A Sermon from Sherborne
The World’s Danger
When you came out tonight you checked the fire or the central heating, adjusted the lights, locked the door, and then walked or drove through the night to be here. And I want to wish you a very happy and joyful Christmas, and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. I have a feeling that 2019 will be a roller-coaster of a year for us as a nation, but I do not want to dwell on that tonight. Instead I want to ask you two questions. Why have you come tonight, and what did you leave behind?
First, what did you leave behind? Perhaps it’s not “what” but “who” – the children, chased reluctantly to bed, tucked up now in a deep sleep, dreaming of the morning and the excitement of parcels and presents. Or the older young, who half-wanted to come with you but couldn’t bear to admit it, who have stayed behind to party but who will from time to time think wistfully of the rest of us gathered here. Or grandma or grandpa, glad to be with you, dreaming too, but of Christmasses past and the hope of a few more to come. Perhaps it’s the gifts you have shopped for and wrapped so carefully: symbols and signs of your loves and joys and happinesses, of those near to you and dear to you.
But perhaps you left behind other things as well. Disappointments in your plans, difficulties at work, fractured hopes and fractured dreams. Debts or health worries, a recent bereavement. A broken relationship or a broken home or a broken heart. Have you left any of these things behind? I ask you this because I am your priest, and as I go about my daily work I find that behind every front door in the town there is a story, a story of joy or of sorrow, of hope or of tragedy, a story too often of pain or bitterness or despair.
And so why have you come? Why have you come through the darkness on this particular night to this ancient Abbey Church? There is nothing fashionable about organised religion any more. The Church of England, along with most of the ancient institutions of this nation, is constantly mocked and belittled in the media, pushed to one side as irrelevant, marginalised as a failure. Those of us who worship here day by day and week by week are not depressed by that, nor embittered, because we know that we follow in the steps of one who was himself pushed to the very margins of society, marginalised as irrelevant and crucified as a failure. So we welcome you with open hearts and an open altar. All of you who wish to do so are welcome to come to receive God’s gift of himself in bread and in wine. And if that is something for which you are not yet ready, come instead in a moment to receive a blessing, the assurance of God’s love for you, of his mercy, his grace, his forgiveness.
But still the question needs to be asked. Why have you come? Could part of it be a longing to escape for a moment from all the pressures and the tensions and the strains of life at home; to lose yourself for a moment as you hear again the familiar Christmas story and sing again the old, old carols? That is understandable, oh so understandable. But I have to tell you that it won’t work. You see, you can’t keep God out of ordinary, humdrum, everyday life. You can’t shut him out of broken homes, or broken hearts. For these are the things that God is about. These are his concern and his care. It is precisely in your hopes and your fears, your dreams and your sorrows, your anxieties and your joys, that Christ comes in, that Christ is born today. These are the glad tidings of which the angels sing. For this is what Christmas is about: about God entering into the stuff and substance of our lives; about Christ coming into life as part of an ordinary human family; of his coming, the Son of God, as a little baby-thing who made a woman cry. Christmas is about God reaching out to us – not just here, for a moment, in this ancient, holy place, but at home and at work, in the office or in the shop or the hospital or the school, in every detail of your life, in the hidden places of your heart.
So if when you closed the door tonight you left behind a story, a story of hurt or heartbreak, of guilt or regret, there is no escape here, there is no bolt-hole. But there is hope. There is hope for you, each one of you, and there is hope for me. Tonight we celebrate God’s taking the initiative in coming into history, into your story and into my story, of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Christ stands at the door of your home and of your heart, and longs to be invited in. To be invited in, not as a temporary, fleeting guest, but to live forever with you and in you, as your brother and as your Saviour and as your friend.
He will not bring with him an easy comfort. He will not bring cheap grace. Problems will not go away, sorrows will not disappear. But they will be shared. Someone else will help you shoulder the burden. Your regrets can be left here forever, and you can go out of this place forgiven and free. You will have someone with whom to share your fears and anxieties for the future. In your weakness you will discover God’s strength; in your loneliness you will discover his presence. And there will be challenge, too, if you answer Christ’s call and allow him into your life: a challenge to riskier and more glorious living; a challenge to deeper love and greater vulnerability; a challenge to new heights and depths of life as you really begin to live – perhaps for the first time.
All this is God’s offering to you this Christmastide, a gift of love and a gift of hope. Everything depends on whether or not you will accept it. Imagine the heartbreak if tomorrow you offer a gift to someone you love with all your heart and it is spurned, rejected. Will you accept God’s gift of himself to you, or will you spurn and reject him? The choice is yours. He is here now: the child in the manger, the crucified Lord, the risen Saviour with arms outstretched to you. God’s gift of himself – to you. As the old poem puts it:
I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in the manger.
The oxen knew him, had him in their care,
To men he was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there,
And the world’s danger.
And for that, thanks be to God.