God with us

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Tuesday 24th December 2019 (Midnight Mass)
Isaiah 9.2–7; Titus 2.11–14; Luke 2.1–20

What difference does Christmas make?

Every year we celebrate this feast, and our readings and carols declare that everything has changed because of this event. In our first reading, Isaiah proclaims that, through the birth of a new king:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light […].
[…] the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken […].
[…] there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.

Why do we apply this to the birth of Jesus? Did anything actually change when Christ was born in that stable or that house?

Our reading from Luke’s Gospel makes a similarly large claim. He begins by situating us in the imperial context: Quirinius was governor of Syria and Augustus was Emperor in Rome. This place has rulers. Once Jesus is born, angels appear to shepherds to tell them that ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’. Not only is he the Messiah, a descendant of King David born in David’s own town, he’s also a ‘Saviour’, a title used by Roman emperors. The message is clear – Jesus is going to be a new king, a new emperor. He has come to rule, to challenge those like Quirinius and Augustus who think of themselves as rulers.

And so we just sang in the final verse of Joy to the world, ‘He rules the world with truth and grace, / and makes the nations prove / the glories of his righteousness / and wonders of his love.’ But does Christ rule the world? It doesn’t look like it. I find the third verse of It came upon the midnight clear a bit more realistic:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing!

The birth of Christ didn’t usher in an age of peace and justice, so what changed? What are we celebrating tonight?

For me, there are two things.

First, there is the hope that in the end there will be peace and justice. Jesus, when he grows up and begins his ministry, reaffirms the hope of the ancient prophets that God’s kingdom will come, that this chaotic, unjust, violent world will one day change into something better. It isn’t always very easy to hold onto that hope, but Jesus managed to ignite that hope in enough hearts, through his ministry, and then through his death and resurrection, and finally through the Holy Spirit working in the church and the world – enough hearts that that hope hasn’t yet died. Along with charities and campaigners and protesters, places like St John’s try to keep that hope alive. When people dream of a better world, we can say, ‘So did the prophets, so did Jesus – so does God. What are you going to do about it?’

That’s what these readings and carols are celebrating tonight: the prospect of a world where no one is hungry, no one is killed in war, no one mistreats others, and where all are united in love. We celebrate that our hope in God’s future has been rekindled.

But we can’t live on hope alone. Our lives take us to places of profound grief: the death of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship, or perhaps even the experience of grinding poverty, long-term illness, or the permanent fear of violence. When we experience grief, we don’t just need the hope of a better future, we need someone with us in the grief – not necessarily solving it, not making everything better, but just with us.

At the beginning of this service we sang

O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

Immanuel. This Hebrew word means ‘God with us’, and it first appears in the book of the prophet Isaiah, where it is the symbolic name of a king whose birth Isaiah prophesies. The author of the Gospel of Matthew later uses the prophecy when writing about Jesus’s birth, using the name ‘Immanuel’ as a title for Jesus: in Jesus, ‘God is with us’.

This, for me, is the second thing we celebrate at Christmas. Although the hope of the Messiah’s kingdom hasn’t yet come to fulfilment, in the meantime ‘God is with us’. Jesus showed God’s solidarity with us – born into a violent and unjust world, associating with the poor and rejected, then persecuted and executed as a criminal, Jesus shared our human life. He drew close to us, putting his arm round us in our suffering, being with us. Immanuel – God with us.

So tonight we celebrate the hope of the kingdom of God and God’s presence and solidarity with us. But although we often celebrate God’s love like this – by coming to church and singing about it – the main way Christians ought to celebrate God’s love is by trying to show God’s love. Just as Jesus came alongside us, we can come alongside others – we can be with them.

The birth of Jesus, God with us, shows us that God thinks we’re worth bothering with. Who could we show this Christmas, or next year, that they’re worth bothering with? Jesus showed people that God loved them. Who could we show that God loves them?

Let’s allow this celebration to spur us on – let’s go out tonight with hope for the world, and with a determination to be with others as God is with us.

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