Christmas Eve & Christmas Day 2009
Appledore and Woodchurch
Readings: Hebrews 1:1-12 & John 1:1-14
Well. at the risk of starting with the obvious, Merry Christmas to you one and all! There have been times during December when I was not sure we would make it all the way to Christmas but God has been gracious to us and we are here to celebrate the mystery of God being born amongst us as one of us in order to save us.
But before we talk about the wonders of God being born in the person of Jesus I just want to take a little diversion into the world of television, which I hope may be useful in some small way.
When I came to prepare this Christmas talk I had a very strong feeling that I should think about a Channel 4 program called The Secret Millionaire and how that may shed some light on the mystery of the incarnation. God really does move in mysterious ways and if you have ever witnessed me on the dance floor you will know that he is not the only one.
For those of you who have seen The Secret Millionaire and know how it works I’ll just have to ask you to bear with me for a moment. For those of you who have not the program works something like this:
The producers choose a person who, surprise surprise, is a millionaire and who is willing to go undercover for a week and live amongst poor people pretending to be a poor person. During that week in addition to coping
with life in dodgy accommodation and with little money they are introduced to a number of ‘deserving causes’, whether it is individuals or small struggling charities. At the end of the week the millionaire chooses which of the deserving causes they are going to give money to, reveals to the amazement of all that they are not poor after all and either writes out large cheques or does not depending on their choices and experiences during the week under cover. They then return to their previous life feeling good about themselves and, hopefully, some good has been spread around at the margins of society.
I have only seen the program a couple of times so I decided that if I was going to talk about it today then I needed to watch another episode and I duly went to the Channel 4 website. The episode I choose to watch, at random from a long list, was one that was shown in March this year and the Millionaire in question was called Gary Eastwood.
Now Gary is the MD of a scrap metal company based in Sittingbourne and he is, what you might call, a real character. If the Mitchell brothers from Eastenders had an older, bigger and harder brother it would be Gary. He is a self-made millionaire, who was told by his granddad that “where there is muck there is brass” and he started his business with a £100 loan. The company is now worth £20 million and Gary is surrounded with all the trappings money can buy.
However there was a substantial amount of tragedy in Gary’s background as he had lost both of his sisters to alcohol and drug abuse and he felt guilty that he had been unable to save them. In any event he felt called to put some of his money back to help the poorest parts of society and he agreed to go undercover in Blackpool. But this was not the Blackpool of
twinkling lights and holiday fun, this was the Blackpool of long term unemployment, drug abuse, homelessness and everything else that urban decay can produce.
When Gary got over the shock over the small handful of fivers that he had to survive on all week and the terrible state of his rented room he went out and about to meet some potential deserving causes. And there were plenty to choose from and, at times, Gary seemed overwhelmed at the sheer amount of misery around him, all of which was deserving of better than it had. He said words to the effect: “You want to help everyone but you can’t.” And of course he couldn’t; even had he decided to give away £20 million pounds it would do little to relieve long term poverty even in that one town. So Gary had to make hard choices and after a week of pretending to be an unemployed scrap metal worker Gary revealed his true identity and wrote out cheques totalling £50,000 to support a children’s respite care home, a drop in centre for the long term unemployed and for some ex-servicemen’s charities as he had adopted, or been adopted by, an old Royal Marine who reminded him of his granddad. Gary then returned to his nice house in Kent determined to be a better husband and father.
So what, you may ask, has all this to do with Christmas Day and the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem?
Well, the reading from John 1 reminds us that Jesus was not simply a special baby who was chosen by God to lead a good life, perform some miracles when he grew up and then be crucified. The Gospel of John reminds us that the baby whose birth we celebrate today was actually God himself:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The very words “In the beginning..” echo the very first words of the bible in Genesis 1 which recounts the creation of all things and John makes the point even more strongly by saying:
“…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
And so the eternal and creative Word of God that was present at the creation of all things and was part of God the Father took on human flesh and was born amongst us as this baby Jesus. The creator not only of this world but the whole universe who was entirely outside the constraints of space and time choose to be born as a baby in a particular place and time. Talk about a millionaire going under cover! But there is an important point here. Unlike Gary Eastwood who only pretended to be poor for a week God was not pretending to be human in order to carry out his mission. God took on real human flesh in the person of Jesus and really became God With Us. There are plenty of Eastern religions in which deities pretend to be human but don’t make the mistake of thinking that that was what was going on at the nativity. Jesus was a fully human little baby who was also fully the incarnation, the enfleshment if you will, of God. Although the nativity scene played by little children always looks very sweet and pastoral we should not forget that Jesus was born into real danger and only a short time later his family had to flee for their lives in order to escape Herod’s mass infanticide.
So why did God choose to give up eternity and to step inside a dangerous creation and to actually become a part of creation by becoming a person? Part of the answer to that question is played out in the events of Easter but John gives us part of the answer too:
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Before Jesus the people of Israel thought of themselves as God’s chosen people but they were still simply part of God’s creation and a fundamental divide existed between God and creation. The point of the incarnation is that that divide was removed by God: God took on human nature and thereby gave our nature the potential for holiness and the ability to be not God’s creatures but God’s children.
Gary Eastwood said that he couldn’t help everyone and he had to pick and choose who to help. That is not how God works: God can help everyone and the pick and choosing is up to us:
“to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
God made his choice when he came into the world: he brought light into the darkness and the darkness will not overcome that light. But each of us still has a choice: we can receive that light and become children of God or we can remain hidden in the shadows. This Christmas I pray that each of us will receive the light of Christ and that the family of God’s adopted children will grow.
Whilst that would be a good place to finish there is a small footnote which I should share with you.
My old spiritual director, a wise and wonderful Catholic nun, once told me that with God there is no such thing as co-incidence there is only providence. When I went back to the Channel 4 website just to double check a couple of details I discovered to my delight that out of all the episodes that I could have chosen to watch Gary Eastwood’s is being reprieved in an episode called: “The Secret Millionaire, How it Changed my Life”. And, amazingly enough, it is being shown on Christmas Day at 6.35 and I will be setting the video, as I think that we will be knee deep in wrapping paper by then. If you choose to watch it then try and do so with two pairs of eyes – on one level it is an interesting human interest story that reveals a different aspect of the society in which we live. But on another level it can be seen as a modern day parable that tells us something of the way in which God wants to help us out of the holes into which we dig ourselves. But that he does not do so by staying in his luxury home in heavenly Kent and sending a cheque in the post to deprived Blackpool but he does it by going to stay amongst the people.