This is a copy of my sermon given at the Community Carol Service at Emmanuel Church, Billericay on Sunday 18 December 2016.
I wonder how many of you have decorated the outside of your home with Christmas lights? It seems with each passing year that displays are becoming more extravagant as neighbours, and sometimes whole streets, compete to ‘out do’ each other and provide an amazing display of Christmas lights.
But I love the ways in which people make such an effort to brighten things up this time of year. Some folk suggest that Christmas lights are a bit OTT, but if people are wanting to make the extra effort to decorate houses, and the Town Council our shops and High Street, then it’s got to be good thing. I’m all in favour of lights at Christmas, which is why I love services by candlelight and the fun of our Christingle service on Christmas Eve.
In the beginning, the world was full of light. God made us stewards over all of creation and he created us to be in relationship with other people. Everything was good. If the story stopped there, we wouldn’t be celebrating Jesus’ birth. But we know that everything didn’t remain as God intended it to be.
Instead, Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God when they disobeyed him. They knew immediately what they had done wasn’t right, so they went and hid in the darkness. But God sought them out because he didn’t want them to be living in the shadows. He told them that he loved them and ever since then he has been wanting his children to live in the light rather than the darkness.
At times we’re tempted to think that everything is okay in the world, that people are basically good, that things are a lot better than they have been throughout history, and that perhaps if we all just tried to be a little nicer to each other, then this world would be as good as it can be. But we know that is far from the truth and far from the ideal that God had for his world.
A Darkened World
Our reading from John’s Gospel makes for sober reading: This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. It could also be a description of the 21C world in which we live.
A world where we are increasingly proud of our accomplishments in science, technology and medicine and yet can’t seem to find a peaceful solution to the continuing war in Syria which has seen the residents of Aleppo bombed into submission with thousands upon thousands killed, many of them children, and less than 100,000 still living there compared to the 2.5 million before the war. Just yesterday the United Nations said: Aleppo is a synonym for hell and they went on to say: The world has failed this city. And so we have and in many other places across our world too, such as the challenge of Isis, Iraq, Afghanistan to name but a few.
We witness harrowing scenes on our TV’s of the ever-increasing deluge of escaping refugees only to find countries closing their borders. When will politicians, national and international, accept some responsibility for their actions which have caused what it is these people are desperately escaping from? It’s heartbreaking to watch.
The current financial crisis and the Brexit negotiations affect each one of us, with threats of redundancy and unemployment and a reduction in service industries – both public and private. Rail strikes cause chaos and not a day goes by when we don’t hear of some young person fatally injured in a stabbing or an avoidable tragedy of one kind or another which has taken place on the streets of our nation.
And it beggars belief that in 2016 more and more people are homeless and having to depend on Food Banks to survive. I know Gavin and his team had a wonderful response today at Waitrose. As we put all of these things together, and much more besides, we have to admit that we desperately need more light shining in our darkened world.
Light in the Christmas Story
Light, as you know, plays a large part in the Christmas story. Into the midst of the darkness of that night on a Judean hillside, God’s angelic light shone as the angels proclaimed to the shepherds the good news that Christ the Saviour is born. The Wise Men followed a bright star from the East, because they believed it heralded the birth of a very special king.
But it’s interesting that God didn’t take his message of salvation to the high and mighty ones. The angels didn’t appear to Emperor Augustus or to King Herod or to the Priests in the Temple. Instead, God chose to reveal this fantastic news to a lowly group of outsiders on a hillside and three men looking for answers to the questions of life.
But life for the shepherds was never the same again when they met Jesus for themselves because of the light that He brings. The lives of the Wise Men were changed forever, too. Men who, even in their wisdom realised there was something more significant, and more important, than that which they already knew.
We see them find that something greater, that king they seek, ‘The King of Kings’ and they kneel before him in awe and wonder. And life wasn’t the same for Joseph, the unsung hero of the Christmas story. A carpenter who worked hard for a living. A man of integrity, struggling to do what is right, standing by the girl he loves. And, of course, life was never the same for Mary, a humble peasant girl, chosen by God to give birth to the Messiah.
And as we think of all these people, we recognise somewhere, deep down, that: Joseph is a nobody; Mary was not especially important; the shepherds were just ordinary people and the Wise Men are the kind of men that are usually ignored by the truly powerful people in the world.
We know this – and we celebrate the fact that God brings light to the kind of people that we, for the most part, are. I don’t know about you, but God choosing the ordinary things of this world to make himself known is quite reassuring.
Light Breaks into Darkness
The first Christmas, however, wasn’t as peaceful as Hallmark cards often depict it to be. Soon after Jesus was born, a jealous King Herod murdered all babies under two years of age in the hope that he would kill Jesus in the process. Joseph and Mary then had to escape to Egypt and became a displaced refugee family fleeing for their lives. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Throughout his life time Jesus was ridiculed, questioned, rejected and hated by many of his own people. But none of this stopped him from completing the mission he came to fulfil: to reveal to humanity how we could live alongside one another and love each other just had God had desired in Eden.
One of the most popular readings this time of year is from John’s Gospel 1:14: The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I love the way The Message translates it: “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.” We don’t follow a king who sits in an ivory tower, disconnected from all our pain, but one who came down to earth and experienced it for himself and lived amongst us.
He was a friend to the marginalised and outcasts of society: the women, the prisoners, the hungry, the lepers, the criminals and all those who didn’t quite fit! He was the light of the world shining into the darkness. These people discovered a new world outside of the darkness – a world full of light, peace, love, faith, hope, and joy. And those whose lives were changed through meeting him told others of their experiences, just like the shepherds and the wise men.
Light in Easter Darkness
But as the Gospels tell us, many of Jesus’ own people, who were living in darkness, didn’t accept him. They didn’t want to receive His light. So they crucified him to a cross hoping to extinguish the light he radiated once and for all.
Jesus’ death is as much a vital part of the Christmas story as His birth. Easter completes the full story of God’s love for his world because Christmas reminds us that Jesus was born to die. And it wasn’t a pleasant death wrapped up in tinsel and glitter and bells and bows accompanied by singing choirs and Christmas lights, but an agonising death of torture and crucifixion. But this was God’s plan and it provided a way for the darkness to be extinguished from the world.
Three days after he died, Jesus conquered the darkness of death by rising from the grave. He ascended into heaven and now he reigns there over his kingdom. But we believe that he will return as both judge and saviour. This is the good news of our Christmas celebrations.
Many of you here this evening belong to organisations which serve the community of Billericay, and further afield, to bring light and hope into people’s lives. May you, and each and every one of us here, resolve to continue that good work as, together, we follow the Christmas story of allowing God’s light to shine in the darkness to bring light to others, as we allow Jesus to be our light this Christmas and in 2017.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. It’s true that our eyes adjust to the absence of light and we can become accustomed to darkness – and that’s as true physically as it is spiritually.
Have you become accustomed to living in darkness? Have you become accustomed to loving darkness rather than light? Have you become so accustomed to celebrating Christmas you’ve forgotten what it is you’re really celebrating? It happens!
If you have never believed in Jesus as the Saviour, then there is no better time than today in which to celebrate his entrance into our world.