Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Luke 2: 1-20
John 1: 1-14
I’m sure you’ll know what I mean if I say that Christmas doesn’t always wait for Christmas Eve. For instance, in our house Christmas really began not tonight but when the house started filling up with family and friends last weekend. We’ve already consumed our Christmas dinner because we wanted to eat it when most people were together. And we’ve already pulled the crackers and worn the party hats and most important we’ve already had our annual treat of a quiz.
In years too many to remember we’ve constructed this family quiz ourselves – setting questions for each other. You’re given a category (mine would’ve been history and geography this year) and you think up questions with just the right level of difficulty: not so easy that it loses the competitive spirit but not so hard that you’re showing off and demoralising the rest of the party.
But this year we opted for an easier life and we used a box of trivia questions which had been bought. Some of us knew which sport had been played on the moon. Others knew which Italian car has a trident for its symbol. Most knew who Michael Jackson had married in 1994. But there was a question which none of us could answer and it was this: “When Pandora opened the box she released all the evils of the world. What was the only thing left when she closed it?”
In case you don’t know the story it goes like this. In Greek mythology we’re told the gods created the first woman on the earth whom they named Pandora, which means ‘all-gifted’. Indeed each of the gods had endowed her with many wonderful gifts but Zeus himself gave Pandora a jar – only later described as a box - and told her on no account was she to open it. Curiosity got the better of Pandora and when she did open her jar all the evils we now know flew out – disease and sickness, hate and envy, violence and cruelty. All the ugliness with which we contend in human society. So everything which threatens the quality of human life was sent out to do its worst.
This is a story in part about the malicious intent of the gods, of the world of the fates, of what gets delivered to us humans by capricious forces. Zeus gives Pandora the jar because he’s seeking revenge on her brother-in-law. He gives her an instruction he knows she won’t be able to resist. He shamelessly uses her to wreak havoc on all future men, women and children. The kind of havoc we’ve seen throughout this year in Syria and which now threatens to disturb the stability of the newest country on the globe, South Sudan. In many ways it’s a moral tale to explain why our world is so frighteningly full of things which cause human misery. The Greeks long ago said that it’s because a vindictive god wished it to be so, a god detached from human life who, far from having our best interests at heart, played with us like a spider plays with a fly.
On this night when angels fly and we’re invited to believe again that God entered our world, Christmas isn’t about whether there is a God in heaven. The readings we’ve just heard, interpreting what was happening on that first Christmas night, aren’t celebrating that God exists. They assume that planted in the heart of every man, woman and child is the spiritual instinct to reach out to the world of eternity. That sense of God is planted in us, not because we’re uncivilised or psychologically dependent or because some of us have a gene which makes us religious. Our yearning for God is there at our core because God is the only source of ultimate truth, and what is true really matters to us.
No, what we celebrate this magical night is how our God behaves, what he’s like. Unlike the myths and legends where the evils of our world are sent to punish us and the gods sit back and laugh, our God becomes part of the solution and comes amongst us with a power of great gentleness and subtlety to rescue us.
The God who we see in the face of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, is for you compassionate and generous, merciful and kind, so forgiving that he’s probably less hard on you than you are yourself. Our God does not stay aloof from the world he created but he gets implicated in its mess by surrendering himself to the human enterprise. In the same way that being deeply loved changes the way we understand ourselves, so God wishes us to have the deepest reassurance of knowing ourselves as beautiful and precious to him.
So what’s the answer then? Pandora, having been manipulated by the malign god Zeus, lets out all the ugliness and evils of our world. But when she examines her empty jar she discovers it’s not empty. There’s only one thing left but it’s the one thing the world needs – in Pandora’s box there is hope. And in defiance of the gods who are so ruthlessly careless of the human lot she lets the spirit of hope free into the world.
Except that we tell it differently on this night. We claim that hope comes into our world at God’s initiative.
Whatever you have wished for this Christmas, whatever gifts will find their way into your hands with the dawning of this day. Here is offered to you possibly the greatest gift of all – that you may live your life hopefully.
So what would hope look like for you on this Christmas Day? It’s far more than having an optimistic personality or indulging in wishful thinking. Hope is the ability to know where your life is heading, to know the truth about yourself, and being sure that you’ll forever be safe in the hands of a stupendously loving God. Hope lies in believing that ultimately justice, freedom and peace will deal with all the things which flew out of Pandora’s jar.
We now use the phrase ‘Pandora’s box’ to describe how sometimes we perform an action that may seem small or innocent but it turns out to have far-reaching consequences.
In this one small stable an action was performed which released hope for the world. May that have far-reaching consequences for the way we each live. May we be people of hope.
Oh, and in case it’s distracting you the answers were golf, Maserati and Lisa Marie Presley.