Carols by Candlelight Service
17.12.2023 St Barbara’s Church
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Have you sent your Christmas cards yet? Well, according to the Royal Mail website, you still have till 9am on Wednesday morning to send first class post and get it there in time for Christmas – so no need to panic! And, if you are like me, the pressure seems a little less intense, now that most people are on email. I can leave it to the evening of Christmas Eve, as to my shame I did last year, before sending my Christmas greetings.
I’m always intrigued to find the different images used to adorn Christmas cards. Some are just highly improbable: a jolly santa who quite clearly is just far too big to fit down that chimney. Others are just highly implausible: a polar bear snuggled up with its cubs, blissfully unaware its Christmas time, but still managing to wear a Christmas hat.
And then there are the beautiful nativity scenes. Some of the stables on the cards are so clean and beautifully lit, they would not be out of place in a Habitat or Ikea catalogue, much less a place where animals are kept and fed!
But one of my favourite Christmas images is one I’ve yet to receive on a Christmas card. Its “The Adoration of the Kings” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 450 years ago. I like it not because its beautiful – its not. But it makes me think of a different Christmas other than the one covered in tinsel.
In the top left of the picture and you will see soldiers – not your normal cast in the nativity scene. With their swords and spears they look quite a fearsome, aggressive bunch.
The artist is making the point: that’s the kind of world Jesus was born into. A world full of armies, violence and murderous kings. So murderous indeed that one, Herod, thought nothing of ordering the massacre of all children under two in an attempt to stamp out rumours of a new king being born in Bethlehem.
But it is our world too. A world of wars and fighting in Ukraine, Gaza, Myanmar, Sudan, and countless other places around our world. Jesus, like many in our world today, was born into a world of pain and suffering. God knows what our world is like. He is not some distant and remote force. He has experienced it for himself.
Look who else is in the picture: onlookers peering over Mary’s shoulder. But these are not beautiful people. They are not people who would get far in a beauty contest, or would have much chance of appearing on a reality TV show. They are not people who would scrub up and look great appearing in a Christmas edition of Strictly Come Dancing.
These are normal people. People like me, and – dare I say it without causing offence – people like you. Jesus was born into our kind of world. Not a world where everyone who isn’t quite perfect has been air-brushed out of the picture.
There is sometimes the mistaken belief that if you are good enough, God will love you; that being a Christian is about being good. Well, what Jesus being born into our world shows us is that our goodness, our worthiness, has absolutely nothing to do with it. Like a parent who loves their child unconditionally, regardless of what they do, God loves us unconditionally too. He may want us to live better lives, but that’s the result of his love for us, not the condition for it. He loves us, he reaches out to us, as we are. He does not wait for us to become some photo-shopped saint first.
Back to our picture. At the very centre of the picture is a tiny child. (And by the way, if you find the adult facial features on the baby somewhat off-putting, it was simply an artistic convention of the time to try and capture the idea of Jesus being both human and divine. No one thought the baby Jesus would have actually looked like that.)
The child is naked, vulnerable, helpless. Jesus doesn’t come into our world at the head of a mighty army, or surrounded by a thousand angels. He isn’t all-powerful and invincible, protecting himself from the pain and hardships of our world.
He comes into our world as a baby. And those of you who have ever held a baby in your arms will know just how wonderful but vulnerable, how dependent, they are.
Its the miracle of Christmas that God should choose for his Son to enter the world not as some fully-formed, all-powerful heavenly being, but as a baby. He could have died in child birth. Many did in those days. He could have been abandoned for being an illegitimate child – earlier Joseph had been sorely tempted. He could have died of illness and disease – child mortality rates were not much better than those in parts of Africa today. He could have been conscripted into some foreign army and died in a far-off land.
But God took the risk.
Because He knew that if he appeared to us in all his power and glory, we would have no choice. I remember at the start of my first job being called into the office of the Chief Executive of the organisation. He was a formidable individual. He asked me to take on a particular task in the organisation. He didn’t order me. He asked. But such was his rank compared to mine, it felt like I had little choice. Magnify that hundreds of times over and we get an inkling as to what it could be like before an unveiled God. We would have to fall down and worship him, so overwhelmed by his greatness, by his divinity. There would be no choice.
Its only when we encounter God in his weakness and his vulnerability, in Jesus, that we can remain with a choice: the choice to love and worship him or not.
We are not compelled; we choose.
For God desires our love, not our obedience; he desires our friendship, not our subjugation.
And such love can only be freely given.
Christ enters not some make-believe world but our world. And he enters our world not for perfect people but for people like us. And he does so not in power and glory but in vulnerability and weakness, so that we may have the opportunity to choose his love.
So this Christmas, like the wise men in the picture, may we choose to bow down and worship the new-born King.