You may have heard of a man who one Christmas was driving his family to distraction. So they persuaded him to see a doctor. For the problem was he thought he was dead while being fully alive – breathing, talking and walking. The Doctor, getting nowhere with the man, in desperation asked this question: "do you agree that dead men don't bleed?" "Certainly," was the reply. Whereupon the doctor found a needle, pricked the man's thumb and blood appeared. "Good heavens", he said … "dead men do bleed!" True or false, that illustrates a too frequent reality, well described by the atheist Aldous Huxley. He once wrote, referring to beliefs and morals:
"We don't know because we don't want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence."
That too often happens with the facts of the Christmas story – hence our leaflet for you to take on the Virgin Birth. How different were those shepherds, out in fields near Bethlehem, on that first Christmas night 2000 or so years ago! For they were truly open minded and used their intelligence on that supernatural experience we heard about in our last reading from Luke's Gospel. Luke's history writing is respected by modern historians. Also, being a medical doctor, he knew how to distinguish fact from fantasy. And so, it seemed, did the shepherds. For we read that:
"when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said [literally, "were saying" - they had a discussion and said], "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."
So "they went with haste" to see for themselves "this thing that [had] happened." And what did they find? "Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger." So that open-air supernatural experience, they knew, was for real. Reality corresponded with the message. However, someone will say, "In the 21st century we can't believe it." True, we can't imagine it, nor previously could the shepherds have imagined it, hence their fear. But always distinguish the imaginable from the believable. Those shepherds also could never have imagined anyone eating Christmas pudding 250 miles above the earth, travelling at 17,200 mph. But we know it is quite believable on an International Space Station. The British spaceman, Major Peake, did it last Christmas.
The fundamental issue is this. Is it more believable that ultimately behind this amazing universe of space and time exists an "He" or an "It" - the living God or an impersonal force? Alongside billions of others, for a spaceman known world-wide, the answer has been obvious - the living God. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, sadly died last Friday. However, before he died he publicly confessed that the awesome and magnificient view of our earth from outer space had reinforced his faith. I quote:
"To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible."
What then did the shepherds do, when convinced that their experience that first Christmas eve was real? Answer: they told others. For the very next verse that follows our reading (Luke 2 verse 17) says this:
"they made known the saying that had been told them."
The shepherds were sharing with others the angel's message that they now believed on good evidence. And that message was …
"… good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
It was good news in four ways. First, it was good news...
For All People
Jesus Christ came that first Christmas, yes, first to the Jews but then for all. So it is for everyone here tonight – whatever your wealth, health, education, colour, sex, or country of birth - it is for you. Secondly, it was good news that...
A Saviour was Born
Then as now, the real problem with the world is not lack of knowledge or a bad environment. The real problem is not something either education or science will solve. Yes, they and other solutions help with the symptoms. But the real problem is the sin of men and women. We live, as we sang, in "a weary world … with woes of sin and strife … and man at war with man." And there are people here tonight knowing only too well sadness or worse, through others' or their own sin. And we all sin in various ways through what we do, and also through the good we fail to do. The prophet Isaiah was amazingly looking forward, as we heard in our third reading, to Christmas and the birth of a child. The child would be the longed for Messiah to save the nation spiritually and politically. But later in Isaiah we read this:
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – everyone – to his own way."
And that is sin – ignoring God's way and doing what we want. From the person who says, "me first" and not God, to the online fraud of bogus retailers trying to get this month the card details of Christmas shoppers, you have the same problem. It is sin and selfishness. But Jesus Christ is unique because, as Saviour, he came to deal with sin. And how? Christ saves you from the guilt of sin and the judgment you deserve from a loving and forgiving but sin-hating God. He saves you from the power of sin, by giving you new life and the Holy Spirit to start living God's way. And through Jesus' Resurrection, leaving an Empty Tomb, he saves you for a wonderful eternal future beyond your death as you trust in him.
So Jesus was born to die for sin. That is why there are Christmas Communion services. They celebrate Jesus' death which means, as a Communion hymn puts it: "in my place condemned he stood," with the response, "Hallelujah, what a Saviour." So you can now have peace with God. "God and sinners [are] reconciled," as we will sing in our last carol. Who tonight knows they need to get right with God and to accept Christ's forgiveness and peace? What a better time to do that than at Christmas? Then, thirdly, the shepherds were telling that the one born was...
A Saviour who is Christ
'Christ' is Greek for Hebrew 'Messiah'. The good news of Jesus being the 'Christ' is that history is not out of control. The West and much of the world may be at a tipping point. But whatever the future, trust God; for he is in control. Prophets like Isaiah looked forward to a time when God, as the Bible puts it, would "visit and redeem his people", righting wrong through his Messiah. That new age (or kingdom) was dawning with the birth of Jesus Christ. And all will be fulfilled and consummated when he returns at the end of history and for judgment as we say in the Creed and as this Advent Season traditionally reminds you as one of those four last things - death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Yes, God has a plan for this world, and he is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year. And he has a good plan for your life. You may have messed things up, but God can and will still use you as you trust and obey him in his good plan. But then, fourthly, and supremely, the Christmas message of the shepherds and the angel is that our Saviour is not only Christ, but also...
The word 'Lord' translates the name of God in the Old Testament. It is a mystery. But our first reading made it clear, as did the first choir item: the God, who is love, and is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, came down at Christmas in the person of God the Son, and became the baby in a manger.
I heard of a contemporary of mine whose father was absent in World War II. To keep his memory alive, his mother daily took him to look at a large portrait of her husband. One day as he stood looking, he said to his mother: "wouldn't it be wonderful if Father could just step down out of the frame." Well, that first Christmas God stepped down "out of his frame", and that prophecy of 'Immanuel' came true. 'Immanuel' means, God with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. So you never need be alone. For Christ the Lord is with you always as you trust him, to guide, help, protect and forgive you. Note, finally, the message the shepherds were sharing was direct and personal. It was for "you". For,
"unto you is born this day... a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
So, the Christmas Question is this: "Is Christ, your Saviour, for the past, present and eternal future; and is he your Lord whom you not only trust but also obey?" And this, "Why not, if you can, follow the shepherds' example, and be open minded, and, when convinced, tell others the message that is for all, and all need to hear: 'There is a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord'?"