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A Sermon from Sherborne
Only the beginning
I wonder how many of you can remember a former Bishop of Salisbury, George Reindorp? He led this diocese from 1973 to 1982, having previously been Bishop of Guildford. Sadly I never met him, though I have read some of his books. He was by all accounts a man of sharp wit – sometimes a little too sharp. For example, of one of his Episcopal colleagues – who had been a Sherborne curate in the ’thirties – he once remarked ‘The Bishop of Chester, like most oarsmen, believes that he can only move forward by looking backward.’
Well, I do not doubt that many church leaders have received their early training on the river, and like Dr Reindorp I have little patience with a wistful looking backward. The proper study of history is one thing: properly understood, it can save us from a great many mistakes in the present and in the future, and I for one would make it compulsory for every politician to have a crash course in British and indeed world history before assuming high office. But a nostalgic looking-backward to some fabled age when we imagine that everything was so much better than it is now is seldom more than escapism, and it can paralyse us as we face present and future challenges and opportunities.
So for me to confess to a bout of nostalgia is quite something – yet I pine for the time when Christmas wasn’t so completely over by Boxing Day; for a time when joy in the long-awaited festival didn’t evaporate so quickly; for the era when a real effort was made to make the Twelve Days of Christmas a time of rejoicing, of peace and of goodwill.
Did such a time ever exist, or is my wishful thinking just that, no more than sentimental moonshine? In any case, I have no wish to rob anyone of their annual extravaganza of food and drink and presents, even if that is properly translated into indigestion, hangovers and massive debt. No, it is simply no good the clergy bleating about that side of Christmas: the secular world has that all sewn up right down to the last plink, plink, fizz. But what really concerns me is that the message of Christ’s birth, the Good News of the Incarnation, so often fails to hit home in the Church.
For make no mistake, to the religious folk, to the faithful, of 1st century Palestine, it was an amazing – no, a shocking – message that God should come as a man, that he should strip himself of all power and majesty and glory and consent to be born illegitimate, poor, in a stinking stable. The picture, properly drawn, is stark and challenging and overwhelming, so much so that St Paul actually calls it a skandalon , a scandal [1 Cor. 1:23].Small wonder, then, that we are constantly tempted to tame this scandal by wrapping it in tinsel and decorating it with pretty Christmas card scenes and nice sanitary cribs.
It all reminds me of a story from ancient Rome. The city had decided to stage a magnificent procession to celebrate its own greatness. To form the climax of the procession they picked out the most handsome man in the city and covered his naked body with gold leaf. Romans, this symbol of shining and radiant gold was meant to proclaim, were not mere flesh and blood; they were supermen, a race of heroes. And so the procession began. But before the day was much older the young man keeled over, dead.
Human bodies are not made to be covered with gold leaf. The pores of the skin cannot breathe, cannot function, if they are gold-plated. In gilding him they killed him.
And yet this is so often what we do with Jesus: we the Church, the People of God. Either out of a mistaken sense of reverence or because we find him less disturbing that way, we cover Jesus with tinsel and gold – without realising that that is the quickest way to destroy both him and his message, and the whole glory and wonder and scandal of the Incarnation.
So let us get back to the real world. Strip off the gold leaf and put Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, into the cattle stall. God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God – yes, all these things. But also a helpless baby in a pub stable, with a peasant mother to suckle him, a village carpenter to stand guard over him, shepherds to wonder at him, animals to gaze on him. Our Good News cannot be of a churchiness that takes the carpenter, the peasant girl and the child out of the hurly burly of life and so coats them with gold leaf that they are suffocated. Were it to be so, it would not be the sort of news that causes us to rejoice that Christmas is not over, that it is only just begun; not the sort of news to sustain us in the New Year, whatever it brings us; not the sort of news to make us men and women of bright faith and constant prayer.
For it is forward, and not backward, that we must face. For Christians, Christmas Day is only the beginning. It is now, as we face the New Year, that Christmas matters – and I believe that people will still push their way through the night to worship the Christchild if we can tell them with faith and with joy, with excitement and with conviction, that the shed at the pub is an eternal fact, that God has become man and earthed his will and purposes in the ordinary things that make up the stuff and substance of life: carpenters, shepherds, children; factories, offices, hospitals, schools. For it is into our world that Christ is incarnated – our world, yours and mine – to become one of us, limb and tissue. And if we are prepared to welcome him and not be embarrassed or shamed by the wonder, the glory and the scandal of it, then what is often only a reading at a carol service will become true for us today: ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people.’