St Barnabas Carol Service 18th December 2011
How many people here like a good murder mystery? Or maybe has bought one of those boxed DVD sets of something like Morse or Inspector Poirot for Christmas? I don’t know why but at this time of year we regularly get repeats of all those old classics like Murder on the Orient Express or A Touch of Frost. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that after a long day trying to show goodwill to our nearest and dearest we like to escape into a good murder mystery and see if we really are clever enough to spot “whodunit”. Not that I hope any of us gain any ideas for any real life situations…
Of course the thing about a well-written murder mystery is that it’s so hard to spot in advance who is the real villain. Maybe it’s just me but I never fully work out the plot until the detective has gathered everyone in the drawing room and revealed his conclusions. There are so many false trails along the way, so many characters who have the means and the motive, so many twists and turns in the plot. If the writer’s worth his salt, we are left guessing right up until the end. And if you are of a certain age and remember a sketch with Sid James and Tony Hancock you will know what it’s like to find the last page is missing. There is nothing worse than reading a book and still at the end being no wiser as to who did it.
How does all this relate to our carol service this evening? Well, I’m not suggesting that the Bible is a murder mystery, although it does contain plenty of stories of adventure and action. But I am going to put it to you that rather like a good thriller the first half of the Bible is full of clues and mysterious hints which are only finally worked out and explained by the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger in Bethlehem.
That’s why I have chosen these readings from the Old Testament this evening. We started off with the promise the Lord makes to Abram many hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. You need to know that at this point in his life Abram and his wife were both well on in years. Humanly speaking the time for bearing children was over. Yet even as Abram was preparing for his servant Eliezer to inherit his estate, God made the tremendous promise that: This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir. Not only that, but through this son Abram would have more descendants than stars in the sky. It was a truly astonishing promise – so how was it going to be fulfilled?
Well, as the story unfolds we hear how three strangers visit Abram one day and promise that by the following year Sarah will have a son. That son Isaac grows up and becomes the father of twelve sons of his own. From these sons form the twelve tribes of Israel. Within a few hundred years there is an entire nation numbering in the tens of thousands. And yet – has the promise to Abram really be fulfilled? Previously the Lord had told him that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. There is a nation, yes, but it is only a small one in one small part of the world. There are many people but they can be counted, unlike the stars in the sky. So has the Lord’s word really come true?
Wind forward many hundreds of years we find the greatest king of Israel upon the throne – King David. Again the Lord appears to him and makes a promise: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne for ever. So who is this son going to be?
In the short term it looks as if his son Solomon is the answer to this prophecy. He does indeed build a house of the Lord, the first temple constructed in Jerusalem. He also firmly secures the kingdom of Israel and under his wise reign Israel reaches its peak as a nation, with borders extending to Egypt to the south, and the river Euphrates to the north. It is a time of great and unprecedented peace and security. And yet… and yet… Solomon has one major weakness that proves his undoing. For all his great wisdom it really isn’t a clever move to have 300 wives and 700 mistresses, and he is led into all kinds of revolting pagan practices.
The kings who follow Solomon aren’t a whole better – in fact many of them are a whole lot worse. As you read the history of Israel over the next 400 years you see a kingdom which falls in two, and then falls apart under corruption, false religion and foreign domination. In the end the final piece of Israel – the southern tribe of Judah – is carried off to Babylon in 587 BC. And yes, a couple of generations later some return. But what happened to the promise of a kingdom and a throne would last forever? On a human level, it is all gone. So what about the word spoken to David?
Then there are the words of the prophets. I could have chosen any number of different passages from different Old Testament prophets, but I thought I’d use one that we often hear at Christmas time. It’s from the prophet Micah about the town of Bethlehem, a small village to the south of Jerusalem. Here again we come across a promise of God, that one would come from there to stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Again, we have to ask who is this shepherd going to be? Looking at the kings of the day, none of them seem to fit the bill. They are small, declining leaders of a small, declining nation, and there’s not much sign of the Lord’s majesty being revealed.
As you go through the pages of the Old Testament, then, you have promise after promise made by God to His people. And as each promise is made, so the questions begin to mount up. How is this word of the Lord going to be fulfilled? And when? And by whom? By the time we reach the final book of the Old Testament, Malachi, just like in any good detective novel we have a whole array of hints and clues, but we just don’t have any way of putting them together.
Then we turn over to the first book of the New Testament, to the book of Matthew. And right in the very first chapter, in the message the angel of the Lord gives to Joseph we hear these words: 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. Are you beginning to see now why these words are just so significant? This child about to be born in a manger in Bethlehem is going to be the fulfilment of all those words spoken all those years ago. He will be the promised son of Abraham whose descendants will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. He will be the promised son of David whose kingdom and throne will last forever. He will be the shepherd promised by Micah who will care for God’s people in the strength of the Lord. In fact every single promise God has made will be met in Jesus. The wondering, the questions, the mysteries are over.
Well, that’s all very well, you may say, but what’s that got to do with me sat here in this carol service 2000 years later?
Let’s go back and look more closely at those promises of the Old Testament. Because first of all, they help us understand that Jesus is the son of Abraham through whom all peoples of the earth will be blessed. Now you may be sat here wondering why we are gathered here today to remember the birth of a child in a far-off land many, many hundreds of years ago. The answer is simple – this child started a worldwide movement that today reaches into virtually every corner of the world. Even as we gather here tonight I can think of friends and colleagues in Paraguay, in Kenya, in Mongolia who also have come together in praise and worship to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The followers of Jesus have indeed become more numerous than the stars in the sky, just as was predicted all those thousands of years ago.
Secondly, these Scriptures tell us this Jesus is the promised son of David whose kingdom God has established and whose throne lasts forever. You see, this Jesus we are celebrating tonight did not remain as a baby in a manger. He grew into a man who went out preaching the good news of forgiveness and healing the sick. As a preacher and a healer He was hated by the religious authorities who arrested and killed Him. There was little mystery about this murder and it should have been the end of the story. But God’s promises could not be frustrated even by death. This same Jesus rose again from the dead and revealed Himself as the one given all authority and power and honour by God.
And so the second reason we are gathered today in praise and worship is remind ourselves that this Jesus really is alive. If we think of Jesus just as such some historical figure, or spiritual being, then we have got our view of Jesus profoundly wrong. Jesus reigns as king, and as a king He is looking for people to follow Him, and to submit to His authority. Now I know some people are uncomfortable with this idea of Jesus. They would much prefer a tender baby Jesus who can be placed in a crib once a year, and put away once the working year resumes in January. But that defeats the whole point and purpose of Christmas – which is show God coming to intervene in this broken, battered world, to reveal His authority and to change lives for good. Removing the idea of Jesus as king removes the reasons for our celebrations tonight.
But thirdly, this Jesus is also the promised shepherd Micah wrote about who stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Now I guess it can make us feel uncomfortable talking about Jesus as king. It conjures up images of a severe tyrant, maybe someone remote and unapproachable who we can never really know. Yet the wonderful truth of the Christian faith is that when we submit to Jesus as king we discover that He becomes our shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, protects us and speaks to us, in a deeply, deeply personal way. Obeying Him isn’t a matter of rules and regulations where we are afraid of getting it wrong. Instead it’s about responding in love and joy for all that He has accomplished on our behalf.
Because actually this Jesus has done something that no-one else has ever done or will ever do for us. Did you catch what the angel told Joseph? 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. Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection were no accident. They were all part of God’s plan right from the beginning to put our relationship with Him right, by Jesus paying the price for all the things we have ever done wrong. And that is how Jesus brings God’s blessing to the people of the world today. It is how He establishes His authority over us. It is how He demonstrates He loves for us.
So at this Christmas time, what should our response be? Right back in our first reading we heard these words of Abram: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Abram, you see, shows us something very important. That all God is looking for in us is faith and trust, to take God as at His word, to claim His promises, and to make Jesus our source of blessing, as shepherd and as king.
Therefore let us pray in the words of the carol we have just sung:
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in;
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!