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