A Sermon from Sherborne
Christmas is waiting to be born
I have never known what it is to take my new-born child into my arms. That happiness has been denied to my wife and me. But I can imagine, of course I can imagine, what it might be like. Which is why I know that when Mary laid Jesus in the manger, or nursed him, or shyly but proudly showed him to the strange assortment of visitors who found their way to him by the light of a star, she did not love him because she ought to do so, because it was some kind of moral duty. She loved him because he was dear to her, precious to her. She loved him because he was her son. And she loved him because she had always known love, too. The love of her parents and the love of Joseph, her betrothed, who thought to reject her when she became pregnant, but was overruled by the divine love; by God himself, who chose her rather than any other to be the Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we are here tonight is that we recognise the magnetic power of the kind of love which is at the heart of the Christmas story. This year has seen so many tragedies. There have been the natural disasters, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. There have been the man-made horrors, like the terrible civil wars in East Africa, the terrorist bombing at the Arianna Grande concert in Manchester and the Las Vegas shooting. But there have also been the tragedies which are small because they have affected so few, but huge because they have affected those few so terribly. We clergy pick them up every day from the intercession book in the Sepulchre Chapel. That book tells us more about the heartbeat of this parish than anything else, because that is where people go to ask us to pray for them, which we do, every day. “Please pray for my family to be united.” “For my son who is an alcoholic”. “For patience to stop being so angry with my husband and my children”. “For my dear, dear granddaughter who is so ill.” We clergy might not be good for much, but we know what is in your hearts and minds, and we dare to believe we know how to help.
That’s why the diatribes against Christian faith of Richard Dawkins and his atheist acolytes move us not one whit, because they bring neither hope nor comfort, neither love nor reassurance, just a bleak arrogance and an overweening confidence in Man which deep down we know to be utterly vain.
John Betjeman did not live to take on Richard Dawkins, but he knew the type. Here is part of a long-lost poem of his from 1954.
The Advent bells proclaim ‘Prepare!’
Across the starry winter air
A sweet encirclement of sound
To all the moonlit hamlets round,
‘Prepare! along the whistling hedge
‘Prepare! beyond the Parish edge,
Till in the lighted market town
An eight-bell peal begins to drown
The bells of ev’ry neighbouring steeple
‘Prepare! Prepare, beloved people!’
‘Prepare for whom? says Mr. Flight,
Always grammatically right.
‘I think Mahomet, Moses, Buddha
Were just as good as Christ – and good-er.
Oh, yes,’ he says, ‘Christ was a teacher,
A charming man and splendid preacher.
But do you also think him God?
Dear me,’ he says, ‘how very odd.
I fear I can’t be troubled with
So highly primitive a myth.’
But still the bells ring out the news
Quite unaffected by his views.
And every listening Advent brings
Its message down on angels’ wings
That He who made the stars and sea,
The universe and you and me,
Took human flesh and lived on earth
And Christmas Eve recalls his birth.
From another continent and a very different culture comes another insight. Howard Thurman was a contemporary of Betjeman’s, but there the similarities end. A black Baptist pastor, born in strictly-segregated Florida in the year 1900, Thurman had to overcome every last obstacle of poverty and prejudice even to get a high school education, let alone the academic qualifications which propelled him into the top rank of American scholars. Yet as he looked out at a world of suffering and conflict, he could see that the problem is so simple: Christmas is waiting, waiting to be born in us:
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes, and the heart consumes itself, if it would live; Where little children age before their time, and life wears down the edges of the mind; Where the old man sits with mind grown cold, while bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death; Where fear companions each day’s life, and Perfect Love seems long delayed – Christmas is waiting to be born: in you, in me, in all mankind.
Christmas is born for you here, and now, in this service that celebrates the birth of Christ into our world. You know that. That is why you are here. But how much more important it is that Christmas should be born in you. And that can only happen when you welcome Christ into your heart and your life; when you let him engage with you and then let him change you. And then you will discover the truth of yet more words of Howard Thurman’s, with which I end:
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.