I preached for the final time at Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff on Christmas Day 2022. My sermon attempted to connect with those of different ages, including children, and those on different stages of their Christian journey. Our Reader, Eleanor Williams, acted as Angel Gabriel during the sermon (wearing angel wings and halo!) and she did so with her usual humour and charm. After the service, a number of people asked for a copy of the sermon, so I include it here on my blog.
Someone asked me recently about the favourite book I’d ever been given as a Christmas present. It’s a classic novel, highly cultured and deeply theological, about a man who lives an upside-down, back-to-front life. He even takes this as far as walking backwards, wearing his hat the wrong way, and carrying his walking stick from the bottom up. Written by the celebrated author Roger Hargreaves, who was far too often overlooked for the Nobel Prize for literature, the book is called Mr Topsy Turvy!
I was given this book when I was six years old, and, in my mind, there are similarities between this classic from the children’s Mr Men series and the book that really has changed my life. The Bible, after all, is a story of a topsy-turvy, upside-down, downside-up, inside-out, outside-in God. Nowhere is this more strikingly clear than at the outset of the New Testament, when the gospels start with the birth of Jesus that we celebrate today. This topsy-turvy narrative lays the foundation for the wonderful, life-giving faith that we now live out over 2000 years later. We get so used to hearing the message of Christmas year-after-year that we can sometimes forget how subversive and revolutionary our faith really is. Just imagine the conversation between God and the Angel Gabriel around nine months before Jesus’s birth.
God must have said to Angel Gabriel that things weren’t going too great on earth. There were so few people who were listening to his topsy-turvy, subversive message of love, kindness, and hope. And so he informs the Angel Gabriel that he’s considering sending his son down to teach, and show through his own life, this revolutionary way of living.
Angel Gabriel: “Great idea, Mr God – so, my suggestion would be to wait about 2000 years when television will be invented and TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter will really be able to help your PR campaign go down swimmingly”.
But God is determined that the birth of his son happens immediately, in the first century, because people needed a new saviour and fresh hope as soon as possible. This was the first topsy-turvy decision.
Angel Gabriel: “Ok, sounds a bit strange, but I’ll go with it… So, I see the Romans are pretty powerful at the moment. So let’s get your son born in that wonderful city Rome – the sparking capital of the world”.
But God wasn’t interested in the kind of power that Rome represented. Instead, Jesus was to be born in a small, middle-eastern country that was mired in turmoil and problems.
Angel Gabriel: “Ok, Israel, hmmm… strange choice, but it sort of makes sense as your son will be coming to your chosen people, God, to save them and to give them great hope”.
But God has other plans. He wants to break through the tribalism of the world then and of the world now. He wants to give the peculiar message that we are all loved by him, we are all important to him. Jesus may have been born as a first-century Jewish man, but his message of love and peace and hope and joy is for all people and all times.
Angel Gabriel: “Yes, you’re inspiring me now, God – I can get down with that message… so let’s get your son born in one of the wonderful palaces of Jerusalem – maybe to a King or a great warrior or a talented politician”.
But God wants Jesus, right from the very beginning, to topple our ideas of wealth and power – he was going to be born in a manger, amongst the dirty animals to a young unknown girl.
Angel Gabriel: “Right, I’m starting to see where this is going… but we definitely need to ensure your son’s teaching inspires followers who are important people, wealthy people, influential people… we’ve got to ensure his message continues for ever”.
But God’s vision of the future was different – his son was coming to proclaim good news for the marginalised, the criticised, the belittled, the scorned, the poor, the vulnerable, the grieving, the imprisoned, the depressed, the hurting, the anxious, the disabled, the sick, the lonely. Jesus’s topsy turvy message would be: “the first will be last and the last will be first”.
Angel Gabriel: “Sounds all a bit crazy to me, God… but, at the very least, you should have your son to either die a hero’s death or not to die at all and just live forever in his kingdom, ruling in glorious majesty”.
But God has one last twist in his plan. Jesus will die the horrible and painful death of a criminal, hung up a cross. And then he will come back three days later to rule in a different kind of kingdom – the kingdom of love and peace in the hearts of each and every one of us, if only we choose to embrace and live out his topsy-turvy message.
Angel Gabriel: “Right, I give up – why don’t you just do what you want God – but don’t come running to me when your upside-down, topsy-turvy, downside-up, subverted, revolutionary, inside-out, outside-in world comes crashing down on you!”
But there are no guarantees that if we follow Jesus our lives won’t come crashing down – there are no guarantees that our lives will be trouble free. But today, Christmas Day, is a reminder that, while our topsy-turvy God may not be promising us an easy life, he is promising us, his disciples, the strength to live out his revolution. When we walk out of this building today and when we welcome in the new year, the baby in a manger should inspire us to turn our broken world upside-down – to ensure that the lonely have company, that the sick are visited, that those imprisoned by addiction are set free, that those experiencing prejudice and hatred are shown love and compassion, that those facing discrimination because of their race, gender, or sexuality are liberated from oppression, that those who are depressed or anxious see silver linings in their clouds, that those who can’t afford food on their tables or heating in their houses do not go to bed hungry or cold, that those who feel the heart wrenching despair of grief do not feel alone and abandoned, and that those who can’t even force a smile on Christmas Day know they are loved and infinitely valued. This is the faith of the crying, helpless baby in a manger. This is the topsy-turvy revolution we follow.