Dare I ask how much have you spent on Christmas this year? $10? $100? $500? $1,000? Really, do you know how much you’ve spent on gifts and food, and trees and decorations? Luisa and I watched a great film this week called “Christmas with the Kranks.”
When I say great I really mean stupid actually, but it was good end to a busy day with some mindless comedy.
It is not a new film, it came out last Christmas, but it was new to us. Mr and Mrs Krank have decided that they are not going to celebrate Christmas at all, and instead leave their neighbourhood (where everyone celebrates Christmas with gusto) to spend ten days over Christmas on a Carribean cruise.
In case you have not seen it I am not going to tell you anymore than you can find out from watching an advert about it. But basically a whole series of incidents occur to compel the Kranks to give up their giving up of Christmas, and instead to get into the festive mood. It’s a fun film to watch if you have the opportunity over the next few days.
The Kranks, in their efforts to rid themselves of the Christmas, reminded me of some of the Puritan Church movements in Europe and America during the 17th Century, which sought to ban Christmas altogether. The argument was that because Christmas was most often on a week day it distracted good Christian people from the thinking about the Lord’s Day of Sunday. So the Puritans insisted that on 25th December people must attend their normal work, markets must be open, and the normal week day routine must be continued. Indeed in some American Puritan settlements, Christians actually made Christmas illegal!
Those kind of extreme positions, remind me that the Church is often in danger of appearing to oppose the very celebrations which have built up around the festival of the birth of Jesus. As I was bemoaning the amount of money spent on the commercial side of Christmas the other day, someone reminded me that it was actually far better for us all to spend our money on buying gifts for others, and holding parties as an expression of our love and care, than it was for us to spend our money on bombs, and guns and war. But it is true that sometimes Christmas can feel like an endless and wearing project – as we try to keep everyone happy without going into overdraft and without going insane in the process!
A clergy colleague of mine sent out a wonderful Christmas card this year, which articulated this feeling that Christmas send many of us to an anxious near breaking point, let alone what it does to our environment: it had this poem inside:
Santa Santa in your sleigh,
Come and take my toys away
While I’m sleeping in my cot
Visit me and take the lot.
Santa Santa set me free.
Clean an open space for me;
Me and all the girls and boys
Buried under heaps of toys.
Santa Santa with your sack,
Come and take some plastic back;
Take it back and in its place,
Leave a little breathing space.
Well you don’t need me to tell you that all of our modern Christmas festivities, whether they are in moderation or in incredible excess, are a long way away from the baby born in the manger, in the stable in Bethlehem of Judea in Palestine all those years ago. And I want to take us right back to that first nativity scene which we are so familiar with for a few moments this evening.
The question that I want to ask is very simple, “Did the baby in the manger cry?” Or if we wanted to extend that question a little further, did he do all of the normal things which babies do? Did he need burping? Was he able to control those bits of him which fill the nappies of the average baby? Did he wake up as soon as his parents dozed off to sleep as babies seem programmed to do?
Believe it or not, these are questions which have been pondered by Christians through the ages, although they have asked them in different ways. Some Christians have imagined Jesus, right from his birth to be a sort of little adult. There are icons of him as a new born baby sitting up and blessing the animals which surrounded him in the stable. In the ancient world there are a number of precedents for this. In Greek mythology there were many gods who arrived fully formed: who arrived ready to rule and to do battle.
In Greek legend Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang from Zeus’ skull, fully grown and clad in armour. But it was not so for Jesus. However hard it is for us to comprehend the Son of God was born as a helpless human baby, who kicked and cried and who depended on his mother for everything, even for life itself. Others have imagined Jesus being in the form of a baby, but actually knowing all that there was to know about the world. It was really a trick, he looked like a baby, and he smelt like a baby but he was just pretending, he knew fully what was going on around him.
Well, I want to suggest to us tonight that we find in the manger on that first Christmas night, a normal healthy new born baby, one who has no control of most of his bodily functions, who is unable to distinguish clearly what is going on around him, who demands the same attention as any new born child – a beautiful baby boy who is utterly helpless, utterly at the mercy of those who care for him, utterly dependent in that stable carved in the rock in Palestine 2000 years ago. And yet at the heart of the Gospel, this normal lovely, yet vulnerable baby is God – “the Word made flesh,” as the Gospel of John puts it, “who dwelt among us.”
Or as Bishop David Jenkins affirms in his thirteen word creed: “God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.” There is hope because as we look at this baby, born into the poverty of a stable, we see the possibility of us finally getting things right. No matter how many times we get things wrong – we remember at Christmas that there is always another chance, that we have in the baby who is God, the constantly renewed possibility of starting again; and this is indeed hopeful.
What do I mean? The birth of every new baby in our community is a sign that God hasn’t given up on our world, despite all that we see going on around us. Each new baby contains within himself or herself the blessing of God’s love in creation. But in Jesus we find the commitment of God to us.
It is because this baby is no more than a baby, and yet is a bundle of God, that we are able to celebrate God’s great love for us. A love that reaches out to us, a love that comes to experience as we experience, to grow as we grow, to be vulnerable as we are vulnerable in the body of a baby boy. God’s new beginning in Jesus, signals for us God’s commitment to begin anew in each one of us – that we might be transformed into the person that God calls us to be. And that can happen right here this evening. God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.
And yet as we look at that first Christmas, we see that most people on that night didn’t even realise that anything special was taking place. Some shepherds came from the fields, summoned by angels – they came because they’d been told to come – until the angels arrived they were happily sitting in a field miles away.
Later wise men who studied the stars came from a distant land. But they had misunderstood the signs – they went first to the palace expecting the new king to be there, of course, that was a bit of a shock to King Herod. There was no national coverage, like the birth to an Australian girl of a new member of the Danish Royal Family, no pageants and celebrations, no street festivals. In fact its probable that the guests in the inn next door, (the place that had had no room), slept soundly unaware of the momentous event which was unfolding just a few steps away from them.
The Son of God was born into the world, in the form a tiny baby and except for a handful of people, nobody knew. God was in their midst and the people of Bethlehem, gathered to be recorded in the census, had absolutely no idea.
That is fairly important for us to remember, that on the day that God starts his “new thing” in the world, in the birth of his Son, almost nobody knew.
It reminds us that when our dominant experience is of God’s apparent absence, (rather than God’s overpowering presence), that God is nonetheless with us. And God longs, in the quietness, and in the normal things of our lives, to do something new. To come to us afresh this Christmas, to share our lives, as Jesus has shared the experience of being one of us.
In the birth of a baby, in the birth of a new friendship, in the birth of an opportunity to help those less fortunate than ourselves, in the birth of a new idea to bring about change for good in our community, in the birth of a smile where before there were tears, in the birth of new laughter – God longs to be with us.
In the unexpectedness of that first Christmas night, God enters our experience in the form of a baby. God creeps in beside us, and God has not left us – God is still with us even if we are totally unaware of it, like the people next door in the inn.
If we want to experience that presence, the presence of God in our lives (not just for Christmas but for ever) we need simply to be willing to search for it – not in the glamour of palaces like the one which the wise men visited first, but in the unexpected things which happen around us.
This Christmas, in the birth of this little baby, we celebrate the presence of God in our world for ever, and all the hope that that can bring to each one of us.