I would like to begin tonight by sharing three questions with you: Who is Mary? Who is Jesus? Who am I?
Mary is nobody significant. From what we can gather she was probably a young teenager; a servant girl, not from a good family; she’s having a child out of wedlock; and God chooses her to accomplish something tremendous. This is an incredible thing – literally unbelievable. It’s as if God is taking Vicki Pollard and asking her to be the mother of our Lord… but of course the real miracle is that Mary doesn’t say ‘no but yeah but no but… I can’t believe you just said that’ – instead Mary simply says – yes Lord. Simple as that. No buts. Yes Lord. And unbelievable things follow.
Which brings me to my second question – who is Jesus? For the Christian claim is that Jesus is God, and this too is unbelievable. It’s most unbelievable because God is so almighty and powerful and awesome and totally beyond our comprehension. He’s the biggest and the best. Yet the Christian claim is that this defenceless baby, settled in with the animal feed, warmed by the breath of the cattle – this totally helpless, vulnerable, pathetic creature – this is God. This is where we find God. This is where the meaning of all our lives finds its clearest expression – something which isn’t strong, which isn’t proud, which is wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers.
And what does this mean for my third question – who am I? Who are we? I’d like to suggest that the answer to that question depends on the answer to the other two questions. For if the living god himself isn’t interested in being the almighty and supreme being, even stronger than Superman – what we might think of as the great fascist in the sky – if he, if even he is prepared to empty himself, to take the form of a slave, a helpless human child, and precisely through being so weak to bring life to us, to redeem us, to set us free from the law of sin and death and allow us to become the people we are most deeply called to be – if our god is prepared to do this for us, doesn’t this say something about who we are? That perhaps we too don’t need to be quite so concerned about appearing strong? I don’t know about you, but if you’re anything like me then sometimes you’ll be concerned with keeping up appearances – that illusion that we are in control, an illusion that is so important we can occasionally even come close to persuading ourselves that it’s true. Of course, it’s never true – we’re never in control, we too are vulnerable, we are weak, we break down and things go wrong and we get them wrong and we blame ourselves but really what we’re most frightened of is someone else discovering that this façade of being in control is just an illusion... We’re like those guinea pigs running on their wheels – we can never get to the place of rest, and the faster we run the more the process destroys us. But if we don’t have to pursue this agenda of keeping our appearances up – when we’re not making ourselves weak by pretending to be strong – then we have a chance to live the way God is calling us to live.
God loves us more deeply than we can know – it’s an unbelievable thing, not least because we are not worthy – but it doesn’t stop him loving us. He has something in mind for us, a way of life that is more complete, more fulfilling, more exciting and moving than anything that we can devise for ourselves. But we spend our lives saying yes to the world – saying ‘yes’ I want that new car! Yes, I want that new toy! Yes I need to wear that deodorant in order to become attractive to the opposite sex! None of these things help us to become who we most truly are. The only yes that counts is the yes that we can say to God – the yes of Mary. No buts, just a yes. And trust that this unbelievable process – a god who is prepared to be so weak – for us – has the real power of setting us free from all the things which destroy our lives – which consume our souls and don’t even offer us a receipt, let alone a guarantee.
In Christ the light has come into the world; a light which sets us free, and allows us to live in the light. This is what John’s gospel calls becoming a child of god. We know what this sort of person is – we’ve all met people who seem to have a sense of peace or groundedness that immunises them against all the things which stress the rest of us mere mortals. These children of God are the ones who know that they are loved by the Father. That the Father sees right through them, isn’t taken in by all the pretences and the façades and illusions that we build up around ourselves to make ourselves appear worthy in the sight of the world – the Father sees through all that, he sees all the secrets of our hearts – yes, even those ones that we can’t admit to ourselves – he sees it all. And he loves us.
And don’t underestimate this. Don't underestimate what a challenge it is. It’s a very difficult thing, accepting that we are unconditionally loved. We find it unbelievable, so we don’t believe it, so we keep on destroying our lives trying to earn something that is given to us for free.
And because of this unbelievable love, which is there no matter what we do – it’s unearnt, unmerited – this unbelievable love is what sets us free to be ourselves. If you can’t make God love you any more than he does already then there is no longer any need to pretend to be what you’re not. We can become who we are.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Free to be ourselves, free to be the children of God, playing in the garden; trusting that the one in charge of it all loves us – no, more than loves us, he actually likes us, he likes who we are. Not the false stuff; not the destructive stuff – he hates that more than we do, because he can really see how it damages us – no, he sees the real me, and he likes what he sees.
The Father knocks on my door,
Seeking a home for his Son.
Rent is cheap, I say.
I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God.
I’m not sure I want to sell,
But you might come in to look around.
I think I will, says God.
I might let you have a room or two.
I like it, says God. I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day. I can wait, says God.
I’d like to give you more, but it’s a bit difficult.
I need some space for me.
I know, says God, but I’ll wait; I like what I see.
Hmm. Maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.
Thanks, says God. I’ll take it. I like what I see.
I’d like to give you the whole house, but I’m not sure.
Think on it, says God; I would not put you out. Your house would be mine and my son would live in it. You’d have more space than you’ve ever had before.
I don’t understand at all.
I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that. You have to discover it for yourself. That can only happen if you let me have the whole house.
A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.
I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.
I can wait, says God. I like what I see.
Christmas is unbelievable. God taking the form of a human baby, excluded from society, sleeping with the cattle. Yet this story, this truth, this light breaking in to our world – this is the good news of God; that finally, here is the answer to all our questions.