A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 12 December 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading of address: Ezekiel 36: 24-28
They say Christmas is for children but what if life has beaten you down and dried you out and your spirit is old and world-weary and cynical? The 25th of December is nearly upon us and what if you can’t get back into Narnia?
We’re used to coming to Christmas through the thinking of the first theologians of the church in the first four centuries after Christ. This focusses on the gentile experience of stumbling upon a stable with a poor but cosy family surrounded by animals, dazzling angels, bashful shepherds surrounding cuteness personified, full divinity and full humanity.
But there’s another way to get to Christmas. It’s a lesser trodden path, darker, with less fairy dust. This is the route to Christmas through the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, through Judaism, through the Exile. I’ve taken last week and this week’s sermon to try to open up for us a new way into Christmas.
Last week we looked at the overview of Ezekiel. How Israel as a nation was out of place. It was out of place physically, with their king and many of their temple priests having been carried off as slaves to Babylon, including Ezekiel himself. And it was out of place spiritually as they had changed the focus in the temple away from the worship of their God towards other gods they had brought in from the surrounding area. In a vision Ezekiel sees the arc of the covenant had left the temple and was heading East to be with the people in Babylon. And eventually he hears that there has been a final attack on Jerusalem and the city walls were breached. The Temple was destroyed, the arc was carried off as plunder. The most precious thing they had was broken. Just where you thought it was the end prophesies start coming of God’s Spirit coming to revive the scattered dry bones of Israel, to blow them back into bodies and to bring Israel back to home. The Temple will be rebuilt more beautiful than ever. Topaz and gold. New priests and new systems of worship and that from that temple in the most beautiful city imaginable would flow a river that would bring life and healing to the most desolate places on earth. Israel would finally take the place they were called to be as a blessing to the nations. This sermon is intended to be part of that river.
Last week we were looking at a new home. This week we’re looking at a new heart. Do you ever look at someone else wish you could have a less world-weary heart? You could call my sermon today Christmas for Cynics.
The 2020 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a story about the children’s television presenter Fred Rogers and a fictionalised version the interview he gave to investigative journalist, Tom Junod’s interview in Esquire Magazine in 2017. Similarly to Ezekiel, Fred (the real Fred) trained as a Baptist minister but due to financial pressures ended up getting involved with children’s television, discovering that he could share his message there. The depiction of Fred in the film is accurate but Tom’s story has been adapted to be a reflection on cynicism so his character is called Lloyd, Lloyd Vogel.
The film opens with a few scenes including Lloyd presenting a journalism award with the words “It’s so wonderful to be surrounded by so many of my fellow misfits tonight. Why do we do investigative journalism? It’s because, quite frankly, doing anything else doesn’t seem like living at all. We get a front row seat to history. We get to expose the truth that others cannot see. And sometimes just sometimes, we get to change a broken world with our words.”
The writer John Ortberg says “The dynamic beneath cynicism is a fear of accepting responsibility of other’s humanity and our own. Scratch the surface of any cynic, and you will find a wounded idealist underneath. But because of previous pain or disappointment, they detach and try to see themselves as set apart.”
The thing about cynicism is that once you’re in it, it’s hard to imagine that any other way of life is possible. Like Lloyd we tell ourselves it’s a better way, but it’s really that it has become the only way we can do life.
Two thirds of the book of Ezekiel is him trying to wake Israel up to how cynical they have become and the consequences of their cynicism.
We tend to think of cynics as atheists but the real heart of cynicism is broader than simple question of belief in God. Cynicism is about whether we cherish people and the planet and our relationship with God or whether we try to look after number one and use people and the world. And whether we only want a relationship with a god who is useful to us. Cynicism is a life-raft for one.
For Lloyd his life raft is his work. He can have a transactional relationship with his work – he produces short articles that efficiently and insightfully destroy well loved characters in American society showing everyone that they are the hypocritical frauds that he always assumed they were. He’s well recognised for this. He’s makes a living from it. He’s paid, not a lot but enough to get by. He wins awards.
For Israel their cynicism means they change their affections from Yahweh to more useful gods, the gods of their neighbours who seem to have better luck than they do. They leave the arc of the covenant in the back room, and they move in large stone representations of Egyptian and Assyrian gods and move the focus of the temple around them.
You may remember from last week, two thirds of the way through the book of Ezekiel, disaster strikes. Babylon finally breaches the city walls and Jerusalem falls. The Temple (their spiritual home) is destroyed, broken into rubble with all its treasures, including the golden arc of the covenant, carried off for plunder.
Two thirds of the way through the film, Lloyd realises his father who deserted the family as his mother got seriously unwell, that father is now somewhat reformed. His father is also now dying and wants to make amends. The thing Lloyd dreads is happening – he has to face up to his childhood. He confronts his father saying what he wished he could have said as a child, but now with the cutting power of an adult. “You know they tell you that dying is peaceful, that they just slip away. Mom screamed as she went. She screamed till she passed out then they revived her and she was right back there. It was just me and Loraine [his little sister] with the nurses. Sign the paperwork, pack up the house, put her in the ground.”
The weight of Lloyd’s words send his father into a painful physical spasms that puts him in hospital. Lloyd can’t cope with this and abandons his wife and baby to make their way home in the middle of the night as he leaves town, for work.
For both Israel and Lloyd the worst thing possible has happened and they are incapable of taking the responsibility to fix it.
But just when this happens a ray of light arrives.
God speaks through Ezekiel to promise to take Israel’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh so they can love their God and follow his commandments in loving others. God promises he will blow his spirit into them so they can start afresh. You might remember the story of the bones coming back together into people last week. When you are loved you are always new. A new burst of love means they become fresh.
Israel is given a new future. God promises to take them out of slavery and bring them back to the promised land. God promises there will be a new Temple, beautiful and more brilliant than before, with new priests and a new form of worship. There’ll be a new leader – a new King David, especially chosen to lead them into life.
Israel is given a new past. The broken years are given a new significance. They are able to look back on it with a little less bitterness. The thing they feared most, the destruction of their beloved temple is now called “the removal of their heart of stone”. Rather than being just a story of loss, it’s one half of a story of hope. To some extent this destruction brought them back to God.
Eventually the captives are set free and given the ability to walk the 500 miles home. The walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt and they construct a new Temple. It’s not quite the one in the vision, there’s no topaz, not quite so much dazzling gold, it’s not quite so big, but it’s a temple and it’s in Jerusalem.
Their city too is not quite as they’d hoped. It’s still occupied, this time by the violent and oppressive Roman Empire, but they are there at least… most of them. Writers at the time talk about the Exile not feeling over, but it’s a makeshift version of the prophesy… the best they could build with what they have available.
They have sort of a new past and sort of a new future. But it may surprise you to know what they really need is a new present.
The transformation for Lloyd comes not through an achievement of his but through a gift. The gentle presence of Mr Rogers in the parts of his life that he was trying to escape from, the broken parts, the human parts, his family. Firstly, with his constructed family with his wife and new baby, then with his family of origin with their (perhaps) less sophisticated tastes and humble lives. He finds himself watching a sports game with his dad, now in the final stages of his illness, and drinking a glass of whiskey at 4 in the morning because that was his dad’s invitation to be with him. Surprisingly to Lloyd he finds he is becoming quite fond of them. His work takes on a new humanity. His heart is melting and he is able to love his own son for the first time and face up to the responsibilities of loving another human being with needs. He even offers to work part time so he can look after him and let his wife return to her work.
For Israel the present arrives one day when a new temple appears just outside of Jerusalem. Its not a temple they have built through the sweat of their brows, this temple is a gift. This temple is small, about the size of a rugby ball, but it is big enough to hold every Jewish person who has ever lived.
This new heart of their nation, this new way to connect with God, gives them a new, more hopeful future. It gives them a new past but it also gives them a new present.
Have you ever held a baby born into your family for the first time? Have you ever cradled a little bundle of human need in your arms, a person who is totally unable to take care of themselves and will make demands on you at all times of day and night? Have you ever held a baby and forgotten all of what love of them will demand from you, overwhelmed by the life transforming awe that they are miraculously new and miraculously part of you and miraculously yours?
The little baby born into Israel’s family was powerless yet utterly transformative. This baby changed a broken world not with words, not with righteous indignation or detached judgements pinpointing what is wrong with humanity, not with cynicism, but by being with them.
The thing that was always intended to be, has come to pass. Like engaging with a baby, this reality cannot be understood by cold observation. This reality has to be entered into.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote
“So the Christmas message for all men runs: You are accepted. God has not despised you, but he bears in his body all your flesh and blood. Look at the cradle! In the body of the little child. In the incarnate son of God, your flesh, all your distress, anxiety, temptation, indeed all your sin, is borne, forgiven and healed.”
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
The stone centre of Israel’s existence, the place God dwelt with them, their temple, their heart is now not made of stone, but of vulnerable, movable, human flesh.