Christmas is a time for giving.
Over Christmas last year Travelodge, the hotel chain, was offering a free night's stay to couples genuinely called Mary and Joseph. They claimed they were making up for the hotel industry not having sufficient rooms that first Christmas 2000 years ago. "Our hotel is definitely more comfortable than a stable," said Sandy Leckie, manager of Travelodge in Covent Garden. "I just hope they don't bring their donkey." But the Good News of Christmas is in God's giving. We heard in our reading from the prophet Isaiah, writing 700 years before the birth of Christ:
"to us a child is born, to us a son is given."
That was good news because this birth was to be a light dawning:
“on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
That prophecy was amazingly fulfilled when Jesus Christ, the divine Son, was born bringing life and light. "In him was life, and that life was the light of men," as we heard in our reading from John’s Gospel.
First, he was our LIFE AND LIGHT IN THE BEGINNING.
Do you believe this world, including your part in it, is a matter of chance? Christmas says, "No!" For God was in control at its beginning and still is. He is our maker - "our heavenly Lord that hath made heaven and earth of naught," as we sang. This mysterious universe had a beginning (as it will, one day, have an end when Christ returns). But before that beginning, "in the beginning [as we heard from John] was the Word" – and that Word was a "he" not an "it":
"He was in the beginning with God [and] by him all things were made."
That is beyond our human imagination. Never confuse the unimaginable with the unbelievable. This year the stores are reporting a digital Christmas. They are selling twice as many digital products as last year. The number of MP3 players bought has tripled, while digital radio sales are up 82 percent since Christmas 2004. But when St Nicholas (the original Santa Claus), the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, was giving gifts to the poor in the 4th century AD, such digital products were beyond imagination. Today we know they are believable and for real. It may be unimaginable but it is believable that …
“Through him [the Word that became flesh] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
John is saying there was an intelligent designer of this universe. And he still holds it together and knows where it is going and where you are going. So trust him. Yes, you can describe this material universe scientifically; and you can use it. But there are limits. In his book "Can Science Save us?",
Professor George Lundberg, says: "Science only provides a car and chauffeur for us. It does not tell us where to drive. It can take us into the highlands or into the ditch with equal efficiency."
Christmas says there is a light to direct you as you drive through life.
So, secondly, Christmas is not just a date on the calendar. It is the celebration of an event when the one who was very God of very God - the creator of the universe and the source of life and light in the beginning - came to bring LIFE AND LIGHT NOW.
The world is a dark place. It needs the light of Christ. Already this Christmas the Chronicles of Narnia - the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has opened at cinemas across the region. The film is based on the children's book by C.S.Lewis - the author and academic. The very last piece, however, Lewis wrote before he died in 1963 was for the Christmas edition of the US Saturday Evening Post. It was entitled, "We have no 'Right to happiness'" and it dealt with sin. We do think we have a right to happiness. We try anything to achieve it. We ignore God and put ourselves in his place. That is sin and the root of the world's problems and the cause of its darkness.
That first Christmas Jesus Christ did not come to defeat Herod, a brutal tyrant, nor to overthrow the Romans. No, he came as a Saviour from sin. The choir has just sung:
"Christ is born to take our sins and guilt away."
For years people had been organizing their lives without the living God. It is the same today. A number are wanting to take Christ out of Christmas. Last week it was reported that a girl had been banned from her school for wearing a cross on her necklace. A 100 or so years ago the atheist poet Swinburne changed that great song of the angels, "Glory to God in the highest" into ... "Glory to Man in the highest! for Man is the master of things".
That was proved a lie, of course, by Swinburne’s own death and, soon after, by the deaths of millions in the first World War. The result of ignoring God is judgment either one day in the future or sometimes now.
But the good news is that Christ who knows and loves you because he made you, offers forgiveness now through the cross for all and every sin and also new life. Christ came into a world that had problems that we have today - violence, wars, injustice, poverty and disasters. People were lonely, ill and distressed. But in such a world Jesus said:
"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."
The message of Christmas is that "in him was life" and there is life and light now by the Holy Spirit for living as God intended.
Thirdly, there will be LIFE AND LIGHT AT THE END. The first coming of Christ points forward to his second coming. Christ not only came and died; he then rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves he is God’s unique and final Word. He is the "one and only" among all the religious figures of the world.
Auguste Comte, the French philosopher said he wanted to found a new religion to replace Christianity. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, replied like this:
"Splendid. All you need to do is to speak as never man spoke, to live as never man lived, to be crucified, rise again the third day, and get the world to believe you are still alive. Then your religion will have some chance of success."
Most know nothing of Auguste Comte today. Millions upon millions are still celebrating (as we are tonight) the birth of Jesus Christ. And the resurrection of Christ, supremely gives us hope.
On Christmas Day there will be broadcast the last ever programme made by the comedian, Ronnie Barker. He died aged 76 in October. The Two Ronnies Sketchbook was recorded earlier this year when Ronnie Barker's heart condition was worsening. "He knew,” said Ronnie Corbett, “that this would be his last performance ... it was an emotional occasion. It was very, very sad."
Are you frightened of death or for the future? If you trust Christ you need never fear. Jesus said, as we repeat at funeral services in this building:
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies."
So how do you have this life and hope? When Jesus came that first Christmas, John wrote he was rejected by many. “Yet,” he went on,
“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."
To “be born of God” is to have new spiritual life, as natural birth is to have new physical life. To “believe in his name” is to trust his revealed character as Saviour and Lord – as the Saviour from sin and the Lord who guides you and protects you. But what is it to "receive Jesus"?
"Receive" is a one word parable. While many were received into the inn that first Christmas, Mary and Joseph were kept outside. And this Christmas, while you receive your relatives and friends into your home, you normally keep the postman outside and just take the parcels. The parable is clear. The question then is this: "in which of these two ways are you going to treat Jesus Christ this Christmas?" May we answer that by singing and meaning those words in our next carol:
"O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today."