Well, can you believe it? Advent 3 already!
This means 'Experiencing Christmas' at one church - a series of 'stations' inviting people to journey with the shepherds, the magi & with Mary & Joseph to the stable at Bethlehem: we're adapting material from the diocese of Gloucester which looks very effective.
I also have a sermon to preach, on:
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
God’s gift to us
‘What would you like for Christmas?’ I’d be very surprised if most of us haven’t been asked that by someone or other this year. Friends or relations who want to get us something, but get us something useful not the usual ‘bathsalts & inexpensive scent & hideous tie so kindly meant’ that John Betjeman puts his finger on so well in his poem.
So we try to think – is there something we need? A little treat we wouldn’t otherwise get for ourselves? Something that’s broken & needs replacing? And of course we have to assess how much the person asking the question is probably willing to spend: should we ask for a paperback book or a new watch?
My granddad was always very disparaging about people giving each other Christmas presents – he would watch Marjorie give Maureen a set of hankies & Maureen give Marjorie some bubble bath & Granddad would chuckle & say “it’s like taking in one another’s washing!”.
This is the season, it seems of giving & busy-ness & lists & frenzy.
But now in this season it’s time to pause & think about God’s gift to us: a gift without wrapping, fuss, or price. I want us today to concentrate for a moment not on giving but on receiving.
Stop for a moment & hear the voice of John the Baptist ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’.
What is it the Lord comes offering us? The prophet Isaiah declares:
“He has sent me to announce good news to the humble,
To bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to those in prison.. to comfort all those who mourn.”
For the people of God at a time when their country has been invaded, their leaders have been taken captive and their sons have been slain in battle, God, through Isaiah, is offering what they most want, most need, most long for.
When you hear these words from Isaiah you will remember, perhaps, that in Luke’s gospel these are the words with which Jesus begins his ministry. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the good news of comfort, liberty and healing.
We might wonder just how Jesus brings us these most wonderful gifts.
We might even be tempted to jump ahead from Bethlehem with its manger and stable, wise men and shepherds – to jump ahead to a time when Jesus actually does something, begins healing & teaching. Jesus himself was to grow to be thought of as a wise man, and to refer to himself as the Good Shepherd. Is the story of the birth of Jesus anything more than a humble beginning to the story of an extraordinary life?
I had a fascinating discussion with a Muslim at about thi time of year a few years ago, in which we compared the traditions about Jesus passed on through the Christian and Islamic faiths. She told me of the story of an angel appearing to Mary to tell her she was to have a special child, even though she was a virgin. But in Islamic tradition the story goes on to describe how Mary is rejected by her village & forced to give birth alone. Mary is only believed about the circumstances of her motherhood, and received back into the village, when Jesus, still a babe in arms, miraculously speaks and tells the people she is telling the truth and he is a prophet.
There are, of course, elements which are common to this account and what we are told in the Christian gospels. But for Muslims, Jesus is a prophet and not the Son of God – as soon as he can start to prophesy he can bring truth and understanding to people, he can do God’s work on earth.
The difference for us as Christians is that who Jesus is carries more importance than what he says or does. We tell the good news of God with us in Jesus Christ – of the divine become human and entering this world as a helpless baby.
I have spoken to Muslim clerics in the past who have patiently explained to me that God cannot do this, that God cannot lower himself to enter his creation. All I can say is to quote what the angel says when Mary protests that she cannot become pregnant “with God, all things are possible”.
We cannot know how, but we are told that God enters our world in Jesus Christ: a helpless, crumpled, human baby.
God’s gift to us is himself. Leaving aside some of his power and majesty – ‘emptying himself’ & ‘making himself nothing’ as Paul says in the letter to the Philippians – God takes on human life in all its messiness and danger and is born – Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to say that God gives us himself in Jesus?
It means that the phrase ‘God is with us’ is so much more than an empty promise or meaningless platitude. God has come to live among us to experience and understand our human condition, and then to transform it.
The truth of God with us takes us light years away from our pre-packaged, high pressure, high-spending Christmas. What we buy, what we eat, who we see is all secondary to the fact that God has touched this earth, taken on our human life, and shown us a glimpse of his heaven, where there is healing for our wounds, comfort for our sorrow, freedom where we are trapped.
Here is the greatest gift of all – wrapped in human flesh – the God of love come to us where we are, as we are, to make us all we are made to be.
Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words, offered to us here in bread and wine.
Thanks be to God.