Bishop of Durham - Christmas Sermon
The Triumph of Love
Christmas Day - Durham Cathedral
This is the triumph of love that challenges all our triumphs of votes and politics, of energy and manoeuvring, of Commissions and conferences. This is the triumph of God’s wisdom in the face of our despondent hopelessness or cheap victories. This is the true triumph, of utter vulnerability that in weakness overthrows every apparent strength.
And those truths make this such good news for a church struggling, amidst a world in need of a church triumphant. The work of God is not done through strength and efficiency, but through those who having seen the baby, leak out the love that they receive.
It is very easy to be despondent about the church. Some speak of division and even of betrayal. The processes we go through are agonisingly wounding for many. There are profound differences of opinion about the nature of Christian truth and its place in society, about the right of an ancient tradition to dictate or even to advocate ethical values around the end of life, around marriage, around the nature of human relationships, inequality, our duty to each other. Bringing up children Catholic is described as worse than child abuse by Professor Dawkin. Christian faith is now seen as something to be identified with by only two thirds of the population (note the only, if two thirds identified, however loosely, with any political party we would never hear the end of it).
It is even easier to be despondent about the world. From the horrors of forgotten Goma in the DRC to the atrocity in Connecticut, and from Aleppo in Syria to tribal struggles in Burma, and in so many places between, there is the usual diet of tragedy and loss. Near at home we remain in the economic doldrums, and seem to find a perverse pleasure in emphasising the impossibility of trusting any institution.One answer to being despondent is to look inwards and fight our own small battles. 60% of people in a recent poll wanted to cut foreign aid, which goes in the main to the poorest countries in the world. In the church we dig into our trenches and hurl modern day anathemas at each other, determined to win.
But the baby in Bethlehem calls us to a different response, one which is utterly transforming of the world in which we live. The first reading sets it out simply, this baby is the one who saves us, who is the goodness and loving-kindness of God. He is our saviour, chosen to come in this way, in weakness because then he was lower than we can ever be: Bishop John V Taylor wrote in a poem Christmas Venite:
Let not my humble presence affront and stumble
your hardened hearts that have not known my ways
nor seen my tracks converge to this uniqueness.
Mine is the strength of the hills that endure and crumble,
bleeding slow fertile dust to the valley floor.
I am the fire in the leaf that crisps and falls
and rots into the roots of the rioting trees.
I am the mystery, rising, surfacing
out of the seas into these infant eyes
that offer openness only and the unfocusing
search for an answering gaze. O recognize,
I am the undefeated heart of weakness.
Kneel and adore, fall down to pour your praise:
you cannot lie so low as I have been always.
When we recognise that God’s answer to all our despondency or triumph is to come in weakness as a child, to become utterly vulnerable, then as Taylor says either we let him “affront and stumble your hardened hearts that have not known my ways” or we “kneel and adore, fall down to pour your praise”.
And that is the choice of the shepherds. They come and worship, they go and tell, they return rejoicing, and the story is kept in the heart of Mary. The poor find hope, God is glorified, and the story of Jesus is kept for us.
The shepherds leaked the love of God into the world through their obedience to the command to worship the baby, to recognise who He was. The main job of the church is never self-preservation, but glorifying God. The moment we lose sight of that we lose everything we are about. The same is true for us as individual Christians. We exist to glorify God, to show that He is the Saviour. When that is our focus we find His love filling our lives and our lives changing the world around.
Glorifying God, leaking into the world the love that he leaks into us through the wounds and breaches and gaps of our own lives, is a severely practical and down to earth activity.
In that sense we do in the world what God does in us. We receive His love where we are vulnerable and weak, and lose sight of it when we claim strength and power. Christians reach to the jagged edges of our society, and of the world in general. Food distribution, places for rough sleepers, debt counselling, credit unions, community mediation, support for ex-offenders, support for victims of crime, care for the dying, valuing those who have no economic contribution to make, or are too weak to argue for their own value. All this is the daily work of the church, which goes on every day and everywhere. We leak out into the world the love that God leaks into us.
For that to happen we must begin with weakness and vulnerability, falling in adoration before the baby, the crucified, the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. The ancient Christian creed was “Jesus is Lord”, and it needs to come afresh on our lips. We cannot do that and be indifferent to the concerns of other Christians, even those with whom we disagree, and least of all can we do that and be indifferent to the world around.
God comes to us through the breaches and wounds of our lives because He comes in utter vulnerability. We are to be those who allow Him to make us vulnerable, welcome the weakness we have, and who will then be astonished by the strength with which God changes the world around us.
1] J.V. Taylor, “Christmas Venite”, A Christmas Sequence and Other Poems (Oxford: The Amate Press 1989) p.15.