Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All

(This was our Christmas Eve message at the American Church in London.)

John 1:1-5

Did you see the news this past week about a group of volunteers called The Kindness Offensive? They drove around London in an old Routemaster bus, and gave more than 4000 gifts away to people around town. Most of the people who got the gifts looked a little stunned. It was billed as the largest random act of kindness in London’s history. A TV reporter talked to a boy who received a gift. ‘What do you think about all of this?’ the reporter asked. The boy said: ‘It's good.’ Then he paused and said: ‘It’s quite mad, really.’ When asked why, he said: ‘Because they're giving things away for nothing.’

There is something heartwarming about this kind of charitable work. But there’s also something strange and unfamiliar about it. It’s ironic that to some, the Kindness Offensive ends up being, in a way, offensive. Our text this morning is a bit off the beaten path for Christmas messages: John 1:1-5

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

We’ve been talking over these past few weeks about God’s gifts to us at Christmas—what the coming of the Christ means for us. So far we’ve looked at God’s giving and nurturing of Faith. We described Joy as the deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ. Love, it turns out, is why God sent his Son in the first place. And last Sunday we talked about Hope as believing that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do. Tonight we get to the big one—the point of God sending his son, the Messiah. Tonight we’re going to spend a few minutes thinking about God’s gift of Life.

We’ve heard part of our text in one of the Christmas hymns we sing. ‘Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.’

Over the Advent Season we hear the details of the strange events of that first Christmas. Angels making speeches and singing. Wise men and kings bringing gifts. King Herod and his crew trying to make sure the newborn Jesus doesn’t survive. Hotels with no vacancies. A baby born in a barn and laid in a trough to sleep. And then there’s the business about the star.

The Scriptures tell us that King Herod called the Magi together and asked them what the star was all about. When they left him, Matthew’s gospel tells us, ‘they went on their way and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

I’ve mentioned my grandparents a few times this holiday season. They are great examples of the immigrant story in America. They got married in 1922, and after the birth of their first child my grandfather came to the States to try to earn enough money to make a life for his family. He went back after 9 years or so, had another child, then went back to his job in the US. It was 1939 before the family lived permanently under the same roof. Amazing.

One of their most treasured possessions was something they wished they’d never received. Within just a few years of their arrival in America, their oldest son was drafted and sent to fight. He was killed at Anzio—fighting in the US Army…in Italy.

During WWII, households who had suffered the loss of a family member were given a gold star to hang in the window. It was a token—a sign to the neighbors and passersby that someone from that house had paid the price—given what Lincoln had called the last full measure of devotion.

On a bigger scale, in Washington DC you can visit the WWII Memorial. On one wall there are 4000 of those gold stars, each honoring the death of a hundred Americans in the war. On that wall there is one dramatic sentence of explanation: HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.

I suppose the point here is that in these places a star represented a death. Whether it was the star hanging in the window of a home, or one of the thousands of stars at the large memorial, the star meant death.

The good news of Christmas—the good news of great joy that we all get to share in is this: The star of Bethlehem—the one that guided those early visitors to the Christ Child—that star means life. Now we know on this side of Jesus’ ministry that the gift of life came at a cost, but in the end what we have offered is life—life that is more full and meaningful than we could ever ask or even imagine—life more abundant than we’ve come to expect—eternal life in the presence of God.

Those stars in Washington DC honor the price of freedom. The star of Bethlehem reminds us of the price Christ paid for our lives.

The good news for us this Christmas and every Christmas for the last 2000 years is this: While we were yet sinners, Christ came and showed us the way back to God. That gift of life isn’t a random act of kindness at all. It’s a part of God’s plan to show his creation how much he loves us and cares about us. That gift of life remains on offer for all of us, and it all began with a star.

My prayer for all of us tonight is that we’ll hear this story like we’re hearing it for the first time.

If you’ve been at this faith for a long time, I hope you can experience some new joy in the coming of the Messiah.

If you’re new to the faith I hope the excitement you feel will never fade or wear out.

If you’re still not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance—to take a leap of faith—to follow that star to the place where you find Jesus, the Christ Child, the one who brings light and life to all of us. Merry Christmas!


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