A church in the run up to Christmas, was having its final sermon in an Advent series on the Four Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell. Unfortunately, the notice board outside the church read as follows: “What is hell? Come early and hear our choir practice?”
However, at least the church saw Christmas as a time for serious thinking.
In County Durham, this Christmas, there has been a free offer for safety checks on Christmas lights, electric blankets and other domestic appliances. Well, Christmas is also a good time for spiritual checks.
Christmas challenges you because it is not an ordinary anniversary. It tells you that 2000 years ago a truly cosmic event occurred when almighty God, in the person of Jesus Christ, came into the world.
Amazingly, this had been predicted 800 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah as we heard in our 3rd reading (Isaiah 9v2,6,7). And the fulfillment in Christ was spelt out in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel (our 1st reading). That says Christ brought light and life to a dark world.
This world is a dark place, economically, socially and morally (as, tragically people in Newtown, Connecticut, know only too well at this sad time). Perhaps 2012 has been a dark time for some of you. But the message of Christmas is Good News for dark times. For Jesus Christ came to bring (and he still brings) as we shall be singing in our last Carol, “light and life to all”. John 1 verse 4 says:
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but [and this is a big ‘but’] the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1v4)
That is the tragedy – a misunderstanding about who Jesus is and what he came to do.
So who, really, is Jesus? John 1 verses1-3 explain. Listen again:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1 v1-3)
But is that believable?
On Christmas day 1968 there was the biggest TV audience (then) of all time. That was because three Americans - Anders, Lovell and Borman - were seeing something never witnessed before. It was the Earth rising from the Moon. For Apollo 8 that Christmas was in the first ever lunar orbit by a space-craft. “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring,” Lovell told the billions watching. And, then, Anders’ flat, test-pilot voice announced that his crew had a message for the world. So he began like this:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
One by one, the men then read the first paragraphs of the Bible, with Commander Borman ending up, “and God saw that it was good.”
Yes, there are many space scientists, physicists, mathematicians and biologists who are believers. They are confident, like the Cambridge physicist, Sir John Polkinghorne, that (I quote): “nothing exists except through the will of God.” As Professor Lennox of Oxford puts it:
“science gives us pointers towards God, … you don’t get proofs; [but] you get evidence. And faith is evidence-based … Evidence comes from science and what I see in Jesus Christ who, as Christmas reminds us, is the Word becoming flesh, God encoded in humanity.”
Yes, it is believable that in the beginning was the Word and that Word was Jesus Christ. Never confuse the unimaginable with the unbelievable. And John 1 is supremely believable because of Jesus’ real Resurrection from the dead.
Since this time last year we have had the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. During the Jubilee Services in this church we saw a video clip of the presentation of the Bible during Her Majesty’s 1953 Coronation. This presentation was with these words:
“Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God.”
That is why it is important to think about this opening chapter of John’s Gospel. For it tells us that our triune God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is no absentee God. No! He has been coming to the world from the beginning but in different ways. And there are FOUR COMINGS or “advents” (advent, is simply the Latin for “coming”).
First, John 1 says (verse 9) he “was coming into the world” as “the true light that gives light to every man.”
God who created the world through Christ and gives light and life to all, although often unrecognised, has, in one sense, never left this world. The Bible teaches that, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, God is ever present. And it is this universal light of Christ that enables all that is good and noble in the world.
So thank God (and not just the Government) this Christmas for the remarkable new 3 million pound machine at the Freeman Hospital for cancer patients. This can deliver curative radiotherapy in one to three sessions instead of up to 37 conventional treatments.
This and all good things are part of God’s common grace to all for which we should, indeed, thank God.
But, secondly, says John, there was the coming of Christ that first Christmas through God’s saving grace. Verse 11 says “He came to that which was his own.”
The one who, incognito, had come and comes in some way to all, now came 2000 years ago personally, publicly and so openly to his own particular people. The tragedy then was that, as we heard, “his own did not receive him”. The brutal King Herod sought to kill him. Others like the Innkeeper did not welcome him. And many today are still rejecting Christ.
So the question at Christmas time is this: “are you rejecting him as your Lord and Saviour??” For Jesus Christ is not just Lord of the entire created universe, but the Saviour of the world. That was the message of the Angels to the shepherds as we heard in our 6th reading:
“a Saviour has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke2v11)
He saves people from their sin. And John (chapter 16 verse 9) says the rejection of Christ is a fundamental sin. Rejection is mostly due not to intellectual problems but to problems of the will.
We all are born with a natural will to put ourselves first, before God and before others. We ignore this fact because it is easier to see sin in terrible global conflicts and in the faults of others than sin in ourselves. One seasonal example: on Christmas morning we see the children and not us (if parents) “shouting and having sibling arguments”, according to one report. Apparently girls, wanting smaller and cheaper gifts, on average receive 11 presents while boys receive only five.
But we all sin and not least in all the good we fail to do. Christmas, however, is good news. For Christ came that first Christmas to die to bear the world’s sin which God hates and will judge. So you can now be forgiven every kind of sin and have new life to live more as God intended.
And that is because, thirdly, of the coming of Christ, by his Holy Spirit, to individuals.
Listen again to verse 12 of John 1:
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (John 1v12)
Christ, the now risen Lord, came (and still comes) offering new life like a new birth and without fear.
Tonight you may be worried about the future, even your ultimate future. You may be worried about your health, your family or your work. But Christmas tells you that you need not fear, for our creator God is in control. And he knows you and loves you. Jesus says: “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid” (Mat 10v30-31)
So trust him. And, if you have never done so, by faith receive Christ this Christmas, and his gift of forgiveness and life as a true child of God.
Then you can be ready and assured for that fourth and final coming of Christ. That is when “he will come again in glory,” as the Creed says, but this time, “to judge the living and the dead.”
John summarises these truths in chapter 3 verse 16 - and with this I conclude:
“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 3v16)