Titus 3. 4 – 7
Luke 2. 1 – 20
What a joy it is to hear that wonderful account of the birth of our Saviour. It means that Christmas Day is here again. It brings to mind Christmasses past, the joy of the shepherds reflecting the excitement of little children, and maybe even a few adults too. There’s been mega-excitement in my household, I can tell you.
Now I don’t want to be accused of ruining the Christmas spirit; but I wonder if these wonderful Christmas stories have become so familiar – so treasured and protected – that we have lost sight a little of the gritty reality of what the birth of Christ was actually like.
And I think that would be a great shame; because I believe these stories show us that it’s in the gritty reality of life that God does his work; and it’s in the mess and the confusion, that the wonder is to be found.
So let’s wind back to about a week ago, and Mary and Joseph are setting off on their journey to Bethlehem. Mary is nine months pregnant, ready to give birth. She probably can’t sleep well at all, she’s anxious; she’s in pretty much constant discomfort. Bethlehem is 90 miles away, up and down hills, through desert regions, over unpaved, filthy tracks; and it’s winter. Walking, or riding on a donkey, in those conditions – sleeping on the hard ground on a freezing night – it would’ve been unbearable for the young girl.
They’re laden with skins of water, and bags of food for the journey. Lions and bears live in the woods of the Jordan Valley. Bandits operate along the tracks.
When they finally arrive in Bethlehem after about a week of travelling, the completely exhausted couple find there is nowhere for them to stay. This frightened young girl and her husband have to deliver their baby themselves, outside, where the animals live. Imagine the mess; and imagine the fear this new mother feels.
Fast-forward just a short time and they’re fleeing for their lives; Joseph receives a vision and wakes a frightened Mary in the middle of the night. Instead of making the journey home to family and friends, they flee with their new born child to a strange land, to seek refuge among unfamiliar people, with only what they can carry with them.
They escape just in time, as the terrible King Herod orders the slaughter of all the young children in and around Bethlehem. That still and peaceful place, where the wondrous gift had been given so silently; torn apart by horror and devastation.
Now don’t worry, if you’re thinking this all seems a bit gloomy for Christmas Day. Because none of it seems right, does it? What a strange and traumatising start to life on earth for the Son of God. Is this really what God had planned for the incarnation of the eternal Word, plans formed before the worlds were created? This universe-changing moment in time, coming about in utter chaos?
It’s not something we’re really used to thinking about at Christmas, is it? These kind of details don’t pair well with mince pies and Christmas crackers!
But this is life; yes, it’s a pretty extreme experience of life, and thankfully in this country most of us are shielded from the worst of experiences like this. But this is life for countless people around the world. And this is why the incarnation is such an incredible gift to us.
Because God does not rule us from afar like some distant king who cares little for his subjects.
God comes down, in Christ, as one of us, into all the mess and chaos of life. He experiences the fear, the anxiety, the depression, the worry. All of it. And he turns it upside down.
A poor, insignificant girl, Mary, becomes the mother of God, and the Queen of heaven, Queen of all the angels and saints. Lowly shepherds, right down at the bottom of the social ladder, become the first witnesses of the Messiah, God’s own Son. The manger, an animal’s feeding trough, becomes a throne, cradling the King of all creation.
God comes down into the mess, to be really and truly present with us in it all, so that we might not suffer through it alone. And he comes down into it, so that he can raise us up out of it.
“Though God was rich, for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty, we might become rich,” says St Paul. And in our reading this morning, he tells us that through the gift of this birth that we celebrate on this holy day, we become heirs of God, along with his Son, Jesus: we ordinary, created beings become the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Christ, through our baptism, and through the gift of the Spirit.
So whatever the mess and chaos of our own lives, and these times – this Christmas we can hold on to the promise that God is with us, even in the darkness and uncertainty of all that is going on at the moment.
He is really with us in all of it, and knows our anxiety, and our fear. And he has power to turn it all upside down; he has the power to bring the greatest good out of what seems like hopelessness. The Christmas story is God’s promise that this is so.
Thanks be to God, for that wonderful gift. Amen.