This morning I am doing the last bits of preparation Christmas services - prayers for the Christingle and the 'talk' for Christmas Day. Once printed off that's more or less it for this year.
2008 has been a very tough one for my little church and, in some small measure, we are fairly typical of what is going on around us. Lots of bereavement, lots of complex and painful family circumstances, people uncertain about employment into 2009 and the impact of the downturn on property prices (though we have now almost completed selling our building). To give a saccharine sermon on Christmas Day would be to betray the reality of my people, and of those who we will meet with, so my 'talk' will anything but.
This blog acts in some measure as a kind of pastoral narrative, so to end 2008, I am going to post here the text of what I intend to say on Christmas Day. I know that, for me, Christmas Day will include hospital visiting, taxi-ing lonely people to lunch out and supoprting anxious and sad memebrs of my church. I also know that in the reality the God who has come, who is coming, who will come again, is with me, and for that I am thankful.
Hope yours is a blessed Christmas and your New Year filled with hope.
We began our service by singing ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ – and we are faithful aren’t we – we are here, rather than at home drinking tea, cooking dinner or playing with our new toys. There is a sense in which can feel quietly pleased with ourselves, because we have taken the time to come to church, to focus on Jesus – to do the right thing.
We have enjoyed opening our presents – privately a home, and here among friends and neighbours. And even as we play the game of piling all the other things on top of the nativity scene, we all know the answer to the question ‘what’s the most important thing about Christmas’ – we know it’s Jesus. But, even as we know why it is we are here, might it not be true that there have been moments when our minds wandered to other things? Did we get enough Brussels sprouts? Will auntie Maud be ready when we go to collect her for dinner? Have we set the DVD recorder (or HDD if you’re really posh!) for that must see film?
We know all the right answers, because we’ve been here so many times before, and yet we still get caught up in all the busyness of preparing for a happy, jolly Christmas. Somehow, all the tinsel, all the turkey – roasted, in sandwiches, in pies, curried, and soon – all the trimmings pile up and hide reality.
And this happens at many levels. Christmas can be a very stressful time as people find themselves thrown together for days on end, out of routine, often with poor weather, too much food and too much alcohol. Arguments, relationship breakdown and even violence increase in this season of ‘goodwill and peace for all.’
For some people Christmas is a sad or lonely time, one that is hard to face because there will an empty place at the table, a name missing from the cards. For others it is an anxious time as they await the results of medical tests or sit by the bed of a loved one at home or in hospital.
This year thousands of people finished work for Christmas not knowing if there will be a job to go back to in January. 27,000 Woolworth’s employees will be unemployed. Staff of Jaguar, Vauxhall and Whittards must wait and wonder. From bankers to builders, butchers to small businesses, the future is far from clear.
Nation-wide and world-wide the situation is repeated. And the temptation at Christmas is to cover it all up. It reminds me of those jolly sticking plasters you can get for children with cartoon characters printed on them. Mr Bump smiles at you or some superhero tells you how brave you are, and all is false jollity when underneath it hurts like crazy.
This Christmas is not an easy one for many people in our community, and I would be failing in my responsibilities if I simply delivered a sugary feel-good talk. Underneath all the glitter and all the jollity, are hurting people, people who need something that is more gritty, more real.
And this is what lies at the heart of Christmas, this is what gets buried under presents and decorations and food and TV programmes and goodness knows what else. Christmas is about God getting dirty, getting involved directly in the messiness of real human life. Pregnancy is risky, childbirth is risky – especially if it happens in the unhygienic conditions of a first century stable. Being born in an occupied nation with a tyrannical ruler is risky. Speaking against injustice is risky. Preaching a new way of living, offering hope to outcasts, foreigners and sinners is risky.
Christmas is about God with us, not just for a day, not just a gorgeous newborn boy held by an adoring young mum, but for always and everywhere – in the hospital ward, in the nursing home, in the dole queue, in the homeless shelter or women’s refuge, in the waiting, in the wondering, in the weeping.
God loved the world so much that, instead of simply putting on a gigantic sticking plaster with a smiley face and the slogan ‘God loves you,’ Jesus came and lived as one of us to heal us with his own lifeblood.
Life can be incredibly tough – but God is with us. And this is the hope we have, that however bleak life may seem, this God, who cannot be constrained by the glories of heaven offers us hope and joy, a light that shines in the darkest night and cannot be put out. This is what we celebrate, and this is why we are here to rejoice and sing with the angels themselves this Christmas Day – Christ is born, Jesus, our Emmanuel.