Rev. Sabrina Ingram Advent 4
Hosea 11: 1 – 9; Philippians 2: 1 – 8; Luke 2: 1 – 14

The famous atheist Richard Dawkins said, “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” Apparently 84% of the world’s population is insane. Some would say that explains why the world is such a mess; others would ask “Can 84% of the world be wrong?” Dawkins correctly notes that “religion is capable of driving people to dangerous folly”. It is also capable of drawing them together and creating a better world for everyone: “God’s world, God’s way”. We live at a point in history where humanity needs to decide if we’re going to destroy each other and our planet or draw together. Interestingly, the word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind back together”. Religion is intended to reunite a fractured world. The goal of religion is not perfection, but wholeness – Shalom. To be whole we need to be integrated – re-membered – reunited with our self, with our family, with our neighbour and reunited as peoples and nations, and most of all reunited with God, from whom all other unity flows.

Integration begins when people know they are loved by God. We only need to read the words of Hosea to hear the depths of God’s passionate love for us. Although these words were written to the people of Israel, in Christ they belong to all of us and we need to hear them personally, “When you were newborn, I loved you. I called out, ‘My child!’ I stuck with you. I led you. I rescued you. I held your fingers and taught you to walk. I was the one pulling your wagon. I lifted you, like a baby, to my cheek. I bent down to feed you. How can I give up on you? How can I turn you loose? How can I leave you to be ruined or devastated? I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest. All my compassion is stirred up. I am God. I’m The Holy One and I’m here—in your very midst.” Julian of Norwich said there were three essential things for us to know: 1) to know the One from whom all things come; 2) to know ourselves and all life as made from the One; 3) to know the depths of our sinfulness or separateness from the One. Too often in our attempt to reach out to others we put these in the wrong order. We suggest to people that they have disappointed God and need to repent, and they’ll be saved, and then God will love them. This creates in people a deep sense of shame over a condition they cannot change. It often results in them avoiding us and God, so they are not saved, and they do not experience God’s love. The truth is that we are God’s children and he loves us. Once we have grasped this with the depth of our beings, then we desire to grow close to God, to be one with him. Knowing we’re loved also makes it is safe for us to consider our sinfulness – we can come to terms with our sin because the solution, the salvation is there within God’s love. Jesus didn’t come into the world to show us God’s wrath or even to appease it; he came because the Father’s heart overflows with love for us. He came because God couldn’t turn his back on us. He is “in our very midst” because God has loved us from the beginning of time, and certainly before we were useful to him in any way.

Because God loves us, we have the capacity to love our self and others. Thomas Merton discovered, “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. We have to recover our original unity.” This isn’t easy because real love is inclusive. We are to love our enemies as deeply as our friends. We don’t get to pick and choose. Real love is expansive. It is all-encompassing. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “All living beings are one being.” An inspiring statement; but even more so because he wrote it from a trench in WW1. Etty Hillesum, while living in the Westerbork concentration camp during WW2 prayed, “I love people so terribly, because in every human I love something of you, O God. And I seek you everywhere in them and often do find something of you.” Never-the-less, she struggled in her circumstances to love them all. One morning, as she watched Nazi’s shoving her fellow Jews on to crowded cattle cars to transport them to Auschwitz she reflected, “I have never been so frightened of anything in my life. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life, ‘And God made man after His likeness’. That passage spent a difficult morning with me.” In the end she concluded, “Those who hate have good reason to; but why should we always choose the cheapest and easiest way?” The truth is that all people, including our self, have both good qualities and bad ones. We’re made after God’s likeness and we are saturated with sin. The bad doesn’t cancel out the good. During a Spiritual Direction session, a woman told me about her Grandfather. He was the stuff of legends. Many of the stories about him were warm and humorous. Some of the stories were less than flattering – he was a womanizer. Because of her own experience of him, she believed those stories were true. Her sibling, who had a close relationship with Gramps, grew angry and disgusted with her when she raised the shadowed side of his character. He loved Gramps and to acknowledge Gramps’ sin somehow meant that, to him, Gramps could no longer be worthy of love. Yet that’s the way of all people. Our challenge is not to find perfect people to love but to unearth God’s love which is buried deep within us. In the words of John , “This is the kind of love we’re talking about—not that we once upon a time we loved God, but that he loved us…”

When we finish that scripture, we discover there’s a little more to loving than seeing the best in people, “…and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God”. (1 John 4:10). There is a cost associated with love. That cost is sacrifice. “Whoa,” we say, “why do we have to pay the price of sacrifice? Isn’t Jesus the once and for all sacrifice to end all sacrificing?” The answer is “yes” and “no”. Yes, ultimately, Jesus is the sacrificial “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Yet Jesus call us to take up our cross daily. He taught us to be servants. Paul encouraged us to love by thinking “of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but… when the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! It was an incredibly humbling process…He lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion” (Philippians 2: 5 – 8). To love is to sacrifice. To be like Christ is to love and therefore to sacrifice. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest in El Salvador in the 1980’s, was good friends with Archbishop Oscar Romero who was shot down by government death squads, in Church as he lifted the chalice and said, “This is my blood poured out for you.” The wine in the chalice and Romero’s blood mingled on the white cloth of the altar. He died because every week he would publicly name those who had been murdered by the government and those who were responsible. Later when asked if Jesus death was “according to the will of God”, Sobrino answered, “Of course. It was the will of the Father that the Son should die because it was the will of the Father that the Son should love.” Like Jesus, Romero died because it was God’s will that he love his people. Phillip Newell tells the story of the terrorist attack at the Glasgow Airport in 2007. It was poignant for him because his wife and young son, escorted by their son-in-law, Mark, were in the airport at the time. A Jeep packed with explosives drove through a window close to their ticket counter. Suddenly, hundreds of people were running. Mark, Ali and Cameron joined them. Later, Mark recounted his experience, “I was listening for the moment of explosion. I was trying to decide when to throw myself over Cameron.” The cost of love is sacrifice. The cost of harmony in our world is sacrifice.

A young couple in Ireland eloped. One was Roman Catholic and the other Protestant and their families didn’t support them. They had found a love which was the pearl of great price and they were ready to let everything else go. A number of years later, they had their first child, a beautiful baby boy. They asked the clergyperson who married them to baptize the baby in a river. When they gathered on the riverbank, 4 delighted, teary grand-parents stood with them. The baby’s birth had brought them together. He was a symbol of a new beginning. The word symbol means “a throwing together”. Symbols have the power to unite opposing forces. The thing that is born of a marriage of opposites is not a compromise, but something altogether new.

The Christ-child is a symbol of the unification of heaven and earth, God and humanity, time and eternity, spirit and matter, the seen and unseen, grace and nature. He brings together all that has been divided. He is the symbol of wholeness and integration and of all that is possible and all that is desired by God. He shows us the pearl of great price – the love of God. But it will cost us everything, just as it cost him everything.

Phillip Newell tells of a conversation he had with his son. Cameron said to him, “No offense to Jesus, Dad, but I don’t think about him very much.” I don’t know about you but if I’d said that to my father, I’d have been whacked in the head. Newell thought it was wonderful that his son could be so transparent. He paused for a moment and responded, “The greatness of Jesus is that he didn’t think about himself very much either, and he wouldn’t be offended that you don’t think about him much. Jesus showed us that we find ourselves when we lose our egocentricity. True strength is found by loving others as one’s self.” And then he added, “It’s good to think about Jesus not because he needs us to think about him, but because he shows us the way to love. He leads us to the pearl of great price.”

As we re-member the Christ child this year, may he transform us to be like him in self-forgetting, in sacrifice and in love, so that, like him, we will transform brokenness into wholeness, division into integration, and fear into unity. Jesus was born to create something altogether new, a world of oneness and love. Christmas invites us to be part of that world.