The power of presence…a sermon for Adel Parish Church, Christmas morning 2019.
Isaiah 9: 2-7; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14
“Mummy – why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky?”
“Mummy – do dead people have legs?”
There was a time when this was the sound-track to my life.
Then, when I was ordained, and began life as a curate, I found myself asking a constant stream of questions. Ones I’d always thought I knew the answer to – but then realised I’d never really asked.
Questions like, “Christmas – what’s that all about then?”
Now you are wondering what on earth they teach at theological college these days…but I don’t think it is an unreasonable question.
After all – since Christmas tells us how God, unknowable, all-powerful, creator of all – chose to become human – it is quite difficult to make sense of.
Look at the four gospels: Mark avoids the story altogether; Matthew uses a family tree to show how Jesus is the long awaited Messiah; and John resorts to poetry ‘In the beginning was the Word…’, in his attempt to capture the mystery.
Today we get Luke’s version – a very human story with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels – and an obvious requirement for a donkey and an Innkeeper, even if they’re not actually mentioned.
A very messy, earthy story…suitably reenacted at the first crib service yesterday. Our wonderful children’s team have knitted enough sheep for every child to bring one up, so there was a glorious moment when the Christ child was entirely buried in knitted sheep.
A messy story, uncomfortable actually, if we look properly. Almighty God becomes the baby of poor parents in an occupied country, on a dangerous journey, born in a stable. There seems a good chance the story will end before it’s even begun.
Luke – with these almost trivial human details – gives one answer to ‘Christmas – what’s it all about?’ – this baby is Emmanuel – ‘God with us’.
As a child one of my favourite Christmas songs was a very simple one – ‘Emmanuel, Emmanuel – God who came on earth to dwell – who can all our story tell – God with us, Emmanuel.’
“Who can all our story tell”
One answer to my question is that Christmas is about the over flowing love of God which results in God as a baby – an ordinary, vulnerable baby – who can be cold, hungry, scared – who will grow up to be a man who can laugh and cry and suffer and die – like us.
Not just a God who knows our story – but who can tell all of our story because it’s also his story. Truly – God with us.
During my curacy I got to know an amazing gentleman of 100, who served for 3 years in the desert during the Second World War. He was pretty scathing about the church and religion in general – but he had huge respect for the Salvation Army.
Because as he says, “wherever we were – even on the front line – they were there with us.” They didn’t stop the fighting, they didn’t save lives – they were just there – providing hot meals, hot drinks and a friendly face. And more than 70 years later he still remembered the power of presence, of ‘being with’.
I recently reread ‘The boy in the striped pyjamas’ – about Bruno, the son of an Auschwitz commander who, through the wire, befriends a child inmate of the concentration camp. He has no idea what’s going on in the camp – he just makes a friend.
At the end of the book, in what he sees as an adventure, he borrows some striped pyjamas, crawls under the wire and joins his friend in the camp.
Just as he’s thinking he should head home, soldiers start rounding people up. They are heading for the gas chamber, although the children don’t know this. All Bruno knows is that his friend is frightened, so he holds his hand and goes with him.
This should be a really depressing ending to a story – but it’s strangely uplifting – showing the power of ‘being with’ to somehow bring hope to even the worst situation.
Perhaps rather dismal for Christmas morning? Well despite what TV adverts might want us to believe – the difficult stuff doesn’t stop happening because it is Christmas. There is still suffering, war, famine…
The profound and sober joy we have on Christmas day is that God really is with us. He was the tiny baby; totally dependent on others…he wept at the death of his friend…he was despised, beaten and killed.
2019 has not been an easy year – nationally, internationally, and personally for some of you here – but if we believe that the baby in the manger is also the son of God – then we know that God is with us in the suffering. I don’t always understand why he doesn’t stop the suffering – but I do know that like Bruno in the story, in the dark times he holds our hand.
And since it is Christmas – a reminder that ‘being with’ is as important in joy as it is in sadness. Many of you will know the film Billy Elliott – the son of a miner – who, despite his father and brother’s angry resistance becomes a ballet dancer.
The really moving moment comes not when he finally makes it onto the stage with the Royal Ballet – but when his father and brother are shown taking their seats in the audience, sharing his joy…the power of ‘being with’.
So this Christmas whether we are celebrating in joy, sadness or both – we have God’s gift to us all – the gift of choosing birth as a poor, vulnerable baby to be Emmanuel – God with us.
And remembering the example of the Salvation Army – I pray that we will follow our Lord’s lead and share the simple, but oh so powerful gift of ‘being with’ – whether in joy or sadness – with those around us this Christmas.