Saturday, 23 December 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"

Saturday, 16 December 2006

The God who intervenes

LUKE 1:26-38

We have to allow God the right to break into our lives

That is what happens here. God breaks into history.

As someone (Peter Larson) has pointed out: "Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin's womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked "No Entrance" and left through a door marked "No Exit."

And God breaks into history by breaking into the life of a young girl, probably not much older than 14.

Mary, no doubt, had her life planned. She was going to marry Joseph. She would - if God gave - have children. She would live in her home town, Nazareth, and be a carpenter's wife. She would never be rich; she would never be famous; she would never be powerful. The best she could look forward to was that her children would look after her when she grew old.

But God breaks into her world. An angel appears to Mary. And her life is set on a radically different course.

I would like us to look at these verses for a few moments because I believe they teach us what can happen when God breaks into our lives.

1. He assures us of his love: (v28)

I remember hearing someone say that in every appearance of an angel to people in the bible the first thing they say is: "Don't be afraid".
[I don't know whether that is true - you can let me know.]
But I guess that an appearance of an angel - when we know that it is an angel (and the bible does teach that angels come to us when we are not aware) - must be quite scary.

Gabriel is no different. "The angel went to her and said, "Greetings you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you". And in v30, the angel says, "Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God"

But angels say "Don't be afraid", for a reason. They do not wish us to be afraid. They have not come to blast us.
They have been sent by the God who loves us.

He loves us because he created us. And even though we reject his love, he continues to love us. And God chose a non-people, a nomadic tribe, a slave people, to be his people - so that through them he could show his love to all people. But they rejected him. So God sent his prophets to call people to come to the God who loves them. But they were rejected. So God sent his son Jesus: 'For God so loved the world'. And God continues to come to us - continues to speak to us - because he loves us and longs for us to respond to his love.

God's first word to us is 'Yes'. The bible teaches us that.
It is not a yes to what we do.
It is not a yes to how we live.
It is not a yes to the false gods we put in his place
But he says yes to us.

And when God comes to us, breaks into our lives, he comes because he loves us. He will not break into your life simply to destroy. And even if what he is saying to us is hard, even if it is a message of judgement: it will be a message that is spoken because he loves us and he loves other people.

[And baptism is a very visible seal of his love: it is God's way of declaring that we have been washed clean; that we are united to Jesus; that we are welcome members in the family of God.]

2. He gives us a purpose: (v31f)

Mary's purpose is very specific. She is told, "You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end"

It is frightening: there is a high level of risk for her. This could potentially destroy her relationship with Joseph, wreck her reputation and destroy all her hopes and plans. And in a society that considered sex outside marriage as a crime potentially punishable by death, it was a scary thing to be called to do.

But it must also have been very exciting.
What parent has not dreamed that their child will become great or famous; that their child will make a difference to the world?
And Mary is told that her son will be the one who God promised would come, and that he would reign for ever.
And she must really have wondered: "Why me?"

The angel is in effect saying: "Mary, your child is going to be big news. You are going to be the mother of God (not eternally - in the same way that Jesus is eternally the Son of God - that is the mistake that many people make), but in time".

And the purpose that God gave to Mary was that through her, blessing and salvation would come to all people.

God never blesses one person instead of another
He blesses one person for the sake of the other

And when God breaks into our lives, he gives us a purpose.
It may not be quite as dramatic as the purpose he had for Mary.
But he blesses us so that we can bless others

And the blessing lies in the fact that Jesus will be at our very centre

I do not know where God will lead you, or what God will call you to do. But I do know that, as we follow Christ
there will be risk: God grows us by moving us out of our comfort zones
there will be personal cost
there will be excitement (God uses the desires that he has given us, so long as they are submitted to him)
there will be blessing for others

3. God invites us to come into relationship with him

Mary is not purely passive. She does not say 'yes' straight away. She asks a question: "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (v34)

In this case, the angel does not answer Mary's question directly. The angel simply says, "The Holy Spirit will come on you".

There is no explanation, no super-natural biology lesson. What the angel does say is, "It will happen because God has said it, 'for no word from God will ever fail' (TNIV translation of v37). The angel is inviting Mary to trust the word of God.

And when God breaks into our lives he does not want us to simply be passive. Prayer is about a real encounter with a living God. Sometimes he will answer us; sometimes it will seem that he is silent; sometimes he will open our eyes and show us new things. And we will be invited to trust the word of God.

4. God invites us to trust Him

Mary submits to God. She says, "I am the Lord's servant; may it be to me according to your word".
She trusts that it will happen
And she trusts that God will look after her and look after his child

She could have said, "No". Sarah in the Old Testament laughed when she was told she was going to have a baby. Zechariah told God he was off his rocker when the angel informed him that Elizabeth his wife would have a baby.

But Mary said "yes"

And when God breaks into our lives, we have a choice. We can say No or we can say Yes.

I do not know how God will break into your life, and I do not know what God is calling you to do. To each one of us it will be unique: it might be about forgiveness or saying sorry. It might be about putting a relationship right.

It might be that he wishes to take you through fire and testing, to lay us aside for a time so that we can focus afresh on him.

Or it might be that he is calling you to commit your life to him, to make a new years resolution about your personal bible reading or a daily time for prayer; it might be the call to spend time with him (retreat), to make a declaration for him (confirmation or reaffirmation of baptism vows).

Or perhaps he is calling you to do something new, to step outside your comfort zone

Whatever, we can trust him. Glyn Evans wrote: "God must reserve for Himself the right of the initiative, the right to break into my life without question or explanation. That shattering phone call, that disturbing letter ... may indeed be the first stage of God's interruption in my life. ... Since God does the initiating, He must be responsible for the consequences".

I do not know what it is that God is calling you to do. But I do know this:
God loves you
God has a purpose for you
God desires a relationship with us
God would bless you, so that you can bless others.