Bishop Rachel’s Christmas day sermon

Bishop Rachel TreweekChristmas Day 2016

I wonder if you have seen some of the amazing night skies recently – The white light of the moon against a dark inky sky.

Just recently, as I’ve looked at the moon from my study window, I’ve found myself thinking of those verses at the beginning of the Bible – that evocative creation narrative which begins with the earth described as a formless void with darknesscovering the face of the deep. Darkness which is about emptiness and absence. And then the writer gives us the beautiful image of God separating the light from the darkness – creating day and night. 

It was not about the dark of night being evil or the light of day being good – Rather it was about the presence of God in both darkness and light – created and separated by God…and ‘God saw that it was good’.

I found myself thinking about this just a few weeks ago when we launched our diocesan vision for the next five years.

We deliberately didn’t do this with a service here in the cathedral because one of the things that we had heard through several months of conversations is that the Church is too often seen as people within ecclesiastical buildings – The word ‘out’ was heard very clearly. We therefore had a party at the University of Gloucester and some of it was outside. And because it was a Saturday afternoon it grew dark very quickly. The face painting for the children was ultraviolet and there were lots of glow sticks and lights – and I looked and I saw that it was good. People of all ages being together, carrying stories of both celebration and struggle, and tasting something of Jesus’ life in all its fullness.

And the beauty of the lights needed the darkness and the darkness added to the sense of excitement and mystery. The light and the dark complemented the other and it communicated goodness and relationship with God and one another. It communicated love and hope. This was about fullness of life, not absence or void.

Our Gospel reading this morning was the opening words of John’s gospel – as with those creation narratives, talking about ‘the beginning’. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’: The Son of God present from the beginning – God’s ultimate Communication – and fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ come to earth.

And then come those words about darkness and light: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

This year, indeed this week, we have heard stories of shocking tragedy and cruelty -and again and again I proclaim these words that the darkness will not have the last word. And then I find myself reflecting on the sorts of experiences I described at the start about the goodness of darkness. How it is that darkness can appear so good and so beautiful and yet also is an expression of so much evil which will never have the last word?

And to answer that, I believe we do need to go inside and not out. Once more we have to think about absence and presence. And when I say we need to go inside I mean deep within ourselves.

The darkness of evil and destruction is something I so often choose to see as beingoutside me: The fear and screams of people in Aleppo or Berlin or Turkey – and people who suffer in places of which we rarely hear – surely I am not part of that darkness?

And in the uncertainty of our own country following the EU referendum – the ostracising of the other… or the journey lived in the United States leading up to the elections – the blame and the fear; the distrust and accusation and lack of respect for other…Surely all of that is a darkness beyond me?

It’s easy to recognise the darkness in others (the absence of love – a darkness which is not about the life-giving creativity of God, but rather a void carved out by fear). It’s easy to recognise that darkness in others but it is so hard to look inside myself.

Earlier this year I was disturbed by statistics regarding unhappiness in young people – particularly in girls – which is rooted in the way they view their physical appearance. What is most disturbing is the impact this is having on mental health.

I decided that in visits to schools I would talk about this issue as a way of talking about our identity, and not least to share my deep desire for every person to fulfil their potential and become the person God has created them to be – To discover that they are loved and known by God and that our value and who we are begins on the inside and not the outside. And what’s on the inside determines what we live on the outside.

The darkness those young people are experiencing within has begun in a place of fear. It is true of each of us. People fear that they are not good enough, people fear not being loved or losing someone’s love; people fear that others are better than us; people fear that they are missing out; People fear that they are not significant; people fear their mortality…

It’s a dark fear which begins inside our human hearts and drives us to places of discontentment, control, envy, hatred. It’s a fear which leads to selfishness and greed and the breakdown in human relationship; It’s a fear which leads to a despising of the other. And it’s a fear which is all about the darkness of absence. And God sees – and it is not good.

A few weeks ago I met a young girl who is most definitely not taking her value from her outward appearance. Muzoon is a Syrian refugee who knows all about the external darkness of absence. She has lived experiences which no young person should have to suffer. And during her time in a refugee camp in Jordan she used her time and energy to fight for the education of girls. She has become good friends with Malala (the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban to try and silence her as she spoke out about girls’ education). These young women are both using their voices for good and speaking into the darkness of absence.

Muzoon’s strength and beauty are palpable – and they come from within.

There is another passage in the New Testament, also by St John, which describes God as love and proclaims the truth that perfect love casts out fear.

During this season of Christmas there will be many places of beauty and excitement involving dark and light. There will no doubt be fireworks and glow sticks, and children and adults alike will enjoy the fairy lights on trees. And without the darkness this beauty would not be visible.

But amidst the places of happiness and laughter there will be the pain and the struggle, the loneliness and sadness. There will be endless news stories of horroracross our world; and as with this week in Berlin, there will be the unexpected tragedies. And in all of that there will be uncertainty and fear. And it is in that darkness of absence that we cry out for the light of Christ – we proclaim that the darkness of fear and evil will not have the last word.

So as we prepare to look once more into the face of the child lying in the manger; as we recall the brightness of the angels against the night sky, and the star in the dark which led the Magi to the Christ child – the goodness of God’s dark and light together – may we look deep within ourselves and let the light of Christ shine in those places of darkness which are not good – the places where God’s love is absent and the darkness within us is not about God’s creativity and life.

May we open our hearts and minds to the light of Christ; receive God’s transforming hope and love afresh; and be motivated not by fear but by love, so that we might be Christ’s light in the world.

Amen.

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