Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5: 12 – 28, John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28

I’ve been enjoying reading Bill Bryson’s book “Down Under”. Published in 2000 he has some delightful cameos of Australian life and history, often tongue in cheek, often deeply perceptive and, at times, deeply challenging as he holds a mirror to our way of life. His description of the long dusty drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, Uluru, brought back memories of our own journey earlier this year. Christine and I set out in May in our twenty-year old converted Toyota Hi-ace to explore something of the Oodnadatta Track. We visited Woomera and tried to understand the drive that obsessed the world in the 1950s to be able to destroy the world using nuclear bombs. The seemingly endless drive from Woomera to Cooper Pedy, when you are not allowed to stop or go off the road, and there appears to be little if any life, ends up in the strange moon-scape of the Opal town.

But it was when we decided, against the advice of the large sign boards on the road, to leave the sealed roads and strike east towards Marree that the adventure really began. With a two-wheel drive vehicle, no extra fuel tanks, only one spare wheel (not the recommended two), but plenty of food and water, we bounced along the dusty road. Wide open spaces, the delightful oasis of Coward Springs with its welcome warm bubbling water, places like Williams Town and even a glimpse of the dry flats on the southern tip of Lake Eyre came our way. The stars at night were spectacular and of biblical proportion, the mornings crisp and clear, the flies mercifully absent in May, and the road, not only well cared for and easy to drive, but surprisingly busy. Photos taken continue to enhance the memories weaving another layer into the story of our lives in Australia. That 2500 km trip has given us confidence to do more, and we look forward to our next venture, perhaps a little deeper this time, into the Outback.

The Bible, as you know, is full of stories of journeys. There are the epic travel stories of Abram and Sarai who left their homeland and went into the unknown. Jacob, finding himself at odds with his brother, set off on his journey which brought him unexpected hardship and immeasurable joy. Ruth accompanied her mother-in-law into a new land and culture – having to humble herself and glean the leavings of the harvest in order to survive. Her story, told in four short chapters, is a significant part of the greater story of King David, and the succeeding centuries of Jewish history right down to the birth of Jesus, one of whose titles is “Son of David”. The opening lines of the first carol on Christmas Eve, by long tradition sung by a solo treble voice, makes indirect reference to Ruth and her journey into the corporate memory of both Jew and Christian. As we heard last week Isaiah spoke of a great new highway being built, where the mountains would be made flat and the valleys lifted up, so that the Exiles could return home. Next week we will read about the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and, if we keep reading in Matthew’s Gospel, of their desperate flight into Egypt and another time of exile.

Anyone who has even a smattering of knowledge of the Book of Acts will know that St Paul undertook three missionary journeys, preaching the Gospel, planting churches, raising up leaders, and keeping in touch by writing letters – Epistles as they have come to be called. Nor do the journeys stop with the New Testament. Thomas is said to have travelled to India, perhaps even China; the Celtic church remembers the missionary journeys of Columba and his monks, while Anglicans trace their origins back to the journey from Rome to Canterbury by Augustine in the late 6th century. Centuries later Francis Xavier found his journeys took him well beyond India to China, Japan and Borneo. Augustus Short made the journey from St Peter’s Cathedral Westminster to St Peter’s Cathedral Adelaide. And all of them went out in faith and trust in God – never doubting that God would be with them, no matter what they encountered.

Read this morning’s Bible readings carefully and you will easily find traces of this journey theme, and the importance of memories that inspired people – particularly memories of God’s past action, love and caring – as well as chastisement and, at times, punishment. Nor is the journey always physical. Today’s passage from Isaiah 61 is every bit about a journey – not so much from one place to another, as from oppression and captivity to freedom, broken-hearts to joyful celebration, mourning to ‘the oil of gladness’. The remarkable change in these unknown unnamed people Isaiah talks about is captured in a stunning metaphor  – ‘they will be called oaks of righteousness’ (Isaiah 61: 3) They will recall, over and over again, that the Lord requires and loves justice – and this will become a rallying cry.

Naturally these journeys are not always easy and can be made in isolation and loneliness. John the Baptist is a good example of this – living in the desert, eating simply, knowing he is not ‘the One’ – not the Messiah, not Elijah, not even the prophet – but simply the messenger for one still to come. St Paul too, I suspect, knew something of the loneliness of being the messenger. Encouraging community among the churches he visited – to do good, to be gentle and kind, to seek to live at peace, help each other, to live lives of prayer and joy – but seldom around long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

In the last week or so decisions have been made in Australia which will take us on a journey barely imagined. I refer to the decision in the Federal parliament to change the traditional legal definition of marriage and the release on Friday of the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This latter chronicles what must surely be among Australia’s darkest years, and we, as people of the church, must somehow weave this chapter into our history and collective memories in a way that will change forever the way we live, and ensure that never again are the most vulnerable in society treated as sexual toys and objects by depraved people. That there will continue to be far-reaching consequences of this chapter of our history goes without saying and we are all part of this journey.

Just as the great prophetic figures we read about and revere in the Bible – Ruth, Isaiah, John the Baptist – had to tread untrod ground, so too did those whose perseverance, courage and sheer tenacity, often in the face of appalling ridicule, hostility and even physical danger, eventually brought about the Royal Commission and the redefinition of marriage in law. In our own Cathedral community two people are about to embark on their journey into a life together, and, as we frequently do for people going on some sort of ‘journey’,  I will later invite Andrew and James to come forward so that we can pray for God’s grace in their lives.

Next Sunday, Christmas Eve, we recall and retell the story of one of the greatest journeys ever made. Not really a long one in terms of distance, but the longest ever in terms of the relationship between God and God’s people. Week by week we confess in the Creed that God became human, incarnate, born of the virgin Mary. The words trip off our tongues. The implications of this belief are immense, unfathomable, mysterious, and yet simple, straightforward, wonderful. God, in Christ, took on human flesh and became one of us. That is the Gospel. That is good news. Little wonder that St Paul could write in his first Epistle to the Thessalonians that they should rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

I think of this joy, this prayer, this thanksgiving rather like the warm water bubbling up at Coward Springs – reliable, unsensational, utterly lovely and beautiful. May we stay close to God’s grace, love and joy as we journey to Christmas and beyond.