Counting – 11.30 pm – Revd Sally Bedborough
Counting, counting, counting. We are fixated by numbers, recording and keeping track; or so it would seem. We count so that we know who and what and where we are. People have been counted by emperors, governors, councils and rulers for millennia.
Our gospel reading opens in this arena of counting. A census is being taken throughout the Roman world. The reason? To know who was who, to know where people were and from where they came. To understand what they owned; the ultimate reason was to tax them accordingly.
Its not a million miles away from our own times. We’ve been counted recently. Just under two weeks ago, many of us turned out in the pouring rain to vote. The result of that election was a ‘stonking mandate’ for a certain party. It was hailed as an historic victory in which the elected party won by a majority of some 80 seats.
Whatever your allegiance to the outcome of that election, notice the suggestion that the winning party made huge gains for two reasons. One: they got out of their London bubble and they went to speak to people where they lived. They engaged with them through focus groups. They found out what concerns voters had in various part of the country. The second reason that party succeeded was because they had a strap line. I won’t repeat it, we all know what it is; we’ve heard it for months and we’re not done with hearing it by any means. Three little words summed up the aim and focus of that party’s agenda. And it worked..….whether or not we are happy with that outcome.
Now, I’m not wanting to align any particular political party with God’s works and ways. But as far as successful strategies go, those two reasons I’ve named have their origins in the work of God that we learn of in the Christmas story.
First, ‘he came down to earth from heaven’. God wasn’t some magnate who sat with his feet up in a heavenly bubble. God the father ensured that his son, Jesus the Christ, came to be with the created order. He was born into ordinary circumstances, made of flesh and blood, he felt the same emotions that we feel, he had listening ears, a caring heart, a compassionate soul. Who better to come to make a home with us in a global sense? Who better to come to each one of us to make a home in our hearts in an individual sense? None other than that the God who created us, shaped us and formed us, should by those same means enter our world in flesh to be alongside us, to comfort and strengthen us and to ensure our flourishing.
Note the importance of presence. Not just in this country for a political party to go and listen and respond to the concerns of the electorate; but down under where prime minister Scott Morrison was slated for going on holiday to Hawaii while bush-fires raged across Australia. Admittedly he is no fire fighter himself; he wasn’t going to cope with the problem by rolling his sleeves up, manning the hoses or flying the helicopters over the affected areas, of course not. That wasn’t the point. The point was that in his position of responsibility, he was required to be present and alongside his compatriots - to show solidarity, to inspire, to encourage, to be part of the gravity of the situation.
And it is this phrase: ‘being part of the gravity of our situation’ that describes the coming of Emmanuel, (the name means ‘God with us’) to Bethlehem all those years ago. To quote an article I read this week, ‘what makes the story of Christmas more than a consoling, sentimental tale is precisely that the Christ-child is immersed in the gravity of the situation. In Christ, God has indeed arrived in the full gravity of our condition, so that we and all creation may find our home in him.’
Jesus came from God to the ordinary folks of the time as well as to the extra ordinary people of the time. He chose a young teenage girl to bear his son; he chose a faithful loyal man to be his human father, he included in this drama those on the edges of society: the rough shepherds who were out in the fields. Those shepherds spread the word in turn to others; later we learn of kings from far away who had been alerted to these remarkable goings on.
So if God made this radical move to be at home with us, what then is his strap-line? Can we sum up God’s agenda in three little words? In light of this message we have heard today, and the theme of sending emissaries to listen and absorb the true state of mind, heart and spirit of ordinary people, I’d suggest the strap-line might be: ‘God with Us’. That is after all the meaning of the title ‘Emmanuel’.
And that has a number of outcomes for us. First, it affects our worship here in this church. Have you ever wondered why one of the clergy process to the middle of the church to read the gospel? Why don’t they read from this place that we call the Ambo, as do the other readers of scripture? The reason is that the movement itself demonstrates that God came into the world, among the created order, to bring light and life to all. The Word is among us. The Word is also present to us in bread and wine; and later in our service we may take those elements or receive a blessing with that hope of God’s presence made real.
‘God with Us’ - what that doesn’t mean is that God’s presence will be a shield removing us from life’s pain, hardships and tragedies. People of faith are only too aware on a personal individual level as well as a global and national level that faith does not and cannot ensure avoidance of pain in whatever form it comes. But God with us assures us that in the midst of darkness there is light, in the midst of loneliness there is company and in the midst of confusion there is comfort. God’s presence does not necessarily bring a magic wand of restoration and healing; but it does equip us to be present to beauty, inspired by love and enabled to face the future with hope.
The strap line ‘God with Us’ then, has an outcome in our worship, but it is not a magic wand that wipes away our experiences of loss and pain, even so, the presence of God can transform with his light. Finally, ‘God with Us’ has an imperative: to go out into the world with expectancy – where will we see God next? In a sunset, in the warmth of our loved ones, in the laughter of a child, in the feeding of the hungry, the comforting of the sick or – in similar fashion to this aim of God to be with us; will we see God as we ourselves become the presence of love and light to others who are in need?
We thank God then, for this message to us at Christmas time and in all time: ‘God with Us’. Amen.