Sermon - 27th December 2015
One of us
Scripture - John 1:1-17
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The doubts that we experience in our Christian faith are usually at their worst when we feel disconnected from our relationship with God. When prayers seemingly go unanswered, or when the randomness and unfairness of our world disturb us, we start to think that there is a distance between God and us, and we ask what life would be like if somehow we could bridge that distance?’
Even if we manage to retain our belief in God, we can slip into a way of thinking that God is outside of our world and, as a result, we start to believe that we have no real experience of God, and that God has no experience of what it is like to be us.
Our sense of disconnection can also be amplified by the lip service that is often paid to formal religion. I know there have been times when I have spoken the words of my faith without really meaning what those words express.
And we have all experienced the families and friends who come to our baptism services, and to our weddings, and to our funerals, out of a sense of duty, and out of genuine loyalty and affection for us, but who can only stumble and stagger their way through the words we give them to say because - for them - God is not ‘one of us’, and the church has had nothing to say to them for years. I wonder what we realistically expect them to experience in our churches against that backdrop.
As Christians, we have a massive communication problem. We struggle to share the message that God is one of us and that God participates in the lives we live. It seems that most people don’t believe that, and many do not hear it, or have it explained to them.
Doesn’t it seem strange that after centuries of theological exploration, and after 2000-years-worth of Christmas festivals when we proclaim quite specifically that God was born into our world to share our humanity, so many of us fail to grasp the message that God was one of us’?
So, perhaps the deeper question behind the song is, ‘Why have we lost that connection between Emmanuel - the ‘God with us’ of 2000 years ago, and ‘God as one of us’ today?’ Well, probably part of the reason is that we sometimes find it difficult to make a 2000-year-old story into something which has a contemporary meaning for us.
Somehow, the story of God becoming one of us gets frozen in its own time period. To be fair to ourselves, the story is wrapped around by the cultural images of its time and place. Shepherds, stables, donkeys, oxen, swaddling bands, and astrologers presenting symbolic gifts, are all features which don’t translate easily into a significance for our own times.
The surroundings of Jesus’s adult life and ministry - temples, blood sacrifices, lepers, lakeside fisherfolk, carpenters, tent-makers, crucifixions and garden tombs - also tend to freeze our understanding of his life and ministry into a society which is no longer part of our experience.
We may believe that it happened then, but we don’t know how to connect with the fact that ‘God with us’ is a universal and eternal truth, and as relevant today as it was when Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. Or as a song by June Osbourne puts it: we don’t see God on the bus finding his way home.
But if God is love; and if the message of Jesus was to love God, to love others, and to love ourselves; then there are times when I travel on June Osbourne’s bus and I do see God as one of us.
Before I got my car, I used to travel to church on the bus from Manchester to Chorlton, and I regularly saw a woman who had some kind of mental illness. She talked constantly: she would try to talk to the person nearest to her, and if she got no response, she just spoke to the world in general.
She talked about people she likes, people she’s angry with, things that have gone well, things that have become problems for her. And everyone on the bus just left her to her own rather obsessive thoughts.
But sometimes one of her friends got on the bus, and she immediately showed great affection towards them. She asked how they have been, she showed concern for their health, for their financial welfare, she advised them on where to go for help and support, and she waved them off with a genuine interest in what may happen to them.
I wonder whether the love this woman received was anything like the love she gave - and yet I saw love happening among us on the number 86 bus.
When I was working I used to take a local bus each day into Ashton. Some mornings while I was waiting for the bus, Paul walked by. I still see him occasionally in our housing estate.
I would guess Paul is somewhere in his thirties and he has severe learning difficulties. He lives in a house nearby with two other people and they are cared for 24-hours a day by live-in carers. Of the three residents, only Paul goes out on his own: the other two only go out with their carers.
Paul has a circular walking route that he seems to cover a number of times each day.
It takes him past a corner shop where, each morning, he buys himself a bottle of Coke and takes it home to drink. Usually, when I see him, he’s either on his way to the shop or coming back.
Everybody knows him; he says hello to everyone he meets. And he can weigh up each situation just enough to make an appropriate comment - for example whenever he saw me with my briefcase he would always say. ‘Going to work?’ This would usually be followed by, ‘What time will you work till?’, and then ‘See you’, and he would be on his way again.
Through whatever hazy understanding of the world that Paul’s brain is able to provide for him, Paul shows love towards other people and he receives much love and affection in return. When I meet Paul I know God is one of us because I see love in the life that Paul lives, in spite of all the odds stacked against him.
We will each have experiences of this kind where love encounters us through the life of another human being. This is what makes the life and message of Jesus contemporary, and this is what makes that word Emmanuel - meaning ‘God with us’ - a continuing truth for us today.
Jesus told us to love one another, and when we show love to others - and when love is shown to us - God is with us and God is one of us.
We encounter God in the unrecognised corners of our everyday lives because we encounter people. We will only feel that our faith is frozen inside a 1st-century culture if we fail to see God in people and fail to see people acting in love towards each other in the most ordinary of circumstances.
As we reflect on the deepest meaning of Christmas - that God is with us - we hear a powerful reminder that the God of our Bible may never have been described as riding on a bus trying to get home. And we might miss the parallel between the marginalised and misunderstood lepers of the 1st century and the marginalised and misunderstood victims of mental illness and learning difficulties of the 21st century.
And we might get caught up in the differing accounts of Jesus’s birth which Matthew, Luke and John give us, because each one tries to interpret a truth that is beyond words. But their message, which cuts through all the circumstantial detail, is that God is not beyond experiencing, because God is with us.
And if that is truly the message of Christmas, then the God of love, who inhabits every child of God in this world, is visible in every face, in every neighbour, in every passer-by, at every window, on every bus, every day.