CHRISTMAS DAY SERMON 2015 (Durham Cathedral)
Tim Peake has quite a view of the world this Christmas, as he and his fellow astronauts look down on earth from the International Space Station. Like many who have gone before him he has been struck by the wonder both of beholding the earth from space, and looking into the vast blackness of the universe beyond. He looks at the world through different eyes.
I wonder how you see the world.
Personally there are times when I am simply awestruck by the beauty and wonder of nature. I don’t have to go far as the view from our house in Bishop Auckland across Weardale right up to Stanhope Top is stunning. I can get the same sense of wonder as I walk across Westminster Bridge looking at the City of London, or outside this stunning cathedral. I get this too when I see teachers teaching well, nurses and health care assistants caring brilliantly, engineers producing great products and foodbank volunteers serving with skill. The natural and built environment can promote wonder that leads to thanksgiving and praise. People’s work and care can inspire greatly. All of these paint a picture of a world of beauty and light.
Yet the same can also lead me to tears. The pain of seeing people’s homes flooded out in Cumbria, or wrecked by an earthquake. The horror of the squalor of slums in Manila, Mumbai or Sao Paulo lead to inner anguish. Even more the inhumanity we perpetrate on one another through terror and war in Syria, rising conflict in Burundi, oppressive rule in Brunei that bans Christmas celebrations and domestic violence in our own land. These paint a picture of a world of cruelty and darkness.
Both pictures are true. Our world is wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and we as human beings are part of it. But our world is also violent, degraded, ugly, and likewise we as human beings are part of it. We carry responsibility for both pictures.
In telling the amazing story of Jesus’ birth, in all its wonder, glory and beauty, Luke sets it firmly in the real world. ‘A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.’ This is the world’s super power flexing its muscles. This is the world of international politics in which the strong dictate to the weak; making statements of power and control. Enforcing people to travel and have their simple lives disrupted.
Luke tells us of a small community, Bethlehem, crowded out with its visitors. It is a world of work with full inns, and shepherds out in the fields. This is no fairy story picture. The birth of Jesus is set in the stark realities of life.
Joseph and Mary have been forced to travel at a time when surely they would not have chosen to do so; Mary is heavily pregnant. Nazareth, 3-4 days journey back in Galilee, is where they would have wanted to be with their family and community. But the political decisions of the powerful force the ordinary lowly person into an unwanted journey. Some things do not change.
Matthew gives us a different angle on this real world picture with Herod, King of the Jews, later forcing the new family to flee as refugees into Egypt. They flee terror, violence and persecution finding themselves in a strange land. Some things do not change.
The story of Jesus’ birth is full of wonder, beauty and glory; it has angels singing, shepherds rejoicing and the birth of the Saviour. But it is also full of unwholesome power, degradation and ugliness; the very reasons why the Saviour is needed.
So this true story keeps speaking into our world and day.
It points us to the reality that ultimate power does not actually lie with the superpowers, the rulers and the tyrants. The power is God’s. But God exercises his power in humility. He expresses it in unexpected places, through ordinary people and their lives. Yes God’s presence is everywhere; without it our whole existence would simply fall apart. But his intimate presence is found in an infant lying in a manger in an obscure village, not in a royal palace with the Caesar on the throne. It reminds us that we are more likely to discover God’s intimate presence this Christmas in a displaced persons camp in Lebanon, Calais’ ‘Jungle’ or a night shelter in Darlington than in a Presidential residence or a Hilton Hotel. It tells us that God is actively at work in our world bringing in his just rule, bringing peace on earth, even if the headline news appears to tell us a different tale. It tells us that even in enforced journeys and the harsh lives of refugees God is present and can be found. It reminds us that in welcoming a stranger, as someone in Bethlehem welcomed the heavily pregnant Mary, we might find we are welcoming the Lord himself.
The shepherds’ part in the story reminds us afresh that God speaks into our world of work. They were simply getting on with their daily job when God met them, and transformed their lives forever. I think we can assume that they remained shepherds for the rest of their lives; but their lives were changed forever by this night and the birth of this child. So easily we can think that we are plain, simple, ordinary working folk. Why should God bother with us? Why would he be interested in our lives? The shepherds’ story tells us that he is bothered and interested. Working life is blessed by the angels song and finding the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger. Joseph himself was a working man, a carpenter. He is the one God chooses and calls to be the human father of his own Son. God blesses the working man and woman. It may not be the first thought that enters our head about the first Christmas day but on reflection it is here. The Saviour comes to the world of work and working people. He reveals himself here. He still does if we have eyes to see.
We live in a wonderful, beautiful world in which great joy and love are found. We live in a sad, ugly world in which great suffering and hatred are found. Both are the realities of life. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is into the reality of this world and its life. It is the true story of hardship, difficulty and pain. It is the true story of wonder, great joy and the very deepest love. Jesus’ birth tells us of our God being present and active in a world of stark political realities and power. It tells us of God being with us in refugees, persecution, poverty and work; in all aspects of life. It tells us of his love being so great that He comes as Saviour to bring forgiveness and hope. May we know his saving presence in our homes, our work, our communities and our lives this Christmas and always.