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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas 2016: A Call to Believe


Having begun with Luke's account of the birth of our Lord, I begin my message this Christmas with an article from The Times this past Thursday under the headline:

Election surprises, conflict, a refugee crisis and terrorism: the past 18 months seem to have had it all — and this appears significantly to have dented the public’s faith in a god.
A YouGov poll for The Times has found a four-point decline in the proportion of people who say that they believe in God, from 32 per cent in February last year to 28 per cent today.
Those saying that they actively do not believe in any god or higher spiritual power has gone up five points, from 33 to 38 per cent.
The proportion who believe that there is no god but might be some kind of spiritual power has remained static on 20 per cent, while 14 per cent do not know.
Britons’ faith in God has been in decline for decades. Using a different question, the British Attitudes Survey found that 50 per cent believed in a god in 1991. This had fallen to 35 per cent by 2008, close to a 1 per cent downward trend a year. Today’s YouGov poll suggests a much bigger fall since last year.
The 2015 survey showed that 25 per cent of people declared themselves to have “no religion”, up from 15 per cent in 2011.
The decline in faith tallies with the fall in Church of England congregations, which have dwindled by 14 per cent over the past decade.

This article highlights what many of us know already: Believing in God is difficult.

At the very core of the message of Christianity, lies the story of a child who, at the start of His life is miraculously conceived and at the end of His life is miraculously raised from the grave. History proves that both these claims are very hard to believe and, certainly more recently, there have been those even in the church who sometimes suggest that one mustn’t take these things too literally, as an article from the Telegraph makes clear: A third of Church of England clergy doubt or disbelieve in the physical Resurrection and only half are convinced of the truth of the Virgin birth, according to a new survey (London Telegraph)

Let me make it quite clear that this preacher is not one of those and MWC’s Elders would not sustain me in my position as LE if I were … I say all this to highlight the fact that the Christmas story is hard to believe; as is the story of Easter. The Easter story at least contains many elements we can identify with because we see them in the world today, in the news this past week, month, year: violence, inhumanity, betrayal, mob rule, rulers playing to the crowd, torture etc.

But the Christmas story, while set against a background of a foreign ruler and an oppressive tax structure which many in the EU can perhaps identify with, … has as its main setting a place of mystery and wonder, far removed from the ordinary world in which we live. Angels populate the skies and may appear at any time to shepherds in the fields. All is well in that tranquil rural setting. Far from the problems of the world, the mother and father hover over their firstborn child lying in a manger believing and celebrating that He is the Messiah, the Savior for all the earth. The Christmas scene often seems to be little more than a fairy tale, especially if all you know of the story is what you see on Christmas cards, a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the “real” world we face each day.

But this “first story” is essential to the message of the gospel … and we must not be ashamed of that.
You see, the first miracle in the New Testament is not the story of something Jesus did. It describes the act of God. In the birth story, as in the death story on the Cross, Jesus is passive and God is the actor. This is the nature of the Gospel as such. It is not the story of amazing things done by Jesus, but of what God has done for humanity in the event of Jesus Christ … and I would call you to believe, I would call you to faith in this event … Jesus, coming into the world then, wanting to come into your world … now.

The birth of Jesus is important as a human birth, and not just as a miracle. By picturing Jesus as a baby and a child who is passive and vulnerable, as he will be again in the story of the Cross, the story begins and ends with the fragile human life of Jesus surrounded by God, who is the hidden actor throughout. In the same way, your life (like mine), from beginning to end, is surrounded by God, who is the hidden actor until we get eyes that see things as they really are; and ears that hear the one voice really worth listening to and obeying. We’re not born with these eyes and ears … to get these we have to be, in the words of Jesus: “Born -again” … and this is a birth that is a choice we make, unlike our first birth over which we had no say. And the choice is to embrace this “unbelievable” story … something we can only do by faith, trusting that this God will do in us and for us everything He promises. Now, there are many promises, but the one that sums them all UP is Jesus saying: I have come to offer you salvation, here and now, so that you may have life and have it to the full … full, abundant life for you, here and Now. Full and abundant life here in Norwich, full and abundant life in Aleppo, or wherever 2017’s disasters will play out … full, abundant life.  That’s the wonderful thing about the authentic Christian life … you discover soon enough if it is for real  … does this salvation bring me the full and abundant life that Jesus promises … in the midst of my good times and in the midst of my most horrible times.

 I beg you to give living by faith a try … or, in the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” … why don’t you take a bite this Christmas … you’ll soon see if He really is as good as many of us say He is.

Now sometimes we leave it there, but not today; because while the choice for Christ may seem easy, be warned … the consequences aren’t, because His way of doing life is very different from ours. We so often want to be in control of our lives or to take back control, as if that is a virtue, but He says: “You’ve got to completely surrender control of your life to me … if you lose your life to me you will see that you actually find life… but don’t come to me if you want to keep control.”

We so often want our enemies destroyed or banished … Lord, build a wall between me and those who aren’t like me … or, build a wall between me and my disease … build a wall between me and pain and suffering, between me and hardship … just build walls around me and protect me from all these things, Lord. But He says: “I don’t do walls and barriers, in fact I break all walls and barriers down and instead I use all these things for the good and will give you grace and strength when you need it because my grace is sufficient for you.” Well, whatever Lord, just make me strong! “Well, actually, you’re more useful to me when you’re weak, because then my strength shines through you.”
Lord, at least destroy my human enemies: “No, I actually want you to love them … and I’ll give you the power to do just that, but only if you want to obey me in this. But I won’t destroy them because ,,, how will you then love them?”

Lord, at least take away all my temptations so that I will not sin. “No … but I’ll give you the Holy Spirit and in His power you’ll find strength to resist temptation, but again, only if you really want to resist temptation. I will however, forgive your sins and take away your guilt.”

Why have I mentioned all these things which might actually put you off making that all important choice for Jesus that I asked you to consider earlier? Mainly because Jesus says we must count the cost before we decide to follow Him as disciples, so that we don’t give up when the going gets tough. So, I’ve mentioned some of the cost for that reason, but also to assure you, as many would here, that despite the cost, you will never regret the choice to live by faith.

It is hard to believe, those of us who believe know that … but it is worth believing.

To believers I say: Be strengthened in your belief and continue deeper into the life of faith … the Holy Spirit will tell you what that means in your life right now.

To those who don’t believe I say: Consider belief this Christmas and see where it leads. You’ll discover quickly enough if I … we … are just trying to fool you. Consider belief.

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