One word that sums up Christmas

I suppose if most of us were asked for a word that best sums up Christmas – apart from “Jesus” – many of us might offer the word “gift” or some derivative like “give” or “giving”. And I am sure some religious soul would come up with “turkey” or “Santa Claus”. There’s always one!

I want to offer a different word that captures something of the spirit of the first Christmas, if not Christmas in the present day in the Western world.

The word? Trust. Let me explain.

You might already be racing ahead and thinking of how God trusted Mary and Joseph with His Son. Well, that might seem to be true from a human perspective. But I am going to leave that for you to ponder, lest this suggestion be seen to detract from God’s omniscience: He knew exactly, it could be argued, how Mary and Joseph would respond therefore, it is inaccurate to say that God the Father had to exercise trust in human beings when He sent His Son into the world. I have much sympathy with that argument.

No, the trust that I am thinking of is the trust that some of the central characters needed that first Christmas. They needed it to follow where God was leading and what He was doing in entering the world in the person of His Son Jesus.

It goes without saying that Mary’s calling as the mother of Christ required huge trust. She might have had a visit from an angel, but don’t kid yourself for one moment that it meant that any uncertainty disappeared or that she didn’t feel any pain from the gossip that was sparked by the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Trust was also required of Joseph. He might have been reassured by a supernatural experience about his fiancee’s supernatural pregnancy, but that was only the beginning of something much bigger. A journey to Bethlehem – at the worst possible time for Mary. A journey into the unfamiliar and undesired location that was Egypt. And then a journey back to Nazareth.

The amazing thing is that behind all of those stories and “trust points”, God was working to a plan, for, through what seemed like unforeseen circumstances, the scriptures were being fulfilled.

I could add the experience of the Magi to make my case, but it’s not necessary.

Trust is everywhere in the nativity stories.

What is my point? Simply, amongst the many things the Christmas story teaches us – many of cosmic significance – it teaches us to trust God and it teaches us that we can trust God.

You can trust God. Whatever is going on in your life or your world this Christmas, you can trust God. And in all of those unforeseen circumstances, God is somehow in His infinite wisdom fulfilling a plan that somehow has cosmic significance. Whatever you do as we approach Christmas, trust the One whom Christmas is all about. Trust Him, whatever is going on in your life at this moment. Trust Him, because you can.

Happy Christmas.

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The Wisdom of Anna: Drawing a line under the past – not the future

Barbers are wonderful people. Part psychologist, part priest, part agony aunt or uncle, they are never short of a bit of human insight. Or a good story. My barber told me a story on my last visit which I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The story is about a man who wanted to make sure that his sideburns were even. (Anyone that has ever had this facial decoration will understand the man’s concern). So concerned was he, that he made his girlfriend lap a tape measure around his head to ensure they were equal. Still not satisfied, he then applied a spirit level to ensure they were level. But to no avail. Eventually he consulted my barber. The barber’s analysis was not what he expected. He told him that it wasn’t his sideburns that were uneven, but his ears!

There are some things in life that no matter how hard we try to fix, they will never measure up. There are some things that are the way they are and we simply have to trust God and move on.

Anna, who met the infant Jesus when He was presented in the temple, was faced with that challenge.

The best translations and the most contemporary scholarship tell us that Anna had been a widow for eighty-four years (Luke 2.37). Prior to that, she had been married for seven years.

She was probably about twenty-one when her husband died. We don’t know how he died. We do know that Anna’s life changed forever. Married for seven years. A widow for eighty-four years.

How easy it would have been for Anna to have concluded that her life did not measure up the way it should, and sunk into seclusion and self-pity.

Not Anna. By God’s grace, the tragedy that she experienced did not rob her of a future that was faithful and fruitful. She drew a line under her past, when many might have been tempted to draw a line under their future.

How can we make sure that we don’t allow unexpected and unwanted life experiences to rob us of a future that is faithful and fruitful?

Firstly, expect to find God in the change that has come about in your life.

Anna experienced a shift from a home centred life to a temple centred life (Luke 2.37). Things changed. And God was in that change. Expect to find God in changed circumstances. If we have an expectation of finding God in change, it gives us confidence to embrace the change that is inevitable.

Secondly, expose the idol of a fantasy life.

Anna could have spent the next eighty-four years after she was widowed looking for a rerun of her seven years of marriage. If she did harbour that desire, she never allowed it to become strong enough to detract from the new thing God was doing in her life.

It is so easy when we have lost something good, or haven’t attained what we had hoped for to get into “should be” thinking. “I should be a millionaire by now”. “I should be married”. “I should have a more loving husband / wife”. “My children should be more spiritual”. “I should have a bigger church”. “I should be happier”. I should, I should, I should. And we miss what God is doing because at a subconscious level we don’t really believe we could meet Him in what we perceive to be our deficient lives. In truth, “should be”, inasmuch as it displaces God and His purpose from our lives, is an idol masquerading as a dream.

Finally, get ready for some Holy Spirit inspired excitement.

Anna found herself in the temple at just the right time. She gave thanks to God. Then she went and told all her friends (v.38)!  At one hundred and five years of age, she was at the temple. She was right in the thick of what God was doing. And then she was off to tell everyone – perhaps all the seventy-somethings in the youth group. Who’d have thought!

That’s what it’s like when you throw yourself into God’s purpose for your life. It’s far better than you could ever design it for yourself.

It’s what happens when you draw a line under your past. It happens when you refuse to draw a line under your future. It happens when you dare to believe that you can meet God in your less than perfect world.

Missing out on Christmas: 3 ways your professed “faith” can cause you to miss out on what God is doing

Pointless is a television programme beloved by an average of 3.6 million viewers who tune in every day. I’m not sure if it is the less intellectual, or more intellectual, BBC answer to Countdown, or just something completely different.

I’m not going to waste any more of your time discussing the merits of television programmes. However, as I was about to preach the Sunday sermon, I had this thought that I have since refined a bit.

If a Pointless question was to name all the characters in the nativity stories, would one character or one set of characters have a zero score? Undoubtedly, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would score very highly. Shepherds would be right up there too. No-one could forget the kings from the East. Angels? Probably. The innkeeper might get a mention. And it is hard to believe that Herod could be overlooked.

One group that, sadly, might return a pointless score are the chief priests and teachers of the law.

I say sadly, because with all the knowledge they had they should have been right in the thick of things. They should have been the first to the manger in Bethlehem. They had more inside knowledge than anyone else, with the exception of Joseph and Mary. They didn’t have angelic visitations, like the shepherds, or stars in the sky like the wise men. They had the scriptures. And it is clear from Matthew 2 that they understood how to interpret the Messianic prophecies.

How come they missed out?

We are not told. Three possible reasons suggest themselves.

Firstly, it is possible that they had given in to a climate of fear.

Verse 3 of Matthew 2 says that Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him when he heard from the Magi that a king had been born. Everyone was afraid, because they knew how Herod would react to any potential threat to his throne: with unrestrained violence. Verses 16-18 of the same chapter prove that they had a right to be fearful.

When we give in to fear, there is a real possibility that we miss out on what God is doing.

Push against fear! Don’t let it pin you down and hem you in.

Secondly, there is a real possibility that not only the religious leaders of the nation but the nation as a whole had experienced a collapse of hope.

These religious leaders lived through an era that ancient historians describe as the fourth major crisis of the Jewish people. That period saw the land of Israel occupied by the Romans, with Herod reigning as a kind of puppet king.

The prophets had prophesied that Messiah would come. That God would restore His people and bring His kingdom. Instead, the nation had experienced a series of crises ever since the return from Babylon. And Roman occupation was just the latest.

It is easier to believe that hope had been seriously damaged than to believe that it stilled fuelled the religious life of the people or their religious leaders.

When we lose hope, or when hope becomes damaged, it can breed a cautious approach to God. It can dampen expectation. Don’t let your hope collapse!

Finally, it’s very possible that the religious leaders had become just too comfortable.

They had status. They had the temple. They had the synagogue. They had carved out an important and influential corner in the life of Israel. Why did they need to leave the capital to go and check out some spiritual speculation that these gentile magi were promoting?

Sometimes we miss out on what God is doing because we don’t want to leave the comfort of the safe religious world we have designed for ourselves.

The chief priests and teachers of the law did not have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God was doing; it was happening just six miles down the road. And neither do you have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God is doing, because He is working all around you and wants to work through you.

It’s sad that people who knew so much missed out on so much. And it would be sadder still if we didn’t learn from their experience.