Luke 2. 1-14
St Albans Abbey Christmas Sermon 2018
Last week the town of Redbourn, just five miles up the road, hit the national press. Rather than making do with the traditional cardboard Advent Calendars, the good folk of Redbourn had greater aspirations. They organised a Living Advent Calendar. On each of the first 24 days of December at 6.15pm there was a surprise event which took place at different venues around the town. Anyone could turn up and wait for the doors to be opened before sharing in a performance of dance, drama, poetry or even more exotic offerings. For a few minutes each evening participants were transported to another world, another experience, another reality.
The event comes to a climax this morning when the doors of St Mary’s church are flung openfor all to come and kneel in front of the crib and to worship God made man, the mystery and the wonder of the incarnation.
Christmas is indeed about open doors. It’s God own invitation to ‘come in from the highways and the byways; to sit down and to feast and eat’.
On the first Christmas the shepherds, having heard the invitation of the angels, are welcomedthrough the doors of the stable to kneel in front of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh.
Not long after the Magi arrive, strange visitors from the East, tired and weary after their long and arduous pilgrimage, bringing mysterious gifts. They too find the doors open to welcome them as they offer their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child.
So it is ironic that the generosity of these welcomes should stand in such stark contrast to the experience of Joseph and his young pregnant wife, Mary. As we have just heard in today’s reading:
The time came for the baby to be born, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
For Joseph and Mary the doors were shut.
How sad that we are living at a time when many people and nations are closing doors. Think of the more than 800,000 Rohingyas who have been forced from their lands in Myanmar into exile in Bangladesh; or the civil war in Yemen where we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis of the past decade with millions of people on the brink of starvation; or nearer at homewhere it is a national scandal that more people are sleeping rough than in previous years and more families are in temporary accommodation because there is nowhere for them to live.
The reasons for these terrible situations are complex, but the experience for those involved is that the doors have closed in their face. Much of this is due to fear: fear of the unknown; fear of the ‘other’. In the face of such fear, we have to find the courage to open up the doors.
Sadly it is so much easier to hide behind protective fences and closed doors; to retreat into a privatised world with only the people who agree with me. That’s why I find it worrying that even our universities are no longer places of free speech and vigorous debate that once they were, but instead have become so-called ‘safe spaces’ which (being translated) mean that I can banish everyone who disagrees with me, allowing me to vegetate in my own bubble of personalised truth.
But at the heart of our Christmas celebrations stands the invitation to go through an open door. In the words of St John from the Book of Revelation [Revelation 4]:
I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come.’
But beware! The trouble with going through open doors is that we may just find ourselves taken into another world, another experience, another reality which may both challenge and change us, and indeed transform us.
It’s why the incarnation is such an explosive doctrine. As the 4th century theologian, St Athanasius put it ‘The Son of God became man what we might become God’. He developed this idea, using a powerful image. He wrote:
When the picture of someone has been painted on wood, but then damaged by the elements, we need the presence of that person whose portrait it was if we are to restore their image. And if this material is not discarded, it is because we value and wish to restore the image painted on it. In the same way… [Jesus] … has come into our midst to renew us who have been made similar to him. He seeks us out when we are lost, pardoning our sins, as Scripture says: ‘I have come to search out and save that which was lost.’
This is far from the simplistic message of a God who leaves us with a list of commands and tells us to do our best to obey them. The Christian life is not an endless round of striving, trying to be more loving or holy or generous or tolerant. Important as they are, those virtues are not ends in themselves. No, the message of Christmas – the message of the incarnation – is that God has opened the door and invites us to a life in union with Christ. When we are united with Christ these virtues begin to grow and blossom within us as his life and energy pulse through us.
God enters into our world with all its brokenness, sin, compromises and failures and redeems it by taking upon himself flesh and blood. In response he invites us to take upon ourselves his divine nature, mediated by grace, and received in bread and wine.
The book of Revelation, the last book of the bible, contains another wonderful image which the Victorian painter Holman Hunt captured in a work which now hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is a full size, slightly sentimentalized, painting of Christ, based on the verse where Jesus says the words: ‘Behold, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
Jesus stands in the twilight at an old door which is firmly closed. In his left hand is a lamp glowing in the darkness. With his right hand he knocks. It’s only when you’ve looked closely at the painting that you see there is no door handle on the outside. It is only going be opened by the person behind the closed door.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
This Christmas let’s open the door to Christ that he may come and live in us and among us.
+Alan St Albans