And as we gather here this evening, to hear that story again with our own twenty-first century ears, we are consciously united not only with Christians around the world who will be gathering in the coming hours to wrestle joyfully again with this story, but also with all those who have shared the hope of Christmas with us in the past, and who are no longer physically present with us to celebrate tonight.
I don’t mind admitting to you this evening that the incarnation (Jesus – truly God and truly human) is both a great joy and consolation to him, and also a perplexing puzzle, but if I was supposed to have come to understand a very slick and tidy answer to it all of the questions of this story at theological college I was clearly snoozing during that set of lectures. And yet, this wonderful story – which shines out such profound truth, that it doesn’t much matter whether it happened like this or not, is a story that I am grateful to hope for and to grapple with through faith. The good news, of course, is that the Church has struggled with this story through the centuries as well. So we are not alone as we stand back and hear it again this evening, and wonder like the shepherds, and indeed like Mary, as to what it all means.
If I was going to frame this struggle in the form of a question for us at the beginning of the twenty first century, it would be something like this: “Did the baby in the manger cry?” or to extend that a little further, did he do all of the normal things that babies do? — Did he need burping? Was he in control of those bits of him which fill the nappies of the average baby? Was he able to comprehend what was going on around him? Did he think like a baby, or an adult, or even a god? Did he wake up as soon as his parents dozed off to sleep as babies (in my experience) seem programmed to do? In short – was this little baby, a real baby or not? So many questions: my head is starting to spin! These are not new questions: they have been pondered by the Church through the centuries – although they have been asked in a slightly different way in the past.
In Greek mythology (which would have been widely known by some of the first Christians) there were many gods who arrived fully formed, who arrived ready to rule and to do battle. In Greek legend Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang from Zeus’ skull, fully grown and clad in armour. Athena did not need to live through a period of learning and growing, she arrived already in her full stature. Some Christians have imagined Jesus, right from his birth to be like this, a sort of little adult in a baby’s body. There are ancient and beautiful visual depictions of Jesus as a new born baby sitting up and blessing the animals which surrounded him in the stable.
Other Christians have imagined Jesus being in the form of a baby, but actually knowing all that there was to know about the world. It was really a trick. Jesus looked like a baby and smelt like a baby, but he was just pretending because he really knew fully what was going on around him.
Then there are other Christians who have always maintained that we find in the manger on that first Christmas night, a normal healthy new born baby, one who has no control of most of his bodily functions, who is unable to distinguish clearly what is going on around him, who demands the same attention as any new born child – a beautiful baby boy who is utterly helpless, utterly at the mercy of those who care for him, utterly dependent on others in that stable in Palestine many years ago. Yet at the heart of the good news which is our Christian hope (the reason that we gather here tonight) this normal lovely, yet vulnerable baby is somehow God – “the Word made Flesh” as the Gospel of John puts it, “who dwelt amongst us.” Or as the English bishop David Jenkins affirms in his thirteen word creed: “God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.”
In Jesus – in this normal little baby (as amazing and as fantastic as it sounds) we find the commitment of God to us, for all time. It is because this baby is no more than a baby, and yet is also a bundle of God (in a way that we cannot fully understand), that we are able to celebrate God’s great love for us. A love that reaches out to us, a love that comes to experience as we experience; to grow as we grow; to be vulnerable as we are vulnerable – as a little baby boy.
God’s new beginning in Jesus, signals for us God’s commitment to begin something new in each one of us – the hope that we might be transformed into the person that God lovingly calls us to be. And yet as we look at that first Christmas, we see that most people on that night did not even realise that anything special was taking place. Some shepherds came from the fields, summoned by angels. They came because they had been told to come: until the angels arrived they were happily sitting in a field miles away. Later wise men who studied the stars came from a distant land. There was no national news coverage, like the birth of a child into a celebrity household – no pageants, and celebrations, no street festivals. In fact the guests in the inn next door (the place that had had no room), slept soundly in their beds, unaware of the momentous event which was unfolding just a few steps away from them. A tiny baby was born into the world, and (except for a handful of people) nobody knew that he was the Son of God. God was in their midst and the people of Bethlehem, gathering to be recorded in the census had absolutely no idea.
That’s fairly important for us to remember – that on the day that God starts his “new thing” in the world (when what had been foretold by prophets and hoped for for so long by God’s people came to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus) almost nobody was aware of what was going on. And I venture to suggest that that was not only true on the day of his birth, but for most of his childhood and adulthood as well. The Gospel accounts are virtually silent about Jesus’ upbringing, except for a few stories of a small number of people beginning to understand who he was. Which reminds me this Christmas, that when my dominant experience – living in Newcastle here and now – is of God’s apparent absence (rather than God’s overpowering presence) that I can nevertheless have hope that God is with me, and with you as well. Like people in the inn next door to the stable, we may be unaware at times of what God is doing right under our noses, but we are encouraged to have the hope to believe that even in the silence and normality of our lives, God is indeed doing something wonderful, something transforming, right in our immediate midst.
Whether we feel it or not, our hope is energized through the Christmas story, that God is present as he was radically present in the birth and life of Jesus. So this Christmas, in the birth of this little vulnerable baby, we celebrate the presence of God in our world for ever, a presence which truly knows and understands our joys and our pains, which has lived and experienced our fragility and our risks – however hard to comprehend that may be. And in response, may this great celebration give us the resolve to yearn for the gift of faith and hope that we may discover the presence of God in our own lives – as in a normal crying baby in a manger in a stable – in the most unlikely and unbelievable of places.
When the world was dark
and the city was quiet,
You crept in beside us.
And no-one knew.
Only the few
who dared to believe
that God might do something different.
Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?
Will you come into the darkness of tonight’s world;
not the friendly darkness,
as when sleep rescues us from tiredness,
but the fearful darkness,
in which people have stopped believing
that war will end
or that food will come
or that a government will change
or that the Church cares?
Will you come into that darkness
and do something different
to save your people from despair?
Will you come into the quietness of this city,
not the friendly quietness
as when lovers hold hands,
but the fearful silence
when the phone has not rung,
the letter has not come,
the friendly voice no longer speaks,
the doctor’s face says it all?
Will you come into that darkness,
and do something different,
not to distract, but to embrace your people?
And will you come into the dark corners
and the quiet places of our lives?
We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden
or want to be,
but because the fullness our lives long for
depends on us being as open and vulnerable to you
as you were to us,
when you came,
wearing no more than nappies,
and trusting human hands
to hold their maker.
Will you come into our lives,
if we open them to you
and do something different?
When the world was dark
and the city was quiet
You crept in beside us on that first Holy night.
Do the same this Christmas, Lord.
We invite you this evening.
Do the same this Christmas.
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Poem adapted from: “When the world was dark” Wild Goose Worship Group in Cloth for the cradle: worship resources and readings for Advent, Christmas & Epiphany