An address given on the occasion of a mayoral carol service 2012
One of the things that this season gives us is the opportunity to gather together and to say thank you.
Thank you to each other. And I wish to take this opportunity to say 'thank you’ to all of you who represent our borough and the people of our borough – and thank you particularly to all of you who have chosen to stand as councillors or elected officials, whether you were elected or not.
It takes a great deal of courage to stand for election to public office. I know - because I wouldn’t dare to do so. You get a lot of stick. And I get angry when people have a go at our political leaders, whether at national or local level, and when they say, ‘They’re all the same. They’re all in it for what they can get out of it’. I know that in 99.9% of cases that is simply not true. Joshua Hordern was a councillor here before he took up his post at Oxford university earlier this year. He was also a member of our congregation. And I know that he, like each one of you – whatever your political persuasion - went into it because you have a passion for society and how it is shaped, and you have a passion for people. And you are willing to get involved.
So Mr Mayor, if it is not presumptious of me to say so, ‘thank you’. Ladies and Gentlemen councillors – borough or town – and I mean this, and I am not just saying this to butter you up, or to persuade you to sort out the traffic problems in ... (!) - 'thank you'.
But of course when we gather for a carol service, it is also an opportunity for us to say thank you to God. Because he chose to get involved. Thank you for all that he chooses to reveal and all that he chooses to give.
Our reading from John states that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, glory of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). When we look at Jesus Christ we see the character of our Father God.
Yes there was that moment when Jesus went up on a mountain and shone with all the radiance of an exploding super-nova. The disciples could not look at him. They saw him quite literally in a completely new light. They saw his glory.
And they saw his glory, the character of God when he enabled a virgin to conceive, when he turned water into wine, when he healed a man born blind from birth, when he fed 5000 and calmed the storm. They saw his glory when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
But they also saw the glory of Jesus, the character of God when Jesus was born as a baby in a cowshed; and when he hung on a cross, out of love for his Father, and out of love for us.
You see the glory of God is not just shown in the power stuff.
The glory of Jesus is shown in the love stuff.
The glory of God is shown in the fact that out of love he came to save the least and the lost and the last.
And for those of us who are in positions of influence we need to remember that.
When we stand on that last judgement day before God it will not be about status, or wealth, or whose phone number we have in our contacts list. It will not be about how big we are, or how many projects have our name on them, how long our wikipedia entry is (if we have one), how many followers we have on twitter or about our celebrity rating.
Rather it will be about how much we have loved like Jesus. It will be about whether I bothered to visit Fred Arbon in Pinford End, who 7 years ago had a haemorrhage and suffered 95% brain death, and who has since been there in a near total vegetative state. It will be about how I treat Joan, an elderly housebound lady. That is what will matter.
And my problem is that, on those criteria, when I stand before God I don't have a chance in hell. I don't even pretend to begin to get anywhere close to anything resembling the love stuff of God.
But – and it is a very big BUT - John continues, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16)
We think that the last, the least and the lost are those people out there who we care for.
But we can only begin to receive those blessings from God when we realise that we are the ones who are lost.
That is why God has, in his mercy, to bring some people very low in order to receive him. I think of Chuck Colson, President Nixon’s chief of staff, or Jonathan Aitken. They both became Christians in prison and since then have been and are being (although Colson is now in glory) used dramatically and powerfully by God. They’re particularly dramatic cases.
But we can only receive forgiveness when we recognise that we need to be forgiven; we can only receive strength to change so that we can begin to love when we recognise that we are pretty self-centred and need to change; we can only receive a free pass, paid for by Jesus, into the kingdom of Heaven if we wish to go there and if we realise we can’t get there by our own achievement or effort.
That is why the Christmas story tells of the wise men, known as the three kings, who come to Jesus. They are good men, respectable and respected men – and yet they fall down and they worship the baby.
Why? Because they have met with the awesome power of God? Possibly.
Simone Weil wrote of an encounter she had with God while praying in the C12th chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, ‘Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees’
But I suspect that they went down on their knees because they realised that they were in the presence of the mercy and love of God – who gave up heaven in order to come to earth so that we might begin to live the life of heaven on earth. And they wanted it.
So at this Christmas time, as we say thank you to you for choosing to get involved (and I would encourage others here to get involved - whatever your political convictions) and for all that you do, it is very good
- to remember again the story of Jesus - how he got involved
- to look at him and to see the character of God;
- to come to him so that we, who ourselves are broken, mixed up and lost, can receive forgiveness, mercy and the strength to live lives that are controlled by a passionate love for God and a deep love for others.