The Christmas story tells us about a God who comes to us, not in dazzling light but in a cattle trough. Sure, the angels do their pyrotechnics, but they are only there to point to the real sign, some strips of cloth and a manger.
We often find it hard to get our heads around God. The Christmas story makes it both easier and more difficult. Easier because it is a sign that says ‘look here’. Harder because what we see is not what we expected to see or what we want to see.
People ask me why God doesn't show himself more openly. We human beings seem to want blazing lights that show us everything. But on that first Christmas Day the blazing light wasn't shining over Bethlehem. It shone over the hills . It helped the shepherds but it was a sign about a sign, not the sign itself.
Sorry if that last sentence confused you. But the real sign is the strips of cloth and the manger. God doesn't come to us in blazing light. He comes and lies down in a dark, cattle trough. Try and get your head around that this Christmas. It changes everything.
A little quiz for you today. Who said this?
‘God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’
Got it yet? I’ll give you a clue. You probably didn’t hear it in a nativity play, but you should have.
The answer is Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mary also spoke about God scattering the proud and bringing down rulers from their throne.
To Mary the birth of Jesus starts a revolution. Mary lived in an oppressed country. She was ruled by the (as she saw it) arrogant, bullying Roman Empire and their evil puppet King Herod. It was time to change and she was going to have the baby who would solve the problem.
As I write this our country is in a political storm. The ‘meaningful’ vote in parliament has been put off. Who knows where our country will be when Article 50 is scheduled to expire in March?
Yet for many there are more important things than Brexit. People do not have enough food. They are homeless. They are ill, physically, or mentally or spiritually. They are on the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. Surely it is time for God to act and fill the hungry with good things once more.
Mary never thought that Jesus would do this be waving a magic wand. He would achieve it by being a different sort of king. The promise to Abraham, that God would bless the world through his family, would at last be fulfilled. When we come under his rule great things happen. The hungry are fed. The homeless are housed. People who seemed insignificant are honoured.
God has done great things. Honour his king this Christmas.
Mary hurried to visit her older relative.
She had just heard two pieces of news. The first was that she was going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit (I know, it sounds daft, but that was Mary’s first reaction too.) The second was that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was already pregnant.
No wonder that Mary rushed to Elizabeth. She was running to the proof that the angel had spoken the truth. And perhaps to the one person who could truly understand her.
There were no phones or social media in those days. Maybe the only way to check out Elizabeth’s pregnancy was to go and visit. I imagine how the scene might have been. Would Elizabeth’s pregnancy be obvious? Would Mary have to ask and risk looking foolish? Or would Elizabeth blurt it out: ‘You’ll never believe this, but … .” What would Mary expect as she arrived at Elizabeth’s house?
I guess she was not expecting Elizabeth to shout, an ecstatic shout about Mary and the baby she was going to conceive. I mean, how crazy can this story get? The scene is excitement to the max. Even the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is leaping for joy. Elizabeth knows that the baby to be born to Mary is her Lord. The gospel writer puts this down to the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who is going to come upon Mary so that she can conceive.
And the thing that excited Elizabeth the most? Mary’s faith. Nothing is impossible for God, but Mary’s faith matters too. As does yours. And mine.