Confession time: there was a time when I and my family were very strong ‘Star Trek: the Next Generation’ geeks; we watched every episode as it came out, and we knew all the stories and all the jargon. It’s even possible that one of our children might even have had his own Star Fleet uniform shirt, but I’d better not go into any more details about that!
There are many episodes that remain in my memory, but one I want to mention this morning concerned a time when a Romulan officer was brought aboard the Enterprise, badly wounded and in need of immediate medical attention. He needed some sort of cell transplant – I can’t remember the Trekkie jargon – and because of his Romulan DNA, the only person who could help him was Lieutenant Worf, a Klingon. This presented a problem, as Romulans and Klingons nursed a fierce hatred for each other. However, the consequences of the Romulan dying on the Enterprise would be diplomatically catastrophic, to say the least.
Captain Picard called Worf into his office, outlined the situation to him, and asked for his help. Worf protested, and Picard underlined for him the serious consequences of his decision. Worf then said, “Captain, if you order me to do this, I will”. Picard replied that he did not want to order him, but he implored him to help; Worf refused again. The captain then said, “Lieutenant Worf”. Worf immediately sprang to attention, obviously expecting the order to go against his sense of Klingon honour and help his enemy, but to his surprise, Picard said, “That will be all”. The captain chose to respect his officer’s free will, rather than impose his will on him.
This story reminds me of a verse from the book of Revelation where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). On the face of it, when you think of who Jesus is, this seems such a strange idea! Why would the Son of God stand waiting at the door of my life while I decide whether or not I’m going to open it for him? Surely, if he’s God, he can break down the door! But the God who Jesus told us about does not force himself on anyone. God does not violate us. God wants our free and willing love, and so he always asks for our consent.
There’s a striking example of this in the story of Mary, in our gospel reading for today. Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the announcement that she was about to conceive a child in her womb who would be called the Son of the Most High, and he would receive the throne of Israel’s ancient king, David – in other words, he would be the long-awaited Messiah who would set God’s people free.
This would be a very special child! The word ‘temple’ literally means ‘a house of God’ – a place where God lives. For nine months Mary was literally a human temple, as God in the person of his own Son came to live in her. But the Christian gospel tells us that what God did in Mary in a physical way, he wants to do in all of us in a spiritual way. God wants to come and live in us, in the very centre of our being, what the Bible calls symbolically our ‘heart’. We were created for nothing less than this. We were not created to live at a distance from God; we were made to know God intimately and to grow in relationship with God day by day. Paul talks in Colossians about the mystery of the gospel, which is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27), and he prays for the Ephesians ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3:17). This is God’s dream for every human being, including me and you.
But God won’t come uninvited; he waits for our permission to do this. At the end of the reading about Mary and the angel we read her response to God; she says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It almost seems as if the angel could not leave her before she had given her assent to what God wanted to do in her. And that is the truth. God would not do this thing without Mary’s consent, because the fact is that she was going to be exposed to considerable risk and danger because of what God was about to do.
Think of her situation; an unmarried girl, engaged to Joseph, suddenly becomes pregnant. The Old Testament law was strict in such cases: she was to be stoned to death. Even if the law was not strictly applied – which it often was not – her reputation as a good and devout woman would be gone forever. And perhaps worst of all, what would Joseph think? Would he believe her?
The truth was that Mary had a great deal to lose in this situation. Here she was, probably not more than 14 or 15, a young Jewish girl on the brink of her dream – marriage to a respectable man, family and all that. And then God came along, and in one moment his plan for her swept her own plans and dreams away. We might be forgiven, had we been in her situation, if we had felt like saying to God “Can’t you leave me alone and find someone else?”
A young Christian told the story of the days when he was still an atheist but was beginning to believe that the Christian message might be true. He saw that if it was true he was going to have to make some changes in his life, changes that he didn’t want to make. Above all else he wanted to be in charge of his own life; he didn’t want anyone else interfering with it. “I just wanted to be left alone”, he said. His name was C.S. Lewis. Maybe we’ve all felt like this. ‘Don’t meddle, God. My life might be a mess but at least it’s my mess; don’t interfere’.
The truth is that welcoming Jesus into our lives day by day is going to have a drastic effect on us. I know that in my life Jesus sees many things are spoiling God’s good plan for me and for the other people in my life, and because he loves me, he wants to do something about those things! He sees selfishness and lack of love and a host of other things, which he knows are hurting me and hurting others in my life. He wants to save me from these things. Also, choosing to follow him is going to lead me to some uncomfortable choices. It’s going to mean owning up to being a Christian when I’d much rather keep my head down. It’s going to mean denying myself when I’d much rather indulge myself. It’s going to mean putting myself out to love others when I’d much rather stay home and amuse myself.
What was it that gave Mary the courage to say ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her? I think it was her faith that God loved her, and that his plan for her was a good plan, even though it might be a difficult one. And we, too, have to come to the place where we trust God. He loves us so much that he gave his life for us. When we begin to believe that, then like Mary we can come to him and say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
This reading tells us of a God who loves us and has compassion for us when he sees the mess we are making of our lives without him. It tells us of a God who wants to come and live in out hearts and give us the power to live a new kind of life. And it tells us of a God who respects the freedom of choice he has given to us as human beings, a God who will not invade our lives, even for our own good, without our willing agreement.
The whole purpose of Christmas was so that people like you and me would make a free choice to welcome Jesus Christ into our hearts and to ask him to drive out what is evil there and help us to do what is good. God longs for us to trust him enough to put ourselves entirely in his hands, as Mary did. He will not invade our lives unless we give him permission, even if he sees us destroying ourselves by refusing him permission. That’s the kind of God he is: the God who waits for us to say that one little word: ‘Yes’.