s005g99 Christmass Somerton Park 25/12/99
"the Word became flesh and lived among us" John 1:14
We come to Church this Christmass, perhaps thinking that we are supposed to find God in this sacred space. In the words of the Bible, in the sacrament of the Altar, portrayed in the starkness of the Cross, in the singing of the carols and the music, in the warmth of the fellowship, or in the beauty of this building. And perhaps we do indeed glimpse something of the magnitude of God's love in these places. We might leave thinking good about ourselves, and perhaps feeling good about humanity around us. There are some things that are reassuringly constant, like "Silent Night", "Joy to the world" and "While shepherds washed their socks by night" :-) And yet we might leave thinking that while this is a nice service, and that the familiar is good and comforting, it is all a bit "ho hum". For all the world seems to have forsaken religion and faith, the birth of Jesus, however inaccurately determined, still marks the millennium - well sort of. There have been many Christmasses when I have thought - it's all very nice - but things haven't changed all that much.
As I reflect on where we look for God, other than here in Church, I suppose most frequently the other place is somewhere "up there" in heaven. Indeed in the Bible the word for the "sky" and "heaven" are almost interchangeable. So after the battle of the army of King David against the forces of his son Absalom who had usurped the throne, Absalom flees on his donkey. We are told "The mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on." (2 Sam 18:9). So there is some justification for the first Russian astronaut's comment that he couldn't find God in his travels, high above the earth.
While we may think that we have progressed in our thinking - we no longer believe that heaven is a physical place "up there" and hell another physical place, somewhere "down there" somewhere in the earth - we still look most often for divine intervention from outside of ourselves. We look to God, by inference "out there", to assist us win the lottery, to bring healing into our lives, to help us as we do our exams, to answer our prayers ...
Or, as I began, if we are practising members of a Church, we look for God in a sacred space like this building. These are all "places" which are somewhat removed from our day to day life, our ordinary existence.
I wonder if the message of Christmass is that if we are looking for the action of God in these sort of places we are looking in quite the wrong direction.
One of the central truths of the life and ministry of Jesus, and one which is the most attractive for ordinary people is that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners. This same truth is expressed in the Christmass Crib - that Jesus was born to ordinary parents in a stable. In all likelihood, we too will find the activity of God in precisely the same place - in the lives of ordinary, not especially religious, people..
I am not saying that we won't find the risen Christ in the sacrament of the Altar. I am not saying that we won't hear the words of Jesus in the words of the lessons for today. I am not saying that we won't find the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith gathered here today.
What I am saying is that we are a gathering of sinners, and so we can expect to find Jesus here - not here in the sanctuary, but here in the pews. The sacrament of the Altar is the most powerful affirmation of that truth that the risen Christ is still found sitting down and eating with sinners - us. The words of Jesus are indeed spoken and heard here; perhaps the ones that immediately spring to mind are: "I call you friends ..." And the Holy Spirit comes to enable us to listen to one another, and listening, to understand and respond in the language of the other.
So we will find the risen Christ - not "in here" in some remote and a place alien to our normal life - but "in here" in the familiar things of life, in the familiar faces that surround us - indeed where we are least likely to expect, in our own lives.
For the risen Christ comes, again in the way of weakness and vulnerableness, that is the picture that "the world" most readily associates and desires in the Christmass story. Sometimes the Church can be so concerned to get people to come to church, we can seem to stress this desire and neglect the central truth that God is at work among people in their ordinary day to day lives.
Everything in this building testifies that we find God in ourselves. Everything in our faith revolves around the Cross and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died for you and for me because God sees something worthwhile in you and me worth dying for. The sacrament of the Altar, is nothing if it does not bring to us a realisation of this central truth for each one of us. If they do nothing else, the Scriptures surely affirm the centrality of the Cross and resurrection, that God finds something in us worth dying for. This whole building is here because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It has no other purpose but to say to you and to me that God finds something in us worth dying for. The fellowship we share - we share because we see something of God in each other. The hymns and carols we sing, we sing in praise because we have recognised that God finds value in us.
The whole of the Church serves to proclaim, not God here (in the sacred objects), but God here in you and in me - in people who are sacred.
The incarnation, Jesus being made human, testifies that God finds in creation, and in the lives of ordinary, not especially religious, people, much that is worthwhile and worth coming to point out and to celebrate.
This is what makes Christmass the life changing, epoch making event.
So the message is not to "change", to "repent" or to "come to Church", but to see within yourself that which God sees, an individual, unique in beauty and purpose - a person God considers worth sending Jesus to live and to die and to rise for.
The message of Christmas is that we find God in ourselves.
Here we find why coming to Church is a useful thing, for it is here that we are reminded, again and again, of that central truth of God's love, lest we forget and try to gain self esteem by climbing over others. This is but to return to the "law of the jungle" and the "survival of the fittest", but surely we transcend this as humans. This is of course precisely what make us human - that we do transcend the "law of the jungle" and the "survival of the fittest".
Of course the difficulty comes when we see God primarily in sacred objects rather than primary in people, is that we start arguing on which object is more sacred. So the various traditions of the Church have maintained their particular proclamation that God is primarily found in scripture or the the Sacrament of the Altar, or the Church, or in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is associated with the gift of tongues. Often those outside the Church sees God in the beauty of nature. So the "Christian" proclamation has become "survival of the fittest" theology, the "law of the jungle" of the multitudinous traditions within Anglicanism, let alone anywhere else.
It is only when we put people first, when we see God in us and in all, that sacred objects assume their rightful place within theology.
The incarnation which we celebrate each Christmass is God genuflecting to you and to me and to all of humanity. It is God saying, as God did at the creation of humankind in the very beginning: "it was very good ..." Gen 1.31
The magic of Christmass is that God sees the magic in us. May we too see that magic and celebrate to see ourselves as God sees us, people God loves - and celebrate to see the whole of humanity as God sees everyone, as people God loves - whoever they are, whatever colour, race, culture or tradition they come from. Amen.
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