Thursday, 8 December 2016

The song of the cleaner. A talk for a carol service.


I would like you to imagine that you have gone to a concert. The auditorium is vast. The orchestra is huge. You’ve come for the full works – to be blown away.

The lights dim. Everything goes quiet.

And then the cleaner walks onto the stage. He’s in his overalls and he’s got a broom. And as he sweeps, he begins to sing: quietly, so you have to really listen if you want to know what he is singing, but loudly enough so that if anyone wants to hear, they will be able to hear.

It is not what anybody is expecting. It is embarrassing; It is awkward. People start to fidget and cough. Some begin to laugh at him. And after a few minutes they go back to doing what they were doing before. They ignore him.

But there are a few who, despite the rising noise, do try and listen.


At Christmas God opens the door of heaven and walks onto the human stage.
But it is not what we are expecting.

We were looking for the full works.
If this is God who is turning up – the creator of heaven and earth, of space and time, the ruler and judge of the multiverse - then the least we should expect is the full blast of heaven. Think of the most amazing firework display you have ever seen. Well the sun, moon and stars will do stuff that have us gaping in wonder and running for our lives. The earth will shake. And he will be accompanied by thousands upon thousands of angelic beings. Each one of them will be so dazzling, so glorious that we will not be able to look at them. And as for us - we’ll look for the biggest mountain or rock so that we can run and hide behind it. But he’ll find us and, if this really is God turning up, he will take his enemies, those who mocked his people, who opposed his rule, who lived as if there were no God and so set themselves up as god, and he will wipe the floor with them. Think of some of the stuff in the book of Revelation. And afterwards. Who can begin to imagine? He will establish his kingdom, his rule – a rule of peace, of justice, of what is good and right and true.

If this is God turning up we would have expected the full works.

But at Christmas we didn’t get the full works.

There were glimpses of them:
The predictions of the prophets that a child would be born in Bethlehem
And there was one star – but it was only noticed by some foreigners
And there were angelic beings – but they only appeared to a few shepherds, who were terrified.
And then there were the things he did: the miracles, the healings and even the three people he raised from the dead

But if we were expecting the full fireworks, then what we got was a single sparkler.

God comes as a baby, not as a ruler.

He wasn’t born in a palace, or in a mega maternity suite:
Gwyneth Paltrow chose Mount Sinai Hospital for the birth of her child. Think stunning view of Central Park and Manhattan. Think blankets made from Muslin cotton and massage therapy to relieve the pain and stress. Think bathrooms with Italian glass tiles and tea and cookies served in the afternoons. Think $4,000 a day.
Or maybe that is not quite good enough. Try the Matilda Hospital in Hong Kong. Rooms with balconies overlooking the ocean, refrigerators filled with juices and bottled water, cable TV, and WiFi. The doctor in charge of the delivery is also your personal gynaecologist/obstetrician. But you need to deposit $20,000 in down payment just to book a room.

No. When God turned up in history, he wasn’t born in a maternity unit, let alone a maternity suite. He was born in a cowshed.

And then there was the flight into Egypt, the first few years lived as a refugee, they three years as an itinerant homeless teacher and at the end, the hammer and the nails.

When God turned up in history, he did not come as the owner but as the Cleaner.

We thought it was a joke. We laughed at him. Then we ignored him.

But there are some who do try to listen to the song that the cleaner is singing.

It is a song that is very simple, at times discordant but also astonishingly beautiful.
It comes from deep within him and touches something deep within us.

It is disturbing. It is a song that tells of a God who becomes a baby in order to live among us as one of us. And he suffers and he dies for us. It tells of a God who strips himself of power in order to show us his love.

And the song exposes the dirt that is deep within us: we look at the love and humility of God in a manger, and then we look at ourselves: the shallow attempts to prove we are someone and that we matter, the fears that control us, the hurts that have been done to us that make us feel like filth and the hurts that we have done to others that make them feel like filth. It reveals our self-centeredness and pride; and it strips bare our utter brokenness.

But this is a song of hope. It is the song of the cleaner, of one who cleans up a mess. This cleaner doesn’t sweep up our rubbish and throw it into the black bin bag for someone else to deal with. This cleaner takes our rubbish into himself, and as he dies on the cross he deals with it once and for all.

So this song speaks of forgiveness, of the possibility of change, of new birth and new life, of freedom from habits that we know are destroying us, of our true identity as children of God and an astonishing destiny with God.

And it is a song which plunges us into the abyss of separation, abandonment and death. Some of you will have known that this year.

But it is a song that declares to us a light and a love that is far greater than death. That the one born in a cowshed, crucified on a cross, rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. And this is a song which tells us that we are not alone, abandoned or rejected. God created us in love to have a relationship of intimacy with us; even though we have rejected him, he longs for us to know him.

And this is a song which, if you allow it, can come and live in you. It doesn’t just get into your head. It gets into your heart and your bones. It becomes the song that lives in you, that begins to shape all that you are and do. It becomes the song that you sing and the song that you live.


Don't ignore the song of the cleaner
I know that many people ignore the cleaner. I know that it can be hard to hear the cleaner because there is so much other noise: out there and in here.

Oddly, there is a great deal of noise at Christmas: We can be like little children who are more excited about the colourful wrappings of Christmas than we are about the infinitely precious gift that is inside the present. We are like people who love the Christmas tunes but who are deaf to the words of the carols

So please listen to the song of the cleaner.

It is the song that will give you true freedom, lasting happiness and deep peace.

Some of you may wish to do that by taking a free copy of the New Testament which is at the back of church – although there is a condition if you take one. You must commit yourself to reading through at least one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) over the next four weeks!

And for those who wish to take this further, in your order of service there is an invitation to a course that Laurence and myself are running at Edmundo Lounge in the new year. It is called Life Explored, and gives us an opportunity to ask questions and to think these things through. We give ourselves so little time to think. And it so important that every single person gives themselves time to listen to the song of the cleaner.

And there will come a time, when nobody is expecting it, when he, the cleaner – still singing his song - will take off his overall, he will pick up his baton, and now the orchestra will begin to play the tune.

Because the cleaner is the eternal Son of God and one day, having shown us his love he will show us his power. And then we will get the full works.  And he will turn round and face us, the audience, and he will invite each one of us to sing the song. And those who have heard the song, who have received the song, who have allowed the song to come and live in them, will  join in with him in the final eternal performance of the song of the cleaner. 

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