I’ve been sick. For days and days. Random really.
This sermon is a collection of random Yuletide thoughts.
Yuletide being synonymous with the 12 days of Christmas, or Christmas-tide, which commences on Christmas Eve and concludes at Epiphany.
But Yuletide also points to the pagan origins of it all.
Which is another way of saying that Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.
Winter Solstice is.
In the North of course.
It’s the longest night of the year.
The next morning’s dawn is the forerunner of longer days, however slight.
A cycle has run its annual course.
More light is on the way. We’ve survived another bleak winter.
What a great time to party, feast, and rejoice!
The early Christians thought so too – that’s why they nominated the day for Jesus’s birth.
Back in the day nobody really knew or cared about when Jesus was born.
It was his adult years of ministry, and especially the events around his death, that were critical.
Only later did someone decide that a great man had to have a great birth,
and so the construction of the Christmas pageant began.
* * * *
There was once a child who used to ask his parents a lot of questions at this time of year:
“Did Jesus ever have a Christmas tree?”
“Well . . .”
“Did Jesus ever meet Santa Claus?”
“Well . . .”
“Did Jesus have to go to Sunday School and church?”
“Well . . .
“Did Jesus sing Christmas carols?”
“Did Jesus have a birthday cake the next year when he was one?”
“Did Jesus know that Joseph was not his real Daddy?
“Why didn’t the Wise Men bring something useful to poor people with a
baby in a stable – like lunch – some ham sandwiches or something?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was Jesus a Christian?”
Sometimes asking good questions is better than knowing good answers.
And Christmas is a great place to start asking questions.
* * * * *
The bit about Christmas that annoys me is the outer space thing.
You know: “He came down to earth from heaven” as the hymn says.
Even the Church Leaders’ Christmas message had the line:
“Christians believe when Jesus was born… that God entered human history.”
Fact check time: Christian theology says that God has always been here – like the Hebrew Scriptures bear witness to.
Indeed to say that God just entered human history when Jesus was born is to buy into the Marcionite heresy of the 2nd century.
And Jesus didn’t come ‘down’. There is no ‘down’ in the universe.
Anyway, that’s the only thing that does annoy me about Christmas – I like all the rest of the whoopla.
Talking of heresy, I spotted another one in that Leaders’ message.
A serious one, which kind of just sneaked in there.
It read: “God invites .. us to work.. for peace, prosperity, justice, and harmony.”
This is a mild version of what theologians call the ‘prosperity’ gospel:
the idea that God blesses you with wealth.
And, of course, if you don’t have wealth … well God hasn’t blessed you!
It’s the Bible according to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; which all the mainline churches rejected back in the 80s.
If you are wondering if the prosperity gospel is making a resurgence just remember that nearly ¾ of those signed that Christmas message come from fundamentalist churches.
You might not realize that there are gnomes who decide what Christians should read in Church each week. It’s published in a document called the Revised Common Lectionary.
Today the gnomes firstly chose Ecclesiastes 3.
Which is kind of interesting on the morning after we’ve resolved what to do or not do this coming year.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3, which is read regularly at funerals, is a reflection on the meaning of life. It talks about a time for this, and a time for that. A bad things happen and good things happen philosophy.
The author thinks life is futile, so we should enjoy the life we have to the fullest. This is quite contrary to the theologically orthodox position of his day (where God is in control). Interestingly the author never speaks about entering into a loving relationship of mutually and trust.
The other interesting gnome choice for today’s readings is Matthew 25.
I think the core of the story originates back in the early Jesus movement where followers were known by six actions: feeding and giving drink, welcoming and clothing, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
Followers of Jesus did these things because that is what they did. It’s called love.
Then later, much later, the editorial team we call ‘Matthew’ made these six actions into a test. If you did these things you were going to heaven, and if you didn’t you were going to hell.
And the editorial team also made it into a club activity. The feeding, giving drink, visiting etc was just for Christians, members of the club, and if you wanted the benefits you needed to join. So Samaritans, Syro-Phoenicians, Magi and all that crowd had to sign up or they missed out.
There’s an old bumper sticker: WWJD? “What Would Jesus Do?”
Most preachers, guided by WWJD, forget the heaven/hell judgement thing, and forget the exclusive Christian club thing, and say: let’s just do what love nudges us to do: feed, give drink, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome people and clothe people.
Sounds good to me.
Sounds like the way Jesus would have us honour his birthday, and the New Year.
* * * * *
The Winter Solstice and its dawning New Year have long been a time for reflection and the positing of resolutions.
Epictetus said way back in the 1st century B.C.:
“If you can fish, fish. If you can sing, sing. If you can write, write. Determine what you can do. And do that.”
And: “Why worry about being a nobody when what matters is being a somebody in those areas of your life over which you have control, and in which you can make a difference?”
There is a great prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s a beautiful prayer, but, for me, it hangs too much responsibility on God.
I’d put it this way:
“I believe that I am capable of the serenity to accept things I cannot change;
I have the power to muster the courage to change the things I can;
and I have the experience and insight to know the difference.”
There are some little books that I always go back to. All I Ever Needed to Know I Learnt in Kindergarten is one such book. I want to read to you an adaption of the piece the title comes from. Because there is a lot of New Year wisdom in there:
All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten, writes Bob Fulghum. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pit at kindy.
These are the things I learned:
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the polystyrene cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and guinea pigs and white mice and even the little seed in the polystyrene cup - they all die. So do we.
And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all - the whole world - had cookies and milk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
Happy Winter Solistice, or Yuletide, or Christmastide, or New Year. It’s the season for remembering the cycles of the earth, and that hope will come again, and that everything will eventually turn out all right (we hope).
And one last quote from my mate Epictetus:
“He/she who laughs at him/herself never runs out of things to laugh at.”