Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 18th
If Jesus is the answer, what then is the question? Or to put it another way: ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ This story about a mother laying her baby in a manger, and angels and shepherds, and camels and kings? Is it just a lovely story to feed our imaginations and give us some songs to sing? Or does it really matter? At the end of the day does it make any difference to anybody?
Is Jesus the answer to anybody’s question? What about this one: if there is a God what is he like? Or, why did my husband suffer? Or, why does God not step in and stop the slaughter in Syria or end the agony of Palestine and Israel? Or, why doesn’t God smash the heavens apart and come and knock together the heads of the nations and force them to live in peace and harmony with each other?
The answer is that God is not like that. This is what God is like: a little baby thing that made a woman cry. He doesn’t smash the heavens apart but creeps into the world in an outhouse of an inn of a remote village at the edge of the Roman Empire. There he is discovered by some shepherds waiting in the night for morning to come. God doesn’t bellow from the ramparts of heaven for the earth to hear and be afraid, but breaks the silence, not only of that night but the silence of the ages, with the lusty cry of a human baby. God doesn’t bestride the earth like an avenging monarch, but comes in such a way that this humble, teenage mother grasps the truth that if she can give birth to the one in whom God announces his arrival, then the humble have indeed been lifted from the earth and the hungry have been filled with good things.
That is what God is like. This is what God does. He becomes a child like you and me. The Word that made the world becomes flesh and shares our human experience. The Lord God Almighty gave away his pride, his omnipotence, his power and his glory, to become like one of us. That is what God does. That is what God is like. This is why he is called Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’
Imagine that: God with us. In the birth of a child, in the death of a man, God is with us. In a nurse’s smile, in a patient’s pain, God is with us. It is he who comes to us this Christmas and is with us always. He isn’t far away, hidden in some other place. He is with us here and now.
If Jesus is the answer, what then is the question? The question, what is God like? Jesus is the answer. But there’s another question and that is, ‘What are men and women meant to be like?’ Or, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Jesus is the answer to that question. That is what we were meant to be like. This baby, whose birth we celebrate next Sunday, is the one who saves us from believing that we were meant to be cruel, violent, grasping and greedy.
Without him we would have some difficulty in believing that. All around us we see evidence of human cruelty. We see children born to failure and trained to expect it, their ears tuned to hate and their hands to violence, their bodies abused for adult pleasure, their minds twisted by adult greed. There is violence in the streets. Drugs make millions for some and mindless morons of others. Nations send pilotless planes to bomb people they cannot see at the other side of the world. Politicians play the system for their own benefit and banks play dice with the world’s economy. The question is: ‘Is this what we were meant to be like? Is this what it means to be human?’
At many times of the year we might be excused for thinking that it was. But not at Christmas. Christmas celebrates the birth of a Saviour – the one who points us in other directions, who gives us reason to believe that we were born for other purposes than this. We were not born to tear each other to pieces, to constantly take advantage of each other, to exploit each other until some are destroyed while others wave their tattered flags of victory over their neighbours’ graves.
This is what it means to be human. We were created as God’s children, to share with him in bringing the world back to its senses, to share his values in a world that lives by its own.
Impossible? No it isn’t. Kenneth Kaunda, the then President of Zambia, in welcoming a group of clergymen to his country, said: ‘It is good to see you in my country. It is especially good to see you preachers of the Gospel here, because you and I are in the same business. We are in the business of trying to make the world the sort of place that God intended it to be. There is only one difference between you and me,’ he said. ‘You preachers talk about it. People like me, politicians, make decisions every day of our lives which result in either the world being more like the place that God wanted it to be, or less like the place that God wanted it to be.’ There was a man who knew what it it meant to be human.
One Christmas Day a priest called the children in church to the font to show him and the congregation one of their presents. A girl carried a doll. ‘Tell me about it,’ said the priest. ‘It was in the shop window and I wanted it, but mummy said it was too dear, but I still got it.’ It is too dear, this Christmas story. It would be wonderful to have it.
God made man, sins forgiven, angels’ song o peace on earth, starlit shepherds and Herod undermined. But the price! The witness and the death of John. The rising hope of the Twelve crushed by the Friday crucifixion. The carpenter nailed to a tree. The creator transfixed by his own creation. The eternal pain of God.
It is too dear. Who would dare to ask for it? But we don’t have to ask. He gives it to us – it’s a gift.
We mustn’t forget to unwrap it.