Carol service - Luke 1:26-38
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The story is told of a father who in the run up to Christmas was becoming increasingly frustrated by his two boys. For one of the boys was a pessimist and always saw the down side of everything. And the other was an optimist, always seeing the good side of everything. So he decided this Christmas to do something about it and try and make the boys more balanced. So Christmas morning came and the two boys received their presents. To the pessimist, the father gave a huge mound of presents all glittering with lovely paper and ribbons and bows. But when the father came in to see what his boy made of it all, the boy was in floods of tears. "What's wrong, said the father. Don't you like all your presents?" "Yes, said the boy, but I know that as soon as I start playing with them, they are going to get broken!" Well the father was pretty discouraged, so he went to find out how the optimistic son was getting on. He found his son in the garden, with his new Christmas present, a large mound of manure. But to the father's dismay, the boy was standing up to his waste in the middle of the manure, eagerly shovelling away with a spade and a huge expectant grin on his face! "What are you doing," asked the father. "Well Dad, said the boy. This heap of manure is so big, there's just got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
I wonder what you make of Christmas. For many, Christmas is all about presents. Just this week some statistics have been produced which show how much people aim to spend this Christmas. And it's we in the north of England that come out as the top spenders, with the average spending on presents alone this year being Now if you think that's bad then over 15% of the population will aim to spend more than And most of this spending is on children. So billion will be spent on our children, with the average child receiving of presents. And the trouble is, is that for many of us, we are spending money we don't have! So in the New Year more than 25% of the population will receive credit cards bills they cannot afford to pay.
But what about the spiritual meaning of Christmas? Where do Jesus and the angels and Mary come in. Well to judge by Madame Tussauds' latest production, then the nativity story is something to take advantage of. You may have seen in the news the other week that Madame Tussauds in London have made a new wax work of the nativity scene, which has modern celebrities playing the parts. David and Victoria Beckham are Mary and Joseph. Kylie Minogue is one of the angels. Tony Blair, George W. Bush and the Duke of Edinburgh star as The Three Wise Men. (Someone's got a sense of humour!) And the shepherds are played by Hollywood stars Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant and Irish comedian Graham Norton. Unsurprisingly, the piece has caused a real storm. But at the very least it expresses the feeling that the old Christmas story is totally irrelevant to us today. In a world of harsh reality, where for many Christmas cheer and happiness means nothing at all, the cosy nativity scene seems a long way off from real 21st century life. And in our country, for many at Christmas time, the decision is whether to buy little Johnny a Playstation 2 or an X Box, as opposed to worrying about a 2000 year old story.
But the message of the Bible is that these events that happened all those years ago are as relevant today as the very day they occurred. For the simple reason that the person around whom these events focus, the baby Jesus, is the most important person that has ever lived. In fact his birth is the most significant event in the history of the world so far. And it's a birth that affects our very destinies as human beings. Now that's quite a claim for a small helpless baby isn't it? But to help us examine this claim for a few moments this evening, we're going to go back to that first Christmas and to look at the story through the eyes of Mary as she heard from the angel Gabriel that she was to have a baby. And the man who wrote down these events for us, the doctor Luke, is in no doubt that he is not writing myth or legend or fairy stories, but real factual history, which is his claim at the very beginning of his gospel. So let's turn to this story in Luke's gospel and we'll see that Mary discovered two things about Christmas which changed her life and, if we are willing, will change ours too.
1) A Royal Scandal
First Mary uncovered a royal scandal. Christmas is about a royal scandal. Now you might not have thought about it in that way, but that's exactly what it is. A royal scandal. And there are a number of scandalous elements in this story. Let me remind you of the details. The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and announces to her that she is miraculously going to give birth to a child, a child who is none other than the Son of God himself. Now in case you're thinking that this is totally unbelievable, then remember that that is exactly what Mary thought. "How can this be, she asked, for I am a virgin." "But, says Gabriel, nothing is impossible with God." These aren't the recollections of a gullible and impressionable young girl. They are the historical records of the amazing acts of God. And whether you're a first century teenager like Mary or 21st adults like us, then we must accept that God cannot be put into a box and explained away completely. Nothing is impossible for him. So listen then to what Gabriel says: "You will be with child and you will give birth to a Son. And you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end."
Now Mary knew enough Jewish theology to realise what the angel was saying. In the OT, the Jewish Scriptures, God had promised that he would send a rescuer and king for his people. And this rescuer, or Messiah, would be God himself. God himself would come to our world and take on human flesh. And that is exactly what Luke goes on to explain in the rest of his story. This baby, Jesus, was none other than God himself come in the flesh. And everything he did proved that very point. His power and authority over nature, over death, over sickness and over evil proved that he was none other than God himself, the King of kings.
But surely if God is to come to earth as a man, as the Saviour and King, then he'd come in great power and live in palaces and mansions. He'd be brought up by the rich and famous. But that's not what happens. It's a royal scandal. For starters, he's brought up by an unknown teenage mother who was no different from any of the other teenaged girls in her school. She hadn't won Miss Israel in 5BC. She'd not been on the front of the December edition of Shalom Magazine for men. She was just a normal northern teenager. And then there was Nazareth where she lived! It was a terrible place in the far north. A non descript back water, with not a palace in sight. Hardly the setting for the birth of the King of kings himself, wouldn't you think. It's a royal scandal. But then that's how God acts. He comes in humility, he gets his hands dirty in a world that is so needy and filthy and wretched and in need of rescue. God himself knows what it feels like to be in this world with all its pain and suffering, because he's been there himself and he's felt it himself.
But you know there is something even more scandalous than that! And it's the very fact that God himself should come into our world. For to be quite frank, he would be totally justified in just destroying this world and all its inhabitants and starting all over again. For we human beings, whom God lovingly created to be in relationship with him have totally ignored the God who made us. In fact, more than that, we have actively rebelled against his rule. And the Bible says we're actually God's enemies. Now of course at this point, we might be tempted to say: "Hang on a minute, I'm no rebel against God. Ok, we're not on great speaking terms, but I'm not his enemy!" But imagine this scene. Imagine my own mother who has kindly brought me up over the years. She has done everything she could for me. She's nurtured me, fed me, clothed me, housed me. Done everything she could to bring me to adulthood into the world. But imagine if not once I thanked her for all her kindness. If not once I told her I loved her. If not once I phoned her or spoke to her or wrote to her. Imagine if every time she tried to ring I slammed down the phone and told her to clear off. And then to cap it all, imagine that on Christmas Day she gives me the most expensive and beautiful present money could buy and what do I do? I throw it on the floor, smash it to pieces and then spit at her feet.
Can you imagine how horrific that would be for me to do that? Now friends if you think that is an appalling way to treat someone who has done so much for you, then it's not a patch on how you and I treat God every day. We run our lives our way, with no thought to the God who made us, who gives us life itself and who alone is the one who is rightful heir to our love and devotion. We treat our God and King scandalously. So can you see how easily and justly God could simply say "enough" and have done with us. Can you understand how he could simply brush us aside with a word and consign us to an eternity separated from him. For if he were to do that then not one word could be said against that judgement. Because it would be totally fair and just. But the scandal is that God is not willing to leave us in that position. Even though he is treated by us so appallingly, yet he comes into our world to be born as a man, and to bring us back to himself. It is awesome love. It is scandalous love that God could go that far. But that's what he's done. Because the King of kings has come to our broken, hurting, needy world in love. And that's the first thing Mary discovered that day when the angel came. Christmas is truly a royal scandal.
2) A Royal Pardon
But the second thing that Mary learned that day is that Christmas is about a royal pardon. If God has come to earth as a man, then we need to ask the question why? And the answer is that God came on a rescue mission to rescue us from that fate of rebelling against him and consigning ourselves to an eternity without him. He came to restore that broken relationship between us and him. And how did Mary know that? Because the angel said that the name Mary's child was to receive was Jesus. And Mary knew full well that that name means God saves. His name revealed his mission. Jesus was a rescuer!
So often we want to leave the baby Jesus in the manger. It's much cuter that way, and it means we can render Jesus Christ harmless. But the Jesus of the New Testament will not allow us to leave him in the manger. For the fact is you cannot understand Christmas without looking ahead to Easter. Because the whole of Jesus' life was headed in one direction. And that was to the cross. And it was all to give us a royal pardon. Because God cannot simply sweep all our wrong doing under the carpet. Justice will not allow us to get off scot free for our treatment of God and one another. And the verdict is guilty. But imagine if someone else could pay the price. Imagine if someone else could step into our shoes and take the rap for us. That would be wonderful wouldn't it? Well that is precisely what Jesus did for you and me on the cross. He died our death, in our place, taking the rap we deserved to take. And he did it to offer you and me a royal pardon for our scandalous treatment of God, and to give us a fresh start and a new life.
For a number of months chickens had been disappearing from an Indian camp and the chief was becoming increasingly frustrated. He announced that when the culprit was found he should receive fifty lashes of the whip. Well one night there was a commotion in the camp- the culprit had been caught red handed. He was taken to the chief's tent and the sentence was passed: "You shall receive fifty lashes," said the chief. It was a dark night and the thief had his clothes wrapped tightly around him so no-one could see who it was. It was only as they were binding him to the stake that they saw who the thief was. It was the chief's son. Everyone looked to the chief to see if he would have mercy on his son. But he had given his word that the thief should be punished, and the charge would stand. But as the whipping was about to begin, the chief did an amazing thing. He went up to his son who was tied to the post and covered him with his own body, so that he himself would take the lashing that his son deserved. Because he loved his son so much, the chief gave himself to received the punishment instead of him. And to a far greater extent, Jesus has shown his love for us by dying in our place on the cross, receiving the punishment we deserved for our wrongdoing. It is incredible love. It's the king himself offering his scandalous love through his royal pardon.
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. No wonder the angels said to the shepherds that this is good news of great joy for all people. But like all gifts this Christmas time, this is a gift which needs to be received. Because there is another scandal which many fall into at Christmas time. And that is the scandal of leaving God's greatest gift unwrapped. It's the scandal of carrying on with life as if nothing significant happened that first Christmas. But let me urge me to think very seriously about this greatest gift this Christmas time. We run an excellent short course called Christianity Explored here at St. John's which enables you to examine Jesus Christ for yourself. And many over the years have found their eyes opened to who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Why not commit to coming on that course at the start of the New Year and simply giving yourself the chance to see if the claims Jesus is making are true. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
But maybe for others it is time to open this gift for yourself. You know you need to accept this royal pardon that Jesus offers, and to get right with God again. Wouldn't it be wonderful to begin the New Year forgiven and friends with God again! All that is required is to admit your need before God and to come to him for forgiveness and a fresh start. If that's you, why not bow your head and pray with me now as we ask God to give us his royal pardon.
Father God, I'm sorry that I have ignored you and not treated you as I should. Thank you 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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