25 December 2003

Methodist President's Christmas sermon

Following is the sermon given by the President of the British Methodist Conference, the Rev Dr Neil Richardson, at the Christmas Midnight Communion Service at Lidgett Park Methodist Church, Leeds:

By the time Christmas Eve arrives, many people are ready to pull up the drawbridge: draw the curtains, switch off, and enjoy the holiday with family and friends. Not all are so fortunate - even in Britain, and if that is so, then Christmas can be a difficult time, rather than a joyful one.

But for many people, Christmas is holiday time and family time. And yet, strange as it may seem to say it, Christmas is actually about neither. Of course, most of us are ready for a rest by the time we get to Christmas, and it's good if we can have one. And these days, when members of the family often live miles apart, a national holiday can be a rare opportunity to see each other - and that's a good thing as well, (even if Aunt Effie, or Cousin Willie are a bit of a pain, and make you quite glad Christmas comes round only once a year).

But it's still true: Christmas at its heart, is neither about the family, nor, necessarily, a holiday.

If Christmas were not a holiday, what would be left of it? From the Christian point of view - everything! The first Christmas marked the beginning of a new era in human history. The Bible describes it like this:

'The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all people'.

In the words of the 'Cowboy Carol', 'There is a new world beginning from tonight'. In the coming of Jesus Christ, God has changed everything, as when the appearance of the sun lights up a landscape, making it look, and feel, a quite different place. A prophecy in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, describes it like this:

'The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land as dark as death, a light has dawned'.

So, yes, it's not too much to say: God has changed everything. When we weren't looking, (and, in this sense, we never are), He crept in amongst us, quietly, unobtrusively. Noone knew He was there, (except, according to tradition, His parents and a few others). And yet, with gentle power and compelling grace, He planted in human life and history a presence which continues to transform and illuminate people's lives. He inaugurated a partnership with the human race which marked a new era. They called it a new 'covenant'.

God changed everything. If anyone thought - or thinks- that God has enemies, they were wrong. If anyone thought that illness, or evil, or death, will have the last word in human life, they were wrong. Or that there will be no end to tyranny, poverty, or injustice - wrong again! Tyrants like Caesar Augustus in the biblical Christmas story, and all like him, have been served notice that this is not their world.

And last, but not least, if anyone had thought that God was not interested in them, or did not place a unique value on their life, they are wrong. The coming of Jesus Christ transforms the human landscape with the searching light of God's truth and the warmth of God's love. True, they had never been absent from the human scene, As the Old Testament shows well enough, but now they shine in Jesus Christ with new intensity. One of the Old Testament's prophecies, in the Christian view, anticipates the transformation:

'Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; he will bear the government upon his shoulder'.

You cannot do justice to the coming of Jesus unless you say 'God has changed everything'. Come the first Easter morning, the human landscape was transformed. Or, let us say, come the first Christmas Eve, 'there is a new world beginning from tonight'.

And yet, even as we say 'God has changed everything', we must also say 'God has changed nothing'. That may seem a shocking thing to say on Christmas Eve, but Christmas cannot be simply an escape route into a land of nostalgia and make-believe. Newspaper headlines have not improved. The Caesar Augustus who had been in power for some twenty years before Jesus was born was to reign for another fifteen or so years. It was not obvious that God was changing everything in the coming of Jesus! It was not obvious even to John the Baptist. 'Are you the One?' he asked Jesus. 'Are you the One who is to come?' And the reply of Jesus to His cousin anticipated his own crucifixion:

'Happy is that person whose faith in God does not founder on me'.

For the God who crept into our lives in the coming of Jesus Christ is not a God who waves a magic wand and, at a stroke changes everything for all to see. The One who stole silently into our life left it in ignominy. His parents, and a ragbag of herdsmen and eastern astrologers, saw him come. At the end, at His end, only two or three female supporters lingered, hardly bearing to look. According to two of the gospels, just one of his executioners, a foreigner, saw, in the moment of His dying, who He really was.

What a C.V.! Born in a manger, an animals' feeding trough, publicly crucified thirty years later! This is why we have to say 'God has changed nothing'. It is a hard thing to say, and yet, in one deniably important sense, it us true. It lies behind every anguished cry at the suffering and evil in the world, 'Why? Why? Where is God in all this?' It is not easy to say this tonight of all nights. But if Christmas is for life, and not just for Christmas; if, that is to say, we don't want its light and warmth to fade in the cold chill of January, then we should recognize that, to all intents and appearances the coming of God in Jesus Christ into the world changed nothing - with one exception.

So how are we to understand this paradox, this mystery? In the coming of Jesus Christ God has changed everything. Unless we can say this, our faith is empty and void. Yet in the coming of Jesus Christ God has changed nothing. Unless we say this, our faith parts company with the world as we know and experience it every day. We must say both. A great theologian put it like this:

'Visible and invisible, here and not yet here... this is the character of salvation. The person who wants a salvation which is only visible cannot see the divine child in the manger, nor the divinity of the man on the cross, and the paradoxical way of all divine action. Only those who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death, can say 'My eyes have seen your salvation'.

The heart of the mystery is what the Christian faith calls grace. Grace is the open secret, the quiet miracle, the welcome stranger who creeps into our lives when we're not looking. The grace of God is that creative power which helps us to do what otherwise we could never do. It is at work everywhere. You can find it in the help a stranger gives you even though he doesn't have to, and it's not in his interests to do so. You can experience it in every generous word spoken or action done which has no ulterior motive, but simply comes spontaneously from somewhere within. This does not happen always and everywhere. That is why the world needs to be saved from its tendency to self-destruct. That is why we need the grace of God which is changing, and will change everything.

The Church sometimes light worlds away from what it stands for. And yet, in spite of its many and abject failures, the creation of the Christian Church is the one exception to the claim that in the coming of Jesus God changed nothing. The Church is committed to celebrating the presence of the universal grace and love of God, revealed, it believes, in Jesus. It is committed to helping realize God's new world of justice, healing and peace.

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