Sermon for Christmas Midnight Mass
24th Dec 2019
Midnight Mass Sermon 2019
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
At this Midnight hour, we join churches from across the world to make our own journey ‘to see what things have come to pass’. Of course we know what to expect, but even so, the coming of the Christ Child catches our imagination. For in the simple story of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem the Church declares that this is how God wants it to be – that the gift to the world of Jesus is being given in this very particular way. Mary and Joseph are a poor couple making a mundane journey for a mundane reason – to register their names or tax purposes! They are an unlikely couple slightly lost and unprepared for the birth of their child. But by these unlikely means God’s glory is being revealed.
For this is no ordinary couple and these are no ordinary circumstances. Mary and Joseph have both received their calling from God. They have both said ‘Yes’ to God. In turn, the birth of their child will remain for ever the precise moment of divine disclosure. God means to show himself to the world through them and through their willing agreement. God is to become human in their little baby, Jesus. How awesome is that! This grand purpose is summed up in the carol which confidently declares that the baby Jesus “…came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”. The dramatic nature of this declaration is contrasted with the very basic human circumstances into which the Saviour is born and the stable with the hot, sweet, grassy, breath of the cattle and the sheep, the smell of dung and animal urine and the drafts of cold air coming in through the rafters. God meant it to be this way. All that God does is intentional. As one old hymn puts it, God has ‘…stooped down to Man’s estate.’ He has become one with us and like us.
Yesterday afternoon I received a surprise Christmas call from my Cornish cousin. I spoke to her of our local school visits to the crib scene here at Holy Cross and of how, to gain the children’s concentration, I referred to the stable as both very warm and also very smelly. The children observed that even though smelly the stable was a warm and good place and they wouldn’t mind sleeping there, though preferably alongside the sheep rather than the oxe. This suddenly brought on a childhood memory of my cousin’s in which she remembered her aunt Mary, a farmer’s wife, gift her each Christmas an old sealed container containing a neat and highly noxious cow pat to be given promptly to her mother to feed her rose bushes. She said to me “The smell still lingers!”
“He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all… “
In experiencing the Christmas nativity we come to know God in three ways:
The first way lies in the God who loves the world he made. He comes to earth as one who loves all of it! For us, loving the Creator God and loving our planet earth are two interrelated and inseparable responses…It is right that there has been an ever increasing emphasis upon our responsibility for the planet, which must present itself more consciously and determinedly in our daily lives. This way is the one which engages us spiritually as it brings us closer to the Creator.
The second way lies in the God whose love is always a giving and a sharing love. It is as givers and sharers that we are able to find life and give life. The Birth of Jesus is God’s gift to us in this child is also God’s message to the planet. The love for the planet is but an expression of the love which God calls us to have for one another this Christmas. The two are interrelated and co-dependent. The stable at Bethlehem is become the means through which the world is to be reconciled to itself. Christmas invites countless expressions of both routine and exceptional kindness and each year the feast prompts many to show it! The spontaneous dedication of Christmas volunteers is a part of this stream, expressing the kind of practical love which makes such a difference to our society.
The third way lies in the God who trusts in human agency and who calls us to play our own part in the divine plan. Like Mary and Joseph we are reminded of God’s calling. In this church last October, some three and a half thousand people came to see Luke Jeram’s giant moon installation and it was a time of great joy and wonder as we were able to offer a welcome and inclusion to many people from the Moslem community who would otherwise have placed themselves firmly outside our orbit. In the past few days, builders have been busy transforming our downstairs crypt in the hope that in the coming year we may offer more space and welcome in the service of our local community. We are as a community church more conscious than ever of our calling to make this church a place where daily acts of kindness and hospitality bind us ever more closely to those we are called to serve.
The Christian message is the one which would have us love our world as God loves it, to love God in one another and to realise our fullest humanity in the God who calls. We are come to behold the things which have come to pass – to delight and rejoice in them and to act upon them. May God grant us all peace in your inmost hearts this Christmas, and may he bless us as we hold in our arms this child Jesus ‘the hopes and fears of all our years”, now and in the time to come…
Only one piece of final Christmas advice - be careful before you open the oddly scented Christmas parcel from the Cornish Auntie!
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent 2019
15th Dec 2019
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year A)
We are witnesses in St Matthew’s Gospel this morning to the dialogue, conducted through intermediaries, that takes place between John the Baptist, already imprisoned, and Jesus, who receives messages from beyond the prison gates. John the Baptist’s message is very much an imprisoned message. It is constrained and tense. John is in a place of great suffering and personal dereliction. But he is clear headed and clear minded. His message to Jesus is a blunt question “Are you the Messiah, the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” If he were from a particular part of this country he might be a typical blunt Yorkshireman. But he is also a divine messenger. The words of Orlando Gibbons’ musical work entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ has John always answering in the negative concerning his relation to Christ. His voice is raised far above his actual humanity and intensifies its range:
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).
Jesus makes comment about John to the people around him, for they had considered John to be a holy man and had gone out into the desert to seek him out: “…and what were you going out in the desert to see?” “…a reed shaken in the wind” or “someone dressed in soft robes?”. John is neither of these. He is a prophet and as Jesus tells us ‘more than a prophet’. According to Jesus, John is the first of any man yet born to women and yet he is also the less than the least in the Kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist models the figure who acts in a spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of the greater whole. For John, Jesus must ‘increase’ while he must ‘decrease’. The forms a perpetual theme when we consider John's place in the New Testament.
The person of Jesus is likewise not to be confused with any projection meeted to him by the opinions of the crowd. Jesus is the Messiah not in human status but in the realisation of the coming of God’s Kingdom, for Jesus answers John indirectly ‘…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’. The Messiahship of Christ is the one which is embedded in the new life which Jesus himself brings about. For the Church there is great joy in this. This is why this day is gaudete, or ‘Rejoicing Sunday’, when we witness the Saviour who has now ebcome for John (and us) recognisable and realisable.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? John is the forerunner, the one who ‘prepares the Way’. We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition, which is a living one, in which love is its essential meaning and new life its outcome. We are working out what kind of new life may issue out of a local church like ours, which, as ‘a church turned inside out’ and toward the community we serve, may best mirror the courageous hopes of the Baptist, who has prophesied a humanity renewed in the likeness of Christ. And in that renewal is promised the deepening and the enlargement of all our relationships as we work and pray together for the Kingdom of God made recognisable and realisable in this place.
John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is recognisable and realisable in the here and now. He proclaims a departure from the old norm. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories as a dedicated life. This is gaudete; this is Christian joy. God’s loving presence promises the same grace now as when it was first received by John in prison. Jesus had, after all, given answer to all of John’s hopes in the affirmative. The prophecy had now been fulfilled. And it is in joy that our hearts echo the words of the carol
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
8th Dec 2019
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (Year A)
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree” 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 love of the past emerges something which is very present. 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, against the blind allegiance to the past. His severest criticism is levelled at the ultra conservative Pharisees:
Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’
The essential call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched in the present tense. His call to us lies in the ‘now’ of our existences. Now is the time for an awakening in Christ to the new realities which have been established in Him. And it is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that calls for a spiritual awakening. A call to shake off the shackles of spiritual indifference and lethargy and to rediscover in and among us, and in and through the life of God’s Church to find more God.
Some while ago I met the Queen at Goodenough College and was reminded of the one politician who was permitted to address her simply as ‘Elizabeth’. He was Nelson Mandela, who was both among many other things, a visionary prophet of John’s character. Like John the Baptist centuries before him, the Man and the message were one. But they could only become one where the life which had been lived and the word which had been spoken had emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. The most important thing to say about both men is that they lived totally in the present and saw the present time, and not the past, as the time of transformation. This transformation, the promised coming of a new order, was to be realised in every human life. But it was not to be easy. It was to be offered in truth telling and in honesty. Both for Nelson Mandela and John The Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, and in Mandela one of courageous trust.
These two expressions are not so far apart. They both attest 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 way, which was to offer, at a time when victory over apartheid had been won, forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This became the bedrock on which the new state was to be built. And its living roots lay in a Christian understanding. This understanding tells us that for life to be possible at all it must be God’s life, and God’s life is the one which seeks the renewal of hearts and minds and the restoration of mankind to the likeness and the being of God himself, and our true freedom. For the South African Truth and reconciliation Commission, the past was a nightmare, and an over-identification with the past and its horror had the power to maim and distort the present. But forgiveness and reconciliation and truth telling in the present had the power to heal and to transform. There could be no other way. And this Way was the one followed by John the Baptist in his wilderness every bit as much as it was imbibed and founded in Mandela’s mind and body and soul in that prison on Robben Island. It is best expressed in the watchwords which emerge out of our New Testament Reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans :
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.
God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela calls us out of self-satisfaction, out of ourselves and into active concern for my neighbour who will always represent ‘the greater whole’ and a bigger and more advanced humanity.
Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison:
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).
For even now, and for us, as for John the Baptist, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree. At a time when political promises fly through the air, great and costly promises made to convince us of a ‘better’ Britain we come this morning to the prophet’s vision of a world transformed not by a barrage of semi-empty promises but by the a movement of a courageous heat and its passionate, resounding voice.
Sermon for Advent Sunday
1st Dec 2019
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2019
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise.
But for adults waiting is often a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But as time goes by we can experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. But I think we would rather not know what might happen, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. I have just got back from a few days with my family. As time goes by, I value these family get-togethers more and more. We are none of us getting any younger and at this particular time it has been important to support my parents, whose health is very frail. We spend a good deal of time talking about the past, as family gatherings are wont to do, but there is the inevitable sense of family concern turning to the health of the older generation. Even though that is barely expressed it is as clear as day. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent exposes us to what is in relation to what is to come. But even though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, we are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive is seen as an act of human survival itself. Spiritual awakenness is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness to the light in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. This light is the end point of human longing, for it is the light which brings God to us in human form, Jesus Christ. We are led to this light by the wisdom of the prophets, the message of an angel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later… For now the Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. This is can lead to a numbing of the senses, and there must be times when we willingly lay this aside and consider that place where truer life is to be found. Yesterday we spent a quiet day at the Benedictine Centre for Spirituality in Cockfosters. We allowed ourselves to inhabit brief periods of protracted and sustained silence and found there in the words of Meister Eckhart that sense of God which sustains:
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lights the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God through the birth at Bethlehem. But first we must wait. We must wait and quieten ourselves to remain alert to the One who is present. Await his coming if necessary in passionate silence. So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and then let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.