When it says that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, do you know what ‘bands of cloth’ are? They used to be called swaddling bands. Basically it’s strips of cloth that are wound around and around the new born baby so that they are all wrapped up tightly and can’t move. It sounds cosy, if you’re a baby. But you’re not babies.
So what does it sound like for us? To me it sounds terribly constricting, and I think that’s the problem. The church, the culture and the media have unwittingly worked together to contrive this limp and rather effeminate version of faith that it is about something constrictive, robbing it of its life, and more importantly, robbing us of the hope that the church is supposed to bring.
And I think that hope is really why we’re here, because there is something about Christmas that deep, deep down, way down in our psyche, inspires us to hope. But what is hope? This Christmas night I want to think about this question, and I want to change your perception on hope, just as mine has been changed in recent months.
The social activist Jim Wallis said these words, ‘Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.’ Wallis goes on to tell a story of being in South Africa back in the days of apartheid, and he was in St. George’s Cathedral when white South African police broke into the cathedral during a service at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu was preaching.
They lined the walls with their notepads and pens and their recording equipment. Their presence there was to demonstrate that the powers of the government were stronger than the anti-apartheid movement. They wanted, dared, Archbishop Tutu to say something that would give them grounds to arrest him.
So, Wallis said, he watched this little archbishop look around the cathedral, taking it all in, bouncing up and down on his heels like some preachers do, looking at all the police who were waiting to arrest him if he dared defy the regime, and pondering his next words carefully. And then Archbishop Tutu said these words:
“Yes you are powerful, but I serve a God who will not be mocked. Since you have already lost we invite you today to come on over and join the winning side!”
Of course nobody believed it. Who would have done? But Archbishop Tutu believed it, and look at where we are today. Apartheid has been confined to history. Hope is not optimism, it’s much more powerful than that. Hope is believing despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.
Now when I first heard that saying I thought it was mind-blowing. And then I thought about it some more, and then I began to be somewhat troubled about it, because that’s not what we necessarily see is it. Every one of us, every single one of us, will at some time in our lives have hoped for something; hoped for it with all our worth, only to have that hope dashed.
For some of us those have been defining moments in our lives. Those are the times when maybe we finally lost the childhood faith that we clung on to, and maybe we’ve never been able to rebuild an adult one. The job we lost, the partner who left, the relative or friend who died young. I could go on, but every single one of us will know of hope stalling... dying.
How dare I stand up here and say, ‘Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change’!? I dare to say it because it’s the gospel truth, but the trouble is we only read one gospel.
Tonight, as through much of the Christmas season, we have focussed on the Gospel of St. Luke, which is great, but it’s only told from one perspective, and that is the perspective of Mary. It’s beautiful because it’s a mothering story, but it’s also a very passive story. The initiative is taken by God, which is usually the case whatever Gospel you read, but Mary’s role is pretty passive.
When the angel Gabriel spoke to her nine months earlier and told her what was going to happen to her she said, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’, and the trouble is, that’s the Gospel which has got so deeply ingrained in us. And so for us when we hope for something, we sit back and see whether what we’re hoping for is going to happen. We have a Luke’s Gospel faith, but the trouble with a passive faith is, when what we want to happen doesn’t happen, then we risk ending up having no faith at all!
‘Let it be to me according to your word’, is what we’ve grown up thinking is proper Christian doctrine, but it’s only half the story, and it’s because we haven’t read the other half of the story that we have let hope die and replaced it with cynicism. But if you read Matthew’s Gospel, like we did last Sunday, you get a whole different picture of hope, because Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, and Joseph’s faith was anything but passive.
When Mary is found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph’s hopes die and he decides to break off the engagement, that is until an angel tells him what’s really going on, so instead Joseph acts. And when they get to Bethlehem, and after the baby is born, the angel returns and tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod is going to try and kill Jesus.
And then, after some time in Egypt, the angel returns and tells Joseph to bring his family back to their homeland because Herod is dead. To fulfil Joseph’s hopes, the key thing is that he has to do something. Joseph’s model is fundamentally different to Mary’s. It is an active ‘get up and do what God is telling you to do’ kind of faith.
Or to put it another way, Hope is believing in something, despite the evidence, and then watching the evidence change because God has called you to actively change it!!
Look, remember back to the story about Desmond Tutu? In that story we saw the evidence change as apartheid was dismantled, but did Tutu sit back and say to God, ‘Let it be to us according to your word’? Of course he didn’t. He knew that what he hoped for was what God intended for the cause of justice and righteousness, and so he responded to God; he worked with God, and together with so many others they changed the evidence.
And this is what Christmas is all about. The other name given to Jesus from the Old Testament is ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’ The whole point of this is that the birth of Jesus means God has been let loose in the world. We are in this with him. He is in this with us. The promise of God is not, ‘Let me take away this pain’. The promise of God is, ‘Wherever you are; whatever you go through; whatever I call you to, I am right there with you: Emmanuel’.
So my message to you this Christmas is, don’t let yourself be wrapped up in spiritual swaddling clothes so that you have to sit back and be passive. That is not God’s intention for you. That’s what we do to babies, not to adults. God works with us. Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and watching the evidence change, and sometimes that’s because you are called by God to change it.
So what are you hoping for, and I pray your answer isn’t something as shallow as ‘A new car’. What are you really hoping for? What is really important for the future, perhaps for your children’s future? Or your company’s future? Don’t be passive about it. Don’t sit back and wait for it to happen and then complain when it doesn’t. Yes, sometimes God does expect us to wait, and if you ask him he’ll show you when you have to wait, but that’s only half the story, because often he expects us to work with him like Joseph did.
Emmanuel, God with us, means exactly that. God isn’t meant to be confined within these walls and visited occasionally. The whole point of Christmas is to underline that Jesus is loose in the world, your world, every part of it; your marriages, your families, your jobs, your divorces, your hang-ups. There is no longer sacred and secular, there is simply God let loose in the world, and that changes everything because that means there is hope, but it’s not a passive hope.
Hope is believing in something despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change, and the message at Christmas is, you might be the one who is called to change the evidence. Amen.