A very happy Christmas.
One of the best carol services I took part in last week was in prison. There were about 100 prisoners and staff and volunteers gathered for the service. The very ordinary dining room was turned into a chapel. The music came from an old keyboard. There were no candles or crib scene or decorations.
But there was a Pentecostal gospel choir from Luton. And when they sang, somehow, joy filled that prison dining room. The joy was in the harmonies and the way they moved. But the joy came from their hearts and on their faces. The joy was infectious, it moved from person to person.
Nobody there forgot their sorrow or their pain or their questions. But through the choir, we were touched, somehow, by an even deeper joy. The gospel message became real in the music: glad tidings of great joy.
Joy is the accent of our worship this Christmas morning. We come conscious of the pain and grief of the world and our own sorrow. We haven’t come to escape. We come conscious of our weakness and frailty and the many imperfections of the church. We come mindful of all that stands in jeopardy in the world at the present time: war and greed; corruption and poverty. We are conscious of humanity coming to a great turning point.
Yet still the joy penetrates our darkness and lifts our hearts and reshapes our lives and burns brightly even in the midst of tears. “Joyful all ye nations rise” we sing. “O be joyful in the Lord”. “Joy to the world”. How can that be?
It’s not the outer wrappings of Christmas which make us joyful: tinsel and turkey, paper hats and sending cards. It’s not the time off work, or time with family or travelling long distances or particular traditions. It is not sentiment or wishful thinking.
It is the remarkable truth at the heart of the Christmas story. Glad tidings of great joy. Almighty God is born a person. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.
“He will save his people from their sins”.
When you or I drop a stone in a pond the ripples are largest near where the stone falls and then gradually fade. When the Son of God is born, at the time hardly anyone notices. But then the ripples grow larger all down the years, spreading through time and space and human culture.
We celebrate and proclaim this truth in this place today and the ripples go out and affect even the most dry and cynical and secular parts of the season with rich echoes of joy.
God the maker has entered creation and has made a special study simply of being human. God stoops and bends and distils divinity into one particular child. By taking human flesh, moving to be near us, at one time and in one place God dignifies in every time and place each human life and every person. There is no-one now beyond the immensity of this love.
Left to ourselves we cannot see or imagine God who made the heaven and the earth. Even if we could imagine, we would not dare draw near. Left to ourselves humanity would have continued to manufacture gods in our own image: cruel and careless idols, tools of oppression, projections of our own tired fantasies, demigods with feet and hands and hearts of clay, or vast impersonal forces generating only fear.
Jesus, the sweet word of God, is the light entering the darkness, the force which shaped the universe taking flesh, the reason and logic and grammar of creation in flesh and blood and tears and laughter. The greatness of God’s power and majesty is not diminished by his presence in a tiny child. The child is able to bear and contain the vastness of God’s love. God comes down to earth to lift us all to heaven.
God’s limitless power is voluntarily confined, God’s love beyond measure is concentrated, the wisdom of the ages is focussed, poured into a single life, the pivot of history. This is the moment the mending of the world began.
The entire story of the gospels is simply the unfolding of the truth of the incarnation. An acorn holds within its DNA the plans and life force to grow a mighty oak which will endure a thousand years. Today we remember that the fragile simplicity of this new born baby carries God’s entire plan of healing and salvation for the whole of creation, for as long as earth endures, for this world and the next.
In this our season of the world’s long story, the souls of men and women are parched and thirsty for meaning and for mystery and truth and joy and love. The message in the carols and the readings and the story of Christ’s birth are like water on dry ground.
For those of us who know the story, come deeper. See more clearly. Love more dearly. Follow more nearly in this coming year.
For those who do not yet understand, who catch a glimpse of something far away, whose hearts are strangely warmed, who catch an echoing of a knocking at a long forgotten door, come closer, look deeper, begin the journey, hear the call. Let the mending and the healing which has come to all creation come to you.
For this is Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.
A sermon in Christ Church, Oxford