The past year has been marked by sharply divided opinions on many issues. The question of how we were to leave the European Union split parliament for much of the year in a way that few of us have seen in our lifetimes. Outside, protesters clashed daily; Remainers waving the blue star-studded flags of the EU while leavers reminded us of how many people voted to leave. Commentators speak of how we have become a more polarised nation torn between remain and leave, north and south, old and young, Scotland and the rest of Britain. Across in the states, the divisions appear even more toxic between Trump supporters and his distractors. Riots have taken place on the streets of Paris, Barcelona and Hong Kong. Everywhere we look strong views are put forward and objected to in the media and on social media.
A key area for dispute is religion. The view is commonly held in many quarters that we should abandon religion because it causes so much war and sectarian violence. If religion was banned, the world would be a better place, so it is alleged. Such a view conveniently forgets the positive side of religion. In 2015, a survey carried out by the Cinnamon Network estimated that the work being done by faith communities across Britain was worth over £3 billion to the economy. (www.hrballiance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/cinnamon-Final-National-Report.pdf)
Surely, if we are to reap the positive outcomes of religion, politics, sport and other human activities, we need to become more tolerant again, more understanding of differing views and opinions. We need to listen to one another; to dialogue better. But that should not lull us into thinking that all views, opinions, even religions are true; that somehow, truth will only be found in a rainbow coloured soup of ideas or to believe that the only truth is what is true for me.
As the world we live in has pressed for greater equality and diversity, allowing different voices to be heard the consequence has been the downplaying of the idea of a common story, a thread of truth which we can all grasp and share in; a truth to unite us. But the story of this night assumes that there is such an overarching truth. That there is a God and that in the mystery of his encounter with Mary, he is born in human flesh and laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. He is announced to the world by a host of angels and the leading of a star. This is presented by Luke in our reading as history: when Quirinius was governor of Syria and the Roman Emperor was Augustus.
But people are apt to balk at this. Common sense makes us question how Mary could have been pregnant without having sex with Joseph. Were the angels coming to the shepherds just a dream? For many the story of Jesus’ birth goes in the same drawer as Rudolf and his red nose or Santa stuck up the chimney. They’re happy to go along with it at Christmas, but then they’re looking for meaning elsewhere; a little Buddhist karma here, some reiki or tai chi there; reading the tarot cards, consulting a spiritualist, dabbling with mindfulness, jumping on the latest campaign band waggon or tuning into some expert on how to get on in the world. If that’s you stand back for a moment. Do all these things, some of them in conflict with each other really help you to find yourself and be in a state of true and deep peace? Might it be worth stopping to consider the story, that is presented to us tonight and ask whether it actually answers the questions I’m asking inside? But if it does, it means we need to accept it as non-negotiable as the only way to meaning and purpose in life; as the only way to God!
Before you dis that thought remember that we all live our lives with a lot of things that are non-negotiable, that we cannot change. It takes 24 hours for the earth to rotate on its access and 365.256 days to orbit the sun. While many of us would wish there were more hours in the day or that Christmas came more or less often, there’s nothing we can do about that. We accept it as a given. The division of the year into weeks and months is a little bizarre. Child are taught a rhyme to remember which months have 30 days and which have 31 but no one questions it. There is no campaign for a better system. At the beginning of the bible, in the book of Genesis, we are given an idea of how God ordered our earth, dividing time into days and years, the surface into sea and land; how he made it fruitful, diverse and beautiful. As a climax to that work, God made human beings sharing his likeness in two genders, male and female.
The next part of the story is that these free-spirited human beings, given all the scope to express themselves and to enjoy the garden save for one thing, did that one thing and disobeyed God. They messed up big time. Evil and sin were out of the bag. Death and suffering marred the perfect garden of the world. God calls into the desecrated landscape ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3.9) It is that cry which echoes down the centuries of the stories contained in the old testament, the first part of the bible. But another strain is added. From our first reading tonight: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. (Isaiah 9.2&6) While human beings may have shunned God, he did not shun them. Instead he was making a rescue bid. At just the right time in history, he did not call or send an envoy. He came in person, born into a normal Jewish household at the inconvenient time of census when the only room available was the stable.
It is thus in the person of Jesus Christ that God makes his offer to us, to you and me. It is non-negotiable. ‘There is no other name under heaven which given by which we can be saved.’ (Acts 4.12) Why should there be? Not only does God give himself in the baby Jesus in the crib, he allows himself to be subject to the horror of Roman crucifixion in order to pay the price of that first sin in the garden and all sin since, yours and mine. This means our relationship with God can be restored, made perfect for ever as it was before the fateful actions in the garden. What an offer? And the guarantee? Nothing less than the glorious resurrection of Jesus from the grave and the outpouring of his Holy Spirit on all who believe.
This is the offer from God. Who are we to negotiate with him? He is our maker; he keeps the earth spinning on its axis. He offers himself in love, in Jesus to every human being. We don’t deserve any of it, but it is the greatest love gift of all. Here is truth for all. Here is truth that we can unite around. But more important than that. It is a deal to be received. It is available to everyone, but it won’t benefit those who ignore it or say remind me later. As John puts it at the beginning of his gospel in words we often use at this service: ‘But to all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1.12) Will that be you tonight?
Christmas Eve 24.12.2019