Reality or Fantasy?

Well, I hope that sometime this Christmas you sank back into a comfy chair and watched a good film on the TV, or went and saw a new one, as I will on Monday when I go and see The Hobbit Part 2!  Yes, from The Hobbit via Harry Potter to Atlantis, not to mention endless fantasy Computer games, our world is full of wonderful stories that we can escape into, whenever we feel the need. Those of you who think you don’t like fantasy, probably forget that soaps are a kind of fantasy as well!  And I include Downton and Last Tango in that lot! And then, of course, there are the thrillers ….  wonderful! 

And almost all of us know only too well that it is all pretend. We know that the real world is different, but often it is these stories, whichever one’s we like, that help us to cope with the daily reality that we all have to face at other times. Indeed you could argue that it is because so many of the real stories we hear are so depressing, that we need more and more of these other stories that are entertaining. For although they may have some tough tearful bits they always have a happy ending.

The experts say that about 70% of people here in Britain would call themselves “religious” and celebrate Christmas, but far far fewer actually “believe” the Christmas story… that God chose to become a human being like us in the man Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem. 

The problem, I think, is that although many people believe firmly that there is a power of love and goodness underlying the universe, when it comes to the Christmas stories of the birth of Jesus, then they adopt a different thought process.  They may still love the stories, but they put them in the wrong place in their mind.. along with The Films and the Soaps… Lovely stories, but NOT real.  And this is not helped by the fact that in more ancient times, the sharp division we make between story and reality was not made, and so the biblical writers think it quite OK to explain the meaning of the real event, the birth of a baby called Jesus, with stories that many people today would treat as unreal – angels and the like.

This also goes for God. Many people simply reject God because they think of “God” as a story for children with no real meaning. Indeed some atheists will actually say that it is wicked to teach children about God because we are teaching them to rely on a fantasy – there’s that word again – rather than on reality. The problem here is that too many religious people present God in a way that just makes God seem like a fairy story. A nice idea far far away, and nothing more.

If we are to show that the Christmas stories are real then we need to link them in people’s minds to other real stories, and see how they bring us an experience of God. There are many moments in life where we can point to God at work in and with us, but hardened atheists usually need something pretty dramatic! The one thing I have known work here is the experience of childbirth. I know of more than one person who has returned to or discovered for the first time the presence of God in the birth of his (or her – but it is usually the man) first child. Here is something perfectly natural and very real where you find grown men saying “The birth was like a miracle.. to see my baby born right in front of me like that!”

 And that is the point of Christmas. The birth of one baby, the baby Jesus, affirms for us that the birth of every new life is a miracle from God. God then, is not some vague spiritual power, some idea, out there in the realm of fantasy, but a power that we all experience more often than we might realise.

Our problem is that like the people in Bethlehem, we don’t notice what is happening and thus miss out!  But notice the strange people in our Bible stories who do understand this! The shepherds and the wise men of course, but also later on in the story (Luke 2;22-40) two very strange people. An old man called Simeon. Upright and devout but not the correct person in the Temple who should see God’s presence for that would be one of the priests. And then that old lady Anna who had been hanging around in the Temple for 84 years.

All of us can and will find God if we remain open to him. But in our real lives, and not in some childhood story book world. The “pretend” may be fun for a while, but the true God revealed in Jesus is something quite different.

 

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Both ways of viewing things matter

Perhaps you know this poem?

What is this life if full of care,                                                                                                                                                                        We have no time to stand and stare. (W.H.Davies)

 This, of course, is what the best kind of prayer is. Not rattling onto God about our problems and concerns, although of course God does care about them and is happy to listen. No, the best prayer is when we stop, and in the silence, in the space between words, listen to God.  Now I say the space between words because silence doesn’t have to be empty of sound. Many people find complete silence over a long period pretty difficult which. We have special services here at St Peter’s called Adoration where we sit or kneel in silence for half an hour but few people come. Others however do pop into the Church through the side door which is always open in daylight hours, just for the silence and clearly find it some kind of help.

 This Christmas I want to encourage you to find silence in the midst of your busy noisy life. We often sing at Christmas of the silence of Bethlehem – “Silent Night” or “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” – but actually, outside that stable, all would have been bustle and noise, wouldn’t it? That’s why there was no room in the Inn! Even inside the stable, Mary and Joseph would have been talking to one another, and later to those visiting shepherds. The silence then was the silence within the words, a silence that we can only be part of if we are prepared to open our hearts to God.

But where do we find this God that we religious people talk about. Actually we need to realise that to find God, we need to look at ordinary things in more than one way. Let me explain. We might look at a beautiful sunset and explain it in terms of the rays of the setting sun being changed as we see them through the earth’s atmosphere. Meteorologist would do a better job than I can. Or we can look at the same sunset and be simply moved by its beauty. Or we might look at a man or a woman and see only just another human being. But if that person is someone we know or love, we see them completely differently. In the same way we can hear noise the sound of children playing for example, as either something to disturb and annoy us, or something that makes us happy.

The Christmas story then can be seen just as an incident in history, perhaps slightly exaggerated by those who wrote it up. It certainly would have been that way for most people around at the time – just another baby born in difficult circumstances – as many are being born today in many parts of the world. Or it can be seen as an event that changed the world, an event where God was present in a special way. It is the same for the whole of the life of Jesus – either a strange history of just one 1st Century holy man who got himself killed, or as the eternal power that is God present in a special and unique way in the life of one man, and then present thereafter in the group of friends he left behind who were soon called “Christians” – or “The Gathering” Ekklesia in Greek. The Church in English.

 Yes. God is eternal. God is the power outside time and space, and yet this God, we proclaim at Christmas, chooses to meet us in time and space in ordinary things that have extraordinary significance. We can just look and listen to ordinary things and see and hear nothing extraordinary at all, but if we do we have missed out on a big meaningful chunk of life. Here in the Church of Jesus Christ we do what he taught us to do, to look and to understand, to listen and to hear. Find God in the beauty underlying all that we see, and in the silence underlying all noise We have to do both to sense the presence of God, and thus to be fully human.