A Sermon Preached on Christmas Day 2019
Canon Simon Butler
Among the multitude of diversions from actually doing some work that social media offers, I subscribe to the Church Service Sheet Typos Facebook Page. Yes, I know, I should get a life.
Some of the mistakes occur regularly, some of which always amuse: the hymn “Immortal, invisible” seems to lose the ‘t’ a little too often…think about it.
But among this year’s Christmas selection, there were some new ones. From Silent Night we had “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beans from thy holy face.” And we had, from a notice sheet advertising an appearance of Father Christmas, “Just in time for Christmas! There will be a special appearance by Satan between 5pm and 9pm.” More Old Nick than Saint Nick.
But my favourite this year was not a typo, but an overheard remark made by a child rehearsing her lines from her school Nativity Play. Faced with the pressure of playing the key role of Mary in the school performance, the little girl was practising her lines aloud right up to the performance. And her teacher heard her say the following, “How can this be, since I am a vegan?”
In an age of fake news, we should not be surprised that the truth gets misunderstood or even wilfully misrepresented. Strangely, words from the 1st Century, passed on a preserved by oral tradition – which is quite different from modern ‘Chinese whispers’ – words from the 1st Century have a reliability that outshines much of what we read today, even in official communications. The Gospels have a greater ring of historical authenticity. And what is more, perhaps it’s not surprising that the more our age becomes distant from its Judaeo-Christian roots, the more likely is that the message of Christmas gets misheard or misunderstood. If you want a challenge for the New Year – be you a parent or a grandparent – perhaps it might be to seek to pass on the Christian faith you know for yourself to your children or grandchildren, so that they can know, even if they don’t believe it, what it is that that has formed their history, culture and much, much more. We can admire our Muslim neighbours for the way they pass on their faith to their children; we would do better to emulate them in the way we pass on the Christian faith. Someone once told you of Jesus Christ…who will do it for the next generation?
But what should we pass on? How do we know what we have heard is true?
We might have heard, for example, that Christianity is all about going to heaven when we die, escaping a sinful world to an eternal state of bliss. That if we are good we will get the reward we deserve and if we are not…well, you know what that means..and it’s not an appearance by Santa. We might think, because we have been told it, that this is Christianity.
But it is not. Christmas tells us that this world is beloved of God, that he loved the world so much that he sent us Jesus. Christmas tells the beginning of a story in which God seeks to transform the world by changing human hearts by love, so that we do good because we know we are loved rather than by any sense of reward or fear of punishment. Christmas is a moment of grace, not of pulling up our socks and trying a bit harder. That is why the angels sing ‘Glory to God in the highest.’
We might have heard, for example, that to be a Christian is to be meek and mild, that the highest virtue is of a loving humility. We might have even sung it: “Christian children all should be mild, obedient, good as he.” We might think, because we have been told it, that this is Christianity.
But it is not. Christmas may tell of a child born in humble surroundings, but it begins the story of someone whose love of the world is not passive, but active; someone whose commitment to build what he calls “the kingdom of God” arises out of a deep sense of identification with the God he calls his “Father”; someone whose sense of identity (to use a modern idea) is so strong that he is able to give it away out of love. His humility comes not from denying himself but by accepting who he is and giving it away. That is why the angels sing “Peace on earth goodwill towards men (I’m sure the angels meant women too)”.
We might have heard, for example, that we are born and live in a world which will always be the way it is and that the Christian response is to keep ourselves separate from the world, which will always be a world of violence, hatred, war and destruction. We might think, because we have been told it, that this is Christianity.
But it is not. Christmas tells of a child born in the midst of occupation, at real risk of violence, a boy who will grow up to be hated by those his message threatens and who responds by not escaping from the world, but walking right into the city where his haters hold all the cards. And because we follow this boy-who-became-the-man, Christians are those born into the same world, but who do not retreat from it, be that into understandable addictions to whatever keeps us sane – drugs, possessions, the next holiday, a comfortable life – or into a narrow piety that worries more about what happens on a Sunday than what happens Monday to Friday. Christians embrace the world, because that is what God does in Jesus at Christmas and on Good Friday. That is why the angels sing “Peace on earth goodwill towards men (I’m sure the angels meant women too)”.
And we may have heard, finally, that Christianity is all about clergy and services and bishops and beautiful buildings and “doesn’t the church look lovely at Christmas?” We may have heard of the decline of the church is somehow indicative of a religion on the wane and that moments like this are some curious folk memory and very little else. We might think, because we have been told it, that this is Christianity.
But it is not. Christmas, Easter, the whole thing, is not about founding a new religion or creating a hierarchy, but creating a new community of love, a community who follow the child-who-became-man and who do the things that Jesus does. It is a story of shepherds brought to worship, wise men encouraged to offer gifts, simple fishing folk called now to fish for people, women and children given a new status in a world where the rules were made by men, and countless people who find in the love of Jesus Christ a better way for the world. And therefore it is a story of you…you too invited to the same journey, to belong to the community of Jesus’ love, to do the things that Jesus did – bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, to bring good news to the poor, to forgive as you have been forgiven, to love your enemies. You too are invited to worship at the crib and to follow the one who grew up to lay down his life for us. Think not of Christianity if it doesn’t help, think of a Jesus Movement, of people inspired by the life, message, death and resurrection of this newborn, and think of the Jesus who know invites you to join that movement by saying yes to him, abandoning the fake news of what covers the crib with a mystery of half-truths and misconceptions, and embracing the one whose presence in the Crib marks the presence of light, truth and grace.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth,” writes St John.
And John Betjeman responds:
And is it true, and is it true
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.