Friday, December 20, 2013

What if God Was One of Us? (a sermon for our 'When Christmas Hurts' service)

Back in the mid-1990s Eric Bazilian wrote a simple little song that became a smash hit for Joan Osborne: ‘What if God was one of us?’ I’m sure many of you will know it. I’ve always thought the first line was kind of ironic, because that’s exactly what Christianity has always taught: that God did become one of us. God came into this world he had created, he was born as a human being, and he shared all the joys and the pains of our human existence.

And that’s really what Christmas is all about. In our culture, Christmas has become a time for parties and eating and drinking, and buying and selling and giving presents and celebrating and general jollification. But the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Yes, there was joy: ‘good news of great joy for all the people’. But there was also hardship, fear, misunderstanding, oppression, anger, and violence. This is the sort of world that Jesus knows very well. Let’s try to think our way back into the story for a few minutes.

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 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. I wonder how you would have felt in her shoes? ‘My fiancée won’t believe me until God sends an angel to tell him I’m right!’

But when Mary’s belly started to get bigger, I expect the rumours really 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 NIV 2011). 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. So Jesus gets caught up in this first century political crossfire; Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus only just get out of there 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 not just tidings of comfort and joy. 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. Think about the rest of the story for a minute. Joseph disappears from view early in the gospels; after Jesus is twelve years old, we hear no more of him. It seems likely that he died while Jesus was still young, so Jesus experienced the sharp pain of bereavement. He would then have been expected to take over the family business and provide for his mother and brothers and sisters.

At age thirty Jesus left home and began a wandering ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. Very quickly his family came to the conclusion that he was out of his mind, and they tried to take him home before he did himself any harm. Not exactly an inspiring vote of confidence! His closest followers didn’t really understand what he was on about, and when push came to shove, they all deserted him and left him to die; one of them, in fact, informed on him to the authorities. He was arrested on a trumped up charge, subjected to a mock trial, and then tortured to death in one of the cruelest forms of execution ever devised by human wickedness.

But note this: we Christians believe that God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself. If God had never been one of us – if he had stayed safely in heaven – then God would not have been able to understand by experience what it means to be a human being. We could tell him about our pain, and he might nod sympathetically, but he could never have truthfully said, “I know how you feel”. It’s only because God became a human being in Jesus that God can truly ‘know how we feel’

So if you are going through the pain of bereavement this Christmas, remember that Jesus experienced that too. If you find yourself far away from your home and your loved ones – well, Jesus and his family went through that too when they had to run away to Egypt. If you feel isolated in your family and misunderstood by your friends – well, Jesus experienced that too. If you feel rejected and abandoned – in fact, 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 a 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 that 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.

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