Below is the script I wrote for BBC Radio Devon Sunday Service for Christmas 2016 (and I stand by every word, and many other words besides!):
I am going to be honest with you this morning.
And my honesty may cause concern, relief or perplexity in equal measure….or it may cause hope.
I don’t know when, exactly, I stopped liking what passes for a British Christmas.
I am at the stage now in my mid-40’s where I am simply tired of the whole merry-go-round.
Am I being unnecessarily melancholy; a party-pooper of Scrooge like proportions? Probably.
But also, possibly not.
I know I am not alone.
I know many people who will shop entirely online this Xmas to avoid the menacingly repetitive Christmas pop songs that blare out, over and over and over again.
To Noddy Holder, Johnny Matthis, Cliff Richard, Mud and all the others, thanks but….give it a rest!
I feel like Henry Thoreau’s line from his 19th c. book Walden hangs in the air: “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation.” The extended quote is more well known, “The mass of [people] lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”
I do wish Noddy, Johnny and Cliff had kept their songs inside them!
As a Baptist Minister in Torquay, my view has been received with a degree of astonishment! Be that as it may!
“A minister who doesn’t like Christmas!” said either in actual words or, most often, facial expressions!
“Is that even allowed?”
“Don’t church ministers have training in liking Christmas, and ensuring everyone else likes it too?”
Well, although there is enormous pressure to conform unthinkingly to a system of celebration that many people dread, ministers do not undergo a module at theological college called “How to like Christmas and why you must!”
There is something in the air of Christmas, its impending approach, its imminence, its arrival, and of course the uncompromising aftermath of being full yet feeling empty.
It is a whiff of something we all smell, but keep to ourselves.
We daren’t mention it, lest we be thrown out of the party.
It is not the smell of mince pies and mulled wine, as delicious as that is.
It is the smell of a due sense of dread.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives,
And recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me:
As it had to be for Jesus, so it has to be for us.
That the Spirit of God must be ‘upon’ us before anything is said or done.
The Spirit being ‘upon’ us speaks of God’s own desire to be present with us.
The Spirit being ‘upon me’ or ‘upon us’ is our recognition that God is near and not far.
Because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor:
The Holy Spirit of God is ‘upon me’ for a reason.
There is a job to do. That job is primarily an announcement.
“And here is the evening news…death, destruction, lies, greed and war…”
This is what happens when the Spirit of God isn’t ‘upon’.
‘To proclaim Good News…’ is to announce the end of death, destruction, lies, greed and war.
To proclaim anything of God is always proceeds the anointing of the Spirit.
‘To the poor….’ isn’t merely an economic phrase. It’s a human quality-of-life-phrase.
The poor are those who do not have the Spirit of God ‘upon’ them;
Because they are being robbed by the evening news.
Christmas Day 2016
Sometimes they acted like turkeys; sometimes they spoke like turkeys. Sometimes they are just like you and me. We are the type of people God loves; We are the type of people that Jesus came for.
The Roman Soldiers
Their on the plate, big, brash, hot and bothered. Just doing their job. Some of them mix with the other foods on the plate, but mostly they keep themselves to themselves. Too many and you get full up too quickly.
Pharisees are like carrots! Some are chopped and boiled in water! Some are part boiled, then roasted. Others are coated in honey and baked. Mine are a Tom Kerridge recipe: Cooked in butter, sugar, water and Star Anise. Some Pharisees are plain and boiled in water, trying to trick Jesus. Others like Nicodemas are much more interesting, and ask Jesus really interesting things like: How can a person be born-again? Now that is a question full of flavour!
The sprouts are either loved or hated. Like 1st century shepherds in Palestine. They can tend to be a bit wiffy on their own or if they’ve been “with you” for a while – know what I mean?
The Wise Men from the East
A Christmas dinner doesn’t have to have parsnips. But if cooked nicely can influence the whole dinner. The wise men are a strange addition to Jesus’ story, they enter stage right, leave abruptly stage left and that’s it. Would we miss them if they weren’t there?
All God’s centuries old promises fulfilled in Jesus
The flavor of really good quality stuffing, enhancing all it is eaten with. Just like the OT promises of God that speak of a coming Saviour that will rescue the people from their sins. Century after century God spoke, and the people waited century after century. And when God’s promises are fulfilled, the flavor to the rest of the meal of life is incredible.
The sweetness of the sauce compliments all the food. Mary was just an ordinary girl who loved God and was waiting for her Saviour to come. How would she ever guess she would birth the boy around whom angels and shepherds and strange Eastern men and all the other things would happen? The paradox is there for all to see: The creature gives birth to the Creator.
If Peter represents the fool, and Judas the betrayer, and Thomas the doubter, Mary Magdalene is often the one we are too full to stomach. The religious people thought Jesus not religious to be welcoming such an awful sinner as Mary. Jesus said, we have to stomach this one: If Jesus welcomes the worst then we are welcome.
The crowds around Jesus
Occasionally we get offered mince pies, just like occasionally Jesus was surrounded by great crowds. Intrigued by this rule-breaking Messiah. Sometimes we don’t fancy a mince pie, we can’t be bothered. Sometimes the crowds couldn’t be bothered when they realized Jesus wasn’t their puppet on a string, their court jester, their messianic clown. They walked away. Sometimes the plate of mince pies will come round and we will let it go, just as Jesus let the people go.
All those healed of illness and disease
The Bible describes God’s kingdom like a party, and a party with wine, and that wine is “the very best!” We live in the old wineskin of this world and in our bodies, and one day we will be in a new world, with new bodies and God’s new wine of the Kingdom. Jesus’ first coming is like the opening ceremony of the Olympics before the main event. His Second Coming will begin the main event.
And finally, the best is last…
Santa vs Jesus
Four Kinds of Christmas
Christmas isn’t usually the time to talk about evil, or of Satan’s ultimate destruction, but that is precisely what Christmas, the coming of God in Christ, means. Evil encompases all the chaos and dysfunction in the world, all the rebellion against God; and God’s salvation means an end to all that, and the return to a new heavenly order of holiness.
The coming of Jesus is God meeting His own requirements for not only sin’s penalty, but the whole moral order of the universe. It is, in the end, God working to satisfy His own holy Name; and Jesus is the only One who can do that.
P. T. Forsyth wrote in Work of Christ that “An unsatisfied God, a dissatisfied God, would be no God. He would but reflect the distraction of the world, and so succumb to it.” Yet holiness must be satisfied, and nothing created can possibly do that. Similarly, neither can God’s holiness be satisfied whilst any vestiges of unholiness, namely evil (i.e. hell), remain. The destruction of evil is the fulfilment of God’s unsurpassing reign and joy of His holiness in all the New Creation for all people, everywhere. Isn’t that what 1 Corinthians 15:28 means? That God will be all in all? Thus if evil exists, what else does “all in all” mean?
Evil has no future because God is holy.
That means, as we remember the incarnation of the Son of God into the world, we remember and partake of God’s renewing of the whole cosmos to put an end to evil, but not to put an end to rebels, such as we, the human race, are.
Forsyth wrote in a brilliant sermon entitled The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen,
“If evil is to be permanent in any part of the universe, then God is there foiled and the Cross of Christ of none effect . . . . .So long as evil lasts there will be Hell. If evil should cease Hell would be burned out. Now if Christ’s Cross means anything it means the destruction of evil everywhere and forever. The work of the Cross is not done while there is a single soul unwon to the mastery of Christ and uninfected by His Spirit. . . . If we believe in the Cross then we believe there will come a time when evil shall everywhere cease and sin no longer be.”
Evil has no future because Jesus has come, and remains by His Spirit.
Evil has no future because Jesus has satisfied God’s own holiness.
Evil has no future because God will be all in all.
“Die sin must or God.” When Jesus was born, sin’s fate was sealed. When Jesus died, sin was defeated forever. When Jesus rose from the dead, sin was left behind in the tomb. When He returns, sin will be erradicated forever. The New Heaven and New Earth will know no sin.
That’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas time.
Note: This post was spurred by my reading of the excellent chapter on P. T. Forsyth by Jason Goroncy in ‘All Shall Be Well’ entitled ‘The Final Sanity is Complete Sanctity.’ And also the brilliant collection of Forsyth sermons in Goroncy’s ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’, which has been mentioned on this blog before.
A short reflection used throughout a candlit carol service at church.
Ironies of the Nativity in Matthew 2
2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…”
Bethlehem. The ancestral birth place of the Great King David, through whose line the promised Messiah would come. So Jesus was born of a royal human line in fulfillment of Scripture and the hope of the word. Born in a place which means “House of Bread” – a clue to His own identity as the Bread of Heaven, the bread which fed the Israelites in their wandering wilderness, and ultimately, his claim to be the Bread of Life. “No one lives by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is the Word of God that comes from the mouth of God. It is on Him we feed and find true sustenance.
2:1 “…in the days of Herod the King…”
In the days of one king, is born another. In the days of a false king, an example of human pomp and arrogance, is born the true King, in humility and weakness. A King born into this world, whose kingdom is not of this world. A heavenly fulfillment of an earthly promise: He shall reign forever, King of Kings and Lord of lords.
I have just found my recently misplaced 1889 copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the 14th century Catholic mystic, and one of the world’s most read books. It can be bought from any decent bookshop, but also downloaded as a PDF here, something I’m sure Thomas would have approved!
In the translator’s preface, Kempis is quoted, though I’m unsure where it is quoted from, but it is certainly worth making available here. Please read it slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully…..