An old man was sitting in his chair in Bethlehem when a young man walked up to him, with a notebook and pencil in hand. “What are you selling?” cried out the old man. “I’m not selling anything sir”, replied the young man. “I’m taking the census”.
“The what?” said the old man. “The census” the young man shouted back, noting the old man was deaf. “Emperor Augustus has decreed that a census be taken of the whole world, so that we know how many people are in the empire”.
“Well” said the old man, “You are wasting your time with me. I have no idea how many people there are…”
I began the service in Moscow last year with that joke. I swear, one person out of the hundred laughed, most people looked confused, and the chaplain groaned. The similar reaction from you here in London has convinced me that this joke should be retired…!
Well, Merry Christmas! And Christmas is a story about GOOD NEWS and about SALVATION. It leaves us with Mary wondering what is happening, and shepherds marvelling on the hillsides. And as the story progresses, faithful people in the temple are bowled over by the child, God’s salvation! The story asks us to read on, and leaves us wondering what this good news is, what the saviour is going to do… for this baby is not the be-all and end-all – the baby is going to turn to a child and then an adult.
The baby is thus a metaphor for our own lives and faiths. Christmas is nice – babies are great, but they don’t stay that way. The child must grow, so too must we. As we all grow, we realise that life is complicated and hard, and that we are in warfare, and we need to be saved. Christmas is the good news that salvation is here.
We all know we as humans have problems. Our pride, ambition and selfishness causes pain and brokenness all the time. But we also have structural problems: we continue to take flights, drive cars, and buy products that are worsening the environment, knowing that Christians in Africa and Asia are paying the price. We continue to do this, despite knowing it’s making the world worse. We, and all humans, are, quite simply, hopelessly selfish. We need saving from ourselves. You need saving from you.
So God came in a man – Jesus Christ – showing another way. God could have come like a Hollywood superhero, but instead he washed feet, wept with grieving people, touched sick people, and protected children. He showed us a new way of living. He embraced those parts of life we run from. He calls the people who follow him to love and serve one another. In serving each other, the world will know God.
This is good news: if I decide to follow Jesus, and change how I live, then I am rescued from my slavery to sin, I am forgiven, and I am saved to live a different life! And so as I know more about Jesus, as I worship and read the bible and let him minister to me in prayer, I become more like Jesus. And I become more aware of others, more caring and compassionate, less bothered about the clothes I wear, and more bothered about clothing other people.
You can’t say that a world full of people acting like Jesus would be worse than this one. It would be an amazing place to live!
And it all began in a baby in Bethlehem, announced to the world as good news. That’s the good news the church should be proclaiming at Christmas! The gift of a baby, a life full of potential that was fulfilled.
Many of you will know of John Newton. He was in the 1700s a slave trader for many years, but when he discovered Jesus, his life changed. He matured, and followed his Lord on a new path, leading him to actively campaign against slavery. As he grew up further, he used his money to support liberation, and he ended up being vicar of St Mary Woolnoth, near the Bank of England, and writing hymns. He encouraged William Wilberforce when William was questioning the effectiveness of his campaigning work. And so John Newton’s legacy still echoes down the centuries. That’s the difference following Jesus can make!
Today, the birth of the child reminds us of potential. If or when you decide to follow Jesus, you begin life again like a child. The Christ child walks ahead, and if you follow him, who knows where you might end up.
You might end up like John Newton (and me! – poor you!) in church ministry. Or you might end up delivering aid to people in distress.
Or you might do something less exotic but no less important, bringing friends and family together more often, deepening precious relationships and healing old wounds.
But whatever it is, this Christmas, do decide to follow the one who is good news and who is our saviour. Welcome the baby, but also embrace the potential that he calls you to grow into. As the baby becomes an adult, follow him into spiritual adulthood, and see where he might lead you.