The British bakery chain Greggs has apologised after an advert – which depicted a Nativity Scene in which the baby Jesus was replaced by a sausage roll in the manger – didn’t go down too well with its customers. The advert was intended to promote the bakery’s Advent calendar, Merry Greggmas, which offers coupons, gift cards and food vouchers every day in December. The stunt was meant to be taken in a light-hearted way, but numerous people were apparently offended – not primarily because the advert was considered blasphemous or offensive to Christians – but because this fresh take on the 2,000-year old scene could cause offence to Jews because Jesus was Jewish and eating pork is forbidden in the Jewish faith?! For a time, the media were full of the usual vitriol that such nonsense encourages. The best response – and humour is nearly always the best way to counter such things – was from a Christian who did point out that ‘Lord Jesus’ backwards does actually spell ‘susejd rol’!
Personally, I always get a bit ‘browned off’ with people – especially my fellow Christians – who get so ‘steamed up’ about this kind of thing. After all, what do we expect from people who have no real understanding of the Christian Faith? People who do not know who Jesus Christ is? People who do not understand why he came among us in human form 2,000 years ago – born in comparative obscurity, dying an ignoble death on some Roman gallows? People who have never had any real experience of coming to know God in Jesus Christ for themselves. People who have never had a life changing encounter with the Living God as a direct result of God’s Holy Spirit breaking supernaturally into their hearts and lives. Instead of ‘having a go’ at such people and condemning them – substituting a caustic message of ‘legalism’ and ‘morality’ for the ‘good news of great joy that is for all people … [for] a Saviour has been born to you … the Messiah, the Lord’ (Luke 2:10,11) – we should be praying for them, talking sensibly to them about who Jesus is and the claim he makes upon their lives, helping them to find their real purpose in life.
Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we start to prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of this Saviour, this Messiah, this Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the First Sunday in Advent we are reminded that in the birth of Jesus Christ we see The God Who Comes! The God who came 2,000 plus years ago, born in Bethlehem’s manger to eventually die 33 years later, on Calvary’s Cross, to set us free from the power of Satan, sin, and death and open up a new and living way back to God for all who will turn to God through him. As the Apostle Peter bluntly puts it: ‘Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness … for Christ suffered once and for all for sin – the righteous for the unrighteous – to bring us to God’ (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). He is also the God who will come again at some point in the future – not to be born in a manger and die on a cross again – but as ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’ (1 Timothy 6:15) accompanied by all the heavenly host, coming to ‘judge the living and the dead’ (2 Timothy 4:1).
Thankfully, Jesus Christ is also the God who still comes to us today to set us free from the power of Satan, sin and death, and bring us into a very real personal and powerful ‘conversion’ experience of knowing God for ourselves through his Spirit because (as the Apostle Paul tells us) ‘the Gospel is still the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1:16). John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, was almost in despair because, although an Anglican Clergyman at the time, he did not know God in a personal, vital way. He was assured by other Christian friends that a living relationship with God was possible – indeed necessary, if one was to be a true Christian – and he found himself crying out to God, ‘Lord, help my unbelief!’ He tells us in his Journal that on 24 May 1738 he opened his Bible at about five in the morning and came across these words: ‘There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). Wesley goes on to tell us that that same evening he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m., Wesley tells us, ‘while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death!’ It took Wesley some time to learn how to live the life of faith, to see that it is not Christ and good works, but Christ alone who saves, resulting in good works. Despite various ups and downs, he never lost the sense of God’s presence found in that experience in Aldersgate.
It is time to stop talking about vague belief in God being sufficient to make us a Christian. What we really need is the kind of dynamic encounter that the Bible speaks of, and John Wesley (and others like him down through the ages right up to the present) experienced. We need the God who comes, to come into our hearts and lives in dynamic, life-changing power.
Advent God, we worship you – the God who comes. You are not remote from the world you have made, but each day you come to us, blessing us with your presence. You came in creation itself, as your Spirit moved over the waters of chaos. You came in Jesus Christ, made flesh in our world of weakness and need. You came in power to raise him from death, a mighty promise for all creation. Each day you come, by your Spirit, gently and powerfully working in the lives of men and women. At the end of time you will come, in power and righteousness, in mercy and redeeming love. Grant us the grace to welcome your coming. Inflame our love to yearn for your presence. Enlarge our vision to recognise your coming day by day. We greet you, Advent God! Amen