Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Text: Luke 2:11
"… a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."

The hope of the world

Sometime in the late 1940s a newly commissioned submarine, the last of its type manufactured to run on turbines in the US fleet sank in the North Atlantic. With ample rescue and salvage equipment everyone expected the crew to be saved. That judgement was wrong. As the hours dragged on the power for the internal equipment of the submarine was exhausted. The last recorded message from the doomed men on the submarine was this forlorn question, "Is there any hope?"

There is a saying that goes: "Where there is life there is hope!" That saying describes the human spirit up to a point. Hope does die hard, but it does die. A time comes when people reach the end of their rope. They are backed into a corner from which they cannot escape and hope evaporates. That reality is a common experience. We visit a person after serious surgery; see the mass of tubes and machines that are keeping the person alive. We witness how weak the person is and we fearfully ask the doctor: "Is there any hope?"

Tomorrow, 28th December, the church has traditionally recalled another hopeless situation. The Festival of the Innocents focuses on Matthew’s account of the killing of the children of Bethlehem. This festival bears witness to the sobering truth that the birth of Jesus is followed by death and destruction, weeping and wailing, suffering and evil of the most dreadful sort. Matthew tells us that when Herod learned from the wise men that a king had been born in Bethlehem, he was extremely upset. He ordered all boys under two years of age in Bethlehem to be killed. In that way he would eliminate any rival to his throne.

Let’s be clear: the Christmas story is no fairy tale. There is nothing rosy here; there is no swell of orchestral music, no golden hues in a fading sunset as the story of the first Christmas closes with the birth of Jesus and the joy that fills everyone who visits the stable.
Instead of tears of joy in our eyes there are tears of profound sorrow.
Instead of gentle soothing music playing in the background the air is pierced with loud screams and wailing. In such a short time, the joy of the angels is replaced by the howling of grief stricken parents as they hold the lifeless bodies of their sons in their arms.

What did the little baby boys in Bethlehem do to deserve such cruelty and such a brutal end to their lives that had barely begun? The answer is simple - nothing. They were innocent victims of a jealous king who should have been protecting them rather than taking their lives.

It saddens us when the innocent suffer. It’s like that when any child’s life is suddenly brought to a close. We hear of a tragic accident or some carelessness that caused the death of a child and we shake our heads at such a waste of life and the loss of so much potential. We grieve with the parents and siblings. Here in Matthew’s gospel we hear of the death of every boy child below the age of two in a small village and again we are saddened by this unnecessary loss of young lives.

They were killed for no other reason than this: they were the same age and gender as Jesus. Baby boys, that's all that mattered as far as Herod was concerned. Any one of them could have been "this one who was born King of the Jews" whom the wise men from the east were seeking. In Herod's mind there was only one way to get rid of any new born king; the boys of Bethlehem had to die. To the king these young lives counted for nothing.

You can imagine the grief in Bethlehem that day as parents and brothers and sisters wailed over the unexplained death of the young baby boys. You can imagine the hopelessness of mothers as soldiers slew their babies right before their eyes.

This is an unpleasant event but an important part of the Christmas story. The place where Jesus was born would become the scene of one the most unjust crimes in its history. The place where Jesus was born was not a holy, sin free, sanitised place. It is very much part of this sinful world. This story reminds us that Jesus was born into a cruel world where pain and suffering and sin dominate the lives of everyone. The families in Bethlehem had no hope against the brutality of Herod’s soldiers and we are reminded of every other person in our world today who faces hopeless and insurmountable circumstances.

The answer to all this hopelessness is the God who became flesh and came down to live amongst all the sin and hurt of our world. The answer to our plight is his gift of that little child born in Bethlehem, that gracious healer of broken lives and wounded spirits, that dying man on a cross, that victorious Lord on Easter morning - the friend we know as Jesus.

He is Emmanuel - God with us. In him we have hope. Indeed for centuries Christians have been proclaiming Christ as the hope for the world. The angel said it first to the shepherds out in the fields of Bethlehem, "Do not be afraid" … "a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." The angel's message has given all people a sure and certain hope that God has intervened in our hopeless situations and given comfort and joy.

Jesus is our hope. What do we mean by that?

Over the centuries people have enlarged their knowledge of the world, of the universe and about themselves - many times over. But from the dawn of civilisation to this hour, no human has ever been able to offer the same kind of hope as Jesus. Psychiatric help, marriage, family and vocational counselling can help people understand themselves and others better. They can help sort out emotions and to face reality and overcome some of the despair in their lives. Medical science can cut away cancers, replace organs, and assist in conception. All these give a certain kind of hope for the future but it has its limits.

But there is no science that can free us from our inner selfishness, envy, greed, pride, and lust. There is no science that can free us from death and the fear and the pain and the grief that it brings into our lives.

There is one hope for us, and that is the hope that is promised by the angel at Christmas. "...a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord". This baby in the manger was sent to deal with the real problem that causes all of our troubles and strife - sin. He was sent to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven. That is where our hope rests in all of our difficulties. Jesus is our real hope in the true sense because it is only through him that we can be declared forgiven, free of guilt for our loveless and selfish behaviour that would condemn us. We have the certain hope that we shall live in heaven forever.

That's why we celebrate Christmas. We sing the hymns and carols that tell about the salvation the Lord has provided for the world and for you and me. As our lives unfold there is plenty of reason for despair and hopelessness.

Look at those affected by poverty, war, civil unrest, famine.
See those who have been affected by crime, accidents, and violence.
Look at those personal situations where sickness and tragedy and death have affected people and brought hopelessness and despair.
The joy and the hope that the message of the angel to the shepherds offers is as relevant as ever, "...a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." The Saviour of Bethlehem has come to bring hope to us all in the midst of our despair.

Hope for the Christian is not to be thought of as an uncertain feeling of longing, as when we say that we hope that it will be a fine day tomorrow. Christian hope is glad confidence in Christ. We are certain that we have been forgiven and that we belong to Christ. Even though we don't have control over all the events of our lives, and we don't know what will happen in the future, there is no need to be anxious and upset, because we are the Lord's and we trust him completely.

We have confident hope for the future. Nothing can take this hope from us. Not even our own death. The early Christians and many others since have faced some terrible persecutors and many have lost their lives, but even in death they still held to this Christmas hope. They have a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. He has saved us and claimed us for eternity.

Jesus, the hope of all humanity, has come to us this Christmas again. As we have heard again the story of how God came to earth, we have been challenged to trust in Jesus as our Saviour and to be filled with the hope that the Christmas message gives in spite of the tensions and the despair in our lives.

In the face of strife and trouble Jesus gives us hope and it follows then that we become messengers of hope to those around us. He uses us to change the despair in people’s lives into hopefulness.

To be sure, we have to work out the details of how to best help people in each situation, but when our attitude, expectations and daily concerns are shaped by Christ in our lives, we are motivated and equipped to be the hope of Christ to those around us. Don't underestimate the influence of one dedicated Christian as he/she encourages and builds up those who are despairing. In fact, all of us at some time look to others for comfort and support and what a blessing it is to find that person who listens, points us to the promises of Jesus, prays with us and replaces despair with hope. Christ brings about miraculous changes in the lives of people who could easily give up in despair.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world; he is the Saviour born to us in Bethlehem.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th December 2009

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