Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Bishop Sheffield's Christmas Sermon

The Choir of Sheffield Cathedral 

Here is a remarkable Christmas sermon preached by the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev’d Steven Croft, at Midnight Mass last Monday night. The Old Testament reading was Isaiah 9:2-7, and the Gospel Reading was Luke 2:1-14. 

Some powerful words from our Old Testament reading and the ancient prophecy of Isaiah:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”
One of the most memorable news stories of 2012 was the story of the unclaimed Euromillions jackpot.  Sometime back in June in the Stevenage area, someone bought a lottery ticket.  The numbers on the ticket came up. The holder was entitled to claim a staggering £63 million in prize money.  Think of it. But no claim was made.  Despite an extensive search, the ticket was never found. 

It’s no use checking your pockets.  The deadline was 4th December.  Somewhere for six months there was a ticket in the back of someone’s wallet or down the side of the sofa or behind a fridge magnet which could have brought unimaginable wealth.  Perhaps one day, someone will find it and ponder what could have been.  Hold that thought for a moment. 

What is that brings us together this evening in this ancient and holy place? What is it that draws people all over our land to churches at Christmas time? We are drawn, I hope, by more than the beautiful music, by more than a place of prayer, by more than the love of family and friends. 

We are drawn by a longing for something, an ache, an emptiness, a void, a restlessness, a sense that life is incomplete.  It’s there all the time in different ways.  Often the noise around us drowns it out.  Sometimes when life is going well we forget it’s there for months on end.  Then suddenly it’s back again: like a voice calling from the distance, a thirst deep within us, a sense that we are incomplete. 

In times of happiness, that joy we feel has nowhere to go.  In times of sadness, it’s a longing for comfort beyond ourselves.  In times of confusion the ache becomes a cry for guidance.  In moments of darkness, a sense the light is there, if only we could see it.  In times when we do wrong it’s a sense of guilt and regret.  In the times when we are crushed it’s a desperate cry for help, a longing for someone to be listening. 

Sometimes it feels like a distant memory of childhood.  Sometimes it’s an echo from a far away future.  Sometimes it’s a cry in the midst of the pain of the world.  Sometimes it’s a glimpse of peace amidst turmoil and misery.  Sometimes it’s a gentle whisper in the silence of the night.  Sometimes a dis-ease for which we can find no cure.  Sometimes it’s a longing for someone or something we cannot name, something precious but just out of reach.

All down the ages men and women like us have felt this longing, this restlessness, this emptiness whenever we have tried to live without God.  However deeply we try to bury it, however much we hide from it, however difficult it is to face it, the sense remains that there must be more to life than there seems to be.  We know we are called to something deeper, more real, more meaningful than this world seems to offer.  We long in our hearts for more.

God is calling us all down the long years.  Christians recognize this inner voice, these questions, this restlessness as the voice of God calling out to each person in creation, to every one of us.  You were made with a purpose and a high calling, each of you, to know your creator and to live in friendship with God. 

It is part of the great mystery of life that our friendship with God has been fractured by the evil which is in the world.  But even that broken friendship leaves its traces in that sense we have that life is incomplete, unfinished, hollow, unless we find the meaning.  From time to time we listen and know and understand that God is reaching out to us, longing to draw us home.

The story of Christmas can only be understood as a rescue mission.  Humanity is lost.  By ourselves we cannot find our way back to God.  So God sends to us his Son, born of a virgin, a child in a manger, to help us find our way. 

Many people who celebrate this Christmas with turkey and tinsel will be like the owner of the lost lottery ticket.  They will simply not understand what they have been given.  They will not claim the treasure which could be theirs, the treasure which is worth more than they can ask or imagine. 

So pause for a moment this Christmas and ponder again the wonder of the scene we know from cards and nativities all the world over.  See the stable, rough and ready, feel the straw under your feet and the chill night air.  Hear the animals, imagine the farmyard smells.  See Mary, a young girl, full of holy wonder.  See Joseph, kneeling by the crib.  See the fearful shepherds crowding in the stable door.

And in your minds eye see the child, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.  See this child who is called by the prophecy so long ago wonderful counselor: the one in whom the wisdom of the ages rests.  See this child who is called Mighty God: the Lord of heaven and earth born as an infant, taking flesh becoming human.  See this child who is called in the prophecy, Everlasting Father: the one through whom the stars were made becomes a boy in a stable.  See this child, born in the midst of conflict, who is named the in prophecy Prince of Peace. 

Come and see Jesus.  His name means God Saves and this Jesus has come to save us and all the world from our sins and draw us back to God.  According to Isaiah, his coming brings light.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  His coming brings joy.  “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy”.  According to Isaiah his coming brings freedom and peace and order and justice and righteousness such as the world has never known.

Remember as you look, this is the child who will grow into the wisest teacher, the most compassionate friend, the mightiest healer the world has ever known.  This is the child who when he grows will feed the hungry, calm the storm, drive out the demons and raise the dead – mighty works and signs of a greater reality.  This is the child who when he grows will call men and women to follow him and become a new community which will spread over all the earth.  This is the child who will grow into the man of sorrows, who for the love he bears us, will go to his painful death on the cross for our sins, who will again be wrapped by his mother in strips of cloth, and who three days later will rise again, the conquerer of death itself.

Don’t hurry from the stable.  Stay a while.  Kneel with the shepherds and ponder.  If God really came to earth as a tiny child, then that one truth changes everything.  It changes the way you see God.  For God is not distant waiting for you to come to him.  God is present longing for you to receive his gift. 

It changes the way we see ourselves.  You are not just a number, a statistic, a grain of sand on the seashore.  You are infinitely precious to your creator.  You are meant to be here.  You are chosen and called and saved. Your life has meaning beyond itself.   

It changes the way we see the world.  For every child is precious to God, loved, cherished.  God’s love does not change as we grow older.  God’s love is not affected by race or the place where we are born or the human family we are born into.  No-one is just a number.  Each is a person, unique, created in God’s image, loved and able to be redeemed. 

Our world is meant to be different.  It is meant to be a place of peace not war, of fairness not inequality, of health not disease, of love not hate, of honouring one another, not exploitation, of truth not lies. 

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Listen again at Christmas time to the voice of God calling to you down the ages and calling you home.  Come and kneel on the floor of the stable with the shepherds.  Receive the most precious gift of all this Christmas time: the gift of Jesus, the gift of life.


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