Sermon preached at Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve 2015
Readings: Hebrews 1: 1-12, John 1: 1-14
One of the success stories of our time seems to be that of the Christmas Market. A couple of years ago I stood here (n church) and spoke, rather disparagingly, of Salisbury’s newest shed store – referring to the scatter of stalls in the Market Square. But since then Salisbury’s Christmas Market attracted a growing clientele – and similar markets have sprung up in other towns and retail centres.
It was to one of the larger Markets – just outside Winchester Cathedral – that I went, with my wife, for a pre-Christmas “escape” – a day off well away from the temptations of work emails, cold callers and the burgeoning lists of things “to do”.
The first stall that we stopped at was selling some glorious, citrus-scented Christmas ornaments: a promising start.
And then we moved to one filled with beautifully crafted pewter ornaments and trinkets. The only thing was, I had a nagging feeling there was something strangely familiar about the stallholder – and after about 5 minutes of skirting round each other we’d finally worked out why: not only was this particular company based in Wilton, but the man in question will be getting married here in 2017! So much for the escape!
For me, the attraction of the Markets is as much about those incidental, unexpected conversations, as it is about the wares on offer. And, at Winchester, the most fascinating exchange was with a family of Palestinian Christians, from Bethlehem, who were selling decorations and religious artefacts fashioned from Olive wood.
There were some beautiful things – but what impressed me most was the ease with which they spoke about themselves – NOT as members of one church or another, but as Christian people. Somehow their gentle manner and the way in which they spoke about their work, seemed to communicate a faith that was somehow a natural, uncomplicated part of their identity.
And it seemed that what made this family “Christian people” in – the fullest sense – was their sense of being immersed in the stories of Jesus’s life – and of the Bible as a whole – finding in them messages of hope and taking them to heart.
And perhaps, it’s that sense of being part of the ongoing story of faith – the story of God’ people – that enables them to live as Christians in a fairly hostile environment.
This year, the Mayor of Bethlehem, – who rejoices in the name of Vera Baboun – has ordered that Christmas celebrations be scaled back. Following weeks of violence there, which has seen 144 people killed, racial and religious tensions, combined with a dire economy, leave little room for optimism – and yet, somehow, hope still remains among the Christian minority.
For them the story of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection IS the story of hope.
That story of faith reaches it’s a climax in the incarnation – God becoming flesh in the person of the infant Jesus.
“Long ago”, the author of Hebrews tells us, “God spoke to us through the prophets” – but now, through the Word made flesh, we are drawn into dialogue with God himself: Jesus is not just another messenger, but the actual, physical presence of God among us. This helpless infant is God the Son, through whom the world was made, by whom the world is sustained and whose second coming will bring the world to its fulfilment.
Like Hebrews, St John’s gospel starts with the creation – but the focus here is on God’s nature: that nature is love, and, through the birth of Jesus, that great love is poured out into the world to bring us into God’s love.
Both tonight’s readings are full of hope and rich in beautiful imagery – the majestic God, the loving, life-giving God – come to us in the humility of the child in the manger.
It IS an amazing story. But is it true?
Can we square all this rhetorical beauty with the cold reality of the war-torn, ravaged world we live in? We may recognise the NEED for a Prince of Peace, for a God of Love – but wonder where on earth he is to be found.
Again, the author of John’s gospel is there ahead of us:
“the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him – his own people did not accept him.”
Jesus has come into the world and shown us how to live – Jesus has brought into the world the light of life.
But, like any Christmas gift, we have to choose to accept him – to make use of what he offers.
God allows us the option of turning away – of living in the darkness – ignoring the reason for our existence.
We can live our lives as if the creation had never happened, as if the formlessness and hopelessness of the time before Christ is still all there is – and many people DO just that.
We see the fruits of that “turning away” from God in the selfish destruction of the planet – in the aggressive posturing for power – in the darkness of depression – in the lack of purpose that blights so much of our human family today.
And yet – the light remains – even among the troubled peoples of Palestine – even among the devastated communities of Syria.
Surely then, it is not too dim for US to see?
We CAN all choose to receive the Christ child, who is God – the only source of life – we can choose to step into our proper place as children of God.
That is the light of hope which Jesus has brought into the world – and that light has NOT been overcome.
That light shines on – through our darkness – to help us see our way, to help us recognise the life giving power and love of God – displayed in the manger.
We have to choose to pick up the baby, and to nurture the life that we see in him.
For his life IS our life – through him our lives can be transformed and filled with the light of life.
God chooses to share his life with us – God has chosen to send his Son – to bring the world back into his life and love.
And now God invites us, to receive him – to choose to live out the story of our faith – so that our lives reflect the glory of God, so that we might bring joy and hope to those around us and play our part in making “peace on earth” a reality.