Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Gift of Hope

Malachi 3.1b—2 , Luke 1.68—74

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'.

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