Summary: Carol Service sermon focussing on the enjoyment and ignorance that surrounds much of the world’s "Christmas" understanding.

I’m looking forward to visiting Middle Earth in a day or two...

J.R.R. Tolkein’s "Lord of the Rings" - having been voted top book in the BBC’s "Big Read" - reaches its conclusion in the third cinema film "Return of the King". It’s so tempting to start drawing on Tolkein’s imagery. The conflict between good and evil; themes of sacrifice, humility, loyalty and hope; and - especially at Christmas - the coming of the King.

Actually, I was much amused two years ago, after the first film was released, when news came on Radio Devon of someone who had been to see the film, enjoyed it immensely, and went to a bookshop in Plymouth to ask if they were going to do a book of the film! A mixture of enjoyment and ignorance.

More and more that’s an accurate description of Christmas in the UK - a mixture of enjoyment and ignorance.

Pete Waterman, of the Pop Idol judges, was involved in a BBC project that took children from schools in the West Midlands to form a choir for a Coventry Cathedral Christmas Songs of Praise. He wrote:

"I found it astonishing that 90% of our choir has never sung a traditional carol before this venture. Away in a Manger, Silent Night, O Come all ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing - those joyous choruses and simple moving lyrics that are part of the fabric of Christmas were unknown to them. Indeed too many of them seemed to lack any religious significance of Christmas, especially since nativity plays have been banned in many schools because of fears about offending non-Christian ethnic groups."

That stands alongside an incident at the Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, Essex. A family - father, small boy and granny - had stopped beside the crib, evidently waiting for the child’s mother. The child was throwing money into the manger as if it were a wishing well. "Don’t throw money," granny said crossly, "give him a crisp." The boy started to toss crisps into the crib. Bored with that, he turned to his father. "Dad, what’s the baby for?" he asked. "I dunno," says Dad, "Ask your mother when she comes."

Perhaps the ignorance is being fuelled by Christmas Cards? Dancing snowmen, cuddly polar bears, snowy villages, flying reindeer, and robins glowing like a Sellafield meltdown ...all absolutely central to the Christmas story (according to Hallmark cards, anyway).

Alongside ignorance there’s a growing resistance in the UK.

By all means celebrate Christmas, but call it X-mas and for goodness sake don’t let it get religious. High Wycombe library refuses to display posters for (shock horror) a Carol Service.

The Red Cross ban Christian symbols from their shops at Christmas.

And Hackney Council issue staff with a memo to tone down Christmas celebrations and to keep decorations in offices and public buildings to a bare minimum. Not because of costs. No, the wise Councillors said they feared that (quote) "such a message could be considered offensive."

I used to look to America for examples, now they are becoming UK examples. There’s a creeping conspiracy to create a Christ-less Christ-mas.

But none of this is as extreme as some other countries.

In Sri Lanka, where the England cricket team are trying to save a test series, a church in Kota-deni-yawa was torched recently. The pastor was hospitalized after some 30 men from a local Buddhist temple attacked her congregation. More than 100 churches have been attacked in the past year by Buddhists and Hindus. The police are taking no action. The government is silent and continues to formulate laws to make it illegal to convert to Christianity.

In November in India, where Christians will decorate mango and banana leaves and spread them throughout the house for Christmas decorations, Hindu militants broke into a local church in Deogarh and burned hundreds of religious books. One of their leaders said that if police fail to take action against those who are converting impoverished tribal peoples to Christianity, "people may take the law into their own hands."

In Egypt this month a 30-year old woman who became a symbol of suffering endured by Muslim converts to Christianity was released on bail after nearly two months of torture and interrogation. Earlier this year the UK church received smuggled photographs from a jail in China showing Christians undergoing water torture. You don’t want the details.

Some of you have been helpfully distributed literature advertising Christmas events. In Vietnam this month 19 people were arrested for handing out Christian literature. Most of them have been released. Four are now missing, whereabouts unknown.

Christianity is not a cultural thing.

It’s about faith in Jesus, regardless of the culture you live in. Unlike many of us in the UK, people in these countries are not deluded into seeing Christianity and Christmas as a cosy cultural past-time. A nostalgic hobby for adding a bit of cheer into the winter months.

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