SERMON FOR MIDNIGHT MASS 2011: Hoping it might be so
Those of you who are regulars at St Mary’s will be aware by now that I am a big fan of the TV programme Rev. To my mind it is the only show I’ve ever seen that gets near the reality of life as a vicar – and not just life as a vicar, but the day to day ups and downs of serving a parish in 21st centuryLondon. If you have somehow missed it, the programme features a mild-mannered priest called Adam Smallbone as he gets to grips with ministry in a parish on the east side of London, an area that I know very well. He has a popular church school and an old people’s home in the parish, a long-suffering wife, a Reader colleague, and a rather sarcastic Archdeacon who appears mysteriously in a black taxi whenever things are going wrong. And things do go wrong, regularly and spectacularly.
But the wonderful thing about Rev. is that it is not just broad comedy, like The Vicar of Dibley or Father Ted. However ridiculous the plots and characters may appear, there is always a germ of truth – I can personally vouch for most of them from my own experience! In the Christmas special Adam snaps and starts singing and dancing very badly at Midnight Mass, something I hope Mark and I will refrain from doing tonight. But we also see Adam cooking breakfast for his cold weather shelter guests, visiting a parishioner in the old people’s home but finding she has died and no one told him, and trying to safeguard some quality time with his family. All very realistic scenarios!
And throughout the episodes Adam has a running conversation with God. He raises questions, complains a little, but always ends up turning over the problem to God to sort it out. Adam is a faulty human being who misunderstands things, breaks the rules, drinks too much, can’t quit smoking, rather fancies the headteacher at the school, and has a hard time saying no to people. But his heart is where it ought to be. He lives and breathes the ministry he is called to, he loves the people he serves, and he knows that God loves them infinitely more than he can.
It is actually a very inspiring picture of an incarnational ministry, and indeed of incarnational discipleship for any Christian. In other words Adam is someone who walks the walk, isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and puts his money where his mouth is, to use a whole mixed bundle of bodily metaphors. I suspect, by the way, that Adam’s name is no accident. He is a sort of Everyman, standing in for all of us.
Tonight we celebrate the feast of God’s incarnation. It’s a churchy word. Sometime it is confused with reincarnation, the idea that after death we return for more cycles of life on earth, whether as human beings or some other species. Christians certainly don’t believe in that. But our faith is firmly founded on the revelation that God became incarnate, a member of the human race, the same flesh and blood as the rest of us, at one point in our history on this planet. God chose to get his hands dirty and walk the walk. It is an astonishing claim. Indeed it is simply scandalous to pure monotheists like Jews and Muslims, who emphasize the oneness and transcendence of God above all other attributes.
Scandalous it may be, but it is what Christmas is all about. It’s about God joining in the mess of human life to show us what the divine is like. Roberta sent me the text of a talk that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave last week on Radio 2, talking about the chaos and confusion surrounding Jesus’ birth. It included these words:
In the complete mess of the first Christmas, God says, ‘Don’t worry – I’m not going to wait until you’ve got everything sorted out perfectly before I get involved with you. I’m already there for you in the middle of it all, and if you just let yourself lean on me a bit instead of trying to make yourself and everything around you perfect by your own efforts, everyone will feel a little more of my love flowing’.
I know that Rowan Williams is also a fan of Rev. and has even invited the cast to drinks atLambethPalace. In his Pause for Thought he certainly describes well the messy sort of Christmas that Adam Smallbone is involved in.
It is not primarily a feast of family togetherness, though Adam and his grumpy father-in-law come to an understanding. It is not primarily a celebration of the joy of birth, though his patient wife finally gets the positive pregnancy test she has been hoping for. It is not primarily a reminder to be generous to the poor, though the programme ends with Adam and his parishioners serving Christmas dinner to homeless people in the church.
All of those things are part of Christmas, and an important part. But the message is not what we do for each other but what God has done, and is doing all the time, for us. The children sang it in the school nativity play and earlier today at the Christingle service: God is with us! Come and join the celebration! Children find it easy to do this – to sing and to believe – but it is much harder for adults.
We worry about whether the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew have any historical value. We feel challenged by the robust atheism of a man like Christopher Hitchens, so widely admired for facing his recent death with courage when he believed that it meant personal annihilation. We feel a regretful nostalgia for the comforting certainties of childhood, as Thomas Hardy did in his Christmas poem “The Oxen”, written in 1915 in the midst of the horrors of the First World War.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Thomas Hardy, caught up in the Victorian loss of religious faith, and then stunned by the pointlessness of mass murder in the trenches, still bleakly longed for what he had lost. Perhaps some of you are here tonight, not confident that God exists, let alone loves us enough to come among us, yet “hoping it might be so”.
Our incarnational faith is founded on that hope. We may not be particular about the ox and the ass in the paintings, or even the angels and the shepherds in the gospel, but they serve to illuminate a claim that is truly astonishing. St Paulknew nothing of the birth narratives about Jesus, but he knew what they pointed to. The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, as he wrote to Titus.
God came gladly, graciously, quietly into the mess of human history. God is here already. It doesn’t all depend on us. When we make fools of ourselves, as Adam Smallbone so regularly does, it matters not a bit. Love came down at Christmas and dwells among us.
Incarnation is a big idea to swallow, but without it Christmas is the sentimental invention of Charles Dickens or Bing Crosby, a warm and friendly occasion for eating, drinking and gift-giving. That doesn’t go nearly far enough. For it to mean anything that really changes our lives, these words in the Wisdom of Solomon must be true:
“For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.”
God is here in the mess. God is with us. Let us join the celebration gladly if we are able to do so. If not, perhaps we can open our hearts and minds just enough, keeping our integrity intact, to hope that it might be so. That is enough for the God who loves us. We can let God do the rest.