Hidden, humble and waiting...
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
20 December 2015, 10:30 (THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT)Remembering where you are, I want an honest answer: how many of you have a Christmas sweater?
You know – the real full-on job with vulgar seasonal themes, lights, 3D knitwear bits ...and goodness knows what else!
Now I do know that one of our vergers and the Director of Music are in this elite of seasonal sartorial finesse!
Thank God some of you do!
I used to have some socks with Santas that played ‘Jingle bells’ which I wore (and played) in church on Christmas Day but never a sweater ...the clergy are not necessarily adventurous in their tailoring or knitwear!!
But yes, thank God that we can have some fun in the short days and long dark nights of winter.
Because that really is what most of the world’s festivities and celebrations are about: the winter solstice – when we northerners on this earth huddle together around warmth and light in the form of fire and food and company and celebrate the joy of being together.
Oliver Cromwell, of course, would not have agreed – he banned Christmas and indeed turned this very cathedral nave into a carpenters’ shop ...and wait for it, irony on irony, an ale house!
So you wouldn’t have had any Christmas services here in the cathedral in 1643 or so ...but you could have come in for a pint!!
Now the cathedral isn’t full this morning – we live in a world that can seemingly quite happily live without God and the discipline of thanks and worship but at the same time has plenty of time for parties, fun and even Christmas sweaters.
According to ‘The Times’ ten million Britons are expected to buy one – and then throw it away really quickly and all at a cost of over £300 million.
All this activity and fun in the run up to Christmas results in 15 million presents being sent straight to landfill.
Yes, a quarter of Christmas presents are unwanted because we don’t like them or they don’t fit or we can’t use them.
A third of us, evidently, then save them to give to others, a quarter of us sell them on eBay and 14 per cent go straight in the bin!
So much for the joy of giving and receiving presents!
This is not quite the Garden of Eden then: the serpent of discontent and self is never completely absent.
And that is why our Christian faith is all about Hope – the defining word of this season of Advent – the Hope that is God in Jesus Christ who renews this earth and redeems its people.
For Christians things can and will only get better ...but not in the way that you or I would naturally and instinctively expect or how we would manage progress and improvement.
The world asks the Church some really serious and challenging questions about the existence and character of God: why is there suffering and why does he tolerate it and not work visibly and speedily for its eradication?
Why is there so much that is wrong in the world when God who is all-good and all-loving has made it?
Without avoiding these questions I have to say that it is because we see the world as anthropocentric, centred on ourselves.
Our understanding of God wants to reject mystery, the unknown and the unknowable, because knowledge is power – and we want it all.
We want God only if he can put everything right in our eyes and on our terms.
So in the main we battle on trying to improve the world on our own as well as we can.
Optimists in the world might see a real glimmer of hope in the past few days with the encouraging international agreement in Paris to face the threats of climate change by committing to restraint and the specific target of a temperature rise of 1.5
And to that we can add last Friday’s peace proposals for Syria when the UN Security Council in New York unanimously adopted a resolution outlining a peace process in Syria including talks between the Syrian government and the opposition groups in early January, as well as a ceasefire.
However, without being completely cynical, we know that time will inevitably bring other tensions and conflicts.
The world is not perfect and for millions of people around us they blame God for the pain and misery and see no evidence of his power, his healing and his love.
To this situation today’s scripture readings teach us something new about God and his truth.
God is not like us.
And the revelation of his life and himself to us requires us to see and to be changed by a new perspective and quality of selfhood and will.
Within the history of Israel, the prophet Micah tells us that God’s strength and rule for all Israel is going to come from a small and less significant clan of Judah, namely from the city of Bethlehem. From this unlikely and unprepossessing place will come the greatness that will encompass the ends of the earth and bring peace.
And in the letter to the Hebrews, we learn that nothing wins God’s favour but the grace and self-giving of the anointed One, the babe of Bethlehem.
This is a new and radically different relationship in which unmerited love called grace replaces the natural order of law and sacrifice.
And thirdly in the Gospel reading this all comes to fruition in the simplicity of Mary’s child and the new inverted values that God’s love brings to the world where the poor are precious and the hungry are fed; where the mighty are deposed, the lowly exalted and prevail and all who are oppressed are set free.
But how can we see it. These seem lovely words but where is it all in the world around today?
We need to look for God in a new and quite different way.
Two more recent items of news this week might help illustrate this.
Friday’s première of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, has had saturation publicity in a land where the 2001 census revealed 390,000 people declaring their religion as jedi knights!
For many, the science fiction fantasy has a cult status and an emotional attachment that makes the dividing line between reality and fantasy very thin!
People want to believe and see good prevail in a mythology which is powerful, dramatic and entertaining. The fictional galaxy and exotic alien characters set the traditional battle between good and evil in a different and colourful way.
And this past week has also seen the Briton, Major Tim Peake, blasted into space to join the international space station for six months.
His reports have already relayed the wonder of seeing the earth from space and describing the extraordinary darkness of our planet’s setting in the immensity of the universe.
Weightlessness, close confinement and a dramatic separation from his family and friends changes a human being’s perspective on all the astronaut’s personal, common and everyday assumptions.
And perhaps the qualities that God speaks to us of today in the scriptures might seem more compelling in space rather on earth!
· WAITING and
The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth focuses on two unborn lives: and the foetal John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb as Mary enters Zechariah’s house.
This almost invisible moment signifies a presence and a purpose beyond any human measure.
God is coming into the world uniquely through this conception and birth and becomes a brother to us all.
Mary’s song proclaims the triumph of God’s love which comes through waiting and hiddenness and humility and is expressed through the disregarded, the powerless and the voiceless.
Yes, the Christian life is all about waiting as well as acting, about recognizing and honouring the mystery of the unknown, the unborn, the departed and all who are marginalised.
In this Eucharist, the miracle of God is present and he gives himself to each of us in the sacrament of the altar.
His life is hidden, his presence is waiting on us and he comes to us in humility as our food.
This is the beginning of a new world that extends beyond us into eternity.
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth tells us that she is blessed among all women.
This is truly so. She is theotokos: God-bearer.
Mary carries the waiting God in his hiddenness and humility.
There is a new union and communion because of her life and her obedience.
We are not alone as individuals but belong to God’s family, where his mother, Mary, is the mother of us all.
She prays, she teaches, she serves, she weeps – for her beloved Son and for each and every one of us.
Thank God for this gift of family and this newness and adventure which comes in the everyday, the familiar and the so-easily overlooked.
May Christmas 2015 find us in our watching and our waiting for the hidden and humble God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Beneath the joys of Christmastide
Christ’s birth brings truth alive.
Our feasts shine bright when days are dark -
For more than this we strive.
We need the peace that comes from love
That made us out of naught;
Our aching world for healing cries:
In flesh and soul and thought.
There is no end to war and pain
Without the grace of God.
We sing with joy that Christ is born
And walks where all have trod.
Our lives are lit and shared by love,
Born poor in stable bare.
Each human breath has meaning true,
As in God’s light we share.
What must we do who know this truth -
The mystery of Christ’s birth?
It touches every day we live
To change all life on earth.
We each must care for Jesus’ life,
Now lived in lost and poor;
The angels’ song must warm our hearts
To bring compassion sure.
The truest joy of Christmastide
Lies hid within our lives,
And we are called to urge the world
To put down guns and knives.
All weapons must the darkness fight:
Lust, poverty and greed –
To let the Christchild bring that peace
Which is our truest need.