Sunday 26 December 2010

Sermon at Midnight Mass, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town

Isaiah 9: 2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

May I speak in the name of the living God, who is born this day in the city of David: our Saviour, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord. As we celebrate once again the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, let me be the first to wish you all a Very Happy Christmas! May it be a time of peace and joy, of promise and hope, of shared love with family and friends!

And let me, on behalf of everyone here, thank the sub-Dean, Fr Terry Lester, the Canon Precentor, Fr Bruce Jenneker, Bishop Anthony Mdletshe and the rest of the Cathedral leadership team, together with the Director of Music, Mr David Orr, and everyone else who works so hard to sustain the varied life and ministry of the Cathedral, throughout the year, as well as in these wonderful celebrations of Christmas.

Though I risk being a little premature, let me also look forward to the New Year, and in particular to the coming of the new Dean. Regular Cathedral worshippers know this already, but let me announce to the wider Cape Town community that we have appointed the Venerable Michael Weeder to succeed Dean Rowan Smith. Fr Michael is currently the Rector of St Phillip the Deacon and St Bartholomew, Woodstock, and Archdeacon of the Groote Schuur area. A son of Cape Town, he is one of our most senior priests, with over 25 years in ordained ministry. Fr Michael brings together a deep spirituality, rooted in Jesus Christ, with a wide awareness of God’s world and its needs. There’s even a bit of the Barack Obama about him – in his experience of community mobilization, especially on behalf of the wounded and marginalised!

I am sure he will continue the great tradition at St George’s, of being ‘the people’s Dean’ – both serving the Cathedral community, and encouraging the Cathedral in its calling to serve God’s world. I am sure he will be a courageous and spiritual leader, who will take the Cathedral forward into a new chapter in its significant life within our church and city. It is my intention to install him as Dean on 22 May. Between now and then, may I ask you all to pray for him, and his family – his wife Bonita, and children Chiara, Andile and Khanyisa - as they prepare to take this new vocation and ministry.

But let me now return to our celebration of Christmas! What, for you, is the heart of Christmas?

In the famous passage from St Luke’s Gospel, just read to us, we heard how the shepherds came into Bethlehem from their fields, in order to find the baby Jesus; and how they told Mary and Joseph of their miraculous encounter with the Angel of the Lord. They repeated the words the Angel had said to them – words which held the key to understanding these strange and wonderful events. The Angel said ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’

And then we heard that ‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ In the days, the years, that followed, Mary pondered those words in heart, and wondered about what it all meant. So - what does it all mean to you?

For many of us, a lot of our Christmas preparations has been about hunting for the right presents. When you get home tonight – or perhaps when you wake up in the morning – you will find them waiting for you: under the tree, or at the end of your bed: presents like this: [placing a large, beautifully wrapped, Christmas present on the side of the pulpit].

Lovely, isn’t it! So beautiful to look at! Aren’t I lucky to have such a gorgeous present! And, you know – perhaps it would be a shame to open it – because then I’d have to tear off the ribbons and rip the paper, and spoil its beauty. Well, let me just leave it there for a moment and tell you a story.

There was once a man, a god-fearing man, who went to church regularly, and knew that the Christmas story is all about God the Father sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Saviour. One day, terrible rains came – it just kept raining and raining and raining. The nearby stream began to rise, and rise and rise. The man began to get concerned, and he prayed ‘Lord Jesus, come and save me.’ And the man’s neighbour came by in his big 4-by-4, and said ‘Let me rescue you, before it is too late – come with me.’ Yet the man replied, ‘Thank you – I’ll just stay here – I’ll be OK. Jesus will save me.’ And he prayed some more, ‘Lord Jesus, come and save me.’

But the rain kept on falling and the waters kept on rising. The man was now sitting on the window-ledge, because the flood waters were inside his house, up to his ankles. And a policeman came past in a boat, and said ‘Let me rescue you, before it is too late – come with me.’ Yet the man replied, ‘Thank you – I’ll just stay here – I’ll be OK. Jesus will save me.’ And on he prayed ‘Lord Jesus, come and save me.’

And still the rain kept on falling and still the waters kept on rising. By now the man was standing the roof of his house, because the flood waters were way up the walls. And the emergency services’ helicopter came and hovered above him and one of the crew leant out, with his loud hailer, and shouted ‘Let me rescue you, before it is too late – come with me.’ Yet the man replied, ‘Thank you – I’ll just stay here – I’ll be OK. Jesus will save me.’ And he kept on praying ‘Lord Jesus, come and save me.’

Still it kept on raining, still the waters rose, and finally the man was swept off his house, and he drowned.

Being a god-fearing man, he found himself in heaven, though he remained perplexed that Jesus had not saved him as he expected. One day, he had the chance to speak to Jesus. ‘Lord’, he said, ‘May I ask you a question?’ ‘Go ahead’ said Jesus. ‘Lord’ he said, ‘when the flood came, why didn’t you answer my prayers and come and save me?’ ‘Well,’ said Jesus, ‘I sent a 4-by-4, then a boat, and then a helicopter – what more did you want?!’

What then is the moral of this story? God our Father’s greatest gift to us certainly is his Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. But we cannot merely receive him as the sweet story of a baby in a manger, and leave it at that. To do so is to keep hold of a beautiful present, but never open it, and discover the treasures within. Such a faith will be of little use to us. We need to unpack our faith – and get to know what it means for Jesus to be our Saviour and Redeemer – the one who calls out to us ‘come with me’ to us, every day of our life.

This can be a challenge. First, we have to let go of any beautiful romantic ideas about faith, and take up Jesus’ invitation to ‘follow me’, not knowing where he may lead us. His call is to follow his example – to live according to his standards – to turn our back on all that is destructive in human behaviour, and to strive for all that is good. We have to give up selfish living, doing things our own way, and do things God’s way instead.

This is not always easy – but there is good news for all of us who dare to put our lives into the hands of the living God. For, as we heard in our first reading, he promises to be to us a Wonderful Counsellor – guiding us in our choices about how we ought to live – so that we may be, as our second reading put it, ‘zealous for good deeds’. He will be the Almighty God, who encourages us with his own strength, to live the lives to which he calls us, so we do not have to do it on our own. He will be our Everlasting Father, who loves us and cares for us, far more than we can ever imagine – whose infinite love is for every single one of us here. And he will be our Prince of Peace, so that whatever life brings our way, we can have that deep assurance that he will see us safely through, if we hang on tight to him.

In these, and many other ways, we will find him meeting us, not only in churches and on Sundays, but – as my story, though a joke, illustrated – in the every-dayness of our lives. This is true, whatever we face in the world. Jesus will meet the people of Makhaza, as they seek dignity, health, safety through the toilet saga; he will meet the people of Sudan as they prepare for next month’s referendum; he will meet each of us, in every aspect of our personal, and communal, lives – if we will open our lives to him, and make him welcome, as we sung earlier.

This is a Christmas present worth unpacking – and, I can assure you, that no matter how long you live, you will keep on finding new treasures, as you ponder the meaning of those words of the Angel, in your heart. ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ May this be to you the best Christmas gift of all. Amen.

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