The Christmas Present

Sermon given at l’Eglise Presbyterienne du Rwanda on 25th December 2009

My wife and I have been in Rwanda for four months now and we are still finding this a strange place, especially now that we have come to Christmas and the temperature outside is in the thirties. At home, our friends are walking through white snow and freezing temperatures as they celebrate Christmas. Which is a reminder to us that the birth of Jesus is being celebrated today all over the world. On this same day, millions, perhaps billions of people are all celebrating the same thing.

Unfortunately, what many of these people are celebrating isn’t exactly the same thing as we are celebrating here in this church today. Especially in the west, Christmas has been transformed into a commercial mega-festival, where Santa Clause rather than Jesus is the centre of attention. But for all the commercialism across the planet, we will see that Christ is more than just international. He is eternal, which is something more than Santa Clause will ever be. But why celebrate Jesus birth at all? Why today anyway? and just what is it that we are celebrating?

That might sound like a simple question but there is perhaps more to the answer than most of us spend time thinking about. For me, Christmas is a time for thinking. Talk to my wife and she will tell you I spend a lot of time in quiet corners thinking – especially at Christmas. This is a time for reflecting on the year that has past and the year that is to come. It is a time for thinking about what we have done, the places we have been, the people we have met. And Christ has a place in all of those thoughts.

So why today, the 25th December? I doubt anybody knows, but there is a tradition in Europe that it is a celebration of the winter solstice, the time of the year where in that part of the world, the days start getting longer again and we can start to look forward to the warmth of spring. In this part of the world it must be hard to appreciate how bleak and dismal the middle of winter becomes. There is probably more of a grain of truth in this idea and if Jesus is not about renewal and something to look forward to then I don’t know what is. But while that might be one reason for remembering Jesus there must surely be more to it than that.

And what are we celebrating? The birth of a special child? Well, yes but this doesn’t really explain it all either. There was something more than special about this child and I’m going to suggest to you that this special child isn’t just the reason why we celebrate Christmas and give each other gifts. He is the gift. More to the point, he is your gift. He wasn’t only born for mankind but he was born for you. Now, that ought to be a reason for celebration.

One of the most inspiring aspects of God’s love for me is that we as individuals have been part of his plan since the very beginning, and so we have no reason to think we will not be part of his plans for ever more. Look at 2 Timothy 1:8-9

8 Therefore don’t be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but endure hardship for the gospel according to the power of God,
9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal,

Paul’s letter to Titus tells us the same thing:

1 Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s chosen ones, and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness,
2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who can’t lie, promised before eternal times;

So Christmas should be a time of thanks, a time of reflection, and a time of renewing our relationship with Christ. Especially, it is a time for reflecting on what he did and is doing today, for us.

So one night in 4bc, we don’t know which night, this special child was born. And that surely understates the greatness that he brought to earth. This after all was the child that the Jews had been waiting for for centuries. The passage from Isaiah 9:6 is poetry itself:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Remember that this was written 700 years before Christ’s birth. One aspect of the Bible that separates it from other books is the span of history. Even in 700bc it was foretold that God himself would come to earth. “Wonderful”, “Counsellor”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. These aren’t the titles given to just any special child. This was arguably the single most significant event in history either before or since. The Christmas story told by Luke 1:32 brings this out:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.

So this child that we are celebrating was destined for great things. In fact he was destined for greater things than any ordinary man could possibly accomplish. Only this child could achieve what he came to us to do. If we notice nothing else about the Nativity story we should notice that Christ, when he was born to Mary, a human child born to a human mother, was God. We will never really understand why we celebrate Christmas if we don’t grasp this. That child was God. He is God now, today.

Being God, Christ doesn’t just appear in the Bible at the beginning of the New Testament like some actor waiting patiently for his time on stage. John 1:1 tells us he was on the stage since the opening scene:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Perhaps the Jewish audience hadn’t recognised him there at the beginning, but he was there nevertheless.

And look at Revelation 21:6 –

It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes, I will give him these things. I will be his God, and he will be my son.

He was there at the beginning and he will be there at the end to take us to eternity.

So this child, born to Mary was more than just a bit special. He has been with us since time began, even before time itself began, and he will be with us for evermore. It isn’t even true to say he will be with us until the end. Eternity means there will be no end.

And isn’t the birth of someone who brought with him the promise of eternity worth celebrating?  As we give gifts to each other at Christmas isn’t his the greatest gift that someone could possibly give?

But I suspect that we don’t always appreciate the gift for what it is. When I was young we had an aunt that lived on an island off the north of Scotland. As children we had never met her but every Christmas she would send us a present, and every year it was the same present – a pair of socks. The women do a lot of knitting in Shetland. She was kind. She had never met us and assumed that we would really appreciate a pair of socks. Now, if you lived on a wind-swept island in the North Atlantic, especially at this time of year, you would appreciate a pair of socks. But as young children we could only get so excited about socks.

Perhaps it is them same with the gift of eternity. Perhaps we don’t really appreciate what it is that we have been given. So, what is this eternity? In John 14:6, Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Christ himself is eternal and so this gift is something supernatural. It isn’t something we can create here for ourselves on earth. Supernatural – the word literally means ‘above nature’ is hard enough for us to grasp. We need to take that leap of faith that lets us believe that there is more to the world than what we can see and hear and touch. If physicists can believe in quantum particles that change their state when an entangled particle in another laboratory changes, why can’t we believe in Jesus’ promise of eternity?

A second thing about eternity that we should notice is that it comes to us through the word of Christ. In John 6:68 Peter says to Jesus, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. We have already mentioned John 1:1. Jesus was the word. He taught his disciples, and that includes us by the way, to go out and teach his word. So the gift of eternity is given through the word.

And when we hear the gospel, God draws people to Christ. In John 6:44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws him.” But John 3:20 describes how by nature we hate the light of life.

For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works would be exposed.

Our natural tendency is to enjoy the worldly things about us and perhaps we don’t always recognise Christ for who he is.

Many people acknowledge Jesus. They might accept that he is God even. But God’s drawing us leads us to start understanding the true nature of who Jesus is. I think this is what we mean when we talk about ‘our path with God’ and ‘growing as a Christian’. People who come to Christ don’t overnight become endowed with endless spiritual wisdom and a deep insight into the nature of God’s kingdom. But what starts from that point of acceptance is a growth in understanding of the unfathomable grace, beauty and love that is Jesus Christ.

Simply by comprehending, and through the little insights that we have as we go through life, we take another step along that path. The celebration of Christ’s birth should help us to do that as we take some quiet time to think about the season.

Although coming to faith is only the start of a journey, what we do receive at that point of acceptance is this gift of eternal life. Jesus said In John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches”. We receive life as the branches of the vine are fed from the trunk. The promise isn’t something that we have to earn over time through good behaviour and long service. It is a gift, made to us only because it is God’s wish to give.

And just like the presents we receive today, eternal life is given to us now. It isn’t something that we have to wait for. It isn’t a promise of things to come. It is ours today. In John 5:24 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life” (not “will have” but “has” — now!) We don’t have to wait till our bodies die.

Notice that in accepting this gift we are entering into a personal relationship with God, both as Father and Son. And how special a gift is that? Christmas might come just once a year, but Jesus doesn’t come to our door once every twelve months like Santa Clause. He is there all the time for us. In fact, he HAS been there for all time, for us. He wants to develop and grow that relationship with us. It isn’t just for today but for all time.

Above all, if we are to appreciate this gift we have been given we need to see it as something spiritual. But knowing God and receiving eternal life isn’t some spiritual inoculation against death. It is a relationship that is as alive and real as our relationships with any of our neighbours.

And just as with our neighbours, we don’t really get to know them until we make the effort. Saying hello to them once a year or when we pass them in the street doesn’t really let us understand who they are. But once we get past that stage of just saying hello, the relationship becomes more meaningful and more valuable. Its no different with Christ. The more we talk with him and read what he taught us, the more we come to know him.

So it isn’t strange that we should celebrate Christ’s birth by giving gifts to each other. Christ himself was a gift and what he brought for us is a gift that we can enjoy every Christmas and all the days in between. Eternity isn’t a child’s toy that gets broken before the new year. Like it says on the tin, it is eternal.

If we are to appreciate the special nature of the gift we have been given, if we are to make that commitment, we need to go a step further and understand that Christ didn’t come to earth to deliver some communal gift that all of mankind can share in. Yes, Christ came to save mankind but he does that through making his gift to each of us as individuals. Luke 12:7 says “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.” God knows us better than we know ourselves. This is why he is able to judge us by what is in our heart. Jesus knows us intimately. There are no secrets. Some people find this uncomfortable. But if we make the effort to develop the relationship, and all relationships need effort, and all relationships need two to make that effort, then we will understand that God is a gracious God. He is forgiving. He is kind. He wants to know us. Can we find anything in Jesus’ nature and teaching to tell us otherwise? I doubt it. People that have put their confidence in who Jesus is have no reason to feel uncomfortable about him knowing what is in their hearts.

So, is Christmas starting to sound a little bit more special and worth celebrating? The gift-wrapped presents are all very nice, but we have for ourselves something far more valuable and long-lasting. A friend, not just for Christmas, or even for life, but for eternity itself.

So this Christmas, take some time to think and reflect. These are always useful things to do anyway. We all need to take stock of our lives every now and again and the Christmas holidays are a good opportunity. One thought that you might mull over is this: “If my life is going anywhere without Jesus in it, then where am I going to end up? But if Jesus is indeed part of my life, then where I end up is going to be somewhere exciting.” My wife and I were brought to Rwanda which is exciting for us. Maybe you don’t think so. Perhaps the Lord might have it mind to take you to Scotland with it’s snow and freezing temperatures. You might not think that very exciting either. Talk to Jesus this Christmas and have a chat with him about where you and he might go together in 2010. And thank him for his Christmas gift.

Noel Nziza

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Dare to believe

Belief in God implies acceptance of scripture as truth and also a reliance on that truth. Where is our belief if we don’t rely on God, but instead try to fix the problem ourselves? When things go wrong, or not as we had hoped, how can we say we believe when we refuse to recognise that God is in control?

Unless we ask for help, how can we say we believe? And unless we ask in full expectation that our prayer will be answered, where is our belief? Even when the outlook is apparently rosy, are we following our own plans or His?

So does God expect us to do nothing but pray? are we to do nothing for ourselves? This has been a question that has vexed me for a long time. I had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t expect us to sit around and wait for Him to do all the work. But we need to be careful here that the work we are doing is His will and not ours. Understanding this requires prayer and meditation on scripture.

This is God’s kingdom, but it is us who are the kingdom (at least its subjects), not God. Part of our believe is demonstrated in doing His will. Perhaps a measure of our belief is in what we do of our own volition.

Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you [Luke 6:38].

Perhaps our focus should be on what we do for others rather than on how God can supply our wants. If we listen to the Spirit’s leading, perhaps we can be the answer to someone else’s prayers. With that outlook maybe we will grow to be more confident that our needs will be met, even before we have prayed –

Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient. [Matthew 6:31-34]

Dare we go through life with an absolute reliance on God as this passage tells us? Why not? Where is our belief if we don’t?

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Back to the future

An article in the FT caught my eye this morning (Banker fury over tax witch-hunt). For the first time in weeks I have had the luxury of catching up on the papers and not having to fit it into a never long enough gap between getting up and getting out.

The article highlighted the backlash in the US banking industry to a punitive tax on bonus payments paid to bankers whose employers have received state bail-outs. It seems there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth along with warnings that the best and brightest will leave the industry and we will all go back to the stone age.

I have to admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. There are two issues here, and on both, the direction we seem to be moving in appears more attractive than a year ago.

The first complaint of the bankers is that the brightest minds will be attracted away from the banking industry by other offers. Good. Other industries have suffered from a drain of talent attracted by the prospect of unimaginable wealth. Engineering and science are two areas in particular which would benefit from the best thinkers.

Secondly, after twenty years of the market-driven, profit-orientated, short-term profiteering that has become the foundation of many people’s lives, a return to the stone age sounds like a very attractive idea. Of course the wails of the bankers are hyperbole. We won’t go back to the stone age but perhaps we might go back to a place where values are based on something other than money.

I dream of a future where we do things, not because there is profit or even personal gain to be had, but because those acts are worth doing for their own sake. Our lives should be driven by a value system that is based on something other than money and profit. When we choose a career, be it banking, engineering or science, we should do so because it provides a benefit to others. Profit will never benefit society. It will only ever benefit the owners of whatever is being traded.The most valuable things we have, from the air we breath to friends and love cannot be bought with any amount of money.

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A sad comparison

It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the angst of Jade Goody as she tragically plays out the end of her life in the same self-made publicity as she has courted until now. Goody it was, who in 2007 infamously left the Big Brother house amidst allegations of racism against a fellow contestant.

Even so, it does occur to me that the anger and self-pity stands in stark contrast to another cancer sufferer, Jane Tomlinson, who in a similar position became a supreme example of courage, grace and love. Tomlinson died in 2007 and her name has appeared among the recent headlines because her charity has now raised over £2 million. The difference between the two women could not be more stark.

I wondered if Tomlinson was a Christian. There is no mention in her obitiary, but as a demonstration of selfless giving for others there are many Christians who could do worse than follow her example. It is certainly not apparent that Goody is a Christian despite her desperation to be married in church, and for her sons to be baptised.

I hope Goody has indeed found Christ in her last days. If she has, it will be doubly tragic that she will be remembered less for her faith than for her notoriety as one of a generation for whom self-promotion and fame became the only reasons for their existence.

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Some disturbing figures

An article in the FT caught my eye this week: Why dealing with the huge debt overhang is so hard by Martin Wolf. Wolf presented a number of charts analysing both US and UK debt over a number of years.

What was alarming was that in the UK, non-government debt has grown from roughly 80% of GDP in 1987 to over 400% today. This in itself is not new. The vast bulk of the growth has been down to the increase in borrowing by banks and other financial institutions. I have this comic Laurel and Hardy image in my head – “Another fine mess you’ve got us into!”

The fact that the banks have been borrowing like there was no tomorrow, to lend to customers who wanted to spend like there was no tomorrow, is no longer news. What did strike me though, was the figure for household debt. In 1987 this was less than 20% of GDP. Now it is 100%, comparable to the proportion of debt owed by the non-financial corporate sector. In other words, household debt is equivalent in value to the total national output in a year. Put another way: on average, households have spent in excess of their incomes as much as a year’s salary.

Think about this. Some people have little or no debt. That means that the average debt for those who do owe money is more than 100%. Arithmetically, this means that if those people were to reduce their expenditure to nothing (not practical, but let’s assume) then it would take more than a year to repay the outstanding loans they have run up. Granted, some of this debt will be mortgages spread over 25 or 30 years. Still, the implications for lifestyles and the economy in general are not bright.

It will take some effort for many people to reduce their standard of living to a point where they are living within their means, and this is assuming they still have an income. This alone will reduce demand from current levels. The negative feedback is being felt already as people are laid off from previously secure jobs. It will require a further effort to continue reducing living standards to a point where a regular surplus is being generated with which to repay outstanding loans. This will have a further negative effect on output and employment, with several years passing before balance is restored.

There are two issues here. One is that it is questionable that the consensus strategy for tackling the credit crunch (increase liquidity and expenditure) will be effective. Liquidity is not the problem any more so much as our ability to generate sufficient surplus with which to offset previous profligacy. Secondly, a change of attitude to wealth is both necessary and painful. The economy has been increasingly driven by a vast advertising budget, itself driven by a quest for ever-increasing corporate profits. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten that ultimately, we cannot consume more than we produce – at least, not without borrowing. If we ever, either as individuals or as an economy, spend more  in a year than we produce, then sooner or later we must produce without spending in order to repay the debt. Unfortunately, the consequences of this can only be economic contraction and an adjustment of lifestyles to less than we have become accustomed. Hold on to your hats.

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Creationism – time will tell

I have to confess as a Christian that I have never felt comfortable with the creationist view that the earth is only 10,000 years old. Accepting Genesis as a literal description of events seems to me at odds with a biblical exegesis which acknowledges that the story of creation was written by men some 3,000 years before Einstein developed his general theory of relativity. The current debate which pits science against religion seems to me anomalous since I regard science as part of God’s world.

However, a number of articles and discussions have caused me to think a little more on the matter. While I am not persuaded yet by the creationist camp, I am beginning to think that there may be more to this than either the creationists or the scientists imagine. First up is an article which appeared in New Scientist magazine some time in late 2008. It referred to the problems faced by physicists in marrying Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity with the laws of quantum mechanics to provide a Grand Unified Theory (GUT). One proposal which has been put forward by respected scientists is that time should be dropped from relativity theory altogether. The context of the article was that this seemingly counterintuitive suggestion was being treated seriously among the scientific community.

A second point that is relevant is that scientists in truth don’t know what time actually is. It isn’t a particle or force in the sense that we understand other particles or forces. We can measure it, but only in the context of something else. Our entire concept of time is based on our physical world and the rotation of the earth around the sun. We don’t understand why time only flows in one direction or why we can’t capture some and re-run that portion of time again. Given our understanding of the rest of the universe, it seems to me strange that this one particular aspect of our world should be so hidden from us.

Another seemingly off-the-wall idea being proposed by a group of scientists from the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, and Spain’s University of Salamanca is that time itself may be slowing down. This, they suggest, would be an explanation for the puzzling phenomenon that stars at extreme distances seem to be moving away from us faster than those nearby. See Scientists: Time itself May Be Slowing Down.

Given that time is not something which science understands entirely, it strikes me that the idea of earth not being millions of years old might properly be classified as not proven. Let me be clear: our measurements of geological time are probably accurate within the concept of time as we understand it. What is less clear is whether that understanding is complete.Perhaps the Book of Genesis needs to be looked at in a new light.

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There’s probably no god

This post is probably a little past its sell-by date, which is a pity because I had been hoping the atheists’ advertising campaign would have gained a little more momentum than it has until now. Since October, a group of atheists have been running an advertising campaign on the sides of buses across the UK. The message is “There’s probably no God – Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Two things strike me. The first is that it is somewhat amusing to see a group of people spending not insignificant amounts of energy and money advertising something that they don’t believe in. If there is no god, why are they so worried that they feel they have to advertise the fact? The second is that having paid for the advertisements, they don’t seem particularly confident about their message. That even the atheists aren’t prepared to state clearly that there definitely is no god simply invites questions from those who haven’t found Him yet.

Which is wonderful news for Christians. Jesus hasn’t had such good publicity since he raised Lazarus from the dead, and ironically, paid for by people who deny Him. May this campaign encourage thought and questions. God has nothing to fear.

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