The Meaning of Christmas

a sermon for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14, 16
preached on December 24, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

People have offered countless answers to this question over the years. Ask a child, and you might hear something about receiving toys and other gifts. Ask a parent of a child, and you’ll hear about how much more expensive the toys get every year! Ask a corporate executive, and you’ll hear about the importance of the holiday season in cementing the year’s sales and profits. Ask a worker, and you might hear something about the gift of time off to spend with family and friends. There are probably as many different meanings of Christmas among us as there are people in this room.

One of my favorites, though, comes from that insightful character Charlie Brown. In the great and wonderful Charlie Brown Christmas special, Charlie Brown asks his friends about the meaning of Christmas as he struggles to get into the spirit of the season. They give him a lot of different answers, and his dog Snoopy even gets into the act as he wins first prize for the decorations on his doghouse! If that weren’t bad enough, even Charlie Brown’s attempt to find the perfect Christmas tree goes awry, and he ends up with the world’s smallest and scrawniest tree. As his friends berate him for his bad taste in trees and inability to grasp the meaning of Christmas, he ends up wondering out loud, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

In response, his friend Linus takes the stage and begins to tell the story that we heard tonight from the gospel according to Luke. Gradually the mood shifts, and Charlie Brown’s friends finally warm up to his little tree as they all realize that Christmas is about something more than they had expected, about a baby born in a manger in a very different and distant time and place.

But there is more to Christmas than even this. The manger, the angels, and the shepherds are wonderful elements of the story, and they help us begin to understand what was going on when Jesus came into the world. But our reading tonight from the gospel according to John gets even closer to the real meaning of Christmas, I think. While Luke – and also Matthew – give us important details of the birth of Jesus, John focuses on the meaning of Christmas without getting into any of these details at all.

For John, Christmas is a part of something more – a little piece of a much bigger puzzle, a glimpse of God’s larger work in the world, a candle lit in the darkness to make things brighter and clearer. So John’s reflection on the meaning of Christmas starts much earlier – “in the beginning,” as he puts it. The Word – Jesus Christ, the one who comes at Christmas – was with God in the beginning. The Word always had a real and vital part of everything that God had done and was doing and would do, and the Word was an active and present participant in the difficult and wonderful work of creation. This Word brought life and light to all people, and there was no way that darkness would or could overcome it. John the Baptist came and testified to all these things, but still not everyone understood what God was doing in those days. And yet God’s purposes were not thwarted. God became real and human, revealing glory unlike any other glory, showing grace and truth to all the earth, and giving all of us the grace we need for each and every day.

And so this is the real meaning of Christmas to me. That God became human; that God became like us; that God became one of us, walking the earth with us, journeying the twists and turns of life alongside us, knowing the fullness of our humanity. As our opening hymn tonight put it so well:

…he feels for all our sadness,
and he shares in all our gladness.

But God didn’t stop there. Jesus came and transformed our world, bringing light to our greatest darkness, sending justice and peace into every corner of our world, showing us that we cannot fix things ourselves but can and must rely on the powerful grace of our merciful God.

There is little that can measure up to this. Not even the latest and greatest toy received by the most excited child can match the wonder of receiving the very presence of God in human form in Jesus at Christmas. Not even the greatest profits from the sales of the season can compare to the great gift that we receive in Jesus Christ. Not even the best time spent with family and friends can measure up to the power and possibility that comes as God journeys beside us in the human form of Jesus Christ. The best we can do to measure up to this probably comes tonight as we gather at this table, this place where we get the best possible glimpse of this great gift. As we receive this bread and this grape juice, we join with the faithful of every age in anticipation and hope, celebrating God’s presence here and now in this feast even as we look forward to the time when we will know the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus Christ at the great feast of all the ages.

And so this Christmas, may we remember the true meaning of Christmas – the wonder of God becoming human as a little baby, the power of God stepping into our world not as a wealthy and powerful ruler but as a tender child, the justice of God transforming the darkness and pain of our world into the greatest glory we can imagine, and the grace of God journeying with us wherever we go to make us and all things new, once and for all, until Christ comes again.

Glory to God, tonight and always. Amen.


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