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A Brief Sermon For Christmas Eve Midnight Communion: The Christmas Covenant

Luke 2:8-20

Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)

On Friday, Debbie and I took the children to the Wintershall Estate to see their annual nativity play. We began outside, witnessing Joseph accompanying Mary on a donkey, walking from a distance, picked out by a spotlight in the darkness of late afternoon December. Having then followed them to the inn, we found ourselves witnessing the shepherds. And while it rather stretched the imagination to behold a female shepherd singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’, one effective part of the play had those shepherds debating Israel’s history and hopes before they were shocked by the sudden appearance of the angel. It was a fitting context for what was to come in the angel’s message.

Why? When the angel says, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord,” this is about the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes. It’s why we sing in the carol,

The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

The angel uses covenant language in announcing the birth of Jesus. Israel was well used to this. They had known it from the time they were on the borders of the Promised Land as described in the book of Deuteronomy. When Moses preaches back to them there their recent history, he does so in the format of an ancient covenant.

It was like this: a great king would make a covenant with a weaker group of people. The powerful king would bless the weaker party or nation by delivering them or protecting them in some way. In return, those he had saved would promise obedience to him in certain ways prescribed in the covenant. So, on the borders of the Promised Land, the covenant recalls that God, the great king, has provided a miraculous deliverance for the children of Israel from Egypt. Now, in return for his salvation, he asks them to follow his laws.

It’s similar here: the baby is called ‘the Messiah’. He is to be the great king who will deliver Israel, and hence he is also ‘Saviour’. Certainly, Israel was looking out for such a figure. The shepherds in the play at Wintershall recounted how their nation had been exiled in Babylon, but even after returning to their own land they had been invaded by Greece and now by Rome. They were like exiles in their own land.

Of course, with hindsight we know that the Messiah who was born, Jesus, would save his people in a different way from that which they expected. Deliverance from their sins was not to mean an army raised up against the Romans but a Saviour nailed to a Roman cross.

Furthermore, the Messiah’s coming to bring salvation is not just for the Jews, it is ‘good news that will bring great joy for all the people’ (verse 10, italics mine). What begins with the people of God will extend to the world.

The basic truth is clear: the long-awaited Messiah has finally come, and he is bringing salvation. We celebrate this at Christmas. Christmas will make complete sense with Easter: the One who came in poverty and weakness, ‘wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (verse 12) will die in poverty and weakness, hanging on a Cross while soldiers gamble for his clothes. But in doing so, he will absorb all that the darkness will throw at him, and he will conquer evil. The first half of the covenant is clear: God’s king will save his people.

But what of the second half? The king saves a helpless people: what does he demand in return? Again, it is all clear in the angel’s announcement: ‘a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’ (italics mine). Just as God saved his people from Egypt and then called them to obey his Law, so now Jesus the Messiah comes. He will save his people, and in response he calls them to recognise who he truly is – Lord.

In other words: salvation is freely given. God in Jesus brings it of his own initiative. It is not our doing. But while the gift is free, the appropriate response costs us everything. As Lord, he has the right to direct our ways. What is more, in the life of the Messiah he will show us that explicitly himself. He will not demand of us what he does not demand of himself.

However, it will be costly. In a world ruled by the Romans, to call someone Lord is to imply that the person who usually claimed the title of Lord is not. Caesar claimed to be Lord. To enter into covenant with God’s Messiah involves declaring that Jesus is Lord and the powers of the world are not. Jesus claims our ultimate allegiance, not the world.

Some Christians think that Christmas is just the prelude to the real message, that of Easter. But really they are of a piece. Both announce that the king has come. He is proclaimed at Christmas, and enthroned at Easter, on the Cross. Christmas proclaims Jesus as the Saviour, and Easter delivers on that proclamation. Christmas also says that the Saviour is the Lord, and Easter says he is declared as Lord in the Resurrection.

At Christmas, then, we see that Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with people. He is the King who comes to save his people. He is the Lord who calls all who receive that salvation to follow him as their Master.

This Christmas, may we come to worship the baby king who was given for our salvation and who commands our allegiance, not our tinsel.

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A Methodist Message For Christmas

Mark WakelinThis is the Christmas message from the President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Dr Mark Wakelin:

“Truly this was the Son of God!

“I was asked once by a well-known broadcaster, ‘do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?’ I replied, as you do, by asking him, ‘it depends on what you mean by, ‘Son of God.’  His reply shook me because he then said, ‘It’s a perfectly simple question, ‘Is Jesus Christ the Son of God?’ My own thought was immediately, ‘I wonder which bit of ‘Son of God’ he is finding simple?’

“I presume he meant do I believe in a literal way? But that is hardly simple. Literal language is OK for baked beans and possibly sunsets, but it gets a bit thin when talking about most of the things that really matter such as love, sadness and wonder. It runs out of steam totally when talking of God. You can’t say anything literal about God!

“I was once in an argument about the new hymn book (I am afraid I get a bit grumpy about some of the alterations to ancient poems that we make and think that our desire to modernise the old is a little like the Christians who wanted to cover the modesty of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel). My colleague disliked the word ‘ineffable’ because he felt no one would understand it. There is a certain irony in that as you can imagine! Given that ‘ineffable’ basically means something we can’t understand, I would have thought it was a useful word to hang on to if we also want to talk about God. God is ‘ineffable’ – and that’s the point.

“That’s the point of Christmas. How does God communicate with us when words are not adequate? How can we even try to talk of God when literal language so lets us down? God’s answer is, of course, the ‘self sending’ – of a God who in Charles Wesley’s words is, ‘contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ What we can ever understand of God has to begin by taking account of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is written about in Colossians 1:15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’ and verse 19: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’

“The ‘Word’ is God, says John. Now this isn’t simple language either, but it directs you a kind of struggle to understand that is different from, for example, trying to get your head around Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity! Because it is truth revealed and held in a person, understanding and engaging with that truth is as much about love and obedience as it is about intellectual capacity and linguistic dexterity. We are not so much asked to assent to a philosophical or religious claim, ‘yes I agree that Jesus is the Son of God,’ but inhabit a story, the Christmas story, to live within ancient tale of human struggle and courage, of wonder and delight, of mystery and of angels declaring good news. Children get this much more easily than adults who want the whys and the wherefores of an extraordinary story which is far more than an odd biological claim on the Universe.

“Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course, wonder of wonders, ‘Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree, to praise in songs divine the incarnate deity.’ I inhabit this ancient story and find it to be true. Wrapped in our clay we may not immediately recognise the creator of all things. But it is our life task, to discover a vulnerable God who is on a mission to finish the ‘new creation’ and is looking for followers.

“Happy Christmas!”

 

The Evils Of A Commercialised Christmas

Looks like one Brisbane church accidentally got it right for this time of year:

Happy Christmas

A very Joyful Christmas to one and all. I’ll resist saying Merry Christmas, because I know it won’t be merry for some of you, facing grief, pain and difficulties. But in the sense that God’s joy can be with us even in sorrow, I wish that joy to one and all.

On a day like this, I am thankful for the gift of God in Jesus Christ. I shall spend the morning ‘at work’ proclaiming this.

But of course I am by no means the only person who will be working today, and at least after my services are finished I can relax with the family. Others will be working long hours today, and I want to pay tribute to them – those providing meals and company for the lonely, the emergency services and so on. A member of one of my congregations will be spending the day volunteering in the A & E department of a local hospital.

In particular, I remember a Christmas about six ago, when one of our then rather small children was running a near-feverish temperature. How grateful we were for the staff at NHS Direct who were available at the other end of the phone to give us medical advice.

So a Joyful Christmas to you all. And particular blessings to those of you who are struggling, and those of you giving up your time to be available for others.

Carol Service Talk

I’m doing a short talk at tomorrow evening’s carol service, using PowerPoint to go through some of the characters in the nativity story, to see where we might identify with them. The presentation is below from Slideshare: when I previewed this post, I couldn’t find the two tabs, the right hand one of which is for ‘Speaker Notes’ for each slide, where you would find the bones of what I am going to say. So if the notes don’t show up below in your web browser, go here to find them.

Going Away In A Manger

A Guardian journalist has spent a night in a stable, rented from a non-Christian family who are fed up with the commercialisation of Christmas. All money goes to Leukaemia and Lymphoma research; the wife, a GP, will spend Christmas on duty in a hospital A & E unit.

Something to chew on?

Christmas Is Really For The … Er, Politicians?

More and more this year I’m hearing people say that Christmas is really for the children. Which always seems odd to me, however much I enjoy seeing the festival through my children’s eyes. Didn’t Jesus come for us all, and for all creation?

Many years ago, the poet Steve Turner identified this in his poem ‘Christmas Is Really For The Children‘:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.

Yet if Easter is political, so is Christmas. In an article published ten days ago in the Telegraph, Dr Stephen Holmes of St Andrew’s University argues that the Christmas story is irreducibly political.  And while some may moan, even – especially! – in the same publication, surely Dr Holmes is essentially right, even if some might query certain details. The criticism to which I have just linked ludicrously puts Dr Holmes in the same categories as those who have previously poured sceptical waters on the supernatural elements of Christmas. Dr Holmes would be rather surprised by this, as someone theologically conservative enough to have been engaged at times by Spring Harvest and serves on the Council of the Evangelical Alliance!
He is right to protest against Victorian sentimentality that removes the contemporary force of the Christmas story. Mary was a single teenage mother, even if the circumstances were different. Joseph and Mary with the young Jesus were asylum seekers in Egypt. The politicians oppose Jesus. The religious establishment doesn’t get it. Power is inflicted ruthlessly upon the poor in the mechanics of the census.

Of course, some of the politicians will try to own Christmas, but they will do so with trite and inane clichés, if past form indicates anything. They too will seek to empty the story of its force.

There’s an N T Wright quote doing the rounds among Christians on Facebook right now that seems to get it right, in my opinion:

Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place… Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight.

As the old slogan puts it, if Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, then he is not Lord at all. That includes politics, and the whole shebang.

More Advent And Nativity Material

A bumper selection, collected and curated by Joanne Cox, is on BigBible.

Sermon: The Post-Easter Church and the Mission of God

John 20:19-31
Fabric conditioner and orange juice: what’s the connection? Apart from being regulars on the Faulkner family shopping list, they have one thing in common: concentrate. It’s hard now to find any fabric conditioner that isn’t of the concentrated variety. And if you are watching your budget carefully, as more of us are in these straitened times, then you may well buy fruit juice concentrate, where the water has been removed before transportation and later added again, rather than the original juice, that is so much more expensive.

What does all this have to do with the second half of John 20, and this account of early post-Easter Resurrection appearances? It’s that word ‘concentrate’. John has so much to say, that he concentrates it into a brief summary. Remember, he will not go on to report Pentecost and the explosion of the early church. So before he concludes his Gospel, he has to communicate briefly some strong hints of the big themes to come as the People of God take on a new shape in response to Jesus. How does he do it? Concentrate. He concentrates down the major themes that will shape the mission of God’s Church.

And because we have a concentrated account here of big themes in the mission of God’s Church, it seems to me that this passage – which is the Lectionary Gospel for today – is also a fitting one for this church anniversary.

What concentrated major themes are there here that shape the Church and her mission? I’ve picked out three. They come from the first half of this story, that is, before Thomas turns up.

The first concentrated theme is Easter. Surprise, surprise! Easter shapes the mission of the Church. It’s there when Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’ (verses 19 and 21).

Where is Easter in ‘Peace be with you’? Remember the context. The disciples are behind locked doors out of fear that the Jewish authorities will be coming after them next (verse 19). And of course when their mission gets underway a few weeks later, they will soon encounter opposition from the religious establishment. They will be hauled before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council), they will be imprisoned, some will be executed and a man named Saul will volunteer for a murderous campaign against the new movement. So to a group of people who are feeling the threat of death now, and who will again in the future, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’

How can he say that? Because of Easter. He shows them his hands and his side (verse 20). Here is the one who was betrayed, who suffered and died, yet whom God raised from the dead. He had faced head-on what this group of his followers now feared, and would indeed encounter soon. But God had raised him from the dead, and so all the forces of evil arrayed against him could not prevail. Neither will they be able to prevail against the Church.

So ‘Peace be with you’ indeed – no wonder Jesus says it twice. Whatever evil, injustice and suffering is thrown the way of Christian disciples, the Resurrection means ‘peace’. The forces of sin and destruction do not get the last word, God does. For he promises to vindicate his people in raising them from the dead to a resurrection body and eternal life in his new creation, just as he did his Son.
‘Peace be with you’ – the Easter message of hope in the face of opposition – therefore becomes something to strengthen God’s People in their mission. To engage in God’s mission risks conflict with the world. Some will ridicule our beliefs. Others will want to silence us, accusing us of indoctrination. Some Christians will pay a price in their work environment. In parts of the world, there will be organised persecution, and even the BBC recently covered that when it reported the mass arrests of Christians from unregistered churches in China on Easter Day. In the face of all that, whether we think we will merely face mockery, or whether we risk physical and material consequences, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you. Whatever happens to you now, resurrection awaits you, and eternity with God in a new creation where sorrow and pain will be banished.

So when we are nervous to do something that is part of God’s mission – whether it is to speak up for Christ in witness to his love, to show that love to those our culture despises, or something else – let us remember the Easter message. ‘Peace be with you.’ Nothing the world does in response to that mission can outrank the resurrection hope in which we live.

The second concentrated theme is Christmas. At the end of the Knaphill Easter Day service last week, I introduced the final hymn by saying it was the one that you could never omit on Easter Day – ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Then I announced it was actually ‘Thine be the glory’.

But Christmas – at this time of year? Yes! Jesus saw it that way. Not only does Christmas link forward to Easter – he who was born was born to die and be raised – Easter links back to Christmas. And that’s what we have here. Jesus describes the mission of the Church like this in verse 21:

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

That links Easter back to Christmas. How? Like this: if the way Jesus sends us into the world is modelled on the way the Father sent Jesus, then you’re back to Christmas, when Jesus was sent. So Christmas becomes the model for our mission. We go back from John 20 to John 1, to that description of how Jesus was sent:

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:5)

As you get to know me, you’ll realise this is one of my favourite Bible verses. The mission of Jesus was not in terms of “I’m here, come to me” but in terms of “I come to you.” And this is one of our greatest mistakes in Christian mission: we set up so much in the church on the basis of getting ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. We want it all to happen in our comfort zone of the church: how can we get more people in? Well, ultimately that’s a reasonable question if it means, how can we bring more people into the fellowship of Christ’s followers? But when it means that we want to stay on our safe territory and just put on events here or tweak what we do on a Sunday in the hope that people who have not previously been attracted to us will suddenly come through the doors, then it is badly wrong. It is dangerous.

The Risen Christ calls us to go to the world with his love. We go to where others feel secure, not vice versa. We mingle in the community, rather than seeing church life as the centre and circumference of our social life. That’s why in our last circuit Debbie and I got stuck into the networks of people around our children’s school. That’s why here we’re starting to develop strong links with uniformed organisations. Christians need to be active in these places, as bearers of God’s love in Christ. For some it will be a group in their neighbourhood. For others it will be a sports or a social club. If we are in paid employment, then that will certainly be part of it. Where might it be for you?

What is clear is that the Risen Christ wants his disciples to break out of holy buildings and contagiously spread his love in the world. All that is implied in the concentrated sentence, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

The third concentrated theme is Pentecost. Jesus breathes on the disciples – breath being to do with the Holy Spirit – and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22). Then he gives them the message of the Gospel about the forgiveness of sins (verse 23).

And you might say, wait, hold on! We’ve got Pentecost coming in six weeks’ time! Can’t we just hang on until then? But remember, John is concentrating all this into a brief account. And furthermore, isn’t there something wrong with us if we only want to think about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two in the year?

But no: receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to the church’s mission. We have no mission from God unless we reach out in the power of the Holy Spirit, who emboldens us with the message of sins forgiven. Thinking about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two is approximately fifty-one Sundays too few. The Risen Jesus will return to his Father, and he will send the Holy Spirit in his place. Jesus himself only entered upon his public mission after the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism; how much more do we need to reach out in the power of the Spirit?

And right now part of me doesn’t care what experiences we’ve had of the Spirit in the past, what matters is whether we are living in vital relationship with the Spirit now. Why, even only two chapters after Pentecost the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit again. What about us?

I am sure of this: that we cannot afford to be complacent about our living in vital dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to say, I received the Holy Spirit in the past. It is not enough to have our doctrine of the Spirit in neat order. Some Christians argue about terminology: receiving the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, being baptised in the Spirit. Who cares? As one preacher I heard many years ago said: “I don’t care what you call it, just get it!”
There can be no doubt about the connection between the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel of reconciliation. When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the outcome was preaching. Whenever the Spirit comes in power in the Book of Acts, the result always seems to be some kind of bold speech. John Wesley is reputed to have said that if you are on fire for God, people will come for miles around to watch you burn.

So what might we do? Would it not be good for us to seek God seriously and persistently for the empowering of the Spirit so that we might speak courageously for Christ? That is, the same Spirit by whom God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we might have peace in the face of whatever the world throws at us when we proclaim or show the Good News? And is it not the same Spirit through whom Mary conceived the infant Christ who showed us the model for mission, not in waiting for people to come to him but in going to where they were?

Yes, the Spirit of God is a critical presence through all these episodes that define the Church’s participation in the Mission of God. If God the Father and God the Son relied so much on the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish the central acts of salvation and mission, then is it not doubly important to us that we call upon God so that we, the Church, are filled with that same Holy Spirit and consequently take part effectively in the Mission of God?

What could be more important on a Church Anniversary than that?

Sermon: Elizabeth And Mary – Gospel Women

Luke 1:39-56

For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.

Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.

Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.

However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.

The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!

Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.

Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!

However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:

The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.[1]

We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.

So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.

Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?

Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?

The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)

Mary is blessed in this sense: she is

‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’[2]

Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.

If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.

For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.

Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?

So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.

The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?

Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.

There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.

Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.

But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.

God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.

So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.

And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.


[1] Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.

[2] Ibid.

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