Sunday, January 04, 2015

Secrets and Fear

As I read this morning’s Gospel in preparation for what I wanted to say this morning on first reading I had, as it were, the ‘soft focus reading’ - the extension of the Christmas story which the church inconveniently locates in early January - 3 Kings called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazaar kneeling at a manger, glorious light streaming from it as they present their precious gifts.  There’s a wonder and magic about this story of wandering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It tells of the far-reaching – indeed, global and cosmic – implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all people with news of God’s redeeming love.  And if that’s the sermon I should be preaching, perhaps I should sit down.

Then when I the Epiphany Gospel again, I noticed other things at another level - secrets. God reveals the secret of His plan of saving love to wise strangers from another land - hinting at Jesus’ call to Jew and Gentile alike that all are called Daughters and Sons of God; Herod secretly summoning the Wise Ones to quiz them for the details of how they heard of this birth; Herod sends the Wise Ones on their way with a new urgency to find the Messiah Child and to send word directly to him of the outcomes of their search; and then the Wise ones  warned secretly in a dream from the God of Israel to avoid Herod on their return journey.

But then I read it again and noticed something further.  When I read it a third time I noticed fear directly and indirectly, spoken and unspoken in the hearts of some of the characters in the unfolding story: when Herod heard the Wise One’s news he was frightened as was the whole city. Why? Fear of a loss of authority and power? A fear of unsettling the status quo? Fear of change? Fear of what the Romans might do if their puppet King Herod is unseated by another, rightful claim to the throne… There is also an urgent fear driving Herod’s calling together of all of the Chief Priest and Scribes - he wanted to make sure he got all the facts straight so he could act.

Secrets and Fear sounds more like a film title than part of a story that in one sense concludes part of the Christmas celebrations. And yet secrets and fear are all too often the unseen hallmark of our lives.

As parents, we tell our boys that we don’t keep secrets - it’s about encouraging an atmosphere of openness and dialogue, yet as parents and adults we all keep things locked tightly away like the contents of the Wise Ones’ treasure-chests on their journeys.  We conceal all sorts of emotions and experiences - hurt, anger, grief, lies, but also the truth about ourselves for fear of ridicule or social unacceptability.

Either out of our own experience or the experience of others we also now how harmful the keeping of secrets can be to our own well-being.  The word Epiphany as I have mentioned before means revealing. It’s not necessarily a lightbulb moment, but can be a silent dawning, a gradual opening of the Truth.  The Epiphany sung aloud by angels on the hillside to social lepers - shepherds - is again revealed to religious lepers - astrologers, Magi, wise men - in the night sky.  The secret is out - the world as we know it; God as we know Him; humanity as we experience and live it is transformed by the arrival of this baby Messiah.

Fear, for many, is a hallmark of these early days of 2015.  With Ebola now on these shores; if you believe the political commentators who say that the austerity of 2014 will be worse in 2015; with no sign of let up in Syria and Iraq; and planes dropping out of the sky and boats catchingg fire and sinking - life for many is not a place of Christmas joy but of fear.  Fear can destabilise and cripple us as much as any illness - and living in its long shadow can literally, over time, dehumanise us.

The Epiphany revealed to both Joseph and Mary long ago of the birth of God’s King in their care strikes fear into the heart of Herod, the Roman puppet king and his city and yet produces a very real and contrasting and transforming joy in the hearts the Wise Ones when they encounter Him for themselves.

Having celebrated Christmas for the children with a soft focus crib scene on December 25th, The adult version of the nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of adoration and gifts of gold for a king, incense for a priest leading us into God’s presence and myrrh for the healing of all hurts, to a darker world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence.  But if this Christmas story is darker and more adult, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and school shootings, a world where innocents die every day in tragic circumstances and to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the Wise Ones – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew paints an accurate if also difficult picture of our world.

And that is what is at the heart of this darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, us, so often mastered by secrets and fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies through Jesus the king, Jesus the way into God’s presence and Jesus the healer of our hurts. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. 

Come and pay him homage - pledge allegiance to this Infant King as his man or woman and open up the treasure chest of your heart and offer what you have there - whatever secrets and fears for the present and the future you have locked away - and let Him reveal to each of us the transforming treasures of God.


I am indebted to the scholarship of David Lose for some ideas in this sermon

Light in the Darkness - a Christmas Sermon

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… Glasgow seems darker following the accident on Monday - candles have replaced the Christmas lights. The joy of Christmas has been replaced with the grief of a whole community.  They are a  city with a broken heart following the deaths of six people only about a year after the tragic helicopter crash in the city. ‘People make Glasgow’

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment…  Peshawar seems darker where the smallest of school uniforms is the most powerful reminder of the slaughter of 132 children of military families in their school by the Taliban. In a world of compassion fatigue can we really be desensitised to these deaths? "You can take down my school, you can take down my teachers, you can kill my brothers, but you cannot take away my identity," said one 18 year old student.

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… Sydney seems darker in the aftermath of the café kidnapping of some 30 or so people and subsequent siege last week which ended in the deaths of 3 including the kidnapper.  The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… It might be since the events in Ferguson and Staten Island in the US where racial tensions seem to be running higher than for a generation. Or maybe it’s the number of global “hotspots” there are in the Middle East, the Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan and more. Or maybe is the number of deaths caused from Ebola and the fear that disease strikes into the hearts of so many thousands of miles away. Or maybe…

The world just now seems rather dark, even hostile. And so I wonder what this Christmas will feel like when so much of the world seems to be in turmoil and the angel’s cry of “peace on earth” seems like more of a frankly worthless, utopian wish than a blessing and we who gather to sing carols and hear the Christmas story seem so very small against the backdrop of this troubled world.

And that’s when a part of this morning’s Gospel stood out to me. Truth be told, I’ve heard it countless times, but this time is struck me differently: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

What strikes me is that the events Luke describes also seem incredibly small. I mean, what does Emperor Augustus or Governor Quirinius care about a pregnant teenager or wandering shepherds? Mary, Joseph, and the rest – are so incredibly small compared to these rulers. And yet Luke declares that whether these rich and powerful leaders care or not – whether they even notice or not – yet the events Luke describes in detail are going to change the whole world. Forever.

It’s an audacious claim, when you think about it: that the birth of a baby to an unwed teen in a backwater town could possible matter. And yet there, in a nutshell, is the promise of the Gospel: that God shows up where we least expect Him to be and always for us.

So though this world be dark, it is not forsaken, and the headlines we read and worry about will have their day and then fade again against the backdrop of this story we’ve been telling now for nearly 2000 years. God loves this world! And God will not give up on it…or us. Moreover, God continues to come to love and bless this very world and invites us to do the same.

Well, if Luke reminds me that the Gospel has always been set amid world events as a promise that God works among the seemingly small and insignificant to change the world, John calls to mind a more realistic assessment of human life. Right near the end of the Gospel we heard last night, St John writes: “No one has ever seen God” To which I want to reply, “No way?”

So many of us struggle to see God amid the desolate headlines. So many more wonder where God is amid their own more private pain of ruptured relationships, lost loved ones, loneliness, illness, job loss, or depression. Or maybe it’s just that we get caught up in the day-to-day routine of, in an increasing number of cases, making ends meet that we have a hard time imagining that God could possibly make a difference in our world. Sure, maybe we believe in God in general, but sensing God’s presence – let alone seeing God – in the nitty-gritty of our lives seems a bit much.

But John doesn’t stop with his stark assessment. He goes on: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Perhaps the problem isn’t that it is impossible to see God, but rather that we are prone to look in all the wrong places. Rather than speculate about God’s existence, John seems to say, we should instead look to Jesus - this fragile infant whose birth we recall today. And when we do that, we encounter the God who became flesh, taking on our lot and our life that we might have hope - like a beam of light shining into our world, into our cities and neighbourhoods, however dark they may seem.

Both of these passages seem to acknowledge that, when you get right down to it, the Gospel message of hope, grace, and peace seems rather improbable, even unlikely. I mean, that the Creator of the cosmos would even know we exist, let alone love and cherish us? It’s almost too good to be true. But for just that reason this is the story I keep coming back to, hoping against hope – and, on our good days, actually believing – that it is the one true story we will encounter not just today, this week, year, and lifetime. That God so loved the world… And He still does.

Perhaps more than ever we need the light of this story to shine into the nooks and dark crannies of our soul, and the places we wonder if it can possibly be true, those spaces where the world’s darkness seems so much more prominent than the light. Because that’s what this this child was born – to shine light in dark places, to bring hope to the discouraged, insight to the lost, and the promise of peace the peace of God to all who long for it. Amen