Student Carol Service - What if God was one of us? - Matthew 1:18-25
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
About three months ago I finally took the plunge and decided to join one of our local golf clubs. Many people assume that us Scotsmen are taught how to play this ancient game from when we are this high. I do wish this were true but, unfortunately, it’s only recently that I’ve learned how to grip a golf club properly and how to swing it around my head without impersonating Elvis Presley. I was informed at my first golf lesson that I had what the club professional called a ‘reverse Elvis Pivot.’ What is a reverse Elvis Pivot? Well, it goes something like this. And here is my free Christmas tip. Do not repeat this on the golf course and on the dance floor. I am reliably informed that girls are not impressed by such a manoeuvre.
So far my golfing experience has been rather expensive. In my keenness to practice my new skills I have broken the light bulb in my front lounge – twice – and the club professional has managed to sell me all sorts of equipment designed to improve my game.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because not only have I been trying to lower my handicap over the last few weeks but I have also been trying to explain to other members of the club what I do for a living. The rumour has already spread that there is a local vicar on the course but significantly most people have no idea what I get paid to do. It has been a timely reminder of is how little most people know about authentic Christianity.
So tonight I want to take nothing for granted. I know we’re fast approaching the Christmas season and very soon our homes will be full of turkeys, tinsel and Terry Wogan - but how many of us will be talking about the reason Jesus was born 2000 yrs ago?
In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their “flying machine” off the ground. As you can imagine they were thrilled and they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine: “We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.” Katherine was so excited she hurried to the editor of a local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, “How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas.”
Now to prevent such a misunderstanding tonight I want to do more than simply lay before you the announcement that 2000 years ago a baby called Jesus was born in the land of Israel. I want to show why his birth THEN is significant for you and me NOW. And I want to do this by focusing our attention on the second bible reading we heard tonight. So let me encourage you to pick up your service sheets and turn with me to Matthew chapter 1. And listen to what we are told about one of the most unique events that has ever taken place in human history. Verse 18: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
In 1848 someone by the name of Johannes Rebmann became the first explorer to see Mount Kilimanjaro - that beautiful snow-covered volcano in Tanzania. When he came back to the Royal Geographical Society in London he told them he’d seen snow in Africa. And do you know what they said to him? “You’re wrong. There cannot be snow in Africa.” In fact, according to the minutes of the meeting, one of them even suggested he needed to get his eyes tested. It was a classic example of a clash between what someone has witnessed and what people believe is possible.
I don’t know if you have difficulty believing in the possibility of a virgin conception. Personally, I have no real problems with it. Although I know my basic biology I think that once you believe in a God who has the power to create a universe then a virgin conception is entirely believable. So the question for me is not, Is it possible for a baby to be conceived without the involvement of a human father? But rather, Why should it be necessary for a baby to be born in this way?
We’re told in verse 19 that Joseph was one of those individuals Mary’s grandmother would have been proud of. Listen to what we’re told about his character. “Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” He was a good man and you can just imagine him having a cup of tea at the granny flat. But nevertheless he was still planning to break their engagement, which in those days was called divorce. Now it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s not hard to imagine what was going through his mind. Can you picture the scene when Mary would have told him about the pregnancy? “Joseph, good to see you. Please sit down. I’ve got something to tell you. No, I really I think you need to sit down for this one. I’m pregnant.” “Pregnant? How can you be pregnant? Come on dear, this is not the 21st century. We may be engaged but there is no sex before you move in with me. So what’s his name?” “No, Joseph you’ve got it all wrong. I’ve not been sleeping around. I’m waiting for our wedding day. I haven’t slept with another man. I’ve been visited by an angel from God and he has told me that I have been made pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” “Oh come on Mary. Is that the best you can do? I thought at least you could tell me his name.”
We’re not told if Joseph believed in the possibility of a virgin conception. I’m sure he did. He had read his Jewish Scriptures and so he knew what God was capable of doing. A virgin conception was not out of the question. But from Joseph’s perspective the most likely explanation for Mary’s pregnancy was not the involvement of the Holy Spirit but the involvement of another man.
And I think if I was in his shoes I would have responded in exactly the same way. To believe otherwise I would need to be convinced that the identity of the baby was so special that his conception was so unusual.
So listen to what we are told in verse 22. “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord has said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” I love this claim! It is truly remarkable but it is life-transformational. The little baby was God the Son with a human face. One of the members of the divine Trinity, one the three responsible for creating the universe, had chosen to dwell in the womb of a young Jewish girl. Week 6 into the pregnancy, he was the size of an apple pip. Week 7, he was the size of a grape. And in week 8 he had grown to the size of an average strawberry.
A few years ago a singer called Joan Osborne released a song which caused controversy amongst religious people. It was called “One of us.” This is what she sang: “If God had a name, what would it be? If God had a face, what would it look like?” The song’s own vague answer was “Yeah, yeah, God is great. Yeah, Yeah God is good.” Not the deepest comment I’ve ever heard about the nature of God but later in the song she did ask a brilliant ‘what if’ question. “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?” Some religious people got terribly upset with Osborne. They said it was blasphemy to talk about God being a slob. But what an excellent question! She was simply asking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if God became flesh and blood so that we could see what he was like and ask him questions?”
They will call him Immanuel – which means God with us. Have you put two and two together? If we had been alive at the right time and in the right place then we could have met God the Son. How do we know if God exists? How do we know there is no such thing as the God delusion? Jesus was God with a human face. How can we discover what God is like? How can we know for certain what our creator thinks of us? Jesus was God with a human face. And still today we have access to the words and deeds of Jesus as they are accurately recorded in this book. Sensible juries never make up their minds before they hear the evidence. However, I meet too many people who decide that Christianity is not for them without even giving it a chance. As far I am concerned the faith revealed in the Bible is intellectually credible, historically truthful and completely liveable. And what upsets me is when I come across individuals who are so convinced that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not for them but who have never investigated his claims as an adult?
I’m sure you will receive all sorts of useless Christmas presents this year. You will smile, you will say thank you but you will never use the underwater chess set. But tonight I want to offer you a Christmas present that might change where you will spend eternity. It’s one of the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus Christ. They are completely free and you can pick them up as you have mince pies and mulled wine. Why not take one? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So if you have never read one of the four Gospels as an adult then let me encourage you to pick one up before you leave this building tonight.
If you are familiar with the plays of the Ancient World then you will know that towards the end of many productions the stage becomes littered with a vast collection of bodies. But at this point one of the many ancient gods would make an appearance to bring some resolution to the tragedy. It was a fairly standard ending. But one of the Roman writers, a man called Horace, gave some interesting advice to would-be dramatists: “Do not”, he wrote, “bring a god onstage unless the problem is one that deserves a god to solve it.”
So let’s ask the crucial question: Why did God the Father send God the Son into the world?
Listen to what we are told in verses 20 and 21. After Joseph had considered divorcing Mary quietly “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Do you ever fear that someone may try to use Christmas as an opportunity to drop you a subtle hint? What would go through your mind if you received this can of deodorant in your Christmas stocking? (Hold up a can of deodorant) Suppose this was all you received, would you conclude that the person who gave it to you was trying to tell you something about your personal hygiene? Well, maybe not. I am reliably informed that if you wander into the Boots Cosmetics Department you can find a large number of hint-free quality soaps and toiletries that make ideal last minute Christmas presents. But what about if someone gives you these? Super strength odour eaters (Hold up odour eaters). Well, surely if someone gives us these they are trying to give us one massive hint that they hope we will pay attention to.
Do you see God’s hint in verse 21? There was no need for Joseph to nip out to the local Waterstones to buy a book of baby names. No agonising decision about what he was to call Mary’s little bairn. He is commanded to call him Jesus, a name which means God saves.
I don’t know if you are happy with your name. Any Nigels in the crowd? You are very fortunate. Your name means champion. Any Pauls? You are the little one. Helens? Pleasant. Claires? You are bright. For years I thought my name meant mighty prince and warrior. I was so proud of it. However, I discovered a few years ago that it means meadow.
Still, I do count my blessing. I am told there is a tribe in Papua New Guinea that only knows a few English words. They don’t know what they mean but they do like the sound of them. So they have decided to name some of their children after their favourite English words. And I am reliably informed that right now in Papua New Guinea there is a little boy called Tinned Fish and a little girl called Second Gear.
Now we may be excused for missing the significance of Jesus’ name but surely we cannot miss the neon sign explanation given by the angel at the end of verse 21? Why were they to call him Jesus? Because he will save his people their sins. And what is the implication? If we need a saviour then we need to be saved.
Now let me ask you to cover up the last two words at the end of verse 21. Put your finger on them and let me read out what the angel says. You are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from…From what? From loneliness? From poor self-esteem? From getting a third? No, the angel says, he will save his people from their sins.
When the Bible talks about sin it means self-government. So when I call you a sinner or you a sinner or you a sinner I am not making a moral judgement about your lifestyle here in Hull. I am making a statement about how we treat God.
I think most people view themselves as decent individuals. They may not classify themselves on a par with Mother Teresa or Cliff Richard but they don’t put themselves in the bad category either with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, wheel clampers and dentists. But what is the definition of good?
Just imagine that your personal tutor (or your MP is you haven’t got a personal tutor) always made you a cup of coffee when you read him your essay. He was always there on time.
He always marked your work and he never lost his temper. Outside work, he is a keen giver to charity, a leader of the local scout group and a volunteer at the soup kitchen in the city centre. Is your tutor a good man? It seems that way. But just suppose you discovered that he regularly beat his wife.
In fact, every night he beat her until she was unconscious. Is your tutor a good man? No, he is a wicked man. And the reason is because in the relationship that matters most of all he is a complete disgrace.
God is our loving creator. He is the one who gives us every breath we take. He is our designer and he is the one who keeps us alive. We are not here by chance. Isn’t this wonderful to know? Isn’t it wonderful to know that you have more significance than a slug with make-up? Isn’t this a wonderful truth to be told at Christmas? We have been designed. But the one who designed us is also our ruler. He is the one who deserves to be in charge. He is the one who has the right to tell us how we should behave. But just think about how we treat him. In the relationship that matters most of all we are a complete disgrace.
We live in his world, we accept his gifts and yet we dance to the beat of Frank Sinatra’s My Way. “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption. I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway. And more, much more than this, I did it my way.”
Do you see what lies at the heart of sin? It is all about self-government. It is not so much about BREAKING rules, it is about MAKING them. It is an act of spiritual treason against the true King of the Universe. And that is why it is serious.
So what a joy it is to hear the words of the angel: You are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. We’re not told in Matthew chapter 1 how Jesus saves his people from their sins but as we follow the story of the baby to its conclusion we are left in no doubt. This was a baby born to die. At the age of 33 he was led to his execution, he was hung on a wooden cross. But it was here where he saved his people from their sins. It was here when he stepped into the place of judgement and bore the consequences of his follower’s behaviour. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. That is, what we deserve for our spiritual treason against God is a sentence of eternal death, an eternity of agonising separation from the God who created us. And yet listen to the words of Jesus as he died on the cross. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a statement that should stop us in our tracks. We need to ask ourselves why should God the Son be forsaken by God the Father? Why should the eternal relationship of love be broken for those three hours when Jesus was hanging on the cross? Because this was when he saved his people from their sins. This was when he stood in their place and paid the penalty for their wickedness. He was separated from God the Father so that all his followers would never be.
But here is the issue. None of this is automatic. The angel did not say to Joseph, “Give him the name Jesus because he will save people from their sins.” That is not what verse 21 says. No, Jesus came to save his people from their sins.
When understood properly the Christian faith is simultaneously the most inclusive and the most exclusive message in the world. On the one hand, the invitation is open to everyone to take refuge with the Saviour. And I’m sure if I asked you to raise your hand this evening if you are a follower of Jesus Christ then we would see many nations represented.
But what the Bible also makes clear is that there is no salvation without the Saviour. We cannot be rescued from our sins unless we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But that’s exactly what’s available for everyone who wants it.
I’m very aware that in a crowd of this size people will be at various stages of spiritual interest.
o Christians. I hope what you have heard has warmed your hearts.
o Those who still need to investigate. Go across to the bookstall.
o Get a book.
o Ask me questions.
o Sign up for Christianity Explored.
o Those who need to accept Jesus’ invitation tonight. And so I want to give you the opportunity to do that right now as we finish. Basically, I’m asking you to do two things.
o Pray a prayer to God – all relationships start by speaking.
o Tell me afterwards – come over with the friend who brought you - so I can give you some literature to read.
“Dear God, I know I’m not worthy to be accepted by you. I don’t deserve your gift of eternal life. I’m guilty of rebelling against you and ignoring you. I need your forgiveness. Thank you for sending Jesus to die for me so I can be forgiven. Please forgive me and change me, so that I can live with Jesus as my King. Amen.”
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