Sermon Sunday 11.1.2015

by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

John the Baptiser proclaimed,
‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


I’m sure you have noticed how, when we celebrate Christmas, our priorities can become a little mixed up, how carts are regularly put before horses, means become ends, and messengers become the message.


For example: when I was in Michigan at the beginning of December, we took a detour one evening to see a street well known for its display of Christmas lights.  And it was quite impressive.  Some houses were relatively restrained, with one simply joining in by putting an (electric) candle in every window – it was quite a large house, so there were a lot of windows.  Others had clearly given up on restraint some time ago – with lights around every line the house could offer, some with even the trees and the bushes of their gardens festooned with light.  You could tell that there must have been quite a bit of pressure to join in, because I don’t remember a single house without some kind of decoration – and I just can’t imagine that there wasn’t one household who thought, ‘do we really have to do this?’  But I can imagine gentle conversations about the importance of everyone taking part, of no one letting the neighbourhood down.


There was one household who had used their garden to erect a light display that was a manger scene – and I remarked that there was always somebody who had to bring religion into it!  Because, for the most part – in common with many places all around the world – this did not give the impression of being a celebration of Christmas; this was a celebration of light.  So even in an area where, it seems, almost everybody goes to church, many or even most of them teetering on the edge of any theological spectrum we would recognise, the means of celebrating Christmas by the lighting of lights seemed to have toppled into celebrating the lights themselves.


And then, over Christmas, I found myself at various times watching ‘Christmas movies’ which generally, toward the end, had references to ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ – and, apparently, the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is about the importance of our families.  Now, I don’t want to talk down the importance of families, and they may be (depending on the family) the context in which we celebrate Christmas, but our families are not what Christmas is all about.


And then there is the giving associated with Christmas.  It’s a big thing, this exchange of gifts; and the Magi, as we remember every year, brought gifts – according to Matthew – to the baby Jesus; and, more vitally, the baby Jesus is himself seen as the greatest gift of all.  But we give gifts as a symbol of that divine giving; we give gifts as our way of associating ourselves with a life that is about giving.  The gifts are a sign; they are a means to convey a message, to remind ourselves of a truth, to gather ourselves and others into a world of gift.  But they are not the truth, they are not the message, they are not ‘the true meaning of Christmas’.


And yet every year people put themselves into enormous amounts of financial difficulty because they have been conned into believing that the gift is the object of worship – and the greater the gift the greater the devotion.  And we haven’t even got into the ‘feast’ of Christmas, meant to celebrate the incarnation, becoming a celebration of the food itself.  And the problem is that this tendency is carried over into a much wider context in the life of faith itself – and we, those who, week by week, practice our faith in the worship of God, continue to get our priorities mixed up.


John the Baptiser was keen that people should not do that:

‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;

I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

I have baptized you with water;

but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’


John had a lot of followers.  Mark tells us that people from all over the countryside, and even from the great city of Jerusalem, were coming out to meet him, to hear him, to see him.  It would have been very easy for him to let all that go to his head – and the gaining of a great following has been the downfall of many great preachers, though it’s not a problem I’ve ever had to deal with.  But John tried the best he could to keep his and their priorities straight.  John was the messenger, not the message.  He was a voice in the wilderness, a signpost, pointing to what was to come, pointing to the person to come, pointing to the one who had priority, the one who was the real point of it all.


The point of it all was on the way, to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of baptism, to become immersed in the life of the world.  John pointed to Jesus, and pointed to the priority Jesus needs to have in every aspect of the world into which he was immersed.  And thinking about that made me think about the various ways in which we so often fail to put Jesus first, and instead give priority to other things – to things that ought to be pointing to Jesus, and so often end up pointing to themselves, or using Jesus in their own service, rather than the other way around.


Think, for example, of the way in which we think so often of buildings.  Our church buildings exist as the place where we gather for worship; they exist, perhaps, to point to the presence of Christ in the community; they exist to serve the gospel and its mission.  We might, in other words, put the buildings we have in the place of John the Baptist – but, like John the Baptist, they need to know their place; and we need to know their place as well.   They are not objects of worship nor could they ever be.


And yet think of how many times you have heard people say that, if the particular building in which they have become accustomed to worshipping were to be closed, they would never darken the door of a church again.  Really?  Have our buildings not at times become the graven images against which the Ten Commandments warn?  Have they, meant to be places of worship only, become instead objects of worship?  I have often drawn the comparison with what we here, in this building, do not actually have – with stained glass windows.  They may be lovely, and colourful, and beautiful; they may convey many truths of the faith – but unless there is light shining through them, unless the light of faith, the light of love, the light of Jesus, illuminates them, they are dull, and lifeless, and often quite depressing.

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