Carols by Candlelight 2015

Let me begin tonight with a jingle – not of a Christmas bell, but a verse by a church goer:

"The colour of our curate's eyes
I cannot well define.
For when he prays he closes his
And when he preaches, I close mine."

That, certainly, never could have been said about Jesus Christ. For when he was preaching, we read that a "great throng heard him gladly." Why was that? There are many reasons. But the greatest reason is in three words – it was Jesus being "God - with - us".

And that is THE HEART OF THE CHRISTMAS MESSAGE.

800 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah had said,

"behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [which means, God with us]."

So this Christmas message is the staggering claim that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived as a human being 2000 years ago, was God made man. Yes, to us it is a mystery. But once that reality is accepted – the reality that God Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby – so much makes sense.

If Jesus Christ was just a great man, the biblical record of his life is hard to believe. But if Jesus was the eternal Word, the divine agent in creating this amazing universe, the one through whom, as we heard, in our first reading "all things were made ... and without him was not anything made that was made", no wonder new creative power marked his coming into the world that first Christmas, such as a virginal conception, angels and astronomic events.

And if, as our first reading also said, "in him was life, and the life was the light of men", it is not at all strange that he, Jesus the author of life, should rise from the dead that first Easter leaving a tomb empty. As J I Packer writes:

"if he was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that he should die than that he should rise again."

And if, as recorded in biblical and secular history, he did die on the Cross, it is not at all strange that his death had huge significance for the human race.

So Jesus as "God with us" is the heart of the Christmas message.

But what, secondly, about THE TRUTH OF THE CHRISTMAS MESSAGE?

Is it believable?

Well, first, don't think it is like believing Father Christmas loves to hang out with the Tooth Fairy when he's not delivering presents and that his favourite meal is fish and chips, but he hates broccoli! According to one survey that is the belief of a fifth of five-to-eight-year old children. However, adults do not come to believe that sort of thing. But millions of adults come to believe in the God of the Bible. Why? It is because of Jesus Christ who came into this world that first Christmas and the solid evidence for his life, teaching, death and Resurrection: and how by his Holy Spirit he still works in people's lives today.

Secondly, the Bible says,

"faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ".

I believe this Christmas the average size of Brussels sprouts is likely to be a third bigger than normal, because of the warm autumn. Why? Because I've heard that from one of Britain's biggest sprout farmers. However, some do not believe in Jesus Christ simply because they choose not to hear what he and his Apostles have to say. That is why at this church we run Christianity Explored groups to encourage simple discussion studies of Mark's Gospel.

Thirdly, some think science means our first reading's claim to the divine creation of the world is unbelievable and certainly there is no future Heaven or Hell.

Just after Christmas last year the film The Theory of Everything about the physicist Stephen Hawking, starring Eddie Redmayne, was released in the UK. In real life Hawking is an atheist and says, "there is no heaven or afterlife … that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Stephen Hawking was an undergraduate contemporary of mine at the university. My last memory of him was before his illness as a cox in a rowing VIII. It was in the summer inter-college races where the aim is to bump the boat in front and go up a place, and not be bumped from behind and go down a place. In this race Hawking, as cox, was at the stern and looking forwards. I was the stroke so next to him and looking backwards. Hawking saw we were catching the boat ahead but not, as I could, the boat behind catching us up very fast. On my telling him to put our stroke rate up, he refused. Of course, we were bumped.

From what he saw, his analysis was perfectly correct, namely us catching the boat ahead. But he failed to see the other half of the truth and the more important truth, namely the boat behind catching us up faster. Sadly that is a parable of what is happening to many like him who discount spiritual realities and focus only on the material. For "the Theory of Everything" must include "everything" - not only physical issues but the fundamental issues raised by Jesus Christ.

How different was Hawking's great predecessor at Cambridge, Sir Isaac Newton. When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he didn't say "I don't need God". For he wrote his Principia Mathematica, among other things, to "persuade the thinking man to believe in God." Newton knew that physical laws referred to what God had created and were part of that creation. So to choose natural science over against God our creator is something like choosing between the laws of physics that keep this building in place and John Dobson the famous Tyneside Architect who designed it. How foolish!

That brings us finally to THE NEED OF THE CHRISTMAS MESSAGE.

And how the world needs its message of forgiveness and hope! The choir sang:

"Truly Christ taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace."

Yet the reality, as we all sang and as we all know this Christmas (from events in Paris and Syria and many other places) is that "the world has suffered long … the woes of sin and strife". And so …

"… beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong: and man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring."

That is why the one who "in the beginning was … with God, and … was God, … became flesh and dwelt among us … [and was] the light [that] shines in the darkness", as John says. But also he was given the name "Jesus", as Matthew says, "because he will save his people from their sins". And that is the world's primary need today – salvation from Godlessness and sin, which means God's forgiveness for sin, God's strength to turn from sin and the hope of Heaven.

Two days before Christmas 2013, Mikhail Kalashnikov died aged 94. In 1947 he designed for the Russian army the most prolific killing machine ever invented – his AK47; thousands, if not millions, since, have been killed by this weapon. Like most of his generation Kalashnikov grew up without any faith. But in his old age he was converted to Christ and joined the Russian Orthodox church. During his long life he had no regrets about his deadly invention. But just before he died, he wrote as follows:

"My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep asking the same insoluble question. If my rifle deprived people of life then can it be that I … a Christian and an orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?"

Who at this service can identify with Kalashnikov? You too have an "unbearable spiritual pain" for what you may have done. Maybe it is some wrong at home or at work or elsewhere. But who doesn't feel any pain whatsoever? If so, remember that in God's eyes there are not only sins of commission, the bad things you do, but also sins of omission, the good things you fail to do. The Bible says,

"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".

But the good news of Christmas is this. There is mercy and forgiveness for all who receive Christ, who came that first Christmas to die - in our place - for our sins (however bad). And risen and now reigning, by his Holy Spirit he is Immanuel (God - with - us), to comfort us, to help us obey his law of love, and to prepare us for heaven. So in response, as we sing our next Carol, may we make verse four a personal prayer:

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

Amen.

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