Sunday December 21st – Carol Service
Each year I use the carol service to preach on some perhaps slightly unexpected passages, to bring out the full meaning of Christmas. This year the readings I chose were Zephaniah 3:14-21, Matthew 2:1-12 and Revelation 19:11-16, to highlight the theme of Christ’s kingship. There was also a sketch (see here)!
The idea of a king
Who, or what, do you think of when you think of a king?
Maybe you think of a historical figure, like Henry V – someone who lived a long time ago, who fought lots of wars, and held absolute power over our country.
Maybe you think of our own king in waiting – Prince Charles. Someone who I’m sure is very nice and perfectly charming, but somehow seems to be a little bit irrelevant, slightly out of touch with ordinary lives today.
Maybe, if you’re into rock’n’roll, you think of someone like Elvis Presley, who is, admittedly dead, but lives on through his music and his life story.
And then there’s Jesus. What kind of king is He? Well, to some people He is just another historical figure, someone who lived a long time ago in a far-flung part of a Roman empire. To others, there’s a kind of awareness He’s alive, but somehow His life and His teaching all seem very removed from the ordinary concerns we face today. Or maybe to still others He is someone who in one way or other lives on through His story and His works, but only as a dead hero, an example to be admired. But do any of those views really represent what it means to talk about Jesus as king?
The answer all depends who you see in the manger. If you see there someone who simply lived for 33 years on this planet before dying a tragic death on a cross, then, yes, He really is only a king in a kind of historical sense and while it’s nice to remember the story each Christmas, let’s not take it too seriously – it is, after all, only a story. But if, as our sketch suggests, there is rather more to Jesus than that, then maybe we need to think again about our idea of Jesus as king, look again at the evidence and see what it all means for our lives today.
And that’s why I’ve chosen what might seem three rather unusual readings for tonight’s service. Because the one thing we can be sure the Bible does not tell us is that Jesus’ story began with the manger in Bethlehem and ended with the cross in Jerusalem. No, the Bible tells us that Jesus’ coming into the world was an event prepared for hundreds, thousands of years previously, and that after His death Jesus rose again and is in some mysterious way alive even to the very end of time. And it seems to me that if we are understand the Christmas story properly we need to look at what goes before and what goes after the earthly ministry of Jesus. After all, you wouldn’t take a few pages out of the middle of a book or watch just a few minutes of your favourite film and claim they told the whole story, would you!?
So tonight I have chosen a reading from the Old Testament prophecy of Zephaniah, which very much looks forward to the coming of the king, and from the New Testament book of Revelation which looks forward to the return of Jesus as king. And when we’ve looked at what they have to say, we’ll see how their message fits in with our Christmas reading this evening.
A king who rescues
What kind of king, then, does Zephaniah portray? Well, to begin with, he talks about a king who rescues us from the threats of enemies and of punishment. Verse 15: The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. Now in what sense could Zephaniah be talking about Jesus as our king? After all, just because we believe in Jesus doesn’t mean we are immune from suffering and things that harm us, and faith certainly does not protect us from the harsh realities of life. Christians experience pain and sorrow just like anyone else. Yet at the same time the name Jesus does mean, “God saves”, so the question is: what exactly does Jesus save us from?
The answer comes in the very words the angel spoke to Joseph, as recorded in Matthew 1:21, She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we need to be rescued from, our wrongdoing, our failure to do the things we ought to do, our bad habits, our tendency to make wrong decisions. And it is to fulfil this purpose Jesus comes as a tiny baby, born in a manger, to pay the ultimate price for all that we have done wrong. More about that, when we come to our Midnight Communion Service on Wednesday.
The king who removes the dead weight of religion
But we must move on. Because, secondly, Zephaniah talks about a king who removes the dead weight of religion from our shoulders. Verse 18: The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you; they are a burden and a reproach to you. Does what I have just said surprise you? So many people think the Christian faith is about what you shall and what you definitely shall not do, that it’s about rules and regulations which have to be followed to the letter of the law, and commandments that must be obeyed. But in fact the Christian faith is about a relationship with God which is based on belief and trust, and available to all, whether they consider themselves religious or not.
Which surely is the point of the story of the three wise men. Not so much that they brought gold, frankincense, myrrh, but that they were outsiders, people who weren’t considered as acceptable by the religious types of the day. But none of that mattered when they came before the infant Jesus. They believed; they worshipped; they offered their gifts. And that’s the way any single one of us here today can come to know Jesus as our king.
The king who rejoices
And thirdly, Zephaniah talks about a king who rejoices in His people. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. Isn’t that a wonderful picture? So many people imagine God either to be distant, remote, unknowable, or else a sort of grumpy old man with a white beard who gets cross at the slightest provocation. Both images of God, however, are about as far as from the Christian understanding of God as it is possible to get.
John 3:16 tells us: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And that in essence is what the Christmas story is all about – Jesus, God’s gift of love, the one who freely offers Himself to save us from our sins and to open up a new relationship with God as Father. And in an age where it seems to me real, genuine love is more and more in short supply, we need to step back and take a fresh look at that first Christmas in Bethlehem and realise just a wonderful, precious gift Jesus is to a broken and hurting world.
But do we really need this gift? Yes, you may agree with everything I have said so far about Jesus. You may accept He is the promised king who rescues me from my sins, who removes the dead weight of religion, who rejoices over me with love. But to be honest, I’m quite happy with my life as it is at the moment, and God knows how busy it is at the moment. Maybe I’ll look at the Christmas story later when I have more time, or when there are fewer things to do. After all, what practical difference will it make accepting Jesus as my king?
Well, this is where we need to go to the other end of the Bible, to our reading from Revelation which is as far removed from the cosy and comforting picture of Zephaniah that you could hope to get. It’s a picture of a rider on a white horse with blazing eyes, with a robe dipped in blood, and with a sharp sword in His mouth – a rider who is set on judgement and putting right the wrongs of the nations. And who is this rider? It is the same Jesus that I have been talking about all this evening. Although tonight is a carol service and we are rightly focusing on Christmas, we are still according to the church calendar still in the season of Advent. And what the season of Advent is all about is a time when we remember and prepare ourselves for the fact that one day this Jesus born so humbly in a manger will return, as the apostle John puts it in the book of Revelation, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And when He comes, His first question will be how we have responded to the good news of His first coming, whether we have responded to the salvation He offers each one of us with faith, with thanksgiving, and with a life full of service.
Because as the next carol we shall shortly sing puts it: Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see Him, but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high. And as the Bible makes clear, it is only to those who respond in faith and trust now is granted the privilege of being counted as His children then. So back to our reading from Matthew’s gospel. Because in this reading there are two groups of people who recognise Jesus as king – the wise men in Herod’s court, and the wise men who come from the East. But only one group make the journey from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem, and they’re not the group you’d expect. It wasn’t that the wise men of Herod’s court weren’t interested. They and their forefathers had been looking forward to this event for many, many years, as we have seen. It wasn’t that the wise men of Herod’s court didn’t know who this king was going to be. They had more than enough information to work out what Jesus was going to be like. But the problem is – they didn’t want to be challenged, to be taken out of their comfort zone, and actually face the new-born king. And so they missed out, missed out on the opportunity of meeting Jesus, missed out on being counted a child of God, ultimately missed out ultimately on eternal life.
What, then, about us this evening? You have a king who promises to rescue you from your sins, a king who replaces religion with a living, genuine relationship with Him, and rejoices over you with love. And as king He wants to claim authority over your life and count you a child of His kingdom. How will you respond to this royal summons? Will be like the wise men of Herod’s court, or will be like the truly wise men from the East? Will you believe, and worship, and give Him all you have? That, brothers and sisters, is the choice we all face, and there is no better time to make it than tonight.