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25th December 2016 Christmas Morning - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
22 December 2016

Readings

Isaiah 62: 6-12

In the section of Isaiah we are about to read the prophet looks to a new restored Jerusalem following a time of exile.  As Jerusalem was the home of the temple and the focus of religious and political life Isaiah’s poetry sees the restoration of God’s people and the restoration of Jerusalem as the same thing.

After the destruction of the temple the followers of Jesus began to see the Risen Christ filling the role of the temple for the new people of God whose access to God is through the image of God we have in Jesus.

Luke 2: 8-20

In the opening of Chapter 2 Luke places the events he is describing in history by naming important officials. In doing so he also draws our attention to his parody of the official biographical myth of Emperor Augustus.  Luke appears to be saying, ‘You call the Emperor Lord and Saviour.  

But this is the story of the real Lord and Saviour whose birth inspired choirs of angels to tear open the heavens and announce the birth to shepherds’. That makes an interesting contrast to the powerful people Luke names because at this time shepherds were on the bottom of the social strata.

Sermon

The fact that today is both Christmas and a Sunday is significant for the history of Christianity in New Zealand.  The Rev. Samuel Marsden preached what is traditionally the first Christian sermon on Christmas Day, Sunday 25th December 1814.

As I mentioned in the Bulletin Peter Lineham suggested that although Christianity in New Zealand began with a Christmas service in the Bay of Islands that link with Christmas may not have happened if that particular Christmas Day had not been a Sunday.[1]

Reading the rest of Professor Lineham’s article we can get the impression that the first missionary on a beach on Christmas day began the way New Zealanders celebrate Christmas.  The early settlers mimicked that first service on the beach by having a picnic on Christmas Day.  Early settlers also brought the tradition of feasting which had its origins in the ancient mid-winter Yule festival and did not have anything to do with Christianity.  Lineham notes that Maori quickly adopted that traditional feast and anybody who has ever visited a marae would understand that.  

Also of interest is the fact there was a diversity of denominational response to Christmas.  Catholics observed midnight mass, Anglicans expected members to go to communion on Christmas day while Presbyterians and most Protestants did not originally observe Christmas because they regarded all that forced goodwill as rather insincere.  Lineham also reported that Christmas cards came into existence with the introduction of the penny post in 1840. 

The theme of Lineham’s article is that he thinks it is pointless lamenting the commercialisation and secularisation of Christmas because in fact there is no true religious Christmas to return to.  It has always been a mixture of traditions. 

But it also has its unique New Zealand blending and adaptations.  We celebrate our background as immigrants, the arrival of Christianity and the summer picnic on the beach.  Victoria’s penny stamps might have gone and perhaps it is the Scottish frugalness, rather than sincerity, that drives us to email rather than pay outrageous prices to send Christmas cards.  Commenting on Roger Douglas’ economic policy of the 1980s Chris Trotter suggested in the Press on Tuesday that ‘Neoliberalism, as it is now known, has thrived in New Zealand ever since then.  Thrived ‘to the point where, like gorse, it has driven both its native and exotic competitors into the shade’[2]  Trotter makes a comparison of our following of neoliberal economics while the rest of the world is moving on with a religious cult.  That comparison could lead us to suspect we might have added the free market to our Christmas celebration as well which would perhaps explain our feverish Christmas shopping.

Regardless of the way we engage with the popular celebration of Christmas the essence of what Christmas means for Christians is based on Isaiah’s prophesy and the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. 

Isaiah looked to a just ruler who would bring divine order to the world and that is still a hope of many people today.  Many people have lost faith in a democracy that seems to reward the rich and further impoverish the poor.  They feel it would be better if some superhero would take over the world.  Furthermore that would save them having to bother with distractions like peace and justice.  But Tina Turner’s song in the 1985 film Mad Max, Beyond The Thunderdome declares ‘We don’t need another hero.’  Certainly if we examine the heroes of history we can see that is indeed true.  Even King David, who obtained mythic status as the ideal king, had many of the undesirable traits of absolute monarchs. 

We may well be thankful that Victoria’s portrait on the penny stamp gave us Christmas cards, but we should remember she had a parliament to both restrain her and help develop our unique constitutional monarchy. 

Furthermore in fitting into Isaiah’s expectation of a divine ruler the Gospel writers paint Jesus as the complete antihero.  There are no chariots of fire, no Star Trek beaming down from a Star Wars galaxy far, far away.  Jesus was born to a homeless couple who have nowhere to stay.  They didn’t even have a car to live in.  Jesus was also born to a woman who conceived out of wedlock and Jesus lived because of Joseph’s love of Mary and the love they both had for their new born child. 

Nevertheless true to the predictions of the Dunedin Longitudinal Study Jesus’ bad start in life was reflected in his adult life.  Jesus grew up to be a drifting troublemaker and was eventfully executed.  

However Jesus very life, his mission and his death was a stunning statement in the history of the world of humanity. The statement Jesus very existence made was transforming and is still transforming.  The way Jesus lived challenged the dominating and superhero institutions that ruled the world and controlled our religious institutions. 

It is no wonder that, as Peter Lineham pointed out, our Christian religious institutions only evolved a loose consensus on the celebration of his birth in the last fifty years.  Jesus challenged the religious institution of his time and the message of Jesus’ life and death was that people don’t need religious institutions.  Everybody, saints and sinners have direct access to God through the image of the Risen Christ within and around them.

Unfortunately that understanding lines up with Tina Turner’s powerfully sung suggestion that ‘We don’t need another hero.’  The Jesus of the gospels calls us all to follow his example of transforming the world by transforming ourselves.  Love not power or superstar status is the Jesus way and that puts the responsibility for the state of our world on each and every one of us.   

Therefore it is right that our celebration of Christmas is a recent muddle of past cultures, cards and gift giving, feasting along with the celebration of Christianity coming to Aotearoa.   All those influences mixed in with a desire to celebrate the birth of Christ even though we don’t really know when Jesus was born.   

Everything about Christmas is muddled together because Jesus’ influence has woven its way through human history changing lives and transforming communities.   We are all involved and the memory of Jesus puts the responsibility for a better world on each and every one of us.  When, in our imagination, we hear the choirs of angels and join the shepherds and the wise men to gaze at the new born Christ we are gazing at our own birth and the birth of every child. 

In Christ we are the agents of change in our world and in each new born child is the phenomenal potential to build a more hopeful, joyful and loving world of peace.

 



[2] Chris Trotter ‘New Zealand’s ‘Golden Dawn’ of Neoliberalism’ in The Press (Christchurch: Christchurch Press, December 20th 2016) p.A11.  

 

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