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.
If you were like me, when you were very young, there were only two really important events in your life. You felt like they could not come soon enough. What were they? The first was… your birthday. The second was… Jesus’ birthday. Both involved presents. Lots of presents. Then when you were old enough to know that Father Christmas was not in the Nativity Play and you were allowed to stay up late, there was a third special day. New Year’s Eve. There were no presents but you still looked forward to the party and seeing in the New Year. For me, Summer holidays were special but never as special as my birthday and Christmas Day. We love to celebrate beginnings. We celebrate new life. Our birthday. Family birthdays. Jesus’ birthday. The birth of a new year. So what is it with the Church? When does the Church year begin? Not Christmas and the birth of our Saviour. Not Easter and the gift of new life. Not even Pentecost and the birth of the Church. The Church year begins with Advent. Continue reading →
During my second year at university I made a decision that impacted the rest of my life. I decided not to return to the Civil Service after graduation. The call to full-time Christian ministry was clear. I was excited to be accepted for training for the Anglican ministry. But there was just one problem. I was terrified of being expected to take funerals. But the Lord was gracious. He removed my fears while at theological college in Bristol. Three months after our first daughter was born, Joanna’s father died suddenly. Then, just a month later, my own father died suddenly. At the age of 29 I became the oldest man in either family. In one month I gained all the experience I needed to be able to empathise with others. And a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians took on special significance.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
And that is the purpose of tonight’s service. And that is one of the reasons we are reading Psalm 90 together. This beautiful psalm speaks to us of the brevity of life in the light of eternity. It was the inspiration for one of the best known hymns by Isaac Watts,
“O God, our help in ages past”. Surprisingly, there is not a hint of despair or complaint, simply humble child-like submission and trust. There are three parts to this little psalm. Each tells us something about God as well as about ourselves.
God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Anger and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)
Thomas Jefferson once asked the rhetorical question:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
In the 18th Century, on both sides of the Atlantic, there would likely have been a consensus that the answer was self-evident – our civic responsibility is but the outworking of our higher responsibilities to God. When the same revolutionary spirit infected the North American Colonies as it had France, it became a more debatable question there also. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which Jefferson helped write, provided one solution – separate church and state. Originally this was intended to protect the church from the state. But since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that religion and government must stay separate for the benefit of both. Not so today. In an increasingly secularized world, most Americans and Europeans believe the Church should keep out of politics.
It is appropriate then to ask the question, what has religion got to do with politics? I suggest a great deal. From a Christian perspective, that we have responsibilities to both God and the state is clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21). The religious leaders had tried to expose Jesus as either a collaborator with or rebel against the Roman Empire. Here is the context:
God has created us with meaning and purpose, with dignity and value – in His image. But for what? – We inhabit a world designed, created, nurtured and sustained by Almighty God, to whom we are accountable for the way we steward His good earth.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idolor swear by a false god.” (Psalm 24:1-4)
Life is a journey, with a beginning and end. We’re all travelers, somewhere on that journey, forever on the move, learning, growing, changing. The disruption caused by Covid-19, the daily news updates of casualties and the attempts to find a vaccine inevitably lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, highs and lows, hopes and fears. Psalm 23 is probably the most widely known and best loved of them all. In part it is because it addresses the strong emotions we often feel at times such as this. There are two parts to Psalm 23:
23:1-3 “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – What I affirm about God. 23:5-6 “You love will follow me” – What I experience of God.
23:4 links the two together. The Lord is my Shepherd because I know Lord you are with me.
We are invariably fascinated when secrets are revealed in the media – except perhaps when they are, our own. Those deeply personal things that matter the most to us – our children, our family, our bodies, our emails, our text messages, our age, our photos, our income, our bank accounts, we keep these private, and in many cases wisely so. The more important, the more personal, the more sensitive the information, the more likely, we will want to keep it private, confidential, or concealed. And many people feel the same way about their religious faith. Its personal. Its private. And it remains concealed.
“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command, Arose from out the azure main, This was the charter of the land, And guardian angels sang this strain: Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.
The nations, not so blest as thee, Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free, The dread and envy of them all. Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.
Sung with gusto at the Last Night of the Proms, “Rule Britannia” was a poem composed by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 to commemorate the accession of George II. 
The Psalms have a unique place in scripture. They have been likened to a hymn book. But not just any old hymnbook. Whether we feel like worship or not, as we begin to recite the verses of the psalms, something begins to happen in our hearts. It is as if the saying of the words draws us in to praise. John Piper says, “Thanksgiving with the mouth stirs up thankfulness in the heart.”
I don’t know about you, but I cannot read more than a few verses of Psalm 148 without wanting to sing the beautiful hymn “All Creatures of our God and King”. It was written by William Henry Draper, based on a poem by Francis of Assisi, and set to a tune composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. But as we sing, or say, the words of this psalm, I also confess that I smile at the absurd idea that somehow we human beings can instruct the angels, the sun and moon, the weather, the mountains, the seas, reptiles, birds and animals, to praise God. Why? Because the scriptures tell us this is something which they already do, naturally and instinctively, all the time.