This is the script of my address at the BBC Radio Leeds carol service recorded at Halifax Minster (with the same joke as in the Yorkshire Post piece. Sorry.

I made myself a snowball, 

As perfect as could be,

I thought I’d keep it as a pet,

And let it sleep with me.

I made it some pajamas,

And a pillow for its head,

Then last night it ran away,

But first – it wet the bed!

That was the Christmas poem by someone called Shel Silverstein. It gives new meaning to the phrase “missing the point”, but it made me laugh.

It also made me wonder what each of us thinks when the word ‘Christmas’ is heard – usually when the season begins some time in July. What are the associations in your head? Turkey, trees and tinsel? Presents pies and pudding? Family, fairies and fun?

Well, it could be anything, couldn’t it? Given my job, the first thing that comes into my mind is carols, cake and christingles. Swiftly followed by sleep after all the services.

Anyway, however you celebrate Christmas, and whoever you celebrate it with, the story at the heart of it all – familiar though it is – still has the power to surprise, encourage and challenge us. Just as a choir of angels disturbed the peace in the little town of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, Christmas sneaks into our imagination, gets behind our defences, and leaks light into the darkness. Like earth being surprised by heaven.

So, just as we are getting used to the notion that the world is falling apart – that Christmas in Yemen might not be much fun this year, for example – Christmas defiantly demonstrates that violence and power do not actually have the final word in this world. As the Gospel of John puts it: “the light has come into the world and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Yet, even so, in the face of such defiant hope, we can too easily miss the point. Let me tell you a story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write a note to Jesus. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” But, he knew this was a bit of a fib. So, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

But, Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God – and we certainly can’t threaten God. Because Christmas offends all sense of justice and tit-for-tat calculations of goodness. Read the gospels and see that Christmas is about grace and generosity – the light of God penetrating the darkness and refusing to be suppressed by misery, backstabbing, inducements or deals. No! Christmas makes the outrageous claim that however dark the world, however dark my life, however deep in the dirt I find myself, God refuses to distance himself from us, and comes to where we are.

In other words, it is physical. Christians talk about ‘incarnation’ – meaning that God declines to remain ‘a good idea somewhere out there’ and comes among us as one of us: human, flesh and blood, vulnerable as a baby in a mucky manger, subject to all the world can throw at any human being. No exemption from suffering and injustice, no protection from hard questions and tough temptations, no hiding place from reality. God among us – one of us.

Now, this could just remain a nice idea. Or it can take flesh in us. As we sing the carols and re-tell the story, we can let the snowball of hope melt our hardness and leave its mark on our life.

Happy Christmas!