Now that we've talked about our own presents, it's time to open another one - a present for everybody here today but, as I hope you can see, it's not a very big present.
With acknowledgement to Robert Amos for the idea of the cross-shaped present.
Micah 5.1-5, Luke 1.39-45
Last week all eyes were fixed on Copenhagen, and no wonder for the very future of the world hangs in the balance. Will the world's leaders be able to settle their differences and save the human race and many other creatures from extinction, or will they continue to bicker and prevaricate while one half of the world fries and the other half drowns?
Great hopes were invested in President Obama. Would he or wouldn't he even go to Copenhagen, and if he did would he be able to break the deadlock? Sadly, his keynote speech seemed only to make matters worse by putting all the blame on China and humiliating the Chinese delegation. Is something as basic as injured pride going to be the cause of humanity's downfall?
Micah describes a similar situation. It's not the world that is under threat in his prophecy, of course, but the tiny country of Judah. The people have had to flee the land and take shelter behind the walls of their cities while the Assyrian hordes lay waste to the land. The ruler of Judah, King David's successor and the Lord's anointed representative, is publicly humiliated - suffering the equivalent of a smack in the face from a leather glove, the sort of taunt used by men to demand a duel or Nazi officers laughing at their hapless prisoners.
And yet, while all the attention is focused on the walled cities, where all the action is, Micah reminds his readers that sometimes big things come in small packages. Tiny insignificant Bethlehem was the place where the mighty King David had been plucked from obscurity as a shepherd boy to lead his nation to victory over the Philistines, and the same thing can happen again. When Bethlehem, or perhaps the nation, has brought forth a new leader, his compatriots will be able to return from exile or, perhaps, go back to their farmland for he shall restore security and peace.
If Copenhagen had witnessed a similar David and Goliath moment, when a leader from somewhere small and insignificant proved to be the catalyst for a new era of peace and prosperity, it would surely have been Dessima Williams - the passionate, articulate and outspoken leader of the Alliance of Small Island States - who would have emerged centre stage. Whenever she was interviewed she was always impressive and compelling, but sadly President Obama and Prime Minister Hu Jintao did not listen to her, or indeed to the British delegation either, so the struggle will have to go on.
The last part of verse 5, incidentally, does not belong with the rest of the prophecy. It has been inserted into the text at this point by a later editor. It doesn't refer to the new messianic leader from Bethlehem at all. Rather it is a boastful claim that, if the Assyrians attack Judah, countless people will rise up to lead the nation against them. The phrase seven and eight in Hebrew means 'an incredibly large number' and, although it might seem strange to us, 'shepherds' and 'rulers' are often interchangeable in Hebrew thinking.
And so to our Gospel reading. It describes a moment of hope, expectation and joy because these two women really do believe that now the prophecy of Micah is going to be fulfilled and, from Bethlehem, there will at last come a leader who will change the world for ever. However, the Christian interpretation of Micah's words sharpens the message. Not only will God's new messiah come unnoticed from an insignificant place like Bethlehem, while all the world's attention is focused elsewhere, but also the new leader will himself be a very ordinary person - born in a stable, of doubtful parentage, a carpenter by trade. And yet, already, John the Baptist is foretelling the new Messiah's imminent arrival, even though he is still in his mother's womb.
Sometimes when young people are off out for the night and everyone else in the house is going to bed before they return, Mum or Dad will say to them, "I'll keep the light on for you" so that they will be able to find their way back into the house safely and easily when they return. Isn't that the role of Christians in a time like the present? We have to keep the light on, keep hope burning, even when the world's leaders seem incapable - as one environmental campaigner said sadly - of looking beyond their own narrow self-interest. 'If we're ever going to beat problems like global warming we will need a totally new kind of leader,' he said. Isn't that what Christmas is all about?
The Gospel says that ordinary people, and ordinary communities of people, can make a difference to our world - especially if we are inspired by the example and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was small my grandfather used to tell the story of his most memorable childhood Christmas. I always used to find it unbearably sad, but it's important to say that he didn't tell the story to get sympathy, or as a way into a rant about how young people don't know how lucky they are these days. He always told it as a funny story, and - of course - as a warning about what happens to naughty children.
The story goes like this, when he was small - about five or six years' old - he slept in the same bed as his younger brother. On Christmas morning he woke up very early and decided to look in his Christmas stocking. And guess what was in it? An apple, an orange, a six pence and - one toy. It was a clockwork train. He wound it up and it ran along the bed. Then he wound it up and it ran along the bed again. And then he wound it up and, again, it ran along the bed.
And then he got bored. So he decided to have a look in his brother's stocking and see what Father Christmas had brought him. And guess what his brother's stocking contained? An apple, an orange, a six pence of course, and - one toy, not a train this time but a steamroller.
And this is when he did a very naughty thing. He wound up the steamroller and it ran along the bed. And then, guess what happened next! He wound it up again and it ran along the bed and it fell off the end. He picked it up quickly and it seemed to be all right but, of course, when he wound it up this time it wouldn't go.
So what do you suppose he did? He stuffed all of the presents back into the two stockings, laid down again in the bed and pretended to be fast asleep until his brother woke up. Of course, you can imagine the fuss when his brother found out that the steamroller wouldn't work. I guess my grandfather hoped his parents would think it must have been like that when it was delivered by Father Christmas. But there was a fatal flaw in his thinking. Can you see where his plan had gone wrong? The steamroller was already wound up, which meant someone must have tried to play with it.
The upshot was that my grandfather got the broken steamroller for Christmas and his brother got the train. So his only real present that year was a broken toy steamroller, which I always found very sad.
My grandfather only got one present partly because, in those days, children didn't expect much for Christmas, so Father Christmas didn't have his work cut out like he does now when he has to deliver mountains of X-Boxes and Wiis and what have you. But still there are children who don't expect much for Christmas, who don't see any point in writing a great long wish list if things they would like to receive, and that's the reason for our service today.
Our two short Bible readings were also about a gift - the gift of hope. In the very short reading from the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi his readers are told to expect a messenger who will bring them a promise that the world is going to be put right. All the things that are wrong in our world will be purified or scrubbed clean. Not by magic, of course. And not without a cost. Our drama reminded us that if you purify something by setting it on fire that will not only get rid of any impurities that are clinging to it, but it will also change that thing forever. It will be transformed into something completely different.
If we were to set fire to a pair of jeans, of course, they would be transformed to a pile of ash. That's a silly idea, and not a change for the better. But even if we put them in the washing machine and clean them with strong detergent they will be transformed. Their colour will fade a bit more. They might shrink a bit. And they will look less grungy - at least for a while.
My son is a waiter and after every shift he comes home with his trousers covered in gravy, because customers leave a sea of gravy on their plates at the end of their meal. The trousers need a good wash to transform them back into something presentable for the next day.
Refining silver is a bit of a step change, of course, from washing clothes. In the picture we can see some liquid silver which has been obtained as a bi-product from making gold. It comes out of the furnace where the gold is refined as a black powder residue, but when it's heated up to a very high temperature it melts and becomes white liquid which can be poured into a plaster mould. When it cools, the plaster mould is broken, leaving behind the solid piece of silver.
God's coming into the world at Christmas is the moment which turns the black dross of our daily lives into the pure silver of eternity. This is because, the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem grew up to become the man who was crucified, in the final phase of his mission to help human beings reconnect with God. As we discover God's love, flooding into our lives and our world, it's like receiving the one present which can transform our drab Christmases - the Christmases when the toy got broken or the relatives got on our nerves - into the meaning and purpose that will make our lives worthwhile.
Then, as our reading from Luke's Gospel says, we will be able to serve God 'by being holy and good as long as we live'.
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36As we enter a new liturgical year, with the beginning of Advent, how appropriate that the Old Testament reading should be about the perfect leader, because - before the year is out - we shall be thinking a lot about what it takes to lead a modern nation state out of economic crisis and through the uncharted waters of global warming.
Apparently, tongue-tied people are very rare nowadays because if a baby is tongue-tied the paediatricians cut the tie in the first few days of life to help them breastfeed better. But that never happened to me, and I had to make the best of it. I never was much good at breastfeeding, my mother says, and that's not the only thing I'm not very good at. Rolling my "Rs" isn't possible, for a start.
Tonight's Bible readings are all about the tongue. "The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher," says the Prophet in the New Revised Standard version of this passage, "So that I may... sustain the weary with a word." And the writer of the Letter of James is actually obsessed with tongues. First he describes how a bit is placed on top of a horse's tongue to control the way it moves - and then goes on to compare sailing ships to horses. The wind filling the sails drives a boat through the water, but it is the tiny rudder which - like a tongue - decides which course the ship will steer. And then, finally, he says that the tongue is a burning fire sent straight from hell, a world of iniquity staining or polluting the whole body.
That description of the tongue could sound a touch hysterical, were it not for the example of Peter, who just goes to prove why the tongue can be so dangerous. Peter tries to put his Master straight about some disturbing ideas that he has begun to share with the disciples, but Jesus rounds on him and says, "Get behind me Satan!" Here it seems is a tongue which really is 'a restless evil, full of deadly poison.'
We do have to be careful, don't we, what we say? Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words do also hurt and - for most people - it's easier to speak rashly and harshly than it is to inflict actual bodily harm. So a loose tongue can do a lot of damage. As the Chinese proverb puts it, words are like a kite whose string has been broken. Once they are gone, they cannot be recalled. We can apologise for their effect, but we can never undo what we have said.
A while ago someone was speaking to me in a stressful situation. They were feeling ill, I think, and their temper got the better of them. In no time at all they were calling other people - their colleagues - lazy, dishonest, deceptive, prejudiced and even unchristian. I advised them to consider their words because, as I pointed out, if later they felt differently they would have a lot of explaining to do.
'No one can tame the tongue,' says the writer of the epistle, 'With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [But], my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.'