Last Christmas there was a joke from a cracker I remember for two reasons.
First, according to a poll of 2000 people, good cracker jokes are genuinely "groan worthy". And it was:
"What do you call a cat in the desert?"
But, secondly (and the connection), there had just been a Christmas TV programme from Jordan and the spectacular Red Sand desert near Wadi Rum. The presenters were stargazing and exploring (in the clear desert air and the night sky) the theory that the star the Three Kings (or Wise Men) were following was a conjunction of two bright planets.
But, whatever the phenomenon, the point for us is this. People in the 21st century seem rightly concerned to know what was happening on that night when a young woman, like millions before her and millions since, went into labour and gave birth to a baby. For, if what Christians have taught and believed for 2000 years is not "fake news" but fact, then this is the number one reality of human existence to celebrate and with which to come to terms.
So what really was happening that night? The New Testament writer, the Apostle Paul, gives us a helpful summary. In his letter to the Galatians he says three things were happening. I quote:
"… when [one] the fullness of time had come, [two] God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, [and three] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Galatians 4.4-5)
So, first, he says, The Thing That Happened was …
" … the fullness of time had come."
But what does that mean?
First, it means it was exactly the right time politically and socially for God's plan of salvation to begin – a salvation that the human race so desperately needed and still needs.
For, one, over the vast Roman Empire there was the remarkable Pax Romana (the Roman Peace). The Romans had built roads all over the Empire for their armies to maintain that peace. Travel was, therefore, easier and safer for civilians than it had been. Then, two, after Alexander the Great's conquests, Greek was a common language understood around this Roman world. Hence the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And there was a popular Greek translation of the Old Testament – called the Septuagint. And, three, the old religions and philosophies were losing their appeal.
So, "the fullness of time had come" politically and socially. The time was ideal for evangelization.
But, secondly, that "fullness of time coming" means that our universe and its history is not just a matters of chance. It is under God's sovereign control. The Bible teaches there was a beginning and there will be an end. And Jesus Christ's coming-again will signal the end of history.
This Advent season reminds us of that Second Coming, as it does of the four last things - death, judgment, heaven and hell. And because God is in control of history, those four last things are so important. How we need to think about them and live accordingly! As a Cambridge Professor of History, Herbert Butterfield, once put it:
"Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take; and it is clear that everyone of us, as standing alone in the universe, has to take it for him [or her-] self. It is our decision about the role we are going to play ourselves in that very drama of history."
So one thing that happened that first Christmas was "the fullness of time had come" (it was God's moment).
A second Thing That Happened was absolutely fundamental.
I quote Saint Paul:
"… God sent forth his Son, born of a woman [so it was a real birth] born under the law [so he became a real Jew]".
That was according to God's plan, foretold 800 years earlier, as we heard in our third reading from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
"to us a child is born, to us a son is given … and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Those words could now be said of a Jewish baby in a manger in Bethlehem. Just think – our mighty God, the creator of this amazing universe revealed himself as an utterly weak human baby – Jesus, who was fully God but fully man. As we sang in our opening Carol:
"God of God, Light of Light. Lo! he abhors not the virgin's womb; Very God, Begotten not created."
It took Jesus' apostles three years and his death, his resurrection (leaving a tomb empty) and their meeting the risen Jesus, to realize this was really so. And Christians, later, after the giving of the Holy Spirit that first Pentecost, came to see the reality of God as the Holy Trinity – one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yes, this is a mystery, but if it is history and experienced in history we have to accept the facts. And responsible scholarship today tells us it is history. Archbishop William Temple's statement is still true:
"It is now recognized that the one Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous figure making stupendous claims."
So the supreme thing that happened on that first Christmas night, was that "God sent forth his Son".
And thirdly, What Happened That Night was a baby was born to be the "Saviour" of the world.
As we heard in our sixth reading,
"unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
Paul, as we heard, puts it like this:
"[God becoming man was] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons."
He is arguing that "salvation" involves two things – redemption from sin and adoption by God. Let me explain.
Why has Christmas crime been soaring (as statistics show), and why are there terrorist attacks, and knife crimes and family breakdowns, and "man, at war with man" as we sang earlier, and much else? Yes, there are some social or material causes where politicians can help. But at an Election time, we need to remember the wise words of William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State:
"The State is or can be a master of money, but in a free society it is master of very little else. The making of a good society depends not on the State but on the citizens acting individually or in free association with one another."
Sadly, therefore, political solutions often are only sticking plaster solutions. For the truth is as Jesus said:
"From within out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slande, pride, [and] foolishness" (Mark 7.21).
We are dealing with a spiritual heart disease called "sin", which is disobeying God and so needs a spiritual remedy. Otherwise it leads to death. And the Bible teaches that we are all sinners. But Paul said that Jesus Christ came that first Christmas to "redeem" us from being spiritual slaves to sin … like slaves in the Roman world could be freed for a price from economic slavery. And then once freed from slavery to sin and forgiven, Jesus came "so that we might receive adoption as sons" … like In the Roman world a freed slave could be adopted into a family and treated as son and heir. So Jesus Christ redeemed us by dying on the Cross to bear the judgment we deserve for our sins. And redeemed, we are adopted into God's family. And we can start living more as God intended and help to make that "good society" as Lord Beveridge suggested. But none of this is automatic. As we heard in our first reading.
"he [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God [as Paul taught]" (John 1.11-12).
Who, this Christmas, needs to receive Jesus, now the risen Lord and Saviour, and trust him for life and eternity and become a true child of God, our heavenly Father? Being the perfect Father he will love you and care for you. So you can caste …
"all you anxieties on him, because he cares for you" (as the Apostle Peter taught - 1 Pet 5.7).
And if you have real needs and if you pray, God wants to meet those needs, not necessarily when or how you want, but for your real good. Jesus himself said in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7.7&11):
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you."
And then Jesus concluded his teaching on prayer like this:
"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children [or nephews or nieces as you will be doing this Christmas], how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"