News of Great Jov - Carol service 2019 -
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
News of Great Joy
Carol Service 2019
This year thousands of people will be attending pantomimes up and down the country- ‘Oh yes they will.’ And one favourite is ‘Peter Pan’ the story of the boy living in ‘Neverland’ who could fly and never grew up. When we were children we no doubt entertained a certain view of God. For many the picture was of God as the ‘Cosmic Grandad’, the one who was simply there to indulge us. Sadly, some grown-ups are like Peter Pan in this regard, they still like to think of God that way which is sometimes reflected in the kind of prayers that are prayed, presenting God with a Christmas list of things we would like in our lives- good health, good job, good family and good friends. But then there are others who think it is more grown-up to think of God in more severe terms, either as the ‘Cosmic Grump’ or the ‘Cosmic sadist’. The Cosmic grump is the god who can’t bear the thought that we should be happy, and the moment things start to go well in he comes to spoil it all. Those like Professor Richard Dawkins point to all the suffering in the world and claim that if God exists, then he must have a nasty streak to inflict such misery and mayhem - who wants a God like that?
The thing is, when we turn to the Bible, we discover that far from being a grumpy God, he is a glad God, rather than being jaundiced he is actually joyful.
In fact this was the message brought to the Shepherds that very first Christmas Eve. Here it is again as recorded for us by Luke (2:8-14), ‘And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
For all intents and purposes this was just another ordinary night with ordinary sheep and ordinary shepherds. And were it not for a God who loves to hook an ‘extra' in front of the word ‘ordinary’, the night would have gone unnoticed, the sheep would have been forgotten, and the shepherds would have worked the night away.
But something else happened instead, the black sky exploded with brightness. Sheep that had been silent became curious. One minute the shepherds were half asleep, the next they were shaking at the sight of an angel. The appearance of one angel would have been enough to scare them spitless, but when a whole army of these heavenly fiery beings appeared not only would this have struck terror into their hearts, it would have caused them to ask what was so special about this night which called for this celestial choir?
Well, the first of the higher order of angels tells them precisely what that ‘something’ was, ‘I announce the gospel (good news) of great joy to you.’ What’s that? A baby has been born, but not just any baby. This baby is a Royal baby, a descendent of King David- which is what ‘Messiah’ means- ‘King’. What is more this baby has come to carry out his kingly mission to rescue people- which is what ‘Saviour’ means. And furthermore he is described as ‘Lord’ indicating that he is not just a human baby, he is also God. This is the one who once lit the stars, who spoke creation into being. When his mother kissed him she was kissing the face of God. This little baby’s hand would one day heal the blind, his feet trod where angels once walked. Christmas is God becoming an embryo in the womb of Mary, being born, and then laid in a feeding trough.
That is when the celebrations really began with hundreds, possibly thousands, of angels lifting the roof of heaven with their singing. Not surprisingly since this was an epoch making event- marking off BC (Before Christ) from AD (Anno Domini- ‘the year of our Lord’). We are talking about God becoming man with ceasing to be God, divinity as humanity walking amongst other humans. The one who gave birth to the universe is given birth in the universe. The one who is Lord over history becomes the key figure of history. The carol of the angels says it all, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” God is showing special favour or underserved kindness to people like the shepherds.
Now that is surprising, and I’ll tell you why. You see, these were the outcasts, those on the margins of society. They had no status and no hope of advancement- once a shepherd always a shepherd. They were cut off from the worship of God, not able to go to the temple. They were known as the ‘distrusted ones’, you didn’t leave anything valuable lying around outside when these people were in the locality. And yet these were the ones to whom God chose to reveal the identity and mission of the newly arrived King. So what has that got to do with us? Well, this- we are the shepherds. What I mean is that spiritually the shepherds are a picture of each one of us. Outside of God’s saving, loving rule, we have no status and we have no hope either in this world or the next- we are spiritual outcasts. By nature we may know there is a God, but personally don’t know God, as the shepherds couldn’t connect with him in the Temple. We may have a fairly decent reputation amongst our friends but God knows what our hearts are really like and how we can’t always be trusted with the truth. And yet it is to people like the shepherds, people like us- helpless and hopeless- that the brilliant news is announced there is now a King who is able to change all of that.
This baby who, when grown into a man, will die on a cross and bring ‘peace’- reconciliation; making enemies of God into friends of God. Instead of fearing him, which is the right response if we are the wrong side of him, we can enjoy him when our sins are forgiven. Make no mistake, that night heaven came down to earth in the form of a tiny baby so that fallen sinners like us could be raised up to heaven for all eternity when we put our trust in him.
Now just think for a moment of the different ways Jesus Christ has brought joy to this world.
From birth to death, from family to government, from personal names to holidays, from arts to sciences and from schools to hospitals, there is not one corner of Western civilization into which the light of Jesus Christ has not shone. Think of our own city of Hull and the influence of the Christian MP, William Wilberforce who fought to abolition slavery. This is what one Professor (Halevey) writes: “… to understand the delight with which the emancipation of the Negroes was greeted, the rejoicing which took place on a large scale throughout the entire country ... we must remember that the abolitionist campaign had been first and foremost a Christian movement”.
The fact is, joy is not so much a passion as a person. The creator of the Narnia books, C.S. Lewis, describes his own conversion to the Christian faith as ‘Surprised by Joy’. He said that for himself there was an unsatisfied deep desire for joy. This was different to happiness, which is dependent on circumstances- or pleasure, which is always related to the senses. Joy is something which goes beyond both these things. Then one day Lewis discovered that the joy he longed for had its source in God, that joy was a person- Jesus. This is what he wrote: ‘If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone.’ It is those who seek who will find, those who surrender their lives to Christ who find true joy.
So let me tell you about someone who had a very difficult life and found this out for herself- Rita Armstrong. Rita’s nerves suffered quite severely as a child when she was subject to air raids during the war. When leaving school she struggled with acute depression. But it wasn’t until 1974 that she was actually diagnosed as having manic-depression and was given medication. It was then she was introduced to an Edinburgh doctor called Winifred Rushforth, who although 95, was still going strong. This is how Rita takes up her story: ‘Winifred believed in each one of her patients and helped us to believe in ourselves. My bruised and battered personality was bathed in her loving acceptance. She was never shocked. She never told us what we ought to do. She did not tell us- she showed that God loved us. By now my children had grown up and were leaving home. One afternoon, as I sat in a rare moment of peace meditating on God’s greatness and power, I thought back to the blitz, and then scanned through the centuries to Calvary, and back still further to the beginning of everything. And only God was there. Then I contemplated my future, the time when my life would finally be wound up. And God would still be there. I felt very insignificant against such a backcloth and my petty problems paled pathetically. Then I remembered the childlike faith with which I had given my life to God, confident that Jesus loved me. And Jesus cannot change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Suddenly a light shone. Realisation dawned and a great joy overwhelmed me. Something I must have been told many times became real. I started singing. What I was singing was quite simply this: ‘I matter to God.’
And just as the angel said on that night, God says to us this night, ‘I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’ And his name is -Jesus.
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