Carol service - DIY Religion - Matthew 1:1-21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of my favourite stories told by the American comedian Bob Hope concerns a trip he once made on a passenger airliner across the Atlantic when around half way the plane entered a terrible storm. As the aircraft was tossed from side to side with lightening flashing outside and rain lashing against the windows, one panic stricken woman screamed, ‘Quick somebody do something religious!’; to which Bob Hope quipped ‘ So I did. I took a collection.’
Now when you think about it, Bob Hope takes us to the heart of the way many see religion. God is someone to be turned to in a moment of crisis but for the rest of the time as long as the plane is flying as it were, we can get along just fine without him. Also, God is seen as someone we can coax along to look favourably upon us by doing things for him, like taking a collection.
This is what I call the religion of the Wizard of Oz.
You all know the story. Dorothy the little girl from Kansas finds herself surrounded by brainless, heartless, spineless folk in the persons of a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion. When Dorothy and her crew eventually find their way to the Emerald City, the Wizard says to her what many people think God says to us. Each of the characters comes to the Wizard with a need. Dorothy seeks a way home. The scarecrow wants wisdom; the tin man compassion; the lion courage. The Wizard of Oz, they hear, can grant all four. So they come into his presence shivering and trembling and present their requests. His response? He will help after they demonstrate their worthiness. ‘Bring me the witch’s broom’ he says ‘and then I will help you.’ So they do. They scale the castle walls and destroy the witch and in the process they discover some remarkable things about themselves. They discover they can overcome evil and do it all without the help of the Wizard. Which is a good job because when they get back to Oz they discover the Wizard isn’t a Wizard after all, just some huckster-a so called ‘professor’- who can put on a good performance but not help them with their problems. But the Professor redeems himself by what he shows this band of pilgrims. He tells them that they already have all that they need if only they realised it. After all hadn’t the scarecrow displayed wisdom, the tin man compassion and the lion bravery in the way they dealt with the witch? Dorothy doesn’t need the help of Oz Almighty; no, she just needs a hot air balloon. Then Dorothy wakes up to find it was all a bad dream, her ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ home was right where it had always been.
The moral of the Wizard of Oz? Everything you need you already have. If you look down deep long enough and hard enough there isn’t anything you can’t do. There it is in the popular saying- ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ It is the idea that God started it and we must finish it. Prayer then becomes a token, (the real strength is ‘down here’ within, not ‘up there’ with God). Attending church becomes a ritual (the true hero is you and what you are doing, not God and what he has done). Your faith is strong as long as you are strong. Your life is good so long as you are good. But there is the rub- a long hard look into our hearts shows we are not that good or always strong and so we are not that secure. DIY religion is not very helpful for those who are useless at DIY, whose life shelves are crooked, and whose tables are wobbly-people like me. I can’t carry my sin, it wears me out. What I need someone who will carry it for me, better still, bury it. And if the truth be known, so do you. And that was the great message the Angel brought to Joseph in a dream; here it is again, from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their boredom?’ No but ‘from their sins.” Our greatest problem is our sin which cuts us off from our Maker and messes up our relationships with one another. And God’s greatest solution is sending his Son Jesus to clear away that mess. What do the effects of that divine cleaning up and rescue look like?
Well let me tell you about Odessa Moore, a Christian prison visitor in the Unites States. She met a teenager who was waiting to be tried for first degree murder. When Odessa met him, his eyes were filled with nothing but hate. As they talked, the all too familiar story began to emerge: Father a drug addict, mother an alcoholic and both would beat the boy and lock him in a cupboard for hours on end. All his life he had been fed the line that he was nothing. ‘But that was alright’, he said, ‘because I don’t care for nobody.’ ‘But there is someone who loves you’, responded Odessa. But he refused point blank to believe it. ‘Look’ said Odessa eventually, ‘You are here for murder right?’ ‘Yes and I would do it again’ he said. ‘Well,’ Odessa continued, ‘How would you like it if someone came here tonight and said, “I know you have committed murder and that you are going to get the death penalty, but I am here to take your place.” How would you like that?’ Now she had his attention and for the first time his eyes showed a spark of life. ‘Are you kidding’ he gasped, ‘That would be great.’ So she went on to tell him about Jesus who became the scapegoat who had already died on the cross to take his place, who had paid the price already. Step by step she took him through the Gospel until at the end of the evening; the stone cold teenager had melted, weeping tears of repentance as he committed his life to Christ. He knew what he needed- forgiveness- and he knew he did not have it within himself, but God did and so he reached out and received it.
But you may say- obviously someone like that needs a bit of religion, but I am not like him. I am Ok really I am not all that bad. So let me tell you about someone else called Mr Abercrombie. He was a respectable pillar in the local community. If you needed any help, Mr Abercrombie was your man. He was also a highly successful business executive and an active member of his local church. Why, he was so keen that each week he a hosted a lunchtime Bible study in his office. But then came the day he invited a speaker who would normally be found in prison. Not serving time, although he had done that, but rather that he spent most of working life now speaking to prison inmates about the Christian faith, to people like that teenager. But this day he was addressing 19 businessmen elegantly dressed in their blue pinstriped suits and white shirts. And so the speaker began his talk. It was about half way through that he said something which caused several of the dignified gentlemen to pull a face as if a skunk had just walked into the room. What he did was to refer to our ‘sinful nature’- the actual phrase he used was our ‘total depravity’, the belief that every part of us is morally twisted- mind, body and soul. Believe in the tooth fairy, believe in UFO’s, believe in Father Christmas if you like-but belief that we are morally corrupted? No, that was too much to take and one of the businessmen said so. ‘You don’t really believe that we are sinners do you?’ he blurted out indignantly. ‘I mean you are far too sophisticated to be one of those hellfire and brimstone fellows, intelligent people don’t go in for that kind of stuff.’ And this is the way the speaker replied, ‘Well, yes sir I really do believe that we are desperately sinful. What’s inside of each of us is really pretty ugly. In fact we deserve hell and we would get it, but for the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.’ Then Mr Abercrombie chimed in: ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ he said. ‘I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church and I get exhausted spending all my time doing good works.’ The room went so quiet you could hear a pin drop as twenty pair of eyes burned into the speaker. How did he reply? He said, ‘Mr Abercrombie, if you believe that- and I hate to say this, for you will certainly not invite me back again-you are for all your good works, further away from the kingdom of God than the people I work with in prison who are aware of their own sins.’
Now you may have thought that would have been the end of the matter and the speaker would have been very politely but firmly shown to the door. But no, so let me tell you what happened next: As Mr Abercrombie led the speaker down the corridor; he took him to an empty office. As soon as they were inside he said ‘I don’t have what you have.’ ‘I know’ replied the speaker, but you can.’ Within a few moments both men were on their knees with Mr Abercrombie asking for the C word -Charity- God’s free unmerited forgiveness and love in his Son.
And that is why Jesus came those 2000 years ago into the same needy world as ours, full of the same needy people, to do that for us which we could never do- bring us back to God as Father. As the hymn writer puts it, ‘Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings Ris'n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die Born to raise the sons of earth Born to give them second birth.’ That is the gift he want to give to everyone here this evening- the gift of a second birth, a fresh start whatever our background, whoever we are and whatever we have done- and you receive it in the same way those two people I have spoken about received it, by turning around and asking in your heart for Jesus to accept you and make you his own. And tonight might not be a bad time to do just that if you haven’t already. The words of the angel are as true today as they were when they were first spoken to Joseph: ‘you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
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