Our first communion of Christmas was held this year at St Mary’s Avington where the wonderful chandelier was lit for the occasion. Over 50 of us attended.
The Revd Alex Pease gave the following sermon:
The pain is a symptom not the cause.
The pain is a symptom not the cause.
We have a friend who has had acute shoulder pain for years but only recently has it been diagnosed that the problem is in her spine not her shoulder at all. The pain was, in her case , a symptom not the cause.
So we have just heard the prayer that Zechariah father of John the Baptist prayed He was a priest at the temple in Jerusalem.
Let’s set the scene. The Israelites had been in exile for 70 years since the Babylonians had captured Jerusalem. They were allowed to return by the Persians who had defeated the Babylonians but then the Persians were defeated by the Greeks and for 400 years until the birth of Christ the Israelites only had a brief period of freedom from foreign invaders they had returned from exile….but they still felt enslaved
During the exile in Babylon, there had been a long history of prophesies: Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi, all constantly repeating: someone is coming; someone is coming; someone who will free us; someone who will redeem the Israelites; free them from their slavery; take away their pain;someone who will save them from their enemies
But then for 400 years there had been complete silence from God: no prophesy at all…..
And then Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist speaks the first prophesy heard in 400 years in Israel: that this baby conceived by him and his wife in her old age, named by him John in accordance with the angels instructions…. Zechariah prophesies that John will go before this promised saviour of Israel,this person who is coming, will go before him to prepare his way; that the people of Israel would be saved (verse 71′ ‘from our enemiesand from the hand of those hate us’
You see sometimes when we are suffering emotional pain, we can mistake the symptom, for the cause…
The Israelites had completely misunderstood what the prophets had been predicting. They had misunderstood what being saved from their enemies actually meant, had misunderstood who their enemies were, had misunderstood who or what the promised Messiah, the promised saviour would save them from.
Its like they were blind. They couldn’t see what the problem was…..because the misery in their lives wasn’t really caused by the succession of invading armies (although that of course did not help) it was caused by something else altogether.
When Lucy and I were living in Japan, I was running the office of the law firm and working every hour, completely unpredictably, we had two young children who were as challenging as all children that age are. Lucy was thousands of miles away from home without the support network of family and friends.
The expat church we were going to give the children some kind of western experience in a sea of Japan started to run the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity which we now also run in Itchen Valley Parish.
Lucy got me to attend. I was pretty reluctant really……
Halfway through the course, we found ourselves on holiday in paradise on a private island in the Philippines. A totally perfect location. The hotel was perfect, the weather was perfect, even the children were being delightful but Lucy and I were arguing and arguing.
But, as we took breath from our arguments to reflect….it dawned on us bothat the same time that everything around us was perfect. The problem wasn’t my work and its long unpredictable hours; wasn’t Tokyo; wasn’t the children….we realised that what we had learned on the Alpha Course about the way the world is was true:the problem was us, not the work, not Tokyo, not the children. The problem was Lucy. The problem was me. The problem was what we had allowed to take priority in our lives.
You see the problem for the Israelites was not actually the foreign invaders, the Romans. The problem was them. The problem was the Israelites, the Jews themselves and their sinfulness….
You see the real enemiesof humanity are the world, the flesh and the devil, not other human beings. The real enemy of humanity is the temptation to make created things: our houses, our jobs, our savings, even our children, our god.
The temptation is to make what our bodies want our god…..instead of making the Creator of the Universe, the creator of you and me, instead of making the one true God our god.
In short, the enemy of humanity is sin which involves living in a way which actually alienates us from the Creator God allowing the priorities of the world and our bodies to dominate in our hearts and not God’s priorities.
Once we understand that we are all sinners then we can see that we need a saviour;we can see the significance of the birth of this child 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. We can understand why John the Baptist’s ministry, which was to prepare the way for Jesus to come as Lord was a ministry of repentancefrom sin to get ready for the one who was coming.
If, over Christmas, or in the weeks and months which follow we are experiencing physical pain – we need to see a doctor! But if we experiencing emotional painas Lucy and I were on that idyllic island in the Philippines…we need to remind ourselves that the pain may bea symptom but not the cause. We need to remind ourselves that we have a saviour from our true enemies the world, the flesh and the devil, a saviour whose birth we celebrate tonight, whose life was about carrying the consequences of our sinfulness.
We need to ask that Saviour, we need to ask Jesus Christ what is the cause of our emotional agony and allow him to diagnose the problem and to lead us in repentance, where the cause is our sinfulness. And (whether it is or not) the cause of our problems, to ask the person who is coming, to ask Jesus to join us in our pain and to relieve us from its burden.
And that is precisely what he will do.
And our lives will be transformed
The reading was Luke 1:67–80(NRSV)
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.