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CHRISTMAS PUZZLE (First Sunday in Advent 2021)

Like many of you we will be getting together with members of our family over Christmas. It is always good to meet up in this way, especially if you are not in the habit of meeting regularly during the course of the year. But if you are together for any length of time – let’s be honest about it – things can get a bit fraught?! After all there is only so much eating and drinking, thanking everyone else for your Christmas presents, watching TV programmes, going for long walks that end up in a pub, etc., etc. that one can do over Christmas and New Year. The solution we have found is to have a large Christmas jigsaw puzzle set up somewhere – a card table in the corner of a room – that various members of the house party can dip into whenever they feel the need to escape. The joy of completing the edging, sorting out the pieces into various coloured piles, finding that the most unlikely piece actually fits the space you never thought it would, the mad hunt under the table or round the room for the final missing piece (why didn’t we buy a new puzzle and not one from the charity shop?) … and the ecstasy of finding it and finally completing the Christmas puzzle!

Christmas itself is a puzzle to many people? A recent survey conducted in Oxford Street in London revealed that astoundingly the majority of people interviewed remained clueless about Christmas. For many it was simply about children, family, holiday, Santa, reindeers, snow, awful, piped Christmas music in stores, and so on. Even those who recalled that perhaps it had something to do Jesus Christ (the clue is in the name by the way – ‘Christ-mas’) didn’t associate it with Jesus’ birth. One interviewee thought it was to do with ‘Jesus’ death … or something … isn’t it!?’

In fairness it is confusing to many today. We live in a day when the majority of people never go to church, read the Bible, listen to a sermon (even a street preacher), or want to talk about such things. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey we are all encouraged to believe in whatever we like – ‘your truth’ – and wallow in it (rather like sitting in warm bath, perhaps ignoring the fact that the water is gradually getting colder by the minute). There is a story of a young boy looking at a manger scene which his schoolteacher had set up in the corner of the classroom. The boy had a puzzled look on his face as he surveyed the scene. When his teacher asked him what it was that was puzzling him the boy replied: ‘What I want to know is … where does God fit in?’ Good question. Where does God fit in at Christmas?

Well … right at the centre of the Christmas story actually. Traditionally, the theme of the First Sunday in Advent (that four week period before Christmas Day itself when the Church prepares its people for the birth of Jesus Christ) is ‘The God Who Comes’. When Jesus was born in that manger in Bethlehem 2,000 plus years ago, he was given two names: “Immanuel … which means ‘God with us’” and “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21,23). As amazing as it may seem this tiny baby was none other than God himself, come amongst us in human form. One who would grow up to teach us by word and example the way God wants us all to live. One who would deliberately sacrifice his own life on Calvary’s cross in order to redeem us from the power of satan, sin, death and an empty or wasted way of life, and open up a new and living way back to God for all (in whatever age or generation) who will turn to him. 

This was the experience of the famous Oxbridge don and writer C S Lewis (1898-1963) author of the Narnia stories who, after a long struggle, finally found his way to God. He tells us that once, while riding on a bus in Oxford, he had the sense that he was ‘holding something at bay, or shutting something out’. He could either open the door or let it stay shut, but to open the door ‘meant the incalculable.’ He finally submitted himself to God, the most ‘dejected and reluctant convert’ in all England in 1929, but it was not until 1931 that he fully surrendered himself to Christ. Why such a struggle to turn to God in Christ? Lewis’s first experience at Oxford was highly symbolic. When he exited the Oxford railway station for the first time, he was loaded down with luggage. Mistakenly, he started walking down the street in the wrong direction. As he kept walking, he grew disappointed at the rather plain houses and shops he found. Only when he reached the edge of town did he turn around to see the beautiful spires and towers that constitute Oxford. In telling this story, Lewis says, ‘This little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.’ From boyhood, he tells us, he had been looking in the wrong direction … until one day he stopped, turned round, and started looking in the right direction. His direction changed from ‘self-scrutiny’ to ‘self-forgetfulness’. He rejected the ‘unsmiling concentration on the self’ and was ‘taken out of myself’ to love God and others. As David Downing (one of Lewis’ biographers) says: ‘The real story of Lewis’s conversion … is not about dramatic changes in a man’s career but about dramatic changes in the man [himself]!’

Jim Binney

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