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Christmas Sermon, 2016

by Gerry Lynch last modified 25 Dec, 2015 01:21 PM

Bishop Nicholas preached at the Christmas morning Sung Eucharist at Salisbury Cathedral

Texts: Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son...He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being...” (Hebrews 1.1)

As we prepared for last night’s Midnight Mass the clergy walked past me in what passed for a procession. They reminded me of some monks I know where the collective noun used of them is ‘a rumble’. There was a huge congregation and as this and as they used to say about the News of the World, “All human life is here.”

The Christmas stories do not belong to anyone in particular. They are public property, a communal possession, they belong to everyone. So they still get told in many and various ways. In ways that are trivial, commercial, funny, educational, surprising, human, divine, profound, but none has it all wrapped up and ready to go. There’s a basic rule of thumb that the closer we get to that which is genuinely holy the less certain we are about our being there.

These stories work on us at least as much as we work on them.

In our telling of the Christmas stories here in church every year something always strikes me anew.

We say that all this happened “according the scriptures”, that it was all part of God’s plan, but it certainly didn’t happen as anyone at the time expected. In Matthew and Luke the stories are told in ways. that help us to see what was going on, but Mary was perplexed by the visit of an angel. Joseph needed a talking to, to help steady him through what must have seemed at first to be unwelcome pre-marital trouble. Herod had to ask for help not just from the Magi but by gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people to ask where the Messiah was to be born. And so on. It might all seem obvious now but at the time this baby was not exactly what they thought the Messiah, God’s anointed one, would be. They could have done with more power and might to show God come among us.

As a child? At Nine Lessons and Carols a child read the Prologue of John’s Gospel. When I was the reader’s age the beginning of John’s Gospel sounded wonderfully impressive but it also sounded incomprehensible. How could a child get across the grandeur of John’s vision: the creative Word of God come among us? “We have beheld his glory, the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1.14) It really ought to be left for the senior priest in the Diocese, the Dean. And yet a child did read it and we beheld God’s glory in ordinary.

A bit like these extraordinary crib figures whose eye patch, exaggerated features and focus show God come among us not in idealised perfection but as we are. According to Luke the first to be told were shepherds on the hills around Bethlehem, salt of the earth maybe, but not able to keep to the purity of Judaism, so religiously suspect.

Matthew tells of Magi, whom the tradition and Carols have turned into Kings. That fits much better as visitors to the babe who will be King of Kings, but these really were strange, from the East, probably from Persia, modern Iran.

On his 13th century travels, Marco Polo discovered the tombs of the Magi in the Persian city of Saveh, in modern Iran. When these Magi returned home they did not convert to Christianity but they worshipped the Christ child and kept his memory alive by the Zoroastrian use of fire. In Matthew’s Gospel the story of the Magi is used to show that salvation comes from the Jews for all the earth, but as in any relationship giving and receiving goes both ways. When the Persians defeated of the Byzantines in the seventh century, they swept through Palestine destroying all the important buildings. The single exception was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because over the doorway was a huge mosaic of the recognisably Persian Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child. The building, and more than the building, survived, because the soldiers found an honoured connection with themselves and their own experience.

Yes, all this happened ‘according to the scriptures’ but it is hardly as anyone expected. At the centre was a child whose love inverted the powers of the world and in whom we see God’s glory. The first to worship were some not very highly regarded men who left the sheep to look after themselves for a few hours and some strangers distinctly ‘not one of us’. It does suggest the one thing we can be sure of in the cathedral this Christmas morning is that things aren’t as settled as might make us comfortable, in these days when God has spoken to us by a son who is the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being.

Of course it is tempting to go on to make some points by applying these stories to the modern world in which the rich have prospered in this age of austerity; when we are coming to another year in which we will have to think hard about what it means for us to belong together as people who are English, British, European and global; when there is the most appalling violence that we bomb people to bring them to their senses; when there are more refugees than at any time since the Second World War. But that stretches the texts too far. They are stories not statements and Christianity has to be lived rather than coloured in by numbers.

But here are three things central to Christianity which point us towards what it is to be human and to life in all its fullness.

  1. Christ comes as a child. There’s nothing more compelling than a baby, or a Syrian child washed up on a Mediterranean beach. When violence and chaotic disorder threaten to overwhelm us, it’s worth holding on to what lasts forever - life, truth, light and love. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.5) Christ comes as child.

  2. At the heart of the Gospel is a call to forgiveness and grace, to forgiving others as we are forgiven, to being merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful, to being generous to one another. It gives new life. Actually it’s pretty much what we say is the Christmas spirit and it comes in many and various ways. It can be dressed up as a jolly Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas giving presents to everyone regardless of whether we deserve them; or it can be the sacrificial self-giving of taking a towel and washing the feet of the poor. But forgiveness is also in our own self- interest to ‘Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.’ The only people we hurt by not forgiving is ourselves. The way of forgiveness is a good way of living, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and the wisdom of all the world’s religions.

And

  1. In a world that struggles with religious belief, our hope is in the Word made flesh, in ‘God in ordinary’. In the Christmas stories we find ourselves anew in this fragile, vulnerable, beautiful ordinary extraordinary creation in which we live in relation to God and one another.

In many and various ways God has spoken to us. His son “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being...” (Hebrews 1.1) 

As a child, through forgiveness, we find ourselves anew in the love of God. I think I can pin my hopes on that so I also hope you have a very Happy Christmas.

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