John Donne, ‘Nativity’ (1610)

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

The Message of Christmas (a sermon for Christmas Day)

No storyteller ever tells their story from a position of complete neutrality. We all have our point of view, and we can’t help letting it influence the way we tell our stories. The things we include, the things we leave out, the way we describe the people in the story – none of those decisions are made in a vacuum. That’s why we’re wary about convicting someone of a crime on the basis of only one witness. We know that each witness stands in a particular place in relation to the incident they’re reporting; there will always be important parts of the action that they didn’t see. So we prefer a balanced testimony, combining the reports of three or four different witnesses.

Early on in the history of the Church there was a movement to do away with the four gospel witnesses we have in the New Testament. Some Christians felt it was confusing to have these different accounts, and it would be better to work on producing a harmonized version of the story of Jesus. But the Church as a whole decided this was a bad idea; our picture of Jesus is enriched, not diminished, by the different viewpoints of the four gospel writers. And so we have four gospels, not one. Sometimes this leaves us in a situation of tension, as it’s not always easy to reconcile their stories. But the Church as a whole decided that it was worth it; better to have a fuller picture of Jesus, with some apparent inconsistencies, than to leave out the individual emphases of the four gospel writers.

We can see this in the stories of the birth of Jesus. Three of the gospels – Luke, Matthew, and John – include what we might call a ‘nativity story’, although John’s is very different from the other two. Each of these three writers has a particular angle on the story of Jesus – an aspect of his character and ministry that they’re trying to underline – and we can see it in the way they tell the story of his birth.

Luke is always on the side of the underdog. He loves marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, women and children. And he loves the fact that Jesus was born into an ordinary family in first century Galilee, even though his adopted father Joseph was a descendant of the royal house of David.

So in Luke’s story of Jesus, when Mary receives the angel’s message that she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sees this as evidence of God’s bias toward the poor and needy. She says, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:46-48a, 51-53).

Later on in Luke’s nativity story he underlines that this was not a family in circumstances of wealth and power; they were pawns in the hands of the Roman Empire, forced to leave home at a very bad time, when Mary was about to give birth to her firstborn child. When they finally reached Joseph’s ancestral family home – Bethlehem – the rooms were all full, and they had to bunk with the animals. The new baby didn’t even have a proper crib; his mom had to lay him in a feeding trough. And his first visitors were rough shepherds from the hills around Bethlehem; it was those shepherds – not the people in power and authority – that God had chosen to receive the first royal birth announcement.

Don’t misunderstand me: Luke knew as well as we do that God loves everyone on earth – high and low, rich and poor, holy and unholy – and treats each person with care and respect. But he especially wanted the poor and the underdogs to know that even if no one else was rooting for them, God was rooting for them. And this may be a help to us today. Maybe some of us here today feel that we’re just pawns in the hands of politicians or multinational corporations. Maybe we’ve experienced economic hardships because of decisions made in boardrooms or luxurious palaces a long way away from us. Maybe we’ve been told, explicitly or implicitly, that God couldn’t possibly have time for anyone like us.

If that’s our situation, Luke wants us to know that the angels’ message is ‘good news of great joy for all the people’ (Luke 2:10). No one is left out. The baby in the manger will grow up to be the good shepherd who is willing to leave the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and go searching for the one lost sheep. Jesus is the Saviour of all.

That’s how Luke tells the story.

Matthew has a different interest. Matthew wants everyone to know that Jesus is the true Messiah, the king God promised to set his people free. So in his story of the birth of Jesus he tells how the angel came to Joseph – the descendant of King David – to tell him that the baby in Mary’s womb would be the royal child promised in the book of Isaiah: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

When we get to chapter two of Matthew’s story, almost the whole chapter is set up as a conflict between the evil king of Judea, Herod the Great, and the baby Jesus, God’s true Messiah. Wise men come from the east looking for ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ (2:2). Naturally they assume he will have been born in the royal palace, so they go to Jerusalem and ask for him there. Herod is alarmed, and he tries to trick the wise men into leading him to the baby. But God protects Jesus, and after the wise men visit him, they go home by another route, without telling Herod how to find him. Herod then flies into a rage and orders the execution of every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem, just to make sure he’s wiped out this young Messiah. But by the time Herod’s soldiers get to Bethlehem, Jesus has already left; his family escape as refugees to Egypt for a few years until after Herod’s death.

The good news Matthew wants to proclaim to us is clear: It might seem as if all power and authority on earth has been given to kings and tyrants and magnates and tycoons, but that is not the case. In reality, God has already anointed Jesus as his Messiah, his chosen King. At the moment not everyone acknowledges his authority, and this may lead to some horrific situations, like the murder of innocent children in Bethlehem – or Aleppo. But in reality, as Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The day will come when he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Everyone will have to give account to him.

But Matthew doesn’t want us to wait for that day. He wants us to commit ourselves now to following Jesus as our King. He wants his followers to go out to all people and invite them to become disciples of the true Messiah. So his picture of Jesus helps to fill out the picture Luke gives us. The baby in the manger is not only the Saviour of the world; he’s also the world’s true King.

When we turn to the Gospel of John we get a completely different sort of nativity story. And in fact, most people probably don’t think of it as a nativity story. John doesn’t actually tell the story of the birth of Jesus in narrative fashion, but that shouldn’t surprise us; there are some other pretty important narratives he doesn’t include either, like the story of the institution of Holy Communion during the Last Supper. John chooses his stories carefully, and gives us long extended meditations on them. He’s not trying to supplant the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; in fact, I would argue that he assumes we’ve already read them. But he’s trying to help us explore the deeper meanings of the story of Jesus, and to him, the deepest and most important meaning of all is this: in Jesus, God has visited the world he loves. The Jesus who John portrays for us is not just an outstanding human being or a great rabbi or even an anointed Messiah. No; in John’s Gospel, Jesus says “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

So in our gospel reading for this morning, John 1:1-18, John starts off by describing this mysterious character he calls ‘the Word’. Actually the word John uses in Greek is ‘the Logos’, which in Greek philosophy was the rational, logical governing principle behind all of creation. But John’s ‘Logos’ is not just an abstract philosophical idea; the Logos is a person, a person in relation to God and also somehow sharing the nature of God. Don’t worry if you can’t grasp this; this is God we’re talking about, so it’s not surprising that there are some things about God we can’t understand!

So John starts by telling us ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). He tells us that all things came into being through the Word – and if we know our Old Testament we’re immediately reminded of Genesis chapter one, where we’re told over and over again that God spoke a word of command and a new part of creation came into being. The Word was the light of the world, John says; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:5).

But then, a bit further on in the passage, comes what John sees as the real miracle of Christmas. ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). We use the Latin word ‘incarnation’ to describe this great miracle: the Christian teaching that in Jesus of Nazareth God came among us to live as one of us. He made himself small and vulnerable, shared the ups and downs of human life, and dedicated himself to doing the will of his Father in heaven.

And what’s the purpose of this incarnation? John tells us in the last verse of today’s gospel reading: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18).

Human beings who believe in God have always wondered what God is like. Maybe we look around at the vastness of the universe and are intimidated by the power and majesty of a being who could do all this! Maybe we notice that God has given us a conscience that has high standards for us and for others, and we fear a God who we think must look on our failures with anger and judgement. Or maybe we have struggled in vain for so long to make contact with God, and we’ve come to the conclusion that God really doesn’t have time for people like us.

But John tells us that Jesus has made God known; we often refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’, but it’s actually Jesus who is ‘the Word of God’ par excellence. Our epistle for today agrees:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

I think this is one of the main things John is trying to communicate by the language of ‘light’ that he so often uses. We sometimes use this as a figure of speech, don’t we? ‘Can you shed any light on that subject?’ we ask. One of our most famous Christmas readings begins with the words ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2), but Jesus’ reply to this is to say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus gives us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; as we follow him, we walk in that light, knowing God for who he is, knowing God’s will for us as it is revealed to us in Jesus. Without him we would truly be ‘in the dark’ about our Creator, but because of him, we can have confidence in the God of grace and love that Jesus revealed to us.

So this is what we celebrate this Christmas:

With Luke, we celebrate a God who reaches out to the poor, the underdog, the marginalized. God isn’t dazzled by human power and majesty; he’s not impressed by wealth and prestige. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “God must like ordinary people; he made so many of them!” Luke’s vision of Christmas is truly ‘good news for all people’. Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world; no one is left out.

With Matthew, we celebrate the news that Jesus is the true Messiah, the one who God has appointed as Lord of all. The last word won’t go to the Herods and Neros and Pontius Pilates of history; they may seem to have all the power right now, but the day will come when they also will have to bow before the one ‘born king of the Jews’, as the wise men put it – and not of the Jews only, but of all people, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. And we the people of Jesus respond to this by joyfully giving him our allegiance. He is truly a King we can believe in!

And with John, we celebrate the amazing truth that in Jesus, God has become one of us. This is not a God-forsaken world; it is a God-visited world! And if God cared enough about this tiny little planet – one of millions he has created – to make himself small and vulnerable and walk around on its surface, then his love for us must truly be incredible. He is not far away from us; the story of Jesus shows that he is ‘Emmanuel’: God is with us.

A couple of days before Christmas a friend of mine posted on Facebook that there are two kinds of people at Christmas time: those who think of what they are going to receive, and those who think about what they are going to give. I suggested to him that there might be a third kind: those who think about what they have been given, and are thankful for it. That’s us, brothers and sisters! In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul says ‘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’.

That’s the good news of Christmas. Tomorrow we can think of what that good news is calling us to do – how it might be calling us to change our lives – but not today. Today is a day to stay in this place of deep gratitude for the amazing gift that God has given us – truly the greatest gift that we could ever imagine. And it is truly a gift: not something we have to earn or deserve, but something that comes to us free of charge, not because we are lovable but because it is the deepest nature of God to love. All we are asked to do today is to receive that love, and to say “Thank you”.

The Good Infection (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie ‘Love Actually’; I have to say it’s one of my favourite Christmas movies. I’m particularly fond of the scene where one of the characters, played by Emma Thompson, discovers that her daughter is going to play the ‘second lobster’ in her school nativity play. She looks at the little girl with a quizzical frown and says, “There was more than one lobster at the stable when Jesus was born?” Apparently so!

Well, there’s a moose and bear in our nativity set down under the pulpit here, but I think most of us know they’re imaginative additions to the story of the birth of Jesus! The actual outline of the story – as told in slightly different ways in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – is very familiar to us, although this hasn’t stopped us making some additions of our own over the years. The little drummer boy, for instance, and the winter snow, and the little donkey, and ‘little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, and the evil innkeeper who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant and about to give birth, but can’t find it in his heart to squeeze her in anywhere except the cold stable out the back.

Sorry – Luke and Matthew know nothing of drummer boys and snow and donkey and a baby that doesn’t cry, and the evil innkeeper isn’t mentioned anywhere in their stories. Actually, the inn may not be either. Some of the more recent Bible versions translate ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’, and many scholars agree with this. What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (after all, his family was from there), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib.

But the bare outline of the story still captures our imagination. An angel appears to Mary and tells her she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s anointed king who would be the Saviour of his people. She and her fiancée Joseph live in Nazareth, which is a problem because the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, the ancestral town of old King David. But the Roman emperor obligingly decides that there’s going to be a census and everyone has to go back to their ancestral town to be registered. So Joseph and Mary have to travel back to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family comes from, and there, squeezed into the room the animals use, Mary gives birth to her baby boy and uses a feeding trough for his bed. Later on he’s visited by shepherds who tell the surprised couple that they’ve had a vision of some angels who told them this baby will be ‘the Messiah, the Lord’ who will bring great joy to all his people. The wise men come much later, perhaps as long as two years later, which is why the Church celebrates their coming on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.

But what does the story mean?

Very early on in Christian history, Christians were already using highly exalted language to talk about Jesus. For example, in a letter written about twenty-five years after the events of the first Easter weekend, St. Paul takes language that the Old Testament used for God himself, and applies it to Jesus:

‘…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11).

But the most powerful statements come at the beginning of John’s Gospel. John takes a term used in Greek philosophy – the Logos, the Word – the rational governing principle behind the world – and applies it to Jesus. In language that defies logic – and why wouldn’t it? It’s God we’re talking about! – he says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But then a few verses later he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

Christians call this ‘the incarnation’ – the idea that at a certain point in the history of this planet, our Creator came to us in a unique way, taking flesh and blood as Jesus of Nazareth. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, came to live among us as one of us. Jesus was not just a human being; he was not even just a great religious leader or a man sent from God. He was God, God the Son, and his life and death and resurrection were the central events in the history of our planet.

Not surprisingly, some people find this hard to believe. How could it possibly be true that a carpenter’s son from an obscure province in the ancient Roman empire would be God? How likely is that? What sense does it make? Surely this is just ancient Christian imagination run riot? How can rational people believe it?

Well, let’s look at it from another point of view; let me tell you about the Gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes. Any ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ fans here? Not many people know that Calvin is named after a sixteenth century Christian theologian, and Hobbes is named after a seventeenth century philosopher, so it’s not surprising that the two of them have some interesting discussions from time to time!

So let’s imagine Calvin and Hobbes having a conversation about whether in fact there is such a character as the Great Cartoonist? Calvin might say, “Yes, there is a Great Cartoonist; he created this cartoon strip, but he lives outside of it, in a great big world that we can’t even imagine, and he’s in control of everything in this strip”. Hobbes might stroke his tiger whiskers and reply, “There’s no evidence of that. As far as we can tell, there’s absolutely no proof that anything exists outside this cartoon strip. This is all there is”.

Now imagine Bill Watterson, the creator of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, observing this conversation and asking himself, “How am I going to convince them that I’m here?” Shouting at them from outside the cartoon strip doesn’t seem to work! Eventually he decides that the best thing to do is to draw himself into the cartoon strip as one of the characters. So that’s what he does; he draws himself walking up to Calvin and Hobbes and saying, “Hi guys, I’m Bill; I’m the Great Cartoonist”. Calvin immediately falls down on his knees and says “Oh Great Cartoonist, I always knew you were there! Please rescue me from Moe and the monsters under my bed!” But Hobbes strokes his whiskers sceptically and asks, “How do we know you’re not just one of the characters in the cartoon strip like the rest of us? What’s your evidence?”

This sounds a lot like some more verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Talking about Jesus, John says,

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet 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 the children of God’ (John 1:10-12).

In other words, Jesus came into the world, but not everyone accepted that he was anyone special. Not everyone believed in him; some, in fact, rejected him. This continues today: some ignore Jesus, some reject him, some put their faith in him and follow him.

Some might ask, “But why would God do this? If this amazing story is actually true – if God has become a human being in Jesus – what was he trying to achieve?”

Two things. First, he was giving us the truest possible picture of what he himself is like. Human beings have always wondered about this.

There’s an old story of a little girl in a Sunday School class who was drawing a picture. When her teacher asked her what she was drawing, she said, “God”. The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like!” She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And the Christian claim is that when Jesus was ‘done’ – when his life and death and resurrection were complete – we humans had been given the best possible picture of God, as God himself had shared our life as one of us. We no longer need to wonder what God is like: he’s like Jesus. Like Father, like Son!

The second thing he was doing was rescuing us from the infection of sin and evil. In his book ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis uses the illustration of a ‘good infection’. Human strength and ingenuity is not up to the task of rescuing us from the evil that appears to be running rampant in the world. We need the life of God himself to do that. And that’s what Christmas is all about. When the baby was born in Bethlehem, the life of God himself came into this broken world as a good infection to fight against the power of evil and sin. Jesus spread the infection wherever he went; when men and women put their trust in him and began to follow him, they discovered a new power within themselves, a power that made it possible for them to be more than they thought they were and do more than they thought they could do. Even today, Jesus is still passing this good infection on, as people come to trust him and follow him as his disciples.

‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’ (John 1:12). That’s how the good infection is passed on. As we receive Jesus – as we make him welcome day by day in the centre of our lives, on the throne of our hearts – that divine life is strengthened in us. So let me close by encouraging everyone here to make him welcome. Perhaps a prayer from one of our well known Christmas hymns would be a good way to do that:

‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin and enter in; be born in me today’.

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last or First?

trump-tweet-dec-22Reading Donald Trump’s tweet about nukes yesterday (‘until the world comes to its senses about nukes, we need lots more of them!’) reminded me of an old story about a Puritan and a Quaker in eighteenth century colonial America (I’m telling the story from memory, and I may not get all the wording right).

The two were arguing about ‘pacifism’ (the Quaker rejected all violence as incompatible with following Jesus, while the Puritan did not). Eventually the Puritan said to the Quaker, “Well, if all men were as you are, I would believe as you do too”.

To which the Quaker replied, “Then the difference between you and me is that you want to be the last good man on earth, and I want to be the first”.

God is With Us (a sermon on Matthew 1:23)

When I lived in the high Arctic I took regular skidoo trips out onto the barrens in search of caribou and muskox. Whoever called those lands ‘the barrens’ wasn’t joking. The tallest vegetation in the area where I lived is a stunted willow bush that grows to no more than about a foot high, and it’s not very common, either. It’s true that in the brief Arctic summer the tundra bursts out into colour as dozens of different wild flowers bloom briefly. But in the dead of winter the wind howls over hundreds of miles of bare rock and snow. Sometimes the blizzards reduce visibility to near zero, and the most sensible thing you can do if you get caught in one of them is to make camp and wait for it to pass – which can sometimes take a couple of days. And even when the wind is calm and the sky is clear, all you can see for miles is white – snow-covered ground, with rock breaking through here and there. Personally I found it breathtakingly beautiful, but I could understand why many would refer to it as a ‘God-forsaken country’.

To many people, the world in general feels like a God-forsaken country too, and it’s easy to understand why. As I was writing this sermon we got news of the fall of Aleppo, and I thought again of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in that city as pawns in a bitter civil war. Maybe you find yourself asking “Where was God for them?” We think of the millions who don’t have enough to live on and who die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases. We think of the depth of hatred that leads people to kill other people just because they happen to be of a different race or religion. We think of the enormous greed that keeps some countries of the world in unimaginable wealth and others in desperate poverty. I know I think of things like this day by day as I say my prayers, and I find myself asking the same question: ‘Where are you, God?’

Many of us know what God-forsakenness feels like in our own lives as well. Most of us have gone through difficulties of one sort or another. For some of us they were relational difficulties – family problems, the breakdown of a marriage, perhaps even abuse of one kind or another. Some of us have lost much-loved spouses or partners. Some of us have struggled with addictions or debilitating illnesses. Some of us have had financial difficulties. Many of us have been desperately lonely; many of us have known the sense of failure and have wondered what to do about it. And I’m sure we’ve all had times when we’ve longed for God to somehow make himself known to us – perhaps we’ve even cried out for him to do so – but we just can’t seem to be able to break through to him in any meaningful way. And maybe we’ve asked, as Jesus asked on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

How would we want God to address those issues? The Old Testament prophet Isaiah prayed that God would answer in a dramatic way:

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ (Isaiah 64:1-2).

This is the Arnold Schwarzenegger view of a God who suddenly appears before all the evildoers of the world in power and majesty and says to them, ‘Go ahead – make my day!’ A lot of people think they’d like to see God act in that kind of way – appearing in majesty, wiping out the evildoers, solving the problems of humanity in an instant, and so on. It’s a tempting vision.

But the God we read about in the Christmas story chooses a different way of acting. This God doesn’t want to ‘shock and awe’ the world. Rather, he wants to woo the world gently and patiently, calling people back to him, inviting them to turn away from their foolish ways and embrace his love and his kingdom. And so, when God comes among us, he chooses not to lead a mighty army or become the head of a powerful nation. Instead, he chooses an ordinary couple in an obscure province on the edge of the Roman empire. He sends his angel to this couple to give them the news that their child – who will be in one sense just an ordinary human baby – will in fact also be far more than that. And so in Matthew’s gospel we read that the angel says to Joseph:

‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).

And Matthew adds,

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us’ (Matthew 1:22-23)

‘God is with us’! So the world isn’t a Godforsaken place after all – rather, it’s a God-visited place!

If this is true – if the child in the manger isn’t just an ordinary human baby, but is also in some sense God come to live among us – what does it mean? Well, it means that God is like Jesus. It means that if we want a picture of what God is like, the life of Jesus is the best place to look.

When we look at the life of Jesus, then, what do we learn there about God? We learn that God loves us unconditionally – accepting us just as we are, with all our weaknesses and faults – and yet always inviting us to move on and become more than what we are, with his help. We learn that God takes no notice of differences of wealth and class and gender and social status and race, but treats all people as special, made in God’s image and precious to him. We learn that God wants us to love him with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves; he cares a lot more about that sort of thing than about getting religious rituals exactly right. We learn that God reaches out to the poor and needy and calls other people to do the same. And we learn that God chooses not to destroy his enemies, but forgives them and loves them instead.

Do you think you could love a God like that? I know I could!

We also learn that God knows what our human life is like, because he has experienced it firsthand. He knows what it’s like to be driven from your home by death squads and to have to live as a refugee in a foreign country. He knows what it’s like to lose a parent at an early age. He knows what it’s like to have to make your living by the strength of your hands and the sweat of your brow. He knows what it’s like to live in an occupied nation. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and even abandoned by your family and your friends. He knows what it’s like to be the victim of an unjust trial and to be executed for a crime you didn’t commit. Yes, he even knows what it’s like to die.

This is not a God who is far away from us. This is ‘God with us’, ‘Emmanuel’, God who has become one of us and lived our human life.

And he doesn’t want to be far away from any of us, even today. He wants to be very close to each of us – in our hearts and homes and our minds and our actions. And so he waits for us to welcome him in. He doesn’t batter the door down; he knocks, and waits for our answer.

What kind of answer is he looking for? Perhaps a prayer something like this:

‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin, and enter in – be born in me today’.

I encourage you to pray a prayer like that today, from your heart, so that you too may learn to experience ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’ – for yourself.