Hands Down My Favourite New Christmas CD This Year…

Xmas-CD-Banner…was Megson’s brilliant ‘A Yuletide Carol’!

The blurb says: ‘It features a sparkling mix of traditional carols, Elizabethan yuletide songs as well as two Megson original tracks all arranged for mandolas, guitars, banjos and Megson’s trademark soaring vocal harmonies.’ And sparkling is truly the right word!

Here‘s the link to the page about it on their website. Here’s the link to the CD in their shop. OR you can get it from Bandcamp and get both the CD and digital downloads (which is what I did).

Find out more about Megson on their website here.

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Is God Working His Purpose Out? (a sermon on Matthew 2.13-23)

Well, that was a nice Christmas, wasn’t it? For a few brief moments we enjoyed the magic—the story of a child born far from home, laid in a manger by his mother, visited by shepherds and wise men who were guided to his cradle by angels and the light of a star. This is the part of the story that all the carols sing about.  But then we come back to hard reality with a bump. Right after the story of the visit of the wise men comes today’s gospel reading. The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back and tell Herod where to find the child, so they took off home by another route. When Herod heard of this, he was outraged, and he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Jerusalem under the age of two, just to make sure he had wiped out the potential threat to his throne.

This, by the way, was entirely in character with what we know of Herod the Great from history. He was a fanatically insecure ruler who had his wife, his mother, and several of his sons murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. At his death he had several of the leading citizens of Jerusalem rounded up and murdered, because, he said, he knew no one would mourn for him, and he was not going to die without tears being shed. This is exactly the sort of man to be frantically worried by news that a royal pretender had been born in Bethlehem, the ancestral hometown of the family of King David, and he would certainly be ruthless enough to wipe out the children in the manner described in this story.

This is a difficult story for Christians, and I suspect there won’t be very many sermons on it today. The theological point Matthew’s trying to make throughout this passage is that God is working his purpose out in the midst of a world dead set against him and his plans. Jesus isn’t born in an idyllic time in human history; he’s born in a time when ordinary life is cheap and when great rulers carry out their plans with no regard for how they will affect the lives of ordinary people. In Luke’s story of the nativity, Jesus arrives in Bethlehem as a result of one such event, the decision by the Roman emperor to order a census which would require everyone to travel back to their ancestral towns. There’s no thought of how this will disrupt trade and cause chaos in the lives of ordinary people; the powers that be decide this is what’s going to happen, and you have to obey. And yet Luke sees God at work here; Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, but as a result of this census they returned to Bethlehem so that the old prophecies about the birth of the Messiah would be fulfilled. God is working his purpose out.

Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t seem to have known this story. Apparently, he thought Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s home town, and they made the move to Nazareth after their return from Egypt. But Matthew too wants to show us how God was working his purpose out, and he does this by connecting the story of Jesus to the old prophecies.

In Matthew’s gospel we’ve already seen several examples of old prophecies being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. In today’s passage three more prophecies are mentioned. First, Hosea 11:1 talks about Israel as God’s son and says ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’, referring to God bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and into their own promised land. The way Matthew sees it, Jesus is reliving in his own life the story of Israel. Israel went to Egypt and back, and so does Jesus. Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and Jesus comes through the water of baptism. Both Israel and Jesus are tested and tempted in the desert, and so on. So Matthew sees this as a legitimate application of Hosea’s prophecy to Jesus.

Verse 18, about Rachel weeping for her children, is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was one of the great mothers in the time of the patriarchs, and Jeremiah wrote symbolically about her weeping as, hundreds of years later, her descendants were taken into exile in Babylon. The way Matthew sees it, the misery inflicted by a foreign army at the time of the exile has come again to Israel through the cruel actions of Herod, so the prophecy is fulfilled in the story of the slaughter of the innocents.

Verse 23 is more mysterious; no Old Testament prophecy that we know of says ‘He will be called a Nazorean’. However, Isaiah 11:1 might have been in Matthew’s mind; it mentions a coming ruler, a ‘branch’ from the family of David, and the Hebrew word for branch is ‘nezer’, which sounds a little like the name ‘Nazareth’. Matthew may be making a pun here, but a pun with a serious purpose: Jesus is the ‘branch’, the ruler God has sent for his people.

The point in all these prophecies is that God is working his purpose out. Jesus is born into a world much like ours, where human beings rebel against God and sin against each other. And we’re not talking about little personal sins like overindulging in Christmas turkey or cheating on your expense account. Those sins do have consequences, of course, as your EKG reading or the frown on your boss’ face will testify! But in the world we live in, some people’s sins have horrific consequences. Children are captured and turned into child soldiers or sold as sex slaves. People are killed because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time—because their house happened to be near the place the bomb was targeting, or they happened to live in the path of the invading army, or they were walking the street when the gunfire erupted between two rival gangs.

These outrages happen all the time, and it doesn’t seem to be God’s normal practice to rescue people from them. God’s usual policy seems to be to let the world experience the consequences of sin, while all the time calling on us to repent and learn a new way of living, the way of love and peace and justice. But he won’t impose this way on us; his ‘prime directive’ is to respect our freedom of choice.

And yet, in all of this, God is working his purpose out; this is the testimony of the whole Bible. So in the book of Genesis an earlier Joseph is a bratty kid who exploits his position as his father’s favourite and exasperates his brothers, to the point that they sell him as a slave into Egypt and tell his father he’s been killed by a wild animal. Joseph goes through years of suffering and hardship in Egypt, and God doesn’t rescue him from them. Eventually, through a long and complicated series of events, he becomes a sort of Prime Minister of Egypt, and he turns out to be in exactly the right place at the right time to help his father and brothers when they come down to Egypt to escape from a famine in their own country. God is working his purpose out.

This theme is repeated in many places in the Bible. We naturally love best the stories of God sending miraculous deliverance to his people, but they’re relatively few. In most cases, God doesn’t rescue his people from the consequences of human evil. And yet he’s always quietly at work, turning evil events around and bringing good out of them, so that his plan of salvation goes forward.

But sometimes it seems hard for us to see how this is happening, especially when it’s the innocent bystanders who suffer the consequences of human evil. Imagine what it would be like, years later, if you’d been one of the mothers of the children of Bethlehem, and you’d happened to hear this story from the gospel of Matthew read for the first time. Let’s imagine Susanna and Joachim, a young couple in their early twenties, with their firstborn son, little Davey, named after old King David because they lived in David’s home town. Imagine little Davey at eighteen months old, having recently learned to walk, getting into everything, beginning to learn to talk; he’s a healthy, happy child and they’re a happy family.

And then one night the king’s soldiers surround the town of Bethlehem, and at first light they come into the town. They order all parents with small children into the town square, search the houses to make sure that they haven’t missed anyone, and then without a word they kill every boy under the age of two. “Just following orders”, they say. It’s a cruel world, and that sort of thing happens all the time.

Susanna and Joachim, of course, are devastated; for months and years they go through periods of numbness, anger, and bitterness, before gradually coming to a place of acceptance. Maybe friends and neighbours try to give them easy theological answers about ‘God calling him home’ and ‘God always calls the best’, but Susanna and Joachim just can’t buy this. Instead, they find new meaning in the words of their prayer book, the psalms. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ‘Break the teeth of the wicked, O God’. And yet they still turn to God somehow; there’s nowhere else to turn.

It’s taken years, but they’ve come to a place of peace about all this. They’ve had other children, but they still remember little Davy and pray that God will raise him from the dead on the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Later on they hear the story of Jesus and become Christians; they experience the gift of the Holy Spirit and find some comfort in the sense of God’s presence in their lives in Christian worship and fellowship. Until one day when a newly written document is read out loud in the worship of their church, a book about the life of Jesus, written by a man called Matthew. Joachim and Susanna are old now, in their eighties, with great-grandchildren, and yet a chill falls on their hearts when they hear of how God warned the family of Jesus in a dream, and he was able to escape from Bethlehem. And now all the old questions resurface, and they wonder whether they love Jesus so much after all. If God could protect him, why not their little Davy?

I would love to be able to give you an easy answer to this question this morning, but there is no such easy answer. What I will point out, though, is that as tough as this question is, it’s just one example of an even bigger dilemma. For every blind person Jesus healed there were hundreds more in Israel he didn’t heal. For every son of a widow he raised from the dead, there were thousands more widows whose only sons had also died.

You see, for thinking Christians answered prayers are sometimes more problematic than unanswered ones. If God answers the prayer of one person in trouble, what about the others? No doubt a Christian who had been booked to fly on one of the 9/11 airliners, and had been prevented from flying at the last minute, would thank God for rescuing him. But if he told that story publicly, relatives of those who had died would ask themselves angrily ‘How come God didn’t rescue my son or daughter too?’ And in wartime family members of soldiers always pray that God would protect their loved ones in battle, but how does God choose which of those prayers he’ll answer and which he’ll ignore?

Of course the real answer involves the abolition of war altogether; that’s the only way to be fully just about these things. A world where there’s no more sin, no more selfishness, no more lust for power, no more evil, is the only sort of world where the prayers of everyone can be answered. And Jesus has assured us that one day we’ll live in that sort of a world. In fact, he’s told us to pray for it to come soon: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. But of course we need to be careful about how we pray that prayer. We live in the richest part of the world and enjoy a far greater percentage of the world’s wealth than justice would allow. How would God answer our prayer without asking us to live with less so that others could simply live? That’s the dilemma God faces, you see: every answered prayer has consequences somewhere else. So what’s the good news in this passage? Should we stop praying altogether?

Not at all. Jesus encourages us to pray and bring our requests to God. Not only that, but we just can’t help ourselves, can we? If you’re a person of faith, and you have people you love, you can no more stop praying for them than you can stop breathing. I have four children and two grandsons who I love more than I could even have imagined before they were born. Don’t tell me I can’t pray for them!

But as we pray, we realize that in the present imperfect state of the world, a perfect outcome for everyone isn’t going to happen. Evil is still present, sickness still exists, and human beings sin against each other with horrible consequences. God weeps for this, like Rachel weeping for her children. And he’s not far removed from it. He came and lived among us as one of us. He had to run to escape from Herod’s death squads. He lived as a refugee in Egypt, a displaced person, probably an illegal immigrant. Later on he was misunderstood by his family and even his closest friends. He was betrayed and given over to the power of the state and the empire, and they tortured him and nailed him to a cross. This is what it meant for him to be ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’.

And yet, through it all, in a way we can’t usually see or understand, God is working his purpose out. The death of Jesus, the vilest deed human beings have ever committed, turned out to be the way of reconciliation between God and human beings. Over and over again, in the history of Christianity, the sufferings of God’s people have somehow led to great advances for the kingdom of God. And the day will come, Jesus assures us, when those who have committed evil deeds will be held accountable for them—although, if I want God to have mercy on me for my sins, I might want to be careful about demanding too loudly that he punish the evil deeds of others.

The story of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a tough one for us to understand, but the Bible doesn’t whitewash these tough issues. Ultimately, this story leads us to pray ever more fervently for the coming of God’s kingdom. And meanwhile, in this gospel reading, Matthew encourages us to believe that in the midst of all the evil in the world God is working his purpose out, and that the day will come when every hurt is healed and every tear wiped away. And in the end, that is our Christian hope.

The Gift of Christmas (a sermon for Christmas Day)

A few years ago, 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.

On the face of it, that’s not a statement we could argue with, is it? We all know how easy it is to get caught up in the commercialism of Christmas, and I could spend lots of time ranting righteously this morning about how our culture teaches us to be selfish and materialistic, and how the retail industry exploits us to increase its profits, and so on, and so on. But what would be the point of that rant? At the end of the day, I still enjoy Christmas presents. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone?

But we get the point that we need to be generous as well. In fact, I would suggest to you that our society gets this message loud and clear over the Christmas season. The CBC turkey drive was aiming at a half a million dollar goal this year to help the poor of Edmonton enjoy a merry Christmas. Most of the people and businesses who donate to that goal don’t do so out of selfishness and self-centredness. No—something about Christmas tends to bring out the best in people. Christmas appeals to help the poor at home and overseas are usually well-supported. After Christmas, now—that can be another story altogether. It’s easy for generosity to slip off the radar screen when the January credit card bills come in.

Back to the saying about the two kinds of people at Christmas. I have to confess, even though I get the point, I’m still not happy with it. In fact, I remember when it first appeared on Facebook, I suggested to my friend that there might in fact be a third type of person at Christmas: those who think about what they have been given, and are thankful for it. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 St. 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’.

It seems to me that this is at the heart of what we’re doing here this morning. Why did we take time out of our Christmas morning celebrations at home to come out here to church? Surely we did it out of joy and gratitude. I’m here this morning because I’m grateful for what St. Paul calls ‘the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The word in the original language is ‘charis’: grace. Grace, as you know, is all about love that we don’t have to deserve or earn. It comes to us as a gift, free of charge, from the heart of God to us, because it’s the nature of God to give.

But I like the NRSV translation ‘generous act’. St. Paul isn’t just talking about God’s grace in general: he’s talking about a specific act of grace, that though our Lord Jesus Christ was rich in heaven with the Father, nonetheless he gave all that up so he could be born and live and die as one of us, to make us rich. The incarnation—the ‘becoming flesh’ of the Word of God in Jesus—is the generous act we’re celebrating this morning.

And it’s a gift. You don’t have to pay for it. When you open a Christmas present today, I doubt if the first thought on your mind will be “Wow, what an amazing gift. Now I’ve got to go out and do amazing things to pay for it!” No—at the moment the gift arrives, the appropriate response is to enjoy it and be grateful for it. Doing stuff comes later. Celebrating and enjoying comes first.

So let’s explore this gift God has given to us. One of the things I love about having four gospels, not just one, is that each writer tells the story of Jesus from his own point of view. Each writer has his own interests, and he feels free to underline the bits of the story that align with those interests. So we get a balanced viewpoint about the life of Jesus. Each of them understands the gift in a slightly different way, and we can celebrate that.

Let’s start with Luke. Luke is always on the side of the underdog. He loves the marginalized people of his day—tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, women and children—and he loves the fact that Jesus was born into an ordinary family in first century Galilee. So when Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus, he underlines the fact 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 bad time, when Mary was about to give birth. 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 people in power and authority—that God had chosen to receive the first royal birth announcement.

So what’s the gift of Christmas, for Luke? We could sum it up in this phrase: ‘You’re included!’ No one is left out—not the poor, not the underdogs, not the marginalized, not the foreigner—no one. And this may be just exactly what we need to hear this Christmas morning. Maybe some of us feel 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). There’s no one left out. The baby in the manger is 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 understands the ‘generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Now, what about Matthew? Matthew has a different interest; to him, the gift of Christmas is that you’ve finally got a king you can believe in!

Wow—if that’s not relevant to us today, I don’t know what is! We’re living in a time when respect for political leaders is at an all time low. Here in Canada, and also in the UK, we’ve just come through election campaigns in which approval ratings for party leaders were at basement levels, and of course, just last week you-know-who was impeached in the U.S. House of Representatives! Stories about corruption and dishonesty are all over the place, and we might be forgiven for shaking our heads and asking ourselves if there is such a thing as a leader we can believe in.

Matthew has good news for us: in Jesus, God has given us the priceless gift of a king we can believe in wholeheartedly, without reservation. Matthew wants everyone to know that Jesus is the true King, the Messiah. 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).

Matthew’s Christmas story is actually 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’ll 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. When that doesn’t work, he 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.

Matthew’s good news is that even though it might seem as if all power and authority on earth has been given to tyrants, that’s not actually 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. But in reality, as Jesus says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The day will come when he will come again in glory to judge 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. “You’ve got a King you can believe in,” he’s saying; “Now—go out and follow him with all your heart, and spread his message so that others can follow him as well.” Don’t put your trust in flawed and imperfect human leaders: put your trust in the true King, Jesus.

“You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ”, says St. Paul. We’ve seen two aspects of that generous act: that Jesus leaves no one out, and that Jesus is the King we can really believe in. But when we turn to John, he takes the message up to a whole new level of awesomeness. To him, the gift of Christmas is that God has come to live among us as one of us. For John, Jesus isn’t 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 starts by telling us ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). ‘The Word’ is John’s theological term for Jesus, the one who embodies God’s message. But the Word isn’t separate from God; in a strange and mysterious way, the Word also shares the nature of God. John strains human language to try to explain it: ‘the Word was withGod, and the Word wasGod.’

But then 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). In other words, 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.

Why did he do this? 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. And God hasn’t been slow to reveal himself; we learn about him through his creation, through the moral law he’s put in our hearts, and through the words of prophets and messengers he’s sent to teach us.

But what God has done in Jesus is on an entirely different level. Listen to our reading from Hebrews today:

‘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).

‘He is the exact imprint of God’s very being.’ You can’t get much clearer than that! As one of my friends used to say, ‘Jesus is God with a human face.’

And this God shows up. That’s always the best way to share love with people in trouble: just show up and be with them. Sometimes we  think we have to fix people’s problems, but often what people need most is just to know they’re not alone; someone is with them. And so Jesus doesn’t stay distant and safe; he comes close, comes among us, shares our life, shares our struggles. He shows us by his life and teaching what the love of God looks like. And he goes all the way to the Cross to live out that love for us.

So this is the gift we celebrate today. With Luke, we celebrate that no one is left out of the circle of God’s love: in Jesus, God reaches out to shepherds and carpenters, the poor and the broken hearted, the last and the least and the lost. You’re included, and so am I, and so is every other ‘I’ on the face of the earth.

With Matthew, we celebrate that in Jesus God has finally given us a King we can believe in. One day every knee will bow before him and every tongue confess that he is Lord of all. But we can’t wait for that day! We know he’s not just Lord in the future; he’s Lord now, as well. And we rejoice that on the last day he will have the last word.

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’s a God-visited world! And if God cared enough about this tiny little planet to make himself small and vulnerable and walk around on its surface, then his love for us must truly be incredible. He’s not far away from us; the story of Jesus shows that he is ‘Emmanuel’: God is with us.

‘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’ (2 Corinthians 8.9). That’s the good news of Christmas. There’ll be time tomorrow to think of what that good news is calling us to do. But for today, let’s stay in this place of deep gratitude for the amazing gift God has given us—truly the greatest gift 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’re lovable but because it’s the deepest nature of God to love. All we’re asked to do today is receive that love, and say “Thank you”. That’s the very reason we’re here this morning: to thank God for his indescribable gift.

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ (sermon for Christmas Eve)

When I was in high school in England we played soccer all winter long, outside, in the wind and the rain. I had two games periods a week, and unless the rain was torrential it was an absolute certainty that one of them would be a soccer game. We’d go out to the sports field, the teacher would pick two captains, and the captains would then pick their teams. That was a guaranteed humiliation for me, because I wasn’t a sporty kind of guy, and no one wanted me on their team. I was always one of the last ones to be picked. I could probably start a lawsuit now and make a lot of money off of all those years of mental anguish!

I suspect a lot of people feel that way when it comes to Christianity. We’ve been taught about the ten commandments and the teaching of Jesus, and it sounds pretty good, but deep down inside we know we just can’t measure up to it. We read in the gospels where Jesus says ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’, and we forget that at the beginning of that chapter he says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’ Perfection is the goal of the curriculum, not the entrance exam! But so often we’ve been given the impression that it’s the entrance exam, and the little child down inside us thinks “I’m never going to be good enough. Christianity’s not for people like me.”

One of our most common Christmas carols is ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. The first two lines go,

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.

I love that carol, but I have my doubts about those lines. My problem is with the kind of people who are being invited to come and see the baby in the manger: ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Think about it for a minute. When you think about the Christmas story, who is it that actually receives specific invitations from God to come to the party? Not just the faithful, that’s for sure! We could also add, ‘O come, all ye faithless’, ‘O come, all ye fearful’, and even perhaps ‘O come, all ye fretful’!

Let’s start with the shepherds. They were the great unwashed, the agricultural labourers who did the hard manual work of looking after the sheep day in and day out, without taking a break for Sabbaths and religious holidays. Shepherds were looked down on by religious Jews in the time of Jesus. It was pretty nearly impossible for them to observe all the rules and traditions about ritual washing, and there was no way they could do their job without breaking the Sabbath. Sheep don’t tend to look at each other and say, “Oh, it’s the Sabbath—we’d better not get lost today!” Free range livestock have to be protected and fed and cared for, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s what the shepherds were doing when the angels visited them.

And what about the Magi? They were astrologers from the east, definitely not Jewish. They were outside the covenant people of God. What did they think they were doing, gatecrashing the birth of the Jewish Messiah? How come they got an invitation, but King Herod and the temple priests from Jerusalem didn’t?

In the eyes of the religious folk in Bethlehem, the shepherds and the Magi would have been the faithless, not the faithful. The inside of the synagogue wouldn’t have been very familiar to them; they probably would have felt awkward and out of place there. And yet, God went out of his way to invite them to the birth of his Son. The angel choir wasn’t sent to the rabbis of Judea and Jerusalem, and the star didn’t guide them either. It was the outsiders, the shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi from Iraq who were summoned to come and adore him, Christ the Lord.

This is true to the later story of Jesus, too. When he was grown up and travelling around Palestine preaching and healing, he was always being criticized by the religious for hanging out with the wrong people—tax collectors who worked for the Romans, Roman soldiers themselves, prostitutes. Jesus justified it by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was always crossing barriers, talking to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to, reaching out to the excluded and the outsiders.

That might be a word that speaks especially to some of us tonight. Maybe we’re lifelong churchgoers, or maybe we’re here tonight for the very first time. Maybe we’re satisfied with the way we’re living our lives, or maybe we’re very aware of our failings and shortcomings. Maybe we think God would be glad to see us, or maybe we’re not so sure of his welcome. Whoever we are, faithful or faithless, we’re invited: ‘O come let us adore him’. You’re included, I’m included. God wants all of us to come to the celebration.

So yes, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but also, ‘O come, all ye faithless’! And we might also add, ‘O come, all ye fretful’. I would imagine that there was a lot of ‘fretting’ going on that night in Bethlehem.

We don’t really know anything about the story of the census Luke tells us about in his gospel, but if it was even remotely similar to what he describes, it would have been a massive undertaking. The idea that everyone had to return to the town their family originally came from to be registered—can you imagine how many people would have been on the road, how many businesses would have been disrupted, how many guest rooms would have been occupied?

Most modern Bible translators think the verse traditionally translated as ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ should actually be ‘there was no guest roomavailable for them’. The guest rooms would probably have been in the homes of some of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem; we can imagine how full their houses would have been, with distant cousins coming from the farthest reaches of Palestine. By the time Mary and Joseph got there, the only place left was the little room downstairs where the animals were brought in at night. “Sorry, cousin Joseph—it’s all we’ve got left”. “Don’t worry, cousin Ishmael—it looks cozy enough, and it’s better than the town square!” I imagine Joseph and Mary had been very ‘fretful’ as they had gotten closer to Bethlehem. They were probably very relieved to find that even such a rustic space was available for them.

Christmas is a busy, fretful time of year, and the world of retail has made it even more busy and fretful. There’s all the shopping to do, getting just the right gifts for the people who really don’t need anything and probably don’t even have room in their cupboards for anything else. There’s the family get-togethers to plan for, sometimes involving travel at the busiest time of year. And some of the family members haven’t actually spoken to each other for a while, and the meeting is going to be a little awkward, to say the least. And what about cousin Eddie? He really wants to see all the family, but he’s a little scared of the wine that will be served at the meal. He’s been sober for six months, you see, but sometimes he still finds it hard.

We all carry burdens and worries, and often no one else knows about them. Most of us in this busy world feel rushed and harassed, and the fact that we’ve made it here to church tonight speaks volumes about how important we think this Christmas service actually is, in the midst of our busy schedule. But maybe we’re feeling so rushed, so overwhelmed by details, that we’re wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to stay home?

No, God doesn’t feel that way; he’s glad we’re here. When the baby Jesus grew up and became a man, he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for the fretful. He doesn’t want to add to our burdens; he wants to lift them from our shoulders. So the fretful, too, are invited: ‘O come, let us adore him’. Come into his presence, and find there the peace that you’ve been looking for.

‘O come, all ye faithful’. ‘O come, all ye faithless’. ‘O come, all ye fretful’. And there’s also ‘O come, all ye fearful’. For some of us, the idea of God is a fearful idea.

Have you ever noticed that every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are usually “Don’t be afraid”? Does that give you a clue as to what they look like? They probably aren’t the cute little baby cherubs created by the Renaissance artists, or the beautiful female angels with long blonde hair so beloved of people who post pictures on Facebook. No—biblical angels are scary. When people see them, they fall down on their faces, trembling with fear.

Many people feel that way about God, too, and it’s not hard to understand why. Imagine the power that can create something as vast and complex as the universe? The distances involved are unimaginable to us, but the astronomers tell us they’re true. And the detail—the intricacies of the human eye, the miracle of DNA and the human genome. I can’t begin to imagine the greatness of a God who could think of all that, and design it, and call it into being by his word of power. How can I possibly stand before the face of such a God?

In ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’, Charles Wesley wrote:

Veiled in flesh, the godhead see—
Hail, the incarnate Deity.

‘Veiled’. Hidden. If God appeared to us as he reallyis, in all his glory and majesty and splendour and holiness, we would be totally overwhelmed. The circuits of our brains would fry up. Some of the Old Testament writers believed that no one could see God and live to tell the tale: not because God’s angry at us, but just because God’s so very, very far outside our experience and our imagination.

And so, in God’s mercy, he veils himself in flesh. He makes himself very small—just a zygote, and then a fetus, in the womb of a young Galilean peasant girl. He’s born in humility, grows up in obscurity, and then steps out onto the stage of history and proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand. And many people look at him and dismiss him: ‘He’s just a man’. ‘He’s from Nazareth; can anything good come from there?’ And we think, ‘God, couldn’t you have made yourself a little more obvious?’

But the answer is, no, he couldn’t have. Any more obvious, and we would have been terrified out of our wits. So in mercy he veiled himself and came among us to live our life, die our death, and be raised again victorious over the forces of evil and hate. And now his invitation goes out to all people, “Come”.

Why would he do such a thing? Surely the only possible answer is, because he loves us so much. Nothing else could motivate God the Son to lay aside his glory and majesty and enter our human experience. In one of his letters in the New Testament St. Paul describes it like this:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

That’s how God has come near to us in Jesus. There’s no need to be afraid.

O come all ye faithful – all ye faithless – all ye fretful – all ye fearful. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come to welcome the coming of God as a human being. Come to welcome him into our world, into our lives, and into our hearts. Come to receive the great gift of his steadfast, unconditional love. Come to take part in the transformation of the world by that love. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hang back. The welcome mat is out at God’s front door for all of us. No one is left out. Everyone who truly wants to can come in.

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.

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’.