Sermon preached by the Bishop of Dorking at Midnight Mass
St Martin’s Church, Dorking 24 December 2016
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20.
Christmas is an occasion that brings families together. I bet there’s someone here tonight wondering how she’s going to sleep on that sofa-bed that awaits – the one with the bar across the back that gets especially uncomfortable around 4am. And someone else wondering how he’ll fair in that sleeping bag on the floor. That’s what its like when families gather: the house overflows with people, and we squeeze in. It’s not always fancy but we make room. And the chaos is part of the fun.
In the Palestine of Herod the Great, families also looked out for their own. And extended families could get quite extended in some circumstances. This is what makes Mary and Joseph’s dilemma such a problem. Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary, “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
What were they doing in a stable with no bed for their baby but a manger, which is to say, a feeding trough? Where was their family? Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, so would have his brother and sisters, father and mother, and his cousins, too, whatever family members were still alive. Each of them would have had to have find a room in Bethlehem, and once they found it, they would have been obligated by duty to make room for Joseph and his very new, so obviously pregnant wife, Mary.
So why were Mary and Joseph in a stable? Perhaps the family had piled into the inn and Mary and Joseph were living in the overflow section. That explanation would work, except for Mary’s pregnancy. Even an elderly uncle or an odd second cousin could have given up a bed for a woman on the verge of childbirth.
Mary and Joseph were in a stable as there was no room for them in the inn. When the shepherds visited they did not find a stable overflowing with extended family all doing it up to make some better arrangements for the new baby. The shepherds found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. No proud mother-in-law, no doting aunt, no excited cousins, no face-saving sisters-in-law. Just a very young mother, doing for her baby what she knew to be best, and a father: coping, but probably only just.
Why this happened is a mystery. Some have suggested that it was because Joseph was older, and Mary was his second wife. He had no surviving relatives to make room for him and his young bride. More likely is that the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy had stretched the limits of family to the point that the Holy Family was left out when it came time to sort out sleeping arrangements back in Bethlehem.
But what we know for sure is that Mary and Joseph were left to fend for themselves. No family had made room for them in Bethlehem. In a town packed to the rafters with fellow ancestors of King David, no one could find room for Mary and Joseph. And because of this, they end up in a stable with their baby in a manger.
When Jesus, much later in his life speaks about the coming judgment in Matthew chapter 25 it turns out he could have been speaking of the situation that night in Bethlehem:
“‘I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’”
Mary and Joseph were strangers, and no one invited them in. And those who shut their doors to Joseph as he looked for room for his great-with-child wife were, quite literally, shutting their doors on God incarnate. When they did not make room for that one pregnant girl, they did not make room for the maker of heaven and earth to be born among us.
(St Martin’s – gather there is a lunch event tomorrow… Lovely way of turning this church into an inn and welcoming in the stranger, the sick, the hungry. Offering a welcome without questions. Opening yourselves up to welcoming Jesus).
Friends: at such a time of a great joy, I want to make sure that you too are not among those missing out. How is your inn, your life, and how much space is there in there? As you can see, God does not need a lot, nor anything fancy. The maker of heaven and earth, the Lord of space and time, became of all things a tiny baby. That’s Christmas. Do you have a stable? I can’t speak for you but I will speak for myself. When it comes to making space, I’m less worried about the small matter of a bedroom – as you know, I recently moved to this area and acquired a lovely 4-bed house as your bishop – but when it comes to my life, my heart, I find it much harder to answer. What I know for sure is that my diary is full, the fridge is full, the freezer is full, the file drawers are full, the space under our Christmas tree is full (and by tomorrow our recycling bins will be just as full). Even my iPhone is telling me its memory is full. My heart feels full. If that is the story of your ‘inn’ as well as mine, then we need to find that stable. A place round the back, a place for escape, something that offers freedom from the status quo – perhaps from all your relatives! It doesn’t matter, so long as it’s a place where there’s room for you to pause and wonder… what’s going on, what life is all about - and to look for God to surprise you.
God surprises the shepherds. When the angels came with an invite, they were not those to suggest their diary prevented them: they sped to the stable. Unlike the inn, the stable has space for them. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refused hospitality at the inn, but in the stable there’s space also for a spontaneous crowd of strangers, far outside of visiting hours. Those traditionally outcast are invited in and the party begins. It turns out that Mary and Joseph have a bigger extended family than ever they knew…
And we gather here tonight as part of that party, a party that has been rolling for 2000 years. Christmas no longer comes as a surprise, not after the first. It lands on 25th Dec every year. We start planning for it for weeks leading up don’t we – whether it’s which parts of the family are going where, or what to give to who, or decorating our house, blowing up the airbeds or preparing the food. Surely the planning is to make us the more ready – so that there is the more space in my inn, in my life – when Jesus comes? In our busyness we have to be very careful not to bypass the main point, not to plan Jesus out, not to turn a stable where there is space into an inn that has no space.
In our efforts to secure joy and sustain family – to create it, to insulate it, to preserve it, to protect it – we are in danger inadvertently of missing out. Note from our reading those who get to enjoy Christmas the most. It’s not those who booked into the inns of Bethlehem who’ve drawn their curtains for the night. It’s not those who live by their diaries or their shopping lists. It’s those out in the fields who glimpse the angels, and it’s anyone who’s available to join the throng who join the party. They don’t have all the answers – they may not have any! – but they’re open to offers… so that when the maker of heaven and earth is born among them, they don’t miss out. What’s going on… how can a child be the Saviour, how can authority rest on a baby’s frail shoulders, how can this be the Messiah to usher in a kingdom of peace and justice? They don’t have all the answers and they can’t explain it – I love their expression about this ‘thing’ that has taken place – but they absolutely want to be part of it and they’ll work it out as they go.
Friends: in Christ, God is turning the world upside down. Are you up for making room and seeing what happens? Remember, at Christmas the chaos is part of the fun.