Don’t let the Christ message slip off the radar 

Carols by Candle Light at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne is an annual pilgrimage for thousands of Melbournians. For many more, the 3-hour Christmas extravaganza provides background Christmas mood music on tv and radio for families madly wrapping Christmas and preparing food for the big day.

Perhaps it’s my grinch-like tendencies, but my enthusiasm for watching what is essentially a pentecostal styled pop concert (or Wiggles for grown-ups!) doesn’t appeal to my musical sensibilities. It’s hard not to notice the jarring vibrato of Australian artists singing the most sublime truths known to the world while disbelieving them in their hearts and lives. 

Half of my readers are probably letting out a quiet nod of agreement (and the other half now have confirmation that Murray is the grinch). With that confession (or rather a criticism) out of the way, I want to share something that did strike me even as the show played on in the background of my home.

One of our nephews was performing and so we had instructions from the family to keep an eye (and ear) open for him. The band played on through our television when two quite wonderful performances came on stage, one after the other, both causing me to pause eating  Christmas lunch ahead of schedule. 

Silvie Paladino sang the not so Christmas carol, ‘How great thou art’, and then the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sang an old German carol in their own native tongue, Western Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara language. This 19th century carol arrived in central Australia when Lutheran missionaries came to share the good news of Jesus. Generations later, these songs about Jesus have formed part of the local culture and are now been sung beautifully in aboriginal languages. The choral performance was indeed a special moment.

Anyone who watches Candles by Candlelight will know that the music is mishmash of secular and sacred songs. Rudolph with his red nose and Santa Claus coming are intermingled with ‘The First Noel’, and without any sense of distinguishing between fiction and fact. The entire evening is a jumble of feel good old time tradition. 

Silvie Paladino’s song choice, at least for me, interrupted the show in the same way a lit candle intrudes on a darkened room.

She sang, 

“And when I think that God, His Son not sparing

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in

That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing

He bled and died to take away my sin

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art”.

These words reflect the heart of the Christian message. Christmas is about preparing for and pointing to that cross.

I don’t know about you, but when I heard those words, something good stirred inside. We’ve done a fine job sanitising the birth of Jesus, washing over many of the particulars that make the incarnation so extraordinary and thwart with danger and awe. However, it’s not so easy to give a PG rating to that bloodstained cross. 2,000 years on and that cross remains the most ignominious moment in history. We like the Christmas part of the story, but the death part? No one has lived as pure and innocent a life as Jesus, and yet he willingly walked the road to crucifixion and experienced the worst of evil. The cross is both the world’s greatest horror and the world’s greatest hope. The cross stupefies human power trips and intellectual exercises. The cross exposes human hubris, the reality of evil, the holiness of God, and the nature of true Divine love. 

It’s hard enough convincing Aussies today of the reality of Jesus’ birth, let alone the death absorbing and life giving hope through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, as Silvie Paladino sang, ‘That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin’. 

As I read my Bible, I read something about the death of Jesus every week. Each Sunday as I have the privilege and responsibility to preach at church, I have the opportunity to explain this ancient story that continues and will forever define every generation and part of the world. At Christmas, I want to hear about the cross. The Bible tells us, that Jesus’ birth is designed to prepare for that cross and to miss it is to keep wonders from peoples’ minds and hearts.

Stan Grant wrote a moving piece on ABC about the Nick Cave concert he recently attended. 

“But I sensed a space between the religion that Nick Cave speaks of and the desire of many in the audience for some connection.

They wanted the personal touch of Nick Cave the rock star. But did they want the touch of God?

Some, perhaps many, just like me, no doubt would have. But I could not help but think that many – if not most – in the audience would have been more comfortable with a spiritual experience.

This was a secular audience. How many of those with their hands outreaching would likely be found in the pews of church?”

Stan Grant points out, as does Nick Cave, the expressive individualism that dominates our current cultural sensibilities isn’t producing the freedom and life that we are looking for. Rather, it agitates and further debilitates the human longing. Stan Grant reflects on his indigenous heritage and points us to the same saviour whom the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sang about and whom Silvie Paladino sought to highlight on Christmas Eve

“In times of grief, catastrophe or tragedy, do the secular shibboleths of reason or science or law or rights fill the God-shaped hole?

Cave says the modern faiths of politics or identity don’t answer those questions for him.

Religion matters, church matters to Nick Cave. It is where he draws closer to the crucified Christ.”

If this is the real thing, then the hymn writer is right to exclaim, 

“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art”

How much better is the story that God is there and he is greater and better than we ever imagined. It is more satisfying and exciting to consider this Jesus story than to carry around the baggage of self-hope and self fulfilment and self defining reality. 

The Apostle Paul explains it this way, 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Here’s my final word for 2022, don’t dismiss the songs we sang on Christmas day. Don’t disregard the message we heard as we visited Church over Christmas. Instead, consider, that maybe, just perhaps we ought to take another look at this message of the Christ. 

Stan Grant’s Speech on Racism, and why we must respond

Over the past week I have been listening to people comment on the speech given by journalist, Stan Grant, on the issue of Indigenous reconciliation and racism.

I watched it today and found Mr Grant’s words compelling, sad, difficult and necessary. I would urge all Australians to take the 8 minutes it requires to listen to the speech in full.

In Mr Grant’s voice there was heart-felt honesty but no self-pity, anger but not rage, truth-telling but not condescension.

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As a preacher I am aware of the tenure of peoples’s reactions to words; forgetfulness often quickly follows acknowledgement.  A problem with speeches like Mr Grant’s is that we are moved by them, and for a few days we agree with them and believe that action needs to follow, but soon enough we have forgotten those beliefs and emotions, and words, and nothing changes.

For example, in 2009 Rev Dr Peter Adam gave the John Saunders Lecture. He spoke on the issue of indigenous peoples in Australia, and in particular he addressed the issue of land ownership and recompense:

“No recompense could ever be satisfactory because what was done was so vile, so immense, so universal, so pervasive, so destructive, so devastating and so irreparable.’’

‘We European Australians often claim that one of the strengths of the Australian character is ‘caring for the underdog’. That claim is hypocrisy – we do not act with justice, let alone care.”

At the time, Adam’s lecture gained attention in the media, with it being reported in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. I remember it well because it was the first time I was convicted to think seriously about reconciliation issues with Indigenous Australians.

Will this be another speech remembered for its oratory or for the change it brought to this country?

The God whom I know and worship is the God who made the heavens and earth, and who made all humanity in his image.

It was out of this theological conviction that Martin Luther King cried,

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

This God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world because humanity was bent on throwing away the dignity of the imago dei. Humanity’s actions have resulted in the belittling of human life in a thousand different ways, including the abhorrent belief of racial inferiority

We cannot live in the past, but living in the present can remain most hard when our history remains unresolved. To this, I am looking forward to the Day when God will put away forever all that is wrong and evil, but in the present we remain responsible for our words and actions, and to ignore the call for reconciliation when it is given us, is simply iniquitous.

At this time, let us re-issue calls to include in our national constitution a statement recognising the first Australians. Of course, the wording of such an inclusion is incredibly important, and so instead of deferring it because the task is complex, let’s move forward.

Also, January 26th is our national holiday, and on this day I will give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy in our country. It  does seem as though the date has evolved beyond the tall ships in Botany Bay, as it is now cherished by many thousands of immigrants who have no connection to 1788, but who have made their home here from all corners on the globe and who celebrate becoming citizens on this date. But I am still  conscious of the fact that for many Indigenous people, ‘Australia Day’ is not so celebratory.

Are we so tied to this date that we cannot move to another?

I have heard it suggested that  we should make Federation Day our national day. It’s not a bad idea, except that it’s January 1st!

These two changes may be symbolic, but they are also tangible expressions to our fellow Australians that we recognise their pain, we acknowledge past sins, and we are eager to pursue reconciliation.