A Sermon preached on Sunday 24/Monday 25th December 2017, Fordingbridge & Hale – Christmas Day! The Reverend Rachel Noël
Christmas Midnight FB, Hale Xmas morning 2017
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.”
The Nativity – Gari Melcher
Christmas day… Christmas day… what is there left to say today… many of you will have been to various carol services or nativities in recent weeks, perhaps the Christingle service earlier. As we prepare for today… we have read and sung about the very special birth of a very special child 2000 years ago.
Christmas day… Christmas day… So many hopes, so many expectations… I don’t know about you, but for me, for a long time, I have found Christmas day a really difficult day…
We got married young, and expected that a family might follow… each year went by, and there was no child… at christmas time we began to feel more and more outside what was going on… the John Lewis ads, the Oxo ads… sell us this image of the perfect christmas… that version of ‘real love’… that’s very cosy & beautiful, very acquisitive, … that’s all about spending christmas with your children, eating huge amounts of food and large, generous presents…
where did that leave us, without children,
or what if you were single, or gay, if you were on your own at christmas, or if you’d lost a loved one, or if your family were spread across the globe, if you weren’t able to afford to buy into this picture…
It’s easy for us to desire this image of a perfect christmas, it’s very comforting, and can be aspirational…
and sometimes in church, it is easy for us to collude with this too… our images of the nativity can be equally cosy – the mum, the dad, the baby… the immaculate shepherds & kings… the clean, fluffy sheep. Our services and celebrations can easily focus on children & families, reinforcing this ‘ideal’… can we end up promoting a Mariah Carey christmas, of saccharine & sweet comfort?
14 years ago, I was forced to confront this… after many years, I was pregnant, and so excited… but 14 years ago, we had a miscarriage on christmas day… on a day when all are focused on the birth of a child, we were mourning the loss of our child… the unfulfilled hope and dreams that we had.
Part of me wanted to turn away from the christmas story, to reject it… I was so angry… how could this happen on christmas day.. of all days… I felt even more on the outside…
and yet, the more I read the christmas accounts in the gospels, I began to realise how radical, subversive and utterly generous are their accounts of the good news of the incarnation.
The picture I have given you on the front of your order of service is ‘The Nativity’ by American artist Gari Melchers.
I’ve chosen this picture, showing an exhausted Mary, having given birth to Jesus. Laying on the floor, resting, leaning against a weary Joseph. Crouched over, in this borrowed space. The pair are looking at their son, this child, wrapped in borrowed cloths in a manger.
This echoes the reading that I’ve given you, to take home and reflect on – the Mary of your Christmas cards… are we willing to see the real Mary in the stories… or do we want to turn her into a perfect, saintly, virginal Mary, with the perfect child who doesn’t cry.
The nativity story, that seems so safe, in the beautiful christmas card images we all have hanging at home… is a powerful, uncomfortable story.
It’s a story of light coming into the darkness.
Jesus was born, a real human baby, to real human parents, that loved him and cared for him in difficult situations – and although we like to portray an idyllic stable… it’s perhaps more like the picture on the front, an abandoned space. Making use of a corner somewhere, on the hard floor… to give birth to this child.
There is a massive contrast between the greatness of Jesus, as we understand it now… and the wretched circumstances of his birth.
The more you read the Christmas accounts, the more you realise that it is a story of outsiders…
Mary, unmarried Mary… having a child… would she be suspected of adultery?
Joseph… would they think his wife was tainted?… did he really want to go through with this?
If Mary & Joseph knocked on your door, would you welcome them in? would I let them in?
And then the visitors at the stable… the shepherds… Luke tells us they lived in the fields… I know we like to picture them with their nice, clean, white cloths on their heads… but there’s every chance that they were smelly & dirty… they’d been sleeping rough, in the fields… these were the first visitors on that first christmas… is that who you would want to celebrate the birth of your child with? … is that who you would like to have in your home for christmas?
And then, as we’ll get to at epiphany… we have the magi… would we have let in these strangers from the east? illegal immigrants? foreigners? they’d been following the stars? speaking a different language? are these the visitors you would choose at christmas?
So if you’ve bought into the perfect christmas picture, and are feeling slightly dissatisfied… or disappointed… or concerned that this year, it might not be the ‘perfect christmas’… think back to those outsiders at that first christmas…
And then remember the people you will see this christmas…
Will you welcome the people you encounter this christmas season? Will you extend your love to them?
How about that smelly relative that you’d quite like to park in the corner (or give a good bath)… you don’t really want them there… but somehow it was ‘your turn’ this year…
may they remind you of the shepherds …. smelly & rough in the stable
and that relative that witters on, and you’re not quite sure what they’re talking about… or that one that gives you a really strange present that you’re not quite sure what to do with….
may they remind you of the magi, from foreign lands… and bearing strange gifts
you see, there is no such thing as a perfect christmas… the Jesus we worship here tonight wasn’t born into a conventional, cosy family.
Jesus was born into mess. He was born into confusion, and uncomfortable surroundings.
If we want to begin to understand something of the truth of Emmanuel; God with us, then we need to get out of our Christmas comfort zone.
God’s gift to the world of Jesus…. of God in human form, is the most incredible gift to the world, showing us that we too can discover God within us too.
Somehow, over the centuries, we’ve turned this radical gift into a moralistic religion… we’ve started to judge each other and ourselves… we want to fit in, we want to be OK… we think that somehow if we’re good enough, God will love us… that somehow we can earn that worthiness…
We lie to ourselves… we try and live up to our own image of ourselves… we try and be the person that we’d like to be….
(I know it’s not just me… )
But just as there’s no perfect christmas… none of us ever live up to our own perfect ideals for ourselves… we all fall short, we all mess up… we’ve all got bits of ourselves that we’d rather no-one else saw…
and our families don’t live up to our ideals for them either… there is no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, there’s no perfect child or perfect parent either…
And when we hear Jesus teaching, that all we need to do is to love God, to love our neighbour, and to love ourselves… if we’re really honest with ourselves – often the hardest thing of all is to actually love ourselves as we are, right now.
How many of us live in the past… we’re angry, we’re upset,…. if only this thing hadn’t happened to me… then I’d be OK…. if only so & so hadn’t said or done x, y, z…. then I’d be OK… if only… if only…
Or perhaps you live in the future… I’ll be OK… once I’ve got a bit more money,… or once I’ve won the lottery… or once we’ve had a perfect Christmas dinner with everyone… or once this health problem has gone away… then I’ll be OK… next year… it will all be OK… if only… if only…
But Jesus didn’t come for who you might be if only…
The only place we can encounter God is always now… it’s always here and now within our life experience as it really is. Paula D’arcy says – “God comes to you disguised as your life.”
Frederick Buechner says – “Listen to your life.”
The angels message is for us too… Do not be afraid… Fear not… Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
This baby was born, to show us that God loves us right now, as we are… we have nothing to fear. God loves you, right now, exactly as you are. Whoever you are, whatever has happened in the past… whatever you’ve done…
This baby, born in the messy stable… came to share with us God’s love for who we actually are.
Are we willing to live in this moment now… and to accept the reality of who we are… to open ourselves up, to love ourselves as we really are… not just who we’d like to be… if only… can we accept that God really does love us as we are…?
In those moments when we can let go of that control… when we can surrender, and be just as we are, right now… it’s in those moments that we can encounter glimpses of God too…
When we allow that perfect, idealised version of ourselves to be broken… when we let ourselves live with our own cracks… that’s where the light gets in… the humanity!
On the back of your order of service you’ve got a picture of a pottery bowl… a bowl that has been broken and then been repaired with gold, in the Japanese tradition. Their understanding is that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
I think that is a good metaphor for our faith too… when we let go of who we think we might be… when we live with who we actually are… when we accept our own brokenness… and start to actually love ourselves… to let God in, and let that love happen… it’s a beautiful thing.
Many of you will know Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Today, we’ve blessed our new altar frontal here… and we’ve remembered the story… the design from 8 years ago… the aspirations of how it might be… the time living with the unfinishedness… the courage to look at the pieces, to let them be broken and re-formed… and the beautiful finished piece that we have here today… the wholeness that has come through the brokenness… just like the japanese pottery, repaired with gold…
Are we willing to let our lives be transformed too?)
As we gather round the table for communion shortly… it’s this same paradox of brokenness and wholeness.
This baby Jesus, born in a mess… grew up, lived and died to share that love with us. Through his own brokenness on the cross, he showed us that we could be whole.
As we receive the bread and the wine, we face our own reality… these gifts shared freely with us, with the broken, real people that we actually are…
This love of God accepts us as we are right now, here tonight…
But just like the broken bowl… God doesn’t leave us where we are now… the gift to us, through the baby Jesus… is the call to keep choosing life… the broken bowl is transformed with gold… and we too are continually called to transformation… God meets us where we are, he loves us as we are… and he calls us to love ourselves, and be transformed through this universal gift of love. That love transforms the broken bits of our life, the bits we wish were different, the bits we’d like to hide… God’s love weaves them together with golden light… to encounter the beauty within the brokenness.
So tonight, I invite you to encounter Jesus… to encounter your true selves… to encounter this love… through the mystery, the paradox, the wonder… of God with us… shared through bread and wine.
I pray that this year you will have a beautiful, messy, broken, wholly imperfect, wonderful Christmas.