The Challenge of Christmas

St Michael’s 25th, December 2010

Reading – John 1:1-14

Over the past few weeks we have been building up to Christmas Day. We have heard once again the story of the angel’s visit to Mary, of Joseph’s dream, the journey to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth in a manger because there was no room in the inn. We have been to carol services, watched nativity plays, maybe even seen the BBC television series this week. And so we come to celebrate the fact Jesus has been born among us; that the waiting is over; that we have one who is our Lord and King yet comes to us so gently bringing salvation. The light really has come into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

And yet today even as we come to celebrate there are still so many people in so many parts of the world who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ, who to use the language of John are still living in darkness. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The first and most obvious one is that especially in the Middle-East and parts of Asia it is illegal to confess Christ as Lord. I expect all of us have become aware during the past year of the growing number of attacks on Christians in Iraq. But it’s not only there that Christians face hostility, persecution and even death. At the moment Christians in Pakistan are being faced with draconian punishments imposed by the country’s strict blasphemy laws. In China hundreds, if not thousands, of secret believers face harassment and arrest from the authorities. I for one cannot imagine what it must be like to celebrate Christmas under these circumstances.

And then there are those parts of the world where the Christmas story simply isn’t available in the language of the people. It might be that the Bible has never been translated. It might be that it only exists in an ancient version that’s no longer easy to understand. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like coming to church this morning and hearing the Bible read in French, say, or Latin. You’d really struggle, wouldn’t you? How would you know the Christmas story was good news for you?

But of course in this country the situation is very different. Few, if any of us, have had to face outright hostility before we set off to church this morning. We don’t have to worry that the police are watching to see who is attending St Michael’s and taking notes. And for most, if not all of us, this service is being conducted in our first language and I hope is relatively easy to understand. So my question is this: why are there are apparently so few people gathered here today to celebrate what is certainly the most stupendous event in human history? Why are there, even a short stone’s throw from here, many, many people who have not heard of or received the light of Jesus Christ in their lives?

Well, there are many different answers to this question. The first, and maybe most surprising one, is that they may not actually know the details of the Christmas story. It’s easy, I think, when you’re involved in the life of a church, to assume that everyone has heard of the story of Mary and Joseph and that they know Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem. A survey back in 2007, however, showed that only 7% of adults aged between 18 and 24 knew all the facts of the Christmas story and as the place of the Christian faith in our society continues to weaken, so we must reckon that knowledge of the very basics will continue to weaken.

And even if folk do know the Christmas story it doesn’t necessarily mean they will understand it and see its relevance to them today. They may, for example, have learnt the Christmas story at school, say, in a nativity play or in their RE lessons, but don’t see how it can be of any importance to them at all now they are grown-up. Or they may have gathered all the facts about the Christian faith merely so they can answer the questions in the local pub quiz or have something to say the next time the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking on their door.

On top of all this, there is, of course, a general suspicion about organised religion nowadays. Faith is seen as something personal and private, and there is a prevalent attitude that what may be true for you doesn’t necessarily have to be true for me.

So maybe it’s really that surprising that out of a parish population of roughly 5000, there are so few people sitting in this, or any other church, today. Despite our many freedoms, the Christmas story is not widely known, not widely understood, and not seen as something to be shared with others.

But before I get you too depressed on what is, after all, a day of great celebration, let’s come back to our reading from John’s gospel. Because even from the beginning of the world God knew that men and women would turn their backs on Him and reject His love. He knew that they would prefer to live in darkness than in the light of His goodness and His truth. And what was His response?

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Let’s just stop and ponder those words for a few moments. To begin with, the Word became flesh. God knew that if men and women were to find their way back to Him, they would need more than just a collection of words or a holy book. They needed God communicating to them in human form, sharing their lives, their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows. That’s why at the very centre of the Christian faith is not a holy book or sacred text, but a person – Jesus Christ. Of course God knew we would need reliable information about this person and that is why we have the Bible. But the Bible is not an end in itself; it is a means to point us to Jesus who has come and taken on flesh, our flesh, who has become weak and human and one of us.

And of course the wonder and the mystery of the Christmas story is that Jesus chose to take on flesh by being born as a baby in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph. But then Jesus’ purpose was never to be here one moment, and gone the next. He came to make His dwelling among us. To share 33 years of human life with us, to experience life as a baby, as a child, as a man. With the result that at the very heart of the Christian faith is a man who knows what it is like to be hungry, to be angry, to be tired, to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Matthew 27:46)

But Jesus of course came as more than just a man. Because although He took on flesh, although He dwelt for 33 years among us and as one of us, He also revealed to us the glory of God the Father. In ways that certainly I for one struggle to comprehend, His full humanity also shone through with the very grace and truth of God. So that even when He lay weak and helpless in a manger shepherds came and worshipped, so that even when He was crucified and had died upon the cross, a hardened centurion could do no other than cry out, Surely He was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54). Jesus made God known in a way that no other figure in history has been very able to do, because He was and is fully divine, and if proof were needed of that, we need only look to the empty tomb and the glorious fact of His resurrection.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And I suggest that maybe, just maybe, as we ponder the mystery of Jesus coming to us, we begin to see some way of connecting all those out there who have never fully appreciated the good news of the Christmas story. Because to follow Jesus surely means, however weak and imperfectly, to follow His example and to walk in His footsteps. And I put it to you that the story of Christmas challenges us how far we identify with others so that they see something of the glory and the wonder of Jesus.

For if we are to introduce people around us to this wonderful Saviour who was born, who died and who rose again for us, then we have to do more than simply preach at them. Preaching, of course, is important and has its place. Jesus Himself was a great preacher. But mere words aren’t usually enough to persuade others of the truth of our message. We have in our own small way to learn to enter their world, to come alongside them, to get to know them and to love them. That was something I saw so clearly when we went carol singing in Stoke

Village ten days ago. As others will testify, it wasn’t the world’s most comfortable experience, and maybe we felt even a little vulnerable. But we were in a position to reach folk who wouldn’t normally come anywhere near a church and to hopefully show them just a little of Christ.

And what about this business of making our dwelling among them? It’s just one of the facts of the area that people keep moving on out of this parish. But it’s long been one of my dreams that maybe, just maybe, a group of Christians decide to move into the parish with a view to forming long-term relationships with the local community. Because again if people are suspicious of the church, or simply don’t know what goes on inside, then it seems to me we need folk who are called to go out and live among them.

But whether or not my dream is of the Lord or just wishful thinking, this wonderful reading from John’s gospel should, I believe, challenge all of us to consider just what we are doing, or indeed what we ought to be doing, to build relationships with those who do not yet know the Christmas story is for them. We so often quote these words from John 3:16 that maybe we have lost the full force of their meaning: For God so loved the world – that is you, and me, and every single person who lives in our neighbourhood and down our streets – that he gave his one and only Son – freely, unconditionally, without reservation –, that whoever believes in him – regardless of background, health or education – shall not perish but have eternal life. That’s the reason for our celebrations today. God’s gift of His Son – sacrificially, humbly, and so full of grace and truth.

So what is it that we prepared to do in response to such a great gift? What will it cost us to show others the light of Christ and pass on the good news we ourselves have received? Even as we meet here today, there are millions of Christians who are secretly gathering to celebrate Christ’s birth despite the threats of persecution and imprisonment. Millions of others who are still rejoicing even though they are still waiting for the Bible to be translated into their own language. To what lengths will we go to show that the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, is precious to us?

Rev Tim

i http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=48711

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