Christmas – So what? - Student Carol Service -
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Student Carol Service 2018
‘He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all’- familiar words which we sing at Christmas time every year. But what do they actually mean and do they really matter?
Whatever subject you might be studying, whether it is physics, history, English literature, or, as we had a few years ago, a research student investigating looking at the sex lives of Crayfish, there are three questions which are always worth asking: ‘What?’, ‘So what?’ and, ‘Now what?’ What is it we are looking at? What is its significance? And what are we going to do about what we have discovered? So let’s briefly look at those three questions in relation to the person and event we are celebrating tonight- the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A number of years ago the celebrated Harvard historian, Jaroslav Pelikan wrote: ‘Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?’ The answer: not very much. Even our calendar reflects his coming, distinguishing AD from BC. From a purely human point of view his monumental and irreversible impact on the whole world is very difficult, if not impossible, to account for.
In his own lifetime he was highly dismissive of the power and glory merchants of his day, so he held no high office of influence. Given his homeless lifestyle, he would be harassed and moved on by today’s police if he lived in Europe. Given his teenage mother’s lack of a wedding ring, he would be an automatic candidate for abortion if conceived in Britain. And given his ancestry, had he lived in Germany in the 1930’s, in all likelihood, he would have been pinned with a yellow star and shipped to a death camp. He never wrote a book, his public ministry lasted less than three years and at the end of it all he was deserted by his closest friends and crucified between two common thieves, and yet today there are millions and millions and millions of people all around the world who literally worship him. Christianity is still by far the world’s largest religion. You have got to admit it, that needs some kind of explanation.
Well, Jesus gave his own explanation, together with those who knew him, with his identity being captured by a number of different titles, that he is the ‘Son of God’, the ‘Word of God’, ‘the exact image of the invisible God’ or even ‘I AM’ the sacred name the Jews used of God. And so the explanation for the phenomenon of the Christian faith goes something like this: ‘For millennia angels worshipped him in eternity. Cherubim in dazzling, white hot brilliance attended him. New worlds and spiralling nebulae were created by him and for him- he is the Creator.
His voice was the purest and most beautiful voice in heaven, the archangels would stop whatever they were doing and fall silent just to listen for he is ‘the Word.’
And this Word, who was always with God the Father and is God himself- the Son, did something quite remarkable and totally unthinkable, something far beyond any human imagining or expectation, he became one of us just over 2,000 years ago, as our reading from John’s Gospel put it, ‘the Word became flesh’. God became a man without ceasing to be God. How do you even begin to get your mind around that astonishing claim? It is not all that easy, but the Christian writer C.S. Lewis of ‘Narnia’ fame, once tried and this is what he said: ‘The Second Person in God, the Son, became human himself: was born into the world as an actual man- a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular colour, speaking in a particular language, weighing so many stone. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but before (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab?’ Had you seen Jesus in the street you would have passed him by as just another Jewish peasant with calloused hands, stained armpits and sore feet. When he spoke, his accent would have grated, having a distinct northern quality to it which was not at all refined. For most of his early adult life, he hung doors and carried wooden beams as a carpenter. Not quite what we would have expected when divinity came to earth is it? And yet at the same time, unbeknown to any onlooker, but known to his heavenly Father, he hung planets in their orbits and carried light beams across the galaxies.
Just listen to these words of the 5th century Christian thinker and writer Augustine, as he reflects upon this miracle of the incarnation- God becoming a man while remaining God: ‘He so loved us that for our sake He was made man in time, through Whom all times were made; was in the world less in years than His servants, though older than the world itself in His eternity; was made man, Who made man; was created of a mother, whom He created; was carried by hands which He formed; nursed at the breasts which He had filled; cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.’ That is, in part, what Christmas means- the what? When you look at Jesus, you are looking at God as a human being.
‘Ok, interesting’ you might say, but so what?
Let me mention just three things which flow from what we have been thinking about- because they are revolutionary.
First, it means we can know God. Everyone has their pet ideas of God as some might have their pet ideas about me- what I am really like. But if you want to know what I am like, best to ask me, or better still ask my wife! Let’s put to one side for a moment the kind of talk which begins ‘I like to think of God as….’ then fill in the blanks because when you think about it, such speculation is pointless. But if we go with the historical data of the Bible, then such speculation can end and intelligent, informed thinking can begin. One of the most important British theologians of the 20th century was Professor H. R. Mackintosh who said: ‘When I look into the face of Jesus Christ and see the face of God, I know that I have not seen that face elsewhere, for he and the Father are one.’ He then makes this very important point, ‘we must see him at the centre of all things. We must behold him as the pivotal and cardinal reality, round which all life and history have moved. That is a place out of which his Person cannot be kept.’ How do we know that God is a compassionate? Because Jesus was compassionate. How do we know that God gives his undivided attention to us and treats us as individuals with all our good points and hang ups? Because Jesus treated individuals that way. How do we know that God wants a personal relationship with each one of us which will go on into eternity? Because Jesus went to die on a cross to remove the one thing which destroys that relationship and which will ultimately destroy us- our sin and he rose again from the dead to prove it. If you have never done so why not take the time this Christmas to read one of the four biographies of Jesus in the second part of the Bible and let that form you view of him. You can know God.
Secondly, God can know us, which may seem a strange way of putting things since surely by definition God knows everything? Well, there are different kinds of knowing: when I say I know an egg takes four minutes to boil, I mean something very different to when I say I know my wife loves me. There is personal knowledge-knowing that, which is more than mere objective knowledge- knowing about.
When the young mother in the video was faced with a baby born with Downs Syndrome and disability, she felt grief and loss and asked ‘Why should this happen to us?’ But then with time her way of viewing things gradually changed. It was no longer a matter of asking ‘What is wrong with my daughter’ but ‘what is wrong with my thinking?’ And there is little doubt it was her Christian faith which made the difference. You see, God knows from the inside both the experience of the mother and the daughter. When the immortal became brittle, when the all-knowing one had to learn, when the all-powerful one became dependent upon his mother for food and protection, from God’s perspective surely, that counts as a kind of ‘disability’ to put it mildly- yet he did it for us. He knows from the inside of human experience what it is like to be vulnerable, to be misunderstood, to be alone. We read in the Bible how Jesus felt grief at the death of a close friend and loss at the way all his followers just left him to die alone completely at the mercy of his enemies nailed to a piece of wood- exposed, derided, rejected. All the anguish we feel, all the misunderstanding we encounter, all the sense of bewilderment we experience in this broken world- he experienced- and how! This means we have a God who can really sympathise with us and be with us as we move on through our troubles. The real God in Jesus is not remote and unconcerned, he is involved and passionate about the people he has made-people like you and me.
Thirdly, we can know what matters. Let me tell you something. One of the leading scientists of early twentieth century Britain was J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane was a leading proponent of what became known as ‘social Darwinism’ as seen in his essay, ‘Eugenics and Social Reform.’ He proposed the optimisation of the human gene pool by preventing certain types of people from breeding. This was also championed by none other than Bertrand Russell who in 1929 advocated the compulsory sterilisation of the mentally deficient. He argued that the State should have the power to forcibly sterilise all those regarded as ‘mentally deficient’ by appropriate experts and the resulting reduction of ‘idiots, imbeciles and feeble minded’ people would be of such a benefit to society that it would outweigh any dangers of misuse. This wasn’t Nazi Germany but cultured Britain. Those children we have just seen would be such people. The same idea lies behind the call by some for genetic screening and abortion today- it is just moving along the same spectrum of thought. Not so, the Christian would claim pointing to Jesus. In God becoming a child, like those lovely children we have just seen, God confirmed affirmed that simply by being human they are of supreme value regardless of their supposed usefulness or not to society because they are made in his image. God became one of them- a child who was helpless, vulnerable and loved unconditionally by his mother as Leeva on the video was loved by her mother. If we are all the result of some cosmic accident, thrown up by blind, impersonal chance, then like an accident we have no intrinsic value. But if we are created by an all-knowing, all-personal God who as Creator once became a creature- then we are of unlimited value. And you know in a day like ours when there is an increasing search for value and significance, especially amongst the young- that is a wonderfully precious thing to know- that we actually matter to Him.
And so the now what?
If all that we have been thinking about is true, then it is true for everyone- that is what truth is like, it is universal. But it also has personal implications for it requires each one of us to think how we are going to personally respond to this truth.
So let me end by telling you about a student called Simon who went to University to study Geography. This is what he says, and see if it rings any bells, however faint, with where you are at: ‘Religion has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. Sounds crazy? Well, when I arrived as a fresher I would have said exactly the opposite. As far as I was concerned, going to church and being a Christian were the same thing- you did both on Sunday, and kept quiet about the fact for the rest of the week. But what I soon discovered on beginning university is that religious habit and real Christianity couldn’t be more different. I may have known the routine of church, but I didn’t know Jesus Christ myself. What really impressed me was meeting Christians my own age who were clear on what they believed and why they believed it, and who also had the integrity to live that out. This put to shame what was beginning to look like rather empty religious performance on my part. 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, purpose in life now, and certainty beyond death had all been made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. As they explained, what my religious effort could never achieve, Jesus Christ alone could bring, I trusted in him. In the end I realised I had a choice. But when it came to the decision between living the truth and living the lie, I realised that there was really only one option open. I decided to ask God for forgiveness. 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 live for him.’
That is how you become a Christian and come to know God personally as does that mother and little girl in the video. Do you want to know God, know true value, and enjoy real love? Then this same Jesus invites you to come to him tonight and you can do that by bowing your head with me as we pray.
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