Bishop Rachel’s Christmas Eve Sermon

Gloucester Cathedral 2015 Christmas Eve 6pm 

As you sit here this evening, of what are you afraid? 

We’ve just been hearing about the shepherds being afraid. Well, terrified. 

Mind you, I’d be pretty afraid if I was doing what I did every night – Tending my sheep, or stacking shelves in the supermarket, or caring for others through the night… and then suddenly the sky lit up with angels – I’d be pretty afraid. 

But being in here tonight – well it’s quite beautiful – surely we can switch off from everything out there. Let’s forget about floods or terrorism. Let’s forget about debt and illness and climate change. Let’s forget about the things in our own lives which are making us anxious. 

Or let’s not. Because tonight is not about escapism. It is about our places of fear and anxiety and the realities of the world and our lives. 

Earlier we sang the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. And it has that wonderful line: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ 

When it comes to hopes and fears, I’m sure the people of Bethlehem could tell us a lot – Bethlehem has not done much lying still in recent years. 

But I wonder what hopes and fears you have carried in here tonight. 

Fear is a very dark emotion and the things we fear often do happen in the dark, but where there is fear there is also hope. And it’s often not shaped the way we expect. It’s why we’re retelling the story of the first Christmas here tonight: 

An unmarried mother and her husband-to-be, fearful of being disgraced; then a somewhat terrifying national decree followed by a long journey; then in the darkness of the night Mary & Joseph are homeless. I would say there’s plenty of room for fear. 

And so it is that Mary gives birth in an animal shelter, and yet as the tiny baby cries out this is strange-shaped hope: God come to earth to be with us, amongst us. Hope is often found in unexpected places. 

So back to those shepherds: Terrifying bright light invades their dark night on a hillside, but fear turns to hope as they recognise angels and they hear the words, as so often with angels, “Do not be afraid”. And those shepherds run and see the strange-shaped hope for themselves. 

And many years later, the baby who had once cried out in the dark, cried out in the dark again, this time as a man murdered on a cross. And yet that was the strange shape of hope. And then there was the fear when his friends went into the dark tomb where he’d been buried and found his grave empty – not as it should be. But yet again it was the strange shape of hope. The man who was God had defeated death. Have no fear … 

In here tonight the darkness has not put out the brightness of the tiny candle flames. The lights on the trees look small but they pierce the darkness. Do you recall our very first reading this evening from the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…for a child has been born for us…” In our final reading we will hear Jesus proclaimed as the true light: ”The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.“ 

And so my hope and prayer for every one of us this evening is that we will dare to bring our fears to the crib and dare to open our hearts and minds to the strange-shaped hope of God come among us. Jesus is The Light of the World and the darkness will never overcome the light. Do not be afraid… 

+Rachel Gloucestr:

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