My sermon for Christmas Day.
My sermon for Christmas Eve.
My third living room gig of Christmas songs old, new, and in between!
…in which I sing some more Christmas songs – some traditional, some whose authors are known, and one original.
I believe with all my heart that at a certain point in history, the Word of God became a human being and lived among us as one of us. I believe he showed us by his life and teaching what God is like. I believe he infected the human race with the love of God in a new and unique way, and this good infection has been spreading ever since. And because I believe this, I love Advent and Christmas with a passion! It is my favourite time of the year!
…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!
Find out more about Megson on their website here.
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.
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.
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.