Some of you will know a famous painting by Holman Hunt entitled ‘The Light of the World’. In it Jesus stands beside an overgrown wooden door in a high brick wall; he is wearing a crown of thorns on his head and in his left hand is a shining lantern. His right hand is raised, knocking at the door which is thoroughly overgrown with ivy and weeds, and there is no handle on the outside of the door; it can only be opened from the inside. It is the door of the human heart. This painting is based on a verse from the book of Revelation where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).
On the face of it, when you think of who Jesus is, it seems such a strange idea! Why would the Son of God stand waiting at the door of my life while I decide whether or not I’m going to open it for him? Surely, if he’s God, all he needs to do is send in the heavenly SWAT team, break down the door and take possession of me! But the God who Jesus told us about in the New Testament does not force himself on anyone. God does not violate us. God wants our free and willing love, and so he always asks for our consent. Even when the salvation of the whole world is hanging on whether a person agrees or not, God still asks for her consent. I’m talking, of course, about Mary, whose story we read in Luke 1:26-38.
Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel came to Mary with the announcement of an incredible event; she was about to conceive a child in her womb who would be called the Son of the Most High, and he would receive the throne of Israel’s ancient king, David – in other words, he would be the long-awaited Messiah who would set God’s people free.
This would be a very special child! The word ‘temple’ literally means ‘a house of God’ - a place where God lives. For nine months Mary was literally a human temple - the creator of the universe, in the person of his own Son, came to live in her womb! But the Christian gospel tells us that what God did in Mary in a physical way, he wants to do in all of us in a spiritual way. God wants to come and live in us, in the very centre of our being, what the Bible calls symbolically our ‘heart’.
Why does he want to do this? Because by ourselves, without God’s help, we do not have the resources to live our lives to the full. A Christian doctor once gave a children’s talk in which he explained the difference Jesus makes in our lives. He took a surgical glove, held it up, flopped it around and asked if it could do any good as it was. Could it help heal anyone? Could it perform surgery? Could it remove a tumour? Of course not! But then he put his own hand in the glove and held it up again. What about now? Now, of course, with the doctor’s hand in it, the glove was a useful tool for healing the sick. And we are like that glove. Without God living in us there is an emptiness deep inside us, and no matter how hard we try we can’t make much impression on the evil in the world or in our own lives. But what if Christ the Son of God comes to live in us and makes us his human temple? Surely then there is hope!
But let’s remind ourselves that God waits for our permission to do this. At the end of the reading about Mary and the angel we read her response to God; she says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It almost seems as if the angel could not leave her before she had given her assent to what God wanted to do in her. And that is the truth. God would not do this thing without Mary’s consent, because the fact is that she was going to be exposed to considerable risk and danger because of what God was about to do.
Think of her situation; an unmarried girl, engaged to Joseph, suddenly becomes pregnant. The Old Testament law was strict in such cases: she was to be taken to the edge of town and stoned to death. It was true that the law was rarely applied, but it was still on the books, and if Joseph and the local magistrates took it into their heads to apply it she would be helpless to stop them. But even if the law was not strictly applied, her reputation as a good and devout woman would be gone forever. And perhaps worst of all, what would Joseph think? Would he believe her when she told him “I’m pregnant, but God did it?” Would he still want to marry her?
The truth was that Mary had a great deal to lose in this situation. Here she was, probably not more than 14 or 15, a young Jewish girl on the brink of her dream - marriage to a respectable man, family and all that. And then God came along, and in one moment his plan for her swept her own plans and dreams away. We might be forgiven, had we been in her situation, if we had felt like saying to God “Can’t you leave me alone and find someone else?”
A young Christian told the story of the days when he was still an atheist but was beginning to believe that the Christian message might be true. He saw that if it was true he was going to have to make some changes in his life, changes that he didn’t want to make. Above all else he wanted to be in charge of his own life; he didn’t want anyone else interfering with it. “I just wanted to be left alone”, he said. His name was C.S. Lewis. Maybe we’ve all felt like this. ‘Don’t meddle, God. My life might be a mess but at least it’s my mess; don’t interfere’.
The truth is that welcoming Jesus into our lives day by day is going to have a drastic effect on us. I know that in my life Jesus sees many things that are wrong, things that are spoiling God’s good plan for me and for the other people in my life, and because he loves me, he wants to do something about those things! He sees selfishness and lack of love and a host of other things, which he knows are hurting me and hurting others in my life. He wants to save me from these things. Also, choosing to follow him is going to lead me to some uncomfortable choices. It’s going to mean owning up to being a Christian when I’d much rather keep my head down and avoid the stereotypes and the ridicule. It’s going to mean doing the honest thing when dishonesty would be a lot more profitable. It’s going to mean denying myself when I’d much rather indulge myself. It’s going to mean putting myself out to love others when I’d much rather stay home and amuse myself.
Knowing the difference it’s going to make, why would anyone say ‘yes’ to God’s invitation? Well, what gave Mary the courage to say ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her? I think it was her faith that God loved her, and that his plan for her was a good plan, even though it might be a difficult one. And we, too, have to come to the place where we trust God. He loves us so much that he gave his life for us! When we begin to believe that, then like Mary we can come to him and say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.
This reading tells us of a God who loves us and has compassion for us when he sees the mess we are making of our lives without him. It tells us of a God who wants to come and live in the depths of our being in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, to give us the power to live a new kind of life. And it tells us of a God who respects the freedom of choice he has given to us as human beings, a God who will not invade our lives, even for our own good, without our willing agreement.
The whole purpose of Christmas was so that people like you and me would make a free choice to welcome Jesus Christ into our hearts and to ask him to drive out what is evil there and help us to do what is good. God longs for us to trust him enough to put ourselves entirely in his hands, as Mary did. He will not invade our lives unless we give him permission, even if he sees us destroying ourselves by refusing him permission. That’s the kind of God he is; the God who waits for us to say that one little word: ‘Yes’.