Readings: Is. 9:2–7, Tit. 2:11–14 & Lk. 2:1–20
At its best, Christmas is a wonderful occasion for family and friends to spend time together enjoying each other’s company, sharing meals, and exchanging gifts. At its worst, its probably the single biggest opportunity in the year for our “consumerist culture” to gorge itself on excess. Sometimes in the church we lament the fact that the true meaning of Christmas has largely been lost in our society today.
For many people, Christmas is about spending time with family and friends, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The church community itself comes together as a family and as friends at this time to celebrate with one another. And of course the occasion celebrate is the birth of Jesus Christ. But I wonder if we truly understand the significance of that event, and why we celebrate it?
Let me take you back in history to the time when Moses lead the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt. As they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, God travelled with them, going ahead of them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, to guide them, and to remind them of His presence with them. Then of course many centuries later the people of Israel were forced into exile, first the people of the northern tribes by the Assyrian Empire, and later the southern tribe of Judah by the Babylonian Empire. The people of Israel felt that God had deserted them, that He was no longer present with them.
But God continued to speak to the people of Israel through the many prophets of the Old Testament, and His promise was always the same. That He would eventually return to live among His people again.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the birth of a child who will fulfil that promise. He writes, ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (Is. 9:6) Centuries later, many Christians believed this was a prophecy about the birth of Jesus.
At the time that it was written though, it is thought to have been a prophecy about the birth of King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was born when the Assyrian Empire ruled most of the known world. The Assyrians had already defeated the northern tribes of Israel and forced many of the Israelites into exile, and they threatened to do the same with Judah, and its capital city Jerusalem.
Hezekiah defended Jerusalem against a siege by the Assyrian army, and when a plague wiped out most of the Assyrian army and forced them to abandon the siege, Hezekiah and the people believed the plague was the work of God intervening directly on their behalf. At that point in time, it appeared the prophecy of Isaiah had come true, at least to the people in Jerusalem.
But around a hundred years later, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people were sent into exile. And even though they eventually returned from Babylon, the people of Judah remained under the rule of foreign powers right up to the time of Jesus’ birth, when of course they were under the rule of the Roman Empire. But in the centuries between the exile in Babylon and Roman rule, the prophets of Israel continued to prophesy about a Jewish Messiah, a descendant of King David, who would free the people from foreign rule, and establish God’s kingdom on earth.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, that describes the birth of Jesus, gives us several clues that Jesus is this Messiah. First, he is born in the town of Bethlehem, which was also the birthplace of King David. Second, Joseph, who is engaged to Jesus’ mother Mary, is himself descended from King David. And of course Luke describes the visit of an angel of God to shepherds living in the fields around Bethlehem telling them that the Messiah has just been born in Bethlehem, and that Messiah is Jesus.
But Jesus is much more than the Messiah. As the Apostle Paul said in the letter to his colleague Titus, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. . . . .while we wait for the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”. Jesus is God. God revealed Himself to humankind by taking human form in the person of Jesus Christ. He became one of us, in order to show us, through the life of Jesus Christ, how we should behave and treat one another.
God gave us the greatest gift that has ever been given. He gave us the gift of Himself. And at Christmas, as we exchange gifts with family and friends, we commemorate this gift when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. God is present with us, just as He was with the people of Israel all those years ago in the desert.