A BABY FOR CHRISTMAS
a sermon preached at the Church of the ANNUNCIATION BRIGHTON (where I was Priest-in Charge from 2010 to 2016) at Midnight Mass in 2011.
This little church (well, little by Brighton standards) opened for business in 1864, nearly 150 years ago.
My bedtime reading at the moment is a biography of its first vicar, Fr.George Chapman. The book paints a picture of a very different Hanover from today. The huddled, terraced houses on the hill were not student multi-lets but teeming with large families, some unemployed, some working on the new railway, all poor and many sick and diseased. Fr.Chapman, my saintly predecessor, dedicated his every waking moment to those families and worked himself to death at the age of 44 from tuberculosis.
This little church, nearly 150 years on, still stands on the hill, nestling humbly amidst the terraces of Washington St. and Colman St. I am struck by the comparison with that “lowly cattle shed” in Bethlehem. Our building even looks a bit like a barn with its timber rafters.
And the real message of Christmas is of course the mind-blowing truth that Almighty God, the creator of the universe, chose to come among us, His creatures, not crash-landing with a shock-and-awe thunderbolt as a giant, but as a poor baby with poor parents in a hovel. God’s gift in Jesus Christ was simply human life and how to live it. In adulthood, the baby grew up to show us what God is really like, peaceful, tolerant, merciful, compassionate and willing to die for us.
This little church goes on trying to bring the real gospel of a loving God to those around us. But you can imagine what we are up against: In early years, it was actual violence and riots when protestant thugs physically invaded this building to disrupt services and make off with our crucifixes and statues. These days, no such drama but just plain apathy bred of secular and materialistic boredom. Who needs God?
Well, it depends what sort of God you mean.
We are constantly having to counter those who preach an angry old man in the sky whose specialty is punishment for sin.
That’s the sort of cariacature which is a gift for strident atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.
We are also, and more worryingly, being sabotaged by a public image of Christianity itself which has nothing to do with what Jesus Christ lived and died for.
I mean the appalling brand of homophobia in too many church circles.
And I mean headlines like SPEAK UP FOR CHRISTIANITY PM TELLS ARCHBISHOP where “Christianity” is coded Daily Mail-speak for “law and order” and Rowan Williams is vilified for suggesting that economic cut-backs are victimizing the poor and for wanting to ask WHY riots happened last August?”
And all the time the truth lies buried or ignored. The appearance of the divine on earth, full of mercy, compassion and love: God’s gift in Jesus Christ of human life and how to live it.
I was tempted to take as my text tonight the entire script of the Christmas special episode of “Rev”, the sit-com on BBC2.
I don’t know if you saw it but the poor Vicar’s Midnight Mass was wrecked by drunken partygoers drowning out the Eucharistic prayer with their bawdy songs. This provoked a mini-breakdown in the Vicar who scandalized the rest of the congregation by a hysterical recital of all that had gone wrong for him in the build up to Christmas, ending with agonized screams about mince pies.
Next day, in the wake of this disaster and after a morning service from which almost everybody stayed away, his church was hosting a Christmas lunch for the homeless. This provided the backdrop for little scenes between the main characters of healing and reconciliation. As the camera finally tracked away, the table unmistakeably resembled traditional portraits of the last supper.
But the most moving moment of all was when the Vicar’s wife
(they had been trying for a baby for a long time) announced that her present to him was that she was pregnant.
We have come full circle. God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ is simply human life and how to live it. A very happy Christmas to you all.