Summary: Christmas is different because here God meets us face to face, and reveals himself in human form.
Have you heard the story about the head of a Hindu Temple in Belfast who had someone come up to him and say "All I want to know is, are you a Protestant or a Catholic." He was a bit puzzled by this and said, "you don’t seem to understand. I’m a Hindu." But undeterred, his questioner said, "Yes I know that, but are you a Protestant Hindu or a Catholic Hindu?" I’m sure there’s little truth in that story, but it does highlight one of the realities of modern life. We live in a multicultural world, what’s been referred to as a global village, where the distinctions between religions are often blurred or poorly understood. Anyone who’s lived in Surrey Hills or Box Hill for the past 20 or so years will have noticed a marked change in the makeup of their suburb in that time. What was once a predominantly western European population has now diversified to include people from all parts of the world, especially of course, Asia. You only have to walk through Box Hill and look at the restaurants: Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Indian, Greek. There’s an incredible variety, and of course over the past 20 or 30 years we’ve discovered that these cultures have an enormous richness that we didn’t know or appreciate before.
But along with that richness of culture has also come an ambiguity about belief. We’ve discovered that these people of other cultures are often as religious, sometimes even more so, than we are. We’ve discovered that the religions of other cultures are often as morally rigorous, often as loving and caring, as Christianity. My wife, Di, did some study a few years ago on the search for enlightenment, looking at mysticism in different religions, and found that in all the world’s great religions there have been people who have been spiritually attuned, whose lives have been focused in a special way on God and on the search for spiritual experience
So the question that faces us as Christians, it seems to me, is what’s so different about Christianity? Is ours just one of the world’s great religions, or is our claim to uniqueness justified? This is particularly so at Christmas of course when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the founder of Christianity. Is this just an example of the arrogance of Christians, that we insist on celebrating Jesus’ birth with a national holiday? In our Anglican Synod this year there was some debate over whether we should call on the government to ensure that the Christian festivals of Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas be kept as public holidays, or whether those who are not Christians should be free to carry on their trade as usual those days. The Americans have virtually given in to this. There, this is called "the Holiday Season" rather than Christmas, for fear of offending those of other religions?
Well, the answer, I think, lies in where our religion comes from. The opening verses of Hebrews expresses it like this: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets." If you think about it, most religions have come about in one of two ways: either from people observing the world and working out some overriding principles by which they think the universe operates, or else they’ve come about as a result of one or more people claiming divine revelation in the form of prophecy of some sort or another. This last way was certainly true of the Jewish religion. God had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and Joshua, and to the Judges; and then he’d spoken to them over the centuries through a long line of prophets. But in a sense that was only second hand. Although the truth of their revelation was borne out by what God did through them, it wasn’t really enough. A Muslim, if there’d been one around at the time could have said, "Well, so what, we believe God has revealed himself to us through Mohammed. What’s so unique about your religion?"
But the writer goes on: "But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." Here is something different, something amazing, something absolutely unique. The claim of Christianity is that God has spoken to us in the person of his Son. Not just a prophet, but his own Son. John 1 describes him as being the eternal Word, the Word that spoke at creation, through whom all things were created, the Word that was God. This Jesus whose birth we celebrate today is God’s own Son. He is God speaking directly to us.
In fact that’s exactly what the writer to the Hebrews says, v2: "in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds." It’s hard to even imagine how a little child, lying in a cow trough, could be the same being through whom the worlds were created. There’s something almost ludicrous about it isn’t there? Yet that’s what we find here. This child, small and insignificant as he appears, is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. We saw this in Colossians 1 a few weeks ago; "He is the image of the invisible God ... In him all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form."