This is the sermon I preached tonight at Putney Methodist Church at our midnight communion service. The text was John’s introduction to his gospel: John 1:1-14. Merry Christmas!
My text today strangely does not so from the beautiful words of John’s stirring prologue to his gospel. Rather, they come from the somewhat less saintly figure of Kevin Clifton, one of the professional dancers on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing!
For those unfortunates among you who are not addicted to the glitz and sequin-fest that is Strictly, I should perhaps first explain that every year on the show different celebrities are teamed up with trained dancers, like Kevin. Each week, the couples then compete against each other, performing different dances, and a public vote decides which one leaves. It’s all terribly exciting stuff! The couple who are voted off are then given a few moments for a valedictory speech to the 11 million or so viewers at home, where they traditionally thank everyone and say how this was the best experience of their lives. This year, as I have already indicated, I was particularly struck by what the dancer Kevin Clifton said a few weeks ago, after he and Susan Calman – the comedian and Radio 4 panellist – were voted off:
In a world where not everything going on at the moment is always nice, Strictly is the one thing that brings a lot of joy and happiness into the world, through the wonderful thing that is dance.
For some reason, those words – a couple of sentences among a flood of usually heavily scripted prose – struck a chord with me. Listening at home, they somehow seemed to catch the zeitgeist of our age because in many respects, I think he is right.
Strictly brings an enormous amount of joy to a huge number of people each week. As the darkness of winter envelops the nation, so we seem to huddle closer to this bright spot on the television schedules every Saturday night. This glamorous world of beautiful gowns and costumes; of impeccable hair and makeup; of permanent smiles and laughter, where the troubles of the real world are kept very ‘strictly’ away. There is no swearing or bad language allowed; no prejudice or cruelty permitted; and even tragedy on the dance floor is made better by hugs from the other contestants and witty comments by Claudia Winkleman. In a word, it is pure ‘escapism’ and at present we seem to need more of it than ever before.
As we look back upon the events of the last year, then we would be forgiven for finding rather more lows than highs: the never-ending struggles over Brexit, the latest tweets from President Trump, the threat of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, climate change, homelessness, stagnating living standards, and so on and so forth. Not much glitz or glamour to be had, sadly. And I find myself agreeing more and more with Kevin that we all need something like Strictly to get us through the week. I don’t think I’m alone in deliberately avoiding the news some days, or putting off watching the worthy documentaries which I know I should watch, and seeking out something light and fluffy to cheer me up. Be it Strictly, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or a day at the spa, we all need some escapism in our lives – perhaps now more than ever.
Inevitably, there is a real temptation – especially at times such as these – to treat Christmas in the same vein. To see it as a bright spot in a sea of darkness. A chance to escape from the harsh realities of life. The one day of the year with no newspapers, no daily grind. A chance to forget about the problems we face; to over-indulge; to treat ourselves and others; to eat, drink and be merry. Let the consequences wait until the new year, when the credit card bills and the waistlines start bulging. And the films and television we see at this time of year generally reflect such desires (except perhaps Eastenders!), with happy endings and a warm glowing morality that leaves us feeling as though all is right with the world, and we are better people just for having watched them. It is all escapism pure and simple, in a world, as Kevin says where “not everything going on at the moment is always nice”.
On the whole, there is nothing wrong with that. God knows (literally) that we all need some Christmas cheer in our lives, especially at present. We all need the opportunity to enjoy such times, if we are able, and to have a little escape from the demands and worries of the daily routine. The Bible speaks clearly about the need for all creation to enjoy regular periods of rest, and I only wish that more people – especially shop workers – could enjoy a longer break over Christmas. But, as a Christian, that understandable desire for escapism cannot be the whole story.
The Church is often the worst culprit at colluding with such ideas of Christmas as escapist fantasy. If you look at the services we promote, then you could easily think that Christmas was only for children, or was only about singing Victorian carols, or was only an opportunity to get a few more bums on seats. A chance to break out of the usual routine and forget the everyday worries of church life.
If we truly engage with those wonderful words of John the Evangelist, though, we can see that Christmas is so much more than that. In his gospel, John, does not speak about shepherds and wise men, he knew that Matthew and Luke had already dealt with that, so it didn’t need repeating. What is important to him is not how Jesus was born, but that Jesus was born. Because he believed passionately that the very fact of Jesus’ birth changed the world – our world – forever.
He begins by making clear that there never was a time when Jesus did not exist; that somehow he was present even at the very dawn of creation. There was never a time when the life and light that was in him ceased to shine in the darkness: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1)
At that first Christmas, though, God chose to do something even more incredible. Somehow, in a mystery we shall never fully comprehend, God was born into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Born of a human mother; born into a specific time and space; born not a demi-god or a superhero, but a human being. The hymn writer Charles Wesley expresses it far better that I ever could: “Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made Man”. Or as John put it, the “true light”came into our world (1:9).
With sadness, the Evangelist acknowledges that not everyone wished to recognise this light: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (1:11) As he makes clear later in his gospel, in some cases this was because people, “loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil”.” (3:19) For many, though, it was because they saw nothing incredible. They may have regarded Jesus as a good man, a miracle worker, even a prophet, and they may have gone to hear him speak perhaps. But they saw no reason to change anything fundamental about their lives as a result. He was just an interesting diversion, an escapist sideshow, from the daily routine of life.
For John, though, this incarnation – this decision by God to become flesh – changed everything forever. For through Christ’s advent, God has given all humanity the opportunity to have a new relationship with its creator. God gave them, and all of us, the chance to “become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of a human, but of God.” (1:12-23) In that stable, God gave us the chance to have a personal relationship with the one who made us out of nothing. Not to be slaves or servant, bowing down in the dirt but to be “friends” with our God (15:15). To cite Charles Wesley again: “Jesus is our brother now, and God is all our own”.
Christmas changed everything forever. It has given generations of people the opportunity to know – to truly know – that their lives have meaning and purpose. That they are not alone in the great blackness of space – just a cosmic accident, waiting to be snuffed out and forgotten. That they are neither the playthings of a cruel and vindictive god nor merely the subjects of cold, unfeeling Fate. Christmas gave them, and gives us today, the assurance that each of us is loved, and precious, and important. That God has reached out from the realms of eternity and infinity, and has taken on all the limitations and dangers of our frail humanity, in order that we might understand the truth about the universe and our very special place within it. Christmas is not a day of escapism or fantasy, therefore, a day to forget all the other days. Rather, it is the day that makes sense of all the others. The day that gives true meaning and purpose to all lives everywhere.
So, let us revel in Christmas. Let us enjoy every aspect of it. Let us gorge ourselves on mince pies; deck the halls with holly and dancing reindeer lights; and even forget all the cares of the world with the Strictly Christmas Special! But let us never forget that, at its heart, Christmas is not about escapism, but reality. The reality of the depths of God’s love for you and me. A reality that lasts not just for a day, but for all days.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) Amen.