Well good afternoon folks. My name's Ken Matthews and I'm the minister here at St Joseph's – or the 'Prime Minister' as one of my children likes to say. And this afternoon I'm not here to share with you my delusions of grandeur – instead I'd just like to ask you: 'What would turn this Christmas into a happy Christmas for you?' I posted that question on Facebook a few years ago, and here are some of the answers I received from my Facebook friends:
- A grand piano! (and a house that would fit one in…)
- An Aston Martin
- A pet baby elephant!
- Sunderland to stay up this season – as I say this was a few years ago, and Santa was not kind that year!
- That I'd stop going bald.
- My wife would like a PS4, or so I keep telling her!
- A 36 hour day and a 10 day week.
- YOU Kenneth! Or at least that's what Mariah Carey says she wants.
- A great big sackful of spare energy. And a spare sackful just in case.
- World peace. Or failing that a unicorn.
Which all goes to show not only that I have some slightly strange friends, but also that what you want and what you get are often completely different things. I mean when we get beyond the Aston Martins, the grand pianos and the more reasonable requests for and socks and handkerchiefs, perfume and jewelry – what we really want for Christmas are things so massive that it almost seems fantastical to even ask.
I met with a man recently the day after he got made redundant – and I know what he wants for Christmas. I also know of a number of couples in our church who would make the most fantastic parents and yet they remain childless – and I know what they want for Christmas. And there are so many this year who have lost loved ones, and if that's you can I say that having just buried my wife's dad five days ago – we know what you want for Christmas too.
But again what you want and what you get are often two totally different things. Or are they? That's the question! Are they? For in that reading we had a few moments ago from Luke chapter 2 the living God tells us about a Christmas gift that will exceed our wildest dreams. Did you see what the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds? It's on page 12 of your service sheet, in verse 10:
"And the angel said to them, 'Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.' "
You see what the angel is telling us is that Christ Coming at Christmas is the best news you could ever hear. To which you might say – 'Oh, come off it! It's not news – It's fantasy! It's 'away in a manager' and away with the fairies too! We've grown up out of those shepherd and angel costumes from primary school nativity plays and maybe it's time to grow up out of the Christmas story as well.' But can I just say that the events we read about here in Luke's gospel are not just great stories, they are rooted in history. I mean, if they weren't then why has Christ's birth made such a massive dent in history – by splitting it into AD and BC? Not only that, but his birth was also predicted in great detail in over 300 Old Testament prophecies including that third reading we had from the prophet Isaiah – 700 years before Jesus was born.
So while all the shepherds and angels and virgin births we read about might seem fantastical to you – we can have a lot of confidence that this actually happened. And it happened all because God wanted to bring us the best news you could ever hear. News not just for shepherds, but for everyone – whether rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, religious or non-religious – This is: "Good News… of great joy… for ALL people."
And so I guess the question is 'Why?' 'Why then is it such good news?' 'Why is there such great joy?' Well have a look down will you; verse 11 is the answer. Do you see?
"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Sav-iour, who is Christ the Lord."
You see, the angel tells the shepherds that this good news is not a free subscription to 'Sheep magazine' or a lifetime's supply of mint sauce – But because it marks the start of a great rescue operation. As God has sent a saviour for you and for me.
Now I guess most of us would react to that by thinking: 'I don't need rescuing!' In fact, I find myself in all modesty reacting to that by saying that I'm the one who is usually doing the rescuing and helping other people. And when I'm not, at least I'm not like others – 'I don't steal, I don't commit murder and I'm not a traffic warden. I'm one of the good guys.' Well can I just say that it is easy to deceive people and be deceived.
My sister-in-law told me the other day that when she was a child, she went round to a friend's house to play – And while she was there in a frenzy of scientific curiosity she took her friend's goldfish out of the fish tank because she wanted to find out how long it could survive outside of the tank. And she discovered that the answer is: Not very long at all. So she put the dead goldfish back in the tank, but in order to avoid discovery and have it floating to the top of the tank and bobing around there, she put a rock on top of it. The next time she saw her friend a few days later, the poor lass informed her that her goldfish had died. My sister-in-law feigned surprise and said: "Oh, really how did it die?" To which her friend said: "A rock fell on it."
Folks, it is easy to deceive people. And if we see God's Saviour as something we don't really need, we are deceived. We are deceived into believing the great lie – that we can live well and yet push God to the fringe of our lives. You see we can't hear the good news, until we own up to the bad news first. And the bad news is that we have not treated God as we should. He gives us fun, food, fitness, falling in love, friends – he gives us everything! Yet we take the gifts and ignore him - the giver. And though we can airbrush him out of our lives as much as we like – life without God is messy and mixed up and doesn't work. And we all know that deep down there will come a day when we will come face to face with God, who longs to have a relationship with us and guide us through the ups and downs of life. But one day we will have to face him and he will say to us: 'Well did you know me or ignore me? Were you for me or against me?'
I don't know how you do presents on Christmas morning – Actually, I know some folks who have a rule in their house that not one single present should be opened until after the Queen's speech. I think there would be a riot if we tried to do that in my house! But I just want you to imagine Christmas morning (or afternoon) in your household as you are handed by your adoring family three presents which you unwrap one by one:
- First of all you unwrap this bottle of Listerine…
- And then you unwrap some anti-dandruff shampoo…
- And then you unwrap some deodorant.
Now can I tell you that even the most self-confident of us would be feeling a bit destabilised at this point. You've been given these presents because there is a problem with breath and dandruff and BO. That's why you are given them.
Well why does God give us his son? It is because he is highlighting a massive spiritual problem – that in God's world I have not lived as I should. And I guess it's that part of the news which is why a lot of folks do a runner from God, and church and Christians... Even at Christmas. Because they hear that and they reckon that surely God is out to get them. But the angel says:
"Fear not, for behold, I bring you 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."
- Our Saviour will be called: "Christ the Lord" – as he will be God himself come to earth as a baby.
- But he will also be called "Jesus", which means rescuer – Because he will save his people from their sins.
So you see the moment this baby boy is born there are thorns in the straw. The moment he is born he is heading towards his death. Christmas inevitably leads to Easter – As 33 years later Jesus was dying on good Friday, strung up on a cross. And the Bible tells us that on that cross he paid for our sin, wiping away the wrongdoing of each and every one of us. And that is the good news – the great news of Christmas. That contrary to popular opinion God doesn't come to condemn us, but save us. He doesn't come to crush us in guilt and judgement, but free us from it. He doesn't come to kill the joy, but create it – by bringing us back into relationship with him. So can I ask you – what do you make of that? It's extraordinary, isn't it? As Christ was born he is the gift that will save me from my wrongdoing.
Let me draw to a close, with a story from the life of a friend of mine who got married a few years ago. Shortly after he got married his wife said to him, 'Darling, I'd like you to wear a bicycle helmet.' He hadn't worn a bicycle helmet cycling around London for 14 years, and he wasn't about to start. So for six months she said to him, 'I'd like you to wear a helmet' and week after week he just laughed it off. And then she said to him, 'If you don't wear a helmet, then I will know that you don't love me.' Which is an interesting strategy, is in it? I mean where do you go with that one? Straight to the bike shop I guess! Which is exactly what he did – he got a helmet.
And 3 months after he started wearing said helmet he was cycling along and as he turned a corner his front wheel got stuck in a drain – and he was pitched straight over the top of his handle bars and he torpedoed the pavement with his head. He absolutely smashed it. And he has no doubt at all that he would have killed himself if he hadn't been wearing his bicycle helmet. There is an artery here right at the front of our skulls, that pumps blood around the head and if it gets ruptured your head fills up with blood and you're dead in 15 to 20 minutes. And so my friend keeps his smashed up helmet in his office to remind him of the fact that his wife saved his life. And he says he does find that particularly helpful when he's struggling with marriage. But every day he gets up and goes about his business knowing that day is a gift from her – for she saved his life.
Folks, could it be that the angel spoke the truth? That the baby in the manger came to save us from a life damaged and wasted by living without our maker now and the reality of judgement beyond the grave? Could it be that he came to rescue us and bring good news, of great joy for all people – every day for the rest of our lives and on into the perfect peace of eternity? And all I want to say is: 'Why not be like the shepherds and go and check it out?'
- The first step in that might be to read one of the historical eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life like these copies of Mark's gospel which we have for you take on your way out.
- Or you could come back early in the New Year to that Life Explored taster session that Jonathan mentioned at the start of the service.
I hope you have a great Christmas – But more than that I hope you find in Jesus what the angel promised – the best news you've ever heard. Happy Christmas to you all.