Sermon: Christmas Day (A) – 25th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am

Readings: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 2:11-14; Matthew 2:1-20

The Christmas stories are provocative propositions.  The theologian A N Whitehead said that, “it is more important that a proposition be interesting than true” and that “the importance of truth is that it adds to the interest”.

The Biblical accounts of the first Christmas have been under vigorous study for the last two hundred years, by scholars and religious leaders and even Pope Francis has entered the debate concerning the accuracy of our Christmas pageants.  Such study and the resulting findings are important; but are they interesting?  Do they add to the vitality of life or lead to personal transformation?  There is a deeper truth that has emanated from the Christmas stories that can never be captured by scholarship alone.

When it comes to the important business of passing on our Christian tradition, we tell stories.  For the most important stories, we dramatize and make them tangible.  At Christmas we tell our stories in many ways such as the crib scene below me, we sing carols, have Sunday School presentations; all these are to anchor our memories.  Our legacy to those who follow us in the journey of life is a rich storehouse of images for the times, both good and bad, that may lie ahead that point out that no matter what may happen God, who is revealed as a human baby in the usual process of life, goes with all those who have faith in the stories of the Nativity.  This treasury of images and stories combine both personal stories and the overarching, transcendent story.

While we may never know the exact details of Jesus’ birth, the Gospel shows the holy family as a pilgrim family, temperately without shelter and desperately seeking a place for the birth of their child.  No one would have noticed them as unique among the many travellers that evening.  They were citizens of an oppressed people, compelled to take an inconvenient and life-threatening journey and subject to the whims of forces beyond themselves.  Soon they would have to flee for their lives as political immigrants, dare we say illegal immigrants, depending upon the kindness of strangers for their survival.  Yet, God’s universal energy and power, God’s vision for the ages, is centred upon the birth of a baby.

The Christmas stories mark both Mary and Joseph as particularly sensitive to the divine possibilities and their perceptiveness opened the door for a leap divine self revelation to them and their child Jesus.  The stories of this season are those of birth.  Perhaps unconsciously, we will return to them at other times during the coming year.  As some of you know, I love to play Christmas carols through out the year, especially in the depths of winter.  At times when we feel dead inside, we will turn to those memories of birth and some trace of Christmas will stir within.  Then we who were suffering from amnesia will remember who we are and whose we are.

Luke sees divinity bursting forth in a stable and in revelation given to shepherds, people at the margins of society.  There is nothing romantic about the real life of real shepherds.  They live their lives in the moment unsure of their future.  They lived outside in all weather conditions, were a bit shiftless in the public eye and were not part of polite society.  Yet, they receive a visit from angels, which opens their eyes to a new possibility for themselves and for all humanity.  Dwelling in darkness they have seen a great light.  God’s salvation comes at the margins of life, making the margins the frontiers of a world to come.

The accounts of the first Christmas are not a process that would fit in a rulebook or on a balance sheet, because they are more closely akin to poetry.  The poet knows that everything has the potential for grace, that the divine can reveal itself in the smallest, strangest places.  Isaiah would never fit on a ledger sheet, he wrote of the ruins of Jerusalem breaking out in song.  It wouldn’t appear in an anatomy text, but John imagined people born neither from human will nor physical processes, but from God.  The pragmatists might scoff at such insights, but without such stories, we perish.

So today we celebrate the poetry of new life.

“There is something afoot in the universe that looks like gestation and birth”,

wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  In John’s gospel, it looks like order and purpose, a design established from the beginning.  At the designated time, the forerunner appears, then in a burst of light, the Son.  The letter to Hebrews calls him

“the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

As though the brilliance might be too much for human eyes, the story tells all who wish to listen that God comes to us in a form we can handle, the light filtered, the glory toned down.  God so honours our freedom that God does not dazzle us with radiance, but comes in what is closest, most intimate, small as a baby.

Another way of telling the story of the festival, is to talk about the joy of the resurrection, of the Christ who is present through his conquest of death and decay entering our hearts at Christmas.  This recognition that it can only be the risen Christ whom we encounter seems strange and out of context, yet the atmosphere of the liturgy drives us to make the connection.  For this is above all else the day of light.

To tell the story of Christmas by showing the centrality of the symbol of light as common to both incarnation and resurrection is to see how inseparable are the Christmas and Easter mysteries.  Together they consti­tute the basic framework of God’s activity in and beyond his­tory and time, as they form the heart of Christian faith and hope.  Without Easter, Christmas has no point; without Christ­mas, Easter has no meaning.  Both incarnation and resurrection have significance because in these events God is glorified in the flesh.  The flesh becomes the source of light, the raw material of glory.

The light of Christ is a persistent light.  It shines through the most powerfully oppressive darkness, shines in the midst of devastation and upheaval, yet without explaining them, justifying them or making sense of them.  The gospel of incarnation and resurrection is not the answer to a set of questions.  It is a persistent and defiant light, its persistence is paradoxical for the truth of the gospel of incarnation and resurrection is paradoxical.  For the truth of the story of the gospel of incar­nation and resurrection stands in contradiction to, and seems to be contradicted by, the realities of the world in which there is still no room and where the dead bodies pile up, inexplicably, meaninglessly.

Is the story we tell of the light of Christ, then, no more than an illusory comfort, a false reassurance that all is well when in fact all is clearly unwell in the “demented inn” of the world?  Certainly religious light is often of this illusory kind but the gospel of incarnation and res­urrection cannot be told in an authentic and truthful way unless it faces the terrible reality of homelessness and meaning­less death.

These two realities provide the only possible material context for the light of Christ.  For it is as the story of the homeless unwanted Christ of Bethlehem and as the naked condemned Christ of Golgotha that the light shines with its strange persist­ence and its baffling power to draw people to its shining, enabling them to become dynamic agents in the historical pro­cess, lights in the world.

May the stories of Christ’s birth two thousand years go, bring you the light of meaning this Christmas enabling you to see God’s presence in the world and in your life.[1]


[1] This sermon produced using material from ”The Living Spirit”, editor by M Hebblethwaite, Canterbury Press, Norwich, www.preparingforsunday.com/ Living the Good News, Episcopal of East Tennessee and material written by B P Epperly, www.processandfaith.org