Sunday, December 30, 2012

Being Made New

Sermon preached in the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 30th December, 2012

All- holy God,
you wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son, Jesus Christ;
Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his Divinity.  Amen.


Christmas is a time to enjoy traditions and celebrate the wonder of life.  Families gather, food is shared, presents given and – hopefully – received.  And then we settle down and watch television, that medium by which we are offered the sublime - and the appalling.   

At a time when we celebrate the goodness and graciousness of God and seek to spread the message of peace and goodwill, it seems the media can’t stand too much of that.  Comedy, in particular, has moved a long way from Morecambe and Wise: this year, for example, the BBC thought we needed two episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys.  For those who don’t know her character, she is – and I quote from the BBC website – ‘a foul-mouthed Irish mammy … played by a 57-year-old man.’ 

Actors like Brendan O’Connell ‘put on’ characters as we might put on a new set of clothes.  Today we heard St. Paul telling the Colossians: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

All that was in the context of a Baptism sermon in which Paul reminded his hearers to change their lives because they had ‘stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.’   It would seem that’s a step too far for Mrs. Brown and those to whom her character appeals.

Of course she was a beautiful baby once and I doubt her parents ever guessed the kind of character she would become.  Today’s gospel tells of how the parents of Jesus worried as to what was becoming of him.  No parent can know what future awaits his or her child.  All they can do is give the best preparation for life that they can and support their child as they move into their future.

The gospels tell us little of those years.  We have some infancy stories and then, except for these few verses penned by Luke, we know nothing of Jesus’ adolescence.  Two days ago he was a baby, now he is a boy as Luke portrays an event that shows Jesus’ developing apart from his parents influence. 

Luke’s gospel has many layers.  He wasn’t just writing stories – he was writing a gospel and includes information that will highlight what he is seeking to get across.  So, in our passage today Jesus went missing for three days.  Not one, or two – or four, but three days.   Three days are important in this gospel: Christ was in the grave for three days, the temple was supposed to be destroyed and rebuilt in three days, and Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days.  Luke knew the way he was going to use the concept of “three days” later in the gospel.

Then there’s the matter of the setting of the event in the Temple.  This temple in Jerusalem will be significant in the future life of Jesus.  When he comes back as an adult, he will cleanse the temple of the money-changers, teach and argue there at length.  For those who heard this account for the first time the effect would have been something like – “Hey, this boy’s advanced for his age!  Was he another of those child-genius’?  He’s clearly someone special.”   No wonder his mother told him that he was causing them “great anxiety”.   “Why have you treated us like this?” she explodes on finding him: something, I guess, most parents say to their children at times.  Certainly my mother did!   So Mary, like all mothers, stores up these events in her heart to reflect upon as the years go by.

Yet on another level what Luke is doing is to build up the picture of an ordinary boy developing his gifts, abilities and skills, probing into important life-questions and expanding his understanding. 

Now there are some people who believe that Jesus was so divine that he was hardly human.  And some parents think their child can do no wrong.  But both views are misleading.  Our faith teaches us that Jesus was fully human.  Indeed, to be fully human meant that he had (as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians) ‘emptied himself (of his Godhead … and was) born in human likeness’ (2:6/7). 

He was ‘just like us’ and had to mature into his humanity, just as we need to.  To be fully human means that we don’t know all the answers but, in order to grow and mature, we need to be open to fresh insights.  Jesus questioned, explored, discussed; had flashes of insight and moments of doubt and confusion.   And that went on throughout his life.  His boyhood years clearly taught him the value and necessity of continuing to grow in wisdom.  It’s only when we stop wanting to explore that we begin to die.   

What, then, of us?  In the concluding Prayer at Mass this morning we shall pray that God,
‘who wonderfully created us in (his) own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through (his) Son, Jesus Christ;
may enable us to share the life of his Divinity
as he came to share in our humanity.’

Acknowledging our humanity and recognising our potential for divinity, it asks that in sharing more deeply in the life of Jesus God will restore within us his image.  Jesus began that quest from his youth: he desired to have his life moulded by God.  Our lives have damaged and wounded that image yet we still have the potential for it to develop.  When Brendan O’Connell ‘puts on’ Mrs. Brown we are appalled by the way in which life has led her into becoming a foul-mouthed, graceless old woman.   In a real sense she represents ‘unredeemed humanity’.  We, on the other hand, have the opportunity to continue to be restored into the likeness of Christ whose humanity reveals the glory for which we are all created. 

Today we stand at the end of an old year and the beginning of the new.  No doubt some of us will make New Year’s Resolutions – and promptly break them!  Yet we do so because we realise that we could be better than we are and want to ‘do’ something that will help us become who we might be. 

At each Mass, as water and wine are mixed together in the chalice, the priest quietly prays: ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity’, a prayer rooted in our opening Collect today and based on the teaching that as God entered humanity in the Incarnation, so he made it possible for us to become one in His Divinity.  And that, if you like, should be our New Year’s resolution: to desire union with God that our human nature might be transformed into that which God created it for. 

We may no longer be at the threshold of life and will have made many mistakes through our journey.  Clearly Mrs. Brown is not bothered by the thought that she might need to change.  As far as she is concerned she is OK.  But God says to us – ‘I love you and you can change.’  For us the possibility of being re-made lies at the heart of our Faith and is God’s gift to us in Christ for this New Year – and every year.  There’s a poem attributed to Sir Francis Drake I’d like to offer you for the New Year:

Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true
because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him
who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.


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