Gift Sunday with Iestyn Henson
You’ve heard said, I’m sure, that ‘Christmas is for the Children’ and though it’s a bit of a cliché I suspect we understand the sentiment well enough. In our culture, the secular aspects of Christmas are, without any question, very heavily focussed on family, and on family-with-children-and-grandchildren at that. You will have done well if you have avoided the various supermarket Christmas adverts this year, but though themes are a little different, they all make use of this family image, and the child in particular.
The mythology (*) of Santa is almost exclusively a child-centric these days, even if different traditions sit side by side.
(*mythology understood properly as truth wrapped up in a story, not to be mistaken for fibs and falsehood!)
The history of St Nicholas, Santa Claus, is of course not wholly secular – our Gift Sunday refers back to customs and practice of St Nicholas, giving gifts to children, as well as customs such as giving alms to the poor, and bringing out some figgy pudding for the wassailers or carol singers. These are important expressions of our Christian love, from which the word charity comes.
(we pause to give thanks for family and for the joy of giving)
But all the same, when asking ‘What does Christmas say about children?’ we’re not really talking St Nicholas are we? If we wanted a Biblical model for our gift Sunday, I could argue quite well that we’d be more authentic in linking it to Epiphany, as countries such as Spain have done traditionally. Our gifts, mirroring the gifts of the Magi. Even here though, the Christmas story isn’t telling us much about Children; for that, I think we need to look not to Matthew’s Gospel, but to Luke, and the first chapter in particular; this is Advent after all.
So we’re going to hear from Luke Chapter One – some edited highlights I’m afraid, because it’s quite long to hear the whole story, but I would encourage you to take some time this week to read the whole of Luke 1, perhaps in more than one translation, because it’s a great chapter, full of story, poetry and deep expression of faith.
Luke Chapter 1: vv 5-14; 23-25; 39-45; and 67-80
Our second hymn, is a rethinking of Charles Wesley’s well know advent carol ‘Come though long expected Jesus’. The inspiration for this came from a number of comments made by worship leaders in the late summer and early Autumn, parts of reflections which drew attention (to me at least) to the unexpected nature of Jesus’s ministry, both his words and his action. Whether a parable or a healing miracle, whether the disciples seeking clarification, or the Pharisees trying to catch him out, Jesus hardly ever did what was expected of him, despite living in a time and place where life was the subject of very strict codes and conventions. As we know, it got Jesus into all sorts of trouble.
With an advent service to prepare, it struck me that this ‘unexpected Jesus’ is with us from the very opening of the Gospels, the nativity stories themselves. There’s no Messiah-Prince born in a palace; there’s no prominent member David’s family at all; there are question marks over the family background; poverty is everywhere.
And so I’ve written a new hymn, which follow’s Charles Wesley’s pattern, but not its theology, save perhaps for the confidence of the final verse.
Come now, unexpected Jesus,
Born in abject poverty;
Come to shock us and to shake us,
Born to make your people wonder
Why a child should be a king,
Born to also make us ponder
What such royalty might bring.
Not so much a consolation
But a challenge and a hope?
Waking us from hibernation,
Stirring us; how shall we cope?
By your ever present Spirit!
Company for heart and mind,
Loving all beyond the limit,
Freedom now for humankind.
Iestyn Henson – a rethinking of Charles Wesley’s advent hymn (September 2021)
Whatever the history of gift-giving and presents, our thematic question this morning is ‘What does Christmas say about children?’ – and we mean the Biblical Christmas, the Nativity, not the post-Victorian one. Our modern Christmas, as we well know, was very much a Victorian invention; the consumerism, the marketing and the tinsel of today are more recent still, and a very long way from the experiences of Elizabeth and Mary.
And if we have a pattern these days, a sort of know-how-it-goes formula to our Christmases, at Church as well as in the home, the story of Luke Chapter 1 is the exact opposite. You have Elizabeth and Zechariah, an older couple thus far unblessed with a family, despite being a righteous couple, and you have Mary and Joseph, unmarried youngsters. This is not the Advent that had been envisaged by the powers-that-be; it’s not the story that the programme makers and publicity officers would have anticipated. These stories are not particularly warming for the heart or the hearth, they are not cosy-by-the-fireside tales. No, I’d say they were far more ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ – and if there’s an opening answer to our question, ‘What does Christmas say about children’ perhaps the best we can do is ‘expect the unexpected’.
I suggested in introducing our reimagining of Charles Wesley’s hymn, that the theme of ‘unexpected Jesus’ is one which runs throughout the Gospels; I want to explore it just a little this morning with reference to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and by association, Mary and Joseph, and invite you ponder the nature of the ‘unexpected’ when it comes to both John and Jesus, the children of the nativity narrative. We’re going to focus on Elizabeth and Zechariah, in the knowledge that Mary and Joseph will get plenty more attention later this month – I kind of gave the reflection a subtitle – Tales of the Unexpected Cousins.
The first thing is straightforward: in a rather deliberate and obvious mirroring of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zechariah are taken by surprise when Gabriel visits and announces that Elizabeth will have a baby boy. John is an unexpected baby because until now the couple have remained childless, and to give this its proper cultural context, it means that there would have been inevitable suspicion about them, despite their respectable circumstances. We note that it’s Elizabeth who is branded as having been barren – the truth is that they would not likely have known whether there were physiological reasons why they had not become parents.
Zechariah has doubts, and is dumbstruck as a result (is this the origin of the word?); but I wonder if Elizabeth’s reaction is also unexpected? If you read the whole of Luke chapter one, as I thoroughly recommend, there’s a bit of a contrast between Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth, we read, expresses relief ‘Now at last the Lord has helped me… he has taken away my public disgrace”. It’s unexpected because Elizabeth’s response is self-reflective, but not in a ‘woe is me’ kind of way, but in positivity. Mary, by contrast, is first scared by Gabriel, and then, it seems to me, quite horrified at the prospect of becoming an unmarried mother. Gabriel tries to reassure perhaps, but ‘may it happen as you have said’ coming from Mary? Also self-reflective, but it’s not exactly an immediate joy, is it?! It’s like the two conceptions are the complete opposites – for Elizabeth, unexpected pregnancy removes disgrace, for Mary, unexpected pregnancy has the potential to bring disgrace. It’s never straightforward, is it?
So we get the next unexpected twist. Elizabeth and Mary are relatives, the children will therefore also be cousins, at about 6 months difference in age, and in the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, the tone and the tempo of this introduction to the nativity changes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to know so much more about the family relationships here, the close bond which seems to have developed between Elizabeth and Mary, and other mundane things like whether the boys ended up meeting at family gatherings as kids. We’re not told. But I do think, quite seriously, that this visit is where the joy of the Christmas story starts – are you surprised by that? Is this unexpected to you? Elizabeth’s joy is of the Holy Spirit; her unborn son jumps for joy; and Mary sings one of the greatest of all the psalms, with all its topsy-turvy understanding of a new ordering of things.
In looking at this these past few weeks, I was really taken a bit by surprise in this: that the joy of Christmas starts not in Bethlehem or even Nazareth, but at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah; it starts not with the story of Jesus’s birth, but with the narrative which is wrapped around it in Luke Chapter 1 – John’s birth.
And so that leads me to the last two unexpected elements of this story, which perhaps really should not be. The first was unexpected to the friends and acquaintances of Elizabeth and Zechariah – that they would give their son the name John. The Hebrew equivalent is Johanan – sounds closer to the Welsh Ioan of course, and it means God is gracious. The name makes perfect sense given the rest of the story, but was a surprise to the people.
But it’s that very grace of God which inspires Zechariah’s prophetic psalm, which we heard this morning, and which we hear less regularly in the advent narrative than we do Mary’s Magnificat. In fact, I struggled to remember having ever heard this, or a sermon based on it, and that too is unexpected, when you consider its contents.
For Zechariah’s prophesy, as the Good News Bible entitles it, has direct reference back to the Messianic prophesies of the Old Testament – it speaks first of John and then (though not named) of Jesus with the same ancient language of David and of Isaiah. It speaks of salvation, but also of light in the darkness and paths of peace. This is unexpected, I think, because it speaks not of babies and children, as such, but about what they represent, about what they shall become.
So to recap we have these unexpected elements:
- Shock pregnancies and contrasting responses;
- Unexpected family relationship perhaps; and a shock that the Messiah will be coming into this family set up, rather than lined up with expectations of a royal birth;
- Unexpected that the joy of the nativity starts with John, rather than Jesus;
- An unusual name chosen for John, but really, appropriate in the grand scheme; and
- Old-style prophesy used in new-style telling of the Good News.
And to return to our question this morning, what does Christmas tell us about children? Well, one answer, it seems to me, is that when it comes to the plans of God and the plans of us humans, then children seem to be front and centre of the God story – against the odds and sometimes against all expectation too. Expect the unexpected.
But the other answer, and the one which we’ll take forward into Christmas, is that Christmas tells us too of the potential of our children.
This potential is seen perhaps in prophesy, which we are to understand not as wishful thinking or ‘oh, I wonder what will become of them’ kind of speculation, but rather in the fulfilment of God’s promise. ‘For unto us a child is born…and his name shall be called…prince of peace’. Not may be called, if it all goes to plan and the baddies don’t get in the way, but SHALL be called.
Secondly, and finally for now, this potential is seen in its most plain and simple in the joy of a nativity story. Yes, the nativities of John and Jesus, of course, but actually the joy of the nativities of our lives. In this, every child is special, every child is loved, every child has that potential to bring light into darkness.
After our prayers this morning, we’re going to close with what has always been one of my favourite carols, so much of a favourite that I’ve got a whole service woven around it, which we had about 5 or 6 years ago now. In the Bleak Midwinter is very much focussed on the child and mother, in the reality of the first nativity, and the humanity of it, especially the mother’s care and kiss. But the closing verse is one of reflection, response and commitment in faith. Just as children are a gift to us, the fulfilment of prophesy and promise, so too is our faith our gift in return.
So then, not just what Christmas says about children, but also what the Christ child asks of us. On Gift Sunday, and on every other day too.
Prayers of Intercession
Loving God, we come this morning with our prayers, for our world, our community and for ourselves. As we speak, may we also listen; as we express our hopes and our fears, may we hear your voice of comfort; and may we be open as you speak to us, even through unexpected angels, so that we may respond.
We pray for a world living in hope but also wearied by cynicism. We long for light, long for peace and long for justice; may we seek them and find them, as you promise we will, even in the unexpected places. We pray for our leaders, in politics, in society and in our churches. We pray that responses to global issues, to pandemic, to the environment, to the crisis of migration and the suffering caused, are guided by your light. We pray too that our call to be your people convinces us to play our part, small and unexpected that it may seem.
We pray for our community, even for home nations which sometimes seem divided and at conflict internally, for small disagreements which become magnified in the glare of our modern living, and for our inability to listen to other opinions. Shine your light on our stubbornness and light up the path which takes us forward. We pray this morning for those parts of our community which are struggling, especially when the struggle has come unexpectedly. For those who have become unwell all of a sudden, those who have developed Covid, despite vaccination, those who have had to isolate or for whom being housebound has been forced on them by circumstance. Be with them, comfort them and support them. And we pray for women and families everywhere with newborn children, or expecting birth over the winter months. Whether planned and hoped for pregnancy, or otherwise, we pray for the joy of nativity, knowing that we are all children of God, loved and cherished.
Finally, we pray for ourselves, as individuals, as family and friends, and as Church community. As we move through advent to one of our most cherished festivals at Christmas, as we rejoice in our understanding of your presence with us in the infant Jesus, as we celebrate your gift to us in the gifts we give to others, help us to share this joy with others. Make in us the unexpected angel, the messenger of good news, of light and life.
All these things we ask in the name of Jesus, wonderful counsellor and prince of peace