Here is the transcript of my podcats for the Nativity of Our Lord on Christmas Night.
The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas Night 2021
Reading: John 1:1-18
During the present pandemic, we have all come to appreciate being able to communicate with each other online. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what life would be like at the present time without the internet. Even those who dislike social media - and I personally certainly have an ambiguous relationship with it – have, nevertheless, appreciated being able to use it to keep in touch with family and friends. Seeing loved ones online may not be the same as seeing them in person, but when travel restrictions prevent us from getting together physically, online is the next best thing.
One of the things online social media companies want you to do is to fill in your profile. Most of this is straightforward enough. One profile question that can cause problems, however, is the one about our ‘relationship status’. Although for many this too is a relatively straightforward question to answer, it certainly isn’t for everyone. For some, their relationship status is anything but straightforward, and so Facebook, for example, helpfully has as an answer the option: ‘It's complicated’.
On this Christmas Night, then, I want to ask a profile question that doesn’t get asked on social media sites. Now don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to put your hands up or to answer out loud, but I do want to ask you to think about how you personally would answer. The question is, ‘What is your relationship status with God?’
This, again, is for some a straightforward question to answer. They either do or don’t have a relationship with God. Some have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, and they can’t imagine their lives without him. Others don’t think there is a God to have relationship with or simply have no interest in him anyway. But for others, well, ‘It’s complicated’.
So let me ask you again: ‘What’s your relationship status with God?’
Now notice I am not asking you whether you believe in God. The fact that you are here at all at Midnight suggests that at the very least you are not unsympathetic to the possibility of his existence, even if the season we are in and the traditions that are part of it also have something to do with you being here.
No, I am not asking you about your belief, but about your relationship. It is, of course, perfectly possible, indeed it is common, to believe in someone’s existence without having anything approaching a relationship with them. We don’t have a relationship as such even with many people we know and see on a regular basis.
The question I am asking, then, is specifically about your relationship with God. And it is here that for many it starts to get complicated.
For some, it’s complicated because their relationship with God is a distant relationship, perhaps no more than a vague sense that there is a God. For many others, however, it is complicated because they are not particularly sure that they want to commit to a relationship with God. They may be happy to go to church and even to take part in church activities, but to enter into a fully committed relationship? They are certainly not ready for that.
Why am I going on about this tonight of all nights?
Well, it’s because tonight all over the world people like me will be talking about the passage I have just read, which begins with the famous words, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God …’ St John will also write ‘and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Church leaders and preachers will also refer at this time to St Matthew’s words, ‘Emmanuel – God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). We will tell people that in order to be with us, God has become one of us. We will seek to reassure people that God has not left us or abandoned us. Instead, we will explain, he has entered our existence as one of us.
Our assumption seems to be that if, as church leaders and preachers, we can convince people that this is indeed true, that there is a God who has done this, then they will be overjoyed and want to become regular churchgoers from that moment onwards. Apart from being somewhat naive, it misses the point of what the Word becoming flesh was all about. Seeing ‘God with us’ as simply being about God reassuring us that he is ‘there for us’ is fraught with difficulty.
Firstly, take the phrase, ‘God with us’ itself. St John, in our Gospel reading, also describes the Word as the one through whom all things originally came into being. St Paul describes God as being the ‘one in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). How much more ‘with us’ could he be than that? God was already with us without the Word having to become one of us. Preachers will explain that by becoming one of us God can now understand what it is like for us. But surely if he is God, he would know that anyway?
Secondly, as if this isn’t enough of a problem, as I have said, many of us don’t in any case want God with us. At least, not in any way that matters. Some want absolutely nothing to do with God at all. They see God as just a crutch for weak people, as an imaginary friend for people frightened of being alone. They are very happy to take their chances in life without him.
Others, however, while not wanting anything to do with God on a regular basis, think that it would be nice if God could be there for us when we get into trouble. In other words, they want to see God being with us as a sort of heavenly insurance policy. But the bottom line is that the rest of the time they want to live their lives their way, without any outside interference. It would be good if God could be with us when we need him, but, they think, that doesn’t mean he should have control over us.
The difficulty is, of course, that while we may want to live our lives our way, we are not very good at it. We like to tell ourselves we can manage perfectly well most of the time without God, but the evidence is very much against it. Hence the darkness that engulfs humanity and the terrible mess we see around us as people compete with one another and trample over each other.
This is true on a political, social, financial, and cultural level; it is also true on an individual level. Many tonight will put a brave face on Christmas, but inside they are hurting and fighting the darkness that threatens to overwhelm them. For not only do we do evil, we suffer both the consequences of the wrong we ourselves do as well as the wrong others do to us.
The Word becoming flesh wasn’t about God wanting to show he is with us in the sense of being there for us when we feel we need him; it was about God wanting to get through to us in the darkness of our existence and to make it possible for us to have a relationship with him.
Jesus came as a light shining in the darkness to give us the chance to turn from darkness to light, to turn from ourselves to be with him. So how did we respond to the light? St John writes that even his own did not receive him (John 1:11). And now today, still we don’t receive him. God may be ‘with us’, but we certainly aren’t with him.
We don’t feel any guilt about this. After all, we didn’t ask him to come in the first place. We may not be good at it, but, generally speaking, we want to make our own decisions about how we live our lives, without anyone telling us what we should and should not do.
There are those who are attracted to the light, who know their need, and who would like to have God in their life … to a point. They can see the benefits of a relationship with God, but they want it to be on their terms. They don’t want to lose control or to feel they are tied down. What they want, in other words, is a ‘casual relationship’; one in which they can think about God when they feel like it, where they can turn up when they have the time, and where what God wants is one factor among many in the decisions they make and how they live.
Their often-unspoken fear is that anything more than a casual relationship with God might mean God intruding into their lives and taking away their freedom. And let me say tonight that those who think like this have at least understood what a relationship with God means. They have understood the implications of God being ‘with us’, perhaps better than many who will be preaching on it!
St Catherine of Siena describes God as the ‘mad lover’, which is to say that God is so madly in love with us that he is not interested in a casual relationship with us. If God enters our life, he does so as he entered the world, that is, as a demanding and disruptive presence. When it comes to God being with us, it’s all or nothing. And this is simply not something that many are prepared to commit to.
No wonder, then, when confronted with the Divine Lover who wants all of us and wholehearted commitment from us, we are not so sure. And so, for many tonight, when it comes to our relationship with God: ‘It’s complicated’.
We cling to the hope that God will be happy with less than a fully committed relationship. I am sorry to have to tell you on tonight of all nights that he won’t. The Word didn’t become flesh for everything to continue as before as if nothing has happened. Too much has happened for that. What has happened is the Cross. St Paul puts it like this:
‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)
God loved us so much, so madly, - to use St Catherine’s words - that not only did the Word become flesh and dwell among us, he went to the Cross and died for us, and now tonight he has turned up offering us an eternal life-long relationship with him. Or as St John puts it later in his Gospel:
‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
God is not looking tonight for us to make a commitment that he hasn’t already been prepared to make himself.
God promises much in the relationship he is offering us: forgiveness, peace, joy, abundant life; always to be with us and, yes, always to be there for us, but he wants a response from us; he wants commitment. Now if we don’t want to respond and we are not interested in the relationship he is offering, if we don’t want to commit, then he won’t make us. This is about consent. That’s what faith is: consent and commitment. But you can’t have it both ways. The benefits of this relationship aren’t for friends; they are for lovers.
St John, after writing of the commitment that God has been willing to make to us in his Son, the Word made flesh, writes:
‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)
The darkness once tried to put out the light and for a moment it looked as if it had succeeded, St John tells us, however, that the ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. That doesn’t mean, however, that the darkness has given up, and many, now as then, prefer the darkness to the light.
Many choose to live their life in spiritual darkness seeking pleasure, possessions, power, and position in this world. And in the darkness, many find what they are looking for. But the darkness also finds them, enters them, and possesses them. Not only do they live in the darkness, the darkness now lives in them and threatens to destroy them.
Tonight, we are being given the chance to let the light of God shine in the darkness of our lives. Yes, that will be painful; light shows things up and reveals things that often we don’t want to see, but light also dispels darkness. God wants on this most holy night to dispel the darkness in our life and enter our life as an abiding presence in a committed relationship with us.
St Paul writes:
‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Here tonight, God is looking at us face to face, and, in the face of Christ, he is offering us a relationship with him. God has made the first move. He is reaching out to us. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Don’t tonight let the complications of this life lead to you missing out on the life that is being offered to you.
In a moment, I will light the last candle on our Advent wreath, the candle that represents the light of Christ. If you want to begin a relationship with God that’s not complicated, consider lighting a candle on our votive candle stand in church or if you are not able to light a candle in church, then lighting one at home. Do this as a sign and a prayer that you want to let God’s light into your life and to begin the relationship with him that God is offering you.
St John writes:
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)
There is no better gift on offer this Christmas than the gift that is being offered to each of us here right now. Take that step of faith and let the light of God shine into your life.