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How Good is Good?

How many of you have taken to a child or a grand child to see Father Christmas in a grotto this year? Certainly, the one at Bellis’ was doing good business last week. When our children were small, we always took them to a preserved steam railway like Llangollen for a ride on a Santa special. At the end of the journey came the chance to visit the jolly man in red himself. It was the Seven Valley Railway which caused consternation one year when we were ushered into an old-fashioned coach with a Santa in each compartment. ‘But daddy, you said there was only one Father Christmas!’
Professional Santa’s have a set of questions they might ask the wide children who enter the grotto. Have you come a long way? What would you like for Christmas? Have you written a letter to Father Christmas yet? And then comes the crunch; Have you been good all year?
Being good it seems is important if Father Christmas is to be generous tonight. How many children will have been blackmailed across the nation into settling down and going to sleep because unless they are good, Santa will be speeding by their house and not stopping by with presents.
Today, it’s not just a threat for children. Has anyone come across a web site called ‘Naughty or Nice, Social Santa 2017’? It asks the question: ‘Have you been good this year or will your potty mouth on Twitter leave you with a lump of coal in your stocking on Christmas day?’ What the site offers is an app which will go back through your Twitter account over the last year to see how many times you used bad language or been nasty to someone. They say their magical digital elves will use their tech wizardry to look back even on embarrassing tweets and late night drunken rants to determine whether you will be on Santa’s nice list or his naughty one. I expect like me you are all wondering how Donald Trump will fare.
But it’s not just children and it’s not just at Christmas that we can feel that ‘goodness’ is required if we are to find favour. Family members can easily fall out when one thinks that another has not been ‘good’ to them. Our love as families can so often be conditional on getting love and respect in return.
There was a distressing news report last week about homeless young people. They often do not show up in official figures because they are ‘sofa surfing’, that is moving from one friend or relatives house to another to keep a roof over their heads. In many cases, the reason they are doing this is because they have fallen out with a parent and feel they can no longer live at home. One young man shared how the relationship between himself and his mum had become so bad that she threw him out. As I watched the report, I was reminded of some very powerful words from God through Isaiah in the old testament: ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.’ These words tell us that while human relationships may be conditional on being good, it is not like that with God.
Tonight, as we picture in our minds Mary, mother of Jesus, cradling the baby she has born and laid in the manger at Bethlehem, something very special happens. For a short time in the history of the world, roles are reversed. God has become the one who is cared for. In the flesh of the baby Jesus, God allows Mary to nurture and provide for his physical needs in the way in which mothers do.
We would normally expect an all-powerful God to be in control; to remain aloof and entirely separate from what he has created. That is the way he is perceived in some of the worlds great religions. Tonight, we are reminded of a different story about God; a story of good new being announced by messengers on the mountains. How has God spoken? The answer in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews is clear: ‘…but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.’ (Hebrews 1.2)
That is the outrageous truth at the heart of Christmas. God takes on a human body. He makes himself vulnerable placing himself in the care of a human mother. He is adored by poor shepherds prompted by angels and worshipped by foreign sages prompted by a star.
But why? That is a question which children and adults often ask. Many times, we are not a position to answer it. But in this case, we can give an answer. It is because God loves us unconditionally. Unlike Santa, being good is not a condition of his gift. Paul puts it this way in the letter to the Romans: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5.8)
So, we don’t need to beat ourselves up wondering if, when God goes back through our Tweets or all the things we have said, thought or done to see if there is some reason we can’t share in his love. There simply won’t be one. But he does want us to receive the gift. John puts it this way in the gospel reading tonight: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,’ (John 1.12) The whole point of Jesus coming into our world, of God sharing our flesh is so that we might share in God’s life. It is not about trying to make our old lives good to please God but God giving us a new life so that we please both him and ourselves.
God’s free gift in Jesus is forgiveness of our sin, but it is also the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps left by the old ways and transform us into something wholesome and fulfilled.
You don’t have to be good to get God’s present, but you do have to receive it. It is the gift of Jesus that will make you good and worthy of God.
Christmas Midnight 2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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