"The babe born in Bethlehem ... God's gift to a tormented and needy world"
Christmas is often presented as a picture of happiness - with Australians enjoying their family, friends and the best this country has to offer. But it's a two-dimensional picture. More image than reality. Behind the scenes there are plenty of people who hate Christmas or find it difficult - and for good reason.
It can be the unhappiest time of the year. If Christmas in Australia does mean gathering with your family, enjoying a meal and a laugh, playing together in the pool or on the beach, and catching up on the year gone by with friends and relatives, then many of us just won't be taking part.
We are not just a nation of happy families, surrounding the barbecue and cheerfully singing "Dashing through the snow..." while we perspire in the heat. We are often the survivors of cruel relationships, illness, bereavement or financial ruin. We have struggled this year to keep the mortgage under control and the children in school; we have been stressed and anxious and unsure of the future. Some of us lost a lot this year: our jobs, our drought-ravaged farms, our burned-down houses, our spouses, our Bali-holidaying friends. So Christmas cheer is far from the lips of many an Australian this year.
And for the first time in a long time, fear - that great enemy of happiness - has been scratching away at the leathery Australian soul. Terrorism, and the subsequent talk of war, has had us murmuring our "she'll be right, mate" in shaky voices.
In such a situation, how can a Jewish baby born in Israel in the first century provide any comfort? Is it not insane to think that the birth of Jesus on that first Christmas day could give more than a 'nice, historical feel' to our eating, drinking, merry-making and gift-giving?
How can Jesus' birth offer us hope today?
The answer becomes clear when we understand Jesus' family history. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was descended from Israel's King, David, who was descended from Abraham. Jesus was the long-awaited son who would bring God's blessing to all the families of the earth. And there is great hope in the knowledge that Jesus came from God in heaven. The baby who was born in Bethlehem was God's gift of himself to a tormented and needy world.
"He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all," we sing in the Christmas carol. Jesus came from heaven with a mission to restore relations between heaven and earth. He was sent with a recovery brief, a plan to rescue us from the horror and injustice of this world, and from our own hateful, rebellious hearts. This mission began with Christmas Day, and was completed on Easter Sunday when the crucified Jesus was raised back to life.
It is this recovery mission which gives us hope, because we know from the Bible that the mission was successful. Jesus' life, death and resurrection restores our friendship with God. That is why the celebration of his birth can give us comfort in troubled times. We are celebrating all that he achieved in bringing us back to God. No terrorist act, bushfire or drought can change that fact.
Again in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He invites us to accept the rest he offers. It is a spiritual rest, resting from our own failures, fears and sins, resting in the love and kindness of God.
God invites us to join his family this Christmas. He is always extending this invitation and welcoming in strangers from afar. We join God's family when we entrust our futures to Jesus Christ, the Saviour sent from heaven who restores us to friendship with God. He gives us peace, because in knowing Jesus we have nothing to fear from the world itself. Those who trust in Jesus know that whatever may happen, whether they live a long and prosperous life or die at the hands of terrorists their eternal life is safe in the hands of God.
It isn't an arrogant claim. It is the promise of God to us, the promise that in the end things will be fine for those who trust in Jesus.