Christmas TodayIn the church calendar, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the coming of Messiah – that's what Christ-mass means. It is, and should be, a happy time of celebration; but, for many in our society, most often it's for all the wrong reasons.
For many, Christmas has become just a good excuse for a party, for gluttony and drunkenness. It's a time to be nice to others (for a change). It's called a time for the children, for getting together with family (and, I suspect quite often, for family arguments: grandma wants to watch the Queen, the kids want to watch “The Snowman” – again, and grandpa wants to watch “The Great Escape” – again!).
As a society, we have turned one of the most significant events in the history of the world into a massive, commercialised scramble for the money in our pockets, set to the annoying musical accompaniment of chirping tills, Slade's “Merry Christmas” wishes, Wizzard's wishing it could be “Christmas everyday” (really?), and Maria Carey: all she wants for Christmas is me!
We've buried the real meaning of Christmas under a landslide of tinsel, glitter, wrapping paper, turkey and mince pies (O, how I love mince pies!).
The main figure of the season is no longer Jesus, the promised Messiah, but Father Christmas (Ho, ho, ho).
On a local news programme I saw some years ago, a reporter was interviewing members of the public in Birmingham. Someone said, 'The church is trying to ruin Christmas by bringing religion into it.'
Could it be that some enemy has been working to obliterate the fact of Christ's coming?
For some, Christmas is an awful time. It's not good news for the poor at all. People wonder how they are going to afford what the children want. They solve the problem by making themselves captives of credit card companies or, even worse, payday loan companies.
Broken-hearted people look back on a miserable year and forward to a year with only darkness and the prison of despair. The period around Christmas and New Year is the peak time for suicides.
It's often a time of unhappy memories for those who have been bereaved. I knew someone who would never go to church at Christmas because her husband had fallen down dead while reading the lesson on Christmas Day.
Now that I've got you all feeling thoroughly miserable, let's see if I can cheer you up again!
We all know that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th, but let's not get too hung up on that; since we don't know the actual date, it's as good a date as any. The important thing is that Christ was born.
The amazing, utterly mind-boggling thing is that the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God stepped down into our world in the person of Jesus Christ with very definite intent, and to bring hope to all people.
In the coming of Christ, God's purposes foretold in Isaiah long before are unleashed into the world. The words we heard read were
- Good News for Isaiah's time
- Good News for Christ's time on earth
- Good News for today
Good News for Isaiah's TimeThe words we heard from Isaiah were originally penned for a people returning from exile, who perhaps were born and grew up entirely in captivity, and now were witnessing the sorry state of their homeland after returning, perhaps wondering if real freedom and restoration could ever happen.
Imagine yourself as one of the Jews returning from exile. You've heard the stories about what your homeland of Judah was like; you've heard about the magnificent temple of Solomon. You get back home and what do you find? Total devastation: Jerusalem's walls are broken down and the temple is in ruins. How are you going to feel? Pretty broken-hearted, I should think, to discover that all you'd longed for amounted to nothing. You've come all this way, and for what? You'd find it easy to share in the grief and mourning of those originally taken into captivity.
But listen: God is on the case! These words from Isaiah bring hope and encouragement:
- your dreadful situation will be recovered
- you will be set free and walk once more in the light
- your grief will be turned to joy
- you will rebuild
- God will bless you and reward you!
Good News for Christ's Time on EarthIn Luke's Gospel, chapter 4, we see Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah 61, the same passage we read from today.
Jesus lifts the words from Isaiah out of their original historical context and places them down in a new setting: the land of Palestine, where people were oppressed by the Romans, governed by corrupt Jewish rulers, burdened by the rules and regulations of the religious authorities.
Then he stakes a very personal claim to the passage with the words, 'Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.' In other words, Jesus is declaring, 'I am the one the prophet wrote about. This is what I came to do.' He clearly identifies himself as the “Suffering Servant” in the book of Isaiah.
These same words from Isaiah were to bring hope to the down-trodden of that day – but perhaps not in the way they were expecting, because they were looking for political deliverance and failed to perceive their Messiah as the “Suffering Servant”.
Jesus went about preaching the good news, healing the sick, setting people free from their sins, giving them hope and releasing them to rebuild their lives.
Good News for TodayAs the expression of Christ's declared intent, Isaiah's words bring hope to all people down the ages, right up to the present day and on into the future. These words bring hope for us, here and now!
God's primary purpose in sending Christ is to proclaim good news to the poor; and it's practical, life-changing news.
God cares deeply for the poor and down-trodden in his world; as Christ's body here on Earth in the 21st Century, so must we. It's essential that we have a social conscience and do what we can to bring hope to those in material need, at the same time as we hold out the promise of salvation through faith in Christ.
But the gospel is good news not only for those in actual poverty. In the sermon on the mount as recorded in Matthew's gospel Jesus says 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'
Spiritually, of ourselves we are all paupers; we can never be good enough to save ourselves. The settings in our minds are for wrong-doing, however hard we may try to do right. We're held captive by our nature; our minds are fixed on the ways of this world and the light doesn't get through to us.
There may well be someone here today who feels only too aware of how poverty-stricken you are. You may feel like you're living your life in prison. You may feel locked in by all kinds of things. You may feel lost, outside of God's kingdom, outside his love and care.
The good news is that we are living in the year of the LORD's favour, and Jesus came to bring liberty and hope for people exactly like us:
- your dreadful situation can be recovered
- you can be set free from your prison and walk once more in the light
- your grief can be turned to joy
- you can rebuild
In this year of the LORD's favour, God is for us, not against us.
What Kind of Prison?I want, now, to talk about a few situations that demonstrate that Jesus is still in the business of bringing good news to people in real, practical ways.
Maybe something I say will match the kind of prison you feel yourself in; if so, take encouragement. If you aren't in any kind of prison, then give thanks for the good things that God does and take encouragement. If your prison is a different one, then see these as examples of what God can do and take encouragement.
Actual PrisonLet's begin with actual prison. A friend of mine has recently begun attending a group that meets in Newcastle. I think he's there because he brings a bit of normality to the group, which is made up almost entirely of ex-offenders. Many of them found Christ while in prison, and have probably the most way-out style of worshipping you're ever likely to come across.
These people were not minor felons; they were drug-users and -dealers, serial offenders, and their lives were derelict and going worse than nowhere. But God has got hold of them, turned them around and put them on the road to recovery.
Some of them still have mental health problems and their own personal struggles but they're being transformed by their encounter with Christ and are in the process of rebuilding their lives. They're sharing their experiences with others and leading them to Christ.
We had one of them at our Sunday night fellowship recently to share his testimony. What an eye-opener that was!
However bad you may have been, God can forgive you and turn you around.
The Prison of BitternessBitterness is a terrible prison to be in. It blights the life of the one who is in it and of those close to them. I know that's true because I've experienced it. After my mother left my father, he swore he would never forgive her. He's been true to his word and became a very bitter man, at least as far as she was concerned. My brother and I still can't mention our mum when he's around, even though she died 13 years ago and dad has been happily remarried. Bitterness is a prison that stops you moving on.
Last time I was here, I spoke about the Lord's prayer and the need to forgive in order to be forgiven. The way out of the prison of bitterness is to forgive. Leave God to deal with the offenders. They may have already found his forgiveness, in which case retaining your unforgiveness will make no difference to them but it could hold you bound forever.
Forgiving may be very hard but it will bring you out of your prison and into the light. It will allow your broken heart to be healed, and you can begin rebuilding.
Another remedy is to look at what you have in Christ, not at what you feel you've lost. In the 1970s, I had the privilege of hearing Richard Würmbrandt speak. He was a Romanian pastor who'd been imprisoned and tortured under the communist regime because of his faith. He was asked if he felt bitter at losing 14 years of his life. His reply was, “Not at all. I have all of eternity; what is 14 years?” He also forgave his captors and prayed for them.
The Prison of Human NatureMany people are held prisoner by habits of one form or another, be it some sin or an ingrained behaviour leading to all sorts of wrong outcomes. Sometimes there are things that seem to be built into us that hold us captive.
In my case, shortly after hearing the call to get back into preaching, God put his finger on something that I'd never really recognised in my life. I knew there were some bad habits but this was about a wrong attitude that in reality had always been part of me; I saw how a lot of things I'd done down the years were rooted in it. I knew it had to be sorted out before I was let loose in a pulpit again.
Having had about six weeks of wrestling with the issue, wondering what on earth I could do about it, I remember driving along the A69 on the way home from work and shouting out to God at the top of my voice “I don't want to be like this!” That was the most real repentance I've ever voiced; I didn't like myself and I didn't want to be me anymore. And that was the moment when I was released from my prison, and the next phase of redevelopment work began.
There can be all manner of things that hold us bound, things about our nature that we really don't like. The Good News is that we can be set free and we can rebuild.
Other PrisonsI could talk about my own experience of the prison of depression and my release from it, of a friend's different experience with the same darkness and his release, or of someone who lived for over a decade in the prison of guilt but who finally came into the light and found forgiveness and freedom.
Some of you may also have stories to tell.
In SummaryAt Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ. Christ came to change the world. He changes the world by changing us. Because of Christ we can gain entrance to the kingdom of God and begin the process of transformation.
As John writes, 'Yet to all who [received] him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.' Through Christ, God gives us a new heritage and an new destiny. Once we are in Christ, our future is no longer determined by our past.
Do you feel yourself locked away in a dark prison? Why live in a dungeon when you can live in the light of God's Son? His light shines into the darkness of your life, and that darkness has not overcome it.
Christ came into the world and lived as one of us; he experienced it all from cradle to grave but without sin. He ultimately gave his life as the sacrifice that paid the price of all the sins of all of us. He rose from the dead and lives forever in the power of an endless life.
He is still proclaiming Good News, and all of its benefits! He is still setting people free. This is still the year of the LORD's favour; and the LORD's favour extends to you, to all of us, today!
To my mind, that makes Christmas something worth celebrating.