The readings we had today from Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus birth. On one level it is the story of a very human event, a woman giving birth to a baby boy. A very human event, as the birth comes at an inopportune time. Forced to travel to a town where her husband’s family was from to register, so the government could tax the people. Caught in a housing crisis where there was no room. Not even travigo.com or any other website could have found them a suitable place. They simply have a stable, maybe in today’s world it would be a crowded garage. There is political unrest and the need for the family to become refugees for the safety of their child. It’s a birth that would fit into the many stories of similar children in disadvantaged situations we’ve seen, or experienced here in New Zealand and in the world around us, this year… but not life changing.
On another level there is something profound and divine and world changing in this birth, in the child the stories birth speaks of. There is the long-awaited hope of Israel, that God would act, here as John’s gospel says in a very kiwi Summer Christmas Holiday way ‘the word took on flesh, and pitched his tent at our place. Here in the grip of the power of Augustus of Rome and the paranoid dictatorship of Herod in Judea, God’s kingdom, steps into our world. Not with fanfares or conquering armies and over whelming power, but in a child’s birth, in a stable. We understand that because the importance of the child which Mary and Joseph call Jesus, which means saviour, is revealed to us in and through the characters we meet in the gospels narrative: Jesus Parents, the shepherds (washing their socks by night), the wise men travelling from the east, (one on a tractor, two in a car, one on a scooter tooting his hooter) and Simeon and Anna. They tell us the real story and in how Jesus comes to them I believe is insight into how Jesus comes to us today in our lives and our world.
We didn’t read the start of Mary’s story this morning, but Luke’s account of Jesus birth is very much Mary’s story, he has told it as she had told him. Mary is a woman of faith, she has grown up knowing God and God’s love for his people. She has a hope for God to step in and bring his justice and mercy into the world. So while she is surprised by the angel Gabriel, her response to the amazing idea of having a baby despite being a virgin she responds “may it be to me according to your word.” When she has confirmation in meeting her older cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant, she breaks out in this amazing song, of God’s blessing on her and the whole of humanity and the hope of good news to the poor and the lowly being lifted. Jesus becomes very real in her life, in fact it is the focus of her life. That leads her to depth of despair and death, just as Simeon had told here in our reading this morning), when she sees her son grown to a man, nailed to a cross and crucified and brings new life as she experiences the reality of who he is when he is raised to life again.
For many people Jesus comes to us in that way… People are bought up in the Christian faith, the faith of their parents, they know the bible stories, they know the reality of God, then there is a time that Jesus Christ steps into their lives and their faith and trust in him becomes their own faith, their own hope, they own it. For some it’s a process of pregnancy, growing inside us, for others it’s as sharp as the dawning of a new day.
I was visiting a friend who is pastoring at a Methodist Presbyterian union parish and he mentioned John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, the moment when faith in Christ that has guided him all his life became so much more real and personal. John Wesley wrote of it in his dairy
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
His faith stopped being just a belief and it became a personal reality of the grace and presence of Jesus Christ that lead to him preaching in fields and streets and great revival and social reform in England and round the world.
The shepherds know nothing of Jesus, but it is revealed to them in a profound spiritual experience. An angel appears to them and tells of them Jesus birth, Then as if the sky has simply rolled back like a theatre curtain there is an angelic army singing and proclaiming Glory to God in the highest and peace to earth’. These outcast men in their society are told the most profound truth, and they rush off to see if it true. When they see what the angel has told them is true they go hope rejoicing, something has changed, here is God’s promised salvation.
I grew up in a Christian home and went to church, but as a teenager I began to walk away from that faith and would tell everyone ‘no I am not a Christian and you can’t convince me to be otherwise. I don’t believe it’, and it was only after a profound Spiritual experience that I came to follow Jesus. At a church camp, which I’d gone to because they were fun and all my mates were going, after a very boring preacher had spoken, he invited people to come forward and become a Christian, and at that moment it was as if the heavens opened and God was very real and very there and Said ‘Howard I want you to follow me’. I decided to become a Christian.
Many of you have had profound spiritual experiences, the key is to be like the shepherd and go and see the truth behind what you’ve experienced and find it in Jesus Christ.
The wise men come to Jesus through there exploration and understanding of the world. They are about the wisdom of their age and they are astronomers, star gazers, precursors to the scientists of our age. They see a new phenomenon in the sky which leads them to think something special has happened, they grasp something of its significance so go to see it for themselves. They go to the authorities and the people and places that you’d think would know about such things, and while they find some guidance there they encounter someone for whom Jesus coming is odds with their own asperations and worldview, but they continue their journey and encounter Jesus. They worship him and in the gospel story it is they would proclaim that Jesus birth is not just for the people of Israel but God’s salvation for all humanity. They represent us in the story.
Jesus comes to people today as they are willing to seek and search for truth as well. I am reading CS Lewis’ memoirs ‘surprised by Joy’ and Lewis talks of his process of coming to believe in Jesus as God’s son. He was a professor of English literature at Oxford University and in his discussions of philosophy and the nature of myths and stories and truth with his good friend JRR Tolkien, Lewis talks of coming to the point of believing that the Christian myth was the real myth… later he would talk of a motor cycle ride, maybe you’ve had a similar ride, where he started not believing in Christ, but somewhere along the way he knew he believed.
The Christ who stepped into our world at Christmas time, who grew into a man and spoke of God’s kingdom and love and then was crucified and rose again, still comes into our world today in different ways, but Christ wants to make himself known to each one of us, God’s love for all humanity is at the heart of the Christmas message. It is the best present we can hope for you this Christmas.
That might be a natural place for me to stop, but we have missed a couple of people in the Christmas narrative. Simeon and Anna are sort of the forgotten people of the Christmas story, they are not at the manger, they are not there because of angel choir or shining star, but they are show us how Jesus steps into most peoples lives today. Simeon and Ana are people of faith who when they encounter Jesus and the Holy Spirit reveals who Jesus is to them, just can’t help but tell everyone who will listen about the child… about Jesus. Simeon does it through a formal act of worship, he uses the words of scripture, but declares to the people gathered in the temple that this indeed is God’s salvation come into the world, and Ana Well she just tells everyone.
How does Jesus come today… in so many different ways in people owning their own faith, through spiritual experience and the tough journey of seeking truth… but you know what Jesus chooses to come into this world through you and me… as we have encountered him and its changed our lives and we are willing to share it. Most people come to know Jesus because friends and family members are willing to tell the Christmas and the rest of the Christ story to them.