Once again the cash registers have peeped out the message that the economy canít really be too bad Ė if only Christmas could be made to extend throughout the year! Here and there a Santa Claus has beamed on young and old. And in a background the soft suggestion of "Jingle Bells", "Rudolph" or one of the more traditional carols Ė not too intrusive, yet all insisting that itís the season to be jolly extravagant in our spending! But the day has arrived and we are here for the Christmas Day service. In the midst of all our rushing and worrying, perhaps we have even asked ourselves, "Is there something we have missed?" For too many Australians the answer is "Yes!" There is a celebration, but the point of it all has been missed.
"God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (Jn. 3.16). These words, the best-known text in the whole Bible, express in a nutshell what Christmas is all about. And the song of the angels told the same message too Ė "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests!"
From time to time we have cause to go to one of those "auto supplies" shops. They have a wide range of things for cars. So what do you want? A set of spark plugs? An oil filter? A fuel pump? Engine coolant? Thereís a good chance theyíll have it. Perhaps you are looking for a protective strip down the sides of your car, or else just a decorative stripe. Maybe you want a CD player or just some ash tray freshener. Yes, youíll probably find it there too. Now, some of these things are essentials for the running of a car. Others are what we call "optional extras" Ė no matter how desirable, the car will run quite well without them.
A life without reference to God is like a car without an engine! Every day the news highlights again, at one point or another, the stupidity, the self-destructive stupidity of life without God. And Christmas comes again with the reminder that there is a God and he hasnít given up loving this stupidly independent race of human beings.
It is widely accepted that the real purpose of this census was to make sure that the taxes were efficiently and rigorously collected. Itís quite likely that, when Augustus ordered everyone to register "at his own town," he meant them to go to the town closest to where they lived. That would make sense for tax purposes. But the Jews had always been counted by tribes and families. Iíve always been intrigued by the thought that, when the Jews stubbornly insisted on returning to their ancestral homes, they were in part sabotaging the whole reason for the census! The data would be less than useful to the tax-collectors. Bethlehemís tax-collector, for instance, would have ended with a list of people from all over Palestine -Ė and beyond.
But thereís another intriguing thought. The Romans counted every man, woman and child. If, in fact, we had all the records of Rome, the name of Jesus would be recorded in this census - as well as later in the record of crucifixions.
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son... He came into our history. Part of that history is the fact that there was no room for them to stay in the inn, that he said much later that he had no place to lay his head, that the people moved against him - the religious and the irreligious, the Jew and the Gentile - acting to get rid of him from the face of the earth.
But he came into our history - "Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord!" Even if we should choose to reject him, the message is still true - "Your Saviour has been born!"
God is saying, "I love you! Believe in my Son, Jesus, and you will be saved!"
No room! No room! No room! God took our "No room!" and made it the very means of salvation, of forgiveness, of a new beginning for all of us. God is saying to us, "I have room for you! Come to me!"
Talk about "Peace on earth and goodwill to all men" can seem like so much wishful thinking in todayís harsh world, a pleasant idea to keep alive, a nice piece of folklore or legend, but unrealistic, unreal, irrelevant, unbelievable...
Then it all comes unstuck when we hear it in a modern translation - "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."
These words arenít quite the ones we are familiar with! They suggest that not all people will know his peace after all! And yes, that is what it says! The focus is on God - on who he is and where he rightly fits into the scheme of things. "Glory to God in the highest!" Godís gracious offer of peace extends towards all the human race. But to know the peace the angels sang about we do have to make a response from our side. "Peace on earth to those on whom his favour rests!"
It is the message of Godís gift that we learnt about years ago in those words of John 3.16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (KJV).
Wow! What a gift! Once we have received the Gift of God - Jesus Christ - into our life as our Saviour and Lord, we will want our whole life (and not just our Christmas) to express "glory to God in the highest"! What do you say to that?