Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The biggest decision you will ever make

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God... John 1:11-12

Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh, must be received.

That’s the essence of these great words from the opening of John’s Gospel. Every time I hear them read - which is pretty often around this time of year! - I hope to hear that second “did” declared in ringing, joyful italics, so to speak: Jesus’ own people did not receive him; but there were those who did, thank God!

And the question we can’t avoid is: are you numbered among them? Have you or have you not “received” Jesus?

Just in case we aren’t sure what receiving Jesus actually means, John spells it out for us: those who receive Jesus are those “who believe in his name”. And believing in his name means accepting him for who he is, the divine Son of God, our saviour, lord, king and friend. 

To believe in this sense - not just cold, detached, mental assent - is a life-transforming thing; nothing can ever be the same again. It means that you have had your sins forgiven; that you can be sure of eternal life; and that you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. You become, as John goes on to make clear, a “child of God”. (It just gets better and better, doesn’t it?)

So back to the key question: have you received Jesus? Make no mistake, this is a clear-cut event in your life; it is a decision, an action. It doesn’t just creep on you without you noticing it - any more than, say, getting married does. Either you’ve done it or you haven’t.

This is where some of the hymns and songs we sing at this time of year are especially precious. I could quote several, but let me just make do with two.

First, O little town of Bethlehem. This was written by Phillips Brooks in the latter half of the 1800s, but its message remains absolutely up to date:

          No ear may hear his coming;
          But in this world of sin,
          Where meek souls will receive him, still
          The dear Christ enters in.

Yes, yes! The “dear Christ” does indeed “enter in” every time a “meek soul” chooses to receive him. I did this very quietly when I was fifteen, and it was the event that changed my life for good. But you could be fifteen, fifty or a hundred! I simply hope you can say the same.

Having described how receiving Christ happens, the carol then becomes a beautiful prayer:

          O holy child of Bethlehem,
          Descend to us, we pray;
          Cast out our sin, and enter in;
          Be born in us today.

A great prayer to hear any congregation sing. But the person who can turn “us” into “me”, “our” into “my”, and “we” into “I” is praying the most powerful and significant personal prayer he or she will ever pray. The sheer simplicity by which we receive the grace and mercy of God stands out like a beacon.

Second, Make way, make way. This was written by Graham Kendrick in the later years of the 1900s. Where Philips Brooks reflected the very personal, intense nature of receiving Christ, Kendrick captures the excitement and exhilaration involved, the mood that might go with a baptismal service or other public declaration of faith:

          Make way, make way, for Christ the King
          In splendour arrives.
          Fling wide the gates and welcome him
          Into your lives.

I love that “fling wide”, don’t you? Once you have really understood who Jesus is, and all that he has done, how can you not want to fling wide the gates of your heart!

You don’t just open the door a crack and nervously admit perhaps a little bit of Jesus. No: you welcome him whole-heartedly, as decisively as you might reach out your hands and receive a gift from a friend. 

And then? Well, you let him make you a new person, the person God always intended you to be. It won’t always be easy - the road can be long and sometimes hard. But you won’t regret it.

Receiving Jesus... Christmas means next to nothing until you have done that. It may involve offering a quiet prayer while you kneel at your bed-side; or it may mean the excitement of a public confession of faith. It is a once-for-all, life-changing thing. And, of course, for those of us who first received him many years ago, let’s not forget that it’s also a daily thing.

I wish you a Christ-filled Christmas!

Lord Jesus Christ, I gladly receive you today. Do in me, with me, and through me whatever you want to do! Amen.

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