During the period leading up to Christmas in 2001 there was a commercial on TV in which people summed up the festival in three words. The attempts included: peace on earth, fill my stocking, Morecombe and Wise, and Marks and Spencer - the sponsors of the advertisement. No one suggested, God with us. In fact Christmas can be summed up in just one word, Immanuel. What does this mean for the world?
(1) God takes an interest in us.
People who are concerned about us and interested in us visit. They make the effort. As I sit writing this there is a light covering of snow on the ground, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. It is a wonderful day for a walk in the woods. However I shall go and visit Miss Kilpatrick who is in hospital. She taught me biology many years ago. She is 92 and in hospital for a hip replacement operation. I will go and see her because I care about her.
God cares about us and that is why he visited this earth. How do we feel about it. I can remember going to see Big Tone in hospital. I played cricket with him but wasn't a close friend. He wasn't expecting me to visit. His eyes lit up as I approached his bed. All I had for him was a large bar of chocolate but that didn't matter. He was pleased that I cared. Big Tone has never forgotten the visit I paid him when his morale was at it's lowest ebb. Are we glad and grateful that God paid us a visit, showing his commitment to mankind as he entered our world.
(2) God shares our predicament.
Another hospital visit I made in the past was to see Jerky Boreham. I had known him in childhood. He was a generous youth given to wild enthusiasms. His life had taken a turn for the worse and I learned that he was in the psychiatric wing of the West Suffolk Hospital. I didn't want to go and see him. I had been to these wards before and found it a profoundly disturbing experience. But I went. I didn't find the company very inspiring. I asked Jerky, "Does it actually make you feel any better being in here?" It wasn't doing much for me. "Oh Yes!" he replied, "We are all depressed in here. We help one another. You can only understand what it is like to be depressed if you are depressed yourself." I was glad to leave. I would never, ever, willingly have become depressed to join them and help them. It was hard enough to pay a short visit.
Jesus did not take human shape and pay us a fleeting visit as an angel might. Angels might look like men when they appear on earth but they remain angels. God became a man. He was that holy thing in the womb and the baby laid on the bed of straw. He was cold, tired, hungry, concerned for his mother, disappointed in his friends, upset by his enemies; his feet were dusty, he wept, sweated, bled and died. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Jesus shared the human predicament. 2000 years ago God could say, "We're all human here".
I suppose some might question whether God achieved anything by sharing our predicament. What good does it do. It wasn't easy caring for my father during the final stages of Parkinson's Disease. Eventually dementia set in. He would struggle as I undressed him and put him to bed. One of my friends, Edward, offered to come in and help me. I knew he would not be able to help much and that he would find the experience very upsetting. One night I asked him to come in and assist. I needed someone to share my predicament. I needed someone to know how difficult and distressing it was. He only came in once. The fact that he knew what I was going through gave me the strength to continue to the end. It isn't for nothing that the hymn, 'What a friend we have in Jesus' is such a favourite amongst old Christians.
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
I was talking to Tom Johns about our former Headmistress, Miss Applegate. We had met with several other colleagues at her funeral in Bury St Edmunds. I told Tom that I was sorry that although I taught in her school for fifteen years she never really knew me. Tom's reaction was quite different. He didn't want her, or any other of his headteachers, to know him. Some people are like that, they mask their true selves. I am reading the biography of the novelist, Thomas Hardy, and he was like that. He wore different masks for the different circles he moved in: publishers, fellow authors, society figures, poets. No one really knew him. He was a closed book.
I am in possession of a large packet of love letters that my mother wrote to my father in the 1930s. These letters are very revealing. My mother hid nothing. She wanted my father to love her for what she was - warts and all! Not that she had any warts, my mother was a pretty, slim, little thing in her youth. Certain characteristics are very evident in the letters: her idealism, vivaciousness and sensitivity. She mentioned in one letter that two people had told her that she laughed like a puppy dog. A puppy might be sweet but because it was also whiskery and wrinkly she was going to change the way she laughed. My mother was too sensitive by half and it blighted her life. However she was an open book and in this respect I am like her. I strongly dislike secretiveness.
Jesus was an open book. There was nothing secretive about him. He wore no masks. John says in his gospel: The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John1v14. No-one has seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. John1v18. Jesus has made God known. He showed us what God valued - integrity, compassion, faithfulness, wholeheartedness and enthusiasm.
There was a common theme to all my mother's hundreds of letters to my father. Over and over again she assured him of her utmost love and devotion. Jesus is God's word, his love letter to us.
(4) God in Christ shows us how life should be lived.
There has been some talk recently on TV about who Britain's greatest man or woman might be. I think a survey is underway. My vote would go to Samuel Pepys. He performs a very important service. His diary, because of its truly remarkable honesty, shows us what man is really like. It is a vivid, striking, incontrovertible testimony to man's flawed nature. In reading Pepys' diary we see life as we live it. Pepys could on occasion stay up by his wife's bedside until three in the morning reading to her in the hope of distracting her from toothache. On another occasion, after a disagreement in bed, he hit his wife so hard in the eye that it was black for days. I am glad to say she bit him in retaliation.
We are so flawed. On Christmas Sunday I was preaching at a small Suffolk chapel. Hannah sung two solos very sweetly. Usually she sings with a group of other young people. After the service I asked her where they all were. "Well", she said, "we were getting on so well that the nine of us decided to go on holiday together. After three days we had a mega bust up. None of them have been back since. I am on my own again." So, so, flawed!
Jesus was not the greatest artist, musician, poet, scientist, inventor or explorer that the world has ever know. In his humanity he was probably less talented than his ancestor, David. Jesus could not paint like Van Goth or compose like Mozart. He was not great in that way. He was great because he lived life as God would have us live it, the flawless life, the only life that pleased God. Mt17v5 "This is my son, whom I love; with him I a well pleased. Listen to him!" It was a life of humility, submission, obedience, fortitude and prayer. It was a life spent helping others: challenging error, exposing falseness, mending shattered lives and making men whole, encouraging and appreciating virtue, speaking the words of eternal life, bringing hope and peace and love. It was a life full of grace and truth. It was his glory. It passed the ultimate test. God smiled upon it.
(5) God in Christ offers us help
It is possible to be depressed by those who are so much better than we are. I attended an IT course once where every body else was more competent than I was. There were all these teachers showing off their skills but no one was prepared to help. I was made to feel inadequate without being helped to do anything about it. If Jesus just came to earth to show us how good he was and nothing more then we could be excused for feeling wretched. Instead we can rejoice because when we call him Jesus, Saviour, we call him by his name! He came as both Saviour and Peacemaker. He is able to help:
(b) Improve our relationships with one another. As members of the one family we become brothers and sisters in Christ.
(c) With our feelings about ourselves. We are precious in God's sight.
Jesus has given all those who believe in him his Spirit to be their helper. The Holy Spirit enlightens, empowers, strengthens, comforts and sustains. Even in small things the Spirit plays a part. Christmas Sunday I had to do a blessing. It is a bit like a christening but without the water! In the hymn before the blessing the baby girl began howling. She was at full throttle. I thought that I had better postpone the blessing. Then I thought no, it will be all right. As soon as I took Hannah from her father she stopped crying. She was as good as gold as I prayed over her. She did not even protest when I kissed her. The old ladies in the congregation thought that I had a wonderful way with children. I think that the Holy Spirit quietened her as I expected he would.
(6) God in Jesus came to win our hearts
My mother and father had a long engagement. They could not marry until my father received a call to the ministry from a church with a manse for them to live in. So my mother continued to work as a short hand typist in Lloyd's bank in the Strand, Central London, and my father helped out on his parent's market garden in Ipswich. Once a month my mother would travel down to Suffolk and on Sunday travel to a pastor less village church with my father who would conduct the services. I expect they enjoyed it! My mother wrote in one of her letters that when my father stood in the pulpit and looked down at her and smiled her heart melted.
Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and old Anna, and the Magi all looked upon the babe and he melted their hearts. Jesus was a saviour born, the prince of peace and God with us. Let him melt your heart this Christmas.