When he returned, he asked his wife what the oldest son had done in his absence. "Well," she said, "it was very strange. Straight after breakfast he made himself a large mug of coffee, put some loud music on the stereo, and sat down to read the newspaper for an hour." And the father was left to ponder whether or not the son had obeyed his instructions.
Not many children these days, in this country, follow parents into a family business. But there are many parts of the world where it still happens. The father learnt the trade from his father, who got it from his; and he passes it on to the son. No doubt each of them learns a few new tricks as well; but the basic skills of the trade are transmitted from generation to generation. Mostly this doesn't happen verbally. The son watches to see what the father does. Then he has a shot at doing it as well. At the end of the day, if you watch the son, you'll see the true reflection of the father.
The Christmas gospel focuses on the apprentice son of the God whom he called Father. Throughout John's Gospel, we see Jesus doing what he sees his Father doing. That's the explanation he gives for his strange and sometimes shocking behaviour. And John, writing his Gospel, intends us to watch the entire life of Jesus, from his puzzling birth to his appalling death, and to recognise in it a true reflection of what the Father is up to. "No one has ever seen God," he writes. "God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart - he has made him known."
Now, if this doesn't come as a shock, we haven't yet got the point. Most people today still have a high-and-dry view of God - a distant being, maintaining a dignified distance, never getting his hands dirty in the real world. But what if those hands turn out to be little and chubby, just big enough to grasp your finger? Most people would imagine that, if God were to speak, he would have a loud booming voice, giving orders from a great height. But what if God's voice were the small, quick, plaintive cries of a hungry baby?
A newspaper survey recently revealed that a very high proportion of the British population say they believe in God - but only a very small proportion go to church. Some journalists expressed surprise at this. But the key question is: which God is it they believe in? If it's the high-and-dry, distant, detached God, it's frankly not surprising they don't go to church. It's hardly worth getting out of bed for that "god".
But the real God, the blazing Word, confronted the smouldering embers of the powers that be. They reacted in fear and anger. They killed the Word-made-flesh. But the fire blazed out again three days later, with the news that this death was the great act of the creator's love. No one has seen God; but God the only Son copied his Father to the very end, acting out and embodying the deep, fiery love of the living God.
I was speaking in a church in Walsall a few weeks ago, when a woman who had worshipped there for a good many years came up to me with the question, How should I think of God when I pray? Lost for an answer, I asked her how she, had been accustomed to think of God. Well, she said, when I was young I used to think of God as a very, very old man, up in the sky, with a long white beard. Then when I got older I didn't find that very helpful. And now? I asked. Oh, she said, now I just think of Jesus.
She explained: there comes a point in your life when you suddenly notice that the policemen are younger than you are. Yes, I said, pushing my luck a bit; and maybe there comes a point when you realise that even the bishops are younger than you are. Yes, she said; and I suppose that what Christmas is about is realising that God is younger than I am.
She was right. I guess that's why the angels sing: from sheer exuberant astonishment and delight, as they recognise God the Only Son. And we're here tonight so that we can join in.