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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Eve Midnight Communion sermon 2010, St Mary's Church, Stebbing

This sermon was preceded by a video of "Nothing But a Child" by Steve Earle . What follows won't really makes much sense unless you click the link or at least google the lyrics.

Readings, though we had them, were fairly irrelevant (OK for purists the gospel was Matthew 1 18-25).

You know, they say Christmas is for the children, but we mustn’t forget that it started with a child too. That’s what that song is all about – and my apologies to the purists who say we shouldn’t involve the wise men until next week.

I love that line “once again we all can be children for a while”. Christmas evokes many childhood memories for us – good, and maybe bad too.

We are all someone’s child, and many of us have children and grandchildren of our own. In this the first Christmas service, just few hours before the earliest little risers will be asking to unwrap presents, let’s spend some time in reflection, thinking about children. As well as that song you’ve just listened to, I’d like to stimulate that reflection by reading you a poem.

This was written by an atheist friend of mine. The poem is called “waiting”, and this is what she told me about it.

“’Waiting’ is about the birth and subsequent illness of my third son. He was in hospital until he was 3 months old."


always on the stairs,

or in a lift, or on a path or street or hill that is

not there, but on the way, or

going to. where you see

nothing all around you

unread books on dark-shut trains,

silent taxis.

windowless rooms.

at christmas

in the church, uncomprehending

looking at your life

and seeing not the star, but just

the hole where it should be, while you wait for him

and wait,

then wonder,

when he's given, from so far away,


for the one

who can't believe.

To be honest, it’s tempting to just leave it there, but if I do we’ll be singing O come all ye faithful too early, so I’d better continue.

You know there is only one thing about Christmas that I don’t like, and that’s having to sing “Away in a manger”. I know the children love it and are cute when they sing it in the nativity play, but in the middle 2 lines of the second verse that carol drifts into heresy – firstly because it claims Jesus didn’t cry. Now, he was a fully human child born on a cold night in in very rough conditions; he cried alright! Secondly, in saying Lord Jesus look down form the sky, “Away in a manger” perpetuates the myth that God is distant, disconnected from earth, and only interested in making sure we make it through the night. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The heart of the Christmas message is the word made flesh – God coming to live and breathe and speak and work among us. And the great thing is that even though Jesus did depart this earth, his presence is still with us by his Spirit, whom he sent to be our comforter and guide. the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of those who believe. He is God, but not distant.

Having said all that – and I hope it didn’t turn into a rant – I perhaps need to give “Away in a Manger” another chance because of the third verse. Remember, we are thinking about childhood tonight.

We’re thinking about a child who was long expected but whose arrival was not as expected. We’re thinking about the difficulty of birth, of the fragility of a new human life and perhaps about the impossibility of parenting sometimes, when they get a little older!

We started with “Nothing but a child could wash those tears away, and guide a weary world into the light of day”. Jesus’ life and death, but supremely his resurrection, are what achieved that- the dawning of a new day, a new life, eternal life for those who believe. He didn’t do it all as a child, but he had to come as a human baby to fully live a human life, to fully redeem human life.

So you see, childhood is truly the heart of Christmas; in Jesus, God came as a child to remind the world that we are all his children. Even the adults are children, and for more than just a while.

If you tonight are in the church, uncomprehending, looking at your life and seeing not the star, but just the hole where it should be, then take a look with me at the last verse of Away in a manger. These words sum it all up really, in terms of how you get all this to work.

Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay

close by me for ever and love me I pray

bless all the dear children in thy tender care

and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

The key word is ask – if you ask Jesus to be with you then he will come into your life. You may not feel any different – though some of you will – but a simple invitation is all he is waiting for, to come into your life, your heart and soul, and claim it again for his own. The hole where the star should be is filled by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. If you still have any doubts about this remember that God wants to be with us, he longs to be with us – the Angel told Joseph that Mary’s baby would be called Emmanuel – that means God with us, and that is what he longs to be. He’s just waiting for us to ask him.

Remembering that we are all someone’s child, the last two lines of Away in a manger can be our prayer too – asking God to bless us, but also to make us ready for eternity.

And if you’re getting cynical and thinking this is just a one off in the spirit of Christmas, let me take you back to another line from that song. Now, the birth of any child is a special occasion, which can inspire us and change our lives. But the birth of the Child we celebrate tonight means that we all can have another chance allowed – forgiveness is what the cross we see there brings. Forgiveness and a new start.

Yet if you are still “the one who can’t believe” let me say I respect that position, but would want to challenge you with a final thought.

The validity of all this, of Christmas, of the gospel, of the church and Christianity, does not hinge on whether or not people believe it. In that sense our faith or lack of it has no impact. God’s amazing plan for the world, to save his children, doesn’t need our permission to be true, but Christ does need our permission to include us in the fruits of that plan

let us pray


  1. Great stuff, Tim! Respect for including Steve Earle...


  2. thanks Pete
    Maybe I could get "The Other Kind" into a passiontide talk ...
    Nothing but a child is by far my favourite Christmas song


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