Christmas is just for children!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney at Christmas 2018
The four gospels that we’ve got, each tells the Christmas story in their own way. Matthew majors on the wise men from the East and the flight into Egypt; Mark gives us nothing at all; Luke is the most elaborate, with the annunciation, the stable and the shepherds; John, the most profound with his magnificent prologue.
We tend to run these stories together to make just oneChristmas story! And perhaps that’s not a bad idea! Because scratch the surface and you discover that they’re all doing a similar thing – they’re telling us the significance of Jesus, his place in the purposes of God and the consequences of his life for us and for the world.
Take for instance the point made by both Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born of a virgin. They’re not interested in human reproduction! Rather their interest is in theology – that the origins of this person, Jesus, are to be sought in the purposes of God!
And John’s gospel makes exactly this point but completely differently. He spends no time at all giving us any birth stories or genealogies – instead he opens his gospel by going back, right back to the source of Jesus’ being:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was
with God, and the Word was God.’
The origins of Jesus lie not in time, but in eternity!
Or take the point made by Luke that Jesus was born in a stable because when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem they found there was no room for them in the inn. It’s a much-loved aspect of the Christmas story delightfully told by Luke.
But why does Luke give us this story? His point has got nothing to do with the pressure on housing in Bethlehem! Rather the homeless babe of Bethlehem tells us about how Jesus was treated throughout his life – that the Son of God was pushed aside from his birth, that as an adult he had nowhere to lay his head, and that eventually he was pushed out of the world entirely.
John in his prologue also tells us about this aspect of the life of Jesus, but again in a completely different way. He writes:
‘He was in the world, and the world came into being
through him; yet the world did not know him. He
came to his own, and his own people did not accept him
There was never room for Jesus in any inn!
So the gospel writers weave a rich tapestry at Christmas, to tell us about the significance of Jesus, his life and what he stood for. And it’s done with such skill and elegance, using story, symbol, prophecy and philosophy. That’s why it bears repetition year after year – and it draws us to kneel with the wise men in wonder and delight!
So what about those wise men?
At first Matthew is very keen in his gospel to emphasize that Jesus is Jewish, opening with a genealogy that traces his ancestry all the way back to Abraham! And the way that Matthew uses the story of the wise men is to tell us that even though Jesus is the Jewish messiah his importance is not limited to the boundaries of Judaism – he has a universal significance!
And what do we hear in John’s prologue?
‘The true light, which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.’
There are no limits to his influence, no barriers, no borders!
It was either Frances or G.K. Chesterton, which of them it was no one seems quite sure! Anyway, one of them captures in a poem the moment when the wise men discover the door to the manger:
‘Here is the little door,
lift up the latch; O lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift…..’
I’ve printed the words on page 17 of your service booklets so please take it home to read afterwards if you want. For tonight/this morning, it’s just the beginning of that poem that interests me:
‘Here is the little door,
lift up the latch; O lift!’
(Tonight) /Last night/ a huge number of pilgrims (are gathering) /gathered/ in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity – the church is built on the site in Bethlehem where for centuries Christian pilgrims have travelled – tradition has it that it’s where Jesus was born.
Once inside the church, you go down some steps and there is the place where Mary gave birth to Christ, the sacred spot marked with a silver star. The walls that surround the spot are now covered over so that pilgrims can no longer remove bits of rock to take home with them!
I’ve given you two pictures of the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity on pages 18 & 19 of your service booklets. That’s not the entrance to the manger but to the main church! And as you can see on page 18 it used to be much larger than it is now.
But to ensure that people on horseback and people wearing armour and carrying swords and shields could not get in, the entrance has been made much smaller, so much so that, as you can see from the picture on page 19, to get through the doorway you have to crouch down – unless of course you’re a child! And that’s the point!
The name given to this door at the Church of the Nativity is The Door of Humility.
It suggests that to receive the gift of God lying in the arms of Mary, as adults we have to remove our protective layers, bend down and go through The Door of Humility.
The poem that I’ve referred to describes the door to the manger, as the little door.
‘Here is the little door, lift up the latch; O lift!’
It suggests that to follow the wise men we must become like children again, lift the latch on the little door and go inside.
You see Christmas is just for children! So we need to turn and be like them, and kneel in wonder and delight as heaven touches earth tonight