About 20 years ago I wrote a controversial article entitled ‘Don’t Just Do Something … Stand There!’. The gist of the article was that too many of us are simply too busy for the sake of it. All too often our activity, for all its energy, is fruitless. Like the Seven Dwarves we are ‘busy doing nothing’ in real terms. We are ‘driven people’ … driven by a sense of ‘ought-ness’ self-imposed or imposed on us by others. Finally, after two years of being ‘retired’ and living in rural Dorset, I think I am at last beginning to get the hang of what I was suggesting all those years ago. At long last I am learning to slow down, take life at a more leisurely pace, and enjoy and learn from all that God wants me to see, hear and get involved in.
I seem to have spent so much of my previous life rushing around … I even ate my food as quickly as possible?! This was partly because of spending time in the ‘poor house’ when I was around 8 or 9 years of age – my father lost his job and we were literally put out on the street because we lived in tied accommodation – and in the particular institution where we were housed you had to eat your food quickly before others got it. Only in the last few years – since discovering ‘fine dining’ – have I learned to eat more slowly and savour my food. And of course subconsciously ‘buying into’ the ‘Protestant work ethic’ early on in my Christian journey – the ethic that drives so many of us evangelical Christians – did not help me to stop rushing around either.
One of the things that I have increasingly come to enjoy in recent years is working through the whole Advent-Christmas-Epiphany event in the Christian calendar. This season in the Christian calendar provides us with a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time prayerfully reflecting on the various aspects of this particular chapter in the Christian Story. I love the fact that from the end of November through to the first week in January, we can take time individually as Christians, and corporately as Church, to ‘chew the cud’ of the various aspects of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany event: the God who comes; the God who speaks; the Forerunner; Mary’s faith; the Incarnation; the visit of the Magi, and so on.
We evangelical Christians don’t always make best use of these few weeks to unpack the biblical record covering this period, in the life and teaching programmes of our churches. How often do we hear sermons today on Biblical Prophecy, the Second Coming of Christ, Mary the Mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, even the significance of the Incarnation itself? The story of the Visit of the Magi usually gets lost somewhere in the mad rush to get into the New Year, and the modern trend for a church ‘Motto Text’ for the year, usually preached on on the first Sunday in the New Year (which is normally Epiphany). As a result, the Visit of the Magi, and the significance of their gifts for the Christ-child, is usually reduced to a few comments at a Children’s Nativity or a Candlelight Carol Service? But if we don’t give time to these significant themes during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany period in the Church Calendar … when will we?
I am also, personally, somewhat concerned by our obsession as evangelical Christians with the ‘Easter Story’? Time and again it has been suggested to me (wrongly, I believe) that ‘the Incarnation would have been pointless without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!’ Now before I get burnt at the stake for heresy, let me say straight away that the whole of the ‘Passion of Christ’ (not just the events of Easter Sunday, by the way) are also an essential part of the Christian Story, indeed the Christian Gospel! But so is the Incarnation! The Incarnation – the fact that in the Person of Jesus Christ, God became flesh – is also an essential part of the Christian Story, the Christian Gospel. It is essential, and significant, in its own right, and is not just a kind of ‘preliminary’ to the real story, the Easter Story. This, for me, is why learning theology at bible or theological college is so important? This is why it is important for those of us called to preach and teach in the Church continue to ‘do theology’ today even though we may have left college and are ‘in the ministry’? We are called ‘to proclaim the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) … not just emphasise the bits we think are important, whilst at the same time ignoring the bits we think irrelevant or haven’t go to grips with yet?
The Apostle John tells us, in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, that in the Person of Jesus Christ, ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14 NRSV). That, my friends, is truth worth getting to grips with … not as a ‘sound bite’ but as an aspect of ‘Incarnational Theology’ that requires thought, prayer, reflection, and response!
‘And is it true? And is it true.
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained glass windows’ hue
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?’
~ John Betjeman