Welcome to the start of the biggest party in the world. It's biggest in terms of the number of people who join in and also because it has been held annually for thousands of years. The church festival of Christmas started life as a pagan festival to greet the return on light to the world following the shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Later the early church fathers adopted an “if you cannot beat them, join them” attitude and gradually changed the meaning of the festival to one with a Christian message about the birth of Jesus. While this gave the birth a place within western and later world culture the accompanying celebrations of feasting, present giving and general partying have often tended to over-ride the world changing message about the Christmas event, which is that the almighty creator of the universe and everything in it chose to enter into creation and take on human form. Not only that but he came in the form of a baby, which is the weakest being in the universe. In so doing he opened himself up to experiencing all the joys, trials and difficulties that all humans experience, even physical death.
But more amazing that the fact that God became human is an understanding of why. It wasn't just to come to earth to experience life first hand, rather like a cosmic gap year traveller. No, it was with the express purpose of taking action to ensure that we humans had the opportunity to move from time limited life on earth to an eternal existence with the Creator. To achieve this humans needed to understand how to live together on the earth and that teaching is quite simple. Jesus told us to love God and love our neighbours but God understood that we would find this simple instruction very difficult to follow and when we look around the world today we see that that is the case. The penalty for the sin of not following that simple requirement was spiritual death and separation from the eternal God.
I want us to take a few minutes to think about the state of the world with specific attention to the commandment. I am sure that we can all think of people who have been in the news in the past year who claim to love God but whose actions do not reflect a love of other people. Similarly, there are many good people whose work and lives show that they love their neighbours but who will deny God's existence. These are the people who really need to hear, know and understand the Christmas message which we heard in our readings. “... to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2: 11) and “...he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:14).
We all know that the events of Christmas are important for more than the birth of a baby, miraculous as that always is. The events of that first Christmas in Bethlehem are important because they were a precursor to the even more magnificent events that occurred in Jerusalem 33 years later when God took upon himself the penalty of our sin, died, was buried and was resurrected to new life so that we would have the opportunity to experience life eternal.
Thus the true meaning of Christmas is Easter. Without Christmas there would be no Easter and without Easter Christmas has no purpose.
In thinking about these events I asked the question “when did God realise or decide that an intervention in world events was necessary to save humankind?” Did God know at the moment of creation that humankind would not be able to make the right decisions and behave appropriately if we were left alone or did this realisation develop as people multiplied and spread across the earth. There are a number of old testament writings about a messiah, we heard from Isaiah just now but they were all written a few hundred years before the events we celebrate tonight. For how long was Christmas an inevitable event?
This leads to another question, “how long has God allowed for the effect of that first Christmas to spread across the world?” The first disciples expected the second coming to take place in their lifetimes but two thousand years later we still wait. As we look around us it is clear that there are many millions of Christians in the world but there are still many millions of other people who need to hear and understand the message and many of those will be joining in with the Christmas party tomorrow without really understanding the awesome importance of the events in Bethlehem.
At the end of the gospel of Matthew Jesus charged his disciples with the responsibility of taking the message of salvation to others. That responsibility has come down the ages to disciples in the modern church. Jesus also told his disciples that he would support their efforts and I am sure that he also stands ready to support modern disciples.
So this Christmas, before we depart to join the party I ask everyone here to think about the incredible events that happened at Bethlehem and in a minute to join in prayers for God to send guidance to the church in 2017 to find ways to spread the message of the salvation that God has provided for his people.
To quote again from Titus 2:11 “For the grace of God has appeared to bring salvation to all.”
Unfortunately, there are still many people who have not heard the message and the church needs to find new ways to reach them.