The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

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 being recruited.  

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