2 Samuel 7.1-11,16, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38
A recent survey of 2,000 men found a third of them were convinced that, if they were put in charge of organising Christmas, it would be less rushed, less stressful and less expensive. One female commentator remarked acidly that she didn’t believe Christmas would be less rushed if men were put in charge, simply because the planning wouldn’t begin until Christmas Eve. However, the ways that the men said they would cut down at Christmas were by sending fewer cards, (half of them wouldn’t send any cards at all in fact), by giving fewer presents and by having much simpler food. They wouldn’t be cooking turkey, for a start! A fifth said they would cook steak and chips for the family; another fifth said they would order in the food from a takeaway. And two-fifths said they would spend far less time with their in-laws.
School children were also surveyed. They too were worried about the cost of Christmas, and whether their parents would be able to afford it. Two-fifths said they would rather that Father Christmas brought them more time with their parents than a sackful of expensive presents, although - of course - that’s easily said! A quarter hoped to be able to see relatives who rarely visit during the rest of the year, but more than three in twenty worried about family rows at Christmas time. So beneath the veneer of festive cheer, a lot of people believe all is not well with the traditional British Christmas.
Our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel reminds us how David wanted to plan a more lavish worship space for God - a space fit for the Lord of lords and King of kings. He felt that there was an awful incongruity about God being worshipped in a tent while he was living in state in a palace built of cedar wood.
But God reminded David that he chooses to dwell in the midst of his people. If they live in tents then God expects to be worshipped in a tent, and not in a temple.
John Wesley adopted the same principle in his own ministry. For a long time Methodists were discouraged from building fine chapels and churches because Wesley believed that the proclamation of the Gospel properly belongs in the fields and in the streets, and in the homes of believers where they meet together to pray, encourage one another and break bread.
Our church is very beautiful and an ideal space for contemporary worship, but its existence cannot be justified purely as a home for God or a place purely for worship and prayer. Churches need to be community hubs if they are to be truly places where God is pleased to dwell.
This is an incarnational principle. It is surely no coincidence that the God who was pleased to be worshipped in a tent was pleased also to be born in a stable and to come to live and minister among his people, wandering from place to place like a travelling salesman with nowhere permanent to lay his head.
To think of God in this way is so startling - even now - that Paul calls it ‘that divine secret kept in silence for long ages’. Mind you, calling it a ‘divine secret’, which is the Revised English Bible translation, is perhaps a bit too strong, actually. It might be more accurate to talk about a ‘mystery’ rather than a ‘secret’.
I think Paul has in mind something more akin to a cryptic crossword puzzle or a Men’s and Women’s Fellowship combined Christmas quiz, than a dark Da Vinci code style conspiracy. In his new translation, which attempts to get as close as possible to the original Greek, Nicholas King calls it ‘the mystery that was wrapped in silence’.
Paul’s point is that, although the mystery of the incarnation has been made known to people throughout the world by the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, many continue to look for God in the wrong place - in a palace rather than in the stable at Bethlehem. Even the wise are wrong-footed, therefore, by the only wise God.
So, last week, clips were played on television of the renowned atheist and essayist Christopher Hitchens calling God a ‘celestial dictator in a kind of divine North Korea’ where ‘nice’ people are ‘forced to surrender their critical faculties’ or ‘do unkind things’ in return for ‘the promise of salvation.’
Clearly he didn’t taking seriously the idea that God could be born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. No doubt he would have considered the incarnation to be one of those ‘stupid things’ which intelligent people are required to swallow in order to become Christian believers. But he acknowledged only recently that - although nothing had yet persuaded him to change his mind about God - ‘he liked surprises’. How intriguing, then, that both the Prophet Nathan and St Paul believed in a God of surprises!
Mary, of course, encountered the same God of surprises a little earlier than Paul. Luke tells how she was deeply troubled by the Angel’s message - at least according to the Revised English Bible’s version of events. Nicholas King perhaps captures the intensity of her feelings more acutely when he translates the same phrase as ‘deeply disturbed’. And certainly that word ‘disturbed’ reflects the way that Gabriel interpreted her response, because Luke goes on to record in both versions, that the Angel told her not to be afraid of the message he was bringing to her.
The Angel told her that her baby wouldl inherit God’s promises to David, and that he would sit on David’s throne for ever. The power of the most High would make this possible and Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High.
It sounds impressive, and Luke’s first readers would surely have been amazed to discover, a few verses later, that Jesus was actually destined to be born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is hardly the outcome we would expect for a great king, unless - of course - we are familiar with the prophecy in 2 Samuel, that the family and the kingship which will be established for ever is being set up and sustained by a God who chooses to be worshipped in a tent and to dwell in the midst of his wandering people.
I think there is something of the Ebenezeer Scrooge about the minority of men who are quick to say ‘Bah, humbug!’ about the tinsel and turkey Christmas and who insist that they would stay at home eating a takeaway dinner and eschewing their family and friends. But perhaps they, and the children who hanker after a simpler, less expensive, less frenetic Christmas celebration, are also recalling - somewhere at the back of their minds - a distant folk memory of the humble beginnings of Jesus and the modest demands of the God he represents. Shouldn’t the feast which is named after Jesus be celebrated more simply, in a way that is more in-keeping with the story it proclaims?