Christmas is an expensive time of the year, and all the more so as people’s expectations of what they might receive grow. Years ago, many children were delighted to receive a tangerine wrapped up in silver foil – but no longer: they now want so much more.
Did you hear of the little boy, who wanted a bike for his birthday, but his birthday came and went and no bike arrived. Although he was disappointed, he knew Christmas was just around the corner, so he started praying that he would get a bike. Then one day as he was thinking about this bike and worrying that it wouldn’t arrive, he saw a statue of Mary on the mantelpiece. He grabbed the statue, wrapped it in a tea towel and placed it in a drawer. Then he prayed again: “Jesus, if you want to see your Mum again, make sure I get a bike for Christmas!”
Or did you hear of the little girl who was asked by her father one day what she might want for Christmas? The girl gave it some thought and then said that she would like a little brother. By chance on Christmas Eve her mother returned from hospital with a baby boy. Rather foolishly the father asked his daughter the same question again the next year. The girl replied: “If it’s not too painful for Mummy, I’d quite like a pony please”.
Yet again preachers this Christmas face the challenge of speaking of God’s amazing gift to us in Jesus. God gave not a bike, not a horse, but his very own Son, Jesus. How do we put that over? One possibility is to focus on some aspect of the nativity story as found in the Gospels. Another possibility is to focus on the Apostle Paul’s reflections on the coming of Jesus into our world: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty” (2 Cor 8.9 GNB). To preachers perhaps desperate for fresh ways of presenting the Christmas story, let me attempt to give one possible way in.
Jesus did not begin his life when he was born in Bethlehem. Before Jesus ever came into this world he shared with his Father in the life of heaven. In a very real sense, Jesus had there everything that money could not buy. He experienced a quality of life at which millionaires, let alone ordinary people like you and me, could but dream. He lived in a world where everything was perfect. A world where nothing ever went wrong. A world where sorrow, pain and tears do not exist. A world filled with God’s love – a world where every hour is lived in the company of God. Jesus was rich in the sense that he had everything he ever needed or ever wanted – for heaven was literally his.
This Jesus became poor. He literally became poor. He knew, for instance poverty at birth: not for him a cradle in king’s palace, but rather his bed was a feeding trough in a cattle shed. But Paul’ emphasis here is on a different kind of poverty. Jesus gave up the life of heaven -with it all its privileges. He gave up that life where nothing ever went wrong, where love reigned supreme, where joy was in constant supply – and instead entered our world where so many things go wrong, where love is so often missing, where sadness is more often experienced than joy. Who in their right mind would ever wish to give up heaven to share your life and mine? But that was what Jesus did. Jesus gave up everything in order to become one of us, he gave up all the joys and privileges of heaven to become one with us.
Why did Jesus so willingly experience the manger-cradle, the cruel pinch of poverty, the poisoned hate of enemies, the agony of the garden, the bitter cross, the dark grave? It was, said Paul, “for your sake”. Jesus came to make us rich – not rich materially, but rich spiritually. The fact is that money is not everything. One summer Caroline and I spent our summer holiday on the island of Cephalonia. One of the excursions we took was to visit the nearby Onassis island, an island once owned by the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. He had money galore, but he never found happiness. Shortly before he died he said: “I’ve just been a machine for making money. I seem to have spent my life in a golden tunnel looking for the outlet which would lead to happiness. But the tunnel kept going on. After my death there will be nothing left”. Much of his money was left to his daughter Christine Onassis, but she too, with all her father’s money, never found true happiness. Indeed, on more than one occasion she seriously attempted suicide. Money is useful – but is not everything. By contrast, the life that Jesus offers is everything. For Jesus let his eternal home that we might share that home with him. Jesus wants to make us rich – rich not in terms of hard cash, but rich in terms of sharing in the life of God’s Kingdom. There has never been a more wonderful Christmas present than this.
It is to this most amazing of gifts that Paul refers when he says: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. “You know the undeserved generosity of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Does, I wonder, everybody here know how incredibly generous Jesus is? The fact is that no better Christmas present than the present that God offers us in Jesus: for in Jesus God offers us a share of his life. Have you received the free gift of life and love that God offers to each one of us in his Son? Remember, presents are not for admiring – they are for the taking.