Sunday, December 17, 2000

"The View From Without - Lasting Peace"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Advent III
Sunday, December 17, 2000

My heart was beating a little faster than usual, my pulse was racing. I had run down to the Christmas tree to get the gift that I had wanted more than any other gift that had ever been given in the history of the World. I went down under the Christmas tree and I opened it and I tore it apart and all the hopes and dreams of all the years were fulfilled in the opening of that one box. I was eight years old and I ripped open this box and there before me was what I had prayed for, a safari expedition outfit. Now, I was particularly impressed with this outfit for it included a pith helmet, a buckle and belt on which I could hand a water bottle, a gun for any stray wild animals I might run into, bullets, a compass so I know where I'm going, a nice little jacket, (though I am pleased to say not a safari suit jacket), a pair of wonderful knee-high socks, and a pair of shorts. I was ecstatic. I wanted the safari expedition outfit more than life itself. Well, that day after I had finally put on this outfit I asked my Mother and Father if I could wear this to go to our Christmas dinner at my Uncle's home, when all the relatives and neighbours would gather at his place. And my Mother and Father, being as kind as they were, said: "By all means, Andrew, feel free to do that." And so on a cold, chilly, Lancashire day I wore my safari expedition outfit. Everyone was already there, waiting. In fact, all the guests had arrived and they were already tucking in to their Christmas cake and their sherry. My Mother and Father went in to prepare the way for my arrival, for I knew this was a very important moment. And so, they were all gathered in the living-room waiting for me to arrive. In I walked proudly in my safari expedition outfit and everyone in one voice cried out: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." "No, not Dr. Livingstone, it's Andrew, don't you recognize me?" And then, they all began to laugh, one after the other. Hilarity filled the room. Rude comments being made about my knees, and why am I wearing a colonial outfit in the middle of the Winter, and which big gun was I going to shoot in Lancashire, and what animals prowled the streets that needed to be terrified of me? And on, and on, and on they went. Well, you can imagine I was absolutely dismayed. There I was with my safari expedition outfit and not one of them was in awe or terrified of me. I then decided that the only way to resolve this problem was to pick a fight with each of my cousins who had made fun of me. So one by one, I took them into various rooms and started to exercise my physical prowess on them, only to find my Mother finally come charging in after about half an hour of cries and tears. She sat me down and said: "Andrew, you must remember the Christmas, the Christmas spirit."

I was reminded of this not long ago when I was standing in line in a shopping place to make my purchase of Christmas gifts. There was a long line-up, and in front of me there were two women. Although I tried not to listen and eavesdrop on their conversation, they were so loud I could not help it. The two of them were remonstrating about the cost of Christmas gifts and the dreaded GST. They went on and on and on about all the different places where one should go to find all the best deals this Christmas. They were most animated. After it was all over and they had finally paid for their gifts, some twenty minutes later, one of them looked at the other, and she said: "You know Enid, what we need to do is to get a little bit of Christmas spirit. I'm going to go and get some, are you coming too?" She said: "Yes, I will go with you." I think what they meant to say is that they were going to get some Christmas spirits and not Christmas spirit. But that's what they were after.

Listening to both these stories, I think that this Christmas Spirit is an elusive thing. My Mother told me to exercise it, these women went looking for it, and I must confess, after all my years on this Earth, I am still not quite sure what it is and when it arrives. I do know we try and manufacture it; I do know that we feel empty if we don't experience it; I know that it is an emotional high for people finally to attain it; but, I fear, all the more, we look for it in all the wrong places.

That is why I have chosen the text from the Book of Corinthians today. Because in it, it seems to me that the Apostle Paul, while this not being a specifically Christmas text like many that we will read this afternoon at the Lessons and Carols, nonetheless goes right to the very heart of what the Christmas spirit is about. "In Christ," he said, "God was reconciling the World to himself."

There is a true story told of a family who lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every single Christmas, just as we do in our Church here on Christmas Eve, they hold a Happy Birthday, Jesus party. This family, every Christmas, at the end of the table, has an empty chair. In that empty chair, they believe, Jesus was the invited guest and that he was always there for the Happy Birthday, Jesus party. As was their normal custom, they held this party. On one Christmas afternoon, a guest dropped in, and the guest came to the little girl, who was there, called Mildred. And she said to Mildred: "Mildred, did you get everything that you wanted this Christmas?" And Mildred answered: "No, but then again, it's not my birthday." Out of the mouths of babes, they say! It's not my birthday.

Christmas is not just about how we feel at any given moment: It's not whether we have a blue Christmas or a joyful Christmas, a prosperous Christmas or a poor Christmas. It's not whether we have a healthy Christmas or we're sick throughout Christmas, the message of Christmas is that it is Christ's birthday, and Christ's birthday is a reminder to us of what Paul said to the Corinthians: "In Christ, (this child), God was reconciling the World to Himself." That is the heart of the Christmas spirit. I believe that it is precisely that Christmas spirit that transforms and makes this season of the year into something vital, and powerful, and exciting. For it changes in many ways our view of the whole of reality. It certainly changes, first of all, our view of Christ.

We must remember who wrote these words in our text from Corinthians: It was the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Paul, in his life had a transformation, a change in the way in which he looked at Jesus. In the early days, Paul tells us, he was at enmity with the followers of Jesus. He found Jesus teachings to be blasphemous and seditious. He found that the followers of Jesus were loose in their translation of the law and in their interpretation of the Torah. He found that in this group of people there was too much sin and too many sinners. There were too many Gentiles; there was not enough piety. And so, he set out actively to persecute the followers of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, but after his experience on Damascus road, he felt differently. He saw Christ differently. It was seeing Christ differently that once and for all was to change Paul, and to change the way in which he looked at the whole of reality. For rather than being blasphemous, he saw in Jesus Christ, the very work of God; rather than being seditious, it was a new community that was being created that would bring the redemption of God to humanity; rather than simply associating with sinners and being outcasts, Paul understood the forgiveness and the grace of Almighty God.

Indeed, Paul looks back throughout the whole of the Old Testament and he sees in the coming of Jesus Christ none other than the new version of Genesis 1, where God not only created the World, but made a new creation: God is doing something in our hearts and in our lives. He looks at a passage, for example, that was read from the book of Isaiah where we have animals lying down with one another and peace in the Land and where we have the Assyrians being driven out and the king coming and ruling in peace and in justice. He sees Isaiah XI being fulfilled in this child of Bethlehem, Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, he sees the whole world transformed and changed by the coming of this very singular child. His view of Christ had changed. But how does that really impact us? Why is that something that we should remember?

Well, the great Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once tried to describe the incarnation to people and he found that his words were wanting until he decided to tell the story of a certain king. This king lived in his palace, but he was lacking one thing, a spouse. He was lonely, and he wanted a wife. One day as he was driving in his carriage down the street of the community over which he reigned, he saw a young peasant girl. She was strikingly beautiful and looked gorgeous and he said to himself: "Oh, if only I could marry that girl!" For the next few days, he kept driving past her house in the hope that she would see him, but she didn't. He thought to himself: "How can I get this girl to marry me? What should I do?" And the first thing he thought of was: Well, I'm the king, I shall issue an edict and this woman shall marry me on a certain day when I determine it ready. Then he thought about that for a while, and he thought, no, if I do that she will not love me for myself, she will only be intimidated by my power. So then, he thought: I know what I will do, I will shower her with gifts and with presents and I will send envoys from the Palace to give her gorgeous things, and when she sees them she'll want to marry me. And then he thought for a while: No, if I do that, she will want to marry me for the gifts and not for whom I really am. And then he thought: I know what I will do. I will become a peasant for a day and I will wheedle my way into her house and I will introduce myself to her and I will convince her through reason that she should marry me. Then he thought: No, if I do that she will realize that I have come in as a duplicitous person, undermining her, and she will not love me for what I am. And then he said, I know what I will do. I will become a peasant for real. I will live amongst the people. I will share their sorrow. I will become poor and bear their agony. I will work as hard as they work, and maybe, in time, she will learn to love me for whom I am.

My friends, that is exactly how Paul saw Jesus. He saw Jesus as God, coming as a king, but not lording it over us, not making edicts and demands, not coming in wealth and splendour, not sneaking in the back door as if he's not really one of us, but who comes in order that we might love him for who he really is - a new view of Christ.

But there is also a sense in which we should have a new view of society and of the World. Paul says, we no longer look at anyone now from the human point of view, but rather we look as new creatures through the eyes of Christ.

There is a delightful story of a little girl who goes to her mother asked some difficult questions. "Mum, it says in the Bible, and the Preacher keeps telling us, that God is bigger than we are. Is that true?" And the mother said: "Yes dear, that is true. God is bigger than we are." And then she asked the question: "Well, does God, as the Bible says, live within us?" And the mother said: "Yes, dear. Yes, God lives within us." And the girl looked a little puzzled. She said: "Well, if God's bigger than us, and God lives in us, isn't he going to show through?" How true.

If God lives within us, then God should show through us. That is what the Apostle Paul is saying. He is saying, we are Christ's ambassadors. That, in the way in which the World is looked at and seen, it is seen through Christ, in a sense, bursting through us. I believe that causes us to look at the World differently. We no longer just look through our own view, but we look through Christ within us, from the inside in and the inside out.

Recently, I have been reading the book by John Ralston Saul, entitled The Unconscious Civilization, his Massey lectures that he gave in 1995. While I don't agree with everything that John Ralston Saul says, there was something near the end of the book that really caught my eye. He says, you know, we live in a world and in a society that is highly, highly individualistic and narcissistic. A society that glorifies the individual almost at the expense of everything else that is around her or him. He was critical of both the political left and the political right in the way in which they look at individualism. He says the political left has so stressed the rights of individuals that we have lost a sense of the rights of individuals contributing to the greater good: As if somehow, human rights are a self-standing entity apart from our reality as a community of faith. And he said, there are many people who have gone charging after their own rights, but have done so in a vacuum, and at the expense of the common good, or the greater good, or the good of those around them. He is also equally critical of the right, because the right, he says, has stressed obligation and responsibility. The problem is, the stress has been on the individual taking care of yourself, taking responsibility for your own welfare, your own health, your own survival. And this has led to a cold, and a distant and an isolated form of rugged individualism that says to hell with the society that is around us. I am taking responsibility for myself, why doesn't everybody else do the same for himself? And he says, you see both these poles have lost sight of the fact that as individuals, we have an obligation to the citizenry. We have an obligation to one another. It's not just my rights in a vacuum. It's not just my obligations for my own survival. It is rather our individualism within the context of our contribution to the whole of society.

On this, I think, Ralston Saul is right, and on this, I think, he is in line with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus over and over and over again, loves the individual, affirms the individual, holds the individual, but on the understanding that that individual makes a contribution to those that are around them particularly the most needy. That is why I think, my friends, we need to look at society in a new view. Not just through the prevailing ideologies of our day, no matter how persuasive they might be, but rather through the eyes of Christ.

The great James S. Stewart once wrote: "If a person is at war with God, they are at war with their whole environment."" That is true. If there is to be peace, peace even in our society, peace within our relationships, peace within our culture, it must come from the understanding that you and I as individuals do not live in a vacuum, but have an obligation for one another. This is at the heart of all that Jesus of Nazareth taught.

But there is a final view that needs to be renewed for the Christmas spirit to come. That is a view of ourselves. There is a magnificent story, a true story, by a man called John C. Whittaker who was the Undersecretary of the Interior in the American government. Every year, John Whittaker used to go and visit in a little cottage that he had on an island off my beloved Nova Scotia, and he used to go and stay there for the Summer months. But on the island on which he used to go, there were only two residents, both of whom were women. Throughout the Summer, there was a massive influx of at least seven other families who lived on that island. It went from two to seven. One day he went over to this lady's house, one of the regular people who lived on the island, and he had a cup of coffee with her and had a cake and talked about life. She said: "You know, John, I don't know much about Washington, D.C. I've never been there. What is it like?" He says: "Oh, Washington, D.C. is very much like your own Ottawa. It is where the Prime Minister is, we don't have snowstorms quite like they do in Ottawa. Other than that, it's the centre of government and a very important place." And she said: "Well, how many people live in this Washington, D.C.?" And he said: "Oh, about two to three million." She says: "My goodness, two to three million living so far away from everything."

Sometimes, we need a little perspective about ourselves, do we not? I believe that the message of the Christmas spirit is that we do an honest evaluation of who and what we are, because, so often, our view of ourselves is warped. It is perverted; it is wrong. The gift of Jesus Christ is to come and to reveal actually who we are, and what motivates us and what causes us to be what we are.

Just recently, I have been reading a book by a woman who is actually a member of our own congregation here, Dr. Barbara Killinger. She has written a best selling book on workaholism. I decided that at this busy time of the year, it would not do me any harm to pick this book up and read it a little bit. In it, she makes some very profound insights to the nature, I believe, of our society, and of the individuals that live in it. She really takes aim at workaholism and says this is an addiction within our society. But workaholism isn't people who work hard. Don't misunderstand her. It is those who have a pathological approach to work at the expense of everything and everyone else. So bad is it that it destroys human relationships; it destroys marriages; it destroys families; it destroys institutions and ultimately, it erodes the society in which we live. And in this very profound book, which I do hope you will read some time, she comes to a conclusion, near the end of the book, of something that struck me. That is that she believes that at the heart of also dealing with this problem in society is that human beings need to get a new perspective of who they are. That they loose perspective. I think that she's right, I mean, I ran into a man this last week and I actually invited him to come to our Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve. I said: "You know, if you come here you will get to see camels, you are going to get to see children, Mary, the baby Jesus; you're going to hear me play the guitar and sing. I mean, you've just got to come to this." And he says: "Oh, I'm so sorry, but I'm going to be working on Christmas Eve." And I said, oh, I'm very sorry to hear about that, and I asked, can you take an hour, maybe, to come? I thought maybe some big corporation was running him and he had to put in his hours and then I found out after talking to him for a while that he was self-employed. He can't take just a little while to renew and invigorate himself on, of all things, Christmas Eve. And then I went back to what Barbara Killinger said. I want to read this to you because I think this is one of the great illnesses of our society. I think it is something that it driving people and it is destroying lives.

When I read the Gospel, and I read what Paul says in the book of Corinthians, I cannot help but think that we have missed the real essence of the Christmas spirit. This is what Barbara said about reconciling people for those who are workaholics. She talks about spiritual forgiveness, and I quote: "Reconciliation", she said, "comes through re-establishing your love for family members and friends and making peace with any of your colleagues from whom you have been alienated. It is painful, and it is the wound that workaholics carry in them forever. That unless they have enough faith, belief and self-compassion to ask a higher being to help them carry such a burden, Let go unto God is a difficult concept for workaholics because they have fought for control all their lives. Recovering workaholics must come to terms with their missing spirituality in their search for the new self. God comes, only when they are open and receptive, when they wait, watch and wonder.

My friends, this society that drives itself into the ground with the obsession of the self and the loss of the understanding of other things, needs to wait, watch, and wonder. Killinger is right. If you want the Christmas spirit, and if you want this Christmas to be different, then have another view that in Christ, God was reconciling the World to Himself. Thereby, we look at everything differently. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.