Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Christmas Day 2014
25 December 2014 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
On Christmas Eve 1914, from a diary written by an English soldier in a trench near Armentières: 'Towards evening the Germs became very hilarious, singing and shouting out to us. They said in English that if we did not fire they would not, and eventually it was arranged that shots should not be exchanged. With this they lit fires outside their trench, and sat round and commenced a concert, incidentally singing some English songs to the accompaniment of a bugle band. A German officer carrying a lantern came slightly forward and asked to see one of our officers to arrange a truce for tomorrow (Xmas day). An officer went out (after we had stood at our posts with rifles loaded in case of treachery) and arrangements were made that between 10.00 am and 12 noon, and from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm tomorrow, intercourse between the Germs and ourselves should take place. It was a beautiful night and a sharp frost set in, and when we awoke in the morning the ground was covered with a white raiment. It was indeed an ideal Christmas, and the spirit of peace and goodwill was very striking in comparison with the hatred and death-dealing of the past few months.'
The author was Sgt Bernard Joseph Brookes of the Queen's Westminster Rifles, raised near here. He survived the war. His entry for Christmas Eve concludes, 'One appreciated in a new light the meaning of Christianity, for it certainly was marvellous that such a change in the attitude of the opposing armies could be wrought by an Event which happened nigh on 2,000 years ago.'
One hundred years later, as we look back at the First World War and the other conflicts that have darkened the history of the past century, we should be able to see with greater clarity than ever the tendency of humanity, even with the best intentions, to cause confusion and chaos, destruction and death. It seems we cannot on our own save ourselves. We need a Saviour, a Redeemer. We need the Event that happened now over 2,000 years ago—and to recognise the potential of a Saviour to transform our world and our own lives.
The wonderful vision of the prophet Isaiah that we heard in our first lesson was that the people of God had a saving Lord and God. 'The Lord has bared his holy arm; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.' The context of the vision is relevant. The Babylonian empire had won a victory of over Jerusalem and Judah in the sixth century before Christ. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; the whole pattern of religious life had been disrupted; the leading men and women had been taken off into exile in Babylon; the people were in despair. They were in exile for fifty years.
But then, in what they saw as an act of God, Cyrus, the king of Persia, overturned the power of Babylon and he allowed the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem, to their own country. Persia is of course modern Iran. And the capital city of the Babylonian empire was on the banks of the Euphrates sixty-five miles south of modern Baghdad. The people of Iraq and Syria in particular are much in our minds at this time as are the people of Israel and Palestine. We pray for them, for people of any religion or none, Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike, for salvation from evil and destructive oppression and for lasting peace.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews understood that God had spoken through the prophets, through the story of the people of Israel and had acted in time, had brought salvation to his people. But implicitly, there needed to be more. In these last days, we heard him say in the second lesson this morning, God 'has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.'
2,000 years ago, in the birth of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, God himself intervened directly, personally, and actively in the affairs of the world he created for love and yet loved. God took upon himself our human flesh and was born as one of us, just like any other human birth. And the adult Jesus Christ in his mission and ministry went about doing good, transforming the lives of the individuals he touched, preaching the Good News of salvation. And when all else failed, and people proved deaf to entreaty, insensitive to God's love revealed in him, he gave his life on the Cross and suffered and died for our salvation. At Easter and Pentecost, when he rose from the dead and poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh, he made it possible for the transformation of the whole world, through the gift of reconciliation and of peace.
The Event that happened all those years ago had a powerful impact on many people a hundred years ago and still has its powerful impact today. But we have to reach out for our salvation. It is not forced on us. Today we are invited to reach out our hands and open our mouths to receive the bread and wine of salvation, which are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, his life in ours. We can all be born again of God and find our life, our meaning, our happiness, our salvation in his Word, his Son.
'To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.' May it be so for each of us today!