s005g00 Somerton Park Christmass Day 25/12/2000
"the word became flesh ..." Jn 1.14
A very happy Christmass to you all.
I found it an exceedingly curious thing that I should be asked a couple of weeks ago to speak to some fairly elderly residents of the Masonic Village about the meaning of Christmass. I mean, there I was, comparatively a "spring chicken" to most of them. If anyone should have been telling anyone else about what Christmass means, surely it would be they telling me.
But I was honoured to be asked, and of course it started me thinking about my words for today. I would guess at it's simplest the message of Christmass is about God becoming one of us, coming and sharing the ordinary things of life, among ordinary people. I mean birth is an incredibly life changing experience when it comes to a particular set of parents, especially the mother - yet births happen every day of the week, every hour of the day. Christmass is something about God coming and sharing in our ordinary existence - life changing for those involved - but a bit "ho-hum" for others, not related. Yet it is also true that the message is somehow veiled. I was asked to go and talk about what Christmass means to people double my age, people who have celebrated Christmass many more times than me. Somehow that which is "obvious" - God coming and sharing in our ordinary existence - needs expanding ... or some elaboration ... It seems so obvious, yet it can't be that simple.
And I wonder if we dare ponder if it is actually that simple, and have we ever stopped to think that perhaps the veiling, the complications, the elaboration, the theology, are actually not "of God".
One of the things I have come to realise is that it was the lay religious authorities who had Jesus crucified, because he associated with other people ... the ordinary people ... the unlettered people ... the poor people ... those who really didn't know God in all God's fullness (like them!) - the widow, the orphan, the alien ...
Some Christians lament the popularity of Christmass; it seems that the hard lessons of the Cross are being ignored, for the easy and picturesque story of the birth of Jesus.
But I wonder about the hard lessons of the Cross, for, as I have said, the crucifixion was perpetrated by humanity, not by God. Indeed the crucifixion was instigated not really by ordinary humanity, the ordinary "run of the mill" bloke in the street. No, it was brought about by the religious authorities of Jesus' day; though we are told that the support of the masses was whipped up by those for whom Jesus was indeed a real threat.
Jesus was killed, not by the atheists, agnostics, or the humanists of Jesus' day. Jesus was killed by the lay religious leadership, the scribes and the Pharisees, who inveigled the priests into complicity. The combination then were able to whip up the masses, so that the secular authorities had to act. The only people with "authority" to loose were the scribes and the Pharisees, and it was these lay people who had Jesus' killed, precisely because Jesus denounced their religion which excluded others, refused to accept their authority, and associated with others.
And of course it was precisely this that the religious authorities so resented. If God was to send some special messenger to humanity, then their expectation was that whoever it was would come and accept, even reinforce their own religious agenda. They could not accept that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners, that Jesus accepted the contributions of others, as well as their own. Jesus accurately demonstrated the eternal care God has for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien - not the religious, the rich, the racially or morally pure or the initiated - all the things the religious authorities claimed to be - and expected everyone else to be.
And it was just "as well as their own", for Jesus dined in the home of Simon the Pharisee as well as Simon the leper. Jesus could never have been accused of ignoring the religious authorities, though they were rarely the gracious hosts that ordinary people seem to be.
So I begin to wonder if the miracle of the resurrection is not most effectively demonstrated as ordinary people like you and I celebrate Christmass, year after year. Perhaps we only half perceive that it is something about God wanting to associate and bless the ordinary lives of ordinary people, like you and I. The efforts of the religious authorities to have Jesus killed and this care for others stopped, was in the end, futile.
I would issue a caution about saying that the cross was ordained by God. I suspect that this is another way that powerful people evade personal responsibility for their dominance of others?
I wonder how many people here watch "South Park" - actually I wonder how many people here have even heard of this program !!! Like "The Simpsons", the animated cartoon - "South Park" provides a contemporary insight into life as we live it. I'm sure it may be confronting to some people, yet if we fail to take notice of what programs like this are saying, we are likely to not learn the valuable lessons such commentaries can teach us. One particular set of episodes deals with the Church and hell. In an insightful comment the Jewish parents explain to their child that hell was invented by Christians to get them to go to Church. The dialogue goes: "Kyle ... Christians use Hell as a way to scare people into believing what they believe, but to believe in something just because you're afraid of the consequences if you DON'T believe in something is no reason to believe in something! Understand?!"
And before we get too conceited and think that we are above using such threats, I draw your attention to the seventeenth of our Anglican 39 Articles of Religion, (still reprinted in our latest Prayer Book) which says in part ... "for curious and carnal persons, lacking the spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence ... a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation ..." (APBA p829).
While we might inwardly smile at these pre-modern and pre-scientific phobias, I suspect that they are fairly deeply entrenched in all of us, not the least in me :-) When sickness or calamity strikes, few of us escape thinking "What have I done to deserve this?" Somehow we have grown up thinking that, for all the hype and evangelism, deep down God is really against us, just waiting for us to trip up, so that there can be a good excuse to condemn as many as possible to eternal damnation. How often have I heard the words of Jesus: "I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me" as if God has appointed Jesus to be the heavenly "bouncer", keeping as many people away from God as possible - you know - all those who don't believe, or don't believe enough, or those who don't believe in the right terms ... Or alternatively keeping those who have some "skeletons in their closets" away ...
But this is Christmass, and how can one fear a baby? Somehow, the message of Christmass still manages to be proclaimed and to be recognised by ordinary people. God coming among ordinary people, to be one like us. Not to accuse, not to condemn, certainly not to make anyone afraid - Jesus came simply to be with us.
So I would repeat, it is a miracle of the resurrection that the message of Christmass still resounds throughout the world among a whole lot of people with no pretensions to religion or faith. Many, many people still associate Christmass as being related to something about God's acceptance of humanity as we are, an acceptance and embrace of individuals as we are. It is something about Jesus coming among us as we really are, not to instill fear and trembling, but acceptance and love. The religious authorities did not succeed - their attempt to limit the actions and blessing of God to their cronies is ever doomed to failure.
And so I want to wish you all a very happy Christmass, because Christmas is truly yours and ours, whoever you are. God is with you, especially the widows - those who feel that they have lost contact with their heavenly spouse. God is with you, those who feel they have lost contact with their heavenly father, the orphan. God is with you, those who are completely lost from their home territory, the alien. God is with you, those of you who are poor and who feel they have little to give in return - for everyone is welcome here. In the end, it was precisely the fact that Jesus associated with the likes of us, rather than just with the religious authorities, that they conspired to have him killed. For he had to be killed to stop precisely these actions which most annoyed them, Jesus going around eating with whoever would have him, accepting their offerings and enjoying their company.
I wish you all a joyous festive season, like the joy of the returning younger son with his father. I hope that none would remain outside like the prodigal father's elder son, piqued that he had to accept and celebrate his younger sibling's return. I pray for you all, joy, not fear or regret or recriminations.
For in the end, the good news is that God and Jesus enjoys our company and the company of everyone. This is the message of Christmass and the incarnation, that God enjoys the company of us all. We find the risen Jesus where we least expect, enjoying our company in our homes and neighbourhoods, in the ordinary people with whom we live and work. The message of the incarnation is that the risen Jesus is present in all the places the religious authorities sought to exclude him.
And finally, lest I be thought to be critical of our 39 Articles, one that I particularly like is number ten which says "of free will" "We have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ ..." (APBA p478) This means that each and everyone of us here who have come to worship the new born Messiah, surely something which is "pleasant and acceptable to God" have been moved to do so by God.
Of course there are many other things which people do which are also "pleasant and acceptable to God" besides coming to Church, things like listening to others, caring for others, being joyful and spreading joy. These are all motivated by God.
For whatever reason you have decided to come to worship today, you are here because God has called you, no less than anyone else here. No one is more entitled to be here or less entitled to be here. God calls us all into community, and bids everyone of us to recognise that all are here because of God's call. This fact is deserving of acknowledgment, and all people are deserving of respect.
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