Thursday, December 24, 2015

'O Come, All Ye Faithful' - a sermon for Christmas Eve

One of my favourite parts of Christmas each year is the music; I love Christmas songs and carols. Not all of them, I hasten to add; I don’t personally find the ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’ genre very appealing. But I love the old traditional hymns and carols – the older the better, as far as I’m concerned – along with seasonal favourites like Handel’s ‘Messiah’, which I think is one of the best ways ever invented of memorizing King James Version Bible passages!

Christmas carols tend to fall into two categories. Some of them are based around the stories of Christmas as we read them in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men and so on. Others focus more on the theology of Christmas as we read it in the first chapter of John’s Gospel – how the Word of God became a human being and lived among us.

In my opinion, the ones that focus on the theology of Christmas tend to do a better job. That’s because the storytellers can’t resist the temptation of embellishing the story. For instance, what possible historical evidence is there for the line in ‘Away in a Manger’ that reads, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?’ How could Jesus have been a real human baby without crying? And is the author trying to suggest that there’s something sinful about crying, so that it would have been beneath Jesus’ dignity as the Son of God?

Another example is in one of my personal favourites, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Well, Christina Rossetti was a great poet, but this was a blatant attempt to set the birth of Jesus in Victorian England, not first century Palestine, where I don’t think there’s ever quite that sort of ‘bleak midwinter’. And we don’t really know if Jesus was born in December anyway!

But still, most carols do a pretty good job of trying to express the idea of God becoming a human being, which is a pretty mind-blowing idea, however you cut it. And Charles Wesley comes pretty close to perfection, I think, in the second verse of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’:
Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord.
Late in time behold him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the godhead see; hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.
Hark, the herald angels sing glory to the newborn king.

Here you get the theology of it; the idea that in the baby Jesus, God’s identity was ‘veiled’, or hidden, ‘in flesh’, so that you’d never know there was anything unusual about him just by looking at him. There was certainly no halo around his head when he lay in the manger! And this is so true to what we know of the rest of the story of Jesus; even when he became a grown man and was doing amazing miracles, people didn’t immediately say “Oh, you must be God!” and fall down and worship him! There was a hiddenness about his identity; to see him for who he really was always took faith, not just observation and logic.

Or think about ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’; this is another one that focusses on the theology of Christmas, and for the most part it does a pretty good job. But I have one little caveat that I’d like to explore with you for a few minutes tonight. Think about the first two lines:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.

My problem is with the people who are being invited to come and see the baby in the manger: ‘O come, all ye faithful’. You see, when you think about the Christmas story, who is it that actually receives specific invitations from God to come to the party? Not just the faithful, that’s for sure! We could also add, ‘O come, all ye faithless’, ‘O come, all ye fearful’, and even perhaps ‘O come, all ye fretful’!

Let’s start with the shepherds. They were the great unwashed, the agricultural labourers who did the hard manual work of looking after the sheep day in and day out, without taking a break for Sabbaths and religious holidays. Shepherds were looked down on by religious Jews in the time of Jesus. It was pretty nearly impossible for them to observe all the rules and traditions about ritual washing, and there was no way they could do their job without breaking the Sabbath – after all, sheep don’t tend to look at each other and say, “Oh, it’s the Sabbath – we’d better not get lost today!” Free range livestock have to be protected and fed and cared for, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that’s what the shepherds were doing when the angels visited them.

And what about the Magi? They were astrologers from the east, definitely not Jewish, outside the covenant people of God. What did they think they were doing, gatecrashing the birth of the Jewish Messiah? How come they got an invitation, but King Herod and the temple priests from Jerusalem didn’t?

In the eyes of the religious folk in Bethlehem, the shepherds and the Magi would have been the faithless, not the faithful. The inside of the synagogue wouldn’t have been very familiar to them; they probably would have felt awkward and out of place there. And yet, God went out of his way to invite them to the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ. The angel choir wasn’t sent to the rabbis of Judea and Jerusalem, and the star didn’t guide them either. It was the outsiders, the shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi from Iraq who were summoned to come and adore him, Christ the Lord.

And this is true to the later story of Jesus, too. When he was grown up and travelling around Palestine preaching and healing, he was always being criticized by the religious for hanging out with the wrong people – tax collectors who worked for the Romans, Roman soldiers themselves, prostitutes. Jesus justified it by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was always crossing barriers, talking to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to, reaching out to the excluded and the outsiders.

And that might be a word that speaks especially to some of us tonight. Maybe we’re lifelong churchgoers, or maybe we’re here tonight for the very first time. Maybe we’re satisfied with the way we’re living our lives, or maybe we’re very aware of our failings and shortcomings. Maybe we think God would be glad to see us, or maybe we’re not so sure of his welcome. Whoever we are, faithful or faithless, we’re invited: ‘O come let us adore him’. You’re included, I’m included. God wants all of us to come to the celebration.

So yes, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but also, ‘O come, all ye faithless’! And we might also add, ‘O come, all ye fretful’. I would imagine that there was a lot of ‘fretting’ going on that night in Bethlehem.

We don’t really know anything about the story of the census that Luke tells us about in his gospel, but if it was even remotely similar to what he describes, it would have been a massive undertaking. The idea that everyone had to return to the town their family originally came from to be registered – can you imagine how many people would have been on the road, how many businesses would have been disrupted, how many guest rooms would have been occupied?

Most modern Bible translators think that the verse traditionally translated as ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ should actually be ‘there was no guest room available for them’. The guest rooms would probably have been in the homes of some of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem; we can imagine how full their houses would have been, with distant cousins coming from the farthest reaches of Palestine. By the time Mary and Joseph got there, the only place left was the little room downstairs where the animals were brought in at night. “Sorry, cousin Joseph – it’s all we’ve got left”. “Don’t worry, cousin Ishmael – it looks cozy enough, and it’s better than the town square!” I imagine Joseph and Mary had been very ‘fretful’ as they had gotten closer to Bethlehem, and they were probably very relieved to find that even such a rustic space was available for them.

Christmas is a busy, fretful time of year, and the world of retail has made it even more busy and fretful. There’s all the shopping to do, getting just the right gifts for the people who really don’t need anything and probably don’t even have room in their cupboards for anything else. There’s the family get-togethers to plan for, sometimes involving travel at the busiest time of year. And some of the family members haven’t actually spoken to each other for a while, and the meeting is going to be a little awkward, to say the least. And what about cousin Eddie? He really wants to see all the family, but he’s a little scared of the wine that will be served at the meal. He’s been sober for six months, you see, but sometimes he still finds it hard.

We all carry burdens and worries, and often no one else knows about them. Most of us in this busy world feel rushed and harassed, and the fact that we’ve made it here to church tonight speaks volumes about how important we think this Christmas service actually is, in the midst of our busy schedule. But maybe we’re feeling so rushed, so overwhelmed by details, that we’re wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to stay home?

No, God doesn’t feel that way; he’s glad we’re here. When the baby Jesus grew up and became a man, he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for the fretful. He doesn’t want to add to our burdens; he wants to lift them from our shoulders. So the fretful, too, are invited: ‘O come, let us adore him’. Come into his presence, and find there the peace that you’ve been looking for.

‘O come, all ye faithful’. ‘O come, all ye faithless’. ‘O come, all ye fretful’. And there’s also ‘O come, all ye fearful’. For some of us, the idea of God is a fearful idea.

Have you ever noticed that every time an angel appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are usually “Don’t be afraid”? Does that give you a clue as to what they look like? They probably aren’t the cute little baby cherubs created by the Renaissance artists, or the beautiful female angels with long blonde hair so beloved of people who post pictures on Facebook. No – biblical angels are scary. When people see them, they fall down on their faces, trembling with fear.

Many people feel that way about God, too, and it’s not hard to understand why. Imagine the power that can create something as vast and complex as the universe? The distances involved are unimaginable to us, but the astronomers tell us they’re true. And the detail – the intricacies of the human eye, the miracle of DNA and the human genome. I can’t begin to imagine the greatness of a God who could think of all that, and design it, and call it into being by his word of power. How can I possibly stand before the face of such a God?

This is where we come back to that hymn of Charles Wesley’s:
Veiled in flesh, the godhead see -
Hail, the incarnate Deity.

‘Veiled’. Hidden, in other words. Because of course, if God appeared to us as he really is, in all his glory and majesty and splendour and holiness, we would be totally overwhelmed. The circuits of our brains would fry up. Some of the Old Testament writers believed that no one could see God and live to tell the tale: not because God is angry at us, but just because God is so very, very far outside and above our experience or even our imagination.

And so, in God’s mercy, he veils himself in flesh. He makes himself very small – just a zygote, and then a fetus, in the womb of a young Galilean peasant girl. He’s born in humility, grows up in obscurity, and then steps out onto the stage of history and proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand. And many people look at him and dismiss him: ‘He’s just a man’. ‘He’s from Nazareth; can anything good come from there?’ And we think, ‘God, couldn’t you have made yourself a little more obvious?’

But the answer is, no, he couldn’t have. Any more obvious, and we would have been terrified out of our wits. So in mercy he veiled himself and came among us to live our life, die our death, and be raised again victorious over the forces of evil and hate. And now his invitation goes out to all people, “Come”.

Why would he do such a thing? Surely the only possible answer is, because he loves us so much. Nothing else could motivate God the Son to lay aside his glory and majesty and enter our human experience. In one of his letters in the New Testament St. Paul describes it like this:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
      did not regard equality with God
      as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
      taking the form of a slave,
      being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to the point of death –
      even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).
That’s how God has come near to us in Jesus. There’s no need to be afraid.

O come all ye faithful – all ye faithless – all ye fretful – all ye fearful. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come to welcome the coming of God as a human being. Come to welcome him into our world, into our lives, and into our hearts. Come to receive the great gift of his steadfast, unconditional love. Come to take part in the transformation of the world by that love. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hang back. The welcome mat is out at God’s front door for all of us. No one is left out. Everyone who truly wants to can come in.  

(Note: The inspiration for this sermon came from an idea in Nick Baines' book 'Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?')

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