Carol service 2005
Tonight we join with countless others in churches throughout our land, as we hear again and celebrate again the birth of Jesus.
Tonight we glimpse another world. It is as if we have travelled through space and time, and we come to rest in orbit around this other world. You've seen those pictures of how earth looks from space. Well, imagine that: tonight we are looking down at the world of Mary, Joseph and Jesus
It is a very dark world: a world of occupying forces, in which people are treated as statistics (that is why Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem to be counted), of immense gaps between rich and poor, where there is great poverty, homelessness and exclusion. It is a world that has its good rulers, but also paranoid ruthless rulers. It is a world where physical power reigns and there is much brutality: in the Christmas story itself, when Herod realises that the wise men are not coming back to tell him which child is the Christ, he orders the massacre of all baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 - just to make sure that he gets him. It is a world that knew refugees and asylum seekers.
And the people of Israel were a crushed, occupied people. They had been for the last 300 years. And people were praying: "How long O God before you act"
And suddenly in this dark world, after years and years of watching and waiting, a light is ignited: John tells us, "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world".
And God speaks. He speaks a word. He speaks through an angel to a young woman called Mary. He speaks through a dream to a carpenter called Joseph. He speaks through a heavenly choir to terrified shepherds. He speaks through a star to wise men. He tells people that he is going to act; that he will bring deliverance to his people and to all people. He tells us that he is going to set us free - not from others, but from the dark within ourselves.
Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author, was a committed Marxist. Yancey writes, "He truly believed that his revolutionary government was serving the welfare of the 'the people' by punishing enemies of the state. Solzhenitsyn later reflected back on his change in perspective: 'It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains .. an unuprooted small corner of evil.'" (Philip Yancey, More Than Words, Edited James Calvin Schaap, Chrysostom Society 2002 p9ff)
But God not only speaks. He acts: a baby is born. This is a very ordinary baby.
You'll remember that classic line in Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy comes out after Raquel has given birth to their child. And Granddad and Rodney are waiting outside the delivery room in intense expectation. And Del comes out, and they say, "Well what is it?" And Del says, "It's a baby". Well Jesus was 'a baby', a very ordinary baby: who needed to be fed and winded and changed.
But if this baby was ordinary, he was also extraordinary. John tells us that this baby is the Word that God has spoken; he is the unique Son of God: "The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us". He is the one who has always been 'at the Father's side'. He was there in the beginning with God when the world was created. And the Son of God does not need light - he is light. He came to bring us light. And he is the one who is full of grace and truth.
And as we look down at this dark world, we notice that as people come to this child, the Son of God, that as they submit to him, as they receive him as their Lord, as the ruler of their life, a tiny light is ignited inside them, and begins to burn. And look: there is a light there and light there and light there. And lost people begin to discover direction; and confused people discover meaning; and broken people discover healing; and crushed people discover acceptance and forgiveness; and frustrated people discover purpose and significance; and dying people discover a life that is of such a quality that not even physical death can extinguish it.
At Christmas we remember how the extraordinary, the one who is beyond all boundaries and limits, the one who created space and time and being, the one who is bigger than - beyond - space and time and being, became a very ordinary human being, so that very ordinary human beings might begin to become extraordinary. As someone over 1700 years ago said, "The Son of God became the Son of man, so that the sons and daughters of men, might become sons and daughters of God"
And as we look down at this tiny baby, we see the glory of God.
And this is the one who continues to bring light to our world and light to each one of us.
We live in a dark world, and the darkness is not out there in others - it is in here, in us. We fight because my pride will not let me back down or say sorry, or because I wish to call something 'mine', or because I don't think that I am getting sufficient respect, or because I am frightened of that which I do not know.
And I will use other people to serve me and my desires. I may not have slaves, but in my self-centredness I will simply assume that other people exist to serve me (whether they are people who are closest to me, or people who I cannot see who live a long long way away, and who do not therefore really matter). I can justify it; I can use all sorts of excuses. I can say that they are not as important or strong, or as moral or as clever as me.
And, of course, I can look very respectable and law abiding, but it is only skin deep. Underneath the surface lies the 'dark side', the fear, pride, hypocrisy, self-centredness, lusts, prejudice and judgementalism.
It is often said that people who come to church are hypocrites. They talk good and do bad. I challenge that: most people who go to church are going because they have begun to recognise the dark that is within them - and they are seeking God to sort it out.
I am not denying that in our world and in us there is so much that is good and beautiful. I am not denying that we are capable of doing acts of astonishing goodness, bravery, self sacrifice and service. But in a sense, that only accentuates the darkness of the rest of the time. We see a glimpse of something and then we lose it.
Jesus was born in order to bring light into our world: He says, "I am the light of the world". And the invitation is the invitation to come to him.
Light shows up the darkness: if we lift up a stone or an old brick in the garden, all the bugs scurry for the darkness. To come to Jesus is to do the opposite. It is to allow him to turn his spotlight onto us. It is to ask him to bring to light those areas of darkness in our own lives. Maybe we have spent a great deal of our time pointing the finger at others. Now we allow him to point the finger at us.
And it is as we look at Jesus that we begin to see what is dark in us.
To come to Jesus, to live the Christian life is about discovering, each day, new areas of darkness within ourselves; new rooms in the house of our life, where we haven't yet opened the curtain and let the light in: rooms of nursed hatreds, of fondled resentments, ravenous jealousies, of resentful inadequacies.
To come to Jesus is to go on a journey of self discovery
Light does not only identify darkness. Light destroys darkness.
As we come to Jesus, and as we allow his light - through prayer, reading the bible, receiving communion, meeting with his people - his light not only identifies those areas of darkness, but sets about destroying them.
When a person comes to Jesus, when they receive Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes into their lives. And we begin to receive the strength to change: from the inside out. The light comes to live in us.
Light shows us the way: I cycle through the butts. It is great during the day, but at nights - at the moment - it is a bit scary. All I can see is the part of the path lit up by the bikes headlights. If I can see that it is path, I'm OK. If I can't see the path, I'm in trouble!
As we come to Jesus, he does show us the way to live; he points us in the right direction. Sometimes Jesus tells us what to do - very specifically; but more often than not, he teaches us how to become the sort of people he would have us be: how to become sons and daughters of God.
Light gives life: "In him was life and that life was the light of men"
We've all seen flowers so tightly closed up. But as the light comes up, the buds begin to open, and they become radiant.
The person who has been with Jesus is radiant. I think of one person I knew. She was closed tight like a bud. She was so fearful and her fear came out in a criticism of others and in sheer negativity. And the one thing she could not cope with was change. But she met with Jesus - and although she could still at times be critical and negative - she really did begin to open up like a flower. She stopped cringing in the corners. When people invited her round to their home she said yes. She began to do things that she felt she could never have done before. And - and this for me was the greatest miracle - she began to say thank you, and when she said thank you she smiled, and when she smiled her face would light up and she really was radiant.
I don't know what darkness is in you. I am not really sure of the darkness that is within me. But I do know this. 2000 years ago, a baby who was sheer light came into the world. 30 years later, they crucified him, but you cannot extinguish sheer light or life. 3 days later he rose from the dead. And the light continues to shine.
May I urge you, at this festival of light, to come to the true light: to come to Jesus. Ask him to shine his light on you. Ask him to shine his light for you - so that you know the way to go. Ask him to implant his light and life into your very being, so that you begin to be light.
May I urge you to do that for your own sake. You were not made for the dark side. You were made to be light. And although people today look for the light in many places, there is only one place that you will find light.
And the great thing about Jesus using this imagery of light is that he says to us, 'However dark your darkness, it makes no difference to me'. It makes no difference to the light if what was there before was no light or semi-light. And it makes no difference whether we think we are totally dark - or only semi dark. The light lights up both the same.
Do it for your sake - because you were made to be light, to be radiant
Come to Jesus the light for the world's sake. We need men and women who have been set on fire by Jesus for Jesus.
Our world does not need people who go round cursing their enemies. We need people to be like Jesus and to bless their enemies. Our world does not need people who are controlled by money or revenge or fear or pride, but who are controlled by love. Our world does not need people who think, "I'm better than them". We need people who are willing to consider the other person better than themselves. Our world does not need people who are saying, 'How can I get more', but 'How can I give more'.
Come to Jesus and allow him to change you: for the sake of your wife or husband or children or friend; for the sake of our town and locality; for the sake of our nation and world.
Come to Jesus for God's sake. God loves you. And he does not want to irrevocably lose you. That is why he did not give up on us, but came in his Son to come and live among us. He longs for you to become his child, to know him as your Father in heaven, to have a relationship with him.
Thank you that you sent your son to live among us and to be light.
Give us the courage to come to the light and to receive the light.
And so Lord Jesus, we come to you now. We receive you.
We ask you to come into our lives by the power of your Holy Spirit,
to light up all that is dark within us,
to destroy that which is evil in us,
to show us the right way to live
and to give us true life.
For our sake, for our world
Sunday, 4 December 2005
Advent: 2 Peter 3:8-15a
It is very easy to dismiss the season of Advent as a flight from reality. In the season of Advent we have two foci: one is Bethlehem, 2000 years ago; and the other is the end of space and time as we know it. And both seem to be unreal.
We talk - at one end - about angels singing in the sky, of a virgin feeding her baby in a cattle trough, and - at the other - of a cataclysmic global barbeque at the end of time, and Jesus returning.
It all seems so very far from everyday life. It all seems so irrelevant.
But 2 Peter 3 is a passage of utter realism
It is the reason why Christians have been on tiptoe for the last 2000 years, waiting for something to happen, waiting for God to intervene, waiting for the God who we know to be so real and to be so significant for our lives to break into this world: to make himself known, to wipe out that which is evil, and to establish his rule of peace and righteousness: where what is right conquers what is evil.
I remember one man in my previous church. He was a police officer and worked for CID. He became a Christian and met with Jesus in a most astonishingly powerful way. And because God was so real to him, so obvious, he really did expect that the event that 2 Peter talks about was going to happen possibly this week, maybe next week, but certainly in the next year or so.
It is these sort of people to whom Peter is writing. They had seen Jesus Christ rise from the dead. If they hadn't seen it themselves, they knew people like Peter who had seen it. And they knew Jesus; they had met with the risen Jesus: they knew his peace and his power. They had the presence of the Holy Spirit in them: they experienced what it was to call and to know God as Father God; they knew what it was like to be forgiven, children of God; they were experiencing that power which God gives us to overcome fear, the things that trap us, the evil that we do; that power which enables us to rejoice in suffering and to persevere.
Of course they expected something dramatic and immediate to happen. Jesus had said, "I will return". Everything else he had said had been true - so this is also going to be true. And so they waited. And they waited.
And by the time that Peter wrote this letter, they had probably been waiting for about 30 - 40 years. And Peter was getting on: he writes in 2 Peter 1:13-14, "I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me".
And Peter wants them to know
1. That Jesus will return:
He writes [2 Peter 3:3], "First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this `coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." He is saying, "Of course people are going to scoff". "But" he continues, "The day of the Lord will come" (3:10)
2. That Jesus will return when it is right with God the Father, and not when we wish: "with the Lord a day is like a thousand years".
I like the story of the man who was praying: "God," he said, "is it true for you that a million pounds is as one penny". "Yes", said God. "God", said the man, "Give me one penny". "Yes", said God, "in a second".
There is a prayer that is embedded within the Orthodox liturgy: "Holy God, holy and strong, holy and eternal, have mercy on us". When I pray it, I remember that I am praying to the God who is strong enough to do far more than I could ever ask him. But I also remember that I am praying to the God who has a very different schedule to my programme.
And God's schedule is motivated by love. He is not lazy. He has not got more important things to do: v9b, "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance". God knows who he wishes to spend eternity with him: that is why he waited for you to be conceived; that is why he waited for you to turn to him - or maybe that is why he is still waiting - waiting for you to put aside your stubborn pride, intellectual arrogance or willful selfishness and admit that he is God, surrender to him and receive his free gift of forgiveness, acceptance and life.
3. That Jesus will return suddenly, unexpectedly: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief" (v10).
Actually Peter here is just reminding himself what Jesus said: "But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:39f)
A burglar does not drop a visiting card through your letter box and say, "I'll be round to do your house at 2 am tomorrow morning". And Jesus is saying, "I've said that I'm going to come. But I am not going to drop you a card saying when I am coming: you need to be ready"
I watched "What not to wear" on Wednesday. Trinni and Suzanna, or whatever their names are, had redesigned two menopausal women: they had gone into their homes, they had thrown out the old from their wardrobe and brought in the new. They had transformed the external image of these women. It was amazing to see the contrast. And a year later they suddenly, unexpectedly, revisit these women. They turn up at their homes and look at their wardrobes: to see whether the old has crept back in, or to see whether the women were continuing to live their new lives.
You get what I am saying. Jesus has come into our lives. He has thrown out the old. He has given us new lives. We're forgiven, accepted by God, in him we have the power to change, to even overcome destructive life habits, we can have a relationship with God.
But Jesus is going to come back - he will come back when we are not expecting him - and he will open the metaphorical wardrobes of our lives and see whether the old has crept back in. Are we living as new people or as old people?
4. That Jesus will return cataclysmically, and there will be great destruction: "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." (2 Peter 3:10)
The emphasis of the prophets; the emphasis of Peter here is less on the destruction, and more on the fact that there will be nothing that we can hide ourselves behind. When Jesus returns, whether you have already died, or are still living on earth, God will see us as we are. On that day there will be no more hiding or pretending. Everything and everyone in which we have put our trust will be stripped away from us: we will stand alone and naked before our God.
The story is told of the two undertakers traveling past some very smart houses in a very wealthy part of town. The younger said to the older, "Look at those houses - the people who live there must be very rich". The older replied: "Aye. But when they come to us, they're all the same".
We spend so much of our time and money on building up our comfort zones, our walls, our defence systems, our image: whether it is homes or cars or beautiful things or technology or work or children or clothes or books or insurance schemes. One day, either when we die, or when Jesus returns, it will all be stripped away from us. On that day, it will be a face to face encounter: a one to one with Son of God.
It is worth preparing for. If something has got too strong a hold on you, be willing to let it go. It is going to be stripped away from you anyway. We need to begin to face up to who I am, who I really am, now.
5. That Jesus will return and bring with him a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (v15)
The goal of Jesus return is not destruction. In fact we are told that the creation waits for his coming, so that it might be set free from its bondage to decay. The goal of Jesus' return is a new heaven and a new earth: life as God planned it to be.
I don't know what it will be like: 'eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man or woman conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'. But I do know that it will be a place of righteousness: that because God is there, we will do the right thing for the right reason at the right time for the right motive in the right way - and that it will be right and feel right.
We are not suspended between Bethlehem and the end, like the squirrel in 'Ice Age' in ice: who is waiting for the next big defrost.
We live, in relationship with Jesus now, looking to the future (v14): "So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him".
Because your heart will matter then, your heart matters now: make every effort to be found spotless and blameless
Because your relationship with him will matter then, your relationship with him matters now: and note we are not told to be at peace with ourselves, or with our environment, but to be at peace with God. And that involves confession, repentance, receiving the gift of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life.
This is not a flight from reality. This is a passage of utter realism. It is about the future, and our hope for the future. But because it is about the future - the future as it will be - it is also about the present. It is about how you and I live here and now: trusting the promises of God; living spotless and blameless lives, and being at peace with him.