It is less than 30 days to Christmas … are you ready? We certainly are not! We have only managed to buy a few presents so far. We still have to get a lot more, and some suitable wrapping paper. We still have to buy our Christmas cards, write our annual Christmas Letter to family and friends, and post them all. We still have to put the Christmas decorations up, and order all the food for the celebration … and so much more besides?
‘Christmas’ or ‘Christ’s Mass’ is, of course, the annual religious and cultural festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ celebrated generally on the 25 December each year by billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian Liturgical Year, it closes the Advent Season and initiates the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ that end with ‘Twelfth Night’ when traditionally we remove all the decorations. Christmas is a civil holiday in many of the world’s nations and is celebrated culturally by an increasing number of non-Christians.
‘Advent’ is that season in the Church Calendar when, traditionally, the Church prepares its people for the arrival of Christmas, the coming of Jesus to earth when he was born as a baby at Bethlehem around 2,000 years ago. ‘Advent’ is a term from the Latin word adventus meaning ‘arrival’. Advent begins on the Sunday nearest to the 30 November and concludes at midnight on Christmas Eve when we celebrate the birth of Christ as we move into Christmas Day itself.
I am a great believer in the Church following – at least to some degree – the pattern laid down in the Lectionary. The Lectionary is a collection of Scripture Readings appointed for Christian Worship on any given day or occasion during the Christian Year that have been developed over the centuries. Typically, the Lectionary will go through the Scriptures in a logical pattern (normally following a three-year cycle) and include selections which were chosen for their appropriateness to particular occasions. Within Christianity, the use of pre-assigned, scheduled readings from the Scriptures can be traced back to the early church, and the concept seems to have been inherited from Judaism (where a similar concept for reading through the Law and the Prophets on a regular basis was followed). Thus, for example, we find Jesus himself reading from, and then commenting on, the set passage for the day in question from Isaiah 61 in the Synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21).
Following the pattern laid down in the Lectionary is, of course, more popular amongst Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Methodists than amongst Baptists or Pentecostals or Independent Churches. For many ‘Bible Believing Churches’ the idea of following a set of pre-determined Bible Readings rather than being ‘led by the Spirit’ in the choice of Bible Readings and ‘sermon topics’ is anathema. The actual reality, however, is that in the course of any given year those churches that follow the Lectionary actually read far more of the Bible than those who profess to be ‘Bible Believing’ churches? They also cover a much broader range of subjects and doctrine in the process, and have a much better over-all understanding of the Christian Faith. This can easily be proved statistically. If you belong to a Bible Believing church that does not follow the Lectionary, simply make a list of the various passages from the Bible that have been read publically Sunday by Sunday in your church in the course of any one year and then compare that list with the Biblical passages covered by the Lectionary during the same period.
Even if you do not want to follow the specific passages laid down in the Lectionary ‘religiously’ I would still want to argue a case for following the ‘Christian Year’ – building the worship and teaching programme of the local church around the various significant Seasons and Festivals of the Christian Year. The Christian Year follows the life of Jesus. It begins with Advent Sunday (which, in reality, is the Christian Church’s ‘New Year’s Day’). It could be argued that the most important day of the Christian Year is Easter Sunday – the day on which Jesus came back to life – but before that Festival, and indeed after it, there are other special Seasons and Festivals that in their own way are equally important. Advent Season prepares the way for Christmas (when we think seriously about the Incarnation itself), and Christmas leads us into the Season of Epiphany (when we consider the remarkable way in which Jesus made himself known to ordinary people like us). Epiphany is followed by Lent – a Season that enables us to prepare ourselves for Easter and incorporates significant days such as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday prior to the Season of Easter itself in which we can explore the wonderful truth that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and all that that implies. Easter Season takes us into the Festival of Pentecost – which marks that first great outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church – and the Season of Pentecost enables us to think seriously about the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit and his ability to transform individual lives and the Church as a whole. Along the way we are able to pause and consider other significant matters such as Ascension and Trinity Sunday … and so eventually we return towards the end of the Church Year once again to Advent.
Speaking of Advent, brings us back to the subject covered in this first Advent blog in 2014. Each of the four Sundays in Advent has a different theme that reflects upon the fact that Jesus came into the world in Palestine 2000 or so years ago. Traditionally, the First Sunday in Advent echoes the theme of ‘The God Who Comes’ – the God who came to us in the Person of Jesus Christ when he was born in Bethlehem’s manger, the God who comes to us today in the Person of Jesus when we truly believe on him and commit our lives to him, and the God who will come again to judge the living and the dead when Jesus fulfils his promise to one day to return again in all his glory. Thus, although during Advent, Christians across the world prepare for the celebration of the arrival of the Lord into the world through the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ, Advent is also a time to look forward to when Jesus will come a second time, and it is this particular slant this is often emphasised on the First Sunday in Advent. Thus the Lectionary Gospel Reading this year is taken from the Gospel of Mark and centres in on Jesus’ teaching concerning his Return at the End of the Age, and the ‘signs of the times’ that will prepare us for this: ‘At that time, after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out his angels to gather his chosen ones from all over the world – from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven. Now learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches bud and its leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that his return is very near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert! The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return – in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!’ (Mark 13:24-37).
Someone has calculated that whereas the Old Testament contains over 350 prophecies concerning the First Coming of Christ (everyone of which has been fulfilled with the birth of Jesus), the Bible as a whole contains five times as many prophecies (over 1,500) concerning the Second Coming of Christ! These, of course, are yet to be fulfilled, but the ‘signs’ are there for all to see, and we all need to be ready! It is clear that when Jesus Returns it will not be as a baby born in a manger in order to eventually die on a Cross all over again. As our Bible Reading from the Gospel of Mark implies, when Jesus Returns at the End of the Age it will be as King of kings, and Lord of lords, with all his angelic train, coming to usher in the Day of Judgment, to judge the living and the dead, to right all wrongs, and to take all those who have truly committed their hearts and lives to him – and demonstrated this by living lives dedicated to the glory of God and the good of others – to be with him in Glory. His First Coming made this possible for us, and his Second Coming will make it a reality for us!
Back in the late 1970s I was the Pastor of a Pentecostal Church in the Welsh Valleys. Historically this particular church was nicknamed by the locals as the ‘Second Comers’ because of their emphasis on the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ, particularly in their early days. The founding Pastor of the church, Leonard Jenkins was an extraordinary man, and there are many fascinating tales about him and his ministry. Apparently one Sunday he was preaching on the Second Coming of Christ, and his text was taken from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world – from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven’ (Matthew 24:30,31). Each point in his sermon concluded with the words: ‘And the trumpet will sound … and the Lord will return … are you ready?’ He worked the congregation up to a certain pitch with an eloquence that only a Welsh preacher possesses … and he finished his sermon poignantly and powerfully with the (by now) oft repeated words: ‘And the trumpet will sound … and the Lord will return … are you ready?’ Unknown to the congregation, Leonard had hidden away his grandson (who was learning to play the trumpet at school) at the back of the gallery of the church. On cue, when Leonard had uttered his final words of the sermon: ‘And the trumpet will sound … and the Lord will return … are you ready?’ his grandson blew a great blast on his trumpet! Apparently the response was amazing. Half the congregation jumped up on the pews, looking to Heaven, with arms outstretched, crying out, ‘We are ready, Lord! We are ready!’ … and the other half of the congregation were trying to hide under the pews?
Christmas IS coming … whether we like it or not! Christ came the first time 2,000 years ago in order to make a way back to God for lost, sinful people like us. The very term ‘Christ-mass’ dates back to the Middle Ages and is indicative of the Eucharist or Communion Service with which the Church celebrated the birth of Christ at midnight as Christmas Eve moved into Christmas Day, in an act of recollection of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and an opportunity to re-dedicate our lives to God in response to that First Coming of Christ. At the same time it is also a looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ. That time when Jesus will return, not this time to be born in a manger or die on a cross, but (as we have already noted) coming as King of kings and Lord of lords, to judge the living and the dead, and take those that love him home to be with him in Glory! My friends, Christ(mas) IS coming … are you ready?’