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We know, because we’ve heard it all before, what Christmas is all about. Year by year we rehearse the story, we rejoice – because that’s what we’re supposed to do, we do our best to imagine the scene at Bethlehem, we wonder at the paradox of God become man, and we go on our way, reassured, glad that everything is the same as it always was. Except that it’s not. Nothing will ever be the same again.
As soon as God gets involved, nothing remains the same, not the song, not the story, nothing. Of course, God always was involved, but perhaps not in quite the same way. At Bethlehem the course of history changes tack. Before, it was on a downward slope – but now a new act in the drama begins. There is real hope, and new life. God’s coming to earth has made a difference. When God became a real human being, humanity could never be the same again.
I like to describe the history of God with his people as a drama. It’s a drama in four acts – creation, incarnation, redemption and completion. Each act is an essential part of the whole story – you can’t leave one of the acts out and still have it make sense. It also means that the end of the story was planned from the beginning – the end is what it is all about – this is not a story without an end, a story without meaning – God has a purpose and a plan. That is what gives life its meaning.
So the coming of God in Jesus into the world is not some plan B which God dreamed up when things went wrong. That God’s eternal Son would come to share our earthly life was part of God’s plan from the very beginning. It was a necessary step in the process of making the created finite realm of material life fit to share in the infinite, limitless life of God. The Bible speaks of the transformation of all of the created realm not just human life. God’s purpose encompasses the whole created realm not just human life. Jesus is Lord of all creation – he demonstrates this by stilling the storm, having power over disease, and feeding the crowds with just a little food. But in order to achieve all this, Christ comes to share our earthly existence, and does so fully, sharing in every part of human life. The church fathers knew and understood the necessity of Christ becoming human – Irenaeus said of Jesus that he became one with us so that we might become one with him. A couple of centuries later Gregory of Nazianzus said that which is not assumed is not redeemed – in other words if Jesus did not take on human nature with all its sinful frailties, then we in our humanity are not saved – or redeemed.
Our readings, particularly the Gospel reading from the opening verses of John’s gospel, remind us that the baby in the manger is not just any baby, but the one who is the creator of the world. The accompanying angels and newly appeared star also point to the cosmic significance of this event. Year by year we revisit the story and we pause to wonder at the miracle of God’s coming among us. But the emphasis tends to be on the wonderful paradox – that this new-born baby is God, is the Creator, the one promised in Hebrew prophecy, the one who upholds the universe in being by his power.
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When we read about this One through whom and for whom all things exist, the Word who was present when all things began to come into being, it all becomes a bit abstract. The idea of a cosmic Christ is not at the forefront of our minds when we think about Christmas. Perhaps with the help of the well-known verses from John’s gospel we can make the connection in an intellectual sense – this child is that One, but the link still seems somewhat tenuous. How do the events of two thousand years ago relate to my life, or to anyone’s life for that matter. What difference does it make?
I imagine it made quite a big difference to Mary and Joseph. We often emphasise just how young Mary was to undergo such an onerous task – being Mother to God’s child. If she had led a quiet life in Nazareth until then it was certainly turned upside down and would never be the same again. But that was just the beginning – all through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry we read of encounters with people who would never be the same again. Blind men, people with leprosy, a boy with a demon, a woman caught in adultery, a prostitute, tax collectors, and countless others – all on the wrong side of society – outcasts, desperate, helpless and hopeless. But loved by God, their lives touched by him and given a new beginning. Never to be the same again. What a difference Jesus made to their lives.
And what about a group of uneducated, rough and ready fishermen. Without knowing what they were letting themselves in for, they abandoned the security of their homes and jobs. What a difference Jesus must have made to them to make them dare to take such a step. And what a difference he continued to make, after the trauma of his public death and then his return to them fully alive – his gift to them of the Holy Spirit to help them go on making a difference throughout the known world as the early church spread like wildfire. And we mustn’t forget the dramatic change in the life of Paul, as he turned from being a persecutor of the early church to being one of its most influential leaders.
But what difference does Jesus make to your life? Are the events of the first Christmas just an irrelevant sideshow? Something you remember briefly each year and then leave behind until the next time? Perhaps there isn’t room in your busy life to make a space for God, or perhaps no room in your heart. Perhaps you’re not willing to accept the possibility of another dimension to life apart from the material and physical.
People question the idea that the Bible has authority for us today. It contains inconsistencies and some things that are just hard to accept. But overall it speaks plainly and clearly about a God who cares about his people. A God whose existence spans the whole of history and who is not limited in his capacity for love and willingness to forgive and accept people for who and what they are. A God who invites all people to be one with him and to share his life, a life without limit, and of real peace and blessing beyond measure. It speaks also of the one who has come to show us the way to find this God, the one who came from God and is God, but who is also fully human, in fact, the only truly fully human person who has ever lived – the only one who has ever lived a life completely in accord with God’s will and purposes.
We pray frequently for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth. We are incapable of making the first part happen by ourselves and we struggle with the latter. We are unwilling to let Jesus make a difference to the way we are as individuals, and together as the church we often a fail as an institution, and obscure God when we should be making him clearly seen. We have limited ambitions for what we could let God achieve through us, we resist his attempts to change us. All too often Jesus makes no difference to our lives because we refuse to let him make a difference.
The coming of God into the world and all that Jesus did in his ministry and supremely in his death, shows the lengths God is prepared to go to in order to help us change into what he wants us to be. We are so limited in how we see ourselves – ugly ducklings cowering in the bushes, afraid to dare to change or be changed. God sees us as the beautiful swans he intends us to become. The Christmas story doesn’t change – we come back to it year after year and it is the same – but we needn’t be the same – we can take God at his word – the Word being his Son – and allow ourselves to be changed by him into something a little more like the kingdom people God has called us to be. Amen.
This sermon was given at the First Communion of Christmas on 24th/25th December 2007 (Midnight Communion). © Copyright Marion Gray 2007.
Page last updated 29 December 2007.
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