Monday 26 December 2011

Sermon at Midnight Mass

The following sermon was preached at Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Cape Town.

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

‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us … to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.’

May I speak in the name of God, the Everlasting Father, whose Eternal Son is born among us – our Saviour and our Prince of Peace – by the power of his Holy Spirit. Amen.

Seeing the model of the Christ-child on the altar, ready for the Dean to place in the crib, just now, reminds me of this story. There once was a small girl, who was taken by her granny to see the nativity scene at her local church. ‘Isn't that beautiful?’ said the granny. ‘Look at all the animals, and Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.’ ‘Yes, Granny’ replied the little girl, ‘it’s lovely, but I’m a bit worried about the baby Jesus. Isn’t he ever going to grow up? He's still the same size he was last year.’

How often small children see things with a clarity that is beyond us! In fact, Jesus in his adult ministry rebuked the religious authorities by quoting from the Psalms that ‘out of the mouths of babes and infants’ comes true understanding and praise of God (Ps 8:2, Mt 21:16). So the question that little girl poses to us tonight is this: is the baby Jesus ever going to grow up, or does he, for you, always remain an infant? Hand in hand with this goes much the same question, put the other way round: Is your faith stuck at the infantile stage, or are you growing up, and maturing, in your belief and how it is reflected in your life?

Now, of course, Jesus also said to his disciples, ‘unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 18:3). But there is a great difference between being child-like, and childish. Any parent of over-tired small children, throwing a wobbly, in the week before Christmas knows all about that!

But we need to ask ourselves, do we too expect God, just like some eternal Santa Claus, to give us just what we want, in the way that we want it, right here and now? And if we don’t get it, we threaten him as a cross toddler does ‘Daddy, I don’t love you anymore!’ ‘God, I don’t believe in you anymore!’

Human parents know that sometimes their children just do not understand what is good for them. They are too little to see the whole big picture. And they are too immature to realise they must depend on their parents, and do things their parents’ way – and that if they don’t, they might find that what they want to do will only hurt them. We also are too small, beside God who is infinite, to understand everything fully. But he does, and he is the God of love, who cares for us more than we can ask or imagine.

So we ought to learn to trust him, and do things his way – for he really does know what is best for us. And to live according to his ways is the path to true happiness, true satisfaction, true peace of mind – the sort of peace of mind, and courage, and strength, that we need when life is tough, and we don’t understand why things don’t turn out as we want them.

And because Jesus is God incarnate – fully human, fully divine – we can be honest in bringing him our hopes and fears. Here too the trusting openness of children can help us. Last week, my children and I were stuck in a lift at the airport for over an hour, with a mother and her two daughters. It was horribly hot and oppressive, and the younger girl became very anxious and upset. She finally said ‘I am cool on the outside, but I’m scared on the inside.’ And, being open about her fears helped her to deal with them, and allowed the rest of us to help her too – even as we too were also helped by her to own our own unspoken fears. We need to be open about our fears, and bring them to Jesus – and in opening ourselves to him, we open the door for him to come to us and help us in the areas of our lives where we most need it.

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, because he grew into the man who can help us become truly the people we were created to be. If we want to fulfil our true potential, if we want to live significant lives – lives that make a difference for all eternity – we must start by worshipping the baby in the crib, but then we must get off our knees, and follow his example. Living the self-controlled, upright and godly lives, of which St Paul wrote in his letter to Titus, is not for babies. It takes guts to commit ourselves to saying the right thing, doing the right thing – especially in a world where it is seen as clever to be bending the rules, cutting corners, telling white lies, jumping the queue – everything short of being found out.

And, on a more personal level, isn’t it the case that at Christmas, under pressure to have a good time with our nearest and dearest, we are most likely to find ourselves, tetchy and short-tempered, and rubbing one another up the wrong way! It is very tough always to be loving, caring, generous, kind, patient, truthful, self-controlled (especially when it comes to another helping on our plate, or in our glass!).

But here is the Christmas good news – and the reason why I am, and will remain, an Anglican, a Christian. When God calls us to become our very best selves, he also promises to help us. This is why we call Jesus ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. He is alongside us – rather like a coach on the side-lines of the football pitch – telling us what to do, encouraging us, so we find that we have that extra bit of energy, strength, courage, commitment. And when we make a mess of life, when it is as if we have fallen down with our face in the mud – then Jesus is also beside us, always ready to hear us say ‘sorry’, and always holding out his hand, to help us to our feet, so we can have a fresh start – no matter how many times we need it.

As St Paul wrote to Titus ‘He [Jesus Christ] it is, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds’ (Titus 2:14). The baby Jesus in the crib is inseparable from the adult man who hung on the cross. The Christmas message they both have for us is this: that God’s love is greater than we can ever imagine, greater than all of life, greater than the power of death, and he will never stop loving us.

And this is true even on days we are more childish, than child-like. We just need to remember to be like the toddler, having a tantrum, who sits on his father’s lap, as he beats his little fists on his father’s chest, saying ‘Daddy, I hate you!’ – yet all the time he knows that his father’s arms are wrapped around him, holding him safe, and never letting go.

So may you know yourselves enfolded in the love of God this Christmas – as you worship the infant in the crib, and as you respond to the voice of the adult Jesus Christ, who calls each of us by name, saying ‘follow me’. And may all the blessings of Christmas fill your life and your home, now and always. Amen.