SERMON PREACHED AT THE ORMOND CHAPEL NAPIER
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
(22nd DECEMBER) 2013
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Romans 1: 1-7
The contemporary routines of Christmas – probably contemporary for nearly a hundred years now – create a psychological ‘disconnect,’ a parallel narrative of which even Dr Who might be proud. Our readings, prayers and intercessions take us on a journey that begins with expectation of the second-coming of Christ, and then segue clumsily into preparation for the first coming of Christ at Bethlehem to millennia ago. In the meantime our secular western world celebrates the madness of the Capitalist frenzy, with retailers doing their utmost, understandably, to ensure that all their survival needs and then their profit needs are met and hopefully exceeded in a gut-busting orgy of marketing and selling. In the midst of all this the Christchild and Saint Nicholas, in his commercialised rebadging as Santa, compete for attention, with the Christchild losing badly, and both in any case sneeringly dismissed as ‘fairy tales’ about an ‘invisible friend.’
It is not an easy time in which to recapture the heart and soul of the gospel writers’ tale. Of course, as I suggest in my notes on the gospel elsewhere (see my Pivotal Pokes blog of December 21st), it was not easy for them either. They were using the best tools available to them to express the inexpressible, the God incarnate in the person and work and life and death and resurrection of a prickly prophet, the son of the wife of a carpenter from Nazareth. Those tolls can still work two millennia late, but as John Lennon wrote (though he meant the words in a very different way) ‘Christ, you know it ain’t easy.’
The stories do not translate easily into our world. They can be distorted by well-intending or less well-intending believers, or mocked by those who for whatever reasons are antagonistic to the message of Christianity. We must wear that, as the early Christians did: the first known non-Christian reference to Christians and their message is not of the ‘boy born in manger saves world’ type much loved by somewhat clichéd Christian signposts, but graffiti portraying Jesus as a crucified donkey. The artist is conflating no doubt the Triumphal Entrance story with the Good Friday story, but demonstrates incidentally that the Christian gospel was not altogether easy to convey. Oh how I wish, sometimes, that God had performed these revelations of the saving self, the saving purpose of God in other ways!
But it is not our job to second guess God. What in any case can God do? Can there be a message more intimate than incarnation? A sort of celestial email pleading, bribing or otherwise coercing humans into belief and acceptable behaviour is poor substitute for enfleshment in the midst of human experience. A series of neon lights across the sky telling us what to do, believe, say, is unlikely ultimately to touch and transform the yearning human heart (and in any case is not every almost every sunset, almost every sunrise, almost every awesome display of aurora borealis or its southern cousin, is not every display of a peacock’s tail or a monarch butterfly’s wing or a chameleon’s mind-blowing transitions a display of the poetry of the Creator, and even yet so easily dismissed with the sneering superiority of some science?). Neither a divine email nor an inescapably bellowed divine voice is substitute for the gentle, nurturing presence of God that can but only can be experienced in worship, in fellowship, in meditation and in study of God’s story.
The Hebrew people longed for a coming Messiah – and indeed still do. We long for the touch of Christ in celestial return, winding up the suffering of the cosmos that we are blithely destroying, winding up, too, the sometimes immeasurable suffering of human lives that we witness either around us in person or around our world via the media. We cry, perhaps with puzzlement and with the first Christians ‘come lord, come, maranatha.’ As the psalmist put it, ‘how long will you be angry with you people’s prayers … let your face shine that we may be saved.’ Isaiah’s people longed for a sign, and perhaps they missed it, though in saying that we need to recognize the way, the many ways we their cousins in faith continue to miss signs of the work of God in our midst. Paul spoke over and again of grace, the invasion of human lives, undeserving all, by divine love. Matthew spoke of an angel’s words, ‘God is with us.’ Sometimes, as so much changes and our churches seem to collapse around our ears, symbolically and literally, it seems as though Joseph must have been misled, fooling himself and his successors. I though don’t think that’s true: it is fashionable to belittle our romantic carols, but there are few lyrics that resonate more within my own life experience than Phillips Brooks’ famous words ‘Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today,’ and ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’
It may not be fashionable to hang on to the seemingly archaic, odd, even risible tales of the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew but I believe, though they were never meant as scientific analysis of the DNA of Jesus, they point to an essential truth of the gospel: God does not email us from a distant star but, by invitation, enters into our very essence, transforming even our journey from darkness into light, and ensuring that, while it may not yet be apparent, even humanity’s deepest darknesses are penetrated by resurrection light.