Christmas Eve 2013
[Jesus said] “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:18-23 ESV)
The current storms are news not just because we always talk about the weather. At this time of the year our media look at weather, transportation issues – industrial slants perhaps (no strikes it seems this year), or other aspects because there is, what seems to me, to be a ‘theme’ around these days – an assumption, an expectation, a hope – that at Christmas we should be home.
Whether in the military with its overseas postings or deployments or shift work that is part of the essential services of the land or increasingly even in the retail industry, there are issues regarding whether we are home at this time. It’s more poignant for some reason when we’re not home – because Christmas and home go together.
It is part of the story of Christmas – people having to travel to their ancestral home for a census – a head count – and so Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to be registered. It’s a journey of about 100 miles and Google Maps says with no hold ups it’ll be just under 2 hours on the road. You’re not far away when you’re only 2 hours from home. Most scholars theorise that back then the journey was probably more like a 4 day walk – probably a bit more of a direct route then – but not a quick trip. And not if you’re pregnant or as the King James puts it ‘great with child’ (an embellishment on the Greek) but we get the point. What Mary however didn’t get – and this was a place, we presume, of relatives – was a home. And that’s another thing that goes together – pregnant women, babies, and home. We want them together. It’s the place to be but in this case we just hear two things – there’s no room in the inn and the baby was wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger – a feed trough for animals. Whatever the story here, it’s not going to be good. Something’s not right – where’s home?
We gather together around a manger in our mind’s eye because the baby placed in it a long time answered our longing for home – for safety, security, for love, for a place to be just who we are rather than being judged on the basis of our performances. It seems paradoxical that Jesus the homeless, Jesus the refugee, Jesus the nondescript (what good comes from Nazareth?), Jesus who in his public ministry said that he didn’t have a place to lay his head, would on the last night of his life here on earth declare that he and his Father would come to those who love him and make their home with them.
Death wrecks home. Storms wreck homes. Rosters wreck homes. Sin wrecks homes. But the home that Jesus makes with people can never be destroyed. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms and I’m preparing a place for you and you will be with me.’ That seems like a nice future but a lousy present. Until we realise that this Jesus born – was born for us – and his life and death and resurrection means precisely that home is with Jesus now. When you’re with Jesus, you are home where there is safety – what can the world really do to you? – where there is security – nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord – where there is love – unconditional, forgiving, life changing – where we can just be who we are – beloved of God at home.
Places are important – geography is not to be ignored – but tonight we are reminded that we don’t need to go to Bethlehem – or Jerusalem – that where God’s Word is active – where it leads us to bow before a manger and a cross, there God declares that he is making his home in our lives. Sure we, at times, bristle and argue and struggle when living with people under the same roof – and it’s the same with Jesus – but his mercy and grace are inexhaustible – and no matter our surroundings, situation or circumstances in the world those in Christ are always already home.
This truth – this belief – shapes then how we live – we come to worship and God mysteriously serves us. We learn things deeply at home – and so we learn how to go out into the world and serve others. That’s what Christmas impresses upon us – almost without words – doing rather than talking – God is going to incredible lengths to rescue us and bring us home.
Christmas Day 2013
Not another re-run
14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV)
Like getting out the old family album or putting in the battered video that’s almost been played to pieces or getting out a whole DVD series and putting in a favourite episode, the Christian church gathers around the world at this time to play ‘historical amnesia’ and go to the Bethlehem like the shepherds, the first time, and try and experience the story again. It’s the type of suspension of disbelief we take with us to the theatre or that allows us to sit and watch repeats and re-runs.
We know what happens but it seems to me that the world would rather forget or at least not consider it in too much detail. In fact it’s not all that pc for me now to lean closer to you and whisper … ‘want to know what happens next? … he dies … that’s where this story is heading’. Aww – you ruined it! That’s not what we want to hear at a birth! We want hopes and dreams – long life – success – material possessions – happiness. We want life and the stuff that life is made of and that ‘d’ word (death) should be banished and kept as far away as possible.
However the simple truth is that we are here remembering this birth because Jesus died … but in his case even death isn’t the end of the story for Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday – which the church celebrated long before it ever sang Christmas carols. And because there are still followers of Jesus around who claim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – died among us – rose again among us – and is still among us – that’s why we gather at Bethlehem in our imagination to rejoice at God’s action for God has become a human being and entered our world.
Actually this isn’t a new message. Gods come into this world in many religions – in many shapes and forms – often they are what we might call the superman gods like Zeus or Apollo – or demi gods like Hercules – or an aspect of god like Krishna. For John to review Jesus’ life and death and resurrection and who he is and then to write that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is not a prophecy but a summation – after the fact – for he also writes we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. The rest of the gospel tells what they have seen – his glory – his signs and wonders – his teachings – his fights with those who didn’t and wouldn’t recognise him – his coronation as king – his glory as the Saviour of the world.
Hang on – is this the same story? What we see is an apparently illegitimate baby who lived as a carpenter for 30 or so years had a controversial public ministry and was executed by the religious and political leaders as a pretender – you’ve got to be don’t you, if you make claims that you’re God! The world has always faced the choice – look at this story – this birth and Jesus’ cross – in the light of our reason and senses or in the light of the empty tomb.
There is a wonder that God became human to be sure but what sort of human – a superman? No. The mystery of the incarnation for us is that God appears in the likeness of sinful flesh – will throw his lot in with us – as we are – will be one of us – and hence he looks poor and with little chance in this world after all he’s wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger – he looks a sinner in the river Jordan being baptised – and he definitely looks bad hanging on a cross. For this is the only way the cost of our salvation, the debt for our deeds, could be paid; it is the only way for death to be defanged – it had to be by one of us.
So in our imagination when we look into the manger and see there a little new born – wrapped in cloths – he had to borrow a feed trough for his first crib – a poor little tyke in anyone’s language – but bathed in the light of the empty tomb – we fall on our knees – in awe and wonder at what God will do to rescue us from sin and death. And that’s why we keep coming back each Christmas to Bethlehem and why we live with God who still dwells with us.