A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Midnight Mass Sermon
I begin with a guilty secret. I have relapsed this autumn into an old addiction: I started watching Strictly Come Dancing again. Throughout the autumn I have followed the fortunes of AJ, Dan, Rhys and the rest. I have come to know the difference between a fleckle and a gancho. I almost feel as if I have been on the same journey as the celebrities themselves, especially as this year has been particularly ground-breaking in its inclusiveness. Congratulations then, to Rose & Giovanni and also to John & Johannes.
Like all talent competitions, Strictly’s power goes beyond entertainment. It speaks to a longing we have to be noticed, to have others see and acknowledge that part of us that is uniquely gifted and able. The things that makes us special. All of us want to be recognised as extraordinary and valuable.
The trouble is, of course, we live in an often impersonal world: whether we are ringing the bank, travelling on the train, walking anonymously around London or even visiting a hospital, we are no longer people, not even customers, we are now clients. Efficiency means now I swipe an Oyster Card, I scan my shopping, and I login using a QR code. Everyday human connection is slowly diminishing, compounded by this never-ending pandemic. The irony of Strictly is that it beguiles us into thinking we know Rose and Giovanni personally because we watch them on telly. But they are no more personal to us than the lady who helps us when we hear those dreadful words “unexpected item in bagging area”, about whom we know next-to-nothing. And they are much less available to us.
But Strictly nevertheless reminds us that we are special and valuable. Each one of us has things about us that are unique to be revealed, discovered and shared. All of us deserve to be noticed – and not just for our Quickstep Argentinian Tango – but because we are unique and worthy of love.
This is at the heart of the Christmas news. Throughout human history, human beings have had an innate instinct to be aware of something ‘out there’. That something ‘out there’ has had many names. But for most people today, that something is called ‘God’. Many of us still think of God as someone (or something) ‘out there’. Much religion is based on pleasing or pacifying a god who is ‘out there’. Such a God is often impersonal, distant, remote.
But the message of Christmas speaks not of a God who is ‘out there’ but of a God who is ‘among us’. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Literally, this Greek word we translate “dwelt” means “pitched his tent”. A translation suitable for this sermon would be “God made his home with us”. The message of Christmas is of a God who becomes our next-door neighbour.
Or like this. Instead of an impersonal God looking down on the world from afar, a big, old man in the sky with a white beard; or instead of a demanding, strict parent who appears rather similar to the way we remember the less comfortable aspects of our own upbringing; or instead of an absentee landlord who leaves us to sort the world out and now regards it only from a distance; instead of saying God is like any of these images, the picture the bible gives us of God is like a small incident that happened to an older friend of mine recently who was gingerly making her way to her church along icy pavements. Suddenly a taxi pulls up. “Are you going to church? Do you want a lift? No charge.” This is the God of “making his home with us”, a neighbourly God who comes alongside us, treats us not as a random individual, but as a person with needs deserving attention.
Christians call that God who makes his home among us Jesus Christ. We claim and we proclaim that God is like Jesus. Archbishop Michael Ramsay of the 20th century famously said, “God is as God is in Jesus Christ, and in him there is no unChristlikeness.” We invite the world to stop believing in a God remote and impersonal, a god that we have and which come to us through cultural stereotypes, the vagaries of parenting or even through bad or sentimental religion. Those false images of God must go. Instead, allow those false images of God to be replaced by a loving God who in Jesus is not above us but alongside us, who in Jesus is not against us but for us, who in Jesus can actually live not even just among us but within us as a friend and companion, who knows us in our uniqueness.
This year, as in the past 10 years, the Millers of West Palm Beach, Florida will be celebrating Christmas in their own way. They are inviting the whole city to come and have Christmas lunch with them. They wanted to be sure that no-one in West Palm Beach goes hungry at Christmas, so they open their Christmas to all-comers. Generosity is in their blood, according to Willie Miller. “For over a century,” he said, “our great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother helped community members prepare dinners and hosted people in their respective homes.” Goodwill and kindness are part of their family history and it’s something they are now doing at Christmas to teach their four daughter the gift of giving back to others. Said mum Zaveka Miller, “This lesson has really made an impact on my daughters over the years. The more blessings we receive, the more we want to give.”
“The more blessings we receive, the more we want to give.” This is the ethic that flows from this idea of a God as our next-door neighbour, here among us, one of passing on the personal love we have received on to others.
In an often impersonal world the birth of Jesus, God treats you and I as so important, so special, so precious that he gives himself to us at Christmas, and gives himself for us on Good Friday. And he invites you and I to place our trust in this personal God, not to trust an idea of God, or even an image of God, but to trust a personal God, to believe in Jesus that, in this increasingly impersonal world you might for ever know yourself loved and valued as the person you are, loved and valued by the only God worthy of true worship: a God who is here among us, even now.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to focus this Christmas on all the difficulties and challenges; there’s a sermon to be preached about God amid all our Covid and other challenges. In fact I think I preached it last year. But there’s also a message of hope to preach and to receive, one of a good world in which good people do good things, who pass on the blessings they have received to a hungry and hurting world, because they have been blessed by God here among us and want to pass that blessing on to others. May you know that truth this Christmas. Know his love as love for you, share his love for you with others, be blessed and be a blessing. Or, as someone else put it, it will make you fab-u-lous.
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