Christmas Eve Sermon 2010

I'm sure you've all had that experience in life, when you're looking for something and you search all over the house, only to find that the thing you've been looking for so hard is staring you in the face. I had it just today, when I was desperately looking for Gregor's present. I had bought it ages ago and now, as I came to wrap it, it was no-where to be seen. I turned the whole house over and accused my darling wife of hiding it out of sheer malevolence, only to discover that it was in my study all along, right under my nose.
And one of my favourite Christmas games as a child was hunt the thimble - and I used to take particular delight every now and then by placing the thimble somewhere so blindingly obvious that they wouldn't see it. And I can still remember the thrill of watching my family scour the room, looking in every obscure corner, until they finally spotted it lying in the middle of the coffee table.
Looking for God can be very much like that. I love hearing the old familiar Christmas story each year and I suspect that most of you do too - that's possibly why you are here because. But do we find God in it?
Humanity has always struggled to understand God, and the bible suggests that that is because we're all looking the wrong places. There are so many fanciful folk-religion images of God and so many familiar stories that we tend, subconsciously to be looking for the God we imagine, rather the reality of God in our midst. And when we don't find the God we've imagined, or when we come to think of our imagined God as actually rather silly, it can damage our faith in the real God, who has been sitting there all the time staring us in the face.
Now from time immemorial, humanity has had a concept of God Almighty - the great God in heaven, pure & perfect, but remote and cold. And our world and our lives are so obviously far from all that is pure and perfect that it has been impossible for us to conceive the possibility that God might be active right here among us. After all, if he is active here, why is there still so much wrong with the world?
And so every other religious expression of God (apart from Christianity) has come to one of two conclusions - that God is either remote in heaven and incapable of interaction with the world, or that God is simply the sum total of all creation and is not particularly divine at all. In short, they believe either in a God who's so heavenly, he's of no earthly use, or so earthly that he's powerless.
But if these Christmas readings from scripture are true, then the real God is radically different. The God we see lying in the Christmas manger is one who connects the heavenly and the earthly. You know, Christianity has always struggled with the concept of the Virgin birth. It's an extremely difficult story to believe in, because it seems so obviously impossible.
In Evelyn Waugh's great novel, Brideshead Revisited, there is a lovely exchange when the central Character, Charles Ryder challenges his wayward, but loveable friend Sebastian over his Christian faith and says "you can't really believe all that about a baby born in a stable surrounded by animals". And Sebastian responds, very simply, "I always thought it was rather lovely." "But you can't believe something just because it's lovely" Charles protests.
Well, I have to say, I'm with the sceptical Charles on that on. I don't want to detract from the loveliness of it all - goodness knows, in this life we need all the loveliness we can get - but if you're going to base your life on something you want a bit more than that to go on, don't you? And for years I was secretly inclined to believe that the story of Jesus' birth had been made up, until I came to realise that I was looking at it the wrong way round.
In fact, it is highly unlikely to have been made up, because for the early church it was a highly problematic story. We must remember that it was originally a Jewish story and the prevailing Jewish view of God at the time was of the remote God - the one confined to heaven, unable to approach the world in any capacity because of our sinfulness. True, their own familiar story had led them to expect a Messiah, but he was purely human. It was completely impossible that any human being, Messiahs included, could be God. No Jew would make up such a story and no Jews who knew their own story could believe it.
And within a very short space of time, the story of this extraordinary birth was taken to the wider Greek & Roman world and this story of a virgin birth immediately caused all sorts confused messages to be brought into play because of their Pagan tradition of the Gods who would impregnate humans for sport and who would appear in human form to toy with us.
So the concept of God actually inhabiting real humanity was a major problem for all the audiences of this tale. To the Jews it was unbelievable and the Greeks & Romans it was decided unhelpful. And so as a lawyer, I can only conclude that this story couldn't have been made up, because there was no incentive to make it up. It just caused trouble. On the contrary, there was a very strong temptation to delete it from the gospel story altogether.
But the original disciples and their followers clung to the story nonetheless and eventually the church began to see, through this problematic story, that they had misunderstood God because they were blinded by the familiar.
So if this story is true, then goodness me! It makes quite a difference doesn't it?
For one thing it means that God is real and that he has revealed to us who he really is, so there's no point looking in all the wrong places for God any more. We've found him right here in the manger in Bethlehem.
Suddenly God isn't remote or absent. He has inhabited our very humanity itself, despite all its frailty and problems. Our poor lives are touched in a very personal and profound way by God. That is a mind-blowing thought! Suddenly the creative, life-giving force at the heart of all existence is a person - a person you and I can know personally.
Suddenly, we are not lost in an out-of-control world ruled over by a pure, cold & remote force. We are found by a God who comes to us and inhabits our very flesh and blood. And who, by re-creating us, offers us the chance to start again and this time to truly come alive -with all the life-giving creative beauty of God at the centre of our existence, flooding our lives with light and beauty and grace.

Of course, we might prefer the darkness. Many have. We might cling to the familiar and slowly die with everything else that is passing away with the rolling years. But why choose that, when you can live?
Because, if this story is true, then it is possible to live. Suddenly it's not so smart to be cynical and it's not so silly to have faith. We can have doubts, of course. If you base your life on something, you're bound to have doubts - that only shows that you're taking it seriously, but cynicism is so deadening to the soul and if this story is true, it kills cynicism.
If this story is true, then all our mistakes and failures can be swept up by God himself and transformed into something wonderful, so there is no longer any need to fear for the future or to regret the past. And if this story is true, then all the tragedies of our lives no longer have the last word. God himself has inhabited every aspect of our existence and infected it all with his eternal life, so that everything that would destroy us or those we love, is now working backwards - not to death, but to eternal life.
This God, who all these years has been staring us in the face, gazing out from the familiar crib scene, turns out to be the one who offers us true hope, faithful relationship, concrete help and real life.
I myself have come to know the difference it makes when you suddenly realise that God is looking at you and longing to share your life, giving you a life worth living and a hope worth centring your whole life on. That sense of light, and beauty and grace suddenly coming alive in me is one I will never forget and it's changed me forever. And that's why Christmas makes my heart rejoice so deeply. And with all my heart, it is my prayer that you can experience it too, this Christmas.

Preached: Great Strickland 24 December 2010