A Universal Christmas!
While I received a beautiful Christmas gift in the form of the speech by Ester Sadiki who you just heard, I often feel caught between two worlds at Christmas time. The secular world with its tinsel, and gifts and family and the religious world, which wants to proclaim Christmas as a holy and sacred time.
Yet now with so much pain and anguish happening around us, both here in our own community but also in the eastern states where fires are destroying lives and homes, how do we make sense and find joy in the moment, whichever group we are in.
What to say and what to do?
Well, while Christmas was not celebrated fully until the 18thcentury and for early Christians only from the 4thcentury, after adopting a pagan festival called, Sol Invictus, I feel at this moment we all need Christmas, secular and sacred. Or more correctly what the birth stories of Jesus of Nazareth bring to us.
For they transmit some very deep and universal truths, not just for those who lived 2000 years ago, but for us today. They say so much about how we are to live in the world and with each other, and about God if we sit still long enough to listen. And so much about a man who brings this God alive to us, even in the 21stcentury.
But we need to really understand the stories and not take them at face value, for they are not meant to be literal. I want to suggest that these stories are so much more than a set of facts, which we regurgitate every year and then forget. Or worse still discount as being unbelievable.
I have spent many a Christmas day sermon talking about the birth stories of Jesus, how they only appear in 2 of the 4 gospels, how they reflect in miniature the world Jesus lived in, how they were written a long time after his death and how they have different accounts, representing both the time they were written and who they were written for.
They are not history, but rather the birth stories are myths, beautiful and powerful,
As Keith Rowe says, myths are the mirrors in which we see what we might become. They represent a way of human knowing that can be placed alongside scientific knowledge as two complementary pathways into life’s truth. They don’t have to be literally true to be true!
They give us insights we don’t see until we really see!
While both gospel accounts are full of earthly things, and some mystical things who is the child at the centre? The Gospel of Matthew describes him as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is at the centre of the story, the character extraordinaire. A revelation to us about where God is to be found and who God is
This is the essence of the stories. A universal message.
For even in our cynical, secular world, it seems to echo a strange and beautiful and evocative call. Where is God? Tell us about your God.
As Keith Rowe suggests,
“There are no facts upon which we can say for certain that God is with us or that God even is, but over the centuries those who have taken the stories of the birth of Jesus and the life of Jesus into their hearts and imaginations have been changed. And maybe they have glimpsed this God”.
Not a God in the sky, not a God who intervenes in human affairs every now and again, but a presence hidden in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world, as Frederick Buechner would say. A presence found in all of life, from the smallest molecule of the universe to the complicated but beautiful creatures we have become. A presence found in Jesus.
The reading today from the Gospel of John speaks of this. We hear what the early Christians heard. Jesus has come into the world to reveal God’s light and life.
So the birth stories are not really about a baby at all but about a man, called Jesus and about his life in God and in the world.
They are about finding God in a human Jesus, who lived and died in 1stcentury Judea, but who more than anyone since has shown a new way to live with one another. A way of love, grounded in the earthy world that he knew and in the indwelling spirit of God that guided him. A kingdom of love, compassion, forgiveness and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender and age. Where everyone was to be included and no one went without. A kingdom of justice.
The stories of the poor shepherds who were the first to hear of the birth, of a defenceless baby, of parents who were refugees, of a smelly stable, and animals and women and foreigners and angels reflect Jesus’s life and teachings in miniature. An inclusive life. One that so challenged the authorities of the day, the Roman Empire, but also some of the religious leaders that he was ultimately killed. Instead of power and violence and injustice and exclusion, hallmarks particularly of the Empire, we get a Jesus who was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. It is a message that resonates with the lives of all human beings everywhere, not just those in the 1stcentury.
So what do we do with Christmas in 2019? What do we do with the message the birth stories represent. That Jesus represents.
The Church and the world are at a crossroads today. We are at a Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one. Because as we have seen this past year, we have dictators who rule with power and fear, we have governments who protect the rich at the expense of the poor, we have huge wealth hoarded by a few, and we have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. We have religion being used to kill and enslave people, rather than making them free. We have earths creation in crisis, burning uncontrollably, And we have people seeking protection from the horrors of war or this terror being locked up in prisons Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope?
I believe our hope lies in the message of Jesus. And the God we meet in him. Not some otherworldly God confined to the outer reaches of our reality but the life force that surges through all living things, that drives us to be better than we are, more loving, more compassionate and more forgiving. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference to everyone. And by doing so, living the way of Jesus in the world.
People I have seen this week, this month, this year. Who battle fires, while their own homes burn, who care for the homeless and those without food and shelter, who care for the sick and dying in our hospitals, who donate money and time for others, even those they haven’t met, and those who try to change the status quo by advocating, protesting and generally being annoying to our politicians. Let’s continue to pester them!
But even small acts of kindness and compassion make a difference, and I have experienced these as well this week. From the person who offered me a drink, a beer first, but after I declined a glass of cold water, and a seat on their balcony when our car broke down in their driveway, to the mechanic who opened up the garage when on holidays so that we could get our car home to Perth, these acts of kindness made a difference to us.
Whether people are from a church or not, whether sacred or secular, today our hope lies in the transformation possible in the everyday moments of life by ordinary people. Moments that reveal God as ever present. Our hope is about commitment, not wishful thinking or false promises.
As Martin Luther King has said, “hope comes in many forms, mostly not supernatural. Rather in the shape of people, people helping people. God is found in the midst of this action, not separate from it.”
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus.
So today let us not push Christmas aside but celebrate the Christmas season, all of us, with renewed vigour, giving ourselves space to be warmed by the light and love of God. For God is still here, working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere, in our precarious and complicated world.
The only gift required is ourselves.