Six weeks ago, as some of you will know, I had a couple of blackouts and spent two days in hospital. I’m fine now, thank you.
It’s the sort of incident that makes you aware of your own mortality, and consequently of the importance of your faith. You need God: you depend on him. In the end, he’s all you’ve got. Rather like when some of Jesus’ followers were turning away from him and he asked the apostles if they wanted to leave him too, and Peter replied: "Where else would we go? To whom else could we turn?"
Well, this boost to faith that I experienced was a counter, not to a diminishing of faith, but to something that had raised strong question marks in my mind, question marks about God and our belief in him. These had stemmed from a recent, fascinating TV series presented by Professor Brian Cox, who gave us loads of astonishing facts about the universe.
We probably all know that our earth is part of the Solar System, which in turn is part of the Milky Way galaxy, but in the Milky Way there some are 5,000 million stars. And there are larger galaxies than that, up to 100 times bigger. The total number of galaxies is around 100 thousand million. So it’s reckoned that the total number of stars in the whole universe is not less than 70 thousand million million million – a seven followed by 22 noughts.
Now, I’m sure I cannot be alone in wondering "how does all this square with the Bible account of creation and creating?" I’m not thinking about the literal acceptance of the delightful, primitive, unscientific, millennia-old stories in Genesis, but simply about that strong assertion in the Bible that God is the creator. We heard it in today’s Gospel: All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. It’s difficult enough to contemplate that there is one personal creator of just this earth we live on, with its vast variety of features and types of life. So what about the universe - a creator of the whole universe?
Where does our Christian God fit in? Could we perhaps say, not God is the creator, but, creating is God. God is spirit, the live creating God in all things and in all of us, personal in all of us. And 2000 years ago in Bethlehem this God was focused in a unique way in the one whose birth we’re celebrating today. God is personal in us, and we can relate to and be linked with his – a new word – his personalness in Jesus. And it is because of God’s personal focus in Jesus that in him we see God’s true character: God is love.
That’s easier to hang on to in faith than the creator of 70 thousand million million million stars. God is love - to my mind the most important statement in the whole Bible: God is love. And I’m tempted to turn that around and say: Love is God.
God is love; the love that connects person to person, binding permanently, as with parent and child, or wife and husband, or just fleetingly as in an act of kindness given to a stranger. And it’s not just something that connects individuals – love is that spirit which forms and holds together groups of people.
The stars remind me of that carol by Sydney Carter:
Every star shall sing a carol; Every creature, high or low, Come and praise the King of Heaven, By whatever name you know. When the King of all creation Had a cradle on the earth, Holy was the human body, Holy was the human birth.
Who can tell what other cradle high above the Milky Way still may rock the King of Heaven on another Christmas Day?
And the carol goes on to suggest that if there is somewhere in the universe intelligent life at all parallel to ours, then there will need to be a birth parallel to that of Jesus, and that is bound to lead to a death parallel to his on the cross. There is something so basic about the Christmas event and its sequence that it is universal.
And of course there is a star, a pointing star, in the Bible’s Christmas story, and to me its presence there suggests – not literally, but mythically – that all creation was at that moment pointing to that one particular birth in Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus – God with us – it is central to our faith: it is at the centre of creating; it is at the heart of the universe.
Well, there may be question marks in our minds about all sorts of aspects of our Christian faith, but like Peter we can only say: "Lord, where else could we turn? To whom else could we go?" There is no one else: born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, he remains the firm foundation of our faith. And today we celebrate his birthday with great gladness and joy. Thanks be to God.