Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why the Christmas Story is Good News (a sermon for December 22nd)

Two weeks ago at our church we had a Christmas pageant, in which we saw the familiar Christmas story dramatized once again. We saw the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the news of her pregnancy; we saw Joseph and Mary asking for space to stay at an inn and eventually being directed to a stable. We saw the shepherds startled by the visit of the angels and then coming to pay their respects to the newborn king. We saw the three wise men on their way to give their gifts to the one born to be King of the Jews. We’ve seen or heard this story many times, and it has all the comfort of familiarity. It’s a beautiful story.

However, in the New Testament it isn’t just described as a beautiful story. Rather, it appears in two books called ‘Gospels’, and the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’. So why is the Christmas story ‘good news’? Why does the fact that a Galilean carpenter and his wife had a baby far away from home two thousand years ago have anything to do with me today? Matthew gives us some hints about that in one of our readings for today, Matthew 1:18-25.

First, he wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God is with us.

It’s pretty tough to be all alone, especially in difficult or dangerous circumstances. When I lived in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories I had two friends with whom I often went out on hunting trips. One of them, Angasuk, was a really good friend of mine, but his big shortcoming as a hunting companion is that when we were travelling together on skidoos he never looked back. This presented a problem, as I usually followed behind him, and if I had a problem with my skidoo or my load I could easily find myself alone for an hour before he realised that I wasn’t following him any more! There I would be, with miles of trackless snow-covered tundra stretching out all around me, with a broken-down skidoo, all alone! But my other friend, Abel, had this great virtue: he always looked back. Consequently I felt safe travelling with him.

In your life, do you ever get the sense that ‘I’m all alone, and this is too big for me to handle’? Perhaps it’s a crisis in your family, or a personal habit you’re trying to get free from. Circumstances far beyond your control are impacting your life.

In Old Testament times, God’s people were very familiar with this feeling. Their country was on a main travel route, and invading armies went through all the time. They often felt as if God had abandoned them. But in the writings of the prophets, God promised his people a special sign of his presence with them. He was going to deliver his people through the Messiah, a descendant of King David; through him God would be ‘with’ his people as never before. In our reading, Matthew quotes from Isaiah chapter 7, the promise that God will send a child who will be called ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us’. Matthew, and all the New Testament writers, saw the coming of Jesus as the fulfilment of that prophecy.

History includes many stories of people who experienced the presence of God in times of deep darkness in their lives. One of my favourites is the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a little Dutch spinster lady, a devout Christian, and during World War Two she and her family were actively involved in hiding Jewish refugees and getting them away from the Nazis. Eventually the family were caught and arrested, and they were sent away to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsy went to Ravnsbruck, and you can well imagine the terrible sufferings they endured there: the lack of food and clothing, the awful cold in winter, the long hours of backbreaking labour and the brutal discipline.

Betsy was determined to serve the Lord in the camp, and so she started a Bible study group at night in their cell block. She and Corrie often wondered why the guards never interfered with the group; in fact, they never seemed to come near that particular block at all. One day they discovered that it was because that cell block was infested with fleas; the guards were afraid of them, and so they stayed away. Corrie had often complained about the fleas, and said she would never learn to thank God for them, but when they heard this story Betsy looked at her sister and said, “See? Even the fleas!”

Eventually Betsy died because of the sufferings and brutal treatment at the camp. When she was dying, she gave her sister a commission. She said to Corrie, “You must go all over the world and tell everyone that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

The Good News Matthew wants us to know is that we’re not alone; God is with us, even in the very darkest places. There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. Sometimes our struggles may seem too much for us, but Matthew wants us to know that God has come to live among us in Jesus and has experienced the trials and tribulations of our humanity firsthand. He is not far removed from our human struggle; he knows it intimately. Jesus, as someone once said, is ‘God with a human face’.

Secondly, Matthew wants us to know that the story is good news because it tells us that God will save us.

In the Old Testament the word ‘save’ is almost always used in a military sense;  ‘save’ usually means ‘save from enemies’. We can see, then, how startling is Matthew’s reinterpretation of this in this Gospel, where he tells us that the angel said ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (1:21). The word ‘Jesus’, or ‘Yeshua’ in Hebrew, is based on a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘God saves’, or ‘God to the rescue’. Matthew is teaching us that, of all the enemies that we face, our sins are the most powerful. They cut us off from God, preventing us from receiving God’s help and spoiling God’s plan for our lives. And we know their power over us: just ask an alcoholic who is trying to quit, or someone trying to break another negative habit.

But you are not alone in this struggle with evil. This baby who Matthew is telling us about will grow up to give his life on the Cross for the sins of the whole world, reconciling us to God forever. He will rise again victorious over evil, and he will send his Holy Spirit to help his followers. Slowly, sometimes barely perceptibly from day to day, his power can set us free.

All around the world today millions of A.A. members bear testimony to this fact. Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program based on faith in God as the Higher Power who is able to deliver people from their addictions. It receives no government support, employs no professional counselors, and does no advertising, but it is one of the most successful methods in history for the treatment of alcoholism. The testimony of A.A. is that God is well able to save people from things that are too big for them to handle.

So we could sum up the message of this Gospel in two words: ‘presence’ and ‘power’. God is present with us in Jesus and will never be far from us again. God’s power comes to us through Jesus, leading us out of slavery to negative behaviour patterns and into a new way of living. God’s invitation comes to you and me: do you want to experience this for yourself? If you do, all you need to do is ask God. Any words will do – God knows what’s on our hearts – but at this time of year perhaps this famous Christmas carol can guide us:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the heavenly angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

‘Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today’. The carol tells us that as Christ entered into the world as a tiny baby, so he wants to enter our lives and live in our spirits. This is how he saves us from our sins – by coming to live in us by his Holy Spirit. Our call is to welcome him right into the centre of our lives, and that can start with a simple prayer: ‘Lord Jesus, come into my life in a new way today. Cast out my sins, and teach me to live the sort of life God planned for me when he created me in the first place’. If that prayer speaks for you today, why don’t you pray it, or something like it, before the day is over?

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