2 January – God among us
Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood
Happy new year, he said with as much optimism as he could muster. Optimism may be difficult, but fervour for a better year goes without saying. How else could it be as we stagger through a world pandemic as it climbs its way through the Greek alphabet. Even hearing me instead of Matt preaching is a symptom of the uncertainty that dictates our plans and expectations. We do have a reminder in our Sunday worship each week that the world has been here before. We hear, almost daily, of ways to tackle and live surrounded by this virus. Little individual wine glasses at the communion table were one of the answers our forebears came up with for living with the Spanish flu in church. Most protestant churches never let them go. I hope masks don’t hang around like the little glasses. We prayed about this a few weeks ago as we sang ‘Immortal, invisible’. I am sure I wasn’t the only one who smiled as we sang the line, ‘take the veil from our faces…’. I couldn’t tell if anyone else was smiling – you were all wearing masks.
Of course, the prolonged disaster attacking the world population is just an extra added to the regular fires and floods and wars and geotectonic eruptions and other disasters that beset humankind. It is as if our race is continually battling universal eco-systems and malignant social systems. It often feels they are not on our side. The rottenness of all this seems more devastating, more unfair, at times of festivity – Christmas, New Year, summer holidays.
Remember nearly 50 years ago when Cyclone Tracy struck. At 2 am on Christmas morning winds of around 180 kph hit Darwin and devastated the city until 5.30 – 3½ hours of horror. People huddled in their houses as their homes disintegrated around them. Sixty-six people died. The hospital and churches were extensively damaged. The naval patrol boat HMAS Arrow capsized and sank and all communications with the rest of the world was broken.
So it was on Christmas morning 1974 as Australia and the world waited to hear what had become of Darwin a Christmas service was broadcast from the John Flynn Memorial Church in Alice Springs. The minister was a lover of Dr Zeuse books and that morning he told one of the stories to the children in church. While waiting for news from Darwin the outback of Australia heard the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas, a strange green monster who hated all happiness, especially the happiness that Christmas brings. He felt sure that if he could steal all the Christmas gifts and take them high up into his mountain hideaway there could be no Christmas because there would be no happiness.
As the story was being told on radios across the outback the people of Darwin were sifting through the tangled wreckage where Christmas gifts and decorations and dinner plans were all mixed up together with their clothes and furniture and hopes and dreams – all blown away. Surely the Grinch had done his worst.
Children’s stories must have happy endings. In Dr Zeuse’s tale the Grinch’s plans were foiled because to his dismay the sound of laugher could still be heard down in the valley on Christmas morning even though there was not a gift to be found. The Flynn Memorial Congregation and the outback folk who listened in were reminded that Christmas joy does not come by way of our festival traditions.
In Darwin as that story was being told its truth was being tested in churches whose roofs and walls had blown away. Every church expects to have more people at worship on Christmas morning than at any other time. Christmas Day 1974 in ruined Darwin churches congregations turned out in full. All the trappings of celebration had been stolen but people gathered anyway, to give thanks to God that he had come to them in Bethlehem.
Neither the Grinch nor Tracy could steal away the essential heart of what makes Christmas joyous. Singing carols in Darwin did not restore one house or put the lights back on one tree. Typhoid broke out 2 days later. The Uniting Church minister who conducted Christmas worship in his ruined church conducted funerals for many who had died. He led worship in the only clothes he had, his shorts and shirt. Christmas brought no magic to that disaster. But within that disaster even the mystery that God is on our side could be celebrated. God is on our side.
We long for a return to a covid free life. We pray for deliverance from pestilence. We follow our call as disciples of Jesus to aid healing and recovery. But nowhere are we promised that this world will experience freedom from systems that gang up against us. Not even all our prayers will evoke such a promise. The promise is that that God in Christ is on our side. God is with us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Another disaster story. I was chaplain in the casualty ward of Warrnambool hospital on the night of the Ash Wednesday fires. The waiting room was filled with people smeared with grey ash. A nurse emerged from a cubicle. Her forehead was smeared with grey ash – in the shape of a cross. Before her evening shift at the hospital, she had gone to church where her priest had traced a cross in oil and ash on her face. For all to see, amidst trauma and death, she wore the message that the suffering Christ is with us.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Will this new year be happy? Who knows? Will it be accompanied by the suffering, dying, resurrected Christ? Yes, he said with all the assurance of faith.