Is Christmas Here?
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
I love the traditions of Christmas. I look back on Christmases past and recapture a wonderful sense of joy. One of my favourite times was helping my mother bake. She made the best mince meat tarts. She would let me put the tops on each one, reminding me that it represented the swaddling clothes for baby Jesus. Even Santa Claus was part of the mystery. Santa always came during the night and put our stocking at the bottom of our bed. As long as we made not a sound, we could open it as soon as we awakened. I would reach in and pull out each item in the darkness of the early morning, unwrap them and savour them. There would be the usual socks and underwear, some little toys to play with, a lovely candy cane, and always tucked into the toe a beautiful big orange. When we children could contain ourselves no longer we would make enough noise that our parents would give in and let us go down stairs to see what Santa had left under the tree. We were allowed to open one gift before church, the one that Santa brought. And that gift would be taken to church for a blessing. I loved the service on Christmas Day. The children would all gather at the creche. We would recount the story and kneel reverently as we sang “Away in a Manger”.
Christmas is like that for us. It is warm and wonderful family memories. It is images of sugar plums and dancing angels. It is the smell of pine. It is turkey and stuffing and Christmas pudding. It warms our hearts. It gives us hope. It brings with it a sense of peace. It brings us back to childhood, year after year after year.
Even when we grow up and replace family traditions with our own, Christmas remains a special time of giving and receiving. I take joy in decorating my Christmas tree, pulling out each decoration and remembering where or from whom it came. I enjoy entertaining family and friends. It is a magical time when there is peace in the world and joy in my heart. But I know that there is so much more to Christmas than any of these traditions. And sometimes the joy is bittersweet. There is so much more to bring joy into our hearts, for the real gift is Christmas itself.
Of all the traditions of Christmas, most of all I love the Christmas story from Luke's Gospel. It is a timeless story. We see it portrayed on Christmas cards. We hear it. We read it. Truly, it does not matter how many times I read it. It does not matter how many times I watch the children telling the story in the pageant. It remains a warm and comforting story. And so I remind you of the story tonight.
A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all should go back to their hometown for the census. And when a decree went out from the powerful ruler of Rome it was acted upon. Caesar Augustus, the self-proclaimed son of God, the bringer of peace, the saviour used his claim to greatness to exploit the people under his rule.
Joseph and his wife Mary, nine months pregnant obeyed the decree. They set out on a five-day journey from Nazareth where they were living to go to their hometown of Bethlehem. The Bethlehem of Jesus’ day was of little consequence, a back road place close to the big city of Jerusalem, which was the usual destination for travellers. Consequently there were few inns to be found. Most people who travelled to Bethlehem were visiting family or friends. But in its past Bethlehem had birthed some well-known people, amongst them Rachael, wife of the patriarch Jacob, Ruth the Moabite woman, and most important, King David, the shepherd king of Israel. Bethlehem, “House of Bread”, became known as the city of David. Because it was the ancestral hometown of the line of David, a huge influx of travellers, all claiming royal lineage flocked to the town. The few small inns filled up very quickly.
This was no Holiday Inn that we are talking about. The inns were very simple dwellings with several small rooms opening into a courtyard. The wealthy would have a room and would eat their meals in the inn. Many who were unable to afford a room would simply camp out in the courtyard with the animals. They would build a fire in the courtyard to cook their meals. By the time Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no room anywhere. So when Mary gave birth to Jesus she laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals.
Our God is a God of surprises. The true Son of God, the bringer of peace, the real Saviour, is a baby whose family cannot find accommodation. The child is born in poverty, without a proper roof over his head.
And the surprise does not stop there. For on a hillside outside of Bethlehem a very different decree is taking place. Some shepherds are watching their flocks that night when heavenly messengers come to them with great news. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Had they been scholars they might have known that the prophet Micah had foretold it. But the angels did not go to the religious leaders of Israel with the good news. They went to the shepherds, outcasts of society. And the shepherds got the message. They not only got it. They acted on it. They hurried to Bethlehem, praising God all the way there. Then they went out and told the good news to everyone who would listen.
It is Good News! Our God says, “Ready or not! I'm here!” Today God comes into the midst of us, born as the child Jesus, giving us the gift of the divine presence. Tonight more than any other night we are confronted with the wisdom of the observation, “The past is history, the future is mystery, today is gift, which is why we call it present.”
Christmas has come to us. We are gathered here in this lovely church, decorated with poinsettias, a Christmas tree, lights, candles, the creche. Our voices ring out with joyous carols.
Christmas has come to us. There is no doubt about that. But what about other places in the world? Has Christmas come everywhere? Is this silent night holy for political refugees in in Northern Pakistan where people are returning to villages that have been damaged or destroyed in the war between the Taliban and the Pakistani army? Or for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have poured out of Somalia into Kenya to flee violence and drought, only to face severe shortages of food in that country? Or for child soldiers in Uganda taken away from their homes and forced to fight for their very lives? Has Christmas come for them?
Is it Christmas for those who are dying of AIDS? Are they bathed in the glow of candle light? Has Christmas come for the children in Africa who must care for an ill or dying parent rather than going to school or having a normal childhood? Has Christmas come for them?
Is it Christmas for the starving around our globe? Has Christmas come for the farmers in India whose crops are failing as drought worsens? Has it come for them as they fall deeper into debt to unscrupulous bankers who prey on their need to feed their children? Has Christmas come for them?
Is it Christmas for those who are unemployed during this recession? Is it Christmas for the homeless on the streets of Toronto? Has Christmas come for the man who, when his house was repossessed last month moved his possessions into his truck, but then was forced to abandon it after having it towed away? Is it Christmas for the family evicted from their home? Is it Christmas for the addicted or the mentally ill who cannot keep a roof over their heads? Has Christmas come for them?
Most certainly it has come for all of us, for Christmas comes whether we are ready or not, because Christmas is about God's love. God's love doesn't come only when everything is perfect. It breaks in on us despite all the struggles of life. It breaks in on us through the distractions. It comes stealing in, quietly, silently. It comes and Christ is born.
There is an old story that comes to us from Persia. Long ago, there ruled in Persia a wise and good king. He loved his people. He wanted to know how they lived. He wanted to know about their hardships. Often he dressed in the clothes of a working man or a beggar, and went to the homes of the poor. No one whom he visited thought that he was their ruler. One time he visited a very poor man who lived in a cellar. He ate the coarse food the poor man ate. He spoke cheerful, kind words to him. Then he left. Later he visited the poor man again and disclosed his identity by saying, "I am your king!"
The king thought the man would surely ask for some gift or favor, but he didn't. Instead he said, "You left your palace and your glory to visit me in this dark, dreary place. You ate the course food I ate. You brought gladness to my heart! To others you have given your rich gifts. To me you have given yourself!"
The King of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave himself to you and me. Amid the mistletoe and angel hair and carols and wrapping paper and presents, amid the gatherings and celebrations, amid the feasting, let us remember that the most precious gift we receive this day is the gift of a child who closes the gap between the Creator and the created. May Christ truly be born in us this day!
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