One of the biggest films this year was about a small bear, from South America, far from home, lodging with a family in London. Paddington, armed only with a marmalade sandwich under his hat and carrying that old brown case of his, spreads his particular magic wherever he goes. At the risk of spoiling anyone’s Christmas viewing if you have the film lined up for later, there is a scene in the film where he ends up in prison, for a crime he did not commit, the theft of a special pop-up book with clues to hidden treasure on each page. He is the victim of a miscarriage of justice and the Browns set about to clear his name and secure his release. While in prison, everywhere he goes his characteristic charm seems to rub off on those around him, even those intent on not liking anyone. As his Aunt Lucy taught him back in Peru, always look for the good in people and you will find it. He has a knack of bringing the best out of people, helping them flourish in grace and love.
Tonight we celebrate God’s gift of Jesus, born far from home in a strange town and lodging with strangers. He comes to appeal to the best inside us, even help us find the best to connect with, to flourish in grace and love. Christmas has love running through its core, even if not marmalade sandwiches.
Our readings reflect this in subtle ways, and it is the theme that lies behind all the grand philosophy that they express. To the writer of the Hebrews, the child born this night is the reflection of God’s very being (Hebrews 1:3). When we want to know what that looks like, the central theme running through the Bible is one of a loving Father, a loving creator, a loving redeemer and sustainer, who never gives up on the creation he has made and set in being. From the rainbow and the promise to Noah never to give up on his creation, to the outpouring cry of the prophets that God can never give up on the people, such is his love, to the purpose of Jesus in John’s gospel to bring life in all its fullness, abundantly (John 10:10), and later in the Epistle of John that “God is love and those who live in God live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). Being the reflection of the very being of God is to be love personified.
John, in his great hymn to the eternal Word, our Gospel reading (John 1:1-14), packed full of deep and profound philosophical thought, brings into the frame ‘life’. “That life is the light of all people” and it “shines in darkness” so powerfully that “the darkness cannot overcome it”. The light makes a difference to us because as we receive him, as we receive his life and love, we become his children (v12), and so like him filled with grace and truth.
And before we get too high level and remote, this is where Paddington comes in to help us connect this with our deepest selves, with our most profound longings and desires. Just as the bear has a knack of making a difference to how people behave, of appealing to the best inside them, so this light and life, this grace and truth appeals to the best inside us. It is an expression of the essence of that best. Its purpose is to make us into children of God who shine with the light of this love.
This disarming simplicity is a profound and radical message – radical in the sense of restoring factory settings. Rather than hardening our hearts, pursuing relentless self-interest, we are challenged with a generosity that gives and keeps on giving. It responds to the cold hearted with love; the greater the hostility, the greater the love. The tighter the pressure and scarcity of resources, the greater the miracle of generous provision. Five thousand are fed with a few loaves and this brings a wonderful teaching on how God feeds us with his life and love (John 6). Even those who desert him are offered restoration after a barbecue breakfast on the beach after the resurrection (John 21:15-19).
The power of Christmas, which the Paddington story displays so wonderfully, is how love can and does transform us, set us free and release within us a love that brings out the best in us. God in Christ does this because he believes in us and that we have it in us, in his grace, to be better and flourish in that love. It is a message that is so simple and yet so much we are exposed to seems to conspire to diminish this in is us, to appeal to the shadow side of our nature. The challenge of Christmas is to let love get the upper hand within us, within our relationships with others and in how we approach every aspect of our lives.
Christmas invites us to zoom in as close as we can bear, even closer than we might otherwise choose, to ground the high level philosophy and policy in the practical simplicity of loving, for that is what we see God doing in this vulnerable child. God comes as close as can be and while that may not involve marmalade sandwiches it does involve a love which aims to bring out the best that there can be within each one of us. Indeed, it aims to bring the best to us so that we can respond in like manner with grace and love and blessing.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Christmas Midnight 2017