This year Christmas Day has fallen on a Sunday, so we gathered for our normal noon SLT service. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 98, Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14.
Merry Christmas! How many times have you seen that written or heard it said in the past few weeks? It almost replaces ‘Hello’ as the greeting of choice at this time of the year. However, for many people this is not a merry time. They may be unwell, grieving the loss of a loved one, suffering unemployment and financial problems or faced with an important relationship which is going wrong. It seems that the first Christmas, the time when God became incarnate as a baby in order to bring salvation to the world, has really changed very little. Life is still hard and full of challenges.
The story of salvation is a long one running throughout the Bible. Even as God condemned Adam and Eve to a difficult life away from the Garden of Eden, he was planning to make things right again. He called Abram and Sarai to leave their home and relatives and journey into an uncertain future, uncertain that is apart from God’s promise that this was the beginning of a great nation. That couple was too old to have children and yet God brought about the birth of Isaac and the nation he promised grew from there.
It was not all plain sailing. Jacob became an exile escaping his brother’s wrath; yet in the process he became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph shared the dreams he had been given with his family but later languished in an Egyptian jail. However, he became Pharaoh’s right hand man and was in a position to save his people from famine. Moses narrowly escaped death as a baby only to later flee for his life after committing murder. Yet at the age of eighty, God called him and he led the people of Israel to the Promised Land. Disappointments, dangers, disasters, and yet each time God brought good from circumstances and brought the fulfilment of his promise nearer.
Once settled, the twelve tribes had a chequered history. Sometimes they listened to God and sometimes they didn’t. They had prosperous times and hard times. They had good kings and bad. They followed after foreign deities and then returned to the Lord. They were punished by being exiled in foreign lands and yet eventually a remnant returned to the Promised Land who were descendants of Abraham.
Through the many changes of circumstances the prophets spoke out boldly. They suffered by being misunderstood and ostracised. They were ignored and imprisoned. Each must have wondered at times why they took the risks involved with faithfully speaking God’s word to his people. Despite all the troubles which came the prophets’ way, they spoke of God’s faithfulness and, like Isaiah, could say that despite appearances it was still true that: ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’. The psalmists too sang of God’s fulfilling of his promises: ‘The Lord has made known his salvation; his deliverance has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.’ What mattered was not what was seen going on in the world, but what God had promised from of old.
Finally, the last of the prophets came; John the Baptist fitted the description of the messenger promised before the coming of the Messiah. If anyone had looked around, life was continuing as usual in Israel. The people were still living under Roman rule. Life could still be hard: children died young; beggars sat on street corners; the poor scratched a living as best they could. Nevertheless, God spoke through John announcing the coming of the best part of his plan. The kingdom of God was at hand, the Messiah had come. The Word was made flesh, although not recognised. John preached the message he was given and saw many believe what he said. He had the joy of seeing Jesus when he came to be baptized. However, John later languished in prison, plagued with doubts about who Jesus really was. John’s life ended at the wish of Herodias who wanted him silenced for speaking out against her marriage to her brother-in-law.
Of course, the Word could only become flesh because Mary chose to say ‘yes’ to God and bear a son, Jesus, the Saviour of the world. She too must have had plenty of occasions to wonder if she had made the right decision. Her life was difficult from that time onwards. Giving birth away from her family; exiled to protect her child’s life; watching always to see signs of what had been spoken over the child; seeing her son wear himself out in serving so many. Finally, Mary watched Jesus die a criminal’s death. However, it wasn’t outward appearances that mattered, but God’s promise: ‘He will save his people from their sins.’ Jesus did exactly this by dying on the cross and then conquering death, rising again on the third day.
Looking back, it’s easy to think that Jesus’ presence on earth when he was teaching and healing, and when he had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples, was the high point of history and it’s been downhill ever since. Life may be more sophisticated than in the past, technology has made a difference, but many of the sad facts of life are still the same as millennia ago. However, like the patriarchs, the prophets, Mary, Jesus, we must look beyond circumstances to the future, knowing that God will completely fulfil his promise. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and Jesus will reign as King.
Until that time we have things to do. Jesus commissioned us to spread the Good News that he has inaugurated the Kingdom of God, inviting people to be part of it. We are to be like the patriarchs and hold on to hope in the dark times. We’re to take the risk of telling people how God wants us to live, even if that is unpopular, just as the prophets did. We are to say ‘yes’ to co-operating with God, just as Mary did, even if it causes us problems.
There could be many more Merry Christmases before God finally brings about what he has promised, but he has never failed to keep his word.
Through all the ups and downs of life we can hold on to our new identity, made possible because of the incarnation:
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor