You might be wondering why I have chosen to have two Gospel readings today, and no readings from other parts of the Bible. The thing is, the lectionary isn’t at all clear which to use, and gives both. So I thought, well, why not have both, for a change? They both, I believe, have things to say to us today.
From John chapter 1, and verse 11:
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”
The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”.
I believe, incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing,
or it may have been a paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in Philippians 2.
Not that it matters, of course, not at this distance;
it is the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God,
the Light of the World,
who was rejected by his own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in Him.
Which is basically the whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?
Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.
John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus –
only Matthew does that.
But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story,
however strange a part. Next week is the feast of the Epiphany, when you will be thinking a little more about the coming of the Wise Men, but this week, we have the second half of the story, the What Happened Next. And it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's.
Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt.
No mention of mangers or inns here –
and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable!
As far as I can tell, when he talks about the “inn”, he means the guest room that many, if not most, houses had on the roof, and where Mary probably expected to go to be confined, but if this was full of relations come to town for the census, she had to give birth in the kitchen. The manger would have separated the animal part of the house from the human part – people lived together with their animals in those days for warmth, as much as anything else. And we don’t know what time of year it was, but probably not in the depths of winter, because the sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields then. So if the animals were in the fields, the manger would be empty, and make a very convenient cot for a tiny baby!
But none of that matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a human being:
the Word became Flesh and lived among us, as our passage says:
“The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.
We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son.”
That is what matters.
The details are just details, and are not important.
So we are told that the wise men came from the East – as far as we know, there weren’t necessarily three of them, and they weren’t kings, either. But they came from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, and when they found out that He was to have been born in Bethlehem, off they trotted – it’s only a few miles – and found Joseph the Carpenter’s house easily enough. But when they had seen for themselves – quite possibly, by now, a toddler staggering around and falling over and being shy.... they went home by a different way and avoided Jerusalem.
And Joseph and Mary and the child had to flee, too, in the middle of the night. Some people say the massacre may never have happened as there are no external sources referencing it – but then, would there have been? I mean, how many boys under the age of two were there likely to have been in a village that size? They reckon Bethlehem held about 1000 people of all ages, so probably only a handful of boys under the age of two – and, sadly, probably no more children than are killed every day in Syria. Absolutely awful for the parents, but not global newsworthy, even back then.
But the Holy Family are out of it, and have fled to Egypt. I’ve never been there, but my mother went and sent me a picture of the Pyramids with the comment that they would have been old when Jesus saw them as a boy! I wonder whether he remembered that in later life?
We aren’t told how long the family had to stay away, but with Joseph’s skills, he would have had no trouble making a living for the family. “Carpenter” isn’t quite an accurate translation of the word “Technion” - it’s the word we get “Technician” from. Basically, if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it – from designing them to building them to making the furniture for them.... so no shortage of skilled work. And it’s probable that, because they were, as far as we know, the only refugees at that time, they were able to take a proper house in a village somewhere, rather than have to live knee-deep in mud in a makeshift camp. But all the same – a stranger, in a strange land. Joseph was glad, I suspect, to pack up and go home again when he heard that Herod had died. But even then he couldn’t go home, not back to his old home in Bethlehem, but up to Nazareth, in Galilee – really provincial and in the sticks if you were the sort of person who’d always lived near Jerusalem. But it was safe, and the neighbours were Jewish, so you felt far more at home there... and it was a lovely place to bring up a growing family.
But we know that, once he was grown, it was a different story. Once again, “his own people did not receive him”, and he could do no miracles in his home town when, home on a visit, he preached in the synagogue and appalled the locals by saying “This Scripture has come true in your hearing!”
And we know, too, that later on “ his own people did not receive him” when the people who became his first followers were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the collaborators, even the Gentiles, the non-Jews. But we also know that “Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”
God himself is our Father!
How true that is!
And isn't God great?!
The magi came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant,
and we are invited to do the same.
But we don’t just worship him as a baby –
it’s not about going smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug,
and saying “Oh how clever” when he picks up a toy, or staggers a few steps unassisted.
No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that.
It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the Risen Lord.
We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday,
although that, too,
but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come,
he could not come again.
And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.
Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, I think, although that too –
it's also about allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts,
about renewing our relationship with him.
We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem,
but we also worship Jesus all year round,
remembering not only his birth,
but his teachings,
and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”–
what was that song:
“I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” –
it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity,
but about God with us:
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us.
He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....
Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was,
and probably taught to follow his father’s trade.
After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry,
and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple.
I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once.
A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us:
a God who chose to live an ordinary life,
who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee;
who knows what it is to work for his living.
Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised.
Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.
“Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”
This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one.
But it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby.
It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.