Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas: just the beginning...

Peter Lockhart
Sermon 30 December

Each year there is a sense of momentum that builds through November and December hurtling people towards Christmas Day. People rush around buying presents, attending parties, seeing lights, going to carols services, travelling to see family, writing letters and so on - all aimed at the celebration on Christmas Day.

After this storm of preparation and activity come Boxing Day things shift into a different gear. Whilst the Boxing Day sales begin many small businesses remain shut. There is a slowing down as reams of people trundle off for their annual summer holiday. A sense of relief is in the air we managed to get past Christmas again, it’s all over.

But is it? Is it over or is it just beginning?

Christmas celebrates the incarnation that God became human and traditionally the Christmas celebration goes for 12 days. 12 days to celebrate and contemplate that God became one of us. Christmas is not an ending it is a beginning.

So here we are with our sense of relief in church again after surviving another Christmas but still within the 12 days contemplating its meaning. This slowing down of the world around us should provide us with some time for introspection about what our response will be to the good news.

This week our lectionary provides for us a glimpse of Jesus in temple growing up. Now there is much that can be said about this story and its themes in relationship to the incarnation but this morning I want to give just a very brief comment on the child Jesus who causes so much anxiety for his parents.

The focus of this story is on the relationship Jesus has with God and priority that he gives to it even as child. Jesus presence in the world changes the world and the notion that it took his parents three days to find him has overtones of a future event in which Jesus will disappear from sight for three days as he descends into death. The centering on God in this story is matched by the somewhat enigmatic statement, which implies much but says so little, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

The incarnation is about the reconciliation of God with the creation and as we celebrate the incarnation through these days of Christmas and are invited to contemplate how we might respond to what God has done for each one of us by sharing in our earthly life.

This year the Church Council has chosen to encourage us with the theme “Living the Faith”, which is a call to deepen our discipleship and how we participate in the life of the church and world as God’s people.

Looking back into the scriptures we hear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians an encouragement for the people to clothe themselves in Christ. I have always found this an interesting concept having made holy by what Christ has already done for us as recipients of grace and followers of his teachings we are now invited to live a life which reflects the grace we can see lived out in Jesus own life so that others might also know and experience the good news of God’s love.

Writing to the Colossians Paul suggests that there are five garments that the community seeking to live the faith should clothe them in: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness & patience.

Now all of these words are words which have a certain appeal to them, words which we might think we can embrace, but when we look more deeply into Christ’s life each of these words comes with its own set of challenges to us.

It is not difficult for any of us to show compassion to someone we know or to someone we think deserves compassion. But Jesus shows compassion to those who live at the edges of the community. To people who are outsiders, ostracised, not even Jews.

We have a tendency to think of some of those whom Jesus reached out to as holding some special characteristic which deserved Jesus attention and compassion. But to think in this way shifts us away from knowing a gracious God who reaches out unconditionally to thinking of a God who only chooses those who deserve what they get.

To live with Jesus compassion, drives us beyond helping those who we think deserve help into groups whom we might find difficult to accept, to love, to understand. Jesus breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries to help others. If we are living the faith what will this mean for us?

Just as with compassion the notion of kindness is easy as long as we are being kind to those whom we know will reciprocate with similar kindness. But how do we show kindness to those who might want to disregard or dismiss us in an offhand manner. I must confess that for myself if the kindness that I offer someone is not being returned I will resent the person to whom I am trying to be kind and may even cease showing kindness.

Humility is also a complex matter. In a little book of quotes I have a great quote from Golda Meier who was involved with founding Israel and was its fourth Prime Minister. “Don’t be humble you’re not that great.” It seems ironic that o be truly humble takes a great person and I would say I could probably count on one hand the people I have met whom I think show true humility. Humility which is not riddled with hubris, but is truly places others before themselves.

I have always found the concept of being meek as a Christian another difficult one. Too often being meek is somehow misconstrued into becoming a doormat for others, and often it is tinged with a sense of a martyr complex. Jesus may be meek on occasion showing a quiet and gentle approach like when he invites the children to come close but if meekness is also about submission Jesus submission serves God’s purposes – it is not a meekness with no point. He submits to God’s will.

And finally we get to patience. If you are a task oriented person like me patience is not an easy virtue. Waiting for others to fall into line with the timeline that I have set for myself or into the vision that I have is not easy. Showing patience as we wait in line at the shops. Showing patience as we wait for the next opportunity. Patience as we wait for God’s faithfulness. Overloaded timetables in our modern city with it bustle and hurry make for impatient people. How do we breathe deeply of the patience of God – willing to wait in silence?

If we are to live the faith we are to cloth ourselves with these things compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience not simply when it is convenient and not when it feels good to do so but when we are challenged and called to exhibit these attributes as a witness to these characteristics of Jesus. And in the end it will not be we who judge whether we do these things well rather it will be those whom we encounter and judge us by our words and actions, which we pray will be a witness to them.

It is of little surprise that Paul goes on to add a sixth vital ingredient to the Christian community at Colossae – forgiveness.

Knowing the imperfection of the human predicament Paul grounds the attempts of the people to clothe themselves in Christ in being a people who know and understand forgiveness.

We know that we will fail in being dressed in these garments – we will hurt each other and we will expect more in return for our actions than we might receive.

The difficult and dirty business of forgiveness and reconciliation is so quickly passed over in our prayers of confession. The focus of these prayers though should not be a self flagellation and guilt burdening exercise but a reminder that forgiveness is about but us those we have wronged being freed from the brokenness our sin creates. True forgiveness takes hard work in our hearts and minds so that it can be translated into living differently and recovering the garments of Christ we have strewn on the floor like so much dirty washing.

All of these other attributes that we are to clothe ourselves in our ultimately held together by love, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. This not any other love but the love which God offers in the coming of Christ into the world. The coming of Christ which opens up the peace of God for us to share in – the shalom around which our lives revolve!

Paul goes on to add to this formula of Christian living 3 ways of deepening the relationship we have with God so that we might actually live this way, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love.

These are all grounded in the act of gathering for worship. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

If we are to understand how to live our faith entering into a rich relationship with the guiding thoughts of the scripture, being open to new learning and admonishment as well as praising God will deepen that relationship that has been made available for us with God and each other.

In 2 days we begin a new year. The days after Christmas give us the chance to think about what resolutions we will hold in the year ahead – how will we live the faith? Now is not the end but the beginning of the work. Today you have received a card with the different words used today for you to take away and think about and pray upon.

As we gratefully receive the incarnation and the gifts it brings to us let us now consider how we will live in response to the gifts of mercy and grace.

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