The police have asked me to draw your attention to the Holy Days and Fasting Act of 1551 which clearly states that everyone must attend Church on foot on Christmas Day – so if you arrived here by horse or car and are arrested after midnight on the way home, or tomorrow morning, you have been warned.
A warning also to anyone here who receives a computer game in the morning – you should note that Henry VIII’s Unlawful Games Act of 1541 – also still on the statute book – forbids all games except archery and leaping on Christmas Day
And I hardly need remind you of Elizabeth I’s edict of 1588 that you must only eat Goose on Christmas Day … well it may be a bit late in the day for most of us to decide what to do about the turkey this year – I suspect most of us have by now, as Queen Elizabeth I might have said, cooked our goose as far as the turkeys are concerned.
Actions speak louder than words, and although those might all still be words on the statue book, the actions of Surrey Police in concentrating on other things speak much louder.
The whole point of Christmas is that the action of God coming among us in Jesus goes far beyond and far deeper than mere words. As Charles Wesley described it in one of his hymns: “our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man”.
John’s gospel uses perhaps challenging language, but what John is trying to say is that Jesus was not just a good person, not just a prophet, not just someone worth hearing, not just a political revolutionary, but God himself coming among us. John has no angels, no shepherd; no inn, no manger; no wise men, now Herod. John offers us the truth of what the story is about: God himself comes among us.
This is something that happened only once in the whole of history. This is God saying, “words aren’t enough. I love you all so much I’m coming myself, in a person”. This is how much God loves us.
If only we could learn to love ourselves that much, too. Psychologists say that the most damage to the human psyche is caused by the inability to forgive ourselves for being imperfect. Many of us fear the loss of love, the loss of being valued and valuable. Perhaps this fear lies at the heart of our need to have more and more in our lives, our criticism of others, and our ability to bash ourselves up in ways we can con ourselves into thinking are fun.
Many of us don’t think we’re very nice people really. Selfish, ambitious, bullying, weak, humourless, or just a mess, we can go on and on about ourselves if we want to. However, when someone loves us they tell us a different story. We hear that we are generous, compassionate, beautiful, funny, loveable. I would suggest that being what God wants us to be is to live up to the story that those who love us are telling us, and not to live down to the story we privately tell ourselves, that is learning of the lesson of John in his first letter, that ‘perfect love casts out fear’.
Christmas is the season to remember that God is always trying to communicate to us how loveable we are, beyond our failures and regrets, beyond words, and he asks us to live our lives according to what he is saying and doing, not what others or even we ourselves tell us. The pages of the gospels tell a story about Jesus Christ, but in doing so they also reveal the story that God tells about us.
It is a glorious story, full of dignity rather than depravity, a story that assures us of forgiveness, and of strength to carry on the journey with refreshed hope, of one who lifts us out of dust so that we can dance with him, of a God who bursts in on us with arms wide open when we fearfully crouch behind locked doors.
Faith is not telling this story. It is believing it and the uncomfortable but beautiful business of trying to live up to it. Tonight we break bread and share wine at our Lord’s Table. What better way to celebrate the arrival of Christmas, God coming among us in action not words, as we meet him and receive through actions far deeper than the words of our service?
We may not always be very good with our words, but at Christmas we are asked to listen, not to speak, and to be changed just a little by what we hear of God becoming one of us and of what that means for our full worth as God’s children.