Sermon St Mary’s Marlborough, 24th December 2018, 11.30pm
Christmas Midnight Communion: Isaiah 9.2-7 & Luke 2.1-14
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”. They are familiar words for many of us, and I guess that whenever we hear them, we think of Christmas. Just as when we hear the opening chords or “Silent Night”, smell the sweetness of mulled wine and Christmas pudding, or see a beautifully decorated Christmas tree through a window.
Apart from the things we have in common, we will also have our own rituals: things we say or do to mark the start of Christmas. It may be a particular meal for Christmas Eve, a film you watch year after year, or indeed, coming to Church tonight.
They have become symbols for us of this particular time or year. A time when the nights are long and dark, the weather is cold and often wet, but also a time when we often have the opportunity to see family and friends, when we share good food and company, and when we start looking forward to the year ahead.
Just as we have traditions we share, and rituals particular to ourselves or our families, so also Christmas will have both connotations that we share, and memories that are deeply personal. This time of year may remind you of someone whom you lost, or a relationship restored. It may be the time of an awful diagnosis, or the week when you heard that your treatment had been successful. No matter our circumstances, I guess, for most of us, it is a poignant time of year. And that indeed is one of the reasons, I suspect, that we are here tonight. To remember, to share and also to celebrate.
Fifty years ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, it was the first time that human beings orbited a world other than the earth. It was the day that the Apollo 8 entered into an orbit around the moon. Millions of people were listening as the three astronauts broadcasted their Christmas message. If embarking on an expedition to the moon is not daunting enough, imagine the prospect of trying to say something meaningful on Christmas Eve to about half a billion people all around the world, divided as the nations were at the time. Unhelpfully, only instruction NASA had given them was “to do something appropriate”.
And so the astronauts decided to take it in turns to read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis, starting with: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth”. They did not chose these verses because they were religiously Christian, nor because they had seen God in this particular way; they chose them, because they somehow were able to do justice to the fundamental truth about our humanity, and our place in the universe.
By being able to look at the earth from the moon’s perspective, seeing the vastness of the universe and the beauty of our planet, these three people realised that indeed, the earth is unique. Not because it is necessarily the only planet of its kind, but they realised that the earth is unique, because it is our home.
That thought, that the earth is unique, because it is our home, brings us right back to the Christmas story we heard earlier. The story of the birth of a child, the Son of God, in a stable in Bethlehem. A rather ordinary stable, in an ordinary town, became the home of the most extraordinary event in history. Two ordinary people, became the world’s most famous parents, and the shepherds the best-known representatives of everyday folk.
The fact that ordinary places, times and people become extraordinary, makes that the Christmas story is our story too. Over three-hundred thousand children are born each day, yet the birth of a son or daughter, a grandchild, cousin or god-child may be a life-changing experience. It is their relationship to us and our relationship to them, that makes them and us unique.
As Christians we also believe that the Christmas story is our story, because in Jesus, God came to the world for all of us, for each of us. God wanted to make His home with us. In our human relationships, are shaped by one another, but our relationship with God is slightly different. God is who He is, but we are who we are because of God, and that is what makes us ordinary people pretty extraordinary.
So, tonight, I would like to leave you with an image: an image in which we once more can recognise ourselves. It is the image of a home. It is not a photo of the earth, taken from a far-off perspective as those astronauts had fifty years ago. No, it is the image of the stable where that wondrous birth took place.
Although it is night, the stars share their light. Although it is cold, the stable provides some shelter; people and animals share their warmth. And although the circumstances are not great, there is joy around because the long-expected child has been born. A promise has been fulfilled: the Light has come into the world, God has made His home with us. God does not care whether our houses are large or small, warm or cold, full of life or empty and quiet: He wants to make His home with us, with each of us, and that is what we celebrate.
I hope that you will have a wonderful Christmas with those whom you love, and whether beautifully decorated or not quite yet, that your homes may be filled with the light and joy of this night. Amen.
For a further reflection on Apollo 8’s journey to the moon and God’s creation, listen to BBC 3 Between the Ears (22nd December 2018).