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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Sermon for Christmas Eve Communion at Stebbing

Well since last year’s Christmas Eve sermon arose from an American folk song I thought we should have something a little more English this year.

I first heard this song at the funeral of a friend of mine called Bill. He was a big fan of the Port Isaac fishermen, and his family chose the song because it fitted well his personality.

The thing is, if I’m honest, Bill had a bit of a downer on himself -  he liked to think that God considered him as something only slightly higher up the food chain than a worm, a bit of a no hoper. Though he was a successful businessman several times over and had a loving family, he was content to think that God didn’t think much of him, and indeed that he deserved it.

If you know me you’ll be able to tell straight away that Bill and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on this one!

And I chose to share Bill’s funeral song with you tonight, not because I think you’re all a bunch of no hopers jokers and rogues, because clearly you’re not.

Christmas is a time of hope – a time of thanksgiving, but the thing is, there may well be some others like Bill here tonight who think they’re no good, who think that God wouldn’t be interested in blessing them.

If that’s you, I have news for you, even from a song about doubt and adventure.

St Paul writes to Titus, “for the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people”
To all people – salvation is on offer to everybody, not to some self-selecting elite or exclusive clique.

So if ever you have felt left out by the church, if ever we have seemed more interested in ourselves than in the wider life of this village, I must apologize to you and ask your forgiveness. Church is not a club for perfect people, in fact it would more accurately be described as a bunch of no hopers jokers and rogues – but ones who have experienced God’s grace, and who know that even with all their failings they have significance and value in the eyes of God.

We all do, you see. We all have that significance because God doesn’t only love the church; he loves the whole world.
And this love is not the same as human love – we have to decide to love, even our family relationships can be strained by difficult circumstances, but God’s love is eternal and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more than he does, nor is there anything we can do actually to make God love us less than he does, because it is his very character to love – God is love.

So does it matter how we live then, if God loves us anyway? Last week the Prime Minister called for a return to traditional Christian values, as a way to fix the problems in our society. I guess I would cautiously welcome that statement, but would want to say that it is not Christian values in themselves that will fix anything. Paul writes to Titus that it is the grace of God that teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions. I understand that to mean that we need again and again to experience God’s grace, that our lives may be transformed into the likeness of Christ. We do not achieve this in our own strength by obeying rules, but by allowing God to shape our lives, our attitudes and our behaviour. Only then will society truly be changed. Jesus (and St Paul actually) were all about grace, not law. Trying to stick to the rules did not get God’s people very far before Jesus came, and actually it hasn’t got them very far in the time since his first coming either.

You see the thing is, though I’ve already said I don’t want you to think I am deliberately comparing this congregation to a bunch of no hopers, jokers and rogues, actually even the most upright of us has fallen short of the glory of God- the ideal standard set by God for what human life should be.

If you miss a target by 1 mm or 1 mile, you’ve still missed it. The Bible’s way of explaining this is that we have all sinned, we have all done things that are wrong, and so none of us really are in a position to judge others whose moral behaviour when you see it on the news or in the papers may seem to be worse than ours.
And it does matter how we live because sin cuts us off from God. Our imperfections cannot stand in the presence of his perfection. It does matter how we live, but it also matters who we get to help us live.

And don’t forget, God’s love for us is eternal and unconditional. Just as we still love our children when they are naughty, God still loves the human race even in our wrongdoing. The first Christmas was part of his plan to rescue humanity.

And this is what He did. The fact that Jesus lived and walked on this earth is historically undeniable. There is more evidence of the existence of Jesus than there is of Julius Caesar. He was born in Bethlehem, lived a perfect life never sinning once. He loved & healed people, taught them about God and was then falsely accused and crucified by the Romans outside Jerusalem. He did all this willingly because He loved you so much that He wanted to save you. None of us can save ourselves from moral downfall, no matter how much the Prime Minister encourages us. Only God can do that. That’s why Jesus came. That’s what the first Christmas was for.

So what? You might be saying. God loves me, that’s fine thank you. Thing is, you have to make a decision. To benefit from the consequences of Christmas – and of Easter – we all need to choose the life God offers us. He is saying “Come”, but this is not the road to nowhere, it is the highway to heaven, and to truly find hope and purpose in life we must all declare our intention to take this journey with Jesus. A journey that leads not up a ladder to the stars, but to a new life in Christ, that lasts for eternity.
My friend Bill was able to accept the challenge to journey with Jesus before he died, but I don’t recommend waiting until the last minute.
There is a strange ambiguity in the line from that song “everybody knows that this reality’s not real”. For our lives today are as real as they can be – with all our struggles, joys and sorrows. I wouldn’t want to deny you the reality of what we live. Yet at the same time this world is not all there is. There is more to life, there is hope, a future, salvation, freedom and forgiveness – in the Kingdom of God, an alternate reality brought in by the coming of Jesus, which will be fully present when he returns.

So, in summary, the Christmas message is
God loves us all
We have all sinned
Jesus was born and died to save us from separation from God

And the question is, what will we do about it? Where will we get our hope from?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Stebbing Carol Service Sermon 2011

So, what do you want for Christmas?

Let me start by saying that other department stores are available – borrowing their idea does not imply endorsement of that particular one.

Gifts you can’t wait to give.
All I really want to say tonight is that like that little boy, God has a gift for you that he can’t wait to give, that he longs to be able to share with you.
And in spite of appearances sometimes, like that little boy, God is more interested in giving to you than receiving from you or from me or from any of us.
It probably isn’t a gift you’ve asked for, though if you’ve heard about the Alpha course we ran this autumn you may have it on your list.

It isn’t anything you’ll need to unwrap, nor is there is a danger that you’ll want to take it back to the shop and exchange it for something else.

It isn’t embarrassing like those socks or that scarf or that hideous tie, and it won’t break after a week. Its batteries don’t run out – indeed it has its own eternal power source.

Money can’t buy this gift, as the Beatles sang many years ago, but as Michael Ball sang not quite so long ago, it does change everything.

That little lad in the John Lewis ad had been waiting impatiently for a few weeks to give his gift, but God has been waiting for the entire history of the universe to give you – yes you – a gift.

That little lad kept his gift a secret, hiding it away in the cupboard, but God made plain his gift to everyone, a long time ago.

The reason we give gifts at Christmas is to remind ourselves of the gift God gave us that first Christmas – the gift of his love, expressed in the coming to earth of his son born as a poor baby in a small village in the Middle East; Jesus, the Christ.

Money can’t buy love, but as we shall see, love changes everything.

The coming of Jesus was an amazing act of love – that the eternal God should stoop to become a mere human being. Yet the most amazing gift was yet to come, when Jesus died on the cross.

The cross, and the empty tomb of the resurrection are God’s way of saying “I have a gift for you”. In a way then, this gift has been on clear display under a metaphorical Christmas tree for 2000 years, waiting for us to notice it, and claim it as our own.

And many people have done just that. 2.3 billion people, that’s 33% of the population of the world are Christians today. And tomorrow there will be 80,000 more Christians, as across the world 80,000 people accept the gift that God longs to give, the gift of his love in Jesus Christ.

The compelling thing about that little lad in the advert is that we are set up by the music and pictures to think that he is waiting impatiently to receive gifts, not give them. 

What makes it so moving – or creepy depending on which YouTube channel you watch, is that he confounds our expectations and walks past the gifts piled up for him to fetch and give a single special gift to his loved ones.

And some people here I am sure are thinking that God only wants to take from us, just wants to receive our worship, our money our time and so on. Yet as I have already said, God is more interested in giving than receiving, and that’s true all the time, not just at Christmas.

We give of those things willingly if we have received the gift God gives – the gift of his love, the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.

And how do we receive this gift, how do we get this eternal life, you may be inwardly asking.

It is by invitation only. That is, you have to invite the giver into your heart.

When we come before God and ask forgiveness for the things we have done wrong, and invite Jesus to enter our lives, to become a part of who we are, he comes willingly and gives freely of his love.

Now don’t get me wrong, God’s love is always there for everyone, but to really know that love we need to ask Jesus to give it to us. We can also ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. What a gift that may turn out to be for some of you tonight.

One final thing though. That advert has a pleading refrain – “please please please let me get what I want …”
As much as God longs to give you that gift, he won’t badger you or beg or plead. Look at this picture – its called “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt.

 It depicts Jesus standing by a door, waiting to enter. The painter explained that this represents our hearts, our lives that Jesus longs to be part of. His critics said “but there is no handle on the door, how will he get in?” Hunt replied, “ the handle is on the inside.”
The handle is on the inside – Jesus can only enter our hearts if we open the door and let him in.

I started by asking you what you want for Christmas. I know what God wants – a relationship with you. And if that’s what you want too, your wish can come true tonight.

At the end of the service our trained prayer ministry team will be glad to help you ask for and receive the gift that God longs to give you, but for now, let us pray …