Last weekend I was flipping through this year’s, supposedly ‘legendary’, double issue Christmas edition of the Radio Times. In it the editors wrote this:
‘We live in uncertain times, but that’s why Christmas is so important. It’s a glimpse of normality in an abnormal world; a glorious distraction from the sense that life is fragile, real and earnest. No one ever used to talk about saving Christmas, but now that’s seen as a pressing priority. No wonder. We all need a chance of escape’.
Which got me thinking.
Over the last couple of years it has frequently been said that we live in uncertain times and understandably so. In a week which began with us still not being absolutely sure if by it’s end we would be allowed to gather with family and friends for Christmas, we might indeed wonder if we can be sure of anything anymore. But are things really more uncertain now than they once were? Perhaps we are mistaken in thinking that we could previously have been more sure of what the future might bring. Because what we once imagined was certain was never as certain as we thought it was. In the New Testament James, never one to mince his words, tells us that we are arrogant and evil to ever imagine that we know what tomorrow will bring!
‘Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.’ [James 4:13-16].
For James therefore, the only things that are seemingly more uncertain for us today than they once were, are those things we are told we should never have considered as certain in the first place!
But that’s not the only reason why we shouldn’t unquestionably accept the idea that everything is more uncertain these days. Because it is still true that the things that really matter, those things that relate to the unchanging character of God, are as sure now as they have always been.
God has always been in complete control – and he remains so today. As James implies in the verses above, whatever the Lord wills, will be. And though we may sometimes struggle to understand why He would allow some things to happen, knowing that a God of love is sovereign over our day to day lives is something we can still draw comfort from. Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews reassures us that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ [Hebrews 13:8] And his steadfast love is certain too. His is a love that will never cease. Likewise God’s mercy will never come to an end. It is new every morning. God’s faithfulness is as certain today as it proved to be yesterday, and will undoubtedly prove to be tomorrow. [Lamentations 3:22-23].
So, uncertain times? Well maybe, but then again, maybe not.
The Radio Times editorial continued by suggesting that Christmas is ‘a glorious distraction from the sense that life is fragile, real and earnest’. Well I wouldn’t disagree that life is fragile, nor that it is frequently filled with suffering and sadness. But Christmas, a ‘glorious distraction’? Is that all that Christmas has to offer us? If so it will do us no good at all come new year when we remove our heads from the holes in the sand in which we’ve stuck them for a fortnight and are forced to face the freight train of 2022 that will inevitably come bearing down on us.
But Christmas is not merely a distraction from the very real difficulties that to a greater or lesser extent we all have to face. Rather it is the answer to those difficulties. Those who are experiencing great sadness this Christmas, those who are anxious about what the New Year will bring, don’t need to be merely distracted from their troubles, rather they need something that is genuinely able to turn their tears to laughter, something that will give them a reason to no longer be afraid. And that is exactly what Christmas offers.
Do you remember what it was that the angel told those shepherds who were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks that first Christmas night?
‘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’ [Luke 2:10-11]
This news that the shepherds heard is just as true and just as good today as it was two thousand odd years ago. This is news that can bring us happiness in the midst of our presence sadness, a reason for confidence in our ever present anxiety. Because this is news that promises us a genuinely better tomorrow.
This last year has, for many, been a hard one. And not only as a result of the pandemic. This year many terrible events have occurred around the world as indeed they do every year. In addition to far away natural disasters and closer to home terrible tragedies that have made the headlines, there have also been our personal difficulties known only to ourselves and those close to us. It’s understandable that we might want to forget about all this suffering at Christmas, to pretend that Christmas, with all its tinsel and television is, as the Radio Times puts it, ‘a glimpse of normality in an abnormal world’.
But that’s the problem with Christmas, or rather the problem with the Christmas that we have created. As with life, we struggle to conceive that the realities of hate, pain and suffering sit alongside those of love, joy and peace, that these things, to a greater or lesser extent, are normal, present in all our lives, present indeed, even in ourselves. We have marginalised the horror of the Christmas story, preferring the sanitised version that fits better with our over optimistic outlook on life, our over optimistic view of who we are. But such a Christmas bears little relation to the world we actually inhabit, existing as we do in a world of both good and evil.
Life can be filled with overwhelming joy. And yet, life can be hard, for some impossibly hard, and for many the sadness is just too much.
The Christmas story reflects this – the joy of the birth of Jesus and the hope that the arrival of a saviour brought with it, is mixed with the abject poverty into which he was born, the rejection experienced by his parents and the murder of the innocents at the hands of Herod. And, of course, what began in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ didn’t end there. The ‘little Lord Jesus’ who once ‘lay asleep in the hay’ grew up and, thirty or so years later ‘hung and suffered’ as he was nailed to a cross on ‘a green hill far away.’
The Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.’
But such horrors still exist in our world, a world of joy and sadness, of pleasure and of pain. We cannot have one without the other. Indeed the two are mutually dependent. The existence of suffering is the very reason why we need a redeemer, and that redemption is secured through the suffering that that redeemer himself endured, a suffering that we all still share in.
Cicero, then, was wrong. We must consider the cross.
Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. These were words of the apostle of Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth and we would do well to ponder them, to reflect on the fact that we cannot expect to live trouble free lives. Hardships and calamities will befall us and they will bring with them times of great sorrow. Yet despite those hardships, despite the awful suffering, there is, in Christ, still hope and a cause for rejoicing.
Leonard Cohen says it well in words from his song ‘You Want It Darker’:
‘There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idol claim’
We live in the tension of ‘the already and the not yet’. Because of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, and the redemption that he as secured, I believe the future is assured. So assured in fact that we can consider it a present reality. We can, ‘already’ live rejoicing in the confidence of its inevitability whilst at the same time, honestly acknowledging that it is still ‘not yet’, that we still live in the very real pain of today, the heart breaking awfulness of now.
As we celebrate the joy of Christmas, we dare not tell ourselves, or indeed our children, differently. For to do so is to delude ourselves, and them, and ensure disillusionment and despair when eventually the truth can, like now, be denied no longer.
So at the end of this most difficult of years, I continue to believe the news that was brought by the angels to the shepherds all those centuries ago, news of great joy that is for all people. I believe that though weeping may tarry for the night, joy comes with the morning. For some the night has already been long and the day may still seem a long way off, but there is I believe a day still coming when all our tears will be wiped away and death shall be no more. [Revelation 21:4]
So it’s not Christmas that needs saving, rather it’s us, by Jesus, so called for he would save his people from their sins. No matter then how difficult our lives might be, Christmas remains a time to rejoice that our rescue is in hand, that it began with the birth of a child who came into the world for the express purpose of saving sinners like you and me and was secured for us when, having grown up and lived a perfect life, the man who was, and is, God was crucified for us, dying in our place for the forgiveness of our sins, thereby redeeming, not only us but also the broken world in which we currently live, the guarantee of which being his resurrection from the dead three days latter.
And therein lies my hope. This Christmas therefore, despite everything that might cause me to doubt it, I remain absolutely confident that with God I am in safe hands.
Some years ago, whilst out on a walk, one of my children announced that they were lost. This was on account of said child not having a clue as to where they were. But the individual in question was wrong – they weren’t lost because the one who held their hand, me, knew exactly where they were.
I knew the way home.
Perhaps we can’t see a way through all that’s going on just now. But rest assured, with God by our side we’re not lost because the one who holds our hand knows exactly where we are and, even in these particularly difficult days, that same loving Heavenly Father will ensure that we will all eventually make it safely home.
For the one who knows the end from the beginning holds us still and of that you can be certain.
And so this year, regardless of whether or not you share my faith I pray that, alongside any sadness you may be experiencing, you, and all whom you love, may know real joy at Christmas.
To read “A Merry and Resilient Christmas – A Personal View” click here
To read “The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’”, click here
To read ‘Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?’, click here. This is a slightly adapted version of “T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’.
To read “Suffering- A Personal View”, click here.
To read “Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion”, click here
To read “Luther and the global pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross”, click here
To read “Hope comes from believing the promises of God”, click here
To read “Waiting patiently for the Lord”, click here
To read “Good Friday – 2021”, click here
To read “Easter Sunday – 2021”, click here
To read “True Love?”, click here
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