IMMANUEL – GOD IS WITH US
Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve 2016
And so we come here at last; through the four weeks’ of preparation during Advent, through tales of the Baptist and Zechariah, and Elizabeth, of Mary’s visitation by the Angel, and Joseph’s dream, and their ‘Yes’ to God’s plan, and now to a stable, and straw, the warm breath of animals, and the cry of a child; a moment of calm before a crowd of bemused shepherds shoulder their way through the door, and the world breaks in.
And we too, blessedly, are in this space as well. The bustle of preparations for a moment far away; the shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the greeting, the entertaining, all, for this moment, suspended, as we too, gaze in our mind’s eye around that stable; join our breath with the soft breath of the animals; take our place in the straw around the cradle, and gaze upon the one who lies there. God be thanked for this moment of rest, and peace, and the glow of God’s promise to us.
For seldom have we needed such rest and such peace. Seldom has there been so much tension, whether at home or abroad; seldom have the certainties of the last decades, for good or ill, been in such flux and doubt. All of us, young, old, and middle aged, are aware that we are living at one of the fulcrum-points of our history, and there is no way of knowing what will result. A new world has sprung up before our eyes, and we are still struggling to discern its lineaments. In the midst of all this, it’s fair to ask ‘What has the scene in the stable to tell us? How can we relate to it? Is it any more than a temporary refuge from reality?’
It is; it is far more than that; but to discern it, we have to widen our gaze. We have to look at what our God was doing in sending the child to the stable, in that land and in that time, and what are the implications for us of his doing so.
The child came to a small corner of one of the greatest empires the world had ever known; - a small corner inhabited by a people who believed themselves to have been chosen by their God for a special task, to witness to his glory and majesty in the world. Uniquely, this people believed that their God was not one of many, not even the greatest of many, but ‘the One, the only, the creator of all that was and would be’, who had forged them through the ages for his purpose. But together with this exalting vision, came a grinding daily reality; for they were a conquered people; more, they were conquered by a race that held their God and their destiny in contempt. More, their society, ordered and enlightened for their time, was being stressed almost beyond its limits by the rise of a class of the super-rich, creating an underclass of the landless and the hungry.
The result of all this was a crushing sense of failure in this people, and a great and a fierce longing among them for God to deliver them, to send his special servant, his Messiah, to end their humiliation. The baby came to them at a time when this longing was at its height, to be answered by the words and the miracles of the man that baby was to become, and so to launch the saving of our world. The baby sent to a precise place, at a precise time; long-prepared; God acting as he had acted in that people’s past, intervening in the world’s history according to his plan, a plan of ‘love-to-us’.
And because the child’s coming was not the bland arrival to us of a generalised holy man, but was so specific in place and time, had history’s advantages, it had history’s costs as well. The child born in that peaceful stable was born during the reign of one of the most determined and paranoid rulers of the ancient world, and so the child’s family had to become refugees to avoid massacre. With his words and actions, with his proclamation of God’s love, the man that child became alienated the rich and powerful, outraged the religious establishment, and came to the terminal attention of the occupying power. History’s advantages, history’s cost...
Why should this be a comfort to us, as we gaze at the stable? It should be a comfort to us, because the child in that stable has two names; one his given name, the other his title. His given name is Yeshu’a, which in the language of his people means ‘God saves’. His title came by prophesy, of the first Isaiah; ‘a young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel’.
And the meaning of ‘Immanuel’? It is ‘God is with us’; not ‘God is above us, not God is outside us’ – floating unconcerned at the sorrow and confusion of our world. God is with us; in the confusion and sorrow, in the uncertainty and the tension; with us in the stable, with us in the planning, and with us in bearing the cost of that plan.
And with us now, as we gaze upon his son; our hope, and the hope of the world, then, and now, and always.
BUT HE DIDN’T KNOW
Matthew 1. 18 – 25
18 December 2016
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:"Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
‘Of course, God knew that he wouldn’t desert her; that’s why he chose him in the first place!’
Yes, God did know that the man Yosef bar Yaakov of Natzeret’, whom we know as Joseph the Carpenter, would not desert his betrothed bride when he found out she was pregnant - but he didn’t.
He had to live with the anger and the shame which would attend any man in that situation, but would have been even greater given that everyone knew everyone else’s business in that land, in that time, and what they thought of you affected everything – your work, your relationships, your standing in the community. There is no hiding place in a village; nowhere to go.
And the young woman with whom he had planned to spend his life with had told him this –story. Was she truly shameless, to lie to him so? And what was he to do? To just carry on was unthinkable; how could he ever trust her? And every day to see the child, and know it was not his! And yet, if he told the Rabbi, told the Village, then it would be the stoning; and the vision, the sound, of that stoning; he could not get it out of his head; he could not do that to her. Best quietly to withdraw from the betrothal; she could go to her cousin – that Elizabeth in the hill-country, married to the priest, and so hide her shame. But then, never to see her again....
It was a torment, and if we see it as anything less than a torment, we do less than justice to this good man. We cannot ‘look back’ on his situation in the light of God’s later help to him, and so say that it was ‘all right, then’. And nor can we just look forward, from the night of his dream, and say ‘so that was sorted’. For first, he had to take the risk, the step, of believing the dream, believing that it came from Adonai, from the God of his Fathers. And then he had to heed it, to put it into action, by publically holding to his woman, braving the sniggers in the village at his wife’s ‘strangely shortened pregnancy’ - people could count just as well then as now. And then he had to live that decision, day by day, by day, for the rest of his life; raising the boy lovingly as his own; going into exile for him, becoming a homeless refugee; then returning home on Herod’s death and teaching him his trade; gazing at him wonderingly out of the corner of his eye as he grew.
What Matthew’s telling of the account from Joseph’s point of view does, is bring us up against the human cost of it all. The astonishing gift of God sending us his Son didn’t just end in pain and human cost. It began in it, too. Nothing that life-giving, that life-saving, comes cheaply. It did not come cheaply to Mary. It did not come cheaply to her man. It did not come cheaply to God.
In a week’s time, we shall be celebrating – and rightly. .But there’s a purpose to Advent. It’s a time when we can look at the gift we are given; look it straight in the eye, and count the cost of it. You and I can live life in the love of God in Jesus; can have the daily help and comfort of the Holy Spirit, can have the sure hope of Heaven after this life, because God, and Joseph, and Mary, bore the cost together of making it happen, and countless men and women bore the cost of bringing us the knowledge and the hope of it so we could make it ours.
So hold your head up, and give thanks, and shoulder the load.
Sermon preached at the Church of All Saints, Blackheath
at Parish Mass on Sunday, December 11th, 2016
‘Are you the one who is to come,
or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt. 11: 3)
Every generation, every society and – maybe – every one wants a saviour. Someone who will rescue us from the mess we so often get ourselves into – or the mess others create from which we want to be saved. I cannot imagine what it is like to live in the hell that must be eastern Aleppo at this time, nor can I imagine what it is like to be homeless or out of work or facing a terrible illness with no prospect of a cure.
But I understand the need for a saviour. Deep in our hearts there is a fear of being overwhelmed and a need to be rescued. We even have two groups of nuclei located deep within our brain whose function is to aid us react to fear. The desire for salvation is hardwired into us. So that question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” could be said to emerge from our primal need for escape. Quite rightly so – when faced with a woolly mammoth it’s what you might need to do.
And the Jews looked for a Saviour from the time that they were exiled from their Land and taken into captivity in Babylon. ‘The days are surely coming’, said the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall exercise justice and righteousness in the land’. (Jer. 23:5) The Messiah who will save Israel.
THE NEED FOR A SAVIOUR
Yet, of course, the need for a saviour is fraught with danger. Just as every epoch has witnessed this need, so men (and, usually or course, powerful men) have risen up and seen themselves as equal to the task. A very few, like Nelson Mandela, have had the humility necessary for the work – yet at deep, personal cost. More often they have become despots or dictators, overawed by their egos and unaware of their failings. And history is, of course, littered with them and is witness to the damage they have done. Yet still people desire them and some, lacking that humility or humanity, see themselves as the messiah whether they use that term or not.
Jesus was never that kind of messiah – he did not fulfil the requirements of a Jewish saviour. He rejected the role of a charismatic warrior judge who would fulfil Isaiah’s prophesy: ‘Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’(Is. 35: 4b) No, he would not be that pure, righteous man who would rally all people to himself.
And that was the problem, of course, Jesus would acutely face later on. When he travelled to the northern tip of Israel before beginning the journey into His Passion he found that His disciples were beginning to see in him that promised Messiah. So His enigmatic reply to Peter when Peter, having declared that Jesus was Messiah and would never face suffering and death: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” (Mt.16:23)
How easy it would have been for Jesus to accept the mantle of Messiah, to tap into the frustration and hatred, the fear and despair, suffering and anger that riddled Israel then, as it does in so many places now. How easy it would have been to rally people to fight against Rome as one rabbi, Bar Kokhba, would do a century later and as Mohammed did to rid Mecca of what he regarded as the enemies of God.
“Are you the one who is to come?” What would Jesus be? What would people find in Jesus? What draws us to Him?
JESUS OUR SAVIOUR
Well, we could start by noticing Jesus’ own observation: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Mt. 11: 5/6)Then we should go on to consider the way He taught His followers – the Way of the Beatitudes. Increasingly the scriptures witness to a meta-narrative that is counter-cultural: where story after story deals with the lure and corruption of power, the need to beware hatred of the other and learn to love the stranger. A narrative that is not easy to hear or act out and which the Church often seems unable to proclaim with confidence.
Yet I believe that is what we need to do, in season (not least as we prepare for Christmas) and – more importantly – at a time when the dark forces of Evil have been welcomed into our midst in the shape of those demi-gods who offer lies, trade in fear and seek to place the acquisition of wealth above the creation of a just society.
BEING A CHRISTIAN TODAY
Today’s gospel reading is a reminder that being a Christian is meant to have a consequence in the world. Being a Christian – seeking to be a disciple of Christ our Saviour who reigns from the Crib and Cross involves the way we live and the principles by which we live. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are given to help us reflect more deeply on the consequences of the coming of God into our world in human flesh.
John the Baptiser is presented to us today from the deserts of history, the desert that formed the context in which Isaiah uttered his prophesy of liberation and restoration. It’s easy to be attracted by those who appear to be prophets in our own time, yet who are like the Christmas decorations we display, superficial at best and dangerous at worst. Yet that prophetic tradition was not lost to the world for it gave birth to the great monastic movement which shaped the history of Europe and enabled our most profound understandings of God. That tradition, increasingly uncared about and often lost to the West, flourishes in the place of its birth – in the deserts of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, despite the terrors of ISIS.
Yet that ancient tradition is re-emerging in our midst. For example, there’s an increasing number of men and women who feel called to the Single Consecrated Life. I know four Anglican women in London who are publically living out their monastic calling in their everyday lives as ‘Urban Hermits’.
And there’s a New Monastic Movement developing which is attracting scores of young people to live in dispersed or residential communities. Communities like the international Community of S. Anselm at Lambeth Palace or the non-residential Lay Community of St. Benedict whose members are joined together by a simple rhythm of prayer. Monastic life, rooted in the prophetic tradition of S. John the Baptist, is flourishing in fresh ways because men and women still feel drawn to seek God and realise the treasures contained in that tradition.
As we patiently wait for the coming of Christ and listen to those who proclaim they will save us, let us notice the way they come and wonder at their appearing. Do they appeal to a desire that the Reign of God might come on earth as it is in heaven, or appeal to our selfishness and pride? Perhaps we might silently turn our eyes towards the One who is to come and prepare a space in our hearts for Him. As Bishop Rowan Williams wrote:
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.