Christmas is full of surprises.
Motorists couldn't believe their eyes. Six deer ran up the M6 in Cumbria during the morning rush-hour. A spokesman for Cumbria Police said:
"We sent officers to the scene between Junctions 37 and 38 to make sure they had not caused any crashes or major delays……
Just in case, we also had officers on the look-out for a fat man in a red suit."
They thought they'd had a hoax call. But they discovered it was for real. The deer had come off the fells north of Kendal.
That first Christmas night was also full of surprises. The shepherds couldn't believe their eyes. But what happened, and followed, need not have surprised them. The prophet Isaiah, as we heard in our 3rd Reading, predicted a day when a child was to be born. He would be called ...
"Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Then, after centuries, faith turned into reality and Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Barry Fantoni once wrote an article entitled How to avoid the real meaning of Christmas. Sadly, many today don't need that advice. A political correctness gone mad, that opposes Christmas, is enough. How good, therefore, to see Fenwick's window this year celebrating the birth of Christ with a full display of the Christmas story!
But the angel gives you the real meaning of Christmas in a message from 2000 years ago. This has been called "the greatest sermon every preached". It began, as we heard in our last reading ...
"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."
The message was not just for religious leaders or rulers at Herod's court, but "for all the people". That included men like shepherds.
Never think you are too ordinary to meet with God and hear his word. Perhaps God is speaking to you tonight - not out in the fields at night in Palestine, but here on Tyneside in the quiet of this building.
Luke gives no description of an "angel". "Angel" just means "messenger". We are simply told that the shepherds had an experience of the "Glory of the Lord" - an experience of great brightness - and they were terrified. But they were not to fear. Rather they were to hear the message of "good news of great joy". For, the angel went on ...
"Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you."
Jesus Christ was born to "save".
Sir Henry Cole - the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum - invented the Christmas card in 1843. He found Christmas a stressful time, having to write individual Christmas letters to everyone. So he asked an artist to create a small picture that could be printed by the thousand.
A survey tells us that Christmas is the most stressful time of year for 60 percent of women. And men are experiencing more and more stress. But Jesus said and still says:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11.28).
He comes as a saviour for those who are weary for whatever reason.
He also comes as a saviour for those who are sad.
There is sadness this Christmas in the home of PC Ian Broadhurst who was murdered last Christmas in Leeds. A number here tonight will have experienced great sadness.
The all time Number One Christmas hit is "White Christmas". But it was written by a very sad man, Irving Berlin. His first wife died on their honeymoon. He then married again and his only son, Irving Jr, was born on 3 December 1928. Three weeks later, on Christmas Day, Irving Jr died. Ever after, Christmas Day in the Berlin household meant laying flowers on their son's grave.
But Jesus is the saviour who has conquered the sadness of death. For he died and rose again. The first Easter the tomb was empty; a new age had begun; and death was defeated. The good news is of an assured eternity in heaven beyond death for those who trust in Christ. His resurrection confirms that truth. It also confirms his uniqueness. It confirms he is the only saviour with no equals and no successors.
Mohammed's tomb is in Medina; the Buddha's tomb is in India. But in Jerusalem there is that empty tomb. Jesus alone has broken the power of death. And he alone has broken the power of sin. He, supremely, comes as a saviour for sinners.
One day the baby born at Bethlehem (as a man) would be abused, forsaken and cruelly crucified. There, on the Cross, he would bear the sin and guilt of the world. And the greatest sin, says the Bible, is to reject him.
Is one of your fears for the wrong you know you have done? The good news of Christmas is that Jesus was born to take away all the failure, all the wrong and all the evil of this world. He came to bear our punishment through his death on the Cross. So you are forgiven not because of what you do, but because of what he has done. As you seek his forgiveness, you can be free from guilt.
"Today," said the angel, "in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you."
But he went on: "He is Christ".
Christ means "the anointed one" - the one who was to fulfil all God's promises the prophets had foretold.
Do you fear that this world is out of control? Do you fear that your own future depends on blind chance? The message and meaning of Christmas is that God is in control of all history and so of your history. He, therefore, has a plan for you and cares for you. Jesus said:
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Mat 10.29-31).
At the beginning of the 20th century a woman had been bed-ridden for 20 years. Her husband also was an incurable cripple. But they lived contented lives and brought comfort to others. A friend asked what the secret was of their amazing hope and cheerfulness. The woman replied, echoing those words of Jesus:
"His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."
Inspired by this couple the friend wrote what became a popular Edwardian song. It opened with these words:
"Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me."
Perhaps you are saying, "that is all right for the early 20th century. But this is the 21st century."
The most powerful woman in the world today is Condolezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State. Just after Christmas two years ago she travelled with a diverse group of friends to Florida to watch an American Football game. After dinner following the game, the group had an impromptu prayer meeting in Rice's hotel room. Laying aside their differences of gender, race and politics, one of her friends said they then sang, together, this very song: "His eye is on the Sparrow." And the group "prayed," we are told, "for each other and the world." They believed the coming of Christ that first Christmas and his second coming at the end of history proves this world is not out of control. It is under God's control.
Finally, the Angel said that the Saviour is not only Christ, but Christ the Lord.
The one born was God come in the flesh - God the Son, the second person of the Divine Trinity - truly God and truly man. And his kingdom comes as you confess him and obey him as the divine Lord. The Bible says:
"if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10.9).
So this Christmas may we all open our lives to allow the Holy Spirit of God to make the "Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" more real to each one of us.
For some of us that has to be for the first time. For others of us we need to renew our commitment. But all of us can pray, as we sing:
O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.