Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton
My Sermon from Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, 25th December 2016
We come here this morning, in the midst of a hectic time of commemoration and celebration, to sit in this sacred space – a place of calm and reverence.
This year has been a tough one – it is no exaggeration to say this. As I speak there is geopolitical turmoil, terrorism, refugees dying, war and enormous uncertainty on the world stage. Many think that this is unprecedented. And yes, it is in some ways – the scale of refugees on the move is enormous; tyrants and dictators are wreaking havoc and poor governance and maladministration rears its ugly head in the form of hunger and poverty.
But none of this, in the broadest terms, is new. Consider the nativity narratives – amidst the darkness of turmoil and uncertainty there is the unquenchable light of hope, love and expectation in the form of Jesus Christ. And as is so simply, yet eloquently written in John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And indeed the darkness will never overcome it – as Christians, we have hope in abundance and peace that can never be subdued.
Now, it is certainly true to say that the life of faith is one of constant reflection, and I do think therefore that it is fitting that today we reflect on the writings of two very different, but equally insightful and influential Christians – the Lutheran Pastor and Nazi Resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Cistercian Monk, Poet, Mystic and Peace Activist, Thomas Merton.
I’ll read some their words now, and then we’ll very briefly contemplate what they are saying to us.
We begin with Bonhoeffer:
“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in the lowliness of a stable and not in the glories of material wealth and opulence. He is a radically different Leader. And yes, we see him, not just in one snapshot of historical time, but we encounter him every day, time and time again; we see him in the eyes of those we meet, especially those on the margins – the disenfranchised, the dispossessed and the forgotten. There is nothing more radical than this; with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the world, with its love of hierarchy and power, has changed forever.
And now back to Merton:
“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.”
Here Merton does not mince his words. Again, we are drawn in to the reality that the religious elite, then and now miss the point of faith and how it should be lived in the light of the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ. Faith has nothing to do with titles, buildings and being seen to be doing the right thing. Rather it is about recognising and adopting an attitude of love, compassion, humility, sacrifice and service.
With this insight in our hearts, let us turn to Bonhoeffer:
“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
God is in the manger! It doesn’t get any more radical than that! And so if we entrust God with all that we have and all that we are, all will be well. Even during those times when life seems unbearable, and we struggle to carry on, nothing ultimately can harm us. Yes, there may be tumult all around us, but within the depth of our being, there is peace. God is with us, no matter what.
Now back to Merton for the final time:
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room”.
This offering from Merton is a fitting quote to end on, largely because it sums up the previous themes we have hear explored. The reminder that the Christian faith is often counterintuitive, that God has, as one Liberation Theologian put it, ‘a preferential option for the poor’ is there in bold and unambiguous language. Why? Well, because it is a perfect echo of the Gospel message, not just that which we glean from the infancy narratives, but beyond through Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection. Making room for Jesus in the midst of the prevailing culture, which drowns out the Christian message, is a calling we all receive. Looking in the right place for that voice, for that presence, is the journey we are asked to undertake, again and again. Christmas, and our reflections on it, is just the very beginning.
The world was never the same following that first Christmas time. God calls us each and every Christmas time, to never be the same in the light of that message. And so Christmas is a time of newness and reflection; Christianity is not easy – it was never meant to be, and the nativity narratives are a testament to that. But we need to lose heart; Jesus Christ is the ultimate beacon of hope that reaches out to us in our lostness and brokenness. And as such, we never journey in faith alone.
Finally, on this special day, let us then dedicate ourselves to growing in faith and service; let us take the radical nature of the nativity to heart, where love and compassion drown out the noise of darkness, this Christmas Day and forever more.