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Christmas Eve Watchnight Service 2010
On 13th October 2010, millions of people all around the world were glued to their televisions as they watched the pictures of one of the most incredible rescue missions in the history of the world.
69 days earlier, very few people outside Chile had heard of the San Jose mine. But when part of the mine collapsed on 5th August trapping 33 miners underground, the eyes of the world turned to this remote part of the Atacama Desert, 500 miles north of Santiago.
For more than a fortnight, the relatives of the men had no idea if they were dead or alive. But then at last on the 17th day, one of the listening probes that the rescuers had sent down a borehole came back up with a piece of paper attached. The message in Spanish simply read: “All 33 of us are well inside the shelter.”
I can only begin to imagine the mixture of joy and relief for the families that day. But then they had to wait another seven agonising weeks while preparations were made for the rescue attempt. Drilling machinery was brought in and work began to dig down through 700 metres of rock and to create a hole wide enough to allow them to winch the men to the surface.
During those weeks, food and medical supplies, specialist clothing and camp were sent down along with messages from relatives in special tubes called “palomas” or “doves”. And the miners were able to send up video updates of conditions in the mine.
But then at last on 13th October, the world watched on as one by one all 33 miners were winched to safety in the specially designed Phoenix capsule and were greeted by the President of Chile.
I’m sure that many of us shed a tear as we watched those incredibly moving pictures of the miners being reunited with their loved ones. It was so nice to have some really good news to celebrate in the midst of so much that seems to be going wrong in the world.
But like many ministers, as I watched the story unfold, I began to see lots of parallels between this rescue mission and the rescue mission of Jesus!
The miners were in serious danger, trapped and completely helpless, unable to do anything to save themselves.
And that is how the Bible describes the human race. Separated from God because of our sin. Stumbling around in the darkness, cut off from the light of God. Desperately in need of having our broken relationship with God restored. But unable to save ourselves.
That is why the Christmas story is such good news! Because the events that took place in Bethlehem that night 2000 or so years ago were very much like the moment when the drilling machines finally broke through to the miners’ workshop.
Because in the birth of Jesus Christ, God broke in to human history and provided a means of salvation.
Just like in Chile, this rescue mission was being planned long before it was finally implemented. Centuries earlier, Isaiah and the other prophets described this moment. And long before that right back at the very beginning, God Himself had hinted at what He was planning. When Adam and Eve had chosen to disobey Him, He told the serpent who had deceived them that one day the offspring of a woman would crush his head, even though the serpent would bruise his heel.
The unsung hero of the rescue mission in Chile was a man called Manuel Gonzalez. He was the man who volunteered to travel down in the Phoenix capsule, leaving behind the safety and security of being above ground to travel down 2,300 feet through the rock, hoping and praying that the capsule wouldn’t get stuck or that the ropes which held it didn’t snap. Quite literally risking his own life in order to save the lives of the men trapped below.
In the Bible, we read about Jesus leaving the glory of His Father’s presence, the security of Heaven, in order to embark on an incredible journey. Laying aside His divine majesty and being born as an ordinary human being in the little town of Bethlehem.
But not only was Jesus willing to risk his life. He came quite deliberately to lay down his life, to give his life as a ransom for many.
It’s not as some people see it that Christmas was God coming to live among us and that on Good Friday it all went horribly wrong.
Jesus was born into our world precisely in order that one day He would die on the cross for our sins.
That’s why the angel told Joseph to call Mary’s baby Jesus: Because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1.21)
When Manuel Gonzalez reached the bottom of the mine-shaft and stepped out of the capsule, he invited the first of the 33 miners, Florencio Avalos, to take his place.
Mr Avalos faced a choice. Would he trust the capsule to carry him out of the darkness into the bright light 700 metres above? He could have chosen to stay in the mine forever. But he didn’t. He chose to get into the capsule and to ask those on the surface to winch him slowly up to safety. Twenty minutes later, Florencio Avalos emerged and was hugged by the President.
The same kind of choice faces every single human being on this planet and every one of us here in Church. Jesus has opened the way for us to know God, the only way for human beings to be made right with God. He came down from heaven to earth and died to take the blame for all our sin. And He invites us to put our trust in Him.
It is not a decision that anyone else can make for us. It is a choice we must make for ourselves. Just as each of the miners in turn had to choose whether to step into the capsule.
God stands waiting, calling us out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Longing for us to stop living life our own way, ignoring Him and instead to come to Him through faith. And He stands waiting to welcome us home, just like President Pinera, desperate to throw his loving arms around us.
When the last of the miners were safely back above ground, the members of the rescue team who had gone down into the mine, stood together holding up a banner which read “Mission accomplished”. The job they had been given was complete and now they were ready to return to the surface. One by one they made their way back up in the capsule until just Manuel Gonzalez was left, the first and the last.
Just before Jesus died he cried out “It is finished!” (John 19.31). It wasn’t the cry of a defeated man but the shout of victory. The rescue plan of God had been fully implemented. His mission was accomplished.
Now it is over to you. Will you choose to put your trust in Jesus and allow Him to rescue you?
Not one of the 33 miners decided to stay where they were there a moment longer than they had to!
Why on earth would we choose to stay in the darkness when God has shone his light upon us and offered us eternal life through Jesus His Son?
Sunday 17 October
How deep is your love?
A meditation based on Luke 7.36-50
Everything was going to plan until she arrived.
There was plenty of food. The wine was flowing. Everyone seemed to be mixing well enough. As the host, you’re always a bit nervous aren’t you? But I was beginning to relax. Beginning to congratulate myself on a successful night. Looking forward to people coming up afterwards and telling me what a great party it had been.
But then out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of scarlet as the door opened. What was she doing here? Everyone stopped talking and turned to stare at her as she slowly crossed the room towards the guest of honour. But she didn’t seem to be aware of anyone else. She only had eyes for Him. I stood there rooted to the spot, shocked at her audacity, powerless to stop her.
And then just when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Much worse. Her eyes filled with tears which starting rolling down her cheeks. And they just kept coming! She stood behind him, crying bucket-loads all over his feet, wiping them with her hair. And then to top it all she started kissing them as if he was one of her clients.
I was mortified. It was all so embarrassing. People were looking at me as if to say “Come on Simon, do something!” But what on earth could I do? So I just stared at her like everyone else.
Then I noticed the jar she’d brought with her. She pulled out the stopper and began to pour perfume all over his feet. Not just a little bit but the whole jar, every last drop. It dripped onto the couch he was lying on and down onto the floor.
Well for me that was the last straw. At last I found the courage to go over and put a stop to this whole disgusting charade.
But before I could say anything, Jesus smiled up at me. And right at that moment I was hit by the power of the most beautiful aroma which gradually filled the whole room. “Simon,” he said. “I want to tell you something.”
* * *
That night after everyone was gone and we’d done most of the clearing up, I went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. My brain was full of all that had happened. And what Jesus had said to me.
There was one phrase that kept going over and over in my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my head: “He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
I knew he was challenging me when he said that. And at first it stung. Much more than what he’d said about my failures as a host.
Don’t get me wrong. It was embarrassing being criticised in front of everyone for forgetting to put out water for people to wash their feet; and not remembering to greet Jesus properly when he arrived.
But none of that really mattered compared to those words: “He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
* * *
I kept replaying that moment in my mind, seeing the sadness in eyes as he said it. But each time I watched it, I began to hear something else, a note of hope in his voice, an invitation, as if as he said it he was whispering: “But Simon it doesn’t have to been this way.”
I thought about his little story that was so obviously about me and the woman standing behind him.
I was the one who had only had a small debt cancelled. But she was the one who had had a whole lifetime of sin forgiven. No wonder she was moved to tears and so full of love and gratitude!
And then I found myself thinking the unthinkable. At first I tried to dismiss the thought. But it kept coming back and eventually I let it fill my mind. And I allowed myself to admit that that was what I was feeling.
I was jealous. Jealous of her. Jealous of the town harlot! I know it sounds ridiculous. But it’s true!
I was jealous of her because when she had walked out of my house she had an enormous smile on her face and when she got outside she started laughing and singing and dancing in the street.
I was jealous of her because she had something that I longed for – that absolute assurance that she was forgiven by God, completely and forever.
I thought of the words that were surely ringing in her ears as she lay in her bed. “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
But he hadn’t said that to me.
“He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
That was what he wanted me to reflect on.
* * *
When she was pouring out her perfume and her tears and her kisses, I’d been judging her and doubting him.
I’d been standing there thinking: “If he’s a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman this is – that she is a sinner.”
But it turns out he knew all about me as well. He knew what kind of man I am. He knew that I too am a sinner.
There I’ve said it. I too am a sinner.
I think that’s the thing I’ve always found so hard to admit. I try to hide it behind an appearance of respectability. Being with the right people. Saying the right things. Being seen to do the right things.
But the truth is that deep down I’m no different from her. Maybe her sins are more obvious, more public, more extreme.
Maybe I could argue that I’ve not done so many things wrong. And I could give you a long list of all the good things I do every week.
But in all honesty, my life is just as messed up as hers.
Here I am throwing a party for Jesus but really my motives are all so mixed up.
Yes, it was good of me to invite everyone to my home and to pay for all the food. But it was really because I wanted my share of the limelight. To have everyone talking about me and my great banquet.
And although it might have looked impressive, I was trying to do it all on the cheap. I don’t think anyone would have noticed but after the first round of drinks, I made sure the wine was being watered down.
But then she came in with her alabaster jar of perfume which must have cost a fortune. And she just poured it all over Jesus’ feet as if that was the most natural thing in the world.
“He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
* * *
Do you know, the more I think about it the more I wonder if I’ve ever really asked God to forgive me for my sins.
I’ve said the words countless times. Almost every day of my life.
But I don’t know if I’ve ever really meant it.
Of course there are lots of sins I have confessed. You know: the little things everyone does. Like shouting at the children when they are misbehaving. Or swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer. Or not being as generous as you might be when the offering plate comes round or when a poor beggar asks you for your change.
But when she came towards Jesus, tears rolling down her cheeks, she wasn’t just crying over a few things she’d done wrong. She was crying because she knew her whole life was broken. And she had come to Jesus because she believed that He could fix it.
And that’s why I’m jealous. I’m beginning to realise that my life is broken too. And I know that I can’t fix it myself because I’ve tried and I know it just doesn’t work.
I’ve learned today to stop being so self-righteous. To stop looking down my nose at other people and saying to myself “I’m glad I’m nothing like them.”
God knows what I’m like inside and He knows how badly I need His forgiveness and His cleansing.
* * *
As I lie here now I can smell that perfume beginning to fill the whole house. It’s beautiful. And it’s wonderful. It is the aroma of love poured out in grateful thanks to Jesus.
How I wish I’d done what she did.
She was so full of joy!
A joy that I’ve never known.
What is it that holds me back?
“He who has been forgiven little loves little.”
* * *
Will you pray with me?
Lord Jesus, please will You forgive my arrogance and self-righteousness; my pretending that I am better than I really am. Please will You help me to see the full extent of my sinfulness in order that I might confess it all to You; and receive Your gracious forgiveness; so that I too might know the joy and the peace You offer; and might be set free to express my love for You in truly extravagant acts of worship and practical service. Amen.