Methodist President's Christmas sermon

Following is the sermon given by the President of theBritish Methodist Conference, the Rev Dr Neil Richardson, at theChristmas Midnight Communion Service at Lidgett Park MethodistChurch, Leeds:

By the time Christmas Eve arrives, many people are ready to pullup the drawbridge: draw the curtains, switch off, and enjoy theholiday with family and friends. Not all are so fortunate - even inBritain, 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 actuallyabout neither. Of course, most of us are ready for a rest by thetime we get to Christmas, and it's good if we can have one. Andthese days, when members of the family often live miles apart, anational holiday can be a rare opportunity to see each other - andthat's a good thing as well, (even if Aunt Effie, or Cousin Willieare a bit of a pain, and make you quite glad Christmas comes roundonly once a year).

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

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

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

In the words of the 'Cowboy Carol', 'There is a new worldbeginning from tonight'. In the coming of Jesus Christ, God haschanged everything, as when the appearance of the sun lights up alandscape, making it look, and feel, a quite different place. Aprophecy 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 hasdawned'.

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), Hecrept in amongst us, quietly, unobtrusively. Noone knew He wasthere, (except, according to tradition, His parents and a fewothers). And yet, with gentle power and compelling grace, Heplanted in human life and history a presence which continues totransform and illuminate people's lives. He inaugurated apartnership with the human race which marked a new era. They calledit a new 'covenant'.

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

And last, but not least, if anyone had thought that God was notinterested in them, or did not place a unique value on their life,they are wrong. The coming of Jesus Christ transforms the humanlandscape with the searching light of God's truth and the warmth ofGod's love. True, they had never been absent from the human scene,As the Old Testament shows well enough, but now they shine in JesusChrist 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 willbear the government upon his shoulder'.

You cannot do justice to the coming of Jesus unless you say 'Godhas changed everything'. Come the first Easter morning, the humanlandscape was transformed. Or, let us say, come the first ChristmasEve, 'there is a new world beginning from tonight'.

And yet, even as we say 'God has changed everything', we mustalso say 'God has changed nothing'. That may seem a shocking thingto say on Christmas Eve, but Christmas cannot be simply an escaperoute into a land of nostalgia and make-believe. Newspaperheadlines have not improved. The Caesar Augustus who had been inpower for some twenty years before Jesus was born was to reign foranother fifteen or so years. It was not obvious that God waschanging everything in the coming of Jesus! It was not obvious evento John the Baptist. 'Are you the One?' he asked Jesus. 'Are youthe One who is to come?' And the reply of Jesus to His cousinanticipated his own crucifixion:

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

For the God who crept into our lives in the coming of JesusChrist is not a God who waves a magic wand and, at a stroke changeseverything for all to see. The One who stole silently into our lifeleft it in ignominy. His parents, and a ragbag of herdsmen andeastern astrologers, saw him come. At the end, at His end, only twoor three female supporters lingered, hardly bearing to look.According to two of the gospels, just one of his executioners, aforeigner, 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, inone deniably important sense, it us true. It lies behind everyanguished 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 ofall nights. But if Christmas is for life, and not just forChristmas; if, that is to say, we don't want its light and warmthto fade in the cold chill of January, then we should recognizethat, to all intents and appearances the coming of God in JesusChrist into the world changed nothing - with one exception.

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

'Visible and invisible, here and not yet here... this is thecharacter of salvation. The person who wants a salvation which isonly visible cannot see the divine child in the manger, nor thedivinity of the man on the cross, and the paradoxical way of alldivine action. Only those who can see power under weakness, thewhole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory undersuffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life underdeath, can say 'My eyes have seen your salvation'.

The heart of the mystery is what the Christian faith callsgrace. Grace is the open secret, the quiet miracle, the welcomestranger who creeps into our lives when we're not looking. Thegrace of God is that creative power which helps us to do whatotherwise we could never do. It is at work everywhere. You can findit 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 inevery generous word spoken or action done which has no ulteriormotive, but simply comes spontaneously from somewhere within. Thisdoes not happen always and everywhere. That is why the world needsto be saved from its tendency to self-destruct. That is why we needthe 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 ofthe Christian Church is the one exception to the claim that in thecoming of Jesus God changed nothing. The Church is committed tocelebrating the presence of the universal grace and love of God,revealed, it believes, in Jesus. It is committed to helping realizeGod's new world of justice, healing and peace.