The silence of Christmas. A talk for a carol service
And that is right. Because Christmas is a celebration.
Heavenly angelic choirs, sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’
And earth joins in with the chorus: ‘O come let us adore him’.
But there is another response – and it is this which I wish to speak about today.
It is the response of silence.
The prophet Zechariah declared, ‘Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling’.
This is not the silence of absence.
It is not the silence of the dead; the silence which mocks our dreams and our love.
The silence that will fall on our universe in multi billions of years – like a heavy damp blanket that will smother everything that is and turn it into what is not.
And this is not silence because there is nothing to say, but rather the silence because there is everything to say, and we cannot say it.
1. It is the silence of awe
Perhaps you have been to an exceptional concert. It comes to an end. And there is no applause – not because people do not wish to applaud, but because what has happened requires more than applause. It is almost as if people have been stunned into silence. They are saying, ‘O my word! What have I heard?’ And then, after a few moments, there is the explosion of applause.
The bible tells us that there will be silence in heaven for half an hour. It is as if, when we see God’s work in all its beauty; when we meet his truth, his wisdom and his love; when we see him – we will be so stunned that there will simply be no place for words.
And as we look at that baby lying in the manger 2000 years ago, we begin to realise that what has happened here is so big that words cannot begin to express the reality.
God has come down from heaven and has become a human baby.
A couple of weeks ago some children from the Guildhall Feoffment school came to find out about Advent. One 7 year said quietly to me, ‘I don’t believe in God, because my dad says that God is not up there’. I found myself completely floored. Not, of course, because I believe that God is literally up there. If he was, Tim Peake would be able to tell us. But I was silenced because I couldn't think how to explain to a 7-year-old the fact that we can only speak and think in categories of space and time, and that God is far bigger, beyond space and time. I tried to say that but realised I had completely lost him.
It was one of our stewards who suggested that I should have used the language of multiple dimensions – because any self-respecting 7-year-old who watches Dr Who will understand that.
The reality of Christmas is that the eternal Son of God becomes a human being. He steps out of his infinite dimensional world into our 3 or 4 or even 11 dimensional world.
God is out there. All we need to do is to cut through the fabric of space and time to see him.
We can’t do that. But he can. And the God who is life, but bigger than life, who is without beginning and end, absolutely other, who created us and all things, who created space and time, becomes one of us. He becomes part of the very reality that he created.
It is like us painting a picture – and in that picture there are characters. And we wish to communicate with those characters, so we step into that picture, and we become one of those characters. We leave our three dimensional world, we limit ourselves, in order to enter the two dimensional world.
So God breaks into our universe or multiverse, he implants himself in the womb of Mary, and becomes one of us. He shares our nature, our frailties, our mortality. He is born as a human baby, he grows as a human child, and he dies an awful human death.
Or to use slightly different language.
The one who is up there comes down here.
The one who is robed in glory strips off his robes and wraps himself in swaddling clothes.
He exchanges the unimaginable wealth of heaven for a cattle feeding trough.
He swaps the worship of angels in angelic tongues for the stuttering praises of shepherds.
And he does it all because he loves us.
No wonder we are called to silence. This is the performance which blows all other performances out of the water.
2. This is the silence of speechlessness
Zechariah is saying, ‘When God gets off his throne, when he comes to earth, human boasting will be silenced. God will expose all that is not right.'
Zechariah identifies what some of what those things might be: injustice, lies, the exploitation of those who have less power than ourselves, of those who are – in some way – dependent on us. And Zechariah continues, people steal from each other, they do not keep their word, they show no mercy and they plot evil against one another.
The problem is that we like to make ourselves look very good. We justify ourselves and our actions to ourselves and to others. We talk about others in a way that makes them look bad and us good. But, says Zechariah, when God comes we will be silenced.
I really felt for Richard on the Apprentice this week. He has been so good throughout the process; and he appeared confident, sure of himself, certain that he would win. And then in the interviews, as his business plan was shown to have fatal flaws, at first he pretended to his competitors that it was all going so well, and then suddenly - it was as if the balloon had been burst. He became very real, very vulnerable. He was silenced, he had nothing to say.
As we look at our Father in heaven, who gives up his Son, Jesus, who has been with him since the beginning of eternity; and as we look at the eternal Son of God, who gives up his life for us – we begin to see what love is all about.
Love is sacrificing ourself now in order that others might grow to become what God created them to be.
And in the burning light of that love, we see the overwhelming darkness of our self-centredness, pride, judgementalism and fear. And we are silenced.
I recall days when I was in the 6th form and it became the cool thing to do to mock one of the girls who was not physically attractive. I don’t think I joined in – as a gawky teenager I at least had the integrity to realise that I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on – but rather than provoke the wrath of the in-crowd, I allowed that mockery to continue. I remember with deep shame the time that I saw a young man start a completely unprovoked violent attack on one of the drunk older men who sat outside our church in Holloway, and I simply walked away. I was too afraid to get involved. I think of how, in my arrogance, I judged and condemned people for doing the very things that I do now. And before God, before his example of self-sacrificial love, I am silenced.
3. This is the silence of trust
It is the silence of the one who has stopped trying to justify themselves and has put her or his trust in the God who gave himself to us on that first Christmas.
David declares in one of the Psalms, ‘I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother .. ’
Most people think that the Christian faith is about doing: doing good or religious.
But actually the Christian faith does not begin with doing. It begins with receiving.
It is all gift.
The reason the baby was born was because God was giving us himself: All we need to do is to trust him and receive him.
And we can come into this most wonderful of relationships with God.
It begins with receiving the astonishing gift of forgiveness.
Yes, we do have to be aware that we need forgiveness and that we can’t earn it. Whatever you do now, will never put right what you have done. People were hurt and lives were scarred. But that doesn’t mean God has written us off. Jesus died on the cross in our place – that shows us just how awful our sin is (the cross was the suitable penalty) – but it also means that the price has been paid.
Because Jesus came and died on the cross, there is a country called forgiveness. You don’t need a passport or a ticket to travel there. It is right here, right now. All you need to do is to stop trying to prove yourself and trust God that he has done everything necessary.
And living the Christian life is about receiving the amazing life that God would give us.
Our last reading spoke of how, ‘Those who received Jesus, who believed in his name, God gave them the power to be, to live as sons and daughters of God.
The archbishop wrote recently
“People often ask me why I'm a Christian. Here's what I tell them.
I’m a Christian because Jesus Christ found me and called me, around 40 years ago. I’m a Christian because it makes sense to me, because Jesus rose from the dead - he conquered death and sin and suffering.
I'm a Christian because in Jesus I see the God who didn’t say, "This is how you lot have got to behave, and I’m going to watch you and judge you." Instead he came alongside us and lived in the middle of the absolute foulest mess, and died unjustly young in great agony, and bore all that was wrong in this world on his shoulders.
I'm a Christian because in my own experience I’ve run away and God has met me and yet not been angry with me. When I’ve failed he’s picked me up and healed and strengthened me.
That’s why I’m a Christian. And that’s why, whatever happens, whatever stupid mistakes, I know that even at the end of it all, even if everything else fails, God doesn’t — and he will not fail even to the end of my life.”
On one occasion, we were all round the table and everybody was speaking. One of our children (who was very little at the time) couldn’t get a word in. He was getting more and more frustrated. so he suddenly stood up on his chair and shouted, ‘Everybody, Listen to me!’
So much of our noise, our chatter (and I include our chatter on social media) is saying, ‘Listen to me. I’m somebody. My views count. I matter’.
But the silence that we are invited to enter this Christmas is the silence of knowing that we do not need to make that noise. God loves us, we are forgiven and we do matter – eternally. And we don’t need to say a word. All we need to do is to receive Jesus and put our trust in him.
4. This is the silence of expectation.
The insomniacs among us will be aware that there is the pre-dawn chorus and then, just before the dawn, everything goes quiet. It is almost as if the birds are waiting in silent expectation for the rising of the sun.
Zechariah calls us to this silence of expectation: of waiting in breathless anticipation for what is going to happen.
There is a very early legend that Joseph had gone off to find a midwife; Mary is still in the cave. And as Joseph is walking into the village, suddenly everything stops. Joseph sees a shepherd in the field dipping his bread into the pot and his hand arrested halfway to his mouth; a bird in mid-heaven halts as it flies. For a moment everything stands still, then movement begins again and Joseph knows that the birth has happened in that moment of absolute stillness.
Time probably did not stop on earth when Christ was born, but heaven held its breath. God was doing something astonishingly new, stepping into his creation, becoming human. It was the miracle of divine new birth. Nothing was fixed, all bets were off, anything could happen.
The miracle of that new birth is a miracle that is repeated whenever a man, woman, girl or boy puts their trust in Jesus and receives his gift of forgiveness and new life. The bible tells us that in some way, that words cannot fully explain, Christ is born in our hearts and takes up residence in our lives.
‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in.
Be born in us today’.
That is why we do talk about becoming a Christian as being born again, not physically, but spiritually. Don’t knock that language because of stereotypes. It is about becoming a new person – and when that happens the past has gone, we are forgiven, nothing is fixed, all bets are off and anything can happen. People who have no future discover a hope.
My prayer this year is that you will discover the silence of Christmas.
The silence of awe, that something is happening here which is beyond words.
The silence of realising that we have been found out, and we do not have anything to say
The silence of trust. We stop trying to justify ourselves, and we simply come to him, place our hand into the hand of Jesus, and receive the gift of forgiveness and new life.
The silence of expectation: for with God all things are possible, and who knows what he can do in you and through you.
The silence, of course, is just the beginning.
It does not have the last word.
It is a silence that gives way to praise.
And one day, when the concert is over, and all dissonances are resolved in stunning harmony, the vast congregation that includes people from all nations and all times, will sit in stunned silence. And then, as one – all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible – will rise, and there will be an explosion of praise: O come let us adore Him!