St Matthew's Oxford, Sunday 28th December 2014
Readings: Jeremiah 31: 10 – 17, Psalm 124, Matthew 2: 13 – 18.
So did you all have a good Christmas? My talk today is on loneliness. Or a better title might be ‘on getting left out’ as A did in our game of football just now.
I know that getting left out might not seem a very cheerful subject and that this is still the Christmas season but as our readings remind us, the joy of Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen at the birth of the baby Jesus wasn’t felt by everyone. In particular King Herod was furious and this led to great sadness for many in the region of Bethlehem when he started killing babies with the intention of killing Jesus. And just as that first Christmas wasn’t great for everyone I know that this Christmas has not been great for everyone even everyone here today.
Christmas is primarily a time for celebrating the birth of Jesus - and therefore Christmas means fun and feasting – as I said at the Midnight Communion on Christmas Eve. And because it’s a time of celebration, it’s also a time when we need to welcome into our home people who would otherwise be by themselves, to share in the celebrations. But nevertheless some people still get left out.
At Christmas St Matthew’s collects money for two organisations: the Gatehouse and Archway – both of which are organisation which are seeking do something about people who somehow have got left out. And after this short talk I’ll be interviewing J – who helps with Archway – to tell us a little more about the organisation.
Getting left out is a fact of life. We are all going to get left out at times. If we move to a new school, or new job or new place to live we just won’t know as many people as we used to know at our old school, job or place. And while we are getting to know new people we are highly likely to feel lonely. When people who we love, leave or die we are going to miss them – and a consequence of that is we might feel lonely. And some of us are just not as good at making friends as other people who have been blessed with this skill. So loneliness may become a way of life.
We need to remember that people are left out through no fault of their own. People don’t choose to get left out. Of course it is true to say that we have some control over our lives – including how we react to being left out – but controlling how we feel is clearly more complicated than just pulling ourselves together when we feel lonely. Some sermons on loneliness are full of tips for the lonely but I am not going to provide any.
Just as A had no choice in the matter – when he got left out when B and I picked teams for our game of football. Getting left out – and feeling lonely in consequence - is just the way things have work out for some people, but as Christians we have an obligation to do something about the loneliness of others.
Of course loneliness isn’t the only thing we are called to do things about: we are called to do our job’s well and with integrity (and incidentally everyone has a job to do on this earth); we are called to do something about the injustices we see in the world and we are called to look after our families when they need us. And this may mean we cannot spend all our time tackling the loneliness of others but loneliness is up there with all those other things that make human beings less than they should be like sickness and poverty.
It might seem a silly question but why are we as Christians called to do something about loneliness in others? Well it is because we human beings are created to be in relationship with God and with God. In Genesis the writer – when describing the creation of human beings - has God saying that he has created Eve because ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’. Now this does not mean that the Eve’s purpose in life is to cook and clear for Adam because he cannot cook and clean for himself but that for Adam to be fully human he needs at least one other person in his life and the same is, of course true of Eve and true of us today as well. Human beings are not designed to be alone – at least not all of the time.
Now being alone is not the same as being lonely. You can be alone without feeling lonely, and you can physically be with other people and still feel lonely But as the writer of Ecclesiastes says ‘Two are better than one, because if one falls the other will lift them up. But woe to the person who is alone when they fall, for they have no one to help them up.’
And when summarising the law: i.e. what we basically have to do in life, Jesus says that this is to: ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and, ‘to love your neighbour as yourself.’ That is: the primary purpose of our lives is to have good and loving relationships firstly with God and secondly with other people. And if we have these then all others things will fall naturally into place.
But what if we find we can’t love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and love our neighbour as ourselves, what are we to do? I think the answer is to ask for help.
As S pointed out on Thursday that the Jesus says nothing at his birth. This is perhaps not surprisingly since he is just a baby. But the angels – God’s messengers – speak for Jesus and on three separate occasions when announcing his birth – first to Mary, secondly to Joseph and thirdly to the shepherds they say: ‘Do not be afraid’. This is perhaps a surprising thing to say. Why should Mary, Joseph and the shepherds be afraid at the birth of a baby? But, as I have said before, the gospel can perhaps be summarised in two short sentences and one of which is ‘Do not be afraid because I am with you.’
We human beings are prone to fear and it is fear that leads to loneliness when we get left out. We fear we might get left out next time. We cannot tell ourselves not to be lonely when we are but perhaps we can tell ourselves not to be afraid. God does not command us to not to be lonely. That would be tantamount to telling us to pull ourselves together. But God does tell us not to be afraid. In his own words, as recorded by Isaiah, God says: ‘Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.’