CHRISTMAS SERMON 2008
Christmas Sermon 2008, Diocese of Clogher
preached by the bishop, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson
Isaiah 62:6-12; psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; St Luke 2:1-14 or 1-20
Isaiah 62:12: They shall be called, The Holy People, The Redeemed of the
Lord; and you shall be called, Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.
Christmas begins for all of us in quite different ways. For some of us it
will be putting up and decorating the tree at home. For some it will be snatches
of Christmas Carols heard in a shopping centre or people we know singing
and collecting in the Square or at the Diamond in our local town. For some
it will be sitting down and writing Christmas cards. For others it will be
the thinking that goes into compiling a list of presents for people who matter
to us for very special and entirely personal reasons. For others it will
be setting out to church either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day. And
again for others it will be the hope of a fall of snow – and so we
could go on working our way through the things that point each and every
one of us towards Christmas. For me I have to say that it is the thrill which
comes every year with the fresh and tingling sense of something absolutely
new. And it is new every year it happens – because the new is and will
always be part of who we are and who we are still to become, whatever our
age and whatever our mood. This newness expresses itself in the form of God’s
inexhaustible love for us now given full expression in being born a child
and living a human life among and for us. The witness is not only, as in
so much of church life, in words. The witness is also in a person and is
refracted into the people we know well –
a small and vulnerable baby,
a young and anxious mother,
a confused and trusting father.
Whatever the particular Gospel Reading of Christmas Day, the message of hope
and newness is fresh and living because, as St John in particular tells us,
light conquers darkness and is not snuffed out by it.
A fresh start, a new life is ushered in like a great shining light at Christmas.
It happens through a child. Scripture is in a special way fulfilled and our
life is filled full of the grace of God. But it would be a mistake to see
such grace and such peace built on sentimentality about the innocence of
childhood. For a start much childhood is far from innocent. Grace and peace
are built on two enacted principles – justice and righteousness. This
is the specific point where the message of the Prophets meets the life of
the Child of Bethlehem. For us here and now, in the Scriptures which we have
just heard, the prophet Isaiah asserts the centrality of Jerusalem and it
is, of course, to Jerusalem that this Child of Bethlehem will go on a number
of occasions to argue the case for salvation at the Presentation, to teach
during his Public Ministry and to die on the Cross. For us as Christian people
the point of entry to this heritage is, as The Letter to Titus tells us clearly
at Christmas, through baptism. Water and the Holy Spirit open for us the
great gates into the love of the Child of Bethlehem. Water and the Holy Spirit
hold together justice and grace in a way which enables us to be, in the Spirit
of the Christ, The Holy People, The Redeemed of God.
The pressures today to think in ways which are atheistic are tremendous
and this, all too often, pushes us into corners where we are too frightened
or feel too foolish to talk of God or to look for God. But one of the most
liberating insights of one of the early Fathers of the Church, Augustine
of Hippo, is that God does not need to be found, in the sense of being invented.
Rather God does need to be allowed by us – in all of our stubbornness,
our sinfulness, our joylessness along with our best attempts at goodness,
generosity and innocence - to be disclosed, uncovered, recognized as being
already present. And the great and glorious thing about this is that it frees
us from our fears to be – with God and under God – each of us
the person God wants us to be. In this way we are released to be a fulfilment
of ourselves by being filled full of God. This, my friends, is the gift of
Christmas - as God became God’s self in us, that we in turn might become
ourselves in God. It is the way in which we, in our own faithfulness to God,
become: The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord.
But, as we are all too well aware, Christianity is always far too keen to
live in the past. For the life of me, I cannot understand it – but
there we are! And yet, staring us in the face at Christmas, is the Letter
to Titus pushing us ever forward to the other end of time. Our response to
the presence among us of the Child of Bethlehem, the Counsellor, the Mighty
and Everlasting One, the Prince of Peace is that of being invited to meet
God with hope at the end of time. We are called and invited to keep moving,
to continue to journey forward. Central to this is, as I have said, baptism,
our baptism, ‘through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of
the Holy Spirit which he lavished on us through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
so that, justified by his grace we might in hope become heirs of eternal
life.’ But none of this is an invitation to watch ecclesiastical television.
It is a call to commitment and to action – in the world of which we
are part and which most of us rather enjoy. It is also a world of glaring
inequalities, injustices and cruelties – think only of Mumbai, of Zimbabwe,
of the Congo, of Afghanistan and of Iraq. We cannot work through these expectations
and these hopes on our own. We do not have the strength. Christianity is
not a solitary business. If, as so much of the content of the Gospels tells
us, we do not work through this with others, then we remain un-prepared,
we are not ready for the Lord when he comes. And Scripture goes on to tell
us: Please take your pick between being drunken servants or foolish virgins!
The underlying message of Christmas for Christians, and through Christians
to the world, is that Jesus Christ came to earth in living history. All of
this is well signposted for us in the Christmas Gospel, the Story of Salvation,
as told by St Luke. He was in many ways the first historian of the church.
The familiar tale is set in the words and the detail of history: The Emperor
Augustus and the Governor Quirinius. It is also set in another very important
history: that of the Family of David and the city of Bethlehem. Two worlds
come together in this tiny child and this tiny village: Rome and Jerusalem
and both histories will play their part in the life of the person Jesus Christ.
But something else is happening too. God is creating a new community of worship
and of response to the child who is born: Mary an unknown teenager gives
birth to the Child of God; shepherds who are numbered among the ritually
unclean come in from the religious cold and are the first to worship God
in God’s fullness newly born on earth. Justice and righteousness take
new form, neither in Jerusalem nor in Rome, but in the little town of Bethlehem
never again to be forgotten or overlooked. And Bethlehem today remains a
place of great complexity, confusion and unease as well as a place packed
tight with glorious expectation. God of old is newly in his people. And that
host of angels with whom we grappled on St Michael and All Angels’ Day
and again when the good news of motherhood was announced to Mary, guides
these rural shepherds - far away from the conceit of urban sophistications – to
the miraculous bedside in the hastily-improvized Maternity Ward. And there
they find grace and truth.
For us at Christmas it is good and important to remember that the God of
the big picture is also the God of the small detail. In our discipleship
we need both. If everything is detail, then we have no context and no neighbours.
If everything is the big picture, then we might never get down to the irritating
business of doing anything serious. This Christmas we are all probably thinking
about what is now referred to as The Credit Crunch. We wonder how and when
it all began. In the dim and distant past we might remember vaguely some
talk about sub-prime mortgages; we might even think about banks offering
substantial credit to people with no obvious capacity to pay or re-pay; we
might also think of how one third of national reserves already in the UK
alone have gone into propping up the banking system as we know it. Again,
we might be beginning to realize that the enormity of what has happened is
only beginning to come to earth and dwell among us. And again we might wonder
what this has to do with Christmas.
Already we know that there will have to be fresh decisions and new priorities.
Even in our own affluent countries, we will have to learn to do with less
and to do without – it will be an unattractive lesson for consumerized
Christians. For those of us who are poor, the impact is hardly conceivable – health
poverty, fuel poverty and so many other descriptions and definitions of poverty.
Infrastructure in terms of healthcare, education and human dignity – tangible
expressions of justice and righteousness – these will largely disappear
to the utter confusion and deep sense of betrayal of those whose need is
their trust. In the years of plenty and in the years of peace, politicians
have, with a massive degree of self-indulgence, squandered their patrimony
for the sake of outmoded ideologies, narrow party political ends and for
a form of in-house Russian Roulette. We have been expected to applaud their
immature fumblings towards co-operation and their staggerings towards establishing
a new society in Northern Ireland. It seems as if the party is over. The
most worrying thing is that nature abhors a vacuum. In all of this we have
not even begun to consider those for whom life is an insurmountable struggle
for water, sanitation, food and dignity. Aid Agencies structurally need our
support as never before – and urgently.
Christmas is Christmas! Christmas offers still to a world which is betimes
cynical and careless, indifferent and contemptuous the glorious news of the
Prince of Peace as the child in the manger. Such news still can make us pause
in wonder. Such news still can inspire us as disciples of Jesus Christ to
hold fast to the broad picture, to make the connections between big and small
in a way which is authentic in being generous and is generous in being inclusive.
Let us, therefore, hasten in heart and mind to Bethlehem, the small place
with a big history ahead of it.
Isaiah 9:6: For a child has been born to us, a son is given to us; he will
bear the symbol of dominion on his shoulder, and his title will be: Wonderful
Counsellor, Mighty Hero, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.