Christmas Day

The Text: Luke 2:11-20

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If you were asked what the most important thing to happen in history was, how would you reply? The sixth person interviewedby a newspaper reporter was a 14-year-old schoolboy who said, “The birth of Jesus Christ.” He believed the birth of Jesus was the greatest event in our world since its creation. For us, Christmas is a holy day as well as a holiday. Christmas is an event too divine, too glorious and too precious to reduce our wishes to others as “Season’s Greetings”. Without our Saviour’s birth, there would be nothing of real and lasting meaning for us. Christmas regenerates our lives each year; its celebration seems perennially new as it inspires new songs, new music, new artwork, and new presentations of the Christmas story.

The surprising way in which God comes to us shatters our preconceptions of how God ought to act. Christmas is the scandal of our Almighty God coming into our world as a helpless baby, lying in an animals’ feeding box. No elaborate preparations were made for this, the greatest birth ever. God’s true greatness is seen in His humility on Christmas night in Bethlehem. By His breath-taking humility, God raises us up to new heights of glorious joy and wonder. He came down to earth to first seek and save the lost; to experience an ordinary human life with us; and to model that human life for us so it might be our lifelong passion and endeavour to be like Jesus.

To save us from our sinful human nature and be reunited with Him, God came to us as a baby crying in His mother’s arms, as she fed Him and rocked Him to sleep. God didn’t want to scare anyone at Christmas with His great power, but reminds us that his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). He didn’t force his way into our world. Instead, He came to share our vulnerability and need. He came in love and in the powerlessness of a newborn baby.

The angel gives the shepherds a sign “You will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (v 12). Now there’s nothing especially religious or miraculous about this sign, and its lowliness didn’t deter the shepherds from going to the stable to see their Saviour lying there. When the angel says “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour” (v. 11), the words “to you” mean us too. We are also beneficiaries of this amazing event. Jesus belongs to you and me as much as He does to Mary.

In the hour of His birth, this good news of great joy is announced by an angel. The contrast between the humble setting of His birth and the splendour of the angel’s announcement couldn’t be more dramatic. And then a host of angels engage in praise and adoration of the wonderful thing God has done, giving God the glory for His wondrous deeds. Their Christmas song is still heard by us two thousand years on in our Sunday services. Their Christmas anthem is the climax to the Christmas story.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those who enjoy His favour” (v. 14)

Jesus has brought the glory of God down among us so that we might never stop praising our marvellous God. The birth of Jesus brings heaven down to earth for us. The vision of God’s glory is no longer restricted to the angels in heaven. It’s now revealed to us in the human face of Christ. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In our Christmas carols, we’re telling the world that heaven has come down to earth through the birth and life of Jesus. The angel’s Christmas carol permeates our whole worship. We join the angels in praising God for the marvellous way His Son comes to us. The more we enjoy all the wonderful gifts God has given us, the more we can’t help but give Him the glory. To do so is to acknowledge His primary importance in our lives and to praise His everlasting goodness, grace and mercy. King David’s prayer, “Let your glory be over all the earth” is now being fulfilled (Psalm 57:5). Praise of God is joy expressed in words, music and song. We praise the most what we love and treasure the most. When we sing with the angels “Glory to God in the highest”, we’re expressing enjoyment of our Creator. We’re living again as God created us to live; we do what God created us to do.

With the psalmist we say, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you (Psalm 9:1-2).” We have received immeasurable blessings in our lives from celebrating Christmas year after year.

A common prayer request at this time of year is for harmony, peace and calmness of spirit to reign supreme when family members get together at Christmas. The Christ of Christmas says, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, because what peacemakers do is so urgently needed and so full of blessings for everyone involved (Matt 5:9).

“People who work for peace in a peaceful way plant a good crop of right-living (James 3:18).” What a wonderful incentive that is to make the “peace on earth” of Christmas an essential part of our relationships with each other. Peacemaking is meant to be a tonic rather than a tranquiliser as it aims to make others keen to be peacemakers too.

When we give Jesus the broken pieces of our lives, He gives us His unbroken peace, peace such as this world cannot give, peace which blesses us with His gift of patience and makes us so much easier to live with. The peace of Christ becomes the still-point in our madly turning world, a blessing no change of circumstances can destroy. His peace is a creative gift that brings a soothing sense of serenity and calmness to those who eagerly embrace and treasure it. Nothing can bring you peace of heart and mind quicker than to pray about the things that make you angry and upset. Let us all pray that God will make us His instruments of peace this Christmas season.

After hearing the angels’ message, going to the manger in Bethlehem becomes more important for the shepherds than anything else.

What would you have done if you’d been one of them?

What is it in your life that matters more than anything else?

What if some of the shepherds had said they had to work, or that the stable was too far, or that they didn’t have time?

What if, years later, a shepherd who didn’t go, reported to his grandson: “Years ago when I was young, and I was watching sheep at night near Bethlehem, a bright light appeared in the sky and a voice said; ‘I bring you good news of great joy. To you is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord.” The old man’s story would finish. His grandson would look puzzled and ask what happened. The old shepherd would have to reply, “I never found out. I never went to see. Some shepherds said they saw the Christ-child. For me, I could never be quite sure. I couldn’t be bothered going.”

We too are called as the shepherds were called, to go and pay homage to the Saviour of us all. The shepherds went without hesitation and experienced the greatest night of their lives. They had believed without first seeing, and their faith was vindicated. This filled them with endless courage to share the good news of our Saviour’s birth with those around them. They took the light of Christmas into the darkness of their lives, never to be the same again.

God came Himself to save our fallen world. He came through His Son. The Word became flesh because only in flesh could Christ demonstrate ultimate and uttermost love to us human beings. The story of Christmas continues every Sunday in our worship, where we continue to sing the angel’s song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those who enjoy His favour.”

The glorious joy of Christmas is yours to enjoy as long as you live.

Good Christians all, rejoice

with heart and soul and voice;

give good heed to what we say

Jesus Christ is born today!

Amen.

Christmas Day 2019

The Text: Matthew 2:13-23

 

Here we are just a few days from the joy of Christmas Day and we hear the horrible story of King Herod’s massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel.20180311_103505 (1)

Matthew’s version of the events of the first Christmas is quite different to that of St Luke’s. Matthew begins with the confused and bewildered Joseph planning to separate from his fiancé. She is pregnant. Joseph has nothing to sing about. He believes that Mary has been unfaithful to him.

Matthew makes no mention of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the journey made by a heavily pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the lack of accommodation, a stable, or a manger. Matthew makes no mention of angels announcing the Saviour’s birth to shepherds or of the shepherds visiting the newborn child and singing praises to God on their way back to their flocks. In Luke’s account, there is room to imagine that “the stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” and to picture the peace and joy that fell on Bethlehem the night Jesus was born:

O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see you lie!

Above your deep and dreamless sleep

the silent stars go by.”

Matthew’s version of events is quite different. There is nothing sweet and gentle but the birth of Jesus is set against the backdrop of treachery and murder. He tells us “Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king” (Matt 2:1).

Herod had a reputation for being a cruel and bloody king. It is well documented that Herod murdered his own wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brothers-in-law, his uncle, and whoever else posed a threat to his throne. So those who first heard Matthew’s Christmas account would have gasped in horror when the wise men turned up at Herod’s palace to ask, “Where is the baby to be born king of the Jews?” They knew how suspicious Herod was. He always suspected others were plotting against him, even when they weren’t. And Herod doesn’t disappoint us; he plots to get rid of this so-called King of the Jews. He asks the wisemen to report to him when they have found the baby. He pretends that he too would like to go and worship him. His first attempt to get rid of this newborn king fails when the wisemen are warned not to go back to him.

Herod would not rest. “He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger—this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared.” (Matt 2:16). Herod was thorough. No boy born in that region about the same age as Jesus would remain alive. But before Herod’s soldiers arrive at Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, escape during the night and go to Egypt.

In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem is known not only as the place where Jesus was born, but also the place where Herod’s soldiers slaughtered babies and toddlers. This is not a place where, as the carol says, “the silent stars go by” but a place where the loud crying of parents is heard because their children, who had done nothing, were now dead. Matthew’s Christmas pageant ends, not with tinsel-covered angels proclaiming good-will, but with Rachel (the wife of Jacob, believed to be buried near Bethlehem) weeping for her descendants.

Matthew has placed the birth of Jesus right in the middle of the real world where rulers like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mugabe (Mah-gah-bee) slaughter children for their own political ends. He has come into a world where many more babies than the babies of Bethlehem are aborted every day, others are brutally treated and killed, and others are sold into prostitution or slavery. The baby Jesus has come into a world where more children die of hunger every minute than the children of Bethlehem died at Herod’s command.

Matthew wants to make it clear that Jesus wasn’t born into a fairy-tale world. We leave Herod out of the Christmas story – he doesn’t fit with Santa and his jolly ‘ho-ho-ho’ or with the baby Jesus in the sweet-smelling hay. Matthew presents a story about Christmas that is far from the sanitised and often sentimental story that we are familiar with. Jesus came into a world that is far from perfect, in fact a very evil world. Into the real world where we live, and work and struggle, and work, has come a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He doesn’t remain above the trouble of this world. Rather he enters into the fray as a baby, he becomes as vulnerable and helpless as the baby boys of Bethlehem.

All this gives us an idea of how magnificent it is that God became a human. There is so much wickedness and sin that the holy God could have refused to send us his Son. And it’s only when we keep this context in the forefront that we can appreciate the awesome reality of God’s entry into the fallen world. Jesus Christ comes to us, not into a picture-perfect peaceful world of serenity and tranquillity. No, Jesus Christ comes to us into the real world, a world of pain and death and suffering and evil.

Matthew’s version of the Christmas story has a lot to say to us as we encounter adversity, suffering, grief and death in our own lives. This may not be the Christmas story that we like but it’s the Christmas story we need. Remember, it is Matthew who reminds us that Jesus is Immanuel, which means “God with us”. We need to know that God is with us even when we feel that he is a million miles away. We need to know that God is right here with us when things are getting us down, when our sorrow is overwhelming, when death stares us in the face. We need to know that God will never consider us too sinful or too far away from him. This is a story about God’s love that will do anything to be with us and help us when we need him the most.

Today we celebrate our Lord’s gracious promise to be with us always in life and in death. We remember this day the children of Bethlehem and the children of every time and every place who are suffering. We remember those who are working to give these children a fair go in life. As Christ’s disciples, we strive to make this world a better and happier place for the vulnerable and helpless.

Jesus Christ walks with us in this violent, stark existence to suffer with us, walk with us and take us home.

In a Russian orphanage, there were about 100 boys and girls who had been abused and abandoned – like the babies of Bethlehem, they had experienced the violence of our world. With amazement, they heard the Christmas story for the first time.

Following the story, the children were given small pieces of cardboard to make a manger. They tore up a paper serviette for straw and were given a small doll cut out of felt.

In next to no time 6-year-old Misha finished his project, not with one baby but with two babies in the manger. When Misha was asked why he had two babies in the manger he replied by retelling the story until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.

Then Misha made up his own ending to the story as he said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mama and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like the wise men did.

But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So, I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” “So, I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him – for always.”

As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him – for always.

In the suffering and pain of our lives and in the violence of our world, Jesus is Immanuel – God with us – for always.

Christmas Day 2018

You’ve done presents?  Did you like what you received?  Where there any surprises? For children, Christmas is magical, gifts, holidays, a different experience of life. And I know that parents and grandparents go to a lot of work to help that magic happen for their children. mikeNow that I am older that different experience of Christmas time that I treasure is the togetherness –  that becomes more and more important. Togetherness that is deepened and made totally secure by being together with you in worship on Christmas Eve and now on Christmas Day; joining together with others who also say that this God stuff is absolutely vital, it’s true, and it works.

What is God like at Christmas?  Firstly – a baby. Red, wrinkled, sometimes looking like life is just way too much, helpless and utterly dependent on his parents. Not our normal idea of God.

God – a human baby. Let’s explore that.

  1. God does not despise the world. No way. God chooses to enter into our world in the most real way possible, as a baby. I know there are times when we would like to have been beamed up out of this. I know that many of us have experienced things that have pushed us way beyond, and it would have been much easier to wake up and find ourselves in heaven. God does not despise the world, but chooses to work in it and through it. So we learn to look around for God at work in the here and now.
  2. God does not despise ordinary people. The birth announcement came to the shepherds. As we said last night – they were low down on the scale of who is important. God delights in our ordinariness, and wants us to know that we are loved. We don’t have to prove ourselves or be good enough. We are to trust that we are forgiven, that we are loved, and that we are invited to share in God’s holiness and goodness, simply by trusting, simply by being alive.
  3. This incarnation – God taking on human flesh and blood is not an afterthought because Adam and Eve sinned. Ever since the first moment of creation, God’s love has been expressed in physical things, and finally, in us. It is just that, in this Christmas baby, who reaches his hands out to us, this love is personal, it’s for you and me.
  4. It’s not just Mary who gives birth to Jesus. God’s love, God’s joy and delight, God’s Holy Spirit are always in work in all people, wanting that love, who is God, to come to life in each one of us, in unique, crazy, faithful, amazing, joyful, faithful, funny ways. Each one of us reflect one unique quality of God, for we are all made in God’s image, and we are all called to grow into God’s likeness.

And in the light of that, and God’s love for us, shown in this baby, we do the hard things that we have sometimes to do, embracing (maybe that’s way too strong a word), coping with things that aren’t just the way we want them to be, and not losing heart. Learning to trust that God has us, when we discover that our little ideas of who we are and how important we are have to die, and in that dying, God raises up something deeper and more joyful. God is bringing to birth something inside us which is more real, more connected to him. So we allow God to work with the stuff inside us that is not so nice. We learn to trust that the things we have to sacrifice allow God to bring forth something much bigger. We trust that the efforts and work we have put into things are not in vain and are never wasted.

So, this baby, whose birth we celebrate again this Christmas means that God does not despise the world. God does not despise ordinary people, like the shepherds, like us.

This coming to be born as a baby was not plan B. It was always part of God’s plan, because God’s love, from the very first moment of creation, takes physical shape.

And finally, this love is working in all sorts of ways to come to greater life in each one of us.

Mike Mayer.