There are few things as stunning as a night sky full of blazing stars. Trouble is, you hardly ever see one. Why not? Because of light pollution.
There is so much light from buildings, towns, cities and street lamps. You really need to be out in the ‘middle of nowhere’ to see a starry night in all its splendour. The dark background is vital.
The same is true of Christmas. The story has been made so sentimental, so ‘jolly’, that you can hardly see the splendour. Comic camels, a grumpy innkeeper, Santa — it’s all ‘light pollution’ that robs us of a breathtaking view.
What is the dark background that makes the Christmas message shine so brightly? Many of our carols remind us. For example, ‘Joy to the world’. What could be more upbeat than that? But listen to the third verse:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
That is the real world we live in, a world of sorrows and weeds, under a curse. We hear the same note in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’:
No ear may hear his coming;
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
What does it mean, ‘this world of sin’?
Sin is failing to put God at the centre of life. That might mean ignoring him or ‘keeping him in a box to wheel out on special occasions’ (weddings, funerals, etc.). It might be living as if we can find happiness in something other than him, or putting our own choices above his commands.
Sin is to live with God out of the picture, and we are all guilty. That’s why we need a Saviour. And that’s why Christmas is such good news! Luke’s Gospel tells how an angel brought the message to the shepherds in their fields: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’.
A Saviour! That is what we should celebrate at Christmas. Not merely the excuse for a party, or a sentimental story, or an extra bank holiday. Not even the joy of giving and receiving gifts or spending time with family.
Of course, all those things are the best we can manage in our secular society. But the real reason to rejoice is that Christ the Lord came from God, one with God, to save his people from their sins.
In the carol ‘While shepherd’s watched’, the angels’ praise is captured in the line: ‘Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men…’ The birth of Jesus was evidence of God’s goodwill towards men.
Unfortunately the feeling wasn’t mutual! Matthew’s Gospel tells the familiar story of the wise men and their gifts. It also paints the dark background of Herod’s murderous hostility.
‘When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Wise Men, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’. The Christmas story is not a fairytale.
How does the story of Jesus start? With an unsuccessful attempt to murder him! How does it climax? With a successful attempt — the crucifixion. Both Christmas and Easter shine a painful spotlight on the human condition.
The shocking fact is that people want rid of God. He makes us uncomfortable. He threatens our little kingdoms, just as Jesus was a threat to Herod.
You can’t understand Christmas till you’ve understood Easter. You can’t understand why the baby was born till you grasp why the man died. That is the dark sky which makes the message blaze so bright.
Jesus came, died and rose again, so that everyone who believes in him can be made right with God, be transformed inside. He came so that you might escape God’s judgement and have the sure prospect of eternal life, if you will only turn from your sin and trust in him.
The original accounts of the first Christmas are anything but sentimental. Their dark background is precisely what gives the story its glory. Only by coming among us into this world of sins and sorrows, and only by dying on a cross in the place of the guilty, could God’s Son save people from their sins.
Only he can set us free from the darkness in our lives: destructive patterns of thinking and living. Only he can rescue us from Satan, death, and the final darkness of hell and misery.
Pretty dark stuff! But that’s what makes the good news shine so brightly.
Hark! the herald angels sing
glory to the new-born King,
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.
That is the great possibility of Christmas — to be reconciled with the God who made you.
Will you seek out that good news of forgiveness and life, in the familiar carols and Gospel accounts, in a Bible-believing church this December? Don’t settle for anything less than the splendour of Christmas.