This is the last day of our Advent musings, the last day of our preparations for Christmas. Very shortly we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord and holding on to the many promises He has yet to fulfil. Paul talks about the three great virtues of the Christian faith in 1 Cor 13: faith, hope and love. All three are desperately needed nowadays as always and all three can be found in Jesus Christ.
Alfred Delp wrote, ‘Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfilment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.’ We look ahead to Christmas, and from that fulfilment, we look ahead still further, to the return to Jesus Christ. When we started the period of Advent, Christmas seemed a long way off; now it is almost within touching distance. In the same way, there is much that lies ahead for us in God which seems a long way off, but the hope we have fuels us in the long wait. As Paul says, ‘hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ (Rom 8:24-25)
Picture the scene: Boxing Day evening and all the family festivities are over. There’s a pile of wrapping paper and cardboard boxes still to sort out; there’s a table full of foodie leftovers to put in the fridge. The children are finally in bed, worn out by excitement over the festivities, and parents are longing to join them! As they tidy things away, they find some precious toys, eagerly embraced yesterday, already broken or needing more batteries. Christmas seems so very ephemeral at times.
Life can seem very ephemeral also. As we age, we realise that the grass withers and the flowers fall (Is 40:8) and ‘the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath.’ (Ps 39:5) We are fast approaching the end of 2019; I can remember as a child looking ahead to the 21st century as something exotic and beyond my comprehension, and now we’re nearly twenty years into that century! One of the things we can be grateful for, however, is that God endures. His word endures forever (Is 40:8); His love endures forever (Ps 100:5); His renown endures forever (Ps 102:12); His righteousness endures forever (Ps 111:3); His faithfulness endures forever (Ps 117:2); His name endures forever (Ps 135:13). He Himself is without beginning or end: ‘from everlasting to everlasting You are God.’ (Ps 90:2) In God, we have Someone who won’t break, fail, run out of steam or simply disappear. In God, we have Someone who will be with us forever.
Garry spoke to us tonight about Christmas carols – rather aptly, since this was a carol service! The first recorded carols were sung about 129 A.D.; a Roman bishop wrote a song called ‘Angels’ Hymn’ which was sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Carols fell out of favour for some years (they were all in Latin, which lost its importance with the decline of Rome), but in 1223, St Francis of Assisi started Nativity plays to tell the Christmas story, complete with songs.
In the UK, the Puritans banned Christmas and disapproved of singing carols, so it was not really until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England, that Christmas carols became really popular.
The carols sung at our carol service have much to teach us about God’s Great Rescue Plan. ‘Angels From The Realms of Glory’ (written by Scottish poet James Montgomery) was first printed in the Sheffield Iris in 1816 and tells of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, telling the story of the shepherds, wise men, saints, sinners and finally all creation worshipping God’s Messiah. Some versions of the carol remind us we’re doomed (‘aye, we’re doomed’, as Private Frazer was wont to say) and desperately need God’s salvation.
‘Joy To The World’ was first published in 1719 by Isaac Watts, with the additional chorus written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash and Matt Gilder. In that carol, we read the line that Jesus came to make His blessings flow ‘far as the curse is found’. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ answers the question as to what the curse is, reminding us that Jesus Christ was born ‘to save our souls from Satan’s pow’r/ When we were gone astray.’ All creation was under sin’s curse and therefore our souls need saving – we have to send an SOS message to God!
‘Once In Royal David’s City’, originally written as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander and published in 1848 and set to music by the English organist Henry John Gauntlett, is always the first carol sung at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge and tells of the effect of His rescue of us: ‘And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love.’ Our SOS call receives an answer, for God has the remedy for our plight.
‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was written by Phillips Brooks in 1868 and talks of our rescue being effected by the ‘holy child’ who casts out sin and is then ‘born in us.’ ‘Our Lord Emmanuel’ is God with us and lays down His life for us. ‘Our eyes at last shall see Him’ testifies to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus and reminds us we no longer need to be doomed; we can experience His mercy and grace.
Our last two carols, ‘Glory In The Highest’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, are centuries apart historically (the former was written in 2006 by Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves and Matt Redman, whilst the latter was originally a Latin carol made popular in the 17th century), but both call us to worship God for all He has done for us. We are called to adore Him and sing ‘glory in the highest’ because of all Jesus has done for us in delivering us from sin and giving us eternal life. We truly have a Rescuer to praise and a gospel of good news to share! (‘Rescuer’, Rend Collective)
Tonight saw the return of Mickey, teaching us why the birth of Jesus was so special. We have had 3 babies born this year to church members and each of their births was so very special, but Jesus’ birth is so important because He is the rescuer and deliverer promised by God through the ages, come to save His people from their sins.
‘Rescue from sin’ can be a very abstract concept, however – difficult for us to grasp. So our children dressed up as fire fighters and nurses and doctors so that we could think about how our emergency services work so hard to rescue us when we are in danger. In this case, Mickey was in danger from a fire!
We were relieved to see Mickey rescued and safe and sound and understood more about the importance of having rescuers when we’re in danger.
We had one very happy little girl tonight on the birthday box! I doubt she will ever find this ritual quite as exciting as she did tonight. It’s so lovely to see her enthusiasm.
As well as buns and mince pies, we also enjoyed her birthday cake after the service. Our thanks to Gemma for her skill in decorating cakes.
Stephen spoke this morning on the gift of giving, looking at the shepherds and wise men who brought their gifts and worship to the baby Jesus (Luke 2:15-20, Matt 1:1-2). We often think about giving at Christmas because of these gifts, but really God was the ultimate Giver in giving us Jesus. Paul reminds us that giving should be done generously and not grudgingly, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7) and in giving us Jesus (that ‘indescribable gift‘), we can then have access to all that Jesus gives (hope, love, security, peace, new life, eternal life and so on.) Jesus is effectively God’s total package!
James reminds us that God is a generous giver (see James 1:2-17) and we know that whatever we need, God can and will supply. All His gifts are highly personalised! At Christmas, we think a lot about giving (and receiving), but the shepherds and wise men did not come expecting anything in return. We too need to learn to give as generously and selflessly as they did, for Jesus is God’s ongoing gift – the gift that keeps on giving.