Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day: The God who risks



The Gospel story of Jesus being born in a stable was so good that it tore a hole between the fabric of earth and heaven, lying alongside us, that was so big that a myriad of angels burst through it with uncontrollable joy, singing at the top of their angelic voices at what had just taken place.

So when did Christianity stop being such good news? 

When did self-identifying as a Christian become embarrassing?  I have friends in other religions who are proud to follow their beliefs.  So when did Christianity stop being Good News?  No birth in history has had such a long lead up to it as the birth of Jesus, and few continue to make ripples around the world for two thousand years. And yet across the western world, still the numbers fall and people turn away from the church because there are far more fun things to do on a Sunday morning than go and sing some hymns and listen to some bloke in a dress drone on for two hours about something incomprehensible.

When did it stop becoming Good News? 

Was it, do you think, when we started mixing up the church and the state, as far back as when the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and the church started oppressing those who disagreed with it? Maybe, but that is ancient history now. What difference does that make to us?  Well maybe more than you think. You see it marks the way in which Christianity keeps being used as a vehicle by others to obtain and then hold on to or validate power. Christianity is too often a means of control, of telling people how to live, whilst those who do the telling keep having leaders who are exposed as not being terribly good at doing what they're telling everyone else to do.

So if I tell you that knowing the Spirit of God is alongside me and within me, freeing me up to be the person I was created to be from the very beginning, and helping me, slowly, slowly, to overcome the worst of my faults and become more human and outward-looking, and less self-centred, well hey that's Good News isn't it?  But then if I explain to you that the best place to experience that is in an organisation that wants to tell you how to live, will prescribe for you exactly what you should and especially what you shouldn't believe, an organisation that wants some of your money, essentially an organisation that looks like it might want to control your choices, well then that's when it doesn't seem like such Good News.

And it isn't. 

The church shouldn't have that kind of power and control. Jesus was born powerless, of parents about to become refugees in Egypt. That should be the role model. A priest is to offer help, assistance, to pray for and with you. Any more than that feels like trying to control people. My reason for being here is to help you engage with the One who takes a risk on you just as he took a risk on me.

You see, if I'm honest, that's what I think the Good News that comes at Christmas is all about; the God who takes risks with people. Now think about this for a moment. Lots of you are parents. When you took the decision to have a child or to adopt a child, you took a risk. When you get pregnant you have no idea and no control over what happens next.  Nature takes over. The growing baby inside you consumes as much of the mother's resources as it needs and the mother's body willingly gives up those resources. It's a foreshadowing of what is to come because good parents will go on and on, through every day of the rest of their lives, wondering what they can do for their children.

And it's all because you took a risk. My parents took several risks and they ended up with three children who were alike and yet so totally different, able to try their patience in oh so many different ways. Becoming a parent is taking a risk.  And of course you seek to guide and help your children find their way into the world, but a wise parent knows from very early early on that you cannot exert complete control over a child.

Now think for a moment about what it must have been for God the Father choosing to bring Jesus the Son into the world and hand him over to two completely na├»ve individuals, one of whom, Mary, was probably only about fourteen. Isn't that the ultimate in taking risks? But this is what God does, over and over again, throughout history. 

God takes risks, God doesn't seek to control us.

So you get King David, of whose line Jesus is eventually born. David the little shepherd boy whom God referred to as a man after his own heart. God took a risk on him, and by and large it paid off, until he committed adultery, got another man's wife pregnant and then arranged for her husband to die in battle. But even after suffering the consequences, God took him back and showed him a way forward.  In fact it was a child that he had later, Solomon, with the woman whom he stole, who went on to become known as the wisest king Israel ever had. God takes risks and helps us through the messes of life. Isn't that Good News?

I could tell you any number of stories from the Bible or, if we were wanting to be brutally honest, from our own lives, of when God has taken a risk on us, and we've messed up, and he's still been there, still been alongside us, still helped us find a way through and out the other side. God takes risks, and being born as one of us was taking the greatest risk of all.

Of course there will be some with a more philosophical mind who will tell you that God takes no risks because he's outside of time and can see everything from the beginning through to the end, to which I would answer, give me half an hour and I will show you a multitude of times in the Bible, and a few convincing philosophical ideas where God was surprised or changed his plans. Why? Because when God takes risks, they are real risks.

So Jesus being born was taking a risk. Being born to an unmarried teenager in a country where that carried the penalty of stoning was taking a massive risk indeed. But God takes risks because you and I are worth more to God even than our own children are to us.

This church here will not try and control you. I will not tell you how to live. I might encourage you in various directions if you ask me, but I'm as likely to screw up as anyone else. That's what sin is by the way; the human propensity to screw things up. But I know that God takes risks, so, will you take a risk?  Will you take a risk that maybe, in the mess of all its control issues and financial worries, that the church might actually be entrusted with a fundamentally important piece of Good News; that the God who risks wants to take a risk on you?

This, ultimately, is the good news of Christmas, that the love which God has for God's whole creation is so strong that God took the risk of emptying out all of that power and glory in order to be one of us, so that God could gather us up into the kingdom that is being created, one by one, as we respond.

I am not embarrassed to say that I'm a Christian. I might be embarrassed sometimes about the organisation I work for and the pronouncements of some of its bishops and leaders. I might be embarrassed that it follows equality rules that seem not to have progressed since the dark ages.  I might be embarrassed that it genuinely does need real money to run. But I'm not embarrassed to be a Christian, because God took a risk on me. And at Christmas, the birth of a tiny baby shows he's willing to take a risk on you too.

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