If I were to ask you to pick just a few words to describe Christmas, what would you come up with?
- Tinsel & Christmas Trees
- Shopping & Presents
- Turkey & Mince pies
- Family & Parties
- The Strictly Christmas Special & The Great Escape…
Perhaps you’d go all religious on me and say:
- Mary & Joseph
- Baby Jesus
- Shepherds & Angels
- Stable & Manger…
Or maybe the words are:
- Loneliness & Fear, Stress & Poverty
Jumble of sacred and secular
And truthfully, for most of us, it might be a lot of those things. A whole jumbled up mess of sacred and secular. And that’s just the way it should be, because that’s what Christmas is. God came to make his home with us. Holy God made himself vulnerable – and completely dependent on human beings, just like us, to look after him – by coming as a baby. A jumble of sacred and secular.
We use fancy words like Incarnation and names like Emmanuel. But there he was, Holy God, totally in the care of a very young mum and an older step-dad, who were living out of a suitcase in a busy, chaotic town, which was short on accommodation.
And amidst the noise and tinsel and wrapping paper, Jesus comes to us still. And he comes to us in the absence of those things too. In the homes which can’t afford to heat or eat properly – and where buying any sort of present is a real sacrifice.
Born into my story
Christmas can be difficult if you’re spending more time than you’re used to with your family. It can be harder still if you’ve lost a loved one and keenly feel their absence. Particularly when all the adverts seem to imply that everyone else is having such a good time.
Perhaps in the space of this service tonight, create a little time to wonder: where does Jesus want to be born into my story, your story, tomorrow? In all the confusion and pressures that we face, where is the place that you and I can welcome him into our hearts and homes, December 25th, 2022?
What do you see?
The artist Grayson Perry once said that it’s not what you look at – it’s what you see. I wonder what you see when you look at the stable and the manger. Artists will usually emphasise the poverty. A stable that was run down and open to the elements. An impermanent place to live. And they do it to emphasise a truth. The truth is that the Messiah comes vulnerable and needy into a needy world. Shortly after the birth the new family would be fleeing for their lives as refugees. On the run from a power that wanted them dead.
And perhaps some of that hardship reflects part of your reality too. We learn that God is with us in that struggle.
But ask someone living in rural Palestine and they’ll probably tell you that the stable was the warmest, most private, part of the house, away from all the communal hustle and bustle of lots of people being together in one room. Or at least it was until all those uninvited shepherds turned up! They would tell you that giving Mary and Joseph the stable showed thoughtfulness and hospitality by the hosts – not a lack of care.
How can we, now, be thoughtful and hospitable amidst all that’s going on?
In our reading from the New Testament, Paul says that the grace of God – that’s Jesus – has appeared, bringing salvation for everyone. Everyone.
Tonight, that salvation comes looking for you and for me, inviting us to be transformed by his love. As Paul puts it, so that we become a people ‘zealous for good deeds.’ Another translation says that we become people ‘who have no ambition except to do good.’
We need to realise that we each have the capacity to do good. To be change-makers. To have a positive impact on ourselves and our planet.
This God thing
Those of a certain age might remember Jake Thackray. He was a singer/ songwriter from Yorkshire and on the TV a lot in the 60’s & 70’s. His songs were satirical, sentimental, sometimes bawdy. But he once said this: “Day by day, I meet lots of people and I can actually see God in their lives and I say to myself, ‘This God thing, there must be something in it’. And the centre of this faith thing is that the God thing did actually come down and become human. He consecrated and endorsed our humanity. I don’t know about you, but I see it every day, in the way that people behave, the way that people trust.”
More recently, the singer Nick Cave said in his book (Faith, Hope and Carnage) that in life “things happen that change us, annihilate us, shift our relationship to the world” and life “grows more essential and affirming and necessary with each turn”.
It made me wonder if there are 2 other Christmas words that we might have come up with at the start. Those words are ‘Joy’ and ‘today’.
‘I bring you news of great joy,’ said the angel. ‘Today is born to you a saviour, who is the Messiah.’
Today, in my story and your story. Today in this world of conflict and of hardship in some places and over-consumption in others.
And today we might discover that joy is not the same as the buzz of a party. Joy is a quiet peace and a gentle confidence, amidst the tinsel and the crackers and the Great Escape and the Strictly Christmas special. Joy might be something we see in others or experience ourselves.
Grace of God
Jesus is here with us, the grace of God, born again into our hearts tonight.
Grace means the ‘action of God in the world’. We need to open our eyes and recognise that action, that grace. That amazing grace, which is at work in everyone, in the life of everybody in here and out there tonight. Like Jake, we just need to stop long enough to notice it in people – and for others to notice it in us. Since if God can turn up in a manger, then he can turn up anywhere, even here.
Whatever your plans for the next few days, and however you feel about Christmas, may you know the grace of God and experience great joy, tonight and in the days to come. Amen
- Rob Esdaile in The Preacher Magazine. Issue 187. Hymns Ancient & Modern.
- Maggie Fergusson interviewing Christopher Jamison and talking about grace. The Tablet. 24 Sept 2022 – and John Morrish on Jake Thackray in The Tablet. 22 October 2022.
- Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
- Cave, N. & O’Hagan, S. (2022). Faith, Hope and Carnage.