Will the real Christmas please stand up?
For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. (Colossians 2:9 ESV)
We’re getting to that time of the year again. Advent has prepared us that the Coming One is near – almost arrived – in that mysterious ‘has come into the world – does come into the world – and will come into the world’ message that only makes sense if God is somewhere involved. And no matter the history of Christmas you might read – that this is a Christianised pagan festival from the sun god to the Son of God – or it is based on an idea that Jesus entered the world (his conception) and left the world (his death) on the same day in the God-does-everything-perfectly-way and so when in the late 2nd century / early 3rd century a calculation of Jesus’ death was March 25th – voila, then December 25th becomes the day of his birth – and no matter that it has been subject to lots of feasting over the centuries and to some attempts in the church and countries to ban it (think Oliver Cromwell here in the 17th century before you think of countries around the world today) – and any reflection on Christmas at some point involves God. He’s in there somewhere. When talking to people about Christmas I meet either the ‘can’t wait’ group or the ‘I’m over it already’ group. Christmas doesn’t seem to produce a sense of neutrality. When I think of the messages of Christmas they, too, seem to me to be between two bookends – there’s the ‘bah humbug’ end and then there’s the Christmas fairytale end with the local nativity play this year having, as bonus extras, around the manger one octopus and 2 Martians! Whether you think it is right that Christmas is best in cold weather or hot weather – indoors around the fire or outdoors at the beach – for these and other reasons, we might ask the question: Will the real Christmas please stand up?
It is the story of the birth of Jesus. However the cameras weren’t rolling on his parents in eager anticipation of his arrival. At the time only they knew about it – plus those who knew them – as is the way with any pregnancy. What people thought about this pregnancy we can only guess but it took Gabriel’s presence to help Mary realise that she wasn’t dreaming and it took God’s direct involvement in Joseph’s life – yes, his dreams – to convince him that what appeared to be the case wasn’t and so separation – divorce was out of the question – marriage and service was. I’m probably reading too much into the story but I still think it is rather harsh to consider that in all of Bethlehem there wasn’t even a third cousin who’d’ve taken in a very pregnant distant relative.
There is a whiff about this account of this birth that doesn’t go away – a whiff of scandal. Angels going to shepherds – to an occupation that was regarded as lowly and untrustworthy – so much so that shepherds were not regarded as credible in court and here is God tell them to go and see the sign of his action – a baby lying in a manger – a feed trough – and then tell the world. Bizarre.
Who’d’ve listened to them? Why not tell the reporter from the Bethlehem Bugle at the very least?
People weren’t noticing great things happening but rather great and strange things happened and then people took notice. It is the light of Jesus’ empty tomb not the light of a star that helps us see tonight. That empty tomb has never been sealed again and the man in it – or was in it – was crucified and that was a scandal – more than that, a curse by God – but now God had raised him and people wanted to know what was going on.
We are here this evening not ignorant of this wider Easter context but because of it. The message of Christmas is the anticipatory gasp to the greatest ‘Wow’ that this planet has experienced. God has died to rescue his people. Sin, death, and evil do not define or control us as pervasive as they can be for God mysteriously has become a human being to rescue us from a life without hope, meaning, and love. The versions of hope, meaning and love we create for ourselves may help for a while but anything we touch finally breaks or death interferes and so God acts so that we can have life and hope and joy. God has acted from the beginning of time – it is just that at Christmas he walked onto the world stage for a major performance. He didn’t transport down from a spaceship. He didn’t just materialise fully grown. He came as one of us – in our complete humanity. And the mystery is that the infinite God can be contained in the finite human and there are not ‘bits’ of God ‘left over’ to surprise us with another message. To encounter Jesus is to encounter God – completely. Yes, this defies physics and our natural world and philosophy but not God – for with God all things are possible. This makes words, water, bread and wine also powerful means of grace – channels by which God makes himself accessible.
And that is what we need in our bodies, in our struggles, in our laughter and our tears, when the next generation is born and the past generation dies – and perish the thought when the deaths come out of sequence – whether we are 1st century, 21st century, 31st century people there come points in our lives when we desire to be loved and to love, to be more than just an intelligent animal, to have meaning and purpose and then we look outside of ourselves and tonight we look to the manger and the little one lying there hear that because of Jesus there is peace on earth. It is possible despite of us because it is not based in us. God has forgiven us our sins because of this Jesus. God has given us life with him through this Jesus. With Jesus – and only him – we meet God who has come so that we might live with love, joy, and hope – which nothing and no one can take away.
- Colossians 2:9