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Sermon preached by
the Reverend Charles Royden
at the Age Concern Christmas Carol Service
St Mark's Church
15th December 2002


Welcome to St Mark's Church, it was a pleasure to be invited to your service last year at Priory Methodist Church, it is in even more of a pleasure this year to be invited back, and to be able to welcome you to my own church here at St Mark's.

It is good to be able to offer to you such support as we are able, Age Concern is a charity which I think we should all be more involved with. I decided that since I was speaking at Age Concern I ought to work out how long I am personally expected to live. This is not done by searching the mind of the Almighty but rather by supplying personal details to one of the calculators on the internet. Try searching life expectancy on Google and there are lots of these, sadly they all seem to more or less agree, you can't wangle an extra decade. You tell them your height and weight and then answer certain lifestyle questions. The good news is that I am expected to live somewhere between 81 and 89 years, the eight year difference depends upon how truthful I am about my alcohol consumption.

If I stop drinking I can live an extra 8 years, or as someone once said will it just feel longer?

Last year my sermon to you was 1597 words, this year it is 1633 so I had better get a move on.

Today we meet on the same Sunday as last year, the third week of Advent again, in which we remember the challenge of John the Baptist. It was a challenge to people at the time just before the ministry of Jesus in the first century, but his words are a challenge to all of us today as well.

John was a formidable man who unsettled people with his words and ways. He aggressively rocked the values of the church and the society in which he lived.

He as not the sort of person that you would have wanted to invite round for a Christmas party. He lived in the desert, he was no doubt rather a rough character, having an untidy appearance and would have looked much more in keeping with the tramps who sit outside churches in Bedford than the people who go in. It would be fair to say that his appearance was somewhat lacking in taste. Speaking of taste this was of course the man who ate locusts and wild honey.

But John was not a tramp of course; he had a clear message which when he preached had a sense of authenticity about it. Deep down people knew that he was telling the truth, even if they did not like it. He criticised the people who believed in God - the Jewish church of the time. He criticised the people who went to the church and the people who never went to church. He criticised the religious people, the ordinary people and criticised the morals of the King Herod.

This was a man who was uncomfortable to look at and uncomfortable to listen to. He was unsettling and did not care whether what he said or did offended against manners or good taste. He was disrespectful to religious people everywhere.

Hereford Cathedral is full of surprises. It houses many treasures: the world-famous Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, wonderful carvings in stone and wood, fine tapestries, and beautiful stained glass - many monuments and relics of the lives of Christians. This is what we expect of our great Christian Cathedrals.

However this year Hereford Cathedral also has a nativity scene with Jesus in a shopping trolley. On Question time last week an honoured member of the audience said that it was 'grossly disrespectful of Christians everywhere.'

Quentin Letts from the Daily Mail said it would be a shopping trolley that went round and round in circles like the Church of England. This is not surprising since the Daily Mail is extravagantly in opposition to the Church of England and seeks every opportunity to disgrace the church and its leaders.

Actually Jesus in a shopping trolley is bad taste, it is disrespectful, but it is nevertheless undoubtedly authentic because of it. The truth is that the nativity in Bethlehem is a demonstration of what many people would think disrespectful and bad taste. After his birth Jesus is laid perhaps in a stone or wooden trough, which reminds us that it was in a place where animals feed, he is not in a maternity ward or anything suitable for the time.

There are all kinds of theories about what the so called 'inn' was. It might have been a cave, a shed or perhaps the lower area of the living quarters. Whatever, it was an alternative place because the more preferable proper place was already occupied. It was obviously unsatisfactory to be placed alongside the animals.

In choosing unmarried Mary to give birth in these unsatisfactory circumstances we can rightly say that God actually arranges for something which offends and contradicts our expectations. Jesus is born to the wrong person in the wrong place. That is God's decision not ours.

What we have so often done is to romanticise the scene and turn it into something pretty, we have lost the raw meaning of the event. Jesus in a shopping trolley appears to us to be incongruous, it is rude and offends our recollections of the event. Of course that is the whole point to try and remind us that the nativity is all about the fact that Gods ways to us are incongruous.

God chooses to behave in this way and in so doing shows that his authority and power are quite unlike anything which we will usually encounter in human form. God is concerned about the plight of the poor, he is mindful of those who struggle to make ends meet, he cares for weak and the frail, the ones whom we so often overlook because their voice is not so forceful.

We Christians have to be extremely careful when accusing shops of commercialisation and ruining the real meaning of Christmas. Because the truth is that we can all do this, we all tend to make Christmas more comfortable than it really is and so easier to reconcile with our respectable version of events.

Advent is a time in which we should all hear the words of John the Baptist and search within ourselves and ask difficult questions. Whether or not we like to think of Jesus in a shopping trolley or not is irrelevant, what is important is that we are prepared to be challenged about ourselves and our ideas and our behaviour.

John the Baptist told people to make straight paths for God. He meant

  • that we should be constructing a different type of society, 
  • we should be constructing within ourselves hearts which care for others.

We have a natural tendency to grow complacent with what we are. John asks us to be able to question ourselves. So is yours a heart which is really under construction, or have you decided that now you are fine and need no more attention?

We might think that society today has moved on and is so much better than it was at the time of John the Baptist. Truthfully I think we should be afraid at the capacity and the resolve which we now have to kill and poison ourselves and our world in which we live. I think of the terrible pollution caused by the sinking of that poorly maintained single hull tanker the Prestige, polluting our seas and causing the death of our precious marine life. I also think of the likelihood now that we will have to introduce vaccination against smallpox a disease which we thought we had destroyed but which may be knowingly reintroduced as a weapon. These are just two simple and easy targets I am sure you can think of many more examples which show that we have a long way to go in our personal and community lives before we can stop the construction activity. We all have roads which need to be made straight.

So John calls afresh to change the landscape of our personal lives and more importantly of our communities. Your charity is a part of that process of construction as you seek to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

Quite rightly people asked John to give them specific concrete examples of the kind of lifestyle changes he was preaching about. 'what shall we do' they said.

He told them - 

  • If you have two coats share one of them with somebody who has no coat. 
  • The same with food, share it around 
  • He told tax collectors not to take more than was their due, stealing and taking too much money was bad. 
  • They were told not to be violent or make false accusations against others.

These are not specific to the time of John the Baptist, they are eternal values of justice and compassion. Not one of the people who came out to John apart from Jesus was ready for the coming of the Messiah, they all had work to do on their lives. You and I are just the same.

And so preparing for Advent means facing introspective questions about whether our religion is skin deep, to what extent we are devoted to ourselves or to others, whether we are living good or bad lives, how much we care for the poor, the weak, the sick or the stranger, the old. Am I a compassionate person, a caring person, how can I do more to contribute towards the needs of others.

Additional thoughts

Of course the only one who was free from the stain of human sin was Jesus himself. His lifestyle was one in which he reversed the norms of society. His mother wrote a song which is every bit as radical and challenging as any baby in a shopping trolley.

It is beautifully written in the Book of Common Prayer but the words are still extremely powerful

My soul doth magnify the Lord And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden For behold from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his name And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel: as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

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