Christmas 1 • 31 Dec 2017

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148:1-6,11-13
Galatians 4:4-7
St Luke 2:22-40

Rev. Dr David Gill

“I’ll Ride with You” - God

Three years ago this month, Sydney had its heart broken.

Remember that terrible siege? The hostage-taking, at the Lindt Café in Martin Place, on 15 and 16 December 2014. Two days that shook this great city to its foundations.

At the time I was acting pastor of St Stephen’s Uniting Church, in Macquarie Street. Our church was involved. It all happened just 100 metres from our front door. We were in the police exclusion zone. The funeral of Tori Johnson, the Lindt Café manager, took place from St Stephen’s.

As events unfolded, Sydney went into shock. The shock soon took on religious overtones. People knew nothing about a disturbed human being with a criminal history. We saw only a black flag, with Arabic lettering.

And we were afraid.

We feared for the hostages. We feared for our community. We feared for ourselves. Australia’s Muslims, familiar with being treated as outsiders, had an additional fear: namely, another wave of hatred and abuse, aimed right at them.

But then, quite unexpectedly, something rather wonderful happened. Not only in Sydney, but throughout Australia. Something that touched the hearts of many, in this land and far beyond.

Can you remember?

It started on the first evening of the siege, as the gunman still held his hostages. A woman on a Brisbane train heading home from work noticed another woman sitting nearby – a Muslim, judging from her garb – who looked frightened. She had removed her hijab, to be less conspicuous. At their station, the first woman ran after the Muslim, saying “Put it back on. I’ll walk with you”.

Returning home, she did some Facebooking and tweeting which mushroomed fast into a massive social media campaign. The hashtag was #I’llRidewithYou. In two days there were half a million tweets, with people volunteering to ride with Muslims who were scared to take public transport, to show solidarity and to prevent any reprisal attacks or abuse.

“I’ll Ride with You,” at one level, was about safety on public transport. In truth, it was about so much more. It was a vision of the kind of country we yearn to become. Someone even called it “a love poem, written by the people to the people”.

So simple. People of all faiths and of none, young and old together, saying to a particular group of endangered fellow citizens: please don’t be afraid, we care about you, our nation will not be divided, the voices of hate will not prevail, evil will not conquer.

It was risky, of course. Compassion always is. An offer like that can be misunderstood. You may be rejected by the very person you’re trying to help. If hate is in the air, it might be redirected towards you. Ride with someone who is vulnerable, and you make yourself vulnerable too.

But still, many people decided, we want to do this. Because we care.

Now, this is not something I say very often, or very easily, but … “I’ll Ride with You” made me just a little bit proud to be an Australian.

And, in those days leading up to what seemed destined to be a very strange Christmas, it offered us a dramatic insight into the central claim of the Christian faith.

God is not on Facebook, unfortunately. And, unlike the president of the United States, he does not tweet. But he does speak to us -- supremely, we believe, in the Word made flesh.

In the child born in Bethlehem, he says I will ride with you. In the man of Nazareth, I will journey with you. I may be misunderstood. I may be rejected. The journey may take me to a cross. But, come what may, I will travel with you. Because you matter so much, because I care so deeply.

God with us.

Not just on one journey, but on all our journeys. Not only on one day, but through all our days. Not in good times only, but also in the very worst.

In life, and in death.

Whether you know it or not. Whether you claim the label “Christian” or not. Whether you think of yourself as religious or not. Whoever you are, wherever life may have taken you, whatever the circumstances in which you find yourself, the God who cares so much is riding with you.

Recognise your divine travelling companion, and you discern what one of our carols calls history’s “great and mighty wonder”.

This morning’s gospel tells of that moment of recognition by two saints of Israel – Anna and Simeon. Both were at the temple when they encountered the child. Both were devout. Both were old. And both, like their people, had been waiting, hoping, yearning for the coming of Messiah. How long they had been waiting, hoping, yearning. Now, at last, it has happened.

How do they respond?

With joy, ecstatic joy. Anna, the prophet, praises God and speaks about the child to those around her -- people who, according to the gospel writer, were like her looking for the redemption of their people.
Simeon praises God with a lyrical cry that has an enduring place in the beautiful Anglican service of evensong:
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation: which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
a light to reveal you to the nations: and the glory of your people Israel

God with us. And not for us alone – for the nations, for every people. It is a staggering claim. As the writer Dorothy Sayers once remarked about the incarnation: “You may call that doctrine revelation or you may call it rubbish, but if you call it dull then words have no meaning”.

Dull it most certainly is not. For if the claim is true, then there is light in the darkness, there is love in the loneliness, there is grace in the emptiness, there is meaning in the madness. And there is a home in the heart of God. For you. For me. And for a wandering world whose destiny lies there waiting in that stable in Bethlehem.

Remember that, next time real life comes crashing in upon you. When hatred is in the air and it’s aimed at you. When the job loss happens. When the divorce papers are served. When the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through. Remember, you’re not in it alone.

As a few simple words, by a man called John, put it a very long time ago:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Or as old Simeon cried that day at the temple: Now I can go in peace; my eyes have seen.

Be grateful for the love that uttered its own Word, that made itself known, that still breaks itself open before our wondering eyes.

Be grateful for the love that meets us, again and again, here, at the table of the Lord.

Be grateful for the love that always rides with us – now, into the new year, into all our years.

Until years will be no more.