New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

Yes, I do believe in these things. I think the reason most people fail is because they make resolutions without making a plan to keep them. But I learned in the first half of 2016 that if I make a plan, I can keep it. And I also know myself well enough to know that if I do these things at times when there is a natural ‘new beginning’, it gives me an added psychological impetus.

So, the Lord being my helper, here are my three 2018 New Year’s Resolutions:

Resolution #1: Get back down to 165 lbs by the end of February (I’m currently at 174).

Plan: use the same diet and exercise regime I used January to June 2016 when I succeeded in losing 52 lbs.

Resolution #2: Don’t buy any new books in 2018. Instead, read the dozens of unread books on my shelves.

Plan: sign out of my Amazon account and let Marci change the password! (Just kidding: she knows about this resolution and will help me stick to it! Although, come to think of it, it might not be a bad idea…)

Resolution #3: Each week, plan and implement new ways to love my neighbour as myself.

Plan: Pick a day of the week to journal about this (probably Saturday) and, having decided what to do, put it on the calendar. I need to do this because I’m very selfish and this is the command I (can you believe it?) get most bored with.

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Books I read (or re-read) in 2017

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2017, in the order in which they were read:

Stephen King: On Writing
Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air
Rowan Williams: Being Disciples
Mark Ireland & Mike Chew: How to Do Mission Action Planning
Elma Schemenauer: Consider the Sunflowers
Mark Ireland and Mike Booker: Making New Disciples
C.S. Lewis: Reflections on the Psalms
Harry Mowvley: 1 & 2 Samuel (People’s Bible Commentary)
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William Paul Young: The Shack
Duane Pederson: Larger than Ourselves
Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Mary Oliver: Blue Horses
Seamus Heaney: Selected Poems 1966-1987
Seamus Heaney: Human Chains
Timothy Keller: Preaching
Michael Harvey: Unlocking the Growth
Barbara Tuchmann: The Guns of August
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Michael Frost: Surprise the World
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
W.O. Mitchell: Roses are Difficult Here
Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
Jennifer Robison: Goodnight from London
Adam S. McHugh: Introverts in the Church
Clive James: Injury Time
Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent
Loveday Alexander: Acts (People’s Bible Commentary)
Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows
T
remper Longman, Philips Long & Iain Provain: A Biblical History of Israel
Kate Rademacher: Following the Red Bird
Yuval Noah Harani: Sapiens
Justin Welby: Dethroning Mammon
Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain
Justin Brierley: Unbelievable?
Chaim Potok: The Chosen
Chaim Potok: The Promise
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
Chaim Potok: My Name is Asher Lev
C.S. Lewis: The Four Loves
Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
Ros Wynne-Jones: Something is Going to Fall Like Rain
Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
Stephen Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
Melvyn Bragg: William Tyndale: A Brief History
Chaim Potok: Davita’s Harp
Siddhartha Mukharjee: The Emperor of All Maladies
Ursula K. LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea
David Daniell: William Tyndale: A Biography
Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
George Pitcher: A Dark Nativity
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? Definitely Andrew Marr’s We British: The Poetry of a People. Marr is both a good historian and also a lover of poetry, and he manages to combine them both in this volume, which is part anthology, part history of English poetry, and part a social history of Britain and its people. Marci and I read it together and we hugely enjoyed it. And – here’s the rub – Marr introduced me to some poets I knew little about, but who I have since read more of and thoroughly enjoyed.

Honourable mention must go to Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking, which not only helped me to understand myself better, but also made me think about the way we do church and what we ask of people – which may be less well suited to the introvert temperament – and how we might make it more inclusive of all temperaments.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. I read and enjoyed the first two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, but this third and final book just didn’t cut it for me. There was plenty of horror in the first two books, of course, but it was contained by the device of the Hunger Games. The third book, however, describes in horrifying detail an all-out war, in which child soldiers fight and commit acts that will give them (if they survive – most don’t) nightmares for the rest of their lives. Collins is a wonderfully skilled writer, but I thought she could have imagined a better and stronger ending to the trilogy than this.

I found myself comparing Katniss’s role in the war against the Capitol with Frodo’s in the War of the Ring. Like Katniss, Frodo is a small and seemingly insignificant person, and the major battles happen in places where he is not present, but in the end, because of the plot device of the Ring, he turns out to have the decisive role in the story. What a pity that Collins couldn’t have thought of a way to make Katniss – supposedly the heroine of the novel – the actual centre of the story! Most of the significant moments in the struggle for freedom actually seem to happen when she’s unconscious (she spends a rather large proportion of the book lying convalescing), and in the end, her role in the struggle seems rather peripheral – she’s the centre of the rebels’ P.R. efforts, but that’s about it.

Important discoveries:

Paul Kalinithi: When Breath Becomes Air. I can’t say ‘His first book’, because there won’t be any more – he died of cancer before it was published. An amazingly honest account of what it feels like for a brilliant doctor to become a cancer patient himself. And while we’re talking about cancer, Siddhartha Mukharjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was a brilliant history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer from earliest times to the present day. I learned a huge amount from reading this book.

On a completely different subject, Michael Frost’s Surprise the World describes a simple rule of life for missional Christians based on the acronym ‘BELLS’: ‘Bless’ three people this week, ‘Eat’ with three people this week, ‘Listen’ to the Holy Spirit for one period this week, ‘Learn’ Christ for one period this week, and journal this week about the ways you have been ‘Sent’ in mission. I read it twice and then lead a book study on it in our church which was very well received. I highly recommend it.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns were both excellent reads. I’m a little late in discovering Hosseini; he is my first encounter with a country I knew almost nothing about – Afghanistan – and his books have given me a vivid picture of what life is actually like in that long-suffering country. They are not easy reads – they describe hard events in the lives of people – but they are powerfully written and I look forward to reading more from him.

Finally I should mention Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust which I read just before Christmas, and hugely enjoyed; it is certainly one of my favourite theological reads. I loved his description of the Christian life as learning to believe that God can be trusted. He covered some pretty basic theological themes – creation, incarnation etc. – but as my friend Clarke French remarked, over and over again as I was reading the book I found myself saying “Wow – it’s never been said quite as well as that before!”

And now – on to 2018!

‘Nowell Sing We’

This is beautiful:

 

Here are the lyrics (close enough):

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine.

Children were slain in full great plenty,
Jesu, for the love of thee;
Wherefore their souls saved be,
Hostis Herodis impie.

As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas.

Now God is come to worship us;
Now of Mary is born Jesus;
Make we merry amongst us;
Exultet caelum laudibus.

Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.

For background information about this fifteenth century carol and its meaning and story, see this really interesting post by Eleanor Parker, the ‘Clerk of Oxford’.

The Word Became Flesh (a sermon for Christmas morning on John 1:14)

I think most of us here are probably familiar with MASH, that great TV comedy show from the 70s and 80s about the staff of an army field hospital in the Korean war. One of my favourite episodes was when Father Mulcahy and Radar found themselves on the front line having to do emergency surgery on a wounded soldier – a job neither of them was capable of. But they were able to get Hawkeye and B.J. on the radio, and after they described the symptoms the doctors walked them through what they had to do. To their great surprise everything worked out well, but I can imagine that would have been a scary situation for anyone to be in. A voice from far away is better than nothing, but it sure doesn’t beat a real live flesh and blood human being who knows what they’re doing and can give you the help you need.

Religious history is full of voices from far away. Ancient gods live in seclusion, on Mount Olympus, or Asgard, or the top of Mount Sinai. When they speak, they speak in thunderous voices, and human beings are afraid to hear them or encounter them. The gods send oracles and prophets to speak in their name, but they themselves rarely come close to human beings. And human beings are glad of this, because the presence of gods is dangerous to mere mortals We’re talking about mighty supernatural beings with unimaginable powers. In Hebrew thought the contrast is even more striking: we’re talking about the almighty Creator of everything that exists, the one whose holiness burns like a fire. No one in the Old Testament ever assumes that an encounter with that God would be a therapeutic experience! Their attitude is ‘No one can see God and live to tell the tale!’

It’s true that the Old Testament assumes that God lived among his people in the tabernacle in the desert, or in the Temple in Jerusalem. But his presence was still a scary thing. Right at the centre of the Temple was the room called ‘The Holy of Holies’, the focus of God’s presence in the whole building. That room stood empty for most of the year. Only once a year did the high priest enter that place to burn incense to God, and when he went in there he had a rope tied around his foot, so that the other priests could pull his body out if he died in there!

That’s how the Old Testament people felt about the presence of God. If you touched the furniture of the tabernacle in an irreverent manner you might die. If you approached God without the proper ceremonies, it could be fatal. Yes, God lived among his people – but he definitely wasn’t one of them. He was wholly other, wholly different from his human creations, terrifyingly divine. No one took it for granted that such a God would love his people; they all though it was an amazing wonder.

And that’s where we have to start when we think about the miracle of Christmas – the problem of any sort of contact between the Creator and his creation, especially his human creations. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says the apostle John (John 1:18), and the Old Testament people were thankful for that. How could a mere human being actually ‘see’ the great and powerful Creator of the universe? The circuits of our brains would be fried by such an encounter! Our hearts would stop with the shock!

And yet this is right at the heart of what’s going on in the Christmas story. ‘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). God didn’t just speak his Word to us from a safe distance, like Hawkeye and B.J. speaking through the radio to Father Mulcahy and Radar. God’s Word actually ‘became flesh’ – actually took on humanity, physical humanity – and shared our human life.

Who is this ‘Word’? John describes him to us in language that recalls the first chapter of Genesis:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1:1-5).

In the book of Genesis, you’ll remember, God brought creation into being through his word. He didn’t get out a tool kit like a divine construction worker; he simply spoke, and it was done. “Let there be light”, he said, and there was light. “Let there be a firmament”, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night” and so on. God’s word is powerful. Psalm 33 says, ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Ps. 33:6).

Later on in the Old Testament period there was already a Jewish tradition of personalising this ‘Word’, in the form of the ‘Wisdom of God’. In the book of Proverbs Wisdom speaks on her own behalf:

‘The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago…When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always’ (Proverbs 8:22, 27, 30).

But John takes this a step further. This ‘Word’ by which God speaks and creates the world is not just a disembodied voice; he’s not just an embodiment of wisdom. John was a Jewish writer who firmly believed that there was only one God, but now he speaks of the Word as divine:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).

Obviously we’re talking about God here, and the first rule for human thinking about God is that if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God! God is far above our human understanding, and the exact relationship between God and the Word who is also God – between Father and Son, to use Christian Trinitarian language – is far above our comprehension. But as Christians who take scripture seriously we have to hang on to both sides of this paradox: ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.

And now the Word becomes flesh.

Some people want to make Christianity into a spiritual religion. It’s about ideas and feelings. It’s about the soul, and life after death. Material things are less important. Material things don’t matter.

Nothing could be further than the truth. If God had believed this, the Word would never have become flesh. Some modern translations say ‘The word became a human being’, and I don’t object to that, although I think it falls short of the stark physicality of what John actually says. God became a real human being, with a heart and blood vessels, and a nervous system, and a stomach, and bowels. The Word didn’t just speak and think. He also ate and drank with outcasts and sinners. He touched the sick and healed them. He got tired and fell asleep. He touched people who were ritually unclean and he did it without fear. And on Good Friday they drove great spikes into his wrists and feet and hung him on the cross, where he bled and died.

One of my friends likes to talk about ‘head’ people and ‘heart’ people. ‘Head’ people, in her mind, are rational people; they’re comfortable in the world of ideas and logic and theoretical learning. They like Bible studies full of facts, studies that give you good background information about the world of the scriptures. But they tend to be afraid of excessive emotion, and they keep their feelings to themselves.

‘Heart’ people are the opposite. They find excessive rationality irritating. They’re in touch with their feelings and they relate to God on the level of their feelings. It’s important to them to feel God’s presence, God’s joy and peace. If they don’t feel anything, they quickly get discouraged about the state of their spiritual life.

I’ve always felt that this ‘head’ and ‘heart’ division was too simplistic, and in the last few years I’ve begun to understand why. Neither head nor heart are particularly physical. One is about ideas and the other is about emotions. But I think true spirituality involves a third ‘H’ – ‘Hands’. True biblical spirituality involves our bodies. The word for ‘worship’ in the Bible literally means ‘to prostrate yourself on the ground before God’. Biblical people clap their hands with joy; they pray by raising their arms in God’s presence. And not only that: they use their hands to care for the poor and needy. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). You can’t do any of those things without using your body. A word is not enough; the word has to become flesh.

So God doesn’t just announce his love from heaven; he embodies it. Love is vulnerable; to love someone involves opening yourself up to being hurt. So God becomes vulnerable; he becomes a foetus in the womb of Mary, and is born as a human baby. He needs to be fed and clothed and touched and cleaned and loved and hugged. Love isn’t just feeling for someone; it’s actually being a blessing to them in the things you do. So Jesus grows up to become a man and he doesn’t just teach and pass on wisdom; he embodies it. He doesn’t just make friends with people; he shares meals with them, and uses the meals to build relationships and have important conversations. He doesn’t just care about people’s souls; he cares about their bodies too, and heals them. He doesn’t just teach us to love our enemies; he loves his enemies too and forgives them.

Bethlehem tells us that the Word became flesh. Jesus isn’t just about the head or the heart; he’s about the hands too. You don’t just become his follower by believing in him; he says you have to get baptized as well. You don’t just remember him in your head; he says you have to eat his bread and drink his wine as a way of feeding on his presence and being nourished by him. These aren’t just optional extras for those who like that kind of thing. Jesus makes them mandatory. “Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”. “Do this in remembrance of me”.

So today as we celebrate the birth of the Word of God, we celebrate it in action, not just in word or thought or emotion. This morning we gather around the Lord’s Table again and share the bread and wine as he taught us. The Word who came to us in flesh comes to us again in physical form. We don’t understand it, but we believe it, and so we come to him with our hands open to receive the gift of his presence.

Later on we’ll go home, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get together with family and friends to celebrate Christmas. I doubt very much whether anyone here will do that without earing or drinking! Quite the opposite! We’ll share the turkey and all the trimmings, and maybe a nice bottle of wine, and mince pies and Christmas pudding and all that stuff. Sitting around the table and eating together makes our fellowship real and tangible. It’s a sacrament of human love, just as the Eucharist is a sacrament of God’s love. And this is real and important to God too. If it wasn’t, Jesus wouldn’t have accepted so many dinner invitations!

But let’s not forget the third part of this. Celebrating Christmas isn’t just about hearing communion together and sharing a meal with family and friends. Celebrating Christmas also involves recognising the continuing presence of Jesus in the ones he calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40). Our gifts to World Vision of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund – to the Bissell Centre and Hope Mission – are an integral part of our celebration of Christmas. Our presence as volunteers at the Bissell Centre lunch our parish will be involved in on January 14th is a part of our discipleship. Our visiting someone in hospital, our handshakes and hugs for lonely friends and neighbours – these things aren’t optional extras either. The word has to become flesh – or, to use the language of the letter of James, faith has to show itself in works. Faith without works – faith that’s just head or heart – is not enough. It has to involve the hands in order to be real faith.

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’. God’s love was incarnated in a human body, and so it became possible for us to see God and know him in a way never imagined before. And now that continues in us. The Word of the Gospel continues to become flesh in us, as we use our hands and feet and eyes and ears to bless others in the name of Jesus. Or, in the words of the well known carol,

‘Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing’.

“It is for You that He Comes” (a sermon on Luke 2:11)

Since the year 1611 many, many generations of English-speaking Christians have greeted Christmas by hearing these words:

‘And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11 KJV).

The old words of the Authorized Version of the Bible, better known in North America as the King James Version, held a rock-solid monopoly in the Bible-reading world for hundreds of years, and even today many of us who are older can repeat them word for word without even thinking. ‘Good tidings of great joy’; ‘the city of David’; ‘swaddling clothes’; ‘no room at the inn’. Scholars know today that there are actually problems with all of these traditional translations, but no matter: for better or for worse, they continue to be the best known versions of the Christmas story.

That can be problematic, though, because sometimes words become so familiar that we don’t think about their power, and sometimes their placing in the sentence softens the sharp edges of their meaning. There’s one word in the King James translation that I didn’t notice for years: the word ‘you’. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour’.

Who is that ‘you’?

In 1977 Franco Zeffirelli brought out what I still consider to be the best movie of the life of Jesus ever made: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. In his version of the nativity story Mary gives birth to Jesus in a cave on the edge of the village of Bethlehem. A little later, as she and Joseph are welcoming their baby son, the shepherds arrive, just as we would expect: dressed roughly and with working class accents. They start talking about angels, and of course Mary is all ears, because she remembers the angel who came to visit her. The shepherds stumble a bit over their words, and one of them has to pick up the story when another one drops it. But the phrase that sticks in my memory is when the old shepherd, with wonder on his face, repeats the angel’s words to them: “It is for you that ‘e comes!”

‘You’! You see how the change in word order in Zeffirelli’s version redirects our attention to that little word!

So who is that ‘you’? Well, who would we expect it to be?

We’re used to the idea that Jesus is a great religious leader, the founder of Christianity. Today over a billion people around the world claim to be his followers. Leaders in his religion have exercised a massive influence throughout the last two thousand years of history; they’ve crowned kings, excommunicated emperors and walked the corridors of power with their heads held high. Distinguished scholars have written countless Ph.D. theses about different aspects of Christian theology and New Testament translation. Preachers go through years of study and training before they get ordained and stand up in pulpits to instruct their congregations.

What sort of people would we expect to get an invitation to the birth of a great religious leader like Jesus? Well, not the non-religious, that’s for sure! We’d expect bishops and popes, Bible scholars and very, very godly people. They’d be the ones with the inside track.

But wait a minute – the words the angel uses here aren’t just about a religious leader. King James’ men don’t help us here, because they use the traditional word ‘Christ’, which many of us think is just Jesus’ surname: Jesus Christ, son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ!

But the Greek word ‘Christos’ is not a name; it’s a title. It means ‘The Anointed One’. Kings in ancient Israel were anointed with olive oil as a symbol of the power of God’s Spirit coming down on them to fill them and equip them for their ministry. ‘Anointed One’ in Hebrew is ‘Messiah’, and so our pew Bible, the NRSV, says ‘to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). But I think you could make a very good case for just translating ‘Christos’ as ‘King’ – which makes the verse doubly appropriate of course, as David was the greatest king of ancient Israel, and Jesus was his descendant. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the King, the Lord’.

Who gets an invitation to royal birth celebrations? Not the likes of you and me, that’s for sure! You have to be royalty, or at least aristocracy. A royal child is firmly included in the 1%; the rest of us, the 99%, are in a completely different category.

But God blows all our expectations out of the water with the birth of this child; he turns everything upside down – which, if you read the rest of the gospel of Luke, you’ll discover is very much part of his way of doing things. “It is for you that he comes”, the angel says to the shepherds, and we can imagine how they would have treasured those words in the years to come when they told this story to their children and grandchildren. “There we were, minding our own business, sitting by the fire in the middle of the night trying to keep warm, with sheep sleeping all around us, and suddenly the sky lit up with the most terrifying light you can ever imagine! You can bet we were terrified! But then this voice speaks to us, the most majestic voice you can ever imagine – it seemed like it was coming right from the centre of the light! It told us about the birth of a Saviour, a Messiah. And do you know what it said? It said, “It is for you that he comes!”

Religious people looked down on shepherds in the time of Jesus. Jewish people were under strict instructions to do no work at all on the sabbath. Farmers have struggled with this law from time immemorial; how do you ‘do no work’ when you’ve got animals to keep alive? But the priests and religious leaders in Bethlehem would have looked down on these shepherds as sabbath-breakers. They certainly didn’t make it to synagogue every week! Oh, they would have known their Bible stories alright, but they would have struggled to obey all the six hundred or so laws spelled out in the first five books, the Torah. Maybe they felt guilty about this, maybe they didn’t; we aren’t told.

And of course, Herod the Great gave no thought at all to these shepherds – as he gave no thought at all to the vast majority of the people in his country. His only thought was for his own power and wealth. Like many rulers, he ruled for his own benefit. When he heard the threat of the birth of a new king, he had no hesitation in ordering the brutal murder of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem – rather kill too many than let the fake Messiah escape and cause more trouble. They were nothing; they were just peasant children. He certainly never knew their names.

But the God Luke tells us about knows their names. He knows every one of them. He’s the God of the Old Testament prophets, the God who has a special care for the orphans and widows, the poor and the helpless and the vulnerable. Mary the mother of Jesus knew about that God too. When the angel brought her the news that she – a humble village girl, probably fourteen or fifteen years old, not part of any elite circle in her home town – was going to be the mother of the Messiah, she sang a song of praise to God. Let’s blow the cobwebs of this song by hearing it in the words of the New Living Translation:

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed…
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53 NLT).

How did Mary know God had done all these things? Because when he was looking for a family for his Messiah, he didn’t choose a couple from the circles of the rich and powerful. He chose her – a humble village girl, engaged to be married to the local carpenter. That’s the kind of God he is!

And that’s the kind of Messiah Jesus grows up to be. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus did not exclude the rich and powerful from his circle of friends. It’s clear that some of his friends were wealthy – but it’s also clear that he treated them exactly the same as the poor. Everyone came to him on exactly the same basis, and he welcomed them on exactly the same basis. And if he gave anything like extra attention to the rich and powerful, it was more in the way of an extra challenge: beware of the poisonous power of wealth. Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and then come and follow me.

That’s the God we celebrate tonight. That’s the sort of Jesus we believe in. And what the angels said to the shepherds I want to say to you: “It is for you that he comes”.

Some of you here tonight might not think of yourselves as particularly religious. Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, you don’t get out to church every week! Maybe you weren’t even sure that you were going to make it tonight. Maybe you’re not sure if the gospel of Luke is in the New Testament or the Old Testament, or what the difference is. No matter – “It is for you that he comes”.

Some of us here have had a bad year. Maybe we’ve lost family members who were dear to us. Maybe we’ve gone through debilitating illness and struggled to recover from it. Maybe we’ve had difficulty making ends meet financially. Maybe we’re just hanging on to our mental health by a thread. Maybe we’re struggling with an addiction and are only just managing to stay clean. Maybe we haven’t managed to stay clean. Maybe we’ve gone through a family breakup. Maybe we’ve come out to our family as gay or lesbian or transgender, and the response wasn’t quite what we were hoping for.

“It is for you that he comes”. Don’t exclude yourself from that ‘you’, because God does not exclude you. Jesus once said, “It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick”. You don’t have to have everything together in your life before you can keep company with Jesus. He goes out intentionally looking for people who don’t have everything together. “Come to me”, he says, “all of you who are tired of carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest”.

“Don’t be afraid!…I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David” (Luke 2:10-11 NLT). And “It is for you that he comes”. You, and me, and everyone, righteous or sinners, rich or poor, brown or white or any other colour of skin. The gift of Jesus is offered to all of us, without exception. All are invited to come to him, and all are invited to follow him. That’s what Christmas is all about.

The Birth Announcement (a sermon on Luke 1:26-38)

You can rely on the newspaper and magazine industries to come out with articles about Jesus every year at Christmas and Easter. Usually they’re articles that challenge traditional beliefs about Jesus: he didn’t rise from the dead, the Church suppressed a lot of the old stories about him, and maybe he never even existed! We clergy often sigh with frustration when we see these magazine covers; these are old allegations that have been examined and refuted over and over again, but apparently a new generation of editors can’t be bothered to check the back issues of their own publications!

Any newspaper editor knows that if you can combine sex, royalty and religion in one headline, you’re really going to grab someone’s attention! So when we read a story about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary with the news that she’s about to give birth to a child who will grow up to be Lord of the whole world – and she’s going to conceive this child without the help of a man – people naturally jump to conclusions the way they’ve been programmed to. “Mary must have got pregnant by a Roman soldier!” “This is just the same sort of story we see in the Greek myths, where the gods lust after human women and have children with them!”

Well, no, actually it’s not. In the Greek myths the point is the sex, not the children. The gods weren’t purposely producing kids who would grow up to be saviours; they wanted the women, pure and simple. But in the stories as we have them in Matthew and Luke there’s no hint of any sexual encounter between Mary and God, or the gods. The stories are actually fundamentally different.

So let’s start there. The story as we’ve read it in Luke this morning makes it clear that Jesus was conceived before his mother had had sexual relations with anyone; “How can this be” asks Mary, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Of course, these days many people find that difficult to believe, but they also think we modern people are the first to notice the difficulty. We know so much more about science than first century people! Well, that may be true, but first century people knew as well as we do that babies don’t get born without sex. I’m sure if Mary – a young, unmarried girl – had gone to her parents and said, “I’m pregnant, and God did it!”, they’d have been every bit as skeptical as you or I would have been! The first thought in their minds would have been “There’s a cover-up going on here!”

So yes, Matthew and Luke were well aware that they were telling a miraculous story. And yet they tell it, in versions so different from each other that they are obviously independent – which would seem to indicate that the story was widely known in the early church. It wasn’t a fantasy invented by the Church Fathers generations after the fact. Why would these early writers have invented stories that were so obviously open to misinterpretation, unless they had good reason to believe they were true?

So the mainstream Christian belief from earliest times has been – as the creed says – ‘He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’. Note that this does not say anything about Mary remaining a virgin after Jesus was born – that’s a much later idea. It’s not making any statement about the goodness or badness of sexual relationships, or implying that virginity is a higher state. Matthew and Luke aren’t putting down women, conception, birth or anything like that. They’re simply stating their belief that Jesus did not have a biological human father, and this was possible because of the work of God. As the angel says in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God”.

Of course, Mary was as confused about this as you or I would have been! After the angel tells her she will be the mother of the Son of the Most High, she says “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Here’s the angel’s reply:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (verse 35).

This immediately reminds us – as it would have reminded the original readers – of many Old Testament stories. When the Spirit of God came upon people in the Old Testament, they were able to do extraordinary things. Prophets spoke messages in the name of God. Soldiers won battles against extraordinary odds. Elijah was able to run for several miles in front of King Ahab’s chariot. The coming of God’s Spirit always makes the impossible possible. People can do things they would not normally be able to do because of the power of the Spirit of God.

So who is this person who will be conceived in this remarkable way? What does Luke tell us about him?

He tells us that Jesus will be God’s anointed king. Look at verses 32-33:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end”.

This echoes some words from 2 Samuel 7, part of which we read this morning. God says to King David:

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16).

This language is taken up in the well known Christmas reading from Isaiah 9:

‘For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority will grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore’ (Isaiah 9:6-7).

So Mary’s son will be the Messiah, the King who God promised to send to set his people free.

Now obviously when Luke wrote these words – probably some time between 70 and 90 A.D. – his readers would have known very well that Jesus had not fulfilled these prophecies in a literal sense. He had not re-established the dynasty of David as a political reality in Jerusalem. He had not overthrown the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up a new government. He had not become the King in a political or military sense.

Luke knew this, and yet he was not afraid to write these words down. Obviously, by the time he wrote this story, Christians were well used to the idea that Jesus is King in a very different sense. In Luke’s second book, Acts, a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus his disciple Peter will stand up before a Roman household and make a bold claim: that the risen Jesus (who no one could see any more) is ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). That word ‘Lord’ was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor, so it was an audacious thing for a Galilean fisherman to stand before one of the emperor’s soldiers and claim the title for an obscure carpenter rabbi who had been crucified as a rebel against the emperor.

And yet Peter made that claim, a claim that all early Christians would have agreed with. Jesus is King, not in an earthly political sense, but in a cosmic sense: he is the transcendent king all earthly rulers are ultimately answerable to. As Peter says at the end of his Day of Pentecost sermon: “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

So to celebrate Christmas is to make that claim today. Jesus is above all earthly political rulers. His authority is higher than any provincial premier or national prime minister. His teaching has more authority than the customs or laws of any country. To say we are Christians is to say that our loyalty to Jesus comes before any other loyalty we have. The Kingdom of Jesus is a cosmic reality, and we Christians are part of it. It has already begun, and it will still be in existence when Canada and the United States and all other nations are only a memory. Jesus is Lord forever, because he is the Son of God. In his voice we hear the voice of God. On his face we see the smile of God. In meeting him, we meet God and we know what God is like; it’s the ultimate case of ‘like Father, like Son’.

How do we respond to this good news?

Mary knew what this message would cost her. She knew people would smear her name and spread lies about her. She knew family members might well misunderstand and refuse to believe. And yet she was willing.

‘Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”’ (Luke 1:38).

…which is a rather convoluted example of traditional Bible-speak!!! Here it is again in the much clearer language of the New Living Translation:

‘Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true”.

Mary hears God’s call and she responds with her willing assent. The text doesn’t read as if the angel was giving her a choice in the matter, although we have to believe that God knew what he was doing when he picked her. He knew this young girl was devout and would respond positively to his message.

And I guess there’s a sense in which we are also called to follow in Mary’s footsteps. The carol says:

‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today’.

Paul tells us in Colossians that the mystery of the gospel 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). When the Son of God lived in her Mary was a human temple – a house of God – and we also are called ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’, because the Holy Spirit lives in us and forms Christ in us.

In Revelation Jesus says to his people, “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” (Revelation 3:20). In today’s gospel Mary heard God knocking and she opened the door wide for him to come in. Can you hear his knock this morning? It’s the God of love that knocks, so there’s no need to be afraid; just open the door and let him in.