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.

A Tale of Two Kings (a sermon on Matthew 2.1-12)

The Christmas story is one of the best known stories in the world, and I’m sure all of us here know it quite well. It’s been presented to us in dozens of movies, played out in church pageants with children wearing bathrobes and towels around their heads, portrayed in Christmas cards – well, sometimes! – and retold in dozens of books for children and adults. Also, preachers have preached on it every Christmas for the last two thousand years. So you might be forgiven for settling back into your seats this morning and getting ready to have a nap. “Coming of the three kings, blah blah blah – he preached on that one last year, nothing new to say…”

Wait a minute – did you say ‘three kings’? There’s a problem with that. Yes, it’s true that we’re going to sing ‘We Three Kings’ a bit later on in the service today. Furthermore, tradition has filled in all sorts of details about them – that they came from three different regions, that their names were Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar, and that one of them was black. Also, in Christmas pageants they usually arrive at the stable in Bethlehem a few minutes after the shepherds, giving the impression that on that first Christmas morning both ordinary people – shepherds – and great people – kings – came to visit the baby Jesus.

The problem is that none of this is actually in the text. The Bible doesn’t say that they were kings, and it doesn’t say that there were three of them. It does mention three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but that doesn’t mean that they were brought by three people – could have been more, could have been less. Furthermore, it doesn’t say that they visited the baby at a stable: it says in verse 11: ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother’. A little later on in Matthew 2 we learn that they had been following the star for about two years, and because of these details the church has always celebrated the coming of the Magi at a different time from the rest of the Christmas story – on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. We’re celebrating it today, the Sunday before Epiphany, because we can’t seem to get many people out to special midweek services these days!

Notice also that I didn’t call them kings; I called them ‘Magi’. That’s the Greek word that Matthew uses, and it’s traditionally translated as ‘wise men’. It can mean magicians, astrologers, or experts in interpreting dreams, portents or other strange happenings.

The most likely translation seems to me to be ‘astrologers’. The ancient world paid a lot of attention to the night sky. The stars weren’t dimmed by streetlights as they are today; they shone bright and clear, and seemed very close and connected to life on earth. Many people, especially in the countries east of Palestine, had given a lot of time to the study of the stars and planets and had given to each one a meaning of its own. They believed that the world was a whole – earth and heaven were all connected, and if something particularly important was happening on earth you could expect to see a sign of it in the heavens. Vice versa, if you saw something remarkable happening in the night sky, that must mean that some important event was happening on earth as well, and the symbolic meaning of the individual stars and planets involved might give you a clue as to what that event might be.

Since Matthew concentrates on the star that they saw, it seems likely that the wise men were in fact astrologers, and that something they had seen in the sky had led them to believe that something significant was happening in Palestine. What was it that they saw? Probably not a moving star as in the Christmas pageants; it seems more likely that it was a more traditional astronomical event. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12-11 B.C., but that seems a bit too early for this event. A more likely proposal is that they saw a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which happened three times in 7 B.C. We know that the medieval monk who calculated the date of the birth of Christ got it wrong by a few years, so it’s possible that this conjunction might have been at the right time to alert the wise men to the coming of Jesus. Since, in their symbolism, Jupiter was the royal planet, and Saturn was especially connected with the Jews, the conclusion that a new king was about to be born for the Jews was an obvious one.

We don’t know if this was what the wise men saw, but even if it wasn’t – if there was some other astronomical event that got their attention – it’s very likely that thoughtful astrologers in the ancient world, seeing something unusual in the heavens, would go out of their way to find out what it was all about. This stuff was taken very seriously in those days! In fact, the Magi took the star far more seriously than Herod’s scribes took their Jewish scriptures, which told them clearly where the Messiah was to be born – in Bethlehem – but apparently didn’t command enough respect to persuade them to go and see him, as the wise men did.

Which brings us to Herod. I find it interesting that he never appears in Christmas pageants! Instead we have an entirely fictional character, the grumpy old innkeeper, who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant, but hardens his heart and won’t even consider making room for her in the inn, banishing her to the stable out back. As I said, he’s a fictional character; he isn’t mentioned anywhere in the scriptures, and in fact there might not have been an inn at all. As I’ve said here before, many modern scholars believe that the Greek words traditionally translated ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ would be better translated as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. And that would make sense: if Joseph’s family was from the Bethlehem area, why wouldn’t he plan to stay with relatives when he got there? And, given that the whole world was on the road for the census, it would be no surprise that all the rooms in all the houses of his relatives were full – except for the room at the bottom of the house where the animals were brought in at night. That’s where the manger was found, and that’s where Jesus was laid.

So there is no grumpy innkeeper, despite the fact that we’ve made him the character everyone loves to hate in the Christmas pageants. But the real guy who refuses to make room in his world for Jesus, the murderous tyrant who is so addicted to power that he will mercilessly slaughter all children under two in Bethlehem to make sure he’s taken out this little Messiah before he can do any damage – this guy gets left out of the Christmas pageants. Maybe it’s because we’re in love with the gentle magic of Christmas and we can’t stand the thought that the story took place in the real world, where real people sometimes do despicable things in order to hang onto their own power and wealth. It happened in Herod’s day, and it happens today too.

Did you notice the word that Matthew uses to describe King Herod’s reaction to the arrival of the wise men? We’re told that they arrived in Jerusalem – which of course would be a logical place for them to go, if they believed that a new king had been born: where would he be but in the royal palace? So they asked, ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’ (vv.2-3).

‘Frightened’; that’s a strong word to use for a powerful king who was used to getting his own way. Herod doesn’t come across to us from the pages of history as a man who would be easy to frighten. He was not a full-blooded Jew, and there had always been people who questioned whether he was fit to be the King of Judea, especially since everyone knew that it was the Roman state – the hated enemy – that kept him in power. Throughout his long reign he was vicious in eliminating anyone he suspected of plotting against him. He slaughtered the last remaining members of the dynasty that had preceded his family. He executed more than half of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred officers of the court out of hand. Even the members of his own family were not safe; when he suspected them of treason he executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and his sons Antipater, Aristobulus, and Alexander. And when he lay dying, he remarked that he knew no one would weep for him, but he was not going to die without any tears being shed, so he arranged for the leading citizens of Jerusalem to be rounded up and killed the moment his death was announced.

This is the figure who now appears in the story of the birth of Jesus, and he is ‘frightened’. Why frightened? He was frightened because of the word ‘Messiah’. It’s true that this word is not used in the story as Matthew tells it, but it certainly appears in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, and we can be sure that some of the people in Jerusalem were joining up the dots. The Magi claimed to have seen a star in the heavens, a sign that a new king was being born. But there was already a king in Jerusalem. It could only mean that God was displeased with this present king – something many people in Judea had suspected anyway – and had decided to send a replacement for him. And the word ‘Messiah’ was close at hand for that replacement – the anointed one, the good king like old David, the one God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and injustice and lead them into the golden age that had been promised by the old prophets.

You can imagine why that sort of story would strike fear into the heart of an absolute ruler like Herod. It meant not only rebellion, but rebellion sanctioned by religion, and all absolute rulers know that’s a powerful combination. There was only one thing to do: the messianic pretender must be eliminated and the rebellion nipped in the bud. So Herod craftily goes along with the story the wise men told him. “A king, you say? Yes, our old scriptures say the same thing – down in Bethlehem, where old king David was born. Tell you what, why don’t you go down and have a look for him? And if you find him, come back and tell me, because I’ll want to go and pay my respects as well”.

But God outsmarts Herod; he sends the wise men a dream, and after they find the holy family and give their gifts, they go straight home, without going back to Herod. When Herod hears of this he flies into a rage, and orders every baby boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. This has gone down in history as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’, and it’s another detail that doesn’t usually make it into Christmas pageants.

So here, once again, we have two different ways of being a king. On the one hand, we have Herod’s way: you seize power and you do whatever it takes to hang onto it. This is a common story, even today. All around the world there are dictators who will stop at nothing to maintain absolute power in their countries, and the cemeteries are full of the bodies of the people they’ve murdered. And even in more democratic countries like our own, there are still politicians who will go to any length in order to gain power and hang onto it.

How do you defeat those dictators? How do you get rid of those evil rulers? The wisdom of the world is that you have to meet power with power. God is on the side of the big battalions, and so if you want to be free you have to be stronger than the forces of evil. And maybe along the way you might have to commit some acts of evil as well. Maybe you’ll have to firebomb some cities and slaughter some innocent children, just like Herod did, but we’re the good guys, after all, so for us the end justifies the means. It’s what we have to do to live in the real world.

We know from the Old Testament prophets that God is just as concerned about injustice and oppression as we are – far more so, in fact – but he chose not to meet power with power. Instead, he chose to come among us in weakness, as a helpless baby, born in a poor family. True, he was a descendant of King David, but David had lived a thousand years ago and he probably had thousands of descendants in Judea in the time of Jesus, most of them living in humble circumstances, like Mary and Joseph. God decided to change the world not by changing governments but by changing the lives of ordinary people. Instead of using brute force, he taught us the power of love. Instead of killing our enemies, he taught us to love our enemies. And he embodied that way himself, by going to the cross and allowing his enemies to kill him rather than calling on twelve legions of angels to protect himself.

Jesus never pretended that his way would be easy or risk-free. After all, he called it ‘taking up your cross and following him’, and in the ancient world people who took up their crosses were usually on their way to be executed by Rome, the great slaughterer of the innocents. Jesus doesn’t promise that if we follow him, our story will always have a happy ending – at least, not in this life. His own story had a happy ending, but he had to go through death first in order to reach it.

This is our God, the servant king;
He calls us now to worship him.
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the servant king.

Matthew is offering us a choice. We can give our homage to Herod, the king who lives in the real world where it’s either kill or be killed, or we can give our homage to Jesus, the king of love, who gathers his people around him and teaches them a new way of living, the way of the kingdom of God. As we go into 2016, let’s choose the way of Jesus, the king of love, and pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage and strength to be faithful to him.

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?’)