Simon Harvey preached at the service of Holy Communion on Christmas Day.
What are the chances that you’ll be living somewhere else next Christmas?
Is your flat or house suitable for you, or are you looking to move somewhere better next year?
Is your street a place of neighbourliness and somewhere you belong, or do you feel not quite at home when you walk along it?
Is your neighbourhood just right, or would you rather move somewhere else?
And there might be people here this morning who feel that they’re living in the wrong country or on the wrong continent.
There might be some of us who simply know that they just can’t afford to stay where they are. Or people here who know that they need to live somewhere else for the sake of their safety and sanity.
And, of course, some of us are at a stage in life when a move is on the cards - moving out to study, moving in with a new partner, moving to a new job, moving to care for parents, or down-sizing in later life.
Where we live matters, doesn’t it?
And if you think it’s only in a property hotspot like Islington that people spend a lot of time thinking about these things, well… there have been plenty of times in history when people have been on the move.
In the Christmas story, the way that Luke tells us, there’s quite a lot about where people live.
It begins when the Emperor orders a decree across the whole Roman Empire. Everyone should be accounted for. Who they are and where they live. It’s a matter of imperial security, to know who is who, and where they’re from, and to put it all on a central database. To conduct the census, every person is commanded to return to their home town.
It’s why Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth, where they live, to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family lived.
(Where would you have to travel, if you were sent to your home town?)
And at the time of the census, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus, who the angels told was Immanuel - God living with us.
That’s at the heart of Christmas - that God chose to live with us. With the whole cosmos as his own, he chose to move-in to this neighbourhood. To this world... to Islington, to London, to Aleppo even.
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel...
The living conditions of the shepherds get a special mention by Luke. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields…”
The shepherds had no permanent home. They wandered where their flocks could find grazing.And they travelled to where the work was. It was a precarious life, not one in which it was possible to settle down or make friends.
Yet to these certain poor shepherds, in the fields where they lay, the angels came with glory.
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
And what about you, this Christmas? Perhaps you have people living with you today who are not normally under your roof. Or maybe in the coming days, you’ll be heading off to see the relatives. Or maybe you’re here at St Mary’s this morning because you’re a house-guest of a friend or member of your family.
The getting-together is an essential part of our cultural Christmas isn’t it? The gathering, the drawing close, the sharing.
Too much in our world seeks to pull us apart from each other, to settle for life inside bubbles of like-minded reassurance, each keeping to our own. But church, which is a word that means ‘gathering’ is an active resistance to division.
What we’re doing right now, gathering together, is a radical stand against separation and hatred. We sing, in unison, in accents from every continent, carols that aren’t just beautiful. They’re songs of Christian hope. Songs that sing of love not hate, of life and joy not death and fear. And I sense this catching a new mood in these recent months, a recognition that the way of division and separation from other people isn’t a way of life at all. Perhaps that’s why so many people are worshipping in churches across the country this Christmas. We’ve never seen anything like it.
And today, this morning, for the moments that we’re here, we live together. For all the formality and richness of our Christmas liturgy, at its heart there is a domestic intimacy. We live together, are nourished together. We share the same bread and the same cup. And we encounter the God whose love for us in Christ Jesus was so boundless that he chose to live among us.
May God give us the resolve and courage to live more fully, more openly towards others, more deeply. And this Christmas, may we be blessed to know his gracious love, wherever we live. Amen.