For me, inevitably, God's relationship with His people lies at the heart of my thinking tonight. But they're coloured by thoughts which have arisen as a result of some of the questions I've been asked over the last few months.
Two questions in particular spring to mind. In the former, back in mid-September Dop asked me "Did you never think of going into the ministry?", a question that reaches me from various quarters from time to time and which has a partial answer as a reply to his comment here. In the latter, Liam asked me whether it was wise to celebrate Christmas at a date chosen to coincide with the pre-existing Pagan midwinter festival, or whether it would make more sense to chose a more historically accurate time of year. I don't have a link to the comment, since he asked me at the Tun rather than on LJ, but my answer was in favour of the former.
Here's a slightly fuller, yet more roundabout, answer to both questions... in reverse order.
For Christians, for those of us following the usual calendar, Christmas is the time when we celebrate the moment when God became man and lived among us. The point at which God set in motion the next stage in the process whereby He and his creation are to become reconciled to each other. This is astonishingly exciting; it's hard to express, here in plain text, just how it makes me feel. Some of you may have had children, some of you may have recovered after serious injury or illness, some of you may have met famous people or childhood heroes. There are elements of each of these things going on, but they don't really capture the feelings which arise in me when I prepare for Christmas. And many Christians feel the same. Imagine you're celebrating a birth, or a re-birth, or a dream come true. This celebration is something that you really want to share; the correct time to celebrate Christmas is at the same time as everyone else.
The job of a Christian, as described in the final words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, is to go out into the world and demonstrate the love of God to everyone. [Mark 16:15] This is work that should be undertaken by every Christian, but it's work that is very much undermined when someone is ordained and appointed to a church. The business of spreading the good news, an activity called "mission", is considerably hampered by the business of working within a church, an activity popularly called "ministry". Very often, ministers of religion are called upon to preach in churches, to audences who already know the story. Very often, ministers spend all their time in pastoral care of their existing congregation, or -- worse -- in administration. "... And he said unto them, go ye into the church, shut the door, and fill in some forms to send to the accounts department in London..." Somehow, I doubt this is quite what Jesus was getting at when he gave that commission to his disciples.
The commission is to bring the Good News to people on the outside of the churches. So, then, what should the Church be for? What should ministers and preachers be doing? What is the purpose of worship, of preaching, of celebration, amongst existing believers?
If the job of believers is to spread the good news, then the job of the Church and its ministers is to equip the believers to perform that task. Preaching and teaching equip us intellectually to demonstrate the love of God; worship and celebration equip us emotionally to demonstrate the love of God. All of the rest of our lives -- eating, sleeping, working, living and loving -- equip us physically to demonstrate the love of God, and provide us with a string of perfect opportunities to do so.
I've spent much of my forty-plus years in study and debate, learning the background to my faith. I've returned from a Christmas Eve midnight service recharged by worship and fellowship with other believers. And now, crucially, I've stepped out of the Church and into the world, to do the job that I've been charged to do.
So I'm instructed to tell the good news. Here it is: God loves you, completely and unreservedly. He longs for you to respond to that love, by loving God and by loving each other. Human nature is such that love is a good technique for coping with the world; love brings light and life to everyone it touches. Love is the best possible demonstration of the nature of God, and Christmas Day is a great day to express what love you can for those of your friends and family that come your way.
A very merry Christmas to you all.