‘God With Us’ Dr. Joseph William Black
Sts Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral, Nairobi December 11, 2016
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us”.’
Have you been to one of the big shopping malls recently? All of the lights, all of the decorations, all of the Christmas music, all of the advertising. I was in one store on Friday and there was a big sign in Christmas colors as I walked in that said, ‘Christmas is about giving,’ which aside from the fact that that’s not true, what the store owner is really saying here is that ‘Christmas is about buying,’ and if we really want to get crass, we could further translate the words into, ‘Christmas is about spending your money right here right now,’ which of course is just another way of saying, ‘Christmas is about getting more stuff.’
|All of the pictures are random shots of shopping mall Christmas decorations.|
Meanwhile, schools are putting on Christmas concerts, churches are doing special Christmas music, even my little choir the Greenwood Singers has our Christmas concert this afternoon at 3 at St. Austin’s Church, people are throwing Christmas parties. Then there are holiday displays that invariably involve snow. Snow? Seriously? At the equator?
But despite all the festive good cheer, I’ve had a rough week. Reality keeps trying to crash my party. A good friend of mine died on Wednesday. I had a crush on her forty years ago when we were first year university students. Social media allowed us to reconnect. Then two years ago, she was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that slowly but surely shuts down every part of your body until you can no longer move, or swallow, or breathe. It is not a happy way to die, because your mind carries on until the rest of your body dies around you. My friend Nancy was a strong Christian. She was in fact a pastor. She had gone back to seminary after a successful career and raising two beautiful children, and then planted a church. But what kind of world do we live in where a beautiful, God-fearing soul can suffer and die like that?
My mother in law - her name was Nancy, too - whose memorial we will celebrate in a few minutes along with her husband Jim, Nancy was in her sixties when she out of nowhere suffered a seizure. When the doctors had a look, they discovered that she had a brain tumour, called a glioblastoma. Of all the different kinds of brain tumours you can get, this is the worst because it’s shaped not like a ball or a sack growing there in your brain, but like an octopus that sends tentacles out in every direction making it impossible to get it all when you are operating. But they tried anyway, and also tried some new radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Life expectancy, even with surgery and treatment, is about a year. After her surgery, Nancy had about 10 good months. But we all knew that the cancer would come back. It always does. We got the bad news when we were visiting supporting churches. And then we hard that she had suffered a stroke. We rushed back to Jim and Nancy’s home. Jim had decided not to put Nancy in the hospital with all the machines and disruptions, but to take care of Nancy at home. When we got there, we found Nancy surrounded by all her friends from the Church. Several of them were nurses and had already come up with a rota to help care for her. Nancy was paralysed on her right side, which meant she couldn’t speak any more. But she could speak with her eyes and could make signs with her one good hand.
We were there with Nancy for her last four weeks. We helped feed her. We helped turn her. I sat with her, read the Bible to her, held her hand and prayed with her. But the tumour ravaging her brain was relentless and her body began to fail. She began sleeping more and more. She stopped eating. And then very early, while it was still dark before dawn on St. Nicholas Day, Jim woke us up and told us to come. We stood around Nancy’s bed as she quietly took her last breaths, and then was still.
Such a wonderful mother and wife. An incredible mother-in-law and friend for me. And the most wonderful Grandmama for my two girls. And a fun and dear friend for so many. And a lover of Jesus, a hardworking saint at her church. And then she was taken from us.
Then there was the young missionary couple from Australia, Andrew and Sharon. Andrew was managing a construction site on the compound where I lived in Addis Ababa. Sharon was a medical doctor, but she was teaching English at the Theological College where I taught. I was the pastor of the big International Evangelical Church at the time, and Andrew and Sharon were always there on Sundays for church. It was Tuesday and it had rained earlier. It was damp and humid. Andrew was checking the wall on top of the second floor of the new warehouse he was building, to figure out how to put the joists for the roof. He passed within a meter of a power line and suddenly there was a flash and a loud cracking boom, the electricity arced from the line to the tiny wire of metal on the inside of his hat. The electricity passed through his head, through his heart and blasted out of his shoes. Andrew was thrown off the building. He landed on his back and was quickly surrounded by his workers and colleagues, but there was nothing anybody could do. They commandeered a land cruiser and took him to the national hospital just across the street from where I was at a meeting. I rushed over as soon as I had heard that there had been an accident. I didn’t know what to expect. I was there when they brought Andrew in. But Andrew was gone. There was absolute pandemonium in the emergency room, so I arranged for them to take Andrew’s body to a quiet room off to the side. And then came the hard part. We had to find Sharon. Her phone was switched off. I took off to the college where she had been teaching that morning and discovered she had just left. So I rushed back and got there just as Sharon walked in and found her husband and lover and best friend dead. There simply are no words. All you can do is hold someone and let them be in shock and then let them cry.
Everyone of us this morning could tell our own stories. We have seen great pain and suffering. Maybe we are going through our own private hell right now. Maybe we are in the hole of poverty and cannot get the credentials to get us the job that would help us get out. Maybe we are trapped in an addiction - addicted to alcohol, addicted to gambling, addicted to pornography, and we are in denial. And in the meantime it’s killing us and all our relationships. Maybe we’re suffering from depression. Maybe it seems our life will never be happy again. Maybe we are in a relationship that’s become a living hell. Maybe we are being beaten, maybe we are married to a drunkard, maybe we are married to a bully who abuses us with her or his words. And maybe so messed up is our world that the people around us, and maybe we ourselves, think this is just normal.
My friends, this is our world. And it will be one sad, terrible, tragic story after another. In just a few short years, there will be different people sitting here or standing here. One by one all of us will come to the end. Whether by accident or sickness or by malice of others or just old age, our bodies will stop working. And what seems so solid and so real today will dissolve back into the earth from which we all came. There are good things about this life for sure, but they seem here to remind us of just how wrong things have gone. All the brokenness, all the evil, all the sickness, all the dying - It’s not what God created. It was never intended to be this way.
So when I see all the lights and decorations, all the presents and faux holiday cheer, I realise that Christmas as most of us celebrate it is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem. The world as we know it can’t actually handle the solution. Because to do so would mean that we would have to acknowledged that things are really messed up, that our ways of coping are not working, that the ways of this world lead not to life but to death, that we are in fact desperately in need of a Savior. And so a Savior comes. Not to give us a handout, as if that ever ultimately helped us. Not to provide another program to give us the money or the stuff that we think we need. Not someone standing outside our lives and our world telling us just to do the right thing, just love each other, just be good, yet another list of dos and don’ts. Instead God Himself comes to us. Not through the words of one of His prophets. Not through some holy book. Not to mobilise some holy crusade. But God becomes one of us. God wraps Himself in our life. God becomes a human being, a human baby, a human body and mind, with human eyes and ears, with human hands and feet, a human voice, a human heartbeat. God himself takes on our life, our sorrows. He experiences our world. He sees our traumas, understands our heartaches, weeps at our bereavement and then suffers, he embraces our death. Not simply so that he can say that he did it, but so that he can, by His transforming power defeat it, and remake our broken humanity, remake our broken lives, undo what sin has done and is doing, undo the end that death has made for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve. Matthew quotes Isaiah the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’
God with us. That is the good news that Christmas brings. Not that we get more stuff. As if that ever solved any of our problems. Not that we are left alone by a distant God to carry on with the same attitudes and behaviours and hardness of heart that has brought each of us precisely to this point of desperation. Not that God has made a way for us to come to him, when not a single religion of this world has ever made the difference we so desperately need. Instead God Himself has not waited for us to get our acts together and to come to Him. Rather, He has come to us. He becomes one of us. He knows us and loves us precisely as we are, precisely where we are. The good news of Christmas is Emmanuel. God Himself with us. And when He opens our blind eyes and softens our hard heart, and we see Him, our salvation can actually now begin.