Durham Cathedral 11.15pm Christmas Eve
Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-19
‘The time came for Mary to deliver her child.’
‘Is it time yet?’ I wonder how many children have asked that question over the past few hours? Sent to bed to sleep awaiting the arrival of Santa they will have struggled to sleep. Some will have wound their way out of their room several times to inquire of their parent, ‘Is it time yet?’
In the next few hours, there will be broken nights and much earlier mornings than parents would desire as children ask the same. Then excitedly they will declare that Santa has come as they see presents at the end of their bed, around the tree or wherever in each home the presents become displayed.
I still remember being that non-sleeping, then early waking child. Time seemed to stand still.
Time fascinates us all. We love using it but know we can never get it back. It ticks by at a consistent rate yet that is not how it feels; sometimes time races, at others it drags. At best we recognise that time, like life, is a gift; a gift to be used well.
Time is significant in the Christmas story. Saint Paul wrote, ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children (sons).’ (Galatians 4.4)
The gospel writers have a strong sense that the birth of Jesus is the fulfilment of the arrival of God’s long-promised Messiah. God is acting in time.
JESUS: BORN IN TIME & SPACE
God enters the world of space and time in the birth of Jesus. The eternal one becomes time-limited; the all present one becomes bound by the confines of Mary’s womb and a tiny, frail human body. God binds himself to the very growing processes he had created. The Word becomes flesh and dwells with us.
INTO A POLITICAL WORLD
Jesus is born into a very specific point in history. The powerful Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, is ruling. He chooses to exercise that authority and power by commanding a census. But he decides that as a way of making it clear he is in charge everyone has to return to their town of birth rather than register where they now reside. Political power pushes ordinary people around, primarily it would appear to simply make the point of who is in charge.
So in a distant province Quirinius the Roman Governor enacts his emperor’s orders. This means that a humble carpenter from Nazareth, Joseph, has to travel with his pregnant betrothed to the family home, Bethlehem, 70 miles south. The little people are powerless to decide otherwise than the emperor and his governor determine.
Matthew tells us about a different power at work in this time. Herod is the Jewish ‘under king’ to the Roman emperor. He has delusions of his own grandeur as ‘King of the Jews’. He is capable of great achievements; he builds the Temple in Jerusalem. He is jealous for his own power. He is capable of being filled with fear at the birth of an unidentified baby, but whose place of birth accords with the promises of the prophets. He worries; so acts to eradicate the threat.
Jesus is born into a world of political power and mess. God enters the world of political mess.
INTO A PERSONAL WORLD
Jesus is born into time and space when ordinary people are simply getting on with their lives. This is what most people have always done, and still do. They try and get on with their own lives the best that they can regardless of what those who wield power choose to do. Yet they inevitably become caught up in it. Most simply adjust and get on with making ends meet; caring for their own; being part of a small community and accepting their own limits. Some wisely see beyond this and know that God is bigger than it all.
Bethlehem at this time was not quite like normal because of all the visitors returning to register. This must have created some excitement as relatives not seen in years reappear; many are seeking hospitality. There are business opportunities for some. There is money to be made from the Romans’ decision.
Here Joseph and Mary arrive wondering where they will stay; no doubt with some anxiety about just when the baby will come. Their conversation must often have been about just how this call from God to parent the Saviour of the world will work out. There must have been both confidence in God to help them, and times wondering just what God was doing. Jesus is born into their personal space with all its hopes and its messiness.
INTO A SOCIAL WORLD
Up in the surrounding hills, the shepherds are simply doing their normal job. Shepherds were regarded by many as slightly odd for the work that they did. Some were suspected of being petty criminals. Some were seen as undertaking an important job producing the sheep that can be offered at the Temple in sacrifice – although many ordinary people struggled to ever afford a sheep and settled rather for two doves or pigeons. For these shepherds, it was an ordinary night, just like any other.
Jesus is born into the world of ordinariness; of work to survive, or better; of society with all its life, its joys and pains; its struggles and stresses. Jesus is born into the world of social mess.
Into this world of politics, with its power plays; its distance from, yet impact on, ordinary people Jesus is born.
Into this world of social life; with its work, business, social attitudes and family life, Jesus is born.
Into this world of personal stories and each life being lived out, Jesus is born.
And his birth changes everything.
The powerful back in Rome did not even know about; it was not even a blip on their radar. When the local powerful in Jerusalem hear of it they respond with fear and try to eradicate it rather than embrace it as the fulfilment of hope for which their people longed. But in time these great powers themselves will come to recognise the significance of this birth.
The ordinary people, like shepherds, have their lives turned upside down by the appearance of angels and then the discovery of this newborn baby. They have to tell all Bethlehem about it. So for those who will listen in Bethlehem their lives are also changed. Hope rises in their hearts with the birth of this child.
Mary and Joseph carry the full story themselves. No doubt they shared it with the shepherds and those who came to visit. Their lives, already disrupted by this unexpected birth, are set on a whole new course. In the shepherd event they have further confirmed for them the reality of just who their newborn son truly is. The Saviour of the world is here; and they have the responsibility of raising him well. Their personal lives are transformed.
None of us need reminding that this Christmas we find ourselves in interesting times. As a nation we are in something of a political mess. This is regardless of your own views and opinions it is something of a mess.
Ordinary people’s lives get affected by the decisions made by those in power. These are decisions about our future relations with Europe; decisions about the implementation of policies around Universal Credit, asylum seekers and refugees, healthcare and drones. Those in power today have much more access to knowledge about the impact of their decisions than Augustus could have done. We all, in positions of power and authority, need to take our decisions with care particularly on how they impact the most vulnerable and the neediest in our society and world.
Above all else those who hold power need to humbly recognise that God is still active in the world of time and space. The baby born in Bethlehem is now the one who is Lord of all to whom one day every knee will bow. We all need to humbly worship at the manger.
For most of us in the everyday ordinariness of our lives; in our work, our social make up, our families and our own personal delights and messes Jesus still comes to us as the one who offers hope and fresh possibilities.
This is not simply a glorious and wondrous story of the past. This is the story that opens up the changing of our lives. The coming of Jesus transformed everything for the shepherds. They would remain shepherds for the rest of their lives but their sense of who they were; whether or not they mattered to God would never be the same. For you and I the message is the same; you matter. God cares. God loves you. You count. However ordinary life might feel. Whatever sort of mess life might feel like, God cares. In Jesus there is true hope and true transformation.
Like the shepherds we too can chase down to Bethlehem and worship at the manger. Unlike them we do so knowing that this baby grew up to be the teacher and healer; the one who would lay his life down; the one who conquered death once and for all.
Whoever you are this Christmas; this baby was born for you. He is your Saviour, your Lord. So come to him, the one born in space and time, who is the Lord of space and time, and rejoice with the angels, the Saviour, your Saviour, our Saviour, has been born.