It’s almost Christmas.  For many churches that means nativity plays and carol services.  For Dunfermline URC those will come later so this morning presented a bit of a challenge.  How to preach on Christmas… before it’s Christmas.

This is what I came up with.  Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

Sermon Text (for those who like to read)

When the world was dark
And the city was quiet,
You came.

You crept in beside us.

And no-one knew.
Only the few
Who dared to believe
That God might do something different.

This has been a slightly strange Advent for me and I don’t think I’m the only one.  I spend quite a lot of time at my desk and I am, believe it or not, a bit of an internet geek.  I have a blog and I spend some of each day reading other people’s websites for inspiration and ideas.  I use a great tool called Twitter, which allows me to keep in contact with my pals through the day using short messages like texts.

As Advent has unfolded I have had a growing sense that this year is different.  It’s hard to put your finger on but there seems to be lots of chatter about meaning, understanding and depth.

For me some of that is the lectionary’s fault.  There seems to be a reluctance to actually get to Christmas this year.  In preparation for the 1st Sunday in Advent I asked my network what we should sing.  Carols came the reply but they just didn’t fit with the readings about no-one knowing the day or the hour.

I’m a big fan of context.  I think we need to have a go at understanding what was happening when a passage was written to help us make sense of it.  Knowing what was going on, who the writer was talking to, where they were and what had happened to them helps us to get into a story.

The story of Christ’s birth is such an easy one to forget to think about.  It’s so easy to get caught up in stables and starlight.  We seem to have been given a real look into Christmas this year and it would be so wrong of us not to take the chance to delve a little deeper.

Part of our problem is that this year’s Gospel is Mark and he just launches into the story.  There’s no long list of relatives to place Jesus in a line of succession from Abraham through King David and there is none of the poetry of John’s complex and beautiful gospel opening about the Word being with God and becoming flesh.  He’s in so much of a hurry that we have to turn to the other gospels for the story of Mary’s conception and for the birth of Jesus.

Mark is in a hurry.  He wants to get on with the story and so he starts with Isaiah’s prophecy and John the Baptist.  That for us, well for me anyway, has put more emphasis on the Old Testament readings for Advent.  Isaiah’s prophecies, the book of Samuel and even all the way back to the Creation writings of Genesis.

You see the story of the birth of the Messiah doesn’t begin with Mary’s conception.  It begins at the beginning of all things.  In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God.  And through the Word all things were created.

God created the world.  He created man and woman and gave them Eden, a paradise, to live in.  The story goes downhill quickly from there doesn’t it?  Pretty soon the people are separated from God, thrown out of Eden for disobeying God.  A broken relationship lies right at the heart of our story.  A divorce, a separation, a split.

And so the people go off and do their own thing.  God eventually has enough and decides to start over.  The flood comes but God doesn’t decide to kill everyone does he?  No.  Noah and his family are chosen to be the ones to start again.

Noah has a very human reaction to the end of the flood.  When the waters go down and everything and everyone he has known is gone he gets drunk.  He drowns his pain.

Predictable things go downhill again and eventually God sends the Israelites into exile in Egypt where they will be slaves.  The people are broken.  Only then does God raise up a leader to lead them out of captivity and into the Promised land.  Moses leads the people through the Red Sea into the desert.  And despite saving the people, despite feeding them with manna and quails, the people rebel as soon as Moses goes off up the mountain to talk with God.

Have you ever noticed that the first two commandments are in the first person and all the rest are in the third person?  Scholars have speculated that God spoke to the people directly and they couldn’t handle it.  Remember when God appears to Moses he does it through the burning bush and when he passes Moses by he places Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him because God’s glory would be too much for Moses to bear.

Even in the desert when the people have been saved there is rebellion.  So God makes them wait.  40 years in the desert.  And then the promised land.

Things go along for a while and David makes it to the throne.  His life is chequered to say the least but he loves God.  He has a son, Solomon, who becomes king next.  Solomon has it all.  Riches, wisdom and power.  And he uses it to build armies, to get richer.  He neglects his people.  He builds a massive temple but he neglects God.  He doesn’t pass on all the blessings he has been given to his people.

Eventually the Babylonians come and the Israelites find themselves weeping in exile again, just a generation from Israel’s golden age.  Another chance lost.  Another generation who just can’t seem to get along with God.

It is those people, those exiles, that Isaiah speaks to with those words from the first Sunday in Advent, ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.’

A broken relationship.

And yet hope remains.

‘Comfort, comfort my people’, says your God.

Hope.  There is always hope.  The second exile ends and the people return home to find everything gone.  The Temple is destroyed, the city of Jerusalem flattened, its walls torn down.  But God is still there.

The people rebuild but then the Romans appear.  More occupation and suppression and oppression.

That is our context.  It is into that story of broken relationship, of oppression and slavery and disobedience and shame that God speaks hope.

Hope that God still loves us, even though throughout history we have repeatedly broken the covenant, the relationship, the promise.

Hope must be our context.  Hope that God hasn’t given up on us, and God’s hope that we haven’t given up on him.  The same hope of the exile.

Our problem seems to be that for all of history we don’t understand.  We just don’t get that God loves us.  We just don’t understand that all we have to do is keep some pretty simple rules.  We just don’t realise that we are the only ones who have broken the relationship with God.  We all amass our wealth or build our temples like Solomon, we all value things other than God, we all think we can manage by ourselves.

And we end up in our own exile.

Exile is when you forget your story.  Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul.  Exile is when you fail to convert your blessings into blessings for others.  Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God.

So God comes to us because we are too stubborn to come to him.

For Mark that’s the point.  It’s not that the birth of Jesus isn’t important, just that for him the bigger picture seems to matter more.  The history and politics and sense of exile are the background for him.  They are the setting in which God arrives here, on Earth with us.  Tradition has it that Mark was writing to a persecuted and suffering community, perhaps in Rome.  A community in exile.

So we turn to Luke and Matthew to tell us the story of birth.  The angels and shepherds and wise men are theirs, and yet in many ways John and Mark give us perhaps a more compelling view of God’s arrival.

In a time of exile
When the world was dark
And the city was quiet,
God came.

God crept in beside us.

And no-one knew.
Only the few
Who dared to believe
That God might do something different.


‘When the world was dark’ taken from Cloth For the Cradle by The Wild Goose Worship Group.

‘Exile’ quote from Jesus Wants to Save Christians Too by Rob Bell.

1 thought on “Exile”

  1. Excellent! Great perspective.

    The continual story of God and Jesus and the manger MUST be about hope. It must be about hope and good news for all.

    “Comfort! Comfort for my people!”

    I can hear Walter Brueggeman yelling that at Mars Hill every time I think about it.

    “Comfort! Comfort for my people!”

    “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.

    Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

    Great stuff. Hope lives on!

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