Thursday, 18 December 2014

Good News for Tangmalangaloo: a Christmas sermon (Isaiah 9: 2 - 7, John 1: 1 - 14)

Jack Burton is a Methodist minister in Norwich, in the UK. For many years he earned his living as a bus driver, while serving in an unpaid, ecumenically-recognised ministry to people for whom churches – for whom any churches – are alien territory. One day, a few days before Christmas, he entered Norwich Cathedral with Tony, his bus conductor. Tony was just that sort of person for whom a church – any church – was alien territory. He was a secular, working-class bloke, possibly a bit like the shepherds in Luke’s version of the story of the Nativity.
 
Jack Burton tells the story:
 
Inside the great building – decorated for Christmas – : Tony looked round and said, ‘Is this for everyone?’ I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant: ‘Can anyone walk round here at any time?’ ‘Can anyone come to the services here?’ But I didn’t stop to ask – I answered immediately and emphatically, “Yes, of course.’ It was a good question.         (Jack Burton, Transport of Delights, SCM, 1976, p. 61.)

“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
In the lessons from scripture we’ve heard in this service, we’ve heard about God embracing the whole of our human condition.
 
To us – to all of us – to an “us” so broad that it includes all humanity - to an “us” so broad that there no one outside of the “us” to constitute a “them” – to this radically inclusive “us” a child is born.
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
 “Yes, of course.”
 
The “Word” – the eternal and creative “Wisdom” of the living God - became flesh. The radical nature of this statement is seen in the fact that the original Greek word used here for “flesh”, sarx, this was considered quite a crude word in the Greek language. The Word became flesh, so that the living God embraced all of our existence, not just the pretty bits.
 
"Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition. This is why the more rigidly “religious” type of Christians often just don’t get Christmas. The good news of Christmas is about God embracing the whole of our human condition:
  • people of all races and cultures,
  • people of all faiths and spiritualities,
  • people who are “religious” and people who are not,
  • people who are respected by their communities and people who are rejected by their communities.
 “Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
As Sir John Betjeman declared in the poem we've just heard, Christmas is about God becoming fully human and accessible to us all:
 
 … And is it true? And is it true,
 This most tremendous tale of all,
 Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
 A Baby in an ox’s stall?
 The Maker of the stars and sea
 Become a Child on earth for me?
  
 … No carolling in frosty air,
 Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
 Can with this simple Truth compare --
 That God was Man in Palestine
 And lives to-day in Bread and Wine
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
And, for many people in our community, Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. We hear this in John O'Brien's Australian bush poem "Tangmalangaloo", when the bishop asks the boy in the confirmation class:
 
Come tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?
 
Christmas is also about maintaining and renewing our human relationships. 
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
And there is also an undeniable element of fun and festivity in this time of celebration. John O’Brien’s bishop was reminded of this when the boy asserted the significance of Christmas Day in terms of “It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
 
And Christmas is all of this. 
  • Yes, to us – to all of us – a child is born.
  • Yes, the Word has become flesh and dwells among us - among all of us.
  • Yes, “God was Man in Palestine / And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.
  • Yes, “wandering ones return … [this day] …with smiles and greetings, too?”
  • And yes, “It … [is] … the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.”
Christmas is all of this.
 
“Is this for everyone?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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