St Barnabas Carol Service, 19th December 2012
Reading – Luke 1:26-38
At first glance it’s an absurd idea, the idea that a child born in a manger to poor parents in an obscure part of the Roman Empire could possibly make any kind of difference to human history. I mean what was God thinking, when He chose first century Palestine as the place for Jesus to come into this world? And not as a fully grown human being, surrounded by all the trappings of power and wealth, but as a tiny, helpless baby?
Yet the fact you decided it was worth coming out on a cold, dark December night to celebrate once again the good news of his birth is proof indeed that this was indeed no ordinary child. If the Christmas story was a work of fiction, or if the claims about this child were simply the product of someone’s imagination, then Jesus would have been long forgotten.
I wonder how many people here have heard of Joanna Southcott? She was an Englishwoman of the 18th century who decided that she was the mysterious woman described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation who gives birth to the Messiah. In 1814, at the age of 64, she announced she was pregnant with this self-same Messiah. Two months after she was due to give birth, she died instead. At the time her prophecies attracted tens of thousands of followers. And although a small group of people still follow her teachings, her memory has gradually faded away.
Yet the memory of the birth of Jesus has not faded away. Indeed it is the experience of many sane, normal people that this same Jesus is alive today, and they claim to have met with Him in person. So let’s be clear – what we are celebrating is not a story, not a work of fiction, but history. And if this is the case, then we need to read the events of Christmas as God’s personal message to each and every one of us. You want to know what God is like? Look at the story of Jesus. You want to know if God cares for you? Look at the story of Jesus. You want to know if God is real and relevant to you? Look at the story of Jesus. In the story of Jesus we find the very essence of God made known to us.
But you may still be asking why Jesus came to earth in such a way. I believe there are two answers to this point:
First of all, Jesus chose to be born in such obscurity and at such a time precisely in order to leave us free to make a response. Nowadays we live a world where the very latest technology is used to generate the maximum hype, with no expense spared. Advertisers use costly research methods to come up with the catchiest slogans. Armies of staffers help politicians design tried and tested soundbites which produce the maximum impact.
Jesus did not go in for this kind of manipulation. Yes, the angels came with the heavenly choirs to announce His birth. But Luke is careful to record that the shepherds still decided to go to Bethlehem of their own free will. God, you see, loves us so much that He gives us the freedom whether or not to believe in Him. He does not compel us to say, “Yes”, to Him. He would much rather that we responded to Jesus because we wanted to, not because we were forced.
And this is where Mary is such a great example to us. In the passage we heard just now, the angel Gabriel appeared to her with the message she would bear a Son. Quite naturally Mary responded with all kinds of reactions, and all kinds of questions. She wouldn’t have been human if she had simply shrugged her shoulders and said, “OK” or to use a phrase common a few years ago, “Whatever”. But of her own free choice – and despite her many reservations – she was in the end prepared to say, “I am the Lord’s servant … May it be to me as you have said.”
So let me ask: What about you? What response have you made to the Christmas story? You may not understand, you may have questions, but are you nonetheless still prepared to turn to Jesus and let Him take control of your life? My prayer is very much that we all find the faith this Christmas to respond to Him as Mary did, because Jesus’ birth really is good news for everyone.
Jesus was born when He was and in such a manner to leave us free to make a response to Him. But there’s another reason why He chose a manger in first century Palestine as the place of His birth. Because from a human point of view there was no way Jesus could change the history of the world. Born in a major centre of influence? Negative. Born to people of wealth and influence? Negative. Born in a place of peace and security? Negative. From a human point of view, there was absolutely nothing that suggested this child would grow to be the Messiah who now offers salvation to the whole world.
God, you see, wanted to show that the mission Jesus undertook was His initiative from the very beginning. As our sketches I hope showed, from a human point of view, Jesus’ mission was mission impossible. Yet the lesson Mary learnt from Gabriel’s visit is that nothing is impossible with God. What God chooses to do, He will carry out. He is a God who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. He is a God of all power and might and majesty and nothing is too difficult for Him.
And I think this is a point that we easily lose sight of at Christmas. We tend to reduce God to just a small baby in a manger. We like a God who is frail, and weak, and at the mercy of others. Such a God we do not find threatening. We can make this God to be the God of our imagination. This is why the Christmas story is retold in so many different ways, sometimes with only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.
However that is to completely miss the point of Christmas. Yes, we are free to make our response to Jesus who was born so humbly in a manger. But let’s not forget this Jesus is God Himself, who while on earth calmed storms, drove out demons, raised the dead and who sits now in heaven until one day He shall return as king of all.
And so my challenge to you this evening is to enlarge your view of just who Jesus is, and what He can do for you. Don’t have a weak faith in a weak Jesus, who can only offer a comforting story once a year. Have a strong faith in a strong Jesus, who of His own choice laid aside His majesty and honour to make Himself one of us, to be born among us, to live among us and ultimately to die for us. Because this Jesus is the real Jesus, the one who can make a difference to your life, the one who can show us what God is like, the one who – as the angel told Mary – has a kingdom that never ends. Put your faith in Him, and you will discover for yourself that indeed nothing is impossible for God.