Sunday, December 19, 1999

ADVENT IV: “Cradle, Cross and Church” Traditional Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, December 19, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Genesis 2:4b-8; Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Micah 5:2-5; Matthew 1:18-22; Luke 2:8-1

Some years ago I received a very troubled phone call from a gentleman in one of my congregations. Now, I must preface what I'm going to say by saying that I love to make pastoral calls, I love to see you in your homes at times of need, at times of sorrow or times of joy, but when this gentleman called me, the prospects of giving a pastoral visit was most daunting. He prefaced it by saying, "Reverend Stirling, I would like you to come and see my wife, and I'd like you to come to our home and if at any point when you see my wife and you are in the midst of the pastoral visit you want to leave, all you have to do is say so."

You can imagine the fear and trepidation that I felt then as I walked up to his home. It was the week before Christmas and so I went and I looked at the front door and there were beautiful things hanging and a gorgeous wreath on the door and the husband greeted me. As soon as the front door was open, I could tell that this was a visit unlike any other for there was an aroma about this house that was most unseemly and that I'd never experienced before. He said, "I want to reiterate, Reverend Stirling, if at any point in this visit you want to leave, no one will mind, just let me know."

And so we went into his wife's bedroom and we knocked on the door and in this bedroom was a woman who had been in that bed for five years, who hadn't left the room for seven years. Here was a huge woman, swollen and large, but her face, her face had been almost entirely destroyed by cancer. I looked at her and she looked at me and I must admit at that moment I wondered whether or not I could continue.

But as I sat down and as we began to talk and as a smile came across her face, she said, "Reverend Stirling, thank you, thank you so much for coming." And over the next few minutes, as the initial shock of looking at her face seemed almost to disappear, all I could see in this woman was a personality, all I could hear was her voice, all that was left was a conversation, a conversation with what is a very kind and gracious and loving and warm individual. And then she said to me as I was about to leave, and I'd said a word of prayer, she said, "Would you mind, Reverend Stirling, reading one of the great passages of the Christmas season, something from lessons and carols maybe, just one reading, I want to hear your voice. Maybe from the Gospel of John."

And so I picked up the New Testament and I began to read these words from John I, "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us." And as I reached that moment, our eyes met. We were transfixed by the power and the poignancy of the moment. "The word became flesh." And the word not only became flesh, but the word dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

You see, my friends, there are no more powerful words in all of religious literature, no more powerful words that have been written amongst humanity than the very God whom we adore, the God whom we glorify became flesh and dwelt among us, that in all our decay and in all our sorrow and in all our loss, there in the midst of it all comes God eternal. For this word flesh in Greek is sarx and it means fleshliness. And the word dwelt in Hebrew, sheckina, means the dwelling place of the Lord and so the dwelling place of the Lord is with the flesh. The dwelling place of the Lord is in a human being and that human being has come and lived in our midst.

My friends, this is the most powerful thing and when I left her room, I sat in my car and I just read the passage over and over again and I wept, for in the midst of this flesh God seemed so real, Christ seemed so present. This isn't a God who sits in Heaven with gloves or with a face mask, who does not want to be touched or tainted by all the things of this world, but in the Christ Child came into the very midst of even the suffering of that woman and brought the glory and the presence of God. For indeed there are throughout the Scriptures, a seamless, seamless garment, a seamless garment of the incarnation that doesn't seem to be broken, that is there in the cradle of Christ at his birth, is there at the cross of Christ, his crucifixion is here with us now in the midst of the church and through it all there are two motifs that are woven solidly: the first is rejection and the second is joy and in all these circumstances, the rejection and the joy of being human is present.


First of all it is present in the cradle, in the birth that we celebrate this week. That in the midst of this cradle, this birth, there is rejection. In Luke there is no room in the inn. In Matthew's Gospel, they have to flee and go to Egypt because of Herod. In John his people would not receive him. There is always rejection with the incarnation.

A few years ago a friend invited me to his church to watch a Christmas pageant and it was the first time that this church had ever been able to put on a pageant and so my friend invited all his ministerial colleagues to come and to celebrate this great day and so I went and it was absolutely atrocious! The angels looked like retired policemen, the sheep looked like goats and the wisemen were beyond description and when it came to the moment when the wisemen came up to dear Baby Jesus and the creche that was set there, Mary and Joseph sat peacefully and a little plastic baby was in the manger and the three wisemen came up and one of them, who was a young boy and a little rotund, with whom I could identify, carrying his frankincense, tripped on one of the cords, landed smack on the manger, smashed the Baby Jesus to a thousand pieces and Mary gets up and wails, "You killed my Baby Jesus, you killed my Baby Jesus," and the little guy ran right down the aisle back to his mummy!

Never has there been a more theologically correct pageant than that in the history of humanity, although I do not want us to emulate it here on Friday night! "You killed my Jesus, you killed my Jesus." God came in the flesh and suffered. God came in the flesh and took it on fully. God came in the flesh and died.

And yet here is the joy of the incarnation. For those who are outcasts, those who were lepers and untouchable. Those who are prostitutes who could not be allowed into the sanctuary, those who gave alms, those who were poor and widows, who only had a mite, those who were dying like Lazarus, those who were frightened, they were the ones who saw the coming of the Christ Child, the Messiah God with us and they said, "Allelujah," and they said "Glory to God in the highest," and they said, "Peace on earth among us," because they knew that in this man Jesus, God was in the flesh and God was with them and as weak and as mortal as he was, this was the ultimate sign of hope.


This same Christ Child though came in the cross and the cross is the greatest symbol of suffering and rejection. Wherever there are tombstones, particularly in our culture, there are crosses. Whenever you need a symbol of those who are despised, you place a cross. If you need someone who needs healing, you put a cross, for the cross is the ultimate symbol of human suffering. The cross of Jesus Christ then is related to the cradle. For the cross would mean nothing if Jesus were not fully human. If Jesus was just a spiritual Jesus, if Jesus only seemed to be human rather than being fully human, then the cross would not have the meaning and the power that it does, that because of the cradle, because of the manger, the cross becomes all the more powerful and that is why I think the ultimate sign of the humanity of God in Jesus Christ is seen when Jesus looks down from the cross and who does he speak to but his mother. "Behold your Son. Behold your Son." The one who was there at the cradle was there at the cross also.

But again it is also a sign of joy for up from the grave he arose, the cross was empty, it was not left there with Jesus in it. The tomb did not confine him. Sin could not hold him. Power could not hold him. Death could not hold him. God incarnate in Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that cross therefore, though a sign of death, has been also a sign of hope throughout the ages. "The word became flesh and dwelled among us and the word rose from the dead."


But I believe that the message of Jesus Christ continues. It is not just the cradle, it is not just the cross, it is also the church. Paul says, "We are the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ." We exist in the flesh. The church that lives in his name is imperfect. Why God ever chose one such as us to continue to serve him and worship him, I will never know. What a motley crew we are and have been for 2000 years. The church is imperfect, the church is fleshly, the church is earthly, and yet still it faces rejection, it faces rejection where God's love and God's grace is proclaimed. And sometimes it's our own fault. Many of you will have seen the passages that come from time to time called bloopers that occur within church bulletins and I get sent a lot of these. These are mistakes that are made and they speak a great deal about the church and there are two that I absolutely adore because they say so much.

The first goes as follows. It's about providing pastoral care to people in need. It said, "Don't let worry kill you, let the church help." Oh, we've led a lot of people down that road, haven't we?

Or my favourite one, particularly for ministers, you will notice it said in the bulletin that "There is a rose on the altar today to celebrate the birth of David Beltzer, the sin of Reverend & Mrs. Beltzer." Even the clergy aren't immune from the fleshliness of the church, it seems!

No indeed, we are fallible. We sometimes are rejected. The message that's proclaimed of love and grace and truth and forgiveness often does not resound with the world, just like Our Lord. And yet in the midst of it, there is the greatest joy. In the midst of it there is Christ among us. What is more powerful than to be able to read John I to a woman like that woman that I saw. What greater joy is there to be able to come to those who are suffering and oppressed, to those who are frightened and uncertain, to those who are crippled and hungry and poor and blind and share with them in love and in grace the truth and the presence of Jesus Christ. That is joy. That is joy. Not antiseptic, not clean and crisp and clear, but in the flesh, just as God in Jesus came in the flesh. And so we have the cradle that we celebrate today. We have the cross for the way to the Christ Child and we have the church that sings his praises and makes incarnate his way. May we celebrate it all and may grace and truth dwell among us. Amen.