Here’s the sermon I preached at St Andrew’s Tiberias yesterday, Christmas Day. I’m a bit hesitant to post it, to be honest, because it was one that lived between and beyond the words even more than usual and was very much for the people gathered there. But others have asked to read it, so here it is.
Merry Christmas to you all, dear friends.
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
On Wednesday morning, I went down to Tabeetha School, the Church of Scotland school in Jaffa, to give the address at the secondary school Christmas Assembly — the boring ‘God-slot’, as it is no doubt referred to by the students.
My talk came towards the end of the programme, after readings and impressive musical performances by the students. The assembly was the last thing before they were let out for their Christmas break, so they were even more squirmy than usual. As my dad commented on the way out, ‘You had the toughest part by far!’
I have two confessions:
1. Nothing strikes fear into my heart like facing a hall full of about 125 teenagers.
2. Rather than doing all the talking myself, I try to get the students to do the work of the address.
So we talked about Emmanuel, what ‘God with Us’ really means.
What exciting things have happened to you so far this school year? I asked them.
Nothing! one boy cried out. Christmas break! another shouted. I got a puppy! a boy at the front answered. My parents’ friend was very sick, and now she’s getting better, one of the young girls said quietly.
What sad things have happened to you?
Tests, one girl replied almost before I could get the question out. Exams immediately after break, another agreed.
I assured them that sometimes it’s harder to talk about the really sad things, especially in front of a large group, but that maybe they have other things that make them so sad they don’t want to say them publicly — maybe someone they loved was sick or had died, or a friend had moved away.
And what about the scary things that have happened?
My mom came back from the States, one of the older girls answered. Everyone laughed. Some of the things in the news are pretty scary, another one of the older boys offered.
Actually, I have a third confession to add to my first two:
3. I find the honesty of secondary school students wildly refreshing.
Now, no doubt they carry deeper pains, stresses, anxieties that they didn’t want to name in front of their peers. But there was no effort at pretence. No attempt to be especially holy. No striving to give an answer that might please me (or for that matter, please God). They named the things that were on their minds, in their hearts right then in that moment.
And I wonder what would happen to us if we did the same. If we were given a split second to answer the same questions, like one of those quizzes where you’re supposed to write down what comes to mind first and not over-think the question:
Think back on the last year:
What has been most exciting?
What has made you most sad?
What has frightened you most?
What have you found most stressful?
What have you most wanted?
When have you felt most alone?
When have you felt most loved?
I’m guessing that most of our answers wouldn’t be along the lines of
The Paris climate change agreement was most exciting.
The world food crisis makes me sad.
Rising sea levels is most frightening.
Pondering economic policies is stressful.
World peace is what I most want.
I felt most alone thinking about refugees’ loneliness.
I felt most loved when I was doing XYZ for someone else.
All these answers may contain some truth. Of course they do. We do look outside of ourselves and have emotional responses to the plights of others. We know we should be — and indeed we are — compassionate beings.
But. But, if we are being honest, there are other things that are closer to our hearts, are there not? There are other sadness that keep us up at night, other struggles that haunt our thoughts, other joys that bring tears of happiness to our eyes.
These are our true desires, our true concerns. And it is into the midst of these deepest heartfelt desires and concerns that God becomes incarnate.
When God surveyed humanity and realised how dark and difficult our days could be, how confused we get about our identity and place, how much we over-think the simple things and under-think the important things, how many painful things we do to each other out of that confusion and insecurity, God decided to do something about it.
And so, after giving the law and sending the prophets, God got personally, intimately involved.*
God loved and loves us so much, God descended right into the midst of all the complexity and confusion of humanity. God took on the human form and experienced the fullness of what it means to be us. The confusion, the hunger, the temptation, the anger, the anguish, the love, the grief, the sorrow, the joy, the companionship, the loneliness.
Ok, time for a fourth confession: I still find this a mind boggling concept. I still find it mind-boggling that the gospel message is just so simple. That because of love, out of love, through love, God’s love dwelt among us.
God took on human form. God loved — loves — us so much God became vulnerable, vulnerable as a newborn baby, placing himself in our arms, trusting that we humans could be counted on to keep him alive. To know his needs. To attend to his wants. God showed us that humanity is capable of love in the smallest of acts, and showed us that divine love is as tender, beautiful, vulnerable as a baby at the breast of its mother.
And just to make sure we got the point, God first brought the message of that love embodied by Jesus to the people the world was pretty sure weren’t particularly important, or for that matter, loved: plain old everyday shepherds, an unwed mother, astrologers practicing a different religion. All this to show that God wasn’t going to leave anyone behind. God’s love is for everyone. Absolutely everyone. Students anxious about exams and children excited by a new puppy. People working in shops and those looking for work. Those who celebrate this holy day and those who don’t. You. And you. And you. And me. That’s who God’s love is for. Emmanuel. God with us. All.
* From David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/christmas-eveday-c-keep-it-simple/