This is a sermon for the feast of the Birth of our Lord (Christmas Day), given in the “church next door.” I gave slightly different versions of the same sermon at midnight and morning; this is the midnight version.
So here we are. All through today, late into tonight and early in the morning, all over the world Christians are gathering to remember Jesus’ birth. The presents are bought, the menus are planned, plans with extended family are negotiated; and if there’s anything left to do more serious than wrap a last present or two, we’re probably at the point where it’s not going to happen (or is that just me?)
It’s supposed to be a time of joy, and of peace, and of general good will, and all of that. But I’ve observed in myself – and I worked enough Christmases in retail to know that it’s not just me – that over the last weeks there’s been plenty of stress and irritation.
But now we have a moment to pause; a moment to put all of that aside and consider other possibilities. A moment to come to the cradle, gaze at the sleeping baby’s face, and ask ourselves what this might mean.
Here is the moment, in the Christian understanding of the world, when everything changes. We have this idea that human beings are made in the image of God; not just a product of our biology or social context, but that our humanity is – or at least can be – the most perfect expression of God’s very being and life.
But we also know, all too well, how often we don’t realise that potential. How much our inability to transcend our weaknesses or to overcome the obstacles around us, means that we end up living lives which are flawed, cracked, marred by animosity, melancholy, or distress.
God is a living God, and we are made to be alive. God is good, and we are made to be good; not in the insipid sense of well-behaved but in the deepest sense of bringing blessing to our world. God is wise, and we are made to be wise. God is peaceful and joyful, kind and compassionate, powerful and gentle; and we are made to be all of these things. God is eternal, and we are also made to be immortal. God governs all that he has made, and we, the creatures made in his image and likeness, are made to care for that creation. And most important of all, God is love, and we are made to be love as well. Whatever God is, we are made by him to become.
But we’ve gotten off track somewhere along the way. Call it sin or the fall, or use other language if you prefer, but human beings have failed to be what God has made us to be. We have failed to love. We use our godlike nature and energy for evil instead of good, for lies instead of truth, for destruction instead of creation, for death instead of life. We distort the image of God within us and lose our likeness to God.
And here we come together to ponder God’s invitation to start again. The God who made us in God’s image, takes on our own flesh, becomes like us, to enable us to begin to be what we are created to be. In coming to live our common human life with us, he shows us perfectly what God is like, shows us our own human potential.
As a human being, Jesus does everything that humanity had been created and called to do, but had thus far failed to do. He obeys God. He honours God’s name. He delights in God’s presence. He gives thanks for God’s gifts. He speaks God’s words. He does God’s works. He accomplishes God’s will. And he makes himself available to us, fully and freely, as an example of what we can be and do.
This is the message of Christmas. Christ is born, God himself in the flesh, and in him the human image of God is restored to what it should be. In him humanity finds its fulfillment and perfection. In him we can truly live, not bound by inner compulsions or external concerns or the need to feed an ever-hungry ego. In him all people can discover what it is to be truly human, human as we were created to be.
I have to be careful here, not to make it sound as if I’m somehow claiming a sort of status for Christians that marks us off from everyone else. To say that God is with us, is not to claim an extra dignity or privilege that makes us better than everyone else; on the contrary, it is to proclaim a new level of solidarity with other people. If God is with us as human beings, God is with all of us; not just with you and with me but with those fighting for ISIS and with the refugees in detention centres; with drug dealers and would-be bombers and even – dare I say it – with Donald Trump. God has come to be with all of us, and that means we’re all in this human project together.
In some of the ancient church hymns for Christmas, the words describe Christ’s birth as the opening of the gates of paradise; a reversal of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden and a welcome home to the place where we may eat of the tree of life.
Of course, in some sense the fullness of that lies still in the ultimate future. But paradise is not a place on the map; it is a condition of the spirit. When a person knows God and lives in intimate relationship with God, this is paradise.
And I think this comes back around to what Paul meant in the reading we heard tonight from the letter to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, …while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. “
That bit about training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions sounds like it might be severe, or at least not very much fun; but I think Paul simply meant the letting go of those things that get in the way of that intimate relationship with God; that identification with God – and of God with us – that holds the key to our human potential.
God came to us in the form of a helpless, vulnerable baby, in order to remove all of the barriers between us and God; all of the barriers between us being all we were created to be. So my question to you, this Christmas, for you to take away and ponder is what would you say has helped, or might help you into relationship with God, and into being all you were created to be?