30 December 2012

Joy Comes in the Morning

A Sermon for Christmas 1C

Commercial Christmas is over and we all survived! No more countdowns of shopping days left until Christmas. No more treacly holiday specials on TV, interspersed with reruns of Christmas movies of dubious quality. One of the things that inoculates a community like ours against Commercial Christmas is celebrating Advent in a serious and reflective way, as we did again this year.

Instead we are enjoying the liturgical Christmas season. Now we can reflect on the birth of Jesus in the same serious way we reflected on the season of Advent. But 'serious' doesn't mean necessarily 'sombre', much less 'joyless'. In fact I want to suggest that the best way to respond to the miraculous birth at Bethlehem is with joy -- a deep and abiding joy that fills our whole being and remains with us and sustains us even in the face of sorrow and loss. In that joyous birth we also experience, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the birth of Jesus anew in our hearts, a gift from God that brings us closer to God and to our brothers and sisters that share that joy. We hear a great deal about being a resurrection people, and that is very important. But I think we should also spend time thinking about what it means to be an incarnation people, a people brought into being by that prophetic moment in Bethlehem, a people brought into being by joy.

The Christmas angels of whom Luke speaks in his gospel announce to the shepherds in the fields 'Look I am bringing you good news of great joy for the whole people'. So the first word that God's messengers use in announcing their sign to the shepherds is 'joy'. Christ's birth brings many things but above all it brings joy to God's people and to God's self. Despite the true words of the old spiritual, 'Poor little Jesus, this world's gonna break your heart', the birth of Jesus, fulfilling so many centuries of the divine plan, must have brought joy to God as well as to us.

But we know that joy is difficult to sustain at a high pitch: we need to come back to earth, so to speak, and cope with its demands while at the same time retaining our grip on the divine gift of joy. Our readings give us some pointers in this direction. So Hannah, the mother of the priest and prophet Samuel, who had suffered for many years of marriage without a child, prayed fervently for a son, promising God that the child would be dedicated to God's service. She had faith in God's answer to her prayers and those of Eli the priest and believed that God would give her a child. She experienced the joy of seeing that child born and grow old enough to sent to the Temple to become a priest himself. But now she expresses her joy in the mundane but necessary responsibility of providing clothes for the boy.

Mary experienced signs both before and after Jesus' birth of its extraordinary character: there was the angelic messenger of the Annunciation and the prophetic sign given to the shepherds and told to her, to give only two examples. And in this morning's gospel we see her and Joseph in the midst of the responsibilities and terrors of parenthood, frantically searching for and finally locating the youth Jesus in the Temple, learning from the rabbis there and amazing them with his acute questions. His answers to his mother's questions cannot have been reassuring and indeed we are told that Mary and Joseph didn't understand those answers. Yet we are also told that Mary treasured all these things in her heart -- not just the miraculous birth of her son, but all the signs that built up to it and this puzzling answer about being in his Father's house. Surely the way that we also continue to connect with our joy in Jesus' birth and all it makes possible is by treasuring all these things in our hearts as well.

The epistle this morning looks specifically at how we live our lives in the light of this two-fold birth, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and also in our hearts anew. Paul speaks to us as 'God's chosen ones, holy and beloved'. And so we are -- we are after all the ones for whom the angelic news of great joy was intended. And as God's chosen ones we are called to live our lives in the light of the Incarnation. Paul acknowledged that it was not always going to be easy to live together in love, just as it is not always easy for us to treasure the joyful events of Jesus' birth consciously in our hearts.

'Bear with one another,' Paul says, 'and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other'. This is such practical advice! It is not easy to be an incarnation people, just as it is not always easy to be a resurrection people, and we are going to let ourselves and each other down sometimes, so above all let us bear with one another. In the first three verses, Paul speaks twice of clothing ourselves in various virtues: we should clothe ourselves with compassion, with kindness, with humility, with meekness and with patience. Above all, we should clothe ourselves with love which binds everything in perfect harmony.

This is a helpful image, to think of putting on these qualities as though they were clothes. Often new clothes are uncomfortable to wear -- we may feel awkward or conspicuous in them. But as we become accustomed to putting them on, they become more natural to wear. You see where I am going with this! It's hard to get used to 'wearing', that is, showing and feeling, compassion, kindness, and all the other spiritual qualities Paul commends in this passage. But we can, in the power of the Spirit that we posses as God's chosen ones, learn to do it, become accustomed to them, as we become accustomed to our clothes. To put it another way, we can 'grow into' these spiritual qualities as we grew into our clothes when we were children.

Paul goes on to commend two spiritual gifts: Christ's peace and Christ's word. How can we let Christ's peace rule in our hearts? Or let Christ's word dwell in us richly? How indeed can we have access to these things at all? This is part of our being an incarnation people -- this Christmas season we are celebrating not just the miraculous birth in Bethlehem but the birth of the Messiah in our hearts by faith. So, having Jesus in our hearts, we have access to Christ's peace and Christ's word in our hearts as well. If we allow them to rule and dwell in our hearts, Paul tells us that we will receive one of the greatest gifts, the gift of gratitude.

What can be more appropriate to the Christmas season than hearts filled with thankfulness toward God for all that he has done for us, at Christmas and throughout the year? May the God of all thankfulness open our hearts to the joy of Jesus' birth, fill us with gratitude toward God, and fill us with the desire to do all that we do, in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus! Amen.