Carol service - Isaiah 9:6
A few weeks ago a survey was taken of 1000 children in Manchester asking them what they thought about Christmas. And some of the findings were very revealing. For instance, boys expect to have twice as much spent on them at Christmas time as girls do, with boys expecting to have worth of presents, and girls The thing that boys look forward to most at Christmas time is presents, whereas girls look forward to spending time with their families. Both boys and girls expect a mood of 'joyfulness' in their homes over the Christmas period; but boys said that if they could change one thing about Christmas it would be the weather, whereas girls said that they would change having to watch TV advertisements. When asked who they would most like to spend Christmas with, boys said David Beckham, and girls Gareth Gates, whilst Tony Blair was the person they least wanted to share Christmas with. When it came to the religious meaning of Christmas, more girls than boys knew that it was something to do with celebrating Jesus' birth; and a half of boys and a quarter of girls said they'd refuse to go to church on Christmas Day if asked.
I wonder how you view Christmas. I guess for many of us Christmas seems to be for the children. It's about presents and fun and food and family, as well as reindeer, elves, fairies and pantomimes. For us adults it is often a break in the long winter months, a chance to relax, eat and drink too much, watch a few James Bond repeats and stock up on socks for the year ahead. And if we do think about the Christmas story, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the three wise men, the star, all it seems to be is an added extra to the wonderful fantasy world that our children live in at Christmas time. It's all part of the Christmas fantasy package but it has little if anything to do with us for the rest of the year. And the reason is quite simple. Fantasies have nothing to do with reality. We live in a harsh world where we face serious problems on a daily basis. We have to deal with sickness, financial hardship, family trouble, work trouble. These problems are far removed from the Christmas card cosiness of the crib and the little town of Bethlehem. And if you do believe any of it, then surely you're living in a fantasy world aren't you? It's fine for the children at Christmas time, it's nice to go to a carol service or two. But let's not get carried away. Surely we need to leave the fantasies behind us once January 1st comes. In fact the actress Winona Ryder, who was convicted for shoplifting two weeks ago, once said: 'Religion is fiction. I've read the Bible. It's a great book, but it's a novel.'
But this evening, I want us to think for just a few moments who is it that is actually living in the fantasy world. Because the Christian claim is that the Christmas story is no fantasy at all. It is reality. It's about the God of the universe coming to this battered and bruised world of ours and stepping in to clear up the mess. It's about an historical event that actually is the most important event in the history of the world. It's about an event that impacts you and me in the 21st century in a most profound way. And it all centres on that baby who was born 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ. The claim is that this baby is God himself who has come on a rescue mission. And if we ignore him and his coming, then we are the ones living in the fantasy world. So is this just a fantasy? Or is it reality? Well to help us think about the Christmas story we're going to look at two titles used of Jesus by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 9 was one of the readings we had, and it spoke of a promised king who would bring joy and peace to the world. He would be the 'wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father and the prince of peace.' And Jesus claimed that though that prophecy was spoken 700 years before his birth, yet he was the one who fulfilled it. And we're going to look at two titles from that prophecy, two titles about Jesus which help us to see who Jesus is and why he has come, to see whether the Christmas story is fantasy or reality.
1) Jesus is our Mighty God
2) Jesus is our Prince of Peace
1) Jesus is our Mighty God
So the first of Isaiah's title's we'll look at this evening is mighty God. Isaiah looked forward to a time when God himself would come to this earth to bring joy and peace. And the staggering claim is that Jesus Christ did just that. He was God himself in person. One of the titles that Jesus received on his birth was the title Immanuel which means 'God with us'. So it was clear from the start that this baby was God with us. Now that is quite a claim. It sounds the realm of fantasy doesn't it? Can God really become a man? Well just because a claim sounds unbelievable does not mean that it is unbelievable.
For example, In Greenbury Hill, in London 1641, three men were hanged for the murder of a local magistrate. By pure coincidence their names were Green, Bury and Hill. In the mid 1700's a Russian peasant named Feodor Vassilyev gave birth to 69 children. In 27 separate pregnancies she had 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and fours sets of quadruplets. In 1664, 1785 and 1860, passenger ferries sank while crossing the Menai Straits off North Wales. Incredibly each disaster happened on the 5th December, and even more staggering, there was just one survivor on each three occasions, and on each occasion his name was Hugh Williams. All three of those stories are historically true. Just because they are unusual, does not mean they are untrue. What we need to do is check out the evidence.
And that's exactly what we need to do with Jesus. He claims to be God in the flesh so we need to check out the evidence. And the evidence is plain for us to see in the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are eye witness testimonies of Jesus' life death and resurrection. They were written by hard nosed Palestinians who would not be taken in by a cheap fraudster. Many of Jesus' followers were made up of tax collectors, or fishermen, or even one militant nationalist. These are not the sort of guys to waste time following some crank. What they saw in Jesus changed their lives. Not as some guru come to tell them how to win friends and influence people, not some business motivator telling fishermen like Peter and James to visualise their catch and then go and get 'em. No they followed Jesus because they saw he was God in the flesh. They saw Jesus calm a raging storm with one word. They saw Jesus raise a little girl up from the dead before their eyes. They saw Jesus cure a man paralysed from birth with one command. They saw Jesus risen from the dead himself having been nailed to a cross and cruelly killed. Not even Jesus' enemies could not deny these things, though they tried to hush it up. And the reason Jesus could do these staggering things? The only way was if he was who he said he was. God in person. God as a man. God in human form.
That is the claim that Jesus made. He claimed to be our mighty God in the flesh. The same God who made us and the whole world has come into our filthy, rotten world and experienced what we experience. Joan Osborne sang a few years ago: 'What if God was one of us, a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home.' In Jesus that thought has become reality. God has become one of us. And it shows that God is not distant, nor is he a God who is unconcerned about the world and the people he has made. He's a God who is intimately involved with his creation, and a God who has come into the world to do something about the mess it is in. That baby lying there in the crib is our mighty God. Listen to the way some of the carols we sing put it: 'Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate deity! Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.' Or again: 'And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle, is our Lord in heaven above.' That's the first title about Jesus- he is our mighty God.
2) Jesus is our Prince of Peace
But if Jesus is truly God in the flesh, then why has he come to earth. Was it just a royal visit? Was it a passing whim? Well no. The reason God came to earth was on a rescue mission. And that brings us to our second title of Jesus- He is the prince of peace. Jesus, our mighty God, came to earth to bring peace. Now we could immediately say, 'Well in that case his mission failed. I can't see peace in any place in the world.' In fact, historically the 20th century was the most violent ever. What kind of peace did Jesus bring? Well the peace that Jesus brought was the most important peace of all. Peace between God and man. You see the Bible's stark verdict on you and me is that we are enemies against God. We're actually at war with God. Now we might not put it like that, but that is the reality of the situation. The fact is that we human beings want little or nothing to do with the God who made us. We don't want him to have any hand in the running of our lives, and we live our lives as our own bosses. He might get a look in at Christmas or Easter but that's about it.
The story is told of the little boy who was about to face an important Maths Test just before the Christmas holidays. So he sat down to write a prayer to Jesus. It went like this: 'Dear Jesus, I have been really good this past term. I've not put a single foot wrong. Please would youBut then he stopped, realised that that was not true and crossed it out. He started again: 'Dear Jesus, If you help me in my maths test, I'll do the washing up throughout the holidays, I'll be nice to my sister, and I'll not kick the cat.' But then he realised that this also was hopelessly unrealistic, so he crossed that out too. At that point the little boy's eyes fell on the nativity figures by the Christmas tree. So he went over to the scene, grabbed Mary, Jesus' mother, and walked back with a determined expression to the table. He then wrote: 'Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, you'll help me in my Maths test
Well it may be a childhood misunderstanding, but it is actually a little picture of how all of us treat God. We think we can treat him how we want. We ignore him most of the time, and then when things go wrong, we think we can blame him or ask him to bale us out. But of course if we wouldn't treat our pets that way, then why treat the God of the universe that way? This is the God who made us, who give us breath to live, who cares for us, who loves us very deeply. But we ignore him. And sadly, although God is a God of incredible love, yet he is also a God of justice. And such rebellion against him cannot go unpunished. In his justice he condemns each of us to an eternity without him, and that's a fate worse than death. And we've only ourselves to blame. And there's nothing we can do to get out of the situation. No amount of good deeds will make up for our treatment of God. Our hearts are turned against him and nothing can change that.
But there is good news. And that is what Christmas is all about. Because the God who in his justice has to condemn us to an eternity without him, is the same God who in great love came into this world to rescue human beings and bring us back to God. Whilst we couldn't save ourselves yet God is in a position to save us. He can do something about it. And he has. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, the one who is God, to take the punishment we should take for our rebellion against him. Jesus came to restore that broken friendship between us and God. And how did he do it? He did it by dying on a cross. The fact is you cannot understand Christmas without Easter. This baby in the crib would grow up to die on a cross and that is why he came. He came to bring peace between God and man. He came to restore the friendship that had been broken. To reconcile God and man. So as Jesus died on the cross, he took all our wrongdoing, all that self centredness, all our guilt and pain, all our rebellion on himself and dealt with it once for all. And he did it so we could be friends with God again, to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start. What an incredible act of love! And to think too that we have done nothing to deserve it!
One of the most successful musicals of recent years is Les Miserables. It's based on the book by Victor Hugo, and one of the book's characters is a man called Jean Valjean. After serving 19 years of hard labour (5 years for stealing bread, the rest for trying to escape on repeated occasions), Valjean is released, but he is a bitter and twisted man, feared by everyone. He finds it impossible to get work or shelter because of his reputation, and no-one wants anything to do with him. But finally a kindly bishop takes him in and gives him food and shelter for the night. However, Valjean betrays the bishop's trust and in the middle of the night, he steals some of the family silver and disappears. Well the next morning Valjean is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop's house. The bishop has the perfect opportunity to incriminate Valjean and send him back to prison and he'd be perfectly fair in doing so. But instead he says this: 'Ah, Valjean, there you are! I'm delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I had given you the candlesticks as well. They're silver like the rest and they'll fetch a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?' So the police let him go. Then the bishop gave Valjean the candlesticks and spoke to him: 'Do not forget, do not ever forget that you have promised me to use this money to make yourself an honest man.' And Valjean is so moved by the kindness shown to him by the bishop that he is completely transformed.
God's offer to you and me of forgiveness and a fresh start through Jesus' death on the cross is the most precious gift of kindness that we could ever hope for. Like Valjean we deserve nothing more than to spend the rest of our lives paying for what we've done. But instead God offers us a chance to start afresh, to begin to live life as it's meant to be lived, in a loving friendship with the God who made us, a life of joy following him and getting to know him. And that is why the Christmas story is such an earth shattering event. Because we look back to the time when God took the initiative to rescue us and offer us the hand of friendship again. It's the most significant event in history, because men, women, boys and girls can be reunited with their maker. It's not fantasy, it's reality. And as the angels said it's good news of great joy for all people.
But like all gifts this Christmas time, this is a gift which needs to be received. All you need to do to receive God's gift of forgiveness and a fresh start is to say sorry to God for ignoring him, to thank him for sending his Son Jesus into the world to die on a cross for you, and ask him to clean you up today and help you to live life that way God wants which is the best way. If you do that it'll be the best Christmas ever. But if you ignore the gift that Jesus offers, then you're not living in reality. You're actually living in a fantasy world. The only problem is that one day you'll face reality when you meet God face to face. And then you'll find you're on your own.
So what do you make of Christmas? Fantasy or reality? The claims of Jesus are there to be examined. Whatever you do this Christmas, don't ignore the best gift of all. He's just too important to ignore.
Let's spend a few moments in quiet and then I'll pray. If you'd like to receive that gift then you might like to echo the prayer I'm going to pray in a moment.
Father God, I'm sorry that I have ignored you and not treated you as I should. Thankyou for sending your Son Jesus into this world to die on a cross so that I could be at peace with you. Please forgive me. Please come into my life and help me to start living live your way with you as my king. Amen.
There are some free booklets at the back which explain at bit more what we've been thinking about tonight. You'd be very welcome to take one as you leave.
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