It’s not good to feel like your life’s out of your control. Like you’re no longer the master of our own destiny. To feel powerless. Yet that is often, if we are honest, how we feel. As I was reading this Christmas story in preparation recently it struck me that that’s how most of the people in the Christmas story must have been feeling.
Joseph has just discovered his fiancee is pregnant and it’s not his child! Then he’s told by Roman officials that he has to pack up his things and move all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so the Emperor can do a census of his empire.
Mary’s even worse off. She’s the one who’s been suffering from morning sickness and now has a constant back ache. She, too, has to travel all the way to Bethlehem despite the fact that the baby’s due any day.
And who are the first people to find out about the birth of Jesus? They’re a bunch of shepherds, the lowliest group in the society of their day, as powerless a group as you could imagine. (It’s almost as if God wanted to make a point!) He sends his own Son to earth, to take on human form and the context into which he comes is one of powerlessness; of people who’ve lost control of their own destiny. In fact, even Jesus Christ himself enters the world as a helpless baby, totally dependent upon his parents. He gives up the glory and power he had at his Father’s right hand and takes the form of a servant.
Yet set against this powerlessness is the power of God. The angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and tells her of her forthcoming pregnancy. He then appears to Joseph to reassure him that this pregnancy is from God’s Holy Spirit; that Mary hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact the opposite is the case. Mary is a servant of the Lord and God’s power is about to come upon her in a miraculous and incredible way.
Then, when the baby is born, again we see the power of God, out on the hills, as a great company of angels appear to the shepherds singing praises to God.
But we see the power of God most strongly in the message that they announce: “On earth, peace to those on whom his favour rests” If ever there was a contrast between God’s power and our powerlessness it’s here.
The great search by humankind throughout history has been to find a way to be at peace with God. The ancient pagan religious systems revolved around rituals to placate or please the gods. Later more sophisticated religious systems either do the same or, if they have no concept of a god figure, at least try to find ways to make themselves better people until they attain a state of divine being for themselves. They propound systems of self-discipline aimed at making them better people. And of course the Old Testament religious laws hinged around a system of acknowledging one’s failure to please God and seeking his forgiveness though a range of temple rituals.
But whatever the religious system, people find themselves powerless to actually achieve what they’re looking for. That is, a sense of peace with God.
Of course, these days some don’t acknowledge that it’s peace with God that they’re seeking. But the reality is that it’s peace with God that’s most missing from our lives. And there’s nothing we can do about it! We’re powerless to bridge the gap between us and God.
That’s why the Christmas story is such an amazing thing. It’s not that a little baby was born to a young virgin. It’s not that he teaches us to be kind to others or to love others more. No, it’s that he brings the possibility of us having peace with God; that he saves us despite our powerlessness, despite our inability by ourselves to live our lives rightly.
Listen to what we read in Titus chapter 3, verse 4,
But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…”
In case you missed it, this is the gospel we proclaim. This is the good news of Christmas. This is the good news for every day of the year. God sent his son to save us, not because of any righteousness act that we’d done, but according to his mercy.
So how are we going to respond to this good news? Listen to how the shepherds responded. Remember, these were men on the lowest rung of the social ladder of their day, men who were as powerless as they could be. But listen to what their response was to the good news of Jesus’ birth: “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
They couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They just had to tell people about the wonder of this birth, the birth of the Messiah. And despite their lowly social standing, people believed them!
Yes, we’re powerless to do things on our own. But God’s power is sufficient to do what we’re unable to do.
Joseph and Mary were powerless to do anything about the events that shaped their lives, other than submitting to the will of God. Yet God was working powerfully through them to bring about the salvation of his people Israel and ultimately of the world. The shepherds were a powerless group, yet God used them to spread the good news of Jesus’ birth. We’re so often powerless to control our lives, always powerless to obey God fully, yet God is in control. God will work in us just as he worked in Joseph and Mary if we too will submit to his leading; if we too will share this good news with others.
So let’s pray that God’s power would work through us today and in the year to come, as individuals and as churches, in a way that would overcome our powerlessness and instead bring great glory to his name.
Back in the Spring I had discussion with all our Church Councils about the possibility of a sabbatical in 2016 and, I am pleased to say that they were all unanimously supportive. So in September the Bishop kindly agreed for me to take one from January to March 2016. I last had one in 2001 and it will give me an opportunity to recharge both my physical and spiritual batteries.
Of course, the work of the churches will continue throughout my time away led by the wonderful team of people we have, for whom I, for one, am very grateful. Please continue to give them your support and encouragement.
Val and I will be spending some periods away but will also be at home for some of the time so don’t be surprised to see us around.
Please pray that it will be a good and fruitful time for us both and we would look forward to returning to work at the beginning of April.