Vicar's Sermon - Midnight Christmas
Truth is a difficult thing.
FaceBook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerburg has a serious problem. His company may well be one of the richest in the world, as a pioneer in Social Media it is unrivalled, but sitting in his ‘in-tray’ over this Christmas is the problem of ‘false news’.
There have always been wild and wacky stories circulated both by word of mouth and then in print – ‘Freddie Star ate my hamster’ stands out as one such - but something shifted this year didn’t it? The Presidential race in the USA highlighted just how ‘false news’ can travel like wildfire in the age of digital communication. President elect Trump seems to have built his campaign – successfully- on this fact. It wasn’t just his offensiveness that was a problem, people really do believe he can ‘Make America Great again’. No, it was the fact that he could lie so brazenly about so much and still be elected. Anything he said would travel at the speed of light, anything he tweeted would leap over the Firewalls of years of journalistic integrity. His lies were so huge that it was difficult to rebut them, yet, for all their un-Truth they served a purpose, for they managed to suck the air out of the campaigns for the Republican nomination and then suckered the Clinton campaign.
Where does Mr Zuckerburg come in? Well, FaceBook has made its money on the back of being a social networking site. The moment Mark Zuckerburg acknowledges that it is now being used as a ‘News’ outlet it will fall under a whole host of (presumably expensive to implement) regulations that apply to newspapers and other news media. FaceBook has famously fought shy of ‘editing’ any of its material -people can post what they like – except the explosion of ‘false news’ permitted by this light touch seems to be undermining some essential American (if not Western) democratic values. Indeed, the fact that FaceBook advertising will reward posts that attract large numbers of ‘likes’ means that the more outrageous or misleading your headline is the more you will be paid.
And it’s not just the falsehood that is disturbing. The tenor of what is said online is frequently violent, misogynistic, racist, acidic, cruel, and full of vitriol. It lacks any sense of empathy; it seems to bring out the very worst in people - setting them free to tear at anyone with whom they disagree. For some, this is their daily diet of ‘news’, in print or online – this is the world they live in, an echo chamber that reinforces prejudice, that feeds inner anxieties with stories that heighten the fear of anything unfamiliar – the person who dresses differently or who speaks another language, the person who worships in a different way or who eats different food. This diet speaks the language of ‘respect’ but respects nothing and no one – at root it is a primal scream that asserts the power of the individual over and against everything else. And so the Word became flesh. We have seen His glory. Full of grace and truth. If truth is a difficult thing, grace too has been in short supply.
Interesting isn’t it that the glory of the Word, the glory of God, should be described with these two words – ‘grace and truth’? They are not the first words I would have chosen to describe ‘glory’ – I would have gone for using images of light and shining, of wealth and treasure but John uses ‘grace and truth.’. The Word who becomes flesh is filled with a grace that is the essence of God, an overflowing and overwhelming ‘goodness’ deep down that reaches out to His creation and brings the promise of life itself. Not ‘life’ in the sense of existence but a quality of life that is of a depth and intensity that makes it as different as wine from water, as light from darkness, as life from death. A resurrection life, life in all its fullness, life that wells up within like a spring of water that is unstoppable. Grace – how we long for it? We know what it looks like when we see it in others: old style politeness from the age that worked to the motto ‘manners maketh man’; generous hospitality that brings a newcomer into a conversation, that sets an extra place for an unexpected guest with so little fuss that all are enriched by their arrival. We see it in the touch of a daughter caring for her elderly mother, and in those who do not lash out in retaliation at those who might harm them. There is truly another way of living that is gentler, that is kinder, that is more open to others and their gifts, that rejoices in the success of others and is merciful and gentle when others fail: this grace truly finds its origin in the heart of God.
And Truth. The truth here is that this Word made flesh is the fullest expression of God possible. There is nothing held back in God’s self -expression. No part of this revelation that is not of God. Here, in His presence we come face to face with the origin and source of our very Being. ‘Without Him not one thing came into being’ – that means you and I. This Truth can feel like judgement; it highlights how far we have fallen from His goodness. Like light penetrating the darkest of places it penetrates our lives, bringing to light things hidden in darkness, the secrets of our hearts – those anxieties and fears that we so quickly project onto others and that threaten to drive us all to destruction. This Truth stands: the person of Jesus presented to us afresh this Christmas, asking us – ‘now what?’ If this is ‘the man’, as Pontius Pilate will say on Good Friday – if this is the man who reveals God’s glory then what will we now do? Will we come to the light and embrace Him and His truth about ourselves and the world or will we return to the shadow side of our lives and hide from Him?
Grace and Truth held together tell us that it is possible to live lives of love and joy and peace for these things are of one with the life of God Himself. Patience, kindness, goodness – these too are bound up in that word ‘Grace’ along with ‘faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ all of them ‘fruits of the Spirit. We can live this way and catch the ‘wind of the Spirit’ as a sailing boat catches the wind in its sails because the truth is that God comes to set us free from all that will most certainly destroy us, set us free from the untruths that leave us lost, with no firm ground on which to stand and help us to see the world afresh - as He sees it, through the eyes of Love.
As Christians then, let us entrust ourselves again to Jesus the Word of God, for Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook alone cannot solve problems that lie deep in the hearts of fallen humanity. As we receive communion this night let us receive Him and, ‘believing in His name’ open ourselves up to His power to make us ‘children of God’…those, who as Christ’s ones, in His name and power, and following his example, will in turn live lives that are full of grace and truth. Then we might stand a chance of regaining a sense of direction for our own lives and those of our families and communities and find a positive future for our nation which increasingly seems lost and adrift from knowing what is of value in our world.