Midnight Mass at St Laurence: Isaiah 52, 7-10, Hebrews 1, 1-4 & John 1, 1-14
It would perhaps be a bit of an understatement to say that in many years this has been a difficult and fractious year; a year when division rather than reconciliation appears to have been the dominant characteristic of our national life. Let’s hope and pray that next year is better; far better. Let’s hope for the return of ‘grace and truth.’
As a Christian I believe – no, strongly believe – that the answer to many of our collective problems can be found through taking seriously the story of Jesus’ birth, and his subsequent ministry. The Christian story is so rich, far richer than your average figgy pudding, that we do well to not only reflect on it, but enact it. For to be Christian means not just to assent to a set of beliefs, 100 impossible articles of doctrine and dogma before breakfast as it were, but to take a full part into entering into the ongoing drama of living Christianly. This drama, of course, begins with the welcoming of a baby, the Christ-child, as Messiah and Lord of all.
In many ways this is a remarkable thought: Jesus the living incarnation of God who is, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, ‘appointed heir of all things,’ and the very ‘reflection of God’s glory and exact imprint of God’s very being,’ comes to earth, to be amongst us, not as some Zeus like figure, not as some Alpha Male strutting his way across the world, but as a tiny baby.
He comes to us as one of us, as God with us, and God for us. Furthermore, as Isaiah stresses he comes for 'all nations’ and ‘all the ends of the earth;’ and yet, despite the universality of his mission or purpose, he comes as a baby; flesh and blood. The fact of Christmas is simply this: that God chose to come amongst us so that he could relate directly to us.
In many ways this is a very hard message to receive or to accept: Surely, we might feel entitled to ask ourselves should God be, well, more ‘god-like,’ bigger, stronger, blazon and empirical? In fact, such is our requirement for a big, glossy and impressive God, a God who is so obviously god-like, that it becomes easier to dismiss the whole story. And, of course we are entitled to do just that for as John’s prologue makes clear: ‘his own people did not accept him.’ But, before we judge his own people you can see their point: baby born in a manger, son of a fairly ordinary couple called Mary and Joseph, who spends his early years running off to the synagogue and acting out the part of a preacher, and who earns his living as a manual labourer isn’t really a compelling narrative. Or, at least it’s not when you want your God to be impressive, Zeus-like, or to be a straightforward empirical fact. It’s not an easy story when what we want is to either make God in our own image, either real or projected, or to make him the ready-made answer to all our problems.
But, let’s pause and think for a minute or so: if God were to be just another Zeus like figure, surely the natural consequence would be that God would ultimately bound to disappoint; after all history tells us that such god-like figures always end up failing to live up to expectations. If God, or the person of Jesus Christ, was just another empirical fact, rather than an articulation of faith, the problem would be one of tyranny; either ours or God’s. For if God, rather than being a person was a fact, free-will would by necessity be entirely lost. We would either be compelled to believe in God, rendering God a tyrant, or to reject God, making us the tyrant. It’s not a very attractive set of propositions is it?
But, what we can do is to simply and faithfully accept the Christmas story. We can choose to believe that Jesus, as ‘the reflection of God’s glory and exact imprint of God’s being’ came to be amongst us; that God chose to enter fully into the human condition, as flesh and blood, as Christ incarnate, as God with us and God for us. For if this is the choice we make, it changes literally everything because to greet and receive Jesus on his terms, on ‘this happy morning’, as John insists, means that we too ‘become children of God;’ agents of ‘grace and truth.’ And, isn’t that what the world needs – isn’t this what we need - this year, next year, and every year: a whole lot more ‘grace and truth.’
As Christians, as those who by faith accept the Christ-story, the story that begins in the most unpromising of circumstances, our job is to be first recipients and then agents of change; instruments of reconcilaition; promoters of peace; advocates for dignity and justice; people of good will, purveyors of ‘grace and truth.’ Our job, having received the Christ-child, is to become Christ-like, ‘full of grace and truth.’
The way we do this is through choosing a deep fascination and enduring faith in the God who came to us at Christmas, not as yet another Zeus like figure, a pop up here today and gone tomorrow ‘god’, but as the Christ-child; the one born in a manger in a far off land; the one with the timeless manifesto; who came for all people, in all places, for all time; the one who is ‘full of grace and truth.’
Midnight Mass at St James
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....”
So begins the story…
a story that millions have seen and heard,
a story which is relived in costumes and parties and books and films,
a story which speaks of hope.
A story which, after 42 years, has now come to an end.
I haven’t actually seen the new Star Wars film, The Rise of the Skywalker, but I will do, just as I have all the others: and by then I will have spent a little over 25 hours in this galaxy far, far away. Well, to be honest, a darkened cinema, holding a bucket of popcorn with some mates watching it all happen in front of me. At the end, I shall get up and leave and chat about it with my friends. We will then say our goodbyes and go home. Entertained for a couple of hours but fundamentally unchanged…life will go on.
And that’s what Christmas can be like.
We hear an ancient story. A story that is mysterious, taking place in an unfamiliar land far, far away over two millenia ago. Okay so there are no Ewoks, but there is an evil empire, there are strange visitors: a bunch of shepherds, some foreigners claiming to be wise, and a young couple who have a baby boy.
And this old, old story is:
a story that millions have seen and heard,
a story which is relived in costumes and parties and books and films,
a story which speaks of hope.
But for many, it can remain just that: a story.
A story for others, not them, a story which doesn’t affect us or involve us. We can return to our homes entertained but fundamentally unchanged…life goes on.
Tonight, in the midst of the dark of deep midwinter, we are instead invited to be drawn closer into the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ. We are beckoned to approach His light, the light which is coming into the world and which no darkness can overcome. This light does not merely shine, banishing the darkness away, but it comes to light up our lives and to lead - to lead to a life with God.
God comes into the world as one of us. “He dwelt among us”. Not to stand there, so we can all go ‘wow’. Nor does God come to judge and condemn. But God comes into the world so that he may touch our lives, so he may be more easily known and so that we may be touched by God, to be known by God, to be loved by God. This is what we celebrate this night: God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ for us.
But we aren’t passive onlookers: we don’t simply watch all this happening and move on. For we are invited to become part of this story. We are not just witnesses to the birth of Jesus but we too can have a new birth in ourselves … that of God as revealed by his Son. Jesus shows us what God is like, and in turn calls us to be like him, doing as he taught us to do: love God and love our neighbour. That’s the way here today we become part of the story: that we hear this news and make it part of our loves. We practise love. Loving God and loving one another.
The world seems to be a place of darkness – and if there’s one thing that we could all do with this Christmas is perhaps more love? For love turns hatred, brings peace, not war, and in place of despair offers hope. I am not so starry eyed that I think love simply solves all in a second and lays ahead a great series of answers. As if, suddenly, we turn to love and somehow all becomes clear. However, by practising love we set ourselves on a different course: a path where we look out for another, tend to each other, care for one other. The other stops being a nameless person but becomes my neighbour.
The light of love is not a gift that God kept to himself but instead gave it to us all in his Son Jesus Christ. The same is true for us: that we who receive this light of love cannot keep it for ourselves but it is a gift to be shared. We are called in this community to light up our homes, our village, our schools, our workplaces, our towns, our world with love. We are to be messengers of hope to others who have not seen the light and love of God, but whose lives are marked by the darkness of despair and dejection. To those, we are to bring the good news of what God has done.
Tonight this story has a new beginning - a new beginning with each of us…not in a galaxy far, far away but right here and now.
Sermon for Advent 3 : Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11.2-11
I love skiing and I am lucky enough to have just come back from a week away in the Alps - right on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Anyway, my wife and I went for a week to learn to ski better with a skiing academy. It’s a grand sounding name for a set of brilliant instructors who try to help people who can ski already, to improve.
One of the most important things drilled into us during our holiday was to ski looking down the mountain. Your legs can turn as they direct the skis, but the upper half of your body must remain heading down the mountain. This technique is called separation: because your legs are doing something the rest of your body is not. By looking down the mountain you can lean forward and get well stacked over the skis, meaning you will be more balanced.
Well this is all fine, when the slopes are quiet, when the slopes are wide, and when the incline of the slope is gentle. You can look down the mountain all you like. But when you narrow the piste, add a few other people and turn that soft incline into a steep drop, you try leaning forward on a pair of skis slipping down the slope ... for the natural thing to do is to lean back.
Ever stood on a ledge and leaned forward? No, what you do instinctively is to lean back, away from the drop. The problem doing this when skiing is that by leaning back, you make yourself more unbalanced and even worse you push your skis away from you. This means you are likely to ski the steep slope more quickly and less steadily as your weight is in the wrong place. So, what do you do then? Yes, of course, you lean further back and on it goes until you either fall or somehow manage to stop. The instructor told us we have to resist doing the very thing we might expect would be the natural thing to do. We had to try and do the opposite.
It seems to me that, when in terms of what we believe and our journey as Christians, a gap begins to open up between what we expect and what actually is then doubt starts to set in. Just such a gap opened up for John the Baptist when he asks of Jesus, ‘Are you the one?’. He was in a far darker situation than being on the top of a piste wearing a pair of skis. John had been arrested and was now in prison. He had spent years announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was near; the Messiah was coming.
But what had happened? The vicious and violent occupying forces continued to rule the land he called home; the weak local complicit leaders rolled on amassing wealth but did not follow God’s law. Where was the victory that was promised? Where was the ‘winnowing fork’ and the ‘unquenchable fire’ that the Messiah would bring? Instead what John the Baptist got, what the world got, was this poor itinerant preacher who round him had gathered small crowds and tales of healings and mysterious stories. Was this it?
There it is - the gap between what we expect and what we get. But despite that gap we are called to have faith, as we wait for the coming of the Messiah. We can do this by learning to look for the unexpected, the glimpses, the signs of where God is at work and we might find them just in those places and situations where we might not necessarily expect God to be. This is Jesus' answer to John the Baptist’s question. This is what Isaiah promised and that is what Jesus is doing as he gives the blind their sight, he heals the lame, he opens the ears of the deaf and cleanses the lepers. When he gives hope to the dejected. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God, not the vanquishing of enemies and great displays of status and power.
Two significant events took place on Thursday which will affect this church. Where are we more likely to find the signs of the Kingdom of God? The first is the General Election. I write this not knowing the result. I have my own hopes and I pray that God’s will is done in terms of who wins power. However, is this where we will find the glimpses of God’s Kingdom that I have been talking about: the grandeur and might and potential of government?
I wonder whether it might be seen more easily in the second event? For the second week on Thursday, members of our church will have volunteered, like many others, at the Milton Keynes Night Shelter. They will have made beds, cooked, cleaned, welcomed and got to know some people from our community who are homeless. There would have been no pomp and circumstance, there was hard work, a certain uncertainty among all, a helping hand, a smile, a joke and some rest. No great shakes in and of itself but there in the midst of these gestures and actions is the promising of good news to the poor, the loving of those who feel unloved, the bringing of hope to dispel despair.
This is where we are to find God’s Kingdom and, it’s probably the last place many would look. We never get to hear what John the Baptist thought when he got Jesus’ answer. I hope that in his cell, his expectations were enlarged so that his doubts about who Jesus was and what the Kingdom of God looked like began to fall away so that his sight was restored. So that he could truly see who this person was.
Whatever our own lead up to Christmas and the coming of Christ is like, whatever we are likely to do or say may we take to heart Jesus’ answer to John: may our eyes be opened to the reality of God’s Kingdom, however unexpected; may we be ready to do the thing which may not seem sensible or obvious; and may we be ready to respond to others out of love for the one who came among us to reveal the love of God.
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