A sermon preached at Christmas 2016
THAT THING ON THE TREE by Stella Johns
“At the end of the party, when our mothers came to take us home, they said we could all have a present off the Christmas tree. They said I could choose first because I was the smallest.
I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing. I’d been looking at it all through the party, all through the hard white coconut cake that had taken me all teatime to eat; all through the games that I didn’t know how to play; and all through the funny man with the cardboard nose who’d made me cry. I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.
Ah no, they said, I didn’t want that. It wasn’t a present. It was just to make the tree look pretty. Wouldn’t I like this grand blue motor-car filled with sweets?
I said I wanted that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.
But I wouldn’t be able to play with it or anything, they said. It was made of very thin stuff that broke as soon as you touched it. Wouldn’t I like these pretty pink beads to put round my neck?
I said I wanted that thing on top of the Christmas tree. That shiny thing.
But what would I do with it, they said. Now what about these nice red gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days? What would I do with that thing on top of the tree?
I said I’d keep it in a cardboard box and look at it.
Then someone said, oh, give it her. When it’s broke she’ll be sorry she didn’t have the blue car or the pink beads or the red gloves. So they put the shiny thing in a box and I carried it home and I looked at it. It was like having a star in a box, a star all of my own. Next day I lifted the thing out of the box and it broke into a thousand pieces. But every piece was shiny so I put them all back in the box again. And now I had a whole boxful of stars.
That was forty years ago, but some people never learn. Every time they ask me to choose I say I want that thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing.
So I’ve never had a grand blue motor-car or pretty pink beads to put round my neck or nice red gloves to keep my hands warm on cold days.
But I’ve got hundreds of thousands of cardboard boxes. And every box is full of a thousand stars.”
Life is – to some extent at least – what we make of it. I wonder what you want this Christmas. What, for you, is that “shiny thing” at the top f the tree, the thing you’d really really like. It’s an interesting little story isn’t it, of the little girl wanting something shiny, something out of reach on the top of the tree, that isn’t actually there to play with but merely for decoration. And yet something she really has set her heart on, she really really wants. That thing on top of the tree, that shiny thing. People try to encourage her to want something else. That thing isn’t a present, it is just to make the tree look pretty. She won’t be able to play with it. What would she do with it? In telling the child she could choose a present off the Christmas tree the adults hadn’t expected her to choose that!
What would you really like for Christmas? Sometimes we hear “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me”. Well we may be able to achieve a measure of peace “with me”, so to speak, but I reckon peace on earth is like that thing at the top of the tree, out of reach, and in any case, were it even within our grasp would be flimsy and fragile. Other things too we might wish for ourselves are just not within our grasp. Good health and happiness in our homes and families, for example. These are things we might long for and wish for and hope for, but things which money just cannot buy. They are not within our reach – like that thing on the tree – and as we think we grasp them, these hopes can all too easily shatter into a thousand pieces.
Among my favourite TV programmes have been the two series ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes Prime Minister’, and one evening some years ago, after signing what seemed like an endless pile of Christmas cards, I retired to bed and re-read the scene where Jim Hacker, as Minister in the Department of Administrative Affairs was faced with numerous piles of departmental Christmas cards, as well as a large batch of constituency cards, and a bulging carrier bag containing eleven hundred and seventy-two personal cards. Apart from the cards waiting for him at Party Headquarters, Needless to say the whole thing is exceedingly complex there are departmental cards, and there are House of Commons cards, and cards to different people to be signed in different ways, Later on, the discussion focuses on Christmas presents,, and Jim Hacker asks Bernard, his Principal Private Secretary what Christmas presents it would be appropriate to give to the private office,
“Bernard said that it was entirely up to me. But he recommended bottles of sherry for the Assistant Private Secretaries, large boxes of House of Commons mints for the Diary Secretary and the Correspondence Secretary, and small boxes of House of Commons mints for the rest. ‘What about the Principal Private Secretary 7’ I asked absent-mindedly. ‘That’s me,’ he replied, slightly startled. I explained that I knew who he was, but I wondered what I should give him. ‘You don’t have to give me anything, Minister’. I know that, ‘ I said with real warmth, ‘But I’d like to,’ Bernard seemed quite touched, ‘Oh Minister,’ he replied, ‘Well?’ 1 asked, ‘Well, anything really,’ He obviously didn’t want to say. But I had no idea what he’d like, ‘Such as ?’ I prompted ‘Really,’ he said ‘I’d like a surprise. I still didn’t have a clue, “what sort of surprise should I give you ?’ Well he said cautiously, a bottle of champagne is the customary surprise.”
I don’t know what your presents will include this Christmas. I hope that you will receive at least one or two of the things you were hoping for, and that any surprises will be pleasant ones. Think back though to that story of the small girl with that thing on the tree. The Old Testament tells us how time and again God’s people disobeyed His will, right from the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis, wanting a level of knowledge which was not rightly theirs, through the centuries of disobedience as God’s prophets told his people how God wanted them to live their lives. They were in effect told that they were not to want that thing on the tree! But they still wanted it. But if you remember even when that ornament broke the girl finished up with a box full of stars. The disobedience and waywardness of mankind results in the separation of mankind from God, but God still loves His people, despite them having shattered His perfect world. And just as the girl can see a whole box full of stars in that shattered ornament, so too God intervenes at Christmas, sending his Son Jesus to be born for our sakes to restore mankind to a right relationship to Him, and to point mankind back in the direction of God. We may want that thing on the tree, we may want what is out of our grasp, what is not good for us to have, we may break it and watch it shatter into a thousand pieces, but with God, even this imperfect and broken world can be redeemed through the one who was born for us in Bethlehem, Christ Jesus, our Saviour and our Lord.
“That thing on the tree” by Stella Johns, published in “The Christmas Road” an anthology, ISBN 0 7151 0440 3 Church House Publishing 1986
“The Complete Yes Prime Minister” ISBN 0 563 20773 6 BBC 1989