As today we sing carols for the last time and mark the end of our Christmas services, we also mark the beginning of a New Year. That’s not without significance.
Just as a dog is for life and not just for Christmas, so too you might say that Christmas is for life and not just for Christmas.
Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us, of the Word become flesh, of God incarnate.
We have been telling the story of people whose lives were changed by the coming of Christ – Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and now today Simeon and Anna.
Have you noticed how time and again through the Christmas story the people whose lives are changed are people who have been outsiders like the shepherds, people who have faced adversity like the young girl expecting a baby, the would-be father challenged to support her, people who find themselves drawn towards danger like the Wise Men encountering the cruelty of Herod. There are people like Simeon and Anna, you might also think of Elizabeth and Zechariah who have been waiting for God to DO something for a lifetime.
With the coming of Christ all has changed.
And their lives are different.
What about us?
Is Christmas just a festive celebration to give us a feel-good factor at what really was for us this year the height of winter?
Or do we too encounter God with us in Jesus, do we see the word made flesh full of grace and truth, do we see in Christ God incarnate? Are we prepared for our lives to be shaped by what we have encountered in Christ Jesus.
To meet with Christ is to meet with someone who will shape our lives. Are we prepared to be shaped by this Jesus? I have read the first of Highbury’s two books for Christmas that I wrote about in the December Highbury News. I am awaiting delivery of Jonathan Rowe’s.
Graham Adams has written a thought provoking study of who Jesus is. He suggests that the wonderful thing about Christ is that he enters into real relationships with other people that shake him, and then shape the person he is. Graham suggests that in meeting with Christ we should be prepared to be shaken and open ourselves to be in real relationships with other people who will then shape who we are.
As the Christmas story meets the New Year, maybe there’s something in that. Are we prepared to be shaken by Christ and open ourselves up to other people in such a way that we will be shaped by them.
The challenge of the Gospel is not so much to shape other people, as to love other people and that involves engaging with them in such a way that we end up being different people too.
What kind of shape will we take as we let Emmanuel, God Incarnate, the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ shake us and shape us in the year ahead?
Nowhere is there a better description of the ‘shape’ we should take than in the opening verses of Philippians 2.
Paul speaks of encouragement, consolation, love, sharing, compassion, sympathy, joy. He speaks of being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. He speaks of the need to put away selfish ambition and conceit, and in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Jesus comes to shake us out of our centredness on self, and shape us around the needs of others. We take Christ’s shape as we look not to our own interests but to the interests of others.
The key to it all is to think the thoughts of Christ, have within us the mind of Christ.
Let’s hear those words of Paul in the opening verses of Philippians 2.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ,
any consolation from love,
any sharing in the Spirit,
any compassion and sympathy,
2make my joy complete:
be of the same mind,
having the same love,
being in full accord and of one mind.
3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4Let each of you look not to your own interests,
but to the interests of others.
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus. 6
That then begs the question – what’s it like when we think ourselves into the mind of Christ, when we seek to allow Christ’s mind to dwell in us?
Here we come to the heart of the Christmas message.
We love in the way he loves.
That is to say we not to imagine our task is to simply change other people. We are to love other people … with the love that Christ shows. We are to open ourselves to others in such a way that they will shape us – we are in Paul’s words to “regard others as better” and look to “the interests of others”.
Paul goes on to point us to Jesus who is one with God, and yet humbles himself to become a slave, a servant of all, he humbles himself to the point of self-sacrifical death upon the cross.
The pattern is for us to humble ourselves as Christ humbled himself.
Humble ourselves to the point at which we are slaves to others.
Humble ourselves to the point at which we deny ourselves and take up the cross of Christ.
But through the cross and that self-sacrifice Christ is exalted to the right hand of God to the point at which every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
It is through that process that we will be shaken, we will be shaped differently, but as we come through that process we shall be lifted up into the presence of God, as Christ too was exalted.
These words of Paul are an encouragement to us – that as Christ shares with us at our lowest point so we too can share with him at that high point in oneness with God.
But they are also a challenge to us. They shake us. We are not to exploit equality with God, and seek after supremacy over others. We are challenged to empty ourselves to the point of taking the cross. Then as we share in that exaltation, we are to become part of that task Christ sets out to share the Good News with others so that every tongue can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Jesus Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The question is … are we up for it? That’s a question I want all of us to reflect on in a few moments time.
Engaging with others involves exposing ourselves to being shaped by them – it is as we enter into those relationships that we shall find together with those others we are shaken by Christ and shaped by him.
This is a task we share together.
Our Christmas collection is for Children’s Homes in Kerala State – if you couldn’t make it to the Christmas service there’s still time to hand in your contribution. Sue Cole will be visiting the CHIKS homes later this month and taking our love and greetings with her. In the Autumn we heard from Wayne Hawkins about the CWM partnership that links us with the church world-wide. We had greetings from Stefan and Birgit as Stefan is involved in the theological seminary in Londrinia, and Birgit is involved in that drug rehabilitation program in Brazil. We heard from Philip in Southam about the One Respe project we are partners with through the Congregational Federation as they build Honour and Respect in the Dominican Republic, not least among Haitian people seeking refuge there. We shall shortly be hearing from Jonathan and Hilary Rowe as they are at work in SEUT, the theological seminary in Madrid and remembering them in their future plans together too.
Over Christmas we had greetings from the wider flung Highbury family – people like Sandra and Petra and Katja and David and others of the volunteers who spent a year with us. We heard from Graham, from James, from mark Evans all of whom are engaged in ministry in churches.
There is a wonderful sense of being part of something that is open to being shaken and in the work of shaking others and shaping them in Christ.
I want to finish with a story of encouragement. We have been hearing of the devastation that has hit the ancient Christian communities of Iraq. Over Christmas we had not heard from Andrew White. And then Rob Lacey it was who spotted his story in the Daily Mail. Having given up a career in medicine to go into the ministry, it was way back in 1998 at the age of 33 that he took up the post of Director of the International Centre for Reconciliaion in Coventry Cathedral. Within three weeks he was diagnosed as having MS, multiple sclerosis. Admitted to hospital, his wife transferred from one hospital to be in the same hospital as Andrew as she was about to give birth. “I was upset for about one hour,” he is quoted in the Mail as saying. “Then I thought I have to get on with life.”
Shaken he was one to shake others up … and he went to the Middle East as Special Envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury. His worsening condition meant he had to return in 2003 and the Archbishop informed him that he was not well enough to take up parish post. He commented. “I wasn’t devastated. I don’t get devastated.” He determined on another course of action.
“I had been to Baghdad several times and though, “Right, I’ll go and live and work there.”
It’s where he has been ever since.
With a remarkable scholarship in Jewish, Islmaic and Christian studies behind him, he was won the respect of people in most communities. But at this time is very much at risk.
This is a story for encouragement. But the story is not one I had expected.
In 1998 he describes how he had supported fundraising for a bone marrow transplant centre in Baghdad’s major teaching hospital.
He now describes how his condition has deteriorated. And how at that very same hospital they are pioneering a treatment for MS that is not yet licensed over here. It involves a blood purification process, and is the fruit of stem cell research.
With 17 monthly treatments behind him has not suffered a single side effect and immense improvement in his condition. How ironic, he says, that Baghdad is ahead of the UK in this modern treatment.
At the end of the article he is quoted as saying something I found very challenging, and also remarkably encouraging.
“The church is not just about worship, it provides food, clothes and health care. We have three doctors and three dentists in our clinic. Most of our patients are Muslim and we are delighted about that.”
And then he says this.
“If I hadn’t had MS I wouldn’t have gone to live in Baghdad, so it has all been for a purpose.”
The first Christmas shook a lot of people up – Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men, the Shepherds, Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Zechariah. And it shaped the rest of their lives.
Are we up for being shaken up … and allowing this Christ to shape the rest of our lives.
Sometimes we are shaken in unexpected ways. Always Christ is there with us to shape the future that lies ahead of us.
As something of a New Year resolution, I am going to invite those who have made a commitment as church members to renew that commitment in the simply statement of faith that is made by those who join us. And if you feel you can echo these words then please do so, and have a word with me as we would love to welcome all who feel at home with us in the life of the church to share with us in membership of the church here at Highbury.
Do you believe in God and in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour? We do.
Do you promise as you are able to play your full part in the life and work of the church here at Highbury, in its worship, in church meeting, in giving, in its mission and service of God and the community? We do.