It must be a sign of middle age and relative security that I find the hardest question for me to be asked lately is “what do you want for Christmas?”. It is also a sign of getting older that my honest answer to “what do you want for Christmas?” is “sleep”.
So this third Sunday in Advent is a gift for me… and anyone else who is feeling just a little bit harassed.
Here is Isaiah’s gift to us, from chapter 35:
Strength for the weak hands,
Firmness for the feeble knees.
The Lord says to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
The greatest gift of Christmas is God’s presence in our world and in our lives. And it is a gift that we receive without even lifting a finger. More than that, it is a gift which promises us new strength, new grace, new and deeper reserves of love and joy and peace. Or as Isaiah puts it: “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Meanwhile the gift from the letter of James are the words telling us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts. At first this might seem like advice for the young at heart, who cannot wait for Christmas to come. Do you remember those days – when you impatiently counted down the sleeps before Christmas, feeling like it would never come? Now I expect you’re more likely to be caught saying ‘I can’t believe it’s only 10 days to Christmas – I’ll never be ready’.
For those who feel like they can’t wait, James says ‘be patient’.. and for those who feel hassled by all they have to do. James says ‘be patient’. God will come in Jesus. Nothing you do will make it happen sooner or be better. The gift of Christ is God’s idea – and God will make it happen, not any human plan.
I chose the carol, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ for this service because I think it expresses perfectly this sense that the birth of Jesus Christ is an act of God, not a human event.
Bethlehem is asleep – every living soul. The hymn is full of references to all the things that human beings are not doing, while all the action is done by God, the angels, even the stars in the sky. We are left only to wonder and to sing of Immanuel - God come to us, abiding with us, entering our hearts. Be patient.
But I don’t believe that God means us to be complacent as we wait for the gift of love at Christmas. Isaiah and the other prophets speak about the coming of God’s kingdom when there will be peace and joy and love for all As we wait for God’s full purpose to be revealed we might find ourselves becoming restless, impatient. If Jesus came to be prince of peace, when will there be peace in Jerusalem, in Syria, in Afghanistan?
So we come to the gift of our gospel reading. I’d forgive you for wondering why we have had a reading not about the birth of Jesus, but from 30 years on, when Jesus has started his work and preaching. John the Baptist has baptised Jesus and then John has been put in prison for his condemnation of his ruler, Herod. John is beginning to wonder whether Jesus is the Messiah after all. He sends his disciples to ask “Are you the one, or must we look for another?”.
Jesus tells him to look at the evidence “the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news”. If Jesus was a modern day teenager he would simply say to John ‘Am I the one? Like, duh!’.
Who else but the Messiah could do those things?
When all these good things happen, you know God is at work in his world. John knew it when he saw Jesus at work – but where might today’s world know it?
I want to give all of us a challenge today.
You know it’s Christmas because of the evidence all around you. But right at the heart of Christmas is this message that God came into the world in Jesus.
John the Baptist was challenged by Jesus to look for the signs around him and I believe we are each challenged to look for the evidence around us.
Look for goodness and new life, hope and joy in he world – and when you find them, look for the presence of God in them. You might hear in the Christmas story about Jesus Christ - who was the word made flesh 2000 years ago. But you might wonder how people can see & hear that for themselves, as John did? It is a challenge, sometimes, to see evidence of God’s gift of Gods presence to us – even in our 21st century world. How can the world of today see the human face of the one who is God with us? That can be a challenge.
But to those of us who follow Jesus Christ, it is even more challenging than that.
People need to see the face of Christ today in us – that’s why the church is sometimes called the body of Christ.
If Christmas is God’s gift to us of God’s own self, it is a gift which comes with an invitation and a challenge to be part of God’s gift to the world around us.
So if today you can accept the gift of Isaiah’s words, and the letter of James’ words, and the gift of John the Baptist’s experience of God in action, the be ready too to accept the challenge this gift brings.
Listen to the story the church tells; look at the love in the lives of the people who are part of the church; and think about what your part is going to be in showing the love of Jesus in the world.
Look for the evidence of God’s gift to the world – and then be prepared to be that evidence for the whole world.
And may God help each one of us to live up to that challenge – in Jesus name. Amen.