One of my favourite Christmas hymns is 'It came upon the midnight clear', with its moving plea: 'O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.', and its hopeful ending: '... when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling, and all the world send back the song which now the angels sing.'
But there is also something very depressing about it - the fact that we have been singing it since 1849, and its dream seems no nearer.
The Victorian era was one of great optimism. The advance of science and technology was improving the conditions of life for many. Europeans were confident in their Christian civilisation and busy exporting it to the rest of the world. There was a feeling that humanity was becoming more enlightened year by year and the kingdom of God was being built on earth.
But since then we have had two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust and the numerous other horrors of the twentieth century. And the twenty-first century so far seems even worse: terrorism, the atrocities of Isis, war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria and other places, more refugees than ever, many of them dying at sea, others living without shelter while Britain and other countries turn them away. We have the renewed threat of nuclear war, the threats to the whole planetary environment, xenophobia, prejudice and racism, the way powerful people whip up feelings of fear and hate, and the increasing nastiness that has crept into our political disagreements.
What does our faith have to say about all this? First, we must face the fact that the Old Testament prophets would say it was judgment, and in many ways that is true today. So much of the trouble we see is the result of generations, even centuries, of wrong values and wrong actions. We in the 'civilised' world are not entirely innocent. Terrorism is often a response to long term injustice and the way we have dominated and exploited other nations. Refugees are often driven by the poverty the richer nations have created by their selfishness and unrestrained profit-seeking. We are all part of this, and it is a judgment on us.
But the good news is that the God who judges is a God who loves. The message of the prophets is that God's purpose in judgment is not to have revenge, but to bring us to repentance that we may live and enjoy his blessings. To 'repent' means to change our ways. Christmas is an opportunity to do that if only in a small way: to be generous, to care about those in need, to follow up our adoration of the baby Jesus with a determination to create a world safe for children, to rejoice in goodwill, neighbourliness and fellowship, and to be reminded again that the most important thing is not money or power but love.
Many of the Jews in New Testament times were looking for a Messiah who would bring them victory in battle and save them from their enemies. Many people of all nationalities still do. But Joseph was told: 'you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins'.
And how does he do that? Not by exercising power that forces us to change, but by coming in weakness: a child needing to be looked after, a condemned criminal dying on the cross, a little group of poor and 'insignificant' people who setting the pattern for a new world. God's way is not to destroy - it is to appeal to our compassion, to melt our hearts and transform humanity. It is slow work, but it is the only real hope, and God doesn't give up.