Christmas is a time for many things.
It is a time for shopping. A year or two ago, on average, people spent £668 at Christmas. The following year it was 6% more. It will now be more still. And shopping creates strains and stresses. While out Christmas shopping, an elderly but wealthy lady was trying to park her big new car in an empty space. Before she could do so, a young man in a sleek black Porsche nipped in ahead of her. Rolling down the window she shouted to the man as he was leaving his car, "How could you do that?" To which he replied: "That's what happens when you're young and fast." A minute later there was a great bang - and a big dent in the Porsche. She had reversed into it trying to move away. He then shouted, "How could you do that?" To which she replied: "That's what happens when you are old and rich."
And Christmas is a time for music – like tonight. Did you know that making music is the antidote to stress. Professor Bygren of Sweden reported in the British Medical Journal that he had studied 12,675 people aged between 16 and 74. And he found that people who sing together are likely to live longer than those who don't?
But Christmas is also a time when people believe as true what is in fact myth; and believe to be myth what is in fact true.
Let me explain. Some believe it is true that the family-Christmas is a thing of the past. But this belief is a myth. According to Gallup, in the 1960s just over half took part in a family gathering at Christmas: now it is nearly three-quarters. Christmas is more of a family-time than ever. On the other hand, some believe it is myth what really happened that first Christmas. They confuse the many legends now connected with Christmas (not least the legends of St Nicholas or "Santa Claus") with the truth of the Christmas story. So what did really happen that first Christmas? As the choir just sang (referring to Jesus),
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all.
God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, really came into this world of space and time. As we heard in our 1st Reading:
the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Of course, this is hard to imagine. But the unimaginable is not the same as the unbelievable. "It is now recognised," said Archbishop William Temple, "that the one Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous figure making stupendous claims." That is why the two fundamental Christmas messages are Good News.
First, there is the message that God reveals himself to the world in a human being, Jesus Christ, who at the same time is the divine Word "through [whom] all things were made" and the one who is Sovereign Lord over all. Christianity is not like other faiths and philosophies – men seeking God. It is God, in his grace, seeking and revealing himself to men and women. And the God who reveals himself is the sovereign Lord of history. The coming of Christ was no accident. Centuries before Christ there was that amazing prediction of the birth of the Messiah. We heard in our 3rd Reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Unto us a child is born.
And 700 years later and 2000 years ago that birth took place. Do you find it hard to believe in God? A young man said recently he couldn't believe because his baby was desperately ill? He couldn't identify with the Psalmist who said:
It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
But the message of Christmas is that there is a God who is sovereign over all and who cares for each one. Jesus said:
even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Human history is like a tapestry. We only see the underside where the threads sometimes look tangled. One day we will see that other side, and the design. That will be when Christ returns. Yes, there will then be judgment, as this Advent season reminds us. But in Christ there is safety from hell and forgiveness. One day "not in that poor lowly stable … we shall see him, but in heaven" - the King at the throne of the Universe.
In the current debate on the Monarchy we should remember those words of the Archbishop as he presents the orb to the Queen (or the King as the case may be) in the Coronation Service:
"Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer."
It is harder not to believe than to believe in a divine king and creator. Edwin Carlstin, the biologist, says,
"The probability of life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of an unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing factory."
Secondly, there is the Christmas message that the divine, sovereign Lord, Jesus Christ, is the Saviour from sin. That was the message of the Angels as we heard in our 6th Reading:
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Our 1st Reading said:
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
How the dark world needs light this Millennium Christmas! And it is dark because we defy or ignore God.
In this year 2000 there is literal darkness in Bethlehem, the town of Jesus' birth. In the past two months, seven Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have been killed. So there will be no festive lights or choirs in Manger Square this Christmas. And there is darkness in the family of little Damilola Taylor who was recently killed in Peckham. And undoubtedly there are some here tonight who know there is darkness in their own lives. You are facing an uncertain future in your marriage, with your children, at your work, or because of your health or, even, because of the fear of death. The Good News of Christmas is that Christ wants to give you light and life and hope for all eternity.
The actor Sir Alec Guinness died a few months ago. He starred in many films including The Bridge over the River Kwai. Dr Ernest Gordon was one of the prisoners forced to build that bridge in the Far East during World War II; and he tells of the remarkable difference between Christmas 1942 and Christmas 1943. In 1942 the prisoners were self-seeking and demoralized. By Christmas 1943 that had all changed. As 2000 men assembled for the Christmas Service there was hope as men helped one another. What made the difference?
Some time during the year 1943, a fit prisoner had been taking care of a sick friend. This strong man was giving nearly all his rations to his fellow prisoner. Finally the soldier who had been well died, and the weak man got well. The story of this self-sacrifice spread throughout the camp; and the words of Jesus were remembered:
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
There were then discussions about Christianity. People met to study the Bible. The Bible teaches of the love of Christ when he died self-sacrificially on the Cross in our place to bear our sins. And it teaches about new life and power through his Resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Many were converted and confessed Christ as Saviour and Lord. Dr Gordon called this The Miracle on the River Kwai. The difference between Christmas 1942 and Christmas 1943 had been made by Christ. So the question now is this: will you let Christ make a difference this Christmas? In our 1st Reading we heard that there are two sorts of people - those who reject Christ and those who receive him.
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Yes there is a cost to receiving Jesus Christ - the cost of putting him, not yourself, first. But it is infinitely worth it. Have you received Christ with his forgiveness and new life? If not, you can do that as we sing our next Carol, O little town of Bethlehem. Think of the words as you sing verse 4 and make them your own personal prayer:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today!