Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas 2006

Christmas is a time of journeys. Many people travel quite long distances in order to be with relatives.

An elderly man in Manchester calls his son in London and says, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough."
"Dad, what are you talking about?" the son asks.
"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Aberdeen and tell her."
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts. "I'll take care of this."
She calls Manchester immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing till I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing."
The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "They're both coming for Christmas and paying their own fares. Now what do we do for New Year?"
There are quite a few journeys associated with the first Christmas

1. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem.
Circumstances bring them to Bethlehem. I am sure that Mary would have much preferred to give birth to her first born in Nazareth, with her own mum being there. But the emperor had spoken. Everyone had to go to their home town to be counted. And Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem.

2. The shepherds travel to Bethlehem from their fields.
Curiosity took them to Bethlehem. The angels have told them that a child has been born who is Messiah.

The Messiah was the person who the people of Israel had waited for. He was going to save them. Most of them thought of him as a political saviour, someone who would give them back their political freedom; but the prophets had said that the Messiah was about something much bigger. He would save them from nothing less than sin and death, from the things that separated them from God.

And the angels say: The messiah has been born. And you will know it is him because he will be in baby clothes and lying in an animal feeding trough.

And so they say, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened".

3. The magi, the wise men, travel to Bethlehem.
It was wise men. That was why they didn't ask for directions until they got to Jerusalem; it was why they didn't arrive on time; and it was why they brought such useless gifts. If they had been wise women they would have brought a casserole for Mary, or clothes for the baby.

But the wise men came to Bethlehem through choice. They had seen the star, and they had come to worship.

So circumstances bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; Curiosity brings the shepherds to Bethlehem; Choice brings the wise men to Bethlehem.

But there is another person who journeys to Bethlehem on that first Christmas: God.

Love brings him to Bethlehem.

Augustine said:
"He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,
without whom all human eloquence is mute."

In other words:
the one who made people became a person;
the one who began time was born into time;
the one who created Mary was born and nurtured of Mary;
the one who gave us reason and words, cried as one without reason and words.
And he did it because he loved us.

And God travels to Bethlehem for a meeting. Up to now, God has spoken to his people through prophets, through priests, through the law - his written word.

In Jesus, God comes for a face to face with the human race: he identifies himself totally with us. He lives our life. He dies our death.

Jesus shows us a God who loves us, who:
- despite our pride and selfishness and lack of love - persists in loving us
- despite what we have done to this planet, to others and to ourselves - goes on loving us

Jesus shows us a God who is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep. One of them goes astray and gets lost. So shepherd goes walkabout, until he finds his lost sheep. And he is so happy, he puts it over his shoulder, goes down to the pub in the village and says, 'Let's celebrate. I had a 100 sheep. I lost one, so I left the other 99 and went and found the lost sheep'. And Jesus says, 'I am the good shepherd. I have come walkabout on earth to search for the lost sheep - to search for you - because that is how much you mean to me. And I will lay down my life for my sheep'.

For most of us, God is a rather shadowy figure. We might believe in him, occasionally pray, usually when we or someone we love is in trouble. But he seems remote and distant. We do not hear him or see him. He is certainly not obvious, and the way that he works is not obvious. It is as if a great barrier separates us from him.

God does not want it to be that way. He wishes to be found. He wishes to be known. He loves us and he wants us to respond to his love by loving him.

And so, Jesus lived and died and rose again to break down the barrier that separates us from him. That is the point of Christmas. It is God becoming one of us. It is God smashing down the barrier that separates us from him.

And if we are prepared to meet him, to receive him, to recognise him as the Son of God, we can begin to live as friends of God.

For some, when we receive Jesus, God suddenly becomes so very obvious. It makes sense. For others he still is not obvious.

But when we receive him, he comes into our lives.

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today"

and we are enabled to begin to live by faith in Him.

Living by faith means living as if he exists, as if his word is true, as if we are forgiven and accepted and loved, as if his Holy Spirit is living in us, as if we are Sons and Daughters of God, as if we have direct access to God, as if death is not the end. It is about taking God at his word. And as we live by faith in that reality, we can begin to experience the presence of God.

So God travels to Bethlehem for a meeting. A meeting with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds: a meeting with you and me.

Maybe circumstances brought you here this evening;
maybe curiosity (you have heard rumours of angels, you think that there is something in this story, even if you are not sure it is true);
maybe you have chosen to come like the wise men to worship.

But as we come into this building I do hope that we realise that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, God is here today: and he has come because he loves you and because he would meet with you.

And if, as I've been speaking, you know that today is the time that you have to respond to him, that you have to receive him and recognise him as God, then I would urge you not to leave this building without taking that opportunity. I'm not going to ask you to do anything like standing up in public - this is Suffolk after all - but I am going to invite you to do three things.
Firstly I'm going to invite you to pray a prayer - asking Jesus into your life.
Secondly I'm going to invite you to take one of these booklets (Journey into life) as you leave.
Thirdly, I'm going to ask you to tell one person - it could be me after this service - in the next 24 hours what you have done.

The bible says that it is when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips that we are saved.

And I am going to pray a simple prayer, which you are welcome to pray with me.

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today"

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