Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24 2017
2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38; Luke 1.46-55
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
The story of Mary begins the story of Christmas, but it is all part of the amazing message of the love of God for God’s creation. At the heart of Christmas is what John says in the prologue of his Gospel (1.14): “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The good news of Christmas is the good news of incarnation.
David and Susan were a young Christian couple. They were reasonably well off. They lived in a comfortable home. They had a family car and could afford to go on pleasant holidays.
David and Susan were well liked in the area, they were members of the local church, they ran the local youth club, and Susan was a voluntary worker in the local hospital. They had a child of two years and were expecting their second child in a few months.
One morning they had a letter from a friend who has been at college with David. The letter described the medical provision for many people in a remote part of the Horn of Africa. David was about to complete his training as a nurse, and the letter troubled him. Could it be right to stay comfortably at home, where there was at least reasonable medical care for everyone, when God’s children in Africa were dying in their thousands for lack of the simplest medical know-how?
Two days later David and Susan were the talk of the neighbourhood, for the house was up for sale, the car and furniture were being sold. They had decided to be off to Africa, family, toddler and baby to be.
“It’s just plain irresponsible,” said Susan’s mother, “What if little Robert is bitten by a snake, or if he catches malaria? And how about the care of Susan when the baby is born – tell me that!”
The neighbours said, “If they must go, why sell the house and all, they’ll have nothing to come back to.”
A day later the talk was even stronger, for not just were they selling everything but all the money was being used for the fare and for medical provisions to be used when they were out there.
“Sheer foolishness, I say we ought to call in the social services, they must both have had a breakdown. There will be no way back and no way even to have a home of the standard they are used to.”
The minister of their church was asked to call round to talk to them. “You are taking appalling risks, you know, have you thought about it?”
David looked at Susan, now all too obviously pregnant, with all the signs of stress on his face knowing that nobody else understood what they were doing and why they felt that they had to do it, and Susan looked back at him
“It’s incarnation,” she told the minister. “Don’t you of all people see that?”
“Jesus too had no way back. He too was vulnerable to infant death, dysentery or malaria. Jesus too might have been killed by a dictator’s army hell bent on destruction, he too was in a family with no home, he too was simply there with the poor, the downtrodden and the hopeless.”
That is what the birth of Christ is all about. It’s not some gimmick to attract attention.
In the eyes of a comfortable world, it was foolishly irresponsible. What was most precious of all, the very Word that formed the world, the very presence that was in God part of the meaning of the world, was placed at the mercy of Herod’s army and the poverty of the ancient world. The infant Jesus might have been lost at birth. The infant Jesus might have died in the manger, as many other infant children are still dying even today. The infant Jesus might have suffered a road traffic accident on the road to Egypt. All of that was the risk of incarnation, the risk of God being born in the baby of Bethlehem.
You can’t become incarnate without all the problems and dangers of flesh and blood.
It was hideously irresponsible – and yet it was also the inevitable outworking of the love that Jesus showed throughout his life, the love at the heart of the Godhead.
To people who are comfortable in their own security, with few worries to confront them, all could have been lost. To those who have some sense of the nature of God, it was no more than the natural outworking of his love as he takes responsibility for the creation he has brought into being.
God’s love was such that despite the risks, it had to be done – and the doing shows us something of the length, breadth, height and depth of that love. The work that Jesus had to do could not be done from a palace or from riches, but only from poverty and helplessness, in other words, from the stable. The love of God had to be there amid the squalor and the hardship. Where else could love divine be found?
It is this divine love that is the gospel, the good news, of Christmas, though perhaps not evident in all its fullness to the shepherds as they visited, nor to the wise men who travelled from afar, nor to any who visited the holy family on that first Christmas. Not evident fully even to Mary and Joseph.
We get a glimpse of that love in the birth of Jesus, but it is in his death that its durability and power is really seen. At the point of ultimate weakness and death – there is the greatest witness to love divine. Love is seen in the way that the baby grew, lived and died. It’s seen in Jesus’ humility, his service, his call for truth and integrity. The message of Christmas is still that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16).
If we can recognize that God sent Jesus in the incarnation, then we can see the infinite love God has for the world, and for each of us in it.
“Love came down at Christmas.” That love came down for each one of us. Right at the heart of all creation is the endless pouring out of love from God, selfless and open. Whatever we have to face, the love of God is offered to us openly – if only we are willing to accept it.
Love shall be our token
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all the world,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Divine love has consequences. Such love as this cries out for a response, a response in love from each one of us. As God has offered all his love in coming down to earth, so he calls out with a desire to be loved by his creation, and that his love might be seen in the lives of those that he has created – to receive back from us love such as he has given to us. Most clearly we do this in the way we respond to the needs of others around us, but we do so also as we worship.
The story of three wise men traveling many miles, following a star, to find a baby born in squalor seems crazy. The idea of the God of creation being born in a helpless child seems foolishness. The thought of divine love so selfless that it opens itself up to the vulnerability of a refugee baby seems irrational.
But that is what Christmas is all about. It turns upside down so many of the things we hold dear, it places infinite value on love and the dignity of each one of us – even a desperate refugee from Syria today – a value that gets forgotten through most of the year.
Love so amazing, so divine, that it demands my soul, my life, my all. Love so amazing, so divine, that it gives me the strength to live on in life come what may. Love so amazing, so divine, that it cares for even the poorest and most neglected.
Love so amazing, so divine, that it had to be born on earth in the baby of Bethlehem.