Christmas Eve 11.30pm, 2018
Isaiah 52.7-10 (Hebrews 1.1-4) John 1.1-14
Preacher: Mark Hart
The midnight service is unique in the year, not least because it is the one occasion when I get to preach after the 9pm watershed. The normal boundaries of discretion have been relaxed and I can deliver an adult sermon. In particular, I can speak candidly about the status of Father Christmas, because anyone who still believes in him should be asleep in bed.
When did you stop believing in him? And what did you think when you heard the truth? Did you feel deceived? Did it harm your ability to trust people? I doubt it. I think nearly everyone accepts that Father Christmas is a harmless way to provide some enchantment for children.
What about God? Some people place him in the same category. He is an invention of human imagination with no more reality than Santa. And worse, not everyone grows up to see this. Supposedly adult people take faith seriously. And that’s not harmless fun. Religion is the cause of much of the strife in the world. It’s a way of controlling people. And it’s a way of preventing people from discovering truth for themselves.
I don’t want to argue directly against all that. Instead I want to ask what we’re left with if we accept it. And it seems to me we’re being asked to try to live without trust – not just without trust in God, but without trust in each other.
St John wouldn’t have that. In this most glorious of passages he gives a central place to John the Baptist, who came as a witness, as someone to trust. He tells us of the Word – the source of all the trustworthy speech ever spoken. And he says that this baby, the Word-made-flesh, divided people into those who didn’t receive him, and those who believed in his name. The good news according to John is not just that here is born someone you can trust, but that here is someone who makes any trust possible – whether trust in God, or trust in each other.
For over 25 years Ipsos MORI have conducted an annual survey of how much people trust the different professions in the UK. You may think politicians are lower than ever, but they have been down at the bottom all that time. Nurses, doctors and teachers have been up at the top. The only profession for which there is a clear trend downwards is the clergy.
Why may that be? I think it’s related to a broader trend which is to be suspicious of an agenda behind any claim to truth or authority. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find someone trying to hold onto power. Many disciplines, especially the sciences, are less susceptible to being undermined in this way. Each generation can confirm or contradict the received truth, by its own independent enquiry.
That’s not so easy with the Christmas stories. It’s one thing to enjoy them as a heart-warming mid-winter tale. It’s quite another to accept them as the key to the purpose of life. No-one can independently verify that this child was the incarnate Son of God. So why trust an institution which is built on this claim? We’re being asked to believe lots of people, going all the way back to the Gospel writers.
But don’t you wish you could trust people more? And where do we end up if we become more and more suspicious? The reason politicians are so low down on the scale of trust is that they are in the business of power, by definition. How do we build trust? At the heart of the current division and uncertainty in our nation is a lack of trust about where truth lies and whose interests are being served.
If you think we have a crisis here, it’s nothing compared with, for example, the economic crisis in Venezuela. They have the largest oil reserves in the world, more than Saudi Arabia, yet poverty is soaring, millions have fled, and inflation is over one million per cent. Or remember the largest humanitarian crisis in our world today, in Yemen, where, after four years of conflict, tens of thousands have died and millions are on the brink of starvation.
This is how bad it gets when trust is lost – trust between nations and neighbours, and trust between a government and its people.
It’s not that we can naively say that we should never be suspicious, that we should take everyone at face value. Sadly, it is very necessary to teach children to be cautious and to learn how to navigate their way in life by not implicitly trusting every new person they meet.
But all that work we put into being shrewd and calculating needs to be heavily out-weighed by a source of trust, a foundation on which trust can be built.
The Christmas good news tells us we’re not condemned to a vicious circle of distrust. What is the first thing that is said in all creation? What is the most primitive word? Is it something which we must be suspicious of? Is there a hidden agenda?
Our Gospel tells us of this Word. The one without whom nothing else would ever be spoken. And we learn that it is not out of place for that Word to become flesh. To be incarnate as a baby. To become a vulnerable, fragile creature incapable of any hidden agenda. A child whose whole life will be full of grace and truth. He will hold nothing back. He will give himself to the world and to his Father in complete trust.
That’s the hope of the world. Jesus Christ has established God’s own faithful, trusting love at the heart of humanity. And it is a trust in which we can grow. Not on our own. Only with each other, slowly building faith in opposition to that cycle of suspicion.
Ministering at St Mary’s means you see a lot of people at some of the most significant moments of their lives. In this building in 2018, 27 weddings, 84 baptisms and 67 funerals. In these moments cynicism is pushed well down, and those days are about entrusting oneself to another, or a child for whom one would give everything, or a close family member whose absence hurts because of the bond of love.
It’s at such times that we know what we value most in life. Relationships of love in families and in wider circles, with people to whom we’ve been open, even though we’ve not been able to calculate or prove that there’s no hidden agenda. We’ve made steps of trust because in such acts is expressed the deepest truth about ourselves. It’s when we’re most divine.
Look around at each other this night. Many people you don’t know. But each one of us sharing the human condition of being mortal, frail, vulnerable, fearful, defensive and suspicious. Look with compassion. Many have been hurt. We all need each other. And we need to grow in trust.
This Christmas, can you trust that the world is enchanted by grace? Not in the way you thought as an infant. But by a divine presence which can overcome the darkness of hatred and cynicism. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.