One of the blessings that has been mine as a consequence of being somewhat housebound over the last month or so has been an opportunity to step back from all the busyness of Christmas. In my quiet time each day I have been able to reflect upon the significance of that first Christmas without being distracted by carolling and mince pies!
One of my favourite poems is found in our carol book and comes from the pen of George MacDonald (1824-1905):
“They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
O son of man, to right my lot
Nought but thy presence can avail
Yet on the road thy wheels are not
Nor on the sea thy sail
My fancied ways why shouldst thou heed
Thou com’st down thine own secret stair
Com’st down to answer all my need,
Yea, every bygone prayer!”
In his simple but effective poem MacDonald reminds us that Jesus doesn’t always come to us in the way we expect or even in the way we are hoping that he will appear. Jesus, along with the good news that he brings us, is often full of surprises, unexpected twists and turns, usually with a sacrificial sting in the tail. The same is true of personal holiness, holiness looks like Jesus, it is, as people often say, being ‘like Jesus.’ The apostle Paul goes even further reminding us that holiness isn’t simply being ‘like Jesus’ but holiness is actually being Jesus —‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20)
But what was Jesus really like?
Christ was gentle, kind, slow to anger, meek and mild but to show this side of his character only is as bad as presenting him with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Jesus was poor, nomadic and homeless he was also angry (on one occasion even violent), frustrated, a party goer, a friend of sinners, someone who turned water into wine, a man who indulged himself at great expense when he allowed a woman of dubious character to massage expensive perfume into his feet and he was also (by the standards of the religious leaders of his day) a law breaker. All in all, to many of his contemporaries, Jesus appeared to be an unpredictable rebel.
If the first Christmas took place today then just as he did 2000 years ago Christ would come down his own ‘secret stair…’ and his character and presence might not be what we expect or even want.
Christ’s actions can be traced to several clear motives, the most obvious being love. This love was characterised by an on-going three-way transaction between himself, his Father and those around him. It was his relationship with the father that provided Christ with the priorities which directed and governed his interaction with the world.
Christ couldn’t abide pride or hypocrisy and what a person thought about themselves often determined how he dealt with them and what he expected of them. The rich young ruler thought he was righteous and was commanded to give ‘all’ of his honourably acquired wealth away. Zacchaeus knew he was bad and only had to part with a fraction of his ill-gotten gains. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, who approached Christ at night with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’ was told he must be ‘born again’, whereas the woman caught in adultery Jesus refused to condemn.
Jesus possessed a ravenous hunger for social justice – he saw people for what they were. Christ was totally unmoved by the labels society placed on them, he looked beyond a person’s self-image or social status. This gift was never more obvious than in the case of people he considered to be victims. Jesus often saw those who were traditionally depicted as sinners, not as bad people but as victims.
Jesus had an open association with sinners – he deliberately went out of his way to connect with those whom he came to save. He was literally a ‘friend’ to sinners not in the sentimental way we sometimes apply that phrase but in the literal sense – he sought out and befriended those who deliberately disobeyed God. He hung out with them, went to their parties and even employed them. When Jesus called Matthew he was (by the standards of his day) an active sinner, sitting in his booth collecting taxes. Matthew was, at the time of his calling, an unrepentant and deliberate collaborator with the Romans who would have undoubtedly been using his position to further his own material wealth and social standing.
This is what Jesus looked like 2000 years ago and we have no reason to suspect that he would look any different today. Where would we find him? We would find him in the company of unbelievers, at the movies, at the football game, going to parties, in night clubs – enjoying their company – not for his own pleasure alone but in order that he might save them. On a Sunday I have no doubt that he would be at Church but his main mission field would be outside the building in the real world . Sunday might be a time for recharging his batteries but his real work would take place between Monday and Saturday.
Holiness like this does not set us free from the demands of sacrifice quite the contrary. How can I safely wander among ‘the sites that dazzle’ and ‘the tempting sounds’, how can I have my feet massaged by a prostitute and attend all night parties and keep myself pure? Only when I have made a definite, heartfelt, Gethsemane-like surrender of my will, when I have made a blood-sweated commitment to resist temptation, when I am determined to wear the full of armour of God and only when these actions are motivated by selfless love can I move safely in such dangerous territory. Like David against Goliath my courage and ultimate victory must be motivated and sustained by love. To attempt Christian ministry without meeting these conditions will lead to total failure and certain damnation.
Being a Christian in 2016 is about love and obedience, about being like Jesus (although as we have said not perhaps in the way we might have imagined). Has our devotion driven us to the point where we are able to say we have emptied ourselves ‘of all but love’, have we crucified ourselves in order that Christ, in all his unpredictable and controversial glory, might live instead of us? Have we ‘gone beyond the brook?’ If the answer’s yes, then we may well find ourselves this Christmas standing at the foot of Christ’s ‘secret stair’ ready to greet the one ‘born this happy morning!’
Have a God glorifying and happy Christmas.