24th & 25th December 2004
10.30pm Midnight Mass Christmas Eve
and 10.30am High Mass Christmas Day
The sermon preached by the Rector of the Parish and Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood,
The Reverend Ian Elliott Davies, B.D.
I remember, when I was nineteen years of age or so, standing on the pier on the sea front in the ancient University City of Bangor in North Wales and at about midnight a huge and terrifying winter thunder-storm blew up. The North Wales’ coast is unusual because the weather is so changeable and during that thunder-storm I experienced the singular phenomenon of sheet lightening. Sheet lightening is quite unlike fork-lightening that one sees all the time. Sheet lightening comes in sheets which, albeit briefly, manage to produce enough illumination that one might think for a split second it is broad daylight. So, as I stood on the pier looking out to sea and Eastwards along the North Wales coast in the direction of the vast Snowdon range of mountains, as the sheet-lightening struck, in those brief moments of illumination, one could see and pick out the most astonishing details, the hillside farms, the horses, sheep and cattle in the fields huddling together for protection, the tiny country roads running parallel to the seashore, the hillside railway tracks and train stations and all those Welsh villages, Llanfairfechan, Penmaenmawr, Deganwy, Llandudno, Rhyl, Beaumaris, Penrhyn, Llangefni, Benllech, Llanfachraeth, Puffin Island, Rhuddlan, Llanrwst, Betws-y-Coed and Conway Castle, and, of course, the great, terrifying, towering summit of the Snowdon mountain itself. In the midnight darkness all those places are always there even if one is blind to them; but they become visible, momentarily, when the lightening strikes and the whole vista and panorama of the coastline are lit up. I think that was probably one of the experiences that I had as a youngster that helped me come to some kind of understanding of how the Christian faith might work. As many of you will know, up until the time when I was an undergraduate at Bangor, I had been a Strict and Particular Baptist of the most Calvinistic and censorious variety, so if that evening the lightening had, for the sake of argument, struck me, frazzled me to a crisp at the end of Bangor pier, I would have put even that electrifying experience down to the inscrutable Will and Predestined Plan of “God”.
But God, one slowly comes to realize, does not work like that. He does not determine human actions, our blessings or our burdens or our eternal destinies like some kind of wrathful, malign or indignant divine dictator.
Rather, and the illuminating sheet lightening is a good metaphor for this, there is always a much bigger picture, a picture that we can’t hope to see all at once, but a picture that can, on occasion briefly shine in our perceptions, if we are brave enough to venture out onto a pier in the dead of night or if we are prepared to look further than our own little world. For better or for worse, that young man on the pier began to see God not as a neat and tidy explanation of life, but is the God who draws us onwards and continually puts nagging questions before us, the God who is not to be straight-jacketed by theology or ritual or austerity or even our own favourite, latest religious fad or fashion, however politically correct, accurate or comfortable it might be.
And it all came as a bit of a shock to my fellow Christian Union members and other Strict & Particular Baptist brothers and sisters when I said that I didn’t believe Jesus is the answer to all our questions….But rather that Jesus is the question to all our answers.
You know, I’m fed up of being told by the over-zealous, rather terrifyingly committed type that you meet at polite dinner parties “I know God, or I know Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour and I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb”- isn’t it about time people started realizing that it has to be the other way around- it is God who knows YOU, Jesus is the one who SAVES, takes hold of, loves and yearns for you.
That is the radical jolt, the theological hiatus that St John’s first chapter is all about. The Word made Flesh. God isn’t simply making some kind of glib nod in the direction of humanity, He isn’t tinkering about at the edges of the world, observing the universe, watching, keeping His safe distance from human nature. He enters the world and takes on Himself that which is radically different from Himself, He takes on human frailty in the flesh of a new-born babe, human contingency, He subjects Himself to our limitations and becomes a child who will live and grow and learn and suffer, like you and me God enfleshed. But God’s humanity is also transforming because God’s Being is in Becoming. He places before us, as a helpless Child, His radical love. Radical love that can act like sheet lightening to illuminate the bigger picture, the vista that IS there already and is waiting for us to see, to participate, if only we’d perceive it, if only we’d realize the potential and let go of our rather thin view of God.
This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
all hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
for in this weak unarméd wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield;
his battering shots are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes,
his martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchéd in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
the crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;
of shepherds he his muster makes;
and thus, as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly boy.
Robert Southwell- famously set to music by Benjamin Britten
Power and strength rest not in arms, missiles, might or money but in the tiny fingers that grasp His Mother’s hand. There is true strength, true might.
The invisible can become visible, the broken can be healed, the pointless and mundane trivia of life can be given meaning and direction and fulfilment. However much we may try to box-in and straightjacket God, whether it’s by trying to say that God predestines the future, or that God can only be known in our particular way or tradition He will always break out and show us that there is more to be seen, more to do, the potential is waiting to be realized, God’s life is waiting to be fleshed out, to be fleshed out in you and me.
May God make us what he would have us be through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Posted by: The Parish