It was the middle of the night. It was dark – the night black as pitch beyond the cold bright lights which shone in our faces. And it was surprisingly cold.
Crossing the border should have been easy.
But they made us all get off the train and queue up to have our passports stamped.
September 2018 and I was trying to leave the EU.
Not for long mind. Just a week’s holiday in Istanbul and to get there, a bit of an adventure on a night train across the border.
Which led me to be standing there in the middle of the night whilst a guard checked my passport and then my visa. And then gestured me to one side.
“In there” he said gruffly.
And I found myself in a small room with a guard wearing no uniform or identification badge being interrogated, in the middle of the night.
A small room. My passport taken away. My visa taken away. All my belongings on the train which was due to move off at any moment. And here, I was being interrogated in the middle of the night.
This is not a particularly unusual thing for some members of this congregation who have come from places of danger to live in relative safety in this country. But a new experience for me.
A few questions about where I was going, where I was staying. Who I would be meeting. When would I be leaving.
Then he asked to see my phone.
“Open up!” he barked. “Let me see pictures”.
And so he went through the last 2 and half years of photographs on my phone. Pics I’d taken of friends and all the photographs of me that facebook had saved to my phone.
“What this?” he roared. “What these”.
It was pictures of me dressed head to toe in gold. Or green. Or purple. Or red. Standing here. Celebrating. Preaching.
“What you do!”
“Well, I’m a priest”
“We don’t need no priests in our country. We don’t need no preachers here!”
And I said, “…..
Well, let’s leave what I said for another time and fast forward.
Fast forward a couple of days and I find myself standing in an old church in a seldom visited quarter of Istanbul.
Around me are pictures. Mosaics. Frescos. Gold and glitz. And the frescos tell familiar stories.
An elaborate one shows a bunch of tax collectors turning up in Nazareth and telling a young woman that she and her man need to go off and be registered in their home town.
Another one next to it shows a familiar story – the same young woman clearly expecting a child riding a donkey led towards Bethlehem by Joseph – gentle, patient and maybe worried about what they will find when they get there.
Picture after picture. Mosaic after mosaic. Fresco after fresco.
Each one preaching forth the story that we are familiar with and which draws each of us here tonight for some reason or another.
The story of the One who gave up heaven and took up residence on earth.
The story of the Lord of eternity coming among us and accepting for a short lifetime all the constraints of time and place, pain and particularity.
The story of one who comes to share the story of heaven by sharing the stories of earth.
And as I stood and gazed at the glorious pictures all around me I realised that plenty of preachers had been there before me. Some of them no doubt preaching sermons and some preaching all I ever want to be able to say with nothing but pigment and paintbrush.
For God comes into this world tonight. And we bear witness to the birth at midnight. In a world which needs the light of the world to shine.
But back to that challenge at the border on another dark, cold night.
What about that suggestion that there’s no need for preachers.
I beg to differ.
This world needs more preachers. Needs you to be preachers.
This world needs those who will hear the song of the angels singing peace on earth and preach it to the nations.
This world needs those who will see the refugee family fleeing from Bethlehem and who will preach to the Herods of our own day who seek to build a hostile environment instead of proclaiming what is forever just – that those who flee for their life as refugees should be always welcome.
The world needs those who will see the tenderness of our blessed Lady towards our blessed Lord – the child in the manger and who will preach the beauty and the passion and the commitment of that love to every soul who is vulnerable. Preach not just with paintpot and pigment but with politics and passion too.
We are living through strange times in this land.
We are living out the inane reality of the absurd declaration that Brexit means Brexit.
There is far more to be said than that.
For our Blessed Lady – no mean preacher herself told us, there are the humble and the meek to exalt and those of us who love this child in the manger have a job to do making sure that those as vulnerable as he was are kept in mind through whatever political uproar occupies us.
There are those who are hungry who need to be filled. And filled by those who take their place at the manger in adoration, who are inspired to set others free with imaginations set alight by what they find in the crib.
And there are inane tyrants to be mocked. For God will bring down the mighty from their seat and it is our privilege and joy to delight in their fall.
Brexit may mean Brexit. Whatever that means.
Leave may mean leave. Even though no-one seems able to define what that looks like in a way that we will all agree on.
But this night we celebrate something altogether more profound and the antidote to the inanity that we find all around us.
God comes into the world not to show us that leave means leave but to tell us once and for all that love means love.
Love means love.
Laid in a manger.
Here for you and here for me.
Love for you and love for me.
And the world does need preachers from every tribe and tongue to share this good news:
Love is come into the world. Love enough for everyone.
In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. Amen.