Sermon for 1st Sunday of Christmas
One of the problems with the Bible is that it doesn’t really do character development. Well they are not those sort of books. This means it’s often quite hard to get any real grasp on what a person is like and what makes them tick. Instead, we have to fill in the gaps.
Herod the Great, the Herod in our gospel this morning, is a monster. That much we can tell; for what kind of person orders the slaughter of innocent babies? Herod is a nasty piece of work. It was not just these poor infants that were killed at the behest of this King. Many others were - including one of Herod’s wives and some of his own children. It has also been suggested that Herod had plotted the murder of a crowd of leading Jewish dignitaries in order to coincide with his own death – thus making sure there were many people wailing and mourning at his funeral.
The problem is that when we label someone a monster, that is all they are. We can discount them as being so beyond our comprehension, so beyond what any reasonable person might do that we see no connection with them and who we are and what we do. Herod is paranoid and wants to keep his throne. This Messiah is a threat. This is what lies behind his murderous decrees. The evil that meets the arrival of our Saviour is devastating. What this story tells us is that we need to take sin seriously.
For while I may not be guilty of murder, how do I respond when my own status and power comes under threat? How do I feel when what makes me feel settled and comfortable is challenged? Is my reaction one of loving understanding or is it, which is far more likely to be the case, one in which I get defensive, or paranoid, or angry? I must protect: myself; my privilege; my position. So, I might not have an army at my disposal like Herod, but what do I do in such situations? Do I belittle, do I tear a strip off the challenger, do I answer with hatred?
Have a think about what really gets your goat. What makes you seethe. Recall a moment when you felt like that and what you wanted to do. I bet you wouldn’t want to admit that to the person sitting next to you this morning. When I start to see Herod in this way, I begin to wonder to what lengths would I go? Of course, I would never issue the kind of orders he did but I am sure that as we chipped away at how I would answer a threat to my own throne, I would be surprised at what I would be prepared to do - especially if someone else was paying and someone else was making them pay. Are we really so different from Herod - this very human king propelled by a very human instinct?
Sin is about falling short of the mark. The mark is the example of love that Jesus showed and commanded us to have for each other. However, when we care more about ourselves, our privilege and our position than we do anyone else then we fall short, far too short. We sin. We need to be vigilant – aware when we see ourselves in such a way - for we start to become little Herods of our own. Instead, let us, like the holy family, flee away from this kind of sin. Let us always remember Christ’s instruction to love.
Christ did not call us to be doormats. There are times we must say ‘no’. There will be times we need to resist and defend. Yet, we always need to ask ourselves at such points: am I doing this for the right reasons and in the right way? Is this something of which, in all good conscience, is Christ-like? If the answer you suspect is ‘probably not’ then we need to do something about it and choose another way. It seems to be that this is much more like what Christian life is really like. We won’t always get it right but somehow we ought to look at what we have done, what we are doing, what we intend to do and offer it to God: in that we try and do right by him. Remembering that God knows us, knows what we are doing, and loves us anyway. Nevertheless, God calls us to be more, to be better, to be the best person we can be.
And if what I have said is true of us, so it is true for Herod. Our Gospel’s author, Matthew, may have written Herod off as a monster but God never does. God never stops loving him. God never stops desiring Herod would draw nearer to the person God wishes him to be, the very best Herod he can be. For then he would be truly worthy of his title: Herod the Great.
Christmas Morning: Luke 2, 1-14
The lead up to Christmas is undoubtedly a time of ritual: buying the tree and dressing it, wrapping presents (in my case very badly), decorating the house and so forth. Watching a Christmas film or two is, for many families, a favourite ritual. Does anyone have a favourite Christmas film? A couple of days ago I watched a film, a very old film, that I had never seen before: ‘The Bishop’s Wife,’ staring David Niven, Cary Grant and Loretta Young. Has anyone seen it? David Niven plays the part of a bishop who has somewhat lost his way, both in his marriage and in his vocation as a bishop. Cary Grant plays the part of an angel who suddenly and mysteriously appears in order to lead the bishop back to his true vocation.
The bishop’s problem is that he has got so caught up in the finery and ritual of religion that he has lost sight of the purpose and rationale of faith. He has become all technique, technique which he is not even very good at, at the expense of virtue. He has forgotten that Christianity is a religion that stresses the importance of grace and charity. He has forgotten that generosity and love must always sit at the heart of all true Christianity, and before we pass judgement on the good bishop we should, perhaps, remind ourselves that we too can become so fixated on ritual and technique that we too forget that generosity and giving must sit at the heart of our faith.
The Christmas story is the story of God’s generosity. God, through the person of Jesus Christ, gives entirely of himself. He gives Himself to each and every one of us and this, surely, is the best of news?
So how should we respond to the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, as St. Luke rightly insists, with ‘great joy’ and generosity we should give him, as Christina Rosstti wrote, ‘our heart.’ The really good news is that if we do this we will grow in generosity and gratitude. We will become increasingly kind and compassionate. We will become good news. We will become the sort of people who bring a little of the Kingdom of God, in heaven, down to earth.
So, may I wish you a very Merry Christmas and as you enjoy the ritual of opening your presents, to spend just a short time making sure that you give back to Jesus the very best present that you can: your heart, Amen.
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.’
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