Bishop Guli's Blog, Talks and Publications

God’s story becomes our story, bringing light into darkness and joy into fear

One of the carol services I’ve been involved in this year, one was at Leicester prison – a service for the high security inmates so it’s one of those where you never know quite what to expect. A couple of years ago I’m told a riot broke out when the then archdeacon of Leicester was taking the service though I’m reliably informed it had nothing to do with anything he did. Anyway, last week one particularly talkative gentleman who’d also asked a question during my address, engaged me in conversation afterwards. He was a Christian he explained but had no time for the idea of hope. In fact, he tried actively not to hope for anything because it usually ended in bitter disappointment and left him feeling worse than he had before.

For the next 10 minutes or so I’d like if I may to explore a little this theme of hope albeit as it emerges in a slightly different guise both in our OT reading and today’s Gospel. Isaiah talks about “a land of deep darkness” into which he heralds the dawning of a new light; and Luke tells of the terror felt by the shepherds to whom the angel of the Lord came with the message, “do not be afraid for I am bringing you good news of great joy”. Darkness and fear into which break forth light and joy, hope by other names.

In each case the darkness and fear relate to a particular context, so the light and joy speak into a specific time and place. For Isaiah this was a period of exile following the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. And for the shepherds in St Luke’s account of the Christmas story, well they’d been singled out for what we can only imagine must have been a terrifying encounter not just with one angel but a sky full of the heavenly hosts.

But Scripture is more than a story of what once was and so each of these texts beckons also to us, asking the question: where is there darkness now which needs to be bathed in light and where is there fear that longs to encounter joy and hope. We might answer this in all kinds of different ways. There is our corporate, shared context, for example, where we see the darkness of social sin and corrupt or overstretched infra-structures which lead to extreme inequalities. Amongst other things this is made visible through the frightening rise in the number of homeless people on our streets.

There are then local, national and international tragedies which leave us fearful of where and who may be struck next; there’s fear generated from acts of terrorism which lead to deep divisions in communities and amongst families and individuals; there’s the unresolved matter of Brexit which wherever you sit on the divide has left this nation in a place that we might easily describe as one of darkness and fear. And then, of course, there’s our own personal lives. Where might darkness and fear have a hold in your life? Are you struggling with sickness or bereavement, uncertainty for your future, broken relationships, economic anxiety, are you far from home and missing loved ones? Do you live with guilt or regret over past events that you just can’t move on from?

Well as we reflect on the idea of light shining in darkness and joy breaking into our fears, we do have to be realistic about our lives and the world we live in. As the gentleman in prison reminded me, pipe dreams are no good to anyone and simplistic answers are hollow and meaningless. So, given the reality of our messy lives, there is perhaps the need for what one commentator has called spiritual bifocals. Looking through one lens we acknowledge the harsh realities of our world, our own weaknesses and shortcomings. But looking through the other lens we can – if we choose - notice moments when light shatters the darkness and joy overwhelms the fear.

In the passage we heard from Isaiah, the prophet is offering a vision of a future reality – of God’s heavenly kingdom but we can and do see glimpses of that reality breaking through into our time and into our lives. If only we look and if only we decide to participate, we see light and joy in all kinds of places. The way in which this city came together after the recent tragedy at LCFC, the work that this Cathedral and many other churches, groups and individuals do around social responsibility seeking to change the lives of some of the most deprived people in our society, projects like the Sound Café, Together Leicester, One Roof Leicester, Fair Share East midlands, the recent homelessness charter, and many many more like these are shining light in the darkness. Every time you show kindness to an asylum seeker, a homeless person, an elderly neighbour, a sick relative, light shines in the darkness not only in their lives but in yours also for you too will have been changed, you too will have encountered God who lurks in unexpected places and whom we meet in unexpected people.

As I near the end, I’d like us to take a closer look at Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. Notice the way he tells the story and how he plays with the idea of time. The passage begins, “in those days” … “in those days a decree went out” and so on. Those days are the past –the time of darkness and fear. Then something happens and by verse 11 we’re suddenly in the present: “to you is born this day a saviour”. This is light and joy breaking into the present and loosening the grip of past darkness and fear.

And the pivot– the point at which past darkness and fear relents to the advent of light and joy -  is in the event of Christ’s birth, described in a brief and understated phrase in verse 7: “She gave birth to her first born son, wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn”. That is the point at which God intervenes, the point at which the story of Jesus’ birth becomes our story, the point at which light and joy flood into the darkness and the fear.

And that is the good news of the Christmas story. It’s not always easy and it certainly isn’t magic. It requires faith and perseverance and can often be punctuated by questions and doubt. But if it’s embraced – if it’s practiced and lived - then it’s more powerful than any pain we may carry, any darkness that may surround us or any fear that grips us. It’s my prayer that this Christmas you’ll experience something of this divine mystery offered to us in the birth of the Christ child.

Christmas morning 2018

Leicester Cathedral

Isaiah 9.2-7

Luke 2.1-14

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