Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Christmas Day, 2016
‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’.
Over the past month I’ve been ear-wormed by Christmas carols. As I’ve walked or washed the dishes or photocopied colouring sheets, I’ve had an internal soundtrack playing; occasionally I’ve even broken into song. If I worked in retail, and the carols I found myself singing were ‘Rocking around the Christmas Tree’ or ‘Jingle Bells,’ this could have ended very badly, maybe with me gibbering in a corner. Luckily, the carols my subconscious decided I needed were the ones that I sang as a child and that the children here have been learning: ‘Away in a Manger’; ‘Once in royal David’s city’; O little town of Bethlehem’ – and I’m still relatively sane.
The theme of these carols is astonishment that the Messiah’s first bed was an eating trough in a small and unimportant town. They’re all songs about the incredible unlikeliness of Jesus being born not in his parents’ home in Nazareth, but far away in Bethlehem; and not even in an inn, because there was no room there. We could talk for hours about whether or not that means Jesus was born in a stable, and about the architecture of first-century Jewish towns, but the point is that the Messiah, the anointed one, the one of whom the church believes Isaiah was speaking when he described him as ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,’ was born ‘with the poor, despised and lowly’.
In the nativity story told in the gospel according to Matthew Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem and so when Jesus is born in Bethlehem he is being born at home. In that gospel the first visitors to pay Jesus homage are magi, wise men, who come bearing kingly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the story we hear today, Luke reminds us that the gospel is good news for the poor, and the first people to pay homage to Jesus are poor, shepherds, often despised by others because of their smelly and isolated occupation. At best the shepherds who visit Jesus are ordinary people, not the sort of people able to give fabulous gifts. But in Luke’s version it is to them that a multitude of the heavenly host appear.
It’s important for us to listen to this story and sing these carols in a world that worships power and privilege. It would have been just as important for the first Christians to hear this story of ordinariness, which links Jesus’ birth with his death on the cross. The baby wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a manger, because there was no place for him in Bethlehem’s inn, became the man crucified outside the city walls because there was no place for him in Jerusalem. The baby whose first visitors were humble shepherds became the man who entered Jerusalem on a donkey and redeemed Israel through a humiliating death rather than a military victory. In the story of Jesus’ birth his death is foreshadowed, and we’re given hints of the sort of Messiah he will grow up to be.
All that is important, but today we don’t just need to be reminded that Jesus was an unusual Messiah; that it was profoundly unlikely that the Son of God would be born to two ordinary parents in an ordinary town. In twenty-first century Australia most of us no longer expect God to be born at all, whether in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, or daily in our hearts and our communities and our world. Unlike the people of long ago who waited with longing for the Messiah to appear, we don’t expect the ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ that God is with us. Many of us don’t believe that God loves us, loves us so much that God became one of us.
Throughout Advent one of the things that we’ve been doing here at the church has been collecting toys for UnitingCare, the social welfare part of the Uniting Church. I recently found out that it’s been decided to change the name of UnitingCare in Victoria, removing the word ‘Care’ so that the name is simply ‘Uniting’. This happened earlier in New South Wales and caused a huge kerfuffle because the tabloid Daily Telegraph reported it as the church trying to get rid of religious symbols. In the ensuing discussion about the name change a couple of comments were made about the way people understood ‘care’. It was explained to me that for some of the people who use UnitingCare agencies ‘care’ has associations with ‘being taken into care’ and understandably those are not positive connotations. But the other thing that was said was that people found the idea of being cared for patronising, and that made me sad. It also made me think.
We live in a culture in which we’re expected to look after ourselves, maybe with the help of our immediate family, and to stand on our own two feet. Asking for help is seen as weakness and people who need help are often despised. I’m making huge generalisations, of course, but just look at the comments made on any media article about Australia’s welfare system and you’ll see what I mean. Actually, no, don’t read the comments – that’s a good general rule for life.
But we cannot live alone; as isolated independent individuals. God knew that. God came down to earth from heaven and entered into human history because God cares for us and knows that we need that care. It’s not patronising to be cared for; from the moment we’re conceived we’re loved by God. The caring we give our fellow human beings and the caring we receive from them are simply echoes of God’s care for all creation, which includes each one of us.
One of my favourite carols is the one by Christina Rossetti that we sang last week: ‘Love came down at Christmas’. In that carol she describes Jesus as ‘Love incarnate, Love divine’. This is what we’re celebrating today, that at Christmas God’s incarnate Love was born as a baby, Emmanuel, God-with-us. God knows that we can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to, because God is always with us. So while I understand the background to UnitingCare becoming simply Uniting, it also makes me a little sad, because there should be nothing patronising about being cared for.
Usually at Christmas time I talk about us responding to the love God shows us in the birth of Jesus by going forth to love others. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from doing that. But today I want us to pause, before we race off to offer our love and care to others, and remember that we too are both loved by God and able to accept care from others. I spent at least half of this year unable to take care of myself; unable to work; needing to be looked after by my family and my friends and my doctor and the Australian health system; having to rely on other people to minister to this congregation when I couldn’t. That was profoundly painful, and one of the reasons for that pain was my belief that I should be able to take care of myself. I felt guilty that I couldn’t, and my pride was a little hurt. The Apostle Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus that he had given them an example of supporting the weak: ‘remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’ But giving Paul all the respect due to him, sometimes it is as blessed to receive as it is to give, to be cared for as to care, because God created us to be loved by Him as well as to love.
Love came down at Christmas, and our very first response, even before sharing that love with others, is to receive it. In a world that seems more confident of God’s absence than presence, Christmas is a reminder that God is always with us, born within us and among us as Jesus was born in Bethlehem so long ago, loving us. That is good news of great joy for all people. We are not alone. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. We are cared for. We are loved. Take hold of that, treasure it, and ponder it in your hearts. That the God who loves us is always with us is the great message of Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen.