"No-one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's Heart, who has made him known."
Now that the presents are unwrapped, the turkey eaten, the school holiday nearly over and the time fast approaching when the decorations must come down and be put away, I wonder how many people will think "Another Christmas over? So what? Three hundred and fifty odd shopping days until the next!” What, I wonder, have they done with the baby?
There has never been a time of year more successful in involving thousands, no, millions of people in the Christian Story. In towns and villages, cities and remote rural cottages, people all over the world have heard again about the birth of that special baby, born two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem. They have joined in songs rich in Christian symbolism and message; they have shared a spirit of generosity and good will. They have joined together, wetting the baby's head with thousands of gallons of beer, wine and spirits and a fair number of them will actually have stepped inside a church and heard God's word being read, held a Christingle, and mumbled Amen to prayers calling for the spreading of God's peace among the nations of the earth and between all people.
A great party, they'll say, we really enjoyed it. Lots of friendship, a good singsong and plenty to eat and drink. Didn't he look sweet in those swaddling clothes, lying in a manger! What a lovely play our children performed for us, didn't they do well?! But where is the baby now? The one called Jesus, or 'God saves.'
Jeremiah talks today, in our first reading, about the 'remnant' of Israel. He says 'The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel', talking about those faithful followers of God who remained true to their faith after the dispersion of the Israelites by invasion and enforced exile in the foreign lands of Assyria and the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us of this when he writes; 'Today the same thing has happened, there is a remnant chosen by grace'. And as we look around us at the chairs, all but filled in the Christingle and carol services we might be forgiven for thinking of ourselves as a 'remnant'. Are we the only ones left?
Elijah asked the same question after the episode with the earthquake, wind and fire, when the still small voice that was God spoke to him. 'I'm the only one left!' Elijah said to God. And God was able to tell him there were one or two more believers about, well actually about seven thousand at that time! It is comforting to know that many churches throughout the world, and even in our own country, are flourishing, and growing as more and more people hear God's word and think upon it. Here in our rural area we can easily become dispirited, thinking 'Why am I here? Am I doing the right thing coming along every week, every family service?" It is sometimes difficult to take heart from the realisation that we, as a church, are part of a much wider and greater body.
And so, after the great party, we, the 'remnant', are the ones left 'holding the baby'. The baby everyone came along to see and celebrate is with us still, and with the party over we rise to the task of nursing, of nourishing, of caring and raising the child as it matures into the presence of Christ in our lives. Of course for many of us the presence of Jesus in our lives started long before this Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of that presence that we have tried sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully, to nurture within ourselves. But for some people, this Christmas may have been a time when for some reason instead of passing over the child in the straw as they may have done so many Christmases in the past, they bent over and picked up the baby for the first time, giving it a loving hug and seeing something in the child's eyes that touched some part of their soul. Maybe that baby could become their own as they decide to find out more about the faith that caught their interest in that meeting at the manger, and in adopting the child, as Paul tells us in today's letter to the Ephesians, they will themselves be adopted as God's children, marked with the seal of his Holy Spirit.
But as we know, and as they will discover, bringing up a baby is no easy task. There will be many sleepless nights, as the baby needs constant attention, care and nourishment. The growth of the baby, of our faith, within us depends on regular feeding, through prayer, through Christian fellowship and through the written word of God in the Bible. Peter talks of feeding ourselves, as newborn in Christ, with only pure milk. The milk of 'spiritual honesty'. (1 Peter 2.2).
It is hard bringing up a baby. How much harder if you have to do it alone? We are all grateful for the network of support given to us by families and friends. Coming to church and meeting together shares the task, enabling us, if we choose, to support and guide each other in the learning process that will never truly end, as we struggle to know the child within us, and through the knowledge of that child who is nearest to the Father’s heart, to allow God to make himself known to us. How supportive could we be to someone holding the baby for the first time? Have we enough of Peter's milk of spiritual honesty to help them?
And having helped them to feed and clothe the child the time comes to deal with the nappies! The less tasteful side of bringing up a baby. In this case to begin to dispose of all the prejudices, misunderstandings and wrong impressions of Christ that they and we have formed in looking at the imperfect lives of his followers. It is easy to confuse the medium with the message. As we are told in the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel, John was not the light; he was a witness to the light. He was a particularly good one. And around us in church there are many witnesses to the light, like John, but they are not, we are not, the light itself. We hope others will come to search for the light as a result of seeing it reflected in our lives, but it cannot be the reflected light that they search for, but the light of the Christ child alone. To come to church to worship the Christ that everyone else does, to join in because everyone else is, is to miss the point and to miss out on the personal revelation of God that only Christ within ourselves can give. I wonder how many people have turned away from church because they have based their judgement of the nature of our faith on the poor reflections that we give.
As well as being a time for new members to be drawn into the church, needing our support, our honesty and concern as they take the first steps that we hope will lead to baptism and rebirth by water and the Spirit, it is also a time for us, however experienced as Christians, to go back to the manger. It is so easy in bringing up a child to want them to be like us, only better. We find ourselves judging our children in terms of their resemblance to Aunt So-and-so, their talents in terms of which side of the family they take after and often fall into the trap of losing sight of their own unique and precious personality and character. And after a while if our will is stronger than our offspring we run into the danger of changing our children into something they are not, storing up trouble for them in later life. So also with our relationship with our Holy Child we run the risk of colouring our perception of Christ according to what we want him to be. Then far from reflecting the Christ light we corrupt it, not only for ourselves but also for those looking to us for our example in strengthening their faith.
In going back to the manger we remember that the Child was sent by God in order to reveal himself to us, giving us the power to become children of God. We are reminded that Jesus came, ' not out of human stock, or urge of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but of God himself.' We are encouraged to read again the gospel accounts of Jesus as he grew to be a man, learning afresh from his teaching, his healing and his example. We are strengthened in prayer and thought and open to fresh revelation of the nature of God in fellowship with each other, knowing that the more we think we know about Jesus, the more we know there is to know. In being open to His self-revelation through the life and example of Jesus we can hope to live lives that begin to reflect his Glory, 'the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.'