Text: Luke 2:10-11
The angel said to them (the shepherds), ‘Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David’s town your Saviour was born – Christ the Lord’
Christmas is a very exciting time, for adults and children alike. It’s a highlight of the year and part of the excitement is the giving and receiving of gifts and, of course, before you can give you need to give thought into what you will give.
The kind of gifts given at Christmas has changed a great deal over the years. My dad, who grew up in the years between the two World Wars, tells of the simple homemade gifts he received at Christmas. Somehow mysteriously gifts appeared under the Christmas tree during the Christmas Eve service – a pair of socks knitted by his Granny and a pair of shorts made by his mum and one year the boys did get something bought from the shops – a small bag of marbles each. With eight kids that was no small task for Granny to knit eight pairs of socks. Those were hard times but from what I gather the Christmases celebrated then were no less joyous and no less exciting and no less full of anticipation than they are today.
And when our own children woke up on Christmas morning they were excited just as I was when I was a kid and just as excited as their own children are this morning. Gift giving, and sharing in the delight that the gift gives, is a highlight of the Christmas celebrations.
We know that the first visitors who came to visit the Christ-child brought gifts. The shepherds who were watching over their flocks near Bethlehem were poor but they brought the baby in the manger their love and adoration. The wisemen from the east brought expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but more importantly they knelt before the little child and gave him honour and worship.
In a very moving moment in the movie The Nativity Story, a rough looking group of shepherds, some carrying lambs, gather around a rather perplexed Mary and Joseph. They kneel and one old shepherd reaches out with a trembling hand to touch the baby but he thinks better and withdraws his hand. Mary says gently, “He is a gift for all mankind” and she holds out the baby and he reaches out again to touch the little one whom the angel had said is “your Saviour – Christ the Lord”. The old man is overcome with emotion as Mary says, “We have each been given a gift”. If you watch the sleeping baby carefully, he gives a little smile as baby’s do – almost a smile of approval or acknowledgment of the old man’s devotion.
Whatever was going through the shepherd’s mind at that time, he was overcome with joy to know that he was included in the happy news that the angel had announced. Today in David’s town his Saviour was born, the Messiah, the Lord God himself came in the flesh and was wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. This child was his Messiah – the Saviour – God’s Christmas gift to the shepherds and to all of us.
Sometimes we focus on the giving and on the gifts so much that we miss the fact that what we are celebrating at this time of the year is God’s gift to us. Our gift giving is a reflection of the generous gift that God gave to us at the first Christmas – the gift of his Son. This gift from God is for all people – no one is excluded.
It is a gift given out of extreme love – a love so immense, so deep, so wonderful and powerful that we can hardly begin to fathom what kind of love it is that would cause God – the ruler and creator of everything – the supreme power that holds the universe together – to become a vulnerable and helpless baby born to human parents, subject to the laws of nature and the laws of mankind, and to come into this world in such a way that is hardly believable. God came from heaven to earth to the sound of a mother crying out in childbirth in a stable; his first bed was a manger; his first visitors strangers.
Like any new parents I’m sure Mary and Joseph were overcome with emotion as they held this new life in their arms for the first time. A new life had entered the world and he was theirs to care for and to love. They also realised that this tiny bundle was God’s gift not only to them but also to the world and the world would never be the same again. This child is a gift for all mankind; he belongs to everyone and he will give everyone the greatest gifts of all – peace, forgiveness, reconciliation with God, eternal life.
And like all gifts, this child in the manger, brings joy.
After visiting the stable “the shepherds went back, singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen.”
In fact, not only the people on earth but also the angels of heaven rejoiced at this baby’s birth. “A great army of heaven’s angels appeared with the angel, singing praises to God.” The Christmas story is about a gift that brought joy to all people.
This Christmas gift from God changes things.
The father of Tom and John Peterson had died and willed the farm to his sons with the idea that the farm would “bring his sons closer together”. But it didn’t work. John had married and lived nearby in a small town with his family. Tom, who remained single, lived alone in the old farmhouse.
Tom thought, “John is always preoccupied with his family. He does what he has to on the farm but then he’s off home to the missus and the kids. I do more than my share to keep the farm going. Who gets up in the middle of the night when there’s a sick cow? Who rounds up sheep that get through the fence during the night?” And so he began to resent his brother.
On the other hand his brother John was thinking, “Tom has become so grouchy lately. It must be living alone in the old house. He seems to resent me going home to my family. He’s become such a grumpy ol’ man.” And so a wall of bitterness gradually built up between them to the point where they would hardly speak to each other.
On Christmas Eve they sat on opposite sides of the church. One of the carols they sang went like this.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
all you within this place,
and with true love and brotherhood
each other now embrace;
this holy time of Christmas
all others doth efface:
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy,
As John sang these words he was troubled because he had hardly acknowledged his brother’s presence in church that night.
On the way home he said to his wife, “Tom is alone in the farmhouse and has no one to share Christmas. I know he won’t come to our place. Maybe we can take a nice Christmas dinner to him.” His wife prepared a delicious meal. It was only a short walk so he wrapped up the dinner to keep it warm and headed for the farmhouse.
Tom was sitting alone and thought, “Life is too short for this kind of thing. John is my only brother and it hasn’t been easy for him to provide for his wife and family. I’ve just smoked some fresh metwurst and I’ve got some gifts I’ve made from wood for the kids.” So he set off toward town with his arms full of goodies.
Down in the valley between the farm and the town they met. They were silent for a moment, and then they embraced with tears in their eyes and words of “Merry Christmas! Brother, please forgive me!”
You can see what happened. The barriers came down, reconciliation took place and peace came to those brothers. The peace that God gave to each of them through his Son; the peace they heard about as they sat in the church that Christmas Eve moved them to be peacemakers toward each other.
You and I know what devastating effect sin has in our lives. Sin is so destructive. It destroys everything that is good. It destroys good relationships, like the harmony between God and us, or the friendship between people. Just think of pride, or greed, or impatience, or unkindness and how destructive they can be. We all know what it means to feel guilty when we have hurt someone in some way. Christmas changes all this. The baby in the manger is our Saviour – Jesus – the one who rescues us from our sin.
Or what about the illness, the trouble, the tragedy, the unresolved problems that burden you? You wonder why this has to happen to you. When will it end? When will we have peace of mind again? How will you ever be able to cope? Christmas changes all this.
The gift that God gave us at Christmas is a Saviour. Christmas is a celebration of God becoming human, being born in a manger, for us. As unintelligible as it is to think of almighty God becoming a weak helpless baby born in a cattle shed, that is what happened so that he could be Emmanuel, that is God with us.
That is the whole point of Christmas. There may be lots of traditions, customs associated with Christmas. There may be the giving and receiving of lots of gifts. There may be Santas, Christmas parties, and Christmas Day celebrations with friends and relatives but in the end the only thing that really counts is the gift we receive from God. The gift of a Saviour is “God with us” in all the sin, the trouble and death of this world.
This is the gift that brings peace.
This is the gift that saves.
This is the gift that lasts.
In David’s town our Saviour was born – Christ the Lord.