A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7,17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

It’s been quite a journey – this Advent adventure that began in the Cathedral with the long procession as we sang the Litany and then lit the first of the Advent candles. In years gone by Advent was observed as a strictly penitential season – no flowers, no parties, no Christmas spirit. These days we tend to focus more on the idea of expectation and preparation. Different churches and communities have different customs. At the Discovery Bay Church in Hong Kong Mary and Joseph were taken from one family to the next during Advent. They would overnight in one house and then be taken by the household to the next one and ceremoniously handed over for safe-keeping during the following twenty-four hours – and so throughout the weeks of Advent giving many families the joy and privilege of offering sanctuary to the wandering couple while, at the same time, providing a wonderful teaching opportunity for children. What a thrill for the family that hosted the couple on the night of 23 December and then brought them to church on Christmas Eve to be placed in the crib.

One of my most moving Advent experiences happened late in 1989. For the first time in twenty years the South African government allowed a foreign television crew to film, legally, in the country. The programme could hardly be called controversial – it was the long-running and ever popular BBC production ’Songs of Praise.’ Broadcast on Advent Sunday 1989 it was rebroadcast a few months later when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison.

What are your memories and practices of Advent? How do you mark the season? And who do you journey with as you approach the birth of the Christ child, he who is called Emmanuel – God with us, and Jesus – the one who saves?

This morning I invite you to consider some of those with whom we travel each year; who are commemorated in the days immediately before and after Christmas. The first is St Thomas – remembered on December 21st. Thomas the doubter he is called. The one who was missing on Easter Day and so struggled to accept what the others told him – Jesus is alive! Many of those who come to Christmas services struggle with doubts. Some may have no belief whatsoever but enjoy the pageantry, the music, the sense of occasion. Others struggle with faith because of something that has happened – the death of a loved one, a life-threatening, debilitating or disfiguring disease, redundancy, separation from family. There may not be room at the inn but there is room for all at the stable.

On Boxing Day, 26th December, we give thanks for St Stephen – the first martyr and one of those commissioned by the early church to care for the poor and wait at the table. He was one of the very first deacons. With him come those persecuted today for their faith, those ridiculed by others because they ‘go to church’. With him too are those who serve others – those who will be working on Christmas Day – the police, ambulance and hospital staff, those who keep the electricity and water flowing, and those who will be fighting bush fires. Like the shepherds who came down from the hills, Stephen and those with him are essentially practical people dedicated to helping others. There is room for them at the stable.

On the 27th December we remember St John the Divine, he whose words thrill carol service congregations as the ninth lesson is read:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

John, identified as the youngest of the disciples and referred to as the disciple Jesus loved, is said to have lived to a ripe old age and written the Gospel that bears his name as a mature reflection on the events and experiences of his youth. With him come the wise in our societies, those who have the gift to put into words and make intelligible things hard to understand. Young and old, gay and straight, male and female, the articulate and those who struggle to find words for their thoughts – they too come with John and find there is room at the stable.

On December 28th comes one of the saddest of Christmas commemorations – inspiration for the ancient Coventry Carol ‘Lully Lulla’ – the Holy Innocents. It refers to a few verses in Matthew’s Gospel we prefer to gloss over – the slaughter of innocent children by King Herod, an action reminiscent of the story of Pharaoh and Moses. Today’s innocents too find a place at the stable – the children who grow up with stories of Santa Claus coming down the chimney instead of Jesus with his mother in the manger; whose innocence is taken all too soon through the actions of school bullies, parents addicted to drugs and alcohol, conflict and family separation; children abused by trusted people, traumatized by war, trafficked and enslaved in the constant quest for instant gratification no matter the cost or to whom. For the innocents of today there is room at the stable.

Twelve days after Christmas comes the Feast of the Epiphany and the arrival, after a long journey, of the magi. Listen again to the words of T S Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

By tradition, and influenced no doubt by the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, there are three wise men, kings, who come from afar – each representing a different race and part of the world. As we gather to celebrate Christmas we do so, not only conscious of people doing a similar thing around the world, but also of our own increasingly diverse congregations drawn from the rich multicultural multi-faith nation in which we live. What a blessing to have these magi with their gifts, and know that leaders across the world have the power and ability to bring gifts to the world – peace, goodwill, honest government, care of this beautiful yet fragile world into which Emmanuel came. The stable offers room for them too.

And so to ourselves. Where do we find ourselves in our journey to Bethlehem and the stable? Who are our travelling companions? Who have we forgotten or overlooked? Are there things to be put right, or words to be said, before we bring our gifts to the baby?

Among those who gather at the stable in St Peter’s Cathedral this year is Leonie Hempton who, for twenty four years, has shared her gifts and talents through a quite remarkable ministry of music. Generations of choristers have been nurtured and cajoled by her into harmonies rivaled only by the heavenly host. Leonie understands, like few others I know, that

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried,
Hallelujah!           (Words: Fred Pratt Green)

May this Christmas be one of extraordinary blessing to all – for Emmanuel is with us, God is with us.