Christmas Day Sermon 2021
Christmas 1981, 40 years ago this year, was a sobering and sad time in Cornwall.
Beneath the tinsel and glitter there was real sadness. Just six days before, the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne, had been lost with all eight members of its crew, along with the eight people aboard the vessel the Union Star: the ship whose engines had failed, necessitating the rescue. It was an act of astonishing heroism on the part of the crew of the Solomon Browne. The pilot of the helicopter who had earlier attempted to rescue those aboard the Union Star, later said: ‘The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the… courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when [they] manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 foot breakers and rescued four people shortly after [their boat] had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were… totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI’. We rightly still remember those brave men here in Cornwall and we honour the memory of their courage and dedication.
The RNLI will no more pick and choose who they will rescue than the crew of the Solomon Browne would have declined to go to the rescue of the Union Star
This year, 40 years on, the RNLI is in the news again because of their insistence and persistence in rescuing people crossing the English Channel in small inflatable craft as they risk all to make a new life here away from war, poverty, discrimination and persecution. I salute the crew of the RNLI boats for that dedication and have no time at all for the criticism of them. The RNLI will no more pick and choose who they will rescue than the crew of the Solomon Browne would have declined to go to the rescue of the Union Star. To the RNLI every human life is worth saving.
In saying that, the RNLI insist, quite rightly, that every human life is of equal value, and none is more special than any other. There is no possible calculus whereby we may say one life is any more precious than another. Each and every one matters. And that applies too to those who are nearing the end of their lives. Their lives don’t become dispensable or of lower worth; their God-given right to life doesn’t lapse, simply because apparently they have less time left to live than others. And every life lost through Covid matters: each and every one was special, and I’m very aware today that some of you will be carrying a real sense of loss from the events of the last two years. Every human life matters: each and every one.
And that sense of the equal worth of all human life is hard wired into the gospel story, and into the story of Jesus’ birth in particular. You will no doubt remember that the Magi foiled Herod’s plan to murder Jesus by not returning to his palace to tell him where he had been born. Instead, as Matthew tells us, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And that escape triggered, of course, Herod’s murderous, vicious slaughter of the innocents.
Jesus became a refugee…. He would certainly not have been out of place in a flimsy inflatable mid-Channel
And unless the point is lost on us, let it be said very clearly that in fleeing to Egypt, Jesus became a refugee, fleeing slaughter and murderous persecution. He was born in the humblest obscurity, one child amongst many. He was born into risk and great danger. He would certainly not have been out of place in a flimsy inflatable mid-Channel. Of course this is the only Son of God, and therefore his is a life of infinite worth and value: but in choosing to be become one of us, in sharing the deepest vulnerability of our humanity, he gives even the poorest, most overlooked human life a value and worth beyond all compare. There is no possible calculus whereby we may say one life is any more precious than another. Each and every one matters.
That is clear at the other end of Matthew’s gospel too. Just before his betrayal, in the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says that the righteous – those who will inherit the Kingdom – are those who have served him in the most weak, the most marginalised, the most vulnerable. To the righteous this comes as something of a surprise because they had no idea that that was what they were doing. ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’, they ask. ‘When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’, to which Jesus replies, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ In other words it is those who recognise the value and worth of the very weakest, the most marginalised, the most vulnerable: it is they who inherit the Kingdom of heaven. It is they who, unbeknownst to themselves, have actually welcomed and served Jesus himself.
The mystery of the Incarnation is that in Jesus God comes amongst us in the strangest way and in the strangest places, in weakness, vulnerability and humility, in the most marginalised, the most vulnerable. But still he must be received. But still he must be welcomed, as the gift of the highest possible worth. In the words of St. John’s prologue to his gospel, which we hear at the conclusion of every service of Nine Lessons and carols, The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The child of Bethlehem, a vulnerable child, fleeing persecution and genocide, amongst the most weak, the most marginalised, born in the humblest obscurity, just one child amongst many, is nonetheless of infinite worth. And he is of infinite worth to us – if we will but welcome him. For to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
A favourite, if little sung, hymn of mine ends with this simple prayer, a prayer to Jesus born for us: Gift beyond price of gold or gem / Make among us your Bethlehem. And this Christmas may he indeed do so. And so may you all indeed have a very happy Christmas. Amen.