This Christmas, thousands of Christians, if not millions, will be caught up in political and ethnic conflicts. Many will celebrate Christmas facing poverty, dislocation and the possibility of death. In countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Indonesia and India, religiously motivated attacks are on the rise. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, ban private church services and converting to Christianity is illegal.
Although we don’t face such troubles here in Tasmania Australia, we do, with many Western countries, face increasing scepticism about anything to do with God. Sometimes this is quite aggressive with attempts to muzzle Christians and keep their faith out of the public square.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” His statement is just as true now as it was then.
As we celebrate Advent this year Christians across the world will rekindle and renew their hope.
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Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent and at Hobart Baptist, we began our reflection on the events of the first Christmas. Over the coming four week period Christians traditionally use this as a time of remembering and anticipating the uniqueness of ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us!
We remember by looking back to Christ’s first coming and we anticipate by looking forward to his second. Looking back and forward reminds us how we are living in between these two significant events. Historically Jesus became a human being, was crucified, buried and on the third day rose to life. Death was defeated and the future secured.
Looking forward we imagine the day when the full implications of Christ’s victory will be seen and experienced. Until that day we continue to live in a world plagued with sin, injustice and war while we anticipate the day when Jesus will return as King and all creation is reconciled to God.
This year our Advent theme is “A Curious Christmas: Matthew’s Story.” Matthew is one of two gospels, Matthew and Luke telling us anything about the birth of Jesus birth each with their own unique focus.
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Each year as our community celebrates Christmas it feels as if the name of Jesus is mentioned less and less. As multicultural sensitivities increase in the name of tolerance, the diminishing significance of Christmas is noticeable. More often than not it is called Xmas, and commercialisation has taken over.
Even phrases like “Merry Christmas!” are replaced with “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings!” It seems like it won’t be long before the true Christmas story will only be heard in Christian churches.
The trend is clearly captured in surveys by McCrindle Research which show that only 15% of Australians now take part in religious events such as attending services, carol singing, and nativity play s at Christmas. Yet, a massive 87% of those who say they are nonreligious celebrate Christmas in some way, just not with any religious or spiritual meaning. Not surprisingly, perhaps, 56% of those who belong to a religion that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, such as Buddhists and Hindus, nevertheless still celebrate it. Australians see Christmas as being about presents, shopping and celebrations and only a third (37%), believe traditions such as exchanging gifts and a general ‘Christmas’ spirit are important.
These trends cause one to ponder on the future of Christmas. If trends continue it’s not hard to foresee that increasing numbers of people will celebrate Christmas with little or no reference to the birth of Jesus. Even so, despite the decline, Christmas Day will remain a legal holiday because our retailers and the economy could not survive without it. And no doubt Christians who observe Christmas as the celebration of Jesus’ birth will continue to be marginalised. We will need to be increasingly assertive if the wish to maintain the right to celebrate the birth of Jesus publicly.
In the light of such forces it is difficult to know what the future of Christmas holds. However, there is no need to despair or to give up hope, there is more to Christmas that that.
At the heart of the Christmas story is the miracle of God’s love and grace. Christmas is the story of baby born to be king, but rejected by the world. We should not be surprised that such rejection continues today.
“In the light of such forces it is difficult to know what the future of Christmas holds.
However, even despite betrayal, crucifixion and death, God’s plans are not thwarted. Though his faithful obedience to death, his vindication through the resurrection, and his promise to return; Jesus still embodies for us the promise of a new and better world.
The angels who heralded the birth of Christ declared the promise of peace on earth. It was the fulfilment of the visions of the Old Testament prophets that told of God’s intention to once and for all deal with evil and establish a new world order. In it the wolf and the lamb will lie down together and the earth will overflow with the knowledge of God, just like water covers the sea. The future of Christmas is assured, justice and peace will reign.
As we celebrate Christmas this year and worship Jesus our Lord may our lives, family and community be filled with hope, joy, peace and love. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
Stephen L Baxter
In my last blog I reflected on the meaning of grace at Christmas time, and I’ve been thinking more about it since then. At Christmas time we hear a lot about peace, joy, and love; yet there are two words not popularly associated with Christmas – grace and mercy. Nevertheless, more than any others these words probably reflect the true heart of Christmas.
While we can easily get caught up in the hype that is ‘Xmas’, CHRISTmas is a reminder that despite what Bette Midler’s popular song suggests, “God is watching from a distance” – in fact is not distant but God is with us. Christmas celebrates that God travelled across an impossible and infinite distance to be born a human being amongst us.
Locked in time and place in a body, God’s Son put his power to one side and traded the throne room of heaven for a feed trough in a stable. Becoming human means he shares our frailty and experiences our delicate lives. The miracle of the incarnation is that God overcomes the divide between earth and heaven and between creation and creator and becomes one of us. Living the journey from baby to adult he lives the journey of life and learns what it is to cry, to crawl, and to walk; what it is to experience not only joy and love, but also loneliness, despair, pain, grief, loss and ultimately death.
He lived a life like no other human before or since. In Jesus, God did what we could not do ourselves. He lived the life as humans were always meant to live but never could. He succeeded where we all fail. Paradoxically, he paid the penalty we should have paid and died the death we deserved. Yet in doing so he won for us a life that we were never entitled to. Through no effort of our own we receive mercy and forgiveness, all because of what he did.
This is a call for great celebration. This is the grace of Christmas. But it is not all. Grace is not limited just to Christmas. God isn’t just in the season. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God is with us all time. God did not just pay us a visit and disappear. No, God remains intimately connected with us. God is present with us in every situation and shares with us at every moment. Whether that moment is good or bad, full of joy or sorrow, whether we are holy or sinful, whether we are alive or dead, God is with us.
This is what the angel meant with he said to Mary that her baby would be “Immanuel, God is with us.” This is Christmas grace.
As we celebrate Advent this year and as we draw near to Christmas Day, may our hearts be sensitive to the reality that God is with us. In our everyday life God is there to meet us in the midst of it. May the grace of Christmas be an inspiration and an encouragement to you in the days ahead and indeed throughout the year to come.
Babette’s Feast is the name of a favourite film of Jenny’s and mine. It is a gentle and moving story masterpiece that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987, and it’s a great one to watch again at Christmas.
The film is set in a small Lutheran community on the bleak and frigid coast of Jutland, Denmark where the living is strict, simple, sacrificial, and separated from the rest of the world. Two elderly sisters, daughters of the pastor, gave up opportunities to marry when they were young so as to remain in the village serving the church with their father. One day a mysterious Frenchwoman arrives and pleads for protection from persecution. The sisters have little money but allow her stay and in return she becomes their maid.
The film starts slowly reflecting the insularity and mundane regularity of the austere community life. Twelve years after BAbette’s arrival, the two middle-aged sisters try to carry on the mission of their deceased father, yet it proves impossible without his strict leadership and the sect slowly splinters.
As the 100th anniversary of the pastor’s birth approaches the sisters want to celebrate it in a way that will help their friends. At the same time Babette receives word she has won 10,000 francs in a French lottery. Although initially expecting to leave the village, Babette eventually begs to be permitted to prepare one last supper as a gift for the community.
The meal is the climax of the film and here we learn Babette was once chef at a top Parisian restaurant. As the tired, aging and suspicious community members sit down for the meal relationships are stiff and cold. They cautiously begin to dine on Babette’s delicacies and as they do their faces show a hint of thawing. As the meal progresses it is not only their bodies that are fed, but their souls as well. Old wounds begin to heal and closed hearts are gently opened.
The film ends with the aged community members outside joining hands around the fountain rousingly singing old hymns. In the kitchen Babette sits in the middle of the mess of dirty dishes, greasy pots, and leftover food. She is tired as she talks to the sisters and reveals she has spent all her money on the meal and will be staying in the community.
The film is full of meaning for Christians as many missioligists, such as Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, have noted. That there are twelve seated at the supper is a subtle hint inviting comparisons to the Lord’s Supper. In fact it almost seems that somehow the spirit of Christ has slipped into the room and joined them in the meal, anticipating the great banquet that SScripture reminds us is yet to come. The meal itself becomes a time of deep thanksgiving and fellowship not only demonstrating the power of celebration, but like the cross, demonstrating the costliness of grace. It cost Babette all she had.
The film also reflects the heart of the mystery of Christmas. Babette’s gift ushers in the gift of grace, unasked and unearned, just as God’s grace enters our world through the birth of Jesus Christ. And just as in the incarnation God embraces our human existence and sanctifies it, Babette’s gift celebrates the good things of the world over and against the lifelessness of religious legalism.
Ultimately, however, Babette’s Feast is story of grace and reminds us how grace works: it costs the giver everything and the recipient nothing. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
Yesterday the season of Advent began, and churches all over the world will be celebrating it over the next four weeks during the lead up to Christmas. Not all Protestant traditions celebrate Advent, and I certainly don’t remember it from my childhood. Yet millions of Christian will celebrate it again this year.
Advent is different from the celebration of Christmas. In the seasonal calendar of the Church, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve and continues for the next twelve days, ending on January 6 (that’s where the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, comes from). The celebration of Advent originated in the 6th century and is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. The word comes from the Latin meaning “arrival” or “coming” and is a time of preparation.
Over the four week period of Advent, Christians dedicate themselves to both remember and anticipate. They remember by looking back to Christ’s first coming, they anticipate by looking forward to his second coming.
By looking both back and forward we are reminded how we are caught between these two events. Looking back helps remind us that Jesus has come as a human being; that he was crucified, buried and on the third day was alive again. Death has been defeated and the victory won.
“Over the four week period of Advent, Christians dedicate themselves to both remember and anticipate.”
By looking forward we remind ourselves that full implications of the victory are yet to be seen and we still await its coming. Every day we still face the reality of death; in every community and individual the world is still plagued with sin; we are still to see peace and justice reign supreme; and hunger and disease are still with us. During Advent we anticipate the return of Jesus Christ the King and the time when all creation will be reconciled to God.
Advent can be a very personal time. As individuals we can affirm how much we need a Saviour and celebrate that Jesus Christ came for me. It reminds us that he is present in our world today whether we are aware of it or not. It brings us to the place where we again choose to draw near to him with the sure hope of resurrection and a new world.
My hope for each of one of us in this season of Advent is that in spite of the chaos, anxiety, hurts, and busyness that often fills our lives, we will take time to prepare.
My prayer is that in your preparation during Advent, you will find an openness to receive again the love and joy of Christmas. This joy flows from the celebration of God entering the world through the coming of the Son of God as a human being.
How has this last week been for you? Often the week before Christmas is chaotic and frenetic as we fuss over gifts, cards, celebrations, travelling and menus. For some this can be almost overwhelming and for others, well, it hasn’t finished just yet – we’ve still got a few more days of catching up with family, eating, travelling and hopefully sleeping.
Many years ago with great wit and originality C.S. Lewis wrote a short mock historical account of Christmas called X-Mas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus. His story describes the customs of a small island called “Niatirb” (which is “Britain” spelt backwards) where the inhabitants suffer from their efforts to conform to a winter celebration they call X-Mas. The custom requires they buy cards and gifts for each other, even those they don’t know; and this leaves them totally exhausted. There is more to the story (and you can click here if you want to read it). Sometimes I think we can all feel a bit like that at this time of year.
In reality, Christmas is a wonderful time where we celebrate the hope of the coming of the Saviour. Yet, in the midst of the celebrations there is a painful reminder that all is not right in the world. This year is no exception with the likelihood that the global economy will only get worse, that the planet is warming, that another boatload of refugees has sunk, and that too many children still do not have access to adequate food, shelter and clean water.
Some may think it is a bit sombre and morbid to bring up such topics at Christmas, but the reality is that Christmas doesn’t make sense if the world is perfect and everyone is happy.
Christmas is the celebration of God stepping into the chaos and the mess of our world. Its central message is that God has done something about the problems by entering into our broken, rebellious world as a baby with the sole aim of rescuing and redeeming it.
That’s why people come to celebrate at churches all over the world on Christmas Day. As we gather we remind ourselves again of the hope we have in Jesus Christ in spite of our personal circumstances, and the circumstances of the world. Christmas is not sentimental wishful thinking, but confidence that God has not given up on us.
In Matthew’s gospel it says, “They shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (1:23). Christmas is a reminder that God desires to be among us; the God who made the universe wants to share in our human lives. But he doesn’t save us or the world by taking us out of it or by taking our pain away, but by joining us in his world. He doesn’t act from a distance or use a proxy, but takes upon humanity’s pain, sorrow and rebellion himself.
On Christmas Day we not only celebrate an event that took place in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but the reality that is with us here today – in our time of celebration, in our times with our families, over our meal tables and in the smallest details of our lives.
Not only was God with them then in first century Palestine, his presence is a reality for us to day. In a very real sense the incarnation has never ceased and never will. God’s choice to take on human nature, human flesh and blood, mind and feeling, is as real and immediate to us today as it was in Bethlehem.
As we celebrate Christmas in 2011, let us do so with hope in our hearts that God is still at work in the world and there is more rescuing to be done, and even if our lives are chaotic and messy, broken and unresolved, God is with us in the midst of it all.
Stephen L Baxter
Next Sunday is Christmas day and across Australia people will celebrate. Most will have family gatherings and gift-giving, many will be on holidays in the sun, sand and surf, a small minority will go to church.
For many, Christmas is a wonderful celebration as they join in the “Christmas spirit”. Yet, for many others Christmas is difficult because it highlights the loss of a loved one through death, or the loss of family relationships through separation and divorce, or the reality of a life lived hard. For some, Christmas is one of the loneliest times of the times of year.
And Christmas is also strange. Our community celebrates Christmas, but at best it misunderstands the story and at worst it doesn’t believe in at all. Many, mostly non-churchgoers, attend events where we sing profound Christmas carols and get caught up in its sentimentality without giving a thought to its meaning. Where else might you find Aussie males singing?
That our Christmas celebrations have moved a long way from the story is well illustrated in an article by Joy Wallis in Sojourners magazine a few years ago. She tells the story of British singer Cliff Richard and the release of his 1990 Top 10 Christmas song “Saviour’s Day”. The song includes the lines, “Life can be yours on Saviour’s Day, don’t look back or turn away . . . ” Yet, such is the misunderstanding of the Christmas story that one teenage pop magazine review of the song concluded, “this song is OK, but there’s no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn’t got anything to do with Christmas at all!”
You can watch Cliff performing it here >>>
Our community indulges in a sentimentality about Christmas that has little to do with the actual story. We sing the carols, but the words have little meaning. We sing of one born to be king but we would never think of allowing him to rule us. We sing of one who is to be worshipped because he is God incarnate, but we would never humble ourselves to admit we are dependent creatures.
However I am sad to note that some of our well loved carols are also part of the problem. Rather than depicting the stark reality of the world into which this Jesus was born, they paint an idyllic picture of world full of bliss and serenity. They retell the story of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and how they ended up in a stable because there was no room in the inn. But none suggest Mary and Joseph could have been forced to do so because their family had rejected them due to her “unwanted” pregnancy. The carols have us think of a stable warm and clean, but have you slept a night in a barn with the animals in winter let alone been born in one?We sing “no crying he makes…” but do we seriously think that? We sing “All is calm, All is bright” yet the realities of that night for Mary and Joseph were far removed from that.
In our sanitised version of that first Christmas, Jesus is the perfect baby and a stable was the perfect place to give birth. We have turned the Christmas story into an escapist celebration that allows us to forget the cares of life and the world, even if just for a time. Yet, the Christmas story has nothing to do with escapism, in fact it is the exact opposite. Christmas celebrates the event where God, the Creator, came to share our broken, fallen humanity. Rather than escaping reality, Christmas is about embracing it. In becoming a human being God got down and got dirty, so to speak.
In fact our sentimental celebrations of Christmas are far removed from the harsh realities of that night. It was the lowest of the low . . . shepherds came that night to acknowledge his birth, not the rich and powerful. And no sooner had the wise men left than King Herod was plotting to have Jesus killed. Although the plot fails and the baby grows up, he is ultimately killed as a criminal on a Roman cross. This is not such a cosy, “clear and bright” story. The world Jesus entered was not the one depicted on our sparkly Christmas cards with their warm welcome and spiritual sentiment. Jesus entered a world full of pain, dysfunction, political oppression and brokenness. He was born an outcast and a refugee. He was despised, ridiculed and ultimately killed.
Christmas confronts us with the stark reality of our broken world. Christmas is about the stuff of real life. Jesus is saviour of outcasts, refugees, misfits and nobodies. His life was far removed from our Christmas sentimentality.
There is no doubt that Christmas should be a time of celebration, but it is no escapism. Christmas is a time for acknowledging how tough life can be and celebrating that God became a human being. Christmas in not about ignoring the difficulties in our lives, but celebrating that God shares them with us.
This is indeed good news! For the many who find Christmas a difficult time due to loss, loneliness, brokenness or grief, Christmas gives the opportunity not to forget about it but to celebrate that Jesus came to share life with us. Jesus knows what life is like, he lived it hard. Christmas is therefore a time not to be covered in sentimentality but uncovered for its wonderful message.
It is a time to allow Jesus to help carry the burdens of our lives. After all that is why he came and this is what Christmas is really all about.
Stephen L Baxter
Christmas is just around the corner, and another year is drawing to a close. As we approach Christmas life gets busier and more frantic. Amidst the rush and tinsel it is difficult to remind ourselves of the “reason for the season.”
Over the next month churches around the world will be filled with millions of Christmas reflections focusing on the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth—the shepherds, the stable, and the feed trough for a cot. We will sing again Christmas carols inspired by such humility and we will again be thankful of wonder of God becoming a human being.
While it is right to be reminded of such humility, it is also a reminder that God asks the same humility of us. The Bible explains that we can only receive Christ through something of the same meekness and humility (Matt. 5:3, 5; 18:3-4).
While such humility may seem simple and obvious, Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York suggests, it takes great humility to understand humility. In other words, once we begin to focus on humility, pride us just around the corner. As C.S. Lewis comments, “If we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the Devil.”
Once I ask myself the question, “Am I humble?” I’m opening myself up to pride. Keller suggests, examining one’s heart “often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.” Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, suggested C. S. Lewis.
What this means is any talk about practical ways to help us become humble will always be counterproductive. Focusing on our attention on how to be humble will end up destroying what humility we may already have.
So what can we do? Are we left in an impossible situation? Thankfully not.
While focussing on humility destroys humility, there are other things we can focus on. When Jesus summarized why people should following him, he said it was because he was meek and humble (Matt. 11:29). Jesus put himself forward as our model of humility. We focus on his humility rather than our own and in doing so take our eyes off ourselves, and begin to think of ourselves less.
Humility then has a chance to grow in our lives, not because we try to be humble but as by-product of our focus on Jesus and our trust in the good news. This good news is that God accepts us not because of what we do but because of love. This love is demonstrated supremely in the humility of the second person of the trinity becoming a human being and living among us.
Christmas is an opportunity to celebrate and marvel at the miracle of the God’s love and acceptance. It captures our focus by sheer wonder and diverts our gaze away from ourselves. We are given a chance to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”
So as we begin to enter the Christmas season this year and as we listen to the stories again, let’s pray that we move past their familiarity and that our hearts, our imaginations, our thinking and our lives and be struck again by the extraordinary humility of Christ.
And then without us even noticing, and by a miracle of God’s grace, we to may begin to live humble lives. Not because we are trying but because we are living in the fullness of God’s grace and love. May the humility of Jesus grow in, through and among us.
Stephen L Baxter