Saturday, 2 January 2016

God Of The Refugees

Christmas morning sermon 2015

There has been one story which as dominated the news this year, that is the refugee crisis.  Over 1 million refugees have made the perilous journey to Europe, the vast majority coming from Syria and Iraq. 
We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since WW2.  A report by the UN estimates that there are now 60 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and the rate of people fleeing for their lives is increasing.
For many refugees the journey to Europe took them across the sea, a dangerous journey at the hands of people smugglers which has resulted in the death of over 3,695 people. 
'Flight' by Arabella Dorman
Hanging from the vault of St James’ Church in Piccadilly, is an upturned refugee boat.  This dingy, designed to carry 15 people, transported 62 people from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece.  It is now an art installation by Arabella Dorman’s entitled Flight. The boat is suspended from the ceiling of the church, as if it were sinking down into the depths, and falling from its safety into the void are three life jackets: two adult-sized and one a child’s. The child’s has fallen further into the abyss, almost out of reach of the desperate parents.
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
You and I did not have any choice about when, where or how we came into the world. But God did.  And he left the comfort and splendour of his heavenly home, and chose to make himself weak and vulnerable, by being born as a human baby, totally reliant on others to feed and clothe him, to love him, care and protect him. 
He chose Mary, a young unmarried teenager, from a small, and insignificant village in Galilee to be the Mother of God.  And he chose a stable normally reserved for animals to be the place in which he entered the world, and for his bed a feeding trough. 
And the first witnesses to the birth of the Saviour of the World weren’t priests, or prophets, or politicians or Kings, people of power and influence but ordinary shepherds.  People who were looked down on by the rest of society, who because of their occupation were considered unclean, and therefore weren’t even allowed to enter the Synagogue or Temple.  Shepherds who weren’t even allowed to testify in court, because they were not trusted, and yet it was to these people that God choose to be the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus.
When God came into the world, it was in weakness and humility, so that he could identify and stand alongside the weak, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and yes the refugee.  
Flight into Egypt by Eugene-Alexis Girardet
Jesus himself knew what it was like to be a refugee.  He knew what it was like to face persecution, and to be forced from his home, like the tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria who have been forced to flee their homes to escape, persecution and death.  For Jesus the threat came from King Herod, who saw this small child as a threat to his throne.  King Herod, who had his wife and two sons killed, because he feared they were plotting against him.  So Mary, Joseph and Jesus were driven away from their home, to live in a foreign land. 
And even when Herod died, we are told that Joseph was afraid to take his family back to Judea, because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling there, and so the family returned to Nazareth in the north.
Now understandably, we normally ignore the dark side of the nativity narrative. We have enough darkness of war and tragedy and refugees on our TV screens; some come to church at Christmas to escape from all of that and be reminded that Jesus is the light of the world. But Jesus can only be light if he shines where it is darkest.
When the angels declared the birth of Jesus to the shepherds they said “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)  It was into this dark and troubled world, that Jesus came to shine God’s light and love. 
The Christmas story is not some fairy tale, far removed from the reality of real life.  It is a real historical event that changed the world for ever.  And it is an event that has something important to say to a world where pain and tragedy, suffering and loss, is still a reality for many people, because Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God With Us, entered into the darkest places of brutal rulers and fleeing families. He walked a path of pain greater than probably any of us have experienced, culminating in his barbaric death at the hands of another brutal ruler, this time, one who was too weak-willed to protect a man he knew was innocent.
Sometimes people picture God lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck-chair, while millions struggle and die through war and famine and flood. But that is not the Christian God, that is not the God we worship this day. No, that terrible caricature of God in a celestial deck-chair is smashed to smithereens by the crib and the cross.
What’s your darkness at the moment? Maybe your darkness is job worries or relationship worries or health concerns. Whatever the darkness in your life at the moment, Jesus is God with us in the darkness.
And he brings light in the darkness - hope in the darkness - precisely because the darkness did not put Jesus out. Herod tried to extinguish the light of the world at his birth, but failed. Pilate tried to extinguish the light of the world at his death, but not even death could hold him down. So Jesus brings light in the darkness - hope in the darkness - because he’s confronted the darkness in our world and the darkness in our own hearts - he’s taken that evil onto himself, and let the darkness do its worst to him - and still he shines as the light for the world - light for you in your darkness.
Here’s the experience of one Syrian, who was forced to flee for his life after being threatened by ISIS fighters. Mathai walked from his home in Syria, to Damascus, across the border to Lebanon and into Turkey, then Greece. Traffickers put him on trains and a boat – a route where five people from his home town had previously drowned. He trekked through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. He said, “Sometimes I was afraid, but mostly just so tired, so tired, so exhausted.” Two months ago Mathai finally arrived in Austria. Christians gave him a home and helped him apply for asylum. He was given an Arabic Bible. He said, “The Bible tells me I’m not alone, it reminds me that every human is loved by God and has a value. I’m very afraid, but when I turn to the Bible I see light. I particularly turn to passages in the Bible that are about forgiveness; it helps me when I think of all the people who have done awful things in my country, Jesus experienced the same and forgave his enemies. I am following Jesus.’’
Jesus brings light in the very darkest places. He wants to bring light in your darkness.  And he calls us to carry his light into the world, to follow his example and to stand in solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the frightened, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the stranger, the outcast, the refugee.   
As the opening verses of John’s Gospel remind us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:1-5)

May the light of Christ, shine in our lives, and in our world, now and forever more. Amen.

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