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This passage from John’s Gospel is so well known. We hear it every Christmas, and it becomes so familiar that the depth of it is often lost on us. This morning, I just want to pick up on one verse in the passage: verse 11: “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him”.
At that first Christmas, the Word became flesh. God walked among us, full of grace and truth. But there is a sadness in this too because, as John reminds us, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
The Son of God became visible to us and walked among us at Bethlehem. But the great tragedy of history is that he was not accepted or recognised.
“His own people did not accept him”. His own people, the Jewish race, did not accept him. From the very beginning, with King Herod trying to kill him, through his period as a refugee in Egypt, through his ministry with opposition from Pharisees and Sadducees, through to his crucifixion on Good Friday, “His own people did not accept him”.
The Christmas story, sadly, is the story of the unwelcome Christ. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
This morning, we come to St. Andrew’s to celebrate the Christmas story. And the question before us is whether we will accept him and welcome him into our lives.
Welcoming Christ into the world, into the church, into our lives, is what Christmas is all about. Welcoming Christ is actually at the heart of the Christmas story.
There are so many myths surrounding the Christmas story that we often miss what the Bible really says and we don’t look carefully enough at the story and so are in danger of missing the point.
How many of us remember the innkeeper in the story at the inn where Mary and Joseph are turned away? Well, of course, when we read the Gospel accounts of Christmas. There is no innkeeper mentioned and Mary and Joseph are not turned away. We are told that there is no room at the inn – but the word used here for inn is ‘kataluma’, which means ‘guesthouse’. And guesthouses in Palestine in Jesus’ day, were on two open floors; the upper floor being bedrooms and the lower floor for cattle and horses.
In truth, Palestinian culture would not have allowed the turning away of a guest. Hospitality was taken very seriously. Joseph was back in his home town. Mary had connections there, through her cousin Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was an important priest in Jerusalem. Perhaps there was no room in the kataluma, the upstairs of the guesthouse, but it is clear that Joseph and Mary were welcomed in – even if they had to be in the downstairs part.
Christ was welcomed in at his birth – born into a loving, yet humble home.
And then the shepherds came from the fields; men of poverty with humble jobs and a lowly status in society – and they too welcomed Christ.
Ironically, and somewhat embarrassingly, it seems that the humble and lowly houseowner welcomed Christ, the humble and lowly shepherds welcomed Christ – but the holy and religious people of God did not welcome him.
What a challenge to our comfort and complacency this story is! This is an upside-down story – it does not work how we think it should. Surely the priests and the religious people should be there to welcome Christ – but they are the ones who have missed him. It is the lowly, the poor and the marginalised who recognise the Messiah for who he truly is.
God is not found in our religiosity. God meets us in our humility and poverty of spirit. Welcoming Christ is something we do out of our poverty of spirit; where we say, “Lord, I don’t have much to give you…I’m not very righteous, in fact I get so much wrong in my life…Lord, I don’t have much to offer you at all, but what I have, you can have…”
That is the type of welcome that Jesus wants. The welcome of the lowly guesthouse. The welcome of the poor shepherds. It seems almost too twee, almost too obvious, to quote from Christina Rosetti’s poem called, ‘What can I give him?’ But we all know the words:
“What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give him – give my heart”
That’s all he wants…
John writes, “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him”. Let’s not be numbered amongst those people this morning. Let’s welcome Christ – in the only way we know how – by giving him our hearts this Christmas time.