16 December 2018

Today is a rather confusing day in the season of Advent. We have been going along lighting purple candles remembering that this is a time of preparing and waiting for God to come into our world – a time of penitence – which up until the Second Vatican Council in 1963 was almost identical to the season of Lent – when suddenly, on the third Sunday, it is as though we cannot be penitent any longer – but must burst out in joyous, celebratory pink!

And yet it is still Advent. We know that we and our world are still not ready for God. Particularly when we reflect on issues such as domestic violence which we are highlighting this morning.

And to add to our confusion we have this reading from Zephaniah that swings wildly from battle cries to love songs, and the pulling-no-punches words of the prophet John, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” which – according to the text – was John’s good news for the people. I’d hate to hear the bad news!

But perhaps we need to take a leaf out of Zephaniah and John’s books and tell it like it is. (Can I add here, however, that family and domestic violence is a confronting issue – and if it has affected you or someone you know there are counselling services here at the church, Roz is one of those counsellors, or Martin or I are happy to speak with you, or there are numbers on the screen – I will put this up again at the end of the sermon – for you to call.)

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics one in three women have experienced physical violence in relationships, and one in four children has witnessed family violence which is also considered a form of abuse. But domestic violence is not just physical but includes many different forms of abuse: social abuse, economic abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, as well as physical and sexual abuse. (This information is also on posters in the hall if you would like more time to read them.)

And sadly, Christians and churches are not excluded from these statistics. Studies conducted around the world show that the incidence of domestic abuse within church congregation is similar to the rate within the general population.

Have you have seen this ad? There is a powerful moment when the younger son, commenting on his older brother’s behaviour says, “Don’t they know that’s just boys being boys,” and his sister adds, “Yeah, I mean, I’ve already accepted that as I grow up, I’ll probably be harassed and even abused.”

What people are realising is that while we need to provide effective resources for women escaping domestic violence, we also need to address the causes of domestic abuse, the language and the broader influences in our society that lead to violence.

And the same is true in the church. While the statistics for domestic violence are similar in and out of the church what differs is what has been called the added ‘vulnerability of Christian women’, who use – or are told – religious language to explain why they must continue to honour and obey their husbands, why they must avoid divorce, and why they should continue to suffer and forgive.

Phillippa Yellend, is an author now living in Sydney, who fled from her husband with her three primary-school-aged children despite his promise to kill them all if she left and despite having nowhere to go. Her doctor’s health warning was the catalyst – that she would descend into chronic depression if she stayed and her husband’s mental health issues would damage the children. One of her ex-husband’s tactics, she says, was to use conservative spiritual beliefs to justify his authority over her and his behaviour towards her.

We need to carefully think about the language we use in the church for God and for each other. As the philosopher Simone Weil has said, “when we use language to speak of God, we use language with its limitations, that also fails to speak fully of God.” If we portray the divine human relationship as one of domination and submission, we are more likely to perpetrate ideas of righteous power structures, and even righteous violence in everyday life. It has been shown that the language of male headship in marriage or male leadership generally is related to men abusing power in relationships. I have become aware recently of the resurgence of teaching around complementarianism in Baptist churches, which speaks of wives willingly submitting to their husbands and husbands exercising loving and servant-like leadership, and yet even this teaching reinforces a power imbalance and leads to the unequal treatment of women.

But if we understand our relationship with God in terms of dignity, equality, freedom and justice we are more likely to model these ideas in practice.

Our reading from Zephaniah is not straight-forward. It speaks of God who comes in judgement and destruction, and yet this is clearly a God who stands with the oppressed. A God whose power, who in the words of the UK Anglican Archbishops Council, “is at the service of the weak and vulnerable and stands in judgement on all abuse and violence.”

Again, in our gospel reading, we hear the language of judgement. “One who is more powerful than I is coming,” John says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” And yet the ministry of Jesus did not model domination and coercion – but invitation and love. “You know,” Jesus says, “how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, but this is not how it will be among you.” “I do not call you servants…but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” As followers of Jesus we are also to model these kinds of mutual, collaborative and cooperative relationships in ministry and amongst ourselves.

But what about the language we use when women experience or leave situations of family or domestic violence?

When Phillippa Yelland left her husband, she had to leave quickly, tossing clothes into the car boot, and telling the children they were going on a trip to see their grandmother. They drove for days, sleeping in cheap, 1-star motels at nights, but this was not sustainable.

Miraculously she says – a house became available and a nearby church gave them furniture and bedding. She enrolled the children into the nearest primary school and they were able to resume a routine and make new friends.

Churches that want to help, she says, should follow the practical advice of John the Baptist. “The crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ He answered, ‘If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.’” Churches should find out if anyone has a spare room or house. They should ask around for spare furniture, and they should let people know that a safe house is available in the church.

But her other piece of advice is this, “Don’t judge. Please don’t ask a person fleeing violence ‘What did you do to provoke the attack?’

Putting the blame on victims, for their partner’s abuse, is one of features of ‘harmful theology’ that perpetuates domestic violence. Here, again, we can benefit from John the Baptist’s plain-speaking. He says to those who have mis-used power. “Stop it.” To the tax-collector, “Collect only what you should.” To the soldiers, “Don’t extort money. Be satisfied with your wages.”

About marriage churches need to be equally blunt. No one should feel unsafe or be abused in a relationship. And in such a situation, forgiving the actions of the abuser may only serve to rationalise their behaviour in their eyes and reinforce the uneven balance of power that has contributed to the abuse. As Anglican priest, Marilyn McCord Adams notes, “The language of forgiveness and redemptive suffering tends to be offered [by the church] as a one-sided solution to the victim and not to the perpetrator. [We cannot, however] preach forgiveness without justice.”

And that is why we need to language of struggle in Zephaniah and the harsh words of John. If we are to change the terrible statistics around domestic violence, the tragic stories that hit our headlines, or the ordinary everyday instances of abuse of power that we all slip into, we need the kind of relationships Jesus modelled – relationships characterised by shared authority and shared roles for men and women. We need to be able to identity healthy relationships and name abuse and free people from it. And, rather than encouraging victims to be forgiving and long-suffering we need to speak out for justice.

But we also need to remember joy. That joy comes – as John points out – with repentance; with doing what is right, with not abusing power. That this is good news for us, as individuals and as a community! And that joy comes – sometimes – whether we are ready or not – whether we feel deserving or not – because – as Zephaniah says – the Lord, our God, is in our midst! God comes to be amongst us because God simply cannot stay away! God rejoices over us. God renews us. God cannot help Godself but sings embarrassingly loudly over us because God just loves us.

This Sunday as we remember God’s delight in us – and our delight in God – we want to commit ourselves to:

  • Being a safe place – where the voices and experiences of women, children, elderly and other vulnerable people are valued
  • Providing practical help for people experiencing family violence
  • Empowering women to speak, serve and lead, and
  • Understanding the language and power structures that lead to violence and acting to bring change.

We want to be a people of joy, to celebrate the joy of human life redeemed and restored, and the joy of a God who is totally invested in the life of the world. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. And we, the people God has come to be amongst, rejoice too.


Prayer of Intercession

Loving God,

We are mindful this morning – on this Sunday of joy

of those who lives have been affected by family or domestic violence.

We pray for those who experience such violence that you come as a warrior beside them. We pray that they will find release. And we pray that they will find safety and healthy relationships.

We pray for the perpetrators of violence that they will know your justice. But that they will know you also walking beside them on the road of repentance; that this repentance will be good news for them.

We pray especially at this time of year when pressures can build in families and when depression can seem insurmountable or grief overwhelming that you will guard people’s hearts and minds with your love.

We pray for those who have lost loved ones – that you will comfort them.

We pray for those who live in fragile circumstances around the world – that you will bring justice and peace.

And we pray for ourselves, when we are tempted to associate joy with what we have

rather than with how much you love us.

May this joy burst out of us, transform us, send us out in the world shouting and singing; rejoicing,

and bringing joy to others and to you. Amen.