CHOIR/ORGAN: (1) "WHAT CHILD IS THIS?"
REV DAVID NEILANDS: Welcome once more to the Chapel of Unity, here in the heart of Methodist College, in Belfast, on this the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This school was founded more than one hundred and forty years ago and now has over two thousand pupils of all faiths and none.
The Chapel Choir has just sung: “What child is this?” - a question at the very heart of this service, as we think about the last of the Advent Antiphons, the refrains sung in the week before Christmas Eve.
READER: O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
REV DAVID NEILANDS: We’re pleased to welcome, as our preacher, Professor Stephen Williams of Union Theological College, here in Belfast.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. The Coming of Immanuel is a source of Joy to the World.
CHOIR/ORGAN (2): "JOY TO THE WORLD"
REV. DAVID NEILANDS: Let us pray.
Lord, we worship and praise you, for your constant presence with us, in Creation you made us in your own image, through all the centuries when we rejected your ways, you were there to guide us to a better way. But, supremely, we bless you in your coming in Jesus - Emmanuel-
God with us..
Born for us; living for us;
dying for us, rising for us,
and promising to be with us for ever.
Lord, before you, we acknowledge our faults and failings.
Knowing that you see us as we really are, we confess that we have often failed to grasp the true significance of your coming to us in Jesus.
We have allowed sentiment to obscure the true mystery of the Incarnation.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
We confess that we often place our hope on things that are transient and flimsy, rather than in the strength and purpose of your promises.
Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.
We confess that we have not been the sort of people you call us to be.
We have often ignored the needs of others.
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
Lord, before you, the Judge of all the earth, we seek your pardon,
Not because we deserve it but because you came to us, in Jesus, to help and save us.
The Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent:
God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that -- as she looked for his coming as our saviour -- so, we may be ready to greet him, when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
CHOIR/ORGAN: (3) "THE HOLLY AND THE IVY" (Owens)
READER: A reading from 7th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
Again, the Lord spoke to Ahaz saying "Ask a sign of the Lord, your God", let it be deep as Sheol or high as Heaven. But Ahaz said: "I will not ask and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then, Isaiah said: "Hear, then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.
15: He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. This is the Word of the Lord.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
REV DAVID NEILANDS: The Good News is that God will give a sign of his commitment to his people. And Christians sing to hear that news.
CHOIR/ORGAN: (4) "SUSSEX CAROL"
READER: A reading from the 8th Chapter of St Paul’s Letter to Romans, at the 22nd verse:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For, in hope, we were saved. Now, hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
This is the Word of the Lord.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
CHOIR/ORGAN: (5) "AWAY IN A MANGER"
PROFESSOR WILLIAMS: A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the first chapter at the 23rd verse:
Now, the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 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." All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation". So, said one of the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau. If it was true then, it is true now. On the surface, things often appear different. Plans, aspirations, ambitions, positive expectations they are all there. But they mask a hidden despair, although despair is not so hidden much of the time these days.
Christianity proclaims a ‘living hope’. This is not a rosy-eyed optimism, for we know that anything can happen in life. But it is the nemesis of despair. Its unshakeable hope is hope of new heavens and a new earth and by ‘hope’ it does not mean to announce mere possibility. It is confidence based on God’s promise to us in Jesus Christ. But it is not the kind of hope that draws us away from the world in which we live. On the contrary, it fills us with the desire to work here and now for a world where there are changes for the better. It is the opposite of an escapist hope. However, Christianity does not let us pin our hopes on anything in this world. That would be foolish, since nothing in worldly life is guaranteed. Its hope gives strength to the spirit and rescues from despair.
Is this all wishful thinking - to hope that there will be a new order one day, when justice and peace will reign? A fine idea, perhaps; a worthy desire but just the expression of human wishes, not realism? Well, certainly human beings are prone to wishful thinking, religious and irreligious alike. That can be dangerous, so some are militantly opposed to religious belief. Others, while rejecting religious belief for themselves acknowledge that it brings a measure of comfort to some people. So, if it is kept within proper bounds, wishful thinking does no harm as long as we are wishing for things which make for peace and joy and love.
But Christianity has no truck with wishful thinking. When the followers of Jesus declared his resurrection, they made clear what led them to issue that outrageous bulletin. They spoke of an empty tomb and allowed people to check for themselves. They insisted that they had seen Jesus alive and invited people to check their stories. Of course, we argue about these things today, as people argued about them from the beginning. What is clear is that none of the original witnesses was interested in promoting blind faith. They claimed to be reporting what they had seen and heard and touched. So, Christianity was originally marked out as the foe of wishful thinking and this impels the Church to welcome anyone who so desires to investigate carefully the document it calls the New Testament and to encourage a proper, open scrutiny of its claims.
‘Its claims’: what a hopelessly cold way of putting it! At Christmas, of all times, we remember that the Christian message is focussed on a person. Naturally, that message easily gets lost in sentimentality. After all, there is nothing threatening or objectionable about a baby; just the opposite. But Christians have dared to believe seriously that this child, who grew up to brief manhood, is in the deepest, truest, most extraordinary sense ‘God with us’. More than a teacher, more than a prophet, he is God amongst us, who has condescended in a way beyond all thought and imagination, to come to share the human condition. Why should that be a problem for God? If God is Creator, He can make a world into which he can himself come. Yet, is it really worthy of him? For, if God is Creator and cares for the world he created, does it make sense to believe that he occupied a tiny patch of earth in a tiny corner of the world for a vanishingly, small brief of time?
Actually, it more than makes sense; it is the sign of the greatest imaginable humility and love. If God had declared his existence from the sky in thousands of languages scrawled over the heavens, hanging somewhere up there above the clouds, through countless centuries, would that make much sense? He would still not be with us. If God had done no more than impress on our hearts the reality of his existence, convincing thousands of cultures, would that be enough? He would still be one step removed from us. Only by becoming one of us, becoming human, can God get as close as possible to the humanity which he has created and loves. But humans only live once, occupy one space and one time. For God to be amongst us, human as we are, he can be born, live and die only once. But there was also a resurrection once, Christians believe, so that the message: ‘God with us’ can be taken to all the world; so, that the eyes of all the world can be directed to this one place, this one time when Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived and died; so that what is hidden from the eyes of those who are born in different spaces and times can be believed because of what others saw, heard and touched; so, that people in all spaces and all times should know God with us
There is a scene recorded in one of the Gospels when Jesus, hauled up for trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, refers to his own birth: "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth". Jesus was not interested in popularity. He was not interested in saying and doing what people wanted and expected him to say and do. He was not interested in spinning out some clever ideas about God. He was not interested in a reputation as the most brilliant of prophets, the most dazzling of miracle-workers. He sought out the poor and the needy, the outcasts and the despised.
And, in seeking them out, he tells us all something about the human condition. We need God, not because God is a good idea or because religious belief optimizes your comfort in this world but because from a Biblical perspective, we are trapped in our self-centredness and our illusions, prey to powers that work around and within us over which we think that we have control but do not. We are people who have set ourselves up as gods in our own lives, or dragged ourselves down so low that we hate ourselves, or we are victims of the most dreadful cruelty of others, or we are wandering through life as through a darkened maze.
And God’s response to all this? It is to come among us. It is to give light in the darkness. It is to substitute reality for illusions. It is to bring comfort to those who despair. It is to bring healing to the heart. It is also to give notice to those who run their lives pretty careless of God or of their fellow-human beings that they will have to give account. It all adds up to Truth. The cost of telling the truth and shouldering the responsibility for human untruth is suffering. It is a cross. There, it is not only God with us and God for us but God instead of us as well.
‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’ -- women also, and too many children, sad to say. There is another way to live. ‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ born, as one of the Gospel writers tells us, of God himself. That is the end goal, the purpose, of Christmas.
CHOIR/ORGAN: (6) "SILENT NIGHT"
REV DAVID NEILANDS: Let us pray.
Lord, at Christmas the soles of your feet touched the earth, as Christ was born of Mary. The forgotten were recognised; the despised accepted;
the whole world and all its people
invested with a new hope,
established through your mighty acts.
We praise you that in humility and vulnerability you came- God with us.
READER: We pray for your Church. Take from it anything that mars its message, or dishonours its service. Grant that all who follow Christ may live lives displaying that God is with them and may your saving power in Christ be made known by the witness of the Church’s worship, faith and life.
O Come, O come , Emmanuel
READER: We pray for your world, that all the nations of the earth may aspire to those things which lead to peace and understanding and harmony. May your working in the hearts and minds of those who lead nations break down barriers of fear, suspicion and hatred so that the world may be filled with your glory, even as the waters cover the sea.
O Come, O come, Emmanuel.
READER: Meeting in this school chapel we pray for schools and colleges and universities that you would guide teachers and students in their efforts to seek and serve the truth that all may be led to wider service. Grant that learning may flourish as a means of enriching lives and drawing us nearer to you and to each other.
O Come, O come , Emmanuel.
READER: We pray for those for whom this Christmas will be particularly difficult. The lonely and the depressed. Those whose are facing this season for the the first time without the company of someone they love. Victims of violence and oppression and war, those who feel overwhelmed by guilt over something they did this year and those who are consumed by foreboding about what might happen next year;those whose constant companion is worry or anxiety, the sick and the dying and those who are caring for them.
Lord, you came to us in a helpless child, may all who need your help be conscious that you are with them.
O Come, O come , Emmanuel.
REV DAVID NEILANDS: Almighty God, you wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored our human nature.
Grant that we may share the divine life of your Son Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity
and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
ALL: Our Father who art in heaven, hallow'd be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen
CHOIR/ORGAN: (7) "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"
REV DAVID NEILANDS: May he, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly,
Fill your lives with is light and joy and peace
And the blessing of God,
The Father, the Son and the holy Spirit,
Remain with you always.
CHOIR/ORGAN: (8) "A CHRISTMAS BLESSING"