We should all be thankful at Christmas time.
One Christmas a woman decided she would never again remind her children to write "thank you" letters. So that year their grandmother had no response to her generous gift cheques. The next year, however, things were quite different. The grandmother told a friend, "the children have all come over to thank me personally." "How wonderful!" said the friend; "why the change in behaviour?" "That's easy," replied the grandmother. "This year I did not sign the cheques."
Christmas would not be Christmas without gifts. Of course, we should be thankful for our presents. But above all we should be genuinely thankful for God’s greatest gift – Jesus Christ and his coming. This year the world needs to hear about Christ as much as ever. The Oxford University Press has now discovered, from a survey, the word that most sums up our mood in the 21st century. It is the numeral word “9/11” - the date of the terror attacks in the United States. There is fear in the world today. But the Christmas message from the Angel to the shepherds, as we heard in our sixth reading, was,
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
But how did these shepherds overcome their fear?
First, THEY WERE OPEN TO GOD AND FACED REALITY
Shepherds in ancient Palestine had a bad reputation. They were rough men and sometimes thieves. But they were men who faced reality. Living in the wild they had to. Out in the fields near Bethlehem, on that first Christmas night, they faced a terrifying reality and they were afraid. It was a unique intervention of almighty God. They did not deny it. They did not say it was a dream. They faced the reality for what it was.
Today there are many denials.
At Christmas time some deny the dangers of over-eating. Others deny the dangers of drinking too much. More seriously people are denying the reality of God and the truth of Christ. A debate in Parliament on 5 December was entitled Christianophobia. "This debate," said the opening speaker, "is about the relentless assault, mostly by stealth, on this nation's much-loved Christian heritage and traditions." And that "relentless assault" often leads to the refusal to face the challenging (and fearful) four last things - death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Until recently people were willing to face those realities. Shakespeare brutally faced the reality of death in his seven ages of man. Today it is said we only have three ages: “You believe in Father Christmas. You don't believe in Father Christmas. You are Father Christmas.” A fourth age, however, has to be faced, when you no-longer are there - to be Father Christmas. But the good news is this: that fourth age can be a glorious age; for Christ has defeated death and opened heaven to all believers.
Being open to God and facing reality ...
Secondly, THE SHEPHERDS LEARNT ABOUT A SAVIOUR
The angel also said to the shepherds:
"Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
Our God is not just a righteous God. He also is a Saviour. He is a God not only of justice but also of love. The world is a dark place. This Christmas some of you know that only too well. There are illnesses, family problems or financial worries. There are wrong things done to you, and wrong things done by you.
Listen again then to words from our third reading - that remarkable prophecy by Isaiah:
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned … For to us a child is born."
Jesus Christ who came 700 years later is that light. He is the sign of God’s love for each one of us. He came, as we sang in our Carol, "to save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray". Christ's death on the cross made full payment for our "going astray". Then he rose again conquering death and giving hope for eternity to all who trust him now.
And by his holy Spirit he can personally be with each one of us - forgiving our sins, guiding our thoughts, and strengthening our wills to live for him and for others. Christmas points to the cross and resurrection - the only hope for humankind.
God did for us through those two momentous events what we cannot do for ourselves. Through them God is saying to sinful people, "I love you, and I can forgive you." As the Bible puts it,
"God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5 verse 8).
That is the good news of Christmas. How foolish, then, to take Christ out of Christmas.
If you subtract Christ from the word “Christmas”, you are left with “M and S”; if you spell the word “desserts” backwards, you get “stressed”. Those trivia remind you that there should be more to Christmas than shopping, cooking and stress. Jesus still says:
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat? … of ‘What shall we wear?’ For … your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these thing will be given to you as well” (from the Sermon on the Mount)..
Of course, God wants you to enjoy Christmas and life, but living with Christ as God intended. You then can face not only the good times, but also the bad.
Corrie ten Boom was a remarkable Dutch woman who suffered for her Christian faith. In the Nazi Concentration Camp at Ravensbruck, just before Christmas 1944, she saw her sister die after brutal treatment. They were there for being underground leaders in Holland protecting Jews. Her sister’s last words that Christmas were these: "We must tell people what we have learnt here ... there is no pit so deep that Jesus Christ is not deeper still.”
She and Corrie ten Boom, like those shepherds, knew that God is real. They learnt, too, that with Jesus Christ, the only Saviour, you can have power to face even the worst the devil can throw at you.
But what did the shepherds do after they learnt that a Saviour had just been born?
Answer – and, thirdly, THEY DISCOVERED THE TRUTH FOR THEMSELVES
The shepherds were told that the Saviour was "Christ, the Lord". That word “Lord” was so significant. It translates the divine name. For Jesus Christ was not only truly man but also, as we will sing, “God of God” – the divine Son of the triune God.
In 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. President Richard Nixon then said this was “the greatest event in human history.” James Irwin, another astronaut, disagreed. “The most significant achievement of our age,” he rightly said, “is not that man stood on the moon, but rather that God in Christ stood on the earth.” But is that believable? It can be believable without being imaginable. Standing on the moon was not imaginable for those shepherds. Now it is quite believable.
Nor is the claim of Jesus' deity fanatical. It was confirmed by his life and ministry; supremely by his Resurrection; and then by the transformed lives of his followers. John Newton, the converted slave trader and spiritual adviser to William Wilberforce, summed up that transformation:
"I am not what I ought to be; I am not what I would like to be; I am not what I hope to be. But I am not what I was; and by the grace of God I am what I am."
In the UK most do believe in God, according to a Populus poll. But we need to discover the truth about God in Jesus Christ for ourselves. If you are searching for the truth, why not resolve to explore the Christian faith this Christmas or in the New Year.
Make use of the Why Jesus? booklets or the Christianity Explored taster sessions next January at this church, if they would help.
The final words of our sixth reading were these:
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.' So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”
They went and they found Jesus Christ for themselves.
May we be like those shepherds and find him too, for ourselves, this Christmas.