Christmas Sermon by the Bishop of Tewkesbury

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10

               John 1: 1-4

This year is the first in quite a while, when I have not been to see a school nativity play. My    children have just passed that age when they get to play either one of the starring roles, or one the many extra characters which usually appear in school nativities these days – characters like kangaroos, or David Beckham!

But just as the papers have been full of stories of how few schools are now doing traditional nativity plays, I came across this superb example on YouTube. It’s from New Zealand and I recommend having a look at it. It’s simply called An Unexpected Christmas and the starring role is the little angel who sits in the corner and simply repeats the line: “Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that.”

“Have you ever wondered,” the narrator asks, “what we might see, if we could pull back the curtain of time to that very first Christmas? If we could, I imagine the story began in Heaven something like this. God was looking over Heaven’s balcony one day shaking his head at all the wrong things people were doing on earth.”

“Oh man, this isn’t quite what I had in mind when I created earth. I feel so far away from my kids down there. It’s hard to be friends with people when you don’t like what they are doing. I think it’s time – time for us to step in.”

“Shall I ready the army, Lord?”    says the angel Gabriel, jumping to attention.

“No, I don’t think we should send the army. Maybe just one person.”

“Just one person! Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that,” says the young angel in the corner.

“Lord, if we’re sending just one person,” continues Gabriel, “they’ll have to be very powerful and very strongb because there’s tons of people down there.”

“No, they don’t need to be very strong, they’ll be going as a newborn baby.”

“A new born baby! Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that,” says the young upstart.

“This plan is rather risky,” says Gabriel, “a newborn baby is very weak. They’ll need to be born to someone who can protect them. Maybe a ruler or a mighty king?”

“Actually, I was thinking I could send them to a peasant girl whose heart is beautiful and full of courage.”

“A peasant girl! Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that.”

“My Lord – I see your plan is to take earth by surprise. No one will be expecting a newborn baby born to a humble villager but what good could a baby do?”

“This will not be any baby. I’m sending the Prince of Heaven in disguise.”

“The Prince of Heaven, our prince, your Son! Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that.”

“Lord, this is too risky,” Gabriel insists. “Sending the prince in disguise as a tiny baby, born not to kings but to humble villagers. Surely our prince cannot be born in a cottage, he must be born in a palace.”

“You’re right. He shouldn’t be born in a cottage, he’ll be born in a stable.”

“A stable! Surrounded by animals, filled with hay, filled with poo! Brilliant, they won’t be expecting that.”

“But Lord, how will people know he is there, what if they don’t notice?”

“Those who are looking will find him. And his mission will bring all people closer to me even if they do something really wrong. When the prince is done, nothing will get between them and my love.”

“Can we at least leave some clues for the people looking – like in the stars?”

“Clues in the stars – sure why not?” God agrees.

“And can we sing for him? Please say we can sing?”

God looked at the hopeful faces of all his angels and his heart was touched.    

“Alright, you can sing for him. But not in front of the whole world, that would just be weird, and not in front of kings or rulers.”

“How about in front of some shepherds – that’s a lonely job – those blokes could do with some cheering up,” says Gabriel.

“Brilliant!” God replies, “They    won’t be expecting that.”

An unexpected Christmas – that’s the theme of both our Bible readings today.    

From Isaiah, telling of the coming of a messenger who announces peace, good news, and salvation to a people who had their fill of violence and believed they had been abandoned. To John, telling of the Word become flesh, the one who was there at the creation of the world now coming into the world as a light, to shatter the darkness. This is not something anyone expected. It’s outside of our normal experience and beyond our predictions.

Again and again in the Bible, God is revealed as the God of the unexpected: a God who chooses the least likely people and uses them to great effect; the God who appears in weakness and vulnerability in the midst of violence    and force; the God who shows mercy and grace when we anticipate vengeance and retribution. If we think we can put God in a box, with a neat label to describe exactly who God is and what God does, then we are in for many surprises.

This year, we remember the surprise that was Christmas 1914. Amidst the horror of war and the dawning realisation that all the talk of it “being over by Christmas” had come to nothing, we hear stories of soldiers decorating    the trenches with mistletoe and berries; the strains of Silent Night floating across No-Man's Land and then the tentative first steps, as British and German soldiers greeted one another and even played football. Who could have expected such a thing: soldiers allowing their common humanity to triumph over fear and hatred. People whose lives shine like lights, shattering the darkness.

Unsurprisingly, the year 2014 has also been filled with many other events, which have shocked us and caused us to wonder: where is God and what is God doing in all of this?

The unspeakable horror of 132 people killed in a school in Pakistan, most of them children, leaves us wondering if humanity’s depravity knows no limits. And yet the attack came almost exactly two months after the teenager Mulala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: one teenage girl inspiring the world with hope.    

The outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in West Africa killing an estimated 7,500 people and leaving already poor nations devastated. And yet in the midst of this near overwhelming tragedy, we hear stories of health workers volunteering to go to the worst places, making themselves vulnerable and sharing in the suffering of others.

And similarly, as war rages on in Syria and Iraq, and unrest continues in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, we hear stories of individual courage and bravery – aid workers risking their lives to help others and strive for peace.    

And closer to home, we think of communities coming together to run foodbanks, to counter the rising issue of hunger within British society; and the growing network of Credit Unions countering the accumulation of problem debt. Very few of these examples involve the very rich or the famous or the powerful. They are about ordinary people finding inspiration and courage to act in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

So I hope and pray that we will all find the unexpected in the Christmas story. No matter how many times we’ve heard it before, no matter how many nativity plays or carol services we’ve attended, I hope we can see the God of surprises being revealed in the tiny, vulnerable baby, born to the peasant villager, welcomed by the shepherds and angels.    

And as we encounter Jesus afresh in this story, so may we be drawn to work with God in all the unexpected things God is doing in our world today.

“Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that.”

+Martyn  Tewkesbury

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