Another Christmas has come and gone. And if you love to celebrate it, then remember there are only 362 days to go before the next one! But what, I wonder do you make of Christmas? When you hear the word, what comes to mind? Family? Food? Presents? Carols? Stress? Anxiety? Overspending? Over eating? It's probably a combination of all of these. But Christianly, what do you make of Christmas? How does it relate to your faith? Is it more about Santa than about Jesus? Today I want us to explore together some themes and ideas to help us to reflect, and to wonder, and to be amazed that God has come to us. That God became man. That God became incarnate. And a fitting response from us is to echo the words of the shepherds of old and to praise God for what we have seen and heard.
Strange as it may be Christmas can be a wonderful distraction away from a serious engagement with the Bible. A combination of warm feelings and a misreading of scripture that gives a false impression of what Christmas is really all about. And we are all part of this. We give gifts and we sing familiar carols. We send cards showing snow on the ground. A star in the sky. A straw-filled stable. Sheep and shepherds. Three kings on camels. But was it really like that? Think for a moment about the words of some familiar carols. 'How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given' (but when ever was human birth a silent matter?); and what about the cattle lowing and the baby awake, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes (but how human is a baby that doesn't cry?). And what about 'See amid the winter snow (yes, occasionally it does snow in Bethlehem) but not very often. And that snow covers some harsh realities that we would rather not think about. We sing sentimentally, 'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see you lie' but that is a picture seen through the eye of faith not of reality.
Today Bethlehem is not little, and certainly not peaceful. It's a busy Arab town full of visitors and coaches and gift shops hidden behind the huge concrete security barrier wall. Yes, the wall brings relative peace and security but it also symbolises division and hostility. The Christian community in Bethlehem is small and struggling as it celebrates the birth of the prince of peace on the other side of the armed check-point.
And think too of how we present the Christmas story. We don't know when the birth of Jesus took place (the shepherds and the sheep would not have been out in the fields in the middle of winter). There's nothing about Mary riding on a donkey (it could have been on a horse or in a cart). There's nothing about a stable (probably the birth took place downstairs where the animals were kept rather than upstairs where the guests stayed). The magi (but not kings) arrived much later than the shepherds (at least two years later) and we don't know how many visitors there were, only that there were three gifts. Was it one man with three gifts? Or three men each with a gift? We don't know. What are we saying when we tell and sing the Christmas story?
I've often thought that we ought to be like the Orthodox Church and celebrate Christmas on 6 January. This would help us to disentangle the secular celebration from the Christian festival and to associate Christmas more with Epiphany than with Advent. Epiphany: the disclosure to the Gentiles and the mission of the church and Advent: the return of Christ and the final judgment rather than it paving the way for the birth of Jesus.
At heart the message of Christmas is simple and straightforward and deeply profound. It's about the birth of a Saviour. Or better still (and more accurately), the birth of the Saviour, the LJC. We believe that it happened at a particular time and in a particular place. In Paul's words, 'When the time had fully come, God sent his Son' (Gal 4:4). And that sense of time and of place is important. In reality (and not story) God became incarnate. God became man. Today you can visit Bethlehem and see the cave in which it was believed that Jesus was born. There is a silver star set in a marble floor that marks the spot. The first church on the site dates from 339 and the present one from 529. Here for nearly 1,700 Christians have worshipped God and celebrated the birth of Christ in the Church of the Nativity.
Visiting Israel brings to the fore the truth that God became man. It really happened. It's not a made up story. Here are the places in which Jesus lived and worked and taught. Here is the place where he worshipped (or rather the sites where he worshipped – whether the synagogue at Capernaum or the Temple in Jerusalem). Here is the place where he called the disciples and stilled the storm and walked on the water. He is the place where Simon Peter confessed 'You are the Christ, the Son of God'. Here is the place where he died and rose again (or rather the sites of those events). Here is the place where the Christian faith took root and soon spread out beyond Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria throughout the Roman Empire and in time throughout the world. Here is the place where the narrative begins in the land that is known as the fifth gospel.
As we celebrate the Christian year it enables us to focus upon the main events in the life of Christ – Good Friday (the death of Christ), Easter Day (the resurrection of Christ), Ascension Day (the ascension of Christ) and Christmas Day (the birth of Christ). And because we rightly focus on the death and resurrection of Christ we can all too easily forget the significance of the birth of Christ. Yes, Jesus was born to die. The manger points us to the cross. But Jesus was born so that we might see in him the invisible God. The Son reveals the Father to us. The Son makes him known. We can know the Father only through the Son. The Son reveals his nature and his character. His love and his mercy. His goodness and his grace. We believe in him, we confess our faith, we are baptised and we become members of the body of Christ.
Think through with me for a moment about two OT encounters with the divine. First to Moses and then to Isaiah. Think of Moses on the mountain. Moses at the unburnt bush. Moses receiving the 10 Commandments. Moses hiding in the cleft of the rock as the glory of God passed over him. God encountered Moses // but Moses didn't see the invisible God. Think too of Isaiah the prophet in the temple. He heard the song of the angels – 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory' (6:3). Isaiah was enveloped in the shekinah – the holy cloud of the presence of God. Isaiah was profoundly moved. Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord. God encountered Isaiah // but Isaiah didn't see the invisible God.
And what does John tell us in the first chapter of his gospel? 'The word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his shekinah glory ... No-one has ever seen God, the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known' (vv.14, 18). That divine glory has now been manifest. Once hidden, now revealed. Once unseen, now incarnate. Once longed for, but now fulfilled. To contemplate the divine, look at Jesus. Now, isn't that mind-blowing? Isn't that deeply humbling? Isn't that the reason why we celebrate Christmas? That the invisible God (invisible to Moses and Isaiah) became visible in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ? The distant has become the near. The unseen the disclosed. And though we cannot see him with our eyes we can encounter him in our hearts, and know him by faith.
The message of Christmas is that God the Father has made himself known to us in the person of God the Son. The Son reveals the Father's love and infinite mercy. The Son evokes from us praise and thanksgiving. Charles Wesley put it like this:
'Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb;
Veiled in flesh the godhead see,
Hail the incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.'
Charles Wesley (1707-88) and others
'Emmanuel' –means God with us! In Jesus, God became man. He fully identified himself with us and lived on earth. He knew pain and sorrow. He wept with the bereaved. He had compassion on the lost. Like us in every way, yet without sin. 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us': that is he pitched his tent among us, and through that coming and that abiding he revealed the glory of the divine. God made himself known in the tent of meeting. Now God has made himself known in the person of Jesus as he pitched his tent among us.
If someone ever says to you, 'Show me your God and I will believe in him.' Our reply must be 'Look at Jesus Christ and there you will find that God and experience him and encounter him and can be transformed by him.' Look at Jesus! Look to Jesus! Commit your life to Jesus! And if you are not yet a Christian believer, then try and grasp the fact that God has made himself known in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And why did he come? His name tells us. The name Jesus means Saviour. The longed for Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Prince of Peace has come and will save us from our sins. Through Jesus we are introduced to the Father. For he has made him known – and you can know him too.
One of the earliest confessions of faith in the NT is 'Jesus is Lord'. 'If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved' (Rom. 10:9). Christians confessed that 'Jesus is Lord' over and against those at the time who confessed that 'Caesar is lord'. And during the next few hundred years Jesus is Lord was expanded to include further statements of faith that clarified the Christian message and refuted those who denied it. To us some of the wording of the creeds may seem complicated and repetitive, but they do not add to scripture, but rather clarify what it is saying. And those early distortions, those corruptions, those heresies that developed during the early centuries are still with us today. People still distort the Christian message, still play down the person and work of Christ, still deny that Jesus has come in the flesh. And so in the creed we have a summary of what we need to say concerning the Incarnation, of God become man.
By the beginning of the 4th century a group denied that God had come in the flesh. For them he was the first created being, made by God, but less than God. Human but not divine. Truly man but not truly God. To challenge these beliefs the early Christians set out what they believed and over the course of the next 150 years the final form of the Nicene Creed was honed and polished.
And today when we say the creed we echo the faith of those early believers. We share their faith, and with them confess that Jesus is Lord. That Jesus is one person with two natures (human and divine). That Jesus is truly God and truly man. That Jesus is begotten - that is he shares the very being of God (and was therefore equal with God and not less than God and created by God and therefore inferior to him). The creator came to us as the redeemer – he came from heaven and became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man., and it was for our sake that he was crucified and rose again in accordance with the teaching of scripture.
Yes, I know, some of this is technical and complicated. But think of it next time you encounter the Jehovah's Witnesses. They are very active at the moment. Every day they are outside the Haymarket Metro station and we saw them in Whitley Bay. But they also come to our homes. So when next you next have a JW on the doorstep, don't waste your time or theirs (though if you are speaking to them they cannot speak to other people). Cut to the chase and invite them to say the Nicene Creed with you. They claim to be Christians (but by their teaching they are not) and cannot say the Nicene Creed because it speaks about Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.
Remember that the eternal became flesh and lived among us.
No one has ever seen God, but Jesus his incarnate Son, has made him known and revealed him. If you want to know God – then look to Jesus. If you want to understand God – then look to Jesus. And when you are engulfed in the darkness of unbelief– then look to the light of Christ. When life is hard and you struggle with doubt then allow yourself to be engulfed in the glory of God. To contemplate the sinless Son of God. To immerse yourself in the love of God. To recognise whom he is and what he has done for you in Christ. To wonder afresh at the miracle and the significance of the Incarnation. Worshipping baby Jesus can be a wonderful distraction from reality. Worshipping the Incarnate Son of God can be a life transforming encounter.
Today we celebrate and we rejoice. Why? Because the Lord has come. God with us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ! Let us be silent and in the silence read through the words of the creed that speak of the Lord Jesus. Thank God in your heart that the Son has revealed the Father, that Jesus has come to us.