On that very first Christmas Eve as Mary began her labour pains and was preparing to give birth she discovered that her child was going to be very different. It must have initially surprised Mary, after all, she was told that her baby would be a special baby – in fact he would be God’s own son., Surely she should be privileged enough to jump any queue like a VIP who always seems to be offered a table at a booked out restaurant. But as it happened – the answer was no. There was no room at the inn.
During this pandemic the thought went through my mind that perhaps Churches should also have a privilege during lockdown. After all we are important for people’s spiritual well being in a time when people were struggling with their mental health. I presumed as a Pastor I could visit people in hospital who were unwell. Surely if a bottle shop could be deemed as necessary to be opened to help people cope, a church should have been right up there also.
But what we learned through this pandemic, as Jesus did, rejection can happen to the best of us, even God. And as much as I struggled with this realization it has actually helped me to empathise and perhaps rethink what Ministry is all about.
One of my favourite passages in the bible is a passage in Hebrews that speaks of this empathy that Jesus is able to express for us. In Hebrews chapter 4 it says – for we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Empathy is different to sympathy. Sympathy feels sorry for someone’s suffering. Empathy feels the suffering of others. Empathy is at the heart of Christmas when Jesus says – God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but receive eternal life.
It’s been hard during these past 2 years but I think it would have been harder if the church did not suffer with the people. And through that suffering we learnt some very valuable lessons. Firstly, that like Jesus, the church is truly human. We might have thought we had a right to stay open because people need us but we learnt that our place in the world is WITH the people. As YOU suffered so did the church – so did God. But through this we found ways to stay with you. We connected through technology – through recorded services and livestream services. And even though we have returned to gathered worship we still provide these. Because these are not just for those who haven’t returned to church but for those who miss a week here or there. For those who want to hear the sermon again or listen to the hymns and songs again. You shared them with your friends and family. We have reached even beyond our membership to all parts of Australia and even overseas. And therefore through this lockdown we actually were able to break free and fulfill Jesus’ commission to us – go to all nations.
But the 2nd thing we learned was just how much you love and support the church. Even though many suffered physically and mentally and spiritually – you supported our Parish with your offferings and your viewing of our church services and praying for us. You told your friends and they also watched. You rang each other to see how you were coping. And isn’t that what the Christmas spirit is all about. The spirit of giving – the spirit of love – the spirit of sacrifice. All part of that Bible text I just read out The love – God loved the world. The giving – God gave his Son. The sacrifice – God gave his one and only Son who died for us.
Many people questioned God during this pandemic. Why has God allowed this to happen? Perhaps we are starting to see why God allowed this to happen. We’re not there yet – we’re still making our way. Our attendances are down from before the pandemic.
We still have the challenge of vaccine certificates. But we’re going to get through this and we’re going to look back and see what God has been doing all along and maybe even understand why. We know God loves the world – that’s what began our very first Christmas – God loving the world to send his Son to us.
So there should never be a question or doubt in regards to God’s love for us. His love has already been shown for us and he will keep loving us. And through this pandemic and the suffering we’ve been through perhaps it has taught us a very valuable lesson of loving and caring for one another as we all experienced this suffering together including God. We are the body of Christ and as St Paul reminds us that if one part of the body suffers then we all suffer together. So let us keep looking out for each other because united we can get through this. And through Jesus Christ as God’s Christmas gift to us we are united with God and have the assurance that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us.