Sermon preached on Christmas Day

And they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

That people were afraid is a bit of a repeating theme in the Christmas story. Whenever angels turn up, the first thing that they tend to say is “Do not be afraid”.

I’m not sure whether it is the flapping of wings or the volume of the singing or the sheer unexpectedness of seeing an angel where you least expect one that leads to this repeated refrain.

I suspect though that there was a bit more to it than that. For there is much to be afraid of in the world. There always has been. And some feel that fear more than others. Those who are most vulnerable often have the most to fear.

But as we face Christmas 2016 it doesn’t feel so difficult to enter into the story this year.

For we end this year with many people feeling apprehensive about what is to come. This has been a year in which expectation was upended. The world of politics seems to have been turned upside down and no-one really knows what is coming next.

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that people feel fearful.

Looking back at the Bethlehem story this year, there is much with which we will be familiar.

The story begins with a demand that the people had to return to their own towns across the empire in order to be registered.

In most years that I’ve read the story, I’ve tended to think of this as a bit of a glorious census like our censuses that take place every 10 years. Just a way of counting people so that services can be provided.

But as I read the story today and see in my mind’s eye the holy couple making their way to Bethlehem to be registered just at the most inconvenient time for them when the birth was nigh, it is difficult not to think of the recent political promise on the other side of the Atlantic to insist that all Muslims should be registered and accounted for. Somehow the census that insists that Joseph and Mary hurry off to Bethlehem feels a little more sinister.

The Christmas Story takes place in a particular context. People have asked often enough why then? Why them? Why her?

The particularity doesn’t matter so much as the context I think.

It doesn’t matter that much which year it was – the point is that it happened when Big Men ruled the world.

Whether we focus on Emperor Augustus or Quirinius the Governer of Syria or King Herod there is no avoiding the reality that God came into the world when big men were in charge (or thought they were in charge) and had no intention of losing their power to anyone.

There are all kinds of things that are part of the Christmas tradition that have little or no mention in Scriptures. There’s no ox and ass lowing in the bible stories. There’s no certainty at all that there were only three wise people who visited from the East and no mention of them being kings at all. The manger and the straw and even the time of the birth (at midnight) which seem so much a part of the story are not really there when we look for them in the bible.

But what is there is that God chose to come into a world where big men were in charge. And the angels cried, Do not be afraid.

It feels today as though Big Men with an unhealthy interest in power are taking over again.

But Herod didn’t manage to kill the Christ child, didn’t manage to kill hope, didn’t manage to wipe out love either.

And neither will Trump. Nor Putin. Nor any of the putative far right big men (or big women, that’s not impossible either) be able to wipe love out either.

Love always wins.

Those are the rules we play the game of life with.

I’ve a feeling that the time that God came into the world was a bit of a happenchance. But the context wasn’t. God’s message appears from the very beginning to have been that the kind of power that rounds people up, detains them, registers them, makes them take great risk in order to find safe refuge is not the kind of power that God was ever in the business of getting involved with at all.

And the angels said do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid because real power does not lie with big men.

Do not be afraid, because real power does not inhabit palaces or presidencies.

Real power is the power to love and be loved.

That’s what we are celebrating amidst all the tinsel and the glitter and the razzmatazz of the season

And it is worth celebrating.

Here in this church we’ve been busy for the last few months – there have been more people in church than we expected. It may be that people are looking for places to connect to a message that is timeless – that love is the name of the only power game worth winning.

Christianity is a challenge, one of the challenges to political systems of tyranny and oppression.

It hasn’t become that way – it is our very dna. It is what we were born with.

From time to time, faith colludes with power. But that way leads away from God not towards God.

The truth that God gave us at the beginning of our own faith is that all that is holy would not be born in a palace and would not wear the robes of power but be born in a manger and wear humble swaddling bands.

And it is our task to take up the song of the angels and to sing out to a needy world – do not be afraid. Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.

For God’s love matters and matters a great deal in the world in which we find ourselves.

And love wins.

Tyranny never does in the long run.

Love always wins.

For after all, love trumps fear.

That’s what we believe.

That’s the Christmas message.

Love always trumps fear.

Forever and ever.

Amen.

Sermon preached at Midnight Mass

Inevitably I think the end of 2016 will be thought about the end of all kinds of things. Post Brexit. Post Trump. Post truth.

It is as though we have reached the end of something and don’t know what’s coming next.

Time in the secular world stretches straight out in front of us. Time in the spiritual realm bends always towards justice.

But time in the liturgy just keeps on going round and round.

And so the liturgy reminds us of truths that we would otherwise miss.

Post referendum. Post US election. Post facts. And post certainty.

But in the beginning was the Word.

The liturgy brings us right round to what comes at the beginning, that which is foundational for us, that which cannot be argued with because it has always been so and always will be so.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.

A very great deal has been written about the effect of Jesus’s life and of course his death. People have debated, argued, even warred with one another about quite what difference it made that he came and lived and died.

But before that, is something that we should not simply pass us by just because we hear it on a dark, cold wintery night.

In the beginning. Before disagreement, before war, before strife, there was God.

And God looked at this world and loved it and wanted to be part of it.

Before the world began, this much was true – that God was there and God had compassion and God was love.

Before the world began, before not only our present darkness but before all darknesses, God was there and God brought life and light and truth.

Every year I wonder how to see something new to preach on for Christmas. Every year I wonder how to see something fresh in the story itself.

This year a friend told me a few months ago that his mother (whom I don’t know) was knitting me something.

Not a Christmas jumper or a Christmas hat. But the Christmas story itself.

I was presented with a whole crib scene made of knitting figures for the church. A knitted Mary, a knitted Joseph, knitted Magi and shepherds and sheep. And yes, a knitted Jesus.

It is a work of art, and I’ve no doubt a work of love too. You don’t put that kind of work into something like that for someone you don’t know without a lot of kindness in your heart.

And they sit here in church this year with an invitation to the children and everyone who is young at heart, to meet the characters afresh (even the sheep). I’m encouraging the children (and whoever wants to) to take up the characters and to think about what is represented there.

To take up Mary and ponder what it mean to bring to birth the creator of the universe who already loved us.

To take up Joseph and wonder what was going through his head as he stood by Mary. The love of the one who already loved us is known through such human kindness.

To take up the shepherds and encounter those whom the world might least expect to receive a revelation from an angel. Whom do you encounter whom you find it difficult to believe God would be bothered with. Trust me on this one, God is way ahead of you whoever it is. For God has already loved them since before forever.

To take up the strange Magi, knitted robes and knitted beards and knitted gifts and all and reflect on the fact that God’s love seems to extend to the kosher and non kosher worshippers alike. And to know that those outside our own definitions of belonging are already known and loved by God anyway.

To take up and cradle in the palm of your hand the Christ child who once cradled the dawn of time in his.

For in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.

Every year I wonder how to say something new about the Christmas story.

Every year, I eventually come to the conclusion that the only thing to do is to let the original story stand on its own two feet.

For in the beginning God was. In the beginning God came. In the beginning God loved.

And we are who we are because of it.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Not post glory. Not post grace. Not post truth.

The real thing.

Born amongst us. Born this night. Born in our hearts.

And with us, God with us, as time began.

And with us, God with us, as a baby was born.

And with us, God with us, right here and right now.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.