Sermon St Peter’s Milton Lilbourne, 24th December 2018, 11.00pm
Midnight Communion: Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-20
As a child, I often spent Wednesday afternoons with my grandmother. I particularly remember one afternoon: we were going to leave a message in a bottle. I don’t quite remember what the message was, but I remember well the sense of excitement as I stood in the middle of the bridge crossing the river, ready to throw my bottle into the unknown. I have remained fascinated by the idea of leaving a message for someone you don’t know.
So last week, my eye was caught by the story you may have read or heard as well. It was the news item that a young girl had found a message in a Christmas card she was about to write: a message that claimed to have come from within a Chinese prison. Someone wrote in English “We are foreign prisoners in Shanghai Qinqpu prison in China. Forced to work against our will. Please help us and notify human rights organization.”
The message in the card was sent to the unknown, and found by a six-year old girl in South-London who was writing Christmas greetings to her school friends. The father of the girl said that at first he thought it was a prank, but then realised the potential seriousness of the message, feeling both shock and responsibility.
He contacted the journalist Peter Humphrey, as the message had requested, and he contacted the press. The message got out to the world. Chinese authorities have since denied forced prison labour after the reports, but in the meantime the production was stopped until further investigation.
Why tell this story on Christmas Eve? Well, if we are willing to take the message to be genuine, there are some strong parallels with the message of the Christmas story itself, particularly in the way that it was received. The birth of Jesus is one of the most important messages we, human beings, have ever received. It is the message that God wants to live with us, among us: that God wants to share his life with us. It is the message that tells us how much He loves us, no matter who or where we are. It is a message of true joy, but therefore no less challenging.
Before coming back to the message itself, let us see how it was received. The birth of Jesus – as we already said, one of the most important messages we have ever had – was first received by people nobody had expected: a young girl and her faithful fiancé. They were not famous, they were not rich, they were not particularly well educated. All we know is that they were from the house and family of David, as had been foretold by the prophets.
Mary and Joseph were accompanied that night by shepherds who were watching their flocks in nearby fields: again a pretty unlikely bunch of people. Poor and rough, shepherds found themselves on the fringes of society, both literally and figuratively. A little later they were joined by wise men from the East. They weren’t poor and rough like the shepherds, but still they were strangers to many: foreigners with a different colour of skin and a different language.
Yet all of them: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, recognised the significance of this birth in a stable, the significance of the message that Jesus brought, indeed, the message that Jesus was to become to the world. The message of Emmanuel, God with us.
Not everyone, however, received the message with great joy. Jesus was a threat to those in authority, whether that was religious or political. King Herod, Pontius Pilate and the leaders of the temple, are just a few examples of those who would see their position threatened by the baby born in a manger. Because the message of great joy also came with a great challenge, the challenge of truth.
Jesus would also challenge each whom he would encounter, including us: our own preconceptions and our own ways of seeing the world and living in it. At this Christmas time, many of us become even more conscious of the plight of others. As we do our shopping, we are reminded by Foodbank collection points that not everyone is able to spend what we have to spend. As we gather with family and friends, often that person on their own comes to mind, and we may resolve to invite or visit them.
Christmas is not a time to feel guilty, but it is a time to remind ourselves that the message of God with us calls us to action. God came to live with us, not to fix things for us. God with us, is also we with God, and we with each other. And that is precisely what will bring us true joy. In the knowledge that we are dependent on each other, lies our true freedom.
What that joy and freedom look like is both personal and universal, as we also see in the Christmas story itself. A child being born is maybe one of the most intimate moments in a mother’s life. Yet, at the same time it is a universal experience, shared by mothers throughout the world, throughout generations. So also for the Christmas message itself. God came to the earth at a particular time, in a particular person: Jesus, the son of Mary. Yet, God wants to share his life with each and all of us.
It doesn’t matter whether you are old or young, highly educated or illiterate, poor or rich. It doesn’t matter whether we lived two-thousand years ago, or now. Today we celebrate that God came to be with us, born as a child like each of us. Vulnerable, with hopes and fears, with a life ahead of him of pain and joy, of challenge and of celebration. A life ahead of him like the lives ahead of us.
Tonight we celebrate and give thanks for the gift that lies in the message that God has given us: the reassurance of his love for the human race, and for all creation. It is up to us to look after that gift and to keep that message alive. To look after what we have been given, each other and this world. And to make sure that the message does not get lost: the message of God’s love for each of us. The best way to do that is to love as God loves us, in truthfulness, with compassion and care.
The message is precious, so let us keep the message alive: God with us, Emmanuel.