Carols by Candlelight 2011

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What are you going to learn that is new this Christmas? I’ve already learnt two new things this year. The first is that 5 December was the biggest online shopping day of the year with people spending £19 million an hour. The second is a new definition of a husband: “he’s someone who buys football tickets four months in advance but Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.”

But learning new truth is sometimes hard. It was hard for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She received the first ever Christmas greeting. As we heard, it was from an Angel:

“Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1.28)

But, we are told, she “was greatly troubled” at what she heard. She learnt she would be pregnant, though in a secret and miraculous way. However, such a pregnancy before marriage could mean rejection by Joseph, her husband to be, and a tarnished reputation for life. Learning the truth is sometimes hard.

This time last year a family in Gateshead “were greatly troubled”. They learnt of the tragic death on 21 December of a much loved husband and father. A Parachute Regiment Corporal, he was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Let’s pray for all such families this Christmas.

Perhaps you have recently learnt something regarding your family or health or work that means you, too, are “greatly troubled”. Well, the message of Christmas provides true hope and encouragement for all. It teaches you not only that God is real but God loves you (the evidence is Christ’s coming in history); God is for you (the evidence is Christ’s death on the Cross); and God is with you (for Christ is “Emmanuel” – meaning “God is with us”, as we shall be singing). So how you need to trust him!

But what did Mary learn new from that angelic message that is still important for today? Three things.

First, she learnt she was to give her son “the name Jesus” which, originally in Hebrew, means “God saves”. The one born, therefore, is our “Saviour”.

21 December is not only the anniversary of the death of that Gateshead soldier. It is also the anniversary of the death, in 1807, of John Newton. He was a converted slave trader who encouraged Wilberforce in his fight against slavery. Newton is famous for the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, that provided the title for the film on Wilberforce’s life. However, as Newton lay dying, Christmas 1807, these were his last words:

“My memory is nearly gone but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour.”

Newton had learnt a vital lesson that the early Christians had as a motto (or as they called it a “trustworthy saying”):

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15)

You ask, “What is sin?” It is wanting to control your life and world rather than letting God be in control; and putting yourself first, not only before God, but also before others. Sin accounts for the killing and maiming of people in Liège, Belgium this Christmas. It is why New Year’s Eve, according to Aviva, is the worst day of the year for burglaries and why Newcastle students, especially this year, are being told to lock doors. It is also the cause of good people doing wrong by omitting to do good, and with the innocent suffering with the guilty. It is behind all those “woes of sin and strife” we sang about. But that first Christmas God …

“loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4.10)

Christ came to die, in our place, for our sins to restore our relationship with God; and then he rose from the dead conquering death, to give new life for now and for eternity by his Holy Spirit. And none are too bad to be saved, or too good to need saving.

So the first lesson Mary was beginning to learn was that the one to be born was our Saviour.

Secondly, Mary was told:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1.32)

Yes, others can be called God’s “sons” in the Bible. But Mary learns her son is God’s Son in an absolutely unique way:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1.35)

Is it believable that the child in the manger, virginally conceived, was both fully human and fully divine and so the divine Son? C.S.Lewis, of Narnia fame, once wrote about God becoming man and said:

If the thing happened it was the central event in the history of the Earth.”

But did it happen? Lewis’s conclusion was this:

“the historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me say) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.”

May I ask, “why have you come here this evening?” Maybe you have come a little reluctantly to please someone else. Maybe you’re like Jo Brand, the comedienne, who says she wants to go to a church service this year, but adds:

“I’m not really a churchy person although I do think Jesus was a good bloke”.

Well, nothing happens by chance in God’s ordering. Perhaps you’ve come because God is wanting to remind you (or teach you for the first time) that Jesus Christ is more than just “a good bloke”. Tony Jordan discovered that.

He wrote and produced, for the BBC, last year’s remarkable Christmas series, The Nativity. It was a dramatic retelling of the Biblical narratives. Jordan tells of his own change during production. This was after his study of the Bible’s accounts and of the arguments they were fiction. It was, he said …

“… a long journey – indeed, something of a pilgrimage; one that had taken me from disbelief of the virgin birth at worst, disinterest at best, to a place where I can now say that I truly believe it happened.”

So Mary learnt her baby would be none other than the divine Son of God

Thirdly, she then heard these words:

“The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1.32-33)

She was being told that Jesus would be the one the ancient prophets looked forward to and predicted. He was not only “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father”, but would also be “Prince of Peace.” He was truly unique, with no equals and no successors. And, as we can now see, his resurrection confirmed that he would indeed be not just the King of Israel but the eternal King of all kings, and Lord of all Lords.

This coming year is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June. 60 years ago in that Coronation Service in 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury presented her with the Orb, one of the Crown Jewels, and with these words:

“Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer.”

That is the lesson Mary was now learning. And surely it is the lesson we all need to learn as the world faces a confused and uncertain future.

History is not under the control of President Obama, or Prime Minister David Cameron, or the Premier of China. God is in control of history which one day will end, when Christ comes again - for judgment. Yes, you should pray for our leaders. But then remember that God often changes history and works not from the top with Emperors, like the Roman Augustus. Rather he works from the bottom with ordinary women like Mary, and supremely with Jesus born in a stable and laid in a manger. And now as the risen and reigning King, by his Holy Spirit, that same Jesus can work through you to make a difference for him in a needy world.

Our next Carol says, “where meek souls will receive him – still the dear Christ enters in”.

Phillips Brooks, an American clergyman, was visiting the Holy Land in 1865. Being in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, before dark, he rode out of town to visit the shepherds’ fields. Back home in the US he wrote the Carol, “O little town of Bethlehem”. It concludes, in verse four, with a prayer:

“O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in:
Be born in us today.”

If we can, may we make that our prayer this Christmas.

Amen.

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