Today is Advent Sunday – the countdown to Christmas has begun. And up and down the country on December, the first doors are opened on a million ‘Sleeps till Santa’ calendars. The choice gets ever greater. Believe it or not, this year you could be opening drawers or pulling back cardboard squares to reveal herbal teabags, individual jars of Bonne Maman jam, or pots of chilli sauce. My favourite though has to be the ‘Drinks by the Dram’ Calendar available once again on Amazon for a shilling short of £10,000 – who wouldn’t want to start the day with a 60 year old Glenfarclas to accompany their coco pops? But don’t worry if you’re a traditionalist, there are still plenty of calendars out there that retain the true meaning of the holiday season and counting down the days with chocolate impressions of characters from Peppa Pig remains an option. There’s no doubt about it, ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Winterval’.
The word Advent is derived from the Latin ‘adventis’ which is itself a translation of the Greek word ‘parousia’ which was often used to speak of the second coming of Christ. Traditionally, therefore, the advent season is that time of year when the church not only looks forward to remembering Jesus’ birth at Christmas but also anticipates his return at the end of history. In many households, as Christmas approaches, the excitement is, no doubt, beginning to build but, when all is said and done, for many Christmas is a huge anticlimax, a deeply unsatisfying time. I wonder why that might be.
For some, Christmas is just too busy, there is simply too much that has to be done. Perhaps we long for the Christmases of our childhood, fondly remembered as magical times when we believed in someone who was better and kinder than ourselves, who insisted on bestowing upon us one kindness after another without us doing anything whatsoever to deserve it. Now though, as adults, we have lost sight of any transcendence that Christmas once held and, rather than resting in the generosity of one greater than ourselves, find ourselves burdened with a list of a thousand things we must do if we are to be deemed acceptable celebrants of what a consumerist society has made of Christmas. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could experience Christmas, indeed experience life as a whole, as we did when we were little, with a childlike faith that someone other than ourselves would be kind to us in ways we don’t come close to deserving and would see to it that everything worked out just fine in the end. If that sounds appealing to you, if that sounds like heaven, then be encouraged by the words of one wiser than me who once said ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ [Matthew 18:3]. You can’t work your way in, but you are offered a free pass – because the one who said these words has paid the entry fee for us and, undeserving though we are, seen to it that everything will indeed work out just fine in the end. We enter the kingdom of heaven by grace, not works.
For others, of course, the forced jollity is unwelcome – when life is characterised by sorrow and despair few of us are up for a party, regardless of how many amusing Christmas jumpers are on display. Some have said that we should no longer wish others a ‘Merry Christmas’ as to do so risks being insensitive to those who are experiencing difficult times. But to suggest as much is to misunderstand Christmas, to consider it nothing more than an excuse for overindulgence as we try to deny the vicissitudes of life. One of my favourite carols is ‘God rest ye merry, gentleman’ – note the position of the comma. For many years I misunderstood this carol imagining that the words were expressing the hope that God would give a bunch of already merry gentlemen a well earned rest! This is not the point at all, as the position of the comma makes clear. What is being hoped for is that God would cause these souls, of undisclosed happiness, to be rendered merry. And the reason that they should be left in such a state of merriment, the reason that, as the carol goes on, nothing should cause them to dismay, is that ‘Jesus Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day’. And why was he born? ‘To save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray’. This is news worth hearing, very good news in fact, tidings, no less, of comfort and joy, even for those whose lives may have taken the most precipitous of down turns.
Some years ago I asked a group of youngsters which of the following had the most to do with Christmas: a Christmas tree, a mince pie or a fire engine. The answer I was looking for was the fire engine, my point being that Christmas was all about rescue or at least the arrival of a rescuer – the birth of a saviour. Forget this and Christmas loses all of its significance. But even if we are minded to remember what Christmas is really all about, even if we piously pronounce ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’, might we still be missing the point? Could it be that even religious types sometimes get too excited about Christmas?
Imagine this. It’s night time and you wake up to discover your house is on fire. You’re trapped upstairs in your bedroom and the flames are getting higher and higher. The heat is intense and the smoke is getting thicker and thicker. All hope seems lost. The morning was to have brought with it a shot of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Old Family Reserve but now, at best, it is going to be a little on the warm side to appreciate at its finest. And then, in the distance, you hear the sound of sirens telling you that help is on its way. You run to the window and in the distance you can see the flash of blue light that confirms that the fire brigade is close by. What a relief. Moments later the fire engine comes round the corner and stops outside your house and the neighbours all gather around the crew celebrating their arrival. Everyone is happy. But then you realise that the firemen aren’t doing anything to rescue you and, to your horror, none of your neighbours seem concerned by the fact. They’re just happy that the rescuers have arrived. What a tragedy that would be. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus but his arrival is only the start – he came with a job description, work to do. The angel had it right – you remember what he told the shepherds? [Luke 2:10-11].
‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is Christ the Lord’
The Angel brings good news ‘for all the people’ which gives the lie to the assertion so often heard at this time of the year that ‘Christmas is for the children’. And the good news of great joy is that a saviour has been born. At Christmas, God became man and, born into poverty was given the name Jesus because he would ‘save his people from their sins’ [Matthew 1:21], But remarkable though this is, Jesus’ birth, in and of itself, achieved nothing. More important than his arrival, Jesus went on to secure the salvation he had come to achieve. By living a perfect life, a life which God graciously credits us as having lived, and then dying in our place, bearing the punishment we deserve for our sinfulness, Jesus saves us from the wrath of God by satisfying God’s need for justice. At Christmas, forgetting the rescue that Jesus was sent by God to secure for us is as tragic, and foolish, as our delighting at the arrival of the fire brigade at our burning home and having no interest in them putting out the fire!
But there’s more. It is not the arrival of the rescuer at Christmas that is the main thing. Nor is it our rescue itself that is the main thing. The main thing is what we are rescued for namely to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.
This life cannot satisfy – not ultimately. Sometimes it might seem like it might, but, sooner or later, its inability to do so becomes all too obvious – when life is hard and bad things happen to us, as to a greater or lesser extent they surely will for all of us, there is no pretending otherwise. Not even the very best of times can ultimately satisfy as even the most pleasant of days, when everything goes well for us, will eventually come to an end. A year or six ago, Kaye and I had a great day out in London – we went on the London Eye and took a boat trip down the Thames, we visited the Houses of Parliament and took tea on the terrace there. And lastly, we went to the theatre and saw ‘The Lion King’ – you know the one, ‘Hakuna Matata’ and all that (It means, as you are probably aware ‘No worries’ – great little song but a facile philosophy for this life if it’s not grounded in anything that can genuinely relieve us of our anxieties). It was a really lovely day but eventually, of course, it ended. The day after the last door of our advent calendars are finally opened I hope we will all have a really lovely day celebrating Christmas with those we love most – but it will end. All good things do, inevitably so – it’s the nature of our human condition. Memento mori. So what are we to do?
C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, wrote :
‘If I find in myself a desire which no earthly experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world’.
But where might that other world be – where might our longing for infinite joy be eternally satisfied. David gives us the answer in Psalm 16 where he writes:
‘[O God,] You make known to me the path of life, in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.’
You want infinite joy? It’s found in the presence of God
You want everlasting pleasure? It’s found at his right hand.
The rescue that was heralded by the prophets of the Old Testament, that began with the arrival of Jesus at the first Christmas and was secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus at the first Easter prior to his ascension into heaven, will find its fulfilment when Jesus comes back. Advent is that season of the year when we look forward to the coming of Jesus. It’s good to remember Jesus’ first coming at Christmas but it’s better still to remember he’s coming back. If we’re looking for infinite and everlasting joy, let’s not put our hope in a few fun-filled days at the end of December each year, pleasant though those days may be. Let’s not put our hope in our perhaps seventy or eighty years of life for those years are soon gone and we will ultimately ‘bring our years to an end with a sigh’ [Psalm 90]. Instead let’s hope in God and the new heavens and new earth that he will establish when Jesus returns. It is going to happen! It’s not wrong to long for infinite and everlasting joy, indeed we only truly honour God when we find our joy in him for delighting in God honours him far more than any dutiful religious observance does. So let’s rejoice in God – we have every reason to do so as God has promised that he will dwell with us and we will be his people.
Another name for Jesus often heard at Christmas is Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’. Jesus came at the first Christmas as God in human form ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’ [John 1:14]. And he has promised that he’s coming back again one day. And when he does he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death will be no more, and there will be no mourning or crying or pain. Only then will ‘Hakuna Matata’ be a philosophy that will hold true. Today we can only know this by faith – taking at his word the God who has told us that this is how it will be, confident that he has done everything necessary to see that everything really will work out just fine in the end. For now we see this by faith, but when Jesus comes back, we will see it in all its glorious reality!
This certain hope for the future has the power to change our present, to lift our hearts today, no matter how downcast they might be, as we consider the tomorrow that awaits us. As the psalmist wrote:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you” [Psalm 42:5-6]