The Gift That Keeps on Giving

hockey-stick

At our recent Bedford Carols Mash Up I mentioned the phenomenon of the Four Gift Rule. I didn’t make it up. It’s a thing apparently. I got it from the BBC website here.

Here it is in outline: want, need, wear, read. It’s essentially parenting by numbers. And honestly, sometimes in parenting, numbers is just what you need. The gist of the article is that it’s possible to establish a watertight contractual arrangement between parent and offspring whereby they accept that they only receive four gifts at Christmas as long as each of the four presents fulfils one of the following criteria.

1. One must be something that they want.
2. One must be something that they need.
3. One must be something to wear.
4. And one must be something to read.

Three of those are dead easy. Number two son is getting a set of Simon Mayo’s ‘Itch’ books. Mrs P needs a new iron. Don’t worry. It’s not the only thing she’s getting. I’ve bought her socks as well. Favourite daughter will happily wear a new cycling top. But what they want, that’s a shocker. Number one son wants a new hockey stick. The top of the range option is £270. For a hockey stick! That’s not happening.

But what do they want? I could ask them. But that’s risky. I don’t want them to think that my enquiry signals some sort of implicit commitment to fulfilling their desires. But what do they want? And, more importantly, why do they want the things that they want? That’s got to be worth asking, hasn’t it? After all why do any of us want the things that we want? Surely we want what we want because of what we believe it will offer us. Deep down, what we want reveals what we really want. And that’s worth knowing.

I wonder whether what we want boils down to one of three essential things. We want security, significance or satisfaction. In other words we want to feel that it’s all going to be OK and that we’ll be safe. That’s security. We want to feel that we mean something and that we really do matter. That’s significance. And we want to feel that we’re fulfilled. That’s satisfaction.

We may well get presents this Christmas that offer us one or more of those things. I’m hoping for a week long cycling trip to Tenerife. And that’s all to do with satisfaction. A little to do with significance. I’m getting older. My powers (though not inconsiderable) are on the wane! I feel like I have a little bit less to offer as I get older. That makes me feel a little less significant. But cycling long distances with a group of others who are similarly minded gives me an identity. And that matters to me. Probably more than it should given that who I am needs to be rooted in Christ and the gospel. But I’m simply revealing why I want the things that I want.

We may give and receive ideal Christmas presents this year. They may be what the recipients or we want. But all our brilliantly chosen Christmas gifts will wear out or their effect will wear off. No created thing can offer us ultimate security and guarantee that everything will be alright in the end. No created thing can offer us ultimate significance and guarantee that we matter. And no created thing can offer us ultimate satisfaction and guarantee unending pleasure. But God has given us a Christmas gift that will. This gift will fulfil every aspect of our deepest desires. The gift of Jesus will one day provide us with unmatched security as we rest at peace forever in his glorious New Creation. He will provide us with eternal significance because we’ll belong to his people as his treasured possession forever. And he will provide us with unstoppable joy as we take pleasure in who he is and what he’s given us. That’s some present, isn’t it? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Each present we give or receive will at best provide us with only a temporary glimpse of the greatest present of all. So let’s make sure that in the midst of all our present opening we don’t neglect the greatest gift of all. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ John 3:16.

Nativity 3: Myth, Mistake or Mystery?

nativity-3

In a vain attempt a couple of weeks ago to enter into the Christmas spirit I forced the family to watch Nativity 3. It met with mixed reactions. The strongest of which came from one of my children who said, ‘well that’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back’. He had a point.

But how do you explain the events of the nativity? Not the film this time. The actual events of that first Christmas?

The shepherds, the wise men, the star, the angels and a baby born without the involvement of a human father. We’ve got to have an explanation haven’t we? This is not something that we can simply leave and push to one side as though it was unimportant. It’s not. We’ve got to be able to explain it, surely? I reckon there are four typical explanations to the events of that first ever Christmas. Four attempts to explain what happened.

It’s a myth

What I mean is that some of us think that there’s no truth in it. It just didn’t happen. In other words, it’s invented. Someone one just made it up. If that were true, it wouldn’t be the only invented thing accepted at Christmas, now would it?! It’s like ‘The Snowman’, the book by Raymond Briggs that was made into a film in 1982. The Snowman comes to life and takes a small boy on an adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. We all know it’s not true. It didn’t happen. The Snowman doesn’t actually exist. But we’re happy for him to reappear every year at Christmas. The problem with thinking that Jesus is a myth is that the historical evidence leads to a different conclusion. He really did exist. No serious contemporary historian really doubts that. The writers of the gospels are keen to locate the events in human history. For example, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning he wanted us to know that Jesus’ birth took place in the time of the Roman Caesar Augustus during the census that he instigated when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That’s a whole heap of historical data that precisely locates Jesus’ birth.

No, we can’t say that these events were invented. Whatever it is, it’s not a myth.

It’s a mistake

What I mean is that some of us think that it probably did happen but that the details have been exaggerated. In other words, it’s inaccurate. There’s some truth in it but it’s been embellished. It’s like Robin Hood. In popular folklore he was an outlaw who stole from the rich to feed the poor, operating in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham during the reign of King John II. Historical documents record several men called Robin Hood. It was a common name. And many of them were on the wrong side of the law even if they were on the right side of the people. But about a century or so later folksongs and ballads began to make reference to the supposed antics of him and his merry band of followers. But the Robin Hood of folklore and the Robin Hood of real history are very different characters. The problem with thinking that our understanding of Jesus is mistaken is that anyone who’d exaggerated any of the claims that Jesus made or exaggerated the things that he did would have been immediately discredited. They’d have been shouted down and shown to be fraudsters by the people who heard Jesus say what he said and saw him do what he did. Those eyewitnesses wouldn’t have let people be mistaken as a church grew through the proclamation of something that they knew to be a lie.

No, we can’t say that these events are inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s not a mistake.

It’s a mystery

What I mean is that some of us think that it certainly did happen but that we can’t know for certain what it means. In other words, it’s inexplicable. It’s like the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 that crashed a couple of years ago. We all know that it happened. The plan never landed. Bits of the plane have been found in the southern oceans. But no one knows for certain what took place. It’s an unsolved mystery. And we can think of Jesus’ birth like that. It’s a mystery. We just don’t know what it means. We can’t know what it all means. And we just say that it’s profound. It’s deep. It’s beyond our understanding. But the problem with thinking that we can never know the truth is that the rest of the Bible spends most of its time telling us what the truth is. It helps us to make sense of these events.

No, we can’t say that these events are inexplicable. Whatever it is, it’s not a mystery. So what is it? Honestly.

It’s mind blowing

What I mean is that when you get your head round the truth of it, it’ll blow your mind. Nothing’s ever the same once you’ve got it. In other words, it really is an incarnation. That’s not a word that we commonly hear. But it’s the word used to describe what was happening when Jesus was born. Incarnation literally means ‘taking on flesh’ or ‘becoming embodied’. The Bible’s take on Jesus’ birth is that he is God made flesh. As Wesley’s unsurpassed carol ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ puts it ‘Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, please as man with man to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel’. The angels in Luke 2 put it this way, ‘Today in the town of David (that is, Bethlehem) a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’. And just so that we’d be absolutely clear who they were talking about they include this line, ‘this will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’. Jesus is God with us. He is the Lord of all shrunk down into a body just like ours. But why? Why would God go to so much trouble? The clue is the other two names given to him by the angels. First, he is the Messiah, the much promised long awaited anointed king for God’s people.  And so secondly and perhaps more clearly, he is our Saviour. God sent his son to be born as a man so that he could save us. To understand the baby in the manger we must remember that he became the man on the cross. There he swapped places with us. A sinless substitute taking the just punishment for sinners. He was born so that God would treat him as though he were me so that God could treat me as though I am him. It is the most mind blowing exchange that has ever or will ever take place.

It’s not a myth. It’s true truth. It’s not a mistake. It’s plain truth. It’s not a mystery. It’s open truth. It’s mind blowing. It’s transformative truth.

What’s your explanation for the events of Christmas? What are you going to tell your kids? And what are you going to tell yourself?

Should I bother with Advent?

advent-candlesMany churches lit their first advent candle last Sunday. We didn’t. We don’t have any. And it’s not that the apprentices forgot to go shopping. We just don’t do that sort of thing. Advent, I mean. Not shopping. Or forgetting. Let’s move on.

Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. A well intentioned non-biblically mandated Early Church addition. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not without value. Because both Lent and Easter are intended to get us ready. However, you’ll search the scriptures in vain for a helpful steer about how to use the period before Christmas Day.

And that’s important. Not because we’re therefore forbidden from observing it. We’re not. We’re free to do things that the Bible doesn’t prohibit. And so it’s a matter of glorious freedom. In Colossians 2:16 the Apostle Paul warns us against those who would condemn us for our non-observance of a religious festival. The gospel has freed us from all that! And so, we’re at complete liberty to ignore the season of Advent (or Lent for that matter) if we want. Whether we observe it or not makes not one iota of difference to our standing with God. But having said that, I do think we might miss out on something useful to our Christian and congregational life by our neglect of it.

So what are we to make of advent?

First, the history. Advent comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which translates the Greek word ‘parousia’. It means arrival or coming. And it was used to refer to the forthcoming arrival of the then recently fixed Christmas Day. Biblically, the ‘parousia’ refers both to Christ’s first coming in the flesh and his second coming in glory.

Secondly, why observe it. You don’t have to. But, it is all about preparing ourselves and getting ready for the arrival of the Messiah. Initially it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in human flesh and then eventually it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in his heavenly glory. If in the first place it looks forward to the arrival of the incarnate Son of God it then also looks forward to the return of the resurrected Son of God. It’s a helpful time then to attune our hearts and minds to the imminent arrival of the Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, what could we do to cultivate this sense of anticipation?

This, from Tim Chester, is worth a look. It’s called ‘The One True Story’. He sent me a copy earlier in the year hoping that I’d find time to review it. I failed him. But I think we’re going to use it as a family over the next months. Containing a selection of short meditative readings, it’s designed to help you prepare for Christmas. Perhaps get the kindle version for your phone this very day.

In the past, when the kids were a little smaller, we constructed a Jesse Tree, which was fun and not too much effort.

I recently discovered that there are advent readings, a guide and a calendar for the brilliant Jesus Storybook Bible available here. And it looks absolutely brilliant for families with primary or pre-school aged children.

I haven’t done it this year. Or any year for that matter. But I wouldn’t rule out lighting an advent candle in subsequent years at CCB!

An Angelic Announcement

Brick Testament AngelThey’re familiar words. But they’re brilliant. They’re the words that were uttered in the fields outside Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve. It wasn’t ‘is there nothing better on the other channel?’ Or ‘where did you put the wrapping paper?’ Or ‘Pants! I’ve got nothing for your Mum, what times does Sainsbury’s close?’ They were,

‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:10-12

The angels announced that the long awaited, long promised saviour king had finally arrived. But that’s not all they said. As they reflected on the momentous birth of Jesus, they made three qualifying statements that are sometimes missed.

First, Jesus is good news not bad news. But do we think like that? Aren’t we at least a little bit tempted to think that following Jesus isn’t all good? It’s sometimes hard. But what better news can you think of than discovering that God has sent a saviour to rescue you from an eternity of his justified condemnation and righteous punishment for your sins. Make no mistake. It’s what you deserve. As do I. Because we’re wicked and God is holy. But such is His love for us that He sent His Son to save us. Are you really going to tell me that you’ve thought of something better to tell me than that!

Secondly, Jesus is a cause for celebration not a reason to be miserable.  But do we think like that? Aren’t we at least just a little bit tempted to think that Jesus is nothing special; that he’s nothing to get excited about? But what could possible happen to us that could come near to being so amazing as being saved? Getting married? Being promoted? Buying your first house? Having a baby? Are you really going to try to convince me that any of those things will make me happier than knowing Jesus as my saviour!

Thirdly, Jesus is for everyone not just a few. But do we think like that? Aren’t we at least a little bit tempted to think that Jesus is just for the good people? The religious people? The people who don’t stuff up quite as much as we do? But he came for all types. All nations. All classes. All sorts. And that includes you and me. He didn’t come for those who have no need of a saviour. Because first, people like that don’t need to be saved. And more importantly, secondly, there are none! Are you really going to try to persuade me that you’re the one person that Jesus didn’t come for!

I’m not at all sure that the vast majority of people in our neck of the woods realise just how good the good news is. And that’s our task as a church. It’s a task that’s made somewhat easier at Christmas because people are willing, keen even, to come to events where we try to communicate that. So we’ll keep praying. And we’ll keep inviting. And whilst we do, we’ll keep remembering that Jesus’s rescue is good news producing great joy for all people.