The readings on which this
sermon is based can be found at: http://frsparky.net/a/r004.htm
s004g13 Advent 4 22/12/2013
'God is with us’ Matthew 1.23
There is something about Christmass - it has an enduring
popularity amongst people who, given a choice, would run a
mile from religion. Actually it seems to attract all
sorts of people, people who actually are not complete
hedonists and neither are they addicted to consumerism as (it
seems) some devout folk believe. And it doesn’t
take a rocket-scientist to discern the reason why.
Christmass is all about families, God somehow favouring the
poor and uneducated, including people who aren't religious.
Christmass is about peace, the absence of controversy.
Violence cannot be omitted from Good Friday.
Christmass is about birth, the possibility of new beginnings,
indeed the possibility of new possibilities! People can
participate in Christmass without committing themselves to
anything more. They can join the throngs at a midnight
mass then disappear into anonymity again, content that they
have done what they can, a little religious duty, without
Christmass is about magic, about a belief that there is
something more fundamental to life than attending church each
week, the doctrinaire, politics, reasoning, the observable,
the measurable, the explainable. Christmass is
something about belief itself, perhaps superficially
personified in a belief in Father Christmass, but maybe it is
a belief in a fundamental goodness in creation, that ‘it',
whatever ‘it’ is, will turn out right.
Christmass is about those who struggle to know what is the
right thing to do, like Joseph, who ‘planned to dismiss’
Mary ‘quietly’, but somehow is persuaded to do otherwise.
Christmass is about uncertainty. There is the
messiness of the stable which accurately reflects the
messiness in my own life. My life is the opposite of
certainty, neatness and the eternal; it is transitory,
dependent, unkempt, provisional, ill-prepared, indeed often
out of control. If God wants someone organised,
God would better choose someone else.
I can't imagine Joseph and Mary having sent all their
Christmass Cards out on time, having the turkey and the plum
pudding ready to serve to shepherds, wandering royalty, let
alone the carolling angels. The familiarity of the
story perhaps blinds us to the fact that everyone is actually
totally unprepared. And it makes me wonder if we too
are prepared for a God who is incarnated in the unprepared,
the irreligious, the one who doesn’t want to be committed?
The first words in the Bible are: 'In the beginning when God
created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless
void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind
from God swept over the face of the waters.' (1) Right
at the very centre of the chaos of life, in the chaos of my
life, God is present, creating. I might like, and
strive for, form and order, but that which enlivens us all is
not dependent on form and order. The 'wind from God',
the Spirit, sweeps 'over the face of the’ chaos.
Like Joseph and Mary, creation itself is taken by surprise by
what God is doing. I like that word ‘swept’; I picture
God surfing creation; and the seeming chaos of creation, of
humanity, of my own life - God takes in his or her stride.
And it strikes me how the devout and the orthodox have
everything sorted. Nothing comes as a surprise to them!
They have their God explained - indeed their task is to
explain this to others. But the real action of God is
happening amongst those others, those who are unprepared, the
irreligious, even the ones who don’t want to be committed.
The devout and the orthodox ‘know’ all about God, where God
appears (in Church), when (during services), and what God
wants us to know (during the sermon). But the message
of Christmass is highly subversive to all this ‘knowledge’, it
is that God’s answer for creation and society is not order and
religion, but people and families and community and society
and creation - with all the attendant uncertainty -
irrespective of the name used for God, or even belief in a
divine at all.
This made me think of the words of that lovely hymn by John
Henry Newman: 'Firmly I believe and truly God is Three,
and God is One; And I next acknowledge duly Manhood
taken by the Son.’ (2) Is God actually so
obsessed that each and every person believes in the Trinity -
that God will condemn those who don’t to eternal damnation?
This ‘god’ has very peculiar eccentricities
and selfish priorities!
Advent is all about preparation, preparation for the
celebration of the Nativity of our Lord and preparation for
the Second Coming, but we do well to be careful lest all our
preparation blinds us to the present presence of the risen
Christ amongst the unprepared, indeed amongst those for whom
the daily grind of keeping body and soul together means that
both purchasing gifts and religious pastimes are an
unaffordable luxury. Christmass celebrates the
incarnation in these sorts of people.
If at the end of Mass on the 25th of December the world
seems no less chaotic and no more religious, then perhaps it
is because the world is meant to be as it is and it is us who
need to acknowledge it. As Max Ehrmann wrote:
‘Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is
unfolding as it should. .. With all its sham, drudgery, and
broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world’. (3)
I said last week: 'are we to be constrained to return to the
King James Bible of 1611, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, a
repudiation of science and a ‘christianity’ that interminably
regurgitates the disputations of the Reformation, where we are
all miserable sinners?’ Or are we to look at the
present, and be kind to those around us? Surely this
has actually been the message of Jesus right from
the beginning. I do not mean this personally as the
church has been want to insist. The church has made the
message personal lest people realise that it is really the
church corporate that has to be kind to those who are not her
members. Surely we are to look to the present to see
how we as church can engineer society so the future might be
one of wholeness rather than continuing division - to
be part of the universe unfolding - rather
than obfuscation and eternal filibustering?
Sadly in my country of birth recent state and territory
legislation for same gender marriage has been overturned by
the High Court. This seems to me to be systemic
paralysis - politicians forced by conservative ‘christians’
to manipulate the system. Another good reason to
remain in New Zealand!
Of course church members want to deny the throngs their
anonymity. They want people committed to the cause,
their cause, the perpetuation of their own ministry and
edifice. So there is an underlying resentment of the
‘C&E’s’ - the Christmass and Easter attenders. But
the church has so much baggage. It has a history of
centuries of intolerance - of which the simmering resentment
of occasional attenders testifies - of condemnation of good
people of different faiths and none, of antipathy to science
and discoveries, of marginalisation of women and alienation of
LGBTI people. The church has a history of the teaching
that ‘good (spiritual) children are to be seen and not heard’.
And to me the widespread tolerance that exists in society, the
acceptance of good people of different faiths and none, the
embrace of science and discoveries, the efforts to bring
equality to women and gays - is a far surer sign of ‘God ..
with us’ than the 10 or 100 people reciting the Nicene Creed
at worship or reading the Bible daily. The fact that
modern society has taken Max Ehrmann's words to heart: 'Speak
your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the
dull and the ignorant; they too have their story’ - testifies
that God is with us in the world, rather than in worship.
So if we want to experience 'God .. with us’ then the message
for the church is that we need to become unprepared, to forgo
our neatness and order, to affirm and include people who don’t
conform to our ideas of religion, those who don’t sing from
‘our’ song-book, even if that is the Bible
Recently when we were listening to some children singing
‘Rudolph, the red nosed Reindeer’ someone spoke of their
distain for the ‘Americanisation of Christmass’, probably
unaware that my wife was born in America. I guess you
have probably heard the saying: 'when we clench our hands,
clasping tightly what we already have, we can no longer
receive’ and we recognise this as true on the personal level,
but surely it applies equally on the corporate level and to a
much greater societal import. What are we clasping
tightly as a church? Let me list a couple of things:
our rightness and that we don’t need anyone who doesn’t
faithfully reflect our own perceptions in life!
Christmass tells us that the world has got God right and the
intolerant church has got God wrong! Christmass tells
the world that the world has got God right and the intolerant
church has got God wrong and to not bother about it.
The world has realised that while the church continues to be
intolerant it is misrepresenting God - surely the point of
that wonderful farce involving the unfortunate Jonah!
Christmass is one of the few occasions when people can worship
God and escape being sucked into perpetuating a pompous,
intolerant and selfish club.
God is with us - but who are the ‘us’? Is it we in
church clasping tightly onto God as ours alone? Or is
it ‘us', we humanity, who, each and every one of us, share in
the divine. God is with us, so we share Christmass with
all others, proclaiming ‘Joy to the World’, because we believe
in the possibility of new possibilities!
(1) Genesis 1.1,2