James Langstaff

A Bishop Reflects

God With Us: a sermon for Christmas Day

Rochester Cathedral
25th December 2014 – Christmas Day
Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-14

Luke’s is the gospel in which we find the details. He is the one who, with the mentions of Augustus and Quirinius, seeks to set a time-frame. He, together with Matthew, gives us Bethlehem as the location; he also tells us that Joseph and Mary were already settled in Nazareth, while Matthew suggests that they only went there after these events. Memorably of course he gives us angels, shepherds and a manger – though no mention of a stable. At any event, Luke is concerned to let us know that this birth took place at a particular time, in a particular place and was witnessed to by particular people.
And thus in this season we sing of the ‘little town of Bethlehem’; and our cards and our nativity plays and our imaginations – especially our imaginations – conjure up images of how it may have looked, had we been there. And we are reminded that, within the workings of God, places and times and people have significance. God has a pattern of engaging with humankind within the setting of our times and our places, and through the actions of human beings. God appears, God’s presence is made known in the garden, on the mountain top, on a roadside, in desert places, in tabernacle and temple – and now in a place where animals feed. God-moments come about at particular times and for particular people in the world’s story. Those moments come as people and peoples are called, as lives are touched, as guidance for living is given, as prophets speak and leaders lead – and now as a baby is born to a young woman, and shepherds come to witness the birth.
To us human beings, places and times are important. Which is why this year I, together with many other bishops and church leaders, have thought it right to draw particular attention to the places which feature so much in the great story which we tell again today. Canon Andrew White of Baghdad tells of the 1500 displaced Syrian Christians who gathered in a church in Jordan on Tuesday this week. We hear of others being uprooted from historic homes and seeking refuge – refuge offered not least by Muslim neighbours. And in that land which we call ‘Holy’, indigenous Palestinian Arab Christians leaders – among them our Anglican Bishop Suheil and our friend Dean Hosam of Jerusalem – seek to encourage their people to stay rather than to take the opportunities to emigrate to places where life is less pressured. It comes as little surprise that those who know these places well speak of the possible extinction, at the hands of those in the news again today, of some of the most ancient Christian communities on earth.
Now of course you can worship God anywhere, and God in Christ can make his home with us anywhere. But just think how we would feel if it became clear that we could no longer practise our faith openly here in our place, or wherever it is that we would call home; if we could not safely gather in this place on this day for this celebration. You and I cannot solve these issues, and nor can our own political leaders. But we can pray, we can give – and humanitarian aid is needed – we can express our concern, we can speak about the issues. Importantly, we can take any opportunity to let our brothers and sisters in these places know that they are not alone – we can keep these events in the public eye. These places and their peoples provided the cradle for our faith; and as we remember the cradle of the Saviour’s birth – a particular manger, in a particular place – so we pray for those places and their peoples.
In that particular place at that particular time, in the manger of Bethlehem at that moment in the world’s history, God inhabits our humanity – flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, to echo the words of Adam as he receives his companion. As St John puts it in his Gospel, this is the essence and expression of God’s being making his home in our midst. God inhabits human flesh – dwells among us – in a particular place, at a particular time, as is witnessed to by particular people – in order that he then may be present in every place, for all of time, for and with all of humankind. Thus it is that glory is proclaimed and light shines out; thus it is that good news is announced; thus it is that God’s favour is to come with peace. And thus it is too that God continues to make his home in particular places at particular times for particular people, for every place is particular, as is every time and every person – here, now, you and me.
Where then is my place in which he may make his home? What is our time in which he is made known? For which people does he still come? What shape is the manger within which he may be laid afresh? It is surely in the sorrow of all who grieve in Glasgow, the hunger of she who today goes without so that her child may feed, the quietness of he who watches with one who is in pain. It is in the joy of those who celebrate in friendship, the peace of those who are at one, the trust of those who live by faith. It is in the reward of honest work, the overflow of generous giving, the reaching out of healing love. It is in the particularity of each and every day, of every moment and place, each interaction or engagement, word or touch or thought.
It was in that manger, in that moment, in that town, with those people that he was laid. And thus may he be laid afresh in your manger and in mine – and in those of all for whom we pray today.

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