Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary, World Council of Churches (WCC)
Sermon, Chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva
8 January 2020
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,
17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Dear sisters and brothers,
I WISH YOU ALL A BLESSED AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I hope you all have had or have a blessed time celebrating Christmas and the coming of the new year.
I am among those who have the privilege to have good and strong feelings about Christmas.
As long as I can remember the special ambiance, the signs, the light, the smells, the music, all of this - in the local community, in the school, in the church, and particularly in our home has given me a sense of being happy about our Christian faith. There is something with Christmas that makes religion very human, very tangible, very open for anybody to celebrate and enjoy.
I remember I wrote an essay at high school about Christmas celebrations, and condemned the commercialization and the superficial dimensions of Christmas celebrations. We should focus on the real essence, the Christian message of Christmas, not this superficial joy, I argued. I remember it well because my teacher, a wise and sharp woman, responded by giving me a lower note than I expected, saying: “Olav, you are too narrow minded. Life is not either-or, you think it can be either-or, but you cannot separate essence of life or faith from the external dimensions of life like that. Rituals and symbols can have many meanings to different people. They might express the meaning of Christmas in what they do, not only in what they think.”
I did not agree then, but I have understood more and more what she meant. Since then I have been reminded every Christmas to have respect, even some reverence for how the stories, the signs, the symbols, the songs – all of this – can open up for joy, fellowship, and for worship of Christ – far beyond what we see the rest of the year.
Since then I have also learned more about how happy times also can be the worst times, times for the sore and sometimes difficult, even dangerous emotions. So much talk about joy – and at the same time such strong feelings of what has been lost, family members, relations, and weak hopes or no hope for something better. It can be the time of the missing joy.
Still, the message of light in darkness can enter into many people’s lives at Christmas. They can guide us - the rose that can blossom in the winter, the sign of the power of life in the child that is born out there with no space for the Holy family in the inns, the stories of adoration of the child - all this expressions of contrasts, of unfathomable contrasts. They keep us fascinated, even if we do not understand them.
Later as a student of theology I have learned to love the theology of incarnation: God is not in the past as a first mover, God is not just an idea, God is not without passion, God is not far away. God is not bound to the power structures of this world, to the contrary.
The incarnation is a sign of God’s love for us human beings, us human beings who also do what is wrong, we who are sinners and victims of the sins of others. The incarnation is a sign of God’s love to the whole of humanity. The incarnation is the sign of God’s love for the whole created world even. Today we have to read the words about God’s love for the world so that he sent his only Son as a sign of God’s love for all creation. All that God has created is included in the Christmas story.
I have to admit, that I do not really follow the reflections on why he did not use all the power to give himself earthly power, glory, wealth and splendour. After seeing how power can be abused in the name of religion, even our faith in Jesus Christ, I find it much more consistent that God is born among the very ordinary people in their struggle and their suffering. The declaration of the spiritual advisor to the White House claiming that as “holy ground” because President Trump is there is now, is one of the worst blasphemies I have heard. But it is echoing what many has said and done through the history.
Still, my dear sisters and brothers, as much as I find the joy in the pondering and the celebration of this mystery, there is something I like even more in our faith in the incarnation.
I more and more like Luke 4 more than Luke 2, at least that Luke 4 comes immediately after Luke 2. I like the practice of the incarnation even better than the reflections on the story of the incarnation.
We do not need to understand the mystery of incarnation. We do not need to pretend that I understand it, even. We can just hear what Jesus says he is here to do, as God among human beings. He is the creator that becomes the liberator. He is the God who sees, who understands, and who does what is needed for the salvation of us and this world.
The self-presentation of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at epiphany, the revelation of who he is and why he is here, transfers our reflections and emotions, whether they are good or bad, to a focus on the others, to those who need Jesus Christ and his ministry of liberation, of healing, of accompaniment. Hence, his self-revelation, the epiphany, moves our attention to those who need us.
To follow Jesus Christ, to believe in the message of Jesus Christ, is to go, tell it in the mountains and everywhere, but also to do, to show it in the mountains and everywhere, that change is possible.
Yesterday I talked to a person leading a project to protect the rainforests of the world for the sake of our climate and future of the planet. He asked: Can you as churches do more to help us to make a difference? I answered that I hope so, that we have to, by even giving a reference to Christmas and the incarnation. God has called us to love the world, the air, the forests, the seas – everything through the incarnation. “But can you talk about grace in this situation?”, he asked. Is there some grace in all that is happening, isn’t it a result of our human mistakes, the revenge of nature? I answered by quoting the executive committee statement from November: “It is time for a change, it is time for metanoia for all of us.” Grace is that it is never too late to change, to turn to the world, to those who need real transformation, ourselves and the world.
We are on our way from Christmas into the new year: We are called to move from pondering to wandering, from staying to moving, from discussing to doing. This is the strongest expression we can give of our faith in the incarnation, as a sign of hope for the world.
Let us pray:
God of life, God of grace, God of love!
Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
As we begin the new year of 2020, we come to you in thanksgiving, and in prayer.
God our Creator,
We give you thanks
for the year of 2019,
and for the year 2020,
that you have given us to live together
as your creation and with all your creation,
as your beloved human beings,
as one human family.
We thank you for all who have seen and received
true signs of your love,
through the splendour of your creation
and through the generosity of other human beings,
but also, through realities of justice and peace
signs of the presence of your Kingdom among us.
At this day we also come to you with our prayers
for all those who have experienced that their lives also in this new year
have been filled with sorrows, fear, violence and death,
for all those who have lost their expectations
for a better day of tomorrow,
for a happy new year to come.
God in your mercy,
You hear our prayers for those who thirst and long
for justice and peace:
you hear the cries of our nature
for care and protection.
Give us, o Jesus Christ,
the courage to convey
the embrace and presence
you have offered
through your suffering, death and resurrection.
Let us begin this year in Your Holy name, o Jesus Christ,
the name you were given
because you were sent to save us from our sins.
You were there
To announce the year of God’s favour.
You are here
To strengthen our hope.
You will be there
in what comes
to give us your love.
Give us, o Holy Spirit,
that each one of us,
and the one, Holy Church,
and the one and whole world
can be united in hope,
moved by Christ’s love.