Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at First Eucharist of Christmas 2012

24 December 2012 at 23:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The Bible Society recently conducted a survey. You may have seen a report in some of the newspapers. The survey wanted to find out how well the British public knew the story we celebrate tonight, the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The researchers ICM asked more than 1,000 children under 12 and 1,000 parents ten questions about their knowledge of the Christmas story. Most scored six out of ten; almost a quarter got eight or more answers right.

Some of the answers were a little off beam.

Just under half said it was the shepherds who first visited the baby Jesus. But – and please don’t laugh – 37 people thought it was Father Christmas or Santa Claus: sadly, most of them were parents not children!

98% identified the place of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem. Not bad – though a handful said it was Beirut. Perhaps they were teasing the questioner. Am I being soft?

But overall the conclusion is that people do know the Christmas story as told by St Luke pretty well. 63% know that the angels announced the news. 77% know Herod was king. 83% know that the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth. 89% know that Mary put the baby Jesus in a manger. Only 14% know that the Wise Men came from the East. They are part of St Matthew’s account.

It is interesting that everyone remembers St Luke’s story and not St Matthew’s. Perhaps this tells us of the prevailing influence in this country of primary school nativity plays, based on St Luke’s Gospel. Many of us will remember them, perhaps all too well. Part of the delight is when something goes wrong. A small boy opens the inn-door. Poor tired Joseph stands there, with Mary beside him. ‘We have travelled far and my betrothed is great with child. Have you any room in the inn tonight?’ ‘Yes, we’ve had a cancellation; you’re welcome.’ I think his parents must have run a hotel.

I dare say we all know the story well. But I wonder how far we have really thought about the story within the story. What is it all about? Let me sketch for a moment two or three things I think St Luke really wants us to know.

What about the shepherds? These shepherds are no gentleman farmers but rough men and boys, unlettered, uncultured, living out on the hills a tough life, almost outcastes from society. It is not the religious or civic authorities or the sophisticates of the day, the movers and shakers, who come to visit Jesus first. They do not glorify and praise God for all they have seen. The shepherds do.

We know nothing more of the shepherds. St Luke is not interested in tracing their changed lives. Here in this moment they stand for the poor, the humble, the downtrodden; they can see who Jesus is and worship him, for the very reason that they are not worldly, not weighed down with possessions or status or power.

If we are reading St Luke’s Gospel from the beginning we have already heard the song of Mary, bearing the Lord in her womb, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ The shepherds stand for all the lowly and the hungry. St Luke quotes the adult Jesus as saying to his disciples, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.’ The shepherds are blessed. That is one of St Luke’s themes. We have to come to the Lord in humility, in simplicity; sophistication will not save us. But, happily, nor is poverty of nature a barrier.

The second thing I think St Luke really wants us to know is that God has prepared all this carefully from the beginning.

The timing is planned. When he describes the beginning of our Lord’s ministry as an adult, St Luke gives an account of Jesus’s ancestry, starting, ‘Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli’ and ends up like this: ‘son of Adam, son of God.’ St Luke also wants us to know that this is an event of world-wide significance: Augustus is Roman Emperor and Quirinius governor of Syria.

The choice of Mother is planned: ‘the angel Gabriel was sent by God.’ St Luke has already told his listeners of the miraculous birth of St John the Baptist who will be the forerunner of our Lord and now of the careful choice of Mary to be the Lord’s Mother.

The place of birth is planned: the city of David called Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David.

God’s plan for the salvation of his people is from the beginning and is worked out ‘when the time had fully come.’ When the parents of Jesus come to present their forty day old son in the Jerusalem temple, the old man Simeon says, ‘Master, my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.’

Thirdly, St Luke really wants us to think about what this birth means about God himself. God Almighty who was before time began, who is the ultimate Creator, the Word and the Wisdom, and who ever will be, chooses to be born into flesh, in order that He can share our lives as the most humble of human beings, the Son of refugees without a roof over their heads. No palace, no feather bed, no warm fire, no delighted grandparents or great-aunts: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, St Luke would quote the adult Jesus as saying; and a little earlier, saying to his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ Already in this moment of birth, we see looming the shadow of the Cross.

What we celebrate tonight is above all this amazing truth: that in the birth of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, almighty God fulfils the plan he formed long ago, he empties and humbles himself, in order to share our life at the depths and to transform it, to offer us and all human beings life in all its fullness. And our loving Lord God comes again amongst us tonight, sharing our life through his Word and through the Blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood in the bread and wine, so that the gift of life in all its fullness is one that each of us can receive, every one of us here tonight renewed and transformed, becoming truly his by his love.

The story within the story within the story, the eternal truth at the heart of the Universe, is that all this is for love: love of the people he made; love of the world he made; love of you and love of me; love that offers us the blessed hope of everlasting life. May we embrace and ever hold fast that gift! Then it will be the truly happy Christmas that I wish you and yours.