What do you actually want for Christmas?
I guess if we’re honest, for many of us the answer would be, ‘to snap our fingers and all of a sudden it’s Boxing Day, the family have all gone home, the washing up’s done, the tree’s been put out with the garbage, everything’s gone blessedly quiet and the cricket’s on the telly’. There’s no doubt, the season of peace and goodwill is stressful – trying to find a carpark at Carousel is bad enough but it only gets worse when you find yourself in the mall wedged in by a crowd of frantic last-minute Christmas shoppers on the same desperate mission as yourself. Or the office Christmas party that you just know is going to make you shudder with embarrassment all next year. The guilt of getting Christmas cards the day before Christmas from the long-forgotten relative you thought was safe to leave off your own list. Maybe I’m starting to turn into a grumpy old man, but isn’t Boxing Day the best day in the whole year?
So, what do you want for Christmas?
I guess the answer depends on what sort of year you’ve had. My grand-daughter Charlotte has had a very good year. This year she took her first steps and said her first word. She’s as cute as a button with bright black eyes and a cheeky grin. Whenever my son and his wife send Alison and me a picture of Charlotte she’s looking out at us with an expression that seems to say the world is big, bright and exciting and I can’t wait to start exploring it because I know I’m safe and loved. We gave Charlotte a giraffe for Christmas – not an actual, 12 foot tall one but I just know that in a couple of years when she comes across one of those she’s going to love that too. For a lot of people, like Charlotte, this has been a year of firsts – the first year of going to school; the first boyfriend; the year of leaving school; getting a job; getting married. The universe is expanding, jam-packed full of possibilities – and Christmas with a baby lying strangely in a box filled with straw surrounded by shepherds, angels and exotic kings is just one more example of the infinite goodness of life. God’s birthday present to the world that says, this is how much I love you.
But, what do you want for Christmas?
You might not have had quite such an exciting year as Charlotte. The longed-for family reconciliation that didn’t happen again, this year. The nagging awareness of debts that you know aren’t going away. The growing knowledge that none of the bright ambition you once had is really achievable. The letter out of the blue that changed everything. The diagnosis you didn’t want to hear. The first year you have to celebrate Christmas without the one you’ve shared your life with. The world you live in maybe seems narrower and less friendly than it did this time last year.
The big events of the year are swirling around in our grown-up heads on Christmas night. Another year of listless violence on the world stage. Business as usual in Somalia, Sudan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe. Earthquakes in Bangladesh where the poorest of the world’s poor face an even more precarious future as extreme weather events and rising sea levels threaten the viability of farming land. Shocking revelations in our own wealthy nation of the extent of child abuse and alcohol-related social dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities. In a world where hope seems to be in short supply, maybe that’s the only Christmas present worth asking for.
So, why are you here? If, as the angels shout from the rooftops over Bethlehem every year, the birth of Jesus is God’s way of sending us a message, what does the message mean? What’s the good news about Christmas? Does Christmas really give us cause for hope?
I have a friend, a priest who said to me a little while ago, ‘Evan, nobody wants to hear a sermon on Christmas Eve. Don’t preach a sermon. Just tell the people why it’s good news, and then sit down.’ So that’s what I’m going to do.
I think Christmas is good news for two reasons. Firstly, because the birthday present God gives to the world at Christmas time is not just something we thought we wanted, or even thought we needed. The birthday present God gives us is God’s own self. As the prophet Isaiah tells it, the baby of God’s promise is called Immanuel, God is with us. The baby born in Bethlehem is called Yeshua, God saves us, and years later we know, as we read this story of angels and shepherds that years later as he dies on a Roman cross he is going to be called something else by an awestruck Roman centurion: ‘surely this man was the Son of God’. We hear tonight’s story knowing how it ends, knowing that we encounter God in this baby born tonight, in the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see God’s purposes and God’s priorities laid bare – in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we see God’s intention for all human life exposed. We know Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, because in Jesus we are brought into a living relationship with the God who created us. In Jesus we encounter the grown-up reality that God with us is not a feel-good formula or a false expectation of happiness ever after, but the assurance of thick-and-thin solidarity – the God-with-us we encounter in Jesus knows something about loss and compromise and failure and chooses to be at home with us right in the middle of the mess and the heartache – as well as the joy - that we call real life. That’s good news.
And the second reason it’s good news? If the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem is a message that God is sending to us, it’s a message in code. Not, fortunately, a code that’s very hard to break. Luke spells it out very clearly. You see, Jesus wasn’t the only royal personage known as a Saviour round those parts, certainly not the first. That was one of the titles of another divine being known as the Emperor Augustus – the peace on earth that the angels sing about at the birth of Jesus comes right in the middle of another, more officially sanctioned version of peace on earth, called the pax Romana, the peace of Rome which was based on Rome having the best-equipped and best-trained armies the world had ever seen. The birth of Jesus is good news because in it God is proposing a very different sort of basis not only for peace but also for power in the world that you and I live in. The birth of Jesus turns the accepted logic of the world upside down – and note, even today, 2,000 years later, it still contradicts the accepted logic of the world we live in. Because Jesus doesn’t get beamed down as an emperor even more powerful than Augustus, Jesus doesn’t make short work of evil-doers even though that was really the sort of Messiah everyone had been hoping for. Instead, we see something totally powerless, totally vulnerable – a naked, helpless baby born to a poor family in an insignificant part of the world. A baby who, you and I know, is going to grow up to be rejected and crucified as a criminal, deserted by his followers. How’s that for a Christmas present? You see, in the birth of Jesus, I think God is proposing a completely different basis for power. Make no bones about it, the God of the naked, vulnerable Jesus is indeed a God of power but it’s what I think we could call relational power, the inverted power of vulnerable, self-giving love, the power of recognising our essential kinship with one another that, in the long run, out-trumps regime change and terrorism and nuclear weapons every time. If God is giving us a message, it goes something like this: ‘think deeply. What’s most important here? Look at the people on either side of you – the ones you came with as well as the ones you find yourself sitting next to quite by chance. Think about the people you share your life with, about the people whose lives are affected by the way in which you live your life. Think about what it really is that connects you. That’s my Christmas present for you, this year.’