The birth of Jesus brought Christian grace into the world. Christian grace is God’s active good will and faithfulness towards us humans even if we hardly deserve it through our misconduct. Jesus lived and demonstrated this grace throughout his life and set a new standard for human conduct which was not present in the world before, not even in Judaism. The Romans were not that nice a people. They were violent and incestuous. The Greeks were not moral in any sense we would recognise today by Christian standards. Middle eastern life in Jesus’ time was not secure or peaceful. There were no national health services in those days and no social securities either. People in general were not especially nice to each other. That’s why Paul wrote all these letters which appear in the New Testament – to teach new Christians how to behave towards one another after the manner and pattern of Jesus.
'In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge'. (Philippians 2).
It is true to this day that if Jesus Christ is not born in your heart, you may not be a very nice person. You may that think you are and others may think so too, but when the tests and trials come, you may fail and fall without the grace of God sustaining and inspiring you. You may also have inherited grace in your spiritual genes from Godly parents and grand parents even if you are by no means yourself a confessing and practising Christian because the promise is that God’s grace is given down through the generations from those who were faithful and who were practising and confessing Christians. There is a very clear difference visible and discernible in today’s society between Christians and non-Christians. Bad language, aggression, stress, personality issues and self-interest are all around and none of these are Christian characteristics. An article in The Times newspaper this week by Matthew Parris was on the subject of his new book Scorn – a collection of insults. Here are a few examples:
Clive James on our last Prime Minister - “There is something about David Cameron that bothers me – these features of his are still waiting to turn into a face”. The journalist Ann Treneman described David Cameron thus - “He polishes his face with Windowlene”. Amy Schumer described the Kardashians thus - “a whole family of women that take the faces they were born with as a light suggestion”. Noel Gallacher described his brother Liam as “A man with a fork in a world of soup”. Clive James on Barbara Cartland’s make-up - “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff”. Gore Vidal described Ronald Reagan as “A triumph of the embalmer’s art”. Dorothy Parker was a famous wit. When told that President Calvin Coolidge had died she quipped “How can they tell?”. Donald Trump said of a certain socialite “Arianna Huffington is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision”. PJ O’Rourke’s barb about Hillary Clinton was particularly cruel “She is every American’s ex-wife”. There was a death noticed published in the Richmond Times Dispatch as follows “Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton Mary Anne Noland chose instead to pass on into the eternal love of God on Sunday May 15th 2016 at the age of 68”. The satirist Peter Cook once said in mock humility “As I look out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realise how unimportant they are”. The Times article did not include one the greatest put-downs ever. Eric Morecambe was asked “What would you two have done if you had not been comedians?” And he quipped “Mike and Bernie Winters”.
These cruel witticisms are the opposite of Christian Grace. No doubt large human egos need to be deflated but the Christian approach is not to be cruel but to be kind and to show a better example. Christmas made a big difference to the world. It even manages to change people’s behaviour today all be it temporally in our spiritually bankrupt, greedy, materialistic, self-obsessed society. But lasting personal change requires the active grace of God working in your life and mine over the long term. It is not dull to be a Christian but it is different from the survival of the fittest loudest noise making selfie presentation that passes for life and living today.
Christmas is not myth either. Joseph and Mary were real people. Mary’s song which we heard read to us earlier from St Luke’s history of Jesus’ birth was committed to its final written form about 70 AD. Christianity was not yet established in the ancient world and life was risky and precarious for the early Christian apostles, teachers and congregation members. So what appears in Luke’s Gospel as the words of Mary had not been fulfilled at that point. Jesus’ resurrection had taken place, of course and the Holy Spirit had come upon Jesus’ followers including his mother Mary and the new Church as growing and expanding in many places. Paul’s missionary journeys had successfully planted churches in the eastern Mediterranean area. But the scale of Mary’s prophecy only came true in later centuries.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
This has happened through the near 2000 years of Christian witness in the world. Who is the most famous woman in history? It is not Cleopatra or Elizabeth Taylor, not even Margaret Thatcher or Nicola Sturgeon. It is Mary, the mother of Jesus. And Mary is not just respected but revered by many in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition. Christianity has tempered the pride of human beings and made everyone equal in the sight of God. Christianity has provided a different set of values as against money, wealth, fame and power. So that living well in the presence of God is a much more enriching life experience than just becoming rich. The largest portion of humanity have always and still belong to the poorest economic groups. Mary’s song connects them with their Maker in a personal way telling us that they are God’s priority over those with plenty and with the high and mighty of lands, countries and peoples. Empires rise and have their day : but they fall. The Roman Empire lasted about 1000 years. The British Empire lasted about 300 years. The atheist anti-Christian Russian Empire lasted only 70 years. Christianity as an identifiable social grouping has lasted in the world nearly 2000 years and it is still growing. The words of Mary’s song have come true.
And that is a scary thought also. Advent is not primarily about canned muzak in shopping centres, partying, spending lots of money on presents and feasting. Advent is actually a critical and sobering time if you take it seriously. If you think of God as Santa Claus you are missing the point. The God we know is revealed in the lives of those called to serve and witness for him, the ancient patriarchs and prophets, Jesus Himself, the Christian apostles and saints and countless foot soldiers for Christ like ourselves here in this Church. Both within the time scale of the Bible and throughout Christian history, people have suffered for their Christianity. Mary and Joseph had to flee Judea with their infant son to escape Herod’s murdering of infants. The little babe of Bethlehem grew up and ended his young days crucified of all things – a terrible death. There is something going on in Advent which is not comfortable or pleasing and it is this. Advent challenges our human condition in a direct and intervening way.
Advent asks us to re-evaluate our lives in the light of God’s self giving love in Jesus. Who and what do we live for? Have we any time and space for our Maker? Do we dismiss the prospect of eternal life and salvation? Do we nurture and grow our souls? Do we acknowledge Jesus as the Saviour of the world? There is a cutting edge to Advent if you think about it seriously at all. We make a complete mess of it in this country of course : it is ruined by shops, online marketing and commercialism. So we inoculate ourselves against its true meaning and go with the herd. We should stop and think about the wonder of it all. Our Maker incarnate in the humblest of circumstances, born to working class people who were deeply pious in lifestyle. Extraordinary, divine and supernatural occurrences which were later corroborated in Jesus’ life of healing the sick and completely in his resurrection from the dead. Christmas is no fairly tale, no pantomime. It is the highest truth afforded to humanity. It is a tale of love and redemption, of peace and grace and it is for you this Advent.