|Series Theme: Seasonal Materials|
Title: 1A. More on Christmas
Thoughts about Christmas
A Fresh Look at Christmas
1. Supernaturally Ordinary
Talking about the Advent story, someone recently commented, “Oh, I didn't know that…” and proceeded to relate how they had never noticed a particular facet of the Christmas story. Because it is something that comes around every year and perhaps we've heard it so often, we may take it for granted, so here are some hopefully fresh thoughts to help you appreciate the season.
It's Not just a Story
Today is very much a day of stories. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and many other ‘stories' have appeared as films and we are a people who like stories. The danger with ‘Christmas' is that it becomes just a ‘story'. Of course we all know that it is in the Bible but nevertheless it can be in our minds, ‘just a story'.
But it's not ‘just a story' it happened. If you lived two thousand years ago in Palestine you would have seen each of the people in ‘the story' for they were real people who lived ordinary lives just like you and me.
Yes, Ordinary People!
That's one of the marvels of this story, it is about ordinary people. Joseph was a young man with a job who got up every day, worked through the day and got tired. Did they clean their teeth then? I don't know, but they certainly got out of bed every morning, possibly sploshed some water on their face and had something for breakfast. Joseph would have been a trainee carpenter, probably working in a room off the family house. Possibly worked with his dad or an uncle who was already a carpenter. Worked through the day, got tired, went to bed at night, and dreamed. Yes, a dead ordinary guy was Joseph. He's a nice guy and he's got a nice girl and they've recently got engaged. They go to the synagogue each week and are really part of the community. Just ordinary people
People who know people
This is a family story. Joseph's girl has got some relatives who are quite elderly. They didn't have any kids – just didn't seem to be able to have any – but just recently there's been some odd news from them – she's expecting, at her age! The funny thing is they say he met an angel when he was working in the Temple a while back, and he says the angel told him they would have a child – well when I say ‘he says' it's actually he wrote down, because he's been dumb ever since! It's all a bit odd really, but she is clearly pregnant!
The trouble with God and angels in this story is that no one has heard from God for well over four hundred years. Imagine the last we heard anything from God was back in the 1500's – that's how far off it was. So it's a bit difficult to believe in angels when nothing has been heard from heaven for over four hundred years. The word on the street is that the old boy in the Temple was scared silly when the angel turned up. No wonder! Why should God turn up after all that time?
So what's that to Joseph and his girl, Mary? They're just an ordinary couple minding their own business, making plans for their wedding. Not a cloud on the horizon. Life is good. Two young people, well respected and liked in the community. What could go wrong?
A Complaint against God?
If they – or we – had a complaint against God, it might have been, why didn't you warn me? When God turned up and life was never the same again, would we have believed it if He had told us beforehand? Almost certainly not. If He told us a quarter of the good things He has on His heart for us, would we believe them? Probably not. It's difficult to believe God CAN come and do things, and if He did, that it would be GOOD for us, but that's our old nature talking. The Bible says He can and He does, so let's let this part of the Advent story speak to us. Read it again and see what He says to you about you.
2. In their Shoes
We continue with some, hopefully, fresh thoughts about Advent to help you appreciate the season.
Previously we emphasised that the Christmas story is history and history involves people – ordinary people. This last year has been ‘history' – it happened and we can remember things that happened to us. The people in the ‘Christmas story' remembered what happened and shared it with Matthew and Luke for them to include it in their Gospels. We need to emphasise this ‘history' bit because there are ignorant people who say that Christianity is just made-up ideas. Christianity has its foundations in history, in the lives of people who had encounters with God.
In their shoes
Can I encourage you to pick up your Bible and in the weeks running up to Christmas read those first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke and put yourself in the shoes of the people you read about. It's helpful to wonder what they might have felt and, indeed, how these things can apply to us today. Here are some starter thoughts:
You'll find Zechariah in Luke chapter one. An old man married to an old lady, and he works in the Temple in Jerusalem . It's there he encounters an angel! An angel? Angels belong to history! What's an angel doing here? God hasn't spoken to Israel for over four hundred years! Am I in trouble? No, you're going to have son? Are you crazy? I'm an old man married to an old woman.
A Lesson for the elderly? When God says things about our lives, it's not a question of whether we can do them, but whether He can, through us! How many of us write ourselves off because we think we're too old? What can God do through us in however many years we have left? Remember, it's not a question of whether He's up to it!
Now the danger here is that we know the story so well it no longer impacts us. She's an ordinary young girl. An angel speaks the word of God to her, she say, ‘let it be', and the Holy Spirit comes and new life is there. So often we expect God to come only to special situations or special people, but He doesn't; He delights in coming into our ordinary, everyday events and transforming them. That is what we often struggle with, the thought that God can come and change my circumstances, but that is exactly it: He can! We can't, but He can.
A Lesson for young people like Mary? All He requires is the openness that we see in Mary. What is more He does it because He wants to, He wants to create something more, something better than you have at the moment. Are you open for that to happen?
We mentioned him previously. What's so special about this ordinary young man? He dreams! But even more than that, he hears from God in his dreams and acts on what he believes – again and again! Yesterday he was planning to quietly divorce Mary, now he's planning to carry on with the wedding preparations despite the fact that she's obviously carrying a baby – and it's not his!
Joseph is another staggering example of simple trust and faith in the Lord. He doesn't reason like most of us would – was that really God in that dream? Was that really Him speaking to me? No, he just accepts what he's apparently heard and gets on with it. Without realising it he's just become the guardian of the Son of God.
Yes, Jesus has risked coming into this world in the form of a little baby that is totally vulnerable. Herod (and Satan) will be out to get him. All that stands before him and a very premature death is the simple faith of this young man. He's the one who is going to get the tenuous guidance that will preserve Jesus' life. It's only simple faith that was needed and he obviously had it.
A Lesson for us all? Do we need skywriting before we'll believe it is God speaking to us, or will we risk having simple faith like Joseph and just get on with what God says to us?
A Question-Free Christianity?
Very often, watching people come to Christ and then start their walk with him, we see (and preach?) an expectation that now everything will be different, now all my worries and questions about life will be gone. In a sense that is true. Everything will be different, for as the apostle Paul said, we are now a ‘new creation' (2 Cor 5:17 , Gal 6:15 ), and indeed he is there for us to share our worries with him, and he promises us peace when we do (Phil 4:6,7). But questions! Yes, we will have many answers but there will still be many questions, in fact if we really think about the Christmas story, it is full of questions that the writers didn't think it worth answering!
Questions and more questions
When we think ourselves into the Christmas story we realise that we have really just been given the bare bones of the story:
• What must Zechariah have felt like after the angel had gone?
• How did he convey to Elizabeth what was to happen?
• How did Elizabeth explain it to her friends when it became obvious she was expecting?
• How did Mary feel after the angel had gone?
• Did she suffer morning sickness?
• Did it become very obvious that she was pregnant or was she one of those girls who hardly showed it?
• What did Joseph say when she told him?
• What did her family say when she told them?
• What did Joseph really feel like when she told him?
• What did he feel when he awoke after the dream with the angel in?
• What did they feel in that nine month waiting period?
• What did they feel when they were told they had to go to Bethlehem ?
• What did they feel when they found only a stable available when they got there?
• What did they think when the shepherds arrived?
• What did they think about what happened in the Temple in Jerusalem ?
• Why did they stay in Bethlehem and not return straight away to Nazareth ?
• What did they think and feel when the wise men arrived and worshipped their baby?
• What did Mary think when Joseph said they had to flee to Egypt ?
The questions go on and on because, very simply, we aren't told! We like to have answers to life and when we turn to the Bible we find there are sufficient to get us going, but often we're left wondering, and sometimes this side of heaven we won't know. One of the frustrating principles in the New Testament, frustrating at least for people who want to ‘know' everything or ‘know' before they act, is, “ We live by faith, not by sight .” (2 Cor 5:7)
The Lessons of Waiting
We take for granted, perhaps, Mary's confinement. All who are mothers know about this – this period of waiting while change takes place inside you, over which you have little say. Will it be a boy or a girl? Well Mary was told, it will be a boy! What will he be like? Will he have hair and what colour will it be? Will he sleep through the night? Will he be healthy? These are the questions an expectant mother asks, and Mary was probably no different from any other mother!
Life is often made up of ‘waiting times'. Mary and Joseph had to wait for the baby to arrive, had to wait in Bethlehem wondering what next, had to wait in Egypt until it was safe to return, had to wait thirty years until their first son was revealed for who he was – and tradition has it that Joseph died much earlier and so never saw the fulfilment of the potential of this ‘Christmas period'.
So what does waiting do? It teaches us patience! We can't rush God's timing. It teaches us perseverance! We've got to learn to push on with what we're doing until God brings the change. It teaches us faithfulness! We've got to learn to remain steadfast in faith until we receive the fruit of it (Gal 6:9). Yes, Advent is all about exciting encounters with angels, but it's also about waiting.
4. Who's on the Welcome Team?
How do you choose a welcome team?
Well, you want people who are nice, welcoming, look presentable, are friendly, good representatives, are morally on the ball and who won't let down the side. Respectable people, in other words (with apologies to those of you on the welcome team in church!).
So how might God choose a welcome team?
God? Well let's ask the religious people of the day. Who do you think God would choose to be on his welcome team? It depends on who you are welcoming. It's the Son of God coming from heaven, full of glory, the only Son of the Father. Right! Well they've obviously got to be holy, religious people, people who understand about God and about religion, who go to the synagogue every week, who are pillars of society, who are morally impeccable, who dress well, who are good representatives of society, can speak well, know the right things to say, oh yes, and who know and keep the Law of God perfectly. They've got to be good people.
Interview Panel time
OK, who have we got here? Just a minute, there seems to have been a mistake made here! Who brought this lot in? Who are they? Shepherds????? But they are scruffy, they speak badly, they're badly educated, they haven't a clue about the Law of God, they never go to the synagogue, and word has it that they're a bunch of rogues! They live out on the hillsides, never have anything to do with the rest of society and are about as uncouth as you can get! Religion? They wouldn't know it if it came up and baptised them! Next!
Sack the Interview Team!
Excuse me, are you the Interview Team?
The Interview Team that threw out the shepherds? Er… yes.
Sorry, you're fired; you got it wrong?
So who do you think you are, coming in here like this throwing your weight around, saying we're fired?
I'm an angel from God. He says that, actually, the Shepherds would be brilliant at welcoming His Son!
The Shepherds' Qualifications
Well it's quite simply really; they'll believe it when they're told about it. When I go down there on the hillside and tell them Jesus has come, they'll believe and go and see. What's more they'll go out and tell others afterwards. And God likes underdogs and so He likes these shepherds. In fact he's going to lay on a heavenly choir, especially for them. And He knows they won't stop talking about it. And who's better to welcome a lamb into the world than a shepherd? So you get the picture? The shepherds are God's choice!
To think about
One of the biggest problems so many of us have is low self esteem. We think we can't be ‘good enough' for God. Sometimes we don't think we're spiritual enough, we don't know enough of the Bible, or we don't pray enough – and so God won't like us!
Then we come to the Shepherds who, in many ways, were the lowest of the low, and God chooses them to be His welcome team, the first ones to go and visit His Son on earth.
So it doesn't matter how ‘low' you feel you are. All that is required is that we be simple enough in our faith to be like the original ones? In this next year, when God speaks, let's be ‘shepherds'! Let's be responders to the Son who has come.