This is my sermon for tonight’s Christmas Eve Midnight Communion. I lead many services over this period but very often they are aimed largely at children and families, with the primary purpose of re-telling the traditional Christmas story. This is a rare chance really to explore the full meaning of the wonderful gift of Jesus Christ to God’s world. The reading this night is Luke 2:1-14 (the birth of Jesus).
One of the Christmas traditions that all our newspapers and media outlets observe is that of the annual review of the year. So many television and radio programmes and newspaper columns seem devoted to looking back over the year at present, and reminding us of the best and worst films, books, celebrity television, and so forth. It’s almost as though they’d run out of other things to say!
For me, looking back, one of the undoubted media highlights of this past year has – somewhat to my surprise – been The Archers on BBC Radio 4. I’ve listened to this staple of the radio diet for many years now but I can honestly say that I have never been so gripped by this “everyday story of country folk” nor waited so eagerly for 7:00 pm to come around for the next episode. The storyline that so captured my attention was that involving Helen Archer, a character who’s been on the show since her fictional birth, and her new husband Rob Titchener.
I won’t bore you with all the sordid details but essentially this story had been building up
like a pressure cooker for nearly three years. At first, Rob seemed the perfect catch for Helen, single mother of young Henry: handsome, caring, loving, with a good job and a perfect pedigree. But over the months, listeners were drip-fed worrying incidents and little snippets of conversations that made us increasingly uneasy. It became apparent that Rob was very far from being the perfect gentleman he claimed to be and in fact was the worst kind of abuser. The kind that leaves few physical marks but worked systematically to undermine Helen’s self-confidence, cut her off from her family and friends, take complete of her life and reduce her to a mental wreck. It got to the stage where Rob’s voice became like nails on a blackboard and was enough to get an entire nation of listeners up in arms. I certainly came close to hurling my radio set across the kitchen on a number of occasions, so wicked were his actions.
Events finally came to a head in April this year when the pressure cooker burst and Helen – with much of the nation’s support – stabbed Rob repeatedly with a bread knife, while attempting to walk out on him. It was so dramatic that I almost crashed the car on the M25 while listening in! Since then, we had Helen in prison, the trial, the revelation of Rob’s systematic rape and abuse, Helen’s surprise acquittal and Rob’s steady fall from grace in the village. By the end of it all many of us were glad to get back to the less emotionally-charged plot lines of the price of milk and the fate of the village pantomime. It cannot be denied, though, that the whole storyline was brilliantly executed and made for an incredible radio event that galvanised a hue popular reaction (I think the Archers almost broke Twitter on the night of the stabbing!) and a very positive public debate about marital coercion and domestic abuse. Over £150,000 was raised for the women’s abuse charity Refuge as a direct result of the plotline – an incredible response.
What has this got to do with Christmas, though? Well, again, looking backing over the year and thinking back to all the good and worthy books and articles I’ve read, the sermons to which I’ve listened, and the lectures I’ve attended, it was actually The Archers that made me ponder longest on my theology. It was not so much the events of the stabbing and the trial, but the aftermath. According to most literary conventions, what should have happened after the dramatic denouement of this story is that Rob disappeared. He should have got his comeuppance somehow and ended up rotting in a prison cell somewhere, falling into a threshing machine or simply heading off into the sunset while the rest of the village waved pitchforks and burning torches. As Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest observes: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily; that is what Fiction means.” That is what will happen in so many of the films and TV programmes we watch over Christmas (think of the sticky ending of most Bond villains) and is usually the fate of most Biblical bad guys – observe the number who end their days being “eaten by worms”! (See Acts 12:23, for example.)
The problem is that Rob hasn’t disappeared. He remains in the village. He has kept his job and he refuses to give up his rights to see his children. He lurks around the place like a Biblical leper, being shunned by most and bringing misery wherever he appears. And in a very interesting twist, he has taken to visiting the vicar of Ambridge, the long-suffering Rev’d Alan Franks, with whom I have much empathy! Alan is personally revolted by what Rob has done but he knows he cannot turn him away as a Christian minister. So, he must sit and listen while Rob rages about the unfairness of his situation, how he is the innocent victim of Helen’s machinations and how he has been robbed of his own children. It was after one such conversation that Alan made the comment that gave me such occasion to pause and reflect. In desperation, he reflected to his wife: “When you come across someone like that, it’s difficult to believe that all mankind can be redeemed.” (08/12/16)
Now, Alan clearly hasn’t had the benefit of the re-editing that many of the hymns and carols in our new hymnbook, Singing the Faith, have enjoyed because otherwise he’d have questioned whether all humanity could be redeemed! But the question posed by this fictional clergyman has never been more relevant, I believe, nor harder to answer.
The angels, in our reading tonight, brought the shepherds “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). So many of our carols pick up that theme too, speaking of goodwill to all men and peace on earth. There seems to be no limit to the people for whom the birth of this child is good news: young women from Nazareth, far-distant Persian mystics and even generations as yet unborn. He will not only be the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people but the Saviour of all humanity, and the Redeemer of us all. But is that really true? Does this birth really make any difference to us all, and especially to those who, like the fictional Rob Titchener, describe themselves as “beyond redemption” (27/10/16)?
Well, what does redemption mean? It usually means something like release from certain legal obligations in return for some form of payment. In the days to come, the shops in the Intu Centre in Watford will be full of people redeeming gift vouchers: obtaining a good or a service because someone else – be it an uncle or grandparent or whomever – has paid money to John Lewis or Mark & Spencer or whomever for them to enjoy that privilege. They will have procured a free gift because someone else has paid the price.
In Biblical terms, ‘redemption’ is often used to describe the saving action of God. Of how God rescued or delivered his people from their sins or from captivity in Egypt or Babylon. How they were released from the necessary results of their own actions, their own sins or simply their human state by God’s intervention. In the New Testament, the word is often used to describe what God has done in Jesus, using the contemporary metaphor of slavery. Slaves could be redeemed from their servitude in the Greek and Roman empires, if someone paid their owners a suitable amount of compensation. By paying this price, sometimes referred to as a ransom, a slave could become free: the greatest gift possible to any human. For the first Christian writers, like St Paul, this was exactly what they had experienced as a result of the actions of God in Jesus Christ: they had been set free from their past, from all the wrong that had gone before and they could now look forward to a bright future. They had been redeemed.
Leaving aside the world of the media and The Archers for a moment, if we look back over the last twelve months, it doesn’t make especially happy viewing. The seemingly never-ending migrant crisis, with so many innocents drowning in the Mediterranean desperate for a better life. The terrible war in Syria, culminating in the horrific siege of Aleppo. The Brexit debate, which, whatever our own views on the subject, has undoubtedly left our United Kingdom more disunited than ever, with many families still divided and observing uneasy Christmas truces around the table tomorrow. And then there was the election of President Trump in the USA – a prospect to cheer all our hearts in the new year! Can the birth of a small baby in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago really redeem our world – free it from the consequences of our own greed and folly?
And closer to home, I know of too many folks for whom this will be a hard Christmas. The people I know who are facing their first Christmas without a loved one – perhaps after 40, 50 or 60 years of married life. Members of our congregation here and elsewhere struggling with terminal illness or debilitating conditions, like Parkinson’s. Those who mourn, those who suffer, those who long to be anywhere other than where they are tonight. As usual, just before Christmas, I have spent the last few days visiting those of our congregation who are house-bound or who will be in nursing homes this Christmas. Most, I’m pleased to report, are happy and well looked-after. But in others cases, I must confess that I find these the hardest visits to make. Women and men who were once active members of society reduced to mental and physical wrecks of their former selves. As I sat with one such woman on Tuesday afternoon amidst all the Christmas decorations and recorded music – and she would certainly have no recollection of my visit whatsoever – I felt a little like The Archers’ vicar, Alan. Can all mankind be redeemed? Does Christmas make any difference whatsoever to her or to any of the people I know who are suffering at this time, let alone a world in pain?
The answer is both ‘no’ and ‘yes’. If Christmas is what the television tells us it is, then the answer is ‘no’. If it is that idealised Christmas of a perfect family, sat around a table loaded with beautifully-cooked food and an endless stream of exquisitely-chosen presents, then there is little hope for us. Because that is not the reality for the vast majority of people. And even if it is, while there is nothing wrong with sharing gifts and enjoying a well-deserved slap-up dinner, they will not provide the solution we need. The food will soon be eaten and however expensive the gift is, it will not bring back a loved one, end war or cure all diseases.
But the answer is “yes, Christmas does make a difference”, if Christmas means the gift of the Christ child that we are celebrating at this service tonight. In that case, Christmas means the free and undeserved gift of a child. And not just a cute baby on the front of a Christmas card but a child who would become an adult, who would show the world the most perfect way to live; who would break down the barriers that lead to war and division; who would heal the sick in mind and body; who would give the corrupt and the collaborator a fresh start in life; who would offer penitent criminals hung out to die a second chance; and who would show us all, that not even death itself need hold us in its power.
Christmas means that there is truly the offer redemption for all humanity, even Rob Titchener. Because of what God would do in the life of this tiny child we have been redeemed – liberated, if you like – from all that makes us less than human, be that sin, sickness, fear, regret, hatred, prejudice, greed or even death. For me, it is that gift which gives me the strength to carry on in my own ministry and to pursue my life as best I can. Because it teaches me that wherever we go, whatever we do, however far we stray from God, however deep the sadness we face, there is always hope, there is always the prospect of a new beginning, there is always the chance of freedom. And it is that gift of hope, of truly good news for all people, that I would wish you to know and treasure this Christmas and always. Amen.