Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, 2013, St Mary’s

Reading John 1.1-18

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Well – we didn’t quite make it. We’d hoped to finish work on our windows by tonight, but (in those words beloved of defeated football managers) it wasn’t to be: they look great, but we still have a smidgen of scaffolding. If only Christmas had been a week later it would have been perfect.

Christmas waits for no-one. It comes when it comes and you just have to deal with it. And that’s quite fitting, because at the heart of Christmas is an event that comes when it comes. I’ve never had a baby, but I do know that, if it’s safe to do so, you need to let nature take its course. And that’s just what nature does: you can’t arrange the arrival of the baby; the baby comes when the baby comes and everything else has to arrange itself around her or him. And if that means that you, like Mary, have to give birth in a manger rather than a maternity unit, well, deal with it. And it still happens. You may have heard on the radio this morning the recording of BBC weather presenter Simon King helping his wife Emma deliver a baby at home with a midwife on the end of a phone.

The baby born in the manger will be a kind of midwife. John’s gospel says that those who receive him are ‘born, not of the will of the flesh’ but ‘born of God’. It sounds like a second birth, a new life that is the gift of God. What might this mean? Let’s begin where John begins.

In the beginning was the Word. Who, or what, is this Word? Not immediately clear, but we do know that everything that God was, the Word was: all the life of God was poured into the Word, and the Word poured it out again, creating the world, giving reality to the universe and life to every thing that has ever had life or that ever will. And then the Word of God, this divine wisdom, this extraordinary power, was made flesh and dwelt among us: the Word was born, came into the world as you and I came into the world, as a human baby. This is how God works, this is how God is, and this is how Jesus brings this new life, by showing us the true face of God so we can be saved from worshipping idols, from living lives that aren’t real. This is a task for which he will be prepared to die.

And was the world ready when the Word of God came to live among us? It was not. He came into the world, says John, and – though the world owed its very existence to him – the world didn’t know him. He came to his own, and they were not ready to receive him.

And is our world any readier? To be sure, lots of life seems to be characterised by unreadiness, missed targets and slipped timetables. In Northern Ireland, Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan flew in from the US to chair talks about flags and parades with the major parties, hoping for agreement by Christmas, but they broke up at 4am this morning with no deal. Did Christmas come just too soon? They now aim for New Year’s Day.

And what about you and me? Let’s mark ourselves out of ten. Christmas, as I said, comes whether you’re ready or not. So what did you leave behind tonight? Perfect order, perhaps. Or, perhaps, unwrapped presents or unsent cards. Is it an unstuffed bird that’s on your mind? Or a diet you were determined to complete before Christmas did its damage? Or the unfilled tax form you promised you’d get off before Christmas this year? Or a difficult conversation with someone in the family that you really had to have before you saw each other this Christmas. And it may be that another year has gone by with the big questions – what matters, what’s real in my life? – put off again, unanswered. And –  unlike unpaid bills, the red and enflamed ones – none of the big questions have arrived with a Final Demand. Not yet.

Now these unfinished things all matter, some of them matter very much, yet despite them all, Christmas comes once more. And none of them can stop Christmas doing its job, because none of them gets in the way of you or me meeting God. They may even help. The God we see in Jesus, in the birth in the makeshift manger, is the God who says, ‘Ready or not, here I come’.  In fact, the person who always has to be in control, who always has to have every duck in a row and every apple pie in order, may actually be at a disadvantage when God comes, because you never can have everything ticked off in readiness for meeting the one to whom the universe owes its very existence; can you? Best not to try.

On this holy night, the Word of God, made flesh in Jesus, comes to us again, in all our unreadiness. He comes, as ever, to show us the truth about God and ourselves:

Look, he says, in the stable, here I am, ‘the maker of the world…born a begging child’. This is what I’m like. This is what makes the world go round: a love that refuses to bully you or force you, or mark you out of ten, a love doesn’t need to be defended, that gives itself away. And if you want to live in the truth rather than live a lie, just say yes to this love, which you will find is bigger than all your fears.

How ready do you have to be to meet God? All you need are what you bring up to receive communion: two empty hands. And to be ready to receive the Word of God, made flesh in Jesus, all that each of us needs is just need one word of our own: Welcome.


BBC weather presenter

The maker of the world Austin Farrer, ‘ A grasp of the hand’, in Austin Farrer : The Essential Sermons, edited by Leslie Houlden, SPCK, 1991, p. 209.

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