One-time atheist and now Christian, AN Wilson ( see why I believe again), has written a super piece in the Telegraph today out-lining why the falling numbers of church-goers and the declining influence of Christianity in the UK are really no reason for us to be alarmed.
He concludes ‘the paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.’
This year marks the 160th anniversary of Charles Dickens first ever public reading. In December 1853, he chose A Christmas Carol as the book to read and he chose Birmingham Town Hall as the place to read it. It was the book he read from most in his lifetime and the story remains as popular as ever.
So what’s to like about a Christmas Carol?
I think we like it because it celebrates that we really do believe that Christmas is good for us. More than just tinsel and turkey, Christmas has the power to change a life. Scrooge is a man redeemed and transformed by visions of Christmas past, present and future. What we see in a Christmas Carol is really, truly and finally to be found in another story, the true story that God brings to us at Christmas time.
Just as the Spirits broke into the life of Scrooge so Christmas calls on us to remember that God loves us too much to leave us alone. The God of Christmas wants to change us as we reflect on Christmas. So are you ready to meet God this Christmas? Do you welcome the thought that God might want to use Christmas to bring a real and radical change to life?
On average each household spends 300 hours to preparing for Christmas. What if we gave not 300 hours, but just 30 minutes this Christmas to preparing our hearts to meet with God. So, for example, why not reflect on what a radical and unique message Christmas is? Here’s how Elyse Fitzpatrick puts it in her book:
The incarnation sets Christianity apart from every other religion. The thought that God would become man is simply without parallel in any other faith . . . in no other religion does a creator god become weak and an indistinguishable part of creation. God became so completely one of us that the people who lived with him didn’t notice anything special about him . . . look across the room at someone. That’s how ordinary he looked.
The story of Christmas is one of extraordinary condescension. The Apostle Paul put’s it this way in the Bible, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.
Have you ever seen that TV programme Secret Millionaire? A millionaire agrees to go undercover and rough it for a few days living amongst the socially marginalised visiting community projects – shelters or hostels or something – everyone thinks he is just a nobody but all along the secret millionaire is looking for people and projects he can give money to. But then his true identity is revealed – before astonished volunteers at some community centre. The man they’ve been showing around is not really Joe blogs he’s Mr Millionaire and he hands over a cheque to the utter shock and amazement of the beneficiary – the tears flow and the ratings rise.
At one level it all appears very noble but it’s really a game – the millionaire after a few days gets back into the Rolls Royce and drives to a huge house a few quid poorer but cashing in on a new found fame and reputation. It looks worthy but it’s ultimately self-serving AND a million miles away from the life of Jesus. You see Jesus wasn’t playing a part. It is a glorious truth – ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.’ He left the glories of heaven behind when he became a man and as a servant gave his life even to death. All of that for us and our sake.
So here’s a question for each of us this Christmas season: not what do you want from Christmas but what does God want from Christmas? Elyse Fitzpatrick says ‘Jesus came to serve you that he might win you with his love. What does God wants for you this Christmas. He wants your wonder and your worship. He wants your witness and your life. His purpose, through the power of Christmas, is that you be changed.
Scrooge says after his dramatic transformation “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” I love that little phrase I will not shut out the lessons they teach. Let’s join Scrooge in determining to learn the the lessons Christmas is teaching us.
On Sunday evening 370 people packed The Blue Coat School Chapel in Edgbaston for our annual Carols by Candlelight. The text for my address is given below.
Three wealthy sons each gave their elderly mother a Christmas present. The first son gave her a new house. The second gave a new car. But, the third said to his brothers, “you know mum can’t see very well these days. So I’ve spent £20,000 on a most gifted parrot money can buy and I’ve had him trained to recite all her favourite poetry. He’s amazing.”
After Christmas the old lady wrote “thank you” letters. To the first son she wrote: “Thank you so much for the house. Sadly it is rather too large. I much prefer my small flat.” To the second she wrote: “Thank you so much for the car. Sadly my failing eyesight means I can no longer drive.” But to the third she wrote as follows: “Dear Donald, thank you that at least You have the good sense to know exactly what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious.”
Well Christmas is that time for giving and receiving gifts and I for one love doing both although I’m not so hot on the shopping bit. We don’t always get what we want though do we. Apparently last year 366,000 people already had an unwanted present listed on eBay by the end of Christmas night. And greater numbers than ever rather than watching Christmas day TV are scanning the internet for the presents they didn’t get – at knock down prices – before the day is over.
Of course the reason we give gifts at all at Christmas time is because we remember the gift that God has given to the world. If you could ask God for one thing this Christmas I wonder what it would be? An England win in the ashes? An x-factor voice? The football skills of Lionel Messi or perhaps a body the size of Kate Moss?
The idea that God could, if he really wanted to, do a lot to improve our lives is an attractive one. So what is it that God given you?
1. God’s gift to the world that first Christmas was the gift of himself.
The angel said to Joseph that the son born to Mary would be called Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’. Now, why would God, in all of his wisdom, give us Jesus for Christmas? What made him the best gift we could receive?
To help us think about that I want to draw our attention to our final reading this evening from the beginning of John’s gospel.
And there in v.9 we read ‘the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.’ John describes Jesus as a light to give us light for life. God’s one gift helps us make the most of all of the other gifts. Many people will wake up this Christmas day and will have Steve Jobs to thank for their present. Thanks to him we have iphones and ipads and all of the rest but even Jobs in all of his brilliance cannot give us what we really want. In his battle for life he said ‘No one wants to die and yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.’
Another brilliant man, Leo Tolstoy, gave great pleasure to the world through his books. But he remained frustrated by his own lack of answers. He famously asked — Is there meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me? Is there anyone who can give our lives the meaning and purpose that no amount of socks, perfume, or even chocolate can fill.
God’s gift to you this Christmas is the true light that gives light to every one of us. In v.3 we read ‘through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men’. Jesus the author of life is the key to life. As God he is our guide to life. He’s our satnav, he’s the help desk. He’s the technical support, the on-hand expert because the light of the world brings light to our lives. Once we know that God is there and we know the future that he offers it gives direction, meaning, purpose to all of the details of our lives.
Jesus really is the ultimate gift because there is nothing like him. v.18 No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
The wonder of Christmas
The real wonder of Christmas is that it tells me not just that there is a God but that he is interested in me. Some of us ask does God care about this world, could God ever be interested in me. Perhaps those are questions that sit at the back of your mind this evening. But when God came into our world. He chose to live life just like you and me. He didn’t arrive on Air Force One with a cavalcade of stretch limos. No God chose to be born in a stable because no one offered him a bed for the night. He grew up in a small town, doing an ordinary job and all to tell us what kind of God he really is. One of us.
And Jesus when he grew to be a man made his mission clear. To seek and save the lost. Jesus came into the world because he came looking for you and me. The true light came to give light to every man. To show you the way back to God. To give you a life and a purpose that lasts into eternity.
Well if the wonder of Christmas is that God would do all of that for me then the scandal of Christmas is that when he came we didn’t exactly make him welcome.
The scandal of Christmas
Even at Christmas time not everyone is welcome at least not all of the time. There will be falling’s out this Christmas. One survey suggested that a fifth of rows this Christmas will be over what to watch on TV. 14 percent of arguments will be over doing the washing up. 11 percent will be about an old family issue; and ten percent about what presents to open. Top of the list? Board games prompt more arguments than even TV – 24 percent.
John tells us, v.10, that when Jesus came into our world, ‘though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ When we read through the life of Jesus we see that when God came into our world we did not exactly make him welcome. It wasn’t just a few innkeepers who could not find room for Jesus at Christmas. It seems that the whole world was ready to exclude him from their celebrations.
When we remember that a life that began in a manager ended on a cross we are reminded what a very easy thing it is to refuse and reject God. Many of us have simply got comfortable living life without him. How many of us even if we think that God might just be there have no plans of making room for him in our lives this Christmas time?
The gift of Christmas
God’s gift has come into the world – yet even as many refuse him, look with me at v.12, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’ Jesus comes to give us the greatest gift of all – a relationship with God. More than that, a whole new status – you and I can leave here this evening as children of the living God.
If you’re looking for a last minute present there is a website called highlandtitles.com. It offers you – for the small sum of just £30 – the chance to become a Lord or Lady of an area of one square foot in the highlands of Scotland. A real plot of land, a certificate for the wall and the right to call yourself a lord or lady. Tempted? Well maybe. But we all know it’s a complete nonsense of course.
But God’s offer is not nonsense. For to become a child of God changes everything.
A little later in John’s gospel we read these words, perhaps the most famous in all of the Bible ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Jesus, through his death on the cross would pay for our sin and for all who do receive him he reconciles to God. That is the Christmas gift that is on offer to you this evening.
Kerry Packer was the richest man in Australia. He died a few years ago but one newspaper obituary recorded an extraordinary episode of his life. One evening Packer was out with friends and came to a pub looking for a meal. The landlord turned him away saying ‘.I’m sorry he said we’re not still serving food.’
Undeterred, Packer walked across the town square to the other pub but this time the landlord was pleased to welcome him and provided a meal for his party. When they had finished eating the bill duly arrived for £140. Packer got out his pen and wrote a cheque for £10,140. Explaining what he had done he said to the landlord. £140 is for the bill. £10,000 that’s your tip. The only condition is that before you cash the cheque you show it to the landlord across the road.
The mistake the first landlord made was not simply that he had turned someone away but it was much more who he chose to turn away – the richest man in his country. John urges us not to make the same mistake this evening. This Christmas time Jesus says – will you receive me? If you will I will give not £10000 but the right to become a child of God. Wouldn’t it be an even greater tragedy to turn away not the richest man in the land but the one who offers eternal life.
What might it mean for you to receive him this Christmas?
Joshua Dubois was a man working for Barack Obama when he was Governor of Illinois and campaigning for the Whitehouse. Dubois was just an aide working for the Obama team. They’d never met each other but Dubois wondered whether in the midst of everything that was going on in Obama’s life whether anyone was really thinking about his soul.
So he sent Obama an e-mail with a Bible verse. He didn’t expect a response but he got one almost immediately . Obama replied ‘That is exactly what I needed’ and then said ‘would you do that every day.’ And that is what Joshua Dubois has done for the past 6 years. I wonder whether you think someone pointing you towards Jesus in a busy and stressful life might just do you good too?
Why not take this booklet and read it. Why not join us at City Church this Sunday or on Christmas day. Then in the new year there is a chance to join us on a course called identity.
And if you think it might just do you good I’d be happy to send you one e-mail a week. With just a Bible verse, a thought. My commitment to you is that apart from adding you to that e-mail list I won’t contact you unless you ask me to. And of course you can stop receiving them at any time. If you’d like that simply drop an e-mail to the city church office and you’ll receive that first one just in time for Christmas.
As we turn to our closing carol may I take this opportunity to wish every one of you a very merry and blessed Christmas.
The Nobel prize winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes in his essay ‘The Discreet Charm of Nihilism’;
A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death, the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged. The Marxist creed has now been inverted. The true opium of modernity is the belief that there is no God, so that humans are free to do precisely as they please.
(HT: Martin Ayers)
Living out is a new resource for anyone who wants to think through issues of same-sex attraction from a biblical perspective. Put together by friends of mine their example, honesty and desire to serve the God they love in faithful ways is a remarkable example to us all. Please make use of the resource to equip the church to understand the issues, find help for your own struggles and use it to pray for these men at a time like this.
From tonight (30th November, 9pm) Channel 5 will start to air a 10 part tv series called The Bible. The man behind the project, Mark Burnett, is a Christian and the British-born produced of reality TV shows The Apprentice and The Voice. He said ‘we were very aware that our shows like The Apprentice come and go. But with The Bible we fully believed people would be watching it in 30 years. It’s much more meaningful. This is certainly the most important thing I’ve ever done.’
The Telegraph reported on the extraordinary viewing figures The Bible mini-series has received in the US. The Bible, a visually stunning, epic adaption of a selection of the major stories from Genesis to Revelation, was the number one cable series this year in America. The opening episode was seen by 13.1 million viewers, the highest 2013 figure for a cable channel.
Burnett explained his reasons for making the series in an interview for the Huffington Post earlier this year:
Physically, it took us to Morocco for five months of filming, London for many months of editing and then hop scotching all across the U.S. for the better part of a year as we shared our vision for the project with faith leaders of all denominations. Where it’s taken us spiritually and emotionally, though, is far more profound: we began as two people in love with the Bible and each other, and finished as two people even more in love with both each other and the Bible.
Part of what we hoped to accomplish with the series was to show the Bible is not simply a collection of unconnected stories which are often discussed and analyzed in snippets with chapter and verse numbers. Instead, we wanted to show how the Old Testament connects seamlessly to the New Testament. How they are one sweeping story with one grand, overriding message: God loves each one of us as if we were the only person in all the world to love.
Having made The Bible Burnett and his wife Roma Downey have now also completed a new film version of the life of Jesus entitled The Son of God which will be launched across the US from 28th February.
Here’s a summary of Brad Lomenick’s take on the next generation of leaders in the church and his reasons for optimism.
- Passion for God
- Willing to work together
- Don’t care who gets the credit
- Generosity and sharing are the new currencies
- They understand the holistic responsibility of influence
- Authenticity wins
- Not willing to wait
- See social justice as the norm
- Seeking wisdom and mentors
- A change the world mentality
(HT: Matt Perman)
Justin Taylor & Joe Rigney remember the day JFK and CS Lewis died in this piece for Religion News Service
At last, someone from the Government is speaking out against the systematic assault on Christianity in parts of our world today.
- Church Planting
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