This is the first in an Advent series by Dr Andrew Ollerton.
A few years ago my wife and I bought our son a bike for Christmas. Now that's a hard one to wrap up and disguise under the tree. So we hid the bike behind the curtain in the bay window of our living room.
As a token, we wrapped up a bell for said bike and put that under the tree instead. Unfortunately, when he opened the bell, he totally missed the point. Isolated from the bike, it did not appear to be good news at all. He began to wail uncontrollably: 'I don't want a new bell, I want a new bike!' The only way to console him was to draw back the curtains and reveal what the bell was intended to point to – the whole bike!
Now take that as something of a parable for our treatment of Christmas. Have you noticed how easily the nativity stories become so isolated from the rest of the Bible? During the month of December we suffer a form of festive amnesia – forgetting the rest of the Bible story, we celebrate the isolated birth of a baby boy and then box it back up and return it to the proverbial loft for another year. But Christmas is the bell that points to the whole bike.
The four Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – deliberately frame the nativity in the light of the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation. Everything came together on that holy night in Bethlehem. The arrival of that baby is the climax of the human story. As the Apostle Paul put it, the birth of Christ is 'the fulfilment of the ages' (1 Corinthians 10:11).
So during this Advent season we are going to draw back the curtains and see how each of the Gospels relates Christmas to the big story of the whole Bible.
First, let's consider Christmas according to Mark's Gospel. I know it's not the first Gospel in the New Testament but it was almost certainly the earliest written and Matthew and Luke drew from it. It's also not the easiest. Mark's Gospel doesn't do Christmas; it bypasses the traditional nativity stories of shepherds, wise men and innkeepers and cuts straight to an adult Jesus arriving on the scene and being baptised in the Jordan river.
So is Mark like those Puritans in the mid-17th century who banned Christmas altogether as a pagan distraction? Not so fast. When we draw back the curtain to reveal the whole Bible story we realise Mark's account still captures the significance of the coming of Jesus. Indeed, it has surprising connections with Christmas classics like Chris Rea's Driving Home for Christmas.
Let me explain. Towards the close of the Old Testament, God's people Israel were conquered and deported. It's the darkest time in the Old Testament, known as the Exile. After 70 years away from home they were allowed to return and through the help of Nehemiah and Ezra, rebuild Jerusalem. So they had a roof over their heads again but it just didn't feel like home – ever felt like that?
Now fast forward 400 years to Israel under Roman occupation and still feeling a long way from home. That's why the opening of Mark's Gospel is so significant. He deliberately quotes high-octane Old Testament prophecies about God coming to take his exiled people home. Isaiah 40 depicted a herald shouting in the wilderness: 'Make way, Prepare the way... God is coming!' So as John the Baptist starts roaring in the wilderness that everyone should repent and get ready, it's Mark's way of saying 'Game on!' God is coming in person as promised to defeat our enemies and like a shepherd, to lead his people home to green pastures.
Draw back the curtains, see the bigger picture – Christmas is God's decisive action to end exile and bring us home. Now can you see the connection between Mark's Gospel and Chris Rea's classic? I think one of the reasons Driving Home for Christmas has become so iconic is because deep down we feel like exiles in this broken world and we all want to go home.
Each year as family embark on homeward journeys, something resonates much deeper. The Bible is clear that in a certain the human race is away from home and in exile. We originate from the beauty of the garden of Eden but we inhabit the wilderness – the brokenness of this fallen world. So we experience what CS Lewis calls 'the desire for a far off country' – like the scent of a flower we have not found or the echo of a tune we have not heard or news from a country we have never yet visited. We are exiles longing to go home.
So Jesus Christ came into our broken world to redeem it. He came so that the human race might feel at home again in God's world. For this to be possible, aged around 30 Jesus died on a Roman cross in total exile and darkness – crucified outside the city wall, shut out of God's presence, Godforsaken. But because he was shut out, we can come home to God. As the Apostle Paul put it in Galatians, 'When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children of God' (4:4-5).
Christmas is about exiles being adopted and coming home to God. Let's finish on a practical note: this Christmas season let's make time to read the nativity accounts – perhaps Matthew 1-2 this week. Just as we make time 'driving home for Christmas', let's build in time to come home to God our father through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And why don't we open our home to others this Christmas? Not only so everyone has a roof over their head but those who feel like strangers and exiles can come home. That's what God has done for us – that's what Christmas is all about.
Dr Andrew Ollerton is author of The Bible Course and works with Bible Society. Follow him on Twitter @andyollerton