The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
Gospel reading: Luke 2: 8-20
I wonder what has changed for you this year. Perhaps it’s been a cause for celebration, or perhaps this year has brought painful change. Whether your change has been joyful or painful, life will never be the same again.
And amid all the change across our world there has been the unfolding story of Brexit. I suspect there are a number of different views in this cathedral about what has happened and what people wish might happen.
As I listen to people I’m aware of bewilderment, distrust, anger, anxiety and a fedup-ness. And I’m acutely aware of the risk of communities becoming even more divided, and people not relating well in places of disagreement. And that’s not just around Brexit.
Sadly we only have to listen to Parliament or look at social media to recognise that many people are not treating each other well in places of difference and disagreement. You may have experienced that in your home or in a place of work or leisure, or indeed in the supermarket queue as you did your last minute food shopping. It was quite eye-opening being out with the Street Pastors in Gloucester late last Saturday night. Some of the relating between people outside pubs and nightclubs was extremely jovial but some of it was quite ugly as relationships reflected angry disagreement, disdain and a seeming desire to diminish one another.
There is much that we all need to ponder as we think about the world we want to be part of, locally, nationally and globally. Ultimately that world is shaped by relationship and not legislation. In our relationships with one another and our environment, how can we live the change we want to see?
The one thing we can be certain of, is that whatever lies ahead we cannot undo the past and what has happened, and life will never be the same again.
Over 2,000 years ago when an angel appeared to a young woman and proclaimed that she would give birth to the Son of God, her future changed for ever. The same was true of those shepherds on a hillside and astrologers from the East following a star.
And in all that changed in their present, there was and had been plenty of dreaming about the future too.
In fact the dreaming had begun hundreds of years before that first Christmas. Old Testament prophets painted pictures of a time yet to come – of peace and justice and of reconciliation. Their dreams were of transformation and all things being made new.
And then came the birth of a child, Jesus Christ, ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God with us.’
And the dream being realised in that animal shelter was not of a white Christmas or a Disneyland ‘where dreams come true’; and nor was it a consumerist dream of the perfect purchase or a lottery win. Rather the dream coming true was the promise of transformation rooted in forgiveness and generous love.
The dream which was coming true that first Christmas, and is still coming true, means that we can replace the Christmas tree fairies with real angels. This is about Christmas magic giving way to deep divine mystery as we begin to live the dream.
Because of Jesus Christ the Son of God born in an animal shelter, life will never be the same again; and the future is full of hope.
Mary the mother of Jesus knew that. Just like those shepherds on the hillside, Mary had seen the angel and heard the words of promise, and even when pain and tears and suffering came, Mary held fast. As we heard in our gospel reading, Mary treasured the words of the shepherds and pondered them in her heart.
When the baby grown-to-be-man was brutally crucified, it looked as if a dark nightmare had killed that dream of hope proclaimed by angels to ordinary shepherds on the hillside. Yet three days after Jesus was brutally killed, he came back to life and revealed God’s love as stronger than death itself. Truly life will never be the same again. Nothing can undo the resurrection. Life has changed forever.
This Christmas as we look at Jesus not only as a vulnerable baby in an animal feeding trough, but also as the grown Son of God risen from the dead, we see love which knows of pain, hatred and opposition. Generous love which sees us as we are in all our brokenness and beauty and never gives up. The dream of light stronger than the darkness has come true, and we are invited to join in.
As we look back at all the change we’ve experienced in 2018 and look even now to the future, you and I can choose to contribute to changing a narrative of fear and division if we rather choose to join in with God’s narrative of hope and love. You and I can make a choice to live a generous love which steps into the shoes of others, however uncomfortable; we can choose to be slow to blame and quick to be part of the solution. That won’t be easy. It will take a love that refuses to default to blaming someone else and always making the solution someone else’s responsibility.
You and I can choose to live a generous love which will mean holding back on kneejerk judgements, so often resulting in vitriolic posts on social media or angry emails. A generous love is rooted in hope and chooses to go towards people, just like those shepherds choosing to run towards ‘God with us’. We can take the risk of choosing reconciliation and ‘being with’ rather than walking away, or pushing away those we see as different or with whom we disagree.
In 2018 we have marked the centenary of the Armistice and recalled the horror of the conflict of the First World War. We have also marked the centenary of voting rights for British women. It was a great privilege for me to be present in Parliament Square at the unveiling of the statue of the eminent suffragist Millicent Fawcett. She once said “What draws men and women together is stronger than the brutality and tyranny which drive them apart.”
So this Christmas let us dream of what change might look like if we each actively commit to the reconciliation and transformation we see embodied in that baby in the animal trough and that man on the cross – ‘God with us’. Imagine life if our interaction with fellow human beings – those like us and those we dislike, distrust or disagree with – Imagine if our interaction reflected the certainty of hope, forgiveness and love, offered us in Jesus Christ.
We can choose to live that dream together – ‘with’ one another with God who is ‘with us.’
For all of us, on the threshold of a new year, life will never be the same again, but whatever happens regarding legislation and political decision, let us say ‘no’ to living relationships in a way which shape a nightmare of division, fear and condemnation.
That first Christmas, when King Herod heard the unwelcome news of the birth of Jesus, he ordered the magi bearing gifts to let him know when they had located the child. However, they were then warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, and we are told that the visitors from the East returned to their country by a different road.
Let us not only be like the shepherds returning full of joy and hope, giving glory to God; but let us also be like those wise men from the East, returning to the future by a different road, living the dream of generous love and certain hope.