A Sermon For Christmas Day, Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto, 25 December, 2018
Recently Joy and I were in the Anglican cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, a gorgeous, soaring building that inspires awe and an otherworldly sense of devotion. But in that space was something very worldly and real. One of the first things we noticed as we entered the nave was a large statue looked a little like a very large Christmas tree, and the colours were festive, reds and oranges. However, as we looked closer, we could see that the tree was made out of scraps of fabric from lifejackets. A sign nearby told us the these lifejackets were worn by Syrian refugees. The installation reminds us of how these desperate people risked drowning at sea in unsafe, overcrowded boats to escape war in their homeland. Many of them drown at sea in the process of trying to escape.
The sculpture was there to remind us that this is the world that the Christ child enters, each and every Christmas. As Simon+ told us last night, Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus, comes to our messy and imperfect world. The world of the Syrian refugee in our time is, in many ways, a world that Mary and Jospeh would have understood. They were familiar with powerful and narcissistic leaders who wanted to preserve their power at any cost, and whose whims could cause the deaths of thousands. The story in Matthew’s gospel of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod seems terribly contemporary to us. When we see a poor family seeking safety, whether by buying passage on a rickety boat, or marching through the Mexican desert, we see something of the Holy Family in them, and we see the promise of God with Us in all these cases.
The Christmas story can seem fragile, like a single flickering candle, How can one child, then and now, make a difference amidst so much darkness? Yet it is John, who tells no Nativity story but puts it all in perspective, when he starts his gospel by saying that “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). The Christmas story is the story of how God overcomes the darkness of sin and death. It’s a story that is as plain and simple as a crude barn in Bethlehem, and yet is cosmic in scope, as God does battle against the things that threaten God’s creation. G.K. Chesterton put it well when he wrote that
“…our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.”
The Victorians who gave us some of our most beloved carols put this cosmic struggle into lyrics that we need to hear with fresh ears. Joy to the World talks about God ending the curse of Adam, as if he is reclaiming an overgrown Garden of Eden:
“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen tells us that Jesus was
“born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray”
And Hark the Herald Angels puts it best I think:
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die”
How God accomplishes these things is a mystery yet to be unfolded, but these old carols help us better understand the Incarnation. We don’t have to wait for some unspecified future where God rescues us from a sinful world. Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Hope is also with us, so that we don’t have to fear the darkness or be afraid of death. Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Love is with us, so that we don’t have to be captive to our own selfish impulses that lead us to fear the stranger or the refugee. Emmanuel, God With Us, means that Justice and Righteousness are with us, so that we don’t have to give the last word to tyrants and dictators, the Heroes of our day.
Emmanuel, God With Us, changes the world we live in. It defines God’s Kingdom, not as place of walls and borders, but as a place where the refugee finds welcome, where the poor and humble find dignity, and where all are treated justly. We get a glimpse of this kingdom in Mary’s song in Luke’s gospel (Lk 1:50-53):
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
When the people of Melbourne Cathedral built that sculpture out of the life jackets of refugees, they were building a vision of God’s promise at Christmas, but they were also reminding Christians of their duty as followers of the Christ child. Emmanuel, God with us, means that we live hopefully, that we act charitably, and that we work for Justice and Righteousness. The traditional second reading on Christmas Eve, from Titus, speaks of how God will make a people “who are zealous for good deeds” (Ti 2:4).
My prayer for us, this Christmas and in the year to come, is that we live in the unshakeable belief that Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, so that our hearts are hopeful, so that our words and actions are loving, and so that we demand justice and righteousness for all.
May God bless you and yours, and may you know God’s love and blessing this Christmas and in the year to come.