Student Carol Service 2000 - Romans 8:18-25
Several years ago, a ministerial colleague of mine attended a modern pantomime based on the Nativity story. And the point came when nasty King Herod stormed about the stage, looking for little boys ranting, Fee, fi, fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Suddenly he stopped, Ah, ah, he exclaimed, I smell a little boy. There was a pause. Then a small voice rather indignantly piped up from the front row, Well, it wasnt me.
Life, as they say, is full of misunderstandings. Being the fallible creatures we are, it is sometimes easy to take things the wrong way-as did the little boy, or see things in the wrong light. And it certainly has been my experience that when talking to folk who are not all that familiar with the Christian faith, a greater part of my time is taken up not so much defending Christianity against heavy intellectual arguments, but correcting faulty ideas about what at heart Christianity is all about.
The American Comedian Bob Hope loves to tell the story of the time he was crossing the Atlantic in a passenger airliner when suddenly the plane was struck by lightening. Panic stricken, as in one of those Airport disaster movies, one old lady ran into the middle of the isle and in a state of blind hysteria yelled: Quick somebody do something religious. To which Bob Hope quipped So I did. I took a collection. An that is how many people see Christianity, a matter of us doing something to earn enough brownie points to put us in Gods good books. But the Bible actually turns that idea on its head. Because it tells us that it is not about us doing anything at all, but about God doing something so remarkable that if we didnt have the witness of history and the weight of the testimony of countless millions of people throughout the world over 2000 years ,it would hardly seem believable. In fact it would appear too good to be true.
You see, it all began with an ordinary Jewish girl, probably in her early teens, engaged to be married. Chances are it was an arranged marriage, as was the custom in those days, to a much older man, a carpenter by trade. Certainly he had royal blood in his veins, as did the girl, tracing their ancestry back a millennium all the way to King David no less. Not that it made any difference to them now. Now they were social nonentities, just one of hundreds of engaged peasant couples in Palestine at that time living under the oppressive heel of Rome. You have seen the film Gladiator well, this was that world. Had you seen them in the street you would have passed them by as being quite unremarkable. But then something very remarkable happened. It was as shocking as it was strange .The girl, her name was Mary, normally not the type given to hallucinations, was encountered by a strange looking creature. The creature told her she was going to conceive a baby boy. The pronouncement simply took her breath away because she had had never had sex with a man before. But, you see, this was to be no ordinary conception for this was to be no ordinary baby. Although the actual details were to be left hanging mysteriously in the air-she would be overshadowed by the power of the Most High, said the creature, a Jewish way of saying that God himself would miraculously bring this baby into being so that the zygote implanted in the wall of her uterus would be 100% divine and 100% human. When that blastocyst was no more than a few cells in number, the divine Creator had become a human creature. The all knowing, all present, all powerful God who made space and time itself became within a fraction of a millisecond for ever embodied in human form, having a human history and a human destiny.
Now the historian who researched this material and wrote it down was also by training a medical doctor-his name was Luke. And I would imagine he would have taken some convincing when he first heard that story as you or I would, for there is all there is all the difference in a world between having faith and being gullible. That is why he tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that he spent quite some time cross examining the eye witnesses of the events he was about to record which would have included this girl, now of course, an elderly woman. And he would have been sensitive to what this cost her personally, for even then people knew were babies came from-and so the natural conclusion, as was later rumoured, was that the baby was illegitimate, the father unknown. Now just imagine, if you are a woman, having to live with that in this sort of culture? The social stigma would have been crippling. So it would be quite understandable that Mary would have been very reluctant to add to any social ostracisation she would already have been experiencing the further scorn which would have followed had she started talking about angelic beings visiting her in the night. She would have kept that to herself. for people then, like today, would have naturally been sceptical of any story of a virgin birth. She is therefore, hardly likely to make it up. No one is that stupid. Its strangeness actually adds to its credibility. But the story of such remarkable beginnings was later to be substantiated by a very remarkable life which was to follow-as we would expect if this, Jesus, was indeed God in human form. The words, miracles and deeds of Jesus as he lived in the world tie in with his unusual entry into the world. They are all of one piece.
Back in 1996 Joan Osborne wrote a song entitled One of Us which asked some very profound questions: If God had a name, what would it be? If God had a face ,what would it look like? What if God was one of us/ Just a slob like one of us? That is, what if God were to be flesh and blood for a while ,so that we could see what he was like and ask the really important questions? Well, the amazing thing is that that is precisely what the Bible says has happened- God has become one of us-which is why this baby was called Emmanuel meaning God is with us. He was like us in every respect, same DNA, eye colour, hair texture, capable of running the entire gamut of human emotions. Like us in every respect, bar one. This divine-human was not tainted by the deadly virus of sin. The virus of moral corruption which has infected the entire human race- was for the first time in history- absent. Here was a human being as God originally intended him to be-the perfect embodiment of love. As John says The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And I can tell you this: you will find no other religion on earth which makes such a stupendous claim.
But have you ever wondered why? What was the purpose of this divine mutation ,if I may call it that? Now, you have to admit that something must be very serious for God to take such extreme measures. It is more than God wanting to make contact with us, a prophetic voice can do that. No, our situation is so desperate that God has to take desperate steps to meet it.
Now do I really need to convince you that as we begin this new millennium things are not as they should be? The plain fact is that many of the countries in the so called 10-40 window are desperately poor. The UN says there are 100 million abandoned children on the citys streets in the world-100 million. In certain parts of South America there are death squads whose sole reason for being is to exterminate such children as if they were vermin. The percentage of child prostitutes in places like Bogota has quadrupled since 1987. The world is in one gigantic mess-do not tell me it is not so. Only the most dewy eyed romantic would have it otherwise. But the Bible is a realistic book and tells us that the Maker knows from the inside what it is like. He was a refugee with his parents. He too was the object of an attempted infanticide policy, instigated by a megalomaniac called Herod. Yes, it was into our world all right he came some two millennia ago.
But why? Well, it was to embark on a rescue mission to deal with the root cause of all of our problems, our inner feelings of lostness, our corporate moral vandalism - the problem being that we have all turned our backs on God, done our own thing and have made a mess and we are responsible-guilty- and we know it, our consciences tell us that. We are out of sorts with God and he has come to put us back in touch with himself. That is what the name Jesus means -God rescues. But how?
Let me tell you a true story. There was a jeweller who was travelling the South sea islands in search of fine pearls. He was told by one islander that the largest pearl he would ever see was owned by a man living in a particular village on another island. So the jeweller eagerly made his way to the island village seeking the man who was worth so much. Well, eventually he found him. And much to the jewellers surprise he was discovered living in a run down shack. The jeweller asked about the pearl and sitting down on the ground around a rough table, the man brought out a bag tied to his waste, the largest and most beautiful pearl the jeweller had ever seen. Immediately the jeweller offered him a phenomenal price for the pearl. But the man refused. So he was offered more, still he refused and then he told his story.
All my life I have been a pearl diver, he said. I taught my only son to dive. Each Saturday we would go in my boat early in the morning to search for pearls. One day, we found nothing and in the evening we were returning somewhat disheartened, when my son asked to dive one last time. I agreed. I watched him fill his lungs with air and dive down deep. The bubbles ascended and I waited. Suddenly, I realised he was too long under the water. I worried and dived in after him to see what was wrong. On the bed of the ocean my son was caught in the reeds and was struggling to get free. I tried to help and it seemed a long time before he was freed. I dragged him into the boat, but both lungs were filled with water. There was nothing I could do to save my son. Broken hearted I slowly rowed the boat back to the shore. It was then I noticed his hand was clasped and as I looked ,in it was this pearl.
My son said the father, gave his life to get this pearl and so there is no way I am ever going to part with it.
Now in a similar way, the Christ of the crib was born to die on the cross to rescue us from all the sin and moral mess we have made of our lives. Hanging on the cross he was carrying on his shoulders all the wrong thinking, all the wrong speaking, all the wrong doing which separates you and me from a holy God and would send us to hell for ever. He paid the price, stepping in to take the divine punishment in our place so we might be forgiven and receive a new life-a fresh start. Now do you see who is the one so precious that he dived into this would to rescue and it cost him his life? It is people like us- your name was written on his heart as he hung there for you. The apostle Peter sums it up like this, that those who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their loving ruler and rescuer, have been bought not with corruptible things like gold and silver, but with the precious blood of Christ. The human blood which began pulsating in that tiny foetus in his mothers womb, was to be poured out on that wooden cross to put us back in touch with God. Now that is absolutely fantastic isn't it?
Now you may say I dont fully understand all of this. Who does? But God is not calling us just to understand with our minds ,he is inviting us to believe in our hearts with good reason. He is calling us to be like that peasant Jewish girl Mary and say Whatever it takes Lord, let your will be done in my life. Take me as I am and make me into what you want me to be.
Here is someone who found this to be true in his own experience as he went up to university: 'Religion has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. Sounds crazy? Well, when I arrived as a Fresher I would have said the exact opposite. As far as I was concerned, going to church and being a Christian were the same thing. But what I discovered on beginning university is that religious habit and real Christianity couldnt be more different. I may have known the routine of church, but I didnt know Jesus Christ for myself... In fact ,all my religion succeeded in doing was deceiving people and deluding myself-and the cracks were beginning to show. It was only because these new Christian friends of mine took time to talk with me-and because I was ready to listen-that I heard and understood the truth about Jesus. It was amazing news, forgiveness and purpose in life now, and certainty beyond death had all been made possible through Jesus death on the cross and his resurrection. Towards the end of my first year, I stopped going my own way and turned around to Jesus. I simply asked him to include me in his rescue and gave my life up to him.' Now there is at least one person here tonight for whom that is true. You could have written those words. You know the formality of churchgoing but not the reality of God in Christ. You see that reality in your friends ,but you do not know it yourself. Yet deep down you want it.
Well, you can ,if you have the courage to come to God, admit your need, that you are on the wrong side of him and you want to be put right. Take God at his word that he has done everything necessary to open the way back home to himself when he sent his Son Jesus to die the death you and I deserve, and when he raised him from the dead so he can be a living reality in your life. If that is what you want to do, and you need to, then why not make this the best Christmas of all and pray with me now.
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