Sermon for Advent 4
There is a shockingly widespread ignorance of the Christian story today; and it’s an ignorance that even includes the Christmas story. Some years ago, a teacher friend was telling Karen and me that she had been talking to her colleagues in the staff room. Christmas was getting near, and a student had asked her what Christmas was really about. She was astonished that the student didn’t know. But before she left the staff room, another teacher quietly came to her and said, ‘What is the real story of Christmas?’ When teachers are ignorant of Christmas, it’s time to wonder.
Of course, there is a story of a kind-of-Christmas that’s well known; it’s a distorted story, one that encourages us to spend and spend while others in the global village have little. This distortion is a combination of consumerism and the ‘Disney-fication’ of Christmas, with a dash of half-remembered bits and pieces of the biblical story.
Listen to the Christmas story as it may be told, with the fables and changes which our culture has built into it. Let’s hear, all in one go, what has happened to Christmas…
Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed to reduce inflation. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was very embarrassed to be seen carrying an unmarried mother. He blushed so much that his nose glowed red.
Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and there were heaps of tourists.) They knocked at the door of the last inn in town, and the innkeeper told them the same as the others—there was no room. Joseph said, ‘But we have Jerusalem Express!’ The landlord offered them the donkey stable, but Rudolph didn’t want to stay any longer than he had to. Mary pleaded with him: ‘Stay with us, Rudolph, and you’ll go down in hist-or-y.’ Rudolph stayed.
In a field nearby, while shepherds drank their scotch by night, Snow White and the seven dwarfs were dancing the Nutcracker ballet to the sounds of Handel’s Messiah, sung by a choir of angels. Santa was dashing through the snow in his one-horse open sleigh, but he stopped to listen. At the end of the concert the angels told them to go to Bethlehem. Santa took them in the sleigh, and they went off to the beat of their other friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Mary, Joseph, the child and a little fat man by the name of Round John Virgin, made famous in the song Silent Night.
The next day, they went to the Boxing Day sales at Bethlehem Myers and got some great bargains.
Three men arrived bearing gifts. They said they were the three kings from Orientare. They warned Joseph that a local evil king called Eddie McGuire wanted to kill the baby. So the little family took a flight to Egypt in the charge of Pontius the Pilot.
Eventually, they were able to return to Nazareth where the baby grew up and became such a bad carpenter that he had to make a living by going around telling inspiring stories. And that’s why he is still famous today.
This rendition of the Christmas story is shocking. But not as shocking as a plain telling. An unmarried couple, the woman pregnant, travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth (a town with a bad reputation, so what could you expect?). Their baby boy is born in the filth and animal stench of a stable. Some shepherds visit them. Back then, shepherds had a bad name. Everyone thought they were thieves and rogues. Not the kind of people who hear angels singing, unless they’d been on the grog. Again.
Strange visitors from the East arrive. They were claimed to be wise men. Maybe so, but they were certainly unbelievers, possibly astrologers, and the kind of religious figure who the Old Testament condemned. The story goes on to Herod’s massacre of baby boys in Bethlehem; this birth is associated with death from the very beginning.
And we say that this was the birth of the Son of God. We are making a shocking claim, every Christmas, which is obscured by Santa and Rudolph, by sentiment and commercialism. It’s seductive commercialism and sugary sweet sentiment which help us to manage Christmas, and avoid its real meaning. Sentimentalism has obscured the shock of Christmas by making the story so clean. Childbirth is never clean, never tidy. I was shocked when as a medical student I first saw a video of a birth. I hadn’t realised it was messy. Let’s remember that Jesus was real. He was the most real human being who ever lived. His birth was real. And his mum was probably worn out afterwards.
We Christians make the shocking claim that God entered the human race in this birth. Not a birth in a palace, with a team of highly trained medical staff in attendance, but a birth in squalid and smelly surroundings. And in this we are invited to see God. If we can see God in this, if we are able to hear God in the newborn cry of the baby Jesus, then we begin to know God in a new way. We may see the compassion, the gentleness, and yes, even the humility of God. This humility is well captured by a sixteenth century Christmas carol from the pen of Robert Southwell. Remember Christmas is in winter in the northern hemisphere:
This little Babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
all hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake.
The more commonly heard Christmas pictures of Jesus don’t hold a candle to this. We often hear these other stories. We have Santa Christ, the jolly god who lives far away—he doesn’t exist, we all know that, but he’s a good excuse for a party.
Or, we fall for the Sweet Baby Syndrome, cooing over the loveable babe in the manger who makes no demands on anybody.
The easiest Christmas Jesus to recognise is the Mercantile Messiah. This figure allows the retailers to tell us that Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something so that you can run up a bigger debt on your Visa card.
The problem with these Christmas Jesus figures is that they come and they go, and leave everything as it was before. It’s right to love the Baby Jesus; but we love him as we worship him, as we come to adore him—as the carol says, ‘O come, let us adore him’. We don’t come to the Christ Child to goo and gaa, but to worship and adore the God who changes places, and comes among us; the God who becomes one with us that we may become one with him.
In the end, all these other Jesus figures are misleading just because they don’t reveal anything new about God, certainly not the humility and vulnerability of God; and they make no demands on us. We can feel good at Christmas, and go away unchanged. No wonder we love them!
Let me finish with some lines from another early Christmas carol, a lullaby from the Basque region of Spain called ‘The Infant King’:
Sing lullaby! Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing.
Then in the grave at last reposing: Sing lullaby!
The Bible tells us that the culmination of Christ’s life was death. Death on a cross. Death by torture. What an end for the baby Jesus. Sometimes, we don’t like to think of it. But if we don’t, we will not be changed by Jesus. And we must be changed. We must be made more like him.
Merry Christmas to you; and may you find in the promised Messiah the greatest gift of all: faith, hope and love—for today, and for the whole of your life.
Let us pray:
Jesus, you are Emmanuel,
God with us;
you reveal yourself
in startling and surprising ways.
As Mary and Joseph once received your word,
may we also welcome you today,
for you are our freedom
now and for ever. Amen.