Sermon - Christmas 1 - Year B - | DBHome | RCL Resources Index |

God's family and ours

The visit of Mary and Joseph to the Temple, with the baby Jesus, which we read about in the Gospel today, naturally brings to mind some thoughts about family life. That little group has traditionally been called "the Holy Family". In Christian teaching they are sometimes put forward as a good example. Although there is no reference to them in scripture as an example to follow, they were doing what was expected of faithful members of the Jewish nation in their relationship to God. In going to the Temple with their baby when he was a few days old they were giving God his due, putting first things first in their lives and beginning their responsibilities as parents on a basis of faith. They came to present him to the Lord:

They followed the custom of their people and expressed their faith in the way prescribed.

There is a great deal of depth in what happened when the baby Jesus was presented at the Temple. Luke tells us of the meetings with Simeon and Anna, both bringing forward the old prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, and giving cause for wonder:

As we saw last week that wonder was to continue in the life of Mary as the extraordinary character of her Son was revealed. In one sense they were simply behaving as an ordinary Jewish family:

At the same time they were beginning to come to terms with their special responsibilities in relation to the Messiah.

The family of God

They were members of the "family of God" in several ways. As members of the Jewish community, the people of Israel, they were members of a people with whom God had made a covenant, a special relationship, and they were fulfilling their part of that agreement by doing what the law required for their first born son. That was an act of faith as an expression of their relationship to God. Then there was the special relationship established when Mary was blessed by the Holy Spirit as the mother of a "Holy Child". That was another kind of relationship to God as the "Holy Family". But there was more to this. As Jesus himself made clear later, though he was often misunderstood, there was more to being in the family of God than keeping the old law and being blessed by the Spirit of God.

The idea of the family of God was to be greatly extended through this special Child. As we read in John chapter 1:

Through him we and all who accept the offering of a new relationship with God through him become members of "the family of God". As we read in Galatians:

This understanding of our relationship to God as his adopted children was reinforced by Jesus when he taught his disciples to pray to God as he did himself, calling God "Father". So we say "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come .." We share that relationship in faith together with Christ, our first born brother. There cannot be any greater privilege than to share in the relationship of the Redeemer with the Creator, the relationship of God the Son with God the Father. Here we see something of the marvellous mystery of the Trinity, of how a relationship between persons is at the centre of the nature of God. Through faith we share in the unity of the family of God which expresses the unity of God in community. So we belong with Joseph and Mary in that deep spiritual sense of being members of the family of God through our relationship to Jesus the Christ.

There are obvious implications for personal faith -- accept the free offer of a place in God's family, believing in the Christ! Then a question: is there another kind of implication for our life in human families? You might expect that there is, if it is in the nature of God to be in relationships, and not simply to exit as an individual. If that is what God is like then a relationship with God can hardly be limited to personal faith expressed as an individual. Being in the family of God through faith puts us into relationship with others and tells us something of what is expected of us as family members.

Human families today

There is plenty of evidence that at the end of the twentieth century we live in difficult times for families. The newspapers, radio and television are full of stories and commentaries on family violence, marriage breakdown, the instability of relationships, homeless children, the sexual and commercial exploitation of children, and the economic hardships of families, including the effects of overwork, insecurity, unemployment and changes to the welfare system. There is a general lack of regard for marriage, while family responsibilities conflict with economic necessity and the desire many have for achievement in the work place. The highest rewards go to those who most effectively avoid responsibility for the welfare of others, and especially children. The values which appear to be most highly esteemed are those of individual achievement and satisfaction. In the worst excesses of a liberal attitude any constraint on the freedom of the individual person in the interests of family or community responsibilities is rejected as a denial of basic rights.

This might sound rather abstract when it is put in such general terms, but we all know we have a problem. There can hardly be a family anywhere in our society in which the effects of some severe disturbance of family life are not known. People are being hurt by unstable and damaging relationships and we know it is wrong, but it hard even to raise the question without appearing to be judgmental. The right of every person to pursue his of her own personal interests is so strongly affirmed that it is hard to see how to challenge what is wrong in it without being dismissed as merely old fashioned, of hankering after bye-gone days, and failing to keep up with inevitable change. Some social commentators who think of themselves as progressive, and the advocates of special interest groups, refer scathingly to the so called nuclear family of both parents and their children as an outdated traditional model which is only one of many types of families. If you affirm any aspect of traditional family values you are likely to be subject to shaming tactics for the offense of excluding and discriminating against sections of society which behave differently.

At the same time, of course, many people will applaud a call for return to traditional values. That is not a call I wish to make, though there is much in traditional values I would affirm. We do need to recognize that changes have occurred and that what we sometimes think of as traditional might it fact be quite recent and not something that has stood the test of time through many generations. Nor is the kind of instability we see now unique to our time: indeed it is similar to what was found in Australia in the early years of convict settlement in NSW and Tasmania. Family structures have varied and conventions about marriage and family relationships do differ from time to time and one culture to another. At the same time, the fact that great variations do occur does not mean that they are all equally good. Some kinds of relationships and some cultures have more beneficial affects on family members than others do. We are not free to construct whatever relationships we like without fear of the consequences. So while I would not wish to recall simply the patterns of life that might have been common in days of our parents or grandparents, I would challenge the libertarian philosophy of anyone who thinks it is all a matter of individual preference.

The battle for truth about families

Some time ago The Age (Melbourne newspaper) published a front page article reporting some recent family research which they said showed that there were no bad affects of divorce on the children of couples who separated. I had just read a review of relevant Australian research which showed very clearly that there were many damaging long term consequences, so I suspected the newspaper was giving publicity to a very limited study for ideological reasons, and I sent them a fax telling them where they could find a very recent overview of research on this question which would give quite a different picture. My suspicion that their report was set up to prove a point was confirmed the next day when they published an editorial affirming the value of accepting all sorts of families. I sent another fax asking why they had ignored the information I gave them. The features editor phoned without a satisfactory explanation, except that I took it that my information was made available to the editorial writers but they chose to take no notice; the editor I spoke with however said that he had tried to contact the author of the work to which I referred him. About a week later they did publish a feature article by that author and a colleague giving a much more balanced view, but I am sure that many people would already have formed opinions reinforcing libertarian attitudes because of the original front page article and the related editorial, which was undoubtedly their intention.

It is a serious matter; and it is a serious matter to mislead people about the consequences of family breakdown. Let me quote from the comprehensive research the newspaper chose to ignore. [There is more detail in the written version of this sermon. See endnote below] Let me quote briefly from the summary: Australian studies with adequate samples have shown parental divorce to be a risk factor for a wide range of social and psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood, including poor academic achievement, low self esteem, psychological distress, delinquency and recidivism, substance use and abuse, sexual proclivity, adult criminal offending, depression, and suicidal behaviour. Of course, not every child suffers in these ways, and there can be benefits from legal separation where a relationship has broken down. It is also true that a great deal depends on what happens afterwards. Nevertheless, it is simply wrong, quite untrue and seriously misleading to claim in terms of the newspaper headline "Divorce found to leave few scars on children". On average, it does leave serious problems, which some people are better able to cope with than others.

The need for a new set of community values

The affect of divorce on children is only one aspect of the problem. There are many other problems which flow from the pursuit of individual satisfaction. We have much more yet to learn about how to allow every person room to develop fully as a person of value free from unnecessary constraints, especially in marriage as the role of women in society continues to evolve. Similarly, relationships between parents and children are less rigid than they once were, and that is not all bad. Economic factors are having an enormous influence on families as employment becomes more demanding and less secure, and many aspects of business create anxieties for those who work on their own account. The survival of the fittest must leave many casualties while competition is encouraged and co-operation undervalued. As Don Edgar, former director of Australian Institute of Family Studies, wrote in an article published in the same newspaper, We need more stress on "commonality" than on "respect for diversity." He called for new initiatives to restore "the common good":

Don Edgar, for many years Director of the Institute of Family Studies, writes from the perspective of long experience as a social scientist with a wide knowledge of Australian society and a strong sense of social justice and compassion for the less advantaged. Such attitudes and careful objective study are founded on Christian principles, whether or not the social scientists who follows them acknowledge their origins. Unfortunately, it is one of the consequences of the abandonment of faith in God, in favour of do-it-yourself spirituality, in large sections of our society, that those values are being displaced. It is now much easier for a critic to say, "But why should we care? If some people can't cope that is their problem? Why should my 'rights' be curtailed for the sake of others or some airy fairy ideas of 'family' or 'community'?".

There is no simple solution to the wide range of problems we now suffer in the breakdown of family and shared community life, and Christians are not immune to the what afflicts the wider society in which we live. For some people, rediscovering the value of the old rules by which people lived well in the past will provide some protection against the destructive pressures of a corrupt society. I mean rules like, "do not commit adultery" (which is a good principle), or "obey your father and mother" (which also has a lot of good in it), or "wives be subject to your husbands" (which certainly can be questioned). Rules like that help people to survive, though at some cost. But to work out long term solutions to complex problems requires something more than simple rules. It requires a basic change on the way we see life.

The way of faith

What I would offer you then, rather than a simple recall to the way things were done in the past, is the possibility of a renewed understanding of our relationship to God. The creative relationship which can make a difference to human families in all circumstances is one of faith. It is different from going back to an old set of rules.

While I would point to a better way, there is a way that is workable while limiting; that is, it is possible, and the preferred way for quite a large numbers of people around the world, to understand God mainly as a law giver, so that if we keep his law, like the ten commandments, then we will have a good relationship with God and live a better, more satisfying and more prosperous life. There is some truth in that understanding of God. The law of God revealed to us in the Old Testament can be a good guide to living. Many people would do better if they could live in harmony with God in that way. However, the old law some limitations. One is that God had not given us rules for everything: for example there is nothing in the Bible about abortion and nothing about telecommunications or many other things that are important in our lives today. We constantly find ourselves in new situations with no clear rules to guide us.

In addition, even when we know what rule to apply, we are not very good at doing what we know to be right. As St Paul pointed out many times, there is no salvation by way of the law, even the law of God. That does not mean, as some say in these days of personal freedom as they did in Paul's time, that we can do as we please. Far from it: the law of God affecting families remains good, where we can see how to apply it, but we need more than that. What we are offered through Christ is the way of faith, and faith is about relationships. It is about accepting a place as adopted children in the family of God through a relationship with the Son of God.

What we learn, then, about family life from the "the Holy Family", is that our relationship with God is most important and that the Holy Child offers a way of establishing a new kind of relationship with God. When we know the nature of that relationship in the family of God, it is inescapable that pursuit of individual desires cannot be allowed to set aside the value of family relationships. Family and community values must then be recognised and affirmed in the face of demands for individual privilege. The way of faith does not offer immediate solutions to complex problems, and people of faith will have to work hard on living out the implications in their own family and community lives, but it will not allow the selfish and destructive individualism of contemporary society to go unchallenged. When you accept that it is in the nature of God to be in community you cannot live in that self serving way. The love of God issues in the love of one another. Human families will be strengthened when people accept in faith their place in the family of God, in which Jesus Christ is our elder brother who made new relationships possible. Through his coming all who put their faith in him have power to become children of God.

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[Endnote] I wrote to the newspaper as follows:

The prominent front page treatment you gave to the report headed "Divorce found to leave few scars on children" could be very misleading if readers generally concluded that divorce has no serious consequences for children, especially when the research you reported is described as "the first comprehensive study on the impact of divorce on children". In the light of a recent review of 25 Australian research projects which was published in The Australian Psychologist, November 1996, by Brian Rodgers of the Australian National University, which found many serious long term consequences, I wonder how much this kind of reporting and editorial prominence is ideologically inspired, although the research study itself might help to further our understanding of some aspects of the problem.

In his analysis of Australian research results Rodgers found that:

Australian studies with adequate samples have shown parental divorce to be a risk factor for a wide range of social and psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood, including poor academic achievement, low self esteem, psychological distress, delinquency and recidivism, substance use and abuse, sexual proclivity, adult criminal offending, depression, and suicidal behaviour. There is insufficient information to draw a conclusion about difficulties earlier in childhood. The underlying causes of these problems are likely to be similar to those identified in other countries: families broken by divorce have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and other psychiatric morbidity; children are more likely to be subject to conflict, hostility, and neglect; and in some instances, children are victims or witnesses of physical and sexual abuse. Similar adversity may arise in blended families, and these have a higher dissolution rate than first marriages. One parent families (particularly of lone mothers) have the added burden of socioeconomic hardship. While acknowledging that what happens after divorce can be a major factor and that possible benefits can come from divorce, Rodgers concluded, "There is no scientific justification for disregarding the public health significance of marital dissolution in Australia, especially with respect to mental health."

For more on this subject see Newspaper bias of the cultural elite ]


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