So, here we are, half way through Exploretumn and the nights have really drawn in. I guess it’s round about now that most people start thinking more seriously about Christmas. Office parties are being booked, town-centre lights are being erected, and we’re conscious that time is pressing on – if we don’t get the cards written soon, the intended recipients will not know we’ve been thinking about them. This season of preparation has a lot in common with the church’s season of Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas (1st December this year) and in which Christians look forward to the Christmas Day celebration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. One of the similarities between the seasons is that there’s a clear end-point to both: it’s quite plain that Christmas shopping must be complete by Christmas Day; and the season of Advent is defined as ending as Christmas Eve wanes. There’s no avoiding the fact that Christmas Day is definitely the end of the pre-Christmas season!
But there’s a difference between the seasons too. As well as helping Christians prepare for the celebration of when God became a man in Jesus to rescue sinners and make them his children again, the season of Advent has a second purpose. Remembering Jesus’ birth is only part of the deal – Christians also look forward to his return as judge and king at the end of history. Preparing for this is slightly more difficult than preparing for a Christmas celebration; “the end of history” has a date and is therefore a deadline every bit as definite as “Christmas Day”, but nobody actually knows what that date is.
For most people, this uncertainty tends to result in an understanding that “the end of history” is a long way in the future – so far, in fact, that it is of very little relevance. And because it is so far in the future, most people – even the super-organised ones – put the task of preparing for it a long way down their list of priorities. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that very few people give it much thought at all. Now you might think that it is a bit bold of me to make such a sweeping claim, but I do so on the basis of surveys that have been conducted recently into people’s attitudes to Christmas itself. Apparently, in the UK, just 12 per cent of adults know the nativity story, and more than one-third of children don’t know whose birthday we are celebrating at Christmas. In what many still like to regard as a Christian country, a staggering 51 per cent of people now say the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas. I reason that if people are not including Christ in their Christmas despite the Christian heritage of our nation, they almost certainly aren’t thinking about his return.
Jesus himself advises that this is a terrible mistake. He describes the day of his return as coming “like a thief in the night.” The image he uses is deliberately shocking in order to wake us up and make us take notice. He will come suddenly, without further warning – we are already on notice. On this basis, the sensible thing to do is to put the task of preparing for his return at the top of our priorities so that we are ready when he comes, whenever that is. So, will you spend the next hour searching the internet for the perfect Christmas gift-wrap, or would it be worth spending some time reflecting on your relationship with God?
Christmas is coming, and so is Christ – may you all be ready!