Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 52: 7 – 10, Luke 2: 1 – 20

“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” (Wisdom from a seven year old)

It began very simply. A new born baby. Skin wrinkled and wet. Umbilical cord attached. Eyes tight shut. Lips puckered until the first cry. And then it all changed.

If the story is to be believed at all, and why should we not, Joseph must have delivered the little body and, as first-time fathers everywhere, held it gingerly before placing it in Mary’s arms. Terrified by the new responsibility Joseph barely noticed that it was, indeed, a boy.

St Luke added details. The bands of cloth used as wrapping. The manger for a bed. An inn with no room. Shepherds in the fields with their flocks. An angel and the terror of God’s glory. A message about good news and a birth in the City of David. More angels, a veritable heavenly host – singing – “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

The shepherds get moving. Who was the first to recover, the one to take the lead? In haste they go to Bethlehem to see – what? Mary and Joseph, and the child, as yet unnamed, lying in the manger. That part at least was true.

More than a thousand years later more was added to the picture. St Francis of Assisi, rebuilding an old church stone by stone, imagined the now traditional manger scene. Angels in heaven, Italian shepherds with their sheep, an ox and an ass, Mary in blue, Joseph in brown. And a star shining brightly above it all.

A star? Not in Luke’s Gospel. We need to change Gospels and go to Matthew. And there it is – a star. No manger or shepherds or angels, but wise men from the East approaching the local king. Confused and worried King Herod summons his own wise men – the chief priests and the scribes, those who searched the scriptures looking for omens, signs of God’s presence and action amongst them. Embedded deep in a fairly obscure book towards the end of the scroll of the prophets, that of Micah. “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Micah 5: 2 and Matthew 2: 6)

The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh offered by the wise men suggested to later generations that there were three of them – and not just any travelling wise men, but kings, from the exotic and mysterious east. Later still they received names – Melchior, Caspar and Balthassar.

The story grows. From Matthew we get the secret departure of the wise men. And the flight of the holy family into Egypt – deeply symbolic as the place from which God first rescued God’s people under Moses. That flight into exile spilled over into bloodshed and the terrible massacre of the Holy Innocents. Itself reminiscent of the birth of Moses and Pharaoh’s instruction to kill all the male Hebrew children.

Luke too has a dark side to his Christmas story. It’s found in a passage seldom read by southern hemisphere Christians because we all go on holiday after Christmas and so don’t hear the rest of the story. Unless we are regular church goers, or people who do read the bible, we don’t hear about the circumcision and naming of the child on the eighth day. Nor do we hear about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple. We don’t hear about them offering two young pigeons in thanksgiving for his birth. Or about the old man Simeon who came and took the child in his arms.

Which is a pity because one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry and song-writing in the Bible is found at this point in the story. Holding the child the old man prays to God that he may now die – happy to have seen the glory of Israel. And we certainly won’t hear the last words spoken by Simeon to Mary about the grief that her baby will bring her – ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2: 35)

Of course there is much more to the story. St John has his own take on it all. Having contemplated on his faith in God over many years, latterly spent in exile on the Island of Patmos, John begins his Gospel by taking us back to the very beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1: 1) No need for any miraculous virgin births in stables or visiting magi bearing gifts for John. He cuts to the quick and identifies Jesus as the Word of God.

It is the same John who gives us what may well be the best known and most loved verse in the entire Bible. John 3: 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Over the years the wrappings and trappings of the Christmas story have been added to and expanded and sentimentalized and commercialized. Today’s Christmas, driven by the jolly fellow in the red suit and flowing white beard, so successfully branded by a soft drink company, is a far cry from the biblical accounts. The advertising frenzy beginning earlier and earlier each year, encouraging us to buy more and more of that which we need less and less, has little to do with Christmas. The mountains of presents that even very tiny children are given; the enormous amounts of food and drink consumed, and even more thrown away afterwards – these have little to do with the biblical birth of Jesus. The sheer gluttony of some in the face of starvation of others is scandalous – and yet we fall for it year after year.

Perhaps it is right that we should be brought up short by another boy – not Jesus this time, but the unknown boy with whose words I began this morning. “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”

Will you stop opening presents and talking long enough to listen today? Listen to the presence of love in the room – the love of family and friends. Will you stop opening presents and talking long enough to listen today? Listen to the absence of those close to us who have died, or are ill, or far away? Will you stop opening presents and talking long enough to listen today? Listen to the cries of those who, like Mary and Joseph, have no place to call home, no roof over their heads, or food on the table? To the cries of those who, like Mary and Joseph fleeing with their newborn baby, find themselves refugees, displaced people – no different to you and me, except …… Will you listen to the story of Sayeed who asked the Roman Catholic chaplain on Christmas Island to contact St Peter’s Cathedral two days ago, because four years ago someone here showed him kindness? Will you stop and listen?

If you do, you may be surprised for Jesus is waiting at the door, waiting for you to notice, waiting to be let in – to your heart, your life, your home.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that seven-year-old’s observation: “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”