2020 – a Christmas like no other? Sermon for Adel Parish Church.
(With thanks to Malcolm Guite)
Usually, at this time of year, a well-loved member of our congregation helps Father Christmas out by standing in for him at a school the other side of Leeds. This year of course – he couldn’t go. The children were sad, and worried that with all the restrictions Father Christmas himself might not get to their houses this year. So, our Father Christmas recorded a video – assuring them that even these strange times wouldn’t stop the deliveries on Christmas night.
It reminded me of another Christmas memory I read recently, from the early 60s…of a British child brought up in Zimbabwe, who travelled ‘home’ by ship once a year. One year, unusually, they travelled over the Christmas season.
The young Malcolm was worried; they would be way out at sea…what if Father Christmas couldn’t find them? There was a Christmas Eve party, but what of the man himself?
Suddenly that party was interrupted by conversations on the bridge accidently broadcast over the tannoy.
Malcolm writes…”we heard an alarmed call from the navigator: “Something on the radar, sir. North-north-west, approaching swiftly. Shall I take evasive action?” “Hold your course steady,” the Captain called. “Let’s see if I can get a sighting through the binoculars.” Down in the dining room, we all held our breath.
“Oh yes, yes, it is!” came the Captain’s jubilant voice. “It’s him! Slow and steady,” he called to the engineer. “Bring her over, and cut the furnace for a moment; we don’t want too much heat and smoke when he comes down the funnel. All right, everybody, prepare to take on an extra passenger.”
And of course, a slightly sooty Father Christmas was soon ushered into the party – with presents for all the children. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like a ship out at sea stop Christmas.
There has been talk this year of ‘Christmas being cancelled’. Even limited plans had to be altered at the last minute, leaving some very upset…perhaps this year it’s not only the children who need reassuring. All the usual certainty and family traditions…Christmas day with this part of the family…Boxing Day with that…sprouts – or not…cramming into church for Christmas services…meeting old friends…none of it possible in the usual way.
But if we think about the Christmas story…in a way it was always one of changed plans and making do.
I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt…their plans for an ordinary, respectable wedding dashed…their lives no doubt challenged by unkind talk about this mysterious baby. Perhaps they thought God might have made his announcement a little more widely, told the neighbours at least, to avoid the stigma of this unexpected arrival.
I wonder too, what they thought as they trekked from door to door in Bethlehem, desperately looking for a safe place for his birth. Might they have expected God to plan more carefully for this special child? No room at the inn, and then no home as they fled from Herod, becoming refugees.
What of their parents? No doubt they’d imagined the arrival of their first grandchild: respectable, safe at home, with family around to share in the joy.
And the religious people of the day…faithful Jews, longing for the coming of the Messiah…doing their best to follow the law…assuming the saviour would come into the midst of those traditions…come first to places of worship…recognisable to those expecting him…
But no. We may have tamed it with our beautiful Christmas carols, clean and tidy nativity scenes, traditional round of services…but that first Christmas was a mess of altered plans and dashed hopes…played out against a background of fear and anxiety in an occupied country with a volatile King.
And so it went on…shepherds settling down around their fire to an evening of storytelling perhaps…confronted by a host of angels forcing them away from their sheep, down into the busy town…Shepherds who normally kept to the edges…finding themselves the centre of attention, sharing their news.
The Magi, wise men…I don’t know what their plans were, but I don’t suppose they included a trek of hundreds of miles, following a star to an unknown destination.
In fact, this 2020 Christmas of disrupted plans, of being out of our comfort zone, of making do, is far more faithful to the event we celebrate.
Christmas was never about the traditions – although they help us connect with the mystery. Christmas is God’s statement that he is with us in times of darkness and uncertainty. That can’t ever be cancelled…not by the disapproval of society…not by the danger of a busy town and a dirty stable…not by Herod and his soldiers. Not by a global pandemic.
Christmas is a reminder that God’s presence doesn’t depend on carefully laid plans, and following traditions…that he comes to be with us particularly where there is chaos and fear.
I trust that many worried children will find this year as always that Father Christmas somehow manages…because he is propelled by the love and sacrifice of anxious parents, and the compassion of strangers.
And I pray that we, as we gather at the crib…in the churchyard…in church…in our own homes…in our hearts…As we gather with a few loved ones or alone…in joy or grief…in despair or with hope…will find that Christmas is not cancelled.
This Christmas is not easy – but with everything else stripped away it might be a time to accept God’s gift of being with us in the darkness, of sharing the pains, joys and uncertainty of human existence…the gift of love.