A Present for Everyone

Sam Wells, preached 2009 Duke University Chapel, and 2012 St. Martin in the Fields

Reading: John 1.1-14

I was 12 years old. It was 9 pm on Christmas Eve. I had one sister. I realized with horror that I had nothing to give her in the morning. This was the seventies. There were no stores still open. Disaster. My mind traversed the options. Raid my personal library to find a book that looked untouched. Draw a picture of something I could pretend the shop had promised it would have in stock by the weekend. Beg my mother to pass one of her presents off as mine. Needless to say I pursued the third option. It’s still part of my recurring Christmas nightmare. Christmas morning comes, and I’ve forgotten to get the most important person in my life a present.

Of course if it happened to day it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d simply slip a note inside a sealed envelope and say “In place of a gift a donation has been made in your honour to the Friends of Duke University Chapel.” Nonetheless it’s hard at Christmas to hold the domestic, professional, personal and spiritual dimensions of life together. There’s no such thing as a set of Christmas tree lights that work successfully from one year to the next. There’s no such thing as a Christmas shopping expedition that goes according to plan. There’s no such thing as a male family member over the age of 20 who’s easy to buy presents for. There’s no such thing as a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who look forward to cooking turkey together. There’s no such thing as a December that goes by without you thinking at some point, “Why are we doing all this?”

Why are we doing all this? We know it’s supposed to be about the birth of Jesus, but somehow the biggest gnawing sense of guilt and anxiety is that there won’t be a present for everybody. So much of the energy of Christmas comes from the same nightmare I had about my sister. And that’s why the drive to make sure every child in Durham has at least one present to open on Christmas morning pulls so tight on our heart strings. Because a gift means love, means thoughtfulness, means celebration, and we can’t bear to think that there are children in our city who have nothing to celebrate, no one to think of them, no experience of love.

But the trouble with giving presents is, what works for one is an insult to another. One person doesn’t want a fuss and says just give the money to the food bank, the next person is longing for some gesture of love from you and is deeply hurt and thinks “Giving to the food bank is a your way of avoiding giving a personal gift to me.” We’re all different, and Christmas becomes a test of our love and attention to one another, because the inappropriate or thoughtless gift is a sure way of telling our friend or family member that we don’t really know them, don’t truly care about them, don’t deeply understand them.

Just as we’re different in our tastes in presents, so we’re different in our tastes in faith. We’re all true believers about some things, and profound sceptics about other things. One person is full of feelings of piety and devotion and yet suspicious of religion being involved in politics and economics. Another person loves the social justice stuff but can never really get their head round the philosophical claims of Christianity. A third finds the beauty of holiness inspiring on an aesthetic level, but has never found it straightforward to translate that into trust and faithfulness on the level of relationships. We’re all different, and when we meet a Christian whose faith clashes with our scepticism and whose scepticism clashes with our faith it can be a troubling and confusing experience.

The Christmas story is written for people like us – like all of us, not just people like me, or people like you, but for all of us, every different kind of person with every different kind of faith and every kind of scepticism Let’s look at how the story meets each of us right where we are.

Let’s say you’re sceptical about the divine parts of the story because you believe it’s money and politics and global power structures that make the world go round. Well, here’s a political story for you. The Emperor Augustus is the first person mentioned in the Christmas story. He was known as the prince of peace and the saviour of the whole world, because he’d brought to an end the 15 years of constant war that had beset the Roman Empire since the assassination of Julius Caesar. Luke’s story begins with this mighty emperor ruling over the whole world in imitation of God, and making a decree that everyone should be registered. This is a political reckoning, because it’s a record of how many people he controls and how much money he can squeeze out of them. But it’s also an anticipation of judgement, when all the peoples of the earth will be reckoned at the throne of God. Everything in this dimension of the story is saying Jesus is coming into a world of money and international politics. Matthew’s story begins with the magi unsettling the local political equilibrium. The magi say there’s a new king being born. That sends the local puppet king Herod and the chief priests and scribes into a flurry of anxiety and panics them into murderous reaction. The kind of political realities that brought about Jesus’ death are already there at his birth. This is a very political story. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with politics,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical for a different reason. Let’s say for you the realities of life are about relationships and love and kindness and mercy and Christianity seems to be so mixed up with inhuman institutions and meaningless rituals and abstract doctrines. Well, here’s a very human story for you. Mary’s expecting a baby. She wasn’t planning on it, expecting it, or hoping for it. A pregnancy at 14 years old is no joke. From Mary’s point of view she’s aware this baby is something beyond any conventional imagination. It’s hard for her to explain the wonder, let alone the biology, to anyone, maybe most of all Joseph. And think about Joseph. It’s bad enough when your fiancée’s pregnant and the baby’s not yours. Just imagine when all your jealousy and mistrust is directed at the Holy Spirit. I remember a man telling me once how his wife had suddenly become a Christian and how he felt so jealous of the Holy Spirit that she kept talking about the whole time, and how he later came to identify with Joseph whose fiancée seemed physically and spiritually to belong to someone else. And on the most human level it’s a confusing and lonely thing to find yourself having your first baby when there’s no relatives anywhere around. It’s the most physical, emotional and practically demanding experience of your life and in the midst of it you’re isolated and alone. And full of fear. Things can go badly wrong in childbirth. The first time Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible it’s a place of personal tragedy. Jacob’s wife Rachel, the one he deeply loves, dies giving birth to her second son Benjamin, and she’s buried at Bethlehem. So this is a very personal and tender story, about love, and isolation, and childbirth, and tragedy, and the testing of relationships. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with my personal experience,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical for another reason. Maybe to you, on a scientific level, the whole story seems like a fairy tale. These are not things that happen in everyday life. Well, of course they’re not, otherwise we wouldn’t be celebrating them as the most precious things in the history of the world. But let’s look at what’s so miraculous and strange. There’s a star that guides the wise men across the desert. That star is telling us that this is a big event in heaven as well as on earth. There’s a company of angels who fill the sky and tell the shepherds that the savior is born. Those angels are messengers – that’s what the word angel means – and they mirror on a grand level what the shepherds are called to be on a humble level: messengers of good news to all people, including the despised and outcast shepherds. And there’s a virgin birth. That’s a way of saying this is God creating something out of nothing, the same way he did on the day of creation. It’s that significant. So these aren’t random fairyland stories. They’re communicating the mystery of God’s incarnation in the cosmic language of the time. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with cosmic reality,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s say you’re sceptical yet another reason. Maybe for you, life in general, and Christianity in particular, is all about compassion, and justice, and struggling to even the gap between the poor and the rich. It’s about empowering those who live with inadequate food, unequal treatment under the law, wretched accommodation, terrible working conditions, or a hundred other burdens in life. And maybe it seems the Christmas story is a sentimental children’s tale of little donkeys and dusty roads. Well look again at the shepherds. These are people excluded from religious society because they can’t keep the purity laws due to the nature of their work. Look at the holy family’s struggle to find adequate accommodation in Bethlehem. Look at the way Jesus becomes a refugee, his parents departing with him for Egypt when he was just a tiny baby because of their fear of Herod’s jealousy. This story has homelessness, economic oppression and forced emigration in it before you’ve even begun on the tax system and the movement of populations brought about by the census. This is a very contemporary story about social dislocation. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with social issues,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Let’s finally say you’re skeptical because you can see the social and political and personal humanity in this story, but you just can’t make the leap to see it as a story about life, the universe and everything. Maybe for you Christmas is a time for love and family and close relationships and a bit of compassion and generosity, but in general for immersing yourself in the good things of the present moment and setting aside life’s bigger questions of the origin and destiny of humankind and the universe. Well Christmas is about a beautiful story and all the personal and social and political dimensions we’ve explored together, but fundamentally the significance of that story is that it tells us the truth about God. And that truth involves two huge philosophical claims. Number one: there is a logic about the way the universe is made, a logic that was there from the very beginning. Number two: that logic, which the evangelist St John calls “the Word,” is not abstract and arbitrary, but willed to become human flesh and blood and dwell among us. There’s no faraway truth about the universe that’s not wholly invested in our present day reality, and there’s no aspect of our present day reality that’s not connected to the ultimate truth about the universe. That’s an enormous set of philosophical claims, and the word that Christians use for those philosophical claims is “Christmas.” So Christmas really is about life, the universe and everything. There’s no aspect of human life and no dimension of God that isn’t wrapped up in Christmas. If someone says to you, “Christianity’s got nothing to do with ultimate truth,” ask them, “Have you read the Christmas story lately?”

Have I missed anybody out? Have I missed out your personal point of faith, or your particular place of scepticism? If I have, I hope I’ve given you the confidence to rummage around in this awesome story and find the source of your deepest longings and the subject of your deepest questions.

Because what the Christmas story is fundamentally about is God’s longing to be present to us in all our political, personal, cosmic, social and philosophical dimensions. There’s no part of us that God doesn’t want to meet, and no part of himself that God doesn’t want to show us in all his glory and wonder and mystery. God really has thought of everything and everybody. And yet he gives each one of us just the perfect present. Anyone would think he’d spent eternity thinking about what would make the perfect present for each one of us. Christmas is the moment when God meets us with the present he has been preparing for every one of us since the foundation of the world. And that present is himself: in the least threatening, most needy, least imposing, most irresistible form imaginable: a tiny, helpless baby.

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