December 30, 2007

Hebrews 2, 10-end. Matthew 2, 13-end

On Christmas morning the sermon spoke of how the familiar Christmas story wraps us round in comfort and security, like the swaddling bands in which the infant Jesus was wrapped.

But the Christian tradition does not allow us to remain in comfort and security for long. Immediately Christmas Day ends, the calendar directs our thoughts to Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on 26 December; then to John, exiled to Patmos in his old age on 27th: then the Holy Innocents, killed on the orders of Herod on 28th; and Thomas Becket, martyred in the course of a dispute between church and the civil state on 29th; and finally on 31 December, to John Wyclif, sent to the stake for daring to translate the Bible into a language people could understand.

And today we are led to contemplate the Holy Family – but it is not the Holy Family resting secure in their home, receiving the adoration of either simple shepherds or the wise of another culture. It is the Holy Family fleeing for their lives to escape the murderous intent of a megalomaniac ruler, who can see even a newborn baby as a threat to his continued power.

Today we are brought back to reality with a bump. The reading from Matthew reflects what we have been reading in our newspapers and seeing on our screens over the past few days – innocent people killed as a result of political rivalry, or natural disaster; families hit by tragedy at a time of joy;and as always refugees fleeing for their lives and seeking shelter in alien lands – real life in all its difficulty and confusion.

But the comfort and security of the Christmas picture has not disappeared. It is still there to strengthen us as we live out our Christian faith in the real world. It assures us that if we listen to God, we can come safely through the trials which life throws at us. It reminds us of the help and support we can expect in hard times from our Christian family. It reassures us with the truth that there is nothing we suffer which Christ did not suffer before us; as Hebrews says, “because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.

May the faith of Mary, the strength of Joseph and the peace of the Christ Child be with us all as we go forward to live through whatever the New Year may bring.

Advent 4, with baptism and admission to communion. Isaiah 7, 10-16; Matthew 1, 18-end

Like many of you, I am sure, I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks preparing to give presents – choosing suitable gifts for different people, going out shopping or on the internet to buy them, wrapping them up and putting some in the post and others ready to go under the Christmas tree.

But I have also ( if I’m honest) been getting ready to receive. I hope there will be some presents for me on Christmas Day – indeed one has already arrived in the post and is waiting to be unwrapped.

In our service today, we are celebrating the giving and receiving of a very special gift – our Saviour Jesus Christ. We are celebrating this gift which comes to us in two different ways – first of all through the child born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and second through the sacrament of Holy Communion, week by week.

Our readings from Isaiah and Matthew told us of how people were prepared by God to receive the gift of their Saviour, by the teaching of the prophets through the years of Old Testament times, and through the co-operation of Mary and Joseph in the birth of Jesus.

Mary and Joseph received a gift from God – their first born child – but they also had to be ready to give too – they had to be prepared to give up their respectable reputation, the understanding of their family and neighbours, and, in Matthew’s version of the story, the security of their home, as they became the parents of this special child.

The hymns and prayers and readings we have during the service are helping us to be ready to receive the gift of Our Lord through the sacrament of Holy Communion. And for five of our young members, today will be the end of several weeks of preparation to receive this special gift for the first time.

Through Christ’s sacramental gifts of Baptism and Communion we receive a wealth of presents – the presence and the love of Christ, the strength and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, unity with God and with our fellow Christians, new life and the promise of salvation, in addition to the gifts God has already given us – our talents and skills, our families and our secure and comfortable homes.

But as we receive these special gifts, we are also being asked to be ready to give – to give our loyalty to Christ and to be ready to defend our faith against those who disapprove or make fun of it. To be ready to give our time and our talents to support Christ’s Church and to serve the people of the world in Christ’s name. To undertake to prepare ourselves properly week by week and year by year to receive the wondrous gift of our Saviour, given to us in the infant King and the bread and wine, and never to take God’s gifts for granted.

So we need to pray for each other, and especially for those baptised and admitted to Communion today, that we may receive worthily, and give generously, as God does. And may we all – newly baptised Christians and those who were baptised many years ago, new communicants and those who have received Communion many times before – find joy in giving and receiving God’s many gifts this Christmas time.