The greatest gift

This is the text of the sermon I preached on Christmas Day in Southwark Cathedral.  Thank you for following this and my other blogs during the year.  Your support and encouragement means a great deal to me. The readings for the day were Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14.

I love Christmas, I mean I really love Christmas, but even so, in the run up to this great day, there’s one question I cannot bear – ‘What do you want for Christmas?’

I had no problem answering it when I was a kid, then I had a huge list of wants. I remember one year, for some unknown reason, I wanted this Space Station kit that I’d seen in the shops. Santa brought it. Then I wanted a bike and a magic set and then a cassette tape recorder when they came in and I was a little older so that my sister and I could tape the charts every Sunday evening by holding the microphone right up to the radio. Now when someone says to me ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I simply don’t know. Partly, I suppose, that’s because I have too many things already, partly because if I want something I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy it and not have to wait for a birthday or Christmas to come along, partly though because I simply don’t know.

A time for giving and receiving

A time for giving and receiving

So I do hope that Santa brought you what you wanted for Christmas. I was only commenting to my colleagues the other day that we don’t get as many secular readings at carol services nowadays, the Dylan Thomas, Pam Ayres type of readings that we used to hear a lot of. One of the most popular was Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’ published back in 1954. In it he bemoans the commercialisation of the festival and the kind of presents that we give to each other, even in post-war Britain of the 1950’s

those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
and hideous tie so kindly meant.

Things haven’t much improved it’s just got more expensive and more difficult.

But still the question is asked, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ That really difficult question. So I might say in response ‘Surprise me!’ I hate it when people say that to me ‘Surprise me!’ – well, I would if I knew what you wanted, if I knew what you needed but I haven’t got the foggiest idea. So it’ll have to be Amazon vouchers again and then you can choose for yourself – it lets me off the hook.

But God knows exactly what I need, God knows exactly what you need. God was in no doubt what we needed, even if we didn’t know that that was what we wanted, he knew that there was only one gift to give.

Isaiah paints a wonderful picture of a messenger arriving. It’s a messenger who’s coming not with stuff we don’t want to hear but with a message that will change lives, our lives, a message that will change the world, a message of pure gift.

all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

The one, who both the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews and John, in the opening of his gospel that we’ve just heard read, describes as the pre-existent one, the one who was there at the beginning, who’s beyond time, beyond place, beyond our experience suddenly enters time and place and our experience.

The reason that I love Christmas is nothing to do with the bath salts and scent and the hideous tie but it is to do with the true gift, because anything we give to one another, anything that you received today, anything that was contained in the sparkly paper, beneath the bows and the glitter, however expensive, however carefully chosen, however lovingly selected, however appropriate, is as nothing with what was found by shepherds and wise men in a stable behind an inn in a far off country two thousand years ago.

God did not enter with power and triumphal fanfares but in the cry of a baby taking their first gulp of air and in the gentle singing of angels on the night breeze. God enters the world not in power but in vulnerability, not in strength but in weakness, not as a warrior but as a helpless infant, laid in his mother’s arms and drinking from her breast. God comes to us as child.

Archbishop Rowan Williams expresses it with such beauty in his poem ‘Advent Calendar’

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

We with shepherds and angels and wise men can do nothing but kneel before the manger in awe and wonder at the extraordinary inhabiting the ordinary, at the divine embracing our humanity, as, in the words of St John

the Word became flesh and lived among us.

It’s been a year that, try as we might, we won’t forget in a hurry when for all of us the political landscape has changed beyond recognition, when the liberal values of inclusion and the celebration of diversity that we’ve been seeking to celebrate in this place over decades are being questioned, when we’ve moved from truth to post-truth. It’s been a year when we’ve seen the very best aspects of our human nature and the very worst, and even in these final days in the run-up to Christmas of innocent people being caught up in horrendous acts of terrorism.

We’ve watched helpless as thousands have died and even more been displaced in war, on the streets of Syria, in the fighting in Yemen and elsewhere. We’ve seen countless people drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean simply seeking a place of safety. And at the same time we’ve seen what we can do when we put our mind to it on track and field and in the other arenas of sport. We’ve seen boundless generosity through our ROBES Project, the warmth of the people gathered to welcome refugee children arriving in Croydon from the Jungle Camp. It’s been a year that’s taken us to the highs and to the lows of human and community existence.

And it’s to this very real world that God comes, this very real world that God shares. God enters the dangerous place to be with us, alongside us, walking the same path. God deliberately chooses to be vulnerable, at risk, defenceless, needy, dependent upon the undependable nature of so much human love and kindness.

What did we want for Christmas? We wanted, we needed a saviour and that is what God gave, himself, to you, to us, the ultimate gift, the gift that really does keep on giving, the gift that really is not just for Christmas but for every day, in every place and for every person.

God's greatest gift

God’s greatest gift

The 16th century English Jesuit priest, Robert Southwell, wrote a poem called ‘The Nativity of Christ’. He expresses the truth of the generosity of God to each one us so beautifully.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

And the God who knew our need then knows our need now. In the birth of Jesus, God enters time then but for all time, not just in the past but in the present for the future. John Betjeman recognises that fact as he draws his Christmas poem to its conclusion when he writes

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

What do we want, what do we need? God knows, he knew then, he knows now that we need Jesus and whether in Our Lady’s arms or in the priest’s hands he gives Jesus to us and Jesus gives himself to us, bread and wine, body and blood – the true, the only gift that we desire. Receive the gift with open hands – God knows we need it.

God, gifting yourself to humanity.
with open hands may I receive you,
with open heart may I serve you
and gift myself to others.

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