The Meaning of Christmas

I believe with all my heart that at a certain point in history, the Word of God became a human being and lived among us as one of us. I believe he showed us by his life and teaching what God is like. I believe he infected the human race with the love of God in a new and unique way, and this good infection has been spreading ever since. And because I believe this, I love Advent and Christmas with a passion! It is my favourite time of the year!

‘Remove Those Things That Hinder Love of You’ (a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent)

Many years ago I read a hilarious comedy piece about what the writer called ‘the progress of the common cold in a marriage.’ The way it goes, in the first year, when one of the newlywed spouses gets a cold, the other one waits on them hand and foot, gives them limitless sympathy, prepares the meals, makes sure the house is warm, and thoroughly spoils them. But of course, eventually the ardor dies down, and by year seven, when one of the spouses gets a cold, all the other one can think about is how their coughing is so noisy and how it makes it impossible for either of them to get any sleep!

Those of us who are married probably recognize ourselves in this story! When we got married we were fathoms deep in love, but it’s physically impossible for the human body to sustain those all-engrossing feelings for a long period of time. I’m not saying we fall out of love with each—although this can happen. But we know from experience that as marriage progresses, love is much more a matter of decisionthan of feeling. In fact, the more we make faithful, loving decisions, the more likely it is that new feelings will grow—and they’ll be deeper and longer-lasting, too.

And the same thing happens in our relationship with God. Our Collect, or special prayer, for the Third Sunday of Advent mentions ‘things which hinder love of God’. Let’s look at it again:

God of power and mercy, you call us once again to celebrate the coming of your Son. Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting in awe and wonder for him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Our relationship with God is a relationship of love. I need to say right off the bat that it’s unlike any other relationship we have. To state the obvious, we can’t discover God with our senses. We can’t see God, or hear his voice, or feel the warmth of his embrace. Of course, many Christians claim to have felt the presence of God—a sense of joy deep inside, a peace that sustains them through difficulties, a strong sense of being guided to do something, and so on. But we can’t make that happen. We can put ourselves in the place where it can happen, but in the end, it’s up to God whether or not he gives us any sense that he’s near. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and we don’t always know why.

But there are things we can do to hinder that relationship with God, and so in our prayer today we ask God to remove those things from us. What we’re really asking God to do is to help us repent, but the problem is that people often hear that word ‘repent’ in a negative sense. During Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist, standing on the banks of the River Jordan, thundering out the call to ‘repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ But do you sometimes get the sense you’re not going to enjoythe repentance? The sense that God’s going to ask you to give up some really good things, things you’re quite attached to, things you’d rather hang on to, if it’s all the same to God?

So we hear the call to repentance as a negative thing, because we don’t set it in the context of the most amazing privilege anyone can ever have: the privilege of knowing and being known by their Creator. To put it another way, we hear the call to repentance as a negative thing because we don’t ask ourselves the question whywe’re being called to repent. Our Collect sets out three reasons: first, because we want to grow in our love relationship with God; second, because the day is coming when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and third,  because we want to be able to greet him on that day with awe and wonder, not with fear and shame.

Remember what we said on the first Sunday of Advent: we’re living in ‘in between time’. We’re looking back on the first coming of Jesus into the world, when the eternal Word of God took our humanity on himself and became one of us, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to God. In Christian theology we call this the ‘Incarnation’, a Latin word that means ‘taking flesh’ or ‘taking a body’. One of our Eucharistic prayers says, ‘In the fulness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.’

This is really the centre of our Christian faith: the story of how God loved us so much that he became one of us in Jesus. The life of God has come among us and has started to spread; C.S. Lewis says it’s like a ‘good infection’, passed on from one person to another by faith and baptism. We’re here today because we caught that good infection somehow; it might have been recently, or it might have been a long time ago. The good infection doesn’t make us sick; on the contrary, it heals us from all that spoils our true life with God. If we let it do its work—if we don’t put barriers in its way, ‘things which hinder love of God’—then it will gradually make us more and more like Jesus Christ, until our whole life is transformed into his image. This is the amazing miracle of Christmas: that the same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem also is born in us, grows in us, and makes us one with him.

So we look back on that first coming, when the whole movement started, when the good infection began to spread. But we also look ahead to a future coming. The collect says, ‘Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting with awe and wonder for him.’ ‘When he comes’; this is the event we proclaim every week in the creeds: ‘He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

Actually, it’s not quite accurate to call it a ‘coming’, because Jesus has never really left. The word the New Testament authors use is ‘parousia’, which means, ‘appearing’. I like that word. It tells us that Jesus is still at work in the world in an invisible way, by his Spirit. But one day he will be revealed, on what the New Testament authors call ‘the day of his appearing’. And we have a choice about whether or not that’s a happy day for us. Will we shrink from his appearing, with shame and fear, or will we be waiting for him with awe and wonder?

I’m not sure how common it is in these days, but there was a phrase that moms used to use to scare kids in years gone by, in the days when most moms stayed home and dads went out to work. I wonder if any of you ever heard it? You’d done something really bad, and you knew you were really going to suffer for it, but then your mom came up with a really cruel way to make your suffering last all day long: she said, “Wait till your father gets home!” Oh bummer! That just spoiled the whole day! Why couldn’t she just administer the punishment and get it over with? But no, this was a crime so heinous that only dad was equal to the task of punishing you for it!

Some people have heard the Gospel in those terms—God as an angry schoolmaster, Jesus as a strict judge—and the message is: repent, or you’ll burn in hell forever. In other words, that message uses fear to scare us into the Kingdom of God. All very well, I suppose, but in one of his letters the old apostle John tells us ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ So isn’t it better to change because we love Jesus so much, rather than because we’re afraid of him?

Let’s go back to the marriage illustration we started with. We know there are people who only start working on improving their marriages when thing have gotten so bad that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their spouse—that the marriage will be over. In other words, they start making changes out of fear. And if that’s the way it’s got to be, fair enough, but wouldn’t it have been better if they’d made those changes much earlier, because they caught a vision of how good a good marriage could really be?

That’s why I love those words ‘awe and wonder’. I think about the expressions on children’s faces when they look at a fully decorated Christmas tree with all the lights twinkling away and all the gifts stacked underneath. ‘Awe and wonder’ aren’t nearly strong enough to describe it, are they? And I’m reminded of the story of a man who went to hear Handel’s Messiah with his grandfather. The time came for the Hallelujah chorus, and everyone stood, as is the custom, for those amazing words: ‘King of kings, and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.’ The man looked at his grandfather and was surprised to see tears running down his face. “That’s my Saviour they’re singing about!” the old man said. There you have it: awe and wonder and love.

This is why we repent: because we want the good infection of Christ to do its work without hindrance, transforming us into Christ’s image and likeness. And so we turn away from those things that hinder love of him, so that we can come closer and closer to his incredible vision for us: a life totally transformed by love.

What things? Well, we’ve already given ourselves a big clue by using the word ‘love’. Jesus tells us that love of God and love of neighbour is the meaning of life—always remembering that the word used in the language the Bible was written in means love as an action and a decision, not love as a feeling. If we wait for the feeling to come, sometimes we wait forever. But if out of obedience to God we do the loving actions and make the loving decisions, sometimes the feeling surprises us by sneaking up on us when we were least expecting it.

What hinders love? If love is generosity and self-giving, the opposite of love is selfishness and self-centredness. These things will kill love every time. If I love God, then God will be the centre of my world, and I will want above all else to get to know God better and get a clearer picture of what God is like. So I’ll take time to pray, to listen to his voice in the Bible and the silences of prayer, and ask his help to do the things he teaches me. And the primary thing, of course, is to love my neighbour as myself, so I’ll make it my business to find more and more ways of being a blessing to the people God has put into my life, including the ones far away, the ones I’ll never meet, who I can help through the wonders of modern technology.

Selfishness spoils all this. Selfishness says my whole life is about me and what I want, so I’ll reject God’s will and the good of my neighbour and spend all my time on my own agenda. I’ll want to grow bigger but I’ll end up becoming smaller, because my vision is too small to be worthy of me. Selfishness and self-centredness are great vaccines against the good infection; the problem is that in the end they kill you.

So this week we pray that God will remove selfishness and self-centredness from us. Which brings up one last tricky question: aren’t we supposed to be doing something about that ourselves? Aren’t we dodging our responsibilities here by asking God to do it?

No, we aren’t, because the truth is that any good thing we do can only be done with God’s help. Yes, we make a decision to do what he’s asking of us, but if he doesn’t help us, we’ll fall flat on our face. So it’s not an either-or; it’s a both-and. Yes, we respond to God’s call to repent and remove those things that hinder love of him. Yes, we ask him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that our feeble human strength is increased by his divine power.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thrilled by those words ‘awe and wonder’. Think of how awesome God must be—far above anything we can imagine! Think about how full of love Jesus is, and how he reaches out to all who need his love. I’m looking forward to getting closer to him, and I’m looking forward to the day when he comes and we’ll be able to see him face to face (don’t ask me how that’s possible, by the way—I’m content to leave that one in God’s hands!).

Let’s close by saying this prayer again, and saying it from our hearts:

God of power and mercy, you call us once again to celebrate the coming of your Son. Remove those things that hinder love of you, that when he comes, he may find us waiting in awe and wonder for him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Cast Away the Works of Darkness (a sermon for Advent Sunday)

We’re in the middle of a season of getting ready right now, and if you’re taking your cues from the retail industry, your mind has been on Christmas since before Remembrance Day. The joys of Christmas are on everyone’s mind: presents to buy, cards to send, parties to arrange, visits to plan, food to prepare, turkeys to stuff and so on. Personally, I love Advent and Christmas, so I’m a sucker for all this stuff.

However, if we’re taking our cues from the scriptures and from our church calendar, there’s another type of preparedness that should also be on our minds. It tends to get lost these days, because the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier, and so we forget that Advent is not the same as Christmas. Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the manger at Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the wise men and all that. In Advent we’re not just putting ourselves back into the Old Testament and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; we’re looking forward to our own future, too. The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. The Christian church teaches us that if there’s a judgement coming, then it’s wise to spend some time getting ready for it. And it’s wise not to put it off; usually it’s not smart to start your studying for the final exam the night before.

In the Anglican tradition we have specific prayers set for each of the Sundays of the church year, one for each Sunday and holy day. We call them ‘collects’, because they collect together the themes of our scriptures into short, pithy little prayers that we can easily memorize. It used to be the tradition in the Anglican Church that the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent was repeated on every Sunday of the Advent season until Christmas Eve, and so it was especially easy to memorize, as you heard it again and again through the four weeks of Advent, year after year. I’m going to read it to you again, but I’m going to use the version found in the old Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from our B.A.S. version. 

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Amen.  (BCP)

This prayer helps us think about two questions, and you might think at first that they’re a little strange. The first question is, ‘What time is it?’ We have to answer that one first, because the second depends on it: ‘Okay, given the time, what should we be doing about it?’

The answer to the question ‘What time is it?’ is ‘It’s in-between time’. In between what? In between two comings of Jesus. The Collect describes them for us. There’s his first coming, which is the theme of Christmas; the Collect refers to this as ‘the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. Viewed chronologically, of course, that coming is behind us, in the past. But there’s another coming, which is still ahead, on ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’, the time when ‘we may rise to the life immortal’. The Collect contrasts these two comings: long ago, Jesus came to visit us ‘in great humility’, but when he comes again, it will be ‘in glorious majesty’. Furthermore, at his first coming, he entered ‘this mortal life’, but at his second coming we will ‘rise to the life immortal’.

What does the Collect teach us about these two comings? One of the reasons I like the old prayer book version is that it uses the word ‘visit’. The B.A.S. says ‘when your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility’, but the prayer book has ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’.

Why is this important? Well, if you read the Bible, especially in the King James Version, you’ll notice that a visit from God is always a significant thing. He never shows up empty-handed; he always brings something with him. It might be plague and suffering and judgement, or it might be blessing and salvation. So in Jeremiah 9:9 the Lord sees all the wickedness of his people and says, ‘Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’ And in Ruth 1:6 old Naomi hears that the famine is over in Israel, because the Lord has visited his people and given them bread.

So what’s this visit at Christmas time all about? Well, in Luke 1:68 old Zechariah reflects on it; he says, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people’, or, in a modern version, ‘he has come to his people and set them free’. This is definitely a visit to bring blessing. This is a wonderful visit!

But how did he come? The Collect says, ‘in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. This reminds me of what Paul has to say in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

‘Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (vv.5-8).

This is what Christmas is about: Jesus shares the divine nature—he is equal with God—but he lays aside all his divine prerogatives. The one through whom all things were created humbles himself to become part of his creation; the one who is immortal by nature puts on mortality, and goes on to become obedient to the point of death on a cruel cross. And he does all this out of love, to serve his creation, to show us what God is like, to show us God’s will for our human life, and to deliver us from sin and death.

So we stand in time after this first great event; we live on what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the visited planet’. But we also look forward to a future event. The collect speaks of ‘the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead’.

Strangely enough, this is actually a message of hope. We live in a time when the power of evil seems enormous. I’m not just talking about the fact that terrorists can commit outrageous acts, even murdering thousands of people in one go. I’m talking about the fact that the world economic system seems to be set up in such a way as to provide cheap goods to the richest people on the planet, while denying the poorest people on the planet the right to a fair living wage. I’m talking about the fact that in the average multinational corporation the highest paid individual in the company earns more than three hundred times what the lowest paid individual earns. I’m talking about the fact that the single most common category of websites on the Internet is pornography.

These are just a few of the symptoms of the power of evil in the world today. In the face of such great evil, I’m always surprised when people tell me they don’t like the message of God’s judgement. Surely the message of God’s judgement brings hope! It tells us the day is coming when God will bring this evil to an end. God cares! He cares about the children who have been stolen from their homes and forced to become child soldiers; he cares about the children who never had a chance because they were born in refugee camps where there was never enough food to go around; he cares about the people who spend their lives slaving away for starvation wages growing cash crops for people who live thousands of miles away.

God is not prepared for this state of affairs to continue. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says the day will come when the king will sit on his glorious throne and gather the nations before him, and he will separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. On one side will be those who recognized Jesus in the hungry and thirsty, in those who have no clothes to wear, in those who are sick or are refugees or immigrants or prisoners; their conduct will be affirmed and rewarded. On the other side will be those who had the opportunity to do good for all these people and refused to do so; their conduct will be judged.

This is our Advent hope: that the last word will not go to the forces of cruelty and hatred, selfishness and prejudice. The last word will go to God, and Jesus teaches us that the vital evidence of our faith in him will be practical love. And so the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed will be the only reality in God’s creation, and the prayer we have prayed for the last two thousand years will finally be fully answered: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

So this is the in-between time we live in. We look back on that first coming, when God’s Son Jesus Christ ‘came to visit us in great humility’. And we look forward to ‘the last day, when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead’. On that day, every one of us hopes to be among the number of the saints who will ‘rise to the life immortal’, as the prayer says.

So as we look back on Christ’s first coming and look forward to the day when ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end, what should we be doing’? The prayer says, ‘Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light’. What’s that all about?

When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote this prayer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, it was immediately followed by a slightly longer version of our reading from Romans this morning. We read Romans 13.11-14, but in the Book of Common Prayer the epistle is 13.8-14. Here it is in full:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So you can see where Cranmer got the language about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: ‘So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armour of right living’.

The dirty clothes are plain enough: again, here they are in the New Living Translation: ‘Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarrelling and jealousy…Don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires’ (vv. 13b, 14b). But the armour turns out to be something of a surprise. ‘Armour’ is a military image, so we might think of it as being something like courage, or strength, or self-discipline. But once again, what Paul actually focuses on is love. All the commandments, he says, ‘are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’ (vv.9-10).

We’re back with the sheep and the goats, aren’t we? The sheep are the ones who notice the suffering of others, and then do what they can to help. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy and it’s definitely not just words; it’s being there for others, spending time with them, doing what we can to be a blessing to them, whether we especially like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. This is what God is like; the Old Testament talks about his chesed, a Hebrew word that our New Revised Standard Version translates excellently as his ‘steadfast love’. I like that word ‘steadfast’: love you can depend on, love that’s unconditional, love that never gives up. That’s what we’re called to imitate.

Shall we pray this prayer through the Advent season? Shall we remember how God’s Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility? Shall we look forward to the day when he will come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead? Shall we ask God to help us to cast away the works of darkness like dirty old clothes, and put on the new life of steadfast love?Are you ready to pray that prayer, and to expect God to answer it?

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.