Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 2016
Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14
May I speak on this most holy night, in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the risk of starting with the obvious – Merry Christmas one and all!
We are here. After all the preparations, all the carol services, all the Christingles and Nativity scenes we have reached Christmas Day itself. If you haven’t bought it by now then it is too late. Relax, you can probably do without it.
I don’t know about you but, in many ways, 2016 has felt to me like a pretty challenging, even a pretty dark, year on a number of fronts.
In July I spoke about Fr Jacques Hamel, the Catholic priest who was murdered in his church in France by ISIS terrorists. In that sermon I mentioned almost a dozen terrorist incidents which had taken place around the world in just that month. Of course there were many more before July and there have been many since, not least in just the last week we have seen the Christmas shoppers killed in Berlin, the Russian ambassador to Turkey killed by an Islamist gunman and bombings in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Interestingly the latter are now so commonplace that they have hardly created a flicker in our media.
But, of course, not all terrorism is ISIS-flavoured – the murder of Jo Cox MP was carried out by a middle aged white man motivated by neo-Nazi ideology. Interestingly that did not create hysteria against middle aged white men in the same way that parts of the media have whipped up anti-Muslim hysteria.
So it has undoubtedly been a year of substantial terrorism.
It has also been a year of more overt armed conflict. The war in Syria has gone from one degree of horror to another and the situation in Aleppo has doubtless been a living hell for many tens of thousands of civilians. A much less publicised but nonetheless terrible conflict has been taking place in the Yemen, in which our ally, that paragon of virtue, Saudi Arabia, has been dropping British made cluster bombs, again on civilians.
So it has been a year of substantial conflict.
It has also been a year of political upheaval. Whatever your views on Brexit there is no doubt that the referendum and its consequences so far have divided this country more deeply than for centuries and could yet see the break-up of the United Kingdom. Looking across the pond the election of Donald Trump has caused similar divisions there and could have consequences we can hardly even yet imagine.
So it has been a year of substantial political upset and division.
I could go on, I really could, but I’m sure you get the point. 2016 has felt like a dark year indeed.
But, thinking back, so must many have others. Although I was very young in the winter of discontent I remember regularly lighting candles because of the power cuts and, although that was a great adventure for a child but it must have seemed like a dark time to everyone else, both figuratively and literally.
Before then my grandparents lived in London during the Blitz, before that their parents had lived through the First World War. Many previous generations in these islands lived through poverty, plague and war. For each of them it must have seemed like the darkest of times.
The Jewish people too have had more than their share of dark times and oppression. Not only in the Nazi death camps during the 1940s but, for centuries before that, they suffered from pogroms and persecution across Europe, including in these islands, at the time of Jesus their land was occupied by the Romans and even before that they had been held as prisoners in exile by the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Those dark times gave rise to much of the literature we find in the books of the bible.
Feeling thoroughly depressed yet? Wishing that the vicar would just be a little more cheery and Christmassy and leave all the hard stuff to another time, or preferably never?
Well, please bear with me there is a method in my madness, and it is this:
We can only truly appreciate what God was doing for the world, and for us, in the birth of Jesus when we recognise the darkness of the world into which he was born and what he came to achieve.
The Gospel of John, which we heard a moment ago, does not contain a nativity scene. Instead it contains a more cosmic view of who Jesus was and why he came into the world.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John makes it clear right from the first verse of his gospel that we are not here merely to commemorate the birth of a human baby who would grow up to say some wise words and then be crucified.
The reason we celebrate Christmas is because we are celebrating God being born amongst us as one of us. The Virgin Mary carried God the Son within her womb, it was God the Son who was born in Bethlehem and it was God the Son who went on to die on the cross and be resurrected.
Why would the eternal and immortal Word of God step into creation as a mortal human being?
It is because of the very darkness that I have been talking about:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
We are, of course, not talking about the physical darkness which surrounds us now or which surrounded me back in the 1970s and was driven back by candle light. We are talking about the darkness of sin, ignorance, greed, selfishness and endemic evil. We are talking about the darkness of walking apart from God and of not being the people that God would have us be.
And so at the first Nativity the light of the world entered into a dark and troubled world. But he did not do so using shock and awe in order to force the world to change against its will, rather he was born into vulnerability and humanity. But the world does not always respect vulnerability or humanity and it is clear from both the life and death of Jesus that many rejected the light and preferred to live in darkness:
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
But, here is the good news and the reason for our Christmas cheer and our Christian hope. The darkness of the world does not have the final word, it is not terminal and it does not win. It does not win because the resurrection of Easter morning tramples down the victory of death and it does not win because the birth of Jesus gives us a chance to reject the darkness and come into the light, no matter who we are and no matter what our background or past:
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
When we choose to receive the light that God offers to us in the person of Jesus we have new life, new birth and we become children of God. By taking on our humanity God lifts us up out of the darkness, into his light, into his life, into his divinity.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Brothers and sisters, let me give you two cast iron guarantees about 2017. 1. There will be plenty more darkness in the world; but 2. The moment you receive Jesus as the light of the world you will become a child of God.
That seems to be like a pretty good reason to celebrate Christmas!