SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS (28th December) 2014
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS (28th December) 2014
Readings: Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3
In the endless world of the interweb, from Facebook to Twitter to the myriad other chatfests in which humanity indulges, there is an endless continuance of pixel-wastage on the meaning and the events and the actuality or fabrication of the Incarnation, the Bethlehem story presumably familiar to most of us.
There are as ever those who wish to defend every last detail of the biblical narrative as absolute and irrefutable fact. There are as ever those who wish to mock every last detail as some sort of sewerage polluting the minds of the gullible with vacuous and exploitative nonsense. There are myriad positions in-between, and, if we take the whole of humanity into account a myriad of perspective even beyond these bookends: myriads who to varying degrees know little or nothing about the Christian stories of the coming of the Christ child.
Every attempt to extract some sort of quantifiable truth from the scriptures of faith will end in tears. The reading of scripture in a post-enlightenment age, when empirical data is prized beyond all else, is hazardous. We are here no more engaged in a quantifiable process than we are when we kiss a loved one, savour a culinary delight, or bathe ourselves in the magnificence of a balmy sunset. The readings of our faith are generally either the love-poetry of faith or the encouragement and direction-giving of faith. Just as a road sign advising of a sharp turn ahead gives a broad stylised image of a sharp turn, so the scriptures of faith have broad and often stylised insights into the relationship between believers and the paths we are led to tread.
So, as the great Isaiah reassures his people that the hard times are, at least for the fore-knowable future, over, he caresses them with songs of love. This is not accidentally the language of bridegroom and bride, garlands and jewellery, for this is the language of that which cannot be expressed in words. Some of you will be aware of the expressions of pain that are coming from Christians and others exiled in terror from northern Iraq and Syria in recent weeks. Some of you may have seen the tears of the Bishop of Mosul as he related the sad tale of his proud people, a people who have celebrated the great feasts of their Christian faith in their lands for 1500 years. They have done so despite the invasions of the Tatars, of Mongols under Genghis and later Hulagu Khan, of the Ottomans and the British and the Russians and the Americans. They have done so alongside Jews and Muslims, yet for the first time in 1500 years they have under Da’esh (so-called and mis-nomered “ISIL”) been forced from the churches and their prayers.
The language of Isaiah is the language that refugees such as these might pour out if they were to be told that their lands had been rendered safe and they could return without threat or danger. This language of Isaiah is the language of ecstasy, as the refugees in the Australian razor wired refugee hell-holes might use if they were told that Australian and New Zealand governments had decided to welcome them with open arms, of if they were told their homelands of Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or Syria or Sudan were safe to return to at last. This is the language of ecstasy.
So too is the language that the psalmist generates. It is the language of love pouring forth from poets or a poet who has encountered the power of the presence of God in both the festivals of faith and the ordinariness of everyday life, and who has experienced the highs and the lows of the human journey and interpreted them as being all within the embrace of his or her God. A few poems before our psalm today the psalmist cries out with one of the most heartfelt and all-but unreadable sentences of the entire scriptures of our faith, yet here he or she is crying out in paroxysms of ecstasy, voicing the praises of all creation as we might if we were returned from exile or if a lost child were returned to us safely or if our diagnosis of terminal cancer had turned out to be an administrative error and we were now given the all-clear.
Our psalm is the language of the un-languageable, not the language of the concise and the measurable that so many from both the camps of faith and the camps of anti-faith are seeking. This is the hope and happiness of faith restored: “my whole being shall exult.” This is the unutterable yet uttered squawk of adoration: “praise him, all of me, praise him all of you” (and the allusion to John Legend’s “All of me” is not accidental, for that too is a love song).
Even the prickly Paul breaks into the language of praise as he delivers his situational diatribes of instruction. As he writes through gritted teeth to the not very astute Galatian Christians he breaks for a moment into an outburst of praise to the God he loves and is even more loved by: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Again and again even Paul’s most volatile letters – and some are – are interrupted by the outpourings of faith-ecstasy, his first century version of “You’re my end and my beginning / Even when I lose I'm winning / Cause I give you all of me / And you give me all of you …”. This does not warrant scientific analysis, for this is the language of love.
So too is the language that Matthew and in this case Luke attach to the birth of the one they knew as Saviour, Messiah, God made flesh. Whatever happened in and around the birth and childhood of Jesus their stories were stories of love, not science. Can history in any case ever be quantifiable and unprejudiced? There are other stories too, delightful, playful stories that did not make it into the canon of our scriptures, though they too can inspire and edify our faith. The fact is that these stories resonated with the power-experience that the first and subsequent followers of Jesus underwent, and indeed as we let ourselves be embraced by the all-powerful love of the Creator as revealed in Christ and Christ’s Spirit they can equally resonate with us, equally enthral and empower our lives and our footsteps. Simeon cries out in the language of fulfilment: “Master, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” This is the language of a life’s dream satisfied, realised, completed. Many of us will never experience such completion, though I suggest that the language of grace says to each of us that our lives, no matter how broken or incomplete, are made complete in the fulfilment of Christ. That fulfilment dwells at the heart of the news we call Good News.
So the invitation from these passages is to us all to open up once more our hearts to the warmth and playfulness of Christ, the justice seeking, life up-building Christ of manger, cross, empty tomb and eternal life packed away in the incomprehensible love-poetry of our faith.