LIVING WORD LIVE!

By John Oakes

God with Us

  CHRISTMAS EVE SERMON ON LUKE 2:1-20, DECEMBER 24, 2014

Photo: Phil Shepherd

Photo: Phil Shepherd

“But the angel said to [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk. 2:10-11). 

 

Good News or Bad?

There’s an old story about an agnostic named Fred, who went to church at Christmas and Easter to keep his wife company. After some years, the minister decided to challenge him about his churchgoing. 

When Fred came to the door, he pulled him aside for a quiet word. “Fred,” he said, “there’s really no room for part-time soldiers in God’s army. You have to sign up for life.” “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you, Reverend,” Fred replied. The good news is that I’m already in the service. The bad news is that I belong to the secret service.”[1] 

And sometimes, I suspect we all feel tempted to go undercover. In what so often seems a bad news world, the good news promised by the angel can appear far removed from our everyday lives. How can the living Son of God, “Christ, the Lord,” truly be with us when evil and suffering so clearly abound? 

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy.” But since its outbreak in West Africa, ebola has already taken the lives of nearly 7,000 people. The World Health Organization meanwhile estimates that 35 million live with HIV/AIDS and that 1.5 million died from the virus in 2013.[2]  

“To you is born this day…a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” But right now there are four major conflicts causing more than 10,000 casualties a year, not to mention scores of others worldwide. And no-one saved more than 130 Pakistani children from that devastating recent school attack by the Taliban.[3] 

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” But closer to home, in places like Ferguson and many others, North America continues to reel from racial injustice and other forms of oppression. Right on our doorstep, there are more than 5,000 homeless in the GTA, at least 15% of Canadian children are growing up in poverty, and countless families suffer the impact of unemployment, substance abuse and other social problems.[4] 

“To you is born this day…a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” But what difference does it make? How can it really be “good news of great joy,” when we still struggle with so many personal, as well as global problems? At first sight, it certainly doesn’t seem to lie in the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. 

Helpless Circumstances

When our two daughters were born in the UK, Kirsten was able to go to a great maternity hospital less than 10 minutes away, where she was cared for by excellent medical staff. Many here probably had similar experiences. 

But when Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem to register for a Roman tax census, they find no such luxuries. They need to be there because it’s Joseph’s family’s hometown. But it’s a trip of more than 50 miles from Nazareth and Mary is already expecting a child. So there they are, no doubt tired and looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem and they can find nowhere decent to stay. 

They aren’t a wealthy couple with any political strings to pull. Joseph is a working man – a carpenter by trade and Mary became pregnant out of wedlock. They have been told that she did so for very good reason. Her child is so special that he has been conceived supernaturally. 

But we can’t really know what Mary and Joseph have made of this. When they arrive in Bethlehem, are they expecting a grand welcome? If so, they’re disappointed, because there’s no room for them anywhere but a stable. 

When we put together nativity scenes, we make them very clean and cute. The reality for Mary and Joseph was much harsher. This is not the most hygienic or comfortable setting and they have to improvise. There are no Osh-Kosh clothes. So Mary dresses baby Jesus in rags. There’s no IKEA crib. Instead, they lay him in a manger, which is an animal feeding trough. 

So this is where and how Jesus is born – in a cold and no doubt smelly stable in a small town in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, where he is clothed in rags and laid in a trough. And this is his family of origin – an average couple of no great means who are on the road with nowhere to stay. 

On the surface then, unless some of our ideas need rethinking, the good news that the angel brings doesn’t seem to lie in Jesus human family or birth-place. But what about Jesus’ first visitors? What’s so great about them? 

Humble Visitors

Given their circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s no record of other family members  being present to celebrate with Mary and Joseph, or of the kind of bedside gathering that we might normally expect today. But the arrival of a group of shepherds is very much in keeping with the story thus far. 

They would have been near Bethlehem anyway, because sheep were specially bred for temple sacrifices in the area around Jerusalem. And that’s where we find them, according to our Gospel, “living in the fields…keeping watch over their flock at night.” 

The ordinariness of the nativity can strike us again, when we remember that shepherds tended to be on the margins of society. They couldn’t fully observe Jewish ceremonial law, and they generally had a bad reputation for theft and unreliability. As a rule, they weren’t even allowed to testify in court. 

And yet it is people like this who are asked to witness the first hours of Jesus’ life and to tell others. Not civic or religious leaders, not even average, respectable citizens, but shepherds spending the night in a field. So again, unless our current social standards are misleading, where’s the good news?

Heavenly Messengers

Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_miniature

It’s only really when we consider how the shepherds are invited to visit Jesus that such a down-to-earth scene starts to convey so much spiritual significance. And it’s precisely at the intersection of human hardship and a heavenly host, of birth in a stable and bringers of supernatural intelligence that we can also start to see the life-changing impact of Jesus’ coming to be our Saviour. For he can and does bring light into the darkest recesses of human need and suffering, because he has already been there himself. 

For the shepherds, there’s obviously no late-night phone call or text message. They don’t even get a human messenger. Instead, they are summoned by angels, who make it clear that this is no ordinary birth. And when the shepherds are terrified, the first angel’s’ opening words are not to be afraid. 

Then he says something amazing! “For see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah [or the “anointed one,” or the Christ] the Lord.” 

For anyone who knew anything about the Jewish religion, like the shepherds, the significance of this statement would have been obvious. The angel is telling them that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who has come to rescue the people of Israel. 

Mary has already been told that the son that she will bear has been conceived by the power of God. He will be a king and she and Joseph are to call him “Jesus,” which literally means “the Lord saves,” because he will save people from their sins. The angel uses the word “Saviour” to make the same point. So the clear implication is that this helpless child has come to save the world. 

As if to underline that point, the first angel’s testimony is then echoed by “a multitude.” And what do they do? They all praise God, saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom [God] favours!” 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!” No-one sang that at my birth, or probably at yours, and certainly not a group of angels. But then the more Luke tells us, the more we discover that Jesus’ birth is a unique event. This is nothing less than the Son of God becoming a tiny child for our sake. This is God in a manger.

It’s hardly surprising that when the shepherds get to the stable in Bethlehem, they are so impressed that they become the world’s first evangelists. Having met Jesus, they spread the word. And they amaze all who hear it, because what they share is the ultimate good news of Christmas: that God is with us and God’s only Son has come to save us. 

Given what was promised for Jesus, we might have expected such a different story – a grand palace perhaps, or well-heeled parents providing him with everything that a young prince might need – at least a VIP reception. But God’s ways are not our ways and the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth are actually key to understanding its true significance. 

 

Hope for Humanity

It is because Jesus comes to earth in need and total helplessness. It is because he is born to such an ordinary couple, a poor baby in a manger, whose first visitors are shepherds that Jesus enters so completely into our world. Right from the start, Jesus experiences want and weakness. He learns what we all do – that life can be hard. In the darkness of the stable, he enters into that of humanity. But thank God, he doesn’t leave things there. 

No, the Christmas story reminds us that pain and suffering are not the end of the human story, because Jesus has come and God is with us. He may have been born in the dark and deprivation of that stable in Bethlehem, but his birth was signalled by choirs of angels. He may have been laid to rest in a manger, but he was called “Saviour,” even “Christ the Lord.” 

Jesus has not yet put an end to our troubles, of course. But because of who he is and how he came, he meets us right in the midst of them and stays with us as long as it takes. He can and does bring new light and life, new hope and peace, whenever we are ready to receive him. 

That’s why we celebrate Christmas, because in the darkness of that night in Bethlehem, a light was kindled that has never and will never be extinguished – the light of Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is no dead prophet or teacher. He is no quaint storybook figure. He is a living Lord who has come to save.

So in what is so often such a bad news world, Jesus brings the best news of all, wherever we are on our spiritual journey. He is “God with Us,” because he is also God in a manger. And I believe that he is calling us again in the darkness of this Christmas Eve. The question is whether we hear him. And if so, how will we respond?

 

 

 

 

[1]           Adapted from “Agnostic Jokes 12,” February 12, 2013, agnostic humor.

[2]           “Ebola Fast Facts,” CNN Health, December 17, 2014; World Health Organization.

[3]           “List of Ongoing Armed Conflicts,” Wikipedia. “Pakistan school attack arrests made, officials say 132 children killed in attack,” CBC News World, December 21, 2014.

[4]           “Toronto, ON,” the homeless hub.