Sermon preached at Midnight Eucharist (24-25 December 2015) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

Worship
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7:30am Morning Prayer - transferred to St Martin, Ludgate
8:00am Eucharist - transferred to St Martin, Ludgate
11:00am The Grenfell Tower National Memorial Service
6:30pm A Celebration of Christmas

Sermon preached at Midnight Eucharist (24-25 December 2015) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

It’s a great occasion, being here, isn’t it? It’s a special service, says the Dean ...

 ... not easy to get into and even harder to get home from, thanks to no public transport. Well done for getting here: and we hope it will be memorable for all of us.

It’s a great occasion – and then what? Being here may inspire you for a while, depending partly on what time you get woken up tomorrow morning. But when the holidays are over and the new year begins, will this be just a memory? What difference does it make to us…?

The first Christmas Day

And you can ask the same question of the first Christmas Day. What difference did the birth of Jesus make back then? The shepherds in our gospel reading were terrified and then enthusiastic – they had an amazing spiritual experience. It gave them and their fellow villagers something to talk about for months, given there wasn’t TV or much else going on. But there’s only so much to say about an experience like that; and when Mary and her baby disappeared from view, so the memory faded.

For Mary on the other hand, it was a life-changing experience – though that’s true of any birth. But with the God stuff, Mary seemed to have it so easy – she had an angel to herself, more angels with the shepherds, and then there were the wise men. Why can’t we have such help to make it easier to believe, to make it more than a memory?

And yet: how many times did something special happen to Mary?

An angel appears nine months before the birth to tell Mary she’s got to break the news to her fiancé that she’s pregnant, and not by him, and then face the massive consequences... Her husband Joseph has a few dreams… Some shepherds turn up with stories about angels when she’s just given birth and is in no fit state to receive visitors... Two old people in the Temple get enthusiastic over her baby… And a couple of years later strange men arrive with presents and bring a whole load of trouble down on the young family who have to run away.

And that’s it. Five unusual encounters involving God in some way over more than three years, and two of them meant big trouble. That’s the sum total of Mary’s religious experiences as recorded in the Bible, apart from one. It’s not a lot really.

Think of the weeks, the months, the thirty years when life was crushingly normal, when the thoughts that Mary pondered seemed to have nowhere to go, when God was not in evidence. Mary had to keep her faith alive during the long years of no angels, no signs, no miracles. Even when Jesus was 12 years old and went to the Temple, nothing happened that was unusual for a new teenager. Watching Jesus in his mission, wondering if he was mistaken, watching him die, Mary must have had her heart broken, and whatever faith she had tested to the limit.

And yet, and yet ...

There’s that one last time that Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned in Luke’s writing, the bit that in Hollywood would have big swelling music to indicate it was the happy ending, but which is tossed into the story by Luke almost as an afterthought. What’s that last religious experience that Mary had? It was in the Upper Room after Jesus’ resurrection, praying with the eleven disciples and her other sons, waiting for the Holy Spirit to come with power; Mary – with the pieces of her pondering put into place, and her patient love for Jesus and her faith in her son finally come good. What seemed so unlikely proved true after all.

Mary lived her life with a few signs of God at work, and with what she saw of God in the life of her son Jesus.

She too had to live with voices that told her to forget about her unusual experiences, to accept that life goes on as it always has, and that mystery is an illusion. But Mary held on to what she’d experienced, and found it in the end to be a truth which has touched countless lives ever since, including ours.

And us? You & me, here, tonight, with the intimations of God’s mystery in our experiences of wonder and worship, past and present. What do we do with those experiences? Are they drowned out by the voices that tell us that life is what we see and there’s no mystery? Even when scientists tell us that what we see is not actually what’s there, and that the makeup of the universe is far stranger than we can possibly imagine?

Here we are over 2000 years later, looking into the Christmas story, wondering which way to go.

Will you be with the shepherds?

Is this a one-off spectacular you’ll not forget, but which has changed nothing?

Or will you go the way of Mary? Following your intuition, trusting in mystery, finding God through Jesus?

If you’re not sure, then give yourself a different kind of Christmas present or New Year’s resolution. Read all of Luke’s gospel in a modern translation – you can find one on the internet if you type in ‘Lukes gospel modern’. And do what Mary did: reflect on her experience as well as your own, and spend some time in the company of this strange man Jesus, who challenged his contemporaries and was killed for his pains, and who came back to change the world.

Have a good look at the life of this child in a manger, who’s at the heart of our stated British values of acceptance, justice, compassion and truth. And see whether you can ask God to help you be like Mary in following Jesus.

Being a Christian isn’t about accepting certain beliefs or values or doing good things for other people: being a Christian means accepting that God in Jesus Christ loves us far more than we can ever do, and then becoming transformed by that love of God so that the world around us can be changed.

Being a Christian isn’t about giving assent to complex propositions or leaving your brain at the door. It means joining with many others throughout history in staking our lives on the truth of a mystery, and trusting that, like Mary, the mystery we fleetingly experience means that what we see is rather less than what there is and what will be.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth be peace.