At Christmas…more blessed to receive than to give?

abstract nativity

A sermon for Midnight Mass 2018 – St Mary’s Whitkirk

This year we got Elton John…and the gift of that piano. We’ve had the friendly monster under the bed…the man in the moon. The John Lewis advert, it’s almost a Christmas institution. So, do you wait eagerly…hankie at the ready? Or are you annoyed at its appearing almost before you’ve let your fireworks off?

I’ve begun to feel sorry for the people behind the ad. I can just imagine them, the turkey barely cold, desperately thinking – how can we top this year…what new thing can we say about Christmas? (A bit like preachers perhaps – although we’re generally a bit more last minute!)

Of course I should say, in the interests of balance, that other adverts are available…I spent a fascinating hour recently watching a selection from the past 40 years. Once I’d got over the 80s hairstyles, I was interested how we seemed happy then accepting Christmas involves stuff. The adverts just suggested buying everything in one place would make shopping less stressful and Christmas more wonderful.

But life today seems more fragile…we’re beginning to realise that stuff is destroying our planet…people want something deeper, more meaningful than mere shopping – there’s an elusive ‘Christmas factor’ that advertisers want to capture.

So they try to say, we get Christmas, we know it’s about more than stuff…so buy your stuff from us – and you’ll somehow buy goodwill, peace, family harmony…oh and one of your offspring will become an international megastar…

They talk more about giving, saying:

‘you get what you give’

‘some gifts are more than just a gift’

or even (in a master stroke by Iceland) buy your gifts from us and save Orang-utans

They’re always going to miss the mark though…not just because Christmas isn’t about ‘stuff’…but because it isn’t really about giving…I don’t think it’s even fundamentally about joy and peace and goodwill to all…it’s about receiving.

Of course the real Christmas gift is a baby in a manger. The real Christmas gift is God’s love: love that couldn’t look on a suffering, troubled world without coming to live within it; love that shares our suffering.

And it’s a gift that throws us – because it’s not a gift thanking us for something we’ve done, or exchanged for a gift in return, or given as charity to make us feel better…it’s a gift that says, I who created you, love you…and it asks only that we receive it.

I think perhaps we’ve forgotten how to receive. Or maybe we were never very good at it. St John, in that great poetic passage we heard tonight, says ‘the world did not know him…his own people did not accept him.’ Luke’s gospel – more familiar from nativity plays tells us there was no room in the Inn.

Perhaps we find it hard to receive because receiving properly means making room. Receiving properly from others means being ready to let them into our lives and accepting the possibility of being changed.

Receiving…you’d think it would be easier than giving. But it means admitting our need…admitting that whatever the ‘Christmas factor’ is, we can’t manufacture it with stuff, charity, or even family. It means coming with empty hands…with just our desire for something more.

And we find that hard. Many of us have built up a shell because we’ve been hurt before…perhaps by those we thought offered love…perhaps by the church…perhaps just by life. Or we’re happy with life – and fear anything that might change us.

Because accepting the total, unconditional love of the Christ child does change us.

Recognising our need of God’s love, means recognising that wealth, status, even useful employment is never totally fulfilling.

But knowing we’re loved regardless of what we do gives us an identity that doesn’t depend on wealth, status, or even the love of others. The confidence given by that love can change the way we see each other.

Of course those advertisers aren’t wrong with their pictures of goodwill to all at Christmas…but they’ve forgotten that it begins at the crib where God’s love for us is revealed. In this age of individualism, self-reliance, nationalism…we’ve forgotten how to admit our need of each other, to graciously receive, prepared to be changed. Perhaps in accepting God’s love we can learn to receive from one another.

How might our society look if we saw older people not as a problem to be solved but as a resource of shared stories, wisdom and love…if we rediscovered our need for them? I caught a few episodes of channel 4’s ‘Old people’s home for 4 year olds’, where a nursery class was taught in a care home. It focused originally on the benefit to the elderly and sometimes isolated residents. It was beautiful though, to see how much the children gained, and how their parents appreciated this.

How might parliamentary debate sound if our political parties considered listening to, rather than shouting at each other…even – dare I say it – considered receiving ideas and wisdom from one another?

How might relationships between countries look if we saw our differences as gifts rather than threats? If we admitted that we need each other to tackle national and global problems?

So never mind ‘you get what you give’ as Sainsbury’s told us this year. What about ‘become what you receive’?

In a few moments we will gather around God’s table. Please come, whether you do every week…haven’t done for years…have never been before. Come with open hands and an open heart – open yourself to the possibility that God offers himself to you.

And as the advertisers start next year’s search for that elusive ‘Christmas-ness’ that somehow lights the darkness – let’s remember that Christmas really starts when we look into the crib and accept that we are loved. Amen