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When Christmas is not merry

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday Dec 18 -  Advent 4
Gospel
:  Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

The Psalm: Luke 1: 46-55

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name. 
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation. 
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy, 
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’


SERMON

I’m preaching today to the people who have had enough.

I’m preaching to the people who are tired, and who have had a really rough year;
those of us with the constant work pressure that grinds us down;
those of us who are separated from the ones we love, and are slowly worn down with the burden of our family being spread out across the world. We can’t help them when they are sick, or struggling.

During this year, people close to us have died. There has been nothing we could to do to stop it happening. We’re simply left with an incomprehensible empty place in our lives, full of pain. We’re reminded of our own frailty.

Some of us suffer illness that lingers on for months; sometimes we are not even sure what the problem is; we are just not well.

We’ve all had this kind of year in some measure, and we’ve had enough. Yet we are the fortunate ones!

We know it is much worse for many people in the world. Sometimes it seems like it’s much worse for most people in the world. Millions live without clean water. Millions live in fear of their lives, and under a local variation of Hitler or King Herod.  It’s easy to think nothing has changed in all of history, except the names.

For us on the rich side of the world, the Global Financial Crisis has been a constant source of worry; people are under employed, working short shifts.  Climate Change is so startlingly visible that only those in absolute denial can dispute it. Fear eats at the very soul of people’s hope for the future.

We see constant political bickering for short- term gain, in our parliament. Honesty and good leadership seem a faint hope. No one inspires us. It’s hard not to be a cynic.

I saw a bloke in a meeting once. He was in tears of anger and despair. “This is bullshit,” he cried, and walked out in disgust. The trouble for us, is that we can’t walk out; there’s nowhere to go; were stuck in the farce. There is no other world.

And now it’s Christmas, and we’re supposed to be rejoicing, as we are assaulted by syrupy carols, badly sung over the supermarket public address systems.

What is there to rejoice about?

There is a famous, terrible picture on the internet, of a little starving child huddled forward over the ground. Just behind them, waiting patiently for them to die, sits a vulture. I nearly put the picture in the slide show this morning, but I could not. It is simply too horrific to contemplate; life is sometimes unbearable. And...

at the end of it, unavoidably, we all die.

---

Let’s pause for a moment.

I have a friend who is incurably optimistic and cheerful. She will tell me that what I have just said to you is unnecessarily gloomy. Sure, there’s suffering, life’s hard and all that, but it’s not that bad. It’s what you make of it. Things are getting better.

She thinks there is something wrong with me; I’m depressed, sick and miserable, and should get my act together.

I’m inclined to think she’s just whistling in the dark; she tells herself fairy stories about life. She’s a Pollyanna,   making it all up in a deluded attempt to remain happy, or at least to make life bearable.

There’s not really a right or wrong here. Life is as we see it. Some of us are wired to see the grim view. It’s not something we choose. We need to have a little bit of patience with each other when it looks like the other person is a Sad Sack, or a Pollyanna.

We each have our own wiring, and we each inherit strengths and weaknesses with it.

---

So I’m preaching today as someone who is constitutionally set up to think Mary and Luke are a pair of Pollyanna dills. And I’m preaching for those of us who feel the same. I mean, really—

[God] He has shown strength with his arm;
[and] scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts? 
52 [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly? 
53 [God] has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty?

When did that happen?   I hadn’t actually noticed!

The text book answer to this question, is that this is a psalm sung in hope. It is Luke and Mary saying that this is what the birth of Jesus will mean for the world. He is so significant that even Mary being pregnant has begun the bringing of justice! The freeing of the world from tyranny has already begun before he is born!

We surely need this to happen! The world is a mess. The only problem is, that after two thousand years, it has not happened. There are still Herods, and Hitlers, and vultures preying on dying children.

So we ask another question. Was Luke some kind of  fool? Why would he put this in his gospel when it seems so obviously untrue?  I mean, even Jesus was killed. Why would he claim, in a world which is full of such horror, and where Jesus himself has been murdered by the system, that God has thrown down the powerful?

The text book answer to this question, is that Luke knew Jesus had been raised from death. He had conquered death, so he could conquer all the other evil things in the world. Luke knew this.

But, we say, I’m not  stupid. If you tell me this happened to your neighbour, I am not going to believe you. I’m not going to believe you even if you tell me that everyone in the street was talking to him after he was raised from the dead. It just doesn’t happen, and if you believe that, just because your neighbour told you, you’re plain daft. Can I sell you the Harbour Bridge?

Next question: If Luke was not a fool, and was not just lying, why did he believe Jesus is raised from the dead?

This brings us to the next text book answer: It’s because Luke had met him. Luke had the experience. Luke knew God from experience. He wasn’t just believing because his crazy neighbour had some weird story about Jesus being raised from the dead. Luke knew.

Let’s think about that. I have a suspicion that for lots of us, whatever the New Testament says, it’s not the witness that Jesus has risen from the dead that does it for us. It’s the sense that something is there, the sense of the reality of God today, that makes us follow the way of Jesus. We believe Jesus has been raised because in some sense we experience him. And that’s where I reckon Luke was coming from too. He’d “met Jesus,” as they say.

So the next obvious question is “How do you meet Jesus?” If the whole world seems a mess, and since we can’t just say, “This is bullshit,” and go home, what do we do?

My Pollyanna friend thinks I should get a grip. I should buck up; look on the bright side of life. Another friend used to sing the old Irving Berlin song

If today your heart is weary
and ev’ry little things seems grey’
just forget your troubles
and learn to say,
“Tomorrow is a lovely day.”

I’d hear it over and over. I still sing it sometimes. Singing is good to get through a depression. Trouble is... tomorrow is often not a lovely day, but more of the same, and worse.

And then, all we can do is embrace the worst.

A Buddhist teacher says (Sogyal Rinpoche)

…when we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.

When we stop fleeing the worst, and even face our own dying, it’s like the world is brought into a different focus. The world with all its horror— and we will see more than ever before— becomes a place we love.

It is not a place which is easy; Jesus was killed in a most terrible way, and that still happens even to the good and the holy.

But we see the world in a way that is real. Despite all the horror, the Christmas baby, and all babies, are new life and holy. The are hope; a sign that evil has not won out over the world. They are a sign of the presence of God.

“I don’t know about Luke and Mary, or angels and Jesus,” we might say, “but I do feel the good. I do hear the song. It is not failed words; it is a full hope. It is my hope.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

So this week, and next Sunday, don’t just hide from the world’s horror and pretend to be jolly, if that’s not where you are. Look the horror in the face, and weep. And then say, “But I will do good. I will live like Jesus— anyway.”  And you will start on the path to meeting him again. Amen

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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