The Fellowship of Kent and Sussex Cyclists
19th Annual Christmas Carol Service
Saturday 5th December 2009 – 2.30 PM
Well, it is truly a pleasure to welcome you here to Appledore this afternoon – although it is perhaps a little odd that I should be welcoming you as this is your 19th Annual Carol Concert and this is my first.
I was very pleased to be asked by Rev’d Neville Gallagher to take this service this afternoon as I would love to share with you all the stories of my own cycling prowess. Truly, I would love to be able to. Unfortunately my greatest feat as a cyclist took place about five years ago when I did the annual London to Brighton ride. It was a great day, although it was a little disheartening for me as a complete amateur that just as I was cycling through the suburbs of South London heading towards the coast there were fit looking people on expensive looking bikes cycling the other way claiming to be on the return trip. In fact I am looking around to see if it was any of you…
I have not done much cycling for a while but the good news is that meeting you and thinking about this service has enthused me and I have registered on-line for London to Brighton again next year – and if you see me puffing South while you are doing the return trip do give me a wave!
They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But of course familiarity never starts out as contempt – after all if you felt contempt for someone the very first time you met them or if you felt contempt for a place the first time you went there then it is quite likely that you would not become familiar with that person or place. No, familiarity usually arises from some kind of initial attraction. However as we become more and more familiar with something, whether it is a person, a place, or a story so we can become increasingly complacent about it, take it’s existence for granted, cease to be challenged by it and perhaps, over time, complacency can lead to boredom and then contempt.
In this afternoon’s service we have sung some wonderfully rousing and familiar Carols and heard the classic Christmas lessons. But amongst the comfort of beauty and tradition is there a danger that this is all a little too familiar? That we have ceased to be engaged by the people and the story behind the lessons and carols? That we have become a bit bored and, yes, possibly even a bit contemptuous of whatever it was that first attracted us?
This advent and this Christmas why not pretend that you are not at all familiar with the story of the nativity, that you have never heard it before, that everything you currently take for granted about it is being heard or read for the first time?
If you have difficulty hearing the story afresh why not try imagining yourself into the events as they unfold?
What must it have been like to have been Mary, a young girl engaged to an older man, who is visited by an ambassador of heaven who tells her that if she says yes then her life is going to be turned upside down? She was afraid at first but then she said “yes” to God and became the Mother of God-Incarnate. What would we do if God asked us to turn our lives upside down? Why not think about Mary’s words “Let it be with me according to your will” and make them our words. How would our lives be different if we honestly let God into our lives as Mary did?
What must it have been like to be Joseph – engaged to this younger girl who is pregnant out of wedlock and he knows that the child is not his. Let’s not forget that this sort of behaviour on her part carried the penalty of death by stoning in those days. He could have saved his honour and walked away from her but he too was told that he should have faith, that this was from God and that he should protect Mary and her child. It wasn’t the sensible and logical thing to do but it is the role he was called to play in this drama. Have we ever risked dishonour in the eyes of right thinking society by saying ‘yes’ to God as Joseph did?
What about the Magi who set out from far to the East in order to discover a new King? When they set out they had no idea where the star would lead them and yet they followed. Looking for a King they may well have expected to have been led to a palace, and they certainly paid a visit to Herod, but they did not stop there and they ended up giving the gifts they had carried to a baby laying in an animal feeder in a much less salubrious part of town. Because that is where they had been led and they let their faith triumph over their expectations – how often do we do that? How often do we have the faith to simply follow without knowing where we will be lead?
So the first challenge this advent and Christmas is to hear the story of the nativity afresh, to enter into that story, to allow ourselves to be questioned by the story but most of all to set familiarity aside and to hear this story once again as mysterious and wonderful.
The second challenge is this: to remember that the real point of the Christmas story is not a baby lying in a manger. To keep Christmas at that level runs the risk of both infantilising Jesus and infantilising ourselves and our own journey of faith. Whilst it is of course quite right and proper to celebrate the birth of Jesus for the wonderful and mysterious thing it is of course Jesus did not stay in the manger. Like all babies he grew up and it is Jesus the adult who really challenges us – what Jesus said and did in his adult ministry, his radical message of love and forgiveness but also his radical challenge to our morality and, of course, his ultimate death and resurrection which paved our own way back to God the Father. Christmas is only important because of Easter. In the early Church, and in the Eastern Orthodox church to this day, Easter is still much more important than Christmas for this very reason.
So as well as allowing Mary, Joseph, the magi and the other characters of the nativity story to speak to us afresh of what it means to trust God and to follow where God rather than the world expects we should never lose sight of the central character in this drama, Jesus, and not forget that what started in a manger led also to a cross and an empty tomb.
Our God, whom we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is a God who confounds expectations at every turn. If the story of the nativity has become too familiar to you and you risk complacency or even contempt then say ‘yes’ to God this Christmas and seek to follow where he leads. It will not always be comfortable, it will not always be easy, but rest assured that we travel from one degree of glory to another.