Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas, 30th December 2012
Isaiah 61, Luke 2:15-21.

I’ve never done better than when our two daughters were 5 and 10 respectively, and we decided to have Christmas in Switzerland. We decided that Father Christmas should give the girls a train set, which came in two huge boxes. I bought it on the telephone from the toy shop in the Swiss village. I arranged for the shop to gift-wrap the two big boxes and deliver them to the hotel, where I conspired with the concierge that he would have these large presents delivered to our room at 3 o’clock on Christmas morning, when everybody was safely asleep, and before the girls had started to wriggle their toes to see if they could feel the stockings which they expected Father Christmas to have left at the bottom of their beds.

I issued a stern injunction that anyone who found their stocking and opened it before 6.30 in the morning ran the risk that Father Christmas’ presents would disappear back up the chimney where he had come from. The girls were amazed when they awoke and found that, in addition to fairly modest stockings, they had two huge boxes beautifully gift-wrapped at the bottom of their beds.

Emma, aged 10, had indeed previously had some sceptical thoughts about Father Christmas; but she said, ‘This is amazing, Dad! Those boxes, that the presents came in, were far too big for you to bring on the plane.’ And the magic enveloped us all.

Well, I hope that, even if you were not surrounded by Father Christmas magic, as our daughters were all those years ago, you nevertheless had a happy and blessed time. Perhaps Father Christmas didn’t really come: but what about the baby Jesus? It may be that certain things were not exactly as they were described in the Bible – for instance if you compare the birth story in St Matthew’s gospel with St Luke’s account that we were reading tonight, you will discover that in St Matthew, the wise men were the people who came to see Jesus first, whereas in St Luke it is the shepherds.

And of course no-one could really prove the story of the Virgin Birth. But I am not really so concerned about that. What I am concerned about tonight is understanding some of the significance of Jesus’ birth. We are of course able to draw some inferences from the circumstances; from the fact that Mary and Joseph were clearly not well-off. When they arrived in Bethlehem they hadn’t booked a room in advance and they didn’t have the right frequent traveller cards in order to give them priority on the waiting list for a hotel room.

It has been said that St Luke’s choice of the shepherds to receive the angels’ message first, telling them exactly who Jesus was, about the true importance of the baby, is in itself significant, because again, shepherds were not rich or important people, and in Jewish society of that time they were even worse than that – shepherds were regarded as being devious, dishonourable and unreliable. So just as, later on in the gospels, Jesus is taken to task for consorting with tax-gatherers and sinners, so here the message which the gospel is giving us is not what we would have expected if we were looking for a description of the the coming of someone who would change human history for ever.

He was of course much more in the line of the Servant King in Isaiah’s prophecy, the very antithesis of a mighty conquering hero of the sort that the Israelites were hoping for, to be their Messiah. That is St Luke’s theme, and it is all very well understood. But who was he, really?

As I was coming out of the midnight communion service at St Andrew’s, I picked up a leaflet which had been left on the pews by the team who are about to launch the Alpha course there; a pamphlet called ‘Why Christmas?’, by the Revd Nicky Gumbel, the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, where the Alpha programme comes from.

As I was brushing my teeth before going to bed, I flipped through the Alpha pamphlet, and on page 4 there was a sub-heading, ‘Who is Jesus?’ And it said there, ‘Jesus was and is the son of God.’ So I went to sleep on Christmas morning starting to mull over the thought that the baby Jesus ‘was and is the son of God’.

I had a lovely Christmas Day with my family; a splendid turkey, and then a splendid turkey pie on Boxing Day. Then the next day, I sat down to write this sermon. At which point the Alpha booklet, and the Revd Nicky Gumbel’s simple words, ‘Who is Jesus? Jesus was and is the son of God’, came back into my mind.

Somehow, it didn’t feel right. I must confess that, whereas I usually quite happily listen to the Today programme on the radio in the morning as I get dressed, in the last week or two I really haven’t felt like staying with the programme all the way through. The news is so full of terrible things. The terrible shooting in the school in Connecticut; the poor firemen who were burned by the mad arsonist, who said that his favourite activity was killing people; the crisis in Europe concerning the Euro, where the poor countries like Italy or Greece, Portugal and Spain are forced to become even poorer by the rich countries.

In the wider world, we continue to hear terrible stories from Syria. Now it seems quite clear that, whatever the beginnings of the conflict, it has turned into a proxy war where each side is supported by outside interests. Other countries outside Syria supply each side with terrible weapons – and the wherewithal to buy them.

We are told that climate change is going out of control. Those economies that are still growing, where people aspire to have better living standards, almost necessarily produce rising amounts of pollution. They want to live as comfortably as we do. But as a result the outlook for the future of the world is not good.

It doesn’t seem to sit very easily with this catalogue of woe for us simply to say, ‘Jesus was and is the son of God’. What sort of a god would allow all these terrible things to happen? What sort of a god would send his son into such an awful world, so that not only did his son ultimately get destroyed by it, but also so that his son appears to have had so little effect?

As I reflected on this, I was sad. Perhaps it was a normal reaction, coming down to earth after the happy times of Christmas Day and Boxing Day. But I did feel pretty bleak. But then I had a telephone call. It was from an old friend of mine, and she wanted to talk to me about a situation that we had both been wrestling with, where I had got completely stuck. If I did one thing, then I would offend someone that we both care for. If I did another thing, to please that person, I would end up, I thought, hurting my friend.

I knew that she’d tried to ring me a couple of times before Christmas, but I’d been out. She hadn’t left any messages, but I knew she had rung. But I hadn’t rung her back, because I really didn’t know what to say. And then she rang me, out of the blue, and she said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I know the dilemma that you’re in. It’s all right. I won’t be hurt, and I’ll still be your friend, whatever you decide.’ She meant it. Her generosity – the simple, kind thing that she said to me – lifted my whole mood. In a flash I saw one of the things that it could mean for Jesus to be the son of God.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity, ‘The son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God’ (Ch 27). Because Jesus came, we can have a chance to be like him. In the collect for today I prayed, ‘Grant that we being …. made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit’. Children of God. Us as well as Jesus. But God doesn’t treat us like puppets. He doesn’t force us to behave in a particular way. Just as we can’t always stop our children doing the wrong thing, so he doesn’t always stop terrible things happening.

But he does come, in us and in other people. He is present. We are children of God. My friend gave me grace, gave me permission and freedom in a difficult situation; I believe that it was God at work in her. In the same way, God is always there to hear and answer our prayers, and God comes to us in the people of God. We carry God. God is in us. God in us can lead us to strive against the evils we see at work in our world.

In his childhood, as a baby and even as a wayward teenager giving his parents the slip, Jesus showed us the way. ‘Grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share in the life of his divinity’.