Some years ago, a newspaper ran a cartoon at Christmas showing a father and son gazing at the lavish display in a department store’s window. Amidst it all was a sign that said, “Come in and shop! Let’s make this the best Christmas ever!” The caption however had the father saying to the son, “How are they ever going to top the first one?”
Good question! There is within us all a longing to recreate that sense of wonder that Christmas used to bring us when we were children. But we all know it’s not in gifts and parties, enjoyable though they may be. The real wonder of it is found in the account of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel which says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, “God with us.”
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When you want to define something precisely you start with its genus – the general class of thing it belongs to. Then you state its species – the thing that makes it different from all other members of that genus. Now the genus of Christianity is a religion. But its species – the thing that makes it different from all other religions –is what we call The Incarnation; the Christmas message that in that child in the manger, God had come to us.
Some years ago a man named Bill Lederer, wrote about a miserable Christmas Eve he and his family had spent on holiday in France. For five wretched days everything had gone wrong and on Christmas Eve it was raining and cold when they went out to eat at a drab little restaurant. Bill’s wife ordered their meal in French but the waiter brought the wrong thing, and so Bill scolded her for being stupid. Then at a table with a French family, the father slapped one of his children for something and the boy began to cry. At another table a German woman was berating her husband.
Suddenly they were interrupted by a blast of cold air as the door opened and an old flower woman shuffled in, dripping wet. She went from table to table but no-one bought anything. Finally she sat down and ordered a bowl of soup. She told the waiter she hadn’t sold any flowers all afternoon. To the piano player she said, ‘Can you imagine, Joseph, soup on Christmas Eve?’ He just pointed to his empty plate where people were supposed to leave tips.
At that moment a young American sailor finished his meal and got up. Putting on his coat he walked over to the flower woman and wishing her a happy Christmas and gave her a twenty franc note to purchase two corsages. She told him she’d have to get change from the waiter, but he just gave her a kiss on the cheek and told her it was a Christmas present. He folded one corsage flat into the letter he had just written and then asked Bill’s permission to give the other to his beautiful daughter, and before Bill could reply the sailor gave them to Bill’s wife. Then he wished everyone Merry Christmas and departed.
Bill went on to write that a few seconds later Christmas exploded in that restaurant. The old flower woman shared her twenty francs with the piano player, who began to beat out Good King Wenceslas. Bill’s wife waved her corsage in the air and sang the words in English while two German families did the same in German. The waiter danced with the old flower woman and the Frenchman who had slapped the boy started to beat the rhythm with his fork, while his son climbed onto his lap and sang too.
That night, eighteen strangers, who were locked in the gloom of their own empty worlds, ended up sharing the most memorable Christmas of their lives. All because of a young sailor who, like the Christ child so many years ago, brought the light of Christmas into the gloom. Immanuel, God with us.
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At Christmas time two stories compete. The first is the story of the Incarnation. Almighty God came into our little world in the form of a helpless baby born to poor people in an oppressed nation; and through his coming built a kingdom in the hearts of people of faith that is the very opposite of the oppressive power of earthly kingdoms, and yet has outlived them all.
The other story is sometimes called the consumer narrative. The Christian tradition of giving gifts at Christmas has been taken over by a story that urges us to indulge in a season of unbridled consumerism, to shop until we drop, to treat ourselves to a good dose of retail therapy, and thereby find happiness. By the time we reach early adulthood we have learned that, though good fun, there is little lasting joy in the consumer narrative. Yet it is such a powerful story that it is difficult not to be drawn into it. Despite what life has taught us, we all find it hard to resist the idea that this is where we’ll find life’s meaning.
How different it all is to the event that first gave rise to Christmas. A newborn infant, born in a cowshed to a peasant girl in a captive nation, and proclaimed to be King of Kings! Could anything seem more incongruous? But then, as today, you have to be prepared to look in order to see it.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the world went on its way and saw nothing. Those were the days when Rome ruled the world. At the head of it all was Augustus Caesar, the Roman Emperor. They called him Augustus because they thought the title King wasn’t grand enough. Augustus had an implication of deity in it. When he spoke the world obeyed. He wanted a census to discover just how big and grand his empire was, and it was done. Everyone, including a lowly carpenter in far off Galilee and his pregnant wife, had to travel to the town of their birth to be registered.
But little did Caesar realize that he was merely a pawn in God’s hands, setting the scene for the coming of a Kingdom of faith, hope and love that would outlive his and all those tawdry empires of power and oppression. The Bible reminds us that “The weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” God doesn’t do things the way we do. When God would grow a tree He plants a seed. When God would build a universe He begins with an atom. When He would start a revolution in people’s hearts he comes among us as a refugee’s baby; Immanuel, God with us.
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The worst Christmas of my life was about six weeks after my first marriage broke up. I was actually dreading the thought of it because there’s no time of the year when the pain of life becomes more painful than at Christmas with all of its expectations of family, peace and joy.
I wanted to make Christmas seem as normal as possible for my kids, who were already struggling hard enough to deal with what had happened, and so I arranged for them to spend Christmas Day with my wife’s family, as they’d always done. But I spent the day on my own. I went to my church that morning, hoping for something to lift my spirits. I think it was probably a very good service, but seeing all those happy families together made me feel so miserable I up and left as soon as the service was over. I really can’t remember what happened the rest of the day. It’s one of the few Christmases that my mind seems to have blocked out. I think I just went home and tried to read and watch television before turning in early to bed.
Except for one thing I do remember. As I climbed into bed I opened my Bible to a verse that had become very precious to me, and it spoke deeply to me again that night. It was from Psalm thirty four. I’d read that verse many times over the years, but it had never registered on my mind until the first night after my wife had left, and I’d returned to a house with half the family, furniture and possessions gone.
It was one of the lowest points in my whole life and I remember, as I was about to climb into bed that night, I opened my Bible at random hoping, though not expecting, to read something that would lift my spirits. What I got did more for me than I could ever have imagined. My Bible fell open and my eyes went straight to these words, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
I didn’t think it was mere coincidence that, of all the tens of thousands of verses in the Bible, my eyes should, at random, light on that one, and at a time when there was nothing I needed more than that message. It didn’t change my situation, but what it did do was assure me that God knew, and God was there with me. You’ve no idea how much strength I derived from it.
Well, it was that verse I turned to again as the last thing I did on the worst Christmas of my life. And once again it spoke to my heart and reminded me the true message of Christmas is not just about happy families and celebrations – wonderful though these things may be. It is about Immanuel – God with us; no matter what our circumstances may be. God is with us, if only we are prepared to look and see.
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And so, once again this Christmas, we remember the ancient message of the prophet, “Behold the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel –God with us.” God with us no matter what is happening within us or around us. God becoming what we are so that we might become what he is.
Looking out at our world this Christmas it would be easy to lose hope and give up on the human race. But we remember that Jesus also was born into a cruel and violent world. If that little group who first looked at the child in the stable had seen only the ugliness and injustice of the world they might well have despaired and said “Look what the World has come to.” Instead they looked at that sleeping child and said, “Look what has come to the World”: Immanuel, God with us, this Christmas, every Christmas and every day of our lives.