NEW YEAR’S DAY
It may seem an odd way to begin a New Year’s Day sermon, to say that, during the nine months which each of us spends in our mother’s womb after our conception, we go through the whole physical history of the evolution of our species, but please bear with me, and I hope you will eventually see why I do so.
A few days old, and we are virtually indistinguishable from the embryo of a frog - a little half-formed tadpole - while a week or two later we have gills and a tail. It is only towards the end of this astonishing palaeozoic journey through five hundred million years of the history of life on this planet that we begin to look human, fully equipped with arms and legs, two eyes, a nose, and mouth, and everything else that goes to make us what we are. We are born , too, with a richer endowment than mere physical completion; we don’t have to be taught to suckle, to cry when we need attention, to gurgle and squeak and jabber away as though we are having a fascinating conversation with ourselves, as we begin to learn to speak; and even that is not all that we bring with us, as we leave the warmth and security of our mother’s body for the harsh environment of an alien world, for we arrive already equipped with the instincts inherent in all social animals: resentment of intruders, the need to defend our own patch - ‘the territorial imperative’, as it it has come to be called - and much more. Most surprising of all, however, is the fact that Wordsworth seems to have been right to say that ‘not in entire forgetfulness, and not in nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home;’ or, in more mundane words, there is evidence that our remotest ancestors were religious animals. their burial customs, the things which they buried with their dead, and the ways in which they disposed the bodies of the dead are proof that this was so. As soon as they came down from the Darwinian tree-tops, stood upright, and began to talk, they also seem to have told stories about the gods. In other words, unlike all other animals, human being are basically religious creatures.
It is an over-simplification to go on from there and say that, since then, mankind has gone through three great religious ages; but over-simplification must be allowed in brief addresses, or huge subjects could never be looked at. Whatever our remotest ancestors may have believed in particular about the powers that governed their worlds - and, obviously, their beliefs varied hugely in detail - in general they all believed in gods of the natural world; fertility gods, rain gods, gods of the sky, of fire, animal gods, gods of death and so on. In other words, they saw traces of God or the gods in the creation, and although this was a limited vision, it was not entirely wrong. Indeed, I don’t believe that there is a man living today, who doesn’t look in wonder at the majesty and immensity of the night sky and be struck dumb with awe by the splendour of whoever or whatever created it.
‘When I consider the heavens, the sun and the moon and the stars, which though hast ordained, even the work of thy fingers, what is man?’ cried a psalmist; and which of us have not done much the same? The miracle of new life the birth of a baby, the shooting of leaves and bursting of buds on the trees in the Spring, the infinite variety of created things, all this and much more overwhelms each and every one of us with a sense of God - some sort of God - every now and again, whoever we may be; and this is a uniquely human experience. We are religious animals, whether we like it or not.
But that age, the age when the lives of men were ruled by gods of the natural world, gave way eventually over much of the earth to what might be called the age of the God of Israel, Yahweh: ‘I am that I am.’ The emergence of Israel’s belief in one supreme, almighty and eternal God worked an astonishing revolution in human thought; a revolution, not only man’s knowledge of the true nature of God, but also in his knowledge of himself and his world; there was only one God, not dozens, only one standard of truth, not many. It changed everything, producing in the people of Israel one of the most dedicated and devoted groups of people the world had ever seen: a nation knowing that, while God was the God of ‘the former and the latter rain’, the God of seed-time and harvest, the God who gave life or withheld it, he was above all the God of history, working through people - through Abraham through Moses, through Elijah and Isaiah and every faithful man - to bring in his kingdom on earth as the culmination of the whole created process. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ But while this vision was God-given and immeasurably great, it was not proof against mankind’s ability to get things wrong, and there were times - especially as the years passed - when God seemed hopelessly remote, where the old pagan gods in sacred trees and stones, walls and streams, bulls and serpents, and the hills of the Sinai desert had been much more approachable. An over-powering sense of sin, failure, and the inaccessibility of God spread over the centuries and possessed the nation; only those people, who felt able to thank God that they were not as other men, but far better than most, cold hold their heads high; and tragically they were wrong.
I have spoken of all this on this first Sunday after Christmas - New Year’s Day - because the birth of Christ marked the beginning of the third great age of man’s knowledge of god, the age in which we know that the one eternal and transcendent god, far from being remote, unapproachable, and utterly disgusted with us for our failures, idiocies, and brutalities, so loves the world and battered mankind in that world that he was born into it, entering in in order to show us the way to life and peace and heaven on earth, if only we care to follow it; the way of faith in God however dark the times, for he has pioneered a way through the darkness at its worst so that we may follow.
He is Emmanuel, God with us in the darkness of our lives as a light; a glimmer of hope when our wife, husband, lover, child, or old and dear friend dies. He is eternally available, ready to forgive, to love, to heal, and to renew. Christmas is not merely an excuse for a few days’ relief from the darkness of winter, a break from the daily round followed by a dreary and unwelcome return to normal; though it is that too. But it is more than that; for it marks the beginning of the new age of God-with-us, in which we know that however dark it may seem from time to time, God has conquered the darkness. and in that knowledge, I wish you all a happy New Year.