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’.

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“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!

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.