Carols by Candlelight 2023

17 Dec 2023

Carols by Candlelight 2023

Passage Luke 1:46-50

Speaker Ben Tanner


Transcript (Auto-generated)

This transcript has been automatically generated, and therefore may not be 100% accurate.

Well, thank you so much, Margaret. And let me add my welcome to that of Claire earlier on. I'm Ben, one of the team here, and it's lovely to see you. I hope we can chat further over some mulled wine after the service. I'm just going to spend a few moments just thinking about some of those passages that we've been listening to so far this evening.

And I'm going to ask that God helps us, because really, my heart here is that I'd love it if all of us can enter into some of the joy that Mary had in that last reading. So let me lead us in a prayer. Father God, thank you so much for Jesus. I pray that we might see him now and that we might find and discover true Christmas joy. Amen.

I really hate to do this, but I don't really like calling people out publicly. But it is kind of important that I do, actually, because there's been some. Well, it's quite awkward. You see, King Charles and Camilla's Christmas card to me didn't actually arrive. And I think it might be actually the problem with the government.

You see, Rishi's Christmas card didn't arrive either. Neither did the bidens. And in fact, worst of all, Kylie minogues didn't arrive. And I'm pretty distraught about that. Now, some of you guys are probably thinking, who on earth is this new vicar here?

What illusions of grandeur. Does he think he has a card from Kylie? He should be so lucky.

I know, I know, it's a bad one. The choir actually asked me if I could change the joke up. I did think maybe I could do something with Madonna. It would have fitted a bit better, but no, I couldn't think of one at the time. But it would be strange.

What illusions of grandeur. A vicar in a small part of Sheffield to expect the king to be mindful of him. Illusions of grandeur. What an unattractive quality. And if you'd be thinking that about me, then it would probably be right of us to have been thinking that about Mary, at least when we were there.

Now, of course, we know that when she says, all generations will call me blessed, it's true. But at the time, that would have been an outrageous claim to have made. There she was, a teenage girl in the middle of an occupied territory in a sleepy backwater town, making this outrageous claim. All generations. I will be forever famous for what God gives to me.

It's outrageous, isn't it? And what's more, it would have been even more outrageous back then. Entirely wrongly at that time, an unmarried woman would not have necessarily had much social status. And on top of that, this is an unmarried woman who was pregnant. And so she would have been surrounded by sexual scandal.

And here's a girl saying, all generations will say she's gifted by God. How's that for illusions of grandeur? Unless. Unless, of course, it was true. Unless she just realised that that baby that she was carrying in her womb was in fact the answer to all of those promises that we've been hearing about this evening from the Old Testament, the part of the Bible before Jesus enters the scene, Mary realises that God has been mindful of her, just as in that first reading, what is humankind?

That God should be mindful of them? Here, Mary realises God has been mindful of me. And her reaction? Well, forget being on Joe Biden's Christmas list, she's got something far better. And so what does she do?

She sings with praise. This is amazing news. She bursts out with the first Christmas number one. And, in fact, it's the first Christmas carol as well. And like so many Christmas carols, this is a joyful song.

We sung a bunch of joyful songs. Joyful, joyful we adore thee. That last one, just. It made the hairs on the back of my head stand up again. Quiet.

Well done. That was brilliant. But it was full of joy, wasn't it? And Christmas should be full of joy. Mary's song says this.

My soul glorifies in the lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my saviour. Christmas feels a joyful time, doesn't it? Certainly. If you believe the adverts, it should be a joyful time. In fact, do you know what?

The scientists agree with the adverts on this one? There was a study from the University of Copenhagen that found that just seeing images of Christmas increases the level of dopamine and serotonin in our brains. And I need to be very careful on this one because my biology teacher is here in the congregation today. But. And my understanding is that that makes us feel good.

Those two chemicals. You can correct me later, Keith. And what that means is that, in effect, you can actually fool your brain into having Christmas cheer just by showing it. Christmas images. Maybe, actually, that's part of the reason why you're here tonight.

You want to get in the Christmas the festive feeling. And boy, with the choir singing so beautifully with the candles and all the carols, it feels like we're there, doesn't it? But maybe that's exactly the problem, you see, fooling our brains into feeling Christmassy only works for a while. After a while, we know that we're feeling slightly duped.

So we get to Christmas day and we long for it to be perfect, don't we? Can we just have one meal where we don't argue, where we just eat? Especially the sprouts?

Maybe it's pretending to be delighted with that present that you really don't like. Or perhaps it's more deep than that. Maybe it's covering up the pain of past christmases, of those who aren't with us, with another mince pie or glass of brandy. Or another few episodes of Christmas specials. See if we're tricking our brains into feeling joyful at Christmas time.

Ultimately, it's just sentiment. It just passes. Wow, this gets depressing. But bear with me, because Mary's song. Mary's song is totally different.

It seems to come from a remarkably honest place. See, she has no illusions of grandeur. The song. It talks all about what God has done for her. And listen to how she describes herself.

She says, he, that's God, has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. He has lifted the humble and done great things for me. Mary's carol isn't sentimental, it isn't fake. She doesn't say, I'm just going to pretend that everything's fine. She says, no, I'm humble.

And what's more, she calls God her saviour and then delights twice, not once, but twice, in him being merciful. In other words, Mary recognises that she's not perfect and then delights in a God who doesn't require her to pretend to be. This week, I actually got chatting to somebody and the conversation quickly turned to hope of life after death. And he said to me, he said, I know where I'm going and no one is going to save me from that. It's quite a sobering chat with him.

He felt he didn't deserve any sort of a saviour. He felt he'd done things that had written him off. And thinking on that conversation, that's where mercy becomes so incredibly precious.

The story is told of Emperor Napoleon. Apparently, a mother once approached him seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offence twice, and that the justice therefore demanded the death penalty. But I don't ask for justice, said his mother. I plead for mercy.

But your son doesn't deserve mercy. Napoleon replied, sir. The woman cried, if he deserved it, it would not be mercy. And so I asked for mercy. Well, then the emperor said, I will have mercy.

And he spared the woman's son. You see, believing in a God of mercy means that to be a Christian doesnt mean that we think of ourselves as good people. And im really sorry. Often christians might come across and give you the impression that christians think that they are holier than thou, that we are good people, or indeed that heaven is full of good people. That couldnt be further from the truth.

Heaven is not full of good people. Heaven is full of people who recognise that they are not good and instead plead for undeserved but graciously given mercy. And that's actually where the real joy in Mary's song comes from, that she knows that she doesn't deserve God's mercy and so she doesn't have to pretend, she just has to receive it. Somebody once said, if you're holding a feast, always invite a beggar to your feast. Always invite a beggar because they cheer for every course.

They get excited about every single course because they know that they're not going to be paying for it. They can't possibly. And so out comes the starter and it's. Yeah, get this. Fantastic.

And then comes the main. Wonderful. There's none of this sort of. I don't like the Brussels sprouts. I'm not sure if the lamb's overcooked.

No, out comes the cheese. Yes, this is fantastic. They cheer for every course. There's every course as a gift. There's no pretence or pretending, there's just enjoyment.

Mary's carol says this about God. He fills the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty. Here is God according to Mary, the one who loves to bring out course after course after course. God sends no one away empty. Well, no one except for those who are already full of themselves.

Did he hear that? He fills the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. This isn't Mary having a go at rich people. We know from the rest of the Bible Jesus hangs out with rich people as well as poor. He loves all people.

But there's a big difference between a rich person and a beggar at a feast, isn't there? Because the rich person doesn't need the feast. They can eat beforehand or eat later. They can pick the bits that they like and don't like. They can decide, I'm not going to have that bit.

But the beggar, they cheer for every course. Now, it might be that you're here and you're listening and you identify with Mary and that lady's son and you think well, wow. What is it that God might be mindful of me? You listen to that first reading, but it might be that you're here and actually you think less. What is it that God might be mindful of me?

And perhaps the other way around? What's God that I should be mindful of him? Maybe you don't recognise that guy who I was talking to, talking to earlier this week. Maybe actually, you think, do you know, if there is a heaven, I'm probably good enough to get there myself. I'm doing all right, actually.

And yet, even as we look around the world, perhaps especially as we look around the world this year, we see how capable we are of making a mess of things, don't we? Oh, and it's so very easy for us to sit here and to look at what's going on in Israel or Palestine or in Russia and think, if I were there in their circumstances, I would do totally different. I would make the right choice. Would you? If you were actually in their circumstance, with their background, would you react any differently?

Or actually, is there a little bit of what Mary calls in her song being proud in our innermost thoughts?

Oh, I would be far better than them, maybe. We'd like to think so. So what? Well, somebody. Somebody sang around Christmas.

You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear voices singing let's be jolly deck the halls with boughs of holly this Christmas, you and I, we've got an option. We can do one of two things. We can settle for the sentiment. We can fake it till we make it pretend, enjoy the Christmasy feeling whilst it lasts and pack it away with the Christmas decorations until next year. Or maybe this is the Christmas to be real, to recognise we're not perfect.

We've not got it all together. And instead of pretending that we have, maybe it's the Christmas to find joyful experience of mercy before God, to be the beggar, to cheer at every course, to thank God for all that he gives us. To say with Mary, my soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my saviour. If you want to find out a little bit more about what that might look like, about what it is to have joy that lasts, humble joy, can I encourage you? Why not?

You should have received one of these on your way in. If you didn't, you'll get one on the way out. It just says peace on earth on the front. I reckon it's about a glass, maybe two glasses of mulled wine, depending on how quickly you drink it. That's a couple of glasses of mulled wine.

Read that through. Find out more about the hope that the real joy that christians offer or sorry that Christ offers to us at Christmas. Or perhaps if you'd like to find out more, we've actually got three evenings or afternoons, depending on when you're free, where we're going to look at hope, peace and purpose. The hope, peace and purpose that Jesus bring us. It's called hope explored.

And if you've got a phone, you can scan a thing on the back of the service sheet that you got and just let us know if you'd like to find out more about that. It's coming up in January. Why not cheque out that or speak to the person you came with? Chapter Clare or me, whatever you choose, whichever of those options. My prayer is that you have a very merry and joy filled and perhaps real Christmas.

Let me lead us in a prayer. Father, thank you so very much that you don't expect us to be perfect. Sorry when we pretend we are, help us. Help us to be real this Christmas. Be real where we haven't got it together.

Help us to find in you a God of great mercy and love. And would we, would we rejoice just as Mary did that first day. Amen.