St Stephen Lewisham

Christmas Day

25/12/98

One thing you can be certain about Christmas-tide is a flood of complaints about Carol services and Carol singers. You could almost reprint the same letters year after year in the newspapers and nobody would notice.

There are those people who object to any sort of public Christian Dimension at this time of year. So Birmingham City Council have renamed the Festival "Winterval" instead. Then there are those who are afraid that Muslims and Jews will be upset. But most frequent of all is the complaint that those who sing carols and hymns at Christmastide simply don't give any thought to the words they are singing. "So", the objectors say "they must be hypocrites, mustn't they?"

If that's so, this Sermon slot on Christmas Day would seem to be a good time to put this right. So this morning we shall take a close look at one well-known Christmas him because in its 30 lines it contains a Summary of what Christians believe about to Jesus Christ.

That hymn is "Hark the herald angels sing", by the great 18th century hymn-writer, Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement and a contributor to the great revival of interest in religion which saw thousands of people who had never heard the gospel preached before, flocking to meetings in this country and as a result turning to Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord. So this hymn is by someone who knew what he was talking about.

Not all Christmas hymns are about doctrine in this way. For instance "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" is a straightforward retelling in verse of the birth narrative in Saint Luke's gospel; "O come all Ye faithful" though it has a clear statement of what we believe in the second verse, is a hymn of public devotion and praise. Wesley's hymn, though it does contain expressions of worship, is first and foremost a teaching hymn.

If we look at verse one we find the line "God and Sinners reconciled". That takes us straight away to St Paul's Statement in 2 Corinthians that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself", a verse which, Wesley always maintained, lies at the very heart of the gospel.

Whatever the outside world may suppose was the purpose of the Incarnation, we Christians know that it was, and is, to do with God's initiative to restore fallen man from his state of being alienated from God, not only into the state that he was before he fell, which was the state of being a creature, part of God's creation but in that two-way relationship which can only be described as "sonship". Somehow or other, through the coming of Jesus Christ and his birth as man it became possible for us as man, and fallen men at that, to become the Sons of God.

But we're moving a little too fast. In order to wonder stand how their reconciliation comes about we have to look at verse two.

Christ by Highest Heaven adored
Christ the Everlasting Lord!

Unlike you and me who had a beginning when we were conceived and born into this world, Jesus Christ existed from all time "Eternally-begotten of the Father". So in Jesus we have to do not just with a man (us though undoubtedly he was that too) but with God himself.

Secular Christmas does its very best to conceal this fact. It directs our attention to Santa Claus, to Wise Men, to Shepherds, to Mangers, to fir-trees and presents and turkey - anywhere to distract people from asking the question "Who is this Baby". For once people begin to ask that question, the whole elaborate structure of consensus begins to disintegrate. It means that whilst we can, and should, respect the rights of Jews and Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses to their own beliefs, our faith and theirs on this vital question cannot possibly be reconciled. No amount of inter-faith services or meaningful discussions can all turn our conviction that here we can (as they hymn goes on to say):

Veiled in flesh and then Godhead see
Hail the Incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus our Emmanuel

The third verse goes on to say of him:

Hail the Son of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings!

In this he fulfils the prophecy of God's messenger or Malachi who said:

"for you who fear my Name, the son of Righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays".

Comparing Christ with the sun in the sky immediately suggests those words from St John's Gospel: in him was light... The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it". We can shut out the light by drawing the curtains, we can turn a blind eye to it, but all we will achieve is to insulate ourselves from it. It doesn't make the slightest difference to the light itself.

Mild, he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die.

"for he emptied himself", says St Paul to the Philippians. "So in your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus who though he was divine became as men are".

But that's precisely why, as St John said, "his own people did not accept him". They weren't prepared to be born again of water and the Spirit with all the need to become like children which that necessitates.

We shouldn't be too surprised, therefore, if our message "you must be born again" falls on deaf ears. It's not because the world is too materialistic as people sometimes think. The means of grace are all material in their nature: bread and wine, oil and water, church building and those who worship in them can all be touched and handled and seen and experienced. So they must be thoroughly materialistic outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.

In the same way God the Son is no Spiritual non-material Phantom: he is flesh and blood like we are, who through material means has enabled us to partake of his nature.

Born at to raise the Sons of Earth
Born to give them second birth.

"as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the Sons of God". In the Incarnation the purposes of God are perfectly fulfilled. God and Sinners are reconciled. He became like us that we might become like him. As the herald angels sing, "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men who are the object of God's benevolence."

Thanks be to him for the gift to us of his Son.

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