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

s005g13   Christmass 25/12/2013

 (the shepherds) made known (to Mary and Joseph) what had been told them about (their) child.  Luke 2.17

I find it interesting that strangers tell Mary and Joseph about who their baby, Jesus, was.   And this is not an isolated example, the three wise men do likewise.   It is not as if Mary and Joseph don’t know.   It would be hard to forget an angelic visitation, something that they each had had around the time of conception and early pregnancy.   It seems that despite Mary and Joseph being the vehicles of God’s surprising intervention in human history, it was others, the poor and the heretic, who provide confirmation.   Even despite Mary and Joseph’s angelic experiences they need encouragement to believe, encouragement from outsiders.

And I realise that this is something the Church doesn’t much get from society.   The perception is that the church is opposed to the things of this world.   The church often takes on the task of critiquing politics, capitalism and consumerism, seeming all the while, to the outside observer, blind to her own inhibitions, divisions and ambitions.   Clearly within the western world church attendance has been dropping for many years.   Recent census figures in New Zealand are typical.  (1)    The advent of television and effective contraception have profoundly influenced society which the church has found confronting.   I am thankful to Kathryn who passed on someone else's comment that it was the liberal churches who have suffered the biggest decline, precisely because people come to a liberal church out of choice, and they realise that God is served in the market-place more than in worship.   Conservative christians are not given this choice.  So large mega-churches are no sign of healthy religion.

And, by and large, conservative christians don’t much care what the world thinks of them.   They do their own thing and are content to be ridiculed or dismissed as irrelevant.   To them this is a sure sign of their rightness.   Some even welcome the prospect of martyrdom as conclusive evidence that they are doing what God wants.

But right at the beginning of the gospel we see others, the poor and the heretic, affirming the gospel to the major players!   Indeed throughout the accounts others acknowledge Jesus to the chagrin of the orthodox.   'Why does your master eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ they ask accusingly.  (2)   They don’t want their God cavorting with others.   Jesus comment that he was only sent ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (3) surely means that Israel needed to witness the attractiveness of the good news to others.   St Paul has similar thoughts when he speaks of the orthodox and the devout: 'So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall?   By no means!   But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.   Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!'  (4)

So the lack of people of good will coming to worship is a sure sign that the church hasn’t got the message right no matter how devoted we might be.   Others are not seeing the good news in us.   Modern women have been freed from a life of procreation and subservience - why would they give this up to a church insisting on the subordination of women?   LGBTI people have found an acceptance and dignity in society - why would they bother with a church that is still debating this?   Modern people have shared the wonder of the microscopic and the telescopic - why would they bother with a church that still debates evolution?

The message of the shepherds and the message of the Kings is that real incarnation is welcomed by well-meaning people.   If we don’t find the church’s message welcomed it is because the world does not perceive real incarnation happening.   The world perceives the church as proclaiming a pretend incarnation - the sort that restricts itself to devout and orthodox people.   So the world sees the church putting up barriers around God, keeping second class citizens at a distance - those who think, question, take responsibility for their own lives, those who have a life outside the church.   It is not surprising to me that an increasing number of people in first-world countries answer ‘no religion’ to census questions when the incarnation the church proclaims has essentially excluded them.   The increasing number of people who claim a spirituality testifies to the fact that the divine is not dead.

This Christmass we rejoice that God has become human, like you and I.   God has become human to dignify real life, not us when we feel religious or altruistic.   God comes to lift us and all people to our feet, to restore our primal human dignity, to stand on our own two feet before the Almighty (rather than cringe) and to think and reason and choose (rather than comply).   And our task is to proclaim this to others, whatever their belief or not, whatever their station in life, however they choose to worship or not, and with whomsoever they choose to share their intimate affections.  

When we do this, when we proclaim a real rather than a pretend incarnation, we can be sure that well-meaning persons will respond, though we need to remember that they will mostly be poor and heretical, and may well disappear into anonymity straight afterwards as both the shepherds and the Kings did.   Recently we, and a whole lot of well-meaning people have rejoiced at the actions of Pope Francis - he has even made the front page of 'Time’ magazine as their ‘Person of the Year’. (5)   Yet he too will need our encouragement as the Vatican conservative mafia do their best to obfuscate and filibuster.

When we proclaim a pretend incarnation people see through our devotion to the real selfishness behind it, and in doing so we proclaim a selfish ‘god' - a demon in disguise, which the world is right to reject.

But the Christmass message is that the incarnation is real, and as we allow the reality of this to flow through us to others, we will find all sorts of people travel large distances to rejoice with us, encouraging us to continue to proclaim the message of acceptance and inclusion.   Amen.

(2) Matthew 9.11
(3) Matthew 15.24
(4) Romans 11.11,12