What is Christmas all about?
It's about celebrating the fact that there is a God who loved this broken world so much that he sent his Son into it.
That really did happen, on that first ever Christmas. We see something of the events in our passage in Luke. There was the need to register for the latest census by orders of Caesar Augustus. So pregnant Mary and her fiancée, Joseph travelled to Bethlehem (we've no idea how, there's no mention of a donkey). But we know that baby Jesus is born there and is wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. Cue huge numbers of angels praising God and announcing the birth of a Saviour to the shepherds in their fields.
Commander John Sutherland is a Police officer in London and a Christian. He's written quite a funny post on his blog where he imagines how a constable at "Bethlehem Police Department" might have described the events of Christmas. He begins his report on "day five of operation census" and notes that a "substantial number of migrants have been arriving in the past week", resulting in, "large crowds". At 4.30pm officers receive a "call to a civil dispute at Judea Travelodge" where there are no rooms left. At 6.30pm, he says, officers report "multiple calls to disturbance on hillside a mile outside town" including, "reports of strobe lighting and loud music". Their "Initial suspicions were that an illegal rave was in progress. On arrival, they are met by a group of shepherds and a large number of sheep." His handover note states, "the shepherds claimed to have been visited by an angelic choir" and that, "the sheep were useless witnesses". His take on the Bible story ends with child protection being called in after reports of a boy being cared for by an unmarried teenage mother in "wholly unsuitable circumstances, apparently in a stable, surrounded by livestock and with no heating or running water". (https://policecommander.wordpress.com/)
Those police reports are not real, of course. But the events of that first Christmas are. And on that most wonderful of nights, heaven broke into earth. This was a night of glory and terror and pain and majesty and awe, all focussing on the Son of God in human form taking his first breath, crying his first cry, his mission to save his people. Or as our Bible reading from Titus put it:
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…" (Titus 2:11)
How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience — Christmas cards to write and post before it's too late, decorations to put up, presents to buy and wrap, and then food, food and more food! —and yet be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. So tonight – let's not rush. Let's stop and let the truth of Christmas sink in: God came down at Christmas. He has appeared and now we can see God. He has always been there of course but now we get to see him, and hear him and best of all receive the gift he came to bring to every person who has ever lived.
Have you watched the excellent BBC 'Planet Earth 2' series yet? I'm gutted it's finished! The God who made our incredible world in all of its intricacy, complexity and beauty was born as a baby. The infinite, all-powerful, all knowing Son of God took on a human nature: finite, limited in power, limited in knowledge and limited in space and time. It blows your mind but God began his human life as a foetus in the womb of an unmarried peasant girl. The Creator-King of the universe did not live in a palace but would instead go on to spend most of his life on earth labouring unrecognized as a poor carpenter in an insignificant Middle Eastern town. Does all this sound unbelievable to you? Listen to church leader Tim Keller:
"There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove."
Titus 2.11 again:
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…"
It's ironic, isn't it, that the commercial version of Christmas misses the whole point of Christmas. 'Be good and you will get good things', we are told. So we have 'Elf on the Shelf' who hides in your home to spy on you so he can let Santa know who is naughty and who is nice. Be good and you will get good things. And one of the most annoying Christmas songs has got to be, 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town'. Don't worry - I won't sing it but I'm sure you know how it goes: "He sees you when you're sleeping / And he knows when you're awake / He knows if you've been bad or good / So be good for goodness sake". In other words: Be good and you will get good things.
You can't get further from the true meaning of Christmas than that! The good news that the angels got so excited about is that God has given the best gift to the worst people. Christmas has never been about the best people getting the best gifts. Our kids need that good news this Christmas. They need to know that it is not all up to them, that God's love isn't dependent on their performance. We need to know that too! Christmas can get very stressful. We want to get the presents just right. We want to get the recipe just right. We must have the decorations just right! And we must do it all on time, while being incredibly kind and cheerful to everyone because no one wants to be a scrooge at Christmas, do they? The pressure to perform is huge and even when you try your best, everything can end up being a bit of a letdown.
That's when we need to remember that the only performance that matters eternally was the performance of that little baby boy, born into this broken world to take away our sins. The good news of Christmas is precisely that we are not good enough, but that God still, in his grace, gave us a good thing. Jesus purchased forgiveness for every sin you will ever commit by his death on the cross. We will be remembering that as we eat bread and drink wine together in a few moments. His love for us is not based on whether we've been bad or good. We haven't been good. We are not good. We have all turned our backs on our creator God and so deserve punishment and death. But we don't have to get what we deserve - by the grace of God, on offer to us now is forgiveness and adoption into his family. God has come to give the best gift to the worst people. That is our hope as we wait for Jesus to appear again.
'For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…' (Titus 2:11)
For many, Christmas can be a hard time. Maybe it's an empty seat on the table, cancer or a broken relationship. Remember that Christmas—the great story of God who came to rescue us —is for everyone - not just those who are happy. Jesus was born as a baby to know pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that, in his resurrection, we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss.
Let me end with a poem, written by a friend called Anika Lillicrap, who used to come to church here. If you'd like your own copy of it, I've put some on the welcome desk for you to take away at the end. It's not short, but it sums up beautifully what Christmas is all about.
"Christmas in my house is bustle and noise;
Christmas cake, mistletoe, tinsel and toys.
Children get hyper, the calendar counts down,
We play Father Christmas,
Will he come to town?
Cards have been written and some have been posted,
Timings worked out so the bird's fully roasted.
Mum and dad budgeted, planned and prepared;
We've written a list, and tasks have been shared.
The tree stands adorned with baubles and candy,
And the cake has been fed with far too much brandy!
Friends come on over to share our mince pies,
And the kids just can't keep daddy's gift a surprise!
At last it arrives, open door twenty-four.
Charades follow Pictionary. Time for one more?
Our little ones, giddy, tie stockings to beds
And lay down with Jingle-Bells filling their heads.
But what's it all for - all the feasting and fuss?
Is it magic for children?
Indulgence for us?
Is it all about family and love and good cheer?
A chance for a party to round off the year?
The wonder of Christmas is deeper than snow;
More moving than laughs at the pantomime show.
More even than sharing our wealth with the poor,
Or welcoming strangers in through our door.
The wonder of Christmas is Massive made Small;
Uncontainable chose to be wrapped in a ball
Of flesh oh so fragile, so finite and frail;
Mystery of incomprehensible scale.
The voice that made mountains and summoned the sun,
Now a shrill baby's cry, calling out to his mum.
Hands that carved canyons, positioned the sky,
Now chubby wee fingers.
The question is Why?
Why leave his splendour, his comfortable throne,
To walk with us mortals and make Earth his home?
Why choose a body with blood and with breath,
And a path that would lead to betrayal and death?
Has no one told you the danger we're in,
For turning our back on Creator and King?
We've each loved ourselves and have trusted a lie;
Like Adam before us we're destined to die.
Banished forever from God's perfect place,
Unable to gaze on his beautiful face.
Darkness and fire loom large up ahead;
But that's why he came, and that's why he bled.
Clothed in our flesh he could stand in our place.
He gives us perfection and takes our disgrace.
The baby who chose to be born in a stall
Delivered the costliest rescue of all. But
death could not hold him – He rose and he rules,
And all those who trust him (though some think us fools)
Delight in this season of feasting and joy,
For we are God's children through that baby boy.
As you shop and you wrap for this Christmas season
I pray that you'll stop and ponder the reason.
I pray you would see there's a way out of danger,
And unwrap the gift of Love in the manger."