A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral at the First Communion of Christmas, 24 December 2017, by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor. Readings (Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-20; John 1.1-14)
Ladies and gentlemen: with the greatest respect – what on earth are you doing here? Come to that, what am I doing here? It’s 11.30, you won’t get out of here for another hour or so, and then you’ve got to get home. Maybe I’m wrong, but most of you don’t look as though you spend your nights out clubbing; yet here we are, 2000 or so of us.
There’s only one other day in the year when there’s a similarly eccentric gathering of people here for a service. Get here on Easter morning at ten to five and you’ll find a crowd huddled round a bonfire in the dark. But at least on that occasion we’re doing our best to follow the story in the gospels, which tell us that the first people who got to the empty tomb (to be shocked by the news of the resurrection of their Lord) got there ‘very early in the morning’. But no gospel tells us to get here for midnight because that’s when Jesus was born.
So what on earth are we doing? It’s to do with what we came from, and what we go back into in an hour or so - the darkness. Tonight’s first reading, from the prophecy of Isaiah, spoke of the people who walked in darkness. And it came with some pretty disturbing images: ‘the boots of the tramping warriors’; ‘all the garments rolled in blood’; ‘exulting as people exult when dividing plunder’. These are pictures drawn from the stark experiences of war – marching, blood, looting, the triumph of victory. This is the stuff of power and fear, visceral experiences.
Our world is full of this stuff. There’s plenty of physical violence and danger in our news, and beyond our news, every single day. But power, or rather the abuse of power, doesn’t only mean physical violence and warfare. It has more homely, more insidious manifestations too. The last couple of months have seen a parade of news stories about people in the media, sport, politics, the church, who are accused of transgressing the line because they felt their powerful positions gave them permission; just a few days ago issues of this kind cost a Cabinet minister his job. Where there is power, there is also fear of power, and there is the possibility and all too often the reality of exploitation and abuse.
So I remind you that our gospel passage, one I must have heard hundreds of times, begins with the arbitrary decision of a distant Emperor: Augustus decrees a census. Tough that your wife is pregnant; too bad if you have to travel to some overcrowded town to register. And emperors have a great liking for the feet of the tramping warriors – there are wonderful military parades around Kim Jong Un and every other hungry ego keen on asserting their power.
Strutting warriors; posturing rulers. And where is God? The one we call Almighty God? Well, Isaiah tells us he’s tossing the soldiers’ boots and all their bloody garments onto the fire: and the one he sends, though he’s called ‘prince’, is ‘Prince of Peace’. And Luke in his gospel tells us of the weakness and exposure of this new born king, born in someone else’s outbuilding and lying in the animals’ trough.
There are signs of power, hints of that ‘Almighty’ quality of God: angels, heavenly voices. And there are also the customary responses when power is displayed – the shepherds were ‘terrified’. But the first words of the angel are ‘Do not be afraid’. And who can be afraid of a new born child? Nothing could be less threatening, less capable of hurting or exploiting you. But of course one person at least was afraid, very afraid, of this least threatening new life – and that was the local kinglet, the would-be man of authority Herod, who decided to kill all little boys because he feared he would lose his own power to one of them. But the song of the angels was ‘Glory to God and on earth, peace’.
Power, fear, danger, darkness. And almighty power, which comes in weakness, and proclaims peace. We’ve come here to choose the latter: to focus our attention on this crib scene beside me, with a new born child at its centre, and to escape the temptations and fears of darkness of the spirit.
We will end this service in a rather strange way. My colleague Robert will go and stand before the open doors at the west end of this cathedral, completely obscured to most of us behind that huge Christmas tree, and will proclaim the first chapter of John’s gospel to what will most likely be an empty churchyard, since most people more sensible than us will already be in bed.
What lies behind this beautiful act of folly? The imagery we will hear in that chapter. John begins his gospel by taking us back to Genesis, the beginning of all things, God’s creation out of an empty darkness. The Word, this mysterious communication, was there, everything was made through him, and in him was life. And that communication reaches out towards us, from the apparently empty darkness that surrounds us, and right down into the dark emptiness of our souls, throws us into the light, and, once we’ve blinked a few times, makes our souls sing.
I asked at the start what on earth are we doing here at this ridiculous time, this unearthly hour? But this time is neither unearthly nor ungodly. We are joining the angels for a while, and we are getting ready to go back into the darkness of God’s world to share the unconquerable light of the Prince of Peace, who comes in love and is known in weakness.