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Bishop Robert's Christmas Day Sermon

Isaiah the prophet writes: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light”

What do you feel like when it is dark? Are you scared of the dark? There seems to be more darkness than there used to be. To save energy, the street lights in our commune are now switched off at midnight. So it does get really dark. The lights on the motorways in Wallonia are switched off at 10:00p.m. So driving back earlier this week from Charleroi airport at night in the pouring rain I certainly needed to concentrate hard.

The darkness in Belgium isn’t usually frightening. But earlier this month I visited Kjiv with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Kyiv city streets are snowy and icy. At night there is a strict curfew. There is no street lighting. Walking around after dark is hazardous and feels threatening. Leaving Kyiv on the train to Poland to come home, we trundled slowly passed the tower blocks. They were mostly in darkness. Regular and irregular power cuts mean it is dark and cold. We were able to leave for safety. But we left behind Christian brothers and sisters at our Anglican church in Kyiv who must stay amidst the freezing conditions and the physical danger of missiles and drones. They are living in conditions of war. And we in Belgium live on the edge of a continent suffering war.

Isaiah the prophet addresses people who are either at war or on the edge of war. And he looks forward to the dawning of the light of God. ‘On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ Isaiah sees in the future a time of national prosperity. Abundant harvests. The shattering of the oppressor’s yoke. The warrior’s boots thrown into the burning fire. Above all, the promise of a new monarch who, though a child, will bring an end to all wars and establish a kingdom based on justice and righteousness.

It is the powerful hope of Isaiah the prophet that lies in the background to our familiar Christmas story. The Bethlehem shepherds guard their sheep through the darkness and danger of night. I have only once met a man who has fought with a lion. He was a Kenyan archbishop who had trained as a Maasai warrior, and he had the scars to prove it. But these Bethlehem shepherds are not only worried about wild animals, like lions and wolves. Their country is under Roman occupation. They live with high taxes and grinding poverty. And they dream of freedom and prosperity.

Suddenly, the darkness of the Bethlehem night is shattered. The sky is lit up with the shining of the glory of the Lord. A great company of angels appears praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ Angels are messengers from God, and their message is one of peace. Not just the absence of war but shalom: prosperity, wholeness, salvation. Isaiah’s ancient prophecy is being fulfilled. The angels announce good news of great joy: the birth of a Saviour, the coming of the Messiah.

The shepherds are given a sign to confirm this Saviour’s identity and to show what he is like. The shepherds might have expected something dramatic: fire from heaven, some display of divine power. But the sign is at one level completely unspectacular. The sign given to the shepherds is a baby in baby cloths lying in an animal’s feeding trough.

Yet for those of us who know this baby’s divine origin, the sign is utterly amazing. The Son of God consents to be born of a human mother. The eternal, invisible God becomes visible in human form. God takes upon himself human flesh. He assumes a body which can know hunger and thirst, suffering and pain. The Messiah comes not in great power but as a man who will be the accessible, intelligible and persuasive means by which human beings can find their way back to God.

I suppose God could simply have ‘appeared’ in thunder and lightning or as some kind of heavenly or angelic being. He could have kept the distance which inevitably separates the divine from the human. Instead, he takes a human body and is born of a human mother. In taking human flesh, Jesus dignifies all human flesh. In assuming a human body, Jesus points up the dignity of all human bodies.

A few weeks ago, I visited Bucha in Ukraine and saw harrowing photographs of people who had been tortured and killed in that place. This Christmas Day, we celebrate again the mystery of the God who is born in human flesh. The miracle of Christmas demands that we value and treasure human beings and human life, and protest against the sin and evil at work in the world which injures and kills innocent human beings even today and even in our own continent.

We listened this morning to St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and angels. In St. Matthew’s account, the birth of Jesus is signalled by the appearance of a star in the heavens. Astronomers have long wondered about this star, whether it was a supernova or a comet or a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Whatever the physical origins of the star, the book of Numbers in the Old Testament speaks of a star who will arise out of Israel who will deliver his people. The star in the heavens is a physical star which illuminates the place where Jesus the light of the world is born.

Perhaps you have a star on the top of your Christmas tree. I’ve brought along the star that we have had for the last five years on the top of our Christmas tree. I should tell you that our Christmas tree is mainly decorated with beautiful red baubles that we have bought over the years from visits to Russia. But this star, well we bought this a while ago in Kyiv. Actually it comes from a shop on the Maidan Independence Square. That does mean we can’t look at the Christmas tree in our sitting room without thinking about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and our longing for peace.

But the star is a sign of hope. It is a sign of the light of Christ. It is a sign that the light has come into the world and that the darkness has not overcome it. Now you might think that if you were caught up in a terrible war you might be tempted to lose hope and to despair. In fact all the people I met in Ukraine were full of hope. They were resilient. They did not want to be thought of as victims. They were determined to regain their nationhood and their freedom. And I met church leaders who, despite having had their own homes ransacked, despite coming close to death, they testified to how God was at work in Ukraine and how their faith and the faith of the church was being refined and strengthened in suffering.

This Christmas, 2022, we are especially aware of the darkness in the world, as Europe witnesses a ghastly war. And the suffering extends beyond the boundaries of Ukraine, to those many millions of migrants, to those in the global south who are threatened with famine, to many in Europe who are facing poverty through high food and fuel prices, as well as the countless victims of other conflicts in other parts of the world. Therefore how important that we hear again the prophetic words of Isaiah: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ Yes on us too. We celebrate today the birth of Jesus, the light who has come into the world. We are thankful for all who demonstrate faith and endurance and hope and who give us inspiration. And we rejoice that in Jesus God joins forces against the powers of darkness and guarantees the final victory.