You will probably be aware that on Angel Hill, beside the old Abbey wall, there is a crib scene. It shows Mary, Joseph, a couple of shepherds and the baby in a manger.
A couple stopped and looked at it, and one was overheard as he asked the other, 'Who is the man in the bed?'
It is a reminder. The story of Jesus is not as well known as it once was. For Christians that is an amazing opportunity. We can tell the story of Jesus and it really is good news.
For those who don't know, the man in the bed is not a man but a baby. The bed is not a bed but a cattle feeding trough.
The crib scene is a reminder that the astonishing gift of Christmas was God giving us his Son.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born as a baby on earth.
It was a mess.
Being born is a messy business. In the film Nativity (the first one), Mr Poppy and Mr Maddens take their class to go and see a baby being born. I’m a governor at Guildhall Feoffment Primary, and I’m not sure that our outings policy includes visits to maternity units. For the children it is like watching a horror movie. Mr Poppy and Mr Maddens faint
And Jesus wasn’t born to privilege and status. He wasn’t born in a palace, wrapped in precious robes and laid in a golden cradle. He wasn’t cared for by the best midwives or Norland nannies. He was born in a cowshed, wrapped in linen cloths and laid in a manger.
We could not get further from our antiseptic birth-suites or from the sanitised ‘religious’ stable scenes of those few Christmas cards which do tell of the birth of Jesus.
I'm sure Joseph, the inn keeper and his wife tried their best to make things clean for Mary, but it would still have been a mess. A bit of a pigsty.
And the first visitors to this baby: they were shepherds. Shepherds for us are those men or women who can make clever dogs do clever things. But in Jesus’ time, shepherds were outcasts - they told jokes about shepherds.
Jesus told a joke about a shepherd. He had 100 sheep and he lost one. So he abandoned the 99 and went to find the one lost sheep. Duh! Brain ache! You don’t leave 99 to go and find 1. Yes, people would have laughed; shepherds would do that.
But then Jesus turned it right round. ‘God is like that’, he said. ‘You are so precious to him that he would leave 99 others in order to seek you. You are so precious to him that God would come down and be born as a baby, no – to become a tiny egg in the womb of a peasant girl who lived in Israel – in order to save you: the one lost sheep.
It was mess. Jesus was born in a country which was under occupation. They had their tyrants and their terrorists. Their land was torn apart by deep inequality, by exploitation, by hatred and greed, and by religious and political extremism. Some of the renaissance paintings of the nativity show Mary and Joseph in a stable and behind them are crumbling buildings.
He was born into a mess.
By the age of 2, Jesus had survived state sponsored child genocide and his parents had fled. He was a refugee in a neighbouring land.
He was born into a mess.
But God came into human history in order specifically to come into our mess:
He came to tidy it up.
I’d like you to think of some imaginary child whose room is a mess. This I am sure applies to nobody here. When I say mess, I mean mess. Clothes on the floor, half chewed boiled sweets stuck to the carpet, broken bits of toys and useless things strewed around, and a cup which probably once had what you suspect to be hot chocolate in it but now contains something green and slimy and definitely alive. I mean it is even too messy for the cockroaches. They take one look at the place, pack their bags and leave.
Well mum gets to the end of her tether. She tells this imaginary child to go up to their room and tidy it up – and she is coming in half an hour. Our imaginary child says how delighted they are to be asked to do this task, and eagerly run up the stairs to get on with it! But as they go in, they look at the mess. It is overwhelming. They think I can’t do this; it is too big for me. So they throw a few other clothes that were on the bed onto the floor, and lie down and start to play with their phone. I could even tell you the game they play, but I won’t because they are imaginary. Half an hour is a long time and mum will probably forget to come.
But she does not forget. And as the door opens, and they are still lying on their bed, they think, ‘I’m in big trouble’. And they are!
John says that when God sent Jesus into the world he did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. He opened the door and walked into the mess.
But astonishingly, even though he had asked us time and time again to tidy up, he didn’t come to punish us for the mess. He came with his big black bin bag to deal with the mess – and he did that by taking the mess onto himself, into himself.
The good news is that the baby born 2000 years ago in Palestine grew into an adult.
He lived the sort of life that I should have lived.
He lived a life of love. He loved God and he loved people. He brought the life of God to earth. That was why he was the most beautiful of people on the inside. Everything about him was true. He lived life as we were made to live it.
And because he brought the life of God to earth, he was able to begin to show signs of how – one day – he will finally clear up the mess. He healed the sick, cast out evil, fed 5000 people with a boys’ picnic lunch, turned water into wine, walked on water and calmed the storm. It was why he could bring people back from the dead. It was why he could bring forgiveness to some of the most crushed people, new life to people who were despairing and hope to men and women who were crushed.
He did it not by being superman and simply zapping whatever and whoever was wrong. I’m grateful for that because I would be on the wrong end of the zap.
Instead he did it by taking all the muck into himself. He took the hatred and the lies into himself. He took the abandonments and the betrayals into himself. He took the abuse and the mockery into himself. He took the cruelty and the violence into himself.
He took it onto himself because he both suffered as the victim of the muck; but he also became the muck. He became sin for us. One of the first people to think about these things writes, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’. (1 Cor 5.21). It is an astonishing statement. Jesus Christ took into himself my sin and he died the death that I deserve to die. No wonder when he hung on the cross the sky turned black.
But that is not the end of the story. He rose from the dead. He appeared to his followers. They saw him, doubted him, touched him, ate with him and then worshipped him. And when, 40 days later, he was taken away from them he gave them this promise: I will never leave you. My Spirit will come and live in you.
And for anyone who comes to him, who asks him for his Spirit, he will come into the cowshed of our lives and the manger of our hearts.
Because, if we are honest, it is a bit of a pigsty: mixed up motives, shifting standards, resentments, betrayals, unforgiveness, anger, jealousy, dishonesty and the fear which grips us.
But this is good news. He says, 'I know what it is like to be born in muck. And if you let me I'll be born in you. I will come and live in you and we will begin a tidy up job. I know you can’t do it on your own – but I can help you.
That is how it is going to happen: individual men and women who are messes who turn to me and allow me to tidy them up.
‘I want’ – he says – ‘to turn you into an army’.
‘Not an army of people who strap explosives to their bodies, pick up automatic weapons and massacre school children.
The army I have in mind is an army of people who are learning to love, to be honest about themselves, who will make themselves vulnerable, who will kneel down and wash the feet of the lowest and most despised.
="color: #333333; font-family: "Arial","sans-serif"; font-size: 12.0pt; mso-ansi-language: EN-US; mso-fareast-font-family: "Times New Roman";">I want you to be people who make a difference in this world: who love God and who see this world not as their playground but as my world, and who see other people not as rivals or competitors or servants or nobodies, but as people who are deeply beloved and precious to Me.
I want to make you men and women, girls and boys who will love other people – even your enemies – and be prepared to die for them, to be crucified for them, so that they might find My love.
And I want to give you the assurance that you are deeply and profoundly beloved, membership in a new family, knowledge of forgiveness, a deep peace (even in the face of dreadful tragedy), a power at work in you that is not you and joy’.
So I do pray that many of us will turn to the one who was born in a manger, and invite him to come and live in us. Don't worry if you are a mess. He came for people who are in a mess. Don’t worry if you are not religious. He came for people who are not religious. Don’t worry if you have done stuff of which you are dreadfully ashamed and nobody knows. He does know, he has taken it into himself and dealt with it and he still loves you.
And he will begin the really big tidy up.
I’m not asking you to make an on the spot decision to put your trust in Jesus Christ tonight. If you do, I won’t object and I would be delighted! But what I would ask you to do is to take one of the stories of Jesus that we have available on a table at the back of church. It is the story of Jesus told by Luke. It begins with the Christmas story. Read it – jump over the bits that are boring (there aren’t that many). And ask yourself, is this the person that I could trust to come into my life and tidy me up.
And I pray that we all will know a peaceful and joyful Christmas.