Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-20
There often seems to be an assumption that the build up to Christmas Day is hectic for everyone, images of people rushing through crowded streets with multiple branded shopping bags seem to dominate, imagery reinforced by supermarkets lobbying the government for extended Sunday hours due to the fact that being open until 10.00 pm most nights and all day Christmas Eve simply doesn’t allow enough time for their customers to buy their turkey, veg and all else that is needed for this great feast.
The reality is that its restaurant and pub workers, emergency services, those caring for the vulnerable and homeless which should be getting the publicity.
Someone said to me earlier today ‘Oh I hope I haven’t forgotten anything’, to which my reply was I hope so too or we may all simply starve to death until 10.00 am Boxing Day when Sainsbury’s reopens! More likely die from overeating if we consumed all that is in the ‘fridge.
I’m aware that many ladies will be thinking ‘ah yes it would seem like that to him, he’s a bloke.’
Whilst I accept the fact that the social side of Christmas seems to often fall unevenly upon the ladies of the household it is not really this which I am wrestling with it’s much more what the reality of Christmas can look like to those prepared to go beyond these issues.
In Luke’s gospel we heard of a journey to Bethlehem, of Jesus being wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger and of an angel bringing good news to shepherds. What sort of imagery comes to mind as you hear these scenes described? It’s understandable that some have seen so many Christmas cards at this stage that it’s hard to have any mind pictures of our own. It’s also understandable that small children with tea towels on their heads are brought to mind as we fondly remember children and grandchildren in their nativity plays.
Nativity plays seem to be the equivalent of a 3 line whip to most parents. I had several business meetings cancelled or rearranged at short notice this month with the party changing the arrangements simply stating ‘it is my child’s nativity play’ as if this was a perfectly understandable reason for putting many others to considerable inconvenience, often at short notice!
The trouble with much of this sentimentality is that increasingly it builds the myth that Christmas is just for children. Ask people who have grown up kids and no grandchildren and they will often agree. Children may enhance Christmas as many aspects of life, but Christmas just for children, most certainly not!
I realise that by now some of you are thinking who is this preacher, Victor Meldrew? Too much shopping, too much food and too much priority to children’s nativity plays, whatever next?
Well I haven’t quite finished. I was in London’s West End yesterday (yes it was Sunday and no I wasn’t at church) and I saw a huge Christmas cake topped off with Santa’s hat, halfway up this creation was a crib scene. This reminded me of recent conversations I had where parents felt their children had reached the age where they should be aware that Father Christmas didn’t really bring gifts and at the same time they should give up all this shepherds, cribs and wise men nonsense!
I thought to myself how important it is that we remind ourselves that Christmas is for life, not just for children. In fact Christmas in its truest holiest sense becomes increasingly important to the old person dying alone in hospital, to those mourning the loss of someone they deeply love, to all simply struggling to make ends meet, hold lives together and to make some sense of it all.
We have the option to use Christmas as an escape from reality and our problems with it or we can begin to get a glimpse of what ‘great joy’ really means when we understand that God came to join us and to share life with us and ultimately suffer with us in human form.
For some the reality of Christmas will come by considering the historical context which Luke is keen to include. Emperor Augustus is sole ruler of the Roman world having turned the Roman republic into an empire which he heads of course. In the eastern part of his empire many people worshipped him as a god.
Augustus calls for a census, largely to assess taxation and it’s this census that necessitates the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to the city of David, Bethlehem. It seems unlikely that the place of Jesus birth was like the oversized B&Q style garden shed depicted on most Christmas cards it was more likely to be an animal shelter carved out of the ground below a series of stalls available for travellers off a common court yard. Not as romantic as most Christmas cards but put like this a gritty reality emerges of truly humble beginnings.
For some who feel God could never have a message or a purpose for them it helps to consider who the shepherds were. The orthodox Jews looked down on them as they were unable to keep all their rules and regulations, particularly the meticulous hand washing required. Stuck out on a hillside they would hardly have felt that they were at the centre of power or influence yet they are the first to learn that the world has changed forever. Perhaps the faithful reaction of those humble enough to receive such news makes sense now. After all the people of power are often too obsessed with their own agenda to truly hear and act upon good news.
Luke is inviting us to recognise the difference between God’s kingdom apparently fragile, weak and established on the margins of society and to contrast it with the all powerful Roman Empire where the emperor can ‘click his fingers’ and have hordes scurrying to comply with the census.
The shepherds are told ‘this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’. The important point is that the baby is the symbol of salvation, in all his obscurity, not the angels despite the fanfare and wonder which must have accompanied their announcement.
This is God’s reality, not based on status and control but on humility, service, freedom and love.
As we move deeper into the reality of the Christmas story we realise that we remain part of it through the lives we live today. We may already be open and willing to receive Gods message for us and keen to glorify God through our reaction.
But often we may still feel more like the people Isaiah describes before they see a great light, stumbling around in the darkness. In our darkness we hear the angel’s message and may not feel able to respond but we are reminded that we deal with a loving God as we hear ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s up to us how we respond.
It follows that we shouldn’t be afraid if we find God in times and places where we feel we aren’t ready. God doesn’t demand an immediate answer to his invitation to live in relationship with him, he positively encourages us to engage our brains and commit to life with him which is sustainable rather than a rash reaction which has no roots.
After all you couldn’t blame the shepherds for being excited at their part in the events, but I bet that like most of us God would still slip from their thoughts at times as they returned to their routine tasks.
But what about the lady having the baby surely she must have had her share of excitement too. As I was putting this sermon together earlier today I was interrupted several times by text messages from my sister. 9.19 Her waters have broken. 12.32 Fully dilated.13.55 she’s arrived, 9lbs 11oz! This was the joyful news of my niece giving birth with a photo of the baby received at 15.23. Imagine a bunch of strangers turning up amongst all this to tell you that your baby is the Saviour, the Messiah, and the Lord, no wonder Mary needed a little time to ponder what she had been told as well as treasure it.
There is a truth to all that we have heard that allows us to get caught up in the wonder and excitement of the Christmas message but that same truth also demands that like Mary we ponder what it really means for us deep down. Ponder our lives, treasuring the gifts from God which we know to have real value but also to seek the great light of Christ to shine in the dark areas which still remain.
As we seek out a more meaningful relationship with God this Christmas let’s do so with humble hearts and open minds. After all who would have thought that you would find the bread of life in an animal trough?
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2012