We recently had the National Foodbank Collection. As people entered the particular store we were collecting at, they were greeted with a lovely smile by foodbank volunteers, and then they came across a mountain of advent calendars put on top of each other the size of the Berlin Wall. In a glance, one could guess that not many of these calendars had been sold, and it was already 1st December. I then came across an article with the following title: “Advent calendar 'ruins' Christmas for people because of what was behind door 1.” The story is that because there was a Bounty in number 1, people were disappointed. They were expecting something else, although they knew they were buying a ‘Celebrations’ advent calendar.
This made me think about the first Christmas - regardless of what time of year it would have been. What was behind ‘door 1’ for the shepherds, Magi (although perhaps they weren’t there in day 1) and others who witnessed the birth of Jesus? Although they had some awareness, they weren’t quite sure what to expect. And when they arrived, they came across a helpless baby boy whose mother, according to most paintings and Christmas cards, is a little less than joyful of His birth. A little ironic I find, especially as the angels claimed they brought “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.1 ” (some claim this is to portray Mary’s sorrow of Jesus’ death.)
Do you ever wonder what the first Christmas was like? The Lord of Hosts had become a guest among people. How He was received determined where people were at with their hearts, their theology and, more important than anything, their relationship with God. In modern culture, many attempts have been made to neutralise the message of Christmas. Alternative terms are being introduced to make CHRISTmas sound politically correct, and more and more people associate this time of year with gifts, Santa, and family time. The early church and those who witnessed this wonderful event didn’t have such distractions and, as such, had the luxury of focusing on the real message of God incarnate (although they had their own battles). Chocolates or any other gifts are no match for the symbolism of frankincense, myrrh, and the gold that was offered at Jesus’ birth – although I’m sure Jesus would have welcomed a box of Lindt.
Did the sight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus ‘ruin’ the first Christmas for the shepherds? After seeing a Jewish boy who was perhaps like many others they’d seen, did the Magi think they had made a terrible mistake and perhaps the star hadn’t truly guided them to a ‘king’? The Bible is clear that the welcome Jesus received from the shepherds and the Magi was like no other. How do we continually welcome Him? How do we extend our hospitality to this King and others?
Let us follow the example of humble shepherds and wealthy Magi and extend our hospitality to God and those He has created. And by that I don’t mean inviting the group of people we get along with to a dinner party, held in an underutilised room called the dining room to show off our culinary skills (although it's great to have friends you can regularly get together with and even greater to have good cooking skills!). The type of hospitality I’m referring to here is that which Jesus received at His birth, that of which Job was boasting about2, one that Abraham extended to three strangers in the desert3, or the type of welcome our guests receive at Alpha4. Just as there are many traditions to do with Christmas – some with a greater Biblical basis than others – let us create a culture and tradition of hospitality all year round, especially around Christmas. If our lives throughout the year don’t demonstrate the joy, peace, and hospitality that reflects our God, we cannot expect the world to distinguish the Church from any other body that gets caught up in the hype of showing compassion around Christmas time only.
So, as you welcome people, pray that they also welcome Him into their hearts. In the words of Tevye,5
“Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do."
We know that only a tradition rooted in the Word and Grace of God keeps the balance. The gift and tradition of hospitality breaks through the barriers of race, language, differences of opinion and goes over and beyond presumptions of mind caused by intellectualism, Western modernity, Eastern thinking, etc.
The author of Hebrews encourages us with the following words: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” How joyful are you of the birth of Jesus, and who are you going to show hospitality to?
- Luke 2:10 (ESVUK) emphasis added
- Job 31:32
- Genesis 18:2
- Our next Alpha course is in January!
- Fictional narrator and protagonist in "Tevye the Dairyman" by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich
- Hebrews 13:2 (ESVUK)
I couldn’t possibly write an Elders’ letter this month without at least making reference to that amazing night in Madrid on June 1st and Liverpool FC’s historic sixth Champions League trophy. Non-football fans…please don’t switch off!