A Sermon from Sherborne

Fear not

Up and down the country on this Christmas Day, in the cathedrals and churches of our land, preachers – many of them far more eminent than I – will be looking back on the year that is passing, and trying to relate the message of Christmas to the many upheavals, disasters and tragedies the world has endured over the last twelve months. They will not be short of material. Conflicts and bitterness over Brexit and the General Election; disasters such as flooding, wildfires and volcanic eruptions; terrorist attacks abroad and knife crimes at home: all have stamped indelibly on our minds the knowledge that the world can be a place of pain and heartbreak.

Well, if these are the themes I should be addressing this morning, I have to tell you I do not know what to say. I would have made a terrible Archbishop: I have no soundbites for these things, no answers. Nature does what nature does as this world follows the natural cycles and laws of its creation. We know that God does not stretch out a great hand from the heavens to hold back the tidal wave or the forest fire, and it would be absurd to expect him to. And human nature continues to do what human nature has always done, and we all have the capacity to leave devastation and hurt and suffering in our wake as we make our selfish progress through life – and some do it on a vast scale, a climate-changing scale. God has no magic wand to wave to prevent it all, and nor does he descend briefly from the sky to clean things up. And yet,

The angel said unto them, ‘Fear not’.

The Bible, that wonderful collection of books so horribly neglected by most people and so horribly abused by others, seldom responds to heartbreak and pain by offering explanations. Instead, it offers reassurance, comfort and hope.

It is quite extraordinary how mindful the Bible is of the broken-hearted. Turn to just one prophet, Isaiah, and there you will find the lovely words, ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God’ (40:1); ‘I am he that comforts you’ (51:12); ‘The Lord has comforted his people’ (52:9). The prophet describes his commission from God like this:

to bring good news to the humble,

to bind up the broken-hearted,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and release to those in prison;

to comfort all who mourn,

to give them garlands instead of ashes;

oil of gladness instead of mourners’ tears.

Of course, the Church must be able to speak into the local and national and international problems of the day. Of course, sometimes it is the preacher’s job to rouse people and stir their consciences. But in every sermon, and especially in sermons on this day of all days, there must be reassurance; there must be comfort.

And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not’

 So my concern this morning is most especially for you who are here, and particularly for those of you who are nursing broken hearts or shattered hopes or disappointed dreams. I know the stories, the deep-down, personal stories, of only a few of you, who have entrusted them to me. Yet in a great congregation like this there will be many who this year have known close bereavement or fractured relationships, the invasion of illness or the black clouds of depression, the sense of failure or the nightmare of just having messed things up. And to you, today, the angel says, ‘Fear not’.

For this is the real meaning of Christmas, a message of comfort and of hope. God does not respond to our anguished cries of ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why this?’ with an explanation. Instead he replies with the crying of a small child. The cries of that small child, at the start of his life of risk and suffering, were the right thing for God to say at the first Christmas, and they are the right thing for us to hear today. For those cries signal that God has come into his world as one of us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, to change things, simply by the completeness of his love. Jesus gives himself to the work of transforming the world by transforming human hearts, and he gives himself utterly and completely. And we are changed. New things become possible for us. We discover new levels of love and loving, and are discovered by them. God’s answer to the problem of suffering and heartbreak is not a theory, but the story of the life and the death of Jesus.

Just one thing has to happen to make that possible for you. I said a moment ago that I know the deep-down, personal stories of only a few of you: those of you who have entrusted something of that story to me. That is a huge privilege for me; I am told by those who do it that it is of real help to them. But to know the healing touch of God, we have each to entrust our personal, individual stories to him, and allow those stories to be touched by his story. Your story needs to become part of the divine story, and then you will be changed. Heartbreaks and hurts will not go away, but somehow they will not seem the disasters and tragedies which once they were. The God who works in the weakness and the smallness of the Christmas child will work in your weakness and smallness, to bless you and to strengthen you. And as you respond to the baby’s cry, so too you will hear the angel say, to you, ‘Fear not.’

And for that, thanks be to God.

Canon Eric Woods 25/12/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne