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Christmas Sermon, 2016

by glynch — last modified 25 Dec, 2016 01:42 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached at the 2016 midnight Eucharist for Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Texts: Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-22. John 1.1-14.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. “ (Isa 9.2)

What do you want for Christmas? I veer between wanting a handkerchief and world peace. That wide gap between the small particular and the grand and global is very similar in the prayers people leave when they visit the cathedral.

There is an intercessions book in which people write what they want and once a week we put the prayers on the altar and offer them to God. They are prayers to God really but if you read them you get a good idea about what is on people’s hearts and minds. They range from the very personal, small, sometimes almost trivial, to the global and the sorts of things that ought to keep God awake at night. This week’s intercessions include prayers for health and happiness, for families, for the peace of Jerusalem, Aleppo and throughout the world, and prayers in response to terrorism, for love instead of hate, for harmony within the creative diversity of God’s world; for tolerance and, more than that, for acceptance of people who are different. They will be all our prayers this Christmas.

What people wanted and hoped for before the birth of Jesus was that God would send an anointed king, a Messiah. Seven hundred years before Jesus the prophet Isaiah looked forward to God sending a Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

What they got was a baby, born at the back of an inn, in little Bethlehem rather than big, royal and holy Jerusalem. To get what this is about you have to keep your eyes open for ‘God in ordinary’, because all babies are near miraculous bundles of light and life, and because although the birth of Jesus the Messiah was prophesied and happened “according to the scriptures”, it was not exactly as people expected.

Nobody says to me that they don’t like our Christmas crib, because you wouldn’t say that to the bishop would you, but every year a few people tell me that some people don’t like it. Well I do like it. I like it very much and I’ll tell you that one of the most moving things the bishop does is to bless the crib at the Carol Service as we prepare to celebrate Christmas together. Kneeling in silence before the crib I get a privileged view of the focus of the worship of God come among us in a baby.

The figures do all look strange, and that’s what creates controversy about this particular crib, but it’s right because just about everything in this story is strange.

The young girl Mary who become the God-bearer.

Joseph to whom she was betrothed standing by her.

The two of them travelling to Bethlehem because of the census when she was due to give birth.

Finding nowhere to stay they laid the baby in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

The shepherds were the first to be told, not obvious religious leaders but working men who out on the hillside would have been unable to maintain ritual purity according to Jewish law and therefore not who you might expect to be the first in line to see the Son of God.

Then Magi, wise men from modern Iran.

No wonder King Herod was frightened by this child who undermines the powers of this world.

To keep Jesus safe his parents had to flee into exile in Egypt.

The Christmas story is endlessly surprising. Unsettling to good religious people who think we’ve got it all sorted; disturbing to the powerful with a vested interest to protect.

It is the greatest story ever told because none of us possess the rights to the story. It is God’s story.

And it doesn’t get stranger than that one of the best tellings of the implications of the story this Christmas is the Amazon advert. A consumerist commercial Christmas showing a real priest and a real Imam showing the possibility of good relations between Christians and Moslems based on a culture of friendship and gift. Amazon! It is surprising.

So what do we hope for this Christmas? A good meal, an expensive present, a fine wine, or bright yellow knee supports? All nice, but they might not be what lasts for ever and the world feels a much more serious and difficult place this Christmas than can be kept at bay simply by having nice things around to protect us.

This Christmas is at the end of a year in which the world has significantly changed shape. By tiny margins we voted for Brexit and the US voted for President Trump. We are not sure how either is going to turn out.

The gap between the richest and poorest is straining our society. Here in relatively wealthy Salisbury the Trussell Trust started their foodbanks. We are proud of the commitment of thousands of volunteers to care for those in need but we ought to be equally ashamed that we have allowed the need to grow. Poverty and the depth of inequality is one of the scourges of our times.

Across the world as a whole it has been the hottest year on record. Climate change is causing massive change. After the success of the Paris agreement last December a reduction in the political commitment to act on it would be dangerous.

There are more migrants on the move than at any time since the Second World War. People are at war in Syria, Yemen and less well reported conflicts as in South Sudan. British troops are deployed around the world in over 80 countries.

Every now and then, with unfailing repetition, an act of terrorism brings this violence close to home, as it did in Berlin last Monday.

If God had come as a great and powerful king would we have learned to live in peace? I doubt it. But come as a baby and the God of small things, God in ordinary, God of surprises, draws love out of us.

To light a single candle as we pray in the darkness of the night is an act of profound and irrepressible hope.

What I want for Christmas is the connection between the babe of Bethlehem and the light, love, life and peace of all the world. We will learn to live with one another through sacrifice and service, to have each other’s interests at heart, not just our own through the love of God and of our neighbours as ourselves. If we treat each other with wonder and are joyful at the gift of the people around us and of God come among us, the world will look a different and very much better place.

So, a very Happy Christmas to you and to everyone as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus whose love is born in us today to whom be the glory now and in eternity, for ever and ever. Amen.

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