It was a wonderful time of fellowship and worship at Pilgrim on Sunday as we:
- followed a secret family recipe and baked gingerbread cookies in the sanctuary,
- (we certainly followed our noses to find some of this deliciousness to enjoy with our morning cuppa after the service),
- followed our hearts and welcomed visitors from different places and life circumstances – including an affectionate fur-baby named Tilly,
- followed the music and learned a new carol,
- followed our faith and offered spontaneous prayers for those who are finding this season tough and frightening,
- and followed the star with the wise men to the perilous place in which God engages with the world, establishing peace and righteousness at great cost to our pride, possessions, and power ….
One of my meagre claims to fame is that I conducted Christmas services with the Pope. This is a true story.
The senior minister at our large suburban church in South Africa had taken leave for the Advent/Christmas period and I had been having a wonderful time running a preaching series that was leading up to a slightly chaotic, very creative, completely interactive Christmas service.
At ten past ten on Christmas Eve, my phone pinged.
“Just to let you know, there will be a camera crew in the church tomorrow and the service will be broadcast live throughout Southern Africa. Blessings!”
Blessings!?! Pfft – I spent most of the night tossing and turning, second-guessing my preparations and wondering whether I should switch from my very pretty Christmas dress to more formal clerical attire.
In the end, the service went ahead as planned. My mom recorded it so that we could sit down and watch it together at a later stage – which is when it all took a very funny turn because the news channel had decided to simultaneously broadcast the Pope’s Midnight Mass along with our service.
So you had these alternating scenes on the screen of the Pope in his beautiful robes leading 15 000 worshippers in formal prayers and angelic singing sustained by a massive and well-rehearsed choir and me running around the sanctuary barefoot with the children while the congregation slowly straggled in, ducking as best they could when they passed in front of the camera ….
Sometimes you had the Pope and I together, on a split screen, while the poor news anchor back in the studio tried to offer meaningful commentary on what was happening in these opposite and obviously unfamiliar spaces.
There you have it – I have conducted Christmas services with the Pope – and what I got out of the experience was a deep awareness of how difficult it can be for outsiders to follow our rituals and traditions as we seek to “Keep the Christ in Christmas” each year.
Year after year after year, I am struck by the remarkable faith of the magi or wise men who, on the strength of an unreliable astrological sign in the sky, undertook a perilous journey to a foreign land to find a child from a different ethnic group and religion to their own in order to offer three remarkable gifts as an expression of their worship.
Year after year after year, I marvel at their openness to God at work in the world around them, the humility they displayed in their willingness to follow, and the generosity of their gifts and their spirit as they pay homage to this newborn baby, the King of the Jews, who they find lying in a manger, in a stable, in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.
This year though, I am struck by the line “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as were all the people in Jerusalem.” I want to know why the news of the birth of the King of the Jesus – which is such good news for us! – troubles not only King Herod but all the people in Jerusalem.
On the first Sunday of Advent, at the start of a brand new liturgical year and lectionary cycle, I said that we would be spending a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew this year. And one of the distinctives of Matthew’s Gospel is the way in which he tries to show that God does what God says God will do.
In our dramatic reading this morning, there were two Scriptures woven together – the prophecy of Psalm 72 and the story of the wise men from Matthew 2. It was done like that so we could give some thought to what the “good news” brought by the wise men might mean for a powerful man like Herod and a prosperous people like the city dwellers in Jerusalem:
- justice – and judgement,
- the elevation and rising up of the poor and the needy,
- the redistribution of wealth and resources,
- the suppression of the oppressor,
- and a reorientation of power with all kings and nations falling before this new King.
For those who go along with, who follow, pride, power, and possessions, peace for all people and the flourishing of righteousness is not good news at all.
If we truly want to keep Christ in Christmas in what is proving to be a brutal, heart-wrenching, fearful time; to live “as if” Christ’s coming into the world is Gospel truth and very good news, it’s not about holding beautiful church services or keeping our traditional carols going as though we are untouched while the world around us burns –
it’s about showing up to clean out an unused little sanctuary and offer hospitality and company in a community that hasn’t had a carol service for quite some time;
it’s about going down to our local producers market and supporting our farmers and entrepreneurs with our money and our presence and affirmation;
it’s about redirecting the resources from a cancelled Christmas holiday – as disappointing and frustrating as that is – to small rural towns and centres;
it’s about taking the risk to invite someone to church for the first time and picking them up to ensure that they get here and sitting with them to ensure that they feel a little less uncomfortable about things they might not really be able to follow;
it’s about visiting with the frail and the ill for whom this might be the last Christmas;
and, yes, it’s about engaging in political activity around issues like climate change, consumerism, and effective and accountable governance and leadership.
And it’s about prayer – not the one-off, desperate, somewhat dubious intercessions that we often offer but a deliberate and determined seeking from God the peace that is promised in Christ Jesus.
As the wise men left behind all that they knew in order to find all that they longed for, may we journey day by day towards peace and righteousness, knowing full well that such things do not come without a cost and willing to bear it – as Christ himself bears our death and our life. ***