A little bit on Laws

With thanks to Simon Sarmiento who sent me the link. This is part of yesterday’s sermon, but given the content I think it belongs on this blog more than my sermons one.

For those who haven’t been following the case, a Christian working for the charity Relate had refused to provide marital counselling for same-sex couples and been dismissed for that reason. The Christian had appealed the decision on the grounds that it represented religious discrimination, and the judgement this week was to reject that argument. In other words, as seems very reasonable, a charity set up with explicit provision to provide guidance for same sex couples had the right to dismiss an employee that didn’t agree with the purposes of that charity – so far so straightforward.

Lord Laws, however, in his judgement, went a little further than that – partly because the former ABC made a rather public intervention in the process. Lord Laws said this:

“…the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims. The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic…”

Let’s leave aside his frankly rather quaint adherence to Modernist philosophical categories, especially his naïve use of “subjective” and “objective”, and look at the underlying logic. For I wonder how far this can be pushed.

The first thing to point out is that actually we are a theocracy – more so than Iran – for our head of state is also the head of the established church! Is the monarch guilty of discrimination when he or she takes the coronation oath? The church is involved in that, after all:

The Archbishop of Canterbury: “Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolable the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?”
The Monarch: “All this I promise to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God.”

The second point is that his judgement applied to Relate – a secular agency with secular purposes – what about adoption agencies? If there are Catholic agencies with Catholic purposes, are they allowed to only employ Catholics or those who accept a Catholic agenda? Or is that discrimination? How about issues such as abortion – at present a Christian doctor is allowed to refuse an abortion – will that always be the case, or will a Christian doctor be required, by virtue of working in a secular institution, to carry out procedures that he finds abhorrent – and what about euthanasia? The same thing applies. Does it even apply to a nurse offering to pray with a patient? Put differently, is the secular state in the business of mandating and enforcing a division between care of the body and care of the spirit that medical practice itself would not acknowledge? I once read that in the future christians will be marked out as the people who don’t kill babies and don’t kill old people – I think that there is something in that

What is at issue here is the purported neutrality of the state, an intellectual position which Lord Justice Laws seems to hold but which is, at the very least, open to question. According to the rhetoric the state is able to hold the ring as a safe space within which different interests can operate – but the rhetoric disguises two things.

1. The state has a definite agenda, a secular agenda, and it is intolerant of dissent. Following the somewhat misnamed wars of religion and the peace of Westphalia the state has progressively centralised power, and it is ultimately ruthless in eliminating opposition (for various reasons, mostly associated with the fact that our society is crashing into the limits to growth, I think that historical period is over, and the future belongs to resilient local communities like transition towns – but that’s a whole other story) What we see with Lord Justice Laws is simply an echo of that position.

2. For specific historical reasons our political settlement can’t really cope with assertive religious believers. This is seen most particularly at the moment with issues around the Muslim faith. The philosopher John Locke, who stands at the origin of this process, put in place the framework by which the ethics of religious belief were judged by the state – and in England, this had the consequence that all enthusiasm became suspect. If you were actively and sincerely religious then you were not quite sound, you couldn’t quite be trusted – the danger perceived was that you might be tempted to pick up a mace and break open your opponents head. All sorts of cultural habits have followed on from that, and the Church of England has been happy to accept a position of pampered privilege – sadly at the price of proclaiming the gospel.

So am I arguing that Christians are suffering from persecution? If we are, then only very mildly. As Archbishop Rowan has pointed out with his customary good sense and profound spirituality, for Christians in the West to bleat about persecution at a time when more Christians in the world than ever before are being executed for their faith – this betrays a profound sense-of-proportion failure.

Nevertheless, I don’t see any reason to hold back on criticisms of our political culture, mild though the situation is. To do so is simply to accept the role of neutered house pet which the political settlement imposed on the church, and very unnatural it is too. To be a Christian is to be political – as one of my favourite theologians once put it, “If you ask one of the crucial theological questions–why was Jesus killed?–the answer isn’t `because God wants us to love one another.’ Why in the hell would anyone kill Jesus for that? That’s stupid. It’s not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution calling people to be an alternative to the world. That’s what the cross is about.” (Hauerwas)

New blog

I’ve set up a new blog, to host talks and sermons. There will always be a link to them from this blog, but the new one will be where I’ll put the talks themselves. It’s called, rather imaginatively, ‘Elizaphanian: Talks and Sermons’ and can be found here.

Haiti and suffering

This is what I would have preached this morning, if I had been well enough to get there! Essentially the same as something I preached following the tsunami five years ago.
At my Bible Group on Friday afternoon the question came up about the suffering in Haiti: how can God let such things happen? It now looks as if some 200,000 people will have lost their lives in the disaster. But the scale of this disaster doesn’t really affect the underlying question. I think that Fyodor Dostoyevsky framed the question well in the nineteenth century, when, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he has one character say that there is nothing which can justify the suffering of one innocent child. I think that is right. There is no greater tragedy than that which can happen to one person, to one family. What happened in Haiti is not a greater challenge to belief in a good God than a beloved child getting cancer, for example.

Formally the problem looks like this – we have four statements:

P1: God is omniscient – he knows everything

P2: God is omnipotent – he can do anything

P3: God does not desire suffering – he is good

P4: There is suffering

It is incoherent to assert all of P1 – P4.

Now, as you might imagine, there are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don’t think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions. As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. When you are faced with trauma, all the philosophy in the world means nothing.

Some years ago I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was some suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, he said “was it worth it?” In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I’ve discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made – and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve – because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful – then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God IS to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein)

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn’t meaningful then – I would argue – something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don’t immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can’t answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable – I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn’t experience it as ‘worth it’, whatever the future might hold for me or for them. In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

And the way in which I think about this issue is through the language of cross and resurrection. The cross represents the way of this world, and the nature of our suffering. And the resurrection represents our hope that one day it will make sense. For in Christ we have received a promise, a promise of eternal life for all who turn to Him. When we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject what God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross, and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t understand how this can make sense, I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that nothing and no-one who is truly loved is ever lost. That somehow our brokenness will find a place in God’s design. That is our hope, that is our faith, that is the God in whom we put our trust. May God guide us all through the valley of the shadow of death, and may his goodness and mercy cover us all today and for ever more. Amen.

A sermon (last one for a few months!)

Texts: Mark 8.27-end, James 3.1-12

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me… will save it.”

What does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Christ? Let’s explore the context for the teaching: Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah. One might think that this was a commendable action – indeed, in the parallel passage to this in Matthew’s gospel, this is where Jesus says ‘on this rock’ he will build his church.

Yet instantly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples what being the Messiah means, and Peter takes him to one side and says ‘surely this must not happen to you’ – this is what leads to Jesus’ strong words. What has happened is that Peter has confused his understanding of the Messiah with God’s understanding of the Messiah. Specifically, he has confused the things of men with the things of God.

What are these things of men being referred to? Well, think about what the cross represents. We have become more accustomed to it, and so the sense of shock associated with a crucifixion has been lost. The cross was not simply the death penalty, not just an execution. That would be bad enough, and it would express the condemnation of the community. No, the point about crucifixion was that it was intended to be thoroughly humiliating as well as excruciating painful, it was meant to represent the absolute stripping away of any honour or self-respect. We still find this difficult to address completely – for example, Jesus was almost certainly entirely naked on the cross, as that would have completed the process of humiliation – and yet, as with our cross here, Jesus’ still has some modesty preserved. Crucifixion is the absolute repudiation of a person by society. It was the way in which society chose to obliterate a person, to leave nothing left.

This is what is meant by ‘the things of men’ – for the things of men are the realm of social approval. Peter wants Jesus to be popular, to be welcomed and accepted. Jesus knows that this is not his path, that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed. In order for the way of God to be established, the difference between God’s way and the human way must be made absolutely explicit – Jesus will have to be lifted up and turned into an object of scorn and derision. Only in this way will it become possible for people to be set free from that social realm.

For the social realm is a trap. Our reading from the Epistle of James is highly relevant to this. Beginning with the rather frightening teaching – for me that is – that ‘we who teach will be judged more strictly’, James goes on to talk about the evil of gossip, of the immense harm that an unbridled tongue can do to both an individual and to a community at large. ‘Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.’ One might say that the realm of the tongue is precisely that social realm which Jesus is trying to get us to move away from. By this I mean anything to do with social approval; anything to do with social currency, The Biblical teaching about gossip is not that the problem with gossip is that it is untrue. Gossip can be perfectly true and still be evil. Gossip is any conversation that has as its main purpose an evaluation of social status, a sharing of scandal or celebrity, any conversation about who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out – these are the things which the world is concerned with, and these are the things which we are not to be concerned with.

So, given this, what does it mean for us to take up our cross? I am very fond of this pithy summary of the gospel: “if you don’t love, you die, if you do love they’ll kill you.” The cross is different for each and every one of us, but whatever form the cross takes for each of us, it will have one thing in common. Our cross will be whatever form social pressure takes when we embark upon the way of love. If we seek to follow Jesus, the one who was despised and rejected by the great and the good then we can expect that in our turn, whatever our particular context is, we too will be despised and rejected by the great and the good. It is unlikely in this country that people will actually try to kill us for being a Christian, but the level of social hostility is now quite strong and likely to get stronger for quite some time.

So that is our cross. How then can we respond to this social pressure? What are we to do when we are faced, as Jesus was, with people who are sincere and well-intentioned and who, for the good of the community, see that it is right for one man to die for the people?

We are, of course, to do as Jesus did. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is forgiveness that overcomes the things of men, and how is this? Well, let us go back to consider what the things of men are. It is everything to do with social approval, social respectability. In particular – and this was absolutely true in the culture of Jesus’ time – what we have here is the whole concept of ‘face’, as in ‘saving face’. In this context, think what the way of forgiveness means – it is an abandonment of any desire to save face. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all sorts of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

In other words, we must abandon any sense that we need to defend a position of social respectability. Just abandon it, give it up. It means nothing to God, let it mean nothing to us. And so any damage to that social position can and must be forgiven. For forgiveness is the way of God over and against, in opposition to, the things of men. Forgiveness says that there are more important things in human relationships than social respectability, and the church as a community is to be marked out against the wider society by being the community that models forgiveness as the way to relate to each other. This is why it is so essential to hold on tight to the teaching that we are all sinners. If we are all sinners then none of us have any face to save. We are each and every one a mess, deserving to be scorned. We have no rights in the situation.

All we have is the one thing that I haven’t mentioned so far. Jesus says that he must be despised and rejected and killed – but he also says that he must, after three days, rise again. The only grounds that we have for walking in the path of forgiveness, the only resource and strength that can sustain us and enable us to carry our cross, is the knowledge that we have been forgiven first. That whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us, to set us free from this process. It is the resurrection, and it is only the resurrection, that feeds us with the Holy Spirit, our counsellor and defender, the one who meets and overcomes all the accusations levelled against us.

May we each be given the grace and confidence to walk in the light of the resurrection, abandoning the snares of social respectability, finding instead the way of forgiveness, which leads us into eternal life – the life for which our Lord Jesus Christ took up his cross, and suffered and died… that we might live. Amen.

Bears killing children

David Ker asks me how I would preach on 2 Kings 2:23-24, which is the passage where Elisha is insulted by some children, so he calls down some bears to kill and eat them. I’d recommend going to David’s original post and clicking on the links there as I’m not sure I’ve got anything significant to add to some excellent answers already provided. Best answers so far seem to be “I wouldn’t” and “only Jesus is perfect”. So this is a bit of a cop-out, sorry.

Living the language of love (a sermon)

Have you decided to give something up for Lent? Imagine giving up chocolate – then going to a meal with someone – and then the after dinner mints get passed around – and the host says “go on, just one, doesn’t make much difference….” Your host is Satan!! At least, that’s the conclusion I draw from this morning’s gospel (Mk 8.31-end)

What we have here is an example of social pressure – and this is Satan, for this is what Jesus is resisting. Consider that Satan is the accuser, the prosecuting lawyer in a court case; he is also described as being the prince of this world, you could say that he holds sway over the court of public opinion. And sometimes the pressures of public opinion can be severe – if you stick out then the finger will point at you; it can be much safer to go with the flow and keep your head down. Jesus criticises Peter for confusing the things of God and the things of man – it is the latter where the Satan holds sway.

Social pressure has ways of disguising itself, and is often couched in the language of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ (and even ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’). I want to suggest that we need to exercise a Godly suspicion when this language is used. Sometimes what is being recommended with a should or an ought is of God – eg, ‘you should pray more’ – but sometimes it isn’t. I’d like to propose a way of discriminating between when the ‘shoulds’ are good, and when they are otherwise. The simple question is: can the ‘should’ thought be rephrased in terms of the great commandments?

The first and greatest commandment is to love God, to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. This comes first and is the most important command. I see it as intimately bound up with vocation, the sense of who we are before God and who God is calling us to become.

And the second command is alike, namely this: we must love our neighbours as ourselves; in other words we are called to share the love of god with each other, to look after each other and care for each other, to nurture each other and forgive each other – so that all might enjoy the life that God intends for us.

Let me give you two examples which may make things clearer. Imagine a musician, say a teenager, being exhorted to practice his instrument by his parents. Perhaps it was an expensive instrument and the parents say ‘we’ve spent so much on your music lessons you should be doing more with it’. Contrast this with the thought: ‘I have a gift from God and it fills me with joy to play my instrument – I am more myself when I am playing than when I’m not’. Both forms of language might lead to the teenager playing the instrument, but only one is inspired by love.

On the latest U2 album there is a marvellous song which contains the words (it’s effectively a song of praise addressed to God) “I was born to sing for you”. When Bono is singing that he is expressing his vocation, he is being the person God has called him to be. My point is that if we can’t rephrase the ‘should’ into something which inspires and enables life then it is just social pressure and is Satanic.

A second example: imagine a middle daughter who has taken on the principal burden of caring for an elderly aunt despite having other siblings equally connected. And the request comes in to go and visit to do her shopping. Is this a ‘should’? “You ought to go and do it because if you don’t nobody else will”? Or is it actually “I love my aunt Nellie, I enjoy seeing her and I don’t want her to experience hardship.” If we can rephrase the ‘ought’ into something that allows us to experience the joy of loving someone else, the joy of caring for someone else, enabling them to life and to flourish – then it is godly; but if not, it is just social pressure, and, worse, it opens up scope for being abused.

So this is the challenge: to rephrase ‘should’ and ‘ought’ into the language of love. In part it is about examining our motivations: am I pursuing this course of action because it is loving, or am I simply giving in to being pestered? or to gain approval? or because I’m afraid of disapproval? The core questions we must explore are: is this enabling me to become the person that God is loving me into being? Is this enabling me to share the love of God with someone that I love? and, if we’re really saintly – can the boundaries of my loving be broken down just a little bit more so that I can love more widely than I have done as yet…?

Which brings us back to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. I love this little verse ‘he spoke plainly about this.’ It’s a strange thing to have in a written text which has just said pretty clearly what Jesus was saying. The passage only makes sense if you think of it as something spoken and written down; think of Peter sharing his memories with Mark and emphasising ‘he spoke plainly about this’.

In the story – and it is something I’m sure Peter would have remembered painfully clearly – Peter is voicing social disapproval, but why is he doing this? Because to be killed by the authorities would, in worldly terms, show that Jesus was not from God – “cursed be he who hangs from the tree” (Deut). It would have been against Scripture!! We need to be aware that sometimes even the Bible can be used for worldly purposes, as it was, for example, when it was used by the Southern states to defend the institution of slavery. We need to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit by our side, and remember that the Holy Spirit is the defence counsel in the law case, he is there to defend us and we can leave the arguments about social pressure to him. If we are following God then the Spirit will be with us, and we don’t have to worry about defending ourselves in terms of public opinion.

Which must have been a comfort to Christ at this time, when he was preparing to take up his cross – and what does the cross symbolise, this tree upon which he was hung that, in Paul’s words, allowed Christ to become a curse for us? What does it mean for us to take up our cross? It means that, if we follow those two commands, if we abandon the language of ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and start to live the language of love; if we allow the love of God to shape us and enable us to share that love in the world – then we will come into conflict with the world. We will become light shining in the darkness and those that cling to the darkness will resist. Then, the form that the resistance to us takes, when we are pursuing the will of God in our lives, that is the shape of our cross. And we must each take up our own cross in this life.

Sometimes clinging to the darkness can seem the most righteous thing: it is what we should be doing, it is what we ought to be doing. From our reading, “the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law”, these were not rabidly evil people, as if, were we only to look clearly, we’d see the horns sprouting out of their heads. They were people like us; perhaps I should say they were people just like me, put into a position of religious authority and given responsibility for keeping the system going. I don’t doubt that, at least for most of them, they felt that in opposing Jesus they were doing the right thing; “it is expedient that one man should die for the people”.

Yet Jesus had this specific vocation, this claim upon him from the Father, which he never allowed to break. That is why he was without sin – sin is simply anything which breaks our relationship with the father, anything which disrupts our obedience to the first commandment – and Jesus never allowed that relationship to be broken. Jesus was true to his vocation to the bitter end. He could have gained the whole world, but the world would not have been enough. In the same way, each time that we give in to social pressure we lose a little bit of our souls – and what does it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our own souls?

Jesus came to set us free, to become children of God. What this means is that we allow God to take charge of our lives, that we live as his children, as heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ. Then, if we walk in his path, we take up our cross and follow him – then we can share in his ultimate victory, and enjoy a risen life with Him.

This night all gods die (a sermon)

I’ve definitely gone off the idea of posting sermons, but my boss liked this one, and as I had written it out in full – very rare these days – I thought I’d shove it up.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger

I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by talking about the end of the world, the twilight of the gods, gotterdammerung, ragnarok, armageddon – the day when Tesco has nothing left on its shelves – and what I want to say to you on this magical night is: “this night all gods die”

For what do we think of when we think of the gods? The traditional mythical portrayal is normally of heroic figures, of Zeus and Apollo, or Odin and Thor – characters that are larger than life, filled with mighty power and special skills, who can interact with mortals but only from a position of great superiority

So why might I claim that gods such as these die on a night such as this? Simply because, for a Christian, here is where the real God, the one, true, living God, God with a capital G, can be found – and can be found, moreover, in the form of a small human baby.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

A baby who is not invulnerable and filled with amazing strength; this baby is an especially vulnerable one, homeless, a refugee, warmed by the breath of the animals as he struggles into life in their feeding tray – and remember, at the end of this story, this god gets executed like a common criminal

we cannot believe in both sorts of gods – it is either one or the other – so we can either believe in gods geared around strength and power and victories, a celestial form of “my dad is bigger than your dad” – or else we can believe in a god that can be discovered in what is weak, what is not respectable, what can so easily be ignored by all the people well fed, warm and satisfied in the inn.

this will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger

or perhaps there is room to disbelieve in both? to disbelieve in all the Greek gods, and the Norse gods, and the Celtic gods and so on – and then, as some atheists like to put it, to not believe in just one more? I don’t believe that’s actually a possibility, for let me ask the question: what are the priorities around which we build our lives? for that is really what the gods are – they embody and personify our values, they represent those things for which we strive, they are what guide our choices day by day, as slowly but surely we either build a prison for our souls, or a home in which to live – and everyone, even atheists, has priorities in their life

for all that happens, when people are deceived into thinking they don’t worship any gods is that other things, things that we don’t normally recognise as being gods take the place of God, and these become the objects, the idols, around which lives are built, and lives are then destroyed. After all, possibly the best example we have seen, this year, of a god being toppled is our financial system, what Jesus called Mammon – and we’re all vulnerable to that temptation, to look to the accumulation of wealth to provide security, and respect, and comfort, and happiness – it doesn’t of course, and in a time such as this, when that particular god has toppled to the floor, the emptiness of that worship is revealed for all to see

such gods are not the one, true living God – for the hallmark of the true and living God is that worshipping Him leads to life, not death; it leads to peace in our hearts, not strife in our souls; it allows us to flourish as fully human beings, to know and become who we truly are, and not simply to be pieces chewed up and spat out by an unthinking and uncaring system

how then, if tonight is the night when all gods die, how can we learn to listen to that living God? Well let us pay attention once again, to that small and vulnerable baby, the one that can be pushed aside so easily.

This will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

Let me suggest that the living God speaks his Word in just the same way; he will not normally light up the sky in bright neon to tell us what to do; no, his is a quiet voice, one that is easily pushed aside or shouted down by all the voices that fill our heads – of friends, of family, of society, of economic necessity – but this quiet, easily pushed aside voice – this voice is persistent, this voice will never leave us, for this voice leads to life, and the eternal desire of this voice is to lead us into abundant life

this voice speaks a word to us, a word which was there in the beginning, when we were first thought of, and a word through which we ourselves were made – it is a voice which already knows the fullest truths about us, more truths than we are even prepared to admit to ourselves in our most private moments – and which speaks a word of love in just those places, at just those times

if we can but listen to that voice, if we can but leave the comfort of the inn, and go to be in the stable, with the shepherds and the wise men, and the donkey and the ox, then we too can hear this voice which leads to life – for that is what is at stake in this story of the death of the gods, and the birth of the living God

this will be a sign to you: a baby lying in a manger.

may each of us hear this voice of the living God, so that Christ can be born in our hearts, this Christmas time, and for ever more. Amen.