This was the first time I preached on Christmas Day. 25th December 2014 at Parndana Uniting Church.
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
We aren’t entirely sure who actually wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but whoever he or she was the point is clearly made in this introduction: Jesus is the actual embodiment of the nature and character of God. When we speak about God coming to earth in the form of a baby in a manger this is the person we are talking about. Baby Jesus was not an angel, or another prophet; baby Jesus was God-in-skin who would grow up to be the man who saved the world from sin and would then return to Heaven and sit on the throne enveloped within the glory of God.
That is some child!
I read to you earlier from the work of the prophet Isaiah, a man who lived about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. During the time of Isaiah danger was looming for the Jewish people, in fact the situation was pretty similar during the time of the writing of the letter to the Hebrews about 60 years after the birth of Jesus, so the Jews in danger of annihilation seems to have been a common theme in ancient history. In both situations there was indeed about to be a disaster and history records that on both occasions the massive temple complex in Jerusalem was totally destroyed and many Jews were massacred. The survivors were then taken off as slaves and hostages in the time of Isaiah, or just banned from Judea and driven out of the country to be dispersed throughout the known world in the case of the writer of Hebrews. In any case for both of our authors the near future was looking pretty grim, so both of them take the time to describe a God who is close by and who fully knows what is about to happen, even if it does seem like God is actually going to stand back and let it all happen.
Isaiah specifically writes about a new leader for a new era. When trouble comes, and it will, God will raise up a leader from among the people and they will see deliverance in all of its forms. Not just the Biblical deliverance of sin, and the restoration of righteousness that we Christians like to talk about, but also the return of the king and the turning back of the tides of oppression and fear. Like a nation of Arnies the Jews are confident to say “we’ll be back”. The actual places Isaiah talks about, Zebulun and Naphtali are in Galilee, which is at the top of Israel. Since the superpower nations of Isaiah’s day were in the north then it was obvious that Zebulun and Naphtali were on the front line. But look at what God promises them, those first tribes crushed will be the first tribes to see the new dawn. God is not like D-Day where the last place conquered is the first place liberated until eventually the enemies are driven back into their own lands, no with God the liberation begins in the enemy’s own land and progresses southward, following the trail of destruction with a superhighway of restoration. That is so cool it is almost arrogant.
But it gets worse when we consider the titles offered for this new king. Wonderful-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Prince-of-Peace, Everlasting-Father. These are great words for Christians to use about Jesus, and of course we do use them about Jesus, but these words are very similar if not the same as the titles given to a Pharaoh at his coronation. So listen up Assyria, and you too Egypt, for good measure. Israel is getting a king who will start the liberation of the Jews from inside Assyrian territory, and this king will be so much greater than anything you pyramid-heads can put together.
Ways to pick a fight with the neighbours: check.
That’s not what you might have expected to hear as the introduction to a Christmas Day sermon. After all, I’m already onto page two (out of nine) and I haven’t even mentioned the manger yet.
But this is indeed the story of Christmas, because the God who has such gutsy prophets is the God who came to earth as a baby. A baby in a manger in fact. (Manger!) This baby who we boast of as greater than the greatest pharaoh and more powerful than the emperor and commander-in-chief of the greatest ever superpower, is the one laying in a food trough in a barn out the back of a small, basic guesthouse, in an out of the way town, in a forgotten corner of the realm of a Caesar so great he is given the title “Augustus”. This baby will be forced in to hiding very soon, and become a refugee in a foreign country because of the madness of the local puppet king, but that’s the story in a few weeks’ time: you’ll need to come back on January 4th to hear about that.
The Christmas story I read to you from the Gospel of John is again not the one we often hear. Where are the shepherds, where are the Magi, where indeed is the manger? We know that John was one of Jesus’ closest friends, so he wasn’t actually there at the time of Jesus birth; he actually hadn’t been born yet himself. But because he is a prophet, like Isaiah, John wants to write about God’s perspective on the events of human life, not just the history itself. For John the birth of Jesus is not about shepherds watching flocks or wise men dishing boxes. For John, like Isaiah, the story is about light piercing the deepest and darkest of darknesses.
We have also read from Paul this morning, specifically the letter he wrote to his student Titus. Paul wrote around the same time that the writer to the Hebrews did, after the death of Jesus but before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul’s Christmas message is that the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind, a healing through which women and men are empowered to turn away from harmful activities and longings and live lives of moderation and transparency. Paul tells Titus that he and the Christians in the church Titus is pastor of will be happily fulfilled in hope when the splendour of the great God and saviour Jesus appears. Now since Paul is writing about 60 years after the birth of the baby in the manger this suggests that Jesus is coming again and that that our hope, ours and Titus’, will be vindicated and filled up then. If we join that with the message of Hebrews that calls Jesus the radiance of God’s glory and the stamp of God’s very being, the one who actively sustains the universe by continuously speaking it into existence; we have a lot to look forward to.
The Christian message of Christmas is not that God came as a baby in a stable and was visited by livestock, rouseabouts and astrologers. That is where the story began but the message goes well beyond that. The God who vindicated the Israelites in the time of Isaiah is the God who was protecting the Jewish people from the time of Abraham. The God of Isaiah is also the God of Paul and the Hebrews, who kept the Jewish people going right through the centuries of invasion, murder and holocaust, and right until today. This is the God who came to earth to live as a human being in the form of Jesus. The message of Jesus is that God has saved humankind because God is merciful, not because humankind deserves saving. We know that humankind can live with hope because the evidence for a bright future is right in front of us because we have seen how much God loves us and wants us to live well.
The Christmas message of Christians is seen in how well our lives reflect that message. Does hope work? What difference can be seen on Christmas Day between the Christians and the others?
We have a message which is more than an infant on straw, it is the dawning of a new and greater age where God lives among the people for no other reason than to love us and enjoy our company. That is the greatest of good tidings to you, to you and your kin.