The Christmas Sermon: The Greatest Gift

Alleluia, unto us a child is born. Come let us adore him, Alleluia.

Today is the day. It’s finally here. This is the morning that our children and grandchildren have been waiting for, the morning when the mystery of all those enticing packages under the tree will be revealed. Maybe you’ve already opened your gifts … show of hands?

No sooner has Christmas arrived than the world tries to move on. We had a very short Advent this year; yesterday was our first opportunity to light the fourth candle in the Advent wreath, and already we are anxious to throw away the withered greens, wipe the spilled wax off the frame and pack it up for next year. But we don’t have to be in a hurry. While the stores are even today clearing the seasonal shelves to make way for Valentine’s cards, we have 11 more days of Christmas after today. We can enjoy the Advent wreath in its full glory until 12th night, January 5, the official end of the Christmas season. We can linger awhile by the manger and ponder the beauty, the grace, the glory of the gift we have received in Jesus.

Here at St Paul’s we use a model of Christian formation for children called Godly Play. We tell a story from Scripture using simple props, and we invite the children to wonder. I wonder why Jesus was born in a stable. I wonder what would have happened if the shepherds had ignored the angel. I wonder how the Word became flesh and lived among us. In Godly Play we don’t provide answers: the children do that, tapping into their natural, imaginative connection with the sacred story of God and God’s people. In this model, the storytelling begins with the opening of a beautiful, golden box, a box which clearly contains something precious. Inside the box are items representing parts of the story: a sheep, a manger, a star, brought out one by one, admired, wondered over, and given their place in the story. Nobody is in a hurry: it is a time to be fully present to God’s redeeming word.

If we were to tell the story of today’s Gospel, with its mystical rendering of the incarnation, I wonder what you might find in that beautiful box? The unfolding of John’s nativity story is like a gift that has been wrapped in many layers, like the old children’s game of pass the parcel. The unwrapping of each layer reveals something about the gift inside, without giving it all away.

Isaiah sets the scene for us, with his greeting of the good news. The ancient prophecies have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries. As familiar as these words are, I wonder if we can hear something a little different from the words we know and love, and so gain a new understanding. We’ll have to back up a little from our reading, just one verse earlier, to get the sense of one ancient version of the prophecy, which might sound like this: “The word of the Lord regarding the promised redemption of God’s people from exile: ‘My people shall know my name on that day, for I AM is speaking, I am here among you, in a season of beauty as far as the eye can see, a bringer of the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of goodness, the announcement of salvation.”

I AM is here among us. Here is Emanuel, God with us, the bringer of the good news of peace and beauty, living among us, full of grace and truth. This is the message of the incarnation. We have good news to celebrate today, as we unwrap the layers of God’s love. The light shining in the darkness illuminates our longing to receive a gift of true value, a gift that is made to be shared.

The first layer of wrapping reveals the day itself: the gift of waking up to a new day. Some of us will rarely think about that gift while others, who have lost a loved one this year or who have survived serious illness or injury, will treasure it. The survivors of the hurricane in Puerto Rico, or the fires in our own state, or the continuing violence and famine in South Sudan will be giving thanks this morning for the gift of one more day.

Another layer reveals the gift of community. We gather here as a cathedral family to exchange greetings, to enjoy the warmth of friendships and the comfort of corporate worship. Our mission at St Paul’s is to love Christ, serve others, and welcome all, no exceptions. If this is your first visit, you can be sure that there is a place for you here. And there is ministry to do, as we seek to share the gifts of our community with those who are outside of it: the people sleeping in the tent encampments downtown, the homebound, the hospitalized, the lonely and isolated.

The next layer to be revealed is the gift of Scripture, described in one of our seasonal prayers as “the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious redemption brought us by this holy Child.” Scripture carries the promise that we long to hear and connects us to our ancestors in faith. And Scripture places demands on us, demands that we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Nestled within that layer we find the Word incarnate, the good tidings of great joy, the news that is proclaimed today across the globe: God, come to us in human form, to live among us full of grace and truth, to show us how to be fully human; God revealed to us as a newborn baby, so that we will never forget that God resides first of all in the helpless and the needy; the Word without which there is no life, no light, no grace, no truth.

And is there yet one more layer? I wonder what we find when we open the final wrapping and look inside the golden box. There is nothing to see. But it’s not empty. The gift, the treasure isn’t something you can weigh, or buy, or display. The gift we receive from God at Christmas will not fit in any box. It’s the gift of knowing with certainty that we are greatly loved. It’s the gift of God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, entrusting us with the care of a helpless child, who carries the hope of the world on his fragile shoulders.

And what are we going to do with this gift? When Christmastide is over, when we return to our ordinary routines, how will we care for the gift we have received today? Will we put it carefully in a box with the breakable decorations and keep it safe until next Christmas? Will we decide that the instructions are too complicated or the cost of operating it is too high, and let it gather dust? Or will we use it and share it, this gift of hope, of grace and truth, of God dwelling among us, in our neighbors, in our world? It’s a gift that never wears out, that can only become stronger with use, and that is needed more and more with each day that passes. The world may be done with Christmas today, but we have one more gift to exchange, and it’s a gift that will last all year.

Alleluia, unto us a child is born. Come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
Christmas Day, 2017

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