Well… I wonder what Christmas means for you? I was at the wedding of one of my godsons yesterday. He was born in the land of honest men and lassies – that's Scotland in case you don't know – but his family moved to New Zealand 12 years ago. So since then he has celebrated most of his Christmases down under. So Christmas for him means:
- Throwing on some shorts and a T-shirt, slapping on the factor-50 and throwing another shrimp on the barbie in 30 degrees of sunshine.
- Then while those of us on this side of the planet might recover from our festive overindulgence by watching the Queen's speech and falling asleep in front of some film that we've probably already seen 6 times before – He, on the other hand, will spend the afternoon at the beach, taking a swim and playing cricket.
- And to top it all off he and his family will spend most of the day singing that classic Christmas song:
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way,
Christmas time down under,
On a scorching summer's day.
Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Christmas time is beaut,
Oh what fun it is to ride,
In a clapped out rusty ute.
Now as I say all that, you're probably sitting there thinking, "That's wrong! That's just plain old wrong!"
Because even though we can forgive our antipodean cousins for practically everything else: like Neighbours, or Danni Minogue, or having a rugby team that beats ours up most of the times we play – the one thing that is totally unacceptable to us… is a Summer Christmas.
And you know what? I think the Bible is on our side here. Christmas should be set in the dark. Did you notice that in our third reading this evening? It said:
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone..."
700 years before the first Christmas, Isaiah the prophet speaks there – predicting the birth of Jesus. And as he does so he paints a powerful picture of what it looks like to live before Jesus comes to us. It's darkness. Isaiah says that Christmas is for People Walking in Darkness.
We need to hear that because there is so much darkness in our world, isn't there? Even at Christmas:
- According to a survey of British households conducted last year we can now know the time when the first argument happens on Christmas Day. On average it's 9.58am.
- And the first time adults shout at children on an average Christmas Day, in an average British family? Well that's 11.07am.
- And possibly it's then no coincidence that the first alcoholic drink is taken – on average – at 11.49am!
Statistically, the average British family argues five times on Christmas Day. And I suspect you have to double that if your family attempt to play a board game! In fact, I think that merely saying the words: "Shall we play a family board game?" on Christmas Day – should be considered an act of aggression on same the level as someone declaring World War Three!
But folks, behind the wry amusement of those weird statistics we all experience the reality of conflict – on the one day of the year we are supposed to be living in peace and goodwill toward each other. I think those experiences of trying to do life with family at Christmas hints at the darkness we walk in day in and day out – if only we are honest enough to admit it.
- There's the darkness of ignorance. We speak of people being dim or unenlightened, don't we? But often we don't have a clue how to make life work. We're just making it up as we go along. Scrabbling around in the dark.
- Then there's the darkness of secrecy. In surveys, 75% of us in this country admit that the profile of who we are online is nothing like who we really are. We hide our true self in darkness because we can't bear for the reality to be brought into the light.
- And then there's the deep darkness – the darkness of death. I stood at the bedside of a dying man this week and so I know only too well the shadow that death casts. And sadly there are people here who know exactly what I'm talking about. This will be the first Christmas without a loved one – or it may have been years and yet still the pain of that missing person at the Christmas dinner table remains just as raw. Loving relationships are so hard to come by… and death robs us of them.
Which is all very cheerful, isn't it? You came out hoping for a pleasant evening of festive joy and this is what you get!
But folks, hear again Isaiah's news: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone..." Christmas is for those walking in darkness because… it tells us of a Great Light. A Light that has come to banish the darkness.
Folks, isn't this why we throw lights on our Christmas trees and festoon our houses with all manner of illuminated decorations? It's why we gather at events like these or turn up to cheer as the Christmas lights are switched on down Northumberland Street. Because we are looking for a light to drive away the darkness!
And here Isaiah promises us just what we're looking for. So what is this light like?
Answer: A baby. Yes, you heard me right! A baby. Isaiah continues:
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder..."
Here's God's solution to the darkness of our lives: He sends us a baby boy.
Now every baby is special, every baby is unique – especially to their parents. I learnt this the hard way when a few years ago a friend's wife had their first baby and he came up to me at church beaming with pride to present his newborn daughter to me.
And I'm afraid my reaction was to point out that she looked quite a lot like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Not entirely inaccurately I might add. But I learnt that day – this is not what you say to a new dad who is flushed with fatherly pride.
Every baby is special… but there is something uniquely unique about the baby Isaiah predicts. The one in the manger is light for a dark world. Just look at the names Isaiah gives him:
"…his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
You can almost imagine Joseph and Mary at the school gate saying to each other: "That's our boy, Mighty God. We have high hopes."
Mighty God is a difficult name to live up to. Unless of course, you are the Mighty God... In which case the name fits. And so 700 years later when the baby comes and he grows up we see he really is:
- The "Mighty God" – As he made the blind see, the lame walk, stilled a raging storm with just a word and left a whole village speechless when he ordered a little girl to rise from the dead as if she was just having a nap.
- The "Wonderful Counsellor" – As he amazed crowds with the wisdom and authority of his teaching.
- The "Everlasting Father" – As he displayed Fatherly care and compassion for the people he had created… and promised to take care of us forever.
- And the "Prince of Peace" – As Jesus came to deal with war that is behind all our wars – and make peace between us and God.
I wonder how you think God feels about you this evening? Well don't look up at the sky and wonder. Look down at the manger. God doesn't send thunderbolts, He sends his Son. And as he does so… God is giving us himself.
Every year when Christmas rolls around and I try to think about what would be the very best present I could give them – I have to resist the temptation to get Fiona my wife and wrap her up in Christmas wrapping paper and place her under the tree. And I resist that temptation not only because it would be an extremely uncomfortable experience for poor Fiona, but also of course because when the kids come down on Christmas morning all bright-eyed with excitement it would be so crushing for us all for them to unwrap the present and discover: "Oh… it's just mum."
But a mother who loves them more than words can fully say might not be the thing that most excites them on Christmas morning – but it is one of the greatest gifts anyone could be given. And a God who gives himself to us, through his son is the greatest gift any one of us could ever be given.
As Jesus comes as one of us, to do life for us. I'm not very good at doing life. In fact, I'm pretty awful at it.
- But God the Son comes and lives the good life that I should live.
- On the cross, he dies the dark death that I should die.
- And then he rises up again and marches out of the valley of the shadow death and straight up to the Father of Lights… and he does it all carrying us with him.
That's what it means to for him to take the government on his shoulders. Did you notice that in what Isaiah said?
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder…"
Do you feel like the world is on your shoulders? Maybe at Christmas more than ever… you feel like the world is on your shoulders? Well now the word of God has told you that the government is on his shoulders. So give up the pretence of being in charge – give it up!
Being the supreme ruler of your life is a heavy burden… which you never meant to bear. Christmas is a call to hand it over to Christ, because none of us can carry the government on our shoulders. None of us can face the darkness on our own. But there in the manger is the one who has come an infinite distance to be with you, to show himself to be for you and to guide you in the way you were meant to go. Will you hand it over to him?
Let me finish by saying this: While I was preparing for tonight I came across the story of a lady who in the run up to Christmas a few years back discovered a Chinese vase in amongst her recently deceased brother's possessions. It had just sat for years in her brother's house on top of a wobbly bookshelf – but she sold it at auction for 53 million pounds.
Apparently, the lot before it went for 55 pounds. But the vase went for 53 million! Can you imagine?! Apparently, she had to be taken outside for a breather.
Now I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that as soon as I read about this, I rushed home to collect all of the vases in our house in order to get them valued – maybe as I've been speaking you've had the same idea?! But sadly there will be no early retirement for me. And for those of you who come regularly to the church that news may come as a great disappointment! You'll have to put up with me for a bit longer! But can you imagine it? Can you imagine this guy living day in, day out with a 53 million pound vase just gathering dust on top of his bookshelf… and he never knew what he had. He never knew its value.
And folks I just want to say: Don't miss God's present to you this Christmas. Isaiah is promising us a 53 million pound present – and he says it's for us.
"To us… a child is born, to us a son is given…"
Jesus is a gift… addressed to you. So don't do the darkness by yourself – why not unwrap the present and receive Christ and celebrate the true Light of life. The light that shines!