Sermon preached at Gorbals Parish Church, January 3rd 2010 – Second Sunday of Christmas.
What a privilege it is for me to the one to preach the first sermon of the New Year! I’m very excited about this assignment, especially since it’s not immediately after Hogmanay, so we’re all fully awake, well rested, and ready for the new year. I can see the excitement and anticipation on your faces!
Of course, because it’s the first Sunday of the year, we are all thinking about what the new year will bring. Also, it’s the time for making new year resolutions. Any big plans this year? Anything exciting in store?
I’m never good at new year resolutions. I don’t like to make promises I know I will never keep. “Oh, this year I will not drink coffee. Just tea!” Yeah, right! Who are you kidding? “This year I will be nice to my wife, to my kids, to my parents, to my in-laws, to my supervisor…” Yeah, sure. We’ve heard that before! You can try, but you know you’re going to fail at some point. You see what I mean? Resolutions are very difficult.
But perhaps by the end of this sermon we can develop a worthy resolution for the new year. Let’s see how it goes.
There are exciting things happening this year for all of us. I am hopefully going to move to my own church sometime after the end of August. This will involve a lot of decision making, with long term implications and consequences.
Gorbals Church is also waiting to start the new building project. We’re all excited about that, and waiting with hope and anticipation. We’ve never been closer. You know what they say: “Good things come to those who wait!”
It’s good to start the year with renewed energy and anticipation. It’s also good to start at the beginning, and today’s Gospel reading provides us with the perfect start: “In the beginning was the Word!” and “All things were made through him!” The apostle John was a philosopher. You probably figured that out during the gospel reading.
We can dwell on each verse and preach on each one of them for a month at a time. We don’t have that much time, so we’re going to focus on only one verse today – A single verse that provides us with the starting point for the whole Gospel. Without this verse we cannot make sense of the work of Christ in the world. Without understanding the implications of this one single verse we can miss the whole point of Christianity and its role in the world.
What is this verse? Here it is: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
This verse is revolutionary. This verse is what sets Christianity apart from any other religion or philosophy. The eternal Word, became temporal flesh. The purely spiritual, ethereal Word, became material. The heavenly became earthly. The universal became national. Jesus did not come as a global angel, he came as a Jew.
And you know, for us that may be difficult to grasp. None of us has actually seen Jesus or touched him. We heard about him, we were taught about him since our infancy, we read about him. But we have no clue what it meant to actually see him with our own eyes, to touch him, to hear his voice, to feel the energy of his physical presence. We have no idea what that feels like.
The same is true of many heroes from the past. None of us have actually met those people face to face, so we may have constructed an idea of what they may have been like in our heads. What was Jesus like? We know very, very little about that.
We may think that he was irresistible: the Son of God come to earth. People were drawn to him, weren’t they? They could not resist him. But not everybody liked him. In fact, many found him very challenging, very difficult. Many hated him to death.
It’s one thing to talk about an idea of Jesus, and quite another to meet Jesus as a human being, face to face. We all have to consider the possibility that any of us could have been among those who did not like him; who found him difficult to be around. We don’t know. Perhaps that is why Jesus told his disciples: “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed.”
But what does that mean for us today? What is the difference between talking about Jesus, and encountering him face to face? Is there a difference?
Daniel Crawford was a Scottish missionary, born in Greenock in 1870. He went as a missionary to Central Africa, and there he understood the radical nature of the Word made flesh. There he discovered that living in the midst of the people in Africa, he was changed. When he failed to return to ‘civilization’ for his furlough, his friends wondered what had happened to him. Eventually he wrote them a letter explaining to them why he didn’t feel the need to always return home, because Africa had now become his home: “I am de-nationalized – a brother to all men: Arab, African, Mongol, Aryan, Jew.”
You see, for Daniel Crawford, it was one thing to read and talk about Africans and other nations. It was quite a different thing to actually encounter them face to face; to live in their country; to eat what they eat; to drink what they drink; to sing their songs; to dance their dances.
We may think that Jesus was uncomfortable in his human body – That he wanted badly to return to his Father. If we think that, we misunderstand his whole mission. Never in the gospels are we given the impression that Jesus is uncomfortable with his human body, or with the company he kept. He ate and drank with his friends. He went to parties and engaged in conversation with almost anyone. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s what John wrote, and this was profoundly real to him. For us, it is more difficult to imagine what that means.
For Daniel Crawford, it meant he had to leave Scotland. He had to leave his home, only to find another home. I can understand that, because that is what we as a family experienced. Romania was our home, but now, after three years, Scotland is our home. It’s not easy to change your home. It’s not just a transformation of our minds; it is a much more profound transformation.
Because we are here, in Scotland, living among Scots, eating sausages and pork pies, drinking Irn-Bru and Single Malts, going to Ceilidhs, driving on the M8, going on holiday on Cumbrae Island and so on, we have become Scots ourselves. It’s very real, it’s very down to earth. We feel a very strong emotional connection with Scotland. We have made it our home.
What this means, of course, is that we are extremely sensitive when someone says anything remotely negative about Scotland. We get annoyed and even angry. “Don’t you dare talk like that about our home!” It’s so strange. When we visit Romania, we feel out-of-place, we feel like tourists. Every time we return to Scotland we have the most wonderful feeling of home-coming.
You see, I could have stayed in Romania, and read books about Scotland. I could have watched documentaries about Scotland and talked about Scotland with others, but it would not have been the same. To understand a people, you have to live among them. And this is EXACTLY what God did for us. He could have spoken holy words from heaven. He could have dictated his Word directly from the Father’s lips. Instead, the Word became flesh and lived among us.
What does this mean for us today? What are the implications? There is a message here primarily for us as a church – as a body of believers.
We as a church are called to be the physical body of Christ in this Parish. People can’t see Christ. They can’t touch him or hear his voice. We are called to be as Christ to them. This is what we do through Bridging the Gap, for instance. We encounter people face to face, and we are there for them. And this not only changes them, but it changes us as well.
Before being involved in Bridging the Gap, I had a completely different idea about Muslims. I had never actually met Muslims before. But engaging with Muslim men and women face to face, sharing food with them, building a stage for the fashion show, spending time in conversation with them, laughing with them, and simply being in their presence completely changed the way I look at Muslims.
They are no longer an idea to fear. They became real human beings with which I connected and felt drawn to. I see them now as my brothers and sisters, even if we understand faith differently. Our differences enrich our relationship instead of threatening it. If you want to experience this first hand, come along at the Drop In on Thursdays and see for yourself.
There are many people in this parish that need to encounter Jesus, and it is up to us to make that physical, face to face, connection with them. When we do this, and only when we do this, we can understand what it means to be the body of Christ.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!” I said earlier that this verse is revolutionary. Because of the truth it communicates, our faith is not theoretical; it is not an exercise of the brain. Faith is not only a spiritual experience, detached from the material world. Our faith is not just about spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Bible, singing hymns and listening to sermons.
A major part of our faith is to live in the real world, meeting real needs, spiritual and physical, encountering people face to face, sharing our lives with them. There is no other way for them to encounter Jesus, or for us to grasp the real meaning of the Word made flesh.
Now that’s a worthy New Year’s resolution. Let us become more fully human, seizing every opportunity to engage people face to face. Let us think creatively how we can use the new building as a resource to become more physically present to the people in this Parish. AMEN.