“Christmas Day is a miraculous and joyful day. Let us strive to live in love as a new decade begins,” says Bishop June in her Christmas Day sermon.
Sermon for Christmas Day 2019 by the Bishop of Llandaff
Isaiah 9 v 2-7
Titus 2 v 11-14
Luke 2 v 1-20
Today is such a miraculous and joyful day but we come to church this morning knowing that we haven’t experienced a particularly miraculous and joyful year. More about 2019 in a moment but let me begin as Christmas Day often does with Christmas presents.
You’ll be familiar with how each Christmas tends to produce a few favoured Christmas presents which capture people’s imagination and are purchased many times over. Three Christmases ago I was privileged to receive rather a lot of copies of Bruce Springsteen’s then newly published autobiography, ‘Born to Run’. I certainly enjoyed reading one of them and if you see any copies of ‘Born to Run’ in the charity shops around the diocese know that they may well have come from me.
This year’s favoured book which I’ve certainly given as a gift to at least one friend is a charming story by Charlie Mackesy called ‘The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse.’ It’s about friendship and about being kind to yourself and others. Perhaps part of its appeal this year is because we’re finding it harder to be kind.
Let me give you a taste of some of the dialogue in the book.
It begins with a conversation between a young boy and a mole. Getting to know one another they exchange questions.
- The boy asks the mole ‘Do you have a favourite saying?’ ‘Yes’ says the mole. ‘What is it?’ says the boy. I like this, here’s a mole after my own heart because he replies, ‘If at first you don’t succeed have some cake.’ ‘I see’ says the boy ’does it work?’ ‘Every time’ the mole replies.
- Then it’s the turn of the mole and he asks the boy ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘Kind’ the boy replies. And the mole shares with him his reflection that most of the old moles he knows wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.
It feels to me as if, as a nation, we’ve been listening more to our fears and less to our dreams in the last few years and 2019 was the result of that.
I don’t find many people who dispute the sense that, for whatever reason, in this last year we’ve been creating a harsher environment within which to live our lives. There’s a joylessness, a tendency to nastiness which we can all witness, but which has been most visibly illustrated in the brutalities of the political arena.
Women leaving public office because of the threatening hostilities and abuse they face. Rampant disrespect of other views or belief systems. The normalisation of deceit. It’s becoming acceptable to boldly lie, knowing that the ballot box doesn’t necessarily punish you for it.
If we use the language of Isaiah from our first reading – he drew a picture of a nation rescued from their own darkness – but we haven’t increased our joy, we’re not a people rejoicing over a harvest or sharing good rewards fairly. We shouldn’t avoid that for some in 2019 there’s a deep, shameful condition in which they’re trapped, excluded from good rewards.
Think of some of the figures which describe the failure of our dreams – four million working people who can’t make ends meet – working hard is no longer a guarantee that a family will survive let alone prosper. 1.5 million visits to foodbanks – a third of those packages to ensure that children don’t go hungry. 762 homeless people who died on our streets.
This isn’t a nation proudly walking in the light. This isn’t the stuff of the miraculous or joyful. We’ve been, again to use Isaiah’s phrase ‘tramping warriors’, failing to champion what’s fair and kind, what will cherish our neighbourhood or our planet.
We’re seeing before our eyes what Christians have long called ‘sin’, not so much personal guilt but systems, cultures of cruelty or inhumanity, where even the best intentioned of us surrenders to unjust, unkind priorities and behaviour.
Back to ‘The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse’.
When the fox enters the story, he immediately threatens to kill the mole. But he’s caught in a snare and knows that if he stays there, as is surely going to happen, he will die. It’s the mole who then chews through the wire with his tiny teeth to free him. And following this act of simple bravery then the mole says to the boy, ‘One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.’
At the end of such a year as this we come together around the Christmas story and we’re told about how God reacts to things. As the Apostle Paul summarised it in his letter to Titus,
‘the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all… that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people …who are zealous for good deeds.’
Zealous for good deeds. Christmas isn’t about dominant market values – what price do we put on something and how much does it profit me? But it’s about the zeal of the Lord of hosts, about fairness and kindness. God reacts by wholly investing himself in the world’s bleakness. The birth of Jesus invites us to imagine how we would be if we were less afraid. It becomes the first utterance of the angels ‘Do not be afraid… there is good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Saviour.’
God is born among us, that we might be free to react without fear, to react as he would react, out of enduring fearless love.
When the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse have survived many adventures the boy whispers to his friends ‘I’ve realised why we are here.’
‘For cake?’ asked the mole. ‘To love’ said the boy ‘ and be loved’ said the horse. ‘What do we do when our hearts hurt?’ asked the boy, ‘We wrap them with friendship, shared tears and time, till they wake hopeful and happy again.’
Alright, it’s a cute story and you may think its wisdom can’t help much in the face of the brutal realities of our day, but there’s something about it which chimes with the Christian message of Christmas, a message we desperately need to allow to sink into our hearts and inform our behaviour in the family and community to which we belong.
Do we know why we are we here? To love and be loved.
Where do we truly find ourselves and find the reality of God in our daily existence? God is love and those who live in love live in God.
What unites us in our divisions as we gather around today’s Christmas story? That the sovereignty and triumph of love is the most powerful agent we know, and every angel known to the universe begs us not to sell ourselves short in sacrificing that love, that justice, that kindliness, for tawdry alternatives.
Remember how the mole said: “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.”
Let us pledge ourselves that in the days ahead we will listen to our dreams of fairness and kindness and define success by our ability to love one another, for it was love that came down at Christmas.
It’s a miraculous and joyful day. Let us strive to live in love as a new decade begins.
Download Bishop June’s sermon for Christmas Day 2019.