Take it as a Compliment

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for this Service: John 1: 1-14

From an early age almost all of us have a craving for attention. A young child will sit at the top of the slide and say ‘Look at me!’ insistently before settling for the secondary pleasure of actually descending to the bottom. The real reward is the clap, the laugh, the admiration – in the case of the parent, the reflected glory that says, ‘I have produced a child that can go down a slide!’ As we grow older we get more sophisticated in our desire to be noticed and appreciated – but like the little child, often our endeavours can be undertaken as much for the acclaim that may accompany them as for their value in themselves. Yet when and if the reward does come, it invariably arrives in a different form from that which we were anticipating, and we often make a complete hash of receiving the compliment.

Let’s imagine we were invited to a Christmas party and thought long and hard about what shirt to wear: not too smart and not too casual, apparently effortless but carefully matching our eyes and shoes. Sure enough, we’ve not been at the party two minutes before someone says, ‘Lovely shirt.’ We don’t really know what the remark means. It could be a come-on, saying, ‘And a lovely body in that shirt.’ Or it could be a criticism, meaning, ‘The rest of you’s pretty awful, but at least the shirt’s ok.’ It could be a nod to our good taste, implying, ‘You clearly know what to look for in the shops.’ Or it could be a sly insult to our income level, suggesting, ‘Considering the budget you’re on, you got an artificial fibre that looks just like silk – I was almost fooled.’ Most likely it’s an innocent but tender gesture, hinting, ‘Seeing you dressed up all classy makes me realise how much I like and appreciate you.’ But all these interpretations rush through our head at the same time, and as often as not, out comes something disastrous.

We blurt out something like, ‘It’s the only thing I had in the wardrobe that didn’t need ironing.’ In the process we clumsily reveal too much about our lazy domestic habits, turn the compliment into a criticism, and deflate the whole spirit of the conversation, giving the other person nothing to say. We were trying to be humble, but we end up being almost hostile. What we should do is, succinctly and sincerely, look the person in the eye and simply say, ‘Thank you.’ But we don’t. We make it awkward, cross our arms to protect ourselves, look at the floor, maybe blush, or glance awkwardly elsewhere, as if to say we don’t trust the motives of the speaker or we’ve got more interesting things on our mind.

Another way to deflect the compliment is to whack the ball straight back across the net, and say, ‘I was going to say the same about your shoes, they’re amazing’ – which is really a way of saying, ‘I can’t stand the spotlight being on me, or at least not about my shirt. They could at least have noticed my nobility of soul and my deep and profound wisdom, or my other outstanding qualities.’ Or we push the compliment aside and say, ‘Actually I don’t like it very much, but my sister gave it to me and I knew she was going to be here.’ This is really saying the other person has bad taste and flawed judgement – and in a subtle way it may be hinting, ‘Actually I’m so classy I even look good in something tawdry like this shirt, and like a lot of people you’re clearly so mesmerised by me you can’t tell the difference between stylish and lame.’ Or we can go to the extreme of squeezing out more affirmation, asking, ‘What do you like about the shirt? Do you think it goes well with my eyes?’ Or, even more egregiously, ‘I bought this shirt on the day I got 55 A stars in my A-levels, and it always makes me feel great.’

In all these ways our quest for affirmation and recognition founders on the rocks of our suspicion, clumsiness and crushing self-doubt. We’re longing to matter, to have some impact on the world, and if that stunning effect isn’t overwhelmingly obvious to ourselves and others and indisputably triumphant and compelling, we settle for acclaim and warm appreciation from a bevy of admirers, or maybe a single kind remark. But somehow whatever acknowledgement we receive it’s never quite enough, and we languish in reproach of the watching world for its lack of gratitude and applause, or we spiral in self-rejection for our fraudulent claims to be a decent, interesting, stable, attractive or accomplished human being. Each compliment becomes further evidence of our isolation, further demonstrating that the rest of the world has no idea who we really are, for good or ill.

Eighteen hundred years ago the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius offered a way out of this impasse about compliments. He coined the phrase, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ In other words the best compliment is the unspoken one, when a person adopts your form of dress, behaviour, speech or lifestyle. That’s the point when you know a compliment is genuine – when the other person actually has skin in the game, and alters their life to be more like yours, even (or especially) if they don’t realise they’re doing it.

Christmas is just that kind of compliment. God knows human beings are restless, looking for affirmation, full of self-doubt, insecure, and that such anxiety makes them envious, manipulative, suspicious, deceiving, and egotistical. Here’s the great mystery of Christmas: why, given God’s comprehensive understanding of how flawed, fallen, feckless, foolish and feeble we can be, did God want to be in relationship with us at all? There isn’t an answer to this question: it’s a profound mystery: perhaps the deepest mystery of them all. But the truth of Christmas is this: Jesus wanders into the party and pays us the greatest compliment in the history of existence. He becomes one like us. He flatters us by imitating us: no, more than flattery, because it’s based on the truth, not a lie, and because it’s not designed to seduce us or gain advantage over us; and more than imitation, because Jesus goes beyond imitating us, and fulfils all the potential of being human that we never realised.

Jesus doesn’t compliment us by just taking the nice and presentable parts of our existence. He’s conceived at a time his mother isn’t married. He transforms the social status of ritually unclean underclass shepherds and triggers a vast journey of generally unwelcome and untrustworthy foreign philosophers from the east. He narrowly escapes a genocidal attack by the local mayor. He becomes a refugee. And that’s just as a baby. Later he faces homelessness, hostility, betrayal, denial, abandonment, torture, and crucifixion. He sees the worst in our nature and experiences the most agonising depths of our suffering. There’s nothing sentimental or nostalgic about Christmas. It’s God entering the most hostile and terrifying realities of being human.

But Christmas isn’t just the greatest imaginable compliment any of us could ever be paid. It’s a redefinition of what it means to be human. Whatever our walk of life, be it a soldier who’s seen the savagery of war, a business person who’s known how customers and staff can behave, a teacher who’s seen every kind of pupil, or a cleaner who knows what people leave in their bins, we may come to believe we’ve seen what human beings are really like: and it’s ugly. But Christmas, the coming of God as a baby amongst us, changes our default understanding of what humanity is. People can be selfish, but Jesus gives up his life for those yet unborn. People can be cruel, but Jesus answers hatred with kindness. People can be violent, but Jesus forgives his killers from the cross. People can be merciless, but after his resurrection Jesus seeks out Peter and gives him a new job to do. People can be judgemental, but Jesus says let the one without sin cast the first stone. This is what humanity is and this is how we were made to be: wholly at peace with ourselves, with one another, with creation and with God.

Don’t take God putting on our flesh in Jesus as a fanciful folk tale or a faraway fairy story. Don’t take it as a judgement of our mistakes or a condemnation of our whole self. Don’t take it as an exposure of our failure or a threat to our identity. Take it as a compliment. Take it as the biggest compliment that’s ever been paid in the history of existence. Take it as the compliment that defines your life. Take it as a compliment that means you never need another compliment again. Of course it’s nice when people say flattering things, when they’re generous, thoughtful, perceptive and kind. But when your whole being, down to the tiniest atom, has been utterly validated and raised to its highest possible potential by the one who knows us before we are born and sees the truth in our hearts and has prepared for us life beyond forever, then no compliment can ever come near you again, because you’ve been shown who you are and who God is, and how the two can never be parted again.

And if you’re moved by this wondrous compliment, if you’re delighted, transformed, awestruck and overwhelmed by the gift of God in Christ becoming a tiny baby in all that vulnerability and detail and glory, and if you’re longing to give God a compliment in return, not just a trivial remark but something genuine and worthy and heartfelt and true, then know that there’s only one kind of compliment Jesus wants in return. There’s only one kind of compliment that Christmas deserves. There’s only one kind of compliment that’s free of superficiality or deception or mixed motives or manipulation. And that’s imitation.

The compliment God wants is that we imitate Jesus. Live generously the way he lived. Be merciful the way he was. Love the outcast the way he loved. Spend time with the people he spent time with. Imitation is the only flattery God wants.

One day, finally, you will stand before Jesus, and see him face to face, having walked in his steps and followed his paths. These are the words he’ll say to you: ‘You look just like me.’ And this is what you’ll reply: ‘Take it as a compliment.’