Good News is for Sharing (a sermon for Christmas Day on Luke 2.1-20)

My oldest cousin recently became a grandfather for the first time. He told me that he’d started to think it was never going to happen, but then, completely out of the blue, his daughter got pregnant, and now we have baby Jorge! Of course, the news spread fast over social media: baby Jorge was born, and within a few hours the photos were up on Facebook and Instagram for all the world to see. A few days later another one of my cousins also had a new granddaughter. Same thing – within a couple of hours we were all going ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over baby Poppy, even though I can’t remember the last time I met her mom!

Mind you, the quick sharing isn’t totally dependent on modern technology. I remember many years ago when one of our children was born. I think we were living in the Arctic at the time, but we called my Mum and Dad right away – they were the first ones on our list. After that we called Marci’s parents, and then we started to call a few other people on my side of the family, but the next three numbers we tried were all busy. Marci smiled at me and said, “That’s your mum – she’s calling to tell everyone the news!”

Baby news travels fast! But whether modern technology is used or not, I’ve always been fascinated by our instinctive urge to share good news. No one tells us that we should do it; we just hear a story that makes us glad, and we feel somehow compelled to pass it on. Good news is for sharing!

In our Christmas gospel reading for this morning we read about the passing on of good news. First of all we have the angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. This is what he says:

“Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv.10-12).

After this a great choir of angels appears to the shepherds, singing the praises of God.

What’s the next thing that happens? When the angels left them, ‘the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”’ (v.15). So they left their flocks to look after themselves, and they went down into Bethlehem to search for the child.

I must admit, I laugh when I think of how they might have gone about their search. Did they knock on every door in town and ask, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Um – is he lying in a manger?” I expect they got a few strange looks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few doors were slammed in their faces! But eventually, by whatever means, they found the right house; they found the baby and Mary and Joseph, and they told everyone they met what the angels said to them about this new child. The good news had been given to them, and now they were passing it on to other people. Good news is for sharing!

What was it about the message they’d heard that would have motivated the shepherds to abandon their flocks and run down to Bethlehem to see this child? It wasn’t just the fact that a baby was born. I mean, I’m sure my cousins were very excited at the arrival of their newborn grandchildren, but they wouldn’t have expected total strangers to abandon their work schedules just to come to the hospital to see for themselves how this particular baby was of course the most beautiful child ever born!

No, it was what was said about the childthat motivated the shepherds to go and see for themselves. ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). The word ‘Messiah’ sounds like an exclusively religious word today, but it didn’t in New Testament times. In those days the Messiah was the deliverer, the king God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and violence and restore them to prosperity and peace. The model the Israelites used for the Messiah wasn’t a preacher like Jesus; it was their first great king, David. He had been a shepherd boy in this very town of Bethlehem, but God had chosen him and led him by a long and tortuous journey until he became king of Israel and delivered his people from the threat of the Philistines.

So when the angel told the shepherds the Messiah had been born, their excitement wasn’t just to do with ‘religious’ feelings. They believed God was about to cause a great change in their circumstances; God was sending them the King who would deliver his people from their enemies and usher in prosperity and peace for everyone. No doubt the shepherds could imagine this having a direct impact on their own lives. That’s why they were so excited.

Of course we know today that Jesus confounded some of those expectations. He chose not to be a political and military ruler; he knew that political and military solutions to human problems might work in the short term, but in the long term they don’t address our human addiction to sin and evil. So when he grew up he chose a different path. He gathered a group of followers and taught them the way of life of the kingdom of God – a way based not on violence and greed, but on love for God and your neighbour and even your enemy. He embodied this way himself when he went to the cross, and God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. He then sent his followers out to share the good news of God’s power and love with the whole world, and they went out boldly and fearlessly to tell everyone that God has made this Jesus the true Lord and Messiah. Once again, good news was for sharing! And they did it to tremendous effect! Even though they had no organisation and no access to mass media, the community of followers of Jesus spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean world and beyond. And two thousand years later, here we are this morning, still celebrating the good news that the angel brought ‘for all the people’.

Note those words, ‘for all the people’ (v.10). To be frank, shepherds didn’t normally get royal birth announcements! They were ordinary working class people, making a living by the strength of their hands and the sweat of their brows. Their work forced them to break the Sabbath and so they were often looked down on by the religious people of the day. We can be sure the political rulers didn’t give them a second thought. Would those shepherds have expected to get an invitation to the birth of the next royal prince of the house of David, who would grow up to be God’s anointed king? I don’t think so.

But they did get that announcement, and they were invited to the birth of the new prince. And this is just one example of the way Jesus reached out to marginalized people and outsiders and people no one else cared about. When he became an adult he was constantly being criticized for partying with the wrong people; instead of spending time with the righteous, he went around with tax collectors and prostitutes and other lawbreakers, and he invited them to come into God’s kingdom and learn the new way of life he was teaching. Good news is for sharing – but it’s for sharing with everyone, not just the select few on the inside track.

So the shepherds were excited to be invited to this event, and they willingly left their sheep and came down to celebrate the birth of God’s anointed King. And this morning you are like them. When I was a little boy growing up in England, Christmas Day services were very popular, but I’ve discovered this isn’t the case in twenty-first century Canada! Most people, even Christians, don’t include a Christmas Day service in their Christmas celebrations. And I’m sure you had lots of other options for spending this hour on Christmas morning – options involving coffee and Christmas cake and wrapping paper, and gathering around the tree and so on. But you’ve left all that behind – you’ve ‘left your flocks to look after themselves on the hills’ – and you’ve come down to join in the celebration.

Why have you done that? Probably because you love Jesus. You try to live with him at the centre of your life; you do your best to walk with him, listening to his word and trying to put it into practice. And the decision to be here this morning is a conscious choice to put him at the centre of your life, and even your Christmas Day celebrations.

So here we are on Christmas morning, gathered at the manger, and what do we find? Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we find ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.10). The baby in the manger who looks so ordinary turns out to be extraordinary; he’s the one God has sent to change the world by the power of love. When we welcome him into our lives, he gives us the power to be what we can’t be by ourselves; he give us the power to change, and to live the life that God dreamed for us when he first created us. We receive that good news ourselves, and we experience its reality, and we pass it on to others, and they also are changed by it. And so the world is changed one heart at a time, and the kingdom of God comes nearer and nearer. 

The invitation goes out to all of us, without exception. Some find themselves thinking, “I’m not the sort of person God would be interested in. I’m no one significant, and anyway I’ve done a few things I’m not proud of. I’m not sure God would welcome me if I turned up at his door; I’m sure he has more important people than me to worry about”. I’m sure that’s what the shepherds thought, but they discovered that the invitation is sent to everyone. The good news is ‘for all the people’. It doesn’t say, ‘for all the people, except for you!’ It says, ‘for all the people’ without exception.

Jesus has welcomed all of us into the presence of God. So this morning let’s welcome him– into our hearts and our homes, our places of work and recreation, into all we do and say and think and feel. Let’s experience for ourselves the good news that he is our Saviour, and let’s not forget to pass it on. Good news is for sharing. I’ve passed it on to you this morning; now it’s your turn to pass it on to others. And may God bless you in the sharing of it. Amen.

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Why Did God Become Human? (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

Our gospel reading tonight give us the central message of Christmas. We might not have recognized it right away, because it’s not the familiar story from Matthew or Luke – the journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the baby in the manger, the shepherds, the wise men. That’s the story we know really well.

 

What John gives us is the bigger picture – not the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the journey from heaven to earth. John introduces us to this mysterious figure who he calls ‘the Word’. He says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1.1). We sense that John is straining at the limits of language here: how can something or someone both beGod and also be withGod? Don’t worry about that: if you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!

 

A few verses later comes the great moment in the text: ‘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). This is what’s happening in the Christmas story. God the Word – who has always existed for all time with God the Father – decides to enter the life of this planet in a real and visible and tangible way. So he becomes one of us. He takes on our humanity, our physical form, our limitations. He lives among us – or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, he ‘moves into the neighbourhood’.

 

Why? Why would God do such a thing? Let me share with you three things Christmas means for us.

 

First, Christmas is an affirmation of our human life.

 

As the years go by we’re becoming more and more aware of just how big the universe is. The numbers stagger the brain, so I’m not even going to try to explain them, but we all know that the universe stretches for millions of light years. When you look at some of the stars in the night sky you are actually a time traveller. You aren’t seeing those stars as they are today. You’re seeing them as they were when the light particles began their journey to earth, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

 

Imagine a God who could make a universe like that! It stretches through unimaginable distances of space, and it’s been in existence for over fourteen billion years. This planet that we live on is a tiny speck in that vast expanse. And we human beings are even tinier. This planet got along for most of its history without us. For us, a lifespan of a century is an amazing thing that very few of us achieve. So why would God take any notice of us?

 

And yet, he did. He holds the entire universe in his hands, but he chose to become a little child that Mary could hold in her arms – completely helpless, completely dependent on her. He accepted the limitations of being human. He experienced the pain and injustice we feel. As Paul says in one of his letters, ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8).

 

Imagine the love that could motivate God to do a thing like that! Love is the only possible explanation for it. Apparently the smallness of our planet is not an issue with him. Apparently the insignificance of humanity in the history of this planet doesn’t even figure on his radar screen. Apparently he’s so in love with the human race that he was willing to come to us and be with us. What an affirmation of us as human beings!

 

And also, what an affirmation of our bodily life! Some religions think the body isn’t that important. It’s just a tent that we live in temporarily. It’s a nuisance, actually – if you really want to get close to God, you have to remove yourself from bodily concerns as much as possible. Not so, says Christianity! In fact, God himself took our humanity. He smelled the smell of good food cooking. He felt the enjoyment of a loving embrace. He heard the sound of music. He saw the beauty of a sunset over the lake of Galilee. He doesn’t ask us to abandon physical life to get to know him. Rather, he adoptsour physical life to get to know us!

 

So that’s the first thing we can say about Christmas – it’s an affirmation of our human and physical life. But that’s not the whole truth. Christmas is also a correction of the way we’ve chosen to live our life.

 

We all know we live in a fallen world. The evidence is all around us. Human beings are capable of incredible acts of kindness and love, but we’re also capable of unbelievable cruelty and selfishness. We don’t need to look at the big global events that are going on all around us. All we need to do is take an honest look at our own human capacity to mess things up. I’m incredibly good at that! In fact, it might just be my biggest talent!

 

Let me just explore this with you for a minute. In our Anglican liturgy, every Sunday we confess our sins to God in these words: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’. All we need to do is focus on the second half of that statement. A few years ago I remember hearing the story of an elderly lady who died alone in an inner-city apartment. It was two weeks before anyone discovered she was dead. What sort of a society have we created where that kind of thing can happen? Where were her neighbours? Why was there ‘no room at the inn’ for her?

 

We humans are made in God’s image, which is a good thing, but our life is spoiled by selfishness and self-centredness. And so the Incarnation acts as a corrective for us. Jesus not only shows us what God is like, he also shows us what we are meant to be like. He lives a life of complete love for God and for human beings. Rich and poor, young and old, insider and outsider, he loves them all. He speaks the truth at all times. He cares for the sick and the hungry. He loves his enemies and rays for those who hate him. Martin Luther called him ‘the Proper Man’.

 

Now I can hear you saying, ‘He may be the proper man, but his example is way out of reach for me’. That’s true – and that’s why Christianity has always taught that being a Christian isn’t just about gritting your teeth and trying to follow the example of Jesus. You’ll fail every time if you do that! We’ve also been taught that God comes among us – God actually enters our lives – and gives us a power beyond our own power. The Bible uses the symbolism of the heart – the very centre of our being. In the Incarnation God came to live in Mary in a physical way, as a human foetus in her womb. But now, Paul says, ‘I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Ephesians 3.17). As we choose to trust him, so Jesus lives in us. As we pray and listen to him, and as we share in Holy Communion, his life in us gets stronger. And then we start to discover a strength we didn’t know we had before.

 

So Christmas is an affirmation of the goodness of our human life. It’s also a correction of the wrong choices we humans have made, and a pointer back to the right path for us. Finally, Christmas is an invitation.

 

‘O Come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant;
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels.
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord’.

 

Christmas is the story of how God has come to us, but it’s also an invitation for us to come to God.

 

Think with me for a minute about what happens in human reconciliation. A genuine reconciliation can’t be a one way thing. Both parties need to move, or it can’t be real. Even if most of the guilt is on one side, the other party still has to make the decision to forgive, which is also a movement of its own.

 

Sometimes you see incredible stories of reconciliation, where one party seems to be making ninety percent of the movement – that’s a sign of how deeply they care and how much they want the reconciliation to happen. But that can only go so far. Unless the other party is prepared to move the final ten percent, the reconciliation won’t take place.

 

Paul says, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19). God travelled an incredible distance to be reconciled with us. The one who created the vastness of the universe shrunk himself down to become a tiny little embryo in a mother’s womb. He went so far as to make himself unrecognizable! There was nothing unusual about the way Jesus looked. Nobody fell down at his feet instantly and cried out ‘My Lord and my God!’ He didn’t look like God; he looked just like one of us. And even when we rejected him and crucified him, he still forgave us.

 

God has gone the distance, but we’re invited to travel the final few yards. It may seem like a big journey for us, but it’s tiny compared to the journey he’s made. Our journey is to turn away from our selfishness and self-centredness and welcome him into the centre of our lives.

 

‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.’

 

This isn’t just a one-off thing. This is a daily journey we make. Each day we’re invited to trust Christ and welcome him in. We can do it again tonight, as we come up in a few minutes to receive our Christmas communion. We take a step of faith; we get up out of our seats and come to the front as needy people, knowing that the most important need we have is our need for the presence of God. We hold out our empty hands, and Christ fills them. We receive the bread and wine in faith and we feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving. The God who entered the womb of Mary enters into us again. As Paul says, Christ lives in our hearts through faith.

 

Christmas is an affirmation of all that is good and beautiful in our created life. God came among us and lived it with us as one of us, so we know that nothing human is strange to him! But Christmas is also a correction of where we’ve gone wrong: Jesus shows us what human life is meant to look like, and he offers us his presence to help us reach toward that ideal. And finally, Christmas is an invitation: as God has made the long journey from heaven to earth for us, so we’re invited to make the journey of faith to him.

 

Tonight in this church we’re all at different stages in that journey. Some of us have been on it for many years. Some of us are in the very early stages of that journey. Wherever you are on that path, tonight Jesus invites you to take another step with him. The table is set. The meal is ready. You’re invited to come.

“I’m In!” (a sermon for Advent 4 on Luke 1.38)

I’m not sure how many Gilmore Girls fans there might be in the congregation today. I’m not really a bona fide Gilmore fan, but I’m married to one and I’m the father of another one, so I kind of absorbed a lot of quotes from the show by osmosis, if you know what I mean? And this morning I’m thinking of a quote from when – after years of being ‘just friends’ – Luke and Lorelei start dating. Luke, who isn’t exactly the most emotionally expressive of guys, says something like this: “Lorelei, this thing we’re doing here, me, you – I just want you to know, I’m in. I’m all in”. For a guy who doesn’t ever wear his heart on his sleeve, that’s quite a statement.

What got me thinking about that? It’s the statement that Mary makes at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, after the angel has made his shocking announcement that she’s going to have a baby without the help of a man, and this baby is going to be the Messiah. I can’t begin to imagine how she must have felt about the whole experience, but at the end she has her “I’m all in” moment. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38). Or, in the slightly less decorative language of the Revised English Bible: “I am the Lord’s servant…may it be as you have said”.

There are all kinds of details the angel hasn’t given her. For instance, he hasn’t told her how she’ll survive. In the Law of Moses, the penalty for sex outside marriage was death by stoning. Granted, it wasn’t often enforced, but it was a law on the books, and if someone wanted to make an issue of it, there wouldn’t be much Mary could do about it. The angel hasn’t told Mary if her fiancée Joseph will continue to be involved in her life. Will he still want to marry her when he finds out she’s pregnant, or will he abandon her? And if he abandons her, where will she live? How will she eat? Who will help her bring up the baby?

These are the little details the angel doesn’t cover. He covers the big theological issues: the Holy Spirit will come upon her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her, the child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will inherit the throne of his ancestor King David. This all sounds very grand, and I’m sure it thrills Mary’s socks off to know that she’s going to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. But women tend to think about the details; that’s why men have survived for all these years! And if I’d been in Mary’s shoes, I think the details would have given me a lot to worry about.

But I don’t hear worry in her voice. I hear commitment. God has called, God has made her an awesome promise, it’s going to be costly and it wasn’t what she had in mind, but she’s in. She’s all in.

C.S. Lewis once said that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say “Thy will be done”, we can pray it in either a passive or an active sense. The passive sense is the sense of resignation: “Whatever will be, will be, I don’t really understand why you’re doing this, God, and I know it’s going to be hard, but thy will be done”. Alternatively, we can pray it in an active sense: “I’m in! I’m all in! This plan you have to spread your kingdom of love and justice, God? I’m all in! You can count on me to play my part in it. I know it’s going to be tough sometimes, but I’m up for it. I believe in it, and I’m going to be part of it!”

I’d suggest that Mary’s prayer is both passive andactive. At first God is the active one, and she’s passive. The Holy Spirit is going to do whatever miracle he needs to do to create a new life in her. She’s got nothing to do with it except to give her consent. By the way, I do believe that she had to give her consent. The God I believe in is not the kind of God who forces himself on anyone. If she had said “No, the cost is too high”, I believe God would have respected that. Of course, I also believe God knew Mary’s heart, and he wasn’t overly worried about her refusing.

But from that point on, Mary’s prayer becomes active. She’s the one who has to care for the child, and bring him up, and do what no one else has ever done before in the history of the human race: be the mother of the Son of God. She’s the one who has to put her own plans and dreams for her marriage and her family aside, and embrace God’s plan instead. She’s in! She’s all in!

What exactly is it she’s ‘all in’ for? Two things. First, she has to welcome God into the centre of her being. Second, when the time comes, she has to give him away She can’t cling to him and make him her own forever. He’s been given to her to share with the world.

This is where we come in.

First, we’re asked to welcome God into the centre of our being, what the Bible calls ‘our heart’. Nowadays we use that word in either a medical or a romantic sense. The heart is either the muscle that pumps the blood around our body, or the centre of our emotions. But in the Bible it was deeper than that: the Bible talks about ‘the choicesof our hearts’. The heart is where we decide what’s important to us, where we make choices and decisions. So to welcome God into our hearts is to choose to put God on the throne of our lives. “I’m sorry, Lord – I appear to be sitting on your seat!” So we get up, step down and bow, and he takes his rightful place. My life doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to him. He gets to decide what’s important and what isn’t important. Which is an oddly comforting thought, actually! After all, he loves us more than we love ourselves, and he knows us farbetter than we know ourselves. We can be assured that the choices he makes for us will be good choices, and they’ll benefit not only us but also everyone else in our lives.

One of our Christmas readings contains these words:

‘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 children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:10-13).

Mary ‘received’ him – she welcomed him into the centre of her life – and so a new life was conceived in her and grew slowly. And the same is true for us in a spiritual sense. We’re asked to ‘receive’ Christ – to welcome Christ into the centre of our lives. When we do, a new life is conceived and begins to grow in us. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). And it makes you a temple, a place where God lives.

But this new life isn’t given to you to keep to yourself. Mary has to care for Jesus before and after his birth. She has to get to know him and anticipate his needs. She has to train him and guide him. But the one thing she can’t do is keep him to herself. The Bible has some amusing stories of their developing relationship – when he’s twelve, and later on at the beginning of his ministry. Every parent of adult children will smile at those stories. We’ve been there! These kids don’t belong to us anymore; we brought them up, but now we have to let them go out into the world.

It’s the same with our relationship with Christ. We invite him into our hearts, but he holds the whole world in hisheart. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” isn’t just about me finding spiritual resources for a happy life for myself. It’s about the world being changed, as I practice the teaching of Jesus and share it with others. Jesus isn’t given to us for hoarding. He’s given for sharing. He doesn’t belong to us; we belong to him. But as we live and share his love by words and actions, the kingdom of God slowly spreads in the world. Justice spreads. Compassion spreads. Mercy spreads. The lonely find friends. The sick are cared for. Enemies are reconciled. And people find a relationship with the God who created them.

Mary was up for this challenge. “I’m in!” she says; “I’m all in!” What about you and me? Maybe, like Mary, we’ve got a list of unanswered questions. And the chances are that, like Mary, we’re going to discover that God doesn’t usually give us the answers to those questions up front. He invites us to trust him and take the step of faith, with no guarantees and no sneak previews of the future.

Are you in? Are you all in?

Let’s pray about this.

Loving God, it’s a fearful thing to be asked to put our trust in you without reservation. We’d like to know the future. We’d like to know what the price is going to be. But you don’t give us any of that information. You simply ask us to trust you and commit to your will.

God, when we’re afraid, help us remember your great love for us and everyone you’ve made. Inspire us with the example of Mary, this young Jewish girl who was willing to set her own plans and dreams aside, and put her life in your hands, and go wherever you led her. Give us courage, like her, to be able to truly say to you, “I’m in! I’m all in!” We ask this in the name of Mary’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Here is my 2017 Christmas song, my version of the old traditional Christmas carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’. There are several versions of this carol. I found one I liked in an old edition of the ‘Oxford Book of Carols’; the notes say it came from a broadside ballad printed by J & C Evans, Long Lane, London in about 1797. I’ve changed the words very slightly, but what you get is mostly what I found in the book! There were two different tunes but I chose the familiar one. The guitar arrangement is my own.

So – this comes to you all with my best wishes for a joyful Christmas and lots of ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’.

P.S. This is a free download on my Reverbnation site, so if you like it, head over there and help yourself!