Readings: Hebrews 1.1-4, John 1.1-14
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
December has been a month to reveal the glorious, ghastly confusion of our world, and it’s still not over: a typhoon in the Philippines, an orgy of terrorism in Iraq as the US leaves; the death of a despot in North Korea, whose brand of autocracy was not only brutal but incompetent; and yesterday in Prague, the funeral of a truly great man, the dissident statesman Václav Havel; Saab cars and Thornton chocolates, names like household words, that admitted to financial trouble; the repeated meetings to shore up the tottering Euro, and climate talks in Durban overshadowed by the tottering ice cliffs of the polar regions; and more laying bare of the news-gathering methods of some of the British press. What sense can be made us, who can be so great and so ghastly?
In among this was what may turn out to have been a piece of profound and exciting revelation: tantalising hints (forty years after it was first predicted) of the Higgs Boson. This is the sub-atomic particle that, if it exists, plugs a big hole in the theory of how the universe works by explaining how particles can acquire mass and so become matter. Bryan Cox, the current poster boy of popular science, was asked why some called it the God particle. ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘someone wanted to sell some books.’ True, no doubt – and it’s interesting that putting ‘God’ in the title does sell books, with its hint of something ultimate, something that can make sense of everything else.
You may say that I shouldn’t read much into this, that it’s just a throwaway metaphor. After all, hordes of foodies might buy a book called Nigella’s Kitchen Bible but have no desire to read the real thing. You may indeed see the dazzling advances of science – and they are dazzling – as removing the need to speak of God, except as a figure of speech. Or you may see this as a pretty poverty-stricken view of God, as an explanation for the holes that science hasn’t yet plugged. You may ask why there is anything at all, not just the stuff that makes up the universe but the laws and principles that permit a universe tumble out of nothing, if that was what happened. You may find that it doesn’t ring true to experience to say that all this, and you and I, is just a colossal, beautiful, partly ghastly accident. And if that is you, then this is your night, for this is the night when God reveals how things are at the deepest level of all.
St John’s gospel does not give us the story of the baby born in Bethlehem – we sing that tonight in our carols – but gives us instead what he sees as the essence of the birth of Jesus. ‘In the beginning was the word,’ God’s self expression, the word that spoke the equations that sustain the universe, and this is the night when that word is made flesh, embodied in a human life like yours and mine. To look into the manger in Bethlehem is to look at what Archbishop Rowan Williams has called ‘the engine room of the universe’. Deep down, this is how it is. Here God gives more than a tantalising hint; he gives himself away, in a small, fragile, shivering bundle of flesh, with no grandness, no glory (or rather, there is glory, but not as we know it). Here we see that the universe owes its existence moment by moment to a creator who does not throw his weight around; who gives space for that very creation to exist: space for you and me to be, and to be ourselves; space also – and this is the costliness of a truly free world – for the weather and the markets to be themselves, space for a Kim Jong-il, as well as a Václav Havel, to be himself too. In this birth tonight, God is born into that world, without protection or defence. In this birth tonight, God bears the cost of a world that is truly free.
It is hard to believe that God really is like this, rather than the incompetent despot that many imagine. It was hard in Jesus’ day, too, which was why he needed not just to be born but to grow up, to show in adult word and deed how it is with God, as he persistently gave space to those who were bullied and pushed around, who were on the wrong end of those free to abuse their power, and he said that the kingdom of God belonged to such as these. Some found this so intolerable that they got rid of him, and the life that began in a cowshed ended in a criminal’s death and a borrowed tomb. Yet this apparently fragile life proved to be indestructible, even when the misused freedom of the world had done its worst.
Tonight is when it begins. The shepherds hear the voices of the angels urging them to Bethlehem, and there they look into the stable at the birth of it all. And what angel has brought you here, to this Bethlehem of the heart? You may be one of the firm believers, long convinced that this is the only place to be on this night of nights. Or it may be that your being here feels almost accidental: you heard a voice, from a family member or a friend at a party – ‘Why not come along?’ – and so you have. So have we all. We gather from a variety of places and circumstances, with different hopes and fears, but they are met here tonight, as we look at this one thing, this revealing of the true face of God.
If something of this God can be born in us tonight, then so much can be different. Once you know that, deep down, this is how things are, that the One who gives warmth and meaning to the universe has a heart that beats for you, then things take on another shape. You can see that what makes you matter is not found in those things – and you know what they are – that the skilled managers of our desires say that we need, but which the storms of life can whip away from us. If you and I know we are loved by the love we see tonight, a love that gives itself away, that is so generous, so indestructible, then we can receive strength to live and thrive in this world that that can so often bully and push around. Because the Word made flesh has come among us, we can say, in the words of the Psalm writer,
In God I trust and will not fear,
for what can flesh do to me? (Psalm 56.4)
Jesus, the Word of God. He came, says John, and many did not receive him; but to those who did, he gave power to become children of God: people, that is, who know, deep down, that they belong, that they are embraced, and loved beyond telling. And now he comes to us. On this night he comes in a variety of ways: for one, in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion; for another, in the verse of a carol or a moment of stillness. However he comes to us tonight, let us each pray that we may receive him.
Hopes and fears – a reference to the carol, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’,
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.