|Minister's Sermon - Christmas Eve 24th December 2018|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Christmas Eve 2018|
There’s a question I find myself pondering every Christmas. And this year it’s more pressing than ever. What use is a child? What can a child do in the face of all the confusions over Brexit? How can a child help the people up in the Windrush scandal, the tsunami in Indonesia, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Myanmar and elsewhere? Where is this child as we hear increasing evidence about the damage of austerity, the introduction of universal credit, and the many personal tragedies that people we know have faced this year? What use is a child? And how can “God surprising earth with heaven” - as the carol we’ll sing when I stop puts it - make any difference to any of this?
The people Isaiah was speaking to, lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, eight centuries before Christ’s birth. The shadow, the darkness that overwhelmed them, was the threat of invasion by Assyria. A threat that sometimes became reality. I suspect their experiences were similar to those in our time, who’ve had their lives turned upside down, by bombing, rocket fire or soldiers burning their villages. And wherever this is happening, the promise of the light dawning at the end of a long, terror-filled night is welcome. Yet Isaiah’s solution sounds crazy. A child! How can the birth of a child change anything? How can this be the moment when the people will be freed from oppression, saved from judgement, and light replace darkness? How can this bring as much joy as they’d experience at harvest? Isaiah ignores all our questions and makes statements instead. The “yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” has been broken. Israel is freed. Assyria’s military power has gone. But freedom does not come from war. War is ended, and to celebrate the new age of peace, the old garments of war - boots for trampling and blood-stained clothes - are burned. And it happens place because a “child has been born…” Of course, we read this as prophecy, and as a promise of a birth several centuries later. But it’s actually historical theology, written after the event, for a child was born that brought about these things. The child became King Hezekiah, later praised as a new King David, one of the few kings given this title. Because unlike his predecessors, he didn’t seek peace, through war. He trusted that God would bring about peace on earth. Even in a place as contentious as Jerusalem. And it’s his faith in God, not his political wisdom, that’s being praised. Isaiah’s prophecy says Hezekiah isn’t an ordinary child. “Authority” rests on his shoulders, and he has many exalted titles, “A mighty God who plans wonders”, “everlasting father,” “peaceable ruler.” In the 8th century, ‘though, titles like this didn’t describe the person being praised, but the one who placed them on the throne. So, they’re titles, that belong to God. And as we listen to them tonight, they invite us to wonder about the God who places kings and rulers on thrones, whose rule brings an end to oppression and war, who is also born among us as a child.
This is the story Luke tells. For many people, the idea of God being born in a manger, is like a fairy-tale. But the story does speak to those who know they don’t matter. And even ‘though there is no external proof of angels or shepherds, the Gospel tells of despised outsiders, people living on the edge of society – being placed centre stage in God’s economy. The angels tell us why. The child is a sign. “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, signs confirm the truth of God’s actions, or of God’s promises for the future. This “sign” was that this child is already “the Messiah, the Lord.” God didn’t wait for his death or resurrection. The “sign” points to the child. And the child is the point Luke wants to make. God has become a human child. The Messiah does not appear as humans expect. God’s power as almighty ruler and everlasting rather is given away - divested. And in the shape, the pattern, the improbability of the birth story, God becomes the Word (with a capital W). For those with power - whether that’s religious, secular or military - the idea of God becoming a defenceless, vulnerable child, is incomprehensible. And for some religious people it’ll be even more incomprehensible, to say that the difference this child makes, doesn’t only have to do with what happens when he grows up and dies. It begins here. When God puts God’s-self into human hands. When God stops being in control and takes the risk of trusting us. I like the way Giles Frazer expresses this. “…the earth-shatteringly radical… Christmas story… tells us to forget about the God of power. That’s not what God looks like. No, when thinking of God, imagine a tiny child, unable even to look after itself.” What the shepherds encountered when they went to Bethlehem, was God “divesting God-self of God’s God-ness…” And Paul affirms this when he writes this to the Philippians about Jesus. “…though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be clung onto, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself...” Tonight, we celebrate that the one who humbled himself, who gave up all power in love for us, is the same proclaimed by the angels.
The implications of God trusting God’s-self to us like this are challenging. If the child is the sign of God. And God’s sign is the pattern for our life with each other, the shape of just, and peaceful living. It means that we’re also being invited to give up power that controls, and to learn to trust God, and each other. Of course, we do not like not being in control of our lives. We struggle when we’re not. And we struggle against those who are. So, we betray the trust God places in us, over and over again. The Windrush scandal, the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Myanmar, Western treatment of the victims of these wars. The impact of austerity, falling disproportionately on the weakest and most vulnerable, being made worse by universal credit. And all making many people’s personal tragedies harder to cope with. Of course, there are no easy solutions, resources are limited. And where violence is endemic it is challenging to bring it to an end. But until we learn to use power as God used it, to defend and protect the poor, the outsider, and the vulnerable. Until those with power (and all that goes with it), learn that the only just, the only peaceful way to exercise it, is to give it up, and learn to share it, in self-emptying love. Those at the bottom of the heap, without power and resources, will continue to be sacrificial lambs on the altars of those of us, who do have wealth and power and control.
Tonight, we can choose. We can choose whether or not this child is going to make any difference, or whether God’s coming, is simply a story we celebrate for a few days and then forget. The choice is ours, because just as God trusted God-self to us, God trusts the world to us. When “God surprises earth with heaven”, God offers us a new way of living, a new way of being. A way of being, that if taken seriously, contains the seeds of the possibility of all God’s people and creation experiencing physical and spiritual well-being. And the possibility of just and peaceful social, political and economic structures, in each community, every nation, and around the world. It’s that amazing. And it began with a radical and decisive act. An act of self-emptying love, that God invites us - because God will never impose it on us – to choose to shape our choices, our relationships and lives. And for each person that does, they’ll be a new birth that will bring us more joy, than we ever imagined possible. Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen