Second Sunday of Christmas, January 5, 2010
Scripture: Psalm 147: 12-20 and John 1:1-18
As I have made my way through life during the last few weeks, I have been pondering what all the “hoopla” has to do with the fact that the Word of God became flesh – that the Creator of the universe was born into our ordinary human experience.
One possible answer to my wonderings is “nothing.” There are times when, for example, people have asked me whether I am “ready for Christmas” (implying that Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts) that I actually think the Christmas holiday season has lost the reason for itself.
For me, “being ready for Christmas” means trying to be “in sync” with that which God is doing in the here-and-now among us human beings.
Now, I am not “pooh-poohing” the decorations and the lights. I recognize that, in the Northern Hemisphere, the connection between the Birth of Christ and the Feast of Lights in this, the darkest part of the year, has important significance for those of us who are young, and those of us whose hearts are young because they are hearts filled with faith. Tomorrow is Epiphany – when we remember and celebrate how the Magi, experts in the science of astrology, were led to Jesus’ birthplace by a Star.
My spouse and I have had the experience of spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, as have some of you. We lived in Christchurch, New Zealand for 15 months during 1989 and 1990. On Christmas Eve 1989 we sailed paper boats with candles in them on the River Avon that flows through the city – and, on Christmas Day, we had a barbeque Christmas dinner with friends in the park near our home. Christmas tree lights and other decorations were difficult to find, and Christmas shopping was not really the “big thing” that it is here in Canada. But we still celebrated the birth of Christ.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. God reached out to make a connection with us humans. This morning, I want to connect that theological truth to an important aspect of human experience.
Our society has been deeply troubled by a mounting toll of deaths caused by addiction to drugs. Addictions (minor and major) can be ways of avoiding connection – with God and with others in the human family. Conversely, finding connection (with God and our brothers and sisters in the human family) reduces our susceptibility to serious addictions. There is substantial research on this by a psychologist named Bruce Alexander who is now retired from the faculty of Simon Fraser University in BC.
Professor Alexander carried out a laboratory experiment in which he put rats in a cage and gave them two water bottles: One was just water, and the other was water laced with either heroin or cocaine. The rats almost always preferred the drugged water and almost always killed themselves quite quickly. That’s what we mostly understand about serious human addictions to drugs such as heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and other “hard” drugs. Use them. Like them. Get hooked. Probably die of a drug overdose. However, some of these drugs are used by physicians to control pain – and that usage almost never results in addiction or death.
Professor Alexander, back in the 1970s, was pondering the results of his experiment when he realized something. Can you guess what he noticed about the rats who killed themselves by drinking the “drugged” water? …
Professor Alexander realized that he had put each of those rats in an empty cage all by itself. The rats had nothing to do except drink the drugged water. So he decided to try something different. He built a cage that he called “Rat Park,” which was basically a “heaven” for rats. They had lots of cheese. They had lots of colored balls. They had lots of tunnels. Crucially, they had lots of friends.
They also had both of the water bottles, the normal water and the drugged water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they didn’t like the drugged water. They almost never used it. None of them ever used it compulsively or repetitively. None of them ever overdosed. Instead of the almost 100 percent overdosing by the rats who were isolated, there was zero percent overdosing when the rats had happy and connected lives in Rat Park. You can read about Professor Anderson’s research in publicly available peer-reviewed journal articles on the internet. There is even a submission which he made to the Canadian Senate in 2001.
Now rats are not humans. However, there are many ideas that we cannot test by putting humans at risk. And rats mirror many human characteristics. So that is why laboratory-based experiments often use them. And laboratory experimenters like Professor Alexander now have to demonstrate to a Research Ethics Panel that the risks to the rats are outbalanced by the potential benefits of the experiment for humans.
So what does this have to do with the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us?
God came among us in order to create communities of faith and care – communities of people for whom Jesus is real – communities gathered around Jesus.
Some theologians say that God came among us humans for other reasons. I am not wanting to minimize those other reasons. However, I believe that formation of communities of faith and care was the primary objective of God coming among us in the Birth of Jesus. God does not intend that we live isolated lives.
When we put that theological truth alongside Professor Alexander’s research, it becomes apparent that the main answer to serious addictions, and the rising death toll as a result of drug overdoses, is not a medical answer. It certainly is not a legal answer. The answer lies in the creation of human community – and particularly in the creation of human community that is responsive to God’s love. My favourite description of the mission of the Church is to “increase among [people] the love of God and neighbor.”
So let’s continue to do that – as a congregation and as individuals living out our faith in various situations into which God calls us: among our friends, as participants and volunteers in church and community programs, in our workplace, in school, wherever God has placed us.
Let’s see our response to the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as the creation of human communities of faith and care which increase the love of God and neighbour.
And know that God will bless our efforts.
 – There are exceptions, of course. I think that those exceptions may be the result of being socially isolated – as a result of which the pain killer becomes part of the suffering person’s “family.”
 – Recent advances in neuroscience have made available resources that can help with rehabilitation – but these advances do not provide society with a way to prevent addictions.
 – H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, & James M. Gustafson – See https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-1-the-purpose-of-the-church-and-its-ministry/
© 2020 John C Carr, ThM, PhD, DD (HC)
Minister-in-association, Dayspring Presbyterian Church, Edmonton
January 5, 2010
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