Christmas Eve Sermon 2011
"The Word became flesh and lived among us" - eight small words,
so familiar, but with the most profound and mind blowing implications.
"The Word", of course, is John's descriptive name for Jesus,
(or more particularly his way of describing the eternal son of God before
his birth as Jesus). The eternal son of God became as human as you and
I and lived among us. How extraordinary. And despite the familiarity of
this Christmas, a little thought on this idea reveals some remarkable
For a start, isn't this rather an odd way for an all-powerful God to save
the world? To be born as a fragile baby at a time of terrifyingly high
infant mortality rates, with hopelessly primitive medical care and to
be born into a war zone in one of the most violent civilisations ever
in the sort of squalor and poverty that routinely claims the lives of
babies and mothers. And let's not delude ourselves. I know that we all
have lovely pictures on our Christmas cards of cosy crib scenes in stables,
but the reality was far from that. Bear in mind that the bible says nothing
about a stable- only that Mary and Joseph couldn't find room in the inn
and so were forced to improvise a crib with an animal feeding trough.
In all likelihood they were just out in the street, using one of the roadside
troughs. Or perhaps in a field. At best, it was likely to have been a
damp cave. We are talking about squalid poverty.
And yet, all the plans of this all-powerful God are vested in a frail
baby, born into a situation where, of all humanity, he is the least likely
to survive. This is a very surprising kind of God.
And yet, what other way of saving us would there be? Surly the only way
God could do this, was to inhabit all our risks and dangers and fears
that we face, to face them head on, putting his own life on the line by
facing everything that could annihilate us, everything that terrifies
us, everything that causes us to suffer, and to infect it all with his
hope, with his love, with his courage and with his transforming, eternal
life. His willingness to forgo his power and transform humanity with his
love and care is what changes our destiny. That's a God who can save us.
And then there are the people he chooses for this mission, the people
into whose hands he places his destiny and whom he trusts to spread his
story - a strange cast indeed.
Firstly, there is Mary. And again we must cast aside all preconceived
ideas about Mary. She was not a woman, but a young girl (probably between
12-15 years old), living in an age when young girls were of no consequence
at all. Their testimony was not accepted and they had no value in society
except as marriage fodder. And God begins his story by destroying the
one value she had in the world's eyes - no-one in their right minds would
have her with child.
And she was a Jew Even today that element of Jesus' story is downplayed
- I suspect most of us, subconsciously, tend to think of Jesus as a British
Christian and Mary as a good Catholic girl! But they're not. They're members
of the most hated race in all human history (to our shame and to God's
glory). No wonder Mary, in her song (which we know as the Magnificat)
sings of God "casting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting
the humble and weak". God chooses the most insignificant member of
the most disregarded race to bear his eternal son and his salvation story
from beginning to end. How extraordinary! How very different from the
powerful people of our world.
Secondly, there were the shepherds. And (you've guessed it) we've got
some preconceptions to cast aside there too. Shepherds in first century
Israel were not the kindly, respectable farmers we know today. They were
renowned as thieves, vagabonds and liars - rough men living out on the
hillside outside of normal society. No-one would believe the word of a
shepherd. And yet, who does God choose as his first witnesses? Thieves,
vagabonds, renowned and accomplished liars, come face to face with the
eternal Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. Liars sent to bear the
eternal truth as faithful witnesses. How extraordinary.
Thirdly, there were the Magi. I know we refer to them as wise men and
even sometimes ennoble them as kings. But they weren't, at least not to
Jewish eyes. Because if the Jews were insignificant in the eyes of most
of the world, there was nothing more contemptible in first century Jewish
eyes than Gentiles (non-Jews). And these men were not only Gentiles, but
Gentiles who practised Astrology, the most contemptible of hocus-pocus
merchants. The bible is universally scathing of Astrology and even this
story doesn't change that. And yet these contemptible Magi are part of
God's plan, called to acknowledge a greater mystery, a deeper truth: the
Word made flesh, God in our own human form - a light greater than any
star, a wisdom beyond all wisdom. Everything is turned on its head. How
But there is someone else in this story too, not immediately obvious,
but this story is being told to them by these extraordinary characters.
We are in this story too and we are being invited to believe it. So what
does it say to us?
Well, first and foremost, that we too are called by God to be part of
this story. Whoever you are, however insignificant you are, whatever your
past, you are called to be part of God's salvation plan for our poor world.
This, extraordinary God is not going to change the world through the rich
and powerful; through the politicians or economists; nor through mighty
armies (he's seen off a great many of those in his time); nor through
great acts - floods, thunderbolts and the like. This God doesn't do that.
He's in the business of casting down the mighty from their thrones and
exalting the humble and weak.
This God is going to change the world by transforming you and me; by being
made flesh in our lives, by inhabiting our very weakness, by living our
lives from the inside and with us facing our mess, our squalor, our poverty,
our fears and everything that threatens us, whatever the odds. The eternal
Word, the creator God will live in us, if we (like Mary) will allow him
to be born in us today. If we do, he will transform us. And through us,
the humble and weak, he will transform the world.
But there is another implication, which you need to be aware of before
you accept his invitation. Because if you accept his invitation to you,
you will need to accept that he is inviting a lot of other people who
you might not want to associate with - a cast of vagabonds and outcasts.
And in the world's eyes you will be associated with them.
Those who carry Christ's story are hardly treated with respect. In an
age when wisdom is the monopoly only of the enlightened atheists, we are
the fools, the liars, the disregarded (the humble and weak, noticed only
And we are called to live in committed relationship with all the other
fools, liars and outcasts that this extraordinary God calls (and that's
why you can't follow this God without being part of his church). But it's
Every other attempt to change the world that humanity embraces works on
the basis of excluding those who are inconvenient. Politicians form parties
of like-minded people and treat their opponents with appalling contempt,
even violence. Countries form alliances and wage wars. Great enlightened
intellectuals in our top universities are appallingly deprecating towards
anyone who disagrees with their theories. Philosophers and even theologians
goad and insult those who take issue with them. Militant atheists seek
to eradicate people of faith, treating them with appalling bitterness
and rage - as if that is going to make the world a better place! Even
in church, alas, these habits die hard. On the whole, churchgoers aren't
any easier to get along with than anyone else (I should know - I'm paid
to get on with them!), but they're exactly the sort of strange, awkward
people God calls.
We all want to leave the awkward people on the outside. And yet, if you
are to follow this God, this Word-made-flesh God who calls the humble
and weak and lives in them, you are called to leave no-one on the outside;
to find love in your heart for all of them, however unattractive, however
much you might disagree with them, however contemptible you find them.
Because it is precisely people like that whom God chooses to bear his
salvation to us all. And, extraordinary as that is, I thank God that he
chooses the unattractive, the insignificant, the liars, the contemptible,
the humble and weak - because actually I'm one of them.
And if you are one also, then this extraordinary story of the Word made
flesh is for you too, in fact, it's a story of hope and life for every
member of poor, helpless humanity. These really are glad tidings of great
joy for all people. Praise God.
Preached: Bolton 24 December 2011