Monday, December 23, 2013

Carol Service Address 2013

This Christmas I’d like to ask you to spare a thought for the poor clergyperson.
Yes, I know, I have such a terribly hard life and your heart bleeds for me, I’m sure.
It’s not my meagre stipend I want to complain about today.
Nor is it the fact that for 11 months of the year I have to put up with so-called jokes about my only working one day a week.
You know the old line about the Vicar?
Invisible 6 days a week, and incomprehensible the 7th.
Then for about a month now people have been saying “Your busy time coming up, Vicar!”

In fact, I’m told that my Christmas is illegal.
Under the European Working Time Directive I’m required to have at least 11 hours off after the Midnight Communion, so I’m afraid Christmas Day is cancelled.

But I do want to share with you something of the challenge of Christmas preaching.
Every year, I need at least 4 new Christmas sermons – some of them with gimmicks for the kids - and yet the message of Christmas hasn’t changed much.
You might say it’s old news.

Some Vicars get around this problem by changing jobs every 5 years, of course.
If the Vicar works really hard for the first 5 years, he’s got all his sermons prepared and he can keep moving every 5 years, and go half time for the next 25 years.
The static Vicar, however, will need about 120 different Christmas sermons throughout his career.
Because, of course, you can all remember exactly what I’ve said for the last couple of years, so there’s no chance of re-using any of the 2011 stuff.

So what is the Vicar to say about Christmas year in year out?
What is the unchanging but never out of date message of Christmas?
What can we say that is as fresh and engaging today as it was that first Christmas night in Bethlehem 2 Millennia ago?

Let me give you 3 headings:

(1)   Though the Christmas story is relatively simple, familiar and well-known, it’s got its surprises

It’s the story of a boy, a girl and a baby.
In some ways it’s a typical story.
But it’s an extraordinary one.
Of course there’re the angels and the miraculous birth.
But there are also some surprises that we sometimes overlook, aspects of the story that the Nativity play and the Christmas cards might not capture.
There’s the scandal of an unmarried pregnant teenager in a deeply conservative culture – the names they called Mary and Joseph.
There’s the difficulty of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the poor couple with the contractions about to kick in.
The mounting panic as Mary and Joseph are turned away from the Premier Inn.
The reality of the filthy stable that wouldn’t make a very nice scratch and sniff Christmas card.
The bewilderment as the agricultural poor and exotic astrologers show-up uninvited.
There’s the murderous tyrant, Herod, with his mini-genocide, and Jesus’ refugee status.
Yes, this is an amazing story, but it’s a real true story too, a gritty down to earth one.
This story is one for newspapers and history books, not for fairy-land and make-believe.

At the same time as this Eastenders realism, there’s more than the magic of Disney here too:

(2)   The Christmas story is a wonderful, inexhaustible, inexpressible mystery

The Christmas story is the story of the love of Almighty God for a sinful world.
It shows us the lengths to which God will go for you and me – that God will go the distance from heaven to earth, from a throne in glory to a stable in Bethlehem.
It’s the story of God come to earth in person: the down to earth God.
God on a rescue mission.
God come in the flesh.
The incarnation.
God our king become God our brother.
The maker in the manger.
The creator in the cradle.

Many of our carols put it well:

Lo, within a manger lies / he who made the starry skies!

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate deity!

And a special prize for anyone who can recognise:

God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.
(Charles Wesley, Let Heaven and Earth Combine)

Thirdly and finally,

(3) The Christmas story is the best news in the world ever

People sometimes think that Christianity is boring, untrue and irrelevant.
But there could be nothing more interesting, exciting, true, relevant and life-changing than the brilliant good news of Christmas.
If we don’t see that, may I respectfully suggest that we’ve missed the whole point of the story.

This is the story of all stories, and this story can touch your story.
It can make sense of it.
It allows us to hope that through all the blood and pain, and amidst the tears, happy endings are not just for Fairy Tales.
It can make all the difference to you and your family this Christmas and for ever.

Christmas means that God is real and he wants to be our friend.
Jesus’ coming into the world would take him to the cross.
This is God dying to meet us.
This true story means that God is on our side and for us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done.
Whatever we go through in life, he is God with us: Emmanuel.
God knows from the inside what it’s like to suffer cold, poverty, rejection, loneliness, fear, and all that this world sometimes throws at us.
This story means that God doesn’t intend to stand aloof from our world, he means to come and sort it out and put it right.
At Christmas God gets human hands and he shows us that he’s willing to get them dirty:
More than that, he’s willing to have them nailed to a cross.

If there’s any chance that this is story is true then there’s nothing more important and urgent.
This story is at least worth investigating.
Like the Shepherds and the Wise Men, I want to ask you to see for yourself whether or not this might be true.

Christianity Explained course.

So, I’m glad to be able to say something to you about the Christmas story again this year.
Thank you for listening.
And God-willing, I hope to preach another 119 similar but different sermons to you over the 30 years to come.
With such a great true story, I don’t think there’s any danger of ever running out of material.
A very merry Christmas to you all.

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