Advent Carols

The story is told of a little boy who was doing a school project on his family tree. He came home one day and asked, 'Daddy, where did I come from?' And Daddy, fighting shy, said, 'Well, the stork brought you.' A bit later he asked his mother, 'Mummy, where did you come from?' 'The stork brought me,' she said. Granny also happened to be staying with them so the little boy asked her, and she, too, held the line. 'The stork brought me,' she said. So next day, he went back to school and started to write his project. It began: 'There has not been a normal birth in our family for three generations.'

As far as I know, my own birth was entirely normal. I emerged on 29th April, 1966 at 3.25 in the morning - the first and last time I've been an early riser. And I confidently predict that all knowledge of my existence will in 2000 years time be lost to the human race.

So what is it about Jesus? Why, 2000 years after the event, do 100's of millions not only celebrate his birth, but live their whole lives for him? Well, the answer's there that Bible reading we had earlier. John chapter 3, verse 16: probably the most famous verse in the Bible:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

That's what those 100's of millions believe. That the birth of Jesus was not just abnormal, but unique: that no human father was involved; that the baby born to Mary was the Son, not of Joseph, but of God. And they believe that because he grew up to resemble his Father. Every week at this church, it seems there's a new baby. And you join the scrum around the carry-cot and you 'Ooh' and you 'Aah' and you say, 'Isn't she sweet? What's her name?' And the answer's David. And people love to play spot the resemblance: 'Hasn't he got his mother's nose?', and you're not entirely convinced it's got a nose, yet And when he grows up, the resemblance won't just be physical. Sooner or later his mother will say to someone, 'You know, when he does that, he's just like his father.' Well Jesus grew up. And he did things like flattening a storm at sea with a word; putting cripples back on their feet; breaking up funerals by bringing the dead back to life. And ultimately, he rose from the dead himself, after they crucified him for claiming to be God. Now Joseph may have shown him how to make a boat in his time; he never showed him how to calm the sea. Joseph may have shown him how to make a coffin. But I guarantee he never showed him how to empty one. Power over nature; power over life and death - that doesn't come on human genes. You have to be God. And that's who the baby born in Bethlehem was:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (verse 16)

If that's not true, then Christianity is the greatest lie ever told. But if it is true, it's not only the greatest story ever told; but where each of us spends eternity depends on our response to what we hear tonight. And I want to ask and answer two questions: first, Why did Jesus come? and secondly, What response is God looking for? So firstly, Why did Jesus come?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son

The question is: why? Why did God's Son become a human being? Did he come to find out how the human race was getting on? No: he knows all about us; he can read your mind right now from where he is. Did he come to teach the human race or set us an example of how to live? No: he'd done that already throughout the Old Testament. So why did he come? John 3.16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

He came to save us. It's not a word we like to use, really. It sounds a bit fanatical, a bit Billy Graham-ish. We'd rather hide behind talk of 'trying to live in a Christian way', or of 'going to church'. Because talk of being saved tells us that something is badly wrong in our lives, and that's not what we want to hear. But something is badly wrong - between us and God, and that's what Jesus came to sort out. And unless and until we come to Jesus, we are in trouble with God. And the trouble is this. Every one of us has failed to treat God as we should. He put us here to live in his world, and it's only right that we should look up to him to ask how he wants us to live. But none of us likes the idea of God telling us how to live so, we push him out and say, 'I'm going to live by what I think is right.' Consciously or subconsciously, all of us have said to God, 'Please keep out of my life. I want to live it my way.' Which is deeply offensive to God. And yet he gives us the freedom to do it. And we can do it, and tell ourselves that life still works that way, right up to the day we die. But no further. At that point, consequences come home to roost. If, all my life, I've said to God, 'Please keep out,' that's what he'll do. He'll keep out this side of death. And he'll keep me out the other side. There is a hell, as well as a heaven. That's the judgement he has to pass on us when we treat him like that. That's why verse 16 says it's possible to perish, and verse 17 it's possible to be condemned. It's a judgement God passes with no pleasure whatever. But if we refuse relationship with him, the judgement is that we get what we wanted. That's the trouble we're in, unless and until we've come to Jesus to get us out of trouble. And in order to do that, strange as it may at first sound, Jesus had to die. Just look back to verse 14. Jesus speaking:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man [that was Jesus' name for himself] must be lifted up [which is a reference to his death on a cross], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

In other words, Jesus is saying, 'In order to save you, I must die.' During the second world war a German farmer called Joseph Kremer sheltered some Jews from the Nazis. He'd built an underground bunker beneath one of his barns, in which he, his wife and baby son, and up to 20 others could hide. When they knew that a Nazi patrol was coming, everyone would get into the bunker so that the farm was to all appearances deserted. One day a patrol came and they hid. There was a long search - they could hear the footsteps overhead - but all seemed well. Until Joseph Kremer's year-old son, Daniel, began to cry. And he couldn't be settled. And 20 pairs of Jewish eyes were on him because 20 Jewish lives hung on whether he was heard. And finally Joseph Kremer took his son, clasped his hand right across the child's face and smothered him to death. So it could be fairly said that Joseph Kremer so loved the Jews that he gave his one and only son so that they should not perish, but have life. We can understand from real-life stories that one person can give his life for others. One person's death can save others. And Christianity, the greatest real-life story ever told, says this:

For God so loved the world [that includes you, whoever you are, whatever you've done, whatever your attitude to God is right now] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (verses 16-17)

Our trouble is that we've offended God and we're headed for judgement. The Christian message is that Jesus came into the world to take on himself the death and judgement we deserve so we could be forgiven. That's what happened when he died on the cross. Because he was God, he'd never sinned. Because he'd become man, he could take our place, face our judgement. So that sins have been punished - someone has paid. And sinners - that is, you and me - can be forgiven. That's the greatest story ever told: that the God we've all told to keep out of our lives so loved us nonetheless, that he sent his one and only Son. To provide a way we could be forgiven. To provide the chance of a fresh start in life, with God in his rightful place, before we meet him and it's too late. But the story doesn't end there. That's what God has done. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Which brings us to my second question. Secondly, What response is God looking for?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son. (verse 16)

That half of the verse applies to every single one of us in the building tonight: young or old; successful or in a mess; heterosexual or homosexual; Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, anything. Whoever you are, you're in that first half of the verse. Whoever you are, God wants you back that much. But the verse goes on. And the question is this: are you in the second half, as well?

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

So I'm bound to ask: do you believe in Jesus? I don't mean, 'Do you believe he existed?' which you can't seriously deny. I don't mean, 'Do you believe that he was and is the Son of God?', which you may say you do. What I mean is: have you personally put your trust in his death so as to be forgiven, and given a fresh start with God? It's a bit like the whole business of Christmas gifts. My parents are very hard to buy for, because year in, year out they say they don't want anything: 'Don't you go wasting money on us,' and so on. But you know that if one year you took them literally, and turned up with nothing, you'd be out on the streets with no turkey. So the aim for my brother and I is to buy what is undeniably useful, and undeniably cheap. Like the Newcastle United mug for my mother last year. Even then, there's that fingers-crossed moment around the Christmas tree as you wait to see whether they'll want the gift you're giving. On offer to each of us is the gift of a fresh start in life with God back in his rightful place, and our sins forgiven. And if it's a serious thing to ignore God in the first place, it's even more serious to ignore this gift. Verse 18:

Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned [fresh start, forgiven]. But whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

Which begs the question: why don't people believe? That's one of the hardest things for Christians as they tell their friends and family about Jesus, and they don't believe. Why is that? Is it because God hasn't really made himself obvious? Is it lack of evidence? No. Verses 19-20:

This is the verdict: Light [that is, Jesus] has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light, for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

The problem is not that we can't believe. The problem is that we don't want to. Because it means coming into the light of God's presence. It's like when you go off on your summer holiday. You try to work on your tan a bit before you set off, and you're quite pleased with it by the time you go. You arrive on holiday thinking, 'What a relief. I'm not going to stick out a mile as one of those pale-skinned Brits.' You step out into real sun for the first time since your last holiday. And you realise you look every inch the pale-skinned Brit. Real light shows you you're not what you think you are. We know in our heart of hearts we're not what we think we are. And if we were to come back to God we'd live our lives in the full light of his presence. I remember myself within a week of coming back to God how he started to put his finger on this and that, and change me. And that's the crunch, isn't it? We don't want to change. Not can't believe. Don't want to. I'm not saying there's nothing that's hard to believe; or that we don't need good reasons to believe what the New Testament says. You may still be asking whether all this is true. And if that is the stage you're at, do pick up a copy of this booklet about the four Gospels, 'Why Trust Them?' Or do take a copy of John's Gospel to read. You'll find them on the Welcome Desk at the back. I'm not saying the process of coming to believe is either short our easy. I am saying: the root problem is not in our minds but in our wills. Not can't believe, but won't believe. I worked out in a Kenyan village school for a year. We'd been warned about the centipedes, which were like twelve-inch rulers on legs - only more poisonous. We'd been told about the snakes and the tarantula nest nearby. But they didn't tell us when we arrived about the cockroaches. I had to get up in the middle of the first night. I took a couple of steps across the floor, towards the electric light switch which wasn't there. And there was a sickening crunching noise under my feet. I don't know if you remember the Indiana Jones film where he's fallen into a secret chamber and strikes a match. It wasn't quite that bad. But when I struck my match, there was a lot of activity. There was a lot of cockroach running for cover. Because they don't like the light. The apostle John says there is a lot of humanity running for cover from God:

Light [Jesus] has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (verses 19-20)

We're afraid of coming to God for fear of what the light will show. Afraid, maybe, of how he'll ask us to change a relationship or a lifestyle. But can I ask: is having whatever you have from that person better than having the love of God? And are you sure that lifestyle is better than life with God, if you don't even know what life with God is like? I think of a Cambridge student to whom I explained the Christian message. He said that he couldn't find fault with the reasons I gave for the Christian message. 'But,' he said, 'I'm not going to do anything about it. Because I want to keep sleeping with my girlfriend and getting wasted.' His exact words.

Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light.

That's not the response God is looking for. But it'll be the response of many here tonight. So what response is God looking for? Well, verse 21:

Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light.

Now I guess some of us here know this is true, but we haven't done anything about it. In John's words, we haven't 'lived by the truth.' We haven't actually come back to God. So let me end by explaining just what you'd need to do if you wanted to respond. Coming back to God means two things. For one thing, it means coming back to someone I've offended. It's no small offence to tell God to keep out of your life, and I still remember the day I came back to God, when I realised I'd been telling him that for 15 years. And we need to admit that, apologise and ask his forgiveness. And John 3 tells me that the apology will be accepted and my sins will be forgiven. Because Jesus died for those sins. The other thing is this: coming back to God means coming back to someone who should be Lord of every part of my life. So coming back to God means what he wants becomes my way of life, not what I want. And all I can say after 16 years of being in it is that he makes a far better job of my life than I did. Harder it most certainly is at times. But undeniably better. Those are the two things you'd need to do:

to admit you're wrong to have kept him out and that you need forgiving.
to ask him to come into your life, as Lord from now on.

And I need to ask, 'have you ever done that? And might you be ready to do that today'? You might be thinking, 'I'm not good enough to come back to God.' I agree. But then nor was I and nor is anyone. That's why you have something to admit and forgiveness to ask for. You might be thinking, 'I could never keep it up. I couldn't change. I couldn't tell my friends.' I agree. Nor could I. But what God promises is not to shout instructions at you from a distance; but to enter your life by his Spirit and enable you to change. And if you are ready to come back to God now, you need to speak to him. So I'm going to close with a prayer. It's the kind of prayer by which someone could come back to God. It wouldn't be appropriate for everyone here tonight, but let me run it past you first, so you can judge whether you could use it tonight. I'll pray: Lord God,

I admit that I have offended you. I have sinned against you in thought and word and deed. I believe you sent your one and only Son to die that I might be forgiven. Please forgive me. And please come into my life, by your Spirit, and help me to live for you from now on as my Lord and my God.

Amen Now if you're still further back in thinking about these things, that probably won't be for you, now. But if you want to respond to God now, you could simply use that prayer now. A final word. If you have just prayed that prayer let me remind you what our Bible reading says, 'Whoever believes is not condemned.' (verse 18) And if you have just believed, you're a forgiven person; and you'll discover that God has kept his promise and come into your life by his Spirit. You may understand that very little at this moment, but if you've just believed, you'll discover that something real has taken place in your life tonight. If you have prayed that prayer, or you know you ought to and you're serious about it, please do take a copy of this booklet, 'Why Christmas?' which goes over what I've been saying, and contains a similar prayer at the end. And if you have prayed that prayer, can I encourage you to tell someone - maybe a Christian you know. It'll help you to underline the step you've taken; and it would give them the chance to suggest what would help you get going as a Christian.

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