Reading: Luke 2:21-40
I feel privileged to be giving the sermon on New Year`s Eve. Christmas is over, both the secular festival, with its pretty lights and presents and the celebration of Jesus` birth, for us the dawning of a new day, a new way of living. A festival that combines so much about renewal and rebirth and hope even in its commercialism. Yet now, this time between Christmas and New Year is a time when real reflection can occur. What is this new day, this new way of living Jesus is announcing? Now is a time to focus on the repercussions of Jesus` birth and life, not just its joy, for us and our world.
Here I have called on some help.
One of my favourite Christmas movies is the Muppet Christmas carol, a version of Charles Dickens famous novel, which by the way, helped reinvigorate Christmas as a festival in the 18th century, after the Puritans had banned it for many years. Quite ironic really, that I will use it today. It is helped in translation by Michael Caine, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and a cast of very lovable Muppet characters. Everyone knows the story of Scrooge, who is visited by three ghosts of Christmas, one of the past, one of the present and one of the future, and who turns a mean-spirited, nasty person into a man of kindness and generosity. He learns about love and life over the course of one night, both within his own sphere and in the wider context of his society, where the poor were left to be destitute and the rich got richer. Dickens` 18th century England.
When I was reflecting on this service I realised that what Scrooge went through that night is what we could do at this time, that by focussing on the past, the present and the future, our faith and God`s call may become more real to us.
The first ghost to visit Scrooge was the ghost of Christmas past. The past for us, as for Scrooge, holds many things that we regret, many things we feel we should and could have done differently, many things for which we need to seek and receive forgiveness but perhaps find hard to do. For Scrooge, the ghost shows him how he lost the love of his life, by making decisions based on a quest for money and power instead of love. Decisions which had hardened his heart and led to his current lonely and isolated existence.
The past holds many ghosts that can ultimately influence the rest of our lives if we are not careful. Regret for things done and not done, said and unsaid, and pride which prevents us accepting our faults, can break a spirit and destroy the love for ourselves and for others that makes us whole. This is why forgiveness is so central to the gospel and to Jesus` ministry. Because without forgiveness the past keeps repeating itself until the flicker of renewal is diminished.
There is a novel called Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which a marriage disintegrates over a bar of soap. It is the wife`s job to keep the house in order, including provision of towels, toilet paper and soap in the bathroom. One day she forgot to replace the soap, an oversight her husband mentions in an exaggerated way, and that she vigorously denies. Although it turned out that she had indeed forgotten, her pride was at stake and she would not back down. For the next seven months they slept in separate rooms and ate in silence.
`Even when they were old and placid,` writes Marquez, `they were very careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted only yesterday.` How can a bar of soap ruin a marriage? Because neither partner would say, `Stop, this cannot go on. I`m sorry, forgive me.` Even the simplest things left unsaid can lead to a disintegration of relationships and community.
It has taken me a while to realise the link between the God we worship, who sometimes feels a bit distant, and the forgiveness we feel as part of the human race. For me God is the creative spirit that drives all of life, is found within all of life, and in acts of forgiveness this spirit is truly reflected. Forgiveness for us, for others, and for communities is the essence of God. Forgiveness allows healing, it allows for a new start, it allows people to suddenly belong on the same team, to see each other as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. It allows relationships to develop and redevelop and the oppressive burden of guilt to flow away. We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality, we do it for ourselves. Quite often the only person to benefit from the forgiveness is the person doing the forgiving.
But in all its different forms, the result is the same, forgiveness will always provide a spark of life, for it is a renewing act that leads people and situations to be seen in a different light. There is no greater sign of the creator God than the renewal that comes from forgiveness.
So as we approach the coming new year, it is essential for us all to allow God`s spirit to reach into our hearts, and through forgiveness, into our actions. Think of something we have held onto that we regret and yet keep revisiting, or something someone else had done which we find difficult to let go of. Let us close our eyes and see that event or action as a distinct entity, place it in a box and push it to one side. And when we leave church today, let us leave the box behind. Just one thing, because from small things, great things grow.
The second ghost to visit Scrooge was the ghost of Christmas present. Scrooge was shown what life was currently like for those around him, and how his actions were affecting people. We, as followers of Jesus also have to focus on what we can and must do now to affect the lives of others, to better the lives of others. For we know Jesus` life focussed on seeking justice and equity and compassion for all. Love was and is the key.
The Christmas stories we have heard this past week confirm what we know of this Jesus, the man, the human one. He came for the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Those are the ones who could see the light. He was not greeted by kings or the religious elite for they held the power. In the reading today we hear it again. Jesus is the baby of Jewish parents, taken to be circumcised. People see him amongst them, knowing he will grow to reflect God`s way in the world. Yet those that greet him are much the same as those who greeted him on Christmas morning. Simeon and Anna are both elderly and poor; one was a prophet, a woman and a widow. They were not temple elders or high priests but part of the marginalised.
Even his parents bring presents that reflect their social status. Joseph and Mary`s offering, `a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons` - was for those who could not afford a lamb, showing that Jesus was not only Jewish but also poor. `This of course placed him initially with the great mass of people on the earth.` (as suggested by Howard Thurman).
So the story of Jesus as a light that shines the love of God into the world for everyone, but particularly the poor and marginalised, continues long after Christmas.
But it is sometimes hard to see that message in people who call themselves Christian, including us, today.
Hugh McKay has written extensively on this subject. He suggests that while Australia and Australians see themselves as a Christian country, the reality is that most Australians have little real understanding of the gospel message.
McKay asks, `How, in particular, should we reconcile such claims with our disgraceful behaviour towards refugees, both asylum seekers in other places, and the detainees already here. Our recent record has thrown out the strongest imaginable challenge to the idea that Australia might be built on Christian values.` Ouch.
He goes on to ask what are the values we broadly define as Christian.
`To find the answer,` he suggests, `we should go to the source.` `The reported teachings of Jesus are unambiguous when it comes to attitudes towards the poor, the disposed, the disadvantaged and various forms of `otherness`. `According to Jesus, loving your neighbour as yourself is one of the principal virtues, especially when your neighbour is as different for you as can be imagined.`
And finally, `To judge from our attitude to refugees, we are comfortably insulated from religious impulses - Christian or otherwise, by our shameless self-interest.`
This was written some time ago, yet it still stings to read it. The world has changed but not the real Christian message, which is often confused with personal salvation and a trip to heaven when we die. And not our country`s response, which is still without real compassion. And not just to refugees.
I believe we are therefore left with a great responsibility. Because if we can`t demonstrate by our actions and articulate with our words the creative love of God, Christianity will be diluted to a point where it will only be a footnote in history.
So we have to live, not as a secular group, but as a group who truly believe it is only through loving and welcoming and engaging with others that God`s kingdom will come on earth. That we are Jesus followers for a reason. And that is, to bring light and life to a dark and tired world. But how do we do that, for it is always going to be hard. In the reading today Simeon is careful to note that Jesus` life and mission will not be without opposition, for `This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.` And recognizing this, and the devastating impact of prophetic living upon loved ones, he points out to Mary, `a sword will pierce your soul too.` (2:35).
Mm very challenging. Yet even in our time people have taken up the challenge.
Like Peter Stewart, a man whose funeral I went to on Friday, who worked for social justice and the rights of those poor and dispossessed and homeless in our society and who sacrificed much to do it. Like our man Nev, who has been a peace activist, and agitator his whole life and still is at 88. Like the countless others who dance or have danced to a different tune in our world.
Yet I can already hear you saying, I can`t be Peter, I can`t be Nev, I can`t be Jesus. Because I often say it to myself. But the reality is, you and I can make a difference. We can make choices about how we live in our time and place. And make a difference.
And we can start small, because from small things big things grow. Or if you like, a quote from Lord of the Rings, `Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.` As it turns out, even a baby.
So I would like you to close your eyes again, think of something that you may be able to do or help with, or volunteer for in the new year, that will reflect your faith in God`s ever-present love for all. It may be something you are already doing but that you will re-commit to. Something that is attainable, that you will be able to sustain and maybe develop over time. Something that is done for others. But I also want you to see yourself explain why, for if we can`t explain why we respond to the gospel of love with love, then the message may not get through.
The final ghost that visits Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas to come. The future. I wish Nev was here. For Scrooge it`s a down-hill slide into oblivion and hatred. For us, without a connection to God, I believe it could be one of cynicism and despair.
Yet I think one of the great gifts of Christianity is that it gives hope. If we truly believe that God`s creative love is working in the world, everywhere, then we will live and act with hope. Particularly in a world as it exists today, where there are many places in which war has been going on for so long that no one seems to know what peace actually is. Where we have children carrying guns and using them, innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, and over 58 million people displaced either in their own country or in other countries, who only want peace and to go home.
From the beginning to the end, the bible is a book of hope, from which nothing or no one need be excluded. At key moments in the Jewish history, Israel confesses its hope in God`s promise of deliverance, regardless of how bad or evil humanity has become.
For Christians this hope culminates in Jesus. For after being rejected by his own people, betrayed, abandoned and denied by his own disciples, tortured and condemned by the imperial authorities, and buried in a stranger`s tomb, one thinks hope is dead. A terrible defeat for the friend of the poor and marginalized.
However, his resurrection lit the flame of hope forever. The disillusionment of the Friday was soon challenged by the strange events of the Sunday. What he was and what he represented was not defeated.
God is the one who alone can liberate us to live hopefully. God is the one seen, heard, and experienced in Jesus, who calls us to a higher, deeper level and a different reality. It is God who will have the last say, as we and our world are reconciled to the creative spirt found in all of life.
But Jesus rarely spoke of an end time when all things would magically turn around, when the evil would be punished and the good rewarded. He spoke often, however, of living God`s kingdom into being, of being challenged by his message and letting the kingdom break into our world and our society. For we are called to enter the process with God.
The question is, do we really believe this, for our actions will speak as to whether we live with hope or succumb to the widely held belief that nothing will change, so let`s do nothing. For to live with Christ is to live as though the ultimate victory of life and love has already been won. As Dorothy McRae McMahon writes, This involves living `as if something is already in place. You live with justice, even if justice is not yet brought in. You claim the ground for it by the way you live, but you do not see yourself as a single agent for change, just one who demonstrates a change that will one day be visible and in place for all people. It gives us a sense that we are participating in a great and long term effort to make real something that was always meant to be and always will be`.
So as the new year approaches it is our call to live hopefully, trying to respond to the needs around us, while at the same time remembering that the divine presence is never limited by our human capacities for evil. God is present in the world, in each one of one, always has been and always will be. It is us who go missing.
So I would like you to close your eyes one final time and make a commitment to make time for God in the new year, for the inward journey, for without that hope will dry up amidst the miseries and frustrations of life. A place of quiet so that we may listen to the whisper of God, a place for silence so into that space the spirit may touch us. A place where Jesus` words and teaching become real. What it may mean is dropping something that we would like to do but can`t, a challenge I know. But these are choices we make.
Scrooge was lucky - he saw what was to come and managed to change the future. He was allowed a second chance, to create a new society in which he was a major player, not with power or might, but with love and generosity.
When we look at the three ghosts, the past, the present and the future, and apply them to ourselves, we see and know a faith in which no one is beyond forgiveness, including ourselves, a faith that urges and cajoles us to act with love and compassion and to do so trusting that no matter how terrible and awful the situation seems, there is always hope that God`s spirit will have the final say, that the creative love of God will endure. That from a burnt out forest a flower will blossom. From the darkness a light will appear.
This is the message to take into 2018.
I wish you all a very happy new year.