"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Eve Sermon

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Have you noticed that Advent has been contaminated by Christmas Creep? In the classroom I seem to have been cast into the role of the Advent Police for the last month.

“No, go on Sir show us a film. It’s Christmas.”

No, actually it’s Advent.

“No Sir, seriously, it’s Christmas.”

No. It’s Advent.

“What’s that then?”

It’s the period of preparation leading up to Christmas.

“No, it’s Christmas now. We’ve had Cards; my mum’s been buying mince pies for weeks; she’s bought sprouts too; there’s Christmas music all over the place and everyone’s arguing. Of course it’s Christmas.”

Who can argue with such logic? Well, we’re nearly there!

What would the average class of 16 yr. olds make of tonight’s Gospel extract? Or, perhaps, more to the point what does the average adult make of it? What do you make of John’s dramatic introduction? Where’s the star? The stable? The angels and the shepherds? John surely knew the traditional story, yet he chooses to pass over it. Why?

Most people know that – America apart, obviously – very few people understand the Bible as 100% literally true; but, equally, very few people understand that such literal interpretations are a fairly recent phenomenon.

 So I ask my pupils: What is the story of Nativity all about?

“What do you mean?”

What is the point of these stories? Reduce them to their bare minimum for me. What’s the central element of the stories?

“The birth of Jesus.”

Is that it?

“Well, Christians believe he was the son of God.”

So it’s a pretty dramatic point?

“Yeah, maybe.”

Maybe? God sending his son into the world. It’s about as dramatic as it gets, surely?

“I suppose.”

Are the bits about the angel and virginity – and for that matter the star, wise men and so on – central to these stories?

“Probably not.”

Then why are they there?

There is silence while they digest this.

They are signposts to the significance of the story. This is the most dramatic event in human history. To me it doesn’t matter either way which Gospel story we use because the key part of the story is that God becomes human in Jesus and that’s what the story is all about, so I think that was what John was trying to say. Listen again, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Do we need stars and angels and all that to put that idea across? John clearly didn't think so.

How many Nativity plays have we been to? How many Christmas Carols have we sung? How many times have we heard the Nativity Stories read? I have a theory that there is such a thing as “the Tinsel Factor” and at this time of year our understanding of our key gospel stories is subverted by it: over familiarity with the stories and a life time of watching primary school kids in tea-towels and tinsel can actually inoculate us from what the story is teaching us and it becomes about the event rather than the message. Unless we are on the ball, the story takes priority over its own teaching.

How many people, I wonder, have got hung up on the details of the story and because they can’t accept them as literally true, they can’t accept the key element of the story and so dismiss it in the same way? It’s not about angels or a virgin, or a star or wise men: it’s about God intruding into human history in the form of Jesus with an agenda of salvation.
I think this is the point John is concerned to communicate to those who were to read and hear his writings, just as we have tonight. That's why I so like John's Gospel. Listen again, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
To illustrate the idea and to make that point I tell people this little story. Are you sitting comfortably?

"Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type.  You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')
She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings.  Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones …… in Harrogate.  Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows).  So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene’s the sort of person who has causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage. “After all, someone who wears that much red should be in sympathy with workers’ rights.” She opined.

The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present.  We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.

Marlene had a bit of a temper tantrum – she called it “creative dissonance” – over the casting of the Wise Men. The Archbishop of York was not available. “Well frankly that’s ridiculous. What else has the man got to do at Christmas?” Similarly, Stephen Fry and Stephen Hawking sent their apologies. Marlene was heard to mutter something about not being able to get the staff and, without any sense of irony or self-awareness, she was also heard to mutter about people being full of their own self-importance.

“I’m surprised she didn’t ask the Pope” Muttered Carolyn.

 “I’m told she couldn’t find his e-mail address.”

 Lowering her sights somewhat, Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin (lecturer in Astronomy), Trevor (lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Philosophy) ... and Brenda, (lecturer in Theology - and convener of the interfaculty working group on Women’s Studies) … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.

Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin.  “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.

“Nobody’ll care”. Carolyn had not yet learned to keep her opinions in line with Marlene’s. “I mean no one will know who they are and so they won’t make the connection.”

In the end Trevor, Justin and Brenda decided to wear their academic robes for the performance.

Carolyn was not to be pacified. “People still won’t get it.”

I was told that in the pub afterwards Carolyn was cordially invited to step down from the committee. When I say “cordially invited” I mean that in the sense of being shouted at a lot.

“So, the gifts the wise men bring?” As one, everyone turned to look at Jan, the popular young barber, who was to play the third road-sweeper. (It had been decided that we would not have shepherds - not inner-city enough.)
“They’d have been pre-delivered by Amazon.”

“I like your thinking Jan!” (Marlene could never resist a tall good-looking young man.) “Brainstorm, brainstorm everyone!”

In the end they decided on a donation from the local food bank, “We’re talking extreme poverty here. This needs to be confronting not twee”; an i-pad to represent the importance of mass communication and a hoodie for when he was older so he would blend in with the underclass.
"They probably won't be wearing hoodies by then."
"It's symbolic Justin. The whole story is full of symbolism. Surely you see that?"

Marlene’s neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.

“But she's ethnic.  Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.

 “Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open book on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”

 “Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.

The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel.  "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be?  Answer me that?" observed Brenda.  Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation, insisted that he performed in his uniform.

“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.

“Actually, Marlene, point of order.  The Philistines were a very cultured people”

“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."

Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper.  (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through the synagogue as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price tonight”.

Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.

"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."

"Joseph was older than Mary you know.” Brenda was on her soapbox.  “Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."

There was much animated discussion in Marlene’s kitchen about what the 21st century version of the stable would be.

A three wheeled trolley in an overcrowded corridor at A and E was swiftly rejected on the basis that the church was in a Conservative constituency and Marlene confidently expected the constituency M.P. to be in the audience.

“A squat?”

“A garden shed?”

“A condemned council flat?”

“A homeless shelter?”

“A one-star hostel. Did you see what I did there? One star……anybody….. no?”

“Did I mention this is going to be a promenade performance?” All eyes turned to Marlene. “A promenade performance, yes. You know, where the audience follow the characters from scene to scene.”

“A promenade performance? As in outside? At this time of year?”

“I’m led to believe that’s when Christmas generally is. Would you prefer we did it in July? I think it might lose a little in terms of atmosphere and topicality? Do you not have a vest Justin? Man-up.”

Rehearsals came and went.

"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"

"Shut up Trevor. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-talk and you’ll be both ends of the donkey.

"Len, please!  How often have I told you?  Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."

"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . .' I may run screaming from the building"

"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."

"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.  I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced?  I see."

“Point of order, Marlene, technically, it’s not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”

“Someone bring me that donkey suit!

“That would be a problem Marlene. None of the Gospel stories mention a donkey at all.”

“Are you trying to trample on people’s long held beliefs Trevor? I really don’t think this is the time or place for Atheism do you? Terry - drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working."

And so the evening arrived. Cameron was a no-show: another ASBO - it was the Buddhist Temple this time, but nobody noticed, apparently as they were all deep in meditation, so Jan was upgraded from road-sweeper to inn-keeper ("Cover up that tattoo please Jan") --- and Marlene was proved right.  It was a triumph - dramatic, moving and powerful. And yes, people wrapped up warm, loving the novelty of the occasion. Mary experienced her visit from the Angel Gabriel in the doorway of the post office and Jan looked genuinely distraught to turn the Holy family away from the doorway of The Star and Garter.

The stable became an old garage in the pub car park, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck.  Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. The real pub landlord closed down his award winning Christmas lights display - all but the eponymous star, everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. 

It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year.  It's going to be different this year though.  After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session.  Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.
So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos.  The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.



  1. If you're doing all the voices, it will need to be exaggerated who is speaking. However, would work well if there was a youngster in the service willing to do the dialogue bits with you.