Tonight we come here to celebrate a great miracle – the Great Miracle, actually: the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of planet earth.
John the Evangelist describes this miracle for us in the introduction to his Gospel. He talks about someone called ‘the Word’; the Word was in the beginning with God, he says, and in fact, in a mysterious way, the Word was God (John 1:1). You see he’s trying to describe something that doesn’t make sense when we try to understand it with our rational brains: how can something be with God, and also be God? That doesn’t make sense to me, but then, this is God we’re talking about. The universe is a vast and complicated place, far too big for me to understand, and yet God made it and is apparently still making it, and God understands it perfectly. So it’s not surprising that there are things about God that my tiny little brain can’t understand.
So, John tells us, this ‘Word’ was with God, and the Word was God. God used this ‘Word’ to create everything, he says. This is what the Book of Genesis tells us in its poem about creation: God spoke words, and the words had power to create things. “Let there be light”, he said, and there was light. God’s words aren’t empty; they are full of power. He speaks, and things happen.
We’re getting a sense that this ‘Word’ of God, who was with God and who was God, is something or someone very powerful indeed, someone who has always existed. John also tells us that this ‘Word’ of God is like a light. ‘In him was life’, John says, ‘and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ (John 1:4-5). In fact, it can’t put it out: no matter how hard the darkness tries – no matter how the forces of evil try to destroy the light – they are doomed to failure. The light of God’s Word still shines on, and it guides us all through our lives.
But now comes the great miracle – the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of this planet. This Word – this incredibly powerful Word, who has been with God from the beginning, and in fact who is God in some sense – at a certain point in history, John says, ‘the Word became a human being and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). It was through the Word that God created this earth in the first place; now, the Word became a part of his creation. He became something very small and powerless – we call it a ‘zygote’ – the very tiniest seed of life in the womb of his mother Mary. Gradually he grew into a human fetus, and then, on that night in Bethlehem, he was born as a helpless baby and laid in a manger.
What an amazing thing! A Word that existed in the mind of God, and was spoken and formed all of creation, now takes flesh and blood and becomes a human baby, totally dependant on the care of his mother and father, totally vulnerable to all the dangers that can befall us as humans! This is the miracle that Christians have called ‘the Incarnation’: God comes and lives among us in the person of his Son Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of the whole world. This is the grand miracle; you and I live on the Visited Planet.
Why? Why would God do this? Well, the ultimate answer has to be, he did it out of love. The most famous verse in the Bible says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). There are many reasons why we human beings can die. Old age is one of them, or course, but another is because of deadly disease; germs come and infect our bodies, and our immune systems are not strong enough to fight the infection, and eventually it overwhelms us and we die. Evil is like that; it’s a deadly infection, introduced into God’s good creation, trying to destroy all the good things that God has made. We don’t know how it happened, but this infection has been spreading in this world for a very long time.
So what did God do about it? He introduced a good infection to fight it. When the Word became a human being and lived among us, that good infection was introduced into the human race. We humans are all connected to each other, of course, like a huge family tree, and now God introduced his own life into our family tree, to fight the infection of evil with the power of goodness and love. And so Jesus ‘went about doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil’ (Acts 10:38), as one of his early missionaries put it. He spread God’s message, he told us what God is like, he healed the sick and reached out in love to every single person he met, even the ones no one else had time for. Not everyone who saw him and heard him believed in him; just like today, some rejected him, and some were apathetic. But some did believe in him, and when they did, it was like the great miracle happened in them, too – a new life sprang up inside them, as the Holy Spirit came to live in them and spread the good infection.
All through the years since the Son of God came to live among us as one of us, that good infection has been spreading from person to person, as the message of Jesus is passed on, as people believe it and commit their lives to Christ, and as they learn to put his message into practice day by day. It has come to all of us, and now we go about spreading it to others by the things we do and the words we say. Even today, people hear about Jesus, and they choose how they respond. Even today, just like in the time of Jesus, not everyone welcomes him. But some do welcome him, and then he gives them – us – the power to live as God’s children, born not just because of human actions, but born again by the power of God.
Let me tell you three ways in which we welcome him, even today.
The first is the miracle of conversion. It’s described so well in one of our most famous Christmas carols, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. Phillips Brookes, the author, says,
‘No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in’.
And in the next verse he puts a prayer on our lips as we sing the carol:
‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today’.
This is the miracle of conversion. Our life is like a house, and the Lord comes knocking on the door. Maybe it’s the front door – maybe it’s the first time he’s ever been to our house and so we open the door and invite him into the front room, the one almost everyone sees when they come to visit us. Or maybe it’s another door, further in, a door to a room that’s not so neat and tidy, a room we prefer that other people not see. Maybe we don’t mind him being in the living room, but we’d really prefer he not see some of the things we’re keeping in this secret room. But he knocks on that door too, and then we have to choose once again: will we let him in, or will we keep him standing there? He won’t force his way in; we have to choose to welcome him, even though we know that when he gets into that room, he’s going to want to make some changes.
Is Jesus knocking on your door tonight? Maybe you’ve never opened the door of your life to him. Or maybe you’ve let him in a limited way, but kept that secret place to yourself. Have the courage tonight to open the door he’s knocking on, and let him in. Trust in his love for you: everything he wants to do as he remodels the house will be done out of love for you, a love greater than anything you can possibly imagine. So will you let him in?
The first way we welcome him in is the miracle of conversion. The second is the miracle of communion.
We Anglicans, like most other Christians around the world, have always believed that one of the best ways to celebrate Christmas is by having a communion service. This might seem a little strange when you think of it. After all, Holy Communion is about the death of Jesus, not his birth. ‘This is my body, broken for you’; ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’. This seems very appropriate for Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday, but Christmas?
Yes, Christmas too. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we eat this bread and drink from this cup – this bread and wine that have become for us the very presence of Jesus, his body and his blood – then we ‘abide’ in him, and he in us. ‘Abide’ is an old word meaning ‘to live permanently’. In other words, Jesus has given us this sacrament of Holy Communion as another way of welcoming him into our hearts and lives, so that he lives in us, and we live in him.
We watch and listen as the bread and wine are taken; we pray the prayer of thanksgiving, remembering how Jesus gave his life for the sins of the whole world, including our sins. And then, when the time comes, we come to the front of the church. We stand at the Lord’s Table, and we hold out our hands and make a little cradle, just like the manger in Bethlehem where the baby was laid. And then, as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we put our faith in Jesus and ask him once again to come and live in us. And when we leave, the good infection of God’s life in us is a little bit stronger, and we can go out in that strength and do the things he asked us to do.
So the first way we welcome him is the miracle of conversion, and the second is the miracle of communion. The third is the miracle of compassion.
Years ago, an old friend of mine was the parish priest in a small church in northern Ontario. It was Christmas Eve, and the furnace at the church had stopped working. There was no repair man anywhere near, so the priest had to take off his vestments, get out his tools, and try to fix the furnace himself – which, you know, they didn’t teach us at seminary! He was getting frustrated, because he didn’t really know what he was doing, and in the middle of it all, there was a knock at the door of the church, and there was a person in shabby clothes, asking for help. And my friend said, “Sorry, I can’t help you right now; I’ve got to get this furnace fixed for the service tonight”.
Afterwards my friend’s conscience accused him, and when the service was over, he went out in his car on that cold and stormy night and searched for over an hour, but he never found that person. Years later he said to me, “I think I might have turned Jesus away that night”.
The miracle of compassion happens when we realize that although we meet God in the miracle of conversion, and in the miracle of communion, God spends his working week among the poor and needy, so if we want to meet him, that’s where we have to go to find him. So Christ comes to us in the refugee, the homeless person, the alcoholic on the street, the person dying of Ebola, the AIDS orphan, the prisoner who society has locked up in a cell and thrown away the key. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these’, Jesus said, ‘you did it for me’.
Is my heart open to the poor and needy tonight? All the care I’ve taken to choose presents for the people I love – have I taken equal care to give generously to reputable organizations that care for the last, the least, and the lost? The time I will give to loved ones over this Christmas season – am I also willing to give time to people I don’t know and am not connected to – people who need a little help, maybe just a listening ear and a kind word?
By the miracle of the Incarnation God became a human being and lived among us, spreading the good infection of his love to fight the power of evil. By the miracle of conversion that life is spread to each of us, as we open the door of our lives and welcome Jesus in. By the miracle of communion that life is strengthened in us, as we hold out our hands to receive the bread and wine, and welcome him into our hearts again by faith. And by the miracle of compassion we spread that life to others, sharing Christ’s love in our words and our actions, so that the good infection is spread and the light of Christ grows stronger in our neighbourhood and around the world.
Sisters and brothers, that’s the blessing of Christmas. That’s the Great Miracle. May it be real to you and me, tonight and every night. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.