For those of us who couldn’t make the Carols by Candlelight service – and those who want to read it again – here is the Revd David Newton’s short talk.
Preacher: Revd David Newton
Date: 17 December 2017
We come to hear once more that story which has captured the imagination of millions through the centuries. Not the story of gods and demons, of battles and conquering heroes.
But a very ordinary story: the story of a young woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, with difficult familial circumstances, who is tossed about by the politics of the day. It is the too familiar story of a young woman forced to bring her baby into a life of poverty and hardship, forced to flee as a refugee before her child can even talk.
Yet, familiar as such a story may be in our modern world, our pristine stables and manicured cribs make it easy to forget the grit and pain so central to this story.
Mary becomes the imaginary model mother – serene despite a sea of suffering; with make-up in place and a smile fixed on her face. Jesus becomes the doll-child who lies all still and silent, in a well-bleached trough.
So as we make the well-trod journey to Bethlehem once more, let us trudge through the anodyne, move beyond the cosy comfort of log fires and the sweet smell of conifers.
And take a moment to sit beside Mary and Joseph. To feel their fear, to see just how desperate their situation is, just how hopeless it seems; to sense how life is hanging in the balance as a new-born arrives in the damp and cold of a feeding shed.
We pause to sit beside them, immersing ourselves in the real agony of this moment.
But then, the readings we hear today, and the story we tell year on year, forces us to take a step back.
We are called upon to view this tragic tableau with a little distance, with the Gospel writers’ reflections ringing in our ears. And so we are able to see that right in the middle of this pain, difficulty and sorrow, God is present. We have had our eyes opened to see that in this tiny baby, born in poverty and hardship, God has come to dwell with his people.
The wonder of Christmas revealed for all who have eyes to see – God with us.
But many could not see God present in the manger. And who could blame them? What a preposterous idea that God might dwell with us in a trough, rather than on a throne!
The shepherds recognised God’s presence, and ran down the hillside. The magi from the East recognised God’s presence and rode across the desert.
But most could not recognise it. This is not what they expected.
Throughout Jesus’ life – from his birth onwards – God’s presence in Christ goes unrecognised.
He is seen as the carpenter’s son from Nazareth – no one from his home town had eyes to see God’s presence made tangible in this man.
He is the one hung on a tree – as criminal and blasphemer – few then had eyes to see God’s presence in the midst of such agony.
He is the one raised to life – and yet even then his disciples failed to recognise him without prompting.
God’s presence – unrecognised, unseen, unknown.
As in Jesus, so also today.
God with us; God in our midst – for all who have eyes to see.
So the question for us this Christmas is this: will we open our eyes to behold God’s presence in our midst – even in places where we would least expect it? Will we open ourselves up to see God’s presence in and through those we least expect, in times and seasons we least expect? Most especially in the midst of pain and hardship and difficulty?
God came to dwell with us in Christ – entering the world through the humble impoverished life of a young unmarried mother. It was not what Israel was expecting. It is not what we expect. But a few recognised that in this manger God was present – and the world was turned upside down.
God is with us. If only we’d open our eyes.