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Christmas Day Sermon 2011

by Michael Ford last modified 28 Mar, 2012 11:30 AM

Morning Service, Salisbury Catheral, Sunday 25 December 2011

“He it is who gave himself for us ...  and purify for himself a people... who are zealous for good deeds.”                                                                                             Titus 2.14

A baby lights up any room and has the most astonishing capacity to draw love from us. At least that’s how it is in healthy families and societies. This capacity is in our genes; part of our survival instinct.  Vulnerable and needy, certainly, but a baby is the centre of attention.  You can see it with the Christmas crib and in our gathering on Christmas morning. The awe and wonder at the birth of a child is magnified in the birth of the Christ child. Angels, messengers from God, tell Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds who come to the manger, and 2000 years later this baby still holds us enthralled.

We like to think of ourselves as taking good care of our children and young people but we’re not consistent.  In the wake of the summer’s urban riots, the children’s charity Barnardo’s  found that almost  half of  the 2000 adults they surveyed agreed with a statement that our children and young people are “feral”.  Although Barnardo’s concluded that the vast majority of well behaved young people are being stigmatised by the bad behaviour of a few,  in England and Wales we take more children into care and into custody  than in other European countries.

In one of my favourite Christmas cards, the Magi are kneeling reverently at an empty crib. Mary paces up and down at the back of the stable, the baby crying on her shoulder.  Joseph looks towards her, anxious, as one of the Wise Men looks daggers and shouts, “Won’t you take that baby outside? Some of us are trying to worship.”

The tradition of Christmas cribs was begun by St Francis of Assisi in 1223 at Greccio in northern Italy. Francis said,

‘I want to do something that will recall the memory of the little child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed.’

In that crib it was said,

‘Simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem.’

On a very cold evening just over a week ago, standing by the A4 at Cherhill, we got the inconvenience alright. It was freezing. A crowd of people from the local schools, villages and churches gathered for the  blessing of a life-size nativity in a garden shed just past the wonderfully named ‘Divine Cafe’; a sort of stable at the back of an hospitable inn.  There, a sheep and a camel joined shepherds and wise men coming to see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in a manger.  It is the same story told by our cathedral crib with rougher figures in this much more polished setting as it is in the hundreds and hundreds of cribs and nativity plays that have taken place across the diocese. God meets us in a baby and shows us that love, light, life and peace are what matter and in the end they always win.

Year in, year out, we get our children to tell us this story, and we adults tell ourselves  Christmas is for them, but in truth the birth of Jesus, in whom God comes among us,  is a story for people of all ages. We want our children to know it and we use them to remind us of its powerful significance for all the world.

The Prime Minister, speaking in Oxford at an event to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, has sparked a debate as to whether this country is a Christian one. As a matter of history, Christianity has shaped this country’s culture for hundreds of years and provided the faith story for  our self-understanding, but is this still true?  Oddly enough it is many in the churches who say we now live in a post-Christian society, with fewer people going to church and the Church having a much weaker influence on our institutions.

In our pluralist world there are other stories to be told and Christians have to decide which we can work with.  The Bible tells of people of other faiths showing us goodness.  The story of the Good Samaritan is the New Testament classic because the linking of the two words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ was an oxymoron for Jews who despised Samaritans.  Matthew’s account of the Magi is of Gentiles, non-Jews, probably from Persia, modern Iran, bringing their treasures to the infant king.

In the urban riots last summer, 21 years old Haroon Jahan was killed with two friends, brothers, whilst trying to defend their community in Birmingham from looters. Speaking outside his home the day after, less than 70 yards from where his son had died, Haroon’s father, Tariq, spoke of his faith in his local community to stay strong and avoid interracial conflict. He said:

‘I believe that people can stay calm. If you look around here, there are black, brown, white and yellow people, they are all my community. We live together and we can stay together. Our three boys have died...  There should be no more deaths, and I hope and pray that message has got through.’

Tariq Jahan was one of the great people of the year, a messenger from God proclaiming peace and goodwill for all the earth.

In the eighth century, when St Boniface set out from Devon to Christianise Northern Europe, he did so by using the popular culture to proclaim Christ.  In the dark and cold of mid-Winter, the much enjoyed pagan festival was used to show God’s light shining in the darkness and never being overcome. An evergreen fir tree became an image of God’s eternal life.  We take these aspects of Christmas for granted but I bet there was a debate within the churches at the time about whether they could use these pagan things as a vehicle for telling the Christian story. 

In our time we are wondering if it is any longer credible for the truth of Christmas to be conveyed commercially.  Capitalism looks highly questionable in an economic downturn. The protestors outside St Paul’s have voiced an uncomfortable truth. Most people are feeling poorer whilst some are rewarded out of all proportion, and the gap between richest and poorest continues to grow.  Put this in a global context, and a world in which 2 billion people live on less than $2 a day, in which we are almost paralysed in the face of huge environmental challenges, and the Church has to ask questions about whether our culture can carry the Christian message or whether what we need is something new?

The Gospel does not have a single political programme and Christians will respond to these issues in different ways, as always.  Those of us committed to working with the culture of our society will seek the best it can offer whilst recognising that capitalism needs moderating but is the least bad economic system so far.  Those looking for alternatives will use all their imagination to find better. These different approaches will stimulate and spark each other, sometimes creatively, as they have in every generation.

Far from the Christmas story being one ‘just for the children’, it brings a good deal of realism and a great deal of challenge, about how we live together in peace and with goodwill for all people. 

In the baby Jesus, the love of God has come among us. “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2.14) Christmas is a call to action for us to live in the love, light, life and peace of God come among us and who suffered the inconveniences of this life and showed us its glory. However life is for you, I hope you will be encouraged by God with us and have a joyful and blessed Christmas.

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