Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 31st January
Finally the Davies family managed to dispense with
all the Christmas decorations…. Checked the Christmas tree lights worked – and
knowing they wouldn’t when we drag them out next year – and dealt with all the
cards noting new addresses and bits of info – and I clocked again the lovely
romantic snow-covered landscape scenes of little towns buried in snow (we wish,
with all the rain) – horse-drawn sleighs – and furry animals – ooh and lots of
angels – portrayed as cuddly-looking creatures – and certainly never the type
who would ever have to announce “Fear not” if they turned up! Here and there was
the odd religious type of card depicting the holy family – unruffled and serene
– wearing bright gold halos… all so homely and cheery, happy and cwtchy.
– and lovely fragrant sanitary crib scenes!
And then you come to Luke’s gospel account and read Simeon’s dark warning to Mary that ‘a sword will pierce her own soul…’ because of who she’s brought into the world…and Mary’s own hymn of thanksgiving which mentions rulers being overthrown and the proud being scattered. It seems such a sharp contrast to what the cards would want us to believe. Christmas sentimentality doesn’t exactly cut it – life on planet earth isn’t so simple.
Which is why the season of Epiphany is so important. Epiphany comes from the Greek word to appear – and means ‘manifestation’. It’s defined as a sudden and profound understanding of something. You could call this (sermon) a Christmas retrospective – but this season when we’ve been looking at what God was actually revealing in Jesus, asks us to consider what it all means – and it’s often way more powerful than simply boxing up the decorations for another year, like we’ve dome that now, we can move on.
For a start it’s little wonder Mary a Jewish teenager felt ‘greatly troubled’ and ‘afraid’ at the angel’s appearance pronouncing sublime words about the Son of the Most High. She probably had something far more mundane on her mind: like facing the prospect of village gossip – & without even the act of passion! Let’s not forget that a closely-knit community in first century Palestine wouldn’t exactly have been celebrating the news with her. And although her relative Elizabeth would have been a good sounding board, think about the contrast there: the whole countryside talking about the miracle of Liz’s healed womb – and Mary having to hide the shame of her own miracle: 9 months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal.
It seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance into the world as if to avoid any charge of favouritism. When the Son of God became a human being he played by human rules, harsh social rules: small towns do not treat kindly young boys who grow up with questionable paternity. In point of fact, as Malcolm Muggeridge observed quite some time ago now, it is ”extremely improbable in our day that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with a father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for termination even stronger. Isn’t it ironic that our generation, needing rescuing more, perhaps than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow a Saviour to be born.
Often when God is at work it’s two edged: there’s great joy and great pain – and in that matter of fact response of Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant, let it be to me as you have said” she embraced both. Indeed she was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of personal cost.
When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the 16th century he brought samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who’d never heard it. The Chinese absolutely loved the portraits of the virgin Mary holding her child – but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the child had grown up only to be executed, they responded with revulsion and horror.
So back to the Christmas cards as I prepared for recycling – I was wondering whether we do much the same thing? We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday – spend obscene amounts of money – eat and drink way, way too much – and our celebrations are purged of any hint of scandal, of any reminder of how the story began in Bethlehem (then as now a conflicted place behind the West Bank in Palestine) and how it eventually turned out - on a rubbish dump outside an equally divided city – Jerusalem.
Which brings us to the one person in the whole of the birth narrative who seemed to ‘get’ the mysterious nature of what God had set in motion: the old man Simeon, who recognised the baby as the Messiah, instinctively understood that conflict would surely follow. “that this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against” – that’s what Simeon said to Mary – and then made the prediction that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Somehow Simeon sensed that though on the surface little had changed – the autocrat Herod still ruled, Roman troops were still stringing up patriots, Jerusalem still overflowed with beggars – yet underneath everything had changed, for ever. A new force had arrived to undermine the world’s powers.
And this is really how we need to think about these early events in Jesus’ life because they give a menacing preview of the unlikely struggle underway in the universe. Herod, a puppet king – hated by the Jews – enforced brutal Roman rule at the local level, and in an irony of history we know Herod’s name mainly because of the so-called ‘massacre of the innocents’. Philip Yancey says although he’s never seen a Christmas card depicting that state-sponsored act of terror - it too was part of Christ’s coming. Okay so secular history doesn’t refer to this atrocity – but no-one acquainted with the life of Herod doubts him capable. How’s this for a cv?:
· Killed two brothers-in-law, his own wife Marianne, and two of his sons.
· Five days before his death he ordered the arrest of a huge number of his citizens and decreed that they be executed on the day of his death in order to guarantee a proper atmosphere of mourning in the country
– so no-one
liked him very much (!) – and for such a despot, a minor extermination procedure
in Bethlehem wouldn’t have been a problem, would it? Hardly a day went by
without a public execution during his reign. The political climate at the time
of Jesus’ birth resembled that of Russia in the 1930s under Stalin. People
weren’t even allowed to gather in public meetings, spies were everywhere – so to
watch his back and try and preserve the stability of his shaky kingdom by such a
rearguard action against the rumour of invasion – well it wouldn’t have been a
problem – and was quite a rational act to such a warped mind.
And so Jesus the Christ entered the world - right into the middle of conflict and terror – and had to spend his infancy hiding out in Egypt as a refugee. And when he did begin his public ministry in a troubled, multi-cultural middle-eastern province – because that’s what Galilee was – the conflict between Jesus and Rome appeared to be entirely one-sided. It just hadn’t occurred to anybody that his stubborn followers might just outlast the mighty Roman empire….
(Are you getting this?). Though the world may be
tilted in favour of the rich and powerful, God is tilted towards the underdog –
the ragamuffin, the outcast, the weak, the poor. Remember the lines from the
Magnificat?: He has brought down rulers
from their thrones and lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good
things, but sent the rich away empty.
I think it might’ve been the late Rob Lacey in his Street Bible who paraphrased what Simeon said like this: “this baby is the Liberator – he’s going to have an impact on everyone – one way or another. He’s going to be controversial: wild, not safe. He’ll expose people’s true thoughts and for some people that’ll be an ugly business – so get prepared Mary, you’re going to suffer your own anguish at the way people will treat your son, Jesus”
So as we get to the end of Epiphany and start preparing for Lent, what has it revealed to us? We’ve had some amazing clues about Jesus that help us to understand just exactly who and what he is – and the nature of the kingdom we’re part of. From his infancy throughout his childhood and on into adulthood we are shown that this humble baby King is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One.
Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church in his recent book ‘Crazy
Christians’ says “a Church witnessing to these extraordinary truths has a
message for this moment. This is the truth for the twenty-first century. This is
a voice for these times. This is, in
fact, the accent of Galilee…(so) maybe we already have what we need.
A God to worship. A loving
and liberating Lord to follow. A gospel that is good news to proclaim. A way of
being Christian that is faithful and orthodox, loving and compassionate, open
and generous, alive to the mystery of God. A way of following Jesus that is
radically welcoming toward all, radically committed to serving the downtrodden
and the oppressed, and radically unafraid to proclaim, as the saying goes, that
“God loves you (unconditionally), no exceptions!”
And so God invites us to stand in awe once again. He wants to captivate our hearts as he might have done in the beginning and fill us too with wonder, with light in our darkness. Amen