A Christmas reflection – Peter Phillips, Moderator
In his recent Christmas Message Rev Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church confesses that ‘As a pastor, I always found preaching at Christmas more difficult than I perhaps should have.’ One of the reasons for this difficulty, which is not exclusive to Dr Barnes, but common to every pastor, is that the Christmas events are very well known – and yet as I have discovered from choosing hymns and other songs of praise for congregational singing, most people prefer what they know to learning something new.
The danger, of course, is that familiarity is apt to breed contempt – or, if not actual contempt, repetition without appreciation, speaking or singing without knowing or meaning what we say, listening without really hearing, so that what we hear doesn’t affect how we think, speak or act. And so the preacher’s difficulty is how to tell the old, old story of the birth of Jesus with freshness, to break through the crust of familiarity that tends to dull the wonder of his birth and the glorious hope that his coming brought into a world of people in the dominion of darkness and death.
One way of telling the old, old story with freshness and to reflect upon its bearing upon us in our situation today is to view it from the teaching parts of the New Testament, rather than from the gospel accounts. The apostle Paul, for instance, summarises the Christmas message when he writes, ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ (Gal 4:4-5)
Consider how long the people of God had been waiting for God to fulfil his promise, given in the beginning, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15) Even on a young-earth creationist dating, the promise was given at least 4,000 years before ‘the fullness of time’ came, and God sent forth his Son’ – and 4,000 years is a very long time, especially when waiting for deliverance from sin and misery! As Jesus told his disciples, ‘blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Matt 13:16-7)
It’s easy when living in difficult times to be discouraged and even to doubt the promises of God – and yet in times like ours we are called to imitate the faith of those who waited long ago for his coming, for in spite of the years of waiting and the many disappointments along the way, when he came there were some who were waiting for him still, including Simeon, who was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’; Anna, a prophetess, who ‘coming up at that very hour … began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Lk 2:25-38); Nathanael – “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn 1:49); and Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God ….’ (Mk 15:43).
We are called to imitate their faith because he will come again, ‘not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.’ (Heb 9:28) and when he does it will be well with us if he finds us waiting for him, as they were. Our world is, like their world was, a hostile place for the people of God, and with the hostility of the world becoming increasingly blatant and the weakness of the church becoming increasingly evident it would be easy for us to accept the verdict of the enemies of our faith that we are on the wrong side of history. But we should not lose heart, for the scriptures predict the coming of scoffers who will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”’ But of course this is not true – once God judged the world of old by a flood, and in the fullness of time he will judge the world again, by fire: (2 Pet 3:3-7)
In the meantime, we must match the Lord’s patience with our patience, knowing that ‘The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’, and learn more and more to live not by the short term agenda of this world and its corrupt desires, but in the light of his coming: ‘Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.. (2 Pet 3:11-13)
So as we celebrate Christmas 2022 we look back to his first coming with deep thankfulness for the living hope that is ours through his resurrection from the dead and forward to his coming again with eager expectation and so fulfil the purpose of God in sending him to be our Saviour: we are to live such good lives that in everything we make his teaching attractive and winsome, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self- controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.’
May your Christmas and New Year be filled with the joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope both now and throughout another year of our Lord.