Posted: Sunday 31st December 2017
A sermon is for life, not just for Christmas, Christmas 1 / New Year’s Eve 2017
Luke 2: 15-21
Rev’d Simon Buckley, St Anne’s Soho
After our packed carol service a week last Thursday I was having a drink with a couple of parishioners and mentioned that amongst the things I probably wouldn’t get done before Christmas was writing a sermon for today. One of them suggested that I do a ‘Christmas Special Sermon’, in other words follow the pattern set by many TV series whose ‘Christmas Special’ contains no new material at all, but just edited highlights of the pervious years programmes! To prove Gavin’s point watching the Christmas special of ‘Have I got News For You’ the next night ( whilst still writing Christmas cards!) I was treated to a random selection of clips from the last year’s programmes and very entertaining it was too.
But of course sermons aren’t supposed to be simply entertaining- so a selection of the sermon illustrations, stories and witty one-liners that got the best reaction from you might not exactly expound the scriptures and preach the word of God as a sermon is supposed to. And reading off the key verses of scripture that had inspired those sermons – one after another- was also going to sound rather disjointed and peculiar.
Nevertheless, inspired by Gavin, I did take a brief and random tour back through some of the sermons I had preached last year and it was interesting to see how many of them I had forgotten writing and which you will I am sure have forgotten hearing.
I am not asking you to shout out if I mention one you remember!
There was one sermon where I gave everyone a postcard of the Da Vinci painting Madonna of the Rocks from the National Gallery Collection. In it John the Baptist was pointing to the infant Jesus, a cuddly chubby little chap and I reflected how much more comfortable we were looking forward to the reception of Christ as a baby ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ and all that, than as our judge.
On this very Sunday last year (which was also New Year’s Day) our gospel gave us the Nativity Story and the slaughter of the innocents all in one go- stories of life and death – reminding us at the end of a turbulent political year of God’s presence in the world in both the best and very worst of times.
Reflecting on the story of Jesus turning water into wine I shared with you what difference being a Christian makes to my life – not just where I live and what I do for a ‘living’ as a priest- but how I see the world, where, through the eyes of faith I see the water of life being transformed into something richer by the grace of God, and encouraged you in the coming year to do the same.
The story of Thomas helped us explore how Jesus invites us to walk with him, who is the way the truth and the life, taking our doubts as well as our faith with us.
And reflecting on the epistles we found familiarity with Paul who couldn’t understand why he didn’t always do what he wanted to do or what he knew what was best for him; and also thought about his call to ‘let love be genuine’, causing me to note that genuine love demanded sacrifice. To be loving often means sacrificing our own desires, preferences, prejudices and comfort for the well-being of others.
We thought too about the importance of silence and stillness before and during worship. In a series of sermons in August we revisited the stories of great Old testament characters like Ruth, Samson and Daniel. And the parable of the vineyard challenged us, here at St Anne’s, as part of God’s vineyard to be a place in which Christ is welcomed, recognised and recognisable, a place where he is received, proclaimed and followed.
Now you might think, “oh dear, I’m here most Sundays and I don’t remember half of those sermons”, but you shouldn’t be surprised by that, and I am not offended. It’s gratifying when someone says to me (sometimes years later) “I remember you saying in a sermon once that….” It’s gratifying but also surprising! I rather think of sermons as being like most meals we have had – appreciated at the time, necessary to sustain us and to give us the nourishment we need; but their details stay in the memory for as short a time as the taste of last week’s Christmas pudding lingers on our taste buds.
And whilst you won’t find me repeating any of those sermons in the year ahead you will find me revisiting some of the themes and re-treading familiar ground. We will of course think about God’s compassion, our need of him, the vocation of this church as a Christian community, the difference God makes to our lives and how we can live and love and be more Christ-like. The liturgical year and its cycle of festivals and readings means that we will reconsider them over and over again, because no one reading of scripture, no exploration through one sermon, can capture all that there is to say, to think about or to know. Apart from that, the enormity of what sermons consider – the Love of God revealed in different ways- is just too huge to fully encapsulate in ten minutes on a Sunday morning. And today’s gospel tells us so.
Our gospel reading today begins after the angels have proclaimed the birth of Jesus and disappeared as suddenly as they had lit up the Judean sky.
- The angels’ words had whetted the shepherds’ appetite to know more and to explore what they’d heard for themselves.
- Having seen Jesus they then shared what they knew with others.
- Having heard what the shepherds had been told Mary treasured the words and pondered them.
- The shepherds went back to work, how could they not, but with a new and thankful spring in their step.
The angels’ proclamation – let’s call it a ‘sermon’ – prompted a response that was immediate for some, long lasting for others and which required further thought by more and which contained a message worth sharing.
For me the most significant of responses to the angels’ sermon was that of Mary who, as we hear a couple of times in scripture ‘pondered these things in her heart’, she replayed the good news she had of who her son was – and which must have sounded like terrifying rather than ‘good’ as in ‘happy’ news at first- and she did this throughout her life and probably especially when she was most perplexed and things weren’t going as expected.
And that’s why no one sermon you heard last year will have answered all your questions or be stored in your memory with full and total accuracy, because we, like Mary, will need to return to the word of God revealed in scripture and re-read it against the changing circumstances of our lives and our world, year by year, week by week. Sometimes what you’re offered won’t be quite what you need – how can it when we each bring such diverse expectations and experiences, arrive with different concerns and things pressing on our minds? It won’t make sense because it won’t fit with where you are at that moment in time- just as the angel’s first message to Mary made no sense initially. But my hope is always that there will be something – if only one thing- for everyone to take away and chew over. And I also recognise that in no sermon is it possible to say all that is said, any more than in one meal we can stock up our bodies with the food and nutrients we will need for the rest of our life.
So in the coming year, in church as in life, you will hear much that is familiar maybe even repetitive, much that we will relish and stuff we will find unpalatable or hard to swallow. Some things you will hear again but as if for the very first time as a penny drops or it connects in a new way. Here as a community we will endeavour to hear what God is saying to us, and seek to explore where God is present in our lives and our world. Here we will seek to grow together in love and compassion, understanding and graciousness. Here we will recognise that we get it wrong and here we will mirror God’s forgiveness and help one another get back on our feet.
Who knows what this year holds? A royal wedding and the World Cup… probably…. But I am certain of one thing, and it is that the year will be better if we place ourselves in God’s hands and journey with God in the year to come, trusting that he is holding us and remembering how we have been held before. If you don’t remember any of my words over the last twelve months don’t worry- just remember those of the Christmas Gospel and take these with you into 2018:
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us…..the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
As one year ends and another begins that truth remains.