The Last Growl
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
30 December 2012 (THE FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS)
The Last GrowlToday is the sixth day of Christmas, and having set aside the six geese a laying (plus the accruing gifts of rings, poultry and birds from your true love) Britain has already since St Stephen’s Day assaulted the High Street, the shopping mall and the website for bargains and discounts.
It takes me back to a childhood visit to an auntie and uncle, cousins and Benji the dog. I have in fact forgotten his name and although it is quite unimportant, I have racked my memory for days – and to no avail. So until my family remind me, it has to be Benji.
My uncle Donald had a particular relationship with Benji: one of smouldering emotion and frustration. Benji was not a particularly good or bad dog bur certain doggie behaviour has to be restrained and retrained for the wellbeing of family life ...particularly at meal times. And so Benji’s master would forbid, remonstrate and discipline his canine friend and every time, Benji would have the last ‘growl’.
The rest of the family thought it was hilarious but not my uncle. It touched a raw spot within and goaded him to respond ...yet every time there would emit the subtlest and faintest growl. The results were pyrotechnic and hilarious except for Uncle Donald.
The naughty rebel eventually paid the ultimate price in getting run over in the quiet and picturesque village.
I am recalling this memory because in a similar way, whatever God says and does and is, we humans rebel by disagreeing, holding out to do things our way and growl back whether it be from the rooftops or sotto voce under the table.
Amidst the reality of God’s entrance personally into history, we cannot bear it for very long or even at all and we would rather seek pleasure, security and comfort in things and ourselves.
By contrast with this unflagging obsession with material things and the fleeting, comfort, pleasure and security of possessions, the Biblical story of God and his birth in Jesus is poetry and drama.
And because of this, it takes us by surprise and to places beyond the physical and logical into the emotional, the spiritual and the eternal.
Instead we would rather shop and continue with the wars and injustices and neglect that are the abiding hallmark of human history.
Apart from the sales, the world around us is into the New Year with a retrospect of 2012: the Diamond Jubilee the Olympics and Paralympics, the weather, births and deaths, the wars the economic bleakness, the political landmarks and faux pas and now the New Year’s Honours.
The birth of Jesus seems to be soon forgotten and already today’s Gospel reading takes us forward in time by twelve years. Jesus is almost a teenager and eligible to be an adult member of the Jewish community.
And here in the Temple, he listens to and discusses with the men of learning, including the sort of people who speak and vote in General Synods.
But what have we done since? We have tried and executed him and forgotten the meaning and purpose of his life.
We have to change. And our readings reinforce this.
In the First Book of Samuel, each year Hannah visits Samuel and brings him a new robe. And this robe has to be large enough to allow the boy to grow.
Not only is this a practical truth but it also teaches us about the nature of prayer and the spiritual life.
We have to grow – that is what it is to be a human being and to pass through the dimension of time. And the change of growth can never be truly guessed but must always be allowed for.
So often religion is resorted to or relied upon to be a constant support in a changing and uncertain world.
But faith is that very essential that Hannah showed in making Samuel a new coat – room for growth and change.
And as St Paul says in his Letter to the Colossians, as God’s holy ones we must be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.
These are the qualities and graces that enable growth and change according to God’s will and purpose.
And that is what the 12-year old Jesus showed in our Gospel reading.
A growth and change that surprised and even shocked Mary and Joseph. All those who saw and heard Jesus sitting among the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem were amazed at his understanding and answers.
And just as Jesus listened and asked questions, so Joseph and Mary did not understand. They assumed that they were Jesus’ parents and why would Jesus want to be anywhere other than with them? How did they know where to look? Why did Jesus say: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?
This is neither pre-adolescent nor adolescent behaviour.
This is more disturbing and unsettling - and not the kind of growth and change that is ever to be expected.
And yet the story ends:
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
So what of the Church’s growth in divine and human favour in 2013?
We continue to ‘growl’ and answer back in our habitual and selfish and fearful ways.
Sexuality and gender overwhelm our ability to live a freedom that comes from God – in which our common life is renewed and refashioned by love and not by law alone.
It is a hard and risky way of living but it alone is true to Jesus Christ. And as we gather on the threshold of 2013 let us remember the Church in the lands of the Bible.
Our brothers and sisters in the faith need help, real help. We must pray and work hard to see what we can practically do.
In the latest edition of The Tablet, John Pontifex reported back from a Christian family in a city, Qatana, only 15 miles south west of Damascus but cut off and feeling desperately abandoned and threatened.
Prior to the uprising against President Assad, Syrian Christians were able openly to celebrate Christmas. But today tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes, and those who remain live in fear. Reports show how in many parts of the Middle East the Arab “Spring” has led to a disaster – especially for Christians.
Nobody is safe in Syria but as Christmas approached, Christians felt particularly vulnerable. A parish priest of St Elias Greek Orthodox Church was found on a roadside near Damascus on 25 October. His eyes had been gouged out and his body badly mutilated.
Back in the spring, reports stated that the Christian population of Homs in western Syria had plummeted from 150,000 to barely 160 after a wave of violence centring on the Christian quarter. At least eight of the city’s churches – many of them places of rich antiquity – had been desecrated and left in ruins.
But the crisis is not in Syria alone.
In barely a decade, the Christian population in Iraq plummeted from more than 800,000 to fewer than 300,000. As long as the violence, intimidation and general instability continue, emigration is likely to show no sign of abating. And this applies to other parts of the Middle East, not least Egypt where it was reported that 100,000 Christians left the country within six months of President Mubarak’s downfall.
His departure prompted a sudden increase in attacks on churches and the faithful as well as a new political “spring” for Islamist groups, including the violent Salafist extremists.
The slaughter of the Innocent continues. God, Yahweh or Allah – which ever name is invoked – cannot sanction the murderous growls of intolerance that so many people of faith and no faith utter.
The Saviour born in Bethlehem makes enormous and unfamiliar demands of us. His life is surprise and sacrifice; his death brings new life, grace and hope.
As Christians we must forget the luxury of trivia in our Church’s life and live for the world that Jesus was born to save.
Forget the surprises of geese a laying, gold rings, calling birds, French hens, turtle doves or a partridge in a pear tree.
Listen to this surprise from God – and please don’t growl back!!