In mid-December I read an interesting article in the New York Times. It was entitled, “Americans: Undecided about God?” The author, Eric Weiner, described how many Americans today are undecided about God and religion. People who claim no religious affiliation are a rapidly growing group in America. When asked on a survey if they practice a specific faith or belong to a religious organization, these people mark “NONE.” The “Nones”, as they are known, believe in God but do not chose to participate in organized religion.
Why is this segment of the American population growing so fast? Although the reasons are many and complex, the article sites research by David Campbell and Robert Putnam that shows many Americans are turned off by the increased mixing of religion, God and politics. This leads many people to opt out of both religion and politics.
I find this analysis of the American religious scene very interesting. It helps us understand why so many people chose not to come to church today. It also helps us understand some of our own spiritual and religious struggles. However, as a pastor I find another growing segment of people both inside and outside the Church. Many people today report that they feel disconnected from God, that God is absent from their lives, or that God doesn’t care about them. Many people experience God as being remote and distant from their real life struggles. They long for a deeper, more life-giving relationship with God. All of us can relate to these kinds of thoughts and feelings as part of our religious and spiritual lives.
The author of the New York Times article had a creative idea about how to reach people today. Weiner said that what we need is a new kind of religious operating system. He said that someone needs to do for religion what Steve Jobs did for technology. We need a more accessible and intuitive approach to religion. We need an interface with God that is user friendly. We need an operating system that allows for the fact that people are seeking and searching and that they don’t have all the answers. We need a system that appreciates people’s doubts and questions. We need an approach to religion where we can easily interact with God.
I have thought quite a bit about the idea of a new religious operating system. And I believe that is exactly what we celebrate on Christmas. We find it in the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us.” In Jesus God gives us a religious operating system that is very ancient, yet at the same time, ever new. In our Psalm for this evening we say, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Psalm 96:1) Why? We sing a new song on Christmas Eve because in Christ God is making all things new.
If we read the whole of Scripture we see that all through history God has been trying to reveal himself to us. God wants us to know who he is. God wants us to know him in a personal and human way. What does God do? He becomes one of us! God becomes a real human being in the person of Jesus Christ. God doesn’t want us to feel that he is absent. God doesn’t want us to feel abandoned and alone. No, God wants us to recognize him and know him. God wants to walk with us each & every day. And he does this by revealing himself to us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
The challenge I put before us this Christmas is that we walk out of church tonight with a renewed operating system for our religious and spiritual lives. This operating system is very easy to use; it is user friendly. We don’t even need a computer, a cell phone or internet access. This operating system tells us that Jesus is with us all of the time. He is with us as a friend who happens to be God; a friend who is the Good Shepherd; a friend who deeply cares about us and gives us strength and courage to live each day. All we have to do is put our faith and trust in Jesus and learn to communicate with him in prayer.
When you come up to the altar to receive your Christmas communion, come forward to receive Jesus Christ anew. Come forward to receive in your heart the greatest Christmas present you will ever receive. It isn’t an IPod, an IPhone or an IPad Touch. It is something far better. Borrowing a phrase from Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, we can call it an “I-Thou”: an I-Thou relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have the most forgiving, the most reliable, the most life-giving and life-changing religious operating system the world has ever known. Come receive your gift. Come renew your faith in Jesus Christ.
Fr. Paul +