St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's House on Christmas Day 2008
There was a cartoon I saw recently of the wise men pressing their noses up against a shop window displaying discounted gold, myrrh, and frankincense. Their camels waited nearby. My family, like the wise men in the cartoon, is having a credit crunch Christmas; perhaps some of you are, too. We are trying to make gifts at home. Our neighbours in Old Trafford are doing the same thing. With the troubles in the economy isn't it special to reflect on things money can't buy at Christmas: peace, joy, love. It is good to gather around God's promises that will not be threatened; around God's light that has shown in the darkness.
The world God came into in Jesus' birth was also troubled. Israel was occupied by a foreign army, its people were longing for justice and sovereignty. Mary and Joseph had to make their long journey while Mary was heavily pregnant, in Luke's account. The angels announce that peace has come to the people of earth in need, but peace comes not in form anyone wanted or expected. It came not through the actions of Caesar, not even through a political leader for the people of Israel, but in a vulnerable child born as all humans are, a child who is with us, who from the start is also at sea in the frightening uncertainties and ambiguities of life, who will know violence and betrayal and death, and who calls us also to live with his confidence and generosity and love amidst uncertainty and fear.
This week Gordon Brown's recession-busting scheme has been in the headlines, and it has come under criticism from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. Whatever we think about Brown's plan, on Christmas day we remember that, ultimately, peace comes through the intervention of God in a troubled time, not through the grand plans of a political leader. We hear that Caesar has an ambitious programme underway to carry out a world-wide census; he is surely bustling about with many important people around him. His power is evident in the fact that his plan hatched in Rome shook up the lives of Mary and Joseph and surely many other nameless nobodies like them, in Luke's telling. God's peace comes through a child, a person at risk, not someone in control; to the shepherds in the fields, not a law passed or a tax repealed. It won't be legislated or carried out by the means we devise.
But Caesar's grand plans indirectly bring to fulfillment the prophecy that a saviour was to be born in Bethlehem. Legislation, the plans of our leaders, the actions of our governments are quite important to God; God will work through our plans, though not always for the reasons we intend. God will work through us, and with us, as with courageous people who say yes, like Mary. But God will also work in the world in the lives of people who don't have faith in God. With us, or despite us, Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem. This year and in all times God's peace in Christ comes through the most unlikely and unpromising of people, a gift given amidst a credit crunch not to induce guilt, or repay a debt, but simply because God is God.
This autumn I volunteered for a few days cleaning with the domestic staff in a hall of residence. I knew the hall fairly well but had been frustrated trying to get to know the cleaners. I was working with a young woman in a student flat, and the 11 a.m. tea break was approaching. I was vacuuming cereal off the floor and she was cleaning the stove top. She asked if I had brought my own tea and milk and I hadn't; as it turned out tea, coffee and milk weren't provided the cleaners. They had to bring their own. I had a lunch, but no tea. She only had two tea bags with her, but she was only working a half-day, so she said she wouldn't need the second bag. She put it in foil for me and poured off some milk she had brought in a Lucozade bottle and gave it to me, and I took it to the break room to make a cuppa. An unlikely gift in a gift-less place.
What can I give him, poor as I am? Gifts given not out of debt or guilt, but out of joy and thanksgiving, out of our shared humanity, out a hope for the future. Gifts given in hard times, in unlikely places, to unlikely people. Gifts given because the one promised, the one like us, has been born! Praise be to God. Amen.