Christmas message from the President of the Methodist Conference

The President of the Methodist Conference, Revd Dr Martyn Atkins offers this message for Christmas 2007;

'"Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for someone else?" This is the crucial question the imprisoned John the Baptist asks his disciples to pose to Jesus (Luke 7:19).

'Who we are expecting to come at Christmas, is a crucial issue for many of us today, and we are not always helped by the romantic images of an essentially Victorian image of Christmas. So I thought I'd write a devotional piece.

'When Jesus Christ came into our world he was more ordinary and human than many expected - both then, and now. The ancient Jews had expected Messiah for a long time, and their expectations increased over time. Older expectations of the coming of a great but essentially human King became anticipation of a more supernatural figure. They expected a mighty warrior who, Superman like, could remove invaders from the land, and purify the Temple with a wave of his hand. Or he would be the perfect Law keeping machine, the immaculate Pharisee.

'And into the world God comes, self sent, as a baby. Among all the super expectations, Jesus Christ comes, plainly human. "Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man."

'It's ironic that many people today are so perturbed by the miraculous nature of the Christmas story. "You do realise stars can't switch on and off, don't you?" "A virgin birth? Yeah, right!" It's ironic because the people of the period were more perturbed by the very ordinariness of it all. "The Messiah, here in this barn? Born of folk like this?"

'The coming of Jesus, against many expectations, today as then, is of one who comes near, is like us, involved with the here and now and not just the there and then. There is stupendous height involved in the coming of Jesus, but not remote distance. His name makes that clear - he is Immanuel - God with us.

'As the thunder crashed, little Carol leaped out of bed, ran downstairs to her mother and cuddled into her. Mum stroked her gently for a while then said, "there's no need to be scared, God will look after you." "I know that," said Carol, "But I needed someone with skin on!" And God knew that was true for us all. Which is why Christmas is as it is.

'So to those readers who feel God is far away, a remote figure, for a multitude of reasons, I hope and pray you experience God in Jesus Christ drawing near, Immanuel with you this Christmastide.

'I think too that Jesus was more gracious than many expected, then and now.

'For example, it is clear in the Christmas narratives that the One born of Mary is no merely national hero or king, but is King of all. His saving coming is for everyone, not just some. So that each time anyone tries to 'capture' him, or make him 'theirs' he refuses to be held captive and goes beyond each and every restrictive expectation. God's graciousness in Jesus makes plain that God's love and saving intent is for all, not for some. Christmas is a universal declaration of God's desires and intentions for all, for the whole planet. There is nothing small or cosy about Christmas.

'But there is a second way in which God's great graciousness in Christ made clear at Christmas needs to be realized and received, and I have wrestled with this grace myself over many years. It is this. If God's saving grace and universal love is for all, then it extends to everyone, including us, and not, as so many of us seem to believe, everyone else except us. Jesus Christ is more gracious than we expect or deserve.

'So this Christmas, if you are being too hard on yourself, if you feel that you are just so unworthy or unforgivable, remember that God in Jesus is more gracious than you can imagine, and take heart.

'Lastly, I think Jesus was greater than many expected, then and now.

'This was the experience of Jesus' disciples. After many experiences with him, one day he turns to them and says "and who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter, speaking for them all, replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." We cannot begin to imagine what it took for a loyal, monotheist Jew to say such a thing. But it is clear that the more of Jesus they experience, the greater he exceeds their expectations.

'Often, usually, the more we know about someone the more we become aware of their failings and limitations. For example, by the end of the first week of a new year at Cliff College, students are waxing lyrical about their new friends - they are brilliant. But after three months, or three years together, they have usually tempered their judgement! But experiencing Jesus Christ works the other way round - it just gets better and better. There is always more to experience.

'So, in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, when the children return to Narnia a second time and meet the (Christ) lion, Lucy exclaims, "Aslan you've grown". The lion replies, "no child, you are older".

'Most of our Christmas cards will have arrived by now. But when the first card dropped through young Carol's letterbox she ripped it open eagerly as mum watched on. Carol's face fell. 'What's the matter?' asked mum. 'It's Jesus' she replied looking at the nativity scene on the Christmas card, 'he was a baby last year, I thought he'd be walking by now!'

'This Christmas, and as we approach the year of our Lord 2008, I don't know what conceptions of God in Jesus Christ you have, but I suggest you make them greater.

'A very blessed Christmastide to you all.'

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