Christmas Day 2017
Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
You’re visiting friends with a new-born baby. ‘So, who do you think he looks like?’ You stare into the cot and look at this sleeping baby. His mum, his dad, his grandad, the milkman? ‘Well he has your nose.’
You hear yourself desperately saying ‘and those ears are … distinctive!’ It’s hard to get the right answer especially when a baby’s very young. You try to be diplomatic in your answers, not really knowing what the right thing is to say, hoping that you’re not going to offend or upset the questioner, this new doting parent staring at the baby with you, looking for that likeness.
It was the morning after the night before and what a night before! There’d been little sleep in Bethlehem. For a start off the place was so full that many people ended up sleeping out in places that they wouldn’t have chosen for themselves. It’d been a cold night in the hills, a cold night in the streets, not a night for spending outside, watching stars. But then there’d been the brightest star that had ever been seen; when that started shining it had woken people up – it was so bright, like day in the night. And the noise of those shepherds who’d made their way, for some reason, into town, leaving their flocks and coming in like the rabble that they are. Then leaving even noisier, singing and cheering, waking everybody up .. again!
But in the middle of it all there was a peaceful place, a stable, part of an inn that had been strangely illuminated by that star, both inside and out. Some folk had noticed the arrival of a couple from up north, an older man with a heavily pregnant young girl riding a donkey, late arrivals in an already overfull town, trying to find a bed for the night. Now they could just make out, every now and then, the soft crying of a new-born baby.
For Mary and Joseph, looking into the manger where they’d had to lay the child, they must have looked and thought, who does he look like? This was their baby, but a baby like no other, heralded by angelic visitors, named as the one who’d set his people free, the new Joshua, Jeshua, Jesus.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews knew who the baby looked like and told us clearly in the Second Reading that we’ve just heard.
‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.’
Those words that the writer uses, ‘the exact imprint’, are what would’ve been said about the minting of a coin. The blank metal disk is placed on the die and struck and there’s an exact copy. Who does this baby look like? This baby looks like God because this baby bears the exact likeness to divinity. This baby reflects the glory of God and is the likeness of God’s very being.
St John is saying the same thing when in the Gospel for today he writes
‘And the Word became flesh.’
The divine word that was spoken in the beginning, that creative word from which all things came, that word spoken into the womb of Mary, became flesh and dwelt among us and
‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.’
Who is Jesus like, who is this baby, born in this chaotic town, laid in a manger, visited by shepherds, heralded by angels, adored by Mary, loved by Joseph, who is this baby like, he is like God for this baby is God.
One of the many wonderful carols that the choir has been singing over the past few weeks is a setting of a poem by the 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick, which has became well known because John Rutter took it and set it to music – ‘What sweeter music can we bring’ is the name of the carol. And listening to it over these past days I’ve been struck by these words
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome Him.
‘The darling of the world’, the darling of humanity, the baby, the man making visible the God we cannot see, showing us what God looks like, showing us what God acts like, showing us what God loves like, showing us God.
But St John is also clear that we didn’t recognise him, we didn’t recognise God in the midst of us
‘He was in the world, … yet the world did not know him.’
We couldn’t see him, we couldn’t recognise him. Perhaps when we were looking for God we were not looking for a baby in a manger!
But Jesus always challenges our expectations. The sweetness of the Christmas story contrasts sharply with the harshness of Good Friday when that same mother would look again at her son and wonder who he looked like. He looked like the one of whom Isaiah had spoken
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others.
Yet as Mary knew, though he might look like a criminal, this was still her son, and bearing that divine image, as much on the cross as in the crib. This is the wonder of God, this is Emmanuel, God with us.
I’ve been saying in my message for Christmas at all the carol services that I’ve attended this month, that this year, as a community, we’ve seen the best of times and the worst of times, the depths to which humanity can sink as terrorists struck and killed and injured people around the walls of this sacred place. As a nation we’ve experienced horrific terrorist acts in Manchester and London. We watched with horror as Grenfell Tower burnt on our screens and seared its way into our memories. We’ve seen refugees fleeing war and the Rohingya fleeing oppression. We’ve seen a gunman shooting from a Las Vegas hotel into a crowd of music fans. We’ve seen families without anything in the blockade of the Yemen. We’ve seen so many things that have made us weep.
Yet we’ve also seen the goodness of people, their generosity and courage, their ability to rise above the horrors, with dignity, to do the right thing, to live for their neighbour, to care for the stranger, to love the person who does not love them, to care for the person who’ll never know that they cared.
This year has been the tenth anniversary of the Robes Project, our cold weather shelter and the seventh time we’ve hosted the Sleep Out at the end of November. 260 people registered to sleep out that night, a record number and a record amount has been and is being raised. It was humbling and moving to see them all in this nave before they went off to bed and then again, at dawn, still sleepy, but here at the Eucharist, coming forward to make contact with God in communion.
The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome Him.
In our First Reading the prophet Isaiah, who’d go on to speak of the suffering servant, says this
all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
The world still sees its darling, the world sees the salvation of our God when we bear that divine likeness ourselves. For we look with love upon God and love looks back with love, at us and we too reflect his glory. For that is what Christmas is all about, this is why we’ve spent all this time and all this money and all this energy getting ourselves ready for this morning because as St Athanasius said
God became man so that man might become God.
This is the simple, profound, world-shattering, life-shattering truth that was discovered then, is discovered now, that when we look at the baby, we look at God, the darling of the world finding a room with us, where a room could not be found before.
My sister, who do you look like? My brother, who do you look like? To me you look like God – the challenge is to act in a manner more God-like – for God has shown us how to be fully human, even in our weakness and even in our vulnerability, so that we can live up to the challenge that the baby in the manger presents to the world. That has been the challenge this year, it will be the challenge next, to show God to the world, the God we desperately need to know, the darling, our darling, our God.