There’s a Christmas song I particularly like and have often played to congregations. It goes like this:
Sweet little Jesus boy
Born long ago
Sweet little holy child
And we didn’t know who you were.
And we didn’t know who you were!
Indeed we didn’t and in large measure we still don’t. Think of what the characters in the nativity stories made of these events.
There was Herod. He thought he knew who you were. He was wrong!
Then there were the shepherds. They received a message from an angel saying that a saviour had been born who is Christ the Lord. Not you will notice a baby who will grow up to be a saviour. This is the Christ: the saviour of the world. They make their way to Bethlehem and they pass the message on. That’s a good thing to do! Then they return glorifying and praising God. They are central players in the scene, not just bystanders or extras as they are made to appear in the typical nativity play. They seemed to know who you were.
Then there are the wise men in Matthew’s gospel. They see the child and they fall down and worship him. They don’t just bring gifts and put them around the Christmas tree. They fall down and worship! How very odd and so very unexpected! That these visitors from the east should give to this baby divine honour. But these are wise men and by worshiping Christ they show themselves to be truly wise. They knew who you were and are. That’s why they’re wise.
But how wise are we? What is this season really about? Of course we all know what Christmas is really about but what is the festival of the nativity-the Christian festival really about. Is it about the birth of a baby as someone once explained to one of my Church Councils? Or is there more to it than that. Someone in the same Church Council tentatively uttered the word incarnation. Now that’s a big word –enough to frighten anyone. Perhaps its time to follow the example of Mary and keep all these things pondering them in our hearts. So let’s do that for the next few minutes.
What then is God doing? Why is this festival an occasion for such joy and gladness? How do we make sense of God’s strange strategy?
During the Eighteenth century King George III showed great interest in agriculture and wrote papers under the pseudonym Ralph Robinson. Similarly earlier in the same century Tsar Peter the Great of Russia came to England to study shipbuilding and worked in the shipyard at Deptford under an assumed name, Peter Mikhailov. He rented a house, trashed it during drunken parties but on Sundays when sober he went to the Quaker Meeting House.
Are we to imagine Jesus as God in disguise as these folk were Kings in disguise or God under an assumed name? The Church has always opposed this notion. In Jesus God has truly become one of us. At the same time Jesus is not to be mistaken simply for a teacher, a healer, a carpenter or even a prophet. The Church has opposed this notion too for Jesus Christ is not only one of us he is also one with God. This is the Christ the saviour of the world. Who do men say that I am, said Jesus. You are the Messiah said Peter. The wise men recognised this. That’s why they are wise.
God is love and what God is seeking to do is to find a way to rescue us from the hells of our own selfishness and self indulgence. The Christmas season normally give us plenty of opportunities to pursue those! We can be rescued from the pitiless and tragic aspects of human existence. We are fallen creatures but we can be lifted up and restored to the paradise that was lost but can now be regained. God’s love can reach out to us, change us and turn us around. How can this happen? How does God manage it?
Telling the truth about God is not a straightforward matter. Jesus himself recognised this and taught in parables sometimes perplexing his own disciples in the process. It’s best to come at these things obliquely so that those who hear the stories are led to ponder on them and make them mean something for them personally. So each generation needs new parables.
After all explanations appeal to the mind and illustrations delight the eyes but what we seek always is something that will move us body and soul, speak to our hearts and turn us towards the truth. What better way than a story?
The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season- a true modern parable – one of the best.
Once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.
A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.
Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes, must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.
This is the key point.
God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King simply assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.
In Jesus God has come down to earth. Earth and heaven are one. This is an absolutely amazing thought. God as become as we are that we might become as he is. Heaven has come down to earth so that earth might be lifted up to heaven.
There remains what is perhaps the most important question of all. What would it mean to live as if this were true-that God truly is love-that love is what holds the universe together and that consequently to love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has fashioned it. Well we could love more and in all manner of ways live our lives more courageously and generously. But perhaps at this time of year especially we should emulate the shepherds and share the message of the angels with our neighbours and friends always giving glory to God and praising him for those good things that we have heard and seen.