The Unreasonable Dream
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
29 December 2013, 10:30 (The First Sunday of Christmas)Scientists tell us that we all dream. And also that we dream every night or almost every night.
I can but rarely remember my dreams whereas Ruth and our daughter Sophie seem to dream like Hollywood blockbusters
For many years I never knew if I dreamed in colour or black and white (unlike Ruth and Sophie who dream in full and vivid ‘Technicolor’!) and I have certainly never made a decision based on what I have dreamt.
What a contrast with the Biblical world where the ancient world paid great score by dreams and their meaning.
Today’s gospel passage and the fate of Jesus lies with Joseph’s dream in which an angel warns him to take flight into Egypt to escape the murderous and imminent threat of King Herod.
It is strange that in our world of today, there is rampant scepticism about faith, not because fanaticism and intolerance alone have become stumbling blocks but in our 21st century civilisation, it is thought that the case for atheism is more reasonable and more likely than the existence of God.
And this increased dismissal of mystery and the transcendent has occurred over a century which has seen the re-evaluation of dreams, the sub-conscious and the inner world of the psyche.
At least a third of our lives are spent asleep when the values and activities of our waking world are put on hold and we experience another dimension of being.
St Joseph did not dismiss the angel’s message in his dream and so saved his wife and his new born son from the evil jealousy of King Herod.
Jesus becomes a refugee and an exile right at the start of his earthly life and this underlines the commitment of God and his intimate presence in the incarnation.
He risks and suffers; he identifies completely with our human frailty and violability.
And his kingship of love and humility threatens the powers of this world in every age.
But it does so at a cost: the massacre of the holy innocents is an intrinsic part of Christmas, and the cost of God among us.
I cannot and will not even attempt to explain the mystery of suffering but somehow infanticide and the wailing grief of parents and family is woven into the hope and redemption beyond time.
We measure so much by the length of our lives and notions such as achievements and legacy but within the economy of love, worth is computed differently. This is the teaching of Jesus in his sermon on the Mount and it takes us all our human days to confront this mystery and be changed by it.
We would rather have easier answers and a clearer if utterly random and unjust pecking order and value system.
At this time of the year, journalists and others are looking back at the year coming to its close and listing the key events, notable news and also the deaths of the powerful and influential.
I have read several of the latter and it is fascinating to see whom they omit!
Politicians, sports personalities, business magnates, the very rich and those in show business dominate.
In only one list did I see a musician, John Tavener and all omitted Sir Colin Davies; at the same time Seamus Heaney made it only once!
That is how hit and miss fame and posterity are.
In God’s kingdom, the treasures are measured by love alone.
No wonder people in 2013 find it difficult to believe in God. We seem to demand a simplistic, egocentric world in which we all get just what we want.
Even God has to justify himself to us if he is to rank in our lives.
A Times’ journalist, Philip Collins, was baying for such in last Friday’s newspaper with the headline: Will Welby ever make the case for God?
He attacks our Archbishop for addressing greed and poverty in his Christmas sermon because he thinks the case for action against poverty doesn’t need further persuasion whilst at the same time he and the theologians merely whinge and moan about Richard Dawkins and aggressive atheism.
He ends the piece: to cite two phrases minted by Cranmer, the Anglican Church is at death’s door, given up for lost. That is because, ceding all the ground to the eloquent and learned atheist, the Church of England has not yet spoken.
The truth about God cannot be packaged as an intellectual sport; mystery and love are not balls in a tennis match that can be served and returned to win the match for or against God.
Faith uses more than just our minds. Faith asks us questions about meaning and the way we belong.
That is why religious faith involves story by which God reveals himself in time through history, the present moment and the concept of the future and beyond it.
The Bible stories are not forensic evidence but the experience of God in human living – and they are both unique and universal in that they reach out beyond the setting of their time into the human condition and expose individuals and societies to the power and presence of God.
And God is unknowable except through revelation.
The mystery of what was, what is and ever shall be is beyond my comprehension yet through personality and soul, He touches and blesses existence with meaning and purpose, with value and love.
Relationship rather than theory points us to the mystery and the presence – and it comes at the cost of our own self importance and aggrandisement.
Today our reading from Isaiah is spoken by the prophet after the return from exile and the experience of deliverance and salvation.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
In the gospel passage, God is certainly with us in Jesus, yet because of his humanity, he is incapable of lifting us up and carrying us as a giant conquering god.
Ironically, it is Joseph who will have to lift and carry the infant Jesus into the safety of exile.
God’s birth in Jesus has a darkness and consequence within our human understanding, organisation and insecurity.
We think in terms of ourselves with a cosmos revolving around us.
Even God must fit in with our preferences and prejudices or be ignored or opposed.
Perhaps that is why so many seats are empty this morning and why there are so many bereaved, maimed and broken people.
The gun, the knife, the bomb, the stick, the cross, the noose, the insult, the lie – all these and many more are the armoury we employ to ensure that life is alright for us.
Our capacity to worship God in spirit and truth, to love and laugh and celebrate is matched by the hatred and destructiveness that is hardwired into our human condition and which afflicts each generation in wars and murder, cruelty and atrocities perpetrated throughout the world.
This Christmas we are still under threat in our world by cruel and murderous mindsets.
Little children are armed for battle in the Middle East, others are tortured and exterminated.
Even in the Church of the Nativity, Christians squabble and even fight,
Back in 2007 Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests arrived at the Church of the Nativity to scrub it ready for Christmas.
The exercise led to mops and brooms at dawn.
Yes, they fought in their clerical robes for an hour with fists, brooms, iron rods and angry words, leaving five of their number injured.
None of the Christians in this holy place are trusted with the key to the church – there is only one and that is held by the caretaker, a Muslim.
No wonder we need a saviour.
God is holy, and holiness is not a commodity for our bargaining or possession.
The tiny new born Christ in Bethlehem and Egypt is seemingly insignificant and irrelevant to the politics of Judea and the Graeco-Roman world.
And yet it is God and his holiness that truly judges all time and our lives within it.
Even our fickle and ever-changing human history has been changed irreversibly by the grace of Jesus the Christ.
Let us briefly return to King Herod who dominated Bethlehem in our Gospel reading with such brutal murder.
Within his own family circle he murdered his favourite wife and three of his sons, and as he dealt out death at home and beyond, Augustus Caesar the Emperor commented bitterly:
‘Better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’.
Herod the Great died shortly after the birth of Jesus.
And what has Herod left behind?
Several ruined fortresses, the remnants of some aqueducts, theatres, walls and temples.
The Christ Child’s legacy is startlingly different – the present community of his followers comes to over two billion.
And it is the birth of Christ that rescues us from the ravages of time, the inevitability of mortality and the terrors of history.
Christmas expands our understanding of love and our capacity to share God’s love by the humility and love he shows us in Jesus.
The chilling terror of what we can do to one another in the massacre of the innocents and the evils of our news today is not the end of the story.
Here in our rational waking world is a promise that comes like a dream.
W.H. Auden put it like this at the end of his extended poem, A Christmas oratorio – For the Time Being:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.