Well, five days to go, and I wonder what’s on your Christmas list? One year my brother and I asked for a dog, to which Mum and Dad said ‘No’. So we then asked for a cat, which was also vetoed. So we then aimed lower and lower until finally they agreed to a gerbil. In fact, we got two. But Mum said to the pet shop man, ‘We don’t want any more’. So he said, ‘I’ll make sure they’re two girls’, but a month later, I found in the cage not two, but thirteen – the original pair plus eleven babies. Now I was only seven, but I knew girl gerbils couldn’t do that on their own. So I thought it was some kind of miracle, when in fact, there was an obvious natural explanation: the pet shop messed up.
Whereas, for Joseph, that first Christmas, it was the other way round, because when Mary was found to be pregnant, he thought there was a very obvious natural explanation, when in fact it was a miracle. So I want to read again the beginning of what we heard earlier from Matthew’s Gospel. But first of all, I’m going to pray:
As we hear the Bible’s record of the birth of Jesus, please open our eyes to what it means for us today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So listen to Matthew 1.18 again:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
So being betrothed then was a bigger deal than being engaged today.You were basically married but not living together yet – certainly having no physical relationship. And yet, here was Mary, pregnant. And so, Matthew 1.19:
…her husband Joseph, being a just man and [yet] unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Because he thought there was an obvious, natural explanation – another bloke. And like Joseph, lots of people today think there’s an obvious, natural explanation for the Christmas story – that it was made up. Because they’d say, ‘It’s all about a miracle, the virgin birth, which can’t have happened, because you can’t break the laws of nature.’
But what if there is a God who created the universe, and controls everything moment by moment – from the gravity keeping you on your chair, to cell division in the womb? That would explain why there are laws of nature, it’s because God controls things so predictably. But he can do something different when he wants to. And that includes sending his Son into this world to become a man through the virgin Mary. And God explained that to Joseph via angel. Let me read on (Matthew 1.20-23):
But as he [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit [in other words,from God creating the baby’s humanness through Mary alone] She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
So Mary’s son was given two names, full of meaning, to tell us who he was, and why he came. Now in our culture, what names mean isn’t that important. So we’ll call a boy ‘Cameron’ without minding that it means ‘crooked nose’ or a girl ‘Belinda’ without worrying that it can mean ‘snake’. Surnames used to mean something about the people who first had them, like Smith, Baker, and so on. And sometimes they still do – I had a pottery teacher at school called Mr Clay. But by and large our names don’t mean anything. Whereas the two given to Mary’s Son did.
The name Immanuel means ‘God with us’ – which tells us who Jesus was: God become man, here on this planet, 2,000 years ago. So that if you’d been there, you could have seen and heard God in the flesh like Matthew, this Gospel writer, did. Now I know that, especially after a year like this year, it’s easy to doubt that God is there, let alone good. But the unique claim of Christianity is that in the person of Jesus, God has been here, to show that he is there, and that he does care and does want to relate to us – that he’s not the one playing hard to find. So people often say to me, ‘You know, I’d believe in God if only he’d give me more evidence.’ And the answer to that is: ‘Have you really had a proper look at the evidence in the Gospels of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? Because that’s the best evidence we’re ever going to be given.’ So that’s who Jesus was. And then the name Jesus itself tells us why he came. Listen to the angel again (Matthew 1.21):
…you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Because the name Jesus literally means ‘God saves’ or ‘God to the rescue.’
Which tells us three things we really need to know:
1. There’s something we need saving from
In this pandemic, I guess many people have, for the first time, lived with the sense that their lives are under threat. While the headlines are full of talk of salvation: ‘Will the vaccine save lives?’ ‘Can the vaccine save our economy?’And so on. But the Bible says there’s something much more threatening to our lives that we need saving from, namely (our) sins. And sins just means all the ways we’ve lived wrongly in God’s sight, by his standards.
Now when I say that to people just looking into Christianity, they usually say things like, ‘but I’ve always tried to live a good life’ or ‘but I think I’m basically a good person.’ And this is where we’ve got a decision to make. We’ve got to decide whether human beings (ourselves included) are basically good or like the Bible says, basically fallen and flawed. And I want to suggest that you don’t actually believe that human beings are basically good, because otherwise, why do you lock your house and your car? Why do you panic when you lose your wallet? And why is the news not a daily description of paradise?
I once did a Christmas address at a school and when I came to mentioning sin I said, ‘You may not like this part of the Bible’s message – it’s not very festive, but as someone said ‘Sin is one of the doctrines of the Bible open to scientific demonstration.’ ‘So...’ I said to them, ‘I have ten stamped addressed postcards and my challenge to you is to take one, to commit yourself to saying nothing untrue or unkind for a week, and then to write and tell me how you got on’. All the cards went. Only one came back, and it said ‘Dear Ian, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t last a day’.
And truth and kindness are only two of the standards God will judge us by. Just imagine what our lives will look like, judged against every single aspect of God’s perfection. But this isn’t easy to face up to, is it? My Mum came to faith in the last year of her life, and this was her big sticking point. I remember her saying, ‘I’ve come to believe that God is there, and that Jesus is his Son, but I just can’t see myself as a sinner.’ And she was a lovely person – devoted to us, and the last person you’d want to label ‘sinner’. But this isn’t about how we see ourselves, or one another, but about how God sees us – a morally perfect, holy God. And he not only sees us going against our consciences, what we know is right and wrong. Underneath that, he sees us going against him and basically saying to him, ‘I don’t want you telling me how to live. I want to live as I please’. Which is offensive to God and brings us under his judgement. And that’s why there’s something we need saving from. And my Mum, after taking another long, hard look at Christianity late in life, finally said to me, ‘I can now see myself as a sinner. And I realise I need mercy every day’. I wonder if you’ll admit that, yet? So there’s something we need saving from. The next thing is that:
2. There’s only one way to be saved
And it’s not by us trying harder to be good. That’s the classic misunderstanding of Christianity, that ‘our problem is not being good enough, and that Jesus came into the world to tell us to try harder.’ That’s not Christianity. And if you try it, it doesn’t work. I don’t have stamped addressed postcards, this time, but just commit yourself to saying nothing untrue or unkind for a week, and see how you get on. There’s only one way to be saved, and it’s through what Jesus did when he died on the cross – that’s why he came. And that’s why the angel said (Matthew 1.21):
…you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins
One Christmas, Mum and Dad bought my brother and I, a four-volume encyclopedia. And at the time we were into that game where you balance something on top of a door and then lure your unsuspecting victim through so that it falls on them. So Niall had recently got me with a bucket of water, which he thought was clever, until he realised a wet carpet was going to take some explaining away. But soon after Christmas, I got him back with the encyclopedia, all four volumes smack on the head. Do not do this at home! And the thing about that game is that once someone’s been through the door, and whatever it is has fallen on them, it’s then safe for anyone else to follow because it’s fallen, and can’t fall again.
And if you imagine death as being the door at the end of our lives, the Bible says that over that door there’s a judgement waiting for each of us, which will fall, if we arrive there unforgiven. And the judgement is to be turned away from God’s kingdom of heaven. Because if throughout our lives we’ve basically said to God, ‘I don’t want you to be King’, then with no pleasure he’ll have to say to us, ‘Then I can’t have you in my kingdom.’ Because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
But God doesn’t want it to come to that. Which is why out of his extraordinary love for us, he sent his Son that first Christmas to be born as the only man who could ever live a perfect life, who would deserve no judgement of his own, and who could therefore take our judgement instead of us, so we could be forgiven. And when Jesus went through the door of death on the cross, the Bible says it’s as if all the volumes of judgement we deserve fell on him. So that if you trust in Jesus, you can be forgiven now, and follow him safely through death, into heaven, because your judgement has fallen on him on the cross, and can’t fall again.
That’s the only way to be saved from where our sins have landed us. And I wonder if you’re prepared to accept that, yet? That you’ll never be good enough to put yourself right with God. And that you need Jesus to do that for you. So there’s something we need saving from. There’s only one way to be saved. And then the last thing the angel says is that:
3. Only some people are saved
He said (Matthew 1.21):
…you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
So who are his people? Well, I don’t know if you watch the Queen on Christmas Day, but she sometimes refers to us, doesn’t she, as ‘you, my people.’ And what makes us her people is that we live under her rule, in her kingdom. And to be one of Jesus’ people means something like that. It means you’ve accepted him as God and King – you’ve asked for his forgiveness, and started life over again with him in charge.
So as I wrap up, I wonder where do you stand with Jesus this Christmas,
this person whom the Bible says was God become man, who died for you,
and rose from the dead, and is now back in heaven, waiting for you to respond to him? Well imagine I drew a line of where people might stand with Jesus. At one end would be those who are saying, ‘I’m not even sure any of this is true’ and if that’s you, can I say, isn’t it worth settling the issue of whether or not it’s true, rather than letting another Christmas roll by when you’re challenged to do that but then you don’t? Because if it is true, then God really is there, and we really do need saving from living as if he’s not. And if you visit our website, whyjesus.org.uk, you’ll find help to look into this more – including details of our next online Christianity Explored course.
But then at the other end of my line would be the people saying, ‘I have accepted Jesus as God and King. And I know I’m forgiven. I know he’s with me in my life. And I know where I’m going when I die.’ And it’s great to be able to say all that. But you may be in the middle of my line. You know it’s true. You know you need to respond. But you haven’t done yet. So I’m going to end with a prayer which would be a way for you to do that. So let me run it past you first, so that you can work out if it would be appropriate for you.
I admit I’ve lived as if you were not King, and that I deserve your judgement. Thank you for dying for me, to take that judgement on yourself. Please forgive me, come into my life by your Spirit, and help me live for you from now on.
Now you may be further back than that, or may have accepted Jesus already. But if you want to respond like that for the first time, you could echo that prayer in your mind as I lead us in prayer now. Let’s pray:
I admit I’ve lived as if you were not King, and that I deserve your judgement.
Thank you for dying for me, to take that judgement on yourself. Please forgive me, come into my life by your Spirit, and help me live for you from now on.
Well if you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can trust that he has heard and answered it. And I’d encourage you to do two things: One is to tell another Christian you know, so they can help you to go on from here. And if no-one comes to mind, you could drop me an email through that website I mentioned – whyjesus.org.uk. And the other is that I’d encourage you to visit that website, where you can ask for a free e-booklet called Christmas In Three Words – which says a bit more about the message of Christmas, and the step of responding to Jesus. And you’ll also find details of our Christianity Explored course starting in the New Year – we’d love you to join us for that.