A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, on 24 December 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
What sort of God are you looking for this Christmas? That’s assuming that you are looking for any sort of God at all!
Some people will be looking for God to turn up in the form of the baby Jesus, and that will be enough for them. This is the baby Jesus of the Bible, the one visited by shepherds and adored by the magi, the wise ones. It’s also the baby Jesus who retains a strong hold upon the popular imagination – laid in a manger in the stable because there was “no room at the inn”; the one lying on a bed of straw, surrounded by the creatures of creation; earthly ones such as the animals and heavenly ones such as the angels.
And there’s a profound truth in all of that; God reaches out to us all – to all creatures – in a totally demanding but completely non-threatening way – through a helpless child.
But there is also the danger that all of this might collapse into to some sort of sentimental good news story, so out of tune with the sometimes grim realities of this world that the nativity seems like a fairy tale – something nice for the children, but not something in which adults are likely to put their faith, or around which we will orientate our lives.
Thankfully, scripture provides us with more than that, including within the biblical nativity stories themselves. We are given stories, accounts, information, which should prevent us getting oversentimental about Christmas, about God, and about the world, which will only be to our good.
One example of that sort of thing comes in Matthew’s Gospel: the slaughter of the innocents. King Herod, frightened by the visit of the magi, who announce the birth of (another) King of the Jews, whom he takes to be a rival, orders the massacre of children under the age of two years in and around Bethlehem. Strangely, we don’t often include this reading in our nativity plays or carol services. I’ve been tempted to do so, but I’ve always been too afraid of the flak which might come my way if I did.
Another example of nativity-related scripture which challenges the over-sentimentalised picture of the child in the manger is the passage from Luke’s Gospel that just been read to us. It’s the one about the visit of the Virgin Mary to her older and also-pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, the wife of the priest, Zechariah. Particularly, it includes the poem/song which known as the Magnificat, from its opening line, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord.’ (46)
First, we’re told by Luke that ‘in those days’ i.e. in the days following the angelic visitation to Mary with news of her pregnancy and the significance of the child who would be born, ‘Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country’ (39) in order to visit Elizabeth. There’s no mention that she felt the need to bring her fiancé, Joseph, along with her, and the donkey which does not feature in the Gospel account of the later journey to Bethlehem also fails to make an appearance here.
When Mary arrives and calls out to the house’s inhabitants, Elizabeth’s child, who will grow up to be John the Baptist, leaps in her womb. And Elizabeth is convinced that ‘the child in my womb leapt for joy.’ (44) For Elizabeth, Mary has been blessed because she believed the message that came from the angelic messenger: ‘she that believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (45)
As Elizabeth proclaims, ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ (42) In the Roman Catholic tradition these words form the biblical basis for first part of the prayer known as the “Hail Mary.”
Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Luke’s Gospel account is also the background to why Roman Catholic Christians tend to refer to “The Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Today, though, I’m not proposing that Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church institutes regular recital of the “Hail Mary”! Instead, I want to point us towards how Mary responds to what Elizabeth has to say. Luke 1:46 – ‘and Mary said,’ or should that be she recited or sang? If you look at the text in one of the church bibles you see how it is set out in verse, echoing the poetic language in which it first appeared.
And Mary said, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ (46b, 47) Mary speaks about the Christmas God, the God of the nativity, in ways which proclaim good news, but which are also incredibly challenging.
In her song Mary proclaims that God is both merciful and mighty. God is a powerful God who is greatly in favour of the lowly, and also opposed to the proud and powerful. First, Mary speaks of how God relates to herself, one who is lowly by virtue of her age, her gender, her nation, and their shared political predicament – under occupation by a foreign army. The Lord ‘has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant,’ Mary, she says. (48) And that is also true of the lowly in general; God, she sings, ‘has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things.’ (52, 53)
Nor does Mary shy away from confronting the other side of this social and political coin: God has ‘shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones … and sent the rich away empty.’ (51, 52, 53) This all sounds profoundly political. It certainly was that in the context of first century Palestine, ruled by the Roman Empire through a combination of imperial prefects, governors, and troops, plus local kings – like the Herod family – who owed their ultimate allegiance to the Emperor.
This is the situation into which Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. And Mary’s message is that this birth, this baby, is God’s chosen way to lift up the lowly and to bring down the powerful, to fill the hungry with good things, but to the send the rich away empty-handed. Once again, that message tends not to be prominent in our nativity plays and carols services. Yet it’s there to see if we have the eyes to see it, and to hear if we have ears to hear it. The lowly shepherds are the ones who end up rejoicing, ‘glorifying God for all they had heard and seen.’ (2:20) The magi, who are wealthy enough to bring gifts (Matthew 2:11) go away empty handed, though all the better for it. Rome’s client king, Herod, though, can feel his throne totter beneath him, because he is unable to eradicate God’s child, Jesus.
If we take Mary’s song seriously (which we should) then the Christmas story is a story of this world of privilege turned upside down by God. And if we take this seriously for Christmas – the thought that God in Jesus is at work on behalf of the poor and lowly – then we need to carry that conviction through into how we see and understand the ministry, death and resurrection of the adult Jesus as well. After all the gospel is good news for life, not just for Christmas.
Yes, the Christmas story should be a story of shock and surprise, as the hymn writers John Bell and Graham Maule suggest:
Who would think that what was needed
to transform and save the earth
might not be a plan or army
proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision,
that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven,
coming here on Christmas Day.
Shepherds watch and wise men wonder,
monarchs scorn and angels sing;
such a place as none would reckon
hosts a holy, helpless thing;
stabled beasts and passing strangers
watch a baby laid in hay:
God surprises earth with heaven,
coming here on Christmas Day.
WORDS: John Bell (1949-) and Graham Maule (1958-2019) © Iona Community/Wild Goose Publications
And may we continue to be surprised by God, who is turning the world of the poor and rich upside down, at Christmas with the birth of this child, and also doing so in the rest of the year, and for the rest of life as well. Amen.