Midnight Holy Communion

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Midnight Holy Communion
SMAS Christmas 2011
John 1:1-18
(24.12.11)

Some time ago the BBC asked people to nominate their favourite poem and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If” won. Dismayed poetry buffs said that it only won because it was a poem that everyone remembered from school days and there was probably much truth in that. Even so why have so many remembered it?

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,'
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Is it remembered because it’s an ideology of perfection that many wish they could aspire to? A preacher, speaking at a rescue mission in the skid-row district of a large American city recited that poem, and when he had finished a down and out rose to his feet and said “Yeah preacher, but what if you can’t?” I don’t know how the preacher replied, but I do know that today’s reading from John’s gospel gives the answer. There is no way that we can achieve the perfection of that poem. There is no way that we can ever be good enough.

Our righteousness, our perfection comes from God. It is a free and unearned gift - its God’s grace that saves us, that puts us right and God’s love is not earned. We do not have to achieve the perfection of that poem.

Look at this picture of the Niagara Falls. I believe you can buy a postcard of this with a title on it. The title is ‘Grace’ because it is referring to v6 of our gospel reading: “From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace”.

Grace is the forgiveness that God gives us because we are not perfect. It’s a forgiveness that we don’t deserve. It’s a forgiveness we can’t earn. It’s the forgiveness that comes from the love of Jesus laying down His life for our wrong-doing on the cross.

Why this picture? Well there are millions and millions of gallons of water cascading over the Falls. Constantly, unending, a bigger down pouring of water than we could ever imagine. And that’s like God’s grace which is lavished upon us, never ending and in abundant supply.

Even those of us who know Jesus and what He did for us on the cross often need continual reminding of God’s abundant supply of love.  However much we know in our head that God’s precious love and grace is neither deserved nor earned, many of us don’t know it 100% in our hearts. We are not really so very different from those who want to live by the ideology of that poem.

Sadly there are many people who have no idea of the love that God is so wanting to lavish upon them - totally unaware of the free gift that God offers them. And that can be dangerous.

A friend of mine was chaplain at one of the Cambridge Colleges. One of the hardest parts about this post was having to deal with a fairly high number of attempted suicides. The reasons were not usually the stress of academic work, nor were they financial or even because the students involved were lonely or homesick. No, the usual reason was that they had had enough of trying to be good enough to live up to the expectations of parents. Parents whose love depended on how well they were doing.

We may well be thinking how terrible a thing that is stated baldly in those terms. But in the secret places of many people’s hearts lies those same feelings of guilt and failure. They are feelings that are not just restricted to young people but ones that dog many of us ALL of our life. Anyone who has ever been encouraged to think that their value in life, their love-ablilty, springs from how well they do will usually live out their entire life like that - long after the parent who engendered that feeling is dead and gone.

But God, our heavenly Father’s love doesn’t depend on that at all. His love for us comes from what HE does and not from what WE do. And He, as we discover in the Christmas story gave us the best and most marvellous free gift ever when He came to us as Jesus. Jesus - God with us. Whatever gifts we get this Christmas they pale into total insignificance at the side of this - for God gave up everything, all His power and majesty to come to us as a weak and vulnerable baby.

He gave up everything to die as a weak and vulnerable man on a cross. He died on the cross to pay the price of our sin, our shortcomings - because we are all sinners who daily fall short of the glory of God. And that’s why we need His grace - His grace does what we are unable to do - the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ puts us right with God. We don’t have to be perfect - we don’t have to be really good - because He is and He does it for us.

We are surrounded by people who for many reasons are trying really hard to get it right. Some of us here tonight will be affected by this ourselves. Wanting to be perfect - perhaps in looks, perhaps in ways, perhaps at work, perhaps in amongst our family, our friends, our community. We don’t want to be seen as failures but are unaware that we can stop trying so hard because we cannot do it right on our own because Christ is our only perfection. It’s His grace,His love that matters.

We must destroy the ethos of that poem which says that if perfection is achieved ‘you’ll be a man my son’ and say instead that it’s because of God’s perfection that ‘men are able to be sons’ – ‘children’ of God. That gift that comes from God can never be matched by us. Whatever presents we’ve bought or received can never match up to His ‘grace upon grace’. In times of austerity when many of us have cut down on our spending this Christmas God still pours out, like the water over the Falls, more grace than we can ever imagine.

A famous theologian - Karl Barth - now dead but one of the truly great theologians - had a great mind and was a very original thinker had a big notice on his wall that reminded him of the greatest Christian truth there is. Another famous Christian thinker and writer - still alive - Jim Packer is also fond of telling people the same great truth. Both would say it is the most important truth to grasp. This is it:

Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.

The Christmas story tells us how much Jesus loves each one of us. Through grace. Not by our efforts. Through grace. As we get excited this Christmas by all of those gifts we will be given let’s not forget that that greatest gift ever has already been given to us totally free of charge if only we will take the time to unpack it.