(Isaiah 9.2-7;Hebrews 1.1-4;John.1.1-14)
Last weekend, I was in Harare where our diocese of Rochester has had a close link relationship for many years. But over the last five years, our Anglican brothers and sisters have been forced out of their churches, clergy have been forced out of their homes, and schools and a church orphanage have been removed from their care. They have faced oppression and persecution. If they have tried to enter their churches for worship, they have been prevented by the police, threatened with arrest or overwhelmed by tear-gas. But last month, the Supreme Court, the top court of Zimbabwe, ruled that our Anglican brothers and sisters should be allowed back into their churches and Bishop Chad, who became bishop two years ago, should be recognised as bishop of the diocese.
Last week, there was a great celebration in the middle of Harare, attended by 10,000 people, when the Anglican Church in Harare formally took possession of their own cathedral and it was a real joy for me to be there on behalf of the diocese. The last five years have been a period of real struggle and difficulty for our Anglican brothers and sisters in Harare, but through this darkness they did not lose trust in God. Even though it was really tough, they believed that God would not let them down – at the most difficult times, there was, against all the odds, both joy and hope. And as a result of their faithfulness, they grew through this time. Their relationship with God grew and deepened and their numbers grew…..so much so that a number of the churches to which they are returning are now too small for them!
I tell this because I believe that we have a great deal to learn from our brothers and sisters in Harare about our celebration tonight: the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I want to highlight two points.
First, Jesus was born at a time of oppression and persecution. It was a dark and difficult time for the people of Israel. They were facing a lack of leadership in their own communities compounded by a crisis of identity under an oppressive Roman rule. In the middle of this, Jesus was born, not surrounded by wealth, but in simplicity. The news of his birth was told not to the rich and powerful, but to shepherds, the outcasts, the oppressed in society………and this good news brought them joy and hope, just as it did to the people of Harare in their deepest need. What we learn time and time again, and it is brought into focus at Christmas, is that God has a special care and concern for the poor, for the outcast, for those who are struggling and the Church needs to have a particular concern for those on the edge, for those in these situations. It is there that we meet God.
Secondly, tonight reminds us of the present, the gift that God has for each of us. Yes, God has a particular concern for those on the edge, but he has no less love and concern for all of us. What is this present, this gift? Well, tonight, through this birth, we are being asked what kind of life we would like – a life dominated by fear and concern for our own futures or whether we want to live life to the full, whether we want to grow and become the people that God has created us to be. Whether we are wanting a life that opens up to the possibilities that surround us or a life that clams up even though there is much potential around……even in the difficult moments. I am sure that many have already said ‘yes’ to God’s gift, but tonight the offer, the challenge is being repeated. In the reading from St. John, we heard these words:
….to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.(John 1.12-13)
God will never force himself on us, but he makes the offer. It’s a bit like being inside a tent in the pouring rain. If we stretch out and touch the sides of the tent, then the water will come flooding in. If we stretch out and say ‘yes’ to God, then that enables God to flood in and fulfil that potential which lay within each of us. Anglicans in Harare took up God’s offer by wanting a deeper relationship with him and this enabled them to find joy and hope even when they were facing the most difficult, unpredictable and painful of situations. It didn’t take the hurt and pain away, it didn’t pretend that life wasn’t difficult at times, but it enabled them to live life to the full, it enabled them to be true to themselves even when life was tough and hard.
Tonight as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the presence of joy and hope which are particularly important for those who are struggling, pushed out and on the edge.
We are also celebrating, in this birth, God’s love and concern for each of us. We are celebrating, in this birth, the fact that God wants the best from each of us, he wants us to live life to the full, to fulfil the potential within each of us, to be open to the possibilities around us, to be fully alive. He is inviting us to say, ‘yes.’
St. Mary with St. Paulinus, Cray, Orpington
24th December, 2012.