Christmas Carol Service

Sermon: Sunday, 18th December, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone

‘This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: his mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.’ (Matthew 1:18-25)

Why do Christians make such a fuss celebrating Christmas? Why do we want to sing carols, which our flyer describes as ‘songs of joy and a message of hope’? How can the birth of a baby 2000 years ago bring us joy and hope in Fife today? Surely, we all need joy and hope in our lives. To answer these questions, we need to think together about the names given to the baby who was born.

Names often have a special meaning. John means ‘God has been gracious’. Stephen means ‘crown’ and Cameron means ‘crooked nose’. Jennifer means ‘fair one’, Sarah means ‘princess’, and Agnes means ‘holy’. Rodger means ‘famed spear’ and Diane ‘divine or valley’. We’re excited that Geoff and Maddie will have to dust down their book of baby names and choose one for the summer. Mary and Joseph, of course, didn’t get to do that. They were told by God what to name this unique and wonderful baby. In fact, 2 names are mentioned in this passage. Together, these names tell us who Jesus is, and why he came into this world.

1. Who is this special baby?

One of the first names this baby receives is ‘Immanuel’. We’re given the meaning – ‘God with us’. That would be quite a name for a baby to grow into – but not for Jesus. Actually, this name tells us exactly who Jesus is. He is God. And the name ‘Immanuel’ just points us to his identity. This means that the birth in the stable in Bethlehem wasn’t the beginning of Jesus. Jesus has no beginning, because he is God. His birth is the start of Jesus becoming a human being. Entering our world.

There’s so much in the Christmas story which is totally supernatural – beyond scientific explanation. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. There are numerous appearances of angels from Heaven. There’s a special star in the sky marking Jesus’ arrival. There are wise men travelling from the east to see the baby. This is because Jesus’ birth is no ordinarily birth. It is extraordinary. It is a one-off. This was the incredible moment in history when God became like you and me, except without sin.

♫ Once in royal David’s City: ‘He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all; and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall.’

This was a supernatural birth with a supernatural conception: Mary ‘…was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.’ We cannot fully understand this, but we can understand that Mary did not become pregnant in the normal way, but through a mysterious act of God the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? It means that Jesus, who was always God from all eternity, became a real human being. He was born in the natural way from Mary’s womb. He was fully human and fully God.

And this had always been God’s plan. God was not going to leave the world in the mess it had got itself into. Rather, God was going to come down to earth to sort things out his way. 700 years before Jesus was born, one of God’s prophets called Isaiah said, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel which means ‘God with us’. (Isaiah 7:14) So, who is the baby born to Mary and Joseph? He is none other than God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.

2. Why did God enter our world?

The baby’s name tells us why he entered our world. An angel tells Joseph in a dream: ‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21)

This is what lies at the heart of Christmas. You don’t need to know what the names Geoff or Maddie mean. You don’t need to know what Eilidh or Katka means. But you do need to know that Jesus means ‘God saves us from our sins’. Joseph must have been amazed and relieved to have an angel explaining what was going on. After all, Mary had become pregnant and Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, so naturally assumed that Mary had cheated on him. But she hadn’t. The angel explains the true meaning of Christmas. This is the supernatural birth of God becoming a real human being. And why does God do that? So that he can save people in this broken and needy world from their sins. That must have taken a long time to sink in for Joseph. The sick feeling in his stomach went away. Mary hadn’t cheated after all! Joseph must have been bursting with joy and wonder and amazement.

Let’s recap. Who is this special baby born in Bethlehem? He is Immanuel = God with us. Why did he leave Heaven and come to earth in this amazing way? His name tells us. Jesus – the long-promised Saviour, who will save his people from their wrongdoing.

3. How would Jesus save us?

To answer this question, we need to leave Christmas for a moment and move to Easter. The angel says to Joseph, ‘He will save his people from their sins’. (Matthew 1:21)

If Jesus had come to save the Jews from Roman occupation in Israel, he might have saved them by riding out into battle with them and leading them to a military victory. If Jesus had come to save us from poverty, he might have come with a great plan to boost the economy and create jobs and wealth. If Jesus had come to cheer us up for a while, then he might have been a great entertainer.

But the truth is this: what human beings need most, whether we realise it or not, is God’s forgiveness. He is qualified to save us from our sins, because when he died on the cross, he was paying the price for the sins of his people. In other words, Jesus died in order to pay our moral debts with his blood. The Scottish carol puts it so well: ‘
Child in the manger, infant of Mary;
outcast and stranger, Lord of all;
Child who inherits all our transgressions,
all our demerits on Him fall.’

Often at high school, children can be given a ‘merit’ if they do something particularly special and praiseworthy. The opposite is also true- you can get a ‘demerit’ if you do something significantly wrong. When it comes to the human race, each one of us has loads of demerits, or sins. We get these demerits when we say ‘No’ to God. For example, God says I want you to love your neighbour as you love yourself, but often we don’t. We get angry with others far too easily. We often refuse to forgive others even though we think we should be forgiven. We do something wrong and we end up blaming others. We can think really bad thoughts sometimes. We are experts in becoming proud, impatient and rude. Why is that? It’s because we all have this disease of sin. God says go one way, and we want to go the other way. We say ‘No’ to God.

It’s a horrible thing at Christmas is you give someone a present and they don’t even bother to say thank you. It’s even worse if they reject the gift altogether. You wouldn’t like that, would you? But isn’t that what we all do to God all the time. ‘The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.’ (Psalm 145:9) It is God who gives us the air we breathe, the food on our plates, and the family and friends we enjoy. They are gifts from God. And yet, do we thank him? Or do we just keep taking God’s gifts but ignoring the Giver of the gifts.

So many people ignore Jesus at Christmas time. For them, Christmas is mainly about the kids, the food, the parties and the holidays. Of course, all these things have their place, but they don’t last, and they are not the main thing. But people don’t just ignore Jesus at Christmas; they ignore him all year round. And if he is Immanuel (God with us) then ignoring such a great being is a serious business, especially if this is his world and he is in charge. Our thanklessness, our ignoring our Creator, and the way we mistreat others and can be so selfish are all reasons why we need to be saved from the punishment which our sins deserve. Only Jesus can do this, by paying off our debts by dying for us.

What are some of the best Christmas presents you have ever received? I loved getting my first racing bike as a teenager: it was just what I had hoped for. I remember getting £20 in a Christmas card from someone, and it was so kind and far more than what I expected. And I loved getting a pair of warm gloves from my mother-in-law; they were just what I needed. It’s lovely when presents are like that – just what we want, more than we expect and just what we need. Jesus’ gift to us is the gift of himself. He died on the cross, not for his sins but for those of others. He left the glory and perfection of Heaven and entered our world on a rescue mission. God’s gift of Jesus was just what the Jewish people had been hoping for, for hundreds of years- a rescuer. It’s a gift so kind that it is far more than anyone ever expected. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son! And it is a gift which is just what we needed. The thing I need more than anything else isn’t more money or holidays or health, but God’s forgiveness, because that brings us everlasting peace and everlasting life.

4. What about you?

Can you see yet how the birth of this baby can change your life? In December 1903, the Wright brothers became the first people to fly an aeroplane. A real flying machine. They sent a telegram to their sister Catherine which read: WE HAVE ACTUALLY FLOWN 120 FEET. WILL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS. Catherine immediately took the telegram to the local newspaper editor. He read the telegram and said ‘How nice, the boys will be home for Christmas’. He didn’t get how momentous the news of flight really was. What a moment in history.

We can be like that newspaper man. We can look into the manger in the stable and think, ‘That’s nice.’ But we miss how the birth of God the Rescuer can change everything for us if we come into a relationship with him. What does it mean to come into a relationship with Jesus? We need to talk to God in prayer admitting we’ve said ‘No’ to him so many times. We’ve rebelled. Don’t blame other people. Don’t blame God. Then we need to trust in Jesus to rescue us. He can do that. He’s qualified to rescue us as he alone has died on the cross for sinners and risen from the dead, conquering death and sin. Will you do that? When we do, he forgives all our sins, and sends his Holy Spirit into our lives to be with us forever. We have deep joy in our heart knowing God loved us so much that he’d die for us. We have hope for the future, as God promises us a place in Heaven.

When I broke down in the middle of the Queensferry Crossing, I needed the AA to come and rescue me. There was nothing I could do to save myself. The same is true spiritually. We are broken down as people, but we can turn away from a life in rebellion against God, and call out to Jesus in prayer for rescue. If we do so, he will rescue us.