15 December 2008

Teesside University – All Saints Church, Middlesbrough

Can I make a terrible heartfelt confession to you all – I do feel awfully ashamed of myself, standing here, festooned in all this fine ecclesiastical regalia. And here you are all gathered in this beautiful setting listening to the wonderful readings, the carefully prepared and rehearsed carols, amidst all the splendour and pageantry that this fine Institution can provide – and I’m about to say something terrible.

I might as well come straight out with it, tell the truth, shame the devil, honesty is the best policy and all that sort of thing. Well…I am getting a bit stressed out with and fed up of the festivities. They seem to have been coming for such a long time now. Almost since the end of the summer holidays it has been hovering in the wings, humming in the background, bubbling away on the backburner.

All you have to do is pop into town on any Saturday of December. By 11 am the place is cram-jam-packed, nowhere to park, constantly jostled, pushed off the pavement into the road, elbowed and nudged through the shops. It can be enjoyable, makes you feel alive as if you have a common purpose with your fellow-travellers. But, not far below the surface there lurks fever – frantic-panicked, all-pervading consumerism. Got to buy everything now or you will not be happy; you will not be showing how much you really love your family and friends. And as we get nearer and nearer to the holiday, the volume grows louder and louder and it penetrates deeper and deeper into your brain and heart, till you can’t think or feel anything but this Yule-tide madness.

I can understand people not wanting to have anything to do with it, wanting to escape it all. Everywhere we are being told what we should buy, what we should wear, what we should eat and how happy and contented we should be. But not everyone can be and feel like this. It’s not real. Death, sickness, disaster, war, homelessness, poverty, hurt, pain, abuse, don’t stop for the Christmas period. And many are affected by all these things today, now, this moment.

It is perhaps good to turn our minds to the reality of the first Christmas. Let’s try for a second to de-tinselify and un-ponsetiarise the usual interpretations most of us have about the Christmas story. Mary was certainly attentive and obedient to the word of God, but that did not lessen her apprehension and fear. She was betrothed, not married to Joseph, and finds herself pregnant. Not a happy situation to be in at that moment in Israel’s history, Joseph was, no doubt, a faithful man, but he was also very confused; it certainly wasn’t his child, that is obvious from his decided course of action – to divorce Mary in secret. It took an angel to persuade him to the contrary!

They find themselves away from their usual surroundings with nowhere to stay, no family, no friends, no welcoming faces around. They’re desperate because Mary is going into labour. The only place is a shed, a barn, an out-house where the animals were kept – again, let’s be realistic, dirty, dark, dungy, dank are words that spring to mind. Thankful for small mercies, here young, apprehensive Mary, together with confused, hurt Joseph go to bring this baby into the world. Not ideal is it?

It is certainly not ideal, certainly not pretty, certainly not planned. But in God’s eyes, in fact, all those things – it was right and fitting that his Son should be born into our messy world in this messy way. God was showing his love and communion with us in the mess we had created. He became incarnate, enfleshed in the middle of the mess.

It is good at this time of the year to look realistically at our own lives and not to run away from them. To accept ourselves as we are, imperfect, sinful, selfish etc. etc; and to recognise that God wants to enter into our imperfect state, our personally imperfect world, in order to restore his healing up-lifting love into our lives and into our world.

Am I worse than this time last year? I’m not sure. Is the world a worse place than two thousand years ago? I don’t think I can answer that honestly. Can it be a better place? Yes, because Christ, the Son of God has entered into it, has entered into me, and gives hope, and light and the opportunity to change. He gives me the chance to make a difference, if I want to. He gives me the opportunity to be the means of his entering into the lives of others. He gives me the chance to bring some of that hope, light and opportunity for change to others, if I want.

And even our Advent Carol Service this evening can be part of this mysterious and awesome event that took place two thousand and odd years ago, if we want. We can take that hope, that light, that opportunity out of this church and bring it to wherever we are going this evening and over the next few days, weeks. We can spread it far and wide if we want.

Let’s continue to allow Christ to become enfleshed, incarnate in our world through us. God bless you all. Thank you for being with us this evening. Thank you to everyone who has made this evening so meaningful, prayerful and joyful. May the rest of Advent bring you hope, light and opportunity for change; and may Christmas help you to recognise the presence of Jesus Emmanuel among us.