A sermon for midnight mass.

Last night, with still six sermons left to write, I found myself remembering that whatever I do or fail to do, whatever I say or don’t say from the pulpit, Christmas will still happen. Christ is still come among us. God is still with us. Christmas itself does not happen because of me. In fact, at this rate, it is more likely to happen despite me.

I’d be the first person to point out that the whole of the Christmas story depends on the compliance of the key players: Mary has to say yes, Joseph has to support her; the Shepherds have to listen to the angels and summon the enthusiasm to leave their flocks and visit the new baby; the magi have to notice the star and then take the risk of following it….

But to turn that around, isn’t the miracle that it all happened at all?  If God’s son was to be born on earth, there would have been far easier ways.  A different place, a different time. A less ad hoc plan. In fact, it almost seems as if the Christmas story happened despite all the things that could have, or did, go wrong.

Christ was born:

Despite Mary and Joseph not being married yet,  and the risk that both of them took to go along with the plan…

Despite the fact that they had to travel miles to go and register themselves for tax…

Despite the fact that with the Romans in charge, being born a Jew was a serious disadvantage in the first place…

Despite all the inns being full and the new parents and child having to sleep in a stable…

Despite Herod’s unspeakable act of rage and fear and jealousy as he tried to root out and kill the baby Jesus…

Despite all this, the incarnation happened. Christ was born. God came into his own world, became subject to its dangers, and ‘pitched his tent among our own’.

The Christmas story is a remarkable tale of how the purposes of God triumph over circumstance, over sin, over inconvenience, over hardship, over sheer improbability…  It was time for the Saviour of the World to come. And come he did, despite everything.

It’s a story that delicately balances the overwhelming loving purposes of God for the world, and the way that he draws us into that loving plan, giving his people crucial parts to play, and directing the action, but allowing and encouraging them to improvise and rewriting the script to take account of each twist and turn, and to allow for the weakness of those he has chosen for his starring roles.

Perhaps the key (at least a key, for me) in all these ‘despites’ is that perfection is not the aim. There is one thing that absolutely has to happen in the story: Jesus has to be born. Everything else was window dressing.  Yes, a house would have been nice rather than a stable, and yes, it would have been nice to do without the long journey. These things would have made the whole thing more comfortable.  But despite most things going wrong, Jesus was born. Christ came into the world. Emmanuel – God with us.

Seeing the story in that light made me question again my own priorities this Christmas. Was I, in fact, worrying about the window dressing, the things that would make everything feel good, and forgetting the one thing that mattered above all else? Where was the real presence of Jesus Christ in all that I am doing at Christmas, or had it got a bit lost in all the photocopying of service sheets, last-minute writing of sermons, singing of descants, guilt at not having done a great deal on the domestic front recently, and everything else.  You may all, of course, be paragons of organisation and domestic bless, everything ordered and precise, and all relationship healthy and happy, nothing at all to mar a perfect day.  If that’s you, that’s great, well done!  But I suspect you’re in the minority!

So that’s what I want to share with you tonight. You can have a Christmas in which everything goes wrong. And yet that same Christmas can be everything it needs to be if the one thing that really matters is in place. I’ve had to work out all over again – as I do every Christmas – what that one thing is, or it’ll get lost under all my attempts to get everything right, and then under all my flapping and worrying about having got so many things wrong or failed to do them at all. Christmas has such a lead-up and so much expectation that anything short of perfection can feel like failure.

God knew that the world he had made was – and still is – in a mess, and he knew that he was coming into one of the messiest, most difficult, and most imperfect times and places in that world. That’s where and when he chose to come, because the light shines most brightly in the dark.

So tonight, I invite you to work out what’s most important. Find your answer in a reading: it might be, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ or ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’; find it in a carol: it might be ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’ or ‘be bear me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay’; find it in a moment’s silence; find it in seeing a loved one you’ve not seen for ages, or in the greeting of a stranger; or find it in a prayer, in a sigh…. Whatever else you do, and however hard to decide to try to make everything perfect this Christmas, remember that the Christmas story is one in which almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, and yet it changed the world, because it was the moment that God came to us and stayed with us, and he is with us still – and that depends not on us, but on God.

Midnight Mass 2012

Lord Jesus Christ, your birth at Bethlehem
Draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
Accept our heartfelt praise as we worship you,
Our Saviour and our eternal God.  Amen.

We celebrate the coming of God into the world in so many ways: every household has its own habits, every church its own patterns of services, every nation and community its own traditions. I was sent an e-card the other day with a cartoon on the front depticting a domestic Christmas day scene. The caption read, “Christmas is strange. It’s the only day when we sit in the living room staring at a dead tree and eating sweets out of our socks.”

In the words of John Betjeman:

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.

But this is not going to be one of those sermons that tells everyone off for bowing to the commercial pressure of Christmas and missing the heart of it.  Why not?

Because you’re here.  Because it’s taken you time, will, energy, and in some cases, I know, real courage to step through that door just to be here. You’ve seen the burning bush and stepped towards it to have a closer look, you’ve paused the conveyer belt so that you can truly enjoy the moment, you’ve walked through the dark, just as the shepherds did, answering the call of the carolling angels.

And because you’ve brought tributes – gifts (not gold, frankincense and myrrh, and I’m not talking about what you’re intending to put in the collection plate either, though that’s part of it, too) – you’ve brought the finest tribute that you can, that of your very selves, together with all the ‘stuff’ that you carry with you, your motivations, your thoughts, the hopes and fears of all your years, as you come to meet the Christ child tonight. You have brought who you really are, and that is the greatest gift any of us has to offer.

But mostly it’s because Christmas isn’t primarily about what we have done, it’s about what God has done. Because Christmas is the great divine ambush, the ultimate proof that it is not so much that we seek God, but that he seeks us. He is not the precious pearl or the buried treasure that we spend a lifetime seeking, we are the precious pearl and buried treasure that spend a lifetime being found by God.

The epic journey of the Magi, and the chaotic scrambling of the shepherds down the dark Bethlehem hillside are only possible because God had already made the leap from heaven to earth to come among them.  The first move is God’s, and always was.

Our being here in church tonight – however long and arduous, or short and effortless our journey – is only possible because God had already got here ahead of us, reaching out all over again so that heaven could touch earth for us, right here, tonight. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ – or, more literally, ‘he pitched his tent with ours,’ threw in his lot with us.

Because Christmas is the ultimate proof God can find his way into anything and everything, and if we are alert to it, we can see the heart of what Christmas is about wherever we look.  For the heart of Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us. The heart of Christmas is Light in darkness. The heart of Christmas is heaven touching earth.

Yes, indeed, some ways are very odd by which we hail the birth of God, but even in the glitz and bling he is there.  In every shiny Christmas bauble we see the reflection of our own face – and it is a reflection of someone who is made in the very image of God – a human being, the crown of God’s creation, in which he is pleased to dwell. “Pleased as man with man to dwell: Jesus our Emmanuel.”

And if we look a little deeper in that reflection, we see not only ourselves, but those around us, our little corner of God’s world. We do not have to look beyond the material world to catch a glimpse of heaven: because of heaven touching earth we can find those glimpses of heaven right here and right now, everywhere we look. For when God came to earth 2000 years ago, he never left.

Yes, if we look for him, we can see Christ even in the shiny stuff and in the trimmings.

And even in the darkest corners of the world, God is already there. Jesus called himself the Light of the World, and if you’re the light of the world, you go first to the places that need light the most: the places of deepest darkness. If you enjoyed the sight of the candles and the tree lights and the stable as this service started, then you know something about light in darkness, that no matter how dark a place is, even the smallest light brings such hope and warmth.  If you’ve driven up the A1 and seen the stars on the church spire and thought “I’m nearly home,” then you know something of light in darkness.

And if you’ve ever been blessed with the miracle of forgiveness, or an act of unexpected kindness, or a much-needed word of comfort or guidance, then you also know something of what it means for heaven to touch earth.  If you’ve ever found the grace to offer those words, or that kindness, or that forgiveness, to someone else, then you know something of heaven touching earth. If you’ve ever sung ‘Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me for ever’ and meant every word, then you know something of heaven touching earth.

God is not just here.  Here, in church, that is. God is wherever we find ourselves, God is where the angels sing with joy, and we join in; God is where it is dark, and difficult, and dangerous.  God is here, and God is in our hospitals and hospices, our prisons, and on our streets. And God is in every dark and dusty street in Afghanistan and in every conflict zone on this battered world.  For there is no place on earth that’s too dark for the light of God to shine there.

Because Christmas is the great divine ambush, you do not have to travel far to find the heart of Christmas.  But through these days ahead – whatever they bring for you, and whether you approach them with excitement, or anxiety, or dread, or hope – keep half an eye open for God at Work, and you will see him, and know that he really has got there ahead of you.  You will see him in the good stuff, you will find him in the profound moments. You can see him in the trivial ordinariness, and he is there just as surely in the moments of greatest stress or sadness.

So as heaven reaches out to us tonight, along with so many others, scattered across the globe, let us dare to clasp the hand of the tiny child in the manger, and so find that our little bit of earth has been touched, and changed, by a little bit of heaven.