Toorak Uniting Church

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The Mystery of Christmas

Rev. Robert McUtchen
Christmas Eve
24 December 2010

What draws you here tonight? Some are faithful TUC members for whom worshipping at 11:00 on Christmas Eve is as natural as breathing; others because it is a family ritual – "we always go on Christmas eve"; perhaps for others – a strange undefined compulsion to engage with a mystery that is at once compelling and beyond understanding. For whatever reason – how good that you are here.

Evening is an appropriate time to contemplate this mystery. Somehow shadows and candle light arouse our senses and add meaning to the words you will hear in John’s prologue near the end of the service: "What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Darkness and light – ever present elements of our life – and the mystery that God chose to engage with humankind.

Prophets from thousands of years ago gave messages of hope, that from the chaos and disruption of their world, God would intervene to set to right the things which blighted human existence. As we read in Isaiah – a new order of creation in which the natural order as humans knew it would be overturned. But people then, and even now, chose to understand this promise in established human paradigms – most of all of power – nations exercising power over others. Which overlooked God’s long stated position which Isaiah in chapter 55 declared:

"My thoughts are completely different from yours," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts."

So people waited and watched for the coming of the one who would fix things up – set them to rights. And in time the last prophet John came preparing the way, and then Jesus burst upon the scene. Conceived in terms we cannot understand, born of the least likely parents, born to lowliness among the most ordinary, and preaching peace in the most revolutionary of ways. Who spurned the way of violence and power to overcome the problems of the world, instead challenging the foundations of society and faith the majority accepted as normative. Who would demonstrate that the absurdity of the power that was manifest in powerlessness. As Isaiah prophesied - "My thoughts are completely different from yours," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine".

In this place of quiet, of shadows and light, we contemplate the mystery which has drawn us here. The mystery that makes little sense, yet compels us to wonder, and to yearn for another way. And our wondering is informed by two things – an underlying sense of insecurity arising from the inability of the world, with all its power and technology, to assure our safety, security and peace, and by an unarticulated awareness of a power greater than anything else in creation which seems to engage our hearts. The shepherds and the wise men all yearned for a new world, a better world – is that same yearning – born of awareness that the world can’t fix itself - in part what draws us all here on Christmas Eve? That things need to be different, can be different – in the world, in our hearts?

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote some years ago that God’s coming to earth in Jesus Christ brings profound changes to the world, but in ways which seem the opposite of all that is sensible to humankind. "Instead of armed force and decisive battles, He comes as a helpless baby; he changes the world not by threat or power, but by death and resurrection". And the anonymous mediaeval lyric puts it unforgettably: "'He came al so stille, Where his mother was, As dew in Aprille, That falleth on the grass'."

Christ comes to us in stillness – is that part of the mystery which engages your heart? A way so contrary to the world – yet when the greatest power of the world is unable to assure peace and safety, our inner heart begins to ask – is this so ridiculous after all?

And then we wonder at another dimension of Christ’s coming – that human nature, with all its imperfections and weakness as manifest in Mary and Joseph could still be capable of bearing the life of God coming into the world? One of the Advent Candles represents hope. We see humankind’s inability to bring peace and security and justice – perhaps Christmas is a reminder, an encouragement, that God can still bring about fundamental change in the world using the flawed and imperfect beings we confess we are. As St Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4: 7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

It matters not whether you are a person of great faith, or one whose heart is strangely touched by this story and responds - hesitantly - by coming to worship, to draw nearer to the presence which wanted so much to be one with us that it become completely one with us in the incarnation. Born of Mary - Completely human, he meets us on the common ground of our own life.

Christmas is a yearly reminder that though the world may be a less safe place, and we may have well founded fears for our safety and future, the same human weakness and flaws are able to bear the life of God, which can transform the world where worldly power has failed. A reminder that the power of love, as revealed in all the contradictions of God’s strange actions in the coming of Jesus, is able to change the course of human history and transform humanity into something better than it now is.

Christmas is a reminder that we are particular to God, so important that he would become one with us – and that we face the present and future in the confidence of his transforming the world through what God can do though us. Rejoice that this was done – wonder in your hearts, and enjoy the great thing God has done. As the angel Gabriel said to Mary at the annunciation – "with God, nothing is impossible". Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2010

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