Carols by Candlelight 2003

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Strange things happen at Christmas.

Last year it was reported that an elderly woman collapsed while shopping. So the doctor was called. It was found she had an abnormally low body temperature (or hypothermia). The woman had a frozen chicken under her hat. It then seems almost normal to read the suggestion (this Christmas) that a new rose be developed and named Jonny Wilkinson, after the Tyneside rugby hero.

That first Christmas not strange, but amazing things happened. There was an amazing birth to a young woman, in an insignificant town, Bethlehem, in an insignificant part of the Roman Empire, Judea. Bethlehem meant something to the Jews but little to the Romans. The Emperor Hadrian is known for two things: starting to build his famous wall from Wallsend to Bowness on Solway (in AD 122) and destroying Bethlehem ten years later (in AD 132).

But 2000 years ago almighty God, the creator of this wonderful universe, stepped into history in that insignificant place, at what seemed an insignificant time and through an insignificant woman who gave birth to a virgin-born baby. John's Gospel says, as we heard in our first reading:

THE WORD [the divine Word] BECAME FLESH [truly human flesh].

That is JOHN'S CHRISTMAS MESSAGE.

In the early days of the 19th century, much of the world lived in fear of Napoleon. However, in just one year midway between the great battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo - in 1809 - Gladstone, the future British Prime Minister; Abraham Lincoln, the future President of the United States who freed the slaves; Mendelssohn, the composer; Tennyson, the poet; and other famous people were born. It didn't seem a significant year. People were not thinking of babies, but of war and world politics. It was the same when Christ was born - someone of cosmic significance.

Christ did not come as the heir to a political dynasty or to be in the religious establishment. In our last carol were the words

:

"With the poor and mean and lowly
Lived on earth our saviour holy."

God does not rely on the big battalions. He works with and through humble people who listen to his word and obey him. Do you feel you are too insignificant to be of use to God? Remember Jesus, his family and his friends.

Having lived among ordinary people means that he understands our problems. As a young child Christ had to escape the murderous threats of Herod and seek asylum in Egypt. As a man he was homeless, slandered, persecuted and, though innocent, sentenced to a most terrible death. So he understands your problems and fears. But Christ rose from the dead. And as the risen Lord he gives you strength for those problems and victory over those fears - fears for your marriage, your family, your work and your future. Jesus says:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest
(Matthew 11.29).

Who needs to come to Christ tonight?

But the message of Christmas is not only that "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

Secondly, JOHN'S MESSAGE IS THAT JESUS CHRIST IS UNIQUE.

No other religious leader or philosopher compares. That verse in John's Gospel goes on:

We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father.

Recently vandals smashed lights and stole decorations from the Christmas tree in Amble. The Journal said the volunteers who raised £4,000 for the tree were "thoroughly disheartened." I do not need to remind you of Iraq where the deaths continue. During November 79 US troops, 26 non-US forces, 6 Foreign civilians and 32 Iraqis were killed by insurgents with at least 64 Iraqis killed by coalition troops. Christ is the "one and only" ultimate answer. Let me explain.

Christmas does not begin with the manger. It begins with our second reading from Genesis when Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God. They ignored him and did what they wanted. The Bible calls that "sin" and the result, as we sang in our second carol, is that "the world has suffered long". Don't be surprised at thousands of "years of wrong" or that "man [is still] at war with man". The root problem behind war, violence, vandalism and the more respectable sins is that our hearts are not right with God and so not right with one another. We are not at peace with God. We reject or ignore him. If you lose the Fatherhood of God, you soon lose the brotherhood of man.

Christmas is the good news that Christ uniquely came to die for sin. That is why on Christmas Eve churches celebrate Holy Communion - to remember Christ's death on the Cross. There, uniquely, he died for your sins and mine, in our place. We are going to sing later on: "peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled." That is why Christ frees you from the fear of death. He frees you from the fear of judgment beyond death.

Christ indeed is "the One and Only, who came from the Father."

Thirdly, JOHN'S MESSAGE IS THAT CHRIST WAS "FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH".

A little boy one Christmas asked his mother: "Isn't this Jesus' birthday?" "Yes," was the reply. "Then why do we give presents to everybody else?" The answer is this: we give presents because Christmas is a time for giving.

Our God is a giver. He so loved the world that he gave his Son. And Christ was a giver. He was "full of giving" - that is at the heart of the word "grace". This year British parents are expected to spend (according to one report) an average of £300 per child on presents. Another report says that in the North East the average overall Christmas spend is £600. But true giving need not be measured by the price tag.

At Christmas time the children at this church support Operation Christmas Child - the shoe box appeal of the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse. So does Amanda Craig and her children. Writing in the Sunday Times she tells what happens in her house: "At the end of November, my children and I go through a ritual which I probably enjoy more than they do."

She explains how a shoe box is covered with pretty paper and filled with a soft toy, some boiled sweets, a toothbrush and paste, coloured pencils and sharpener, paper, beads, silver stars, a hand-drawn Christmas card and a cheque for £2. The boxes are then sent off to one of 95 countries to help a child whose life has been wrecked by war or disaster. Another mother had this as her Christmas gift list one year. Its cash component was even less. It was zero:

"To my children this Christmas I will be more articulate in my love and my appreciation of them as persons. If I cannot give them a perfect mother, I can at least give them more of the one they've got ... In a world of confusion and uncertainties, I will give them the eternal truth of the Word of God. In a world that has lost its moorings, I will try to help them cast their anchor while young ... on the goodness and mercy of God. In a scientific age, I will teach them the importance of faith. In a day of shifting morals, I will teach them the unchanging absolutes of the Ten Commandments. At a time when aimlessness has become a way of life, I will teach them that man's chief end is still "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, "I could never help my children like that, or, since I have no children, other people like that. If I am honest, my spiritual account is empty and I have nothing to give."

Christmas is all about solving that spiritual debt problem. God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to fill your spiritual bank account. "Light and life to all he brings" as we are soon going to sing, echoing John's Gospel.

Some today, as in Jesus' day, reject that offer.

"Yet," says John,

"... to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."

You receive Christ, his forgiveness and his Holy Spirit as, in faith and by prayer, you trust yourself to him - to the one the Angel said was to be named "Jesus", the Saviour. He gives you everything. You can give him nothing - except your love and commitment. As the choir sang:

"what I can I give him - give my heart."

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