28 December 2008

Christmas Day - Sermon

 The Word in the World

From Universe to Neighborhood

Christmas Day 2008

by Anne Crawford

We’re not short of words these days.  We read them, write them, hear them and speak them.  We use Word Perfect to compose letters.  We send text messages and check our voice mail and email.  We read newspapers and then see and hear the news again on television. 

We get bills and junk mail and soliciting phone calls, though mercifully we are now able to reduce two out of the three. 

The Christmas season brings its own flurry of words.  Cards from people we haven’t seen in years that live half way round the world.  We read about the highs and lows of their year and maybe get a wedding or baby photo or sad news that a loved one has died.  Most of the time things seem to stay pretty much the same for most of the friends that we hear from.  That is to say that each Christmas we hear that someone has had cancer or faced a bereavement or had a new grandchild or retired or moved –  the ordinary occurrences  of life for most of us both in their darkness and in their light.  This is the human condition.

Here are some words my nephew wrote in a letter accompanying his Christmas card:

“The world is experiencing turbulent economic times and no one has any real answer to the problem.  At the root of all this is greed and profit:  traders who had to achieve targets to keep their jobs selling toxic products and mortgage lenders selling to those who they knew could not repay.  An imperfect world with imperfect people.”    

Brian, we all agree.

God chose to be born into an imperfect world with imperfect people.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

God made his home among us.

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.

What a wonderful image Eugene Peterson gives us – God in the neighborhood!

He chose the most difficult and fragile of circumstances.  A young unmarried girl who would have been stoned to death had word got out about her pregnancy in her hometown of Nazareth.  

When I was working at one of the Arab hospitals there, we had to secretly remove a young girl overnight to the safety of a Jewish hospital in a large city.  The girl had been raped by an uncle, and family honour demanded her death.  Their method was a bath and an electric fire.  Fortunately a nurse spotted the missing fire and acted quickly.  That was forty years ago and yet we read the same story in the Toronto Star this past week – this time in Somalia and this time a stoning.

Mary went to stay with Elizabeth who lived in the country, and who knew enough of God’s miracles to care for her young cousin long enough for Joseph to have had his first dream, taken note of it and followed through by standing by his young betrothed. 

If Elizabeth had turned Mary away and if Joseph had not taken his dream seriously, God might never have been born.  And if the Magi and Joseph hadn’t listened to subsequent dreams after the birth of Jesus, he would have been killed as a baby by Herod’s soldiers.

This for me is the miracle of Christ’s birth – the fact that it happened at all.  Yet we know that God moves in mysterious ways among ordinary people in ordinary neighborhoods. We don’t have to understand how the Word became flesh – each baby born in a miracle and a child of God.

Here are some words from a book I received for Christmas titled The Hand of God.  Opposite an image of Earth from Apollo 17, US Astronaut James Irwin writes:

“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space.  As we got further and further away it diminished in size.  Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine.  That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.  Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

This for me is the miracle of creation – the fact that we are all living on a Christmas tree ornament which supports life and even as it twirls round and round.   Much can be explained by quantum physics but you do not need to be a Stephen Hawking to be awed by the cosmos.  Just go outside one clear night and look up. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

In the beginning was logic, Logos.  In the beginning was God’s breath which hovered over the waters of chaos.  In the beginning was God’s spoken word as he said “Let there be light.”  In the beginning was wisdom, Sophia.   There was love and a desire to create and communicate.  Choose an image that helps you understand the scriptural words but rest in the mystery that is God just as you rest in the mystery that is the universe.   Both the baby in the manger and the ‘Christmas tree ornament in the blackness of space’ represent the fragility and the wonder that is the mystery of God beyond us and with us. 

The words we heard this morning from Isaiah were written to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to encourage them and assure them that God has not given up on them.  It is a message of redemption and not one of judgment.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.'

We need to hear that message so badly in this troubled world of ours today and guess what – we have already heard it when Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  God lived with us to show us how to live with each other.  The Gospel message is that God showers his gracious love on all of us and we have received it as a free gift.  This for me is the most profound miracle of all.

It is our turn now to live the Gospel message.  It is our turn to ignite change for the common good.  It is our turn to engage as citizens and provide the impetus for a healthy society.  We are God’s hands and feet and mind and word.  He has no one else in this place and at this time.  We are the beautiful messengers of today.

Here are the words of a story I received from my friend Lois in a Christmas email:

This plain envelope has peeked through the branches of our Christmas tree for the past ten years.  It began because my husband Mike hated Christmas – not the true meaning but the commercial aspect of overspending and frantic last minute shopping for gifts.

One year I decided to think of something other than the usual gift for Mike and the inspiration came in an unusual way.

Shortly before Christmas our twelve year old son was involved in a non- league junior wrestling tournament between his school team and one sponsored by an inner-city church.   These youngsters in their worn sneakers and sweats presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes.

As the match began I was alarmed to see the other team wrestling without headgear.  It was a luxury they obviously couldn’t afford.

Our sons’ team took every weight class and as the other boys got up from the mat, they swaggered around with false bravado and a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat.

Mike was saddened.  “I wish just one of them could have won.  They have potential but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.”

That’s when the idea for his present came.  I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church.

On Christmas Eve I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done as a gift to him from me.  His radiant smile said it all and the tradition continued over the years. 

One year sending a group of challenged youngster to a hockey game, another year a cheque to elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground just before Christmas.

The envelope was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning, with the children standing in wide-eyed anticipation as their Dad lifted it from the tree and revealed its contents.  They grew but the envelope never lost its allure.

The story doesn’t end there.  Last year Mike died of cancer and when Christmas came I was so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up.  But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree and in the morning it was joined by three more.

Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their Dad.

There is an envelope for each of you as you leave the church today.  It contains a poem.  You might consider reusing it if you have a tree at home, or bringing it to the tree in the parish hall.  We could start a Christmas tradition in both places.

You’ll hear what to do with the envelope when you find some time today or tomorrow to block out the world’s words of cell phone and IPod, of TV and emails and in a time of stillness and quiet be receptive to the Word of God who came to us as a gift in the birth of Jesus and who continues to speak to us if we but silence ourselves and listen.

Finally the words of a Christmas greeting sent from a spiritual mentor of mine, Bob Haden.

John Philip Newell, in Christ of the Celts, tells of the passage from The Acts of John where Jesus, after the meal at the last supper, invites the disciples to form a circle and begin a simple Hebrew circle dance.  Jesus stands in the middle of the circle and says, “I will pipe, dance all of you….I will lament, mourn all of you.”  Jesus continues, “The whole universe takes part in the dance.”

So as we leave this Christmas Day service, let us visualize ourselves, dancing with the whole universe, being piped in the dance of life, in all of its joys and sorrows, by Jesus.  What a privilege to hold hands with you in this dance.

I echo Bob’s sentiments as I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

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