God does not have to be persuaded to be interested in us

Peter Seal, 25 December 2017

Isaiah 9: 2–7; Luke 2: 1–14

It’s lovely to be here with all of you in the middle of the night this Christmas. I find myself wanting to ask each of you a question. It goes like this: ‘What draws you to church tonight?’ Why have you come when you could have had an early night and be tucked up warm in your bed?

I guess your answers would be varied and different.

Some of us may have come because we believe that love became a new reality in the birth of the baby Jesus, and that this changed everything.

Some of us may be here because we are searching for a deeper meaning to our lives and would like to believe.

Some of us will be here because we are hurting for some reason and we need consoling.

Some of us may be here because of something we can’t quite identify – the silence, perhaps, or the holiness of this sacred space, or the old familiar carols – things that resonate in the deep places of the mind and heart and nourish what we call the spirit.

For some, tonight’s celebration of the Christian faith meets a kind of hunger that nothing else satisfies in the same way.

There’s another possible reason for us wanting to be here, and it comes directly from tonight’s gospel reading from Luke. We’re told that Joseph was a descendant of what was known as the House of David. That’s why he had to go to Bethlehem with his heavily pregnant fiancée, Mary. Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town where, we’re told, he had to be registered.

So, Joseph went home to be counted. My suggestion is that we may have come tonight because we want, as it were, to be counted in.

It’s both curious, but also a wonderful thing, that many folk who only occasionally worship in this church feel strongly that it’s their church. It’s where we feel we belong, spiritually. It matters a lot. Tonight is a bit of personal annual ritual. It’s an integral part of Christmas. It’s a way of saying, ‘Here I am again, a year older, with another year of life’s experience, and “Yes”, I’ve come to be counted in’.

One of the interesting things I’ve discovered about God is that he can only count in ones. God can’t see crowds; he can only see individuals. In other words, each of us: you, and me, and everyone the world over.

God’s way of counting goes something like this:

One plus one equals one plus one.

One plus one plus one equals one plus one plus one.

It’s as though the numbers two and three, and every other number, are not part of God’s mind-set or vocabulary. This is hugely important: what it means is that each of us, yes, each and every one of us, is unique and infinitely precious in God’s sight. There’s no one else in the whole wide world quite like you. There never has been and there never will be.

You might be saying to yourself, ‘That all sounds very nice, but how does it relate to the reality of tonight’s world?’

We had a round-robin style Christmas letter from a relative. The first sentence went like this: ‘Apart from a persistent sense of gloom and anxiety about the state of the world, we have somehow managed to get through the year so far comparatively unscathed’. Lucky them; that’s not been the story for millions in our world.

Tonight, we bring with us our dismay at the pain of so many. We carry with us the unimaginable suffering caused by the tropical storm in the Philippines, or an earthquake, a train crash or an air disaster, and part of us says, ‘These facts make nonsense of God’s love – nonsense of the idea that he can only count in ones and can’t see crowds’.

We often feel dismayed at the state of the world, and it’s absolutely right that we should. Our dismay is a form of love which we call compassion. Isn’t it true that right in the midst of pain and suffering we so often see acts of courage and generosity and selflessness? These acts reveal the face of Christ. They reveal the love of God in men and women. We have seen this vividly in Manchester and then in London, and especially among those affected by the Grenfell fire.

To celebrate Christmas is not to ignore pain and suffering. Rather, it’s to say, ‘I trust’.

It’s to say: despite all the darkness and pain, despite accidents, acts of terror and natural disasters, I trust. I trust that the love of God is the deepest and most powerful reality of all. I trust in God’s love made flesh, made completely real and believable, in the baby Jesus.

Despite all the darkness and pain, I trust that the love of God is the deepest and most powerful reality of all.

At the beginning of time God made possible the world. He, as it were, created it and then set it free. Human beings are an integral part of that freedom.

God respects what he made possible and works from within our reality. Changes do take place, usually and most profoundly though human relationships; in other words, through us.

I want to leave you with this final thought. I want it to be the most treasured Christmas present you will ever receive. It goes like this: ‘God does not have to be persuaded to be interested in us’.

I’ll say that again: ‘God does not have to be persuaded to be interested in us’.

You might as well try to persuade a waterfall to be wet, or a fire to be hot, or a bumblebee to buzz, or a puppy to be cute, or a baby’s skin to be soft.

The great truth is: God does not need to be persuaded to be interested in you. He simply can’t help it.