I grew up with the Bethlehem Carol Sheet! Now in its umpteenth edition, it gave me my first glimpse of the Holy Land. As I accompanied my parents to church and joined in carol services year after year, I learned about the plants, the trees and the buildings of this place. And of the special projects supported by the Biblelands Charity.
I don't know about you, but Bethlehem has always been that special place of Jesus' birth, almost known in the imagination created by Christmas cards and Advent calendars, with the stable and the star always central. Our travels so far have helped us understand too the long journey taken by Mary and Joseph to be counted as they obediently travelled to David's town. Silhouettes of Mary, Joseph and always that donkey again as seen on Christmas cards on my mind.
Then as a grew up I began to see the nativity - that star and stable in a wider context. Understanding the chaos of a town full of people bidding for the last hotel room - each with their own agenda, but still there in the middle that stable scene - now including smelly cattle, straw and a feeding trough.
More recently however, I have learned of new images of this town - of peace lines and incursions, of watch towers and walls, of soldiers and civilians, of guns and rocket fire, of religious groups, of turmoil, of unrest, of oppression, of rights, of freedom, of land, of different visions, of ideology, of violence, of hatred. The image is strong and leaves little room for a stable and a vulnerable baby.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still be see thee lie?
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
And now we are here. I wonder what you are thinking ? I wonder how you are feeling?
God needed a place and that place was here, however for us to understand the true meaning of the event of over two thousand years ago we have to move on from the images, be they true or imagined. It seems appropriate that we worship today literally in a place of birth. The birth of Jesus changed the course of history, however as every good Christmas sermon goes, in order to experience it we have to take the baby out of the manger.
St John's gospel helps us to do that best. It helps us to see reality in a different way, to see historical events in the whole of salvation history. That what happened here then, was part of the plan which continues with us today. For those involved in the life of the church, by the time 'O come all ye faithful' is sung for the 20th time on Christmas Eve any joy of the season has almost gone. Sorry, to shatter any illusions the laity here may have but most clergy want to get the 8am and the 10am services on Christmas Day over and done with as soon as possible so they can get home, have a strong drink and perhaps a mince pie, before falling asleep before the Queen's speech. Christmas is always such a busy time so it is good to think about the story out of its December slop and reflect on what the birth of Christ means personally for each one of us.
God's plan was very simply to reveal his love. A love which began in a time and a place and was revealed in flesh and blood, and a love that transcends time and place and dwells within us and with us today. God loves you and God loves. Let's first allow that to sink in this morning.
Jesus was born for us. In a world where love is transient, where power and success and pedigree matter, where people trample over others to get what they want, the things that really matter is God's love for us and our response to him. God loves us as we are. His light longs to shine in our darkness. It was no mistake that Jesus came in humble surroundings to a world which couldn't find a room for him. He wants space in our lives, he welcomes those who seek him and he pours out his love more and more if we open ourselves to his tender touch. As Bishop John said a few days ago pilgrimage can be a time to do just that. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
As well as the Word this week we have been open to those sights and sounds around us. God works through our senses and so the down to earth realism of crying babies, smelly cattle and the push and shove and pain of birth are all part of the experience, as is the mess of our lives, our tears and pain and the turmoil around us as we meet here today. So Jesus was born for each one of us and Jesus came for the world.
I have become quite a fan in recent years of Gareth Malone, Choir master extraordinaire. Gareth has a great gift of bringing the best out of people, of taking something which appears hopeless - be it a community with no soul, or a delinquent with no future, or a child with no self-confidence and turning them around. He develops potential, gives that warm encouragement that can made all the difference.
I also like watching the programme 'Secret Millionaire' Seeing someone with millions living undercover in the toughest of situations and not only being able to make a difference by giving money to key projects or selfless individuals, but being changed by it themselves. I have termed these programmes redemption programmes because they reveal something of the light shining in the darkness. They move me - and I often have to resort to blabbering into a tissue by the end of the programme.
Christ may not always be named, but if we take time to look carefully though, away from the TV, into our communities, in our neighbours, our world we too will see glimmers of light in the darkness, in acts of generosity, selflessness and compassion. It is our call to affirm the signs of God's kingdom in our midst.
One of the most memorable events for me in the year 2000 - apart from visiting the dome of course - was working with my congregation delivering 2000 candles to every household in the parish. It was a real effort, turning out night after night for about eight nights, ringing on doorbells. The instructions were clear - we could not just stick it through the letterbox, tempting though that way, nor leave it on the doorstep or hanging from the door handle. We had to hand the bag, containing the candle and the prayer to the person behind the door.
And because we made the effort we had some wonderful conversations. The most amazing thing being the astonishment that we were actually giving them something at all! 'How much do they cost?' 'Nothing.' 'Can we give you something?' 'No'. 'Can we keep it?' 'Yes'. I don't know what many of them did with the candle - I hope they lit it in a meaningful way and said a prayer - God knows.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven
No ear may heard his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
As we spent time in this country of contrasts, if we take time to look, we too will see glimpses of that light shining in all the struggles. We too will encounter the hope that never disappears, we will meet Christ in signs of generosity, love and welcome.
And as we leave this special place. We hopefully will have courage to take the scene out of the Christmas card and live it in our lives, knowing Christ in our own hearts and taking his light to others in our day to day encounters, no matter how chaotic, apathetic or hostile they may be.