04 January 2008

The Christian Story - telling the whole story (Sermon)

I've not blogged one of my sermons before, but I learned such a lot in preparing this one that I thought I'd post it here. (Thanks to Diana for the encouragement!)

It relies heavily on a number of sources, identified in the footnotes.

30 December 2007 1st Sun of Christmas
Holy Innocents
Matthew 2: 13-end (Hebrews 2 10 – end)

Lots of the things that I have been reading and hearing over the past few months have been about theology
[1]. Now there’s a sure-fire way of getting you to switch off right at the beginning of a sermon! But just a minute! I don’t mean the sort of academic theology that is studied in Universities and Theological Colleges. Not many of us are academic theologians – I’m certainly not!

In a “Thought for the Day” on the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley, just before Christmas, Canon Alan Billings talked about how Charles’ hymns have shaped our Christian faith
[2]. Have you sung “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” at a wedding? Would Christmas be quite the same without “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”? These are just 2 of the 5000 hymns Charles Wesley had published.

Theology is important – someone once said that “Everything the Church does is Theology” But there is a tendency to think that our faith consists of what we believe – of creeds and dogmas. Canon Billings says that to have faith is really to be drawn to the Christian Story, which engages our intellect, but also our imagination and our emotions – often as much through hymns and songs as (believe it or not!) through closely-argued sermons about theology!

The Christian Story gives us our moral and spiritual direction; it encourages us and challenges us. And, on occasion, it disturbs us. Which is, of course, where we come to our gospel reading – the massacre of the Innocents.

The temptation is to gloss over incidents like these – it’s certainly a temptation I felt when I saw this reading! And it’s a temptation that the wider world often gives in to! With a very few exceptions, the Christmas that the world presents leaves out the horrors of King Herod; glosses over the real nature of what happened in Bethlehem.

Now I love my nativity plays as much as anyone. But what about that lovely carol “Away in a manger”, an essential part of every Christmas celebration.

“Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

A baby that doesn’t cry?! That must have been very comfortable straw!

Joy Carroll Wallis – the priest who (incidentally) was the inspiration for “The Vicar of Dibley” writes:

“My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.”

It’s just that sort of sentimental, sanitised Christmas which air-brushes out King Herod and the massacre he ordered. Just that sort of presentation of the Christmas story which distorts our understanding of the Christian Story and falsifies our faith.

By all accounts, Herod the Great was perfectly capable of ordering such a massacre. History records that he was a client of the occupying Romans, who kept favour with the Emperor by building whole cities named after him, and by paying taxes to him.
[4] And, since he retained more than enough money for himself, Herod’s people became increasingly restless. This led him to operate what, in our day, we would call a totalitarian regime, complete with spies, a ban on meetings, summary imprisonment and execution.[5] It all begins to sound very familiar, doesn’t it? But injustice, persecution and mass-murder don’t sit easily with Christmas as we have come to know it. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem precisely because the Christian Story informs and shapes our faith. If we sanitise Christmas and Christianity, then we are fooling ourselves and others – we are doing real harm.

A faith which ignores reality cannot cope with real life. It has nothing to say to those of us who, particularly at Christmas, feel the pain of bereavement or family breakdown, or who, for whatever reason, just can’t measure up to the false ideal that we are constantly presented with.

Joy Carroll says:

“Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression.”

This is what the writer to the Hebrews means when he says that Jesus shared our humanity – all our humanity, not just the comfortable bits!

And the danger of a sanitised gospel is that it also creates a false image of the church. In the past, I’ve been in Christian gatherings where, if I’m honest, I was afraid to be real –

where I glossed over the difficulties of faith,
denied the pain of life.

I’ve certainly known people whose image of the church and of Christians is far from a true or realistic one.

Joy Carroll puts it this way:

“The church is not a gathering of people who have [got] it all together, who look and act alike, who have no problems to speak of. The church is a community of people who are broken and needy, who in their weakness trust in the grace of God.”

And there, of course, is the key. We are a community of ordinary people, but a people who trust in God.

Jesus came because the world is as it is, because there is injustice and pain and grief. And he came because God’s purpose is to deal with all that – to make all things new. Throughout Advent we read of visions of a new world,

· a world of peace and justice and reconciliation and healing,
· a world where God’s purposes for creation are finally fulfilled.

And with the coming of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, God broke into his world and began that process of renewal, of redemption.

Sarah Dylan Breuer, commenting on this passage, puts it like this:

“God, the Creator of the universe, is making all of Creation new. That renewal, healing, and reconciliation is the most fundamental force in the universe; everything else, every force that would isolate us from one another and from God, everything that would interfere with the abundant life God has for us, is falling away

This is our hope as Christians; this is the Christian Story which draws us and inspires us – not based upon the denial of reality, but on the knowledge of a more fundamental truth: that the whole universe was created in love and destined for love.

· We rely not on a fleeting illusion that there is no pain or injustice in the world,

· but on the truth that, in Jesus, great tragedy and great need are met by greater love

Our call, our privilege is to receive that love of Jesus and to share it with others.

· Yes, to recognise the world as it is,

· but together to pray and to work and to struggle in anticipation of the world as it will become!

Amen – so be it!

[1] Reader Weekend conducted by Revd Prof Jeff Astley, using material from Jeff Astley, Ann Christie Taking Ordinary Theology Seriously Grove Books Limited 2007 and Jeff Astley Christ of the Everyday SPCK 2007

[2] Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings Thought for the Day
BBC Radio 4 18 Dec 2007

[3] Revd Joy Carroll Wallis Putting Herod Back Into Christmas Sojourners Magazine December 2004 http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=news.display_archives&mode=current_opinion&article=CO_041222_carroll_wallis (accessed 20 December 2007) [Free Registration required]

[4] see Jane Williams Remembered only for his cruelty
Church Times 21 December 2007

[5] see Sarah Dylan Breuer’s Lectionary Blog on this passage http://www.sarahlaughed.net (accessed 20 December 2007)

[6] Sarah Dylan Breuer Ibid

[7] Sarah Dylan Breuer Ibid

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home