We are here today not playing first century Church where the apostles and disciples gathered around Mary each December to hear again the story of Jesus’ birth. Back then if there was going to be talk about Jesus it would be about his ministry, his death, and most importantly of all, his resurrection. That’s what caught people’s attention – focused the mind so to speak – the defeat of death – and so people were very much focused on Jesus in the first century Church – just as people are today. Following Jesus is all about our behaviour and lifestyle – how we speak, how we act, how we wrestle with our thoughts and emotions – and we use Jesus as template, guide, but also source of life because death has been defeated. If Jesus’ grave isn’t empty you are really wasting your time here!
But we are curious and contextual and we want to understand and so the first century Church eventually does hear about the ‘early Jesus’. Two Gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – make mention of Jesus’ birth – fragments, minimal details, in fact very little is said – as if they wanted to get onto more important things – but they do communicate one clear message – that Jesus’ birth was not as one would expect! By the end of the second century and into the third century more theories are around – the date is starting to firm – firstly as a theory in support of the crucifixion and resurrection – but later as a commemoration of God stepping into our world – and not in the way that all the other gods of other religions had done so. By the fourth century – and particularly after Christianity had been legalised and become mainstream almost in Roman society – Jesus’ birth commemorations were largely established – beginning and ending between Dec 25th and Jan 6th – and there were now liturgies and readings and prayers. Welcome to Christmas which has been observed ever since and continues to gather ideas and traditions over the centuries. But here’s a little mystery – that as far back as we can go – these verses from Paul’s letter to Titus have been used at Christmas – today usually around midnight.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 ESV)
The grace of God has appeared so that people can be God’s people and live. And the emphasis in the first century as it is or should be today is that this living is now. If salvation and heaven is an accomplished fact then we can, in one sense, forget about it – it is secure – and now we can concentrate on living today and tomorrow and all that goes with it. And that’s the big question really – not how do we live but how should we live?
Planet Earth is still figuring out the answer which seems to me to be pendulum like – live according to the body verses live according to the mind; pleasure and experience over against virtue and duty; pro the body – eat, drink, and be merry in contrast to fight the body – subdue, resist the flesh; live according to laws imposed on us over against I am my own law and the world bends to my will; gluttony or asceticism; libertine or puritan; rational or spiritual. Christmas is a happy family time … or not for some families; full – very full – tummies and homelessness can live in the same town at Christmas. I’ve been visiting the police for the past few days and they will have quite a different view of Christmas – one which each of you here will not want to have! But it is still labelled or regarded as part of Christmas!
This is all not new. People have lived with such attitudes – making the best of things as they can – all the time – oscillating between selfishness, philosophies, religions, and the culture of the day. What the first Christians discovered was that the pendulum just makes you dizzy; that life is easy to manipulate and we can all justify bad behaviour or what we want to do and death still shuts us up and leaves us with questions. What the first Christians discovered was that with Jesus one has an anchor, a focus, security, and life changes – because we are not trying to be someone else or get what we want on our terms – but rather we discover that we are loved by God. We may hear that often or for the first time – let it sink in – as you think about a baby born for you – this Jesus. You are loved. You – physical you, healthy or unhealthy you, hormonal you, young you, old you, selfish you, nice you, ugly you, pretty you, self justifying you, scared you, noble you – you – your mind, your body, your soul – you are loved by God. Christmas is the message that Jesus is Immanuel – God with us – as one of us – in the likeness of sinful flesh – our flesh – so that we can live – no longer pushed and pulled by this world and by our desires for control – but upright because we know who we are – we have meaning and purpose – and it is in Christ. Christmas is the story of God becoming one of us so that we can actually live – with hope and certainty – our lives, not someone else’s – a life lived to the full as we follow this Jesus who has given himself for us – and still does as he serves us through his words, water, bread and wine. Christmas is the story of God’s love for you – yes, you!
- Titus 2:11 - 14