O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
If Victorian’s over sentimentalized Christmas in the 19th Century, the baby boomers have trivialized Christmas in the 20th . Naïve romanticism led to cynical commercialism.
This evening I want us to explore “The Dark Side of Christmas”. I want us to discover the raw, authentic, genuine, real Christmas under three headings – in Bethlehem then, Bethlehem now and Bethlehem here.
1. Christmas in Bethlehem: Then
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1: 9-11)
The Christmas story begins in darkness. Pitch darkness. Darkness comes in various forms.
1.1 There was the Darkness of Occupation
The Roman occupation of Palestine was ruthless and unforgiving. The Israelites were terrorized into submission. They were a defeated nation. Palestine was occupied territory. Travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even on the orders of the occupying power, would be a long and dangerous journey, especially for a pregnant woman. Along all the main roads of Palestine stood crosses on which hung the bodies of those who had resisted the occupation, as a warning to others. There were roadblocks, checkpoints, spies, rebels, bandits. Mary and Joseph would have travelled with others for safety. The darkness of occupation.
1.2 There was the Darkness of Exploitation
The Roman occupation was maintained by ruthless discipline and overwhelming force. The Romans were not prompted by altruism. The conquest led to the exploitation of the conquered. The developments which they fostered in agriculture, in mining, their grand irrigation schemes, their impressive new cities and seaports, aqueducts, roads and fortresses – were prompted by one single, all-consuming goal. To maximize the revenue sucked from their empire. Heavy taxes were laid upon the Israelites. Huge levies on agricultural produce – to feed Rome’s appetite. There was also forced conscription of men to serve as slaves, seaman and soldiers – ruthlessly enforced. The people of Judea paid dearly for their own colonization. Indeed it was the despised Roman taxation system which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem on that first Christmas night. The census declared by Caesar Augustus was intended to identify the value of his assets in Palestine and increase the revenue for his empire. The darkness of occupation led to the darkness of exploitation.
1.3 There was the Darkness of Disillusionment
That is why there was an ever-increasing number who felt that violence, not faith, was the most effective path of resistance. Where was the coming Messiah long promised by the prophets? Hence the rise of the zealots, the resistance movement of freedom fighters. There were the Sicarii (or dagger men), who were determined to liberate Palestine from occupation by violence. They assassinated Jews who collaborated with Rome. On that first Christmas night, the mood in Bethlehem was one of despair, violence and resignation. There was darkness.
The darkness of occupation, exploitation and disillusionment. That was Christmas in Bethlehem: Then what of Bethlehem: Now?
2. Christmas in Bethlehem: Now
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…” (John 1:5)
I wish we could visit Bethlehem tonight and enter the Church of the Nativity where we believe the Lord Jesus was born. As a substitute, I invite you to visit St James’s Church, Piccadilly during the 12 days of Christmas to experience Bethlehem Unwrapped. You won’t find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger but you will be able to see an 8 meter high wall running through the church yard to represent the Separation Wall that now surrounds Bethlehem, turning it into a ghetto prison. It sounds crass to say it but if Mary and Joseph had travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem tonight they would not have got past the checkpoints, roadblocks and barrier that forbids Israeli citizens from entering Bethlehem, or Palestinians to leave.
Bethlehem Unwrapped goes behind the romanticised Christmas card images of the ancient city to show what life is like for people in Bethlehem today. The festival celebrates the culture and stories of those living behind the wall and their work for peace. Hope, humour and humanity are reflected throughout the programme, which brings together renowned musician and composer Nigel Kennedy, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, singer Reem Kelani, and comedians Mark Steel and Jeremy Hardy. And if you wish, you can watch the celebrations from Bethlehem live streaming to your computers and smart phones. Christmas in Bethlehem then. Christmas in Bethlehem now.
3. What about Christmas in Bethlehem: Here?
How are we to celebrate Christmas here? Now? Tonight? How, in the darkness that is just as pervasive today as it was that first Christmas? We may not suffer the darkness of occupation or exploitation. But there is around us the darkness of spiritual ignorance. There is the darkness of moral blindness. There is the darkness of malevolent evil. The darkness is real. But because of Christmas, it will never get so dark that we can’t see the light.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…” (John 1:5)
Into the darkness, God sent an eternal light. As you walk home this evening, notice that the darkness does not intrude upon the light. No, it is the light that intrudes scattering the darkness. Light is always stronger than darkness.
And the forces of light are stronger than the forces of darkness. Tonight we have faced “The Dark Side of Christmas” in Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now. I said I wanted us to discover the raw, authentic, genuine, real, true message of Christmas. That’s what we find in John 1:11-14.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:11-14)
The coming of the light of Christ divides people, as it cuts into the darkness. We learn that
3.1 Some will Reject the Light of Christ – and they face the judgment of God
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)
Does this verse burden you? The presence of evil, of oppression and injustice in our world, won’t end tonight, however much we pray for peace on earth. Why? Because,
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)
Until Christ returns, our calling is to bring light into those parts of our world consumed with darkness. Our message to those who reject Jesus, and cause darkness, in love, must therefore be one of warning. Repent because judgment awaits.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned. Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18).
Some will reject the light of Christ.
3.2 Some will Receive the Living Christ – and become children of God
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Does this verse assure you? Do you know that you are a child of God? God is your father, heaven is your home?
If not, then be sure tonight. The Son of God was born this night so that you might be born a child of God tonight. Repent of your sin, and receive him as your Lord and Saviour and have the assurance that you are a child of God. If you are not sure what that means, then join our Christianity Explored course starting in January.
Some will reject the Light of Christ and face the judgment of God. Some will receive the Living Christ and become children of God.
3.3 Some will Rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ – and proclaim the glory of God
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Does this verse excite you? If you are a Christ follower, it will. This night of all nights we will sing of the glory of God. The light shines in the darkness. The light divides the darkness. The light dispels the darkness.
Are you rejecting the light of Christ?
Have you received the living Christ?
Are you rejoicing in the Lord Jesus Christ?
If so, we need not fear the darkness. We will not be discouraged by the darkness any more than our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem tonight. Because in Jesus Christ, we have found a life that overcomes death, a love that conquers hate, the truth that prevails over falsehood, and light, light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never, and will never overcome it. And the people said. Amen. Lets pray.
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