St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 27th December 09
Reading – 1 John 1:1-2:2
Can we trust the Christmas story? It seems to me that over recent years it has become big business to attack the accepted accounts of the Christian faith. We have TV documentaries that seek to undermine the traditional portrait of Jesus. Lost gospels are published which, so it is claimed, show the early church tried to suppress or even alter the truth. And then, of course, there are books like those of Dan Brown, which are terribly badly written, but attract a huge following because of their entertaining, if totally impossible, conspiracy theories.
So how should we as Christians respond? Well, our readings this morning give us the answer. At the beginning of our reading from 1 John we heard these words: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. In other words, John didn’t just make up this story about Jesus, or pick up some kind of rumour. He saw, he heard, he touched Jesus. And the reason why the early church settled on the four gospels we now have as opposed to any others is that they were eye-witness accounts. They were written by or handed down by people who were actually there. And if anyone doubted the truth of what was being written they could go and find those people, or others who had had the same experience of living alongside Jesus and hearing His message.
But over the years, for reasons we shall consider in a moment, people decided they wanted to change the message of Jesus, and that is why these other gospels – such as the so-called gospels of Peter, or Thomas, or Barnabas – began to emerge. All the evidence shows that they were written much later, and they were never accepted as gospel by the early church. In fact for many centuries they languished as forgotten manuscripts largely ignored and studied only by people who didn’t really have anything better to do with their time. So in fact far from being new, all these alternative gospels have been around for a very, very long time as a kind of historical oddity in the museum of failed ideas, in the bin marked “rejects and curiosities”.
How many people here can remember the landing of the first men on the moon? I was only a toddler at the time, but I can well imagine how exciting it must have been to get those live pictures of the first astronauts coming out of their space vehicle, and Neil Armstrong uttering those famous words, “It’s one small step for man, but one giant step for mankind”. But not even live pictures beamed into living rooms around the world have stopped certain people from actually doubting these moon landings took place. I believe there are a bunch of conspiracy theorists who claim it was all a fake, that the moon landings were some kind of government conspiracy filmed out in the desert. I expect that in a generation or so’s time there may be people who will question whether Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the rest even existed. All of which goes to show that no matter how much evidence you have in front of you – whether it’s the eye-witness account of the gospels, or the live pictures beamed around the world – if you decide not to believe then you will do all you can to change or discredit the message you have received. And if you look closely at these alternative gospels then you will see the reason why they were written was not to give another account of the historical Jesus, but to alter the evidence to fit with certain philosophies and teaching of the day.
But why would anyone fail to accept the Christmas story? After all, as we’ve been hearing over the last few weeks, it’s a lovely story, of Joseph and Mary, of a baby born in a manger, of shepherds hurrying to Bethlehem, of wise men seeking a star. There’s something in the Christmas story for all ages, and for all people. So what possibly leads people to try and undermine the traditional message we hear year on year?
The answer comes in verse 5: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. For if it is true that God is light, if it is true that this baby born in a manger in Bethlehem is nothing but goodness and truth, then it forces us to recognise some important facts about the God we worship and about our own lives, facts that we may find to accept. And these come out clearly in our reading today as John seeks to refute the claims of false teachers who were aiming to subtly change and mould the Christian faith according to their own philosophy.
So what are these facts? Number one – and it’s something false teachers still deny today – we do not ourselves meet God’s standards. Verse 6: If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. That’s a pretty strong statement, isn’t it? And yet it’s one we need to think about seriously. After all, many people are happy to believe in a God that loves them and cares for them. They like the idea of God being their heavenly Father who longs to bless and provide for them. And indeed all this is true, and it is a belief shared not only by Christians but many other religions around the world. But, and this is the point John is making here, if God really is good and pure and true, then we need to realise that none of us match up to God’s standards. There are parts of our lives that displease God, and things that need to be changed if we really are to know God’s love. And if there’s one thing folk do not like is being told they have to change. If we’re honest we like doing the things we do, and we like following our own path in life. So we either reject this message about God, or we change it so that we write off the idea that God will somehow judge us for our sins or hold us accountable for our actions. That’s why, for example, there’s very little about sin in a Dan Brown novel – it’s not the sort of thing that tends to sell at all well.
And that leads on to the second point that we reject the idea we are sinners. This comes out in verse 8: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Now John here is probably attacking the false teachers who taught that somehow we could achieve some kind of perfection in this life and no longer do any kind of wrong. I think we are more realistic about human nature nowadays. But our problem seems to be not that we claim to be without sin, but we no longer see sin as the issue which explains our actions and our behaviours. When we do something wrong, we blame our upbringing, “That’s the way I was brought up” or our genes “I was born like this” or our environment, “My friends made me do it”. In fact we will do almost anything to blame someone or something else, rather than own up to the basic problem: that we by nature are fallen and do not walk in the light and truth of Christ.
This is why thirdly we fail to accept the truth about ourselves. Verse 10: If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. What does John mean by this? Very simply, that from beginning to end God’s word tells us that all of us whether we have meant to or not have broken God’s commands. And if we do not accept this, then we are denying one of the central truths of the Christian faith and in effect saying we know better than God. It’s rather like throwing away the instruction manual for a new gadget and working out for ourselves how it works, without paying any attention to the manufacturer’s advice. Because in some ways the Bible is God’s instruction manual about life and John is reminding us that we rip out the bits we don’t like at our peril.
Well, you’re probably thinking, this is all rather a heavy and gloomy message to digest with the cold turkey and left-over mince pies, and yes, perhaps it is. But sometimes it is worth looking at the bad news about ourselves to understand just why Jesus’ coming into the world is such good news. After all, why did the angel say to the shepherds, Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. For the very simple reason that we need to saved, to be rescued, that we need to brought out of the darkness of our own fallen nature into the life and light of fellowship with God.
Now we’ve seen lots of pictures over the last few weeks of people being saved, from flooding and snow and ice, and finding shelter in a warm, secure place, and rightly people have thanked their rescuers who have risked everything to pull them out of danger. John’s challenge to us is to recognise that Jesus’ mission was to rescue us from spiritual danger and to respond in thankfulness and praise that He was willing to give up everything for us.
A year after the first moon landing there was another mission called Apollo 13. Although again I don’t remember it at the time, it was made into a film a few years ago starring Tom Hanks – has anybody else seen it? If you haven’t, it’s the story of how a space flight nearly ended in disaster when the oxygen tanks in the main spacecraft blew up, and how the crew had to come back home from the dark side of the moon in the launch module. It was a highly risky and fraught mission, which nearly cost them their lives. It was also in many ways a highly improbable rescue. At one point in the film the engineers on the ground tip out onto the table everything the astronauts have with them to work out how they are going to fix a particular problem. Their solution? A load of plastic bags, cardboard and sticky tape – it really was as low-tech a solution as that.
And I guess here is another important reason why so many find it hard to accept the idea of the Christmas story. They are happy to sing carols about baby Jesus in the manger, or watch the school nativity play, or send cards with pictures of shepherds on them. But that God would use the low-tech solution of sending His Son to be born in something like stable in first century Judea to a peasant family? At one level, it sounds quite absurd, doesn’t it?
Yet John insists this is the real reason why Jesus appeared – not to rescue us from the dark side of the moon, but from the darkness of our hearts. It was the solution God decided to use to bring us back into fellowship with Him, for Jesus to come, as John puts in 2:2, as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. But such is His love for us He did not come in such a way as to force us to believe in Him or leave us no choice as to whether we should follow Him. Instead He took the risk of becoming vulnerable, of, as that lovely carol puts it, being veiled in human flesh so that we could decide of our own free will to respond to His love.
So the question for you this morning is this: what is your response to the Christmas story? Because if what John says is true – and let’s not forget his is an eyewitness account – then we are called not simply to accept that all this happened, but to allow this same Jesus born in a manger all those years ago to touch and change our lives today. To recognise that we have fallen short of God’s standards, that we have sinned and preferred to go our own way instead of God’s. And to come and worship before Jesus and receive Him joyfully as that perfect sacrifice which makes us at one with God, forgiven, accepted, and restored to that fellowship with Him we were always meant to enjoy. So as we come this week to the beginning of a new year let’s make it our resolution to serve Him humbly obediently and willingly wherever He leads us so that like His servant John our joy may be complete.