A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 December 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
There’s nothing more mysterious than the wonder of conception, the gradual shaping of a baby in the womb, and then the agony and ecstasy of birth. Even when you’ve got a sense of some of the biology behind it, the wonder only increases. The beginnings are tiny. The connections are intricate. The inception is fragile. The development is miraculous. The weaving-together of unique and delicate elements of life is awe-inspiring. On this precarious thread hangs the existence of each one of us.
Birth takes place when the baby’s strong enough to live outside the womb, but small enough to make its escape. It’s an astonishing, sometimes harrowing, almost always dumbfounding experience. Just look at those tiny toes; that scrunched up nose. But it’s still early days. The baby can’t feed itself for years, can’t wash its own clothes until its thirties, and isn’t financially independent until its fifties.
I want to stay with the vulnerability of the new-born baby. One day in 2008 in the Argentine city of Misiones, 600 miles north of Buenos Aires, a baby boy was found in a gutter on a city street, surrounded by eight wild cats. The cats were licking him because he was so dirty. They snuggled up with him during freezing nights and saved him from hypothermia. They foraged scraps and kept him alive.1
Two years ago in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk, 900 miles southeast of Moscow, a block of flats collapsed following a gas explosion. Rescuers searched amid the debris, in temperatures as low as -20C. Frequently they had to halt their search while workers tried to remove or stabilise sections of the building in danger of collapse. Eventually after 35 hours of searching, they heard cries. They found a tiny baby boy, and pulled him from the rubble. The regional governor then said an extraordinary thing. ‘The child was saved because it was in a crib and wrapped warmly.’2
I want to suggest to you that these two stories show us vital dimensions of the Christmas story. The first one, from Argentina, with the eight cats and the baby in the gutter, is a modern-day manger scene: a tiny child surrounded by animals, facing the cold shoulder of a dangerous world. The second one, from Russia, with the patient rescuers, and the rubble, and the crying baby, is about a more pressing danger – more like King Herod’s determination to slaughter all the new-born boys in Bethlehem; a danger from which the baby Jesus so narrowly escaped.
These two modern-day stories, with their vivid portrayal of the vulnerability and the fragility of a helpless baby, give us a remarkable insight into the unique wonder of Christianity. Let’s take that wonder in three stages. The first is the most familiar. It’s what we call the incarnation. God’s desire to be our companion was so deep that it involved coming among us as a human being. It meant growing up in a carpenter’s home, sharing the village dramas and struggles of Nazareth, facing the challenge and tension of ministry in Galilee, and eventually enduring the betrayal and agony of death in Jerusalem. That’s wonder enough.
But look at the stage beyond that: being a tiny, defenceless baby. If Jesus were simply a superhuman hero, why would he need to undergo the trauma of birth at all? It’s said to be the worst experience we ever go through, being born. You’d think he could just show up in Galilee, fully grown, good to go. But God becomes flesh as the most vulnerable little person imaginable, at the mercy of inexperienced parents, clumsy animals, dangerous buildings, hostile rulers. How vulnerable can you get?
And this brings us to the third most awesome dimension. There’s a hundred ways it could all have gone wrong. If this was a masterplan to fix the world and set everything right, you’ve got to say the risk register’s full to bursting. What makes the Argentine wild cats and the Russian rubble stories so amazing is that 999 times out of a thousand those stories end a different way. The baby dies. The baby’s got no chance being looked after by wild cats; even less chance being found alive after 35 hours with no food below freezing temperatures. Yet the Christmas story is just as scary: born amid animals, pursued almost immediately by a ruthless tyrant. No chance. It’s a miracle he reached the age of one.
We love the donkey, the dusty road, the angels, the shepherds in tea towels, the wise men bringing Turkish Delight containers. We love all the details of the Christmas story. But this part, even the most devoted believer shies away from. Because for all our fury with God’s apparent inaction in the face of building
collapse, abandoned child or global pandemic, we still picture God as elderly, wise, bearded, white-robed, a bit gruff, and stuck to a gilded ceiling. And what the Christmas story shows us is a God who is none of those things. All the things we thought we distrusted or dismissed about God – they all fall away at this moment.
We say, ‘I hate the fact that you can control everything but you still let bad things happen.’ God says, ‘I’m a helpless baby before your eyes.’ We say, ‘I hate the way you’re so powerful and mighty and you justify all the ways power and privilege and force dominate the world and dictate who can thrive and who will suffer.’ God says, ‘I’m a tiny infant, as vulnerable to rejection and hatred and neglect as you are.’ We say, ‘I hate all the chances I’ve missed and the odds stacked against me and how my life’s never going to come right or be happy.’ God says, ‘Here I am, I’m a child in your arms. The future of everything is in your hands.’
We depict ourselves as weak, vulnerable, and helpless – and we project on to God all our anger, frustration and resentment. But God appears as this fragile, utterly defenceless baby – and all our arguments melt away. What if this is what God really looks like? What if God is so longing to be in relationship with us, that the central image of that relationship was of God longing to be embraced by us, made warm by us, cradled by us? So much so that, if we don’t respond, the whole future of everything, the whole destiny of God, is in jeopardy.
We’re not sure we really want that. We’re not quite sure we’re really ready to have God in our hands. We’re not entirely confident we’re really ready for Christmas. We’d actually prefer the superman-rescuer Jesus after all. Well it’s time to discover the real Christmas. Maybe for the very first time. God risks absolutely everything to be cradled in our arms. God is entrusted to us. Big enough to make the whole universe. Small enough to fit in our embrace. That’s the wonder of Christmas. We’ve got the destiny of the universe in our hands.