Archives for posts with tag: christmas

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Mary’s on 1st December 2013, the First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44 – The Thief in the Night

Some of you may know that I have just come back from a visit to the USA, where I enjoyed Thanksgiving with some friends. It’s like a combination of Harvest Festival with Christmas – you eat a massive meal of turkey with all the usual trimmings – and with some things we don’t have, like fresh cranberries instead of cranberry sauce, squash as one of the vegetables, and pecan pie for pudding.

The timing of the meal depends on whether the family you are visiting favours a brisk walk in the park afterwards, playing touch football or watching it – American football, that is. The TV schedule is often influential in the decision concerning the timing of Thanksgiving lunch. Another thing is that you may find that you need to rest your eyes. Somehow there is no need to eat or drink anything more that day!

Thanksgiving is just that, thanksgiving, a season where the Americans give thanks to God for the abundance of good things that they enjoy. It looks back to the hard work of the harvest. It doesn’t look forward to Christmas. It’s not like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, a blow-out before a time of restraint and fasting.

So in America, on Thursday it was Thanksgiving. I flew back yesterday – and now the season of Advent begins. One is tempted to think that, if one were an American, it ought to be a seamless transition from one season of joy to another. From one turkey dinner to another, at Christmas. Only so many shopping days to Christmas: Christmas parties: starting to think about good resolutions for the New Year. Sit down at the fireside. Happy times.

Even if you can put presents and shopping out of your mind, still at Advent it is wonderful to reflect, to reflect on God with us, how God became incarnate, took on human form, in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. The deep meaning of Christmas is that it is a sign of the revelation of God to us. We would not know much about God if He had not revealed Himself to us. He was born, he was a human baby – but He was also God, and He showed his divine nature to us – showed it to us in person.

That’s the background to our lessons today. You might think that the Advent time, when the church prepares to commemorate the birth of Jesus, would just be a time of mounting jollifications as a result. Christmas is a happy time, because we are celebrating the tangible evidence that God cares for us. By coming in human form, God shows that He isn’t just the blind watchmaker, setting the world in motion and then not bothering with it again.

But also we have to acknowledge that precisely because of this, it ought to be a time of awe, of reverence, for the majesty of God. Although a baby doesn’t on the face of things, look particularly fearsome, once you fully appreciate what that baby represented, then, indeed as the Wise Men did, you are called, perhaps even feel yourself to be compelled, to show respect, to offer worship.

The lessons set in the Lectionary for today start with Isaiah 2:1-5, which we haven’t read in our service, but which might be a passage for you to read at home after lunch. It is that very familiar passage, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. He shall judge between the nations …; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks…’ Isaiah 2.

This time of the Kingdom will be a time of judgment. And St Paul picks up on that in his letter to the Romans. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.’

And last comes St Matthew’s gospel, recording the words of Jesus himself, rather eerily warning people to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, as though it would not be unmixed good news. It will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly. ‘… two will be in the field. One will be taken and the other left’ in Matthew: and the process is compared with Noah’s flood in Romans. This is the end time, the Day of Judgment, the Dies Irae.

At first blush it doesn’t fit such a happy, jolly time as the run-up to Christmas. But traditionally, the church has used this time to reflect on the meaning of God with us, Immanuel, in terms of the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

To some extent I think that raises a question what exactly we are doing as we follow the liturgical year. We aren’t literally looking forward to the birth of Jesus – after all, He has already been born. It is a commemoration. We are doing something similar to a serious play. We are acting out a sacred story. By telling the story, we get into it, as indeed actors sometimes say, they get into character.

So we aim, as Christians, to be in character for the Advent drama. That drama is far too awe-inspiring to be just a jolly time. In the time of the Kingdom, the Last Judgement cannot be far away. But St Paul has it right when he says that the impending time, the thing which you must prepare yourself for, is not Doomsday, but ‘salvation’. ‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ So Advent is sometimes called a ‘penitential time’ in the same way as Lent: but that is rather uneasy. We are looking forward to a happy event, the happy event in the stable in Bethlehem.

So I think that it’s all right to enjoy Advent, all right to look forward happily – as we will do tonight, to sing carols and be merry, during Advent time. But we have to remember that we are at the same time preparing for the end time, whenever it will be. That needs repentance, so that we can be saved. ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.

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’.