Sermon: Thursday 24 December 2015 – John 1.1-14
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
A couple of years ago, I travelled to India for the first time. After a few days seeing friends in Mumbai, I travelled to Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Given so many people in this city have their origins there; I wanted to discover this place for myself. I had arranged to see the local Bishop. He had agreed to meet with me and said someone would contact me as soon as I had arrived. I had a Guide book but it’s not really on the tourist trail and very few people spoke English. It was 45 degrees. I got to the hotel and waited for a call. I rang all the phone numbers I had. No one answered. Hours later I found an internet café to check the Diocesan published numbers and I rang again. No one answered. So I ventured into town. I wandered around conspicuous as a tourist. Then I tried to return to the hotel. The streets were full with vans and rickshaws, tut-tuts and cows. I could find no one who spoke English. I could feel my rising panic. I rang again. No answer. I was alone.
This was the smallest glimpse of profound isolation in a faraway place, in a strange world where my own resources were not enough to help. Latest surveys suggest at least 2.5 million older people feel utterly lonely in this country not to mention the millions of displaced people in our world. Social media and technology may create connection but we’re now also seeing them reveal levels of loneliness of phenomenal scale. The John Lewis Christmas advert showing the man in the moon in grey scale all alone compared to the Christmas festivities below sums it up well for many though I doubt yet another shopping purchase will address this adequately.
Many wise people down the years have reminded us that there is a loneliness which we all have to contend with whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we live in bustling homes with many people or if we live by ourselves. The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote his poem about this experience with the title ‘the Word’ (from Laboratories of the Spirit 1975).
A pen appeared, and the god said:
‘Write what it is to be
Man.’ And my hand hovered
Long over the bare page,
Until there, like footprints
Of the lost traveller, letters
Took shape on the page’s
Blankness, and I spelled out
The word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved
To erase it: but the voices
Of all those waiting at life’s
Window cried out loud: ‘It is true’.
Tonight we proclaim that God’s word is made flesh; that God is with us. The baby born at the first Christmas in meagre circumstances in Bethlehem began his life with others. Gabriel came to be with Mary to make an announcement of good news. Joseph stuck with Mary despite social tittle tattle and taboos. Vagabond shepherds were maybe not ideal maternity crib visitors but they and their animals created another opportunity for Jesus to be with others. Our reading from St John suggested that this baby knew what the word with meant long before the first Christmas – ‘He was in the beginning with God’ (John 1:1-3). And if we skip to end of this gospel story, Jesus says ‘Behold, I will be with you always’ (Matthew 28:20). When the bible imagines the very end of everything when God’s kingdom is established in the book of Revelation we hear that ‘God will dwell with them as their God – God himself will be with them’ (Revelation 21:3). This has led Professor Sam Wells to say ‘God is with’ instead of the usual phrase ‘God is love’ (see A Nazareth Manifesto, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, p8). That one little preposition; the word ‘with’ is the message of Christmas summed up in the name which the bible gives to Jesus. He is called Emmanuel – God with us.
Well hurrah we might say – there’s a remedy to loneliness, God no less with us. Certainly countless people can witness to God’s presence being a profound remedy to their deepest sense of loneliness. And the church is called to especially be present with the vulnerable who feel they are not with anyone. Just a couple of weeks ago this city began to welcome our first official Syrian refugees. The first two families arrived by coach from the airport with people from the City Council and we brought them into St Martins House and gave them food and drink. I know I received my best Christmas present that night even before I open gifts at home. I connected with them and through them to God’s beautiful children now homeless across Europe. No longer statistics but people with me. One of the dads spoke about being scared. They had come from Lebanon where they had fled to away from the violence of Syria and Isis. They ended up in England and they had heard we did not want them. I said we wanted to be with them and that Leicester was with them and that God was with them. So there is a with which comforts and restores and we need all need to experience that ‘with’.
However, this is also a challenge. Most of us try to do lots of things for other people at Christmas – pressies for the families, food for the homeless, money for charity. That’s good but doing stuff for others might not always be wise. It could be a kind of avoidance – it’s easier to do something for that awkward family member than to actually be with them. Or it can be a power game – ‘I know solutions to your problems’. So I actually keep control. As a young curate I had to learn all about the word with; sitting at a bedside of someone dying when nothing was to be done for them, all I could do is be with them. With is harder than for yet it is richer.
God does things for us but God is first with us. This God with us is potentially challenging when the ‘with’ that we encounter at Christmas reveals the true nature of God – an extravagant love, a mercy beyond mercies, one who insists on the irrationality of forgiveness, the generosity of joy, a hope which never despairs and a with which makes brothers and sisters out of the people we would never choose.
This night we celebrate God with us. This is a gift to comfort us and ease our deepest sense of isolation, that human angst. But it is also a challenge. This God who is with us cannot be domesticated or pretend to be anything other than love with a magnitude far greater than any experience of love we could possibly imagine. This Christmas gift is welcome. As we heard from St John, this is a gift of ‘grace and truth’. It is what we need if we are to grow into our full stature as God’s children.
© The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester