Sunday, December 18, 2011

Waiting for the present: a reflection for the 2011 Carol Service at St Matthew's

I wonder what you really want for Christmas, what you most long for as we look forward now to the coming festivities.
I know that if this were a congregation of children, everyone would have their hands up by now...but I'm not expecting that.
Instead I'll do some guessing.
Perhaps what you really want is your family gathered safely around you?
Or maybe health and security in the New Year?
Perhaps you dare only to hope for a pair of woolly gloves or some gift-wrapped cosmetics?

Those readings we heard from Isaiah are full of longing...for something quite different.
I wonder what you thought as you listened. Isaiah's prophecies, messages from God that look into God's future – are writings that were old long before Christ was born.
Perhaps you wondered why we had to listen to something that seems so far removed from the reality of daily life in 2011?
After all, that glorious vision of peace that is described here seems to be still just a vision: even as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of the One who came to make true peace a reality for all the world.

It's not easy, waiting...
It never has been.
It wasn't easy for Isaiah – we can hear the longing in his writing as he speaks of that day when the world will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And still we wait.
We look at the news and see greed and violence, cruelty and injustice – for ours is a world that bases its behaviour pretty much on “Me first and bad luck to those who stand in my way”..
No sign, then, of the lion lying down with the lamb – in our world or in our churches.

And it's easy to lose turn our back on God, or dismiss his promise of peace and transformation as just a pretty story to share with the children...something you grow out of when no longer look your best in a halo made of tinsel.

But nonetheless, we keep on celebrating – idealists and hardened cynics, the deeply faithful and the frankly sceptical...because life without hope is unbearable, and even the most hardened atheist can see that things could be better than this.
We need a Saviour – though we may not much like the one we are given.
You see, the God whose birthday we celebrate does not come to us in an unmistakeable demonstration of divine power...wading in to put everything right, however much we may wish that is what he would do!
Instead he creeps into the world, squeezes in where there is no room prepared – just another baby born in poverty, crying in the night with no proper roof over his head...
He does not come with all the might and splendour of a king, but begins his life as a refugee, fleeing from the terrible violence that Herod stirs up in his jealousy and rage....and of course the end of his life matches the beginning, as he hangs on a cross, with criminals on either side and a jeering mob at his feet.

I doubt if we would have chosen that sort of Saviour...because, of course, his way of life and even his way of death are what God invites each one of us into.
Jesus shows us, from the moment he finds a bed in the rough, dirty straw of the stable, that our own comfort, our own desires, are never part of the picture.
He doesn't offer us the easy life
BUT he does offer us hope.

Christmas and Easter are two sides of the same coin.
We believe in a God who loves us so much that he chooses to share EVERYTHING that we experience as human beings...The joy of family life, that we sang about in our opening carol, but also the effects of sin and strife that we've just remembered...
The choir's lullaby reflects this, combining soothing pictures of angel wings and considerately silent lambs with the shocking violence of all that lies ahead
Full woes in store for thee, for cruel men thy death shall plan and nail thee to a tree...”
Yes, we believe in a God who brings peace – at the cost of violence and death to himself.
We believe in a God who makes a gift of Godself to us, even if we seem to prefer plastic toys or gift wrapped cosmetics.
And we believe that actually, God's peace can be ours even as we wait...
and that we can be the agents of peace and goodwill in our own community...that as we come to worship the Christ-child in the stable, we can turn our worship into action, as we take our part in brining about that wonderful vision of which Isaiah spoke.

As we heard St Luke's account of the greatest gift of all, we listened once more to the message of the angels
Glory be to God on high and on earth peace”
Peace and goodwill
That's something WE can bring about, in our community – as we turn away from old grudges, reach out to neighbours and strangers and open our eyes to notice the forgotten, those whom nobody includes, those whom it is hard to get along with.

It's not easy...peace making is always costly but if we really tried, we could make ourselves into a gift for this community ...a gift that reflects God's love and is full of the hope of God's kingdom, not just at Christmas but on every day of the year.

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