Christmas is a difficult time to be a preacher.
I mean … we’ve done it before.
Often quite often.
And if you are not very careful it gets such a same-iness about it when you’ve done it so often before.
Already - in late November - Ministers’ groups on Facebook have people posting the question: ‘what are you going to do for Christmas THIS year?'
And then, of course, the preacher is up against the fact that the whole Christmas thing has got such an overlay of distraction from the essential Christian issues of the Incarnation of God the Son and His mission to redeem, and that makes it difficult to make the most of its meaning.
And then again, it is the time of year when the average church turns out a bigger crowd than gets managed at any other time of the year, at a time when people arrive trying to make it all about what it’s NOT about so the preacher feels embattled with trying to show how it is RELEVANT and DESIRABLE in its ACTUAL point to the people who have turned up in force with their ears tightly shut to the sermon.
So this year as we approach Christmas I’m going to do what I almost never do and start the preaching process from the wrong end.
That is, I'm starting with the deep human need for five things which really most people experience in some way, then demonstrate how Christmas’s actual Christ meets them all.
Dan Strange … who is a very interesting man who heads up the work at Oak Hill Theological College … has written a book called ‘Making Faith Magnetic’ which deals with what he calls his five ‘Magnetic Points’ that make faith in Christ attractive to people.
Those magnetic points are the things that a theologian from a previous generation called Hermann Bavinck discovered that people from many different world religions were looking for in life, and that made them search after God.
Dan Strange picks up those five yearnings of the human heart and calls them the Five Magnetic Points, and he writes:
“These magnetic points act as a kind of ‘religious anatomy’ of fallen human beings who both know God and don’t know Him at the same time. Or to put it another way, these are five permanent ‘itches’ that in our work, rest and play, we have to vigorously scratch.”
Bavinck applied these (with different names) to the deepest human desires of people from the major world religions.
Strange applies these to modern secular people.
And then he says this:
“In Jesus Christ, God is jumping up and down, waving His hands and saying, ‘Here I Am, look, it’s me’. And what do we do? We don’t recognise Him. We ignore Him. We reject Him.
No, God’s not hiding … but He’s the best seeker.”
So people all flock into church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.
They have their eyes and ears shut to anything the preacher wants to say about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, but their hearts yearn for what Jesus Christ actually offers them as they wrestle with the harder experiences and empty voids in their lives and what I want to do in the run up to Christmas this year is highlight how the incarnate Christ of Christmas swings their needle towards Himself from these five magnetic points … making not so much faith but the incarnate Son of God, Himself, attractive.
If that seems a bit confusing at this point, let me tell you what these deep yearnings, these five ‘magnetic points’ of attraction are and then you’ll get it.
The Five Magnetic Points
Dan Strange uses the idea of ‘Totality’ to describe the sense people have of a universal bond that connects us all … a desire to find that bond … the one that holds us together as cogs in a bigger purposeful machine.
Human beings have this sense that “we do not stand alone as islands in the universe but somehow belong to something bigger, something greater. It’s the recognition that we want to feel a part of the universe and have some solidarity and connection with it. At the same time, we also need to know that we are apart from the universe, lest we lose our individuality … and end up being swallowed up by the whole.”
There’s a tension in it.
On the one hand we want to be part of the big thing, but on the other hand we need to maintain our individuality and not be swallowed up in it.
The idea of a certain strand in Hindu yogic thought that ‘I’m just a bubble in a cosmic sea waiting to merge’ is a pretty nightmare-ish vision to most of us.
We long to be part, without losing our identity in the whole.
That’s the yearning Dan Strange identifies as the deep desire to be part of the big system we’re in, he calls it ‘Totality’ … and the Incarnation has a lot to say to that.
The second magnetic point that draws people to the Incarnate Christ is the desire for a clear ‘Way’ to live.
People want to be free, but they want to know the way to live.
Clearly Christ coming at Christmas came to show us that Way, long prophesied by the likes of Isaiah, for example, in Isaiah 35:8.
Then there’s the desire for ‘deliverance’ … the desire for a way out.
We know the world is just not right … it is broken, full of wrong-doing, suffering and death!
There is a sense that there must be something more … something better … and that means there is stuff that will need fixing!
Stuff like what?
Well, of course, death is (as Dan Strange puts it p. 61) “the final confirmation of our sneaking suspicion that all is not right with the world” … and the Christ Who came at Christmas came to address the fundamental yearning for such deliverance from the state things are in with this world.
The fourth ‘magnetic point’ Dan Strange (and of course Bavinck before him) identifies in our secular culture (as Bavinck did in the world’s great religion’s cultures) that make the Christ of Christmas attractive is this issue that he describes for us as ‘Destiny’.
It seeks answers about who controls our lives.
“This magnetic point is about the need to be in control and yet knowing we are somehow captive to events. It’s about freedom versus fate.”
(Dan Strange, p.65)
It’s a sense, a question mark, a yearning hanging over human life that underlies a lot of our superstitions and our little rituals … but we’re just pointing it out here and will return to see how Christ’s incarnation at Christmas really addresses this point:
Who’s actually running this life so things work out the way that they do?
• Higher Power
The final and fifth unifying consciousness addressed by Christ and Christmas is described as the yearning to find the Higher Power.
“It asks whether there is a way beyond the realm of our normal experience - a way to connect with someone or something higher than ourselves.”
(Dan Strange p.75)
Another word for this might be transcendence … we’ll come to this in a few weeks time, but I reckon the desire people have to get out of their lives to transcendence is a POWERFUL urge and search in our society.
For now, we’re starting to look this week at how the Christ in Christmas addresses the yearning for ‘Totality’, the longing to know our connection, but also our individual part, in the far bigger thing we know we meant to be connected to, in relationship with and part of.
• The problem of deviation and the compass
Now, here’s the thing.
Romans 1 tells us that
“what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
We have these yearnings and inclinations towards God that He put in us at our Creation to be in the image of God … they’re things that draw us to God and His answers.
But the thing that happened at the Fall when humanity turned away from God was that humanity started to hide away from God … whilst still having within themselves these deep yearnings for the way things were before, yearnings that He’d fulfil if they stopped turning away and turned back.
Instead of that humanity suppresses those clues in their own constitution and subsitutes other ways to try to address those yearnings that don’t involve God.
You get a tiny illustration, perhaps, of that in the way people love to celebrate Christmas … so long as you leave Christ on the side of the plate and substitute all the materialist Christmas celebration that He was NOT about.
And it’s addressing that hiding and suppressing and substitution that brings the solution to the frustrated yearnings that are still hard-wired into us.
We need to know how to handle this Biblically with people to share Christ at Christmas … to know how the Incarnate first Christmas Christ has solved these issues.
There’s magnetic deviation affecting the points on the compass.
Paul puts it like this in Romans 1:18-20 & then vv. 22-25
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse …
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised. Amen.”
But this series is NOT about the mess our world’s got into.
It’s about addressing where all this has got us from what Christ came to do at Christmas.
It’s all about how coming back addresses the angst leaving has got humanity into.
• Totality and God Incarnate in Ephesians 2
The first thing that was left behind, which put a longing for God’s answers in the hiding heart of humanity, was that humans have been left with an abiding sense of something bigger: “… we want to feel a part of the universe and have some solidarity and connection with it. At the same time we also need to know we are apart from the universe, lest we lose our individuality, our identity, our ‘Me-ness’, and end up being swallowed up by the whole.
This means that with this sense of totality comes a tension.”
(Dan Strange pp. 34-35)
By way of illustration of how this shows itself, online groups and identities are one way people seek for a sense of totality.
You see it with
· Family history researching,
· Conspiracy theory enthusiasts,
· Pride marches
… any in-crowd activity where ‘the others’ are on the outside.
“This then is our first magnetic point: totality. Is there a way to connect? What is my relationship with the rest of reality and what does that relationship mean for my identity, individuality and my significance? How is it that I’m both part and apart, a speck and special, nothing and noble? These are the questions to which we keep returning.” (Dan Strange, p. 41)
In terms of handling this issue Biblically, then, you could look at how Ephesians 2 takes us from God initiating salvation in eternity past to the divided people of the world being built together into a holy Temple in which God lives by His Holy Spirit for a unifying purpose.
• The Story of the letter to the Ephesians
The basic story of Ephesians is that God hasn’t lost all control in the rebellion of humanity but from eternity had a plan to bring humanity back.
Ephesians 1 bursts out in praise to the Sovereign God Who has chosen His people as the key point in His purposes in Christ to live holy and without blame before Him by HIMSELF doing everything necessary to bring them back.
Ephesians 2 tells us the nuts and bolts about how Christ accomplished this … so it is CENTRAL to the first magnetic yearning for Totality … the sense of being brought back to God to be an individual part of and connected to the ’something bigger’.
So, in vv. 1-9 of Ephesians 2 Paul covers the new identity of saved believers in union with Christ.
• The Individual’s new individual identity in Christ, vv. 1-9
The Apostle is going to present his readers with the attractiveness of the believer’s new personal identity in the Incarnate Christ.
But first He highights their new identity by painting a painful picture of where we were before we knew the Lord.
• The pain of pre-Christian isolation, v. 1-3
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,
in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.”
And then Paul moves on to set out …
• The glorious transformation when we’re united to Christ, vv. 4-9
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God –
not by works, so that no one can boast.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
There, you see, right at the end there?
There’s the far bigger thing He’s made us part of.
And then there’s this repeated theme of being
· ‘with Christ’
· ‘in Christ’
Repeated ideas that give us the key to being connected to the great big reality … the glorious transformation when we’re united to the Christ Who came at Christmas is we’re now connected to He Who fills everything thing in every way.
And the Incarnation and its purpose in Christ’s sin-atoning death and death-destroying resurrection is to restore the fundamental purpose we were made for … Adam and Eve were pictured in Paradise walking with God in the cool of the day.
In Him … connected to the Creation by connection to the Creator.
With Him … in relationship, in community, in fellowship with the Christ Who actually came at Christmas to achieve this goal of returning humanity to the shared life of God … here’s how it works …
• An identity in Christ with a particular purpose, v. 10
The whole point of being a follower of the Christmas Christ is to be connected … connected initially to Christ and the work that He has for ALL of us.
to come to Christ is to come to a place that’s made just for us in His corporate purpose.
And here that corporate purpose is spelled out:
v. 10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Just as Christ became ‘embodied’ (in a fleshly body) at Christmas, so His individual followers by very purpose and definition come to ‘embody’ (from their conversion onwards) HIS plans and purposes … in His Church.
As individuals we are by definition made connected because we gain a new corporate identity in the body of God’s people where each of us has a place, a role and a function in the corporate purpose.
And In His Church this is made possible by the redemption that He brings from the sin that divides us from others and a unity with all these other awkward individualists which is built by the Spirit of God.
So that’s what He does to create the individual’s new identity connected to Him but you can see it leads inevitably into …
• The individual’s new corporate identity in Christ’s people, vv. 11-22
It is TOGETHER that we’ve been (as vv. 11-13 tells us) …
• Brought near by the blood of Christ, vv. 11-13
And having all been saved individually, and brought together by the ‘in Christ’ and ‘with Christ’ thing that happens to us, the experience of being brought together ‘in Christ’ and ‘with Christ’ transcends our individualism (with its loneliness and isolation) and our narrow nationalism and tribalism (which we’ve substituted into the gap left as we’ve taken leave of God) and creates out of all people and all nations who are now united to Christ what Paul calls …
• One new humanity, vv. 14-18
The people of our world are looking for a personal identity … and God is building each individual that turns to Christ their own identity, in the corporate ‘totality’ of the new humanity … the people of God.
There’s the transcendent identity we crave, but there’s a bonus.
That identity brings with it a big transcendent purpose.
• One holy Temple in the Lord, vv. 19-22
· to ‘incarnate’ God’s presence on earth (by His indwelling Holy Spirit),
· to worship Him and
· draw the Nations to His light
… just the way the old Jerusalem Temple did
· and to point to His self-sacrificial atonement for sin (also the way the Jerusalem Temple did through the sacrificial system).
So look, the point that all these things we’ve been learning from Ephesians 2 is that …
• Jesus is the way we ‘connect’
Firstly, He is the way we connect to the God Who made and fills everything.
As Ephesians 2 says:
“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.
18 For through him we both …
(and there he’s talking about the whole of humanity comprising both Jews and Gentiles)
have access to the Father by one Spirit.
(there’s the problem we all feel, the yearning for being part of the Totality … we feel isolated and out of the system like foreigners and strangers) ..
but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
(And here comes the purpose …)
21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
The way we connect is by being united to God again, but this time in the Christ Who’s reconnection mission was started at Christmas.
The death and resurrection at the big crescendo of this Messiah’s mission are what subverted sin’s ‘disconnect’ and achieved atonement … the great big ‘re-connect’!
And the first Christmas was where that ball started rolling.
Now, we know the importance of staying close to Christ for ourselves.
We know that this is possible for us because the Lord Jesus died on the Cross for our sin to take away the alienation from God (and from His Creation, by the way) that sin brought to us.
And we ourselves have probably known something of that sense of needing to be connected not isolated in this world … without losing our individual identity in the process.
We may have felt that particularly in the recent times of lockdown.
But have we ever considered the way our non-Christian friends might be encountering this ‘magnetic point’, and have we ever thought about how that applies to how we share the ‘connection’-making Saviour Who came at that first Christmas to set about achieving this?
My suggestion to you from Ephesians 2 today is this: we really OUGHT to be presenting this misunderstood but really crucial Christmas thing to people’s deep-felt longing at this point.
And we ought not to be simply presenting but to be demonstrating that connectedness, breadth of relationship and belonging to the Totality that being ‘in’ the Christ of Christmas and ‘with’ the Lord incarnate that our salvation leads to.