Welcome to the Church
Hymn: O come all ye faithful
Call to worship and welcome
In the name of the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, I welcome you to Carlingford Uniting Church, to hear the message of the angels, and remember the birth of our savior in a stable in Bethlehem.
A happy Christmas to you all.
Friends, this is Christ’s birthday. As we celebrate it with him, and with all his people everywhere, we hope that we may share in bringing his light into the lives of those around us.
Over the four Sundays of advent, we have lit the four advent candles, the candles of hope, peace, joy and love. And today, bringing all those things, we light the Christ Candle.
Prayers of adoration and confession
Let us pray,
Almighty God the Father,
Creator and sustainer of all things,
gracious Lord of all,
whose love and glory and power know no bounds:
we worship and adore you.
Lord Jesus Christ the Son,
eternal Word of God,
made incarnate in a stable in Bethlehem
who died at Calvary and rose again
who ascended to glory,
and whose mercy never ends:
we worship and adore you.
Most good and loving Spirit,
source of power and life,
whose goodness lasts for ever:
we worship and adore you.
Loving God, you offer us new life
in the baby at Bethlehem,
but we confess that we have so often made something trivial,
something sentimental, out of Christmas.
Your light comes into the world,
but we see only the pretty lights on trees.
You shine in the darkness,
but we turn away from you, to the darkness of our world,
Forgive us, God:
strengthen us with the hope
that will not be packed away with the Christmas ornaments;
And we ask you that each and every one of our lives
reflect the love you have shown for us in your son,
so that we may give you praise and glory now,
God sent the Son into the world,
not to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned. (John 3:17-18)
Hear Christ’s word of grace to us:
‘Your sins are forgiven’.
Thanks be to God.
And in that good news, we rejoice with God’s people across the world and throughout the ages!
Hymn: Good Christians friends, rejoice
Bible readings: Luke 2:11-20, John 1:1-14
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
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.”
15 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.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 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.
Sermon: A Christmas to remember
This Christmas is not like any we remember – we nearly got back to something approaching normal, but just over a week ago things started to fall apart again. Just last Sunday we were able to sing together… but alas, not today. Many family reunions planned for Christmas didn’t happen – and others only happened because of a last minute dash across borders.
While Christmas 2020 is not like any we remember, I think it’s pretty certain that we will remember it. The Covid Christmas – and hopefully it will be the only Covid Christmas we remember.
2020 is going to be remembered as a tough Christmas by many. 2020 is going to be remembered as a tough year.
My first Christmas was 1968, and it turns out that 1968 was a tough year, too – not the same way as 2020 has been tough, but tough nonetheless.
In April 68, Martin Luther King Junior had been assassinated. In June, presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was still raging. Hundreds were arrested in anti-war protests in Australia. The cold war was still simmering.
Before that, though, back in 1961, President John F Kennedy had made a speech which gave the US a bold national goal – that the “nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” The space race against the Russians was in full flight, but by the end of 1968, NASA wasn’t ready for a moon landing – they didn’t even have a moon lander yet, and there wasn’t much of the decade left.
But they did have the Saturn V rocket, and they did have the Apollo command module, so they decided to test what they had at the end of 1968 – to literally go where no man had gone before.
And so they launched Apollo 8. The crew of three astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders.
Apollo 8 took three days to travel to the moon. They spent a day orbiting the moon, and then they travelled three days back to earth, before splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
At the end of 1968, Apollo 8 was the biggest news there was.
The three astronauts had travelled further than any else had ever travelled, and they’d travelled faster than anyone else had ever travelled. They were the first people to be under the influence of gravity from a body other than earth, and the first to directly see the far side of the moon. They were the first to see the earth rising and they even made a live television broadcast from lunar orbit.
The picture was obvious – the astronauts just held the camera to the window, and millions of people on earth could see the moonscape rolling below. At the time, it was the most watched television broadcast in history – it was Christmas Eve in the US, and about 1pm Sydney time. The picture was the moon, but the commentary was up to the astronauts – there was no script and no direction from Houston.
The three astronauts had discussed what to say during this historic broadcast among themselves, and when the pictures came on, with millions and millions watching, the astronauts began speaking:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” (Genesis 1:1-4a, KJV). And so on
And taking turns to read, they read through the first ten verses of Genesis.
What a profound thing. They could have said “We beat the Russians to the moon” or “all the way with USA” or something. But they chose “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
When they returned to earth, the crew were hailed as heroes. The astronauts were jointly named Time Magazine’s Men of the Year.
Telegrams and letters of congratulations poured in to NASA. And amongst these was a telegram from a woman in Texas which said simply:
“Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968”. After all the bad news of the year, the war, the protests, the riots, the assassinations, there was this good news, this success, this hope – the moon landing was no longer a dream, now it was just the next step.
“Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968” – there was light at the end of a dark decade.
Of course, there were more dark times to come. And there will yet be more dark times to come.
But there is hope.
Around 2700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
And that light would shine 700 years later, first in a stable in Bethlehem. As we heard from John’s gospel: “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5).
And, like Apollo 8, John shared good news, he tells us of a light shining in the darkness, and brings us a message of hope.
Like the Apollo 8 astronauts would do more than 2000 years later, John gives people living in dark times hope that things will get better. He tells us that John the Baptist was sent by God to be a witness and to testify to the light that was to come… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
But we also read that “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (1:11-12)
At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, and we see nativity scenes showing the holy family, the shepherds and the wise men bathing in the glow of heavenly light… but the reality of a baby born in a stable in first century Judea might not have been quite so idyllic. And of course, things soon darkened for Jesus: Herod set out to kill him and the family fled to Egypt. And when Jesus returned and began his ministry, he was rejected by his own people as we heard a few weeks ago – they even tried to throw him off a cliff! And we know that he mourned the death of his cousin John and wept at the news of the death of his friend Lazarus. And we know from the Easter story, that Jesus was conspired against, betrayed, rejected, denied, humiliated, beaten and crucified. Jesus has been to the dark places.
But the darkness couldn’t overcome him. And he rose again.
And the light of Jesus still shines for us in the dark places of our lives. We only have to turn to him in response.
John’s gospel reassures us that the light shines in the dark, and the darkness has never overcome it. (1:5)
The sad fact is that not everyone has recognised Jesus, and for two thousand years many have chosen to turn away from the peace he came to bring. But some did accept him and John writes “12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
The offer, to become one of God’s children is still there for each of us. To put our trust in him and become God’s children. No matter where we are. No matter what our background. No matter if we have rejected that offer before, or have drifted away…
For our society though, and often in our own lives, it’s easy to push God to the side. To ignore God. Because we all like to look after ourselves – and those close to us. We like to solve problems for ourselves, and we tend to think others should solve problems for themselves, too. When it gets down to it, we’re selfish. And thousands of years of history shows us that selfishness and self-interest don’t work. We can’t solve all the problems of the world for ourselves. People always find things to fight over, or want what they can’t have - or take what they shouldn’t have and so on.
The only solution is to turn to God. To receive Jesus. It is only God who, through Jesus, created the world, that through Jesus, can solve the problems of the world.
The final verse of our reading from John gives us the essence of the Christmas story: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Christmas is so often a time for remembering. The events of our own lives, the joyous first Christmas with your spouse or newborn child, or the first time the next generation took over preparing the meal.
And Christmas is a time for remembering events of the world too – from the destruction of Darwin in 1974 or back to the Christmas Truce of 1914, when soldiers from both sides on the Western Front entered no-man’s land between the trenches, mingled, exchanged souvenirs and food, played football and sang Christmas carols. And no doubt, in future years, we’ll be remembering the Covid Christmas of 2020 as well.
More than fifty years ago, three men left the earth for a week to circle the moon, and arrived back on earth bringing with them hope, and light for dark times – and saving 1968, as that telegram put it.
But the most important Christmas to remember is that first Christmas in Bethlehem – when God’s only son arrived on earth, as John says “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” He brought with him hope: hope for dark times – not just those dark times, but all dark times - the hope of peace – everlasting peace. And when Jesus arrived, he saved not only 1968, but every year before and since, and every year to come.
This Christmas is a strange one… there haven’t been so many parties and gatherings, and there are many people not only in Sydney but across the world who are in isolation. As I’ve often said, Covid has made everything harder – and Christmas has been harder this year – travel has been harder (if not impossible), planning has been harder, shopping has been harder. In a practical sense, Christmas can be anything but peaceful.
And we can look across the world and see it is so often anything but peaceful. We have conflicts across the world. The threat of terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.
People try to solve these problems - and we should try – and we often think that through effort and hard work and goodwill, the world can be put right. It’s a noble idea, but it’s something that I think history teaches us is not possible.
There have always been things to fight about, there has always been misfortune, there has always been suffering.
And people will always find things to fight about, there will always be misfortune, and there will always be suffering. And I think the ultimate cause of all those problems is that we – all people – have turned away from God – turned away from loving God and turned away from loving our neighbours as ourselves.
And although we can’t solve all the problems ourselves, because of what God has done for us, because of that first Christmas in Bethlehem, we don’t need to. Because ultimately, God will solve all those problems.
That’s the heart of the Christmas message: Peace on earth. Immanuel. God with us.
We hear the message every year, and we can get so used to it that we can become complacent – or distracted by the all the other things of Christmas, but it’s wonderful to be able to gather with Christians here and elsewhere and hear again, or maybe hear anew, the message of God’s love to us in Jesus.
… the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
In Jesus, this child born in a stable in Bethlehem, to us, to us all, a hope is given.
Hymn: O little town of Bethlehem
Prayers of Intercession
You give all good gifts,
you inspire all good works.
However we make our offering to you,
we pray that you will empower the use of our money, our time and our energy, to your glory.
In all things, may your will be done;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
2020 has been a tough year. And this Christmas will be particularly hard for many.
But the prophet Isaiah tells us “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
May you know that peace this Christmas, may you know that peace in your life, may you know that peace always.
May you know the light that shines in the darkness.
And as you go out to Christmas 2020, and whatever it has in store for you, know that you go with the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And have a very merry Christmas.
Hymn: Joy to the world