God so Loved the world
Looking back on the year 2019, one could easily be forgiven for being somewhat disappointed in global humanity’s lack of commitment to a harmonious future. Sure we have drawn more people out of poverty into an ever expanding global middle class, but as if to prove that economics or material wealth do not guarantee wellbeing, we seem again to have slid backwards on almost every conceivable measure of ‘peace on earth amongst people of goodwill’. In Australia it has been necessary to call a royal commission into almost every arena of the human enterprise, because of abject moral failure.
But amid a world which remains depressingly the same, just a little more sophisticated – the light of Bethlehem continues to shine – if only we have eyes to see, or ears that are keen to hear.
We are here tonight not simply to celebrate the most famous human birth in history, a birth upon which history pivots, but to immerse ourselves in the light first recognized by shepherds and Magi, and the truths it conveys. Summing it up, Paul was to famously write ‘there is much in life that is and will remain a mystery, but in light of Jesus three ‘pillars’ or virtues remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of the three is love.
For a short while tonight I want to focus on hope, that virtue without which the human enterprise collapses – for without hope there is only fear. Is there a reason for hope despite all the evidence to the contrary, well, yes? The fact that the birth of Jesus demonstrates that God is, was and always will be on the side of humanity, is itself enough reason for hope. This birth informs us that despite all the evidence to the contrary, every human life has equal value, that power ultimately lies in the hands of the just, that truth ultimately prevails, and as demonstrated by Greta Thunberg, a little child shall lead them.
This is where our hope lies and this is the gift not only that Christ’s birth brings, but that the Christian community is obligated to carry into the world.
So, what has gone so terribly wrong? Conflict or disharmony usually arises out of fear: most commonly that resources are too meagre to go around. Either those with more than their fair share initiate conflict to protect the advantage they enjoy, or those with little, engage in conflict to secure their basic needs; usually without success. Ironically as more people globally join the middle class, the greater becomes the prospect of conflict over resources which are, and always have been, finite.
In 1949, the year before he died at age 46, George Orwell wrote his prescient novel, ‘1984’. Orwell enjoyed a privileged childhood, being educated, like Boris Johnson, at Eton College. Unlike Boris he was a social democrat, fearful of power that can so easily slip into oligarchy - power exercised by a few through a deceitful populism. In his novel he imagined a time when every moment, almost every thought, of civil society would be monitored by the state – ostensibly for the peoples’ security. The state, Orwell imagined, would build and retain a constant state of fear by constructing and waging continual warfare in which there would be no distinction between international conflict and domestic considerations, for the former would be waged with the latter in mind. While I am the first generation not to have been called up for war, nevertheless we live in a constant state of warfare. Australia has been involved in almost every conceivable conflict going around for most of my life-time; and in addition, we frame domestic policy as war – war on terror, war on drugs, in doing so we justify what would otherwise be inconceivable, the incarceration of those seeking asylum and the criminalization of whistleblowers.
Western democracies, not just dictatorships, are framed by fear. Political victors this century have not been those who have convinced the public of the need for transformative change, but the party that has most ably convinced the electorate they should be fearful of the other side. We can budget for a billion dollar extension to the war memorial or multibillion dollar expenditure on submarines that may or may not be delivered in the 2030’s, but we are not able to find money to better manage our national parks or care for the elderly in our society, or transition to sustainable future.
Into this morass of fear induced ineptitude a remarkable and enduring shaft of light drills through the darkness. The light is clothed in love and inspires hope. Hope is the opposite of fear and dispels it, as light dispels darkness. A naked, vulnerable child is born in a stable. But this is no ordinary child, in him truth becomes incarnate, an invitation is extended, life is on offer. If material existence is all there is, as the commercialism of Christmas seems to suggest, life in its naked meaninglessness is laid bare. But the birth of Jesus says no, life is about relationships, connections, beauty, love and self-giving. To miss this is to miss everything
Here for a moment the invisible becomes visible, there is and always has been a plan, an intention, a purpose. Life is not simply a matter of fickle chance in the midst of which survival depends upon getting to the trough before others. No, life is about intimacy, vulnerability, generosity, hospitality and service. Those of you, like Margaret and I, who had for a while to evacuate our home because of the fires, had to choose what we took with us. Almost everyone would have chosen the same things, things of little or no monetary worth, photographs, journals and diaries, mementos of family and symbols or reminders of significant moments in life’s journey. The rest could be left to the flames, as ultimately it will be.
Because Christian hope is firmly fixed on the destiny to which we travel, it shapes the way we journey. Glimpses of this have been clearly on display as amid tragedy or disaster human beings have risen above their circumstance in selflessness and service. Glimpses will also be on display today as we gather with family and friends at a meal. While the exchange of gifts has its place, far more important are customs and rituals that deepen bonds of kinship and belonging.
“We brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” is solemnly intoned at funeral services. It is true - in part. It is true of wealth and material possessions, despite all the emphasis advertising and political promising place upon them. But we do not come into the world empty handed, we bring the DNA of our common ancestry, the striving, living and dying of all who have gone before us. We will leave behind our own footprint for those who come after. Who we are, what we do, what we become, matters. And that is not all, accepting the invitation inherent in the birth of Jesus, the child in Bethlehem, we journey into eternity embraced in the love of all those who have lived before us and who will live after us.
And now 2020 awaits. Its shape is not predestined, that is the remarkable thing about divine grace, we are left with the opportunity of our own shaping, for good or ill. May this light, which darkness cannot put out, keep us on a path that enables life to be celebrated in all its fullness.