CAROL SERVICE 2009
There are times when the gap between heaven and earth seems very close.
Christmas can be one of those times
It points to another world: a world of beauty, hope, peace, joy, warmth, light, feasting, love, united families in united communities with open doors, kindness, of wonder
Alison and myself lived for two years in St Petersburg, Russia. We went there in 1993, just as the country was opening up after 70 years of communism. The place was in a dreadful state. The buildings were falling apart and the infrastructure was shot to pieces, apart from the underground. You stood for ages in freezing temperatures waiting for a bus or tram, and then when it turned up, you were propelled by the crowd waiting outside the bus into the bus and slammed up against the wall or into someone else. On one occasion we were with an older couple who were also working for a mission organisation. We had been slammed again into the bus, and she said – in language that is totally becoming a missionary in Russia – B..Y Russia! We shared her sentiments even if we never said it. There were very few goods available in the shops. We spent 2 months trying to find a small electric cooker, and when we did it was in a shop that sold clothes. And it was cold, it was dark, it was dreary, it was drab (everything was gray or black), and it was dirty: the snow fell and then melted. The Russians have a word for dirty: gryasny – it sums it up. Life for people was hard – particularly for women. The young women looked gorgeous, yet almost everyone over the age of 30 looked as if they were at least a very tired 50. The average salary for people at the time was $50/month. And at the end of 4 months, we were fed up and drained.
And then, one evening, Christmas time, we went to the Marinsky theatre to see the Kirov ballet dance the Nutcracker. And I have to confess that as the curtain lifted on the stage, I felt tears running down my cheeks. Because what we saw in front of us was another world: a world of colour and of beauty and of harmony. It was a fairy tale world, but for two glorious hours we lived in that other world.
I hasten to add that as time went by we grew to love so many of the Russian people who we had the privilege of meeting, and to love Russia – and to find the beauty in the harshness
Or, one other illustration: Last week the snow came. Friday morning, the place looked beautiful under the white blanket. It was like waking up to a different world: of immense beauty and purity.
There are times – and Christmas can be one of those times - when we glimpse that maybe this world is not all that there is – there is something else. Something that is bigger than us, more beautiful than us, more pure than us. Something that does not need to be just then – in the future – but that could begin to be lived here and now.
The bible says that God has put eternity in our hearts.
And yet, as we reach out to try and touch it, to claim it, it disappears.
Yes, there is so much that is amazing and beautiful in the world and in us, but there is also so much that is evil and cold and dark and brutal and destructive – not just in the world, but in our own families and lives. Solzhenitsyn said – and this is a very loose paraphrase: ‘If only evil were out there, in certain people – and all we need to do is to cut them off from society and we will be OK. But evil is not just out there. Evil rests in here, and to cut it out would mean cutting out a bit of our own heart’.
We glimpse that there is more, maybe when God breaks into our lives, or we suddenly hear him, or in a very real act of calling out to God, of astonishing generosity, forgiveness or self-sacrifice - but then we are dragged down again. We return again to our God-denying, self-centred, closed little lives.
And we cannot blame others for the pride and the fear and the resentments and the jealousies and the lusts and the selfishness which blind us and drag us back to earth.
We cannot live our lives blaming others. Yes, others may have hurt us very badly; circumstances may have gone against us, life may have done the dirty on us, but God in his love lets us be adults. And when we are adults what we do with that hurt and pain and suffering is our responsibility. And as adults we are responsible before God for that which is cold, dark and unloving within us. And before him we stand guilty. Like children caught red-handed, there is nothing we can say apart from bare-faced denial or ‘sorry’.
So although we glimpse the other world, and we long that it might be the real world, it seems that even if it is real it is inaccessible. Between heaven and earth there is an unbridgeable chasm.
And yet at Christmas it can seem the gap is closer. The other world of ‘peace and goodwill’ is more than a fantasy. The world in which we can be released from ourselves, and begin to discover love, joy and peace is no longer just a fairy tale.
And the reason for that is because on the first Christmas, heaven touched earth. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. In the baby born to Mary, the fully human son of Mary and the fully divine Son of God, heaven meets earth. Divinity and humanity wrapped up and laid in a manger. And the way from that world to this world was opened. We could not open it ourselves – to be honest we didn’t particularly want to open it. It is nice to think that there might be something there, but it is better to keep God at a distance.
We can’t do that. If we keep God at a distance, we remain rooted in this world. We will live in this world. We will die in this world.
But at that first Christmas God opened the way to the other world in Jesus, and even though we tried to slam the door on him, Jesus has now got his foot in the door.
That is why Christmas is so powerful. The door really is open. We walk past that door and we glimpse the other world beyond. Many of you will have done that many times. And at Christmas we hear the message. Jesus calls us: ‘Come to me, put your trust in me, follow me, obey me, and I will take you through that door – and you can begin to live the life of heaven on earth.
Of course it will not mean that we will be taken out of this life where there is so much sin, suffering and sickness. What it means though is that we will have a new anchor. Several years ago I went on a channel ferry to Poole. Half an hour into the journey I felt queasy. An hour into the journey I wanted to die. If death had come it would have been welcome. But then the miracle happened. With three hours still to go, I saw a light which was near Poole harbour. And for the next three hours, I sat at the front of that boat, and I fixed my eyes on that light. Nothing would take them off that light.
And when we receive Jesus, we are given that light. He is our hope, our rock, our anchor. He is the fixed point in life.
Yes, it will mean big changes. It will mean new priorities. But it will also mean a new intimacy, a new identity, a new destiny and a new hope. If we begin to live the life of the other world in this world, then it doesn’t matter even when this world is taken away.
John tells us, ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, Jesus gave the right to become children of God’.
Perhaps you might be thinking: but this is your nutcracker world; this is your fairy tale world; this is your snow-covered world. It is all an illusion. Is it? There is only one way to find out. Begin to live in it – then you will know which the fantasy world is and which is ultimately real.
Lord Jesus Christ
Thank you for the gift of Christmas
Thank you that at Christmas – in your person - heaven touched earth.
We would come to you, put our trust in you, live for you.
We are sorry for living such blind, self-centred, God-denying lives.
Please help us to begin to live the life of heaven on earth
And to see what is ultimately real.
We ask this in your precious name. Amen.