An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Christmas Lights

A Christmas sermon by Alison Sampson

A couple of weeks ago, I went for a swim. Now, I don’t swim often; I’m a slow swimmer with rotten form; and I can’t swim freestyle for fear of drowning. Usually, I remember these things about myself. But that week at the pool, I noticed a strong, muscular man cruising down the next lane. He had big shoulders and big biceps – and I was keeping up with him! What’s more, he was resting between laps, which meant, I realised rather proudly, that I was overtaking him, and had more stamina! I felt pretty chuffed as I made my way up and down, up and down, racing this big guy, who was, of course, totally oblivious to my efforts.

It wasn’t until I’d finished my laps and ducked under the lane rope to get to the steps that I saw his leg stump, and I realised that I’d been pitting myself against a one-legged man. Good on me.

Where does this rather idiotic and embarrassing competitive streak come from? Why do I need to feel better than someone else – everyone else? It is part of my personality, and it is part of our culture. You can’t turn on the telly or go outside without hearing the siren song: be richer than the others! Thinner than the others! More fashionably dressed than the others! Get a sexier car! A bigger house! A newer smartphone! Better computing power!

And some of us are prone to the antitheses. Be the best parent! Fully breastfeed! Raise nicer, kinder, thinner, smarter kids than the others! Don’t buy plastic! Be purer! Buy organic! Buy sustainable, fair trade, second hand! Use greener cleaning products! Cycle more! Drive less! Fill your small but lovely house with an eclectic mix of handicrafts! Spend time with homeless people! March! Demonstrate! Prove your left wing credentials! Be more authentic than the rest!

Even tonight, I admit, I’m terrified of preaching because I’m afraid you’ll compare me to Nathan, and I’ll be found lacking. In fact, I tried to write a ‘Nathan’ sermon, insightful and wise – and not just once, but three times! – but the drafts all fell flat. Each time, I found myself back at the beginning, face-to-face with my need to be better than him. And since I kept ending up at the same place, I reckoned it was something I needed to talk about.

It’s particularly ironic – and sad – that I feel this way about preparing a sermon for Christmas Eve.
Because tonight, we are celebrating the birth of someone who didn’t care about looking better than anyone else. We are celebrating the birth of the holy one who emptied himself and took on human form, the one who humbled himself even unto the cross.

This child wasn’t born in a fortified castle or a marble palace. This child wasn’t born in a room lined with priceless tapestries nor was he laid in a fur-lined crib. This child wasn’t born with an obstetrician and hi-tech gadgetry in attendance. Instead, this child – the child of God, no less – was born in a stable, wrapped in a bunny rug, and put to sleep in a feed trough.

Did this child grow up to ride in a golden chariot streaking from the sun? Did this child go on to stage bloody battles and dominate the world? Did this child set out to acquire great wealth and seat himself on a ruby-encrusted throne?

Of course not. This child never set out to impress with status or titles, money or power. We gave this child magnificent names in the telling of his story – king of kings, prince of peace, wonderful counsellor – but this child never demanded that we use them.

What sort of child is this? John tells us that he ‘was life, and the life was the light of all people. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ Further, John says, when we accept this child and put our trust in who he is and what he’s on about, we too will be given all we need to become children of God.

Yet so few of us trust. If we really trusted that this child is love, and that this child loves us, we would not need to look over our shoulders at what everyone else is doing; we would not need to prove ourselves better than the rest. Because one of the fruits of love is that the loved one understands that who they are is enough.

But how do we trust? I’m afraid I don’t know how to develop that perfect trust; I certainly don’t have it. But I do know that one step on the journey is to start living as if we trusted because, like most things, if we practice long enough then eventually it will become second nature, and shape who we become.

One way to practice is to give up competitive living. Because this child won’t love me any the more if I can prove myself smarter than Nathan, or stronger than the one-legged man. Instead, this child loves me the way I am, and calls me to grow into my own maturity – not anybody else’s.

But learning to be me, and not anyone else, is difficult. It means giving up envy, and the desire to be someone richer, or smarter, or wiser, or more holy, or more radical. It means giving up glancing sideways at the guy across the lane rope and trying to prove myself faster. It means giving up reading Nathan’s sermons as a point of comparison, instead reading them purely for enlightenment. It means sitting in silence and taking note of what is stirring within; it means dancing to the tune that was written on my heart at my conception, and is the tune which I, and I alone, was given.

I can do this when I live as if I have claimed the hard truth that this child loves me. Even more, this child has invited me to shine my light upon the world as part of his great mission of salvation. Not Nathan’s light. Not my mother’s light or my father’s light or this person’s light or that person’s light. Instead, I am to shine my light, the light that I was born with, the light that has been nurtured by family and friends and church and prayer and will continue to shine as long as I live.

Because not only is this child light, but this child grew into the man who said, ‘You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5: 14-15).

He didn’t say, ‘If you do this and this and this, you will become the light of the world.’ Nor did he say, ‘If you learn this or master this or own this’, or ‘If you were only a bit more like your brother, or your mother, or that person who does x, y and z…’, or ‘If this church was a bit bigger, or more missional, or preached this theology…’ – then, and only then, will you be the light of the world.
Instead, he said to those who gather to hear him, ‘You are the light of the world…’ – right now, no conditions attached.

Do you hear that? We are already the light. There is nothing we can do to earn it. It is a gift freely given, already part of us. We are already sending out glimmers and sparks and rays of faith, hope and love; we are already illuminating the darkness. And when I reflect on the love I see here in this congregation, expressed in so many ways big and small – adults and kids fooling around together; the letting go of hurts and the resolution of conflicts; the hugs and tissues calmly given and received; the naming and strengthening of each other’s gifts; the ways each of you act as missionaries every week – I can see the good works, and the light flooding the darkness.

Our light may never shine as perfect, as clear, as bright, as the one true light, but it will light up the darkness, nevertheless. Moreover, at church we are given the tools to do the good, hard, lifelong work of identifying the ways we block the light that shines within us; we are given the tools to tackle our pride, envy, hatred, greed, cruelty – and competitiveness. And as we work on ourselves, and let these things go, the light will continue to break through ever more powerfully.

So tonight, let us celebrate the magnificent story of the child who is the light, and who enlightens the world. Let us affirm that he loves us already, right now, no strings attached. Let us cherish this radical knowledge as it takes root in our hearts and lives and causes us to light up the darkness. And of this child who is warm and generous to a fault, solid and faithful to the core; this child who understands, more than anyone, how to love and be loved: let us place our faith, and our trust, in him. Amen.


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