Again this Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and take a day- well, really a whole month- to ponder the birth of a single individual in a tiny obscure village in ancient Palestine. If you go through the traditional Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus, you find they are full of incredible changes which they say the birth of Jesus has brought to the world. And if you were just a little bit cynically minded, you might think to yourself that all these changes are running just a little bit overdue- 2000 years, and we’re still waiting.
“It came upon a midnight clear”- promises “Peace on the earth, good will to me”. Peace on earth? Really? “Joy to the World” promises in verse 3 that “No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground”. Really, I don’t have too much troubles with bindis in my lawn- but actually I think that’s because I sprayed it a few months ago- not because of an event 2000 years ago. And as for sin and sorrows- well, they’re not gone yet. What about “Oh Holy Night”- “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name, all oppression shall cease”. We haven’t had any problems with oppression or slavery for the last 2000 years, have we? According to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, Jesus was “born that man no more may die”. No more death- that’s a nice thought, but just a little bit inaccurate as a description of the last 2000 years.
We Aussies are a cynical lot. We like to question. We don’t take ceremonies or traditions too seriously. We love to make fun of anything that gets a bit too formal or makes big claims. Anyone who takes themselves a bit too seriously, they’ve got to be taken down. So in the spirit of celebrating Christmas in Aussie style- I’d like to apply a bit of a baloney check to all these Christmas promises. I can just imagine a lot of Aussies sitting back with a beer in hand listening to these Christmas carols and saying- “I dunno about this Christmas thing, it’s all a load of baloney- Jesus ain’t done nuthin mate. Nothings changed. Peace on earth? My kids are still whinging, my missus is still cranky with me- nothins changed. Telly’s full of bad news mate. The whole thing is a crock.”
So- what do we say? Christmas 2016- what difference has Jesus really made 2000 years after his birth? Well, I think it is fair to say that Jesus was probably the most famous person who has ever lived, and whose life did change the course of history more than anybody else’s. But still, these carols go way beyond that. Are they just guilty of massive exaggeration which we’re supposed to smile and politely ignore because it’s Christmas?
Well- let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Yes, suffering is still here. War, violence, terrorism, slavery, injustice, heartache. And I think it is right that today- on what is one of our most lavish days of celebration- with food and drink in abundance- today we need to remember that many many other people today around the world live in poverty, danger, sickness, and injustice. We have it so good today- but many are suffering. Let’s remember that, and ask God what he wants us to do about it.
Suffering reminds us that something fundamental is wrong in our world. God is no longer here in the way He wants to be. There is a problem in our relationship. There is a light on the dashboard, as it were, flashing annoyingly at us. There is a warning message coming up on our computer screen. Not necessarily because of something specific which people who suffer have done wrong- plenty of relatively innocent people that suffer. Rather, as a disturbingly constant remind to all of us that there is a problem in humanity’s relationship with God. Suffering is the error message which keeps on reminding us that there is something fundamentally wrong between us and God. There is a chasm between us and God due to our spiritual fall into sin, and we live in a spiritual warzone, and suffer the fall-out.
But I don’t think the carol writers were ignorant of the suffering. I don’t think they were trying to con us into thinking there was no such thing as suffering anymore. They knew it, probably better than we do. So- what were they saying, when claiming that Jesus has changed everything?
Well, they were making a fairly astounding claim- a claim which some people in our society are sceptical of, but really- it’s something which 99% of all humanity have always believed in. That is, there is more to life than just the here and now- the 70 or 80 years of life on planet earth. There is a life beyond this life. This world, this life is not the only life to be experienced. Our life on earth goes so quickly. Here we are at another Christmas Day. Another end of year celebration. Our kids grow up so quickly. We grow up so quickly. On Christmas Day, true it seems like some of us Dads never seem to grow up- especially when the water pistols and nerf guns and pool toys come out from under the Christmas Tree. But we say it every year, don’t we? Christmas keeps coming round quicker. It doesn’t actually. It’s just that life is really short. We want it to slow down and be stretched out more. But not just our life- but the history of our whole world- it won’t last forever. Society is changing and growing at an exponential rate. One day the end will come- I don’t know how exactly- but history will come to an end.
But what Christmas is saying- is that there is something more. There is something more than the dirt and poverty and disease which millions of people spend their whole life trapped in. There is something more than just the cycle of life we get trapped in- of work, weekends, summer holidays, toys and new TV shows to entertain us till we get bored of them. The Christmas message is that proof has arrived that there is something worth living for beyond our own brief existence of suffering and pleasure for a few decades.
What is the proof? Has God given us a scientific experiment, which we can perform whenever we need reminders that there is more to this life? Is it some kind of message written in the clouds- “Dear humans, Don’t worry about your lousy life now, there is another better world coming?” I think a lot of people today would ask God for that.
But God had a different method of showing us- a method which if you stop and think about it- it is just staggering. We kind of get familiar with the story of Christmas, and we think- “well, isn’t it cute? The baby in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, wise men, star over the stable- what a sweet little story.” We easily lose just the staggering nature of what happens in the Christmas story- it’s a story which should make our mouths drop open every single time- if you really get it. The message of Christmas is that the God who made the universe- the God who invented physics and chemistry, the God who knows the name of every star and planet, who knows every fish in the ocean, every thought in every human mind- who has always existed, and always will exist- this God became a human baby. That is just an incredible, incredible, incredible concept. He just didn’t send a science experiment, nor a message in the sky, nor even an angel. He came Himself- became a human, became one of us. He came as a human baby, and became reliant on his mother’s milk, learned how to talk and walk. He lived amongst our dirt, poverty, disease- and showed us a glimpse of Heaven, the world to come. Then He went one step further- and laid his life down for us- going lower than the low- so that we could share in his resurrection life in the world to come. And if God has gone to all that trouble for us- then we can know for sure- there is more to this life than the here and now.
Tom Hanks has a reputation of being the ultimate celebrity nice guy from Hollywood. He has a reputation of turning up to weddings of random strangers and offering a photo with them on their wedding day. Recently, I read of a lady who had a bet with her friend about who could get a personal headshot from a famous actor. She wrote to Tom Hanks, got a letter straight back, with a photo, and a chatty letter as if he was one of her best friends. What a nice guy. Wouldn’t it be somewhat staggering though if he wrote back and said, I’d like to meet you and have coffee with you. Perhaps I’d like to live in your street so I can really spend a lifetime getting to know you. In fact, wouldn’t it be something we would talk about for years if Tom Hanks was in Brisbane one Christmas, and came and joined us for our Christmas service today. Wouldn’t we feel nervous and excited, and line up to get a selfie with him in the background?
Have you considered the stunning story of how the ultimate celebrity of all time- God himself- came to us- but not as a king in a Star Wars space ship, or in a loud and glitzy parade? He came as a human baby, was born in an obscure village, and laid in an animal’s feeding trough for his first bed. That is astonishing, and that is what makes Christmas worth coming back to and celebrating for a whole month every year. God has come to us, and He has shown us with clear demonstration- that there is more to this life, by revealing his power and glory in his love and humility in our present life.
Well Christmas Day is party time. I’m sure you’ve already had a few Christmas parties, I’m sure most of us have a pretty good party planned for today. One of the things Jesus was famous for was his parties. The religious people of the day gave his a really hard time over it- why do you spend so much time partying with such dreadful people? Jesus’ response was “the kingdom of God is like a party.” A party to which everybody is invited. An eternal party- in the world to come. Today as we party together- remember that Jesus has opened up to us an eternal party- to live life the way it was meant to be- eternally. He’s invited us all to be there. And that’s what we’re celebrating. Jesus has come to earth open the door to the eternal party of the new heaven and new earth that is yet to come. So- enjoy your celebrations today!