Christmas Sermon 2008, Diocese of Clogher
preached by the bishop, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson
Readings: 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.