St Stephen, Lewisham
Christmas Morning, 2000
The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory
Dr Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently described Britain as "a nation of atheists".
This was a careless use of words. Let me explain who atheists and agnostics really are, and you will see that they are not the sort of people George Carey is talking about.
An atheist is someone who has carefully considered all the available evidence and decided that there is no such being as God. There have always been atheists around; but there have always been equally intelligent people like you and me who have looked at the same evidence and decided that the facts point to the existence of a supernatural God.
Agnostics, properly speaking, are people who are perfectly certain that if there is a God we can't know anything about him; or if we could it wouldn't make any difference to us. So far from being people who "aren't sure" about whether God exists or not (which is the popular, but mistaken use of the word Agnostic) their beliefs are as clear-cut as the convinced Christian or Atheist. To the agnostic, the whole idea of man being able to know God, let alone being able to communicate with him (or vice versa) is inconceivable.
So Dr Carey is confusing everyone by calling contemporary man an atheist, or for that matter an agnostic. He's wrong, because the people he's describing, unlike real atheists, haven't given five minutes serious thought to what they believe or don't believe in. The most that belief means for them is a vague sort of feeling that God, if he exists, isn't worth bothering about; and that feeling doesn't deserve to stand alongside the carefully thought-out belief of the atheist and the agnostic.
So let's get back to the good old-fashioned bible word and call these people Dr Carey is talking about The Ungodly. These are the people whom the bible tells us have said in their hearts (that is, using their feelings rather than their minds) "there is no God". And the Bible goes on to say that such people are, amongst other things, fools.
There are two Golden Rules which every wise person should follow when he is in the company of foolish people. The Incarnation, which we celebrate today provides an almost perfect framework within which we can apply these rules.
Rule One tells us: Don't let the Ungodly put you off practising your faith. If you believe that God became Man, born of the Virgin Mary (and presumably you wouldn't be here this morning if you didn't believe it to be true) then don't be dismayed if the your Ungodly friends, who've never given the matter any thought, find it hard to understand why you come to Church to worship him.
If, it is true, as St John told us this morning, that "the Word became flesh and he lived among us", is it really surprising that those who have chosen to believe in him, and have become sons of God by so doing, should have a very different attitude towards Jesus Christ, and lead significantly different lives from those who have chosen not to do so? Sooner or later these two types of people are bound to go different ways. AS Fr Kirk was reminding us yesterday, if we believe God chose to be born as a baby, and if the begetting and bearing an upbringing of children is the most obvious way in which God involves men and women in his work of creation, then no baby, however troublesome, however inconvenient, however handicapped can possibly be viewed as something to be got rid of by abortion in order to further "my happiness", "my career" or "my convenience".
Golden Rule Two says that, in our dealings with the Ungodly, we should always be trying to understand things from their point of view as well as our own. No matter how mistaken we believe them to be, if we want to turn them away from their mistakes we first need to understand why they make them in the first place.
So how does Mr or Mrs Ungodly feel about what you and I believe? It goes something like this:
"Well, if you ask me, I don't think much of this God you believe in! I don't see him; I don't hear him; I can't touch him. What on earth's the use of a God who's Up There, above the bright blue sky?"
To each of these objections, the Incarnation provides us with a simple reply:
The Incarnation tells us that God became man, that the Word was made flesh and lived among us precisely in order that we humans could get some idea of what God is really like. Or to put it another way, the Word of God, who was with the Father in the beginning, was translated out of one language (which we couldn't understand, the heavenly language) into a much simpler, earthly one that we can just begin to understand. St John, in another book of the Bible says to his friends:
"The Word, who existed in the beginning, whom we have heard, and seen with our eyes and watched and touched with our hands is whom we're telling you about"
Of course our understanding of God will never be perfect even so. But to know what God is like, we can do no better than look at Jesus, hear what he said and did, see the effect he had on his contemporaries. Listen to him as his word is read and preached to us every Sunday. In every reading, every sermon, God is saying at least one thing to you and to you alone. But don't just come to Church to listen. Feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving in the Blessed Sacrament of his body and Blood. You can't get much nearer to somebody than that, can you?
If we apply these two Golden Rules: Stand firm in your own faith, regardless of how many others do not; and Try and look at things through the eyes of the Ungodly, then two things will happen. One is that Mr and Mrs Ungodly will tend to take us far more seriously than they otherwise would. The other is that we shall stop worrying about how other people choose to celebrate their midwinter revels. We can joyfully celebrate our Christ-mass, secure in the faith that God has made us his children by adoption and grace, and then happily join in the general festivities knowing that God has made all things well, and that the enjoyment of his creation is something which the Incarnation has given us assurance.
The difference between ourselves and the Ungodly is contained in our respective beliefs about the Incarnation. We know him in whom we have believed and whose birthday today we celebrate; they celebrate they know not what nor why.
Let us pray to God that one day they will exchange their foolishness for wisdom. They may be wise in their own eyes, but the beginning of wisdom, so the bible tells us, is to fear the Lord and depart from evil.
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