Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Love in the Shape of a Cross

John 1.1-14

Now that we've talked about our own presents, it's time to open another one - a present for everybody here today but, as I hope you can see, it's not a very big present.

Someone helps me to open it and it turns out to be an empty box with the words 'Love' scrawled on each of it's six sides.

Well, an empty box of love. That's a bit of a lightweight gift, isn't it? I'm reminded of the priest who went on holiday to Spain. He was a visiting a church one day and when the sexton discovered that he was a priest he said to him, 'Would you like to see our most holy treasure? Normally we only get it out on feast days, and then we parade it around the village, but - as you're a priest - I'll give you a special glimpse of it. And he led the priest down to the crypt under the church and there on a tiny stone niche under the high altar was a golden box with a glass lid. The sexton lifted it down carefully and the priest looked inside. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light in the crypt, coming from just a few electric light bulbs fastened around the ancient stone walls, he realised that what he had first thought was indeed true - the box was empty. He had expected to see the thumb nail of a famous saint, or a sliver of bone, or a lock of hair, but no, there was nothing inside the box at all.

'What is it?' he asked, bemused. 'Don't you know?' said the sexton triumphantly. 'It's the Holy Spirit!' So there they were, looking at the Holy Spirit supposedly shut up in a box. And this (our box) is love shut up in a box - it's an equally daft idea, isn't it? Except that, when you unfasten the sides of the box it becomes love in the shape of a cross!

I belong to a minister's e-group. We exchange ideas and answer each other's questions. And one of the things people have been discussing over the last couple of days is how it feels to go and visit your family at Christmas, especially after you've been working so hard in the days leading up to Christmas itself. For some it's a wonderful opportunity to unwind and relax in the company of people who will love them unconditionally and spare them the criticism which they sometimes face during the rest of the year. But for others it's the exact opposite. Their fathers and mothers criticise them continually and they find it hard to bear.

One woman was amazed when she collected her mother from a fortnight's respite care and the sister in charge of the residential home gave her mother a hug and said, 'Isn't she lovely? I wish I could take her home!' 'So do I!' thought the minister. 'Because if you had her at home with you for any length of time you'd very soon see another side to her nature!'

People have been wondering why parents and children can sometimes antagonise one another in this way, when they can both get on perfectly well with everyone else they meet. I think the answer is that the relationship between parents and children is so important to us, and so full of love, that we always expect the very best of one another and then of course we get desperately disappointed when our children, or our parents, can't always meet our expectations. Whereas, if we don't love someone, then we'll put up with what's ordinary or even mediocre and think it's acceptable and even be quite nice about it. That's why it's our own children, or our own parents, who often see us at our most difficult and inflexible.

God is different, of course. God also wants to get the very best out of us and to give the very best to us, and God gets just as frustrated as any parent when we fall short. But God doesn't lecture us, or criticise us or complain. Instead, God offers himself to us again and again, in love, calling us to respond and to be the best that we can be in him.

With acknowledgement to Robert Amos for the idea of the cross-shaped present.

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