Sermon at Evensong on the First Sunday of Christmas 2019
We travel in faith, for the nativity story is one of journeys.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 29th December 2019 at 8.46 AM
The great Christmas story is still ringing in our ears, and just like the holy family, we too travel in faith, for the nativity story is one of journeys.
The journey of the three Kings to see the Christ child has captured the imagination of artists as far apart in time and space as the 15th century fresco artist Gozzoli and the 20th century poet T.S. Eliot.
But of course these are not the only travellers in the Christmas story; the shepherds also came down from their fields to see the Child whose birth was foretold.
St Luke tells us that Mary laid the Baby Jesus in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn an inn, which was presumably full of travellers.
Indeed the spirit of pilgrimage, of journeying in faith, is alive and still very much part of the church today.
In today’s Collect we prayed that we may fully share the life of our Lord’s divinity.
Such sharing does not just happen instantaneously; we are constantly journeying in faith, trusting in God’s grace, and growing in our knowledge of his holiness.
All who have been touched by the divine light of life, by which we have become children of God, have been individually invited to travel spiritually with our Saviour, and prayer lies at the heart of this journey.
This means not just knowing that we should pray, but really wanting to pray, having an internal attraction to prayer, really wanting to journey with Christ.
For to journey spiritually, to sincerely follow the light of Christ, there has to be inside each of us a desire for prayer, a nostalgia for prayer, a taste for prayer and a longing to be ever close and in tune with our creator.
But this spiritual journey can never be made in isolation, for the corporate journey binds us all together as a body of believers in our pilgrimage of faith.
The Church herself is on a journey; the Church herself is working out and developing what it means to be the body of Christ.
For both the early church and for us, God’s light is the catalyst for our growth in discipleship and faith.
‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’.
Travelling apostles like St. Paul called the believers into faithful communities, which were themselves of diverse ethnic, social, and economic classes.
They were young and old, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor. All were equal members of the body of Christ.
Whoever they were, if they followed Christ, they were called to be saints among saints.
As part of Christ’s Body, we too are all called to love and care for each other and for those in need outside the community. No one should be seen in isolation; then as now, everyone should work collaboratively together looking after each other.
St Paul, in our New Testament lesson, (Philippians 2.1-11) makes this very point, and in doing so he most probably quoted an earlier Christian hymn.
It is the story of a God who reveals himself by giving himself away. Jesus, in the form of God, knowing what it was to be God, does not think that being God is a matter of holding on to, or grasping and defending.
He is saying that the divine nature is the absolute opposite of this and that means that throughout time, God touches those around him.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit pour out their lives into each other with such freedom and intimacy that they are one God eternally.
When the world comes into being it is because God has let the same pattern of self-giving draw out something quite other to God, a world.
Not only does God make that world to be loved, to be the recipient of his outpouring; he takes on the shape of a slave.
The form of a servant is of course the neat religious way of talking about it; but what it says is the 'shape of the slave'.
God initiates a human life on earth, which over time is given over into the hands of others. That is what slaves experience, their lives are given into the hands of others.
It is shocking, bold, difficult language when you think of what slaves really were at that time.
We may picture the form of a servant as something like a waiter at table or in a bar, but the shape of a slave evokes something rather deeper and rather more threatening.
The slave is the person whose life is in somebody else's hands and God's love is such that he puts himself in somebody else's hands.
The form of God becomes the shape of a slave; being God finds its ultimate revelation, its final embodiment in a life given into the hands of others, into our hands, into the hands of human beings with their selfishness, their resistance to love.
And in the middle of that the entire world is turned around.
This vivid picture powerfully shapes both our individual and corporate lives in Christ.
It pictures Jesus for us as the image of the self-emptying God, the God for whom no sacrifice is too great on behalf of beloved humanity.
The key point of this interpretation is that we must see Jesus as face to face with God, a servant sent on God’s behalf, or as the son who flows from the heart of God, as we say in the creed, God from God, light from light.
When we interpret Jesus’ passion through the lens - that understands it as divine self-giving, thoughts of ‘paying for sin’ fade along with every hint that God could have anything to do with violence.
Indeed Jesus brings home that idea when later one of his followers cuts off somebody’s ear.
Jesus had taught his followers to contradict coercion with prophetic action by turning the other cheek; he had taught that God has nothing to do with vengeance - but sends rain on the just and unjust.
When we allow the Holy Scriptures to guide and lead us on our spiritual journey, we accept the picture of Jesus as the expression of God’s unfailing love, a love rejected but never overcome.
This is the story of a God who reveals himself by giving himself away. So St Paul referred to Jesus as the icon of the invisible God.
By this he meant that Jesus is the sacramental sign of God, the privileged way of seeing what God looks like.
And therefore we look at God his very existence, his creativity, his providence, through the lens of the Word made flesh.
St Paul consistently proclaimed that the church is not so much an organisation as an organism, a mystical body. The church is indeed on a journey, whose purpose is to gather the whole world into the praise of God.
God wants intimate friendship with us, but of course friendship is always a function of freedom.
How we travel with that divine love, for that sun shines on the good and the bad alike, makes all the difference.