Saturday, 25 December 2010

Midnight Mass: Sermon by Stephen Snelling

John 1. 1-14

So I wonder what Christmas means for you. Maybe you look forward to it but if the statistics are to be believed, then for most people Christmas is actually a pretty stressful and expensive time. I read that in 2005 the average person in the UK spent 15 hours looking for Christmas presents, made five separate shopping trips, walked 20 miles and spent two hours queuing to pay. Office workers spent up to 7 million hours of company time doing their Christmas shopping, costing businesses £72 million in the first three weeks of December. On average, each household spent approximately £160 on food and drink, £660 on gifts, £20 on cards and postage and £75 on the tree and various decorations – so it will be more that that this year! It’s no surprise to discover that a majority of people in Britain find Christmas more stressful than going to the dentist – I’m not so sure about that!

So with all the preparation and expense that Christmas brings for many of us, it is little wonder that the Christian message at the heart of Christmas is sidelined or forgotten. With so much else going on and so many other things left for us to worry about, for some people the Christmas story is really a bit to tack on if they have time.

So it’s really great to see you all here tonight – coming to ensure that Christ stays at the heart of Christmas and that it’s not abbreviated to Xmas or, worse still, a politically correct ‘Winterval’ or whatever.

And despite all the stress we have reason for a double celebration because three hundred and fifty years ago tonight the people of this country were again celebrating Christmas after fourteen years when it had been banned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans because, as they said:

“More mischief is at that time committed than in all the year . . . . What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting . . . . to the great dishonour of God.”

But it is precisely because we have something to celebrate that we do so. And what is it that we celebrate? Why the birth of Jesus Christ of course. However, just suppose that you had never heard the nativity story before you might be forgiven for wondering what this evening’s Gospel reading is all about.

Because John’s gospel has no story of the birth of Jesus. No mangers and shepherds, no angels and wise men. No heavenly choirs. No doubting Joseph and his dreams. No risky flights to Egypt, no visits by wise men bearing gifts. John leaves that for Matthew and Luke to tell.

John’s gospel was written after the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and was written predominantly for a non Jewish audience - it assumes you already know the important details of the birth of Jesus.
Instead he begins his account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus with a Prologue. He begins his gospel as the book of Genesis begins the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, “In the beginning.” His purpose is as far-reaching as the purpose of the author of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth”, begins Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”, begins John. He sets the story of Jesus within the context of an overarching story of God and his mighty works. God is. God loves. God speaks. God creates. God redeems. God has purpose.
God speaks. The Word was God. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. There is reason, logic and purpose in what God is and does and this reason, logic and purpose is revealed to us in what the man Jesus Christ is and does. This is a great claim that John makes: if you want to understand the meaning and purpose of things, the “why”, of the universe, the created order, of the world and all that is in it, the way to approach the matter is through God’s Word, with him from the beginning, God’s Son Jesus Christ.
This is difficult for us to grasp but you don’t need to explain how the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, any more than you need to explain how water can be a Baptism of the Holy Spirit or bread can be the Body of Christ or wine His Blood. You need only take the Word at His Word and enjoy the company. The darkness need not understand the light to receive it; it only needs to be darkness. And the darkness can’t keep out the light or overcome it. Light always fills the emptiness of the darkness, as it did on the first day.

We who sit in darkness need only trust that the Light that gives light to all people shines on us in the Person named Jesus. Our Light and our Life and our Salvation. He is the Word that creates us and holds us together.

But does Jesus make a difference to our lives? Are the events of the first Christmas just an irrelevant sideshow? Something we remember briefly each year and then leave behind until the next time?
People question the idea that the Bible has authority for us today. Yes it contains inconsistencies and some things that are just hard to accept. But overall it speaks plainly and clearly about a God who cares about his people. A God whose existence spans the whole of history and who is not limited in his capacity for love and willingness to forgive and accept people for who and what they are. A God who invites all people to be one with him and to share his life, a life without limit, and of real peace and blessing beyond measure.
It speaks also of the one who has come to show us the way to find this God, the one who came from God and is God, but who is also fully human, in fact, the only truly fully human person who has ever lived – the only one who has ever lived a life completely in accord with God’s will and purposes.
We pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth. We are incapable of making the first part happen by ourselves and we struggle with the latter. We are unwilling to let Jesus make a difference to the way we are as individuals. We have limited ambitions for what we could let God achieve through us, we resist his attempts to change us.
All too often Jesus makes no difference to our lives because we refuse to let him make a difference even though he brings us the greatest Christmas gift of all – John tells us that if we let Jesus into our lives we will become the children of God. He is here, ready and waiting, all we have to do is to say “yes” and give our lives to him.
The coming of God into the world and all that Jesus did in his ministry and supremely in his death, shows the lengths God is prepared to go to in order to help us change into what he wants us to be. We are so limited in how we see ourselves – ugly ducklings afraid to dare to change or be changed. God sees us as the beautiful swans he intends us to become.
The Christmas story doesn’t change – we come back to it year after year and it is the same – but we needn’t be the same – we can take God at his word – the Word being his Son – and allow ourselves to be changed by him into something a little more like the kingdom people God has called us to be.
To do as God wants us to do. To tell the Gospel story to others. To love one another. To transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who don’t know God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

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