Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
Most of us have a pretty good idea of how the nativity story goes. We know that it happens in Bethlehem because the Emperor Augustus had decreed that a census should take place. We know the cast: the innkeeper, the angels, the shepherds, and the animals – and of course Mary and Joseph. Perhaps, if we have got our Christmas story mediated to us through the traditional 9 Lessons and Carols, we might remember that this birth has been foretold: that a shoot would come from the stock of Jesse; that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, named Emmanuel. But St John takes us back beyond this: beyond the starry night and the angels’ song, beyond the birth in a borrowed stable. Back even beyond the centuries-old hopes of Israel, his perspective widening and receding beyond the evolution of humanity and the formation of galaxies, back to the time before even time was, back to the beginning.
And in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This is where it starts: with the God who is, and God is revealed to be a God of relationship. In the beginning there exists God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a perfect relationship of love. Then, John tells us, through the Word all things were made. God, in love, creates a universe that is distinct from him but made to share in his love. In creation, God makes room within the life of the Trinity for us. The place God wants to bring us to is the place in and alongside his Son, where we know what it is to love and be loved, to delight in and be delighted in; the place where we become, finally, the people God has made us to be.
Think about that for a minute. The story as John tells it begins not with a town so full that there is no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn, but with God who from his fullness makes room in himself for us. God creates because God wants us to share in his life.
And so God comes to share in our life. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And this is the extraordinary truth of this night: that in an occupied backwater town far from the centres of power, to a young unmarried mother of obscure lineage and prospects who will all too soon become a refugee, God becomes human. He takes on flesh in a world where the poor cry for justice; where the powerful trample on the lowly and exploit them; where peace is mostly secured through violence and where too many people do not know what it’s like to be loved.
And God does this because God still wants us to share in his life. God looks down from heaven at the world he had made for love and sees it mired in sin and strife. And God refuses to give up on us and to leave us in the grip of the sin and pain and mess that we can all too readily identify in the world and in ourselves. So he comes into the midst of it. Jesus shows us what God’s love looks like. And it’s vulnerable: from the dangers and dependency of birth to the plots and betrayals of those who can’t or won’t welcome this love and so seek to silence it. It’s a love that doesn’t stay tidily contained in scriptures or services or religious buildings but is found mixing with those who’ve always been told they’re unlovable, or that something they’re done or something that’s happened to them makes them so. We see God’s love in Jesus giving new starts to those who’ve made a mess of their lives, who find themselves cut off from family or society or God. We see it open in compassion to the suffering of the sick; filled with righteous anger at injustice and hypocrisy; steadfast in the face of betrayal and denial; willing, finally, to die for the sake of those who are loved.
And in all this God shows us that he is a God who continues to create: that the Love with which he made continues to seek us out, to make us new, to heal what is broken and forgive what has gone wrong and restore what is lost; to make lovely those parts of us that are unlovely. God continues to love us into life, to make us his.
‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’, says John. That’s what this night is about: God drawing us into the space he has made for us, drawing us into the love and the relationship for which he created us. And what he asks is that we make space for him. His coming shows us that it needn’t be a palace: he doesn’t need fine surroundings and silk bedding. Straw tickled his face that first Christmas; an animal’s feeding trough was enough. And if you’re not sure what you have that might furnish a home for him, know this: God always wants to make a home in you. There is no place in you too poor, too messed up, too shameful or hidden that God will not come to, to share your life so you can share his. Well might we join the song of the angels this night: Glory to God in the highest.