Let’s ask the questions that matter most – the deep-down questions that never leave us but often lie submerged

Peter Seal, 25 December 2018

Isaiah 9: 2–7; Luke 2: 1–14

We’ve all made it! It’s Christmas Day. We’re back again; or maybe here for the first time. We meet to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, born of Mary.

There’s a family I’ve known for a long time who come to the 9.30 service at St Paul’s on Christmas Day but on no other Sunday in the year. They’re lovely people. Let’s call them the Smith family. We always have a joke. I greet them warmly: ‘Hello, it’s the Smith family – it must be Christmas!’ We laugh together, share a few brief words and they go their way for another year. The thing I need to remember is that their annual attendance is important to them; it matters in a way they might find hard to put into words.

At times like Christmas the Church has the important task of keeping alive the ‘rumour’ of God – the possibility that there just might be more to life than our immediate, on-the-surface experiences.

Christmas is a curious time. Many folk who find themselves in church are exhausted through the effort of all the preparation; not least, winning the prize for doing the most shopping and spending the most money.

Christmas this year gives the opportunity to our politicians, and us alongside them, for some much-needed time: time to listen to our lives, and what’s going on in them. The gift of silence, when words cease, can enable us to eavesdrop on the needs of our world.

You could say that we are living in a world that is suffering from bad truth decay. We find ourselves asking, ‘Who are the people who are speaking words that we can still trust? Who is it that is daring enough not to make honest complexity into dishonest simplicity? Who is asking the right questions and avoiding easy and quick answers?’

You could say that we are living in a world that is suffering from bad truth decay. Who is it that is daring enough not to make honest complexity into dishonest simplicity?

To put it another way: as we gather together here in this ancient, intimate and beautiful place at St Matthew’s which has hosted celebrations like ours today for literally hundreds of years, we ask, ‘What is it I’m listening out for today?’ ‘What is it I need to hear?’ ‘What within the Christian tradition and experience resonates deep within me, touching those places of my conscious and unconscious life?’

I think I’m right in suggesting that it’s not the nature of believing, or doctrine, or teaching.

We can be helped in our quest by the thought that the Christmas Nativity, the birth of Jesus that we celebrate, should be seen as a painting and not a photograph.

As you and I make the brave decision to stop a while, to ponder our lives and perhaps glimpse again what we call awe and wonder, mystery and only knowing a little, then we begin to ask the questions that matter most – the deep-down questions that never leave us but often lie submerged.

Some of them may go like this. What does my family mean to me? How can I show them how much I love them or, in tricky times, how can I find it within myself to go on trying to love them?

And of course we miss loved ones who have died. It’s funny, isn’t it, the little things that provoke memories? I was putting the Christmas lights on our tree at home and suddenly thought of my dad, who died in September. I remembered him putting the lights on our tree when I was a child.

In connection with our remembering, we surely look ahead, asking, ‘In the coming year, 2019, what is it going to mean for me to love and to be loved?

Looking beyond ourselves to our country, we might be asking, ‘How am I going to cope with the increasingly embarrassing political turmoil of this country – the country I still want to be proud to live in?’ ‘What is it going to mean this coming year to describe myself as English?’

And then as the news goes on crashing in on us, we ask, ‘What sense are we to make of the many, many folk who are homeless this Christmas, or of the tsunami in Indonesia killing at least 429 people?’

As then as we look to those around us who are in pain or suffering or living with a life-limiting illness, we surely ask, ‘What sense can I make of this? How will I cope when really bad things happen to those I love best?’

These surely are some of the questions that come to the surface when we allow ourselves to pause and to think, and even to pray.

I believe with all my heart that the Christian faith offers a context within which we can confidently and safely ask, and grapple with, these big, deep questions. There are no easy answers. To suggest that there are is simplistic, dishonest and ultimately unkind.

I read an interesting article by the new Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge. He describes a recent experience of interviewing prospective students for next year. He writes of how he was taken aback by their intelligence and maturity – young adults from a wide range of backgrounds – and of realising that they were born in the year 2000.

He describes how he felt like an old grandpa sitting there; but how they also made him feel very alive as he heard about the lives they have led, the books they have been inspired by and the ideas they pursue. He was reassured by their concern for the state of the world, and their need for more tables rather than walls (in other words, fewer walls that separate people, and more tables around which they can sit and talk, and preferably eat too).

In conclusion: the nativity scene at Bethlehem helps us to focus on the dignity of life, the cost of love and the call to courage in the face of fear.