‘Surely it will be for this…’

The third in a series of poems by the great Wendell Berry, from his collection ‘This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems’.

Surely it will be for this: the redbud
pink, the wild plum white, yellow
trout lilies in the morning light,
the trees, the pastures turning green.
On the river, quiet at daybreak,
the reflections of the trees, as in
another world, lie across
from shore to shore. Yes, here
is where they will come, the dead,
when they rise from the grave.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2001 (II)

‘We follow the dead to their graves…’

This is the second in a series of posts of poems by one of my favourite authors, Wendell Berry.

1.
We follow the dead to their graves,
and our long love follows on
beyond, crying to them, not
“Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
In waking thoughts, in dreams
we follow after, calling, “Wait!
Listen! I am older now. I know
now how it was with you
when you were old and I
was only young. I am ready
now to accompany you
in your lonely fear.” And they
go on, one by one, as one
by one we go as they have gone.

2.
And yet we all are gathered
in this leftover love,
this longing becomes the measure
of a joy all mourners know.
An old man’s mind is a graveyard
where the dead arise.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2000 (X)

Five Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Give Up On Church

I liked this article by Jason D. Bradley – and not just because I work for the church, either. Here’s my favourite part.

5. Church is a spiritual discipline.

I have no doubt that I could abandon the local church and cherry pick some friends to meet with regularly who would make spirituality and theological discussions deep, challenging and fun.

But when I’m honest with myself, most of my growth has come from interacting with people I wouldn’t choose. By handpicking my social circle instead of submitting to a local community of believers, I’ll generally choose people who fall within my comfort zone.

I’ve grown in my ability to love by getting close to people with opinions I disagree with, different lifestyles, disabilities and all sorts of issues I had not been previously been exposed to.

I need a multi-generational, ethnically and financially diverse community of people to mentor me and broaden my perspectives. I need people close to me who I can disagree with and challenge in a healthy way—while still loving and wanting what’s best for them.

There’s no question that every church has significant problems, and I’ve often daydreamed about quitting. But I truly believe we need each other.

Read the whole thing. and if you’ve been abused by the church, especially read his caveat at the end.

Passing It On (a sermon on Luke 2:41-52)

I heard a story once about an old man who was asked by a visitor if any famous people had been born in his town. “Nope”, he replied; “just babies!”

The point, of course, is that no one starts out famous or great; we all start as babies, full of potential waiting to be unlocked. And in the same way, no one starts out as a mature Christian; we all start out as newborns in the faith, needing nourishment and guidance and protection as we learn to walk the Christian way. We get that guidance from parents, and grandparents, and godparents, and older Christians who intentionally set out to mentor us in our journey of faith. Parents are primary, of course, but they aren’t the only mentors we have; just as it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a church to raise a Christian. So whether I am a parent, or a grandparent, or a godparent, or just an individual who wants to help young Christians grow in their faith, there are things I can do that will make a difference in the lives of the next generation of followers of Jesus.

As we think about this, we can get some guidance from the example of Mary and Joseph in our gospel reading for today. Now you might be laughing at the very idea that we might have something to learn about raising kids from Joseph and Mary. “Yeah, right! If I had Jesus as a son, I’d probably do okay as well!” Notice how we assume that bringing up the Son of God would be a piece of cake? But that isn’t the picture Luke gives us at all. The Jesus we read about in the second chapter of Luke isn’t an easy experience for any parents! He’s challenging, difficult to understand, rather precocious, a strange combination of submission and independence.

I think that we can read between the lines in this story and discover something about the kind of upbringing Joseph and Mary had given Jesus, and I think there are some good pointers here for us as well, whether we are parents or grandparents or godparents, or are just intentional about mentoring relationships with young Christians. Here are four things that I notice.

First, I notice how Mary and Joseph were passing on their faith traditions. The Christmas season is a time when we experience some of our most beloved faith traditions. Take the Advent Wreath, for instance. I didn’t grow up with the Advent Wreath myself; I discovered it when our family lived in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s. We’ve been using it daily during Advent for over thirty years now; we light the candles each day and read a short reading from an Advent book. We also have a little Christmas story book that we used to read to our kids during the ten days before Christmas; I notice that at least two of them still read it, even though they’ve long since stopped being kids!

Another faith tradition, of course, is churchgoing. I have no memory of the first time I was ever taken to church; I’m sure it was long before I could walk. My parents took me every Sunday, and I’m sure that when my brother and I were little we made some noise and were hard to handle. But my parents persevered, even when my Dad was ordained as a priest which meant that my Mum had to look after us in the pews alone.

We see in today’s passage that Joseph and Mary were observant Jews who were in the habit of going to Jerusalem each year for the Passover celebrations; verse 42 says ‘And when (Jesus) was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival’. There is no hint in this story that this is the first time Jesus has accompanied them. No, he had grown up with these traditions and celebrations; they had been an integral part of his life, and he went on to make them his own as an adult.

I’ve sometimes heard parents say “I want to give the kids the right to make up their own minds about religion, so I don’t want to force them to do things they don’t want to do”. I think this makes perfect sense when the kids become older teenagers. But to act this way with little children goes against our Anglican understanding of infant baptism. When parents bring their children for baptism they make a commitment to raise disciples for Jesus. That involves introducing them to a living relationship with God and helping them to grow in it day by day. Yes, one day they will certainly make up their own mind about whether or not they want to continue on this path, but until that day comes, they should be included in the faith traditions of the family, and of the wider Church. They should be given an opportunity to experience for themselves all the riches that the Christian faith has to offer. A lot of those riches can’t be seen from the sidelines; you have to get involved in the life of the Church to discover them for yourself.

So the first thing I notice is that Joseph and Mary were including Jesus in their faith traditions. The second thing I see is that they were passing on their love for the Scriptures.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the Christian story; like many of you, I grew up in an atmosphere that was permeated by the Bible. I remember one year when my Dad came home from seminary he brought a Children’s Story Bible for my brother and me. I loved looking at the pictures in that Bible, and I learned to enjoy reading it – even though some of it was in King James language! Later on, after I had committed my life to Christ as a young teenager, my parents introduced me to the Bible Reading Fellowship. In those days the notes weren’t called ‘New Daylight’ as they are today, but the principle was the same – a short daily passage of Scripture with an explanatory comment. Mum and Dad also bought me a copy of the ‘Living Bible’, an early paraphrase of the Scriptures that was really easy to read. In all of these ways they successfully instilled in me a love of the Scriptures which continues to this day.

I see this love of the Scriptures in the young Jesus. We read in verse 46 that ‘after three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’. We can make a very good guess what those discussions were about: the Old Testament Scriptures, and how to apply their teaching to one’s daily life. This was the most common topic of discussion in Judaism at the time. This was the discussion that had occupied Jesus for three days while his parents were searching for him in the city.

Where did he get this burning desire to understand and live by the Scriptures? Not just from hearing it read (although he would have heard it regularly in the synagogues, and he would probably have had to memorise great chunks of it as part of his education). But I suspect that the thing that had the greatest impact on Jesus was seeing his parents struggling to live by God’s Word. In Matthew chapter one we find the young Joseph, expecting to be married to Mary, suddenly discovering that she is pregnant and agonising over what he should do. He wants to do what is right; he is guided by the Scriptures, but also by the voice of the angel in the dream telling him that something unusual is happening here. And Mary, when the angel brings her the news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, replies “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She is willing to obey God at great personal cost.

Someone once said “You are the only Bible many of your friends will ever read”. That is even more true, I think, of our children; parents and grandparents are the first Bible their children read. It’s true in the Church too: the kids in our church will see us adults doing our best to live by the teaching of the Scriptures long before they learn to read the Bible for themselves. But if they see that we love the Scriptures, and are trying hard, day in and day out, to put them into practice, then the chances are good that one day they will want to read the Bible for themselves as well.

We’ve seen that Joseph and Mary were including Jesus in their faith traditions and that they were teaching him to love the scriptures. A third thing I notice in this passage is that Jesus had discovered a personal faith.

 

Most of you know that I have a story that is very precious to me of how my father helped me to discover a personal faith in Jesus. Of course, both my parents played a vital role in bringing me up in the Christian Faith, passing on the Christian story and so on. But when I was a young teenager it was my father who lent me Christian books, one of which succeeded in getting my attention with its story of a real God who did real things in people’s lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it was my father, one night in 1972, who challenged me to give my life to Jesus – an event which changed the course of my life. From that moment on, I was no longer merely practising my parents’ religion; I had begun to experience my own personal relationship with God through Jesus.

Whether we can tell a story of a decisive event, or of a more gradual process of awakening, it is essential for us that we go on from a merely institutional relationship with the church to a personal relationship with God. This is far and away the most important gift that we can pass on to children. And I would hazard a guess that a great deal of teenage rebellion against ‘church’ stems from the fact that parents are trying to pass on religious observances without helping the children to experience the living relationship with God that is at the heart of those observances.

It’s obvious that by the age of twelve Jesus was very conscious of this personal relationship with God. He says in verse 49 “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – “I must be about my Father’s business” as some translations have it. This sense of a close relationship with God as his father is very striking. Obviously Jesus is unique in that he is the Son of God in a special sense, one that no one else can share. But in another sense we can share it. John’s Gospel says of him ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:12).

God longs for all of us to experience him as our loving father in a personal way. Without that, it is inevitable that children will eventually rebel against the external trappings of religion. But with that personal relationship, they will discover the heart of the Christian Faith. They will gain a desire to grow closer to God, to learn more and more about God, and to move on as followers of Jesus.

We’ve seen three pointers in this story so far: including children in our faith traditions, passing on a love of the Scriptures, and introducing them to a personal relationship with God. The last thing I want to point out to you in this story is Jesus’ growing sense of independence.

Our gospel reading tells us that,

‘When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their friends and relatives’ (Luke 2:43-44).

It’s hard to understand how Mary and Joseph could miss the absence of Jesus as they left Jerusalem on their return journey to Nazareth. William Barclay suggests one possibility. It might be that the women started out earlier than the men. Jesus was twelve, which meant that he had just been through his ‘Bar Mitzvah’ and become ‘a son of the law’. Up until then, he had probably accompanied his mother at worship and in religious celebrations. It might be that Joseph assumed Jesus would be with Mary, while Mary assumed he would be with Joseph. Or perhaps they were travelling in a large family group with lots of relatives, and they assumed he was with his cousins.

Whatever happened, somehow they managed to miss his absence. What is obvious is that it was not their practice to keep this twelve-year old so close that he could never wander off anywhere. Obviously they had begun to let him spread his wings a bit. They had let go of the need to control him all the time.

Here’s what I know: the more we help children to develop their own personal connection with God, the less we’ll have to police them about it, and the more we’ll be able to trust them with their own spiritual growth. And if they don’t have that personal connection with God, no amount of policing on our part can make up for it.  Once again, the personal connection with God is the key to everything else.

Success at parenting – or grandparenting, or godparenting, or mentoring young disciples of Jesus – comes on the day we hear our kids say what Jesus says here – “I must be about my heavenly Father’s business” – and we know they really mean it! Then we’ll know we haven’t only passed on our faith traditions, but have also helped them find a personal connection with God for themselves.

Some of us here today are parents, some of us are grandparents, some of us are godparents. Some of us have no children of our own, but we share in the responsibility of the Christian Church to help the children among us grow to know and love God. So let us pray for God’s wisdom and strength as we do our best to pass on our faith traditions and our love for the Scriptures – as we live out our own personal commitment to Christ in the sight of the children – as we help them discover their own personal connection with the living God – and as we allow them the independence to discover ‘their Father’s business’ and to commit themselves to it for the rest of their lives.

The Gift (a sermon for Christmas Day)

In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians there’s an extended section in which the apostle is urging his friends in Corinth to be generous in their giving to support the poverty-stricken Christians back in Jerusalem. Paul apparently gave a lot of time and energy to this project, rather like us in this church giving a lot of time and energy to the various outreach projects we’ve taken on. Paul had worked hard to organize this appeal, and he had carefully arranged for trusted individuals to take the money down to Jerusalem as a gift to the Christians there. To him it was a vital symbol of the way Jewish and Gentile Christians were united in the one Body of Christ, and he wanted all the Gentile churches to take part in it.

But how would he motivate his Corinthian friends to take part? Not surprisingly, he did so by appealing to the example of Jesus himself. Listen to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 8:9:

‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’.

‘The generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Many other translations use the word ‘grace’ here – ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ – and that would in fact be a literal translation of the Greek. But the translators of the New Revised Standard Version are right, I think, to make it more specific. To talk generally about ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ doesn’t make it clear that in this instance, Paul is talking about a particular gracious act: the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ chose to give up the riches that were his by nature as the Word of God, the Son of the Father from all eternity. He chose to voluntarily make himself poor, becoming a helpless human being and living as one of us. And he did all this for us, the poor in spirit, so that he could make us rich. A generous act indeed.

In a later letter Paul spells this out more poetically. Writing from prison to his Christian friends in Philippi, he says,

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

This passage isn’t often thought of as a Christmas reading, but I would suggest to you that it is a Christmas reading. And as a Christmas reading, it makes an assumption that may be startling to some of us today, just as it might have been startling to some of the people who first heard it read in about 62 or 63 A.D. Just over thirty years before, Jesus had been walking the dusty roads of Palestine, his true humanity readily apparent to everyone he met, his hands perhaps still scarred and calloused from working as a carpenter in his younger days. But now Paul writes of Jesus as if his birth in Bethlehem was not the beginning of his life. He writes, in fact, as if the birth of Jesus was a conscious decision that he had made. There was a time, Paul says, when Christ Jesus shared the form of God – in fact, was equal with God – but he decided not to exploit this for his own self-interest. Rather, he emptied himself of his divine power and glory, and chose to be born as a human being; he humbled himself, lived as one of us, and walked the path of obedience to his Father, all the way to the cross. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.

This is the central story of Christmas. This is what the angel was announcing to Mary; this is what Joseph’s dreams were about. This is what the angel choirs were singing about in the hills above Bethlehem when they appeared to the shepherds, and this is what old Simeon and Anna were talking about when they met the holy family in the Temple. Everyone who was caught up in this story was overwhelmed by the sheer wonder and generosity of Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. God hasn’t abandoned us; he’s come to us again, come to actually live on this broken and war-torn planet. He’s come to do something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves; “You are to name him Jesus”, the angel said to Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And surely when we look around us and see what human selfishness and greed and anger and hatred have done to God’s world and God’s people, we’d all have to agree that we really, really need someone to save us from our sins. More than anything else, that’s what we need. We can’t save ourselves. In fact, what we most need saving from is precisely ourselves!

So let’s stay in this place of wonder for a few minutes this morning. Later on in 2 Corinthians Paul will get to the part about how we need to follow Jesus’ example and be generous givers, and we all know how important that is. But let’s not go there right away. Paul doesn’t go there right away. Because Paul, in the New Testament, is the great theologian of grace. Grace is God’s free, unconditional love, poured out upon people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t done anything to deserve it, who may in fact have done quite a lot not to deserve it. Grace is not given to us because we are loveable; rather, it is given to us because God is love.

Remember that time at the last supper when Jesus is going around washing the feet of his friends? He gets to Peter, and Peter looks at him reproachfully and says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answers, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand”. Peter says to him, “You will never wash my feet”. Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:6-8).

It all seems so logical to Peter, and maybe to us as well. Jesus is the Lord and we are his servants. Lords don’t wash the feet of their servants. Servants wash the feet of their lords. So how can it possibly be right for Jesus to wash Peter’s feet?

Nevertheless, it is right. Before Peter can do anything for Jesus, first of all there is something that Jesus needs to do for Peter. Peter can’t come to Jesus as the strong fisherman, the capable one, the one who has everything to give. He’s got to humble himself and come as the one who is poor in spirit, who needs a spiritual bath that he can’t give to himself. He’s got to admit his weakness, his sinfulness, and ask Jesus to wash him. Only then can he offer anything to Jesus. ‘We love’, says old John the apostle in his first letter, ‘because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Grace comes first, as a gift. When we have received it, we can pass it on. But not before. Until we let God give to us, we have nothing to give to God, or anyone else.

And we do so love to give, don’t we? I expect that in your house this morning there was some really joyful giving going on. Maybe you spent weeks or months thinking carefully about what you wanted to give to the other people in your family or household or circle of friends. Maybe you spent a lot of time searching for exactly the right gift, or maybe it was a gift you created yourself – created lovingly, because you wanted the person you gave it to to be happy. Maybe you’ve given gifts like that today, and maybe you’ve received gifts like that as well.

And there are other gifts, too. Today our special offering envelopes are going to support World Vision’s work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, the places that are so dangerous that they can’t even set up a permanent infrastructure there. One of those places, of course, is Syria, which has been so much in the news with millions of refugees fleeing for their lives from a civil war that has been going on for years. ISIS is part of it, but ISIS didn’t start it; it had already been going on for a long time when ISIS joined in. Millions of people have lost homes and loved ones and livelihoods. ‘Raw Hope’ is World Vision’s project that provides basic necessities of life to people in situations like that. So of course we’re going to support it, and give generously to it. That’s a vital part of our life as followers of Jesus.

We often hear that Christmas is ‘a time of giving’, and indeed it is; somehow, at Christmas, it’s easier to motivate people to give. We give to our families and friends and loved ones, but our hearts are softened to those in need as well. The Food Bank, the Salvation Army, Hope Mission, the Mustard Seed – they all do well at this time of year. Even the CBC runs a turkey drive, although I suspect that for the poor and homeless in Edmonton a turkey would be welcome at any time of the year, not just at Christmas! But somehow, at Christmas, it’s easier to motivate people to make it happen. It’s a time of giving.

But I would like to suggest to you that it’s all to easy for us to focus on the time of giving, and to forget this vital truth: that Christmas is a time of receiving as well. In fact, if we don’t celebrate Christmas as a time of receiving, we’ve missed out on the central message of the season. Christmas is the time when God, the Creator of all that exists, came to us on this little planet and gave us a stupendous gift, a gift no one could have imagined, a gift that even today has people scratching their heads in disbelief. How can it possibly be true that God would come to us in Jesus, that Jesus is somehow God? How could the infinite, almighty God limit himself to a tiny human body in a tiny human lifespan? What can it possibly mean?

Here is what it means according to John’s Gospel: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ – or, as the Good News translation puts it, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ (John 1:4-5). In a world of darkness – the darkness of ignorance and greed, hatred and violence, selfishness and tyranny – God came among us as a burning light in Jesus, and when there is a light shining in the darkness, it’s the light that you notice, not the darkness. It’s the light of God’s love, of God’s truth, of God’s vision for what the world was created for and what humanity was created for. This was the light we had lost, and this was the light that Jesus was and is, the light Jesus has brought to us.

And we have to receive that Light. Not everyone chooses to receive him. John says,

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1:10-12).

This is another example of the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he offers the Gift – the Gift of himself – to all people, but all people are not compelled to receive it. He stands at the door and knocks. He doesn’t use brute force to smash the door down. He doesn’t compel Peter to let him wash his feet. The Gift is offered, but whether or not it is received is up to us.

And sometimes we’d much rather be givers than receivers! I do so love being a giver! I love it when I can take someone out for lunch and pay the bill! And I have to admit, I don’t just love it because I love being generous. I love that it gives me a sense of power as well, and perhaps even a sense of pride. I’m the man of means here; I’m the one who can afford to do this. Don’t even think about paying that bill; it’s an important part of my self-image that I’m the one that pays it.

Years ago when we lived in the Northwest Territories we had a friend who just could not accept a free gift. He was married to the community nurse, and they lived at the nursing station, and quite often I would go over there mid-morning and join the staff on their morning coffee break. Sometimes I would bake a few cookies and take them over for everyone, and whenever I did that, I knew that before noon, this man would be at my door with a gift to give in return. Usually it was a bigger gift. If I’d brought a dozen cookies, he’d come back with a home-made apple pie. He just could not let himself be in the position of receiving a gift and giving nothing. He could not be beholden to anyone. I’m sure you’ve all known people like that.

Brothers and sisters, this Gift that God has given us at Christmas is not something we can reciprocate in kind. When God the creator of the universe comes to live among us on our planet, there is no possible gift we can give in return that could ever match that. God is no-one’s debtor. Yes, we can and will give generously to help others who are in need, but we can never out-give God. It’s a fundamental fact of our Christian identity: to the end of our days, we will be the recipients of his grace. We will never be able to earn it or repay it, and he doesn’t want us to. He simply wants us to receive him, in joy and thankfulness.

Each of us gets to receive him for ourselves, of course; the Gift is given not just to the world in general, but to each human being in the world. St. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Jesus says in Revelation, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door. I will come to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

This morning, this Christmas morning, let’s listen to that knocking again, and let’s open the door again. We may have been Christians for many years, but maybe during that time we’ve gradually gotten so busy giving that we’ve forgotten that there is a receiving that needs to take place as well – that we love, because God first loved us. Maybe it’s a terrifying thing for us, to see ourselves not as rich and capable, but as the poor in spirit who know their need of God. But that’s what needs to happen at Christmas. At a time when so many gifts are given and received, one gift is fundamental. It’s not a gift that we give, to God or anyone else. It’s the Gift that God gave to us when he emptied himself and took our humanity, and lived and died and rose again to save us. It’s the Gift he continues to give, when we open our hearts and lives and welcome him right into the centre of our very being. It’s the Gift that is truly a gift – not something we earn or pay for, not something we can ever pay God back for – but only something we receive with joy and thankfulness, today and for the rest of our lives. Sisters and brothers, today and every day, let us receive that Gift from God, in thankfulness and joy. Amen.

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

One of my favourite parts of Christmas each year is the music; I love Christmas songs and carols. Not all of them, I hasten to add; I don’t personally find the ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ genre very appealing. But I love the old traditional hymns and carols – the older the better, as far as I’m concerned – along with seasonal favourites like Handel’s ‘Messiah’, which I think is one of the best ways ever invented of memorizing King James Version Bible passages!

Christmas carols tend to fall into two categories. Some of them are based around the stories of Christmas as we read them in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men and so on. Others focus more on the theology of Christmas as we read it in the first chapter of John’s Gospel – how the Word of God became a human being and lived among us.

In my opinion, the ones that focus on the theology of Christmas tend to do a better job. That’s because the storytellers can’t resist the temptation of embellishing the story. For instance, what possible historical evidence is there for the line in ‘Away in a Manger’ that reads, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?’ How could Jesus have been a real human baby without crying? And is the author trying to suggest that there’s something sinful about crying, so that it would have been beneath Jesus’ dignity as the Son of God?

Another example is in one of my personal favourites, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.

In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Well, Christina Rossetti was a great poet, but this was a blatant attempt to set the birth of Jesus in Victorian England, not first century Palestine, where I don’t think there’s ever quite that sort of ‘bleak midwinter’. And we don’t really know if Jesus was born in December anyway!

But still, most carols do a pretty good job of trying to express the idea of God becoming a human being, which is a pretty mind-blowing idea, however you cut it. And Charles Wesley comes pretty close to perfection, I think, in the second verse of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’:

Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.
Late in time behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the godhead see; hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.
Hark, the herald angels sing glory to the newborn king.

Here you get the theology of it; the idea that in the baby Jesus, God’s identity was ‘veiled’, or hidden, ‘in flesh’, so that you’d never know there was anything unusual about him just by looking at him. There was certainly no halo around his head when he lay in the manger! And this is so true to what we know of the rest of the story of Jesus; even when he became a grown man and was doing amazing miracles, people didn’t immediately say “Oh, you must be God!” and fall down and worship him! There was a hiddenness about his identity; to see him for who he really was always took faith, not just observation and logic.

Or think about ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’; this is another one that focusses on the theology of Christmas, and for the most part it does a pretty good job. But I have one little caveat that I’d like to explore with you for a few minutes tonight. Think about the first two lines:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.

My problem is with the people who are being invited to come and see the baby in the manger: ‘O come, all ye faithful’. You see, when you think about the Christmas story, who is it that actually receives specific invitations from God to come to the party? Not just the faithful, that’s for sure! We could also add, ‘O come, all ye faithless’, ‘O come, all ye fearful’, and even perhaps ‘O come, all ye fretful’!

Let’s start with the shepherds. They were the great unwashed, the agricultural labourers who did the hard manual work of looking after the sheep day in and day out, without taking a break for Sabbaths and religious holidays. Shepherds were looked down on by religious Jews in the time of Jesus. It was pretty nearly impossible for them to observe all the rules and traditions about ritual washing, and there was no way they could do their job without breaking the Sabbath – after all, sheep don’t tend to look at each other and say, “Oh, it’s the Sabbath – we’d better not get lost today!” Free range livestock have to be protected and fed and cared for, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s what the shepherds were doing when the angels visited them.

And what about the Magi? They were astrologers from the east, definitely not Jewish, outside the covenant people of God. What did they think they were doing, gatecrashing the birth of the Jewish Messiah? How come they got an invitation, but King Herod and the temple priests from Jerusalem didn’t?

In the eyes of the religious folk in Bethlehem, the shepherds and the Magi would have been the faithless, not the faithful. The inside of the synagogue wouldn’t have been very familiar to them; they probably would have felt awkward and out of place there. And yet, God went out of his way to invite them to the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ. The angel choir wasn’t sent to the rabbis of Judea and Jerusalem, and the star didn’t guide them either. It was the outsiders, the shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi from Iraq who were summoned to come and adore him, Christ the Lord.

And this is true to the later story of Jesus, too. When he was grown up and travelling around Palestine preaching and healing, he was always being criticized by the religious for hanging out with the wrong people – tax collectors who worked for the Romans, Roman soldiers themselves, prostitutes. Jesus justified it by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was always crossing barriers, talking to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to, reaching out to the excluded and the outsiders.

And that might be a word that speaks especially to some of us tonight. Maybe we’re lifelong churchgoers, or maybe we’re here tonight for the very first time. Maybe we’re satisfied with the way we’re living our lives, or maybe we’re very aware of our failings and shortcomings. Maybe we think God would be glad to see us, or maybe we’re not so sure of his welcome. Whoever we are, faithful or faithless, we’re invited: ‘O come let us adore him’. You’re included, I’m included. God wants all of us to come to the celebration.

So yes, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but also, ‘O come, all ye faithless’! And we might also add, ‘O come, all ye fretful’. I would imagine that there was a lot of ‘fretting’ going on that night in Bethlehem.

We don’t really know anything about the story of the census that Luke tells us about in his gospel, but if it was even remotely similar to what he describes, it would have been a massive undertaking. The idea that everyone had to return to the town their family originally came from to be registered – can you imagine how many people would have been on the road, how many businesses would have been disrupted, how many guest rooms would have been occupied?

Most modern Bible translators think that the verse traditionally translated as ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ should actually be ‘there was no guest room available for them’. The guest rooms would probably have been in the homes of some of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem; we can imagine how full their houses would have been, with distant cousins coming from the farthest reaches of Palestine. By the time Mary and Joseph got there, the only place left was the little room downstairs where the animals were brought in at night. “Sorry, cousin Joseph – it’s all we’ve got left”. “Don’t worry, cousin Ishmael – it looks cozy enough, and it’s better than the town square!” I imagine Joseph and Mary had been very ‘fretful’ as they had gotten closer to Bethlehem, and they were probably very relieved to find that even such a rustic space was available for them.

Christmas is a busy, fretful time of year, and the world of retail has made it even more busy and fretful. There’s all the shopping to do, getting just the right gifts for the people who really don’t need anything and probably don’t even have room in their cupboards for anything else. There’s the family get-togethers to plan for, sometimes involving travel at the busiest time of year. And some of the family members haven’t actually spoken to each other for a while, and the meeting is going to be a little awkward, to say the least. And what about cousin Eddie? He really wants to see all the family, but he’s a little scared of the wine that will be served at the meal. He’s been sober for six months, you see, but sometimes he still finds it hard.

We all carry burdens and worries, and often no one else knows about them. Most of us in this busy world feel rushed and harassed, and the fact that we’ve made it here to church tonight speaks volumes about how important we think this Christmas service actually is, in the midst of our busy schedule. But maybe we’re feeling so rushed, so overwhelmed by details, that we’re wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to stay home?

No, God doesn’t feel that way; he’s glad we’re here. When the baby Jesus grew up and became a man, he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for the fretful. He doesn’t want to add to our burdens; he wants to lift them from our shoulders. So the fretful, too, are invited: ‘O come, let us adore him’. Come into his presence, and find there the peace that you’ve been looking for.

‘O come, all ye faithful’. ‘O come, all ye faithless’. ‘O come, all ye fretful’. And there’s also ‘O come, all ye fearful’. For some of us, the idea of God is a fearful idea.

Have you ever noticed that every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are usually “Don’t be afraid”? Does that give you a clue as to what they look like? They probably aren’t the cute little baby cherubs created by the Renaissance artists, or the beautiful female angels with long blonde hair so beloved of people who post pictures on Facebook. No – biblical angels are scary. When people see them, they fall down on their faces, trembling with fear.

Many people feel that way about God, too, and it’s not hard to understand why. Imagine the power that can create something as vast and complex as the universe? The distances involved are unimaginable to us, but the astronomers tell us they’re true. And the detail – the intricacies of the human eye, the miracle of DNA and the human genome. I can’t begin to imagine the greatness of a God who could think of all that, and design it, and call it into being by his word of power. How can I possibly stand before the face of such a God?

This is where we come back to that hymn of Charles Wesley’s:

Veiled in flesh, the godhead see –
Hail, the incarnate Deity.

‘Veiled’. Hidden, in other words. Because of course, if God appeared to us as he really is, in all his glory and majesty and splendour and holiness, we would be totally overwhelmed. The circuits of our brains would fry up. Some of the Old Testament writers believed that no one could see God and live to tell the tale: not because God is angry at us, but just because God is so very, very far outside and above our experience or even our imagination.

And so, in God’s mercy, he veils himself in flesh. He makes himself very small – just a zygote, and then a fetus, in the womb of a young Galilean peasant girl. He’s born in humility, grows up in obscurity, and then steps out onto the stage of history and proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand. And many people look at him and dismiss him: ‘He’s just a man’. ‘He’s from Nazareth; can anything good come from there?’ And we think, ‘God, couldn’t you have made yourself a little more obvious?’

But the answer is, no, he couldn’t have. Any more obvious, and we would have been terrified out of our wits. So in mercy he veiled himself and came among us to live our life, die our death, and be raised again victorious over the forces of evil and hate. And now his invitation goes out to all people, “Come”.

Why would he do such a thing? Surely the only possible answer is, because he loves us so much. Nothing else could motivate God the Son to lay aside his glory and majesty and enter our human experience. In one of his letters in the New Testament St. Paul describes it like this:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

That’s how God has come near to us in Jesus. There’s no need to be afraid.

O come all ye faithful – all ye faithless – all ye fretful – all ye fearful. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come to welcome the coming of God as a human being. Come to welcome him into our world, into our lives, and into our hearts. Come to receive the great gift of his steadfast, unconditional love. Come to take part in the transformation of the world by that love. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hang back. The welcome mat is out at God’s front door for all of us. No one is left out. Everyone who truly wants to can come in.

(Note: The inspiration for this sermon came from an idea in Nick Baines’ book ‘Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?’)