Sermon for Midnight Mass 2020
24th Dec 2020
Midnight Mass 2020
“May you live in interesting times" is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, it is normally used to mean the opposite: that life is worse in "uninteresting times", the “boring times” of peace and tranquility than in the "interesting" ones, which are usually times of challenge and upheaval. Christmas 2020 catches these opposites of blessing and peace and of disjunction and troubledness. This unbelievably challenging year and all its stresses now brings us to a place of stillness, a place where we may stop and stay. And the message of God in our interesting time is that God is ever with us and that the gift of Jesus is the one which above all communicates God’s trust in our vulnerable humanity.
"Ho, ho! ho!" As Father Christmas might say. Tonight we inhabit God’s time of joy and hope. Tonight we join Christian congregations from around the world. Amidst all the uncertainty that we have had to live with we, like the shepherds, now wonder at these things which have come to pass, and which now come to life in this Midnight Mass. We welcome tonight’s online congregation from around this country, in Birmingham, Plymouth, Wales and Essex as well as from the United States and Africa. I send you greetings from Tom and Tor in Battersea, who themselves are awaiting the birth of their first child at any moment.. I send you greetings from our own Naomi Akrong in Accra, Ghana, and from Sophie and Austin in Connecticut, USA, as well as those who cannot be here…
It’s really difficult for us all to know in our own lives how precisely things are going to turn out, isn’t it? We may often find ourselves worrying about the future. I remember hearing the one great regret expressed by someone of a hundred years old that they had spent so much of their life worrying over things that were beyond their control. They regretted the great waste of life. In modern life we are called upon to accept more and more uncertainty as a fact of life, but called by God to accept it and to reach out beyond it. To find a way is to discover God.
There is of course real uncertainly in the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are travelling to Bethlehem as displaced persons. There is no certainty that they will find a place to stay for the night; there is no telling how or where Mary’s confinement will take place or under what circumstances, or of how things will turn out in the longer term. King Herod poses a perpetual threat and the Holy Family are living in mortal danger. And yet it is within these dread circumstances that God chooses to reveal himself. The child Jesus is to be born in reduced circumstances - in this way and in no other way. The travails of this and of every age will find in this simple birth the revelation of something that speaks deeply and truthfully of our common existence and destiny. From the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’ comes the wish that hope and joy may prevail over suffering and grief:
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!
The Christmas story reminds us that our lives are God given and therefore we need not act as though we had to be in entire control of things. We must resist the desire to ‘have it all our own way’. The generous God is always and everywhere and at all times and in all places and all ways near to us; with us; and never more than tonight.
And so, on this holy night, may we find joy in the sight of the infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger; in the love of Mary and Joseph, in the journeying of the shepherds and the wise men and in the company of the angels. In the giving of the name Emmanuel, which means ‘God-With-Us’. It is through this child Jesus that ‘the woes of sin and strife’ and all that remains tragically unresolved in us and in our world may be healed. For God has chosen an ‘interesting’ way. He has come to us a new-born baby. He has made himself dependent and weak, all too human, in order that His love might manifest itself in our own human vulnerability, too.
In the birth of Christ, the human soul, burdened by the fear of the unknown, may now find joyful utterance as it reaches out to God. For us tonight, and for the millions accompanying us around the world, many in lockdown, we sing together a Christmas song of hope and confidence and joy, a cry of freedom which echoes the first cries of the baby in the manger and the song of the angels. “In this child”, the angels might have said, “We welcome; we accept interesting times”. Our hope is undimmed:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.