Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nearly Christmas!

Christmas is very near!  

I love it.  

However, last night a good friend of mine had an accident that needed an operation to sort out. My friend, thankfully, is on the road to recovery now.  However, this was a reminder to me that for many this Christmas, Christmas will be spent in hospital, in accident and emergeny units, or coping with sickness and with tragedy.  I thought I would post today, therefore, the sermon I preached as a follow-up to the last one I posted.  It has been slightly amended to reflect recent events!

When talking about evil and suffering in our world, it is all too easy to be detached and unemotional. As Christians, we do have a responsibility to discuss the problem of evil and suffering in the world. We need to do so, however, with tears in our eyes.  After all, our Lord knowing that he would bring his friend, Lazarus, back to life, still wept that his friend had died in the first place.  We weep first and discuss much, much later.  

The Existence of Evil and Suffering

On Christmas Eve, I preached a sermon on the Existence of God.  I know many of you have taken a copy of it to read.  In it, I suggested that the way the universe is formed, its design, seemed to require the existence of a Designer.  I discussed the way scientists, confronted with this incredibly complex design, are struggling to explain it.  I argued, however, that if there is a Designer, then communicating with the Designer becomes an urgent priority for us who are part of his design (I use the male pronoun at this stage in the discussion and throughout the sermon for linguistic convenience!) 

Think for a minute of the millions of dollars being spent on scientific projects to attempt to find life in outer space and to communicate with it.  There is far less evidence for life in outer space than there is for a God.  Shouldn’t we take communicating with our Designer at least as seriously as communicating with aliens?  And if we don’t, doesn’t that suggest a certain human perversity?  If there is a Designer, or at least a possibility of a Designer, then communicating with him is a scientific as well as a theological and philosophical imperative. 

It being Christmas, I argued that we meet the Designer in the Baby of Bethlehem.  We see our Maker lying in manager.  I want today to pick up where this sermon left off.  For if we come to the existence of a Designer through the design of the universe, what are we to say about apparent ‘design faults’ in our universe, and what are their implications for our understanding of the Designer? 

This year, here in China, there was a terrible earthquake, which caused the most horrifying suffering and death.  What, for example, does this say about design and God?  Earlier this year, I visited again the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  It never fails to move me. The holocaust is an event that has come to symbolize human cruelty at its most systematic and evil.  This evil was committed not by the uneducated and uncivilized, but by highly intelligent and sophisticated people.  What sort of world is it where things of this kind can happen and on such a scale? 

The problem for the believer is not so much what they say about the existence of God, but what they say about the character of God.  These examples of evil, and the many others we could give, do not mean, logically, that there is a not a God.  The design argument still has to be answered.  What they do force us to ask, however, is what sort of God he is to have designed such a world in the first place.  Is he One even worth bothering with, let alone worth worshipping? 

1.  Is he a God who, having designed the universe, has no more responsibility towards it?  Has he subsequently, left it to get on with it in much the same way as a car designer, after the car is made, will not interfere with what happens to the car?  The car designer’s job, after all, is to design the car, not drive it! 

2.  Is he a God who has little control over his design whether he wants it or not?  Has the universe taken on a life of its own so that God is, at best, limited in his ability to control it or, at worst, cannot control it at all? 

3.  Or, more sinisterly, is he a God who simply does not really care what happens within the universe he has created?  Are we just an amusing game that he only takes, again at best, an occasional interest in or, again at worst, derives a macabre pleasure from because of the way it has turned out? 

The problem of evil for the Christian (and, it might be added, for the Jew and the Moslem) is that it calls into question their view of God.  For the Christian – like  the Jew and Moslem – is not prepared to allow that God is just the Creator who designed and started it all, the Christian also argues that God is the Sustainer, who is still intimately involved in his creation and loves it, and, what is more, still has power over it.  Indeed, Christians, in their understanding of God, see him as both all-powerful and good.  It is this combination that causes all the trouble. 

For if God is all-powerful, he should be able to do something about the evil we see in our world.  If he is good, he should want to.  The fact that he does not would suggest that either he is not all-powerful or that he is not good.  Either way, the Christian version of God is in trouble. 

Before we go any further, we should, perhaps, pause to ask what we mean by evil.  If we are going to blame God for evil, it is only fair to ask what it is of which he is supposed to be guilty.  When people use the word, evil, they mean different things by it.  There are different types of evil which cause people to question God: 

1.  While we often describe what are natural events as natural disasters and, therefore, as evil, this is not really accurate.  It is the consequences of otherwise natural events that merit the description, evil.  A volcano is not itself evil, and if no-one is hurt as a result of it, we probably don’t even give it a moment’s thought.  When we talk about evil in relation to what are commonly described as natural disasters, it is the appalling suffering they cause that should be described as evil, rather than the event itself.  God, it is argued, if he really is all-powerful, should be in a position to prevent the disasters such natural events cause.  The first question of God then is: Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent suffering from natural causes? 

2.  Then there is the evil of natural phenomena within the world that seem to be intrinsic to it.  These do not cause evil, they are evil.  What are we to say, for example, about sickness and disease, about handicap and deformity, and all the things that make our life so prone to misery and death.  Nature can seem very beautiful, so beautiful that we want with the Psalmist to exclaim that the heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord (Psalm 19:1).  Closer inspection, however, reveals that nature itself is so ‘red in tooth and claw’ that we imagine and long instead for the day when the ‘lion will lie down with the lamb’.  The second question of God then is: Why has God designed nature to produce so much pain and suffering? 

3.  In addition to the evil caused by natural events, and the evil of natural phenomena, there is human evil.  All around us, we see the effects of human wickedness: wars, violence, injustice, poverty, exploitation, cruelty – the list is endless.  As awful and as evil as Auschwitz was, the holocaust, sadly was not an isolated event.  Humans, historically, have been guilty of horrific crimes against one another.  To read history is to read the story of ‘man’s inhumanity towards man’.  The third question of God then is: Why does God allow human beings to commit such terrible acts against one another? 

Both separately and, even more, together, these questions present a strong case against God.  The Christian response to these charges, their defence of God, varies. 

1.  Some try to lessen the seriousness of evil by making humans responsible for it.  This is not without validity.  After all, while we may ask why God allows wars and poverty, God could rightly ask why do we.  It is after all, not God, but we humans who start wars.  We have the wealth and means to end poverty, but choose not to do so.  And it was humans, not God, that built the gas chambers of Auschwitz

2.  Christians sometimes point to the value of suffering for the lessons it teaches.  Suffering, it is said, can enable us to grow spiritually.  Again, there is truth in this.  Some of the most inspiring people I have met have been people who have suffered and who have risen to great heights, not only despite their suffering, but because of it.  They have used their suffering to become better people. 

3.  Christians also point to freewill.  They argue that if God were to intervene to prevent human beings from committing evil, as his accusers would wish, this would override human freedom to choose.  You cannot just tinker with parts of the system.  God would have to orchestrate the whole of human behaviour so that we would end up as robots and not free moral agents.  We would become no more than automatons, not unlike characters in a computer game.  Those who criticize God for not intervening would be amongst the first to complain if he did! 

Although all these points have validity, the questions, nevertheless, remain: ‘Why did God create a universe like this?  Why do we have to live in a world so prone to disaster?  Why do we have to live in a world so full of disease and death?  Why did God allow a universe to evolve to produce creatures capable of evil to the extent that we are?  Could he not have made us good and free? 

The fact is that even after we have defined and qualified the problem – as we must – the problem remains.  We can mitigate the charges against God, but we cannot remove them.  We would not allow a tsunami to kill thousands of people, why does God?  We would not allow someone to die a slow, painful death from cancer, why does God?  We would not allow a baby to be born deformed, why does God?  The problem is that as soon as you claim that God is all-powerful and good, you have a problem. 

So what is the answer?  The answer is that there isn’t one.  Or, at least, not one that I, as a human, with my limited understanding and knowledge am in a position to know.  Evil and suffering do challenge our belief as Christians in our sort of God.  However, knowing we do not know everything encourages us to believe that there may be an answer.  The Christian begins with what he or she is in a position to know.  Moreover, Christians do not start either with a theoretical definition of God that they seek to justify, nor with a problem that they then seek to answer.  Rather, we start with a person we can know: the Baby from Bethlehem who became Jesus of Nazareth, Christ our Lord. 

Christians believe that this is their God and that God has shown us what he is like in this way because of our inability to understand him and his ways with our limited intelligence.  In Jesus, we see someone who does care about both evil and suffering.  He showed his attitude to the ability of nature to wreak havoc when he calmed the storm.  He demonstrated his attitude to disease and disability when he healed the sick and cured the blind.  He lets us see how God feels about human evil when he bore the brunt of it on the Cross of Calvary.  The God we see in Jesus is not a God who is indifferent to human suffering or human evil, but One who experiences it with us. 

This is not the God of the philosopher, nor even the God of the scientist: it is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This does not absolve us from the need to study either philosophy or science.  Christians should do both.  However, in the words of St Anselm, who came up with the ontological argument, at first sight a very theoretical approach to God: 

‘I long to understand to some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves.  For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that if I did not believe, I would not understand.’ 

One of the paradoxes of suffering is that as many as lose their faith because of suffering, find faith through suffering.  In their pain, they discover peace and hope in God.  It does not mean that this peace and hope answers all their questions, but it does give them faith to believe that there may be answers. 

Until there is, Christians are called to address the evil and suffering we see in the world knowing that one day God will bring all suffering and evil to an end.  In a very real sense, we are called to be the answer to the problem of evil by demonstrating through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus both the love of God in the present and the hope of a new creation in the future.  A new creation in which ‘death, mourning, crying and pain’ will be no more (Revelation 21:4).  People need to be able to see what this new creation will be like by how we live our lives.  We, the Church, are called to embody the new creation here and now in the midst of the old. 

As Christians, we deny neither the reality of evil nor the reality of God’s love, but believe that one day God’s love will provide the answer to evil and that until it does love will always triumph over evil.  As Paul says: 

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ 

(Romans 8:38-39)


Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Weekend before Christmas

I am busy preparing the different orders of service for tomorrow. The following is another Christmas sermon I preached a few years ago.  It was on Christmas Eve when we get a lot of visitors and so I was trying to enagage with people who might not yet be Christians, but who were interested enough to turn up.  I have to say it was not appreciated by some of the regulars, but did seem to interest some of the younger memebers of the congregation in their teens.  See what you think!

Design: The Existence of God
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to teach a very simple introduction to the Philosophy of Religion.  One of the essential parts of this was to examine the traditional arguments for the existence of God.  There are several, classic arguments that have been used in an attempt to prove or establish the existence of God.  One of them, however, has caused the greatest exasperation.  Perhaps I can attempt to explain it now.  Please forgive me if you know it already. 
It was first developed by St Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century.  Anselm began by asking what we mean by God.  Most people think of God as the greatest possible Being: ‘than which nothing greater can be conceived’.  This surely seems reasonable.  This does not mean that we believe he, she or it exists just that if we want a God at all, and especially if we want one we can worship, then he, she or it needs to be pretty special. 
Now, said St Anselm, a Being that does exist is greater than a Being that does not exist.  Again, that sounds logical.   However, said Anselm, if God’s the greatest, and existence is greater than non-existence, God, logically, must exist.  Most students feel this cannot be true, without being able to say exactly why, and feel somewhat frustrated as a result. 
I had a similar feeling recently as my students must have had when reading an article by Nick Bostrom.  He is the British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University, and writes extensively about the philosophy of science.  In what is an important article, he puts forward a significant philosophical argument.  Let me try it out on you.  This is my version of it and all errors are mine!  Let me begin with three questions. 
Firstly, do you think that we will continue to develop ever more powerful computers?  I think we probably will.  There is a saying that the moment you buy a computer it becomes obsolete.  
Secondly, do we want to develop ever more realistic computer games?  Well, yes, the answer to that seems to be that we do.  Take for example, SIMS 2.  Let me read the manufacturer’s description to you: 
‘In the The Sims™ 2, you direct your Sims over a lifetime and mix their genes from one generation to the next.  You set your Sims' goals in life; popularity, fortune, family, romance or knowledge.  Give them a long, successful existence or leave their lives in shambles.  Take them to extremes, from getting busted to seeing a ghost, from marrying an alien to writing a great novel.  Unleash your creativity with the all-new Create-A-Sim, new building options, and the new in-game movie camera. Get ready to mix their genes, fulfill their dreams, and push them to extremes.  What do you want to do with your Sims' lives?' 
Thirdly, how do you know you are not in a computer simulation?  We may prefer not describe it as a game, but how do you know that you are not part of a computer generated virtual world? 
Bostrom argues that we will continue to develop ever more powerful computers and that there is at least a possibility that the human race will survive to build very powerful computers indeed. 
He also argues that we would like to simulate reality. 
So, he asks, how do we know that another race has not got there already, before us, and we are the product of their success?  To put it another way, are we a version of the SIMS, a computer game, or, if you prefer, a simulation? 
By now you may be thinking that the pressure of Christmas has got a bit too much for me.  So it is worth asking you how many of you will be watching one of the Matrix Trilogy this Christmas.  The Matrix is after all based on such a story line.  And yes, I agree it could all be dismissed as science fiction were it not for the fact that scientists at the cutting edge of scientific research are also arguing just this. 
It is relatively easy to dismiss philosophers such as Bostrom.  Philosophers are known for playing mind games.  Personally, I think that Bostrom weakens his case by saying that being in a simulation should not make any difference to us.  He tells us that he has had people, who have read his article, writing to him in support claiming to have seen pixels in their bathroom mirrors.  Bostrom just dismisses such people as mad as you may wish to dismiss him. 
However, when the person suggesting that we are a simulation is the Royal Society Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University, that is, Sir Martin Rees   Things get a little more serious.  He has said recently on British television (in a UK Channel 4 television programme): 
‘Over a few decades, computers have evolved from being able to simulate only very simple patterns to being able to create virtual worlds with a lot of detail. 
If that trend were to continue, then we can imagine computers which will be able to simulate worlds perhaps even as complicated as the one we think we’re living in. 
This raises the philosophical question: could we ourselves be in such a simulation and could what we think is the universe be some sort of vault of heaven rather than the real thing.  In a sense we could be ourselves the creations within this simulation.’ 
We are not now dealing with philosophers and their seemingly mad ideas.  We are in the case of Sir Martin dealing with one of the very best scientists in the world.  Why should such scientists have such fantastic ideas?  Well, it is all to do with a question that scientists find hard to answer. 
Why is the universe so friendly to producing life on earth? 
Scientists are at a loss to explain why the laws of nature have been written to enable you and me to emerge. 
I freely admit to not being a scientist, but take an example all are agreed upon.  Carbon.  Carbon is the basis of all life.  But carbon was not in the Big Bang that most scientists believe gave birth to the universe.  Instead, carbon has been cooked inside giant stars that have exploded and spewed soot all over the universe.  However, the process that generates carbon is a delicate nuclear reaction.  If the force that holds atomic nuclei together were just a tiny bit stronger or a tiny bit weaker, the reaction would not have worked properly and life may never have happened. 
The late scientist and astronomer, Fred Hoyle, was so struck by the coincidence that he described the Universe as a ‘put up job’.  But put up by whom or what? 
All this is somewhat new to the scientists.  Theologians and philosophers, however, have been wrestling with precisely these sort of questions for millennia.  For in addition to Anselm’s argument, which maybe does not convince, there have been others, which perhaps do.  Theologians, many centuries ago, noticing the incredible design of the universe argued that design implied designer in other words: GOD. 
To put it another way: if you walked out of the church tonight and found an instrument like a watch lying in the car park, you would not conclude it was the chance product of a gust of wind while you were in church.  No.  Things as complex as that have to be made.  For most of the 20th century, philosophers and scientists tried to resist the logic of this argument.  In a famous quote, Nietzsche, who died at the 20th century’s beginning, announced: ‘God is dead.’  To which has been made the wonderful response: ‘Nietzsche is dead.  God.’  
Now, however, it is scientists, not just philosophers and theologians, who are having to wrestle with design and its implications.  The Sydney Morning Herald in printing a report about scientists believing that we are in a computer simulation commented: 
‘Isn’t it amazing that scientists have finally had to admit that the design of the universe is so perfectly crafted so as to indicate intelligent design and yet they still try to avoid any explanation which includes the word God.’ 
Now I would not normally see the Sydney Morning Herald as an authority on these sort of issues, but I must admit that this seems to be bang on target. 
Indeed, I would suggest that rather than seeing the death of God, the 20th century ended with God very much alive, and that now at the beginning of the 21st century, it is atheism that has the intellectual problem.  One of the philosophers who championed atheism the most in the 20th century was a university professor of philosophy called Anthony Flew.  He has just announced at the age of 81 that he has been wrong all his academic life and that he does now believe in a god.  It is worth quoting him: 
‘I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature.’ 
Frankly, if the choice is between a computer simulation and God to explain the complex design of the universe, then call me old-fashioned, but I am going with God.  Nevertheless, there is still a problem.  If, as Flew now thinks, there is a God, does not that make communicating with this God, the most important question there is? 
Strangely, one of the most popular books of the 20th century was Douglas Adam’s, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It was the fourth most popular book on the BBC’s list of the top 100 books in English.  It is at present being made into a film.  In it, a computer, called Deep Thought, is asked the answer to the ultimate question of ‘life, the universe and everything’.  It comes up with the answer 42.  It is then they realize that they have to find out what the ultimate question is to which the answer is 42.  To do this, Deep Thought designs another computer greater than him.  That computer is the earth.  Unfortunately, the earth gets destroyed before it can give the question. 
Let me tell you tonight: the question and answer to the secret of life, the universe and everything is God.  Everything else is commentary. 
St Paul, quoting the Greek philosophers, said: ‘for in him we live and move and have our being.’  (Acts 17:28)  And as for communicating with him, we need not worry.  He has taken the initiative and communicated with us.  And that is what tonight is all about.  It is what we are here to celebrate: 
            ‘O holy night, the stars are brightly shining.
            It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.’ 
For God did not just design the universe and leave it to get on with it, keeping an eye on it as we might keep an eye on a computer programme, nor does he play with it as we would with a computer game.  In a passage of sublime poetry, philosophy, and theology, St John tells us: 
 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came in to being.’ 
Yet St John goes on to tell us: 
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us …’ 
The designer has become part of the design.  We see the face of God in the face of a baby and the meaning of life lying in a manger.  St Cyril of Alexandria, a theologian in the fifth century wrote: 
‘… but we say that the Son of God , while visible to the eyes, and a babe in swaddling clothes, and still at the breast of his Virgin Mother, filled all creation as God …’ 
This is the staggering message of Christmas.  The cards, the trees, the parties, the presents, the food and the drink all fade into insignificance in the light of this amazing truth.  In the person of this baby lies the answer to all my questions, all my hopes and fears, all my longings and aspirations.  He is the meaning of everything.  O holy night, indeed! 
But there is a twist.  For on this most holy night, God wants now to ask you a question.  What is your response to this amazing event?  Philosophers, theologians, and scientists may each question God, but tonight God in the form of this baby in the manger questions each one of us and demands a response.  It is the most important question we will ever be asked, and our answer to this divine questioning will be the most important answer we have ever had to give. 
This is not a baby about whom God will allow us to remain neutral.  We can dismiss him as many were to do during his life on earth or we can believe in Him.  To those who believe in him, God offers the greatest of Christmas gifts: 
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ 
What is offered to us is a relationship with not only the Designer of the Universe, but the One who sustains it and keeps it in being.  It is the chance of a lifetime and may only come once in a lifetime.  It must not be ignored.  Tonight, for our sake, heaven and earth meet in Bethlehem and extend their presence to us here: 
    O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Sermons

On the theme of Christmas sermons, I don't normally write up sermons, but one or two I have.  This is one from 2004.  It was preached at the traditional carol service.

This Sunday, we have our Sunday School Nativity Presentation in the morning and the Carol Service in the evening.  I will try and write up the sermon for it!

God rest you merry gentlemen

A somewhat surprising bestseller this year has been Lynne Truss’ book on punctuation.  On the back, there is a story about a panda that gives the title of the book.  The panda walks into a cafĂ©.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.  On his way out, the confused waiter asks him why.  The panda produces a wildlife manual.  ‘I’m a panda,’ he says.  ‘Look it up.’  The waiter does:  

Panda.  Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves. 

The point being that the comma makes all the difference.  This came to mind when I was going over the carols for tonight.  The choir have sung a popular traditional English carol as their third carol.  It begins, ‘God rest …’  I have deliberately refrained from punctuating it in your Order of Service.  I wonder where you would put the comma.  Most people, I think, would put it after you :  God rest you, merry gentlemen.  This seems to suggest that the meaning of the beginning of the carol is that a group of somewhat inebriated men are being wished a good night’s sleep, presumably to get over the effects of the drink. 

In fact, it should be: God rest you merry, gentlemen.  In other words, it is an exhortation to rest merry or happy and in good cheer.  The gentlemen thus addressed are to let nothing cause them dismay.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ our Saviour was born upon this day.  And as we have heard sung, the carol goes onto recite the events of that first Christmas.  It is because of these events that they and we should rest merry. 

But how can the events of this first Christmas have any affect on us here in the present?  How can they make our gentlemen rest merry?  L. P. Hartley begins his novel, The Go-between, with these words:  ‘The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.’  Historians have quoted these words to show how hard it can be for us to enter the past.  Some would even say it is impossible for us to do so.  It is so different. 

This applies no less to this first Christmas.  Its events are history now.  They seem so distant, so foreign, so unreal.  It is true that some things have not changed.  The fear and the violence, for example.  However, so many things have.  Mary after all rode a little donkey, she didn't travel in a car or on a bus!  Our world is very different now to then. 

How then are we even to begin to understand the events we have had read for us this evening?  And even if we don’t despair of understanding them entirely, how can they have any relevance for us living now as we do in such changed times?  Don’t they belong firmly in the past of no more relevance than other pictures from the past.  Are they not like those old pictures that we see around Hong Kong?  A reminder of how Hong Kong used to look in the past, but will never look like again.  Is this what our service tonight has been about a chance to look back in fondness, and then to get on with real life in the present? 

To put it another way: what difference does it make to you? 

One of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, Bultmann (whose first name has a wonderful resonance at this time of year – Rudolf!) said: 

‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.’ 

So is that how it is?  Christmas must be consigned to the past to be brought out once a year, but is too foreign to be of any use to us for the rest of it? 

I wonder what your favourite carol is?  We have sung many of the favourites this evening.  One I find myself returning to is Phillips Brooks’, ‘O little Town of Bethlehem.’  I confess that I never used to like it.  It seemed a bit too sentimental with its talk of ‘dreamless sleep’ and ‘silent stars’.  And yet, it has some powerful lines that were to eventually win me over despite the apparent sentimentality of the carol as a whole.  Lines such as, ‘The hopes and fears all the years are met in thee tonight.’  What I did not realize is that there is a powerful reality in the sentimentality too. 

For Phillips Brooks wrote this carol after journeying on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to assist in Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in 1865.  He both describes and reflects on that experience in his carol.  There is one line in particular that I would like to draw your attention to tonight: ‘be born in us today.’   In context, it is:

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.

During Advent, we have been thinking about salvation and what it means.  If our hope of salvation lies in us being able to journey back, then no matter how good our imagination, it is always going to be elusive.  If our hope of salvation lies in believing the right things, then we are always going to be vulnerable to doubt and prone to changes in theological fashion.  If our hope of salvation lies in our ability to do the right things, then who can be saved? For all of us are mortal, inclined to sin and weakness.  No, we all sit here as failed human beings no matter how we try to disguise it. 

But the good news is that it doesn’t depend on us at all.  Our hope of salvation lies in the unrepeatable birth of Jesus being repeated in us. 

In other words, because Christmas really did happen, because Christ was born of Mary, the world can never be the same.  And if we open our lives to him our world will never be the same again either.  For Christianity is about an encounter with Mary’s child, an encounter which makes possible knowing Him in a way that transcends knowledge, historical or otherwise. 

Before he wrote the words, ‘be born in us today’,   Brooks wrote a verse that we normally leave out of the carol:

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the Mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, 
and Christmas comes once more.

This service has been about that.  In telling the story of the first Christmas, we have attempted to travel back to Bethlehem to visit that foreign land and to hear again the message of the angels.  But now, it is time for Bethlehem to travel back with us.  It is time for the dark night to wake, the glory to break, and Christmas to come to each one of us once more. 

And as the Christmas story becomes a part of our life and experience, then God rest you merry – Ladies and Gentlemen – and in the midst of all life’s traumas, nothing will you dismay.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Countdown to Christmas

It is really incredible to think we are coming up to Christmas and to the end of 2008.  My biggest concern at the moment is preparing my sermons for Christmas.  What is there to say that hasn't been said many times before and far better?  And yet, this is surely one time in the year when we all desperately need reminding of the meaning of the mystery of the incarnation.  So this is the challenge: to express the inexpressible and do so in a away that isn't glib, cliche-ridden, or gimmicky.  It's going to be quite a challenge!

Here is the final talk in my latest series of radio broadcasts!

Talk Five: Different Choices 

‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’, St Paul tells the Christians at Rome.  The way we serve God now is not based on the Law, with its rules and commandments, but on love; love which is given to us by the Holy Spirit as we seek to become like Christ himself. 

In the first place, this is about character, not actions.  Simply because someone does not murder, steal, lie, or commit adultery does not mean that they are like Jesus.  Becoming like Jesus means a whole change in the direction of our lives and its motivation.  Of course, it means, for example, that we won’t murder, but as, Jesus says, it means that we won’t hate as well.  We will want to get our inner attitude right as well as our outward behaviour. 

It is possible to do the right thing and still be wrong.  Getting it right as a Christian in the way we live involves much more that getting it right on certain ethical issues and moral choices.  Doing what God wants is not confined to ticking the right boxes on a moral questionnaire.  Paul tells us that adultery is out for a Christian, but so is quarrelling and jealousy.  We are to be kind, tender-hearted and gentle.  Too much moral discussion in the Church focuses on the difficult ethical issues: homosexuality, war, abortion, and such like as if getting it right on these big issues defines the Christian life.  It doesn’t: it is only when our character is being conformed to the image of Christ that we are living the Christian life irrespective of our position on difficult ethical issues. 

But what about the issues and what happens when Christians disagree?  In chapter 14 of Romans, Paul deals with one ethical issue that was troubling and dividing people in his own day.  Some ate meat and vegetables, others only vegetables!  This is not an argument over vegetarianism!  The Law gave strict regulations about what could and could not be eaten and how food should be prepared and served.  Meat in Rome would often have previously been offered in sacrifice to pagan gods and so would not fulfil the requirements of the Law.  Some felt it was just easier not to eat meat at all.  Others felt that it didn’t matter now.  We were freed from the Law in any case. 

Paul believed this himself and ate meat without worrying about where it came from.  But in Romans he argues that each person needs to be persuaded in their own mind.  The one who eats meat is doing it in service of God and the one who doesn’t eat meat is also doing it in service of God.  Paul doesn’t try to persuade people to his way of thinking.  But what he does say is what matters is not what moral choice you make, but the effect that choice has on another member of the Church. 

If my decision to eat meat hurts another Christian, then I should be prepared to forgo what I consider my right so as not to hurt another Christian.  What matters is not being in the right, but having a right attitude to my brother and sister in Christ for whom he died.  Each one of us will have to give an account of ourselves for our own life and the choices we make, says Paul.  We would do better then, he tells them, not to argue with and judge another person and their behaviour, but to worry more about our own.  As long we as are seeking to honour God in what we do and can offer our actions to God, it is not for anyone to judge us or for us to judge them.  We need to stop worrying about someone else’s behaviour and start worrying about our own.

For some, this all seems too tolerant and permissive.  Are there no moral absolutes?  Is there nothing that we must insist on when it comes to Christian behaviour?  In fact, there is one thing that Jesus does insist on absolutely and on which there can be no moral compromise:  forgiveness.  We are not only not to judge one another; we are to forgive one another.  Instead of arguing, criticising, and condemning, we are to forgive.  Not seven times, but seventy-times seven!  This is what we are doing when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. 

If it can be said of a Church that it is a place where people forgive one another, then we will be well on our way to becoming the sort of moral community God wants us to be.  

However much we may disagree on various headline moral issues.