At the heart of Christmas is a story.
It is a story that has an astonishing power.
It is the story of how the Son of God, the one who is bigger than the universe, beyond the universe, became a tiny speck within his universe; the one who created time, came into time. The Son of God, because he loved us – because he loved you - became a human baby born in a cowshed in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
It is the story of how God in his love, reaches down to us.
We often think that we are closest to God when we are most god-like; when we are in control, confident, victorious. There is a great scene in one of the James Bond films (from the days when James Bond films were James Bond films). The villain's computer whizz kid assistant has just managed, amidst total chaos, to override Bond's override – and global destruction is imminent: and he stands up and raises his arms into the air and declares, 'I am invincible'. We think we are most god-like when we have those 'invincible' moments.
But of course, as our villain discovers, we are not invincible. As he declares himself 'invincible', gallons of quick freeze liquid pour onto him, and he is turned into a statue.
There are times when we are almost god-like: we create remarkable things: compose and perform beautiful music; design and build magnificent buildings; discover more and more of the remarkable truths of this universe. And at times we do wonderful things: we marvel at people who do acts that require the most amazing courage and self-sacrifice.
But if we are trying to become god-like, we have a very long way to go.
Although we live in an amazing world, and do amazing things, most of the time, we are blinded by our self-centredness:
My favourite story of 2008 is …
It is a picture of our world: the woman who wants to stay comfortable; the man who can't be bothered to help and the drunk who only wants to be pushed on a swing.
Our problems come because we have removed God and put self in his place. We are told, 'You are the centre of the universe. You deserve the best because – and I give thanks for this advert because it is the preacher's dream - you are worth it'. And so we have made ourselves god, our desires god, what other people think of us god, or our career god. And we end up destroying ourselves, other people and ultimately this planet.
The story of Christmas is that God in his love does not give up on us; because he loves us he reaches out to us in Jesus. If you love someone you want to be with them. God knows that we have been blinded by our self-centredness and are never going to get to him, so he comes to us.
"For God so loved the world that he sent his only son into the world .."
It is the story of how God in his love, rescues us.
The Son of God comes into human history in order to rescue us.
Yesterday we were given a guided tour of the air control tower at Norwich airport. There was very little going on: two light planes (puddle hoppers) landed, and the rescue helicopter took off.
Imagine. The ship has sunk. The man has been in the water for several hours. His strength is failing. But then the rescue helicopter arrives. A rope is dropped down. Someone with a megaphone calls out, 'Take hold of the rope. Climb up it. It is the way to life'. The man tries, but he falls. He tries again, but the waves knock him back. He gives up. All hope is gone. He is sinking. But then, one of the helicopter crew starts to lower himself down the rope. He plunges into the cold dark water; he grabs hold of the drowning man. As he pulls him up, he yells, 'Trust me; don't struggle'. And then he starts to climb up the rope, not on his own, but holding the man, hauling him to safety and to life.
At Christmas, Jesus Christ the Son of God, plunged into what can be a cold and dark world not just because he loved us and wanted to be with us, but in order to lift us up, to rescue us.
Maybe we do not feel we are metaphorically drowning
Maybe we do not feel we need to be rescued
But for those of us who know that we need God, who know that we are out of our depth, who know that we are blinded by our self-centredness, who know that we need forgiveness and that we need to see things in a new way, who know that we need a new power to live - the good news is that God came into this world in order to rescue us.
He comes to the broken hearted, to the poor and powerless, to those trapped by the past, to those who are in darkness. He comes for the parent who is at their wits end about their child, or for the child at their wits end about their parent. He comes for the one who has been made redundant and who does not know how they are going to pay the rent or the mortgage. He comes for the person who has lost the one who was dearest to them, without whom life seems empty and pointless. He comes for the one confused about their sexuality, or who longs to be desired but hates to be used. He comes for the one who has good intentions which are rarely fulfilled, for the lonely, the crushed, the exhausted, the fearful, the tired and confused.
He does not simply drop us a rope and tell us to climb up to safety. Most people treat religion as if it is the rope that they need to climb. He comes down to us to lift us up. All we have to do is to allow him to take hold of us and trust him, even when it seems that he has let us go.
I'm not saying that when we turn to him all our problems will be solved. I'm not saying that we will live lives purely motivated by love and not self-interest. There is a long way to go. But when we turn to him and allow him to rescue us, we will find there is hope. If we allow him to hold on to us, we will begin to discover a different focus for living, a different journey to go on, and a different motivating force. Putting it in more traditional language we will discover forgiveness, a growing friendship with God, peace in the difficult situations of life and hope for the future.
It is the story of how God in his love, reigns
The Christmas story is soaked in politics.
Who really reigns?
Is it Caesar?
Is it Herod?
Or is it the baby born in the stable?
It is a bit of joke to say that it is the baby born in the stable.
After all, it is Caesar who orders the people to be counted. It is Herod who orders the execution of the baby boys in Bethlehem. They have the power to decide who will live and who will die.
But the wise men recognise a far greater power in Jesus. They recognise, and it is an act of faith – because all they see in front of them is a powerless baby, that Jesus has power over life and death itself
And so they kneel before him.
The Christmas story is the story of the God who reigns: but he does not reign with a sword, but from a cradle and then a cross. He reigns in love. He claims that his way is the good way, the gentle way, the right way, the way that gives life and brings real freedom.
Yes, Jesus claims that there are consequences for rejecting his way, but he never compels us to obey his laws. He does not rule in that way. He always treats us as adults. He demonstrates his love for us and he invites people to choose to kneel before him; he invites people to choose to allow him to reign over them.
So I invite each of us to join with the wise men in kneeling before him. It doesn't matter whether we actually kneel, although the act of just kneeling – even beside our bed in the privacy of our home – can be helpful. What is important is what we say to him and to ourselves:
"Yes: I believe you are the Son of God, who loves me, who has reached out to me
Yes: I believe you came to rescue me. I need your forgiveness, I need your strength to live and I need your life.
Yes: I kneel before you, the one who really reigns. I choose to recognise your authority over my life and over this world, and with your help I will follow your way today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life."
That is what changes lives: and that is the meaning and the power of the Christmas story.