Monthly Archives: December 2012

A Sermon for the First Eucharist of Christmas

This is our Vicar’s sermon at Midnight Mass.

Lord Jesus Christ, your birth at Bethlehem
Draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
Accept our heartfelt praise as we worship you,
Our Saviour and our eternal God.  Amen.

We celebrate the coming of God into the world in so many ways: every household has its own habits, every church its own patterns of services, every nation and community its own traditions. Those of you who know my sermons well will know that I never start sermons with a joke – I’m just not that funny. But I will share this with you: I was sent an e-card the other day with a cartoon on the front depicting a domestic Christmas day scene. The caption read, “Christmas is strange. It’s the only day when we sit in the living room staring at a dead tree and eating sweets out of our socks.”

In the words of John Betjeman:

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

But this is not going to be one of those sermons that tells everyone off for bowing to the commercial pressure of Christmas and missing the heart of it.  Why not?

Because you’re here.  Because it’s taken you time, will, energy, and in some cases, I know, real courage to step through that door just to be here. You’ve seen the burning bush and stepped towards it to have a closer look, you’ve paused the conveyer belt so that you can truly enjoy the moment, you’ve walked through the dark, just as the shepherds did, answering the call of the carolling angels.

And because you’ve brought tributes – gifts (not gold, frankincense and myrrh, and I’m not talking about what you’re intending to put in the collection plate either, though that’s part of it, too) – you’ve brought the finest tribute that you can, that of your very selves, together with all the ‘stuff’ that you carry with you, your motivations, your thoughts, the hopes and fears of all your years, as you come to meet the Christ child tonight. You have brought who you really are, and that is the greatest gift any of us has to offer.

But mostly it’s because Christmas isn’t primarily about what we have done, it’s about what God has done. Because Christmas is the great divine ambush, the ultimate proof that it is not so much that we seek God, but that he seeks us. He is not the precious pearl or the buried treasure that we spend a lifetime seeking, we are the precious pearl and buried treasure that spend a lifetime being found by God.

The epic journey of the Magi, and the chaotic scrambling of the shepherds down the dark Bethlehem hillside are only possible because God had already made the leap from heaven to earth to come among them.  The first move is God’s, and always was.

Our being here in church tonight – however long and arduous, or short and effortless our journey – is only possible because God had already got here ahead of us, reaching out all over again so that heaven could touch earth for us, right here, tonight. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ – or, more literally, ‘he pitched his tent with ours,’ threw in his lot with us.

Because Christmas is the ultimate proof God can find his way into anything and everything, and if we are alert to it, we can see the heart of what Christmas is about wherever we look.  For the heart of Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us. The heart of Christmas is Light in darkness. The heart of Christmas is heaven touching earth.

Yes, indeed, some ways are very odd by which we hail the birth of God, but even in the glitz and bling he is there.  In every shiny Christmas bauble we see the reflection of our own face – and it is a reflection of someone who is made in the very image of God – a human being, the crown of God’s creation, in which he is pleased to dwell. “Pleased as man with man to dwell: Jesus our Emmanuel.”

And if we look a little deeper in that reflection, we see not only ourselves, but those around us, our little corner of God’s world. We do not have to look beyond the material world to catch a glimpse of heaven: because of heaven touching earth we can find those glimpses of heaven right here and right now, everywhere we look. For when God came to earth 2000 years ago, he never left.

Yes, if we look for him, we can see Christ even in the shiny stuff and in the trimmings.

And even in the darkest corners of the world, God is already there. Jesus called himself the Light of the World, and if you’re the light of the world, you go first to the places that need light the most: the places of deepest darkness. If you enjoyed the sight of the candles and the tree lights and the stable as this service started, then you know something about light in darkness, that no matter how dark a place is, even the smallest light brings such hope and warmth.  If you’ve driven up the A1 and seen the stars on the church spire and thought “I’m nearly home,” then you know something of light in darkness.

And if you’ve ever been blessed with the miracle of forgiveness, or an act of unexpected kindness, or a much-needed word of comfort or guidance, then you also know something of what it means for heaven to touch earth.  If you’ve ever found the grace to offer those words, or that kindness, or that forgiveness, to someone else, then you know something of heaven touching earth. If you’ve ever sung ‘Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me for ever’ and meant every word, then you know something of heaven touching earth.

God is not just here.  Here, in church, that is. God is wherever we find ourselves, God is where the angels sing with joy, and we join in; God is where it is dark, and difficult, and dangerous.  God is here, and God is in our hospitals and hospices, our prisons, and on our streets. And God is in every dark and dusty street in Afghanistan and in every conflict zone on this battered world.  For there is no place on earth that’s too dark for the light of God to shine there.

Because Christmas is the great divine ambush, you do not have to travel far to find the heart of Christmas.  But through these days ahead – whatever they bring for you, and whether you approach them with excitement, or anxiety, or dread, or hope – keep half an eye open for God at Work, and you will see him, and know that he really has got there ahead of you.  You will see him in the good stuff, you will find him in the profound moments. You can see him in the trivial ordinariness, and he is there just as surely in the moments of greatest stress or sadness.

So as heaven reaches out to us tonight, along with so many others, scattered across the globe, let us dare to clasp the hand of the tiny child in the manger, and so find that our little bit of earth has been touched, and changed, by a little bit of heaven.

There’s still time to come to church this Christmas

Come along to St Mary’s this Christmas – there’s room for everyone.

Services on Christmas Eve

Quiet Christmas at 8pm
A Christmas service for those who find the festive spirit hard to come by

Midnight Mass at 11.30pm
The real start to Christmas, with carols and candles

Services on Christmas Day

Prayer Book Holy Communion at 8am
A small, quieter service of Holy Communion, in traditional language

Family Eucharist at 10am
A larger communion service with hymns and a talk – family friendly and more informal.

We look forward to seeing some of you at these services, and in case we don’t, we all wish you a very blessed Christmas and peaceful new year.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

Technically, Christmas doesn’t start until Christmas day itself, but so much of what we do as we start to celebrate Christmas is also about getting ready for the real thing:

Today at the school service we thought about what God gives us at Christmas, and the children took back symbols of joy, peace and light to put in all the classrooms (as well as in the school office, staffroom and kitchens!) – and every child and adult at the service got a little paper star with words chosen by the children on it: ‘For today in Bethlehem the love of God has come to men” – it’s a quotation from their favourite carol and is a reminder that all God’s gifts to us are because of his great love for us.

The pre-school and nursery children also came to church this week for their own services, and re-told the story using the figures from our knitted nativity sets – we sent Mary, Joseph, the Donkey, the Shepherds (and their sheep), the star, the Wise Men (and their camel) on a journey, and the angel watched over everything.

This Sunday (23rd) is the last Sunday in Advent, and we focus on Mary, and her amazing part in God’s plan. It’s an All Age service, so everyone is welcome. Our music will be led by Chris and Sam, as usual, with Angel Voices.  Do come if you can.

Then on Christmas Eve we have the Crib Service at 2.30pm – everyone is encouraged to come along dressed as a character from the Christmas story.

Later that evening, at 8pm, we have our Quiet Christmas service – for those for whom this time is really hard and want to hear the real Christmas message but without all the jollity and festive spirit. All are welcome.

‘Midnight Mass’ starts at 11.30pm and is the moment when we celebrate the miracle of heaven touching earth.  Do come if you can.

If you prefer mornings to late nights, then you can come along for a quieter communion service at 8am on Christmas day, or for a more informal service at 10am – you will be welcome either way.


Preparing the way…

A reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent
by Helen Orr (ordinand on placement)

Based on Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 3.1-6

As I read through both the Old and New Testament passages of Luke and Malachi one thing strikes me. They were both passages about preparation. The first about “sending a messenger to prepare the way” in Malachi and the second about that messenger having come who is asking us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” for others.

So are we prepared?  What are we preparing for?

At this time of year some of us, well a lot of us really, think that preparing for Christmas involves ordering or buying our turkey and ham, buying lots of things we can afford and perhaps some things we cannot for gifts. Looking forward to some relations and friends coming and perhaps not looking forward to some others coming so much!

Preparing for Christmas may also mean rushing from one event to the next, a nativity play here, a carol concert there, a drinks party here, a Christmas party there. So that by actual Christmas itself we are so exhausted that we barely have time to think about the wonder of Christ’s birth as we collapse in a heap after eating and drinking probably a bit more than we should listening to the Queen’s speech.

For some of us, we’ve already had all the mince pies and mulled wine we are ever going to want and in fact our own Christmas dinner will be a third of even forth such meal of the year, once we include the work do, the friends do the school do and so on…

Others of us are perhaps not so busy as we used to be, perhaps the children are grown if we had any, and we are preparing to have the first Christmas alone? Perhaps we are now without a partner for the first year, or a grandparent, a mother or father, or without a son or daughter present, for whatever the reasons we may be dreading Christmas with the thought of not having them there.  The gap between our feelings and the whole idea of Christmas being a time of “peace and goodwill to all” may be making us feel more and more depressed with every passing day as we are preparing to feel worse and worse by the time Christmas actually arrives.

And during this “credit freeze” whilst some of us are spending, or being encouraged to spend, still more of us are perhaps I imagine trying to save this Christmas, rather than get into more debt. Putting on an ‘austerity Christmas’ probably doesn’t seem right, but with fuel and food prices at an all time high we find we are less and less able to spend the same amount as we did last Christmas.   So we are preparing to tighten our belt or worse still to be in yet MORE debt come the New Year.

So what are we preparing for? The people Luke addresses are very specifically dated from the introduction of the chapter to the time of Roman occupation in Jerusalem. They have been longing and waiting for years and years for the Messiah to come, a person to rescue them from their oppressors – this is why Luke quotes Isaiah here, who was also speaking to God’s people in a similar position of oppression and foreign rule so many years before. It’s to remind them that God’s timing and ours are different but His promises endure forever. He is coming, and will come to save them.

So why does Luke’s passage start before the call to “prepare” with  John “proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins” ?

In what way would repentance make “our paths straight” and be a way to prepare?

In the early church Advent used to be a time like Lent of fasting, a time of prayer and repentance before the birth of Christ when God’s light broke into the world. Why? Because the response all through the bible when people encountered God was as feeling of humility and awe. It is the feeling you  might expect when you meet someone who is so full of grace, love, kindness, goodness, joy, peace and hope that by comparison we feel unclean and small, like the sludge in the drive-way next door to the beautiful pure white snow on the grass. It is this feeling of awe that John is getting at.

I ask again, what are we preparing for? Just as it was for the Israelites many years before, we are preparing for God to arrive in the world, bringing His own unique plan of hope for everyone.

So Advent thought of in this way can be a time – even in the “busy-ness” – of preparing our hearts through repentance to be humble before our God. A time of awe thinking about the Saviour entering the world.

So whilst we are preparing our turkeys or other goodies and buying our presents it is good to remind ourselves that this is a time of awe a time of longing and of waiting. A time of cleansing our hearts and making them clean before God’s salvation appears on the earth.

We can keep asking ourselves these questions: Is this really a “season of peace and goodwill”?  A time of repentance from selfish behaviour and self-obsession?  Or, are we more concerned with what we’re going to get? What we need to buy? Who is going to help? And how our table or house are looking?

Am I worried about being alone or spending too little?

Or am I focusing on the Christ child who was born in a small smelly stable in a tiny town with a future involving much suffering as well as much love.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying good things and preparing a lovely feast. It is lovely to make things look beautiful, buy wonderful presents, to be creative in giving and to cook fabulous food. But are we still remembering what this time of Advent is all about? Are we preparing for Christ’s coming, preparing our hearts so we can be His light in the world today?

Whether we are spending Christmas with others or alone, Christ welcomes us to Him and asks us to spread His message of hope, of love and of peace throughout the world.

I am reminded of the words of a favourite carol of mine and of many of us I’m sure, the final verse of in the Bleak Mid-Winter:

‘What can I give him poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would bear my part. Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.’

I hope that we can all, with God’s grace, find that still, calm space amidst all the business this Christmas where we can let Christ in and fully give Him our hearts once more.

And that, in one real sense, is all the preparation we need…

May God’s grace, God’s peace and God’s love be our gifts to everyone we meet this Advent and Christmas time.