A sermon preached on Christmas morning 2018 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Reading - John 1: 1–14
When speaking in public, never begin with an apology. Good advice, so this morning I make no apology for not being the Bishop of Salisbury (whom you may have been expecting). We have a different arrangement this year: Bishop Nicholas was with us last night but this morning is at St Michael’s, Bemerton Heath, who are between vicars. Near and far - a good mixture for a bishop at Christmas.
Other things have been different too. Our Advent and Christmas services have seen higher numbers than many can remember; and yesterday, after we had had to turn away dozens of people from our already-full family service, a steward and I were wondering why this might be. Well, said one of us, the weather’s pretty good. And, said the other, the times are not. Near and far, the scene looks uncertain, troubling, and here in Salisbury last March, near and far came together in a murderous visitation from a foreign power with which our city had had no quarrel.
Why might all this bring you to church? Some may just want a break from reality, a happy hour in which the mess of life has no place. That is what the advertisers, those skilled manipulators of our desires, dangle before us at this time of year: the fantasy of a Mary Poppins Christmas, practically perfect in every way, whereas real Christmas is good at bringing out our imperfections – ask any shop worker – and Christmas, like any holiday, can create dangerous space in your head. You finally stop tearing around, relax a bit, and up come worry, resentment, loneliness, the stuff you don’t feel good about, stuff that your busyness was keeping under. Take the case of Sebastian Coe.
In the 1980s, the man who gave us London 2012 and now runs world athletics was himself a world-class athlete, locked in rivalry with Steve Ovett during what was a golden age for British middle-distance running. When the two met for dinner in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, Seb made a confession.
You know, Steve, (he said) back then you really got inside my head. However hard I trained, I always suspected that you were training harder. I remember one Christmas Day – I did a 10k run in the morning and felt good, but as I sat down after Christmas dinner that thought came back into my mind: I bet he's done more than 10k today; I bet he’s out running now. And so (can you believe this?) I went upstairs, put my kit on again and did another 10k. On Christmas Day. That was how badly you got to me.
Ovett raised an eyebrow. So, he said, you only went out twice on Christmas Day?
If it’s time off from reality you want, Christmas is not a great candidate. Apart from anything else, the natural forces of our world do not observe public holidays, whether it’s a winter bug or Indonesia’s devastating tsunami. But many are hoping for more from this Christmas. We hope our Members of Parliament find wisdom in these days away from Westminster before a new year brings the same questions about the UK and Europe. The Queen in her broadcast this afternoon will find in the Christmas message of peace and goodwill a timely text for a nation in which people need to relearn how to talk to one another (something we shall doing our bit to further here in the Cathedral next Lent).
It’s good to make merry today – there is no merrier moment in the year – but those darker materials belong on this day as well. They are the stuff on which Christmas can do its deepest work. So when we sing ‘See amid the winter’s snow’ in a moment, and we reach the line about Jesus coming ‘down to such a world as this’, let’s each be honest about what our world is like.
We then face a question. This day, this place, this event we are part of – is it just a badly-observed Christmas truce, after which the hostilities of real life will be resumed? Or, is it today that’s real, that tells us how things are, deep down, however different much of life may feel? The first possibility makes today about sentimentality. The second makes today about truth.
This morning we tell the Christmas story in an odd way. The carols and the crib give us the familiar tale, but those opening lines of John’s gospel have none of it: no stable, no shepherds, no angels, no mention even of Jesus by name, just phrases about ‘the Word’ that was ‘with God’, the Word that ‘was God’. And the Word, says John – the Word of God that is the source of all that exists – the Word lived among us, took a local address in our corner of the universe. In Jesus the Word took on our flesh and blood.
These are not words to simper over. John talks about light shining in darkness. This is a theme we are exploring in our art around the cathedral, but John talks about lives being enlightened: this is the light of truth. You can disbelieve all this, he seems to say – as many did then – but please don’t get sentimental about it. Do say ‘Rubbish!’ if that’s what you think. Just don’t say, ‘Ah, bless.’
If it’s not true then there are – in truth – easier ways to enjoy a Tuesday morning off work. But if it is true, that changes things. If God has been made flesh among us, then there is no moment of your life, or anyone’s life – however wonderful, however terrible – no moment that the nerve endings of God do not sense along with yours, or mine or theirs. As the carol put it earlier, God feels our sadness as well as sharing our gladness. Imagine that – the One who brought existence itself into being has a heart that beats for you.
And if the life of God can be embodied in our flesh and blood, then you and I are more remarkable creatures than we may have realised. We are not just work fodder or consumer fodder. None of us, whether in a hospital in Salisbury or Sanaa in Yemen, none of us can be reduced to collateral damage in the schemes of the powerful. No. We were each made to see the glory of God.
How do we do that? According to John, the process seems to be like inviting someone in when they knock at the door – like first-footing – or saying yes to a party invitation: it’s simply a matter of ‘receiving’. We are invited to act this out this morning by receiving bread and wine – ordinary stuff infused with the real presence of Jesus – but there are other ways in which we can say Yes to God, in those secret places of the heart that are unique to each of us.
And if you can do that? Then (though it may look no different) the world will be changed, by your changed self within it, and mine too, as we live lives that – drop by drop – become more full of grace and truth.