This Christmas there’s thanksgiving in the North East in Morpeth as it recovers from September’s floods.
Last Christmas the Tewksbury area in the South West was giving thanks after flooding. One flood victim there was Carol Christmas – yes, that was her surname. And, yes, her temporary accommodation was a converted stable. Married with a young son, she calls her husband, Father Christmas. She tells of going into a petrol station where the attendant couldn’t believe it. The previous customer was called Snowman!
Truth is often stranger than fiction.
That can be seen from the first Christmas. The great prophets of ancient Israel like Isaiah of our third reading, believed in God and worshipped him. But for them he was distant. He had never entered this world of space and time. 2000 years ago, however, God did just that.
“The word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us”
… as we heard in our first reading. In the words of our Carol:
“He [Jesus Christ] came down to earth from heaven
who is God and Lord of all.”
Christmas, therefore, does at least three things.
First,CHRISTMAS ENCOURAGES GREAT CONFIDENCE
Christ’s coming had been amazingly foretold 700 years earlier by Isaiah. He said:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
Although dimly, the prophet knew that a miraculous birth would take place one day:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given … and he will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
That all came true with the birth of Jesus. So over the centuries before Christ, and ever since, God was, and is, working his purposes out as year succeeds to year. God not only created this world; he controls it and its history.
In Isaiah’s time the “darkness” was caused by Israel’s ruthless overlords, the Assyrians. At the time of Jesus’ birth the darkness was caused by the Romans and their puppet ruler, the murderous tyrant, Herod the Great. Heavily pregnant, Jesus’ mother had to travel without modern transport to Bethlehem for the Roman census. Then with Joseph and the baby she had to escape the horrific slaughter ordered by Herod. But God was in control.
For some of you 2008 has been a dark year. You may have lost your job. You may be finding it hard making ends meet. The problem may be an illness or the death of someone you love. But the message of Christmas is that in spite of all the darkness of this world God is in control. You can be confident. He has good plans for you, if you will only trust and obey him. “The light shines in the darkness,” as John’s Gospel says.
So secondly, CHRISTMAS CELEBRATES THE LIGHT OF CHRIST.
As we heard, again, from John:
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”
All over the world lights are being switched on. People in the Philippines were the first to light up. They started in September with their star-shaped lanterns. In the West people are now buying a flat-packed, instantly illuminated, 6ft Christmas tree. Assembled in 2 minutes, you plug it in - and on come 200 lights!
But whatever your lights this year, remember the symbolism. Remember that the light of Christ still shines in the world’s darkness.
Millions, however, are ignoring the one to whom the lights point. John says:
“the darkness [the dark world] has not understood it [Christ’s life and light].”
Understanding is so important. Understanding elementary physical facts is important. A health and safety leaflet says that to avoid electrocution you should unplug fairy lights when watering your Christmas tree.
But understanding elementary spiritual facts is even more important. They are not only important for now but for all eternity. Here are some.
The first is that Jesus Christ is …
“… the true light that gives light to every man” (as John says).
It does not matter who you are - rich or poor; black or white; male or female; young or old; whoever you are - the light of Christ is for you. Christ gives light to every man and woman.
A second spiritual fact is that Christ is the true light and the only true light. Yes, others witness to the light - like John the Baptist. But, as we heard, “he was not the light”. You ask, “Is there light in other faiths and philosophies?” The Bible answers that, through nature, all can understand the fact of deity and the reality of God’s power. Through human conscience they can know right from wrong. But Jesus alone shows us what God is truly like. He says,
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
And he shows us that God is not only powerful and holy but also loving - a God of love who loves you and cares for you.
So a third spiritual fact is God’s love. Jesus says:
"God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).
God loves you so much that, like a caring doctor, he tells you the truth even when it hurts. You can then take action.
There is a physical disease – a form of depression - called “SAD” – S-A-D – Seasonal Affective Disorder that often comes in winter. One cause is lack of sunlight. But Christ tells us about a spiritual disease when there is lack of spiritual light. This is called sin. Due to the credit crunch, it is reported, a street in Seaton Sluice once hailed as “the most festive in Britain” with 350,000 lights and dozens of huge decorations is now entirely devoid of lights. Spiritually many people are like that street – without light! Jesus says, also in John chapter 3:
“Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
So a fourth and supreme spiritual fact is that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour from sin. The message of the angels that first Christmas was:
“today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Christ was born to die on the cross in our place to save us from punishment for sin. And no one is too good to need to be forgiven or too bad to be forgiven. Then Christ really rose from the dead, proving true all his claims. He now gives to those who trust him power by his Holy Spirit not only over sin but also over death and so freedom from hell and assurance of heaven. Indeed he is the Saviour.
In all these ways he is the light of men.
Thirdly,CHRISTMAS PRESENTS A CHALLENGE.
John tells us of two sorts of people:
“[Jesus’] own [who] did not receive him. [And] … all who received him, … those who believed in his name, [to whom] he gave the right to become the children of God.”
The challenge is simple: “have we received Jesus Christ?” “Receive” is a picture word; but its gist is clear. And remember, we are all so different - as seen from the Christmas Cards we give and receive. There are big glossy ones; those on brown recycled paper; e-mail ones with laughing Santas; and some designed by a three-year-old featuring a lopsided Christmas tree. We all have different tastes and temperaments. And people come to faith and receive Christ differently.
Yes, Christ can be received corporately. That is happening in the ancient nation of Nepal. On 25 December 2008 this former Hindu state will wake up to its first official Christmas Day. No longer is being a Christian a crime in Nepal. But Jesus Christ needs to be received personally as well.
Currently at the Manchester Art Gallery there is a Holman Hunt exhibition. It includes Hunt’s famous 1853 painting, The Light of the World. It shows Jesus knocking on an overgrown and long-unopened door. The only handle is on the inside, as he will never force his way in. It illustrates the need to receive Christ personally and Christ’s words in Revelation chapter 3 verse 20:
“I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
So to summarize – Christmas tells us to be confident when life is dark, for God is in control. It tells us that Christ is the only true light. But it also challenges us: will we welcome Christ, by faith, into our lives? Or will we be like the inn-keeper with no room for him?
May we all, this Christmas, welcome him as the Saviour who is Christ the Lord.