08 DECEMBER 2015
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE FROM THE BISHOP’S DESK
To Pilgrims on the Way in the Limpopo District.
Grace and Peace to you from the Lord Jesus Christ.
THE WORD BECAME FLESH
Charles Dickens begins his book A Tale of Two Cities with these words “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
We have now entered the Advent Season, a time of expectation, a time of celebration, a time of devotion. Gifts, parties, carols, festivals! All these mark our recognition of the importance of this time. While we regard this time of the year as the festive season, and indeed so we should regard the time. Without Christmas, how can we sing “Joy to the world he Lord is come”? But in the midst of the joy, the generosity, the festivities, we also realize that we are caught in the midst the stark contrasts that frame this season too. At the same time that we journey toward beauty and wonder, we carry with us the deaths of loved ones, and deep grief grips our hearts. At the same time that we celebrate this "family" holiday, we are keenly aware of the brokenness of our own families. At the same time that children experience excitement so strong that they are literally shaking with anticipation, we carry in our hearts worries about their less-than-angelic behavior. At the same time that we annually dust off the word "merry" for repeated use, we are gripped by depressions that cannot be drowned by glass after glass of good cheer. At the same time that we toast each other's good health, we are aware of those whose health is not good, those who carry the burden of debilitating illness. At the same time that we profess to be following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem, we find ourselves in the grip of darkness. Throughout the world we are faced with the ever increasing and ever present threat to peace brought about by extremists with their acts of terror. In our own country we have been faced with constant stories of corruption from government officials, individuals and communities, violence and killings of and by police and a plethora of many other bad news stories. The suffering and pain goes on. I do not wish to dampen the spirit of celebration we are experiencing but simply ask that we spare a thought for those who may not have reason to celebrate.
THE “WOW” STORY - THE WORD BECAME FLESH
I am almost certain that over this time, the one word we will hear is “WOW”, as people open their gifts, finding the gift they really wanted and did not expect to get. Or even finding the one they expected to receive and are just thrilled that someone has been so thoughtful as to remember to buy that one gift. Such gifts are what makes life worthwhile, family and friends appreciated and they give us a feeling of being loved, and giving us the need to love someone and to show that love. Christmas gives us the opportunity to appreciate people and to know that we too are appreciated. I love Christmas! You will see children showing off their presents, their new clothes, and telling everybody what they got for Christmas. I love Christmas!
More than that, I love Christmas because of the Gospel story of Jesus. It is a “wow” story as we realise that we have received a gift, unexpected and undeserved. That God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” And this whole story may be summed up in one sentence, that is, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This is the essence of the Gospel that holds together all of what God has done in and for the world. Everything that Jesus has done for us begins from the truth that he took upon himself our own flesh, our humanity, and came to live among us. Now if this is not a “wow” moment for you, it is for me. This Jesus whose birth we celebrate today is the one who enables us to exclaim “wow”! This child whose birth we remember, and which has captured the attention of millions of people throughout the two centuries is amazing because he is God with us. The angel announced that he shall be called Emmanuel – God with us, and he shall save the people from their sins. I don’t know if you comprehend the magnitude of this statement, “God with us”. For me, it does not so much mean that I am in the presence of God, but that God has come to me, and the reason is that God recognises that I cannot, of my own strength or will even attempt to reach out to God.
It encompasses all of what God has done in and for the world. Everything Jesus did for us has its beginning in the fact that he took upon himself our own flesh and dwelt among us. He took our humanity in all its weakness and frailties, its brokenness and pain, and even its mortality. Evidence of his humanity is found throughout the story of his life. He suffered as all people suffered and still do today. He had no home as many people are homeless today. He experienced pain, hunger, anger, and sorrow to the same extent that human beings do.
HE CAME TO BE IMMANUEL, GOD WITH US
Some may ask, how could God take upon himself our human flesh, is this not a sign of weakness? Far from it, it shows how great our God is. Even in human terms, the sign of greatness is not the ability to rise to the highest level only, but also the ability to come to the level of others, not in order to be like them, but to be with them, and to help them to rise above the things that hold them back. So at this time we celebrate God who will stand by us, walk with us, encourage us and lift us up. Thanks be to God!
HE CAME TO BE THE LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
A few years ago I took a group of theological students on a tour of the Castle in Cape Town; it was a few days after Christmas. Part of our devotions that morning was a reflection on the ninth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah with these words “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The student assigned to lead the group that day decided to take us into a cell in the castle, where people who had committed grave transgressions were thrown into solitary confinement. She led us into this small confined place and asked us to sit against the walls, then she said, “You are people who live in the land of darkness” and she turned off the light. A number of us gasped in surprise because the place became totally dark, with no sign of light at all. She then proceeded to tell us that people were kept in that dark place for days on end, and when they were let out, many of them became blind or at least had the sight damaged by the sudden light they were let into. It was pretty quiet in that room as we sat and listened to her reflection, in total darkness. When she stopped speaking there was absolute silence for about five minutes, five long, dark minutes. Then she spoke the words of Isaiah again, ““The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Then she lit a small candle and placed it at the centre of the room. That small candle did not fill the room with light, but at the same time it changed the mood in the room. At first there were sighs of relief, a few sobs could be heard and some started laughing and most faces were streaked with tears. But the most fascinating thing was that all eyes were focussed on the light. That light made all the difference in that confined space.
GOD REFUSES TO LEAVE US IN DARKNESS
John writes that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it”. Perhaps this is an illustration of how God enters into our lives in Jesus. God enters our darkness, whatever it may be; the darkness of sin, disease, pain, loneliness, poverty; whatever it is “God refuses”, as one writer puts it “to dwell in the heavens above and from a safe distance watch the drama of human life play out. Instead, God climbs right into the darkest places to be with us; and in that holy and luminous action, we find reason to hope”.
“Well, preacher”, you might say, “it is easy for you to say these things, but the reality is that the world is in a mess. Look at the corruption, look at the crime, look at the poverty, look at the kind of leaders we have. Where do we begin?” May I suggest that we begin today. There is so much goodwill at this time of Advent, more than any other time of the year. How about keeping the momentum; that the goodwill and generosity we offer and receive today continue in the days that lie ahead. Let me continue with the story of the dark cell at the Cape Town Castle. When all had sort of composed themselves, she then said “Can somebody open the door for us.” And one of the students got up, flung the door open and we all walked out into the light of the day. You see, Jesus the light that shines in the darkness enables us to find our way out, inspires us to fling the doors open and live with joy!
God of light, incarnate Word, in Jesus Christ you came to be with us. Help us to feel your presence and to see your light amidst the darkness. Bless us this holy time that we may walk with the confidence that comes from knowing your company and with vision for seeing beyond the shadows to vistas of hope, holy hope. Amen.