Christmas midnight 2015
Midnight is such a magical time isn’t it? Between the first chime and the last, time seems suspended, anything could happen, a time of wonder and mystery.
On a clear night, there is the added magic of the night sky. The stars like dust above us.
Men and women have gazed up at the stars for thousands upon thousands of years in awe and wonder. I don’t think that the facts we now know about how many trillions of stars there might be, how far away they are and how long ago the light we see started on its journey, have lessened that awe and wonder one jot.
But it has undoubtedly changed the way we think about them. I am not sure that now, if I saw an unusually bright star moving across the sky, I would think “Ah! A child has been born”. I think I would think, “I wonder if that’s the space station up there”.
Perhaps you like me were absolutely gripped by the launch of the first British astronaut into space.
The story had everything didn’t it? Cutting edge science and technical capability, national pride, human emotion in the faces of the families, the successful overcoming of problems by the exercise of skill and judgement, a very real element of danger and an obviously really nice guy at the centre of it.
It was perhaps the ultimate good news story and we really needed it.
There has been so much dreadful news this year. There have been the usual and unusual natural disasters and our hearts go out to all those affected by flooding.
But the worst of the bad news, the war, the terror, the indiscriminate slaughter seems to have been perpetrated in the name of religion, in the name of God.
The name of God has been used as a justification for abominable acts of evil and as a war cry by those seeking power through violence, murder and destruction.
In these circumstances it is perhaps no wonder that people are turning their backs on religion, “They’re all the same” they say, “religion is the cause of all the evil in the world. I want no part of it.”
They are certainly not looking to religion to answer their questions.
Science has a seeming monopoly, not only on the answers to anything we might want to ask, but also now, on all the good news stories too.
We might see the picture of the rocket launch as a symbol, a symbol of science roaring in to the future, the supporting gantries of religious belief falling away as unnecessary to the progress of humanity.
But if that is so, what then are we doing here tonight?
Is this simply an exercise in nostalgia, a vain attempt to seek comfort in old familiar stories and ineffective rituals, to think about a baby and some cuddly animals because babies are cute, so we can forget for a moment the troubles of the grown up world?
Our scripture readings tonight tell us that there is rather more to it than that.
In fact the baby features nowhere in these readings. There is not a sign either of any animals, cuddly or otherwise.
The readings are trying to tell us that tonight is about the most important questions of our lives.
Questions that are important to us and how we live, now in the twenty-first century, just as they were two thousand years ago, when John was writing his gospel and the thousands of years before that when Isaiah wrote; and questions that will remain important into the future of humankind, as long as there are people to ask them.
Questions that science alone cannot answer.
Questions about the nature of reality and our place in it.
John is telling us that in the birth of Jesus and through his life and death and teaching, the divine life completely and fully reveals itself to us.
That God is fully and completely present in Jesus, and so, it is in Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, that we find the answer to life’s really important questions.
And these answers Isaiah tells us are good news, wonderful news, news which once we have truly heard it we will be compelled to shout from the mountain tops.
But that’s a bit like knowing that the answer is 42. It can’t be good news for us until we know what the questions are.
So what are these questions?
Firstly: What is the nature of reality?
Is it malign, wishing us evil, or is it benevolent, does it wish us good?
Our experience of life and it’s many troubles might lead us to believe that reality is malign or at best indifferent, uncaring about the fate of humankind, but the life and teaching of Jesus tells us that this is not so.
The message of Jesus, the living, breathing Word of God, is that reality is absolutely benevolent, is amazingly generous to the point of insane absurdity.
That the nature of the really real is abundant, unconditional love.
That the reason there is something rather than nothing, is because this love, the living word of God, has overflowed to create a free and independent universe of wonder and potential.
Secondly is life absurd, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, or does it have meaning?
Life has meaning and that meaning is to be found in responding to this love and choosing the good. We are free creatures, we have a choice, John tells us, to accept or reject this word of light.
Thirdly: in the end will life triumph over death, or death over life, will good triumph over evil or evil over good?
Jesus is clear that the inexhaustible, unquenchable, life and love and healing that springs from God cannot be vanquished even by death.
That in the end good will triumph over evil.
That the light that shines in the darkness will in the end overcome it.
That the darkness of evil will perish.
This is the message of hope for the world. That God will bring in his kingdom of love and justice and that, because of Jesus, we can choose to live in that kingdom of love now.
But the baby is still important.
We are here tonight in expectation and excitement because a child is to be born.
Our God comes to us as a helpless, squalling, new born infant.
That the really real, the beginning and the end and the meaning of all things, should choose to be revealed in this world, not as a mighty king and warrior with a huge army in charge of an empire,
but as a new-born baby, born to an ordinary young girl, a member of an insignificant subject people, tells us so much about this reality, about who God is and what God is like and how God interacts with his creation.
A new born baby is so helpless, the epitome of powerlessness.
This is a powerful corrective to any narrative of domination in the name of God.
We are suspicious and we are right to be suspicious of talk about God, about faith, when it comes allied to a quest for power or the exercise of power.
This reality never speak or acts to exercise power over us. God is not a control freak, God desires a relationship of love with us and love cannot be demanded, only inspired.
So these truths, these answers to the deep questions of life are never forced upon us.
We are completely free to accept or reject them.
But the other important thing about the baby, is to show us that these truths do not come as merely intellectual propositions.
The answer to life is not a number, or an equation however beautiful.
This is truth that comes as a person.
A baby does not ask you whether you believe intellectually in a whole lot of theoretical points, a baby simply calls you into a relationship of love. It is a fairly insistent call often, difficult to ignore, but we respond to it gladly.
Like the baby, God in Jesus, calls us continually into an intimate relationship of love.
God is not a far- away God. In Jesus, God comes as close to us as a baby is close to its mother.
God is both with us and within us, closer to us than we are to ourselves. God’s love for us surrounds us and fills us.
To accept the good news of Christmas, the good news of Jesus Christ, is as easy and as hard as accepting that we are truly, unconditionally, loved.
The answer to the final question springs from here.
How then should we live?
The first thing to note perhaps is that contrary to popular belief God does not call us to religion.
God calls us to found our whole lives on God’s love for us, living undefended lives, without fear, with deep and abiding trust in God’s good purposes for us.
Living with gratitude and thankfulness, with wonder and hope, and with reverence, to quote Jane Fonda, humming within us.
And to love others, showing towards them the same humility and generous, unselfish, unstinting love, that God in Jesus has shown to us.
It’s simple but not easy,
It is all too easy to forget that we are loved like this, and to return to our old ways of suspicion and defensiveness.
Which is why we are here together tonight.
To remember again in the events of Christmas, in the coming of the one who is Emanuel, God with us, that we are, each one of us, loved and precious to God,
To remember that we live in hope towards God’s future.
And to greet again the Christ –child, the mystery of Christmas, and to worship him, so that we may be filled once more with awe and wonder and reverence and joy and may go out to live lives founded on the truth of God’s amazing love.