of your ministry.And may your future be characterised by the same imagination and perseverance that, when faced with a stumbling block doorstep, saw in it not a ‘stone to be rejected’ but a foundation for a new, and essential kitchen, and a new function and ministry altogether.

And so, as we approach this crossroads of the church’s year, as Lent draws near, as our gaze shifts from the miracle of the manger to the triumph over the tomb, it is my prayer for you and me, that God will continue to touch our lives, so that we may become people who know in our own lives the mystery that those who come share the Infant’s bonds and burial, shall also be made partakers of his resurrection, and make that message known in our own generation, to all who long for the ‘light to lighten the nations’ today. Amen.

St Philip’s Cowes Photography: nipper30

Mary, Cleopas and we: Making the Easter Vision real

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Third Sunday of Easter at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne:

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‘The Lord is risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon’ (St Luke 24.36), the couple rushing back from Emmaus told the startled disciples—a couple transformed by their meeting, on the open road, with the risen Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Cleopas and his wife Mary, who had stood with the women under the cross of Jesus (John 19.25; for the view that Cleopas’ unnamed companion is, in fact, his wife, Mary of Clopas, see: Richard Bauckham), make their way from Jerusalem through the hill country to ‘a village called Emmaus’ (St Luke 24.13). All their hopes were quashed, ‘they stood still, looking sad’, we hear (St Luke 24.17). And they told the stranger who had joined them on their walk about the things that worried them: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place’ (St Luke 24.19-21). ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’, they said to the stranger. And in their hearts may well have thought: ‘but this was not to be. It was all in vain’, they may have thought. ‘And now it’s too late to do anything about it’.

And the stranger who had joined them on their way told them: ‘You fools—do you not know that the Messiah had to suffer in order to be glorified?’ (St Luke 24.26). The Messiah has to suffer, he told them, before he can be revealed in glory. And he interpreted the Scriptures, so that they would understand why this was so. And they took to him, and asked him to stay with them: ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (St Luke 24.29). And it was there, as night fell and deep darkness surrounded them, that they recognised the stranger by the way he broke the bread at table. And just as they recognised him, Jesus—for it was he—disappeared from their sight. And they said to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (St Luke 24.32). And Cleopas and his wife Mary rushed back into the night to return to Jerusalem, to tell the other disciples that the Lord had indeed risen from the dead.

The couple on their way from Jerusalem were wearied from the events that had led to Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion. Their world had been shattered; they still found themselves surrounded by the darkness that descended onto Jerusalem on the afternoon of Good Friday—during the time that Jesus hung on the cross. That cloud had not been lifted from them. And for some of us, that cloud may not have been lifted, either. On the contrary—news reports from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, closer to home, Nauru—only add substance to that darkness. And then there are the many personal darknesses in our lives. I can understand why Cleopas and Mary want the risen Christ to stay with them: many of us would want the risen Christ to remain with us in our darkness: ‘Stay with us’, we’d like to say to him, ‘because darkness is gathering, and it will soon be completely dark outside’ (St Luke 24.29).

Stay here, Lord, stay with us and shield us from that darkness. But that is not what Jesus does. Jesus does not stay with the couple on the road to Emmaus. Instead the Mary and Cleopas leave their homes once more, and turn back, and enter the darkness once more. They brave the darkness that holds all their fears in order to return to their friends, to tell them that it is indeed true: ‘The Lord has risen, indeed’, they say (St Luke 24.34). And their joy at the news of Christ’s resurrection bursts through the darkness that had frightened them so much. The psalmist assures us that darkness, the thick tangible darkness where those horrors lurk that make the news or the subject-matter of deep and difficult conversations, that that darkness is not dark in the eyes of God: ‘Even the darkness is not dark to you’, we read in Psalm 139, ‘the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139.11). And in the light of this assurance, and the experience of Cleopas and Mary, we are to do as they did: we, too, are to rush out back into the darkness to tell others that there is no reason to be afraid any more.

How great the surprise of Mary and Cleopas must have been when they returned to Jerusalem: they had just finished telling the other disciples what had happened on the road, and how they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread when, we read in the continuation of today’s gospel story, ‘Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (St Luke 24.36). The same Jesus who would not stay with them in their comfortable road-side inn, the same Jesus who sent them hurrying back into the night of their fears and worries, that Jesus appeared before them in the midst of their room and told them: ‘Peace be with you’. And they must have understood why Jesus just could not remain with them in the inn at Emmaus. Why they had to journey through the night—only to be greeted by Jesus at Jerusalem. The peace that Jesus bestows on them—the ‘peace be with you’—was the peace that had overcome their experience of the darkness, on the road back home.

Meeting Jesus can change lives like that. We heard in our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, how the frightened disciples, who in last week’s gospel were still seen meeting behind bolted doors in that desolate upper room of the Last Supper, became bold preachers of the message of Christ’s resurrection. We read how they overcame their own darknesses to spread the light of Christ. And we are told, that we are called to be ‘witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48). We, too, are to tell those around us that there can be light in the midst of all that darkness. We are to tell—we read—‘that forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (St Luke 24.47). And this is the most important message to us this Easter-time: that meeting Jesus changes lives. That Jesus—now as much as then in that Upper Room—speaks words of peace to his people. And I have come to know that this work of transformation from sinfulness to forgiveness, from fear of darkness to peace and radiant light, begins when Jesus’ followers—when you and I—join together in making this Easter vision a reality.

It is this Easter Vision that lies at the heart of our Cathedral’s vision to become a place of transformation in the life of our city and diocese. We can glimpse it when we meet to break bread in our worship Sunday by Sunday; when we share a meal at our monthly congregational lunches and young adults’ group meetings. We can see it in the lives of others whenever our many volunteers—Chaplains, guides, shop volunteers and welcomers—welcome visitors to this building. We observe it through our work with migrants and refugees through our English as a Second Language program, our ministry of prayer and healing. We see it at work when we witness adults and children come to faith through our enquirers’ programs, through baptism and confirmation preparation. We see it at work even when we plan to renew our office and meeting spaces, or our procedures and governance, so that they become resources and instruments for ministry.

A record of this lived-out vision is set before us in our 2013 Annual Report. It gives glimpses into our rich life and many ministries, and pays tribute to the generosity of time and talents of our staff and volunteers, and records some of the milestones on our journey—the achievements our Cathedral community who have already joined to help make our Easter Vision a reality. I am delighted to serve this Cathedral as Dean, and am thankful for the many moments in the past year when the Easter Vision has been shown forth in the lives of our congregations, and our Cathedral community: moments that help us on our journeys to transform our city and diocese through the light of our Easter faith.

The Easter Vision that today’s readings set before us encourage us first of all to recognise the signs of renewal in our midst—the ‘talking on the road’, the sharing in the breaking of bread, that can lead to recognition of the living Lord in our midst, that can set our own hearts aflame. And out of that recognition, our readings tell, comes the motivation for action: with the first disciples, and all those who, through the generations have borne witness to this Easter truth, we, too, are called to share in that life-changing power: we are invited to recognise the signs of Easter life in our midst, and then to go and face the darknesses that surround us. I look forward to contributing with you—through giving of our gifts, our time and our talents—to this Easter Vision. For like Mary and Cleopas, who braved the darkness of the Emmaus road to witness to the true light in their lives, so we, too ‘are to be witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48); people who to carry the good news to those who yet have to recognise and believe that the Lord is risen indeed, and is alive and changing lives in our midst today.

© Andreas Loewe, 2014.