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30/12/2015

Good Tidings of the Human Jesus

Below is the sermon I gave on 27th December 2015, known as 'Quiet Sunday' for some in the church as it tends to attract a low attendance. At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the numbers were actually slightly up on the Christmas Carol Service the week before.

The sermon below is probably one of the most classically Unitarian I have given to date. For those well-versed in Classical Unitarianism / Unitarian Christianity, you will see William Ellery Channing's influence - indeed, I have borrowed directly from his sermon, 'Jesus Christ, the Brother, Friend, and Saviour'

We included the 'Nativity Story in Cross Line Drawing' at the start - a beautiful video that helped settle us into worship. The service also included a reading from Alfred Delp, reflecting on the character of the shepherds - how they worshipped with a simplicity and honesty that lead to openness.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Pupil of Rembrandt (1646)


~

Christmas Day has been and gone once more. A day devoted by the majority in this country to present giving, feasting and time with family. 

As I discussed last week, the Christmas season is a development of festivals from other traditions. Christmas most likely draws on the Jewish festival of Hanukkah and the story of the Persian deity Mithra – mixed with the natural instincts of peoples living in the northern hemisphere to celebrate the passing of the darkest day and the coming of daylight.

I put it to you last week that this festival does not necessarily have to be a compulsory part of our religion – but it would seem, even in these modern times, we still seem to have an inclination to turn our thought and hearts towards ancient Bethlehem. An inclination that goes beyond conformity, an inclination towards experiencing that divine love we call God.

We read in the Gospel of Luke that famous passage, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

For most Christians, the good tidings of great joy reflect their understanding of this event as a unique point in history – the coming of God into world in the deity of Jesus, who is understood as a co-equal member of the trinity, the God who is one and three – father, son and Holy Spirit. Such Christians are in the majority across the world and we call them 'Trinitarians'.

I know many Trinitarian Christians, as I'm sure we all do, and I certainly cannot say their faith is any less in quantity or quality than ours. I have also encountered a number of Unitarians who say they can accept Trinitarian language as mystical poetry, as something to meditate upon - and I would count myself as one of them. 

Yet, having said all this, we Unitarians don’t subscribe to the Trinity as a defining creed. Instead, the traditional Unitarian understanding is to focus on Jesus as a human being who became our master teacher and exemplar. I repeat, became – the implication been that there wasn't necessarily a great act of predestination here.

So can we Unitarians feel the same great joy at this babe lying in the manger? After all, at this point he is simply a newborn – not necessarily a blank slate, but certainly lacking the character and capacity of a fully grown prophet, and from our Unitarian perspective, most probably not a deity.

The question might be answered threefold.

First, the very act of a baby being born is a miracle. The birth of Jesus was the result of a successful pregnancy. The pregnancy depended on his parents, Mary and Joseph, surviving long enough in their own lives to conceive a child. From there, the ancestors of Mary and Joseph might be considered – 100s of generations of strivers and survivors working to bring about a new creation, with all its possibilities. 

The birth of Jesus is a miracle, just as each of our births is a miracle. The emergent star of Bethlehem, set against the backdrop of a seemingly dark, empty universe - a void - is a symbol of human life as a whole. And at Christmas, during a time of darkness and dormancy in our natural surroundings, we can experience simple joy in being reminded of this wonder of life – behold a child is born.

Second, we can rejoice at the fact that because Jesus is born, we have a saviour who is not sent down to Earth from the clouds of Heaven, breaking the laws of nature, in some one-off act of God - but rather that this saviour is ultimately just like us.

It is the doctrine of many Trinitarian Christians that Jesus existed before his human birth as a deity. And therefore it is of great joy to them that he chooses to enter planet earth. But we Unitarians generally do not subscribe to this. Instead we take joy that our deliverance was clothed in humanity, not partially but fully. The flesh of Jesus was the same flesh as ours, he was born of a man and woman, nursed in his mother’s arms, and he experienced the life of a child, a teenager and an adult. At a basic level, he experienced the same experience as us in terms of being a free, self-conscious species growing and acting in a world which we are shaped by but also have freedom to shape.

The power we find in the stories of Jesus Christ is brought nearer to us because he is human, just like us. He experienced the wants, desires, passions and sensations we experience – both positive and negative. This Jesus figure is made all the more precious and compelling because he shares the same condition, because his self-realisation - his life infused with divinity - is within reach of all of us.

If we frame him as a supernatural being – as a heavenly stranger - can we say with the same confidence that he connects with our condition – and we with his? But as our kin, as our brother, as our friend, the life of Jesus – a life of goodwill - becomes something we might dare to strive for ourselves. We probably will not reach his stature, but we can journey on the same path towards it.

It is stressed by Trinitarian Christians that Jesus is Immanuel – which means 'God with Us' – and therefore we should accept him as a unique manifestation of a God out there coming down for a short time to here. But to borrow the words of James Martineau, 

“The incarnation is true, 
not of Christ exclusively, 
but of Man universally, 
and God everlastingly.” 

The way that the human Jesus felt God in him and all around him – to the point he declared God in intimate terms as ‘Abba’ – is something available to us. There is great joy to be found in this.

Third, joy can be found in that Jesus is born into the lowliest of circumstances - cradled in a manger. The manger was likely to be dirty, smelly, cramped place - not the sort of romantic place we see on cards. We can look upon this situation with sympathy – ‘oh dear, poor thing’ we might say. We might even want to turn our heads away and pass on by, as we sometimes avert our eyes to television ads of starving children. But amongst all of this there is joy to be found.

The manger in the story of Jesus is significant. Yes, it is humiliation, it is discomfort. Yet we know that amongst this kind of misery there often grows a seed of peculiar strength. The manger is a precursor to Jesus’s mission to the poor and marginalised, culminating in the event of the cross. We can find great joy in knowing that out of the first trials of the manger grew the man they called Christ, Word made Flesh, Son of God, Light of the World, Prince of Peace... Saviour. Would this coming of age have been as great had Jesus been born in a palace? No, there is something dangerously joyful in the circumstances of his birth - unsettling and inspiring at the same time because it points to the depth and breadth human potential, and what that potential could be directed towards.

Friends, the nativity story is multi-layered, it is rich in symbolism – parts of it were likely added in the aftermath of Jesus’s death as his followers attempted to make sense of him – as they tried to place him in the reality of their world as they saw it, to locate him in the legend of humanity as they knew it. Yet the nativity story is also real - it is real because it encapsulates reality.

There is a time and place for deeper analysis, for critical thinking, for scepticism even, but we can almost become too clever – during this season, let us find the simplicity of the shepherds. Let us draw inspiration from the story of a successful and highly symbolic birth, the beginning of a life lived purely for the common good and the fact it arose out of such circumstances. 

These are indeed tidings of joy - tidings of comfort and joy.

Amen.

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