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THE MESSAGE OF THE ANGELS (Advent Narrative 4)


Do you have a Christmas tree up somewhere in your house at Christmas? Of course, you do! But … what do you have on the top of your Christmas tree?  Is it a star, or an angel, or a fairy?  This is a very important question?  As a child, we always had a Christmas tree at Christmas time. And on the top of our tree we always had a fairy. It was definitely a fairy and not an angel … angels might have wings but (as far as I know) but they don’t carry magic wands?   Being an inquisitive child, I always wanted to know how it was that we had a fairy on the top of our Christmas tree … after all ‘Christmas’ wasn’t a ‘fairy tale’ was it … but I was never given a satisfactory answer … until one day someone told me this story.

It was Christmas Eve and everything was going wrong for Santa.  To begin with he stubs his toe on the door frame as he goes into his workshop to pack all the presents he was due to deliver that night. He then runs out of wrapping paper for the gifts and is forced into using old newspaper.  Then he discovers that there is no sellotape and ends up squashing the badly wrapped gifts into his sack.  Tired and fed up, he throws his sack over his shoulder and limps out to his sleigh.  Putting his foot on the running board he hears a loud and his foot goes through wood. The sack falls off his shoulder and splits open as it hits the ground, throwing the now unwrapping presents out into the snow.  ‘It can’t get any worse than this, can it?’ he mumbles to himself.

Looking up, he notices that his reindeer have all gone.  When he looks for them he discovers that one is drunk, another is pregnant and the rest have all ‘done a runner’ as they say. ‘Oh no!’ he complains ‘Everything is going from bad to worse.  I need a drink.’  Heading back into the house Santa goes to his whisky cupboard … only to find it empty.  He hears giggling from the room next door, and opening the door sees all the Elves lying on their backs giggling, stoned out of their minds on Santa’s whisky.  ‘This is terrible!’ he says, ‘What else can go wrong now?’

At this point Mrs Santa walks in and says to him, ‘Oh, Santa, I forgot to tell you my mother is coming for Christmas.’  Santa looks up in despair, only to hear her add, ‘And she’s staying for six weeks!’  Just before Santa explodes in frustration and rage, there is a faint knock at the door.  He opens it, looks down and sees a beautiful little Fairy standing on the doorstep holding a Christmas tree.  ‘Hello’ she says brightly, ‘Happy Christmas, Santa. Isn’t it a wonderful day?  Isn’t it good to be alive? I have a Christmas tree for you. Where do you want me to stick it?’

And that is the story of how the Fairy came to be stuffed on the top of the Christmas tree!

In some versions of this joke, it is an angel the get stuffed rather than a fairy.  Although how you can get confused between an angel and a fairy I don’t know?

We have a star on top of our Christmas tree … seems somehow appropriate with its message of following that which leads us to Jesus. My mother-in-law has an angel on top of her tree … which is also appropriate because of the numerous angelic messages given to various people in various narratives surrounding the birth of Jesus. Let me say something briefly about just two of these:

The Gospel Writer Matthew tells us that when Joseph (Mary’s fiancé) understandably had doubts about Mary giving birth to someone else’s child (God is the Father, etc., etc.), and thought seriously about breaking things off with her, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and confirmed that God was indeed the Father of the child Mary was expecting (Matthew 1:18-20). Furthermore, the angel explained that the child she was to bear would be special … very special indeed. This ‘special-ness’ would be reflected in the two names he would bear!

Firstly, he would be called ‘Immanuel’ which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23)! This child was no ordinary child but none other than ‘God Incarnate’ – God come among us in human form! Another New Testament Writer – someone called ‘The Writer to the Hebrews’ (that is, not to God’s Old Testament people, but Jewish believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD) – because we don’t know his or her actual identity, tells us that God had repeatedly attempted to communicate with us over the generations ‘many times and in many ways’ (Hebrews 1:1). In the end, he gave up on sending us various prophets and came himself in the Person of his one and only ‘Son’ (Hebrews 1:2). That ‘Son’ was none other than Jesus Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem’s manger. This was essentially the message of the angel to Joseph. When you look at this bay lying there in the hay, don’t see just an ordinary baby, see One who none other than God come among us in human form, see God’s fullest and final revelation to us of himself. This angelic message was not only for Joseph … it is for all of us. If we want to know what God is like … look at Jesus! Not just at a baby in a manger, weak and helpless … but as Someone who grew up to become a man … Someone who taught us through his life and words what God is really like and what God wants from each one of us!

Secondly, this child would be called ‘Jesus’ because ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21)! There is a painting by the American artist Bjorn Thorkelson which shows Jesus in the manger … but on the rear wall of the stable is an ominous shadow … the shadow of the cross!  It is important for us to see the direct link between the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem’s manger … and his death 33 years later, on Calvary’s cross! As yet another New Testament writer, Peter, tells us: ‘(Jesus) personally bore all our sins in his body on the cross so that we can die to sin and live to do what is right … (he) suffered for our sins once and for all time … for sinners in order to bring us safely home to God’ (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). According to one of the major Old Testament Prophets, Isaiah, ‘our sins have cut us off from God’ (Isaiah 59:2) … which is why the vast majority of us have no real personal experience of God. God seems ‘miles away from us’ … out there, up there, distant from us! According to my mother-in-law (the font of all wisdom) ‘Sin is either committing adultery or stealing from a supermarket! And … since she has never done either … she is therefore not a sinner?!’ According to the Bible, however, ‘sin’ simply means ‘missing the mark’ or ‘failing to live up to the standard God expects of us’ if you like. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that we have ‘all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard’ (Romans 3:23). Deep down we all know this. We know that we fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves leave alone God’s standards. The consequences of this are calamitous for us. We journey through this life with ‘no invisible means of support’ (as someone once succinctly put it) and face life beyond the grave separated from the Living God! Thankfully, God’s advent amongst us in the Person of Jesus has changed all that for those who truly believe on him. Somehow or other (in a way beyond our comprehension), through his death on Calvary, Jesus removed the barrier of sin and opened a new and living way to God, for all who truly believe! As the angel told Joseph: “This child will be called ‘Jesus because ‘he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:21)!

Joseph, however, was not the only one to receive an angelic visit. Another Gospel Writer, Luke, tells us that when Jesus was born a whole host of angels appeared to shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields outside Bethlehem. Although they were naturally initially terrified by this they were calmed one of the angels who told them: ‘Don’t be afraid … we bring you good news that will release great joy into the hearts of people everywhere … the Saviour – yes, the promised Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem’ (Luke 2:10,11). These shepherds were so excited by this ‘good news’ – good news they had longed to hear – that they left their flocks in the fields, rushed off to Bethlehem to find the Child Messiah, worshipped him there, and then went and shared the ‘good news’ with all and sundry! And we too can rejoice because this ‘good news’ is for us too. As the angel told the shepherds, it is ‘good news … for people everywhere’!

Mark was out on the ‘razzle dazzle’ with his mates on Christmas Eve. When the church bells began to ring, calling people to the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, someone suggested that it would be ‘a right laugh’ to all go to church. Slightly ‘the worse for wear’ they found some seats in the packed church just in time for the start of the Service. Mark knew a little about what Christians believed … his grandmother had tried to explain things to him when she had been alive … but even he was quite taken aback when an ‘angel’ got up at the front to lead worship!? Well, at least it looked like an angel … short and rotund, dressed in a long white dress, and very jolly. It took Mark a little while to realise that, in fact, this wasn’t an angel but the Vicar!? Mark and his pals joined in the carols and responses with loud, boisterous voices … much to the chagrin of some of the ‘regulars’ … and laughed far too loud at the Vicar’s amusing anecdotes in his short sermon. When the time came for Communion, the Vicar invited members of the congregation to come up to the altar rail to either receive the bread and wine or ask for a blessing. Suddenly, to his own astonishment, and the laughter of his friends (who thought it was a joke), Mark found himself on his feet and making his way to the altar rail. Mark knelt and, refusing the bread and wine, asked for a blessing. The Vicar laid his hand on Mark’s head and prayed God’s blessing on ‘this fine young man with the potential to do great things for God’ … and as he did so … something happened. Something deep inside of him – a kind of ‘inner light’, that drove away the darkness from his soul. An awareness that the Christmas Message was true, that Jesus Christ was not dead but was alive and right there with him … and that Mark himself could never, ever be the same again!

Jim Binney

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