Carols by Candlelight - Are you feeling Christmassy? - 15th December 2013- Dave Walker

Bible readings: Genesis 3:8-19 (part one) John 1:1-18 (part two)

Click here to listen to the talk

1. Are you feeling Christmassy?

Are you feeling Christmassy yet? I think one of the big reasons why people come to a service like this is to feel Christmassy, isn’t it? That’s the big reason why I used to go to carol services in years gone by. To feel Christmassy. To get that special Christmas feeling.

What do we mean by that – feeling Christmassy? I think we mean the warm feeling in the middle of winter. The feeling that somehow everything is ok after all. It’s sort of escapism, isn’t it? I think Bill Murray hits it on the head in the film ‘Scrooged’ when he says “Christmas Eve! It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!” That’s the feeling we want, isn’t it?

But what about the other side? The other feelings that Christmas time can bring? The flipside? The crazy work stress – deadlines, deadlines, targets to be met, colleagues off work. Not just at work, but over-busyness in general. So many things to sort out. So many things to pay for. Debt. Then there’s the flipside of the cosy family Christmas – missing people. That song that we hear playing in the shopping centres – “it’s gonna be lonely this Christmas.” Grief that feels more raw. Family disputes, and fights in general that are worse at this time of year. Moral failure and guilt that often comes at this time – I wish I hadn’t said that, I wish I hadn’t done that. Illnesses feel worse. Is that not real, too? Is that feeling Christmassy?

There’s a little town in Hertfordshire called Cold Christmas. I think that’s a good name for all of this stuff. The flipside of feeling Christmassy. Cold Christmas.

Cold Christmas is real. That’s what bothers us. That’s why feeling Christmassy is fun but it’s not enough. It’s only escapism, nothing more. Because when we’re back out in the cold wind, the warm feelings blow away. No one feels Christmassy when the tree has gone and you’re back in an empty flat, or you’re at work on the first day back.

Tonight I want you to see that the Christmas message as the Bible tells it is not just cosy escapism. It’s real. It deals with the world as it really is. Cold Christmas and all.

You may have noticed that already in that first reading we’ve just heard, from the book of Genesis. You may find the language a bit strange, but you can’t deny it describes the world as it really is. We’ve heard of relationship pain – the man blaming his wife, the start of the battle of the sexes and even domestic violence as we hear of the woman desiring to get one over her husband and him responding with cruelty; pain between man and woman and pain between the generations – the pain involved in giving birth and bringing up children. Relationship pain.

And work pain. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” That’s true, isn’t it? Busyness, tiredness, stress. It’s all there.

And then death itself. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” It’s the real world as it really is. Cold Christmas and all.

What’s distinct about this Bible account is that it doesn’t just tell us how it is, it tells us why. It says it all comes from somewhere. There is a root cause for all the pain. Something has happened to put the world out of joint. It’s a rupture in a relationship: the fact that ever since the beginning people have turned against their creator. Distrusting his word. Kicking against his right to rule. Throwing his fatherly love back in his face. That, says the Bible, is the reason for the darkness and the pain. You can’t reject your creator and expect to keep hold of his creation. The reason that relationships can now be painful is that the relationship that matters most has been broken. The relationship between God and his people. That’s why the world is broken. Because we broke it from the centre outwards. A bit like a stone hitting your windscreen right in the middle at 70mph. The cracks run outwards. The cracks run through everything. That’s why life can be so cold.

The question is what can be done about it? If the whole of life is out of joint, is there any way it can be put back in? Is there an answer to cold Christmas, an answer that goes deeper than just trying to hide away in the warm for a little while?

The reading we heard from Genesis comes right at the start of the Bible. The rest of the Bible is the answer to this question: what has God done about it?

So as the evening goes on, please, don’t just sit back, feel Christmassy and try to forget. Think. Here among the candles and the soft music is a solid hard edged message. Something real. Something that doesn’t just blow away in the cold wind outside. Something that gets to the root of the problem. Something that can deal with the dark side of feeling Christmassy. Don’t miss it.


2. God has come to you

Did you see the answer to that question we were asking? The question of what can be done about Cold Christmas? What has God done about it? It’s pretty clear isn’t it? God has come for you. He’s stepped right into the broken world, into the coldness and pain. He’s done it himself.

Did you hear that line in the last reading? The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. That is earth shattering. Or, to be more correct, that is world-mending truth. The Word became flesh. The Word, who, John has already told us, is God – God the one and only; God the Son of the Father – became flesh. Flesh. That’s not a nice, poetic way of saying it, is it? It’s messy, earthy, real. God became meat. To say “the divine became human” makes it sound rarefied and religious. The Bible is more gritty. God became meat.

That’s meant to sound shocking. If you don’t see the shock in it then that’s probably because you haven’t really understood it. If you’re from a Muslim background you’ll understand the shock. This isn’t sentimentality. Not fuzzy and soft focus. This is tangible and real. Solid and hard edged. Just like you and me are solid and hard edged. Flesh. Real God. Really here. Really one of us.

That’s the antidote to all the countless imaginary versions of God. People are very, very good at coming up with wrong versions of God. Gods that suit us. Gods that fit with our lifestyle and fall into line with our agenda.  But whenever we imagine God we get it wrong. That’s why I want to be really careful to not give you the impression that the Christian message is just “hey, here’s some good news, the God who you thought was there is there.” Because the God you thought was there is probably shaped by your imagination. And whenever we imagine God we get it wrong. When you think of the major religions and philosophies which have held sway down through the ages I think it’s safe to say that their gods are either big and aloof, or else small and nasty. Richard Dawkins, who’s always good for a quote, said in an interview last week to Christians “your God is a bully.” Who is to say he’s not right? How would we know?

Look hard into the manger. What do you see there? You see God. God not as a philosophical construct or a figment of your imagination, but God as he really is. The Word made flesh. The creator come here. God walking into history. That’s why John says “the Word” here. Words are communication. This is God communicating himself to us. Showing himself. He’s not a mystery any more. He’s shown himself. In the form we can most clearly understand: human. So John says “no-one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest possible relationship with the Father, has made him known.” We’ve seen him, says John. So now we’re telling you.

Look hard into the manger and you see God as he is. And you see yourself as you are. You in your weakness and brokenness. Fragile and vulnerable. You as you really are. Flesh. Human. Look into the manger and you see that God as he is has come for you as you are.

The Christmas carols get it so right, don’t they? “See how in the manger lies he who made the starry skies.” “God of God, light of light, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.” God climbed down from the heights of glory and laid himself in an animal food bowl, so that when he grew up all our sins might be laid on him. This is God’s way of restoring that broken relationship with himself. This is his way of rescue from death and hell. “The hopes and fears of all the years” are met in that manger in Bethlehem.

One of the centres of global Christianity now is China. In the last few decades the message of Jesus has exploded across that land and there are millions of Christians there now. Back in the mid-19th Century things were very different, when a Yorkshireman named Hudson Taylor went there to tell as many people as he could about Jesus. One man converted through his ministry was a Chinese Confucian scholar.  This ex-Confucianist used to tell a story to explain his conversion. He said:

“A man fell into into a dark and slimy pit.  Try as he might, it was impossible to pull himself out. One day Confucius himself came past the pit and said: ‘Poor man, if only he’d listened to me, he’d never have fallen into the pit in the first place.’  Some time later the Buddha came past.  Looking down at the man he said: ‘Poor man.  Just come up here and I’ll help you.’  And he walked on.”  

We might add some others into this story – the ‘feeling Christmassy’ person, in a bright festive jumper, who looks in to the pit and says “Go on, give us a smile! It’s not so bad.” The modern British secularist who says “it’s your pit! Be proud of it.” The scientist who says “get studying that slime really carefully and who knows, one day you may be able to work out why you’re down there.” The entertainment industry which says “here’s a new iPad. Play Angry Birds and you’ll soon forget about the pit.”

The story went on “And then Jesus Christ walked past and he said, ‘Poor man.’  And He jumped into the pit and lifted him out.”

It’s good news, this Christmas message. It’s the sort of thing that should make you smile. But it’s not escapism; a nice thought on a Christmas card quickly forgotten. A real life rescue. A real, tangible God, not one that you have to aim at and miss, but who has come to you. Jesus Christ. The Word made flesh. God with us. A Saviour.

Have a look at these candles. They look great, don’t they? They look better because it’s dark.  Cold Christmas is real, the pain of the world is a fact. The Bible doesn’t hide from that. But it’s not the end of the story. The message of Jesus is good news of great joy because, as the carol says, this is world of sin, and he’s come into it. He’s come for you.

If you’re not a follower of Jesus, and coming to a carol service does not automatically make you one, then it may be news to you to say that this is a message you need to respond to. You can’t just leave it. God has come for you. He wants all of you. Think about it. Talk to me about it, or someone that you came with. Come back to one of our regular services and find out more. But don’t let it fall on deaf ears. Just feeling Christmassy is not enough.