The Bishop of Norwich uses his Christmas sermon to speak of how fear is cast out by hope and love
PUBLISHED: 18:54 25 December 2013 | UPDATED: 18:54 25 December 2013
A transcript of the sermon given by The Bishop of Norwich at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
“The last couple of days before Christmas often cause me a slight sense of panic. There’s that present I’ve not yet bought. And what was it I was supposed to get for my wife?
“Frequently I realise Julie has been dropping broad hints about what she would like but I haven’t taken them in. Then suddenly it’s too late. Christmas Eve dawns and brings the last round of Christmas cards from people to whom you haven’t sent one.
“Sometimes they are people of whom you are very fond. You don’t want them to think you don’t like or love them. But it’s too late to do anything about it. And then we come to Midnight Mass and hear what the angel says to the shepherds. “Fear not…” Don’t worry. “Fear not.”
“This is the usual line for the angels in the Bible. When the angel tells Mary that she’s going to give birth to Jesus, the message is “don’t be afraid”.
““Fear not” is what the angel also says to Joseph in his dream. That’s the dream which convinces him to stay faithful to this girl to whom he’s betrothed and who finds herself strangely pregnant.
“There are lots of reasons to be afraid in the Christmas story. Who wouldn’t be afraid away from home with nowhere to stay and about to give birth? Who wouldn’t be afraid when there was a despot like King Herod around?
“He wasn’t above murdering members of his own family if he took a dislike to them, the sort of thing that’s gone on in North Korea in our world today only a couple of weeks ago. The Christmas story is very up to date.
“A couple of months ago I was in Bethlehem for the first time in almost twenty years. We went to Beit Sahour about three kilometres outside Bethlehem. It’s where the Shepherds’ Fields are found. Despite the constant stream of pilgrims, it’s a peaceful place. But there is fear in air.
“The Shepherds’ Fields look across the valley to an Israeli settlement. In between there’s the security fence and wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. It’s a vivid symbol that where the Prince of Peace was born there is no peace.
“And yet to troubled Bethlehem countless people come as pilgrims on a journey of faith, curious to see the place where Jesus was born, wanting to catch something of the joy, mystery and love of the Christ-child, God with us. The little town of Bethlehem will be packed tonight.
Suddenly it seemed to make entire sense to me that Jesus was not born in a place of stability, security, prosperity and freedom. He was born in occupied territory, in poverty, in danger, and where there was no room for him at the inn.
“Pilgrims to Bethlehem still go to a problem place of high unemployment, where many of its citizens cannot visit Jerusalem just a few miles away and where many citizens of Jerusalem cannot visit Bethlehem. But that’s the point. God reveals himself to us within the troubles of the world, not after our problems are solved.
“Jesus Christ is born in us when we are ill or after we’ve had a row, when we’re divorced, or when we are lonely. Christ comes to us to be alongside us in our poverty or our dissatisfaction with life. He’s with us in unemployment and grief.
“The birth of this child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago wasn’t some simple solution to the world’s problems. He grew to be a man who had to face suffering, an unfair trial and an undeserved death himself.
“He knew life wasn’t fair. No, Jesus Christ doesn’t solve everything with the wave of a magic wand. But this is God coming to live alongside us, within us, to bring us hope because even when we don’t love one another he never gives up loving us. That’s the joy of the Christmas message.
“There’s a chapel in the Shepherds’ Fields at Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was built as recently as 1954. It’s shaped to look a bit like a tent, and is built over a cave believed to have been used by shepherds long ago.
“There are three paintings within it depicting the story of the shepherds. The first recalls the angels telling the shepherds of the birth of Jesus; the second pictures them at the stable where they find this new born child. The third is of their return journey for Luke says “the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” (Luke 2.20). Each of the scenes features a dog with the shepherds.
“The dog gets no mention in the scriptures but who is to say he wasn’t there? The dog is terrified in the first painting, attentive in the stable, and is clearly dancing with joy on the return journey, ears pricked up, caught in mid-bark and tail wagging.
“The shepherds and their dog return to work but transformed. They face the same problems and live the same lives but with new hope because of the joy coming from this child, Jesus Christ, God with us.
“Fear not. May the message of the angels and the joy of the shepherds be yours and mine tonight. A very happy and joyful Christmas to you all.”