Sermon for Christmas Midnight Mass 2016
24th Dec 2016
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2016
“In Him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. John 1.4
Now is the time (midnight) and this is the place (our church and countless others) where the sign once promised to the shepherds is being given to us once more. In churches around the world this midnight hour is significant for being an hour of deep darkness, and this is surely a strange time to come to church! But tonight we are walking from darkness, led like the shepherds by a guiding star, to the place where Jesus is born. And in that place, we will witness a far greater light, the one which our Gospel tells us ‘…is coming into the world’. There we will witness the birth of Jesus who is our ‘Emmanuel’, a name which means ‘God is with us’. This is not a God who is lost in time but the God who lies at the very heart or ‘now’ of our existence, and with the ‘hopes and fears of all our years’. Jesus comes to us tonight to be with us as we are and to be with our world just as it is. Within and in the world’s own willful ignorance and indifference, Jesus come to remind us that we are loved and cherished by a God who has made us and who will never desert us. He is with us in a way which surpasses anything we can possess or command.
In the past week I met two apparently contradictory witnesses to the presence and absence of God in all the Christmas rush. The first came from a young man in the street who ran up to me and shouted ‘Vicar, do you know any Latin?’ I said ‘Yes’, shamefacedly remembering the little bit of Latin I did at school. He then held out the inside of his wrist and showed me a tattoo inscribes with the Latin words:
Nihil Sine Deo Ego Sum
(‘Without God I am nothing’)
I was struck by the pride this young man took in the choice of these Latin words, and we both realized then and there that they were profound words, whose meaning was both manifestly clear and yet also very awesome, too. The words had been indelibly written upon his body and a constant reminder of who God is and who we are. To say the word ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘God is with us’ to remind ourselves that our bare existences find no meaning or purpose except in Him, for our lives find their true joy in being renewed and remade in His image. Last Thursday I found myself in a crowded lift in House of Frazer, Oxford Street. One young husband was carrying a large and very big carrier bag with the brand name ‘Louis Vuitton’ written on it, his wife similarly loaded down with expensive looking carrier bags. He says to her ‘How are you feeling, love?” She says “Just tired”. Then she says to him “And how are you feeling” And he says “Well, to be honest, totally skint”.
How far or near to Bethelem is the life of the tired shoppers in the lift at House of Frazer or in the joy of the young man who has shown the Vicar that Latin inscription, ‘Without God I am nothing’? Both become true witnesses of what Christmas is all about in this church and countless others tonight. That God has come to live with us, to make his home with us, to be our light, our life and our joy, wherever and however we may find ourselves. We are being called to open not just our minds and our senses but our very hearts to what God is gifting to us in this child Jesus. As one old Advent hymn has it,
Join then all hearts that are not stone,
And all our voices prove
To celebrate this holy One,
The God of peace and love.
From the hymn 'Behold the Great Creator Makes Himself a House of Clay' New English Hymnal 23.
“The dear Christ enters in” on our own worlds just as he entered into the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago. Ever since then, ‘the stars in the bright sky’ have looked down on us and on our world. And then, as now, the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, comes to us and abides with us. He abides even in the midst of this world’s and our world’s own brokenness and pain, uncertainly and defensiveness as much he does when we feel our guiding stars shine brightly.
The Church across the world tonight stops and stays at the scene of nativity. It stops in ‘solemn stillness’, and it offers this time, in the dark and in the middle of Winter, to remind itself of the gift of Jesus Christ and of the Giver who is the the all-providing, the providential God, the One who is now always and everywhere present for us. The gift we bring tonight is ourselves and our lives, to be made new in the One who is giving us a part of His very self; his beloved child Jesus.
At the end of this Mass we will wend our way to the crib scene and we will bless it with holy water and incense. We will gaze upon the figures there as we have done before, many of us as children. We will gaze in adoration as the shepherds did before us, in awe and wonder. For set before us is God’s light breaking into the darkness of this night and breaking into a world to transform it into the likeness of His love.
May the love of God be with you on this blessed and holy night now and in the time to come…May God bring you his deep joy and peace as no other possibly can. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
18th Dec 2016
Advent 4 (Year A)
“When Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the angel had commanded him; he took her as his wife.”
Some years ago now, in 2000, Botticelli’s painting ‘Mystical Nativity’ was exhibited at the National gallery as the centrepiece of an exhibition entitled ‘Seeing Salvation’. The painting is called ‘mystical’ because it deliberately substitutes the birth of Jesus as a gentle pastoral scene for something more disturbing. Angels abound, they are in evidence everywhere. They come to the nativity from the heavens, which are painted in gold, and which are ruptured; torn apart. Suddenly, heaven and earth become accessible to the angelic host. A way is opened up and it now ushers in a time of extraordinary communication between God and humankind.
This dramatic message holds our attention, but it needs its compliment, something more earthly and recognizable, to render the Nativity understandable in terms we can all understand. It needs an infusion of the human and something more down to earth. We experience this ‘infusion of the human’ in the witness of Joseph. In Joseph the coming to birth of Jesus is seen as a very practical matter. Alongside Mary’s bold declaration that she has ‘seen’ God’s salvation comes also the rather inauspicious circumstances within which Joseph is to save Mary from public disgrace and take her for his wife. Joseph ‘earths’ the Christmas story in the realm of common sense. In Joseph we meet the man, the carpenter, who will in a dream find his way to marrying Mary and avoid what would otherwise have been a public scandal, for ‘he took her for his wife’. In Jesus’ coming to birth there is met not only the grand expectations of Old Testament prophecy and the coming of the glorious manifestation of the angel Gabriel; of The Word of God made flesh, and the fantastical interaction of the heavenly and the earthly realms. There is also Joseph’s simple and practical witness in which important considerations regarding social custom are being made. With his common sense, there exists a kindling of deep love for Mary and the child about to babe born. Joseph’s positive action compliments Mary‘s ‘Yes‘; her ‘Let it be done according to thy Word‘, for Joseph shows a no-nonsense love that allows our ordinary as well as mystical understanding of the Christmas narrative to anchor itself in practical reality.
Joseph reminds us that individual Christian Faith involves a movement of the human heart and is expressed in an act of commitment (at Baptism), and then many subsequent acts of re-commitment in the life of faith. This involves a very necessary trust in God, a willingness to experience conversion to Christ not as a single, isolated act but as the necessary and continuing renewal of its vital energies. The Baptismal Rite has the candidate not only believe in God and in Jesus whom he has sent, but believe and TRUST. True belief remains the sublime reality, but Trust remains its practical and tough compliment. Faith always needs to be ‘earthed’ in reality. It needs to be, as Joseph the husband, father and worker knows, ‘down to earth’.
Joseph, known to us primarily as a worker, as also someone who works at things. He has learnt to give of himself. Joseph was of course a carpenter, and in carpentry things have to worked out from different angles, worked out patiently, planned; but then comes the moment when the cut has to be made, and this involves informed decision-making but is also a distinct skill, an art. Things have to fit properly and two separate pieces of wood have to find a marriage in one another for the finished article to hold firm. His act of commitment to Mary is a love and a commitment to make things work, and we rightly speak of relationships that need working at. But underlying this is a love which holds things together and helps things along. If Mary is the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ then Joseph is certainly one who serves God, even though in a manner which is, as we say, ‘down to earth’.
And so, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we see that the heavenly and the earthly realms are met in the nativity of Jesus, and in Mary and then Joseph’s ‘Yes’ to God through the message of the angels. They have both been obedient to God’s will. For the Gospel writer Matthew, the stage is now set, and we are readied, as the Advent promise comes to birth, to commit ourselves (yet again) to making the journey of faith with Joseph and Mary. We go with them to Bethlehem, in faith and love and wonder, to lighting the fourth Advent candle and to seeing what things will come to pass, seeing the salvation which is waiting for us. Now, like Joseph is our time to ‘wake out of sleep’. For now our salvation is nearer then when we first believed. For now, let us be as ready as we are best able to find our lives in God and in the birth of His Son, Emmanuel, 'God with Us'.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
11th Dec 2016
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year A)
Matthew 11.2-11 "Go and tell John what you hear and see". Matthew 11.4.
The Gospel this morning is timely. It is meant to be! We witness in St Matthew’s Gospel the strange and electric dialogue that takes place between John the Baptist, already imprisoned, and Jesus, who is sent messages from beyond the prison. Matthew intends us to overhear this dialogue and share the sense of its radical importance. He is telling us that John the Baptist’s message is an imprisoned message, one which is intensely constrained and continually pointing away from itself. John delivers his message from a place of intense suffering and personal dereliction. It is from this life-threatening, even doomed place that the message of John is to be written indelibly into our minds and the hearts. It reaches Jesus as a direct and vital question “Are you the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” It is a question which is answered by Christ both fully and indirectly:
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’.
We see that Jesus does not wish us to stay our attention on his status (Messiah), but what emerges out of his Messiahship (The Kingdom of God is being established). John the Baptist does not point to his status, but couches his ‘hidden’ identity in the negative. For the Baptist is to become for all time the one who is most definitely NOT the Christ. The wonderful composition of Orlando Gibbons entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ outlines a supposed dialogue which interrogates John the Baptist on this very question. He always answers in the negative concerning his status in relation to Christ but positive in terms of his ministry, which is to prepare the way for Christ’s coming:
This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What art thou then? (Art thou Elias? repeated x1) And he said, I am not. (Art thou the prophet? Repeated x2) And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, (Make straight the way of the Lord repeated x2).
The Gospel writer has it in mind that the Christian reader must make the journey into the desert to meet John, as his followers were to do. “And what do you go out into the desert to see?” Jesus asks us. John is neither a ‘reed shaken in the wind’ neither is he someone dressed in soft robes. He is a prophet and as Jesus tells us ‘more than a prophet’. He is the first of any born to women and yet also the less than the least in the Kingdom of heaven. Out of that Kingdom emerges a new kingdom on earth which lies in the transformation of the human situation in the likeness of Jesus Christ where ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk the lepers are cleansed the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them’. This is Matthew’s Gospel, also called simply ‘Good News’. This is why today, in mid-Advent there is a touch of rejoicing mid-way into a the Advent season of waiting and reflection.. This is why we are, too, liturgically, ‘in the pink’. This is for our gaudete, our ‘Rejoicing Sunday’, when we come to a realisation of the joy that still awaits us in the coming of the Messiah. He is named only in relation to the Good News of the Kingdom which is being proclaimed.
Christians rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus first called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. This is our Good News. The Church’s essential character is bound up in this one tradition, which is a living one, and in which Christ’s love is being made real. It challenges the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’ which is merely the buying of ‘thin’ conveniences, where everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator and where there is no engagement with our ultimate destiny.
In this church a cause for gaudete, or rejoicing, lies in the many people who come to this holy place to visit, perhaps to stay and pray. Many tell me that they find themselves in awe of what they see. This church building helps them to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, God’s existence as a distinct reality. There is the feeling that this is no ordinary place and the apprehension of the presence of God is no ordinary thing. For it has always attracted prayer as it offers sense of mystery; of what we call ‘the numinous’; filled as it is with an indefinable but very present and almost palpable quality of what one poet called ‘something deeply interfused’. This is a living light. John came as a witness to this same light, to point to the light, and in his ministry and witness to point to Jesus Christ as the source of that light.
We can see that John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective, even from prison and impending execution and even form a negative apprehension of his status. He proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but grounded in the here and now. It is a proclamation of a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories. It is a life which recognises the natural interrelationship between the human and the divine. It calls us to pay attention and to recognise what in Jesus Christ is real and what ephemeral. This is now become our gaudete; this is our real and lasting joy.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2016
4th Dec 2016
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (Year A)
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees” Matthew 3.9
Last Sunday, Advent Sunday, marked the beginning of a new church year. In this new year, Matthew’s Gospel will predominate. Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ family tree leading back to the first man, Adam and through the lineage of King David. For Matthew the past and the present are interwoven in the life of Christ. He is led after all to see Jesus as the fulfiller of the past as expressed in the words of the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
Out of Matthew’s regard for the past emerges something which is very present indicative. For the redemption of which the hymn speaks in the coming of Christ, is likened to the startling image of the axe lying ready to strike at the roots of the tree, which is the blind allegiance to the past. His severest criticism is levelled at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, members of what one writer has called ‘the spiritual aristocracy’ as he challenges them boldly:
Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’
The call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched very much in the present. Now is the time for us to awaken to Christ and to the new realities which are manifest in Him. It is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that the call for a radical spiritual awakening is made most empahtically. A call to shake off the shackles of indifference and moral apathy and to build a new society in his image.
Last week I met the Queen at Goodenough College and was reminded of the one person who was permitted to address her simply as ‘Elizabeth’. He was Nelson Mandela, who died three years ago tomorrow, and was, like john the Baptist, a prophet for our time, although he preferred the term ‘servant’. But like John the Baptist centuries before him, the Man and his message were one. And the message emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. Both these men learnt to live completely in the present and saw the present time, and not the wasted past, as God’s time; a time of transformation, bringing with it the promised coming of a divine society, to be realised and recognised in every human life. Both for Nelson Mandela and John The Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, of saying you’re sorry. In this lay the reaching out for a society which might learn to be reconciled to itself in real expressions of unselfish and courageous trust.
The vision attests to the healing power of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was the arbiter for the future of a battered and wounded and yet potentially vengeful angry and divided South Africa bore the direct imprint of Mandela’s vision. Its genious lay in offeriung real forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This move to what became enshrined as 'truth and reconciliation' became the moral bedrock on which the new South African state was to be built. The spirit of such reconciliation is echoed in today’s second reading from St Paul to the Romans, when he says:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
To be 'one with another' is to reflect the being and love of God, who is One. The message to us at the beginning of this Advent season is the one which places The Christian Hope firmly in the active and transformative present tense. Are there areas in my own life, I wonder, which would benefit from some truth and reconciliation, and how might that be best expressed by us as honestly and as actively as possible? It is all too easy to live a comfortable life at ease with ourselves, and the such ease can become complacent and self-serving. God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela sees through all this and calls us out of all this, out of ourselves and into a new consciousness of our co-dependent humanity.
Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison in 1963:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (Nelson Mandela, words following the pronouncement of the death sentence against him).
And then on his release from 27 years in prison, addressing crowds from the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall on Sunday February 11, 1990
I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.
And so we are pledged on this and all days in the words of John the Baptist, to
…Bear fruit worthy of repentance
For even now, for us, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree of past wounds and the Advent challenge to a new awakenness is being laid down.