May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Once upon a time I was young and daft, now I am only daft, but once when I was young as well, I had a wonderful time living out in South Africa, where as an 18/19-year-old I got up to huge amounts of mischief all while have a great time. I was working in a school, and during one of the school holidays a friend of mine invited me to stay with him and his fiancée down in Cape Town. While we were driving around that beautiful coast I got to see something that has stayed with me all my life. You see I had always been fascinated with whales as a kid in the early 90s, even raising money for a save the whales charity. I watched on VHS repeatedly an old documentary on whales made by the national geographic. They seemed such beautiful animals. But it was only when we pulled over on this cliff road, looking over the sea that I really saw whales. From that road in South Africa, we saw two whales and their calf surfacing near the cliff side, rolling around and seemingly playing romping in great watery majesty. They only appeared for maybe 5 minutes before they disappeared into the depths again. I had seen whales a thousand times on TV, I had read about them, I had wondered at them but in real life, right there, only in real life could I get a true perspective of what whales were really like. What their true being was. They are just so big, and I know that sounds obvious but unless you have seen on in the flesh you really don’t quite get the perspective in your head, not really. Even though I had spent hours watching documentaries about whales, seeing pictures or whatever, all that pales into comparison when compared to seeing the real thing, experiencing the real thing, meeting the real thing in life. Those few minutes of experiencing what whales are truly like, seeing their huge majestic play in the deep blue azure of the Southern Ocean in real life can never be out done by picture or tv show in any circumstance. Not even attenbrough and the BBC could have communicated in film over hours what I saw in those special 5 minutes. The thing is really experiencing something gives us a much deeper perspective than simply seeing or hearing something does.
Today, at Christmas we celebrate how those shepherds, how Mary and Joseph, how the magi, who had heard about God and the wonders He did in the past, who had an abstract view, a distant view of God really did in fact meet God made man, born on Christmas day. In the gospel message we hear how finally the angels’ words to both Mary and Joseph came true, and the Virgin Mary bore her first Son, Jesus laying him in an animal trough for there was no place in the inn.
The shepherds of course had heard about the angels if they had ever worshiped or been to the synagogue or temple. They had heard talk of these beings, and suddenly, while looking after the their sheep at night, one appears. The stories of angels, the accounts of angels hadn’t terrified them, but the real thing did. The angel says, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly an army of angels appear giving thanks and praise to God. I bet listening to readings about angels for these shepherds now completely changed. They had seen the real thing, how could they be the same? They go off to Bethlehem and find Jesus and tell Mary, who ponders these things in her heart. Jesus, the Messiah is born, not in an abstract distant way, but really came down so that we on Earth could be lifted up. This is the thing about the Christmas story. It was experienced by real people, who had an encounter with God and saw just as seeing real whales with my own eyes was an order of magnitude better than seeing them on TV, so too for these people was the experience of living these events we commemorate today, the arrival of our Saviour, Jesus Christ God among us.
But perhaps you can see the problem. When we see how the world changed fundamentally for the witnesses of Jesus, witnesses for everything from His birth to His ressurection, the question is how do we celebrate these people while having to be content with second hand accounts from others? How are we to feel stuck with the documentary, when they saw the real thing? Where is God today, and can we experience Him for real?
Here is the thing and the wonderful secret about our faith that separates from all other faiths for it is true – at Christmas God came to earth, and just as He loved the people who saw His earthly ministry so He provided for us to experience Him too. Our faith is experiential, because God sent His Holy Spirit so that we could have Him living in our hearts, with us as profoundly as if He was with his parents and the shepherds one night many years ago. Christmas, the incarnation, was not a one off event. The incarnation happens in believers’ hearts when we ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us. No one is asking believers to take for granted the Christmas story. The Christmas story, the Christian story is an invitation to experience God, to have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe. In my own story, when I was first filled with the Holy Spirit it changed my world, it is frankly the only reason I stand here now as a vicar. Our faith is not an abstract one but one to be experienced as God lives in us and for us today. It is to be experienced, as the God who loves you, comes down to live in the manger of your heart, no matter how humble or dirty you feel that manger heart of yours may be. God is to be experienced, and when you do experience Him it will change your life. If you would like to go on that journey to discover the God who comes down to bless us, why not join the alpha course that starts in January? It isn’t about us find God, not really, the Christian story is about being open to God finding us, and in us being born.
Today, celebrate hard my friends, because today we celebrate the coming of Jesus who came to save us, without whom the world is lost. We celebrate alongside the shepherds, alongside our family, alongside His family and alongside millions around the globe. We celebrate that the God who came down to earth, today can come down into our hearts today also. So enjoy, eat drink and be merry, for Christ our Saviour was born this day, and invites you to let His Holy Spirit be born in the manger of your heart and the difference that makes is just like the difference between seeing something on TV compared to seeing the real thing. Trust me, when you’ve seen the real thing, your world will never be the same, exactly like it was for all those who visited a stable 2000 years ago where a little baby was born who would save our world. Amen