Very early one Christmas morning a small boy tiptoed downstairs. All night he had been dreaming of the gorgeously decorated Christmas tree groaning under the weight of presents. Imagine his shocked amazement at seeing none these things – just the same old furniture arranged in the same drab way. Yet there was a difference, an uncanny difference. It was the atmosphere – like fog, heavy, oppressive. The boy rushed out into the dark street. The same gloomy atmosphere greeted him. No smiles on the faces of passers-by, no one calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ to him – just people plodding along wearily, aimlessly. He looked at the shop windows. The bright lights and decorations of Christmas Eve had disappeared – nothing in shops now but food, clothing, implements, the essentials of living. He came to the church – at least to the vacant plot of ground where the church had once stood. No church now! No school either! Instead a prison – the biggest, grimmest prison he had ever seen. ‘What’s happened to everything?’ the boy cried out, ‘What’s wrong?’ Befuddled, the boy turned and started back for home. Suddenly he stumbled over something lying in snow. It was a man, blue with cold, lying there like a bundle rags. Urgently the boy began running to the nearby hospital for help … but even as he ran he realised that no hospital would be there! No hospital, no church, no school, no lighted shop windows, no Christmas tree, no cheeriness, no charity, no hope, no nothing! Sick at heart he trudged home, flung himself on a chair, and reached for the Bible to read the story now become a mockery. He thumbed through the Old Testament suddenly remembering that the Gospel story was in the New Testament. But this Bible ended with the Prophecy of Malachi?! After that he found nothing but blank pages – nothing but one verse of Scripture printed in a tiny footnote – the words of Jesus … ‘If I had not come!’
Once upon a time our nation was a Christian nation built and established on Christ-centred, Biblical principles, which were the foundations of much of our belief and behaviour, our virtues, values, and ethics. Seventy plus years ago (when I was a small child) much of this had degenerated from genuine belief and commitment to Jesus Christ to simply a ‘Christian ethic’ – the lingering influence of ‘Christendom’ if you like – but at least we had some kind of foundation as a nation and as individuals. My late father (who died in 1968) never professed to be Christian (he was ex-army having fought through WWI and then spending the 10 years in India) but even he had some kind of value system based on Christian principles that guided him (and many others of his generation) in life. In our wisdom, however, successive governments, institutions, society, etc., etc., down through the years, have eroded this (and to be honest the Church hasn’t helped to protect us as a nation from this erosion) so that today little, even of the so-called ‘Christian ethic’, remains. We have neglected and rejected Christian values and principles, and replaced them with … well, with nothing! And what is true of the UK is also true elsewhere in our world. What the world needs – and what the Covid-19 chaos is making abundantly clear today – is a stable influence!
Thankfully, Jesus Christ did come! This ‘coming’ we celebrate every Christmas! The difference his coming has made is incalculable! So much of value and worth that we enjoy today stems from that coming – not least in realms of education and medical care!?
This should not surprise us because of the special nature of the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas! Immediately prior to his birth an angelic messenger told Joseph that the son Mary was to bear would be known by two particular names: ‘Immanuel’ meaning ‘God with us’ and ‘Jesus’ because ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21,23)!
When we look at that tiny baby lying in Bethlehem’s manger we need to recognise that this is no ordinary child but none other than God himself come among in human form! If we want to know what God is like all we need to do is look at Jesus! Seeing him not just as a tiny baby, but as a grown man who went about doing good, demonstrating through life and word what God was like and what he wants from each one of us!
And when we look at that tiny baby we need also to recognise that Jesus grew up not just to teach us what God was like, or what God requires of us, but to give his life on Calvary’s cross to remove the barrier of sin that separates us from God and open a new a living way back to God for all who will genuinely believe in him!
These words of Jesus: ‘If I had not come’ (John 15:22) were spoken to his disciples after the ‘Parable of the Vine and the Branches’ where Jesus used an everyday scene to get across the importance of us having living relationship with God – a living relationship made possible through his Incarnation and Passion. Without a living relationship with God we are like a branch cut off from the vine – incapable of fulfilling our God-given purpose in life, living a fruitful life, or making a difference in this broken, hurting, and needy world!
Having a living relationship with God, however, makes all the difference! We ‘know’ God in a personal way, we find our God-given purpose in life, and we can now make a difference right here, right now!
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (a convert from Judaism who became the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris from 1981 until his retirement in 2005) tells how a group of boys in Orleans, France, back in 1939 wanted a bit of fun, and so they dared each other to go inside the church and confess a made-up list of terrible sins to the priest in the confessional. One of them, Lustiger says, was a Jewish boy named Aaron, who took up the challenge. The priest, who was both wise and holy, immediately knew what the boy was up to, challenged him to go up the altar, stand before the large image of Jesus crucified, and say three times, ‘Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn.’ Lustiger tells us that Aaron went up the altar and shouted: ‘Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn!’ ‘Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a damn! he shouted (even louder) a second time. And then, for a third time, he began: ‘Jesus, I know you died for me. But I don’t give a …’ Lustiger tells us that Aaron could not go on. He fell to his knees, committed his life to Christ right there and then. The following year Aaron was baptized and took the name ‘Jean-Marie’. The rest, as they say, is history.
‘History’ they also say, rightly understood, is ‘His Story’ – the story of Jesus Christ, the difference his coming has made, and around which the rest of history revolves. What, I wonder, will history have to say about this time in which we are living? Will it be a time in which we stop trying to resolve the world’s problems with our own ideas, plans, and schemes? Will it be a time when we turn back to God, to Christ, and his ways? A time when we embrace that stable influence?