One of the staggering things about Christmas is the number of people you get through your church doors. Normally quiet congregations can suddenly become bustling bodies of eager anticipation for a bit of old-time religion. And unlike funerals, weddings and baptisms, you know that the assembled crowd have come deliberately for something spiritual (rather than the family and friends party or gathering).
And this means that the sermon at Christmas is probably one of the most important of the year. This is your one opportunity every 12 months to tell the people who don’t know about Jesus a little about him and to explain why the baby in Bethlehem is so important. For the sixty or so minutes they are packed into your pews, you get to call the shots and they get to listen.
So in the light of this I have come to recognise that what preachers say about Jesus on the 25th of December is a fantastic summary of what they think Jesus is all about. It is the nutshell of the Gospel, the statement of why Jesus is good news. If you don’t say it on Christmas morning you might as well not say it at any other time.
So let’s see how some preachers did. First off, Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury.
God was born fully human. The witnesses are shepherds and magi, John the Baptist, the gospel writers and hosts of Christians through the centuries, in their lives and their deaths, in words and deeds. A witness of this birth is not like a witness of comet or an asteroid, which is seen and noted, but which has little or no effect on the one that sees it. If we respond, this small baby God that gives us so much space to ignore fills our whole world, changes what we see when we look, catches us up and takes us with him in life, through death and into all eternity. Belief, putting ourselves and trusting our lives into the power of this child, the man he became, the crucified saviour, the risen and ascended Christ, enables us to become children of God, our whole being changed.
It’s really good stuff. In one single sentence Justin manages to tell us why Jesus was born (“the man he became, the crucified saviour, the risen and ascended Christ”) and also that we need to respond (“Belief, putting ourselves and trusting our lives into the power of this child”). What a great start.
Let’s try Glenn Davies, the new Archbishop of Sydney.
Incarnation is the theological word which describes God’s coming to earth as a human being, with all the vulnerabilities associated with being born as a baby in that Bethlehem crib. But so often we tend to leave Jesus as a baby in a stall, cute and inoffensive, and forget that he grew up as a fully developed adult, so that he might live the life we could not live and die the death that we deserve.
Christmas without Easter is not the full story. We fail to appreciate Christmas if we fail to appreciate the reason why he came ─ to suffer death upon a cross on Good Friday, rise again on Easter Day so that the bonds of death may be broken and new life become a reality for all who put their trust in him
There’s the good news, the baby born to die.
Here’s John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey.
After all, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem were homeless, without the benefit of family and friends, seeking refuge in a stable, not exactly enjoying the evocative smells of the farmyard, laying the baby in a manger. We have almost forgotten what a manger is. But the word comes from the French word, to eat. It means the food trough where the animals, the ox and the ass, and any others that happened to be there, had been eating perhaps only minutes before. Did Joseph find fresh hay to lay on top of the straw the animals had been slobbering over? It seems unlikely. Not a cradle fit for a king, any more than a wooden cross would look like a suitable royal throne. Born in a stable, laid in a manger, Jesus Christ would grow up to have nowhere to lay his head, to be beaten, to be nailed to a cross and to die there while most of the people laughed and mocked him. Crowds of people had followed the adult Jesus at first but they fell away when it all seemed too difficult.
Later in the service, bread and wine will be offered and laid on the high altar. Behind the altar is a nineteenth-century image in glass mosaic of the Last Supper. It shows Jesus surrounded by his apostles, sharing with them the bread and wine which he declared to be his Body and Blood. Most of the apostles were to run away, deny or betray him, for fear. Later, after the Resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they lost all fear and proclaimed him as Saviour and Son of God.
St John tells us that when his friends arrived at the Last Supper Jesus washed their feet. What had not been done for him as a little child, he now did for others, a mark of his generous love. On this holy night we celebrate the amazing truth that God comes to us poor and humble. He comes to offer us his unfailing love, not through the exercise of power but through his passion, death and resurrection. He comes to break down the barriers between earth and heaven: sharing our life on earth, he brings heaven to earth and prepares us to share his life in heaven. Tonight, in the banquet of his Body and Blood, that same Saviour and Lord offers us a foretaste of his precious gift of New Life.
Actually, you should read the whole of this sermon which is possibly the best of the three so far. You’ll never forget to wash your fingernails again. But do you see what the Dean did? He takes us from the baby in the manger to the man on the cross and then to the God risen from the dead. That is the good news of Christmas, not just God with us but God for us and God living and dying and rising again to save us.
Folks, this isn’t about a particular view of the cross, it’s simply about the cross and the empty tomb itself. Each of our three examples so far would probably have subtle differences in their soteriology, but what unites them is that they understand that the good news is about a baby who is not just born to live and love but to die.
Here’s the Bishop of Gloucester.
There’s wisdom there – the mystery of love. For love came down at Christmas. Just keep looking at the Christmas scene. Look into the crib. Look at the picture on a Christmas card. Look at a statue of the Virgin and child and ponder the mystery of love. And then move on from that to this:
With Mary let us ponder in our mind
God’s wondrous love in saving humankind,
Trace we the babe who has retrieved our loss
From his poor manger to his bitter cross.
Granted, it’s less pronounced than the others, but the cross as the destination of this child is still there.
Now I was fortunate not to have to do anything this Christmas (actually, not so fortunate because I miss presiding and preaching at Christmas), but here’s some examples from myself from years in the past. Here’s 2008,
Tonight though celebrates the real successful way to enjoy Christmas, and that is to realise that it is about us doing absolutely nothing and God doing absolutely everything. The birth of Jesus is the moment when God becomes human, to live amongst us and eventually to die for us. It is the bursting into our little, busy human worlds of the divine, the coming of something remarkably different than the every day. And Jesus was remarkably different – though he was a normal human baby he was also at the same time 100% God. Because he was 100% God he could live a life lived exactly how humans should live their lives – centred on God. It’s something that we try so hard to do, but fail at every day.
This is why Jesus came – because however hard we try we cannot create a perfect life, a perfect Christmas, a perfect ordinary day. Here is a baby who was born to die – a child destined to experience as a man one of the most excruciating deaths ever devised. That is why the wise men bring him the gift of Myrrh – it’s embalming fluid for dead people, the equivalent today of turning up at the bed side of a friend who has just given birth and presenting them with a coffin with the baby’s name on it. But Jesus’ death was the ultimate moment of victory, not disaster which is how often we view death, because on the cross he took all the things that we have done wrong, and all the bad things in the world that have happened to us, and all the times we try and make things good ourselves and fail miserably, just compounding our guilt and mess. All those things were placed upon Jesus and removed from us, and as they were placed on him, we saw the effect that those things have on us – literally killing who we, our dreams, our hopes, our future, our very lives.
That is why we sing the carols that we sing tonight, not because we want to just celebrate the birth of one more baby, but because we know what this baby is going to do, indeed has already done. He is the king of the universe who has come to die. He is the Lord of Everything who has come to take all the pain of life away from us, if we but recognise what he is here to do. He has been born to free us from the consequences of everything bad that we do and that has been done to us.
and here’s 2009.
The Bible uses the word hope in a different way. The Bible talks about “hope” as being sure about something that we know is going to happen but that we can’t yet see. And at first that seems a strange concept, but really it’s an idea that we handle quite happily every single Christmas. Like my wife and myself, I bet that you too have that parcel under the tree, that while you can’t yet see inside, you know exactly what it is. The gift that is unopened but already clearly identified.
The Bible talks about Jesus as the gift that is also clearly identified but not yet opened. The pregnancy and then birth of any child is of course not just a moment of joy but also of anticipation of the future, but in the case of Jesus even more so. This baby in the manger, this infant in the stable is the child who will grow up to die for men and women, to set them free. He is described as the one who heals, the one who brings peace, the one who will reign with truth and justice. He is the one who is alive right now, who we can know personally, who we can know as well as the person sat next to us right now. All we have to do to receive that, says the Bible, is to, as it were, tear open the wrapping paper.
But remarkably, so many of us don’t do that. We come to the Christmas tree, we see the present, we hear of what’s inside it, but then we walk away and leave it. We simply don’t believe what we’ve been told is inside. We think that it’s too fantastical to be true that we can actually have a relationship with this child who is also the God of the Universe. Or we think that we don’t really want it, that the reality of Jesus is probably going to be a bit rubbish, like a Go-Go Hamster after five minutes of play. Or perhaps we really don’t want it, like the hand knitted socks that we’d go to any length to avoid.
The truth of course is different. As millions and millions of men and women down the years have discovered, Jesus is the best Christmas present of all. They’ve discovered that beyond the joy and happiness that gifts and family bring at this time of year, is an even better joy. That joy is discovering the truth about Jesus and way that he gives us real hope all year long, every year, not just the kind of hope that exists for a few weeks before the end of the year in anticipation of the latest things advertised on the TV. Unlike the toy that dies when the batteries die, there is a gift that lives forever, and lives with us forever – but to get it we need to take the risk, open the wrapping paper and discover that the promises we have been told about what will happen when we let Jesus into our lives are absolutely real and true.
Let’s stop there. Originally I was going to continue this blog post by pointing you to some sermons that are pretty much pagan in that they have a baby Jesus who grows up to tell us all to be nice and that’s about it. But I think I’ve made my point – the thing made of wood that is at the centre of Christmas is not the manger but the cross that the newborn child will end up being nailed to. That is the good news of Christmas, what Jesus will achieve and good (nay, great) preachers this year will have made that very clear to their congregations. In doing so they will have demonstrated what they believe is the thing about Jesus that people most need to hear, what the heart of mission is.
And those who left out the cross will show that at the one moment that they have a captive audience that they can tell about the good news of Jesus, their version of the good news doesn’t deal with sin. And that is a tragedy, because if your sin isn’t dealt with, a million cute babies and social justice Jesus’ won’t do you one bit of good.