Monday, 25 December 2017

Midnight Mass

John 1.1-14 & Isaiah 52.7-10

In the beginning…

If you’ve been rushing around getting ready for Christmas and you’ve come here this evening to hear readings about mangers, babies, shepherds, magi and stables I can only apologise.

John’s gospel doesn’t begin with the story of Jesus’ birth in the detailed sense, and we wouldn’t be the first people to hear these words and struggle to make sense of them. When you heard them you may have done so as a prologue, poetry, a declaration or something you might expect to find in a hymn. You may think where’s the bit about the birth of the Christ child? Well it’s in there but the greater focus is on what God can offer us, which gives an important insight into his nature.

The Christmas message from John is that God invites every one of us to be born as his children, to truly be children of God.

It’s the part where John tells usHe 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.’

‘Power to become Children of God’, power to become children? Mmmm that’s an interesting one isn’t it do you associate power with children? Perhaps more so at Christmas when failing to meet their expectations in the present department might not be well received. One lady I know through work told me that her 4 year old had been waking up at 4.30 am every morning since early December asking whether it’s Christmas yet, so her expectations might be building! Maybe if you want to watch something on TV and they want to play the Xbox the balance of power is against you, maybe if you get some new technology and you want to get it working without spending hours reading manuals you might have to make some concessions.

One little girl went to see Father Christmas at her local shopping centre but stormed off when he asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she turned to her mother in a disgusted fashion and said ‘ he hasn’t even bothered to read my email’. Teenage children will know that once you stop believing in Father Christmas you start getting clothes as presents, perhaps they lose their child like powers at this point?

Of course in reality children aren’t all powerful, I remember being punished at school for speaking in class, being sent out to play in freezing weather when I’d rather have stayed indoors and feeling that I had to ask permission to do so many things. Power to become children! The preacher Tom Wright more accurately describes it as power to become powerless, authority to be under authority.

Would the prophet Isaiah have recognised this vulnerable baby as the triumphant God he sought? He did indeed bare his holy arm but that of new born boy rather than a conquering warrior.


Though the character of God starts to make sense when we realise that it’s this powerless vulnerable human form of a baby that he chose to take when he sent the light into the world. God is being redefined and we get to know him so much better when we take time to look at who Jesus is.

There’s nothing wrong with a sentimental view of Christmas with the baby Jesus as long as we don’t let it hide God’s promise for us. He is offering us every positive aspect of the parent - child relationship, nurturing, feeding, protection and above all love.

Many of us experience a sense of powerless to change the sadness and evil we see in the world, many others are left feeling powerless and forgotten including homeless people, refugees and those living in loneliness. When we consider such people we are reminded that Jesus experienced homelessness, life as a refugee, a humble birth place. He didn’t pace the corridors of power but mixed with prostitutes and those collecting taxes for the despised occupying Roman army. He refused to follow meaningless temple rituals and refused allegiance to the emperor because he knew that the systems were there to control and oppress the very people he cared for and he came to show a new type of kingdom which honoured sacrifice, humility and servanthood.

It can be an overwhelming realization that the one true God who created the universe, who was there ‘in the beginning’ chose to come to us a servant with a depth of compassion that we struggle to comprehend.

As we look to Jesus the nature of the otherwise invisible God is revealed to us in a helpless baby who grows into the man who dies on a cross.

Surely this makes us think that maybe we are sometimes looking for meaning and guidance in the wrong places. It’s often when men and women have the courage or instinct to go against the grain of what is accepted as normality by so many that we find the greatest rewards. A moment of sanity broke in when a football was kicked into no man’s land in Flanders, the site of horrific human slaughter in WW1, and on Christmas Day 1914 and the opposing forces found they could play sport rather than kill each other for a while.

Many people are naturally sceptical about the phrase ‘born again’, maybe it’s the association with sun tanned TV evangelists who always seem to have the toll free number in the corner of the screen for our credit card. I’m sure they share the same fake tan with the TV sales channels.

Yet being ‘born again’ in the sense that we can become children of God and start a new relationship with real depth and meaning is what we are being offered. A relationship which is not burdened by the weight of our past failures, an invitation which doesn’t have any preconditions and which is for absolutely everyone without exception or time limit.

God doesn’t want to keep himself to himself but comes to us, seeks relationship with us, shows us what is important to him and then it’s for us to decide whether we want to accept. It’s the living relationship day by day which is important, not the mere knowledge.

If Christmas is to mean anything beyond decorations and sentimentality then it has to be lived out, on a daily basis through our imperfect lives in the real world. I love the words of one fellow preacher who beautifully describes this as ‘the supreme defiance of pessimism.’

At this time of year when days are at their shortest I’m rather pleased that we took over what was a pagan festival, to have Christmas lights in all their formats which offer welcome illumination from the darkness. When some people moan that Christmas is over commercialised I guess we Christians have to hold up our hands and admit that we did nick it off those with other ideas in the first place.

People will relate to darkness differently but when we speak of dark times it is unlikely to be in a positive context. People have felt that they are walking in darkness at times of war and oppression when they suffer the consequences of greed and injustice.

I took my summer holiday in Washington DC this year and discovered how Churchill and Roosevelt used the illuminated community Christmas tree outside the White House as a sign of hope in 1941. Just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour and the entry of the U.S. into WW2 Franklin Roosevelt declared defiance ‘against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them,’ stating ‘we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere’.

Most of us will have our own dark times, losing someone we love, facing frightening illnesses, feeling ground down by hardship or rarely finding love and kindness.

I’m all for joy and happiness, merriment and feasting at Christmas but we’d need to have our heads in the sand to think that this is the case for everyone. For those who are generally finding life hard this can be made even harder at Christmas by the unrealistic expectations of others to be joining in when all they really want to do is find some peace. It often invokes strong memories and for some it can be painful and empty.

Although it’s sometimes easier said than done such times are those when we need to draw on the depth of our confidence as children of God, people he considers worthy of love and respect, people he trusts to care for each other and his world.

It reminds us of the choice we must make and to accept Gods invitation to life in the light as children loved by him seems overwhelming, to do anything else is not life at all.

So I end by wishing us all a Christmas which leaves us certain in the knowledge that we are loved by God who came to give us eternal hope, whose light continues to shine and the darkness did not nor never will overcome it.


Kevin Bright

Midnight Mass Christmas 2017


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