Last December, who’d have predicted the year we’ve had? Who could have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic of 2020? We are not yet out of the woods, and this Christmas season is unlike any we have had before.
For one year only (I hope!) we are celebrating Christmas without carol singing, a Christmas without much socialising with family and friends, a Christmas when face masks are an unexpected part of our festive attire!
But this is not the only unusual and unpredictable Christmas. Its not the only unusual festive season with a few surprises up its sleeve. Because the first Christmas was equally unusual. It too involved some remarkable surprises. It contained paradoxes that no human could have predicted. Because the first Christmas was a night when a virgin gave birth, when a little baby was the Lord, and when an army proclaimed peace.
Let’s consider each of these in turn…
The first great surprise of Christmas was that virgin gave birth. Mary was an unmarried woman in a conservative culture. A teenage girl with her whole life ahead of her. So imagine her surprise when she was told that a child was growing within her. Imagine her shock to discover that she had conceived without any man being involved. And just imagine the incredulity and innuendo that she and Joseph must have faced when her pregnancy became public.
Over recent weeks we have been marvelling at the skill of those scientists and medics who have developed a coronavirus vaccine in under a year. But even they could not create a child from nothing in a virgin’s womb over 9 short months.
Yet the God who holds the whole world in his hand is a God who can work miracles, even within a woman’s womb. Mary’s pregnancy was the work of the Holy Spirit, not the will of man. Her pregnancy was not the result of promiscuity or a freak of nature, but the fulfilment God’s promises to come and save the human race.
Incredibly, the little baby Mary bore was the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Or, as John puts it in our reading tonight, he was “the Word made flesh”, the Light of the World.
If you stopped someone on the street and asked them what God looks like, some might say “an old man with a beard” or “a wise man wearing sandals”! A more sophisticated respondent might say that God himself is unseen, but that his glory is shown in the starry heavens above or within the wonders of nature here below. Yet the second great surprise of Christmas is that the little Baby born in Bethlehem was the Lord himself. Amazingly the invisible God who had formed the heavens and the earth had become visible in the form of a fragile baby boy.
It was an angel who shared this great surprise with some lowly shepherds “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night”. He told them that the baby born “in the town of David” was no ordinary child. Fully human for sure – the baby Jesus would have cried as much as any new-born child. But so much more as well, because this little baby was the Lord.
By being born in Bethlehem, the Son of God had come to share in the human condition. The Creator had become a creature. The Word of God who orders the cosmos and upholds the laws of nature was now laid in an animal’s feeding trough. The glory of God, on display every night in the starry skies, was for that one night on display in a lowly manger.
And the reason he had come was to be a Saviour to sinners and a King for God’s people. Christ had come, as John puts it, to bring “grace and truth” to a lost and fallen world.
Armies are normally associated with war and conflict rather than peace and reconciliation. Yet, in another surprising aspect of the first Christmas, an army assembled to proclaim peace – not wage war. According to Luke’s gospel, a “great company of the heavenly host” appeared to the shepherds and said: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests” (v.14). The coming of Christ made it possible for people to be at peace with God, no longer rebels against their rightful ruler. When the ‘Word became flesh’ he outranked every angel and came to complete a mission that he alone was qualified to complete.
You see, God’s Son came to give his life for the cause of reconciliation and forgiveness. By his life, death and resurrection Jesus has made it possible for people like you and me to be at peace with God and enjoy his favour forever. For at the Cross he willingly paid the penalty for our rebellion, and did everything necessary for our slate to be wiped clean. And by his resurrection he opened the way to friendship with God for eternity.
As I finish, there is no doubt that the characteristics of first Christmas were even more surprising and unpredictable than this years. A virgin gave birth, a little baby was the Lord, and an army of angels proclaimed peace.
The big question for us is how to respond to these surprises: Do we dismiss them as nothing more than historical curiosities? Do we ignore them as irrelevant to our daily life? Or should we take them rather more seriously?
I think we should. Because that’s the reason why John wrote his Gospel for us. To introduce us to Jesus, to help us put our trust in him. For only faith in God’s Son can give us a sure and certain hope in this unpredictable and fallen world. Only Christ can enable us to become forgiven friends of his Father, forever.
Its well worth reading John’s beautiful book in full. But let me end tonight with some words from the very end of John’s Gospel, words which come twenty chapters later than the ones we heard just now. John says there that: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God – and that by believing you may have life in his name”.
May we all receive that life to the full this Christmas.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for the surprises of your birth and the salvation it made possible. May we respond in faith this Christmas, and forevermore. Amen.
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.