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.