Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas

What do you actually want for Christmas?

I guess for some of us, if we're honest, 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 at the
best of times 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
finished Grade Two. She's cheeky and clever and a good reader.
Alison and I spent a few days this year in Adelaide, taking Charlotte
to the zoo, and to the beach and the movies – her energy was boundless
and her knowledge endless. At the zoo Charlotte insisted we had to
see every animal – we crossed them off a list. She insisted on having
her face painted like a tiger – and made tiger-faces at the real ones.
For a lot of people, like Charlotte, this has been a year of wonders
and new experiences – the first year of going to school; the first
boyfriend; the year of leaving home; 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 amazing it is to be alive – 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 still didn't happen. The
nagging awareness of debts that you know aren't going away. The
dullness of being in a job that bores you. 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. Two million refugees from the miserable conflict in Syria
huddle tonight in flimsy tents in the winter cold. Business as usual
in Afghanistan, Iraq and a fresh conflict in South Sudan. A hurricane
in the Philippines where the poorest of the world's poor face an even
more precarious future as extreme weather events become more frequent.
Our lucky country makes a lurch towards inhumanity and selfishness in
our treatment of refugees and cutting $4.5 billion from the money we
spend on foreign aid. We hear shocking revelations of systematic
child abuse within the Church make a hollow mockery of its moral
teachings. In a world where integrity and humanity seem 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? To be realistic, can Christmas really give you 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 them 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 we get that, because we already know how the story is going to
end. We know, as tonight we read this story of angels and shepherds
that years later as he dies on a Roman cross Jesus 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 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 – that
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? Well, 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. But 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. The other one was 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? Certainly not he one
we asked for!

And I think the reason is that in the birth of Jesus, God is proposing
a completely different basis for power. Because, make no bones about
it, the God of the naked, vulnerable Jesus is indeed a God of power.
But the power that God reveals to us in the birth of Jesus is a
paradoxical power, what 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 what takes on flesh and blood at Bethlehem. That's my
Christmas present for you, this year. Think about it – and watch it
grow in you and change you, and then watch it start to change the
world you live in.'