Trains were humming, loudspeakers blaring, porters rushing about shouting at one another, and altogether there was so much noise that Mr Brown, who saw him first, had to tell his wife several times before she understood. ‘A bear? On Paddington station?’ Mrs Brown looked at her husband in amazement. ‘Don’t be silly, Henry. There can’t be!” “Seeing that something was expected of it the bear stood up and politely raised its hat, revealing two black ears. ‘Good afternoon,’ it said, in a small clear voice … The bear puffed out its chest. ‘I’m a very rare sort of bear,’ he replied importantly. ‘There aren’t many of us left where I come from.’ ‘And where is that?’ asked Mrs Brown. The bear looked round carefully before replying. ‘Darkest Peru. I’m not really supposed to be here at all. I’m a stowaway.'”
Michael Bond’s marmalade sandwich-loving Peruvian bear first appeared in 1958’s A Bear Called Paddington. Now the star of his very own film, Paddington, is a charming and funny adventure about a very polite and friendly orphan bear who yearns for adoption and new home in London.
At the Carol Services, we realised that we are all a little like Paddington, orphaned, lost, vulnerable, in need of adoption. But tonight, because the children should all be fast asleep by now, I want us to consider “Paddington Bear for Grownups”. Michael Bond, Paddington’s creator, says the inspiration came from seeing Jewish evacuee children pass through Reading railway station from London during the Kindertransport of the late 1930s. “They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on, and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.”
And “Paddington is not the only sympathetic refugee in his cozy North London haven… Mr. Gruber, the kindly Portobello Road antique dealer with whom Paddington has his elevenses, fled Nazi-occupied Europe… Mr. Gruber and Paddington serve as a foil for the Brown family’s xenophobic neighbor, Mr. Curry, whose intolerance and foul temper make him the only truly unsympathetic character in the books.”
Many people can relate to Paddington Bear, only too well. They know what it feels like to set out on a long and dangerous journey in search of a better life. We know from the stories of boat people in the Mediterranean, they do not always make it. Some are economic migrants, some illegal stowaways, others stateless refugees, seeking a safe place to live. Survival is a basic human aspiration we all share.
And like Paddington, far too many have experienced the irrational fear, whether unwelcome indifference, racial prejudice, xenophobia and even genocide. Paddington therefore has a very real message for adults about how we treat and embrace the stranger, the foreigner, the migrant, the refugee, especially at Christmas time.
And in case you are one step ahead of me, I’m not going to dwell on the Prime Minister’s recent reference to “muscular liberalism” – a rhetoric that resonates with the skepticism and prejudices of those who believe migrants are poor, uneducated, culturally incompatible and only here to claim state benefits. It is surely debatable whether English fluency and the adoption of specific cultural practices (such as celebrating Christmas) should be preconditions for residency in the UK.
Better that migrants be assessed on the basis of international law and human rights rather than be pawns in a political debate about membership of Europe. Ironically, while there are tests for migrants – financial, security, language proficiency and cultural before UK citizenship is granted, there are no comparable processes for UK citizens to show that, like the Brown family, we are worthy of hosting orphaned bears from places like darkest Peru.
And Paddington Bear was not the first orphaned-hero to appear at Christmas, nor the first to challenge us about the inconvenience and cost of loving our neighbor, however different from us they may be. There have been of course other characters associated with Christmas, Dick Wittington, Oliver Twist, Cinderella, Snow White, Jane Eyre, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn, Mowgli, Tarzan, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. The idea of an orphan, taken in, fostered or adopted, who then makes good, is a dominant theme in many of our most loved stories. But what about the greatest Christmas story of all? No, I don’t mean Father Christmas.
Have you noticed the parallels with the Lord Jesus Christ himself? As a child Jesus became a refugee in Egypt, fleeing genocide in Occupied Palestine (Matthew 2:13). Jesus was indeed born of Mary but doubts about his father were cruelly exploited by his critics. The idea of a virgin conception would have been met with as much credulity then as now. “Isn’t this Mary’s son…? And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3). “…they asked him, “Where is your father?” (John 8:19)… “We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” (John 9:29). “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11). Jesus had nowhere on earth he could call home. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58). That is because,
“… being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)
You see Jesus knows what it feels like to be a stranger, an alien, a refugee. He can identify with each one of us from the highest to the lowest. He did not come to earth to save himself but to save you. On the first Christmas night, the angels announced three purposes behind the birth of Jesus. Christmas is a time for celebration, a time for salvation and a time for reconciliation. (and for this outline I am grateful to Rick Warren and his book, The Purpose of Christmas
1. Christmas is a Time for Celebration
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” (Luke 2:13-14)
The words used to describe the number of angels indicates that there were thousands upon thousands of angels. For all we know there may have been millions. What does this tell us? It tells us of a God who is excited beyond our wildest imagination about coming to be with us, to be one of us, to rescue us, to save us, to restore us to a right relationship with him. The first purpose of Christmas therefore is celebration! That is why we say “Merry Christmas” Christmas is a celebration. Why?
Because God had wonderful news to share: We learn this from the angel’s opening statement. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10). Observe first that it is personal: “I bring you.” Not only that but it is positive: “good news of great joy.” Personal. Positive. And notice it is also profligate: “for all the people.” For all people, not just some people, not just good people, not just young people, beautiful people, articulate people, intelligent people, or religious people, but all people. So it doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you’ve been, or where you’re headed — this good news is for you. Its personal, its positive and its profligate. The angel brought the best news in the whole wide world for the whole wide world. Christmas is worth celebrating because it is greatest news ever told. Christmas is a time for celebration.
- Christmas is a Time for Salvation
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).
Many people are afraid of God because of what they have done or because of what they have been taught. But that is not the message of Christmas. Jesus came to save you, not to scare you. That’s why the very first words of the angel were, “Don’t be afraid.” There are actually 365 “fear not’s” in the Bible. That’s one for every day of the year. God is saying, “Get the message” You don’t need to be afraid. Because, “I love you, I’m with you, and I’m for you.” First and foremost, Jesus is our Lord and Saviour. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). What is “salvation”? It is three dimensional. It is about being saved (past tense) from the penalty of sin. It is about being saved (present tense) from the power of sin. And one day being saved (future tense) from the presence of sin. But like any gift, you must receive Jesus to benefit from his saving work. “Human destiny“, says Jesus, “is ultimately sealed by how people respond to me.” With a single exception, God will forgive us absolutely everything. Whatever is on your conscience today, God will forgive it if you turn away from your sin and turn to him. The bottom line is this.
God loves the world and does not wish to see a single individual suffer as an orphan. He wants to adopt each one of us into his family as a child of God. The good news of the gospel is as unlimited and as personal as that. But there is one thing he cannot forgive: The arrogance that refuses to receive Jesus. I quoted John 1:11 earlier: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…”
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:11-12).
Jesus is not asking us to understand everything. Just that we will trust him. That we will believe him. This is the way, the only way, to experience the purpose for Christmas and truly celebrate Christmas today and every day. Christmas is a time for celebration. Christmas is a time for salvation.
- Christmas is a Time for Reconciliation
“…a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)
What does peace on earth look like? Well, look at Jesus. Remember what his name is? Sometimes we give babies names to honour their relatives. God gave Jesus several names to explain his purpose. The prophet Isaiah quotes one of those names,
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” which means “God with us”. (Isaiah 7:14)
God came to earth at Christmas in Jesus Christ to be with you, not impose peace but to bring peace. To be with you, not just for Christmas but forever. God’s presence in your life has nothing to do with your feelings. Your emotional state can be the result of memories, hormones, medicines, food, lack of sleep, tension or fears. The Bible says “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). Space and time are irrelevant to God. God is always everywhere at the same time. No wonder the angels told the shepherds “Do not be afraid”. C.S. Lewis put it, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him.”
That’s a fact whether you feel it or not. You may have been abandoned in life like Paddington – by a spouse, by your parents, by your children, or by people you thought were your friends. We have all experienced the pain and heartache of rejection in some way or another. You may have experienced the sting of racial or ethnic prejudice, gender bigotry, or religious intolerance. But God will not abandon you if you trust in Him. He never will. In the Bible, God says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).
Whatever difficulty you are facing or where the heat is on in your life, God knows about it, he cares about it, he understands it and is with you in it. You are not alone. God loves us. God is with us. God is for us. That is why Christmas is a good time to seek to restore those broken or strained relationships. It’s a time to say “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?” It’s also a time to offer forgiveness to all those who have hurt you. Because, first you make peace with God, and then you receive the peace of God. Once you have that you’ll find it much easier to make peace with other people.
Christmas is indeed a time for celebration, a time for salvation and a time for reconciliation. Lets pray.
Dear God, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, so I could get to know you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for being with me all my life even when I didn’t know it. I realize I need a saviour to set me free from sin, from myself, and from all the habits, hurts, and hang-ups that mess up my life. I ask you to forgive me for my sins. I want to repent and live the way you created me to live. Be the Lord of my life, and save me by your grace. Save me from my sins, and save me for your purpose. I want to learn to love you, trust you, and become what you made me to be. Thank you for creating me and choosing me to be part of your family. Right now, by faith, I accept the Christmas gift of your Son. Fill me with your Holy Spirit to give me your peace and assurance so I can be a peacemaker, and help me share this message of peace with others. In your name I pray, Amen.
This sermon and prayer is adapted with sincere thanks from Rick Warren’s The Purpose of Christmas (Howard Books, 2008).