Milborne and Dewlish
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day
Luke 2.1-14; John 1.1-14
Well, here we all are again. Back in church for Christmas. Hoping to sing our favourite carols, hearing again the familiar story of the birth of Jesus.
We all have our own Christmas traditions: things that make Christmas what it is for us and without which Christmas doesn’t really seem the same. I wonder what they are for you.
Perhaps it’s the Christmas tree, or the gathering of family and friends round the Christmas table. Perhaps it’s the annual card-writing or Christmas-pudding stirring. Which carol do you need to sing?
Some of your traditions may go back all the way to your childhood – I still have to have an Advent calendar to make things feel right. Not one of the all-singing, all-dancing chocolate ones - they weren’t around in those days - just a plain one with the Nativity on the front.
And wonderfully my parents, when they learned of what it meant to me, ensure that I have one each year, even if I don’t see them.
Other traditions develop over time as our circumstances change. I’m usually on my own on Christmas morning now, so I make sure I have a special breakfast of warm croissants and jam to make the day different from other days.
And some we have to let go off, perhaps with sadness – I’d still love to have a stocking to open on Christmas morning but Father Christmas doesn’t seem to visit me anymore!
Each year after the first-school Christmas services in church, year 4 parents who have no younger children comment with sadness how it’s the last one they’ll go to – that part of their Christmasses is over.
There are foods we eat only at Christmas: mince pies, Christmas cake, chocolate tree decorations or coins and so on.
There is so much about Christmas that is familiar and comforting and safe. And that is to be enjoyed and celebrated.
We do these things because we like them and because over the years they gain a meaning of their own. Something we do one year and then repeat the next can easily become a tradition and an important part of Christmas.
But in the midst of the familiar, let us not close our eyes and ears to what is new. For some, sadly, the new is thrust upon them – a widow facing her first Christmas alone, a family now relying on food banks for provisions, a refugee in a new and strange place.
Others choose to do something different – perhaps spending Christmas abroad for the first time or passing the responsibility to hosting the family Christmas to the next generation down.
There is always something new to discover. And that’s one of things I think God wants us to learn at Christmas time.
Most of us here will be more than familiar with the nativity story. The young woman and her husband who are told they are to have a child, who travel to Bethlehem while she is heavily pregnant and who in the hustle and bustle of a very busy town become parents for the first time.
This story has become significant but at the time Mary and Joseph were just one couple among many people travelling to Bethlehem as part of their normal life. They weren’t well known or celebrated. They were two ordinary people living an ordinary life but whom God changed in an extraordinary way.
If we look at the story carefully we notice that there is very little song and dance about the birth itself. It happened, as so many did and do, and there appears to have been nothing particularly spectacular about it. All we are told is that while they were in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to give birth and she did, and the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes – normal in those days – and laid in a manger – somewhat unusual but told about in a very matter of fact way.
The birth of a child is, of course, always new and wonderful. But it was only really with the arrival of the shepherds that Mary and Joseph realised just how different the birth of their son was.
They had had an amazing vision of angels and had been given a sign – something very ordinary but extraordinary at the same time.
Watching sheep in the fields was very ordinary – it’s what they did all the time. Seeing God’s glory all around them and hearing a host of angels was extraordinary. A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths was exceptionally ordinary, but one in a manger was not.
Jesus’s birth was ordinary and yet extraordinary. Just like any birth but amazingly different. No wonder Mary pondered with wonder.
U. A. Fanthorpe, a poet, who died in 2009, wrote a new poem each year at Christmas time for her Christmas cards.
One of her poems describes well how this ordinary birth was so extraordinary that it changed the world.
This was the moment when Before
turned into After, and the future's
uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.
A birth that changed the world.
But it wasn’t just the lives of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men whose lives were changed.
Throughout history people who have opened their hearts to Jesus have been transformed – sometimes amazingly and suddenly, often slowly and step-by-step. God continues to do new things through Jesus Christ.
The phrase John’s gospel uses for Jesus’s coming to earth – what we call the incarnation – is “Jesus pitched his tent” among us. That suggests a flexibility, someone not rooted in one space or time, who can pitch up when he chooses and move on to where he wills.
That is greatly significant because it means that, through the power of the Holy Spirit of God, Jesus continues to dwell with us even now in 21st-century.
Christmas more than anything is about the love of God, shown by coming to be one of us so that his love could be communicated not just through words but through presence. That presence is with us always.
We can’t do anything to earn God’s love – God has chosen to love us. God comes to us in the unexpected as well as in the ordinary, when we are ready as well as when we are not.
How do we celebrate those who love us? In all sorts of different ways, but the best way is through presence, being with them and aware of them.
How, I wonder, do we celebrate the love God has for us, not now on Christmas Eve/Day, but the rest of the year?
Where does God fit in our ordinary lives? Will we let God pitch his tent in our hearts? And if so how will that change who we are and what we do?
The birth of Jesus shows us God’s love for all people for all time. It’s there, if we have eyes open to see it, and hearts open to receive.
How open are we to seeing the extraordinary love of God in the ordinariness of our lives? It’s there all around if we can but make time to spot it.
It’s there in the beauty of creation, in the wonder of childbirth, in the wisdom of old age and experience, in the uniqueness of every human being.
It’s there in the people who give their lives to caring for others, in the smile of a child, in the generosity of giving of oneself, in the togetherness of community.
But it’s there too in the silence and the aloneness, it’s there alongside all who suffer, it’s there on the cross, dying for all of us. For God’s presence is always with us, if only we know how to see it.
If we expect to see God at work, we will surely find it. God can do all things. As the angel said to Mary when she was told about her forthcoming child: nothing is impossible for God.
Sometimes we miss God’s love because we are in a situation which take all our focus – perhaps illness or loneliness or poverty or relationship breakdown – but the love of God is greater than all human suffering and in difficult times trust in God utterly transforms what we are going through. It may not take away our suffering until we reach the kingdom of heaven, but God will never desert us.
That is the promise of Christmas, the promise of a God who came to dwell with us as one of us.
If we look downwards, we will see only the ordinary, but lift our eyes to God and we may find the extraordinary in the midst of it. If we’re prepared to find God’s presence we will.
I’m going to finish with another poem by U A Fanthorpe, this one called Not the Millennium which was written in 1999.
Not the Millennium
Wise Men are busy being computer literate.
There should be a law against confusing
religion with mathematics.
There was a baby. Born where?
And when? The sources mention
massacres, prophecies, stars;
they tell a good story, but they don’t agree.
So we celebrate at the wrong midnight.
Does it matter? Only (dull) science expects
an accurate audit. The economy of heaven
looks for fiestas and fireworks every day,
Be realistic, says heaven:
expect a miracle.
Don’t let this Christmas leave you the same – let God transform you as look for fireworks and fiestas every day. Amen.