Bishop Paul’s Sermon in Southwell Minster on Christmas Morning 2021
‘What would you like for Christmas?’ is a question that will have been posed on countless occasions over the past weeks. The answer of course depends on who is asking. What is the budget and range of gifts at their disposal? Is it possible to offend Father Christmas with unrealistic expectations, though he always seems to handle the pressure?
Yet of course the gift that is the centre-piece of this day is none other than Christ the Lord. All across our pandemic-stricken world today many millions of people will meet in-person, on-line, and in homes, to celebrate the moment the Word became flesh: God came among us, entering into the fullness of our frail humanity, and his name is Jesus.
What Luke recounts in his Gospel is quite extraordinary, though over the years the familiarity can cause us to lose the wonder. The angels announce: ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ [Luke 2:11]
Then later in the New Testament the apostle Paul explains the significance to his young apprentice:
‘When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us…so that we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.’ [Titus 3:4]
What would you ask of God for our lives and for our world this Christmas?
More kindness, love and hope would certainly make an enormous difference. But these virtues are not exclusively Christian. I know some exceptionally kind, loving and hopeful people who do not share my faith. Over the years I’ve also encountered a few Christians who have a natural talent for diminishing the levels of kindness, love and hope wherever they go. And we can all be like that at times.
Christmas should not be a season for religious virtue signalling. That’s a fairly modern term used to describe someone who expresses opinions or ideas that will project themselves as a good and enlightened person, especially on social media, and partly to shame anyone who does not agree. The problem is that accusing someone of virtue signalling has now become a form of virtue signalling.
But the projection of certain virtues, however positive, is not what’s going on in the story of the birth of Jesus. The gift that comes into the world is God himself. Because what we need is not a transfusion of virtues but a change of heart.
That’s why the kindness and love of God our Saviour ‘appeared’. Not in a pithy Tweet or a FaceBook post or on TikTok, but in a person, in the flesh. And after 18months of mastering new on-line skills, which has mostly been a good thing, we are rediscovering there is something unique about meeting in-person – sometimes more painful but also more beautiful.
Through the birth of Jesus, very God of very God came to meet us in-person. And from the outset his appearing was signalling something for sure, yet not to shame us into submission but to release us into relationship. It is the kindness and love of God that we need in our lives and world more than anything else, for this is the gift that transforms hearts – broken hearts, hard hearts and stone-cold hearts.
What we celebrate today is that Jesus came to restore us into relationship with God which is the very purpose for which we were created. And he doesn’t just add us into his contacts, he brings us into his family as dearly loved children. What’s more, the apostle explains that in Christ Jesus we become heirs having the hope of eternal life. And when you know this inheritance of faith is secure, it makes you far more courageous in responding to the pain of those who desperately need to experience kindness and love. No one cannot ever truly thrive without it.
The biggest health crisis we are facing as a society is not one that is being counted. It is the mental and emotional health crisis that has been compounded and accelerated by the pandemic. There is no vaccine that can protect us from this, and the young and old are especially vulnerable – probably everyone in between too! The need is too big to leave to a few professionals. Though we need their expertise, like the vast army of vaccinators, we can all play a part, starting today.
May this Christmas be for us filled with the kindness and love of God, so that it tilts the axis of our hearts towards those who least expect and yet most need to experience kindness and love, not as a virtue but in-person, above all in Christ Jesus.