Sermon preached by the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross,
The Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton
in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
on Christmas Day, 2019
There are ways and ways of telling a story. I might regale you, for example, with one which begins, somewhat pompously, with ‘When I lived in the Tropics …’ Or the same story could begin – ‘When I spent a summer with the Church Missionary Society in Kenya …’ Both starts to the same story are true.
Similarly, I might say, ‘I appeared on the stage recently with Graham Norton …’ That is true. The fact that I was on one side of a platform in a school gymnasium where he was being fêted as the guest of honour is more to the point. But yes, I was on that stage with him. Likewise I might say that I sang with Roger Whitaker (‘The Last Farewell) and Gloria Gaynor (‘Oh Happy Day’ )in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in the late 1980s and that would be true too, but it would conveniently overlook the fact that I was in the back row among the basses in a choir of dozens.
Yes, there are ways and ways of telling a story; and so it is with Christmas. When we tell a story it is often to make a point. That’s why we tell them and write them the way we do. None of this means they are not true or reliable in the sense that matters most. It is also why the differences seem considerable. In the case of the Gospel writers, It is why the differences are important – they show us how the storytellers, inspired as they were, had crucial points to make and emphasise. The differences should not disturb us; they are deliberate.
In our Carol Services, nativity plays, art, literature, music and, indeed in our liturgy, we have rolled everything about Christmas into one. But that simplifies everything.
To start with, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t bother with the stories of the birth of Jesus at all; for him it’s in at the deep end with the baptism of Jesus and his ministry.
Matthew starts with something that is worthy of a modern website like Ancestry.Co.Uk with its persistent offer of a DNA test – a genealogy to show Jesus’ background and heritage. Luke doesn’t bother in the same way with that; that writer is more interested in showing where John the Baptist fits in to it all and how Jesus is not to be confused with that particular John.
In Matthew the Angel appears to Joseph, not Mary. There’s no journey to Bethlehem; they are just there, but there is no inn, no stable, no donkey, no shepherds, but there are Magi led by a star – and the story does not say that there are three of them. In the crib in the restaurant at Saint Luke’s Home I noticed yesterday that, more by accident than design, there are four of them; but so, the point is made. There are three gifts, and the foreign visitors have already been to see the menacing and unscrupulous political ruler: Herod. So the family escape as refugees to Egypt to avoid persecution, and the killing of their newborn.
Mary, the Virgin, based in Nazareth, is central to Luke’s account. She visits her cousin Elizabeth. She sings her famous song, the one we sing at Evensong each day. Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the registration. The whole world was being registered. And it is here that we encounter the inn with no room, the manger and the shepherds. Here there are no star, no Magi, no gifts, but there are angels. And the story continues. Jesus is named, and forty days later they go to the Temple where they meet Simeon and Anna.
None of this should surprise us. As I said at the start there are ways and ways of telling a story. Lots of things come to bear on it all even when inspired by God: where we first heard the stories ourselves in the original telling, our personality, the place and time we live in, the point we want to make, the people, the audience we are speaking to or writing for, and the language we are using or writing in. So much depends on who is telling the story and why, and this is true of the writers of Matthew and Luke too: but that analysis is for another day.
Rachel Held Evans – one of my favourite Christian writers and bloggers – died in May this year at the young age of 37. The mother of two young children, and an Episcopalian, part of our worldwide family of Anglican churches, Rachel got an infection and, tragically, had an allergic reaction to her medication and died. She grew up in the ‘Bible Belt’ and was educated in a very conservative approach to the Bible and belief. She then went on a journey from religious certainty to a faith which accepts doubt and questioning. And that’s what she wrote about. Famously, in April 2015, in an article in The Washington Post, she said that if you want millennials like her back in the pews of churches, ‘stop trying to make the Church cool.’ ‘Young people do not want a better show,’ she said ‘And trying to be cool might be making things worse.’ Anyway I digress, her books are well worth reading. In this, her last book published in 2018 – Inspired: Slaying giants, walking on water, and loving the Bible again – she says what I am saying to you this morning, only in a much better way.
‘It depends on who tells the story’, she says. She talks about our stages with the Bible. To us as children, it was a story book. In adolescence, for young believers, it becomes a handbook. For many it then becomes an answer-book. Some adults never leave these early stages. But for still others in adulthood, it’s a stumbling block. The stumbling block stage should not worry us, she says – ‘… the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and … the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine and debate.’ We need, she says to turn to Scripture, not to end a conversation (as so often happens in the great religious debates of our time) but to start a conversation. The Bible is not a trump card thrown down to silence opponents. It is like a great dining table where all should gather round and have a lively discussion. If any of you has ever been invited by your Jewish friends to join them for a Shabbat meal you will have noticed this discussion, debate and argument in the best tradition of the Rabbis around the table, seeking the meaning of it all.
Which brings me to Saint John, who we heard this morning. The writer isn’t interested in any of the nuts and bolts of the nativity story.. It is as if his concern is the meaning of it all. I suspect that’s where many a modern-day person is: with John. What does it all mean? Jesus is ‘the Word of God’; ‘was with God’, ‘was God’…All things came into being through him … in him was life, the light of all people,. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. … To all who received him he gave power to become … children of God … 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. ‘
Rachel Held Evans says that, again and again, God stoops to using different people and their way of telling the story to communicate – ‘ancient people using their own language, literary structures ,and cosmological assumptions…’ `Far from being ‘beneath God’ this is the way God ‘conveys the truth.’ Again and again, ‘God stoops’ she says. ‘From walking with Adam and Eve through the garden of Eden, to traveling with the liberated Hebrew slaves in a pillar of cloud and fire, to slipping into flesh [as Jesus the Word of God] and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of Scripture stoops and stoops and stoops and stoops. At the heart of the Gospel message is the story of a God who stoops to the point of death on a cross. Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. … This is who God is. This is what God does.’ God stoops: the incarnation of the Word of God. This is what brings us here today.
As the writer to the Hebrews put it in the second reading earlier: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, … 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, …’ Hebrews 1.1, 2a and 3 When we see Jesus; we see God.
And this is the story we are invited, on our own journey to lean on and to be part of. More than that, though, we ourselves, each one of us, is invited to be part of the story-telling, in God’s name, as Christian believers in our own time: in our living, in our choices, in our engagement with the big issues of our day, in the causes we take up and support, in the people we reach out to embrace … in countless ways, God draws us in to be his story-tellers in these times. And we do so because we know that God stoops to us, each of us, with presence, light and love.
‘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. ‘ John 14.1