Apparently Christmas has been hijacked.
It’s supposed to be about the birth of Jesus. It’s become all about giving presents.
I’m the vicar. I’m supposed to tell people to focus less on the presents, and more on the real meaning of Christmas.
I’m not going to do that! Because the real meaning of Christmas is all about giving presents. In fact, the more you grasp what Christmas is really about, the more you’ll want to give things to other people.
So I don’t want us to recover Christmas by losing our emphasis on giving. I want us to recover Christmas, and so enjoy giving all the more.
To do that, I want us to think together about one verse in the Bible. It wasn’t in any of the readings that we heard, but it is printed on your sheet at the front. 2 Corinthians, chapter 8, verse 9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
It’s part of a letter written to the Christians in Corinth. They were being encouraged to give money for famine relief, helping the poor Christians in Jerusalem. The motivation he gives them is Christmas. I’ll read it again: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
So let’s look with fresh eyes at the birth of Jesus. You can’t miss the fact he was born into poverty. But we mustn’t miss that it’s sandwiched on either side by the most amazing riches. The Christmas story goes like this: Riches, poverty, riches.
He was rich
First, the story starts with riches. He was rich. Our verse starts: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich…”
3 words. That’s all it is. “He was rich.” Yet they are amazing words.
Before he was born, he was rich. His life did not begin at his birth. Or even at conception. The child who was born in Bethlehem was also the eternal Son of God. He’s always been around.
“He was rich.” He’s existed for all eternity – in riches. In glory. Living in heaven itself.
I wonder if you ever walk or drive past houses larger and more grand than yours. And you think to yourself: How rich you must be to live here. You imagine inside – the sweeping staircases, the vast rooms, the grandeur. Priceless paintings must be on every wall. Each piece of furniture worth more than you earn in a year.
Well take a walk in your mind’s eye past Jesus’ home. I can guarantee you’ve never known anyone as rich as him. His home is heaven itself, the place where God lives in all his splendour. Jesus counts the whole of England among his possessions. And every swan in the world. And the planet Jupiter. They’re all his.
Jesus was rich.
He became poor
That’s where the story starts. Then it moves to the bit we know well, the middle of the sandwich. Let’s linger there a moment. He became poor.
Here’s that verse again: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor…”
That’s a wonderful statement. It captures so much. He became poor.
Poor at birth. Born in a stable. To poor parents. He spent the next two years of his life on the run, as a refugee, in fear of his life.
Poor in life. Jesus once tried to put off a man who would follow him. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air and nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus had nowhere to call home. He was always on the move. Hardly any possessions to his name.
Which brings us to his death. He was killed on a Roman cross, with literally not so much as a bean to his name. Even his clothing had been confiscated. Then he was laid in a borrowed tomb.
Jesus really was poor, physically poor. None of us have known the depths of the poverty that Jesus embraced.
But more than that he was spiritually poor. It’s why he died on that cross. He took our failures to be the people God would have us be. He took those failures, and he carried them on his own shoulders. And that experience, as he became us, guilty before a perfect God – it killed him.
He became poor.
Sometimes, a celebrity uses their position to speak up for the marginalised, for those who have no voice. For refugees. For the poor. For the dispossessed. And when they do so, there are some who criticise them for being patronising. They fly in to some refugee camp in a helicopter to draw attention to the plight of those who live there. Then they fly out again. They’ve never known what it is to be poor.
People say the same thing about God. Someone has just watched a loved one go through an illness that brought untold pain and suffering. They say to themselves: There cannot be a God. He would never have let him suffer like that. God has never known what it is to be poor and to suffer.
The arrival of Jesus changed that forever. The wonder of Christmas is not just that the baby is the eternal Son of God. The wonder of Christmas is also that God himself should enter our poverty. Become materially poor, like many on earth today. Become spiritually poor, like all of us today.
He became poor.
You might become rich
But we haven’t finished the story. The Christmas story goes: Rich, poor, rich.
The birth of a poor, humble baby may well blind us to the riches he came from. But it could also blind us to the riches he came to bring.
Here’s our verse again: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
That’s stage 3: You might become rich.
Many of us find it hard to believe we’re poor. Materially, we’re so well off. We live in one of the richest parts of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Some of us struggle to get by, but many of us want for nothing.
Which makes our spiritual poverty so easy to miss.
If you own a particularly rare and beautiful painting by a grand master, it deserves to be in pride of place in your house. You wouldn’t put it in the downstairs loo. If the Queen, or some other dignitary, came to tea at your house, you’d give them the best seat and the finest food you could find.
There is nobody more beautiful than God. Yet none of us gives him pride of place in our lives. There is nobody more important and worthy of honour than God. Yet none of us gives him the very best of everything.
Which means we have empty spiritual bank accounts. We’ve certainly got nothing extra to buy favour with God. We certainly don’t deserve a place with him in heaven.
Maybe you’ve got pots of money, but there are places where I cannot afford to live. When I worked in central London, a nice house in Zone 1, 10 minutes’ walk from work, would have been lovely. Somewhere just west of Edgware Road, north of Hyde Park, and south of Paddington Station would do nicely. No chance. I could never have afforded to live there, and even less so now.
The same is true of heaven. None of us could ever afford to live to there. We’re spiritually bankrupt.
This is why Jesus came to this earth. He was born in a manger. He lived a humble life. He died on a Roman cross. So that he could take bankrupt us, and make us rich. Make us spiritually rich beyond our wildest dreams. Even to give us, one day, a life in heaven. So that we could live like kings and queens, live like Jesus did before he came to earth.
He came, so that … You might become rich.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
It’s quite easy to get tired of the commercial side of Christmas, tired of all the presents.
The answer is not to stop giving presents. The answer is to receive personally the gift that God gave us that very first Christmas.
It’s a gift that was extremely costly to the one who gave it. It took Jesus from the infinite riches of heaven to the unrivalled poverty of the cross.
It’s a gift that is extremely precious to the one who receives it. True and lasting spiritual riches, life itself, and a place in heaven.
If the Christians in ancient Corinth, if we, need any motivation to give, there it is: God wants to give us something infinitely precious at great cost.