This year' 2nd Class Christmas postage stamp is a picture of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem for the birth of their baby. Those of you read the post for Advent Sunday know that the donkey isn’t really part of the story, but here the artist - David Holmes - has imagined that Mary is riding on a donkey to save her from getting tired.
The bit about the donkey may not be strictly true, but the picture on the stamp is actually a visual interpretation of a Bible verse. It’s Isaiah chapter 35 verse 1. When “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God” comes to us, “Thirsty deserts will be glad; barren lands will celebrate and blossom with flowers.” That’s how the Contemporary English version puts it, but the Authorised Version says, The desert shall... blossom as the rose,” and here in the foreground of the picture is the rose!
I’m reminded of an Alpine walk we went on when our children were teenagers. My elder son, who was 14 at the time, said, ‘Why are we walking through this barren wilderness?’ Which would have been a good question, because the sun was beating down on us and the pathway was very rocky, except that all around us there were millions of wildflowers. And since then he’s sent us photos of Alpine flowers he’s seen on other mountain walks.
I don’t know what the deserts of Palestine are like, but the Bible envisages them blossoming not like the picture, with just one rose discreetly tucked away on the edge of the path, but like an Alpine meadow. And that’s because Jesus is “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God.” And that’s what we are celebrating at Christmas, God’s wonderful splendour coming to live with us.
And then, of course, there’s the 1st Class picture of Jesus lying in a manger, under a makeshift shelter in the fields. Again, we saw in the Advent Sunday post that the only part of this story which is recorded in the Bible is Jesus being laid in the manger. The rest is down to the artist’s imagination - except for the star.
The Bible says that, ‘Some day a king of Israel will appear like a star.” And it also says that some people saw the new king’s star, when it appeared in the eastern sky, and came to worship him.
In the £1.52 picture there are three wise travellers and again, in my Advent post, we saw that isn’t strictly true either. The prophet isaiah warned that people who “study the stars and tell the future” are “as helpless as straw in a flaming fire.” But the people who followed the star to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus weren’t trying to predict the future, they were coming to praise God for something that had already happened. Psalm 148 says “bright stars come and offer praise” whenever God appears, and so do “kings and rulers, men and women, young people and old.” And that’s why the wise travellers came, and why we have come here this morning, to celebrate God appearing among us, in the baby Jesus lying in the manger in Bethlehem.
And the shepherds came, as depicted in the £1.33 stamp, because they heard the angels’ message, while they were in the fields near Bethlehem, that the birth of Jesus brings ‘peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.’
But, unfortunately, not everyone does please God. The Prophet Isaiah warns us that sometimes dumb animals can be more loyal and trusting than supposedly intelligent people. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, whereas God’s children turn against him and never learn to love and trust him . Psalm 148 says, “All creatures on earth [shall] praise the Lord… Every wild and tame animal [shall] come [and] praise the Lord.” And Psalm 150 says, “Let every living creature praise him.”
The Bible doesn’t say anything about lambs lying down with camels, as David Holmes fondly imagines them doing on his £1 stamp, but the Prophet Isaiah does say that when the Lord’s reign is finally established on earth “wolves and lambs will graze together; lions and oxen will feed on straw.”
But what are we to make of the final picture in the series, the £2.25 stamp which you have probably never seen unless you are a stamp collector and bought the whole set? Is this the Prophet Simeon, who was told by God’s Spirit to go to the Temple so that he could bless the newborn Jesus? Or is it the Prophet Anna, who served God night and day and praised God when she say the baby Jesus and talked about him to everyone?
The artists says it’s actually a depiction of the moment when Mary learned she was going to have a baby. The angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you and God’s power will come over you.”
But I think the picture is a reminder that the Christmas story is only a story unless we make it our story, by inviting God’s Spirit to enter our lives and our situation and make the story come alive for us, so that Jesus is born in our hearts this Christmas as well as in Bethlehem.