Well good afternoon folks. My name's Ken Matthews and I'm the minister here at St Joseph's – I hope you're enjoying our service this afternoon. And I hope too that you're ready for Christmas!
I came across the story of a couple who went to a shopping centre to polish off their Christmas preparations recently. Unsurprisingly the place was packed, and as the wife walked through one of the malls she was surprised when she looked around to find that her husband was nowhere to be seen. She was quite upset by this because they had a lot to do, so she called him on her mobile phone to ask him where he was. He answered and in a quiet voice he said, 'Do you remember the jewelers we went into last year, where you fell in love with that diamond necklace that we couldn't afford – and I told you that one day I would get it for you?' The wife's frustrations dissolved as choked up and started to cry and said, 'Yes, I do – I remember that shop.' And he replied… 'Well, I'm in the bar next door to it.'
Folks, have you ever had your hopes raised up only for them to be tragically dashed on the rocks of disappointment? I don't know but maybe that's been your experience of this past year. You came into it with so much to look forward to – yet looking back you wonder where it all went wrong. Well even if all your hopes and dreams have come off this year, I'm sure you can still feel for Mary in that Bible reading we had a few moments ago from Luke 1. Mary is happily planning her wedding to her soon-to-be husband, Joseph, when all of a sudden an angel appears to Mary.
"And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid… for you have found favour with God." (Luke 1.30)
That sounds great at first. Mary is just an ordinary girl, living in a sleepy backwater where nothing ever happens – yet in heaven she is well known and loved. As the angel tells her that God wants to give her a wonderful privilege. And what will that be? What is this great good news?
"And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son..." (Luke 1.31)
You are going to have a baby, when you're not married, in a culture where they stone adulterers to death. Seriously? And this is a sign of God's favour? Now I'm sure we have all not only received some fairly unwelcome presents in our time – but nothing can come close to being as unwelcome as the first Christmas present ever given. A perplexing pregnancy that must have felt like anything but good news for the girl who was contentedly dreaming her dreams and planning her future at the time. And yet I want us to see this afternoon how this seriously unwelcome gift, turns out to be the greatest present ever given. Not just to Mary, but to you and to me. Firstly, because it shows us how,
God Loves to do Seemingly Impossible things in Our Lives
We are accustomed to stories of women giving birth, aren't we? According to the best estimates, 400,000 babies are born every day. But, virgins don't give birth. Which is why, as the angel drops this baby bombshell, Mary, who has clearly been paying attention in her A Level Biology classes, interrupts to say, 'Hang on a second!'
"How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1.34).
In my line of work I often hear people say: 'I am skeptical and ask a lot of questions. Religious people don't – they just believe.' Well no one can accuse Mary of anything like 'blind faith' here. She was not just some gullible little girl who didn't know how babies are made and was easily taken in by fantastical stories. No! We are told that she reacted just like you or I would and was "greatly troubled" and was trying to figure out what on earth was going on here. She was doubtful, but she used her reason and she asked questions. And that should be a great encouragement to any of us who have doubts, shouldn't it? God welcomes our questions. I mean look at how the angel answers Mary's:
"And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God... For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1.35-37)
Do you see? There's not even a hint of rebuke from the angel here. 'Oh, come on Mary, what's the problem with a virgin birth? They happen all the time! How dare you question God!' No! The angel of God and the Bible agree that virgin births are impossible. They can't happen. They don't happen. But it is happening here because the God who made the rules of science – who made things the way things are – is stepping in. He is over-riding the laws he set up to do something different. Something so amazing it seems almost unbelievable to us.
You see the great truth that Luke is bringing us here, is that God's favour to Mary will come in a seemingly impossible way, because God wants do impossible things in her life. And the great news of Christmas is that God wants to do impossible things in our lives too, things that we're just not capable of pulling off by ourselves. I wonder what unbelievable thing God might do in your life this coming year?
God's Gift to Us is Exactly what We Need
Well God isn't short of answers to that question! He's not like us when we're trying to buy presents for that problem person. You know the person who you just can't figure out what they could possibly need or desire. For me it was always my dad. Dad's are difficult, aren't they? As a young boy growing up I was always thinking: 'What do you get the guy who has everything?' Which is why every Christmas, for 15 straight years I bought him a chocolate orange, which probably says as much about the thoughtlessness of me as a young man as it does about the difficulty of buying a present for dad.
But God isn't like that – he knows us inside out and his gift to us is exactly what we need. As it's not just the birth of Mary's child that is amazing, it's his identity too. Remember what the angel tells Mary about her child to be:
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you… therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God..." (Luke 1.35)
In other words: 'It is good news for you to be pregnant Mary, because your son will be God in human flesh come to live with us.' This child comes supernaturally from heaven, because this child is God himself.
A couple of years ago the fabulously wealthy Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović – who is now playing for Manchester United – was asked by a reporter at a news conference: "What are you getting your wife for Christmas?" He looked slightly bemused before saying: "Nothing. She already has Zlatan. What more could she want?" And though you might feel sorry for his wife you just have to admire his cheek!
But this is God's present to us – God is giving us himself. Only God is not merely an extravagantly gifted footballer with a robust self-confidence and a unique talent for overhead kicks. This baby boy grew up to be a man who could heal the sick, calm storms, drive away evil, forgive sins, and even raise the dead! Every eyewitness account of his life shows him to be the kindest, most loving human to ever draw breath. People who met him said he spoke the truth about life like he had the very authority of God himself. So much so that in the last 2,000 years whole cultures have been built on his teaching. And the reason for that is… that he isn't just a human being. He is our creator come to reveal himself to us. Come to save us. Come to bring us into a relationship with him, our God and King.
Now some presents are unwelcome because they are just rubbish, aren't they? Like… solar powered torches, or Bacon-flavoured vodka, and DVDs of Mamma Mia which apparently, according to a list I saw this week is the most unwanted present ever given in this country. Other presents though, are unwelcome not because they are useless, but because they are insulting – like gym membership, or acne cream, or odour cancelling underpants. Which seriously do exist – but I hasten to add, I have never been given a pair.
But this is the problem with God's gift to us, isn't it? We can find it unwelcome because it's insulting. The angel tells Mary that she is to call her son 'Jesus' – which means 'God saves'. And if he's come to save us that suggests there is something wrong with us – something that we need saving from. You see, God sent his son to save us from our sins – that often misunderstood word the Bible uses which simply means, our rejection of God's rule over us, and the way that we basically just try to run our own lives, for our own purposes. That sin is what is at the root of all the suffering in the world – ours and others – it's what causes the pain. And it's what God sent his son Jesus to save us from. So that we can be forgiven and have him back in his rightful place as our ruler again. Because he hasn't just come to save us, he's also come to reign over us. The angel makes that clear to Mary when he says that Jesus has come to reign on a throne and that his kingdom will never end. In other words, God is sending his son not merely on a state visit; he's come to give us the leadership we so badly need.
Now I don't know what you make of that. You can say, 'it's ridiculous – I mean come on, virgin births and angels… pull the other one!' Or you can say 'it's insulting... to say that I've got to be saved by Jesus and have him as my king!' But if it is true then it is as the angel says to Mary, "God's favour" – the very best news of all time. God has come to a broken world, and he comes with justice and truth and mercy and forgiveness. He has come to rescue and rule over us – because whether we realise it or not – that is what we most need.
Let me finish by telling you the story of a friend of mine who when proposing to girlfirend, planned the old classic of going out for a nice meal, then have a waiter bring a ring in a glass of champagne at the end of the meal. So he sorted it all out with the restaurant and it was good to go. But he was so tense and nervous during the meal that he caused an argument. And his girlfriend was quite tired and a little stressed as she was in the middle of some exams. So when they got to the end of the meal and he said: "Let's have some champagne" – she said: "I'm sorry, but I don't feel like having any champagne." And he said: "Let's have some champagne", in that way you do when you're feeling calm and relaxed. She said: "I've got to work, I've got a headache, I don't want champagne." So he said: "LET'S HAVE CHAMPAGNE!" and he ordered it over. And she was really annoyed that he ordered it anyway… until she saw what was in the glass. Up to that moment she thought she was rejecting champagne, which is a nice drink, but she just wasn't in the mood. She had no idea she was rejecting a diamond ring and a promise of marriage.
Folks, it's so easy to think of Jesus as like just another glass of champagne, that some people enjoy if they're in the mood. But he is a diamond ring, promising eternal relationship with God. A relationship which each one of us so badly needs. So let me encourage you, if you haven't done it before, to read one of the historical eyewitness accounts of Jesus life – and check him out for yourself. There are some copies of Mark's gospel like these for you to on the way out. And why not come back early in the New Year to our Life Explored taster session. God has given us the greatest gift of all time, so why not unwrap it this Christmas?