Fear or Faith? A Sermon for the New Year

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Our Gospel story [see below] contains a stark contrast: the faith of Mary and Joseph and the fear that torments King Herod.

Everything Herod does, he does out of fear.

It’s true that fear has a bad press – it is an important part of being human.  Fear is sometimes an appropriate response.

When you are first born your only fears were of falling and of loud noises. These fears are hard-wired into our DNA and have been passed down from generation to generation as a survival mechanism.  Fear keeps us alive, and creates an emotion that motivates us to avoid danger.

Falling and loud noises are fears we are born with – but we learn lots of useful ones along the way – fear of fire, fear of wild animals, fear of unregistered taxis…

But fear can be very destructive. 

There are not many people in the history of the world who ever sat back thinking “I want to be evil, what evil deeds can I do today?”  Most of what we call evil comes from fear.

Herod had power, but he was only half-Jewish, so he feared an uprising from the Jews; and he feared his Roman overlords would replace him if his people did not tow the Imperial line; he feared his relatives would try to seize his throne and he had many of them murdered …  He was the most powerful man in the nation, but he found the top of the heap to be uncomfortable, insecure and his fear of falling overtook him.

The story of Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ (our Gospel reading makes us come down with a crash after the joy of Christmas) offers an account of the tragic consequences of defensive, self-preserving, paranoid fear. This type of insecurity never leads to anything good, and more-often-than-not backfires, creating greater insecurity and ever more enemies for the one who fears.

Herod proves the truth of the first half of Proverbs 29.25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.”

Fear stops us seeing other people as potential friends and allies and leads us to see rivals and enemies around every corner.

In Stephen Covey’s bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” his describes Habit Four as: “Think Win-Win”

“Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had got his way.”

Fear leads us to want to ‘defeat’ other people, Covey suggests that finding ways for both people in any deal to ‘win’ makes better long-term sense than being victorious.  It’s better to have created an ally as well as made a deal than to have pinched every penny in a deal but made an enemy or damaged your reputation.

Fear makes us only interested in our own winning, and makes us want to douse the light of others so that our light may be seen more clearly

We could make a long and unpleasant list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who through history and in the world today are both powerful and paranoid. However, I don’t think Herod would have recognised his actions as coming from fear – he would have blamed everyone else around him. Herod demonstrates where such fear can lead when it does not come to light but remains in the dark depths of the unconscious.

This is (I hope) interesting, but a First Century tyrant seems far removed from our experience – there are none of us who will let our fear lead us to slaughter children…

But we do need to explore what we fear as a church and as individuals – as a church:

It would be easy for us as a church to be afraid: In the last two years we have lost some our most active members.  As a result our numbers are down and several jobs are hard to fill.

The Wash House has lost council support and has had to stop running its weekly meetings last term.

The pressures on LEWCAS have never been greater.

Our finances are not sustainable.
The Diocese is cutting dozens of clergy jobs over the next few years – the axe will clearly fall on the places that are not growing.  We are under threat!

This is a perfectly correct story about our Church.

But (and it’s a big but): On the other hand our church has gained several new members in the last year, and our Sunday School is growing significantly.

At our Carol Service we had a congregation120 people – twice the figure that attended three years ago, and Christmas Day attendance was up by 30% on 2012.

Our choir goes from strength to strength, recording a short C.D. this year.

The Wash House has worked out a way forward and the club will soon be up and running again.

Holy Trinity has increased its average attendance by around 300%

Our partnership with London Citizens is already bringing us many useful contacts in the community.

We are a thriving church with an impressive, positive impact in our community and a bright future.

Depending on what information we focus on we could see ourselves as a struggling Church, teetering on the edge, or a thriving Church with a secure and prosperous future.

Overconfidence and complacency could be dangerous, but far more dangerous would be to be overwhelmed with fear.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,” said Henry Ford. “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” – It’s a quotation my children are sick of hearing, when they say they cant do this homework, or perform in that school play…

I think it is deeply and profoundly true: our fear or our faith can create our future.

Where do we go from here?  We must avoid Herod’s palace – filled with fear, we must have the faith that inspired the Magi to trek across the whole of their known world to visit a mysterious baby, we must have the faith that sustained Mary and Joseph through their time as refugees in Egypt and brought them safe back to Galilee.

Because in our lives as individuals, as a Church, as a local community and as a national and global community: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Isaiah 63:7-9
7I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:14-15,17-18
14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-16,19-21
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 

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Midnight Mass – Advertising Christmas

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I’m going to disturb our quiet reflective mood with a very short Quiz.  I spent half an hour on YouTube looking at the most popular Christmas television adverts of 2013, and if I give you the tag-line I wonder if you can give me the product or store that used it in its advertising this year: 

Who suggested we “Give someone a Christmas they’ll never forget”

(John Lewis – I’ll come back to this campaign…)

Who said “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!”

(M&S)

“The moments that make Christmas Special
brought to you by _ _ _ _ _ _ _”

(Sainsbury’s offered a selection on home videos of family Christmastimes)

The taste that unites

(KFC – I hadn’t seen this advert on television, but it is very funny!)

There’s nothing better than Christmas

(Tesco – showing someone go from youth to old age
fortified by Tesco-bought Christmas dinners!)

“This Christmas lets make the people that make us feel good, feel good”

(Boots showed a yoof in a hoodie acting as a modern Santa
with Boots-bought goodies)

Whatever you wish for this Christmas, make it fabulous with _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(Debenhams trying to look classy)

Go on… it’s Christmas

(Morrisons – with Ant urging Dec to eat a living Gingerbread Man)

With their “Sorry I spent it on myself” collection which store had the tag line “I little something for them; a bigger something for you.”

(Harvey Nichols)

Some of you may be bracing yourself for an anti-consumerist diatribe now.  “He’s going to rant about the irrelevance and triviality and kitsch that dominates our modern celebration of Christmas.”

It’s right that I passionately believe the truth expressed in that work of genius ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas’ – the Grinch, who hates Christmas decides to destroy it by dressing up as Santa and breaking into every house in Whoville on Christmas Eve to steal all the presents, decorations and food.  Then he stands on the hill overlooking Whoville to look down on his work and hear the howls and cried on Christmas morning.

But then:

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same! 
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”

And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

So I’m just going to take it as read that we all believe Christmas is more than presents (otherwise we wouldn’t be in Church at midnight!)

But I was interested by the theme of the adverts this year:  There were clearly divided into two categories – firstly ‘family’ was explored by several including KFC, Tesco,  and Sainsbury’s.  Christmas is often a time to get together with the people we love, but if that is now we define the season it becomes a very exclusive celebration.

Wendy Cope wrote the following short Christmas Poem, entitled ‘A Christmas Poem’

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you’re single.

I don’t want to criticise families getting together, but I want Christmas to include the single and the lonely and the bereaved and those whose family lives are complicated or unhappy. 

So I turn to the other major theme in this year’s Christmas adverts: fairy tales!  Morrisons enlisted the Gingerbread Man (and Ant and Deck); Baileys went for a sexy Nutcracker theme; M&S Christmas Advert borrowed from Alice in Wonderland, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin and the Wizard of Oz, and was the second most viewed advert on YouTube.  However, the most popular advert online (by quite some way) was John Lewis’ “The Bear and the Hare:”

“There once was an animal who had never seen Christmas” it begins, and ends with the Hare giving the Bear an alarm clock to wake him up in the middle of his hibernation so that he can enjoy his first ever Christmas.  If you watch the advert on YouTube (as I did when I was preparing this sermon) it ends with the message “Click here to continue the story” so I thought I’d see what happen next.  I wondered what adventures they might get up to next – the bear awake for the first time in the midwinter…  Did they meet a funny Robin Redbreast, go ice-skating on a frozen lake, visit Father Christmas…?  I clicked on the link full of expectation: But, as the more cynical (or perhaps realistic) of you may have realised, what actually happens next is John Lewis’ online store.  The adventure ‘continues’ by me buying lots of stuff.

But the fairy tale is sweet.  There is something in this season that makes us want to believe in magic.

As a species we are hungry for the mysterious – earlier this month my son and I were queuing up to see “The Hobbit, Part 2: The Desolation of Smaug” – with elves and Dragons and Wizards.  Harry Potter was a phenomenal success in book and movie format. We also explore the fantastical in modern myths, like Spiderman, Superman and the Avengers, and myths are mixed with science in Star Wars, Star Trek, and my personal favourite – Doctor Who!

But at the same time as we enjoy ever more extraordinary tales religion is viewed with increasing cynicism:

The same people who thrilled to the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his magic ring object to the story of a Virgin giving birth or Wise Men telling the future by star gazing.  It’s strange that we are perfectly happy to be entertained by stories of Hobbits or Wizarding Schools, Jedi or Daleks but something about Jesus makes us uneasy.

The story of Jesus Birth was written almost two thousand years ago, describing events that happened just over two thousand years ago, in a world where demonic possession and miraculous healings were commonplace, a world where the Roman Emperor was seen as a god-in-human-form.

These stories of angels, Magi and stars that stop over stables and are profound stories which contain a truth more profound than history. 

There are some stories so profound that they can only be expressed in a story – ‘second chances are always possible’ is true, but those words do reach the deepest aspects of this truth in the way the Parable of Prodigal Son manages; ‘we are all one human family’ is true, but the Parable of the Good Samaritan goes deeper and can challenge and inspire us in more profound ways.

The stories of Jesus’ birth are puzzles to us, if we try to work out the history behind the piously written myth and legend we will find a fascinating academic study.  However, trying to discover the history behind the story is in danger of missing the point.

The point is that God cares about what happens here on earth.  That a young couple living in poverty, surrounded by scandal, giving birth in squalor are of infinite value to God.

The message of this story is that God or the deepest Reality is not about some supernatural Heaven, removed from human experience; God, the deepest and profoundest Reality is found in human experience.

And that baby grew up to teach that every human being – the poor and the outcast, rich and poor alike, and you and I, are of infinite value to God.

And that we live by these teachings our lives can be transformed.

Christmas is only the starting place, it’s the advert for Christianity the rest of the year.

Perhaps “There is nothing better than Christmas,” a time to “Believe in Magic and Sparkle!” we should let the story take root in our lives “Go on… it’s Christmas!”