SERMON (preached on December 18th 2016)
(Matthew 1: 18-24 and Romans 1: 1-7)
As we approach the BIG DAY there are probably all sorts of questions we are trying to answer. What present shall I buy for this person or that? Shall I post a card for this family or shall I take it round myself? Shall I serve a starter with the Christmas lunch or will that be altogether too much? Or, in my own case, what on earth am I going to give my vegan nephew to eat on Boxing Day?
I’ve been away with my family (my non-believing family) for a few days holiday this last week. In London. We had a nice time and packed an incredible amount into just 3 days, but in the quieter times round a dinner or lunch table (surrounded by the trappings of Christmas, the lights and decorations and so on) some other questions emerged. (Never talk socially about religion or politics they say. Well we did. Or religion at least).
Two of the questions that arose were: What does a preacher actually do? I was pretty dumbfounded with that one and we’ll leave it for now, but the other one was: What’s so special about Jesus anyway? That arose from a conversation the conclusion of which I can summarise in just a few words. It doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we feel that it’s right for us – and as long as it doesn’t actually hurt anyone of course.
What’s so special about Jesus anyway? Our reading from Romans gives us an answer to that second question. The reading is a tiny section at the start of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It might seem like rather an odd reading to have as Christmas approaches yet we have it because it gives us a brief summary of who Jesus is – it reminds us of his birth and his death – two key aspects of Jesus’ time on earth. It reminds us that Jesus’ birth was foretold by the prophets and that he is fully human (being descended from King David), but yet Jesus is also the Son of God, and we can know that because he was raised from the dead.
What’s so special about Jesus? Well, he is the Son of God. And we can know anything about Jesus at all because Paul tells us that through the power of Jesus he was called and equipped to bring faith to the Gentiles – and ultimately to us. There were others of course who told people about Jesus, but Paul was probably the most important.
Read the gospels to find out for yourself just how special Jesus is. If we do read them carefully and thoughtfully and prayerfully then we realise that Jesus wasn’t just another teacher or healer or whatever. Outstanding in what he did, but of the same order as any number of other spiritual and religious leaders. And we can see just how special Jesus is because of the events of his death and resurrection (as Romans reminds us) but also because of his birth foretold by the prophets as it was.
Our gospel reading this morning gives us one of the accounts of the events running up to Jesus’ birth. It was an unorthodox birth, even a disgraceful birth given the social conventions of the time. But God is in the midst of it. He sends an angel to Joseph in a dream and reassures Joseph that it’s OK for him to take Mary as his wife because the child ‘conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.
Joseph is as obedient to God as Mary was although he doesn’t get as much credit for it. He is a shadowy figure who soon slips out of the story of Jesus, but here we read that he does what God wants and takes Mary as his wife – carrying this child (this special child) conceived from the Holy Spirit as he is.
Joseph would have known nothing of the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit, but as a Jew he would have understood certain things that it’s important for us to know too:
- Firstly, he would have known that the Holy Spirit brought God’s truth to human beings.
- Secondly it was the Holy Spirit who enabled people to recognize that truth when they saw it. It was the Holy Spirit for instance who told the great prophets of the Old Testament what to say and who enabled them to recognise that truth for what it was.
But still before Jesus the truth about God was shadowy and elusive. What we need to do is slide Jesus into the picture because with Jesus we have the one person who really can tell us what God is like. ‘He who has seen me has seen the father’ Jesus once said. The God we see through Jesus is a God of mercy and compassion and forgiveness and love. With the coming of Jesus we also have the clearest knowledge of what God wants us to be like – and he wants us to have those same qualities of love and forgiveness and mercy in our relationships and dealings with others – and gives us a good model to copy because it is in Jesus that we see the one person who truly embodies those qualities. And it is Jesus whom we are called to imitate and to follow.
But it is also Jesus who helps us to recognise the truth of God when we see it. Our own prejudices and sin and ignorance can darken our minds and hearts to what God longs for us to see and to know, but it is Jesus who helps us to see clearly and truly the truth that God longs for us to know. It’s a bit like the difference between going round a picture gallery on our own and looking at the paintings or going round with an expert who can teach us how to appreciate their beauty. Our understanding and appreciation is more profound when we have a guide.
To have faith in Jesus is to set off on a journey where life takes on a different texture as we gradually come to see that all of life and creation are full of the power and the wonder and the glory of God.
Given how few people still come to church for most of the year we might look round at our world and wonder if Christianity still has any answers to give to the questions we ask in our bewildered and confused post-modern society which has changed so very much over my lifetime. I found myself doing it as I listened to my nephew and an American friend of his talking about their hopes for their lives. Two energetic and able and confident young men speaking a slightly different language to the one I speak, leading a rather different sort of lifestyle; lots of friends and parties and completely inseparable from their mobile phones. But as I reflected on what they were saying I realised that their questions were just the same as always: where can I find meaning for my life, how can I find love, how should I live well, what comes after this life? And yes, Jesus Christ still does have answers to give. What is God like? Look at Jesus. In him we have a perfect reflection of what God is like. When you have seen me you have seen the Father he said. How should we live? Look at Jesus. In him we have a perfect reflection of how to live well, how to live lives of love and forgiveness.
We might be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is simply a big retail opportunity but of course it’s actually about celebrating the birth of Jesus. And the good news is that it’s something that many even in our secular society continue to do even if they don’t come to church for the rest of the year. But as we celebrate and remember, our remembering is not simply about clinging to something which is dead and gone. Nor is our remembering simply about giving us something on which we can hang our Christmas traditions, but rather it’s about remembering that with the coming of Jesus God has come close (to each one of us), that he loves us and searches us out – and that he wants our love in return.
What’s so special about Jesus Christ? Well because of Jesus we know that we are called to follow in his footsteps through this life and beyond – and that we are loved by God and that our lives have meaning and significance because of it.
We have just a week to go before Christmas day and possibly quite a lot still to do to get ready. I hope that you get some nice presents but far more than that I hope that you will be glad because of the knowledge that Jesus has come into the world – and knowing that surely is surely to receive the very best Christmas present of all.