I have only recently moved to St Paul’s and my last church in Runcorn had a very striking view of the Mersey as it winds its way round a wide bend towards Liverpool and eventually out to the sea. The river is tidal all the way up to Warrington, and so the distant backdrop of my life in Runcorn was a far off view of the daily rhythm of the tides.
Tides have captured the imagination of writers and artists and religious minds down through the centuries and all over the world. Perhaps, in part it’s because there is something in the inexorable rhythm of their ebb and flow which acts as a commentary on the rhythms and changes of human life. And perhaps in part it’s because of the utter wonder of the power which causes them.
I came across an author once who wrote of the ‘sheer wanting’ at the centre of the earth. What he meant by this was that the earth, through the force of gravity, pulls everything to itself – yet the defiant and restless tides, through the tug of the moon, challenge those forces of gravity which keep the rest of us securely anchored to the ground. I am fascinated by the notion of the ‘sheer wanting’ at the centre of the earth.
We might say that there is ‘wanting’ at the centre of each of us. We each spend our lives in a certain set of circumstances – some we can’t change; our families, where we were born, where we were brought up; some we can at least to some extent: what job we have, where we live; who we marry. But no matter what our circumstances are, there is a deeper wanting in each of us – wanting hope, peace, love, joy; wanting meaning – and I would say at the deepest level of all wanting God.
And God has responded to that restlessness, that ‘sheer wanting’ by stepping into our world of time and space in the person of Jesus Christ born as a baby, laid in a manger.
Tonight we are here in church on the very eve of Christmas to remember and celebrate that birth. We are here soaking up the tradition, the familiarity of that story – a story which, even as we meet here, is being remembered in thousands upon thousands of churches by millions and millions of Christian all over the world.
However, look at our reading from John’s gospel. Where are the angels, the shepherds? Where is Jesus’ mother? His father? Why has John not said anything about them? It is left to Matthew and Luke (two of the other gospel writers) to remember the earthly details of Jesus birth. John on the other hand isn’t interested in telling us what happened or where it happened. What he is interested in is why it happened. He captures in his beautiful words what Jesus birth means for us; the benefits it brings for us.
John writes his version of events from within a cosmic setting. His very first words, ‘In the beginning’ recall the very first words of Genesis which are about creation, and, like the author of Genesis, John too is talking about creation, not the creation of the earth or even the universe, but rather about God’s new creation in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. God is doing something new in his dealings with humankind.
John is trying to get us to understand something that language is hardly qualified to deal with – that God’s eternal Word — God’s Reason, Order, and Being (his very self) — is coming down to earth to take on human form in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not the first time God has got involved in human history, of course. The Old Testament tells of God’s interactions with Abraham and Moses, with the Israelites, the prophets – and many others. Yet now God is getting more personally involved, taking on human flesh (Jesus Christ, the Word of God) and dwelling with us in our own human form, a form we can relate to, a form we can understand.
So Jesus is both fully God, but also fully human – a great mystery. By his coming into the world He reveals the glory of God to us – when you have seen me you have seen the Father he said. He is also the means by which God communicates most fully with us, showing us how to live the best possible lives we can through imitating him – in a world where darkness and evil are always seeking to find a foothold bringing in their wake conflict between nations, between communities, families and individuals. Yet the light of Christ shines into that darkness bringing hope for a better world or as verse 5 says: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.
John may not be very interested in the details of the Christmas story, but yet he does know about what is at the heart and soul of the coming of God among us in human form (something we call the incarnation) and it is this: that because of Jesus, the very embodiment of God’s grace, his love (v.16) takes on human flesh and we are given the opportunity to know the unknowable God (v.18) and recognize ourselves as children beloved of God.
Because the God we have revealed to us is a God of love, a God who knows each one of by name. In the rhythms and movements of life, the ebb and flow of what befalls us we see God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ – and we know that he loves us and cares for each one of us, that he has plans for us, plans to prosper and not to harm. And just as the tides return again and again and keep returning we have a God whose mercies are new every morning, whose love returns again and again – and keeps returning – who patiently longs for us to know and love him too. And just as the tides are restless so too are our hearts restless until they rest in God as St Augustine once said – their true home.
We will, I hope, all have presents later on today, but this is the true gift of Christmas: a new identity for each one of us as God’s beloved, a new opportunity, a new humanity, all through what God has done in Christ. This is the gift of Christmas to you – and to me. And it’s a gift which deserves our full attention on this day – and indeed on all days.
The carols we sing at Christmas, the tradition of our worship all give voice to what God has accomplished through Christ. Know this: that Christ came for you – for you and all of us. He came that we might have life….and have it abundantly, he came that the deep wanting in the very core of our being would be filled with the knowledge of the love of God – and he came that our restless hearts would be stilled by the peace of God which passes all of our understanding.
I hope your Christmas will be blessed and happy.