(Isaiah 62, 6-12; Titus 3, 4-7) Luke 2, 1-7)
Do you like surprise Christmas presents? Did any of you have something for Christmas you didn’t expect?
Our family doesn’t tend to go in for surprise presents. We don’t send letters to Father Christmas, but all of us have an Amazon wish list (some of them a lot longer than others!) which makes it easy to buy gifts we know will be welcomed for Christmas and birthdays. Boring, but safe!
However, one year, my husband and I did get a surprise Christmas gift from our younger son, which he insisted we opened when he came to lunch with us a few days before Christmas. He was flying out to Australia later in the week to watch the last two Test matches, and to attend a family wedding at the beginning of January, so he wasn’t going to be with us on Christmas Day; but he wanted to make sure we could see him as well as hear from him when he called us from the beach, so he gave us one of the first 3G phones that would share video as well as sound. He gave it to us early so that he could show us how it worked beforehand (he knew we’re not terribly good with modern phones – and we did have to ask our other son to set the date and time correctly for us). So, through modern technology, we were able to see him clearly on Christmas Day.
That phone became a parable for me of what the birth of Jesus was all about. The world was given a surprise present on the first Christmas Day – a present which enabled it to see God more clearly than ever before; not just the word of God spoken through a prophet or written on a scroll, but the Word of God in human form. A present which was a surprise to everyone.
The birth of Jesus was a surprise to Mary: “Why me?” she asked when the angel announced that she would give birth to the Son of God.
The birth of Jesus was a surprise to Joseph. “What’s my fiancée been up to?” he asked after the news of her pregnancy became known.
It wasn’t what the Jewish people were expecting. The child wasn’t born at the right time – everyone was convinced that prophecy had ceased in Israel for a couple of hundred years, so it was clearly the wrong time for the Messiah to be born.
The child didn’t come from the right place either, whether you count his birthplace as Bethlehem or Nazareth. As Nathanael remarked in John’s Gospel, the general attitude was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and while Bethlehem might once have been an important centre, now it was just another little village in the hills around Jerusalem.
He wasn’t born into the right family. They didn’t have money or political power, or religious influence. His father was a rural carpenter, from the unfashionable end of the country. So how could a child from such a background be the one to save Israel?
And he didn’t even come from a stable home background (forgive the pun!) There were rumours about the legitimacy of his birth even before he was born, which seem to have continued throughout his life. Even being born away from his home village didn’t seem to put a stop to the rumours. So how could such a person be God’s Chosen One?
If his parents knew, it seems they soon forgot, as we forget our surprise Christmas presents. By the time Jesus was an adult, no-one seemed to remember the amazement at his birth.
Children seem to find it easier to retain a sense of wonder and excitement at the Christmas story. They seem to be able to hear the stories anew each year, and feel again the surprise that his parents felt at the news that God’s chosen Saviour was born to an ordinary couple, staying far from home, and began his life laid in an animal feeding trough.
How can we adults retain that sense of excitement and the realisation that this surprising event enables us to see more clearly than ever before what God is really like when we have heard the stories so many times?
I think sometimes we need to move away from the passages that have become so familiar to us from Christmas services and nativity plays, that we no longer hear them properly.
Depending on our characters and our preferences, some of us may find that poetry, drama and music, can all help us to gain fresh insights into the meaning of these stories, told two thousand years ago, by seeing how people from every age have elaborated and interpreted the basic fact of Jesus’ birth. And art can provide others among us with similar fresh insights.
But so can reading the Bible, especially reading the bits of the Infancy narratives that don’t usually get read out – like the genealogies in Luke 3 and Matthew 1, like the full story of the visit of the Magi, including all the nasty bits that are usually left out. And some of us will find it helpful to add to our understanding by reading some sort of commentary on the narrative – preferably a commentary that doesn’t assume we are reading history, or try to reconcile the two very different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, but allows each to be heard as a distinctive voice, and tries to explain (as we did in our Advent course) what their stories are trying to tell us about God and about Jesus, and about the connection between the child in the manger and the man on the cross.
But for some of us, just reading the narratives in the Bible slowly and carefully, trying to imagine ourselves there, listening for the deeper message, trying to understand what is beyond our human understanding, will help to re-awaken the element of wonder that we may have lost as the years go by.
For all of these, we need time and openness to God – so that our hearts and minds can receive whatever the God of surprises is going to present us with – in the future as well as the past. For that time and openness we now pray:
Lord Jesus Christ,
You came to a stable,
when men looked for you in a palace;
you were born in poverty,
when we might have anticipated riches;
King of all the earth,
you were content to visit one nation.
From beginning to end,
you upturned our human values,
and held us in suspense.
Come to us, Lord Jesus.
Do not let us take you for granted,
or pretend that we ever fully understand you.
Continue to surprise us,
so that, kept alert,
we are always ready to receive you, Lord,
and do your will. Amen.*
*Prayer by Donald Hilton from An Anthology for Advent & Christmas. Kevin Mayhew Ltd. 1994.