Friday, January 21, 2022

One Church, One Faith, One Lord - a sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

A Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

“One church, one faith, one Lord” – is the celebratory phrase we will sing in our final hymn today.  It’s a phrase which some people, sadly, stumble-over.  For, patently, we human beings have failed to maintain the unity of which the hymn speaks.  

In so many ways, we are not ‘one church’ – but rather a multiplicity of them, are we not?  Whether we are catholic, orthodox, protestant, evangelical, charismatic, pentecostal or any number of offshoots – it is an act of the purest optimism to suppose that we might ever become ‘one church’.  But I’m an optimist.

In so many ways, we really do not have ‘one faith’.  Within the worldwide church, there are many competing arguments about what ‘faith’ is, and about what specific items of faith we should believe in.  We argue over the meaning of the Cross, over the efficacy of prayer, over what to believe about the transubstantiation, or the consubstantiation, or the memorialisation of even the Holy elements on the Lord’s Table.  Or should that be ‘the Altar’?  It is an act of the purest optimism to sing that we we have ‘one faith’.  But I’m an optimist.

In so many ways, we really do not have ‘one Lord’, either.  Jesus, mediated to us by the Gospels, is such a puzzling, complex, intriguing character, that it is possible for each of us to make Jesus in our own image.  It all depends on the lenses we use when we read his stories.  For the Pentecostal Christian, he is the Lord who dispenses miraculous healing and personal experiences of the Holy Spirit.  For the Evangelical, he is the Lord who died upon a cross, paying the price for our sin.  For the liberal Christian, he is the Lord who calls us to transformed lives that, in turn, transform the lives of others.  Each of us worships a different Lord – we conceive of him differently.  We tend to make him in our own image.  It is therefore the act of purest optimism to sing that we worship ‘one Lord’.  But I’m an optimist.

But why am I an optimist?  What hope can there be that we will ever succeed in being those who have ‘one church, one faith, one Lord’?  

There have been times, throughout the history of the church, when events outside the walls of our buildings have served to challenge us, shape us, and reform us.  The Roman oppression of the early church formed it into a kind of spiritual guerrilla movement.  The 313 Edit of Milan, by the Emperor Constantine, catapulted the church into an entirely new way of being.  Global politics had much to do with the so-called Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 1054.  The Reformation of the Catholic Church was also as much about politics as it was about matters of faith – as we experienced here in England under the reign of Henry VIII.   In the 17th and 18th centuries, the progress of science and philosophy drove the period we call the Enlightenment.  This had dramatic effects on what the church believed, how it was structured, and its role in society.

Do you see what I’m saying?  I’m suggesting that the church has always been in dialogue with politics and the world outside the church’s cosy walls. Sometimes we’ve lead the debate, and sometimes we’ve been radically reshaped and reformed by it.  My friends, I believe that historians of the future will look back at our time in history as another epoch of the church – another moment which radically altered the nature, and the ministry, of the Body of Christ.  What title they will give this period is not yet certain.  It won’t be ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Reformation’ – because they already have meanings that are cemented in history.  But I shall be surprised if the title given to this period isn’t something like ‘the Globalisation’.

Never before in human history have we been so global in our common life.  The cultural differences between nations and religions are being eroded at a breakneck pace.  Communications around the globe happen at the speed of light.  All the knowledge of humanity is available to the majority of humans at the push of a button, or the wiggle of a mouse.  Every day worshippers of all religions are able to see, with their own eyes, that their understanding of God finds echoes in the thinking of all other religions.  And thankfully, as never before, we are beginning to wake up to the impact that humanity is having on the Earth we all share.

Theologian Sallie McFague (who died in 2019) powerfully described creation as “the body of God” and the place of salvation. She wrote, “Creation as the place of salvation means that the health and well-being of all creatures and parts of creation is what salvation is all about—it is God’s place and our place, the one and only place.”  

I think that, ultimately, it may be this renewed focus on Creation, and on our essential unity as people born from the same Earth, which may save us – and which is bound to radically reshape our church and all other religions.  Franciscan writer Richard Rohr suggests that ‘Our very suffering now, our condensed presence on this common nest that we have largely fouled, will soon be the one thing that we finally share in common. It might well be the one thing that will bring us together politically and religiously. The earth and its life systems, on which we all entirely depend might soon become the very things that will convert us to a simple lifestyle, to necessary community, and to an inherent and universal sense of reverence for the Holy. We all breathe the same air and drink the same water. There are no Jewish, Christian, or Muslim versions of these universal elements.

According to the etymologists who study the origin of words, the word ‘church’ comes from ‘circe’ (pronounced in old English with a soft ‘c’).  In Celtic, the ‘c’ is hard, leading to the Scottish ‘Kirk’.  It means circle.  Stonehenge was probably known as the ‘great Circe’ by ancient Britons.  The Greek word for church is ‘ekklesia’ – from which we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’.  It means ‘the gathering’ – it was originally a gathering for political purposes, but then was appropriated by the church.  So, from words alone, we can see clearly that the Church should be defined as ‘the gathering in a circle’ – it’s a place in which all humanity can gather together.  We’ll gather with a common faith in the Source of all Creation.  We’ll gather to worship one Lord: the God who gives us life, and shows us how to live, expressed through the wisdom of Jesus Christ, and all the other wise voices of the centuries.  

I don’t know if I’ll see this truly happen in my lifetime.  There are dark forces always at work to try to separate us, and the drive a wedge between brothers and sisters.  Some people cannot get over their instinctive fear of anyone or anything which isn’t just like them.  That tends to build walls where there should be circles.  But my prayer is that at least within the lifetime of my grandson, the whole of humanity will one day be able to sing with renewed passion and re-formed faith those glorious words of hope:  ‘one church, one faith, one Lord!’. 


Thursday, January 20, 2022

The strange visions of Richard Rolle

Today (20 Jan) is the commemoration of Richard Rolle of South Yorkshire – one of the great English divines of the last millennium - and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you’ve never heard of him!  However, if you had lived in England in 15th Century, you would certainly have been familiar with him.  He was one of the most widely read English writers at that time.  His works survive in nearly four hundred English manuscripts, and at least seventy on the Continent.  In the 15th Century, he was better known, and more widely read, than even Chaucer – not least by a population who were keen to understand how to live a more holy, Christian life.  In the 15th Century, Rolle was the ‘go-to Christian writer’, much like C.S. Lewis might be to us today.

Rolle was a hermit, who set himself apart from the world in order to draw closer to God.  As time went on he became less and less interested in earthly matters.  His focus shifted towards his knowledge of God, and on how that knowledge might be constantly deepened.   Among his best known works is a book called ‘The Fire of Love’, in which Rolle gives an account of his more mystical experiences.  He describes these as being of three kinds: first, a ‘physical warmth’ in his body, secondly, ‘a sense of wonderful sweetness’ and thirdly ‘a heavenly music’ that he said accompanied him as he chanted the Psalms.  

Mystical experiences like these are common among saints and divines throughout history.  These days, we might be more tempted to wonder whether they were also people with very active imaginations, or perhaps even afflicted by some kind of hallucinatory psychosis.  But, as with all the great mystical writers, if it was true that they experienced hallucinations, it is also true that they had the wisdom, and the deep rooting of faith, to interpret their dreams and visions in positive life-giving ways.

It’s a challenge, without years of study and a knowledge of 14th century English for modern readers to easily get to the heart of what Richard Rolle taught.  But I’d like to offer you some of his more famous sayings, translated into contemporary language – in the hope that you can at least glimpse his wisdom, and his heart.  Much of his theological wisdom was focused on Love, and specifically the love between God and human beings.  He wanted to help his readers to grow in that love, and to make that love the very centre of their existence.  So, he said things like…

“Your love is Singular (that is, special or unique) when all your delight is in Jesus Christ, and when you can find no joy or comfort in any other thing”.  Rolle encourages us to make Jesus the object and the focus of our love – such that nothing else on earth can give us the same joy or comfort.  We know what he means, don’t we?  All of us, I daresay, have focused on love on another person, to find that they let us down in some way or another.  Or we’ve imagined that we can find joy or comfort in acquiring some new possession, or job, or honour, or gift.  But over time, the joy and comfort of such things fades.  But a love which is exercised, focused and directed towards Jesus will never fail.  It will always be ‘singular’, to use Rolle’s word.  Unique, special, delightful.  

Rolle expands on this theme in this quote (which again I’ve updated in its language): “Lord Jesu, I ask you, give me movement without measure in your love; desire without limit; longing without order, burning without discretion.  Truly, the better the love of you is, the greedier it is; for neither by reason is it restrained, nor by dread distressed, nor by doom tempted”.  Speaking out of his hours of contemplating God, his daily recitation of the Psalms, his practice of always seeking God and loving God, Rolle has found that his desire for God’s love has become, in his word, greedy!  I’m reminded of a saying of Martin Luther, who wished that his love for God could be like the fixed gaze of his family dog upon a piece of meat.  “Ah!” commented Luther, “if only I could pray the way that dog looks at meat. All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”

Writers like Rolle can be a little disheartening to us, can’t they – or perhaps a little intimidating?  We might wish that we too could give up all our earthly comforts to live the life of hermit, entirely focused on God from morning till night.  But the reality is that few of us are built that way.  I know I’m not.  Life without a little home comfort (and things to keep me busy) would quickly be intolerable to me.  We should not feel guilty that God doesn’t call everyone to the hermit’s life – it’s an extreme way of living, indeed.  But hermits, like Rolle, can help us to see possibilities.  They can encourage us to take at least a step towards the kind of deep, profound union that they find with God.  They can advise us about where to put our focus and our attention – even amid the pressures of normal life.

In Rolle’s case, I think his most helpful line might be this:  “For love is a wilful stirring of our thoughts unto God…that is the perfection of this life”.  Can you see what Rolle is suggesting?  He wants us to understand that loving God is primarily an act of WILL.  We can choose to love God.  Love is not an emotion, nor even a mystical feeling – although both may be experienced along the path of love.  It is primarily a decision, and act of saying ‘this I will do’.  A daily decision to put one foot in front of the other towards the final destination of being caught up in the love, and the embrace of God.

I hope Rolle has encouraged you today, as he has me, to direct your energies, your mind and your will towards loving God, just a little more devotedly, each day.  Amen.


Sunday, January 16, 2022

It takes a community to put on a wedding

I have preached many times, over the years, at weddings and about weddings – as you might expect.  So as I sat down to write this sermon, I wondered what new insight might emerge.  What might the Holy Spirit say about this story, being heard in this time, and in this place?

At first, I was tempted to open with a cheap political joke, given the current shenanigans at Westminster.  After all, the Wedding at Cana is the story of Jesus going to social event which then turned out to be a ‘work-gathering’ for him!   

But, you’ll be glad to know, I decided not to pursue political metaphors, this week.  Instead, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me towards a new and different metaphor.  The more I toiled at my sermonic labour, the stronger the feeling became.  The Wedding at Cana is actually a very powerful illustration for our own life together.  But before I explore that metaphor, I need to sketch out the current position of the Church.

Like our own dear St Faith’s, the Church of England is at a cross-roads at the moment.  Across the country, our membership has been reduced substantially by the Pandemic, despite the best efforts of thousands of ministers offering livestreams from their homes.  But the Pandemic has really only accelerated the trends which were already happening.  

  • Western Society has been systematically turning its back on traditional spirituality for some time.  
  • Scientism and Atheism are loud and competing voices, and many are swayed away from the life of faith.  
  • Sunday trading tempts many people away from traditional churches, towards the new worship centres of the shopping arcades, where they lay their gifts on the new altars of the checkout.  
  • Sunday Morning Clubs tempt children away from church and towards the sports field or the swimming pool.  
  • For the dwindling number of people who are interested in faith at all, there are now such a plethora of choices – internet worship, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, traditional church, house church, home church, books, spirituality courses, other religious traditions.  The Church of England finds that it is now just one voice among a cacophony of styles, traditions, and teaching which are available to the honest seeker.  

But the Church of England, like a great oil tanker at sea, is (by nature) very slow to turn itself around.  Frankly, it’s hard to adapt when the social landscape is changing so quickly.   Here’s just one example:  two years ago we started livestreaming on Facebook.  But now, the younger generation tells me, Facebook is considered ‘the network for old people’.  If you want to reach the next generation, you have to livestream on Instagram, or Tic-Tok, or any number of other platforms I’ve barely even heard of!

We see the effect of all this churn in some startling statistics.  Only about one seventieth of the nation now attends a Church of England church. That’s around 900,000 people in a country of sixty-eight million.  One seventieth of the nation has the responsibility for maintaining all the historic Christian-worship sites of the country – all the lovely old churches, like ours.   And, if that were not enough, one seventieth of the nation needs to pay for the staff to run these buildings too: the priests, Bishops, Safeguarding Officers, Archdeacons, youth workers, schools advisers, administrators, health & safety officers – all the people, in other words, which the weight of administration, good practice and law forces us to need.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the finances of the church are creaking under the strain.  This year, the tiny little Diocese of Portsmouth will spend £1million of its fragile reserves, just to keep the present structure on the road.  That’s despite swingeing cuts among the Diocesan Team of administrators, and despite a complete pause on recruiting new clergy.  If a Vicar leaves a church in our Diocese, right now, the policy is not to replace them.  We just don’t have the money to do it.  And bigger changes are coming too.  It’s just a matter of time.

But what has this to do with the Wedding at Cana?   Well, think about it…with me.  To put on a wedding feast is the act of an entire community.  Laying the tables, decorating the room, cooking the food, serving the food, welcoming guests, playing in the band, and paying for it all – all these things need to happen for a wedding feast to take place.  Only after all these things were done could Jesus attend the wedding.  Only when the community, together, had provided and paid for the space for his first public miracle could that miracle take place.  He needed jars of water.  He needed the jars to have been manufactured, in the first place.  He needed the water to be drawn from the well.  He needed people to serve the new wine of the Kingdom from the jars, to the guests at the table.  It took a community to create the space for Jesus to be known.

But what I really want you to see is this:  Jesus was not the priest of the community.  No, he was its Lord and its God.  He was the provider of the new wine of the Kingdom.  The priests of Cana, the ones who mediated the message of God that day, were the stewards of the feast.  They were the ordinary, servant-workers, probably slaves, who took the new wine which God had provided, and passed it on to all the guests.  And among them was one great High Priest.  Mary.  Mary was the one who said to the other ministers – “Listen to him.  Do whatever he tells you”.  

If the Church of England is to have a future, I believe that this is a message we need to hear, loud and clear.  We have to get hold of the idea that building the church is not the job of its ordained priests alone – it’s the task of the whole community of faithful people.   Within the Kingdom of God, everyone has a role, everyone has a job to do.  Everyone is called on to play their part.  We are, in the words of St Paul, ALL priests in the priesthood of all believers.  Decorating the building, serving the holy food, serving the new wine of the Kingdom, playing in the band, and crucially paying for the feast.  

My brothers and sisters, we are ALL ministers: priests in the priesthood of all believers.  MY role is perhaps best described as the role of Mary.  Like her, it’s my task and my privilege to stand before you and declare:  ‘Listen to Jesus.  Do whatever he tells you’. Amen.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Distant God...

Readings: 

Psalm 44, verses 10 to 15 and verses 24 and 25

The psalmist feels far from God.  He feels rejected and shamed.  He wonders why God seems to hide his face from the suffering of his people.

Mark 1.40–end

Jesus heals a man with leprosy, and begs him not to tell anyone.

Homily: 

There is a real contrast at play between our two readings of this morning.  On the one hand, the psalmist perceives God as distant, aloof and uncaring.  Why, he wonders, does the Lord hide his face from his people?  Why does he forget their grief and oppression?

In contrast to this, the Gospel reading gives us a completely different picture.  Here we meet Jesus, who is so overflowing with love and compassion that he cannot help but offer healing to a leper who calls out to him.  Jesus knows that such a healing will have consequences.  He knows that if word spreads of his healing touch, he will be sought out for his medicinal skills by all and sundry – and his vital teaching ministry will likely suffer.  But despite this reservation, Jesus is moved with pity for the leper, and he just can’t help himself from giving him the healing he seeks.

So, in this contrast, we have a picture of a God who undeniably wants to help human beings in their struggles – but who sometimes withholds that help (as the psalmist experienced).  Why is this?

It’s because sometimes, divine help is the last thing really needed.  It may be advantageous to have a plaster placed on a wound – but if the underlying cause of the wound is not addressed, it may still go bad.  God is able to see the root causes behind all of human suffering – and it is those root causes he wants to tackle.  If every time we fell down, he stooped to pick us up, we might never learn not to fall.  My Dad has always said that until you’ve fallen off a bike 10 times, you will never learn to ride one.  Like a parent who watches a child falling off their bike over and over again, wincing each time, God has to let us fall, if we are to grow.

Let me offer you this analogy.   Imagine that a plane is coming into land, and the engines suddenly fail.  Frantic prayers from all the passengers are heard by God, and he reaches down from the sky (with a giant hand) scoops up the plane, and places it gently on the runway.  Imagine how wonderful that would be.  How many prayers of praise would ascend!

But what would be the consequence of this action by God?  I suggest that pretty soon, human beings would give up designing and maintaining safe aircraft.  Instead, people would be jumping off cliffs in the general direction they want to go, expecting God’s giant hand to pick them up and transport them safely to their destination!  All the accumulation of knowledge required for the safe operation of airplanes would be lost in a puff of divine generosity.

It is no wonder that the psalmist believed that God was silent, and didn’t care.  The history of the Bible (as we’ve been learning on Sunday evenings) is riddled with stories of how God’s chosen people, time and again, turned aside from God.  They ignored God’s wisdom and laws.  They decided that they knew best.  And, as the psalmist says, they then found themselves slaughtered, and ‘despoiled by their enemies’.  God didn’t want his people to be ‘slaughtered and despoiled’.  God wanted his people to follow his teachings, and live by his guidance.  But his people wanted to go their own way.  God had to withhold his help – so that the people would learn the lessons they needed, in order to grow.  They had to fall off their bike a few more times.

Jesus didn’t really want to help the Leper – he knew it would be trouble for his wider ministry.  He even commanded the Leper to tell no-one.  But, the Leper, with his God-given freewill, didn’t listen.  He opened his grateful but excitable mouth, and told everyone what Jesus had done.  The result…(I quote) ‘Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country, and people came to him…’.

Almighty God is capable of wiping out a pandemic, in a heart-beat.  He could miraculously remove the bullets from the guns of opposing armies.  He could arrive in Parliament and sit on the throne, sending our Prime Minister back to a drinks party and taking over the Government!  But he doesn’t.  Because of his love for us, and because of his fierce, parental desire to see us grow, God holds back from interfering.  Where is God?  He is standing on the sidelines, whispering wisdom through the pages of Scripture and our own consciences, saying ‘just turn to me, my children.  Turn to me.’  Amen.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Political Bible

Text:  Luke 3.15–17,21,22 – The Baptism of Jesus

Deaths are rising again, along with hospital admissions.  Parents and teachers are worried. Hospital patients and self-shielding people with suppressed immune systems are desperately lonely.  And that’s not all.  The self-proclaimed leader of the free world – America - is in political chaos.  Police in Khazakstan are shooting protestors, and the Russian army is lined up at the borders of the Ukraine.  At home, 13 year-old teenagers are still stabbing each other on our streets.  Our world is in chaos as never before in most of our lifetimes.

And what am I doing about it?  I’m carrying on…celebrating the Eucharist, singing the Mass, praying, and serving this community as well as I'm able. 

Some of you may wonder why I don’t speak out more often on political matters.  After-all, Jesus spoke out into the politics of his era, and the Bible is full of instructions about how a fair, just and above all kind society could be structured.  Indeed, as I’ve said myself on occasion, ‘anyone who thinks that politics and religion don’t mix has clearly not read their Bible’.  

This last week, I've been at Chichester University, where I'm studying for an MA in Christian Ministry.  We were thinking together about how the bible has been used, and sometimes abused, by politicians.  It was fascinating, for example, to read a famous speech of Margaret Thatcher, known as 'The Sermon on the Mound'.  (The Mound was the meeting place of the Church of Scotland, whose General Assembly she was addressing at the time).  Her speech was, actually, a very well crafted exploration of Christian themes, seen through the lens of the Conservative Party that she then led.  Perhaps the most arresting thought (which certainly hit the media in 1988) was her argument about the acquistion of wealth.  She argued that the Good Samaritan was only able to help the man on the road because he was a sufficiently good capitalist to have been able to be charitable.  It is of course, a compelling argument...but I can't help but think it rather misses the point of Jesus' story.   Thatcher shows us how the Bible can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, as well as a source of inspiration and wisdom.  

I got myself into some hot water over Christmas.  I was struck by a line from the Queen's speech, in which she described the teachings of Jesus as the bedrock of her faith.  I was struck by the irony of one of the richest women in the world making such a statement.  After all, Jesus' teachings on the acquisition of wealth were pretty clear.  The Queen has four palaces (and numerous other properties and land holdings), whereas the Son of Man, famously, was born in a stable and had nowhere to lay his head.  There was real irony at the heart of the Queen's message.  It's magnificent that she regularly references Jesus in her Christmas Day talks...but its indisputably ironic that she does so from a gilded palace.  

So, cheekily, I pointed out this irony on Facebook!  The reaction was surprising, to say the least!  I was inundated by a barrage of responses - some rightly pointing to my hypocracy as a member of an institution - the church - with billions of pounds worth of assets.  Others, however, clearly assumed that I was somehow opposed to the Monarchy, or critical of the Queen's character, personally.  Lots of people posted responses which can essentially be boiled down to:  "the Queen is a magnificent servant of us all, and how dare you suggest otherwise?!".  Of course, I had done nothing of the sort - and I was compelled to point out that I pray publicly for Her Majesty every Thursday at our mid-week Eucharist.  But my point had been misunderstood.  Sincere supporters of everything the Queen so nobly stands for confused my mild criticism with republicanism.

I hesitate to compare myself to Jesus in any way.  But he faced a similar conundrum. Jesus didn't seek to overthrow the State, or the Religious establishment.  He never called for the overthrown of the Emperor, nor of the Regligious elites.  He only asked them to change the focus of the ways they acted.  But they couldn't hear him.  They heard only opposition, and assumed he was inciting violent revolution against the status quo.  They assumed he wanted to overthrow them, when all he actually wanted to do was change them, and to offer them a new, kinder way to live.  So they crucified him for it.

Today, as part of a sequence of epiphanies (or ‘revealings’) we mark Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan.  That sequence includes his first epiphany to the Wise Men from the East.  It includes the revealing of his divine authority through his first miracles – casting out demons, according to Mark, or changing water into wine, according to John.  On Thursday, with Canon Tim's help, we remembered how he was revealed in the Synagogue, as the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rested.  Today, in Luke's gospel, Jesus is revealed to as God’s proudly-declared Son, with whom God is well pleased.  Later, in another epiphany moment on the Mount of Transfiguration, God tells Jesus’ followers to ‘Listen to him!’.

The challenge for all Christians is how to invite the world to listen to Jesus, the revealed Son of God.  How shall we proclaim his radical, alternative view of the world?  What if our society was structured around the principles that Jesus taught?  What if we really ‘listened to him’?

·         What if our society was structured around the fundamental notion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’, as the Bible teaches (Deut.15.4)?  How different might our benefit and social system be?

·     What if our approach to healing was as generous and overflowing as Jesus was to those he healed?  How differently might our health system be structured and funded?

·      What if our approach to taxation was based on the Biblical principle of tithing?  No more write-offs, no more tax havens.  Just basic 10% tithing.  How different would the finances of our economy be?  For that matter, how different would the perilous finances of the parish church be, if its members embraced the Bible's teaching on tithing?  

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  They are ‘what if’ questions.  But whether we sit on the right, the left or the centre of earthly politics, Jesus has wisdom to offer, ideas to ponder, and guidance to give to all of us.  Jesus is neither a capitalist, nor a socialist.  But he has wisdom in abundance for both.  With his own body and blood, he has earned the right to be heard.  He is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  So, why don't we listen to him?

Amen


Monday, January 3, 2022

Everybody loves a story. A sermon for Midnight Mass 2021

Christmas Night...

What is it, I wonder, that captures us about the Christmas story?  It’s a story that never fails to warm our hearts, or make is tingle with excitement.    I think that’s because, like all great stories, this one has so many brilliant elements to it. 

First it’s a story with a journey at its heart.  There’s a journey from Nazareth, to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt and back again.  Everyone loves a road movie – from the Wizard of Oz to Thelma and Louise, we all recognise, deep down, that road movies are analogies of our own lives…with all their joy and pain.

Secondly, this is a story full of juicy scandal!  From Eastenders to tabloid newspapers, we all like a bit of juicy scandal.  In this case, it’s the scandal of a child born out of wedlock.  Much more horrifying, though, is the scandal of King Herod, who put the children of Bethlehem to death for fear of losing his throne.  This is a scandal about power.  And we recognise it, don’t we?  From scandals in Parliament, to the outrage of ISIS, or the fictional horror of Darth Vader and the Death Star, we recognise the real horror of people who try to dominate others through violence.

Then, thirdly, this is a story full of magic and mystery.  Everyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy-tale or a Harry Potter movie instinctively picks up on those mysterious Wise Men of the East who follow a star.  And of course, let’s not forget the Angels – mysterious beings whom we barely understand, suddenly appearing and proclaiming peace on earth.

Fourthly, there are the animals.  Sheep on the hillsides, cattle lowing in the stable, a donkey faithfully carrying Mary.   Anyone who thinks that human beings don’t like animal stories should check out the number of cat videos on Youtube!  We are all suckers for a baby lamb, or a gently moo-ing cow in a barn.  It brings out the ‘Aaah’ factor in us!

It’s a story rich with characters, too.  There’s the faithful Joseph, who stands by his fiancĂ©e even though he must have had great doubts about her story.  There’s Mary herself, forcing us all to wonder whether we could have had her faith to press on.  Or rushing along the road to Bethlehem, trying to get there in time for the birth of her son…just as we rush around , preparing for the same event.  There’s those rough shepherds, men of the hillsides, outsiders who are yet welcomed into the heart of the story.  There are those mysterious wise men; and the fictional inn-keeper, never specifically mentioned in the Gospels, who yet causes us all to wonder how we would respond to a stranger asking us for sanctuary. 

Perhaps we all love this story so much because we recognise ourselves in it.  We know that we are all capable of Mary and Joseph’s faith, or the Shepherds’ wonder.  We recognise that we are capable of being intelligent and thoughtful Wise Men and women.  We also know, when we admit it to ourselves, that we, like Herod, are capable of abusing our power – the power we hold over our families or our work colleagues.  Or, we recognise that we are the victims of such power, if others dominate us.  We also recognise that there are times when we fail to act with the generosity of Joseph or the Inn-keeper.  We know that we need help to be as faithful as Mary, or as brave as the Wise Men as they set out on their quest.

Ultimately, we all know that we can only journey so far through life on our own resources.  We recognise our own weakness in the babe of Bethlehem.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we need the help of others – just as he did at that time of his life.  We cannot live in isolation.  We cannot do this thing called life, alone.

Ultimately, this is a story about a god who saw the plight and the drama of human life, and who chose not to remain aloof.  This is not a god who sits on a cloud, demanding worship and dispensing favours in return for the right prayers.  This is a god who decides to engage with all the mess and muddle of human life.  He comes among us as that most fragile form of human life, a baby, utterly dependent on those around him, to show us that this is how we should live too.  We cannot live a life apart.  We need those around us, in our families, in our churches, as much as God needed Mary to bring him to earth.  We need others just as Jesus needed Joseph and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men and even the fictional inn-keeper to welcome him and warm him.

This is our God who dispenses not condemnation on our messed-up human world, but mercy and grace.  He enters into the human condition – he refuses to sit apart from it.  And by his life, his teaching, and then his death and resurrection he offers us a way out, he rescues us, he redeems us – from our solitary, fearful, chaotic lives – from what the old-timers called ‘sin’.   God enters our existence, as a Word – a word of hope, and a word of challenge…and he shines a light into humanity’s darkness.

Sadly, all too often, we are blind to the Light that he shines, and deaf to the Word that he speaks.  That’s why the third verse of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is so powerful:

"Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong.

And man, at war with man hears not the love-song which they bring

O hush the noise!  ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!"

My prayer for all of us is that this Christmas we will hear anew the power of the Christmas story.  May we open our eyes to the Light of Christ, and our ears to the Word who is God.  May we begin to recognise that the Christmas story is also our story – that it contains within it all the challenge we require to turn from our sometimes solitary, often fearful, chaotic, consumerist, self-focused lives – and to turn towards the Babe of Bethlehem, asking him – no, begging him -  to save us from ourselves.  Amen