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.
There is a powerful and profound video doing the rounds called The Incarnation in which Odd Thomas, through the medium of poetic word, attempts to express the inexpressible and comprehend the incomprehensible – that at Christmas we affirm God became man.
The second person of the Trinity commissioned to abandon his position
And literally set aside the independent expression of his attributes in full submission
The word manifested in the flesh, the fullness of God expressed
The self-emptying Jesus poured out at the Father’s request
I’m not exactly sure what he means in that second line when he says that the Son literally set aside the expression of his attributes and for all I know we might find that over a cup of coffee we completely agree with each other. But it comes a little too close for my comfort to saying that in taking human form, God the Son ceased to be fully God. If we are to believe that God left heaven and became a baby does that mean he stopped being fully God?
A little over 100 years ago an idea became popular that this is exactly what happened. The kenosis theory was put forward by a man who later became the first Bishop of Birmingham and later Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore.
Grudem in his Systematic Theology writes The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man…This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfil his work of redemption. Grudem puts forward a number of reasons as to why such an idea (based on a misinterpretation of Philippians 2:7) must be rejected. Probably the most important two are that no teacher in the church for 1800 years ever thought that Philippians 2 did mean a giving up of divine attributes and secondly that the context of the passage strongly suggests ‘that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven’ rather than a change in his nature.
What really happened then in the incarnation?
The truth is that Christmas is bigger and better than this theory allows and that it must be better than this if Jesus is able to save us.
1. The most helpful way to describe the incarnation is not that God the Son gave up his deity but rather that God the Son joined himself to humanity. Grudem suggests ‘the incarnation was the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature.’
Only such a definition allows us to continue to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man, inseparable but distinct.
2. That means that God the Son did not cease to be God the Son even whilst he was on earth. Here is where it gets to be truly mind-blowing. Christians affirm that God the Son was ruling in the heavens even as he lay helpless in a manger! Imagine you are in Augustine’s congregation as he gives expression to this truth in these beautiful words taken from one of his sermons;
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father He remains,
from His mother He goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at His mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.
Such a truth is essential to affirm even as we acknowledge beyond our ability to comprehend.
3. The trinity is not interrupted and God is not changed or confused. How essential it is that we affirm the unchanging nature and character of God! He cannot be one God at a certain moment in time and another God at a different moment in time. The Son does not stop being the Son and continues to relate perfectly to Father and Spirit within the Godhead even as he experiences life in the flesh on earth.
4. Jesus is able to save us from our sins. Only by being fully God and fully man is he able to save us. If he surrenders his divine attributes he ceases to be fully or truly God. Grudem says ‘If Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity.’
Should we therefore ever use language that describes a great condescension of God e.g. can we say of him ‘God was in a manger’ or ‘God had to learn to speak and to walk’? Yes. Because Jesus truly is ONE person with TWO natures. Because he is one person we may rightly say that what is true of one nature is true of the person. Jesus in his human nature knew what it was to be helpless, weak, dependent on others, ultimately he knew what it was to be tempted, to suffer and to die. Because what is true of one nature is true of the person we can say that ‘God became man’ when he joined himself to humanity.
Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensible made man – Charles Wesley
On Sunday evening City Church held its, now annual tradition, of Carols by Candlelight courtesy of The Blue Coat School in Birmingham. Beautiful music in a beautiful setting. Below is the text of my talk.
One particularly naughty young boy was worried that he might not get what he was hoping for at Christmas so as he sat at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He began, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ but then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. Beginning with a new piece of paper he starts again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ No good he thinks and throws it away. But then he has an inspired idea. He runs downstairs and removes the statue of Mary from the nativity set, puts it in the wardrobe, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’
Well how are the Christmas preparations going this year? Some of you are looking pretty relaxed the trees up, cards have been sent, the presents bought and wrapped. Some of you are not looking quite so confident, maybe still have a little bit of work to do? Well I’m glad that whatever your situation you’ve made some time to sing carols tonight.
Can I start asking what, in particular, does Christmas mean to you?
Christmas is a few drinks too many – well that’s the answer for some
Christmas is for the kids – lots of us would echo that
Christmas is about the traditions we remember fondly from our own childhood
Christmas is a time to reconnect with the family we struggle to see at any other time of year
Christmas is cancelled or is that wishful thinking for some of you or at least delayed. For some, Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year.
Well I hope this evening has helped to encourage you that despite all the work we all have to put in, Christmas really is worth celebrating. I wonder whether you’ve seen the Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart? The American Film Institute ranked it as the most inspirational film of all time and I guess that’s why it’s still shown in America every Christmas day even though it was made in 1946!
The story is about a man called George who thinks that his life has not amounted to anything much and on a snowy Christmas eve is considering ending it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters below. But God sends an angel called Clarence, dressed as a man, to rescue him. Clarence’s job is to change George’s mind and what he does is show George Bailey how different the world would have looked if he had never been born. In a world without George Bailey so may lives would have taken a turn for the worse if a man like him had not been there for them.
After he shows him a world in which George Bailey had never existed Clarence the angel concludes; Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
George is a man transformed at looking at his life in a new perspective and the film ends well. A life lived that brings so much blessing to others IS a wonderful life. He is the richest man in the world!
No doubt there are many people that have played a part in your life who in big ways or small you are grateful for this Christmas time every human life in some sense is a life that makes a difference. In a carol service we’re thinking about one life in particular – the life of Jesus.
What If Jesus had never been born? Would it really make any difference? The 2011 census results show that 25% of people in England and Wales claim to be of no religion. One recent survey found that 51% of people agreed with the statement that ‘The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas”
I suppose that means if you ask them what difference the life of Jesus makes, their answer would be none. I guess it is possible to celebrate Christmas without Jesus. To get me in the mood for Christmas I thought I’d try listening to a CD recommended in the paper called Christmas with my friends by Nils Landgren. The first track I listened to was a Swedish setting of O little town of Bethlehem, but weirdly the second is Imagine by John Lennon. What a curious choice of song for a Christmas album as you sing along at Christmas imagine there’s no heaven! Why not celebrate Christmas by imagining that the world would be a better place if Jesus had never been born?!
But there again I suppose it is an extraordinary thing that we should even be in this building at all this evening, remembering the life of a man who lived so long ago. After all his story should be a footnote of history; born in an obscure village, a child was born of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village where He worked as a carpenter until He was thirty. Then for three years He became an itinerant preacher.
This man never went to college or university. He never wrote a book. He never held a public office. He never had a family nor owned a home. He never put His foot inside a big city nor travelled even 200 miles from His birthplace. And He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness, throngs of people followed Him
And yet in Communist China, the Economist magazine estimates, he is worshipped by more people than there are members of the state Communist Party. Somewhere between 70-100 million people in China will celebrate his birth this Christmas.
Someone has written This one Man’s life has furnished the theme for more songs, books, poems and paintings than any other person or event in history. Thousands of colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions have been founded in honour of this One who gave His life for us.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the governments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned have not changed the course of history as much as this One Solitary Life.
HG Wells, author of War of the Worlds famously said;
I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history. Christ is the most unique person of history. No man can write a history of the human race without giving first and foremost place to the penniless teacher of Nazareth.
We celebrate at Christmas one life like no other. One life that was always designed to make the most radical difference. This is how Matthew records the birth of Jesus;
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph 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. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a wonderful life that makes all the difference in the world. Let me tell you two reasons why I’m glad that Jesus was born and why I’m ready to celebrate his birth this Christmas.
1. Jesus is God with us
Lots of my friends aren’t sure whether to believe in a God and they’re not sure why this God rather than another God. The birth of Jesus brings to an end our debates and speculation about God. We don’t need to argue over God and big bang or look for clues in the fabric of the universe. God is no figment of our imagination for God has entered our world, become one of us.
And not only does that bring clarity in a world of confusion but it brings comfort in a world of pain. That God should become one of us brings God home. When I read in the papers or witness on the news all the sadness and pain that surrounds the tragic events of Newtown Connecticut I want to know that there really is right and wrong, that love does triumphs over evil, that there is someone finally in control, that justice will be done. Richard Dawkins tells me that these desires of my hearts are mere delusions. He tells me I need to wake up to reality that I live in a cruel indifferent universe that it has no design or purpose that there is no such thing as good or evil, right or wrong.
But Christmas cuts across the darkness of Dawkins worldview for it supremely offers me a reason for hope. A reason to say God is not only there but he is for us and with us because God became one of us. He walked my path, he knew my pain. He experienced what it was to suffer injustice, intolerance, hatred and overcame it all for us.
The second reason reason I’m ready to celebrate Christmas this year is that
2. Jesus is God for us
In coming into our world Jesus showed me the lengths that God is willing to go to put things right. You see there is a second reason I am glad that Jesus was born and that is because it shows that not only is God with us but God is for us. The angel said to Joseph
you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins
Jesus’ life is a wonderful life, full of compassion, concern, he welcomed the stranger, he embraced the poor, he cared for the sick, he provide for the needy, he welcomed in the outsider, the excluded, the marginalised. And he also came for you and for me.
Jesus’ life was a wonderful life because he lived it for you and he gave it up for you when in his death he offered his life as a sacrifice for your sins and mine.
Christmas is a time when we find that the past so often hangs over us and overshadows our joy. We remember our mistakes, relive our regrets, dwell on our misfortunes, hide our shame and guilt and at a time of peace and good will it can be a reminder that when we are supposed to be at peace with others we are not even at peace with ourselves. When we see the consequences of sin in our lives like that we get just a glimpse of how a holy and perfect God sees us.
But Jesus says to us this Christmas time ‘I’m here to take that off you.’ The wonderful life was a life lived for you and for me. And his life has been impacting lives for 2000 years.
What are you looking for this Christmas? I hope that it is more than ever this Christmas not new socks, or a few days off work, but a fresh start and a new life. At the beginning of John’s gospel we find these words;
He was in the world, and 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. Yet 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.
The wonderful life that Jesus lived for you is a life he now offers you. A life that knows no end and no end of joy. We sang in our earlier carol ‘O little town’ the following words..
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
51% of people in that earlier service thought that Jesus would make no difference to their Christmas my hope and my prayer is that he might make all the difference to your Christmas this year. Have a happy and blessed Christmas time.
10ofthose.com have produced a very useful video deconstructing a religious view of God by taking a closer look at Santa. Could be useful this Christmas.
(HT: Caitriona McCartney)
Dricoll’s tips I want to remember 2,4,6,11
Driscoll’s tips I need to remember 3,9,10,15
Being a parent at Christmas is probably one of the biggest challenges of the year. But Jen Hatmaker’s post The Christmas Conundrum is quite simply the best thing (on web or in print) that I’ve read for parents seeking to navigate through the priorities and pitfalls of Christmas. If you read one thing on parenting this Christmas this is it.
‘We all know it. We all feel it. Every year we bear this tension. Each December, the world feels off kilter. But in the absence of a better plan or an alternative rhythm or – let’s just say it – courage, we feed the machine yet again, giving Jesus lip service while teaching our kids to ask Santa for whatever they want, because, you know, that’s really what Christmas boils down to.
I just cannot take it anymore, yall. I cannot.’
Happy reading, and of course, a happy Christmas.
(HT: Aimee Bentall)
“Winter Snow” (featuring Audrey Assad) from Chris Tomlin’s new Christmas album called “Glory In The Highest”
(HT: Andy Fenton)
A really helpful article by Donald Whitney suggesting 10 questions you could ask to get conversations started this Christmas. Some of them, in particular, set up good gospel opportunities and others get us thinking a little more about our own priorities this Christmas:
Many of us struggle to make conversation at Christmas gatherings, whether church events, work-related parties, neighborhooddrop-ins, or annual family occasions. Sometimes our difficulty lies in having to chat with people we rarely see or have never met. At other times we simply don’t know what to say to those with whom we feel little in common. Moreover, as Christians we want to take advantage of the special opportunities provided by the Christmas season to share our faith, but are often unsure how to begin. Here’s a list of questions designed not only to kindle a conversation in almost any Christmas situation, but also to take the dialogue gradually to a deeper level. Use them in a private conversation or as a group exercise, with believers or unbelievers, with strangers or with family.
- What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since last Christmas?
- What was your best Christmas ever? Why?
- What’s the most meaningful Christmas gift you’ve ever received?
- What was the most appreciated Christmas gift you’ve ever given?
- What was your favorite Christmas tradition as a child?
- What is your favorite Christmas tradition now?
- What do you do to try to keep Christ in Christmas?
- Why do you think people started celebrating the birth of Jesus?
- Do you think the birth of Jesus deserves such a nearly worldwide celebration?
- Why do you think Jesus came to earth?
I’ve added a couple more of my own
- Do you think Christmas is over-rated?
- What’s your favourite Christmas song? Why that one? Would you put a carol in your top 10?
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