Last week I preached about expectation. .. the childlike expectation of waiting for Santa to deliver your Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, – trying to stay awake, – straining to hear the sleighbells – and then the way we always fell asleep before he came, and then, as if by magic, when we wake up in the morning we discover that Santa has been: the presents are there at the foot of the bed, the rum has been drunk and the cake has been eaten.
But what if one Christmas Day Santa delivered all the wrong presents!
I used to look forward to all those old traditional presents we used to get way back in the 60s – a child’s Post Office set, a vending machine which delivered mini chocolate bars, a Blue Peter Annual, and then always a couple of board games – I remember MouseTrap really well, that was one of my favourites.
Over the weeks of December I had been writing notes, dropping hints and letting my mum and dad know what I would like Santa to bring me for Christmas. … and usually Santa did, with lots more besides. I was a happy child.
But what would I have thought if I’d looked down at the end of my bed as a six year old on christmas day and found a packet of yardley Lily of the Valley talcom powder, and a volume of Fly Fishing by J. R Hartley? I don’t think I would have been very impressed or very happy. I would have felt pretty cheated by Santa and the Elves.
The prophets of the Old Testament had made their wish list. They wanted the Messiah to come. They had waited a long time and, essentially, in a nutshell they wanted a King and a Priest. They wanted a military King like King David who would drive out first the horrible Greek invaders and then later the horrible Roman Soldiers. They wanted a King who would unite their country all together again – North and South – and who would lead a strong and powerful army to keep foreign nations out and enable the people to live in safety and prosperity. They wanted their King to rule them wisely with justice, bring them economic stability and wealth – like Solomon – and they wanted their King to have a monarchy that would last for ever. And on top of all that they wanted a priest – there’s a bit of discrepancy as to whether the King and the priest were the same person or were two different people, but they wanted a priest who would sort out their temple worship, get it right, and make the nations relationship with God right and correct so that God would bless them .. a priest who would purify the Sons of Levi.
They had made their Christmas list, and they knew what they wanted God to give them.
St John the Baptist was not the Messiah. He was not the one who was going to come … St John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way for the one who is to come … he is, as it were, not so much the voice of one crying in the wilderness as the sound of the sleighbells ringing in the night.
He is dressed up in the clothes of the propthet Elijah – a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist – and he is preaching in the very spot where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. John the Baptist looks like Elijah, talks like Elijah, and is in the right place to be Elijah. This is what the prophets were expecting ….. he was not a surprise or a strange weirdo – he was just what prophets look like, tradtionally, scripturally, conventionally.
Only Jesus – the one we call the Messiah – was not traditional, scriptural or conventional …… Jesus was a surprise – He doesn’t look like a king, or act like a king – or have an army like a king, or win victorious battles – he’s not interested in chasing the Romans out of the country… in fact quite the reverse, he fraternises with Roman soldiers and even does what they ask and heals their servants and slaves. He colludes with Tax gatherers and other officials. He is poor and, by all normal kingly standards, looks very weak.
And he doesn’t look much like a priest either. Instead of enforcing the laws of the Torah and the Covenant and making the right sacrifices in the Temple, he seems to sit pretty lightly to the laws of the Sabbath and even the food laws, he causes a fuss and disruption in the Temple, turning over the traders, and he seems more to believe in personal piety than sacrificing pigeons. What is more he’s really fluffy around his boundaries. He seems to think that God’s covenant is not just for Jews, but for Canaanites as well, and Syrophonoecians and even Greeks – He is not the Messiah people were expecting.
Jesus is the prophetic equivalent of Talcom Powder and Fly Fishing at the end of the bed. I don’t thing that the good people of Jerusalem were angry at Jesus, I think they just thought that he was just another misguided teacher with a following – certainly they didn’t think that he is the Messiah.
But we see it very differently. And St Paul – perhaps more than any other of the first disicples – was the one who worked it all out. He worked out how Jesus really is the King – but not great military king like the kings of this world… but a different kind of king who leads and guides our hearts.
And St Paul worked out how Jesus is a priest – not a temple sacrificing priest – but actually that Jesus is the sacrifice, done once and for all.
It was hard for St Paul to make this transition. Whatever you think about the great Damascus Road experience it actually took St Paul at least 3 year to work it all out. Let’s be honest, St Paul starts off as a very tradtional, scripturally conservative and conventional Jew, expecting an old-fashioned King and an old-fashioned Priest, and yet he ends up a radical, inclusive and in some sense iconoclastic Jew – breaking down a lot of the old traditions – It’s quite some transformation. St Paul realised that, actually, he needed Talcolm Powder more than chocolate toys and that he needed a serious book rather than a Blue Peter Annual. – as it were.
But can we? Can we make the same transition that St Paul made all those years ago? Advent is the time when we prepare for Christmas, and of course Christmas will come with all the familiar trappings – traditional, scriptural and non-scriptural and conventional – we shall have our Christmas Trees and decorations, our Christmas Carols and mulled wine, and our Christmas meals with pigs in blankets and roast potatoes….. but is there any room in all of that for God to surprise us this Christmas just a little bit? Is there room for God to say something different to us – to send us a different present at the end of our bed? Something we were not expecting, but perhaps something God knows that we really need – and how would we know? How would we recognise the special gift among all the other stuff? I want so suggest this advent – if you really want to find out what God is saying to you – that you look at where you feel most uncomfortable. Look at what is happening in our world, look at what is happening in our church, on our streets and in our society and what is it that rubs you up the wrong way …. and then ask yourself the question: Why?
Is it refugees? Is it Covid and all the restrictions? Is it a consumer Christmas or is it something more personal – illness, aches and pains, family relationships…. where is it that God needs to shine a bit of Christmas light into our lives, into your life, and into mine, and push us to begin to see things a bit differently. It won’t be easy, and nine times out of ten we might miss the point – but somewhere in your life – somewhere in all our lives – God is trying to give us the blessed Christmas gift we need, – the gift that will not just satisfy what we already are, but the special gift which will change us radically to become what we shall one day be – for, as St Paul wrote: I am confident of this, my friends, that the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington