Reading: Luke 2:1-20
Preacher: Revd Neil Summers
You hardly need me to tell you that religious belief, at least in our part of the world, is frequently under attack. Religion in general, and often Christianity in particular, is variously portrayed as illogical, irrational, unscientific, infantile, wishful thinking, a comfort blanket for the weak-minded, a cause of conflict that creates more problems than it solves, nothing to do with real life, and the rest. Many influential figures in British society voice negative opinions about religion, but I want to suggest that the Christmas story we celebrate tonight is written for people like them and for people like us: those with a firm personal faith; those who respect others’ beliefs, but can’t commit themselves; those who would like to believe there’s something in it, but remain sceptical; and those who have little or no time for religion at all: every different kind of person with every different kind of faith and every kind of scepticism. Let’s consider just a few ways in which this Christmas story might meet each of us right where we are.
Let’s say you’re sceptical about the divine parts of the story because you believe it is global power structures, and economic and political systems, rather than God, that make the world go round. Well, here’s a political story for you. The Emperor Augustus rules over the whole Roman Empire, effectively in imitation of God, and he records in the census how many people he controls and how much money he can squeeze out of them. The mysterious wise men from the East appear and say there’s a new king being born. That panics the local puppet king, Herod, into murderous reaction. This is a very political story. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with politics,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”
Let’s say you’re sceptical for a different reason. Let’s say for you life is primarily about practising virtues of kindness and mercy, whereas the Christian Church has too often seemed more interested in its own rituals and in preserving its own power, than in modelling its life on the example of its central figure, Jesus, the man who forgave the unforgivable, loved the unlovable, and reached out to the untouchable. Well, here’s a very human story for you. Mary’s expecting a baby. A pregnancy at 14 years old is no joke. She’s isolated and alone. And full of fear. And think about Joseph. His fiancée’s pregnant and the baby’s not his. So this is a very personal and human story, about love, and isolation, and childbirth, and tragedy, and the testing of relationships. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with my personal experience,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”
Let’s say you’re sceptical for another reason. Maybe to you, on a scientific level, the whole story seems like a fairy tale. But let’s look at what’s so miraculous and strange. There’s a star that guides those wise men across the desert. That star is telling us that this is a big event in heaven as well as on earth. There’s a company of angels who fill the sky and tell the shepherds that the saviour is born. Those angels are messengers – that’s what the word angel means – and they mirror on a grand level what the shepherds are called to be on a humble level: messengers of good news to all people, including the shepherds, who themselves were counted among the despised and the outcasts. And there’s a virgin birth. That’s a way of saying this is God creating something out of nothing, just as on the day of creation. It’s that significant. So these stories aren’t childish. They’re communicating the mystery of God’s incarnation in the cosmic language and understanding of the first century. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with cosmic reality,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”
Let’s say you’re sceptical for yet another reason. Maybe for you, life in general, and Christianity in particular, should be all about empowering those who live with inadequate food, unequal treatment under the law, wretched accommodation, or terrible working conditions. And maybe it seems the Christmas story is a sentimental children’s tale of little donkeys and dusty roads. Well, look again. The shepherds are people excluded from society because they can’t keep the purity laws. The holy family struggle to find accommodation in Bethlehem. Jesus becomes a refugee because of his parents’ fear of Herod’s jealousy. This story has homelessness, economic oppression and forced migration in it before you’ve even begun on the tax system and the movement of populations brought about by the census. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with social issues,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”
Finally, let’s say you’re sceptical because you just can’t make the leap to see this as a story about life, the universe and everything. Maybe for you Christmas is a time for love and family and friendship, and a heightened – albeit temporary – bit of compassion and generosity. All well and good, as far as it goes, but this story is about more than that. Christmas is fundamentally telling us of the Christian perception of the truth about God. And that truth involves two huge philosophical claims. Number one: there’s a logic about the way the universe is made, a logic that was there from the very beginning. Number two: that logic, which the Gospel writer John calls ‘the Word,’ isn’t abstract and arbitrary, but actually willed to become human flesh and blood and to dwell among us. The word that Christians use for those two claims is ‘Christmas’. So Christmas really is about life, the universe and everything. There’s no aspect of human life and no dimension of God that isn’t wrapped up in Christmas. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with ultimate truth,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”
Have I missed anybody out? Quite possibly. But if I have, I hope I’ve given you the confidence to rummage around in this awesome story and find the source of your deepest longings and the subject of your deepest questions. Because what the Christmas story is fundamentally about is God’s longing to be present to us in all our political, personal, cosmic, social and philosophical dimensions. That’s what Immanuel means: God is with us. That’s what the Word becoming flesh means: divinity enters fully into our humanity. Tonight, we celebrate the Christian understanding that God enters into both our rationality, but also into our imagination.
I encourage you on this night, of all nights, to honour your rationality, but also to give free rein to your imagination. This night when angels sing, when one star shines brighter than all the rest, when, according to legend, animals find they can speak, when a virgin gives birth. Let this Christmas story of a God who enters into our humanity be embraced by your imagination as much as it is analysed by your reason. Be open to the imaginative embrace of faith, because the theme of the Incarnation is impoverished if it is reduced to a mere piece of cold and clinical theological logic. The Christmas story, given half a chance, can resonate with our deepest intuitions about life, above all, our sense that there is something immensely important beyond the borders of our experience. This story has the capacity to change utterly the way in which we see ourselves, other people, the world and God. Let us trust the power of our minds, certainly, and let us continue to ask questions. But let us also make room for the deepest intuitions of our hearts, and see where they take us. We may well find they lead us to this crib, this Nativity, where we find that a fundamental story about life and living begins, but certainly doesn’t end.
You may recall that C.S. Lewis, after a period as an atheist, but who returned to belief in God, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wrote of a world in which it was ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The Christmas story puts into words the astonishing idea that God entered our dark and wintry world to bring us to a better place. Instead of passively accepting a hopeless end, we are invited, instead, to celebrate and embrace an endless hope. Enjoy it! Celebrate it! And open your mind and your heart to what this night makes possible.