Christmas Carol Service 2007 “His Dark Materials” (Luke 2:1-20)
When 12-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua
clambers into a wardrobe to steal a cloak, she doesn't find the land of Narnia
on the other side. But she does begin a fantastical journey that puts her
face-to-face with flying witches and talking polar bears. She learns that her
uncle, a scientist named Lord Asriel, has discovered Dust, a substance he
believes originates in parallel worlds. And she falls headfirst into a skirmish
between him and an iron-fisted, church-like organization known as the
Magisterium. Along the way, she is given a truth-telling device known as an alethio-meter
and told to keep it secret.
She begins to hear unsettling rumours of children disappearing.
And she's whisked into the custody of a glamorous but ruthless agent of the Magisterium named Mrs. Coulter. The Magisterium, it turns out, believes Dust incites people to rebel against its control. So they spearhead experiments on children, ostensibly to "preserve" their "innocence". They separate children from their dæmons, animal spirits that physically embody each person's soul, accompany them throughout life—and serve as conduits for Dust. Lyra's flight from Mrs. Coulter's clutches lands her in the protective care of a gypsy-like people known as the gyptians. Together they trek to the frozen north country to liberate the kidnapped children from the Gobblers and the Magisterium. They're joined by massive armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison, an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby and the powerful witch queen Serafina. Without giving more away, that is the story line of the Golden Compass.
The $150 million film adaptation of the first volume of Philip Pullman’s best-selling fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials”. The most popular film this Christmas, comparisons with C.S. Lewis, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and with J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings are natural. The visual imagery is similarly impressive and landscapes are quite stunning. But the contrast with Lewis and Tolkein could not be greater. And Pullman takes us much, much further even than J.K. Rowling’s supernatural world of Harry Potter, where at least the line between good and evil are still clear.
In Pullman’s transcendent spiritual world, demons and witches are good, God is evil and the church is bad. This is perhaps not surprising. Pullman has described the Narnia books as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” In a Daily Telegraph article entitled “The Devil in Philip Pullman” he says “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”  “My books are about killing God… if there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.” “Will and Lyra, his two child protagonists from Oxford, are the new Adam and Eve who are drawn into an adventure to depose the creator of Earth and the wicked Church.”
The Chief Executive of the Association of Christian Teachers, Rupert Kaye, points out that the fictional deity in Pullman's novels, is given biblical titles including 'Almighty', 'Ancient of Days', 'Father' and 'Yahweh', but is "malevolent, deceitful and powerless". Kaye says: "My key concern is that many young people (and adults) who read Pullman's trilogy will be left with an extremely distorted understanding of what Christians actually believe or what the Bible really says about God."
Chris Weitz, the film's director, claims on MTV’s movies blog that the novel's religious themes have been toned down in the first film in order to safeguard box office takings and ensure that money is available to make the second and third instalment. But, he says:
"One tries to be clever about it. I realized that the overt stating of some of the themes in ... The Golden Compass would never—this is important to make clear—never ever get across the goal line. There isn't a wide enough audience for that—yet. If I wanted to popularize this series of extraordinary books and open them to a wider reading public than ever before, I was going to have to make some compromises."
"Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can't be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books... "I will not be involved with any 'watering down' of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films." But even watered down, The Golden Compass is still awash in a twisted worldview and dark spirituality. Pullman’s ultimate aim is “the creation of a "Republic of Heaven" that has no need for a King.” In this Pullman is not being very original. His aim goes way back to the Fall of Lucifer, and it is the very reason we are here tonight. Pullman's dismissal of Christianity skips over one little detail – he ignores one person: Jesus. Pullman's books never make any attempt to explore or refute the claims and ministry and person of Jesus Christ. And that is why we are here - to celebrate the birth of the king who came to defeat the demons as well as those who have corrupted his church and abused his power.
Should we be afraid of the “His Dark Materials”? Afraid – no. Discerning – yes. If Pullman has presented a distorted picture of God and the Church, where did those misunderstandings and distortions begin? His grandfather was an Anglican clergyman in Norfolk where he often went to Sunday School. His own father died in a plane crash when he was seven years old. I don’t know if these things had anything to do with his view of God. Many men who were abandoned by their father, or who were orphaned when young, do struggle with the idea of a loving, caring benevolent God. This does not excuse what Pullman has written but it might help explain it. It could be that Pullman has never been presented with the good news of Jesus Christ, revealed in the Bible, in a way that made sense or touched his soul. The Bible – the real Golden Compass – which always tells the truth and does indeed foretell the future, reveals Jesus Christ, as our deliverer, our mediator, our saviour and our friend.
I want to draw out three words from our reading in Luke 2 that I hope will answer your search for hope and meaning. Three words that explain why films like the Golden Compass are so appealing yet so unsatisfying. Three words that point to truths that have transformed the hearts, the minds and wills of countless millions of people throughout the world. May they transform your life also tonight.
1. Christmas is historical: It really
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:1-7)
Many people think of Jesus in the same category as Santa, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and the flying snowman. We’ve known the story of his birth in the manger since childhood. We may have believed in it then, but now we’ve grown up and reached the adult world of harsh reality. Don’t we have to face facts and accept that, just as Father Christmas doesn’t really live in Lapland, so Jesus wasn’t really born in a manger in Bethlehem? No.
The Bible insists that Jesus is not just a mythical character; he really existed. The best way to find out more about him is to read one of the gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. They were all written within decades of the events they describe by eyewitnesses who took great care to record accurate history. Luke, for example, takes great care to name the various rulers who controlled Palestine when Jesus was born, so that the time and place could be verified. The New Testament is not a myth or fantasy; it’s history. Jesus really was born in a stable in Bethlehem. He then grew up to become the most remarkable man the world has ever seen. One writer has put it well:
‘All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of mankind upon earth as has this one solitary life.’
There has never been anyone else like Jesus. He lived a life of astonishing humility, kindness and compassion. He loved everyone: rich and poor, male and female. He taught as no one else has ever taught. Although he was an unschooled carpenter from an obscure village, his words still captivate the minds of millions 2,000 years later. And he performed extraordinary miracles, which even his enemies couldn’t deny. He just said the word and the blind saw, the lame walked and the dead were raised. But, despite all the good he did, the religious establishment felt threatened by him and persuaded the Roman authorities to have him crucified.
If that was where the story ended, his brief life would have been largely forgotten by now, but he didn’t stay in the tomb. God raised him from the dead and he appeared to many people. This was no ordinary man. Heis not a mythical or fictional character. Christmas is historical – Christmas appeals to the mind: it really happened!
2. Christmas is joyful: God really
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people… 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-10, 13-14)
Christmas is not only historical; it’s also joyful. An angel, who had been sent by God, announced the birth of Jesus to some shepherds saying:
‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’. But what is the joyful message of Christmas? Christmas is a natural time for us to look back on the year that has passed. Perhaps it has been a difficult one for you and God has felt a million miles away. You may be able to identify with the words of Sting’s song, ‘O my God’:
Everyone I know is lonely
And God’s so far away
And my heart belongs to no one,
So now sometimes I pray
Please take the space between us
And fill it up some way.
The good news is that God did exactly that on the first Christmas Day: he filled up the space between him and us. We still may not understand why there is so much suffering in the world, but at least we can be sure that God is not indifferent to it. He didn’t simply send his condolences by long-distance telephone call; he got involved by sending his own Son to be born on earth. That is why the angelic choir sung with great joy. That is why some of our Christmas carols contain some of the most beautiful words and music ever written.
Christmas appeals to the mind: it is historical – it really happened. Christmas appeals to the heart: it is joyful – God really cares.
3. Christmas is essential: it really
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:15-20)
Jesus didn’t simply come to earth to
demonstrate God’s love; he came to achieve our rescue. When the shepherds heard
the message of the angels they obeyed – they went to see. Having found their
saviour, they could not stop telling others the good news.
The apostle Paul, one of the greatest early Christian leaders, tells us: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.
Even though we may disagree with Pullman’s explanation for the world’s ills in the Golden Compass, his description of evil is accurate. Children do suffer. Some do disappear. Adults can be manipulative and cruel. Human greed and selfishness spoil life on earth. They do lead to the oppression, the injustice and suffering which blight our world. They will not be eradicated by education, politics or scientific reengineering. And the impact is also seen closer to home. Why else is Christmas one of the most stressful times of the year? Even in this ‘season of good will’, why do many find it difficult if not impossible to live with those they love most. Like the Dust in the Golden Compass, sin isn’t just a problem for other people; it infects us all and destroys the perfect world God made. The problem is spiritual and the answer supernatural. A just God who cares about truth and error, right and wrong can’t just ignore our sin; he must punish it. The punishment we all deserve is eternal separation from him. In his justice God must punish, but in his great love he longs to forgive us.
That’s why he sent Jesus to earth on the first Christmas Day: to rescue us so that we could be his friends again. Jesus lived a perfect life. He was the one man who ever lived who did not deserve to face the punishment of death and separation from God. But he willingly obeyed his heavenly Father, and died in our place. And he rose again to enable us to share his eternal life. One day he will return to take us to be with him. We can look forward to joining him in the perfect new creation he will establish.
Christmas appeals to the mind – it is historical: it really happened. Christmas appeals to the heart – it is joyful: God really cares. Christmas appeals to the will – it is essential: it really matters.
Even if you remain unconvinced, it is surely worth finding out more about him. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
the bookstall are copies of Lee Strobel’s little book, The Case for Christmas.
At £1.50 it is probably the least expensive but more important Christmas
present you can buy yourself.
And on Thursday 17th January, we have a supper entitled Christianity Explored. It is for those who wish to think for themselves and investigate the Christian faith in more detail rather than accept the caricature in Pullman’s novels. But it may be that your questions have already been answered. All that is needed is for you to make a decision to trust Jesus for forgiveness and begin to live for him as your Lord. That won’t be easy, but you won’t be alone.
Jesus Christ will come to indwell your soul by his Spirit to help you grow into the person God intended – to know him and serve him, freely, willingly and joyfully. If you want to receive Christ and begin to follow him, you could use these words as your prayer to God this Christmas. If you pray them, do tell someone else so that you can receive the help you need as you start your new life with God.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for your great love in sending your Son Jesus to be born on earth that first Christmas. I confess that I have turned away from you and deserve your condemnation. I now trust in Jesus and his death on the cross as the only way by which I can be right with you. Please give me your Holy Spirit and strengthen me to serve you to the very end of my life, and then take me to live in your new creation forever. In Jesus name. Amen.
 “A Director confronts some dark material” Devin Gordon, Newsweek, 3 December 2007, p. 65
 Adapted with thanks from a little booklet by Vaughan Roberts, Christmas in Three Words (Good Book Company) http://www.e-n.org.uk/p-4050-Christmas-in-three-words.htm