Christ shines more brightly than ever
Advent once was rather like Lent, a time of spiritual preparation, reflection and even of prayer and fasting in preparation for the Christ-mass, the spiritual, worshipful and liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus. This year Advent has been publicly identified with Black Friday, an American custom, imported to this country. Black Friday as you probably know was a pre-Christmas sale day in some shops, notably ASDA which is an American company and Tesco having to follow suit along with some others. Some stores opened their doors at midnight and people who had been queuing rushed in to get bargains, especially large televisions at reduced prices. In other places, people queued for hours for early openings at 6 00 am. None of this was newsworthy. What made the headlines was the fighting among shoppers for the few real bargains which were offered. Men and women were wrestling at each end of boxes with televisions not prepared to let go and the stronger won the prize. One women got a broken wrist and a large television fell on top of a woman in a wheelchair. The onrush caused chaos and confusion and the Police had to be called in to restore order. A rather posh lady was interviewed on STV disappointed that although she had been queuing for hours at the upmarket Silverburn Centre in south Glasgow and had her number 1 ticket to get in, she had not got what she wanted because the Police closed the store and sent people home. One commentator described this new thing as 'The End of Christmas'.
Christ shines more brightly than ever this year.
A group of Christians in England have set up a campaign called 'Christmas starts with Christ'. It features a London bus poster campaign and of course an internet site. The poster are good. They say, for example:
Christmas starts with Christ – not with Black Friday
Christmas starts with Christ - not with a pay day loan.
Christmas starts with Christ – not with a hangover
Christmas starts with Christ – not with a quarrel
This is where we are in this country now. Christians have to struggle to get the true meaning of Christmas across in the face of almost blasphemous idolatry – the worship of material things, the high priests of which are the supermarkets and large chain shops. But God calls Christians to stand up and be visible and be counted. It is not easy. Multiculturalists don't want to hear and see the specifically Christian Christmas message. Seasons Greetings is as much as they want. Happy Winterwell is another. Muslims want to get in on the action claiming betterment for their views and objecting to the public nature of Christmas in the country. But nothing and no-one can stop our enjoyment of Christmas if we place Jesus Christ at its centre. I got this silly e-mail from a colleague this week.
'No Nativity Scene in Houses of Parliament, London this Year. The Supreme Court has ruled that there cannot be a Nativity Scene in Whitehall this Christmas season. This isn't for any religious reason. They simply have not been able to find Three Wise Men in Whitehall. The search for a Virgin continues.....There was no problem, however, finding enough donkeys to fill the stable.'
The Scotsman on Tuesday carried an article entitled ‘Fears for nativity plays as schools substitute footballers for baby Jesus’. The article went on to tell us that less than a third of schools still hold a traditional play featuring the baby Jesus and Three Wise Men with many opting to put on winter celebrations and end of year concerts instead. 7% of schools in the UK refuse to mention the word 'Christmas'. 1% of schools have plays with items from Islam, and Hinduism. 35% of schools still sing carols. 25% use Christmas pop songs. The Netmums website says however that 66% of parents whose children attend schools without nativity plays want them to have nativity plays. This suggests that the drive away from Christian Christmas is politically led by head teachers and local authorities. 91% of schools have something connected to Christmas in the broadest sense. 12.5% of schools have modern plays without any Christian references. 47% of schools mix traditional nativity with modern characters. 17% of schools in England charge parents to see the Christmas play whatever it is. The cricketer Freddie Flintoff was angered by having to pay £4 to see his 7 year old daughter take part.
Take the words of Isaiah, spoken and recorded 2,800 years ago or thereabouts. They actually came true in Jesus of Nazareth. There are verified. “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth”. Still to be fulfilled are the later words of today's reading. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”. Here is what is known as a 'beatific vision' – a 'blessed vision'. It is a hope - an aspiration. But it is a strange one also. It suggests an end to the tooth and claw of nature, a closing of the food chain. So – it is not talking about life here on earth. It is talking about heaven.
The words of Luke's Gospel which we heard read also came true. Sceptical scholars and atheists who say that the Church wrote up these things after the life of Jesus are most probably wrong. God acted in the lives of these central players. They were real people. They knew for sure what had happened. Mary was engaged to Joseph. In the Judaism of that day, this was a binding contract and lasted for a year when the marriage was celebrated. A legal divorce had to take place if the man for some reason wished to end the engagement. There was an uncomfortable phrase which was rarely used ' a virgin who is a widow' describing a jilted woman. If Joseph had put Mary away on learning of her pregnancy, she would have been on one those so described. But being pregnant she would have been subject to the law and it is possible that she would have been ostracised from society on grounds of adultery.
The angel Gabriel is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, he appeared to the prophet Daniel, delivering explanations of Daniel's visions. In the Book of Daniel he is referred to as "the man Gabriel", “While I, Daniel, was watching the vision and trying to understand it, there before me stood one who looked like a man. And I heard a man’s voice from the Ulai calling, “Gabriel, tell this man the meaning of the vision.” As he came near the place where I was standing, I was terrified and fell prostrate. “Son of man,” he said to me, “understand that the vision concerns the time of the end.” While he was speaking to me, I was in a deep sleep, with my face to the ground. Then he touched me and raised me to my feet”. In the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel is referred to as "an angel of the Lord". Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and to Mary foretelling the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively (Luke 1:11–38).
In our scientifically informed age and amidst our materialistically consumed culture, it is hard for us to understand and accept these angelic visitations as being real. But this is our problem, not God's. It is our estranged faces that cannot see heaven right next to us. It is our doubt that clouds our inward sight. But if you take time apart and seek God in our generation, you will find Him. Even if Richard Dawkins were to spend some years seeking God he would find God. This is the nature of Christian proof, the life experiment, the social and world laboratory of God's creation.
The world needs a miracle. And God has provided one. As Jesus grew up, lived, ministered, preached, taught and healed the miracle was visible. As Jesus died and rose again, the miracle was confirmed and established for all time. It is all true. God cares for the world, For humanity, for you and me and God proved it in the birth of Jesus. By its divine nature, Christmas lifts us up and it never fails to do so. We are taken out of our routine and we are asked again to wonder and worship. As adults we do not regress to childhood but we are infused and inspired with grace and joy from heaven itself. The connection is made by in and through Jesus. His birth is a saving and salutary correction to our human tendencies and excesses. And these are with us every day. Our newspapers are full of them. The television pictures and saturated with them.
Christmas above all humbles us. Quietens us. Heals us. In the midst of all that we strive for all that concerns us and all that burdens us, we can make the inward journey to Bethlehem. With the wholly fictitious Little Drummer Boy we can give something of our hearts and talents to Jesus.
'Little baby I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring That's fit to give our King.
Shall I play for you On my drum? Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him. Then He smiled at me, Me and my drum'.
This Christmas give your best for Jesus. He gave his best for the world and he still does. Do your best for Jesus. He gave his best for you and he still does.