A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, 2017; which is also New Year’s Eve
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
It is new year’s eve, and in the secular calendar, we are looking back, wrapping up loose ends, letting go of some things better left behind, missing others that we cannot take with us into the new day that awaits on the threshold of midnight. It is a day of endings.
But in the liturgical calendar, this is only the first Sunday after Christmas. The child is still new, and young, only just begun. And we read from the Gospel of John the poetic and profound account of the relationship between the beginning of this new life, Jesus the newborn king, and the beginnings of it all, out of the love, and the Word, of God.
Eighteen years ago, on new year’s eve, we stood on the brink of a new millennium, and no one was entirely sure what was going to happen next. There were horror stories of potential disaster: at the stroke of midnight, we were told, we could be cast back into the dark ages by the catastrophic failure of our technologies, built by people who were imaginative enough to create artificial intelligence, mutate genes to cure disease and fight famine, but were too short-sighted to see that the calendar would continue to rotate through time with or without them.
Looking back, we can laugh at our doomsday fears; but at the time, there was genuine uncertainty, and concern that we really might be in over our heads.
One scenario had planes falling out of the sky as their auto-assist systems simply shut down at midnight, unable to function because their computers believed the date to be before the advent of powered flight.
In a way, it was a more innocent time. We were worried that we would be brought down by the interplay of technology with naivety and human error. Now, as fifty years before, we are more concerned about killing ourselves with our own weaponry, with human hubris and the errors of evil rather than of innocence. We are concerned that our abuse of the environment might plunge us back into the dark ages, seeing harbingers of more widespread catastrophe in islands of disaster such as Puerto Rico, and patches of scorched earth in California.
Now, as for as long as we can remember, conflict pivots around that city of David, to the south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, now as then occupied territory, governed by the outcome of war.
In that place where the gravity of secular time intersects with the black hole of eternity, unable to escape the pull of God’s grace despite all that we do to fight it, a child is born, who is always and for eternity a new beginning.
On new year’s eve eighteen years ago, Chinese airline officials were assigned to fly in planes that would be in the air, flying high across the heavens, as the clock struck midnight and the computers either moved on to the next millisecond, or didn’t. The people responsible for the safe operation of the planes were required to stake their own lives as guarantees of their work: that the planes would not fall out of the sky, and the world would not end at midnight. Rumours abounded that all Chinese engineers working on the Y2K safety plans would be up in the air that night.
As it turned out, the glitches were few, the dangers slight, and the people who had stocked up on canned goods and bottled water were well equipped to ride out the next few natural storms of the century.
But as high risk and heavy investment strategies go, the scheduling of those responsible to throw in their lot with the populace bears some comparison to the Incarnation. This Word of God, which was present at the beginning of all things and through which all things were made, did not turn away from the dangers of living in the world as it turns. Instead, he was born into it, becoming an integral part of its systems, its culture, its history. In the season of the Incarnation, God flew the earth alongside us, risking everything, in order to reassure us that God stands by his work, and stands by her Word: that what God has made is good, and that we are safe in God’s hands.
We worry, at the turning of the year, about what we have left undone, and what we will do, and what will become of us. How will we turn back the tide of fire and of fiery rhetoric? What will become of us if we do not try?
We celebrate, another year of opportunity, imagination, in which nothing will be impossible with God. That is what the angel announced to Mary, and she sang of a revolution in which the hungry are fed and the thrones of the powerful turned over. Is she singing in the streets of Iran today? Where else will we hear her Magnificat?
And through it all, although I will not say that God is flying the plane, because that would be hackneyed and open up all sorts of theological problems to do with free will – still, I will say that God is flying with us, standing by his work and standing by her Word, that from the beginning and throughout all ages, God is good, and God is with us, down to the smallest detail.
The strange, small story of a baby born to uncertain parentage in unsanitary circumstances, announced by angels instead of the society pages and worshipped by smelly animals and their shepherds; this is kind of incidental thing with which God gets involved. Incidentals such as uncertainty, humility, precariousness, and especially love. These are the materials which God chooses to mould a new future out of our mistakes and our messiness, our promise and our potential.
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
Let the children of God say, Amen.