The Incongruous God and My Uncle Bert
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
Christmas Day 8.00am service
25th December 2013
Isaiah 62: 6 – 12
6 Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the Lord,
take no rest,
7 and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
8 The Lord has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have laboured;
9 but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
10 Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
11 The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
‘See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.’
12 They shall be called, ‘The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the Lord’;
and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.’
Luke 2: 8 – 20
The Shepherds and the Angels
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
God is nothing if not incongruous at times.
I’m not talking about our subjective experience of God. That is too often coloured by our own selfishness to the extent that when God doesn’t do what we ask of him we’re all too quick to wonder why he appears to help others but not us.
The creator and Lord of all the universe, born as a human being and put to sleep in a manger – an animal’s food trough. How extraordinary!
Speaking of incongruous, my mother’s parents were so caught up in the war effort and probably other pursuits, that the family decided it would be better were she and her brother to live with another family for a while. Thus we had the privilege of knowing Uncle Bert. Quite the most extraordinary man who carried a fund of tall stories he’d tell children.
One of my favourites was when he’d produce from his pocket a great big metal nut (no bolt, just the nut). As he twirled it in his fingers we were transfixed, as he told us that the nut had been his salvation: it had saved his life. He’d been walking in the bush (very believable as he was a game ranger) when a rhino had charged him. All he could do was to stand behind a very small tree. But he stood exactly behind the tree, you understand, right in the middle. The rhino, being accurate in the use of its great big horn, shoved it neatly through the middle of the tree, whereupon Uncle Bert quickly screwed on the nut and walked off safely and happily. We loved Uncle Bert!
However the point of my mentioning him was that my mother once said Uncle Bert was as comfortable in the presence of a beggar as he was in the presence of the King. It seems to me he was a bit like God in this respect, not limited to one context, able to relate across the spectrum. And though Uncle Bert’s salvation story is a little suspect from a factual point of view, God’s certainly isn’t.
Our Gospel reading focusses on the angels and their announcement to the shepherds. Again, somewhat incongruous. A multitude of the heavenly host announces to a group of the most earthly people of the time – shepherds – that the long-awaited Messiah has arrived. Shepherds were despised in many societies.
But again, God is like that. He is, as the Scripture says, no respecter of persons. God might select someone for a specific purpose, but his love reaches out to all people all of the time.
Most onlookers in Bethlehem were amazed, as were the shepherds, but I wonder whether the importance of what they experienced stayed with them.
It may have been different for Jesus’ mother Mary. She, Luke tells us, “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. She must have wondered what her son being the Messiah meant for her. It’s worth our doing so too.
As a child I responded to Uncle Bert’s stories with laughter – and often relief. How do I respond to the story of Jesus? How aware am I of the danger he saves from?
Not only that, but what does he save to? The Christian experience is not a kind of fire escape to get down safely from the building of life, it’s a stairway to heaven, and more – to a redeemed earth – because (and here’s the thing) Jesus is coming back to rule the earth someday. Not as a baby in a manger, but less incongruously, as a King on a white horse. The grand God of the universe will arrive in grandeur. What does that mean for me and what God expects of me now?
In our reading from Isaiah the prophet speaks of this coming
It’s good to think over the implications for us of Jesus’ first coming. God has some very clear expectations of us – in Jesus’ words, “Repent, and belief the Good News” The angel said “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” It certainly is good news and there certainly is reason to be joyful.
But you see, Jesus has outgrown the manger, and he will come again. The God of grandeur will arrive. It was TS Eliot who wrote in his poem, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954):
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming
The real question is, does that bring joy to you, or does that cause some concern?
The incongruous God – the grand God – the perfect God – still reaches out in mercy and love to each one of us. Like my Uncle Bert, God is not uncomfortable with any of us. He loves every one of us more than we can imagine.
The biggest gift I can give you this Christmas is to reassure you that you have the opportunity to respond to that love. If you have not already done so, don’t leave it too late.
God bless you this morning, and have a very merry and blessed Christmas.