Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sermon for the Longest Night of the Year: 'When Christmas Hurts' service

What if God was one of us?

One of my favourite Christmas songs isn’t actually a Christmas song at all – at least, the author didn’t write it as a Christmas song. I’m sure you know it. The chorus goes:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way back home?

The glorious thing about Christmas is that this song is true – that is exactly who God is. In our culture, Christmas has become a time for parties and eating and drinking and buying and selling and giving presents and celebrating. But the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Let’s try to think our way back into it.

A young Jewish girl, probably in her mid-teens, comes to her fiancée and says, “I’m pregnant”. Her fiancée knows that the child is not his, but when he asks the obvious question – ‘Who did it?’ – she replies, ‘God’.

The Bible doesn’t report this conversation, but I think if I’d been in Joseph’s shoes I’d have been more than a little skeptical about that story! And in fact we’re told that he planned to break his engagement to Mary as quietly as possible, until an angel came to him in a dream and told him that Mary had been telling him the truth.

Still, when her belly started to get bigger, I expect the rumours started to fly. In that culture, the law had harsh penalties for sex outside of marriage – death by stoning, in fact. Of course, it was often not enforced, but the law was on the books all the same. I’m sure some people thought about it. I’m sure Mary got some dark looks when she went to synagogue on Saturdays. “A child out of wedlock, eh? And she used to be such a good girl!”

Then came the news that everyone in Israel had to travel back to their ancestral home town to be registered for taxation purposes. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time – Mary was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, and now she would have to make the hard journey south to Bethlehem. Tradition says she rode on a donkey – tradition has even given us songs about the little donkey – but the truth is that we have no idea whether she rode or walked. But we know for sure that it must have been an awful journey for her.

And then, after Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, we’re told that there was ‘no room for them at the inn’. Well, actually, the word used in the Bible might not mean ‘inn’; a more accurate translation might be ‘because there was no guest room available for them’ (Luke 2:7b TNIV). If Joseph’s family came from Bethlehem, it would make sense that he would try to stay with relatives when he arrived. But I expect that the relatives had the problem of space: there were so many people coming home for the census, and there was just nowhere to stay in the house.

Where was the baby born? Tradition tells us in a stable, but the New Testament doesn’t say that. It simply says, ‘She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger’ (Luke 2:7). We can be sure that the circumstances were uncomfortable, anyway – not the maternity ward at the local hospital, if they had had such a thing – or even a comfortable room in a relative’s house. Perhaps it was the room downstairs where the animals came in at night - a common practice in that culture. We just don’t know.

What happens next? The king sends a death squad after the new baby. Joseph is from the ancient royal family of King David, and there are rumours that this baby is going to be the king God is sending to set his people free. The present King is a tyrant who doesn’t like this revolutionary talk about freedom. So he sends his soldiers to kill every male child under two years old in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s got rid of the threat to his throne. Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus get out of there just in time, and they escape into Egypt.

So now the holy family are refugees. In order to be safe, they have to live for a while in a foreign country, where they have to learn a different language and get used to strange customs. Their religion makes them different from the people around them, and they have to get used to strange looks and whispers behind their backs. Not until King Herod dies do they feel free to return to their own land.

This is the Christmas story, you see. It’s not a story of pure unadulterated partying and cheerfulness. It’s about ordinary people being called by God, and going through all sorts of struggles and difficulties in the course of doing what God asks of them. God comes among us in Jesus but he doesn’t remove himself from the pain of ordinary human life; he plunges right into it. In fact, some thirty years later, he experiences it to the full, as the nails pierce his hands and his feet and he hangs on the cross alone, rejected by the people he came to save, abandoned by his closest friends.

So if you feel rejected and abandoned – if you feel grief or fear or pain of any kind tonight – the Christmas story is for you. It tells us that God has come among us and shared our troubles. So we can bring our pain to God in the confidence that God understands it – from personal experience.

In our Gospel for tonight we read, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). In his paraphrase of the Bible called ‘The Message’, Eugene Peterson translates that verse like this: ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’. Your neighbourhood; my neighbourhood. The places where we live, where at any given time there are happy families and families breaking up – newborn infants and people who are grieving relatives who have died before their time – people sharing a glass of wine over supper and people who just can’t stop drinking no matter how hard they try – people with good jobs and secure income and people eating Kraft dinner who just don’t know where the next rent cheque is coming from. That’s the sort of neighbourhood Jesus feels at home in.

So whatever pain you are struggling with tonight, I encourage you not to be afraid to bring it to God. There are two ways you can do that in the context of this service.

First, you can light a candle – an ancient symbol of prayer. We have several candles on the altar, as you can see. In a moment we’ll be having a time of quiet prayer and reflection, and during that time, if you want to offer a prayer for your own needs or those of someone else, I encourage you to come forward and light one of these prayer candles.

Second, you may have noticed that in your bulletin tonight there is a little three by five card. If you would like prayer for a specific issue you’re struggling with, or if you want to pray that sort of prayer on behalf of someone else, I encourage you to write your request on that card, and then bring it with you when you come forward to light your candle, and lay it on the altar here. You can be as specific as you like; you can write the request in detail, or just write the name and leave it at that. We will send these requests around our church prayer chain and they will be prayed for all through the Christmas season.

Let me close with a story that has always inspired me. Corrie Ten Boom was a little old Dutch lady who was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War; her crime was that she had helped Jewish people to get away from those who were hunting them down. Corrie’s whole family were involved in this, and she and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck together. I need not describe for you the horrors they experienced in that concentration camp, or the way the Betsy eventually died of the sufferings she endured there; Corrie has written all about it in her book ‘The Hiding Place’. But what I want to close with are the words Betsy spoke to Corrie just before she died. She said, “You must go all over the world and tell people what we have discovered here. You must tell them that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. That was true for Corrie and Betsy, and it can be true for us tonight as well. So let us turn to God in our pain and struggle, knowing that he hears our prayers and shares our sufferings, and that nothing can ever separate us from his love for us.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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