Wed, Dec 25, 2019

A sign of salvation?

A sermon for Christmas Day

In his recent address at the lighting of ‘the National Christmas Tree’…

in Washington DC…

President Donald Trump proclaimed that… 

the cross “is a powerful reminder of the meaning of Christmas”.



I doubt that Donald Trump has the slightest idea about what Christmas really means––

any more than he has a clue about what the cross stands for.

But whoever his speech-writer is…

she or he certainly thought it was appropriate to link the two together.

And why not?

In popular Christian thought, the two have…


always gone hand-in-hand.

Indeed, it’s a theme that we find in many of our well-known and much-loved Christmas Carols––

and please excuse the non-inclusive language.

It’s quite blatant in ‘The First Nowell’:

“Then let us all with one accord

Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,

That hath made heaven and earth of naught,

And with His blood mankind hath bought”;

and in ‘Hark the herald angels’:

“Born, that man no more may die

Born, to raise the sons of earth

Born, to give them second birth”;

and in ‘Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn’:

“Trace we the Babe who hath retrieved our loss,

From His manger to His bitter cross”;

It’s also implied in the one that we have just sung:

“Child who inherits 

All our transgressions,

All our demerits 

On Him fall”.

The whole point of Christmas––

it would seem––

is that Jesus needed to be born in order that he could die;

and, more specifically… 

that Jesus needed to be born in order that he could die in our place.

According to this way of thinking…

Jesus died as our substitute taking the punishment that we deserved––

as a blood-sacrifice appeasing an angry deity––

without which God couldn’t forgive us…

and we couldn’t have eternal life.


Now, it may have become traditional––

or accepted and repeated unquestionably––

but, theologically-speaking, that whole line of argument doesn’t make sense.

First, it’s a gross distortion of the nature of God.

If we presuppose that God could not forgive us–– 

apart from the senseless sacrifice of Jesus––

then we turn God into a hypocrite;

after all, God expects us to forgive each other with no strings attached…

but, apparently, God won’t do the same with us;

even though, in the Gospels, Jesus does precisely that.

It also suggests that God is immoral––

operating as if the end justifies the means…

or that two wrongs make a right.

Second, it’s a gross distortion of the incarnation itself.

If all that mattered was Jesus’ death…

then what was the whole point of Jesus’ life and ministry?

If the true significance of his life can be reduced to a “long weekend’s activity”…

then why did he bother to preach at all?

And, finally, it’s a gross distortion of the Christmas story––

certainly the story from Luke’s Gospel that we heard read this morning––

in which there is not a single mention… 

nor even a hint or a suggestion… 

that any of this has anything to do with matters of ‘sin’ or ‘sacrifice’.

Certainly, here, Jesus is proclaimed as “Saviour”

but the author does not explain this unambiguously.

Instead of an explanation, all that we are offered is a “sign”.

And what a sign it is!

A baby…

tightly and unexceptionally wrapped in strips of cloth…

and laying in a feeding trough––

a humble scene that would have been repeated…

every single day…

throughout first-century Palestine.

It’s remarkable only in its unremarkableness.


the sign of God’s salvation breaking into our world is one of utter ordinariness.

God’s salvation is to be found in the commonplace.

God’s salvation is to be found wrapped up in our common humanity.

As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, “The medium is the message”.

But, more than that… 

in this particular case…

the sign and the signified are one and the same.

In other words…

the birth of Jesus is not a necessary precursor to our divine salvation.

The incarnation––


is our salvation.


But how?


If Jesus is not “Saviour” because of his sacrificial death…

then how is his birth––

or his very existence––

a means of salvation?


Precisely because the sign and the signified are one and the same.

The ordinariness of the sign…

suggests, in fact, the ordinariness of the signified.

And it’s in that ordinariness that our salvation lays.

We’re used to thinking of Jesus as remarkable…

or as special…

or, even, as unique.

But what if he’s not?

What if this story is suggesting the exact opposite?

What if the story of the incarnation is suggesting to us that this is who we are meant to be?

What if this is who God intends us––

all of us––

to become?

What if the whole point of Jesus’ birth––

and the utter unremarkableness of it––

is meant to point us to what it means to be truly human…

and what we can become if we are open to God’s Spirit in the way that Jesus would be?

What if the salvation that God intends for us––

symbolised is the commonality of Jesus’ birth––



in us learning to be who we were meant to be?


And yet, that’s precisely what the story is suggesting!

For, having announced the in-breaking of God’s salvation…

through this ordinary, unremarkable event…

the angels suddenly break into song…

praising God…

and announcing “peace” on earth “among those whom God favours”…

or, as the original Greek can also be translated…

among those of “good will”.

Now, it’s important to remember that…

within ancient Hebrew thought…


or shalom––

was not simply the absence of conflict and violence…

as it is conceived, so often, in our way of thinking.

For them, ‘peace’ wasn’t defined simply by what it’s not. 

Rather, the Hebrew concept of ‘peace’ was defined positively…

as something much fuller and richer.

For them, ‘peace’ was a state of being–– 

which was characterised by harmony, prosperity, happiness, and wholeness.

For them, ‘peace’ was a life in which people were free to realise their potential––

free to be whom God intended them to be. 


within our story…

that is the salvation to which the ‘sign’ of Christmas points us;

that is the salvation which incarnation inaugurates…

among those of ‘good will’;

among those who are open to see “what the Lord has made known to us”.


Jesus’ birth is a means of salvation…

because it shows us––

because he shows us––

who we’re meant to be.

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