How to really celebrate Christmas

In John Ch3v16 it says “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

This verse is probably the most famous verse in the Bible and is familiar to Christian’s throughout the world. It’s declaration that God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die for our sins, is the central truth of the Gospel and St Paul states in 2nd Corinthians Ch9v15 that it is an “indescribable Gift”. It is a Gift so stupendous, so amazing and so beautiful that it passes all understanding.

Unfortunately, owing to the frequent repetition of this wonderful truth, there can be a tendency for some people to almost take its loveliness for granted and thereby lose the wonder and awe it should invoke. It’s almost as though the very constancy of its repetition makes some people forget the profound significance of what it really means. Recently I heard of an incident which graphically illustrates this situation.

During the days of the Great Depression in the United States, a man by the name of John Griffith was the controller of a large railway drawbridge across the Mississippi River. One summer day in 1937, he brought along his eight year old son Greg, thinking that he would enjoy seeing his father at work. At noon, John put up the bridge to allow ships to pass through and he and Greg sat on the observation deck having their lunch. Time must have gone more quickly than he realised because he was suddenly startled by a train whistle in the distance. He looked at his watch. It was 1:07. This was the Memphis Express which normally carried four hundred or so passengers and it was fast approaching the raised bridge. John quickly ran to the control room. Just before pressing the switch to lower the bridge he looked to see if there were any boats below. As he looked something caught his eye which made his heart miss a beat. Some how, Greg had slipped from the observation deck and had fallen onto the massive gears which operated the bridge. The child’s leg was caught in the cogs.

The Memphis Express sounded its whistle again as it drew ever closer to the open bridge. That was his son down there, yet four hundred people aboard the train would be killed if he didn’t close the bridge. John knew what he had to do. The report stated that he buried his head in his left arm as he pressed the master switch for the bridge to close.

The massive bridge lowered into place just in time as the Express train began to roar across the river. When John lifted his head he was able to clearly see into the passing windows of the train. There were people reading newspapers and books, children eating ice cream, well dressed women sipping coffee in the dining car and there were people laughing and talking. No one looked at the control room. They were totally oblivious to what had just happened and how he had sacrificed his son so that they would be saved from instant death. Apparently, at this moment John shouted out at the train, “I sacrificed my son for you people, don’t you care?” but of course no one could have heard.

In a similar way, many people celebrate Christmas without really appreciating the true greatness of the Gift that God has given them. The train passengers couldn’t possibly have known what had just occurred, but the people I am referring to do know! They know all about the events of Christmas. They know the story of the Shepherds, the Star and the Wise Men. They know about the Angels, the Stable and the Babe. They know what followed; the long road to Good Friday and Easter Day. They know about all these events, but they don’t think about the profound significance of what it all actually means.

The phrase “Jesus was born, in order that He could die for my sins” lightly rolls off their lips, but how often do they pause to really think about what that involved and what a profound sacrifice it required. Without this awareness they have no sense of awe or wonder at God’s love. Without this realisation they don’t humbly bow their knees before Almighty God as St Paul did and cry out “Thanks be to God for His indescribable Gift.” No wonder they don’t feel “Christmassy”. In 1st Peter Ch1v8 it describes Christian people “rejoicing with joy inexpressible” but this simply won’t happen to an individual if they “know the story” but fail to reflect on its significance.

As we rush around preparing for Christmas let us regularly pause to think about the greatness of the event we are intending to celebrate. Let us truly marvel at what it really does mean by God loving us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place for our sins. Let us not take this Gift lightly or for granted, because it was no small thing. In her Christmas meditation Martha Nicholson put it like this;

“Suppose that Christ had not been born that far-away Judean morn. Suppose that God, whose mighty hand created worlds, had never planned a way for man to be redeemed. Suppose the Wise Men only dreamed that guiding star whose light still glows down through the centuries. Suppose Christ never walked here in men’s sight, our blessed Way, and Truth, and Light. Suppose He counted all the cost, and never cared that we were lost, and never died for you and me, nor shed His blood on Calvary…Suppose there was none with power to save our souls from death beyond the grave…”
Ultimately the Christmas story and the love behind it, is the only message able to bring hope and comfort when people pass through the storms of life and it is the only message that can provide help when they face the worst of all personal storms, namely their own death. Those who fail to properly appreciate God’s Gift of His Son have yet to learn this lesson.

Many decades ago Sir John Bowring experienced this truth for himself in an unforgettable way. The ship he was on sank just beyond the harbour of Macao, off the South Coast of China. Along with some others, Sir John managed to swim to a piece of wreckage and there he clung on for dear life. As the wreckage moved up and down with the swell of the ocean, many men became disorientated, not knowing which way was land, or which way was open sea. Suddenly, as Sir John rose up on a swell, he noticed a tiny cross on the horizon. The cross, which was located on top of a church spire, was the only thing he could see, but it was enough. He knew where land was and where there was hope of rescue.

He was so moved by the symbolism of this incident that he later wrote; “In the Cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time. All the light of sacred story, gathers round its head sublime. When the woes of life o’er take me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy, never shall the Cross forsake me; lo it glows with peace and joy.” He realised that God’s love, manifested in the Cross of Christ, was the only hope and comfort that would never forsake him. Worldly hopes deceive, fears annoy, possessions fade away and mortal life comes to an end; what alone remained unchanged by time or circumstance was this hope in God’s infinite and everlasting love. He had learned his lesson.

At Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of the Saviour, let us think of the greatness of God’s love which caused it and soberly remember that there is absolutely no lasting hope or comfort in anything else.