Sermon for Christmas Day 2014 at St Andrew’s, Cobham
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14

Happy Christmas! This is a special time, a time to celebrate. I’m not going to give you a hard time about being too preoccupied with presents and shopping, the razzmatazz of Christmas: I’m sure that a little of what you fancy does you good – provided you don’t spend more than you can really afford, as the Archbishop of York pointed out on the Andrew Marr show last week.

No, what I want to talk about is the baby Jesus. ‘Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder’. That looks almost like a contradiction. On the one hand, he is a baby: the most vulnerable, the least powerful form of humanity. On the other, he is a king – ‘the government shall be upon his shoulder’.

Is the prophet Isaiah imagining a figure like Edward VI, a boy king? Jesus never became a king, even in that sense. There was only the ironic inscription on his cross, ‘This is Jesus, the king of the Jews’ [Matt. 27:37 and in all the other gospels]. There are scholars who have claimed that he was some kind of rebel leader, a Zealot, and certainly one way of understanding Jesus’ passion and death is that he was seen by the establishment, both in the Jewish client administration and in their Roman overlords, as being a potential troublemaker, almost a terrorist.

But really there’s no tradition, in the Bible or since, that Jesus was a powerful, secular leader. He wasn’t a general, he wasn’t a king in the tradition of the Jewish kings. Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgement and with justice… ‘, certainly doesn’t square with the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, life and death.

So much of what we learn from Jesus goes against the exercise of power. ‘The first shall be last, and the last shall be first’. ‘Love your enemies,’ and so on. But nevertheless, even though He didn’t throw His weight around or behave like a mighty warrior, He was the Son of God. How to show this: quite apart from the miracles in Jesus’ life – the virgin birth, His resurrection from the dead – another miracle is that Jesus hasn’t gone away.

Christianity is still huge; still the biggest religion, with the greatest number of believers worldwide, 2,000 years on. Apparently 3 million people in this country will go to their local parish church this Christmas – and then there are the Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, URCs and all the other denominations. I can’t think offhand of anything else which happened 2,000 years ago which still has the power to draw people out in such enormous numbers all round the world in celebration, in the same way as Christianity celebrates the birth of Christ.

Something clearly is going on. Arguably something more than we can hope to understand or explain. Any kind of collective hysteria or craze would have played itself out within a few years. This is God at work. We are celebrating the birth of the Son of God. Someone who was at the same time a man, human, and also divine: ‘Begotten, not created’.

We can understand what it is to be human – we understand babies. We like babies. A rather awful maiden aunt of mine once said, ‘I love babies – but I couldn’t eat a whole one!’ No, seriously. We know what a human being is.

But what is it to be God? I think if we think about it, we know more about what God does than about what God is. God is the ultimate creator, the creator of everything from nothing. We infer from that that God is all-powerful and all-knowing – omnipotent and omniscient.

So far, so good. But then if we try to work out what God is like, what God is, it’s much more difficult. Obviously as a result of the word-pictures in the Book of Revelation, and indeed as a result of the various pre-Christian myths – the Greek myths, the gods on Mount Olympus for example – the idea of God or gods, as supernatural beings living above the clouds or on the top of a very high mountain, was very commonly held. There is a lot of imagery in the Bible about God in heaven. We talk about our ‘Heavenly Father’.

So there is this picture of a benign old man with a great white beard in a golden throne room above the clouds. But of course, as our understanding has deepened – and certainly after man conquered space, and didn’t bump into God – there has come a realisation that God is not a benign old man with a white beard, sitting on top of the clouds. Indeed if he were located in time and space in that way, that would not square with his being the ultimate creator, omniscient and omnipotent, outside the laws of physics.

That’s where ‘In the beginning was the word’, gives an insight. ‘In the beginning was the word’ is a pretty clever way of talking about a pure principle, an essence of creation. No good to talk about a first man, or a supernatural man, some kind of superhero who started everything off – because then there is the question who started him off.

So it’s easier to identity what God does than what God is. Manifesting Himself as a baby meant that God rejected the idea that He was going to be a powerful general or a warlike king. Instead Jesus stood the concept of being God on its head. St Paul described him as having ’emptied himself’, emptied himself of all the trappings of His being the Son of God, and becoming instead a servant – the ‘Servant King’ as the hymn puts it. [Phil. 2:7]

How does this all work? It’s all very well us talking about the nature of God, but how does it affect our lives in practice? If we still have the idea that God is ‘deus ex machina’, a sort of Tardis which comes to the rescue of Dr Who when he’s in a sticky spot, then I think we’re always going to be disappointed.

If we pray to God simply that He will favour us, that He will fix everything for us, then clearly that won’t always work. Both the armies in the First World War were praying to the same God, and making the same prayer. As a matter of logic, one of them was going to be disappointed.

I think there’s a danger that, if one continues along those lines, one’ll end up disappointed and disillusioned. It’s noticeable that, at the end of the First World War, there was a rise in atheism. How could God allow the dreadful things which happened? Didn’t He listen to all those prayers? But the first chapter of St John’s Gospel gives us a clue. ‘In the beginning was the word’ – and that’s not a man with a white beard above the clouds.

When I was preparing the prayers for the Nine Lessons and Carols at St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon the other day, I started off by writing prayers for peace, for all those people who are unwell or in difficulty, who are suffering hunger, being refugees or homeless. In that first draft of the prayers, I was calling on God to fix things. I didn’t know how He was going to fix things, but I was sure that He had a way of doing it.

Then I thought about it: I thought about the baby. How could a baby leap in and tackle all those intractable problems? I changed my prayers. Instead of asking God to do things, I asked Him to help us to do what was necessary. We have the wealth to feed the hungry; we have the medical skill to heal the sick; we have spare rooms and spare houses to shelter the homeless.

All we need is the Holy Spirit to come and inspire us, to fill us with God’s love. ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’; ‘Make me a channel of your peace’. ‘God be in my head’. St Paul talked about being ‘in Christ’ – meaning, having Christ in you.

I wish you a very happy Christmas, with lots to eat: but I want you to have some Jesus in there too. Remember my maiden aunt. Love that baby – could you – at least in a Eucharistic way – eat a whole one? Draw near with faith!