(This is an edited version of a Christmas sermon preached at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge)
An old friend of mine, who is a brilliant criminal barrister, gave me a book that I felt a moral obligation to read despite its length. My friend is an Armenian by background and the book describes the holocaust of one and a half million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The book is called The Great War for Civilisation; the Conquest of the Middle East and it’s by Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent of The Independent Newspaper.
In 2001, Mr Fisk attended an arms fair in Abu Dhabi and at this arms fair he had a conversation with the then 81-year-old Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian designer of the infamous machine gun we often see Islamist militants brandishing about on our TV screens, the AK-47 and here is Robert Fisk’s account of his conversation in a hospitality tent with Mikhail Kalashnikov who told him:
“In the village where I was born, according to special decree, a monument was erected to me, twice my height. In the city where I live there is now a Kalashnikov museum with a section dedicated to my life – and this was erected in my lifetime. President Putin called me on my birthday the other day. No other president would telephone an arms designer. These things are important to me.” And God? I asked. What would God say of Mikhail Kalashnikov? “We were educated in such a way that I am probably an atheist,” he replied, “but something exists.”
If I was ever inclined to think that all was right with the human race, which I wasn’t particularly before I read this book, certainly reading the catalogue of human cruelty it describes would blow any illusions about the goodness of humanity out of the water.
Mr Fisk’s question is an important one for us at this celebration of the Incarnation, this festival of God come down to earth in the person of Jesus Christ – what would God say of you and me?
In that reading from the Gospel of Matthew, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream after he had found out that his future wife, Mary, was already pregnant: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1v20b-21 – NRSV).
The name Jesus or Joshua in Hebrew means ‘the Lord saves’, Yahweh saves, so the very name of Jesus speaks of salvation, his being a Saviour and the nature of this salvation that Jesus is going to bring for his people is salvation from their sins. “You are to name him Jesus. for he will save his people from their sins.”
Why do the people Jesus came to save need saving from their sins? What is the problem with sins, a bit of sinning every now and then? We all do it – provided it’s not mass murder or serious fraud or domestic violence, what’s wrong with a bit of juicy gossip, a bit of over-indulgence from time to time, a bit of fun on the side, a bit of letting your hair down? After all, we’re only human – and this is Christmas.“I don’t want to be told about my sins. I came here to enjoy a bit of tranquillity, a nice atmosphere, some nice music. Christmas is for the kids. You shouldn’t bang on about sin.”
But friend, it’s there in the Christian Bible – the Bible has been read at Christmas services for centuries and this one from Matthew is on the menu every year: “He shall save his people from their sins.”
The issue boils down to the question we began with – what does God think of you and me? The spiritual reality is that our misdeeds – the wrong things that I and you think, and say do every day to varying degrees and in various ways – are the symptoms of an underlying cause. You and I are rebels against the God who made us and that matters because the Lord Almighty God is not pleased with us. The Lord God Almighty is actually mightily displeased with our human rebellion against his rightful rule and thank God he is because his reaction to our disobedience shows that he is a God of awesome goodness who does care about what goes on in his world. He will punish evil and that means he will punish us unless something is done about our sins.
Notice the way the Angel of the Lord expressed this promise of the Saviour – “he will save his people from their sins.” His people.
Let’s be clear – it is the Saviour’s people who get saved from their sins. It’s those who belong to Jesus, to ‘the Lord saves’, who get salvation from their sins. It’s not just anybody who gets salvation. It’s Jesus’s people.
That means that if you and I are not bothered about our sins, if we couldn’t care less about them, then we are not one of Jesus’ people and we will never become one of Jesus’s people unless and until we do get bothered about our sins and realise that we do need saving from them. “He will save his people from their sins.”
But let me also emphasise the very positive note here, which is the note I want to end on – if you are bothered about your sins and you want saving from the punishment of hell they deserve, Christmas is great news for you. ‘The Lord saves’ has arrived and he is the Saviour from what is bothering you, your sins. So what you do need to do? You need to ask ‘the Lord saves’, Jesus, to be ‘the Lord saves’ of your life. You need to accept Jesus’s forgiveness for yourself and start living with Jesus as your Lord and Saviour every day.