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 surprises.
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 extraordinary.
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 by God).
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 very tough.
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