Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sermon for Christmas 1 C - 8.00 at St Matthews & United service for Stroud team

On the 5th day of Christmas....our True Love gave to us....a reminder that the light shines in the darkness.
At least, I think this is the gift we can claim from this morning's gospel.
A few years ago, a confused curate at Midnight Mass read THIS gospel – to the crowd gathered for tidings of comfort and joy. As the training incumbent I was less than delighted. The preacher that evening would doubtless tell you that he was even more disconcerted - but perhaps a reminder of the darkness is not so very out of place.
So today with the birthday festivities still carrying on around us (Christmas lasts til Candlemass, remember!), we are invited to jump forward, beyond next week's celebration of Epiphany to hear what happened AFTER the wise men went home...Wibbly wobbly timey wimey, as Dr Who would put it.

But it's not exactly good news, is it?
It's a reminder that even as we come together in candle-lit churches crammed with children to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace – the darkness is pressing very close.
Our story has a tyrant more sinister and malevolent than any pantomime villain.Herod the king in his raging has been booed off the stage for centuries – and it's tempting to see him as just a stock figure, there as part of the drama...Except that his spirit survives in our world today.
The darkness much heartbreak contained in just 1 verse of Scripture
When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 
And the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem is echoed in the weeping of só many others through the centuries – nor are their voices stilled today. In our own lifetime we have witnessed genocide on a frightening scale...and the shadow of the Holocaust still lingers...and the children of Syria cry to us from the camps...
So much darkness that if the full Christmas story was turned into a film, I can't think it would be considered suitable for under 12s.
But we tend to censor the story. We offer our children – and our occasional Christmas visitors to - a sentimental candlelit version of events, complete with added chocolate. No wonder that many leave faith behind as a childish myth as they look full on at the hard places of the world. If Christmas is only about babies and stables and cuddly animals and stars – then there's little point to it.
But today we are reminded that there is tragedy built in from the very beginning. That Emmanuel – God with us – starts out as he means to go on.
He is here as a vulnerable child, forcibly displaced, seeking asylum with his family far far from home.
And in 33 years, his story will end in a similar vein, with God-made-flesh receiving the anger, injustice and cruelty that the world offers day by day.
But – he IS Emmanuel – God with us – beside us in the darkness, and pain and fear...and that's some help, at least. Companionship is always good – and often all that we can offer.

But, though Jurgen Moltmann would remind us that “only a suffering God can save us”, others would argue that if you are stuck at the bottom of a pit, there's not much point in your rescuer jumping in beside you – so that two of you are stuck, with no obvious means of escape. So surely “God with us” is good news only so far as his presence brings hope of change, the promise that suffering will end, that one day the world will be a safe place for ALL children – not just those whom we know and love and shower with Christmas gifts.

Perhaps that's where the epistle comes in, speaking of God bringing many children to glory and of Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation, who first enters into their suffering. It talks of him as a sacrifice – NOT a sacrifice to an angry, vengeful God, but a sacrifice to those structures of evil and oppression, those forces of darkness that still sacrifice children over and over, all around the world. God becomes one of us at Christmas and offers himself up to suffer what millions of children suffer - so that we might grasp what “God with us” actually means.
Because, it is never about endorsing privilege...God “With us” and “against Them”...God siding with one nation, one class, one faith group...
Never, never, never!
God with us means God there with every child, every family.
Yes, God with us is a gift to those who are celebrating Christmas safe and happy and secure – but his presence matters still more for those who are struggling, forgotten, locked away, abandoned, bereft.

The light shining in the darkness...showing it up for what it is...inspiring us, and all who are children of light, to work against the powers and principalities that seem to hold the world in thrall.
For if we are not part of the solution, working WITH God to transform this dark and broken world, then we too are part of the problem. Inaction is not an option.
Because the Christmas story is nothing to do with the saccharine and schmalz we might seem to be peddling. It's about eternity breaking into time...heaven touching that earth can become like heaven.
And that's costly...and hard painful work...for God with us, but for us with God as well.
So, to end, listen to this poem by Steve Turner – and remember that the light which first shone in the stable in Bethlehem was not extinguished on Good Friday – but shines still to bring hope to all the dark places of suffering today and always. Christmas and Easter -two essential parts of the same story – that Great Story in which we all have our place.

Christmas is really 
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a 
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations 
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they'd do better to
wait for a re-run of 
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there's any connection. 

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