Sermon – Christmas Eve 2009

Some of you might remember a movie from the 1940s, The Bishop’s Wife. When I was young it was always on TV at Christmas at some point, although I haven’t seen it advertised for a bit. Shrek seems to have taken over the airways, or the digital signals these days!

It’s the story of an Episcopal Bishop, played by David Niven, who has been working for months on the plans for a new cathedral. It becomes an obsession. He loses sight of his family and close friends. He almost forgets why he became a churchman in the first place.

He is so frustrated he turns to God for guidance. God responds by sending him an unlikely angel named Dudley, played by Cary Grant. Dudley does help, but not in the way the bishop might have preferred. The movie is both a comedy and a drama.

But, of course, in the end everyone lives happily ever after.
It’s pure dead Hollywood, sentimental and sickly, but I remember how it ended and the final scenes….

In the final scene, the bishop delivers a Christmas Eve sermon at his former parish… a sermon which was penned by Dudley. It begins like this:

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.

He goes on to talk about Christmas…
“Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries. We celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, with the sound of bells, and with gifts.

“But especially with gifts. You give me a book, I give you a tie.” ……. and so it continues….
“All the stockings are filled”, the bishop continues, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.”

And I’ve never forgotten that scene. It’s been with me since my childhood. The stocking for the baby Jesus that has never quite managed to materialise in my home despite my memory of that film and the effect it had on me.

But, wouldn’t that be a wonderful tradition for us to begin in our households this Christmas Eve? Hang up an extra stocking for the Christ child. And, perhaps, put in that stocking something truly relevant to the season.

And if you did this, if you went away tonight and put up a stocking for the child in the manger, what would you put in it?

Our gift-giving says a lot about us. If we were, year in and year out being given Christmas gifts worth thousands of pounds by someone, we wouldn’t dare just buy them a selection box, year in and year out in return. We would probably give back as much as we could afford.

If you love someone dearly, I’m sure that your gift to them tonight or tomorrow will reflect the love you have for them.

So what about this gift from God? A God who is so passionate about humanity, so much in love with it , with this passion, that he becomes one with us…. sharing our humanity so that we can share in his divinity?

What is our response to that sort of gift?
What do we put in the empty stocking for Jesus?

We may try to respond in many ways.

In a youth conference many years back I asked the kids for suggestions…
Some pledged a gift to be presented later to a person in need. Some wanted to put a simple prayer signifying that would work more earnestly for God’s kingdom in the year ahead.
Some identified that stuff.. things in their personality needed changing, and they put in a written pledge to be less selfish, more forgiving, more tolerant and understanding.. the list went on.
But they all agreed that the gift had to be costly if it was to reflect this gift from God, this passionate love that I talked about, … or that God talked about when God became Incarnate.
Is there room this night in your world for the Christ child? Will you give back to him something which reflects what he has given to you through that first Christmas?

But even if his stocking is empty, or never exists, we can be sure of this, that God loves us anyway, and loves us with a passion.

Tonight I want to tell you the story about an empty stocking……
What will you fill it with?