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Christmas Sermon, 2017

by glynch — last modified 25 Dec, 2017 09:22 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached this sermon at the 10.30 am Festal Eucharist on Christmas Day 2017 in Salisbury Cathedral

Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;
From the laziness that is content with half-truth;
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,
O God of Truth deliver us. Amen.

On Christmas Eve the bishop has lunch with the choristers. I thanked them for their singing throughout the year but especially at our Advent and Christmas services.

What’s your favourite carol?”, I asked them yesterday. In the bleak mid-winter and the Sussex Carol came top.

Best sermon heard during the year? The Bishop’s Chorister who preached as the boy bishop on the Sunday nearest St Nicholas Day. True, but humbling.

Favourite reading? They didn’t tell me stories but gave the Bible references! The beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The beginning of John. Today’s Gospel got their vote and mine. That magisterial prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….”

The beginnings of the Gospels tell us what to look out for. They give us the eyes and ears for what is going to happen and why it is important.

John’s prologue signals a new creation. “In the beginning was the Word….All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” 

In this creative Word of God is life, light, glory, grace and truth. Truth is a main theme in John. Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life”; he is the true bread, the true vine. At the great confrontation with worldly power, when Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, in words that resonate among politicians today, “What is truth?”

John’s Gospel asserts in his account of Christ’s life that truth matters. It is of God. 

We are having trouble with utilities in The Close. You will have had difficulty coming in through the High Street Gate because there is a gas leak. Yesterday at the bishop’s end of The Close we had no electricity because of a break in the joint of a 50 year old underground cable. The gas leak is still a problem. A team of workmen were here all day getting our power back on. This sermon got started in candlelight because of a lack of connection. 

That’s where our choristers are brilliant. They get the connections because they sing through the Christian year. They know that Christmas only makes sense because of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Without the connections the Christmas story lacks power. 

For several years there has been a disturbing struggle in our public life about truth. Fake news, alternative facts and the lack of connection is alarming.But did you hear the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire after the memorial service in St Paul’s cathedral saying that what they wanted is “justice and truth”? They found it hard to find the words but they didn’t seem to think what they were asking for is especially complex or difficult. No one said we now live in a post-truth society and anything goes. They knew truth and justice are among the few things that matter, that hope depends on the light shining in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it. That is John’s Gospel truth.

Or think of the people of the South Sudan with whom this diocese of Salisbury is linked. A new peace agreement came into effect last night after 4 years of fighting in which millions of people have been displaced and tens of thousands have died. They will not get peace without building trust based on truth and justice.

Unless we struggle to tell the truth, unless we are people who are about the truth, who make ourselves accountable to the truth, nothing is certain and anything goes and undermines confidence in one another.

Church doesn’t always get this right but at the core of what we are about is a commitment to being true; and judgement is what in the end makes us honest. Good faith as opposed to bad religion helps us to see things more clearly, to face up to the sort of difficulties we might otherwise avoid, to seek the truth even when it is difficult.

In the present day circumstances of Israel and Palestine there is a choice between fuelling the conflict to make sure the powerful stay on top, and finding ways in which people live together more peacefully in what is admittedly finely balanced tension. The community’s AlterNativity performed in the yard of Banksy’s Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem looked creative and life giving. It connected truth and justice.

One of the most moving things I have done this year was to host a reception at Parliament for twenty young people a year after the clearance of the ‘Calais Jungle’. They came without any sense of irony to thank the British people and Parliament for the welcome and hospitality they have received.

They came from places like Darfur in Sudan and Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Individually they told harrowing stories. One told me that he had seen death many times. He is 17 years old. Ishmael, now 18, from Syria, thanked the British Parliament and people for giving them a new home. He said, “A country that kills its own sons is not a country. I believe my country is Britain now. It is our duty now in our new country to be part of the British community and help build it together. Nothing in the world can change that.”

An MP said that these youngsters were among the most courageous people in the world. The youngsters presented a plaque for Parliament to Lord Dubbs, who himself had come to the UK as a child refugee among the Kindertransport:

“We thank the British people and Parliament for giving us peace. We found a beautiful life in the UK, so different to the life we fled. We were suffering, but now we are safe.”

With so many unaccompanied minors still caught up in the largest movement of migrants since the Second World War it is a scandal that we have fallen so far short of the 3,000 agreed in Parliament by taking fewer than 300, and that 280 places for refugee children offered by local authorities remain unfilled. We could do so much better.

Or, David Attenborough’s wonderful Blue Planet II has reminded us of the urgent need to care for God’s beautiful fragile creation. The rapid rise in homelessness of our duty to care for one another. And the tensions of Brexit remind us that have got to find how to be together amidst our divisions and that leaving the European Union does not mean we stop being European, and that we need to look forward not back to find our place within the world.

In all these challenges and opportunities there are no simple answers but the good news of the Word made flesh as a baby is of God’s truth and justice. The hope of Christmas is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that connection there is a loss of power.

There is a wonderful Johannine affirmation of faith by Archbishop Desmond Tutu from the years of South Africa’s the dark struggle with apartheid:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

Desmond Tutu (An African Prayer Book Hodder and Stoughton 1995)

That is the Christmas hope powerfully connected. It is why we gather in such number to be renewed by God’s love, full of grace and truth.

I pray we have a very happy Christmas and a peaceful new year as we come to God’s truth and justice in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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