Sermon - 25th December 2013
Pleasure Or Joy?
Scripture - Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14
Rev Andy Braunston
The American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, declared that it was self-evident that humanity had been given, by its Creator, certain inalienable rights which included life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I think this was the first document in the world which held that the pursuit of happiness, or pleasure, was an inalienable human right.
Of course, before the Declaration, people wanted to be happy, but this was the first time that anyone posited the view that pleasure, in and of itself, is a goal of humanity and, what we'd call now, a human right. The Declaration has influenced humanity – especially in the West, immensely and now we assume that we have a right to be happy, a right to find pleasure in life. This is particularly seen at Christmas where we've been taught, from an early age, to take pleasure in giving and receiving presents. I think the pleasure is as great in giving a gift as it is in receiving one.
Ever since those founders of modern America declared their right to find pleasure, our culture has been fixated by this search; and the search certainly keeps our economy going! Recently I was chatting to some colleagues who were telling me how much pleasure they gained from their ipads – I felt a little excluded as whilst I have an Ipad I don't think I get much pleasure from it seeing it as a useful tool. People find pleasure in shopping, in clothes, in possessions, in technology as well as in hobbies, food, others. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but there is a danger that in our search for pleasure we mistake pleasure with joy.
In a recent letter to Christians everywhere, Pope Francis remarked:
The great danger in today's worked, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasure, and a blunted conscience.
He goes on to warn that when we get caught up in this frantic search for pleasure our inner life becomes blunted as it is caught up in its own interests and concerns and so pushing our sense of obligation to the poor to the back of our consciences. I think he's onto something and it accords with a theme I've heard Richard Church, our Moderator, preach about. As a society we distract ourselves with pleasure, but the pleasure is transitory and doesn't bring lasting joy. This is quite a contrast to the passage from Isaiah that we've heard read to us.
Many of us are familiar with this passage as the writer of the modern hymn, Our God Reigns, uses this passage, in particular, as the inspiration for the song. The passage exudes sheer joy, a joy which is contagious. The writer is delighted that the Babylonians have been overthrown as this means that Jerusalem is saved. The national life of the Jewish people had been threatened by two empires – first the Assyrians who carted off the Northern Kingdom of Israel into exile, and then the Babylonians who defeated and invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. Now Babylon had been overthrown.
The writer's joy is not about mere military disaster but about the fact that he believed that God has acted decisively in history bringing freedom and liberation to the Jewish people. Peace has come, the people sense real deep joy not just because of the the end of warfare but the presence of God in this act. God is present in this part of their history and so justice, right relationship, forgiveness, and newness of life are also present and this leads to joy. The people had been saved and they experience not mere pleasure but deep resounding joy, a joy that comes from realising that their lives had been transformed, they had been delivered from fear, in injustice, oppression and the murderous policies of superpowers. No wonder they cried “Our God Reigns!”
Our Gospel reading turns us to the theme of today as we celebrate the birth of Jesus – and see there a different way of God reigning in our midst. Just as God acted in the history of the Jewish people and saved them from oppression so God acted in human history by becoming present amongst us.
Through Jesus, God came to live with us, to stay with us and to be found with us wherever we are; in sickness, in pain, in joy or in pleasure. The earth is no longer a place of sadness, a school for the hereafter, but the place where God has become present: the place where God has pitched his tent with us and where He lives in our midst.
Christmas reminds us that God didn't choose to live with us in an idyllic world where everyone gets on, where there is no pain or suffering or war or injustice. God didn't wait until humanity had got it all sorted out, instead God came to join us in our human condition. God chose to take part in our history – just as He had taken part in the history of the Jewish people, so now he takes part in our story, making our story his own story. The birth of Jesus is the demonstration that God placed Himself once and for all on the side of humanity, to save us, to lift us up from the dust of our misery, of our difficulties, and of our sins.
This is our Good News – the fact that God dwells in our midst, that God has become one with humanity and knows what human life, in all its complexity, is like. That little babe lying in the manger is the good news of God. He is the presence of God, the sign that God loves us utterly and individually. This gives us not mere pleasure but utter joy.
Christmas reminds us that God does not stay distant from humanity dominating the universe from afar but that He bows down and consents to become part of our world with all its dirt, indignity, pain and squalor. If we want to be like God we need to bow down, humble ourselves, get ourselves dirty in the service of others too. Christians should be marked out by our love and willingness to serve, not our pursuit of pleasure and power.
Christmas also reminds us that as God became one with us through the babe of Bethlehem, whatever we do to each other, to our neighbours, to those we don't know, we do also to Jesus for He has become one of us. Jesus Himself reminds us of this: whoever nourishes, welcomes, visits or loves one of the smallest and poorest among us, does so also to the Son of God.
So this day, as we celebrate either with family or friends, or quietly by ourselves, let's remember the teaching of this little baby who told us to love God and love each other and who urges us to recognise him in the face of the neighbour and the stranger – especially in the weakest and most marginalised. For here we see God made human.