I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie ‘Love Actually’; I have to say it’s one of my favourite Christmas movies. I’m particularly fond of the scene where one of the characters, played by Emma Thompson, discovers that her daughter is going to play the ‘second lobster’ in her school nativity play. She looks at the little girl with a quizzical frown and says, “There was more than one lobster at the stable when Jesus was born?” Apparently so!
Well, there’s a moose and bear in our nativity set down under the pulpit here, but I think most of us know they’re imaginative additions to the story of the birth of Jesus! The actual outline of the story – as told in slightly different ways in the gospels of Matthew and Luke – is very familiar to us, although this hasn’t stopped us making some additions of our own over the years. The little drummer boy, for instance, and the winter snow, and the little donkey, and ‘little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, and the evil innkeeper who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant and about to give birth, but can’t find it in his heart to squeeze her in anywhere except the cold stable out the back.
Sorry – Luke and Matthew know nothing of drummer boys and snow and donkey and a baby that doesn’t cry, and the evil innkeeper isn’t mentioned anywhere in their stories. Actually, the inn may not be either. Some of the more recent Bible versions translate ‘there was no room for them at the inn’ as ‘there was no guest room available for them’, and many scholars agree with this. What probably happened was that Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem (after all, his family was from there), but when he and Mary arrived there was no room left in the guest room, because so many people were traveling back for the census. Family homes in those days had only two or three rooms, and at night one of them would have had the animals in it. The story probably simply means that the guest room was full, and so Mary and Joseph had to sleep in the room the animals used, and use the manger as a crib.
But the bare outline of the story still captures our imagination. An angel appears to Mary and tells her she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah, God’s anointed king who would be the Saviour of his people. She and her fiancée Joseph live in Nazareth, which is a problem because the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, the ancestral town of old King David. But the Roman emperor obligingly decides that there’s going to be a census and everyone has to go back to their ancestral town to be registered. So Joseph and Mary have to travel back to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family comes from, and there, squeezed into the room the animals use, Mary gives birth to her baby boy and uses a feeding trough for his bed. Later on he’s visited by shepherds who tell the surprised couple that they’ve had a vision of some angels who told them this baby will be ‘the Messiah, the Lord’ who will bring great joy to all his people. The wise men come much later, perhaps as long as two years later, which is why the Church celebrates their coming on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.
But what does the story mean?
Very early on in Christian history, Christians were already using highly exalted language to talk about Jesus. For example, in a letter written about twenty-five years after the events of the first Easter weekend, St. Paul takes language that the Old Testament used for God himself, and applies it to Jesus:
‘…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:10-11).
But the most powerful statements come at the beginning of John’s Gospel. John takes a term used in Greek philosophy – the Logos, the Word – the rational governing principle behind the world – and applies it to Jesus. In language that defies logic – and why wouldn’t it? It’s God we’re talking about! – he says ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But then a few verses later he says, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).
Christians call this ‘the incarnation’ – the idea that at a certain point in the history of this planet, our Creator came to us in a unique way, taking flesh and blood as Jesus of Nazareth. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, came to live among us as one of us. Jesus was not just a human being; he was not even just a great religious leader or a man sent from God. He was God, God the Son, and his life and death and resurrection were the central events in the history of our planet.
Not surprisingly, some people find this hard to believe. How could it possibly be true that a carpenter’s son from an obscure province in the ancient Roman empire would be God? How likely is that? What sense does it make? Surely this is just ancient Christian imagination run riot? How can rational people believe it?
Well, let’s look at it from another point of view; let me tell you about the Gospel according to Calvin and Hobbes. Any ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ fans here? Not many people know that Calvin is named after a sixteenth century Christian theologian, and Hobbes is named after a seventeenth century philosopher, so it’s not surprising that the two of them have some interesting discussions from time to time!
So let’s imagine Calvin and Hobbes having a conversation about whether in fact there is such a character as the Great Cartoonist? Calvin might say, “Yes, there is a Great Cartoonist; he created this cartoon strip, but he lives outside of it, in a great big world that we can’t even imagine, and he’s in control of everything in this strip”. Hobbes might stroke his tiger whiskers and reply, “There’s no evidence of that. As far as we can tell, there’s absolutely no proof that anything exists outside this cartoon strip. This is all there is”.
Now imagine Bill Watterson, the creator of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, observing this conversation and asking himself, “How am I going to convince them that I’m here?” Shouting at them from outside the cartoon strip doesn’t seem to work! Eventually he decides that the best thing to do is to draw himself into the cartoon strip as one of the characters. So that’s what he does; he draws himself walking up to Calvin and Hobbes and saying, “Hi guys, I’m Bill; I’m the Great Cartoonist”. Calvin immediately falls down on his knees and says “Oh Great Cartoonist, I always knew you were there! Please rescue me from Moe and the monsters under my bed!” But Hobbes strokes his whiskers sceptically and asks, “How do we know you’re not just one of the characters in the cartoon strip like the rest of us? What’s your evidence?”
This sounds a lot like some more verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Talking about Jesus, John says,
‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’ (John 1:10-12).
In other words, Jesus came into the world, but not everyone accepted that he was anyone special. Not everyone believed in him; some, in fact, rejected him. This continues today: some ignore Jesus, some reject him, some put their faith in him and follow him.
Some might ask, “But why would God do this? If this amazing story is actually true – if God has become a human being in Jesus – what was he trying to achieve?”
Two things. First, he was giving us the truest possible picture of what he himself is like. Human beings have always wondered about this.
There’s an old story of a little girl in a Sunday School class who was drawing a picture. When her teacher asked her what she was drawing, she said, “God”. The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like!” She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And the Christian claim is that when Jesus was ‘done’ – when his life and death and resurrection were complete – we humans had been given the best possible picture of God, as God himself had shared our life as one of us. We no longer need to wonder what God is like: he’s like Jesus. Like Father, like Son!
The second thing he was doing was rescuing us from the infection of sin and evil. In his book ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis uses the illustration of a ‘good infection’. Human strength and ingenuity is not up to the task of rescuing us from the evil that appears to be running rampant in the world. We need the life of God himself to do that. And that’s what Christmas is all about. When the baby was born in Bethlehem, the life of God himself came into this broken world as a good infection to fight against the power of evil and sin. Jesus spread the infection wherever he went; when men and women put their trust in him and began to follow him, they discovered a new power within themselves, a power that made it possible for them to be more than they thought they were and do more than they thought they could do. Even today, Jesus is still passing this good infection on, as people come to trust him and follow him as his disciples.
‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God’ (John 1:12). That’s how the good infection is passed on. As we receive Jesus – as we make him welcome day by day in the centre of our lives, on the throne of our hearts – that divine life is strengthened in us. So let me close by encouraging everyone here to make him welcome. Perhaps a prayer from one of our well known Christmas hymns would be a good way to do that:
‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin and enter in; be born in me today’.