A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS
to all Q readers
and a wonderful 2014
As a little Christmas present, here is the talk I gave at midnight last night.
What leaves you speechless, open mouthed in wonderment? England’s performance in this winter’s Ashes? Or perhaps a difficult colleague suddenly being complimentary for the first time ever? Or may be it is the thought of losing a hard drive containing the codes for £5 million of Bitcoins.
But I think at the top of every jaw-dropping list should be Christmas. I don’t mean the culture of Christmas, or what it’s become in Britain. I mean the meaning of Christmas. It should leave us speechless. So we’re going to go on a brief bible journey, starting centuries before Jesus was born. It doesn’t begin where you might expect. It actually starts in Iraq, in the mighty city of Babylon. It starts with a vision, a hope, a dream of glory.
The Glory that Dreams are Made of (Isaiah 40:3-5)
Isaiah writes to bolster Jewish exiles in Babylon. They’re far from home, political slaves. But Isaiah encourages them to think that there is a future. Because of a voice in a desert who says prepare the way for the Lord and make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. That’s why there’s hope – God’s on a rescue mission.
Which seems strange, doesn’t it. A pipedream to keep Jewish exiles from despair – but not based in reality. Which I guess is pretty much what most people think of Christianity, and religion in general. But Isaiah insists that this is a pretty massive thing – and in fact a world-changer. In v5: And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Glory is not as common a word as it once was. Too often it is used for ambition and achievement. And despite our celebrity culture, true greatness still impresses. Like what it took to get 12 men walking on the moon – there is glory in that. Or take Steve Redgrave winning 5 consecutive Olympic rowing Golds over 20 years. It is still astonishing. And there is certainly glory in that. But it is fleeting. And in fact, human glory always disappoints in the end. The highly successful author of thrillers, Jack Higgins, was once asked what he wished he’d known at 18 that he knew in retirement. His answer was very honest. “I wish I’d known that when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”
But what of the Glory Isaiah speaks of? Well his word is a tricky one – literally it means weight or heaviness. It is about substance, reality, seriousness. So we can say it’s the very essence of God, the very reality, the Godness of God.
We’re talking about the Creator of the Universe here – the spiritual reality the underscores all reality. Isaiah says he’s coming. That by itself would be enough to stop anyone in their tracks. The Creator? Coming as a Creature? For despairing exiles, it’s the glory that dreams are made of. And we all know that dreams seldom come real. Not in the real world. But Isaiah insists. God is coming in person! And the whole world will know about it, he says.
Fast forward several centuries. We’re far from the grandeur of the hanging gardens of Babylon; instead we’re outside at night, in the cold, surrounded by sheep in Roman Judaea, in Luke 2. But Luke clearly sees this the same story.
The Glory that Makes its Presence felt (Luke 2:8-20)
2:9 An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Now, when a foreign leader makes a State Visit to a country, it is expected that the host country pulls out all the stops. The preparations can last for months in advance. Well, when God comes to visit the plans are going to be even more elaborate. In fact, he gets his prophets talking about it centuries in advance.
But when he eventually comes – well, a field of hygienically challenged shepherds is the last place you’d expect. It looks as though things have gone horribly wrong – as if Dr Who programmed the Tardis wrongly and ended up in the wrong place and the wrong century. Just Imagine these shepherds trying to gatecrash a State banquet at Windsor. But these were the ones God chose to show his glory to. So when Isaiah said all mankind would see this glory, the emphasis really was on all – no one is exempt.
But no wonder the shepherds reacted in the way they did – do you see that – they were terrified by the glory shining. And with good reason – for the weightiness, the godness of God is a serious thing. But this is where it gets more amazing. For they have something very exciting to say: there’s a baby. But deal you might think – but he is a Saviour, he is the Christ or anointed king. Isaiah said God was coming on a Rescue mission. Well it’s now happening. Which is why the angels sing Glory and praise to God because he is truly Glorious!
But here’s the most inauspicious aspect: the God of Glorious weightiness comes to earth as a human being – which means becoming an embryo, then a foetus, and then a new-born child as well.
There’s a story of an Indian philosopher who just couldn’t see why God would ever wish to be one of us. But one day he came across an ant colony. He was curious about them, and as he bent over, his shadow fell across the ant hill. Immediately there was confusion among the insects: workers dropped their burdens, warrior ants came to defend their hill, and panic reigned. As the man drew back, the sun fell again on the ant hill and order was gradually restored. But as he bent over it again, chaos reappeared. He began to wonder what he would do if he ever wanted to communicate with the ants. Then he realizedthat the only way in which this would be possible would be if he were somehow to become an ant himself, accepting the risks and terrors of life in the sand and grass. He would have to come down to their level – otherwise his shadow would terrify and overwhelm then. Only then could he communicate to the ants his intentions. Suddenly he began to understand Christmas!
But that’s why Christmas is jaw-dropping. For God has appeared in the world with skin. Finally, let’s jump briefly to John’s Gospel.
The Glory that People still Encounter (John 1:14-18)
1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only.
Do you see the point? John describes Jesus as the Word – because words reveal, and Jesus reveals God. He’s saying that in Jesus, God lived among us. Then he states it baldly. We have seen God’s glory – the Glory of the one and only! Wow! This man that he accompanied around the Judaean countryside for 3 years, that he ate meals with, talked with, wept with – in Him we saw God’s glory face to face.
It’s quite a claim. And yet, however implausible at first, millions down the centuries have reached this conclusion. That around 2000 years ago God did set foot within his world, even embracing the ultimate human experience – death. Even on a cross – that was the heart of his rescue plan. To die on behalf of exiles and defeat death. In fact, that is why we’re here tonight – in case you hadn’t quite realised, we are here tonight to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by celebrating his death-day – as we meet around the Communion table. Strange isn’t it? But that is the climax of his earthly mission. Of course he didn’t stay dead. He rose again and ascended to sit on the throne of the universe – as was his right. But he died to bring us to God – which is why the most glorious thing he ever did was to die on a cross.
Does that leave you speechless? Well so it should! Perhaps it’s all too much to take in at this stage. But if it’s not true, it’s a total irrelevance. But as CS Lewis said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Christmas is about Jesus, the God with skin. Don’t lose that in the Christmas rush – follow the shepherds’ example – get up and find out more for yourself.