(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on January 8, 2017)
I was in a store that shall remain nameless this past week, and I noticed that all of the Christmas stuff had been taken down, and the Valentine’s Day stuff had been hung prominently on the wall behind the cash. That is all to be expected, I suppose.
What wasn’t expected were the Easter decorations and eggs which were being placed on the shelves beside the Valentine’s things.
Christmas is finally over.
The shepherds have gone back to their sheep, and they’re trying to find the ones that strayed away while they were oohing and aahhing over the baby Jesus.
The three wise men have gone home by another way, hoping that when they get back no wars have broken out, no one close to them has died, and their houses are still standing. After all, by the calculation of some scholars, they’d been following that star for nearly two years and it only makes sense that it would take them as long again to return home. Maybe they were hoping that they’d actually get home, because they didn’t have a guiding star on the return journey, and the route was not familiar.
One wonders what happened next. Did the angels and the star and the dreams and the baby really cause any lasting change in their lives? After all, it was just a baby. It would be years before the grown man began to preach and heal and challenge the existing order.
Christmas is finally over.
The guests have gone home, or if we were a guest, we’re back home. The kids are contemplating the fact that today is their last day of freedom before another term at school begins.
The leftover turkey is (hopefully) gone, the chocolates have migrated from the boxes to our waistline. The chairs at Weight Watchers are full of people determined to lose those extra few (or not so few) pounds that have accumulated over this past holiday and countless like it before. The gyms are full of sweaty bodies trying to get in shape after a few weeks spent exercising only the finger that operates the TV remote.
If we haven’t already undecorated the house, we’re contemplating that chore, some of us with dread. After all, people like helping us decorate. But how happy are they to come back and remove all that tinsel they so gleefully put all over our tree?
The presents have all been opened, and in many cases, have been returned for something better, or for cash or a gift card. I’ll admit that I took advantage of some Boxing Week sales (notice how it’s become a week, when a few decades ago it was only a day?), and the line ups at the cash were long—not with folks buying, but with folks returning. If you don’t like what you get, take it back! It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the gift! And of course, if you didn’t get what you really want for Christmas, just go out and buy it for yourself! After all, it’s on sale.
And those sales—notice how they’re all timed to be just before you get your credit card statement? You’ve bought all those Christmas gifts, and you haven’t yet seen the final total, so the stores have one last go at your pocketbook before your eyes are opened to your peril.
Christmas is finally over, and some of us are probably feeling a little down. All the excitement, all the disruption and now…
Now we’re back to normal.
Or are we?
We are back to normal, only with bigger waistlines and emptier bank accounts, if we see Christmas as a once a year event that makes no real change in our lives, just as the magi and the shepherds would have been back to normal if they viewed the baby Jesus as just another baby.
But we Christians know that the baby Jesus was not just another baby, and that Christmas can last forever, if we let it.
Because Christmas isn’t about presents and big feasts. It’s not even about getting together with family and friends and singing lots of wonderful carols.
Christmas is about recognizing that God is here, among us, and that that coming means something, and that it should change our lives.
Last week, I took the congregation on a journey that started with naming what was broken in our lives and in our world to figuring out what actions we could take, to finally choosing one single action or habit that we could adopt in the New Year that would change how we react to our situations.
There was some good discussion about what to do about the big issues over which we have little, if any, influence—terrorism, environmental disasters and Donald Trump among them. One person wisely suggested prayer, and I responded that prayer connects us to others, and we will change, even if the situation remains the same.
But the best response came the next day. A woman phoned and told me that she was going to work on changing her attitude.
She was talking about developing patience when the person turning right at the red light was taking a little too long to do it, and I responded that I’d also be working on attitude, trying not to get upset at the person behind me who was honking at me to turn right when I didn’t feel safe!
And I realized that this woman had gotten the point of Christmas.
God chose to come, not as a great warrior who led his people to victory, nor as a prophet or priest who called down fire from the sky, but as a tiny baby who started out life as a child of poor parents, and who, with his parents, became a refugee, fleeing for his life.
He grew into an ordinary, curious boy, and finally became a homeless, itinerant preacher who got tired and hungry and thirsty and angry and sad and happy. He loved, not with the abstract love of an unseen God, but with the passion of a human being. And finally, he suffered the indignity and agony of a tortured death on a cross.
God became a real human being, someone we can relate to. Someone who, when we look into those infant eyes, reflects in our own frail human form the image of God.
Seeing the image of God, not just in ourselves and in others like us, but in every single human being who ever lived, is ultimately what God is asking us to do. And if we do that, we need to change our attitudes.
Allow me to explain.
My mother watches crime shows. Some are dramas like NCIS, and some are true crime cases like Forensic Files. And on more than a few of those shows, convicted criminals are described as losers, scum, and once, when a Christian was talking about an unrepentant murderer, the speaker said, “I hope he’s ready for what follows life in prison. It’s hot down there.”
And this bothers me, because that baby in a manger grew up to be a man who told us, “Do not condemn anyone to the fires of Hell, for the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
That baby in a manger grew up to say to the criminal hanging beside him on another cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
That baby in a manger grew up to choose, after his death, a man who had watched Christians being stoned as the bearer of light to the Gentiles, including us.
That baby in a manger came to both dirty, lonely shepherds at the fringes of their society, and rich, well-dressed sages who were right at the centre of power. That baby in a manger came to remind us that the breath of God animates every single human being, and that we all reflect the image of God.
Christmas is finally over. Except that it’s not.
Yes, the turkey and the decorations and the presents and the visitors and the shopping are done with. (Well, not really—only 351 shopping days left until Christmas, folks! Run out and get your presents now, then hide them so you forget where you put them and have to buy more! Gotta keep the economy running!)
But Christmas isn’t about turkey and decorations and presents and visitors. Well, maybe a little about the visitors, if you have the right attitude.
Christmas is about God-With-Us. Christmas reminds us to see the image of God in everyone we meet—the person ahead of us or behind us at the red light, the convicted criminals in jail, the homeless youth on the street, the refugees clamouring to be taken in, the business moguls who don’t care about their employees or customers or the environment as long as they’re making big bonuses, and yes, even Donald Trump.
When Christmas stops being about the once-a-year orgy of food and family and shopping, and starts being about Jesus, then we begin to understand that the giving has just begun and that the gifts are all around us.
Christmas will never be over.