Christmas Sermon: The Story We Need

I preached this last night at Midnight Mass at St Thomas Colnbrook.
Merry Christmas!

St Thomas Colnbrook – Midnight Mass
Set 1
December 24th, 2020

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

Lord Jesus, Light of light,
you have come among us.
Help us who live by your light
to shine as lights in your world.
Glory to God in the highest.

I think this year, more than ever, we need to hear the story of the first Christmas with fresh eyes and open hearts. In our world of restrictions, lockdowns and tiers, we are easily distracted by the stressors and anxieties of life.

Yet this story is still told. We see it in the pictures on Christmas cards; we hear it in the words of Christmas carols, even in online Crib, Carol and Christingle services. There is a comfort in this first Christmas story. I am not sure about you, but I find that I need this story more than I ever have. I need something bigger, more substantial to believe in, to find comfort in this year.

I am not sure which parts of this story warms the cockles of your hearts the most. There are so many moving parts – the government, those with power making those without power move around to be registered like cattle (the hauliers stuck in Kent), the loyal and devoted Joseph, the young and heavily pregnant Mary, the birth of their firstborn son, the inn (probably a family home) with no empty space, the shepherds living in the fields, watching over their flocks by night, the angel of the Lord and the great multitude. Glory to God in the highest heaven indeed!

I love to picture the angel and the shepherds in the field. The Good News of Jesus coming to those on the margins, the outside first – in a burst of light. There was nothing subtle about this announcement. It was a dark, probably ordinary night for those shepherds. Nothing but a few baas here and a few baas there, the stars for light, each other for companionship.

This year has highlighted so many people who are on the margins, the unsung heroes – shelf-stackers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, postal workers, cleaners, of course NHS workers, lab technicians, police officers. I am not meaning to exclude anyone – please spare a thought and prayer for those who have been important, essential to you this year. People who, in ‘normal times’ are on the edge of our lives, not often thought of or acknowledged, who have suddenly become much more important to keep our lives and their lives going.

It is to these, the shepherds, that the glory of God first comes when the angel came and stood before them. The appearance of the angel should make one marvel at the creativity and beauty of God – who says Christianity is boring when there are angels! Angels are not, as popular myth claims, recycled dead people – as comforting as this might be. Angels are part of God’s created order, admittedly it takes some imagination for us – but they are real.

The angel knows that their appearance will shock the shepherds. That is why the opening greeting is ‘do not be afraid’. The phrase ‘do not be afraid’ appears 366 times in the Bible. One for each day of the year and an extra for Leap Years.

Both the angel and the good news proclaimed to those unsuspecting shepherds was utterly overwhelming! When was the last time you were truly overwhelmed by something good?

I know and you know people who have been utterly overwhelmed by bad stuff – 2020, unemployment, sickness, separation, anxiety, depression, loneliness, uncertainty, death. Many people at Christmas find themselves utterly overwhelmed and exhausted by the darkness of this world – more than usual.

Yet, as John Pritchard, former Bishop of Oxford, wrote, ‘Christmas is that wonderful time when we enter into another world. Just temporarily we bask in a different glow, and old hopes are reinstated, and the world is a little less chilly. But if it’s true that at Christmas we enter into a different world, it’s also true that for Christmas to be authentic another world has to enter us. ‘Where meek souls shall receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.’ There’s another world, one not made or bought by us, but a gift, given and received, fragile, mysterious, and utterly breath-taking. We only catch a glimpse of this other world; too much of it would blow our fuse, we couldn’t take it. But this much we can receive. This much – Jesus.’

We can receive Jesus again. I love this little line tucked into verse 6: ‘the time came for her to deliver her child.’ The time came. Again, we can receive Jesus at anytime and anywhere, but he was grounded in a time and place. This baby born unto us has come to bring us hope and is the tangible sign that God really is with us. God ceases to be distant or removed or too awesome to encounter. Instead, with Jesus’ arrival God becomes intimately involved in his creation and in our lives too. And when God is with us then there is hope.

The hope of the gospel overcomes the darkness, every darkness. It is not a fairy tale, it is not false optimism. However dark the world is or feels, the hope of God overcomes it. There are few things worse than disappointed hope. God does not disappoint. Hope comes in believing that we are part of a bigger, grander story.

Wherever you find yourself in the Christmas story this day – spend some time at the manger, bend a knee and gaze again at the baby who came at the right time and in the right place to bring us hope and be with us.

We also need to look in the manger – not just at it. Many people, Christians too, come to see the manger – but they never look in the manger. For some, Jesus remains the baby forever. A baby that is easily contained in the manger that gets brought out once a year – looked at – and then put away again.

Jesus is not meant to be contained to the manger. Isaiah 9:6 – ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.’ Now I don’t know about you – but I have not heard that said about many new-born babies. A baby may be a good eater, sleeper or pooper but has authority resting upon its shoulders?! Jesus did not just appear one night in Bethlehem as if out of nowhere. He has always been around – part of the Trinity. Always more than a baby!

This little lord Jesus becomes the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. I love these names, I can identify with each of them. He is my Counsellor when I struggle; Mighty when I am weak; Everlasting when uncertainty threatens to overwhelm; the Prince of Peace when I am distressed.

I hope that you will know and experience the great love God has for you this Christmas. Not just at Christmas but at every moment of every day of your life – when things are calm and happy but more so when things are sad and messy.

I hope that you will know the Lord’s favour upon you.

I hope the name of Jesus falls sweetly on your ears and off your tongue. May the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace lead you and guide you always. Bless you & Happy Christmas.

Christmas Eve Day Communion: History & Hope

Burnham Abbey – Christmas Eve Day Mass – 9:30
December 24th, 2020
Revd Sue Lepp

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16
Acts 13:16-26
Luke 1:67-79

Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913-4 Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 Purchased jointly with Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson and private benefactors 1999

It is poignant, maybe more this year than previous, that the Christmas Eve Day readings for Communion are centred around history and hope. 2020 is of course the year that many will want to forget with all the ups & downs, uncertainties and disappointments that we have faced. One day it will indeed be history but not quite yet. 2020 also brought about challenges and questions about how history is marked and remembered through Black Lives Matter, the slave trade and the memorials dotted about the country to people who did do good things but profited off the lives and labour of the powerless.

All three of the readings speak of history – God reminds David via the prophet Nathan of where God found David (in the pasture) to being ‘prince over my people Israel’ to what God will do for David in the future, ‘I will make for you a great name; your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever’.

Paul was speaking in the synagogue in Antioch when he reminded the Jews there of their history and all that God had done for them. Paul then continues Israel’s story, going further than the Jews of the day were willing, when he told them of Jesus and John the Baptist with their message of salvation to the descendants of Abraham.

It is important to remember our history, to learn from it and be reminded that we are part of a bigger story and that God is on our side. There is no better history to be a part of than his!

Zechariah, in his beautiful words of the Benedictus, recalls his history too. He had been silent for many months and finally his tongue is loosened, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, praises God, and blesses those who were there to hear it. It should not be lost on us that Zechariah fell silent before he could complete his final temple duty the day that the angel paid him a visit many months before. Beth Moore writes: ‘the priest would customarily return to the courtyard after completing his tasks and bless the people. On Zechariah’s big day, the people waited outside for a blessing they didn’t get. He had accomplished everything else, but he never got to speak that benediction. For nine months a benediction had been mounting in the old priest with every fresh evidence of God’s faithfulness. When God finally loosed that tongue, it was like a calf loosed from a stall.’ (Jesus: The One & Only, p. 24)

Zechariah explains that God’s intricate plan of redemption was because of ‘tender mercy of our God.’ God is many things – righteous, judging, holy, faithful and deeply feeling. God not only feels for us, but He also acts for us.
The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

God’s tender mercy is as fresh today as it was in the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth 2000 years ago. My prayer is that as we go into Christmas and 2021 that the tender mercy will be evident to all. We need to watch for the dawn that will break from on high. God bless you and keep you. May you know his great mercy upon you this day and always.

Advent 3:Gaudete & Goodbye

Advent 3 – Final Sunday
December 13th, 2020
Isaiah 64:1-4-8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

I can’t quite believe that this is my final Sunday in Langley! When I started in July 2016, I could not even begin to imagine it ending. Somewhere in the middle I began to think, ‘will this ever end?!’; and now as I have come to the end, I can’t quite believe it still. This is one of those sour-sweet days.

Sour to be leaving you and the parish.

Sweet because today is Gaudete Sunday – one of my favourite days on the church calendar – rose Sunday! Rejoice!

The first sermon I ever preached in the parish was on July 3, 2016 which was St Mary’s Patronal Festival. I had been ordained deacon the day before and was overwhelmed! I re-read that sermon this past week. I preached on Luke 1, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth whilst they were both pregnant. John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of Mary and the in-utero Jesus. I asked the question – when was the last time that your heart leapt for joy?

I know that I have asked lots of questions in my sermons over the last 4 plus years – but this was my first. I think it is fitting that it will be the last one I ask you too.

When was the last time that your heart leapt for joy? Now I am not unaware of Covid, Brexit (we had just cast our votes the week before that first sermon), the general malaise and misery of 2020, etc. But really – think about the answer to my question. When was the last time your heart leapt for joy?

I used to ask my palliative care patients about when the last time was, they truly felt well? Many found it to be a useful exercise in remembering and recovering what had been lost. Remembering that there had been health and better times in the past. It is important to remember that our hearts can still leap for joy and not just at Christmas. Joy surpasses our circumstances; it has a deeper quality to it. True joy is not superficial or temporary. It is stronger and more resilient than happiness; joy is less dependent on our moods and emotions.

On Gaudete Sunday, we are called to rejoice. 1 Thessalonians says to: ‘rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ This Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing, and that the Lord’s coming is near. The focus is turning more to the second coming than the first; there is a heightened sense of intense joy, gladness and expectation.

We need to rejoice in what is true, what is good. Listen to the right voices. Find our comfort in the right places. I have been marvelling at Tesco’s Christmas advert for this year with their claim that there is no naughty list. It is catchy and bright but does nothing more than highlight the selfishness of the world. It pans around the country with snippets of people confessing to all the things they have and haven’t done this year. Good and bad, virtuous and shameful. The main message is basically, it’s okay – the good you did will outweigh the bad. So treat yourself! Overbuy on gifts and decadent food – you deserve it! Ah! There is no real or lasting comfort in this. At best it offers distraction, but what about in January when the bills come in and cupboards are bare? Are you going to be rejoicing then?

The Gospel readings for this Sunday always revolve around John the Baptist as the thrust of John’s ministry is the announcement that the Lord’s coming is near – in fact – nearer than you think. I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of John the Baptist are used on this Sunday. Year A sets John in prison awaiting his fate. Year B (today) has set John giving his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set John chastising the ‘brood of vipers’ and calling for them to repent. On the face of it, none of these events provide obvious reasons to rejoice!

The Kingdom of God – the true kingdom is coming. Herod (the king at the time) wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. Unlike the kingship of Herod, Jesus the King is quite different. This is what we are to rejoice over today – that Jesus the King is coming – despite our circumstances and the events of the world.

The beautiful words of Isaiah 61 are the reminder that I think we need of the kingship, the joy and the comfort of Jesus.

He (God) has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed. To bind up the broken-hearted – anybody this morning?

To proclaim liberty to the captives. To release the prisoners – this isn’t exclusive to those in jail. Anyone who is captive to illness or addiction.

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – anybody want a better 2021?

To comfort and provide for those who mourn – anyone?

To give them a garland instead of ashes – flowers to celebrate rather than ashes of repentance.

The mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit – anyone a bit faint of spirit this morning?

The planting of the Lord! I want to be planted and be called an oak of righteousness that is not moved or swayed when the wind comes, and the tide rises.

Jesus the King speaks of mercy, healing and rejoicing. More than anything, I want you to know the love, mercy, healing and rejoicing over you from Jesus the King. At the staff meeting this week, there was some laughing over what wisdom I would impart to you.

This is it. If you know the love, mercy, healing and rejoicing over you more now than you did in July 2016 – I leave here satisfied. If I have challenged you, pushed you, helped you in any way to experience or know the love of God more deeply – I can go from here with a leaping heart.

God bless you. I will continue to pray for the parish and for you. Thank you for the love and support you have shown me. May your hearts continue to leap for joy.