Delivered at Guildford Cathedral, Christmas Day, 2017
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14
‘And the winner is…’: obligatory pause for effect, as Cat Steven’s song Father and Son drifts in to add some emotional clout to the proceedings: ‘… Craig!’ And so Craig Johnston, aged just 21 – he of the Torched mackerel and mackerel tartare with salt baked beetroot and horseradish milk gel (and that’s just for starters) - becomes the youngest ever winner of Masterchef, while his two challengers resignedly shrug their shoulders and quietly make their way through the back door and into the cold.
And it’s that theme of competition and competitiveness that has struck me with renewed force this Christmastime.
It’s partly that we live in a peculiarly competitive age, whose political landscape has been dominated by slogans like ‘America First!’ or ‘Britain first!’, with the nail-biting Brexit negotiations seeing both sides jostling for competitive advantage. It’s partly that religious competition has provided an increasingly unsettling backdrop to 2017, with Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, Hindu fundamentalists in India and Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar all making bids for power against their religious rivals – something that was all too evident as I joined the 70th anniversary celebrations of the increasingly embattled Church of South India back in October. And it’s partly, more locally, that the sheer competitiveness of our culture here in Surrey, in homes, schools, and workplaces alike, has come home to me in new ways over the course of the past year, not least in my pastoral encounters with old school friends suffering from emotional burnout, with clergy worn out by the power politics in their churches, with young confirmation candidates battling anorexia, and with commuters to the City desperately fighting for their jobs and their families in an increasingly cut-throat environment.
Of course, some level of competition is unavoidable, even beneficial – indeed biologists tell us that it’s part of being human: that competitiveness, the ‘survival of the fittest’, is a key component in the whole evolutionary endeavour. Of course few of us are entirely free of competitive instincts, as may well become evident in a few hours’ time when we cheerfully embark on a family game of Monopoly, and start building houses on Mayfair and Park Lane (or, in the special Guildford edition, on the Cathedral site and the University of Surrey, which bodes well for any future planning application!). Of course competition at its best spurs us on to work hard, to be efficient, creative, courageous. Would Craig Johnston have developed his Torched mackerel and mackerel tartare with salt baked beetroot and horseradish milk gel if it wasn’t for his desire to shine on Masterchef? Probably not.
But the problem of the words, ‘The Winner is…’ is that they inevitably involve the corollary ‘The Losers are…’, as all too many in our society resignedly shrug their shoulders and quietly make their way into the cold. And in a year in which we’ve witnessed the horrors of Grenfell Tower - whose flammable bargain-basement cladding stood in shocking contrast to the extraordinary affluence of the rest of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – to be a loser can be deadly, even here in the prosperous West.
So can we find a different motivation, with all the advantages of competitiveness but without any of its drawbacks? Or, to put it rather differently, is there a way of competing for while not competing against, of working passionately towards a common goal without perpetuating a soul-destroying system of winners and losers? These are urgent questions, not least given the challenges the world faces right now – the melting of the polar ice caps, for example, or the polluting of our seas – which will never be solved if competition, the survival of the fittest, remains our only driver.
And here’s where I’m struck by one little couplet in the famous carol Angels from the realms of glory’. It’s about the wise men, and here’s how it goes:
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar…
‘Brighter visions’: it’s a striking phrase. For it suggests that there’s something about the story of the Christ Child that reveals to us a brighter vision of what life’s about and how we should live it; that provides for us, perhaps, that different motivation we are searching for, that ability to work passionately towards a common goal without the need for winners and losers.
The prophet Isaiah had a glimpse of that brighter vision many centuries before the first Christmas, announcing the unlikely role that ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ would play in God’s purposes, and proclaiming the birth of an extraordinary child, whose wisdom, authority and commitment to peace would have a transformative effect on Israel and beyond, leading many out of darkness into God’s marvellous light. That was our Old Testament reading this morning.
The apostle Paul had a glimpse of that brighter vision some decades after the first Christmas, encountering the Risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus, and later writing to his friend Titus of how the grace of God had appeared, enabling us to live good lives, hopeful lives, lives set free from the ungodly passions and addictions that cause such pain to ourselves and those around us. That was our Epistle reading this morning.
And what about our gospel reading? Well, if Isaiah gives us a preview and Paul a review, Luke gives us the view itself, with his familiar tale involving Joseph and Mary, and angels and shepherds, and a man who thought he was God – the mighty Caesar Augustus in far-off Rome – and a man who was God – a tiny baby lying in a manger
Of course, its very familiarity can blind us to what really happened at this turning point in human history. For no one who has actually experienced Middle-Eastern hospitality finds it easy to believe the popular picture of Mary and Joseph trudging from house to house, or inn to inn, and being consistently told to clear off, before finally ending up in a lowly cattle shed – not least given that Mary was quite so heavily pregnant at the time, that they had family in the area, and that Joseph had an extraordinary claim to fame – that he was directly descended from King David of Bethlehem, the local boy made good. And when we study Luke’s story more carefully, with a bit of Palestinian archaeology thrown in for good measure, we discover that that’s probably not what happened: that most of the humbler private houses of Jesus’ day had just two rooms, a guestroom and a living room; that the living room included an area, a few steps down, in which the family cow, sheep or donkey would be housed at night, along with their wooden mangers or feeding troughs; and that the word for ‘inn’ doesn’t mean a commercial establishment, but rather a place to stay – in other words, the guestroom in that two-roomed house.
Mary and Joseph, then, knocked on the door of a friend or relative, where they were warmly welcomed. The guestroom was already occupied, so their host invited them to share their living space, and improvised a cradle out of one of the feeding troughs. And when Mary’s labour was complete, the child was wrapped up tight and laid in the trough; so that the subsequent terror of the shepherds when the angels appeared was softened a little by the comforting news that their mighty Saviour would be found in a modest little home just like their own, and lying in a manger.
Back then to the theme of competition and competitiveness: for when God came to earth, He refused to press his overwhelming competitive advantage, in fact quite the reverse. He came unarmed and disarming in the body of a small child laid in the feeding trough of the simplest of homes – weak, fragile and entirely dependent on the love of others for his very survival. From such humble beginnings, he went lower still, becoming known, disparagingly, as the ‘Friend of tax collectors and sinners’, while consistently rejecting the temptation to big himself up or misuse his remarkable powers. One of the very earliest of all Christian hymns speaks of how he ‘took the form of a slave’ and ‘humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’.
There is a power greater than the power of competition, is the message – or at least one message - of Christmastime. There is a disarming strength that is released through human weakness, through human dependence on the divine. St Paul regularly speaks of the Christian life as a race, but never mentions his fellow competitors. Instead it’s a brighter Vision that drives his hard work, and the unending creativity and extraordinary courage that accompanies it: the vision of Christ’s glory that stopped him in his tracks on the Damascus Road and changed him forever.
This vision is what enables us to compete for while not competing against, to work passionately towards a common goal without perpetuating a soul-destroying system of winners and losers. Indeed that is our very calling as the Church, the Body of Christ, in our mission to proclaim and live out the Good News of Jesus to the world’s winners and losers alike: because in God’s Kingdom there are no winners and losers, no shrugging of the shoulders and quietly making our way into the cold. There are simply men, women, young people and children made in God’s image, dependent on God’s grace, gifted by God’s Spirit and called – together – to fulfil God’s purposes for the world He loves so much.
The darker world of human competitiveness feeds on what the Germans call Schadenfreude, a pleasure in the downfall of others, making us rejoice when others weep and weep when they rejoice. This brighter vision of godly grace feeds on what we might dub Seilgkeitfreude, a pleasure in the triumph of others, making us rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
And I was going to stop there, when I recorded a much shorter version of this sermon for BBC Radio this morning; but then I remembered there was just one exception that proves the rule, one verse in the New Testament which explicitly encourages a spirit of competition. As St Paul puts it in in Romans 12 verse 10,
‘Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour’.
And with those helpful words - not least if we do embark on that family game of Monopoly in a few hours’ time –
Have a Very Honourable Christmas!