With thanks to Archbishop Rowan Williams for the idea, here’s my sermon for Christmas 2011:
+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Yes, Messy Christmas!
“Oh, dear!” they say. “He’s been at the Christmas cheer way too much already!” they say.
In fact, if you’d seen me typing this before I used spell-check, you’d be sure of it!
But, no: I really mean to wish you a Messy Christmas!
Ten days ago, Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said this on the BBC Radio 2 “Pause for Thought” programme:
The story of the first Christmas is the story of a series of completely unplanned, messy events – a surprise pregnancy, an unexpected journey that’s got to be made, a complete muddle over the hotel accommodation when you get there…Not exactly a perfect holiday.
When we look at the way we go about our preparations every year for Christmas, there are always aspects that get messy.
My KT is brilliant at shopping for Christmas gifts. She usually makes the list of “giftees” in January, and spends a lot of shopping time through the year to get the right present for everyone.
For several years now, I have chosen the design and ordered the printing of our Christmas cards in November or December of the previous year and they’re all in the cupboard ready by February.
And, thanks to our very good friends, Karen and Peter, we don’t have to do any real preparation for Christmas dinner: Karen plans all that and leaves us free for the “church stuff’.
All in all, don’t we sound well-organised?
But then reality hits! As Robert Burns is said to have penned,
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
At midday today (Saturday), KT was still frantically wrapping presents.
Last Saturday evening, I was up till about 11.30 writing Christmas cards – last chance to give to parish folk without needing postage stamps! I should also mention that after the best part of twelve months in my – apparently damp – study cupboard, the envelopes had mostly irretrievably sealed themselves. So I had to head for Officeworks and buy new envelopes earlier in the week.
And about 4.30 this morning, I woke up feeling very ill with what seemed like terminal food poisoning! And KT was only a couple of hours behind me! A messy Christmas indeed! 🙂
This medical inconvenience threw a few more plans into chaos, as much extra sleep was needed.
Returning to my sermon about lunch-time, I discovered that “person or persons unknown” – probably a cat or two – had managed to delete all of my notes from the laptop en route for the biscuit tray. 🙂 Which may, in fact, have been fortunate, because I think I had not been writing much worth preaching! Perhaps this is a little better!
Now, for a few moments, let’s go back to the first Christmas – a word which no-one present that night would have thought of using, I imagine.
All that Joseph and Mary knew was that their life over the past nine months had been thrown into what I might call “Burnsian chaos”. Joseph, a man in his twenties, or maybe a little older, was engaged to a young girl of perhaps fourteen years, and the planning for the wedding was in full swing. By the end of this month, I will have conducted twenty-five weddings for the year; so I know a bit about preparing for weddings. It’s a lot of work and planning, much of it precise and not easily adaptable to change.
And then, as we heard from Luke’s Gospel last Sunday, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and puts a spanner in the works! Mary is going to have a baby, but not in wedlock and not by Joseph!
This is beginning to get messy!
According to Matthew’s Gospel, the angel goes on to tell Joseph all about it, and he thinks of breaking off the engagement and leaving Mary to her fate. But he accepts the angel’s message of Jesus’ divine parentage, and so keeps Mary, marrying her after the baby is born.
And today’s Gospel reading, from Luke, throws yet another spanner in the works! The Emperor of Rome, Augustus, regardless of the inconvenience to his subjects, including the hapless Mary and Joseph, commands a census to be taken of all people in the Empire. And for good measure, people have to return to the towns of their ancestry.
This means that Joseph and the nine-months-pregnant Mary must leave behind the well-prepared nursery and the undoubtedly finely-crafted cradle at home, and travel a hundred-and-thirty kilometres to Bethlehem, probably on foot, but possibly with a donkey (though, certainly, no such luxurious transport rates a mention in the Gospel story).
And because so many people count their heritage as being Bethlehem, the city of David, there is “no room for them in the inn”, even if they could have afforded a suite.
So a stable, possibly a cave carved in the side of a hill, becomes Maternity Central! And in the animals’ feeding trough is laid the new-born King of the Universe.
Being both male and without children, I have never had to go through the process of childbirth, but I am told it is usually pretty messy. And Mary goes through the same messy process to give birth to the Son of God.
And, talking about messy, just when the new parents and the little one need a bit of peace and quiet to recover from their ordeal, in come a bunch of bedraggled, dirty, smelly shepherds, rattling on about a vision of angels! Now Mary and Joseph had had their own encounters with an angel; but this message about “a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Jesus, Immanuel – God with us – Son of God and Son of Mary, comes into our world in a time of chaos and uncertainty.
And Jesus, Immanuel, Son of God and Son of Mary, come to us this evening/this morning in the midst of our lives just as they are, whether calm and ordered, or – more often and more likely – chaotic and somewhat agley.
Jesus comes to us where and as we are, and loves us and forgives us and reconciles us with God and with one another.
This is what the Apostle Paul is saying in tonight’s Epistle reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”, and what the angels are singing in their “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
I finish with the final words of Archbishop Rowan’s talk:
“… in the complete mess of the first Christmas, God says, ‘Don’t worry – I’m not going to wait until you’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before I get involved with you. I’m already there for you in the middle of it all, and if you just let yourself lean on me a bit instead of trying to make yourself and everything around you perfect by your own efforts, everyone will feel a little more of my love flowing’.
I’m never sure whether to wish anyone a peaceful Christmas, because it hardly ever is. But I can wish you joy in the midst of the mess, and every blessing from the God of ordinary, untidy, surprising things.”
The Lord, Immanuel, is with you!