Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Category: Christmas

An undeserved gift: sermon for Christmas Eve 2019

Scripture Readings: Luke 2.1-20

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘…there was no room for them to stay in the inn’.

Those last words of the first part of our Bible reading tonight are terrible words. There is no room at the inn for a woman, who has travelled a long way, and who is about to give birth. No room for her faithful husband, who has come all from Nazareth with her, because the Emperor Augustus demanded it. No room for the child who is born, not even a place to lay him- just an animal feeding trough.

It’s nice to romanticise the Christmas story. We like to imagine Mary might have had a donkey to ride, but the story doesn’t mention any little donkey for Mary to ride along dusty roads. We like to imagine the baby snug in the straw, but a manger is hardly the cleanest place to put a new-born child. We like to imagine animals kneeling to worship, but if there were any animals at the back of the inn, they were likely grumpy at being disturbed, smelly, liable to bump into the new mum and dad and their baby at any time.

‘…there was no room for them to stay in the inn’.

Here is the creator of the universe coming to earth in human form. But there is no room for him. He is laid in a manger- no nice government Scandinavian baby box for Jesus and Mary. He is shoved round the back for the inn is full up.

But maybe that is the point. No room at the inn tells us that this Christ is going to be the one for all for whom there is no room. For in any country, in any community, there are people who feel as if there is no room for them. The people for whom the rest of us are too heartless to make any room.

No room for the rough sleeper, who for whatever reasons, we can’t find a place for anywhere. No room for the families with children who we cannot seem to find houses for, just bed and breakfast accommodation. No room any more for the immigrants from the European Union, who came here to make a home and contribute to society, but who are now made to feel unwelcome in a country they had called home. No room for the refugees, traumatized by war and dangerous journeys, treated as a threat by many people when they thought Britain would be a safe place to come to. No room at the inn for them, and for many others who need a place to stay, because we will not make room for them.

In the Christmas story, the Christ child is one of those for whom there is no room. In the Christmas stories of Matthew’s Gospel, this becomes even more the case. That’s the version with King Herod murdering all the children in the town of Bethlehem, causing Mary and Joseph to flee into Egypt until it is safe to return- so Jesus spends the first few years of his life a refugee in a foreign country. And as he grows, he will always be an outsider. His preaching upsets the religious establishment. He isn’t a Pharisee, or a Sadducee- he doesn’t fit into any party. Eventually, he becomes the ultimate outsider- a criminal, executed because he seems like a danger to the peace. There was no room for him.

In Christ, God identifies with all find themselves as outsiders- those for whom there seems to be no room for them. And so Christmas is a time for us not just to celebrate, but to be challenged. Are there people we have no room for, people we send into the shed, while we are cosy and comfortable in the inn? Can’t we treat other fellow humans better than that? And why do we treat them as a burden anyway? What if the stranger, the homeless, the refugee, the immigrant are not threats to us, but gifts to us. People whom we can get to know, who will bring us new ideas and experiences, who will bring much to the places they have travelled to?

And when God comes to us- do we make room? This is the point at which we preachers make an appeal to you to make some room in your lives for Christ this Christmas. And preachers complain that our increasingly secular culture, and our increasingly busy lives, people squeezing God out- you’re not making room for God. But, in fairness, it’s hard. We are not living in an age or a place which takes God seriously. We don’t talk about God much, we pretend that we think the concept of God is no longer important for art, culture, politics and morality. God really is an outsider now- strange, troubling, and often unwelcome.

And yet- in our culture, where we will not make room for the God who was born in a stable, is it any wonder that hatred and abuse towards those who are different from the majority is on the increase? In a world in which the God of Jesus Christ is pushed out, is it any wonder we have to fact check what our politicians say? In a world which has forgotten the Christian Christmas story, is it any wonder that greed, excess, selfishness and hatred seems to be squeezing out love?

At Bethlehem, God came to us from glory, before time and space, eternal and almighty- but born in a stable, for there is no room for him in the inn. And the One for whom there was no room at the inn is bound to ask us- what about the people today for whom there is no room? What are you doing for them? Do you even think about them? And- this is the really hard part- are you willing to give up some of your comfort to make room for them?

And so, in a way, the coming of Christ is a judgement on us, and our selfishness, and our lack of love. But Christmas is primarily a gift to us, if we will let it be so. For surely only a God who loves us dearly would go to the trouble of coming among us, sharing our joys and sorrows, living and dying as we do? And the good news is that the Christ who was born and lived and died among us also rose from the grave. He came as an outsider, and we often make no room for him. Yet he offers us the greatest Christmas present of all time: forgiveness, a new start, and a faith to live our lives by. And a message of love- love for our neighbours, whoever they may be. Love for those we think of as strangers, love, even, for our enemies.

Because at Christmas, God offers our broken, frightened, suspicious world the gift of love. Into our dark world, when we do not deserve it, has come light, in the form of the free gift of the child in the manger. He offers us God’s grace and love, but also the gift of being able to love other people. This Christmas, will you let God’s love flow through you, to those who really need it? For in our dark world, where the forces of evil are so prevalent, we need some love, love which will shine like light in the darkness.

Ascription of Praise

Glory to God in highest heaven,

and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!

Amen.

Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

A visitor to our Good Earth: sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Scripture Readings:

Genesis 1.1-9 (Authorized Version)
recording from Apollo 8 TV broadcast, December 24th, 1968[i]


Luke 2.1-7

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our Old Testament reading is from Genesis chapter 1- part of the creation story. We are going hear it in a recording taken from a television broadcast made 50 years ago tonight. We hear the voices of Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman:

That was the astronauts of Apollo 8 speaking in a live television broadcast in Christmas Eve 1968: exactly fifty years ago. They were the first human beings ever to travel to the moon. They did not land on the moon- that happened just a few months later. Their mission was to prepare the way for the subsequent moon landing. They were a practice run- the first to leave the orbit of the earth, the first people ever to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, the first to go into orbit around the moon.

They were tasked with photographing the moon for possible landing sites. At one point, however, astronaut Bill Anders spotted something else out of one of the windows: ‘Oh my God, look at that picture over there!’ he exclaimed. ‘There’s the earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!’ He had spotted earth rising over the horizon of the moon: a semicircle of colour, its blues and greens contrasting with the uniform greyness of the moon, and the inky blackness of the sky. He took the photograph you are looking at now.

The Apollo 8 astronauts had gone to explore the moon, but Bill Anders’ ‘Earthrise’ picture was the most famous image they brought back. There was nothing in the flight plan about taking such a photograph- if it had been an unmanned mission, a computer would never have thought of taking the picture. It took a human eye to see the beauty of the earth hanging in the sky. They had gone to explore the moon, but came back with a new way of looking at the earth.

The Apollo photographs of the earth gave the emerging environmental movement boost. They show our planet as we had never really seen it before- a small speck of colour in a vast darkness, an oasis of life in a lifeless void. It is all we have. For all our divisions, we all of us share this ‘blue marble’, our island home in space. If we damage or destroy it, then we literally have no future.

For their earlier TV broadcast, the astronauts had been given very little guidance on what they should do or say. So they chose to read from Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. The ancient poet of Genesis could never have imagined his words might be read by people orbiting the moon to an audience of millions back on earth. Yet this ancient, majestic words seemed like the right choice for that Christmas Eve, of that turbulent year of 1968. It was the genius of the Hebrews to understand that there could only really be the one God, and that God was the creator of heaven and earth.

In their different ways, the Earthrise picture and the account of creation in Genesis speak to us of the wonder and mystery of creation. For some people, these pictures of the earth in space make us seem quite insignificant in the vast cosmos. Not so the Biblical poets. In Psalm 8, a poet observing the night sky pondered humanity’s place in it all:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places —

what are human beings, that you think of them;

mere mortals, that you care for them?

Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;

you crowned them with glory and honour.

You appointed them rulers over everything you made;

you placed them over all creation:

sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too;

the birds and the fish

and the creatures in the seas.[2]

Our faith tell us that we do matter. For this planet is God’s gift to us. God calls on us to nurture the earth, to ensure the waters are clean, to ensure that preservation of the multitude of species on which our lives- and that of future generations- will depend. The Bible is not so far from the modern environmental movement as it reminds us of our responsibilities to creation.

Frank Borman, the mission commander, ended the Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon with these words:

[F]rom the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas- and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Bormann later described seeing the earth rise above the moon as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life’[3]. His far away home planet must, indeed have seemed good.

As Genesis said: God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good. And God showed again his love for this good earth when a child was born to Mary at Bethlehem. For in the child in the manger, the maker of the earth and the moon and the stars comes to his good earth, comes to be born as one of us, comes to live and die alongside his creatures on this good earth he has made.

Yet hatred and war divide humanity the inhabitants of this good earth. In our rivalries, we forget that we have this in common- we all have to share this third planet from the sun. We have the capacity to destroy life, either instantly in a nuclear exchange or an accident; or slowly, as we continue to destroy forests and the oceans and allow species which took millions of years to evolve to go out of existence in decades. We have used the technology which sent men to the moon to investigate the land, sea and atmosphere of the earth ever more carefully. Satellites can show us shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels, and climate change which threatens us all, yet we are loathed to do anything about it.

And yet, somehow I am not entirely pessimistic, for unto us a child is born. A child who is born in very humble circumstance, to an ordinary peasant woman and her carpenter husband. A child whose message would inspire many people to a love their neighbours, and to care for the world around them. And yet a child who is also forgotten, or pushed to one side- they had no room for him at the inn.

Science and technology can teach us a lot about our planet and the universe which contains it. But faith tells us that this seemingly insignificant planet of ours once received a visit from beyond, from one whom we can be inspired to put our trust, for his life and death tells us that the Creator God loves us.

As we’ve heard, the Bible begins with the words, ‘In the beginning, God…’ The Gospel of John, attempting to explain who Jesus is, begins with the words which reflect the start of Genesis:

In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.

The Word, through whom the heavens and earth was made, has come to us in the child of Bethlehem. Perhaps the Word has also visited other planets, to bring to life forms we can’t imagine the good news. For it is good news, for this good earth, and for all its people: we are not forgotten, we are not unimportant, for the Son of God the creator has walked among us. And, as John’s Gospel says, he is

‘the light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’.

Ascription of Praise

Glory to God in highest heaven,

and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!

Amen.

Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes


[1] https://youtu.be/t3LIvb1Nzak

[2] Psalm 8.3-8

[3] Barbree, Jay. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings (p. 221). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

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