Christmas Day 2017
I wonder — what was your favourite Christmas present last year? Luckily for you, that was a rhetorical question, because here comes an even trickier one which that first one may have brought up in your minds: can you actually remember what presents you received last Christmas? Here’s an easier one: what is the best present ever that you have been given?
This is not a time for feeling guilty; I have no intention of causing family arguments on this day of all days! But it may help to put things into perspective, when we recognize that we have just survived 3 to 4 months of the most persistent advertizing campaigns, all to do with our Christmas shopping. In particular, the idea we are challenged with constantly is that we should provide our loved ones with the most lavish gifts, which sit on the pinnacle of their greatest desires. And only those would be good enough; anything less, and you’re a cheapskate.
Now I have to admit that I am not averse to receiving gifts; I even enjoy giving them. But there is something worrying in the approach of the shops and on-line sites in how they make their judgements about what is sufficient, and what is really necessary. Appearances can be deceptive.
About 1,000 years before Jesus was born, the collected tribes of Israel, the neophyte Jewish nation, were in need of a new king to replace their first one, Saul, who had proved to be fallible and was eventually killed in battle. Samuel the prophet was despatched by God to find the one who might take on this demanding role more successfully. Samuel went to the area round Bethlehem, and God led him to a man called Jesse who had many sons.
As he met the eldest, who was handsome and well-built, Samuel felt sure that this must be the chosen one. But God said to him, “Take no notice of his appearance; I have rejected him. I don’t see things the way humans see them. You look at the outward appearance; I see what is in a man’s heart.” This process of meeting the sons went on, one after another, with the same results, until Samuel had seen, and rejected seven sons. At which point he turned to the father and said, “Are these all of your sons?” Jesse replied that there was one other, the youngest; they had left him looking after the sheep, because they probably thought he was not tall enough yet to be considered.
However, when this youngest son, David, was brought in, Samuel became aware of God saying that this was the one. Young he might be, not fully developed he might be, but God knew his potential, and what lay in his heart. David became Israel’s greatest king of all time. So one of the foundation stones was laid for the event we celebrate today. Matthew’s Gospel traces the ancestry of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, back to David, and even further back to Abraham. So when the Roman governor sent out the call for the people to go to their ancestral home towns for a census, Mary and Joseph went, of course, to Bethlehem, David’s home.
The theme of things being played out in a way which human beings would not expect continues. If the Son of God is to be born on earth, surely it will be in a palace in Jerusalem, just as the 3 magi thought? But no, he is found in an insignificant town, and not even in a decent inn, but in the stable. A disappointing beginning, from our point of view. Sufficiently beneath our expectations to consider ignoring him altogether. But there again, David the young shepherd boy was not exactly a commanding figure, and look how he turned out.
I don’t think our shops can be persuaded to run ad campaigns next year saying, “Just buy some brown paper and string; you really do not need to spend so much in order to convince people that you love them.” And yet it is interesting, when we reflect on one of those first questions I asked: — what was the best present you ever received? – I suspect it may not have been the most expensive, but it probably involved a level of thoughtfulness on the part of the giver, which was profoundly moving. Possibly an understanding of my / your need, beyond what we had realized.
And so it is with the present we receive from God today. We might have expected hm to come with a great show of power to provide us with the answer to our deepest need. To arrive in such a way that there was absolutely no mistaking what was happening, and why. That might have elicited from us a response of fearful acceptance, of cringing acknowledgement of our lowly state in the presence of his omnipotence. But that is not the response which God longs for. He is looking for a heartfelt recognition of his love for us, not his dominance The only way he could help us to realize that was to send his Son in the form which always encourages from us an instinctive and immediate response – the presence of a baby.
We love Christmas, with its suggestion of the fresh start a new life brings. There is promise of hope for the future. There is, however, one caveat. This present from God, like all other presents, is only of use to us if we, so to speak, unwrap it, and use it in the days to come. Otherwise it will remain at the back of a drawer, forgotten about, and possibly a source of embarrassment when reminded about it in future times. As we receive this gift from God with true gratitude, let us also look to the future with hope, determining to allow this gift to us to accompany us through the weeks and months to come, guiding us into all truth and joy in believing.