Christmas sermon from the Bishop of Exeter

[O]ur God was not only born on the margins, but ended up a refugee.

The devastating fire that engulfed the Cathedral Green in October and which destroyed the Royal Clarence Hotel has affected all of us who live or work here in the city. What continues to strike me is the impact that the fire has had on the public imagination, and just how many people far and wide share our sadness at the loss of one of our most treasured landmarks.

The fact that the hotel, reputed to be the oldest in Britain, should have survived the war and Hitler’s Baedeker raids, but succumbed to this fire is a huge sadness.

If you are visiting Exeter today, you will have seen the burnt out shell of the hotel as you approached the cathedral. There is no room in that particular inn this Christmas, nor will there be for some years to come.

Mary and Joseph must have been similarly desolate arriving in Bethlehem at the end of their long journey from Nazareth in the north of Israel. Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town and it was there that the couple were required to register for the census ordered by the occupying Roman authorities.

The couple arrive, exhausted by the journey, only to find doors shut in their face. Doubtless the town was packed with strangers and visitors who had descended on the place for the same reason with the result that, in St Luke’s evocative phrase, ‘there was no room for them in the inn’.

No one had compassion on this couple, even though Mary was obviously heavily pregnant. No one was able or willing to offer hospitality and welcome these strangers.

And so it was that the child Jesus ends up being born in squalor, in some sort of outhouse amongst animals.

The Jews looked forward with eager expectation for the coming of a Messiah who would deliver them from oppression. Many of the Hebrew scriptures point to the coming a messiah, a king, a prince of David’s line who would rebuild their nation.

The Jewish royal family had been exterminated by Babylonian invaders some 150 years earlier. But perhaps a remnant of the old Davidic line had survived? Perhaps, as the prophet Isaiah hoped, a ‘shoot from the stock of Jesse’, Jesse being King David’s father, would emerge on the stage of world history and save them?

But for all their prophecies and their hoping against hope, no one expected the messiah to be born at the margins, on the very edge, in a stable.

Contrary to what T. S. Eliot says in his poem ‘Journey of the Magi’, this birth was not satisfactory.

Indeed St Matthew tells us that, following Jesus’s birth, Joseph had to take his wife and newly-born son and flee to Egypt for safety. King Herod was so intimidated by rumours of the birth of a king who might grow up to challenge his dynasty that he orders the murder of all male children under the age of three in Bethlehem and its surrounding district.

It would not be the first or the last time in history that despots have used violence to subjugate a population.

If Jesus Christ is the human face of God, as Christians believe, then beneath the tinsel and the carols, the Christmas story confronts us with bitter realities: the uncomfortable fact that our God was not only born on the margins, but ended up a refugee.

This year I have met three people from our churches who have been to Calais to help distribute food and clothes to refugees in what was called ‘The Jungle’. I found the stories they shared with me of human anguish profoundly moving, but so too are the acts of kindness that reach into the misery and bring hope to vulnerable people.

The people of Torrington in North Devon this month organised a massive collection of clothes and toys for Syrian refugees in their area. Hundreds took part in the collection, and they filled a local theatre with provisions.

Some local children challenged the refugee children to a game of football. They noticed that one of the Syrian boys playing wasn’t wearing any shoes or boots. When questioned, he said:

‘I have walked all the way here from Syria without any shoes; so to play football barefoot isn’t a problem.’

In Dawlish one Syrian family has been attending a local church at the weekend. When asked about this they said, ‘We go to church on Sunday and Mosque on Friday!’

Hope is often in short supply in this world. But stories like this are full of human kindness and they cheer my heart. They speak to me of a God of hope who prizes open hardened hearts to the stranger in our midst so that our hearts don’t go rusty.

We’ve all seen the terrible pictures of the relentless bombardment of Aleppo this week. The on-going conflict in the Middle East has destabilised whole communities and nations. As a result, not simply thousands, but millions of individuals and families continue to flee for safety.

The experience for many of them as they travel from town to town and from country to country seeking refuge is not unlike that of the holy family: ‘no room in the inn’.

I do not have a solution to this humanitarian crisis which is international in its dimensions. I certainly don’t envy the politicians and negotiators who are trying to broker some sort of peace.

As we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, we can’t ignore these realities even if we might wish that it would all go away. Sadly, unlike in a Christmas panto, there is no fairy godmother with a magic wand to magic this problem away.

You will know the old story about two friends walking along the seashore and discovering the beach littered with hundreds of starfish washed up by the incoming tide. One of them starts picking up the starfish and throwing them back into the sea.

‘What’s the point of that?’ asks the other, gesturing to the hundreds of starfish marooned on the beach. ‘What difference is that going to make?’ ‘Quite a lot to that one,’ replies the first friend.

We do indeed feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, but we can make a difference person by person, family by family.

As we journey into the New Year the challenge is not to pull up the drawbridge, but to give energy to building a fairer, kinder more hospitable world that is not frightened by our glorious human diversity.

As individuals, communities and nations we need to be more generous and more tolerant in the face of difference, not less.

Rab Butler, one time aspiring British Prime Minister, famously described politics as ‘the art of the possible’. His description has entered the lexicon of politicians the world over.

Our British pragmatism needs to be infused by the Christian vision of a God who takes risks; a big God who is to be found on the margins, on the edge, in the Jungle; a God whose generous, hospitable heart embraces the stranger as ‘brother, sister’.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the Messiah and the coming reign of God, a counter-cultural kingdom in which the first shall be last and the last first.

Not everyone can tolerate this big God who confounds us with his generosity and unlimited mercy. But, as St John says in his Gospel, ‘to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God’.

At the heart of Christmas is this invitation to open ourselves to this big God and be transformed. Christmas is a celebration of the abundance of grace, not the reduction of life to the art of the possible.

And for those who make space for the Christ-child in their lives there is the promise that they will discover at the heart of the universe not randomness, but relationship. In the words of St John, they will become ‘children of God’.

May that be our experience and may God give us his blessing of peace this Christmas.

+ Robert Exon

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